Friday, July 15, 2011

Partly Murphy - Part 2 of 2

© 1987 by Henry Melton

The day dragged. The phones came back up, but no one called him. The word was out. It would be useless to trust Jim Oliver with a job today.
The one o'clock meeting was postponed again, until three. But it was definitely stated that the meeting would be to announce the headcount cuts. The delays were caused by paperwork snarls in the manager's office, but the meeting would be held, paperwork or no.
Jim had skipped lunch; why risk it? Following Jess' advice, he tried to minimize his risk. He sat in his cubicle. He tried to avoid using anything more complicated than a pencil, until his pencil snapped.
Sleep was impossible. Not only was the injunction to never sleep on the job written deep into his psyche, but other worries were enough to keep his mind working.
If he were fired, how long would his savings hold out? The whole industry was depressed. Could he get another job in his area of specialization before the money ran out? He was raised to be disdainful of people on welfare. Could he stomach collecting unemployment insurance? How would it feel to be a "client" of the Employment Commission? Should he starve for pride's sake?
Halfway through the afternoon, nature called and he left the cubicle. He was very careful. That didn't prevent him from scalding himself with the super-hot water that came out when he attempted to wash his hands.
He stared at his red-bearded face in the mirror as he ran cold water over the burn.
The bycx was attached to red-bearded men. What if he cut off his beard? He shuddered at the thought. He had been bearded since he left high school. He liked the beard. It was him.
But he remember the decision he made years ago. If he ever believed that his beard was keeping him from a promotion or hindering him in his job, he would cut it off. He knew his father feared that it was a disadvantage, but in all the time he had been with the company, he never felt any suspicion that anybody minded. Even his boss had a beard, and that was as good an indicator as any that the factors his father had seen working had changed for this generation.
So now, was it time? If he cut the beard off, borrowed a razor and shaved it clean, would that magically remove his name from the layoff list?
He stared at himself. His hand throbbed from the scalded place. He took a deep breath and shut off the water.
No. I'll keep the beard. I won't give in to a quirk of statistics. Besides, scissors and a razor were lethal instruments right now.
Jess came by to escort him to the auditorium at three, but the word came just as they were leaving that the meeting was being postponed for another hour. No explanations.
"A four o'clock meeting," Jess shook his head. "Closing time at four-thirty. If they delay it any more, then that's it for today."
"I wouldn't mind." Jim settled back into his chair, conscious of how carefully Jess checked everything out when they were together.
"I don't suppose any of us would mind. But people are going to be cut, and every day delayed means another body out the door."
Jess had a sour look on his face and Jim had a feeling it wasn't because of the byxc. Jess was manager to a group of about a dozen people on the production floor. Jim suspected that Jess was worrying about them more than he would about himself.
"Hey, Jess." Jim asked, trying to distract his interest. "You know a lot about physics. What are byxcs?"
He shook his head, "I don't know, Jim. I've heard a dozen theories, blaming them on everything from ghosts to Einstein's hidden variables. The only thing I do know for sure is that you can predict murphy fluctuations if you have a big enough super-computer and have enough base data. It is a whole lot like predicting the weather; that's why the government got into the job in the first place–researchers kept wanting to borrow time on NOAA's big weather computer. Once NASA got the idea that would be a good idea to check for byxcs before any space launch, the funding for a permanent fortune report finally came through.
"It was a very human thing to do–if the universe wants to play with loaded dice, then we'll calibrate 'em and predict 'em."
Jim shook his head. "Still, it would be nice to know why my luck has changed. I would also like to know when it will get back to normal!"
Jess looked thoughtfully, then said, "Get a calculator and divide six by three."
Jim fumbled through his disk drawer, jabbing his finger on a thumbtack. The calculator was a simple one, useful for calculating percentages and adding up his checkbook. He keyed in the simple division problem and read the result back to Jess. "Six divided by three is 102.111139."
He nodded, "Keep that with you and try it again every so often. When you get the right answer every time, then your byxc will probably be gone."
When Jim eased into the back of the auditorium for the four P.M. meeting, he still clutched the calculator like a set of worry beads. He had done over a hundred tests, with results as high as OVERFLOW and as low as -8.74535E12. He had even gotten a 2.00 every once in a while, only to get something outlandish the next try. The poor little electrons in the semiconductor chip weren't following their statistical laws at all.
The auditorium was large, but still, to get all the employees in at one time was an exercise in sardine packing. Up on the stage were several of the higher managers, having whispered conversations among themselves. The crowd in the seats and standing along the walls managed a respectable roar as hot rumors circulated through the unnumbered conversations. Statistically, there was only a very minute chance that everyone would stop talking at the same instant, but that's what happened.
For a long five seconds, that great mass of people were quiet. Everyone looked around for the reason everyone else had shut up, then in a renewed burst of noise, they all started talking at once.
Jim Oliver tried to keep out of everybody's way, content to play with his calculator. Four o'clock came and went with no one stepping to the microphone. Five minutes passed, then ten. The people up on the stage were plainly at a loss. Someone was sent off to check on the holdup.
Jim got 2.00 twice in a row, before it went crazy again.
A man with a worried look on his face came up on the stage. The group on the stage held an animated conversation among themselves. The crowd in the seats quieted down as everyone strained to overhear. Finally, the man from Personnel stepped up the, microphone and tapped it.
"I have just been informed that Dick Parker, our General Manager, has broken his leg. This meeting will be postponed until tomorrow."
There was a mixed roar–some cheers, some expressions of concern. But there was a great feeling of reprieve. The rear doorway where Jim was standing was suddenly flooded by people trying to get out. No one tripped. Jess spotted Jim being pressed along in the crowd, calculator held high. Jim waved and shouted, "Five times in a row!"
It was generally agreed that it was time to go home. Jim Oliver retrieved his briefcase and joined the flood of people heading out to the parking lot.
Outside, there was quite a mob. Jim pressed through the group to see what was going on. An ambulance was backed up in the No Parking zone and a gurney was being edged up to the back of it. Laying down on the gurney with his leg wrapped in white was Dick Parker, General Manager, working frantically with a pair of scissors, hacking away at his red beard.


Mike G. said...

Haha, nice. I didn't see that ending coming...

Henry Melton said...

Hi, Mike. Sorry for such a delayed reply. I was reviewing the site and realized I'd _read_ all the comments, but dropped the ball on my hostly duties and forgotten to reply. This particular story, (other than the bix) was pretty much taken from life -- sweating out the layoffs years ago before I went rogue.

Undomelin said...

"Besides, scissors and a razor were lethal instruments right now." Had he been willing, perhaps a battery-powered electric would have made sense (though I suppose the battery could leak or overheat).

Anyway, it's a cute short story. Do you recall why you chose "byxc" as the phenomenon's name? Was it just supposed to evoke a malfunctioning keyboard/typewriter?

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