This is my contribution to Teagan Ríordáin Geneviene’s “Dead of Winter” writing challenge. I am taking certain liberties with her suggestions, but I think (hope) I’m close enough to count. Rather than a non-technology world, I chose to portray a type of oppression in a world of evolving technology. I also took inspiration from my three favorite characters, Emlyn and Osabide, and Osabide’s niece, Zasha.
A sense of dread came over Sara as she read the latest email from the Technology Group. Her concern over the meaning was pushed aside by the sound of Marge’s laptop lid as she slammed it shut before pushing her chair back into the file cabinet in the neighboring eight-by-eight cubicle. Sara’s wall shook from the collision. She stood and saw Marge heading for the door as if running from a fire.
“Marge, wait! I’ll come with you.” She shouted.
“I’m going to the Ladies Room. I don’t need your help, Sara.”
Sara grabbed her jacket. Marge was oblivious to the cold, but Sara would need something when, if her assumption was correct, they ended up walking down the block to the strip mall.
“I know why you’re walking out, Marge.”
“I have to pee! When you get to be my age, you’ll understand.”
Sara caught up to her near the Ladies Room. “We’ll stop here, but you’re not coming back. At least not until you visit the Time Trap for an early lunch and a glass of wine.”
Marge smiled at her young friend. “Indeed, you know me well. What was it, the slamming laptop, or my crash into the files? Wait ‘til you hear me wail the door on this stall when I’m done.”
Sara laughed and shook her head, although Marge could no longer see the gesture. “I got the email, too.”
“You know what it means don’t you? They’re going to lay more people off.”
Sara was uncomfortable talking to Marge from inside a bathroom stall, so she let her ramble on.
“They say ‘Performance metrics have indicated, blah, blah, blah.’ I’ll tell you what they indicate. They indicate that I’m getting to the age where they can force me into an early retirement – at a minimal benefit, and a healthcare stipend instead of real insurance – what’s one more old lady to them?”
Sara dried her hands and held the restroom door open for Marge. “Come on, let’s get something to eat. You’re letting your fear control you. The email only talked about making minor improvements.”
As they walked to the pub, Marge tried to explain her concern. “You’re still new to this game, honey. I’ve been through this cycle before. Minor improvements add up over time and sooner or later, they equal an F-T-E.”
Sara repeated the acronym. “I’m not familiar with that one.”
“Full-time equivalent. A euphemism for ‘old lady drawing a high salary and skewing the actuarial data to the expensive side of health insurance.’ In other words, me.”
Sara laughed, but then stopped when she realized the awkwardness of the situation. Marge laughed in response. “It’s OK, sweetie. I’ve been prepared for this ever since they made me make room on my desk for a tower computer and a monitor the size of my first television. They control us with technology until they can replace us with technology.”
“But Marge,” Sara countered, “they had layoffs in our department before they hired me. Why would they bring me on-board if they wanted to reduce staff?”
Marge looked across the table at Sara the way a mother looks at a naive teenager. “Do you know who they laid off before they hired you?”
Sara shrugged. “Of course not. They were gone long before I got here. My understanding was the layoffs were related to an earlier product failure. New products were launched, and business improved, so they needed another person to help with the increased activity.”
Marge finished a strong sip of her wine. “So why didn’t they hire any of the others back?”
Sara was angry at the thought that Marge somehow blamed her for the fact that those people were still out of work. “I’m sure I don’t know. I interviewed for an open position. I didn’t ask them about their historic personnel policies.”
“I’m sorry, honey. I didn’t mean to attack you personally. They hired you because you’re cheaper. Your salary is lower and new hires don’t get a pension.” Marge paused as a wave of guilt passed over her. “I’m sorry about that, too. A meager early retirement benefit is better than no retirement benefit.”
“I still think you’re overreacting, Marge. The company is doing well. When Thomas comes over to follow-up on the email, we can ask him about the changes. I’m sure they’re just routine improvements.”
Marge took another sip of wine. “You have a thing for Thomas, don’t you?”
Embarrassed, Sara forced a tiny smile. “He’s cute, and funny. I do like him, but he’s such a geek, he’ll never ask me out.”
Marge shook her head and sighed. “You’re going to have to help with that. Wear your hair down more often, men can’t resist wavy red hair. If that doesn’t work, invite him here after work. He’d be a good catch. Soon enough, his kind will be the only ones with jobs. Speaking of jobs, we better get back.”
