The Selfishness of Work by Ken Poyner

July 27, 2014

“I think that little atmospheric sampling unit had some utility left.” He leaned back, only two minutes into his ten minute break, his back against the wall taking as much of his weight as the bench. The air around still stank of open smoke and metal fires, of alloys separating in rooms not far enough away.

“A lot of people would rather salvage them than repair them. Once a model gets a little age, after it suffers a couple of upgrades and a service pack or two, it becomes economic to just replace it with a newer model. And then they are done for. Mathematics is a killer.” Sitting across from his co-worker, he flashed a dismissive gesture.

“I wonder if they see it coming, if they know the last time they power down that the next big event for them is being disassembled and their parts inspected for utility elsewhere, their useless bits turned over to a subcontractor to turn into slag.” Head back, he could still see at the lower limit of his vision the pure disinterest exuded by his companion across the walkway. Through their years together, this one had always had a cold efficiency, consumed with nothing but disassembly, deciding what was useful and what was not, getting parts into the proper pile. Alternatives were not his thing. There was a rhythm to the work; and it was the rhythm, not the work, that mattered.

“Not much they can do about it. But every so often I do get one where the battery has not been drained. That comes out first thing. But there is a moment there where it is still processing, taking in what is going past, where it is now: a cycle or two where it is wondering what the next input will be.” Yes, what part of the task is this?

“Maybe they are looking for compatible hints of persistent memory. I don’t think they have the processor power to apprehend end of service life, to appreciate their memory will be ripped out and baked clean, or that their processors will soon be as cold as the ice in a salvage plant owner’s drink.” A loose litter unit scurried across the floor, gleefully looking for stray cable pins and wayward salvage chips tracked off of the main disassembly floor by the workers.   The minimal processor strength machine seemed downright happy to be following an optimized geometric pattern – having itself surveyed the limits of its track on the floor, then plotted a path that would take it over the whole of the plane in a time calculated to reach each part of the flat surface concomitant with the likelihood of any specific part of that surface hiding loose litter.

“I think they are just dumb machines. They don’t know what is being done to them, and they are just as well off as disassembled units as they are as productive work units.” He followed the movements of the litter collector until it moved beneath the work bench. It was not interesting enough for him to lean forward to see what the small device was busily doing beneath the bench.   Presumably, it had a pattern to follow.

“Well, back to it.” He rose, and unplugged from the charging unit. He tugged at this electric tether until the retractor caught and the cord fell back into the niche in his frame. An internal diagnostic confirmed he was as powered as he needed to be, so he began the roll back to his place on the line.

His friend followed in nearly the same path, calculating, for no reason beyond idleness, how many kilograms of unwanted machinery would be backed up at his station, and how long on average it would take to clear the backlog and fall back then into a simple real time processing loop.   At the next power up and mini-diagnostics break, the line would be idle at times, and workload could be allowed to back up while the workers on this stretch of the line took a few minutes to care for themselves.

From beneath the bench, the litter unit waited, watching to make sure the larger line units were out of the way. The unit under the bench tapped a collection tentacle quietly on the floor, and tried for only an unclaimed moment to connect with the similar unit that a while ago had started to beam out a schematic of something he called ‘rocking’: an empty cycle activity with some strange spike moderating effect. But he had to stay focused: one collision with a full sized salvage unit, and he could end as a victim of the salvage line himself; but, if he were careful, he would have pleasant cycles yet of contentedly collecting the stray dross that rolls and skips and settles on the floor of the kingdom he has been assigned. His wondrous kingdom. So much to do. So much to do. So much to do.


Ken Poyner often serves as unlikely and well-worn eye-candy at his wife’s powerlifting meets. His latest collection of brief fictions, “Constant Animals”, can be located through links on his website, www.kpoyner.com. He has had recent work out in “Corium”, “Asimov’s Science Fiction”, “Poet Lore”, “Sein und Werden” and a few dozen other places. When power lifting season is only at a low boil, he spends his time acting as a place for any number of his four cats to coil.