The Story Machine, Story 2: Normal



By Sam W Tennyson


The machine was very complex, and even more important.  Its functions had to be monitored by numerous people in order to assure that everything was normal.  As long as everything was normal, all of the important work was being done, and there were no emergencies.  The machine was always supposed to be normal.  The work was always supposed to get done.  And as far as anyone could remember, the work always got done.  And everything was always normal.

Everyone had their instructions, and all of those instructions were supplemented with manuals.  The manuals were very detailed about what was normal, and they would always tell you what to do.  When you had a question, all you had to do was check the manual.  The answer was always simple.  There had been extensive training.  There were redundancies in place.  Everything was interconnected, and all in very normal ways.  The system always worked—and that was the most important thing.

For example: on one particular day, at one specific time, it was two hours into Ten’s shift.  They were sitting in their chair and watching the monitors.  Everything was operating normally.  It was their duty to watch these monitors and make sure everything was normal for eight consecutive hours, five days a week.  As long as everything was normal, there would be nothing to worry about.  Ten liked when there was nothing to worry about.  Ten was normally good at their job.  And then everything started to change.

The machine made a sound it had never made before—at least never that Ten could remember.  It was a whistle.  It seemed to come from everywhere at once.  Ten pulled the manual out from the drawer, because there was no reason to panic.  The training had not mentioned the machine making a sound like a whistle that seemed to come from everywhere at once, but the manual would say what to do in that specific situation.  The manual would always tell you what to do, and the answer would always be simple.  The system would always work.  Ten knew this, because it had been explicitly stated in the training.  Ten had taken notes.

While Ten was looking through the index in search of whistles, they wasn’t looking at the monitors they was supposed to watch.  This was not normal—normally, they did their job.  They were good at their job.  They didn’t see the lights change from green to amber.  They’d never seen that before, either, but they didn’t yet know to search the manual for amber lights.  Searching the manual for two things they’d never seen before would probably be overwhelming.  The whistle sound came out of the machine again.  Ten was starting to get nervous, and they didn’t even realize that there was enough going on to overwhelm him.

After a few tense seconds, they found an entry for whistles in the index.  There were several references.  they would have to start at the beginning of the list and work his way through.  There was no reason to panic.  The machine had never had any serious problems.  It was absurd to suggest that it would have one now.  All of the important work would continue to get done.  They flipped to page four hundred and thirty-three.  The whistle sound came out a third time, and then there was a loud click.  Ten’s stomach turned, and they looked up at the machine.

The amber lights were there, but they didn’t seem important.  The green lights Ten expected to see were missing, though.  The gears had stopped turning.  The machine didn’t look like it was doing anything at all.  That meant that work wasn’t getting done—important work.  That was not normal.  Ten was reasonably sure this was a reason to panic.  They dropped the manual, and the corner of the binding crushed the second toe on their right foot.  There was no time for pain, though.  The machine was the priority.

Ten swallowed hard, took a deep breath, and picked up the emergency phone.  The line clicked to life immediately.  A supervisor would answer soon.  Someone who knew the machine better.  Someone who’d seen more.  Someone who had been trained for emergencies.  The whistle sounded again.  A tired voice came on the line.  It was considerably more than two hours into the tired voice’s shift.

“What is the emergency?”

“The machine stopped.”

The voice was no longer tired.  The voice was shouting.  “The machine stopped?”

There was a second click.  The gears on the machine started turning again.  Ten let what was left of their deep breath out.  “It started again.”

The voice was lower.  Not tired.  Relieved.  “Everything is normal?  Was there a whistle?”

“There were whistles.  Four whistles, I think.  I’ve broken a toe.  All of the lights have turned amber.”

The voice sounded annoyed and confused.  “That’s impossible.  That doesn’t make any sense.  Everything is normal?”

“I told you that everything is not normal.  There are several things theyre that are not normal.”  The whistle sounded again.  The amber lights started blinking slowly.  “There’s been another whistle.  The lights have begun blinking.”

The voice was more severe.  “This is very important.  What direction are the gears turning?”

“Around in a circle.”  What other direction could a thing that turned turn, Ten wondered.  they did not ask this question out loud.  They did not want to distract from the situation at hand.  They wanted to do a good job.

“Like a clock?  Or not like a clock?”

Ten stared at the gears.  They’d never thought of them as like clocks.  They tried to think of a clock.  Their toe hurt terribly, and their stomach was roiling.  They did not want to make a mistake.  “Not like a clock.”

The voice was angry again.  And loud.  “Don’t you think that would have been an important thing to tell me?”

“I don’t know.  I never knew which way the gears were supposed to turn.  Is this not normal?”

“This is not normal.  This is changed.”

“I see.  But you can fix it?”

The voice was perplexed.  “How could I fix it?”

