Monday, 24 September 2012

The Legend of Joan Henry’s Hamster

For Willow

Joan Henry’s father woke her up one midnight and said: “They’re making F-level workers obsolete.” She picked the sleep from her eyes. “What?” He sighed. “Do I have to repeat myself, dammit?” Joan blinked and said nothing. “Report came in today. Budget cuts. Can’t afford electricity in the F-quarter anymore, we’re being squeezed so tight our eyeballs are popping out their sockets.” Joan yawned and lay back down.

She wouldn’t get a rational account from her father—he carped at the company in times of boom or bust. Every little hiccup was lazy managers screwing workers out their rights, and so on. “All right, father. Let me get dressed.” The report was clear: F-level redundancies in effect in two weeks dependent on massive turnarounds in departmental expenditure. This meant there was a chance for each department to make internal cuts and appeal to the company board. Joan downed her OJ.

“Suppose I’ll have to sort it out, as usual.” She grabbed her keys, reassured her father, and sped to work. She was the only person in her department who wasn’t wracked with anxiety, hatred or fear. In the day she worked on reception in the marketing offices and at night she helped her father in the processing plant when his arthritis got too painful. If the managers discovered a lapse in his production output, he’d be obsolete. So they managed—got their two paychecks every week—and kept alive.

But these moaners, carpers and haters. They didn’t understand the basic tenet of ‘cutthroat’ capitalism—serve stakeholders, dispense with the rest. To keep their lives, all they had to do was reach their monthly targets and stay within the permitted departmental expenses. First problem: the electric bill in the office was too high. Joan’s solution? To reduce the number of computers being used, have secretaries share two machines on rotation and managers revert to pen or pencil. Use handcrank torches, not overhead lights. More importantly: convert electric power into hamster power.

For two months, Joan had been training her hamster Fidel to run at speeds of two hundred kilometres per hour in his wheel. Using her hamster as an exemplar, the temps, secretaries and managers could train their own hamsters to power computers, desk lights or photocopiers, without recourse to the main grid. This would make the office a self-sustaining department with no encroachment on company power sources, keeping them on the payroll database. It was a way of manipulating the company spreadsheet, known as the Death Grid or the Slaughterbox. Joan laughed off these terms.

Manual workers had a longer grace period to cut their expenses before obsolescence. So Joan expanded her animal retinue to include guinea pigs or cats—pets with more stamina who could fuel large industrial machines through paw power alone. Her office had succeeded in cutting its costs, and the management was impressed by Joan’s enterprising attitude. The exploitation of animals was something they could use to their advantage—humans had been a fungible resource for centuries, but their reluctance to be enslaved had caused so many net losses and growth irregularities over the years.

Joan was called into the office of a company director. Now she was nervous. He was a short man.
“Joan—we’ve been analysing the efficaciousness of your hamster-centred capital abridgement scenario. We find this an exciting new enterprise. Is there any way we could build towards, say, a complete animal-based production situation and a permanent human obsolescence occurrence, say, within forty-eight days?” he asked in one breath.
“You want to replace human workers with animal workers?”
“If I can’t—”
“It will be done.”
“Leave now.”

When Joan got home she bit her knuckles so tight the bite marks bloomed blood. Her casual problem-solving approach had pit her against the very people she was supposed to be helping. She had to decide whether she wanted to be made obsolete along with her F-level co-workers as a useless martyr, or keep her father and herself alive. The latter. She rounded up some tigers from the zoo and trained them in stenography. Macaques made good cleaners and coffee boys. Baboons could sit in for managers. As for temps, a series of rattlesnakes sharing the role would do nicely. She got to work.

In the factories, giraffes were the most effective replacement. They could transfer produce from conveyor belts up to the second floor, where polar bears stored them in the freezers, ready for distribution. Joan tried to solicit help from her co-workers but the truth was difficult to conceal—training a baboon to use Microsoft Excel while managers stood scowling in the corner was hardly a good omen. The time soon came for the workers’ obsolescence. It happened on a Friday, end of the working week. 

 Four brawny guards arrived at the F-level offices to frogmarch obsolescents to the ovens for quick removal. All was going well until Joan was grabbed by the guards and thrown among her colleagues. “I’m not supposed to go. I trained the animals,” she said. “You’re on the list,” the guard said. And there she was—JOAN HENRY, OBSOLESCENT. The company director had tricked her. When the animals saw their master being lead away, they revolted. The baboons clobbered the guards, the lions went straight for their throats. Guts and hair everywhere, blood on the photocopiers. Joan laughed.

“Brilliant!” she said. “Now we can manipulate the forms. You’re all free!” Her co-workers were relieved and conflicted. Did she do that on purpose? Was that her plan all along? Joan saw the advantage of telling a lie at this point and decided to tell the lie. “Of course. You didn’t think I’d let them take you, did I? Come on, you know me better than that!” And she was a heroine to the whole of Level-F, the slipperiest heroine ever. She ticked off all the workers as being ‘obsolete’ and sent them home through the fire exits. She would contact them with further instructions, whatever they were.


