"The Shrinking Skin"

"The Shrinking Skin"

In this room, the only sound was the faint hum of the humidifier, and the slightly nasal breaths of the room's only occupant. That person was named Robert, called Bob, overweight and nearing retirement age, and when he worked on his blueprints, it was to the exclusion of everything else.

Bob set aside the Vespa schematics and rubbed his eyes. It had been a long day, and the deadline for the blueprint improvement was fast approaching. Deadlines made him uncomfortable.

Usually he would close the door to his office, turn on the humidifier to keep his eyes from getting dry and his throat from getting raspy, and set to work. And when he worked, he was committed. He didn't understand those people who frittered away their time on the job. The workplace was for work. When you were given a job to do, you did it, and if you did it well, you might be given the same job again, and then you knew you could do it in time. Routine and habit. That was the key.

Each blueprint was different, of course, even ones for the same items. All a blueprint did was show you a way to manufacture a given item in some way that the end result would meet the specifications set forth by the authorities. This included not only the attributes of the item, but the amount of material you had to include for the item to be considered structurally sound. The rest was up to you.

Despite the design freedoms it was all fairly standardized, which Bob quite liked. Special teams of researchers could re-work blueprints to require less materials or time for production, and scientifically minded pilots could help out as well, but all in all there was little variation between jobs. Bob had long since found that, given the rigid requirements for the attributes of each produced item, the corresponding blueprints tended to be rather similar to one another. One Vespa blueprint might have a different circuit outlay and a few extra screws here and there, but that was about it. Most of the time went into putting the new blueprint through standardized testing, to ensure that its products would stand up to the stress of regular use.

There was a knock. Bob looked up, irritated. "Yes?" he said.

The door opened and a young man stepped in. He was in his early twenties, hair well cut, clothing casual but not too sloppy. He was smiling. He walked to Bob's desk and stopped, and it took Bob a couple of beats to realize that the man had extended his hand. Bob shook it.

"John," he said. "I'm told we'll be working together."

"Is that a fact," Bob said. "You're new on the team, I take it."

"Only started today," John said.

"Well then," Bob said, not getting up, "I'll be filling you in on what we're doing here."

John made to say something, but Bob kept going, "It's routine, for the most part. We get a blueprint, sign the standard confidentiality waiver, and off we go. There's a deadline for each task, but they're fairly easy to hit. We log things pretty well, especially work procedures. Obviously we can't keep logs of the blueprint contents, but we've gotten pretty good at logging extraneous stuff, patterns and suchlike, and those often come in use when we get another blueprint of the same type, even if it has a completely different way of building the item."

He motioned at the shelves beside him, which held rows of thin plastic datasheets. "Everything is logged. I like to keep backups, just in case, you know. I also have certain ways of signing off on things. It's not strictly necessary, since our computer system takes care of officially signing our work and placing it in the proper category, but I like to add a little touch of my own. So all files I've worked on have my digital signature, just to be sure that I've finished with them."

John again made to say something, and Bob cut him off again. "I don't mind if you ask questions, and you can come to me anytime you like. In fact, I'd prefer it that way. There's no reason to go bothering the big people about tiny little things, especially when you've just started and are still finding your feet, eh?" He smiled. "Exactly. Now, what project did you want to start on? I've got a Vespa here that's half done and I'm sure could be good warm-up. I'd check on it periodically-"

"Actually, I was thinking of the brand-" John started.

"Now, please don't interrupt me," Bob said with a smile. "There are certain ways of doing things here, and I just want to make sure you're following them from the start. What's your specialty? Drones? Guns? Armor? Or maybe something a little more complex, like electronics or shields. I don't imagine you've gotten up to ships yet, but with time and proper training I'm sure you'll get a chance to try your hand at them."

"Thanks," John said, "but it's a little more complicated than that."

Bob blinked. "Really, now?"

"I do all of those. Ships included."

"Oh, I'm sure you've done tests, and all sorts of training routines," Bob said, still smiling. "But that was in school, no doubt. The stakes are a little higher here. There's proper workflows to consider, order to be kept. You can't just toss off some research project in an hour, thank you and go home. You've got to make sure everything is right and proper."

"Even with the new project?" John asked.

"New project? What new project?" Bob asked. "I haven't heard anything about a new project."

"Did you ask?" John said. Bob's smile disappeared. "I'm sorry, that came out wrong," John added quickly. "But I'm here to work on a new branch of research with your corporation. It's no longer enough to improve the time and cost of building the same items. We need to be more creative. We need to make something new."

"Something new," Bob echoed in a leaden tone.

"There's a meeting starting quite soon, and I just wanted to introduce myself before then. It'll all be explained there. I thought you knew about it, though."

Bob didn't meet his gaze. "I don't much hold with meetings," he said. "Senseless chatter, half the time. A man's place is at his desk, doing the work he knows."

"That may change," John said, smiling, and left the office.

***

"Welcome, Bob. Have a seat, please." The woman greeting him was Joroutte Duvolle, the CEO of Duvolle Laboratories. Joroutte was a people person and routinely attended or even held lower level staff meetings. Bob liked her. She knew her business, but trusted her people to get on with their work with a minimum of interruption. She might occasionally spend a little too much time chattering with people, Bob thought, when a CEO surely had more important things to do, but there was no purpose in bringing it up. Bob preferred to stay on friendly terms with his superiors. It kept the order of things clean and simple.

John was there, too. That was not clean and simple. Bob smiled at him, and he smiled back. Neither man extended a hand.

