“The Boy and the Whale” by David Bassano

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“It’s okay to carry metal into the building,” said Father. “Just make sure you leave every last bit in the locker room.”

“Okay,” said Trevor.

Mother finished packing their lunches into cylindrical metal canisters in the kitchen, her morning ritual for many years. She came out to the parlor and placed the canisters, one new and one old and dented, on the end table by the stairs. The news was playing on the screen but the sound was turned down.

Mother stepped in front of her son and examined him minutely. He looked like a young, strong version of her husband, like when they’d met. She was trying not to cry.

“I’m so proud of you!” she said.

Trevor’s father, standing just behind him, smiled and suppressed his own tears.

Trevor squirmed uncomfortably as his mother adjusted his shirt, pulling his collar straight. He didn’t want to stomp on her happiness, so he endured it. I wonder how old a woman needs to be, he thought, before she dotes like this. The younger women didn’t seem to do it very much.

“Thanks, Ma.”

“Now, do your best,” she said. “Don’t let your family down.”

“I won’t, Ma.”

“He’ll be fine,” said Father, looking at his old watch.

The men took up the lunch canisters, slung them over their shoulders by the canvas straps, opened the front door, and fearlessly stepped into the mid-21st century.

“I’ll have a pot roast waiting for you when you get home!” Mother called out the front door.

“Thanks, Ma!” said two generations of men over their shoulders.

###

The men walked silently through the city streets, lunches a-swing at their sides. Their tiny neighborhood, only a few blocks deep, was an old-fashioned suburb, with front and back yards and garages alongside two-story homes. Walk a kilometer in any direction, however, and the landscape changed drastically. To the west lay the gated communities of the chipheads, and to the east sprawled the choking downtown.

The two men continued three blocks to a bus stop, caught the next intracity bus by seconds, and rode just a few minutes to the subway, where already the buildings and streets grew ragged like old clothes or untended gardens, and they took the subway east to the industrial district on the river. The subway was packed, as it was every morning.

After a lurching ride they ascended into the tepid light of downtown. The sidewalks were eroding and fringed with trash, the streets full of rush hour traffic and a haze of poison hanging over the cars. The men walked single-file through the crowd. Everyone stared straight ahead silently, or spoke quietly into the air in mobile conversations, many of them wearing gas masks if they could afford them. The buildings blocked the sunlight except at intersections. The concrete seemed to be slowly melting, falling in small pieces onto the sidewalks like ancient ruins decaying, softening the hard edges.

They saw a limousine go by at the intersection as a corporate helicopter beat the air overhead, streaking downtown.

Bastards, thought Trevor. Well, screw ‘em. They can’t touch me anymore. He pulled his posture straight and strode with greater energy.

The chipheads called all the rest “cavemen” — those who didn’t have implants, who couldn’t afford them, who were frozen at an earlier stage of evolution. The microchips implanted under the skull, hardwired to the frontal lobes, converted a person into a superbeing, claimed the advertisements. Engineers had, thirty years hence, cracked nature’s code by creating a seamless interface between the brain’s neurological communication and the microprocessor, permitting perfect brain-computer interaction. It allowed for recording and recall of experiences, instant complex calculations, and sat-link access to databases, spreadsheets, and even the Internet — all the information experienced as pure knowledge, as if the user had always known these things. It produced workers who were able to mesh with mainframes, with each other, with the entire organization, at the speed of thought and with perfect accuracy. And those who could not afford the expensive procedure quickly learned that the world quietly, guiltlessly, discarded them. Of course the corporations only wanted the most efficient worker in this highly-competitive world. Efficiency is the driver of progress; who would dare to argue? HR departments wanted to know what RAM was under your skull and what OS your brain was running. There were court cases over employment discrimination, about what you could ask, but everyone knew it was obvious. What is twenty-two thousand, four hundred forty-seven point oh-two times four to the twenty-seventh power and one-third? Anyone who couldn’t answer immediately was out, CV and dreams deleted.

The line between the large lower and shrinking middle classes was indelibly set by technology. Without the money for the implant, one could never make the money to get the implant. The division between chipheads and cavemen was practically permanent. And to be a caveman in the mid-21st century was a difficult and monotonous sentence to bear. Nature was angry at man and reminded him daily. The summers grew unbearably hot, killing the weak and poor, and the storms angrier, lashing the coasts like elemental demons. Crops failed, forests were devoured by pests. Food and rent steadily grew more expensive, and the cavemen saw their employment options whither as they were replaced by machines or chipheads. You were either in or out, and it was bad to be out.

