Later they would refer to the era as the “golden age of free-dried meals,” but to those who worked then and there, it was more of a gold rush: higher salaries, more benefits, longer lunches, and relaxed rules because the industry was both new and thriving.
Mr. Lacigol arrived at the plant early, of course. He surveyed the “big board” that showed them the progress of each of the four million meals it produced a day, in their different flavors:
He did not wonder if people knew that the ingredients in all four were identical, just arranged in a different order, much like the words of an administrative state regulation, all six major news stories on any given event, every “Dear John” letter ever written, and the holy books of three religions.
Lacigol acted with purpose only and saw his role there as keeping the machines running. It was not his place nor profitable to question the meals produced there that he would avoid if offered in a social setting. His goal was to keep the money machine churning, and thus, his paycheck moving toward his mailbox.
He was joined by his colleagues Mr. Detirips and Mr. Laicos, both of whom intended to work on a problem that they had noticed yesterday in one of the Excel spreadsheets. The sausage press — a two-hundred ton capable industrial machine which turned meat product into “sausage” — had been running warm, and there was a slightly hire rejection rate at the bacterial test center which ensured that none of their products would cause large enough public health crises to be noticed by the media or regulators.
The other two arrived at the machine as Mr. