Competitive Edge

UPDATE 01/06/15: You can download an eBook version of this story for FREE on the Internet Archive. Enjoy!


I’ll explain more tomorrow, but for now please enjoy. Please feel free to leave any comments\questions below.

Competitive Edge

Yao Hang-Shien sat in his concrete walled office about to light a cigar when Chang burst in. His younger subordinate was always coming into his office unannounced, but Shien chose to accept it since nothing he’d said had changed Chang’s habits. His only form of objection was to continue lighting his cigar without looking up, taking several short puffs before fixing his gaze upward.

Chang was in his late thirties and thin. Despite his supervisory position, he almost never wore a tie or long sleeves to work, and often kept the top two buttons of his shirt unbuttoned. It was deathly hot in the factory, even back in the offices, so again Shien accepted this behavior without comment. Privately he thought it was doubtful Chang would move up in the company if he kept dressing that way, but that was not his problem.

In contrast, Shien sported a glossy black tie, polished leather shoes, a clean and pressed white shirt, and creased dress pants. His suit jacket was draped over the back of his chair, but he could toss it on in a practiced motion should the need arise. The concrete walled room was just one level above the main factory floor and was his day to day office. When customers flew in to meet with him he used the nicer office three flights up. The desk was nearly twice the size of the one he sat behind now, made from mahogany, with leather chairs on either side. There was a full bar, couch, and wall to wall windows with a sweeping view of Shenzhen.

That was the proper place for Shien to be enjoying a cigar, rather than this windowless cold room with plastic chairs, but the necessities of his job meant some sacrifices.

“Yes, Chang?” He asked, not particularly interested.

“It’s about the Amy’s, sir.”

It was always about the Amy’s.

“What is it this time?”

Chang wiped his brow nervously, his dark black hair, only now showing the slightest touches of gray, matting from sweat. Shien, though only ten years Chang’s senior, suffered from male pattern baldness, with only a few thin stands crossing the divide between the sides of his head.

“We lost four more of them last night.” Chang, despite his urgency, seemed reluctant to speak.

Shien’s eyebrows raised, “Lost?”

“They jumped, sir.”

“We have the nets for that sort of thing,” Shien said, his voice maintaining a steady calm.

Chang nodded, “Yes I know. They were working for a while.” His hands didn’t quite seem to know where to rest in his lap. He placed them on his knees, then clasped them back in front of his chest. Shien had rarely seen the younger man so nervous before, and he was enjoying it.

“Yes?” He spoke softly, allowing a hint of menace into his voice.

Once Chang found the words, they poured out of him, “The nets catch them alright, but then one jumps on top of the last one. We put the nets too low. They can build up enough force if they land just right…”

Shien raised a hand, “I get the idea. Presumably there was a fifth Amy who survived.”

“Yes,” Chang nodded, “we have her in isolation for now. Do you want to see her?”

Shien shook his head, “Talking to one Amy is pretty much like talking to another. You can put her to sleep. It’s not kind to keep an animal caged for long.”

He took another long puff of his cigar and tapped the ashes onto his desk. The surface was faux wood plastic, and was tinged gray in the spot where he had ashed his cigars for many years.

“We need more variety in the herd,” Chang said, his voice growing more confident.

Shien raised a tired hand again, “I’ve explained this to you before, Chang. The Amy’s are bred from the very best stock. They are detail-oriented but submissive, and they can work for hours without rest. They are competitive enough to keep up our quotas but not enough to foster aggression. And since they are all the same it makes it that much harder for one of them to be dominant. If we introduced new breeds into the herd it would hurt the integrity we’ve worked so hard to maintain.”

“But they’re burning out faster than before,” Chang said pulling out a small tablet computer. With a couple of flicks of his finger he brought up a chart and laid it on Shien’s desk. “They only last about eighteen months now before needing to be put to sleep. By the end their hands are so ruined they can’t even pick up a tool. It’s getting more expensive to replace them.”

“The basic building blocks are still very cheap to acquire, and we have an ample supply. Every Amy carries thousands of spare parts for her future offspring,” Shien said, half looking at the graph. “That’s why we use the Amy’s in the first place.”

“But we could build machines…”

“Machines are expensive and difficult to replace. It would take months of engineering to build what we can train Amy to do in a day. Machines need regular servicing, whereas the Amy’s require minimal care, and are cheap to replace. All of this you know, Chang,” Shien tapped his cigar again, the ashes collecting on the surface of Chang’s tablet. The gesture was deliberate and dismissive, but Chang ignored it, brushing the ashes aside and putting the tablet back in his lap.

“Have you been to the dormitories lately? They’re becoming more crowded. These last couple of orders have forced us to increase our workforce by twenty percent.”

Shien’s eyes narrowed, “There are ten beds in each of those dormitories, and ten Amy’s in each room?”

“Yes,” Chang said.

Shien mentally shook his head at the younger man’s ignorance, “There’s room for two in each of those beds. If they sleep with their heads at opposite ends we can double our workforce before needing to expand.”