Father and son went through the factory gates and Trevor presented his security ID for the first time. A few chipheads came through in their suits, but most drove through a different gate in expensive cars. None of them entered the double doors that Trevor and his father now used. Other people in street clothes joined them. They walked together through the gray halls, company notices and labor laws adorning the walls, to a crowded locker room. Trevor found his locker, his name label pristine on the metal door; he removed his crisp new uniform while dozens of other men did the same with a lot of chatter. The uniform was cobalt blue, with gold stripes down the arms and legs, and Trevor’s name on the chest above the golden, sun-like corporate logo. The black work boots had plastic eyelets and a thick plastic toe cap, his belt a plastic buckle. He left everything else in the locker.

“You Gottlieb’s son?” asked the man next to him. “Welcome aboard. I’m Copland.”

“Pleased ta meetcha. I’m Trevor.” They shook hands.

“Me and your dad go way back. Lemme know if you need anything.”

“Thanks.”

Trevor met his father by the older man’s locker. Father introduced him to those who passed by. Trevor had never shaken hands with so many people.

“He carryin’ metal?” asked one man.

“‘Course not,” grumbled Father.

A short, balding, roly-poly man walked up to Trevor and wordlessly waved a handheld device over Trevor’s body. Trevor held still.

“That’s Mr. Sagget, the shift supervisor,” said Father.

“Oh.”

Sagget slapped Trevor on the shoulder. “Welcome, son.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Father introduced a few more men to Trevor, and then Sagget called out in a singsong, like a conductor on a platform:

“Here we go, here we go!”

The chatter quieted down, dozens of locker doors slammed shut, and the men assembled in a line at the exit. Sagget led the column through the hallways, where at a junction they were joined by the women coming from their own locker room, but in uniforms identical to the men’s. The column stepped onto a people-mover that took them eighty or ninety meters to a corridor ending in large black double doors. On the right-hand wall by the doors was a timeclock and a rack of timecards.

Soon Sagget, who was watching the clock, called out, “Go, go!” as if he was commanding parachutists at a plane door. The workers filed up to the card rack, found theirs in alphabetical order, and stabbed it into the clock as Sagget watched. Trevor noticed that the clock was analog, like his father’s prized watch, and that it made a loud chunk when he dipped his card into it.

The workers opened the black doors and walked through. Trevor entered the room but stopped in his tracks at the sight. He would have stood there, gawking, had the man behind not walked into him.

It was a large room, at least twenty-five meters high; it was not lit like a factory, with harsh light, but softly, like a theater or cathedral. There was a catwalk halfway up the walls with scattered elevated booths that looked like clubhouses in a stadium.

The floor was taken up by what Trevor knew could only be The Whale. No photograph existed of this machine, as it was the greatest trade secret in the world; in any case, no camera, film or digital, could work in this room.

The Whale was about sixty-five meters long, and Trevor could see where it got its nickname. It looked very much like a beached whale — a baleen, specifically — with its long curves and striations. The gray surface glowed slickly under the diffuse light. It looked to Trevor more like a gray marble sculpture than a machine, and seemed strangely alive.

Trevor knew the basics of The Whale and its purpose; everyone did. The effects of climate change had turned everyone into true believers — better late than never — and this in turn drove a political movement to end fossil fuel use and freeze greenhouse gas emissions. That led to a vast global investment in all forms of renewable energy. Geothermal was among them, but the methods of converting the earth’s heat into electricity were only half as efficient as wind power. A new system of advanced thermopiles was developed to exponentially improve geothermal efficiency, but it required a next-generation semiconductor that was not produced in sufficient quantities to fill the demand.

Mass-producing these semiconductors required a machine that could generate an extremely powerful magnetic field, one strong enough to “turn atoms into a liquid,” as Trevor had once read. The result was a semiconductor composed of an exotic material that was impossible in nature. It subsequently allowed for the efficient thermopiles that the world now wanted so badly.

The Whale was the only device in the world that could create these advanced semiconductors in bulk, and New Sun Corporation the only supplier. Mankind needed this machine, this room, and the people who worked in it, a fact not lost on the unionized workers.

Trevor noticed a line of workers exiting through another set of double doors like a religious procession.

“That’s the night shift,” said a middle-aged man from behind Trevor. “The Whale works twenty-four hours a day, except for breaks. That’s when we do maintenance on it.”

Trevor turned to face him. “I’m Bill Hiram, your new supervisor,” said the man with a smile. He held out a broom. “Welcome to the bottom, where everyone starts.”