An hour later, Thomas Hartley knocked on the cubical wall near Marge’s desk. “Excuse me, Ma’am, is this a good time to talk about the stuff mentioned in that email this morning?” He added in an apologetic tone, “it won’t take long, I just have to ask you about a couple things.”
As angry as Marge was, she couldn’t bring herself to be rude this young man – it wasn’t his fault. “Sure, what do you need to know, Sonny?” She added that for being Ma’am’d.
He fumbled with his laptop, trying to clear enough room on Marge’s desk so they could both see the display. There wasn’t room in the cube for two chairs, so Thomas knelt on the floor. He was tall enough to almost be at Marge’s seated height. “I’m trying to figure out what’s happening in these areas.” He pointed only generally toward the laptop.
Marge studied the large multi-line graph on the screen. The data-labels were all foreign to her. The X-axis appeared to be time, but the scale was unclear. The Y-Axis was some bit of technical gobbledygook. She clearly understood the chart’s title – “Momentary Productivity Reduction” – at least she thought she did.
All the lines took precipitous drops near one-third and two-thirds along the X-axis. She laughed. “If it’s those dips you’re wondering about, those could be when I was in the Ladies Room.”
Thomas offered a nervous laugh. “Oh, you couldn’t take care of business this fast, the Y-axis is CPU load and the X-axis is seco…” The words faded off as he realized what he was talking about. “I’m sorry, I didn’t…”
“Oh god, don’t worry. I’m beyond being upset by things like that. So, if this isn’t measuring me, what’s it measuring? What does this mean?”
“These two drops are occurring in the SMOD New Order entry screen. It’s like you reach a point where you have to pause before continuing.”
“A SMOD New Order? Hell, I can tell you exactly what those blips are.” Marge put her hand on his shoulder as she leaned toward the screen of his laptop so she could point at the first dip. “If an order is for a replacement part, I have to look up the original order.” She pointed to the second drop. “Then later, I have to look up the customer – to make sure his or her billing is current.”
Marge looked at the copious notes, he was taking. Acronyms, system references, lines, arrows, and other symbols that looked more like Hieroglyphics than English. “I wish I knew what all that meant.”
Thomas smiled. He started to explain, but Marge stopped him. “That was a rhetorical question, honey.”
The following morning, Marge and Sara both had emails from ‘SILVESTER’ with the Subject Line: “SMOD Improvements.”
“Who the hell is Silvester?” Marge groused.
“I think it’s an acronym for something.” Sara explained before reading the email out loud.
“Improvements to the New Order Entry screen have been finalized. When it is determined that an order is for replacement parts, automatic links will be established with the historical orders and billing databases. Information about the previous order and the customer’s account standing will open in small windows.”
Marge smiled to herself. “Young Mr. Hartley might be a geek, but he certainly knows what he’s doing.”
A few minutes later, they both received an email from the Technology Group. “Now that the Self-Initiated Logic Verification for Enhanced System Timing and Error Reduction (SILVESTER) system is fully functional, diagnosis of Momentary Productivity issues with SMOD will occur via real-time system chat. There is no need to involve the Technology Group. Chat windows will open automatically as needed.”
“I don’t understand, Sara. We have to chat with the computer to fix the computer. This is ridiculous. Why can’t we call Thomas like we always have?”
“I don’t know, Marge, but I’m going to find out. I’m going to send him an email.”
Marge stood and peeked over the cubicle wall. “Why don’t you suggest that he explain it to you over lunch?”
Sara giggled as she typed the email. “Bing!” She rolled back from her desk in shock by the immediate response.
“Thomas Hartley, is no longer a member of the SMOD Team or the Technology Group. SILVESTER-based chats will be able to process any information requests previously requiring his attention. This, and other messages SILVESTER determines to be of a personal nature will be forwarded to his personal account for thirty days. Please join us in wishing him good luck in his future endeavors.”
“Have a nice day.”
This challenge was fun. If you want to participate, here are the rules:
- Use Dead of Winter: Journey 1, Forlorn Peak, as your inspiration.
- Link to my blog if you publish your creation http://www.teagansbooks.com
- Mention Dead of Winter, by Teagan Ríordáin Geneviene.
- Send me a link to your creation (if published) so I can share it.
- For those of you who are not reading the journeys your responses should represent a non-technology world in an oppressed society.
- Post/send your responses December 1 through December 24, 2021.
I (Teagan) will collect your responses throughout this month.