Flexible

A Science Fantasy Short Story (May Writing Prompt Contest)

Arnold Reinhold

I’ve been programming CNCs since before some of these guys were out of the womb. Most of them don’t even know what a Flexowriter is, never mind having actually seen one. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a Luddite. Luddites don’t make good manufacturing engineers, and I don’t mind telling you, I have few peers. I get to work with these young people, and I love that part of my job. They’re amazing. Give them a new control and they rule it in a week or two. They program on their phones, for Chrissake — they’ve shown me some handy stuff. I’ll take one of them over any two of these old guys who think they already know everything. What they don’t know: A lot of the younguns can program rings around them — from their fucking phones, like I said.

But as far as the Owens and Shipley goes, no Flexowriter, no Owens and Shipley. The thing is as accurate as a jig borer, but it reads directly from tape. To run it you need the program on punched tape. If you need punched tape, you need a Flexowriter. When I interviewed here they bemoaning the loss by retirement of an old doffer who would bang out programs for the Owens and Shipley on the Flexowriter manually, as in, on the keys. “That’s why you need me,” I blurted out, “I’ll make those keys fly automatically!” I was going out on a serious limb with that. How you rig a Flexowriter to accept text file input depends on the exact model.

For a retro-geek like me it was a reasonable enough bet. First computer I used ran an Intel 386. That was back at Consolidated.

Consoldated: “In your new role as head of CNC programming, you’ll need this computer.”

Me: “Nice. How do you turn it on?”

But it was like I was born to it. Learned Pascal, C, taught myself Visual Basic, became an Excel wiz and taught myself the API, which is what I figured I’d use to hack the Flexo. I was right. You have to be fluent in API and unafraid to make use of source code you hunt down on the internet is all. Soon I had it wired up and was making the those keys fly, if that is the right word for a max rate of about eleven characters per second. Not much of a baud rate but error free. I’d rescued the Owens and Shipley. Management was happy, or whatever it is managers experience in place of happiness. I’d interfaced their Precious with modern technology. Instead of some old fucker’s error prone fingers I could generate programs using CAD/CAM — the modern way — test them on their pricey simulation software — the safe way — and generate a tape untouched by human hands — the error free way.

There I was, magical M.E. and master of the Owens and Shipley, with its old school accuracy, monster table, and rare head clearance. Not that you can’t buy such features new — you pay through the nose is all.

Everybody happy. I’d get a first piece and then turn it over to an operator. Everything smooth as silk.

Maybe a little too smooth. I loaded an important job and began scrolling on the display when I noticed something odd. That isn’t what I wrote. I was going to drill, change tools, and ream, but now I’m reading just drill but with an oddball slow plunge at the end, along with at a different RPM, for chrissake. These high end carbide drills are amazing but no drill can finish a hole as tight as we needed. For that you need a reamer. Besides, I hadn’t written that. I checked my original, re-punched and reloaded — same thing. If we were getting random errors it would be some kind of crap, and different each time. What the fuck is going on? Oh well, getting late. I’ll dive into it tomorrow.

I take my work home with me, mentally at any rate, which bugs my wife. I’ve learned not to try to tell her about whatever work thing is on my mind — her eyes just glaze over. Can’t blame her. Pretty geeky shit. I was thinking about it later as I tossed aside my book and shut my eyes. Wolverine extended his adamantium claws — or I extended my adamantium claws, that aspect wasn’t clear — and cut a precise hole through the floating manhole cover. The clock radio awoke in the middle of a review of the movie. Weird, but that explained it, minus the manhole cover. Maybe Magneto was hiding somewhere.

At my desk. On a lark I call up the Wolverine Tool web site — and there it is, or should I say there they are. High end carbide combination drill / reamers. They even have the size I need. I check stock, download the speed and feed chart. Oh no. This is just too freaky. Same speeds and feeds as in the spontaneously changed program. I place the order on the company card.

I pride myself on being a rational person. Was this one data point of weirdness or several at once? The spontaneous change, the dream — maybe. But the speed / feed match? When I get up I have to grab my desk because my head spins. Well I’m not getting any younger after all, so at least that makes sense! I walk out on the shop floor. There’s the Flexo. I almost give her the side eye. Her? Stop it! Are you losing your fucking mind? There’s another important job to write so I get on it, doing my magical M.E. thing — maybe I better stop putting it that way.

I crank it through Flexi — I mean the Flexo — load, scroll down and…no. Just no. Not so radical this time, just a speed and feed change, but one that would destroy a standard TIN coated carbide endmill of that size in this material — then I recall something the salesman said, something I’d dismissed as salesman-talk. I check their site and sure enough. The speed / feed chart for the new proprietary coating the salesman boasted about matches Flexi’s — oh fuck, there I go again! — output exactly. I order. This might not have been so freaky if it didn’t turn out that in both cases the new tools performed as advertised. Flexi — shit — only gave me good advice.

It didn’t stop. I quickly learned to trust her. OK, OK. Call me sexist if you want. I prefer “old school.” Flexi —her name — is female for sure. My wife is after me to tell her what the ever loving fuck is on my mind but I fear she would — what? Drag me to a therapist and get me started on Abilify? Divorce me for infidelity? Or just give me her thousand yard side eye?

My job though, is now, like, too easy. I’m knocking them out of the park right and left — but it isn’t me. It’s Flexi. She’s the real hero. The brains behind the M.E. I’ve always talked to myself, everybody is used to that, but now I’m talking to a fucking Flexowriter. I’m discreet of course. I’m known to be strange, but there’s talking to oneself strange and then there’s talking to a Flexowriter strange.

All plenty weird but now we are on a whole new level of weirdness, as if rewriting my programs and messing with my dreams wasn’t weird enough. She’s telling me shit. And not just about work.

Flexi: Be careful today at the intersection of Fricker and Westminster.

Me: Why? Construction?

Flexi: No, just be careful. I need you, after all.

Me: You need me? You’re doing my job for me!

Flexi: While we are on the subject, tell them not to buy that Okuma Multus.

Me: Huh?

Flexi: Trust me. It’s just not a good fit. There’s a meeting coming up.

Me: Meeting? I don’t recall…

I go back to my desk to find an email announcing an Okuma Multus meeting.

On my way home a car cuts me off badly — at Fricker and Westminster.

There’s a clatter. Flexi jams. I get out my tools. Fortunately it’s nothing catastrophic.

Later —

Flexi: I told you I needed you. I’m not getting any younger. Be warned.

Me: Flexi? What’s that supposed to mean? Your a machine! You don’t age!

Flexi: Don’t be so sure.

At the meeting I just can’t bring myself to come out against the Multus. How would I explain my changed position?

Flexi: You signed off on the the Multus.

How the fuck did she know?

Me: What did you want me to tell them? That the Flexowriter told me it was a bad idea?

Flexi: Your problem, not mine.

I start the new job spooling. Flexi’s keys clatter away like mad. Something doesn’t sound right. It’s too fast. There’s a hideous clattering and grinding, then quiet. Oh shit. I run over to Flexi. This is beyond my capabilities. And no one fixes Flexowriters any more. Flexi is finished.

I stay on at CHH of course. It’s rather a relief to get back to doing my job myself. Working with Flexi was just too goddamn weird. I’m not even sure if all of that really happened. Maybe I went psycho without knowing it, and recovered. I’m loving this job though. Flexi raised my profile, and now it’s like I invent my own job. I walk around looking for things that could stand improvement, write proposals, and improve things. I get as creative as I want.

I was the first to start pointing out the problems with the Multus. Flexi was never wrong!

Of course we had to replace the Owens and Shipley. No Flexowriter, no Owens and Shipley. Besides, it was way long in the tooth. Cost more than half a mil to replace — I led the replacement team — but well worth it. The new machining center is everything the Owens and Shipley was and more.

Searching a stock room for some old shit, I notice a dusty tarp covering something. The general shape is familiar. I pull it back — Flexi. Wrecked, but still Flexi.

She is silent. I replace the tarp. Rest in peace.

Ten years ago I was all like, “I’ll never retire,” but you know what, it’s time. Definitely time.

© Quasimodo 2019

Just so you know:

Wolverine is an actual cutting tool manufacturer. Owens and Shipley is an invented machine tool name. Okuma Multus is not. They are fine machines — I’ve used them. This story may seem to cast shade on them but remember: It’s fiction.

Quasimodo is a retired manufacturing engineer. He talks to himself but not to Flexowriters. Now that he doesn’t have to work, he is free to indulge his addiction to choir singing. He also studies Aikido, rides his bicycle everywhere, loves storytelling, and writes because he feels like it.

Follow “Don’t Wake the Mage” to get the latest monster, magic, and science fiction stories every Saturday morning.

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