Trevor took the broom with a grin. He already knew what his job would be.

He joined five other young men in sweeping and mopping the vast floor space and dusting the racks of inscrutable electronics along the walls. Panels lined the bottom of The Whale, where more experienced workers tended the controls. As he swept around the operators’ feet, he noticed that the gauges and meters on the panels were all analog; there were no digital displays. Instead of touch screens, the controls featured glowing buttons that flashed in many colors, reminding Trevor of a Christmas tree. It was all dust-free and polished.

The cleaning crew climbed a narrow staircase that went up The Whale, allowing them to wash and wax the entire machine, which they did with the care of a fire company cleaning their engine. Trevor looked down and saw the production teams feeding long trays of “raw” semiconductors onto a conveyor belt that drew them into The Whale to be converted into a considerable profit.

Trevor saw his father having a quick word with Hiram before calling up to him.

“C’mon, son, I’ll show you the control room for The Whale.”

Trevor climbed down to the floor, then followed his father to the flight of steps that went up the wall to the “clubhouse” hanging fifteen meters above the floor.

The control panels in the small space were vastly more complex than those on The Whale itself, but were still entirely analog. Three men, close to retirement age, and two graying women sat in leather chairs before the controls. The broad windows gave a perfect view of the room, and The Whale looked particularly majestic to Trevor from up here.

“This is where it all happens,” said Father quietly. “Sixty teslas — strongest magnet in the world. It’s shielded, and our brains are safe, but it’ll still scramble any chip within seventy-five meters, even the hardened military ones. It melts atoms, that’s how strong it is.”

“Only the electron orbits,” corrected a stately man at the controls. “Not the nuclei, of course.”

“Mr. Wells is one of the three Master Control Officers,” said Father. “He oversees all The Whale’s operations on our shift. He has a Master’s degree in Physics.”

Mr. Wells serenely ignored all of this.

“You have a degree?” asked Trevor. Few people bothered with them anymore, now that all knowledge was a sat-link away for the people who mattered.

“Oh, I’m from the old days,” said Wells. “Pre-chip, when you had to know things. Which just goes to show that you don’t need a chip in your head at all.”

“Well . . .” said Trevor.

“The union has a deal with the corporation,” said Father. “When it’s time for us to hire another Operator, the union picks one of our own to attend the training program at the state university. The corporation pays for the training. They have to accept whoever we send.”

“Hmm.”

“Mr. Wells is in complete control of operations here,” continued Father. “Those chipheads in Production have to do whatever he says.”

Again, Wells merely gazed at the kaleidoscopic displays, but the Operator beside him nodded solemnly.

They left the control booth after taking Wells’ leave. Father stopped on the catwalk to gaze at The Whale.

“That machine could make you rich, son,” he said quietly. “First you move up to Production; you work with the semiconductors, moving them in and out. Then you become a Secondary Operator. Then, when there’s an opening, you can become a Primary Operator in the control room. You could become the Master Control Officer.”

“I’ve gotta beat the others to get that position,” said Trevor, uncomfortably aware of the broom in his hands.

“Yeah, but you’re smart, son. You can do it. You’ve made it into this room. All you gotta do is work hard, right here. Wells makes more than almost anyone else in the corporation, way more than most chipheads. He’s got more money than God. That could be yours someday.”

Trevor went back to his duties, instructed here and there by Hiram, until lunchtime. When the clock struck noon, Sagget again called out, “Break, break!” and all the workers exited in procession. Trevor noted a crew of maintenance technicians entering the room and tending to The Whale as they left.

The lunchroom was large enough to seat all ten-dozen people on the shift, and no one was absent, from Wells down to Trevor. The free coffee was quite good. But Trevor noticed — you couldn’t help but notice, that was the point — a large portrait on the wall, lit by a small spotlight. The brass plaque on the frame read “John Brogan II” with his dates. He was an elderly man in the portrait, with a friendly, paternal gaze, but with a glint of mischievousness in his eyes, Trevor thought. Trevor figured he must be the founder of the company, but forgot to ask when he returned to his seat, instead becoming embroiled in a debate over football. Then, exactly an hour later, Sagget led them all back to the main hall for the afternoon, and the maintenance crew was already gone.

In the afternoon, Trevor cleaned the locker room and the lunchroom minutely, not daring to miss a single crumb. He was dreaming of Mr. Wells’ leather chair and all that it signified.