The lights flickered as he spoke, and moments later an alarm sounded. Shien stamped out his cigar angrily on the desk and threw on his jacket, bursting past Chang and out his double doors. The upper level was square, with his office comprising one side. The hallway was lined with metal railings painted white, looking down over the vast open space of the lobby. The stairway was normally retracted so nothing on the ground level could get up to the second level without a supervisor’s permission. Shien pushed a button on the railing to lower the stairs, beginning to walk down even before they had fully deployed. He jumped the last couple of feet and started running toward the end of the lobby, the younger Chang breathing heavily to keep up with him.

The doors that led to the long factory floor were sealed. Two small windows afforded the only view of the thousands of work benches that lay beyond. Shien ignored these, pulling out an access card from his jacket pocket and swiping it in a card reader to unseal the doors. He grabbed both metal handles of the doors and flung them wide open.

A frightened technician was huddled in a corner near the alarm button, and Shien strode over to him without a moment’s hesitation. He shoved the man aside and punched the button off savagely. The room was silent. This distraction dealt with, Shien turned to assess the source of the alarm.

The room was silent. The factory floor was always silent. At every work bench an Amy would be soldering a chip to a circuit board, or assembling a case for a cell phone. This room in particular had been working on motherboards for tablet computers like the one Chang used, This silence was different, more permanent than the usual enforced silence.

One-thousand and twenty-four Amy’s lay slumped over their benches, their throats slit from ear to ear. They were naked, none of the Amy’s ever wore clothing. All of the Amy’s were the same, after all, they were clones.

Shien lifted the closest Amy’s head and thrust it violently backward so that her body fell in a lump on the hard cement floor. Her eyes were half-open, looking in the direction of the door as Chang entered. The younger man was stunned to silence for the first time in his life, something that Shien found useful at this particular moment.

He picked up the circuit board the Amy’s had been working on and flinched as the edge of the board nicked his fingers. The green was tinged in the dark red of blood.

“Damn engineers!” He cursed, “they had to make those tablets thinner. These boards are as sharp as a knife edge. It was only a matter of time before the Amy’s figured it out.”

He tossed the board back on the workbench. Chang’s eyes never left the fallen Amy. Her body was thirteen, though in actuality she was probably only a couple of months old. Her black hair was like straw and cut short. Her eyes were black and lifeless. The hint of breasts just starting to develop were stained with blood from the six inch gash across her neck.

Shien put a hand on the younger man’s shoulder, “It’s alright. They probably only ruined 5% of the boards. The rest can be cleaned. All circuit boards have a little bit of blood and sweat on them.”

Chang nodded, though was still unable to speak. Shien continued.

“It’s gonna give us a devil of a time meeting the Christmas rush though, but scarcity does drive up value and we’ll still be able to make the secondary quotas. This could actually solve a number of our problems.”

Chang nodded again. He looked at Shien, his eyes wide and his breathing heavy but Shien’s face remained the vision of calm.

“I’ll take you to lunch, Chang.” Shien said, grabbing the man’s tablet. “Somewhere new. That’ll do your nerves some good.” With a couple of taps Shien brought up the dinner spinner app, gave the tablet a shake, then nodded with approval at the result.


Filed under CFML, Short Stories

13 responses to “Competitive Edge

  1. Chuck Conover

    I like your dialogue. Helps move the story along very nicely. But I feel 2 items are missing: Sounds and smells. You describe the cigar ash and how the main character uses them, I can see the color, but where is the acrid smell of the smoke? When Chang bursts into the office, where is the sound of the door banging against the wall? Small details I know, but all senses can be used to engage the reader.

    • Ben Trube

      Thanks for the note. I’ll have to think about smells especially as I’m revising my novel. Most of the other senses I cover, but I’m not sure I ever mention smell.

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  3. Chuck Conover

    Editing and reviewing are MUCH easier than creating. So that aside …

    In this story, smell could have been used to highlight the contrast between the 2 situations. The differences between the staff and the Amy’s. Something like …

    “The acrid, curling cigar smoke ate away the lingering, sweeter smell of sweat from the factory floor.”

    Just to demonstrate one way you could use other senses to “show” and to “inform” the reader.

    • Ben Trube

      Thanks for the feedback. Competitive Edge was a little tricky to write in that I wanted to tell the story from a more callous perspective, that of Hang-Shien, with only a hint of how a real human being would react, Chang. This led to a brusque tone. Sometimes senses can add to a scene, and sometimes they can slow it down. Hang-Shien breezes into the room and shuts off the alarm before he even notices the fact that all of the Amy’s are dead. He definitely would not have noticed a smell, maybe Chang would have, but he was absorbed with staring into Amy’s dead eyes.

      I did use one sense very deliberately, silence. Silence is significant in this case since workers in factories like this are forced to work in silence. It’s not what you would expect in a factory making electronics, but it’s true. The two kinds of silence: enforced silence, and the silence of death are one of the ways I want to show the reader what is happening.

      It’s a style thing of course, and subject to taste (or smell)?

  4. This is a fantastic piece of writing. I did get the cold isolated vibes from Shien very clearly. Tough one to handle.

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  8. Woha! That was awesomely written and kept me gripped ’till the end. I could also very well ‘sense’ the differences between the two characters -even if i’m afraid that if Chang remains with Shien he’ll eventually end up like him.

    • Thanks LightObserver. I’m glad the differentiation in the characters came through. One could almost be considered a younger version of the other. In fact it might be fun for the cloning thing to extend to staff as well. Thanks for stopping by 🙂

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