Joroutte motioned Bob to sit. She then activated a video projection, bathing the room in the faint green glow from the holographs. A screensaver of pies and charts revolved in front of their eyes.

"We're starting a new thing, Bob," Joroutte said. "Not all of us, but we need everyone to have a working knowledge of it. And that has to include you."

Bob nodded.

"Have you studied the materials related to this new process?" Joroutte asked.

"Well, see, there's just so much to do," Bob replied. "The new batch of Vespas just came in, and then there's the weapons and the ships-"

"All right. That's okay," Joroutte said. "We know you're a hard worker, no worries." She sat down at the table, beside Bob. "We need you on this, Robert. Most everyone in our lab group has already tried their hand at invention. You're the only one who's left and isn't on sick leave. I know it isn't your favourite thing, but you're a fastidious, diligent worker, and I'm sure you'll find your rhythm in this in no time."

Bob looked crestfallen. "What do I have to do?"

Joroutte said, "That's where our new man comes in. John?"

John stood, cleared his throat, and took out a small laser pointer. It had an invisible beam that, when shined on the holographs, would alter the colour of the targeted area, highlighting it. He pressed a button, and the graphs turned from the pies and charts to a picture of a stick figure and a few square boxes. Each box had a label.

"This is the new process," John said, "and even though it can be a little complicated to work with at first - the research techniques are quite a bit more demanding than the ones you've done so far - it's really not that big a deal. You, as a lab researcher, take in a blueprint just like you've always done."

He indicated one box on the image, which lit up with the words 'Tech 1 BP'. "You'll forgive the shorthand," John said, "but it fits better on a slide, and I assume we're all familiar with the working slang for these things. If not," he added, "just let me know."

Bob remained silent.

"We're fine," Joroutte said. "Go on."

"The process really is the same as before. We take this tech 1 blueprint, and we improve it. Except the improvements are so extensive that we actually end up with a different item-"

"What?" Bob said, turning to Joroutte. "This, this goes against all procedures."

"Easy there," Joroutte said. "Let's hear him out."

John continued. "To do this, we need more than just the ingenuity of our researchers. Certain companies have prepared agglomerations of design patterns that can be automatically applied to the blueprints. We use those datacores, along with the data interfaces provided for them - it's the only way to access their data, and their contents are kept quite secret, obviously - and by doing so, we can simplify the projects enough for our regular researchers to handle. A bit of hard work, and perhaps some extra materials, and we end up with a new blueprint for a tech 2 item." He turned to Bob. "You really are doing the same thing as before, improving the design of an item. You're just getting a little computerized help to do it, and you end up with something new, in this case a copy of a tech 2 blueprint. We'd have liked to make originals, but the DRM on these things is horrendous, so we only have permission to make copies.

"And in case you're wondering, the datacores will never replace you or anyone else here. They're single-use only, and always need a guiding hand."

"I hope you're happy with this," Joroutte said. "It's a big step for us, but it's vital. We have to keep up with the competition, and any day now we may be contacted by pilots asking us to do this. Stagnation is the end, Bob. Stagnation is death."

"Do you have any questions?" John asked.

Bob stared into open air for a moment. Then he said, "No. No, nothing at all," slowly stood up and left the room.

***

The humidifier kept his office rather steamy. Bob liked it that way. He was getting a little cold in his old age, and besides, the heat seemed to discourage people from hanging around too long in his office. The door was closed, the air was warm, and the Vespa blueprint lay in front of him untouched.

There was a knock. John opened the door and entered without waiting for an answer. He sat down.

The two men stared at each other in silence.

Eventually, John said, "I'm here to work with you, Robert. If you have questions, or need any guidance, all you need is ask and I'll be there to help out."

Bob remained silent.

"The process really is that simple. And we won't get left in the cold by some hungry pilot who drops a project on our doorstep and leaves. The only ones who even get through the screening process are those who know something about the subject matter. Somebody asks us to change a shuttle into a battleship, we toss him out on his ass."

"And if we can't turn a shuttle into a battleship," Bob said, "then what? You toss us out on our asses, too?"

John looked at him, then looked at his desk. "Vespa blueprint, you said?"

"That's right."

"Material?"

"Time."

"Difficult?" John asked.

"Not once you get the hang of it."

"You like getting the hang of things," John said. He didn't wait for an answer. "There's a reason why you're the last one to start on this. There's a reason why the CEO of your corp held a special meeting just for you. There's a reason why this caught you by surprise even though it's been widely known in the corp for ages that a change was coming. There's also a reason you work with your door closed. And they're all the same reason."

"Stagnation," Bob said.

John nodded.

"Is death," Bob said.

"Of a sort," John replied.

Bob sighed deeply. He ran his fingers through his hair, then steepled them at the back of his neck and leaned back in his chair, looking at the ceiling. In his mind, he felt like he was enveloped in a net that was growing tighter and tighter, restraining his movement, trapping him. And he knew that the net was his own skin, and as it had shrunk through the years, he'd shrunk with it, for fear of accidentally tearing his way out.

John waited to see if he'd speak. When it eventually became apparent that the conversation was over, he stood and said, "Good luck to you, Robert. It's going to be fine."

Bob stood as well, but remained silent. He nodded.

John turned, went to the door, opened it wide and slowly walked out, leaving the door opened behind him. The humidity in the room lowered from contact with the outside air, and smells and sounds drifted in.

After a while, Bob walked across the room, and closed the door with a click.