At the end of the workday, Sagget called out the “End of shift, we’re going!” that everyone awaited. Production was paused, cleaning implements stowed, and everyone left together through the rear doors, where the shift’s timecards had been moved to the rack in the exit hallway so that they could punch out. Over his shoulder, Trevor saw the next shift filing in.

Most of the workers, after changing in the locker room, did not return to the subway or bus stop, but walked up the street to where Father was now leading Trevor, lunch canisters across their backs. The streets were crowded during rush hour, almost entirely with cavemen. Trevor knew where they were going.

The pub was called The Harpoon and the union almost owned it; at least half of every shift passed through it daily, which was why Trevor had heard of it through his father and his father’s friends. This was his first time through the heavy, engraved oaken doors.

Inside, the pub was paneled with dark, polished wood, and the walls lined with screens, dartboards, and gambling machines. There were booths of carved chestnut that reminded Trevor of church pews, and three billiard tables. The dimly-lit bar was marble-topped mahogany and polished brass; behind it was a huge brass-framed mirror and a vast shelf of every liquor Trevor knew and twice as many more that he didn’t. The hidden speakers were playing a song from his father’s era. Father was immediately engaged in boisterous conversations with his coworkers.

Trevor sat at the bar and was about to order a soda.

“Want a beer?” asked the bartender.

“I’m not twenty-one,” said Trevor quietly.

“You union?”

“Yeah. This is my first day.”

The bartender pulled a pint of strong IPA and slid it in front of Trevor.

“Welcome aboard,” he said. “This one’s on the house.”

“Hey, thanks!”

Trevor took his beer and joined his father, who was in a circle of friends.

“Look at this kid — one of us already!” bellowed Father when he saw the beer in Trevor’s hand. Father’s friends took turns regaling Trevor with embarrassing anecdotes about his father, some of which Father denied.

Trevor noticed, over Father’s shoulder, a large portrait on the wall. It was the same as in the lunchroom at the factory. He walked over to it.

Under Brogan’s portrait was a shelf crowded with small items — lit votives, shot glasses of brown liquor, stacks of coins, small statuettes of Christ or saints, and small lacquered prayer sheets.

“Know who that is?” asked Father.

“Is he the founder of the company?” Trevor didn’t see why the workers would be quite so enamored of him.

“No. Well, I guess not, really.”

“Who was he?”

A small crowd gathered behind Trevor and his father, beers in hand. “Well, he’s one of us now,” said one man. “Guess we can tell him.”

“We oughta tell him.”

“Everyone else here knows.”

“You tell him, Louise,” said Father. “I’m no good at tellin’ stories.”

“My ass you ain’t! It’s all yer good for!”

“I mean true ones. Real ones.”

“Mr. Wells?”

All eyes turned to Wells, who sat alone with his scotch at the end of the bar. The room went silent.

Wells smiled but didn’t turn. Trevor could see Wells’ face in the mirror, and discovered that the elder statesman had a fine baritone for storytelling.

“John Brogan invented The Whale. He was organic, like us. No chips. He didn’t need them. His mind was already very fine. But he wasn’t just an inventor, not just a genius.”

Wells turned to look at Trevor while Brogan watched from the other side.

“The Whale doesn’t have to work by magnetism. There are other methods of tuning the semiconductors. Could use lasers. But Brogan created The Whale with the magnet so that only organics could go near it. Because it’s unique, it gives us an edge – our only edge. The chipheads have to deal with us. John Brogan created The Whale to give three hundred and sixty organics a chance to make a good living in this world, no matter how hard the chipheads try to take it all away. They need us. We have healthcare and pensions and decent places to live — all because John Brogan took pity on us and used his genius to save us from poverty. We owe it all to him.” The others nodded approvingly of this rendition of the myth.

Is it true? wondered Trevor. Sounds thin. The corporation doesn’t realize that The Whale is unnecessary? That the unionized cavemen, whom the chipheads doubtlessly regarded as haughty, weren’t leveraging their power? How did anyone know if compassion was Brogan’s true motive?

Trevor looked at Brogan’s face. The old man in the portrait looked like a kindly father, providing for his children. For a caveman in this bare-knuckle world of few winners and many more losers, the idea of an influential protector and provider felt as warm as an heirloom quilt.

He took a few bills out of his pocket and placed them on the shelf. It felt good to give something back.

 

David Bassano gives history lectures for fun and rent money. He likes bike trails, Paris along the river, and Glenmorangie on the rocks. He wrote a novel called “Trevelyan’s Wager”. Any complaints should be addressed to https://www.facebook.com/davidbassanoauthor/

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