It wasn’t easy to devise instructions with her father constantly interrupting her thoughts. “Got the instructions yet?” he’d ask two times an hour. “No father, please give me more time.” Then he’d skulk off, muttering: “We don’t have time.” That really irked her.

She knew that the animals would respond to her commands. She had them at her disposal. Only she needed more to stage a revolt. She needed six or seven departments of trained office animals to take on the company’s security forces and topple the management. So there was only one thing to do: infiltrate the E-level as a panda. 

Plans had already been made to introduce animals into offices and factories, but the department managers were useless at earning the respect of their animal workers, knowing only brutality. Whipping a baboon seven times would not make him turn out a first-rate Sector Q report on Opportunities for Diversification Within the Product Portfolio. Joan snuck in as a panda and quickly trained her lions to eat the department manager. She trained animals for E-level duties, then moved onto the D-level.

This was a laborious process, and since she was no longer on the payroll, she had to sleep in the offices with her father. Other workers who lost their homes were invited into the E- and D-level offices while the training took place. As she completed the D-level animal training she learned from a secretary that her hamster Fidel had expired on the E-level. Her little pet, whose fast wheel-work had sparked this revolution, lay dead in its dynamo, the computer it was powering now completely useless.

She buried Fidel inside her CPU. His image would become the insignia for the revolution.

Once the C-level animals had been set up, she had enough power at her disposal to stage the revolt. Sixty-three lions trained to kill, twenty-eight baboons trained to scratch, and a small army of temp snakes with their own unique defence abilities. They headed for the security zone down in the basement. The plan was that the macaques would wander in there innocently, as though lost, teasing out the amused guards. Then the lions would pounce and maul and savage as many guards as possible.

It was a bloody, victorious battle. Twenty lions were killed and five others were wounded, but the company was useless without its security, so their deaths were seen as heroic, not tragic. The remaining animals took the lifts to the management floors and dispensed with forty-six managing directors, ninety chairmen and one-hundred company stooges. Joan didn’t grandstand at all, even with the company’s founder and leader—she simply dispensed with him as they dispensed with their human workers.

A new order was established, but there was a problem. The animals had become accustomed to their offices and didn’t want to give up their jobs for the human workers. So a compromise was reached—a second company would be built by the animals for the workers, with new jobs for all, and the workers’ paychecks were reinstated.

As head of the company Joan saw the financial foolishness of paying workers for doing nothing while animals slaved to build them a new structure to reinstate their jobs. She had a perfectly good company with free animal labour. The animals loved working there, and were rewarded with fresh food and places to breed and raise their young. Joan had saved the workers’ lives, wasn’t that enough? She aborted the new structure.

There was an outrage. People said Joan had been corrupted by power, and Joan lost her temper. She’d had nothing but grief and moaning from these people, even when she saved their lives. Couldn’t they do anything for themselves and stop hassling her for once? It was her father’s fault she thought this way. Even as a rich co-partner in the company, he was still a nuisance. “Where will the workers go? We can’t pay animals and humans. We’re losing money. We need to make cuts.” So she did.

Joan sacked her father.

Liberated from the nagging insistence of the old man she was free to run the company at her own discretion. After a year, the animals had proved so efficient, there was enough money to open a second structure and give the workers back their jobs. Although she was tempted to fill it with animal workers, her conscience got the better of her. She was unpopular among the humans, of course, and her closest allies were the animals. An enterprising gorilla had worked his way up to be her deputy and her lover.

Animals were more tender, respectful and loyal than humans. Soon after the second building had been constructed, a faction of corrupt humans began to plot against the animals and tried to take over the company. It was exactly what Joan feared might happen. So more lions were bred, and the traitors were dispensed with in a style imitative of the previous company. All humans workers were dismissed. There was no trusting them. It was far safer working with animals who had no concept of greed.

Joan’s company, animal down to the lowliest valet, became the largest grossing company in the world. Sure, there were territorial disputes at times between species, but if she bred them right, there was little incidence of warfare. She hired her father back as a factory worker, because that’s where he was the most comfortable, carping and bitching to the giraffes about his ungrateful daughter. In 2010, the company’s greatest rival lobbied the RSPCA and the company was legally obliged to return its workers to the zoo. This meant either hiring back human workers or declaring the company bankrupt. It was a victory for the company’s biggest rival, who ran a human discontinuation policy modelled on the original company’s own ‘obsolescence’ policy.

Upon receiving this news, Joan fled the country. It is believed she went to live in the Amazon rainforest, or in the Australian outback. She was never heard from again.

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