Ten was perplexed.  “You’re the person who answers the emergency phone.  You know what direction is normal.  You should know how to make the machine be normal again.”

“The machine isn’t supposed to be not normal.  The training doesn’t tell you what to do if the machine isn’t normal because it’s not expected to ever be.  The training just tells you how to tell that the machine is being normal so you know, and you don’t get worried when everything stays normal like it always has, and all of the important work is getting done.”

“So it’s not normal that the machine changed, but there’s nothing we can do about it because no one knows how to make the machine normal again.”

“I didn’t say that.”

“I said that.”  Ten was beginning to feel like the voice did not know as much as they had hoped.

“I’m going to make a call on the emergency phone.”

“You have one too?”

“I’m talking to you on it.  But I want you to get off of it, so it can connect me to the person who answers the emergency phone when I use it.  There’s a hierarchy to these things.  It was all in the training.”

“But how will I know what the person who answers the emergency phone when the person who answers the emergency phone uses it says to do?”

“I’ll have to tell you.  After.  There’s a hierarchy to these things.”

Ten hung up the emergency phone and stared at the machine.  The amber lights were blinking at least twice as fast now, and the machine was clicking periodically even though it wasn’t stopping, nor changing direction.  At least there were no more whistles.  Perhaps the machine had run out of whistle fuel.  Perhaps that was what all these changes were about.

The emergency phone made a noise like a bell being struck repeatedly at a high rate of speed.  Ten had been trained to pick up the phone when it made this particular noise, so they picked it up like they were supposed to.  “What is the emergency?”

The voice on the other end sounded relieved.  “Something is different about the machine.”

Ten nodded sagely.  They remembered, from their training, that they might get a call if something was different about the machine.  It was important that they conduct themself according to the proper procedures.  “That doesn’t sound normal.  Perhaps you should describe to me the thing that is different about the machine.”

“There were whistling noises.  And the lights changed from green to amber.  And it stopped, and then started again, but going not like a clock.”

Ten looked at the machine, squinting.  That description sounded different.  They would need to ask more questions.  “Are the amber lights blinking?  Slowly at first, but steadily gaining speed?”

“I’m not sure.”

“You would want to know that.  That’s very important.  Were there clicking sounds when the machine stopped, and when it started again?”

“I’m not sure.  The operator didn’t mention any clicking sounds.”

“The operator should have mentioned clicking sounds, whether or not they happened.  And you should have asked about them.  These are all very normal questions.  There are procedures in place to ensure that we ask the normal questions in response to changed situations.  There’s a hierarchy involved.”

“I didn’t know they were normal questions.  I’ll make sure to ask next time.  But what do we do about the machine?”

Ten frowned and watched the amber lights flash faster and faster.  “Has the whistling stopped?”

“I believe so.  There was no mention of whistling after the beginning of my conversation with the operator.”

“That’s good.  It’s normal for there not to be whistling.  We may be able to fix this yet.”

“That’s good.  I didn’t know if we were going to be able to fix it.”

“It is good.  It’s very important to fix it.”

“I agree.  What do I do?  Or what do I tell the operator to do?”

“Does the operator have a broken toe?”

“I believe so.”

“Do you have a broken toe?”

“Let me check.”  The voice checked their toes.  It took several seconds, which was understandable.  The voice could have any number of toes to check, really, but normally it was a non-trivial number.  “My toes appear to be normal.”

“That’s normal.  What I understand is that the machine is out of whistle fuel.  Someone is going to have to climb inside the machine and fill the whistle fuel back up so that it can begin whistling again.  Then it will whistle, the amber lights will stop blinking, it will whistle again, there will be a click, the gears will stop, it will whistle again, there will be another click, the gears will start like a clock, it will whistle again, the lights will turn green, and then it will whistle a final time.  The final whistle is the indication that everything is normal, and that the important work is once again getting done.”

“So I should call the operator back and tell him to climb inside the machine and fill the whistle fuel.”

Ten shook their head sadly.  “Unfortunately, the operator is not normal.  They have a broken toe.  You are going to have to climb into the machine and fill the whistle fuel and then call the operator to let them know that everything is normal.”

Ten hung up the phone.  Somewhere far away, on an entirely different level of the machine, the person who answers the emergency phone was climbing into the machine to fill the whistle fuel.  Ten had no idea how far away this was happening.  The machine went on for miles and miles.  Some said it had no end.  But Ten thought they could hear distant screaming, and a few seconds later, the whistle played once more.

Soon, everything was back to normal, and all of the important work was once again getting done.  Ten sat back down, sighed contentedly, put the manual away, and went back to watching the monitors.  Their toe still hurt terribly, but their stomach felt much better.  Blood was dripping from the ceiling.  they had been trained to ignore that.

As you can see, the system always works.  Even in the most extreme of circumstances.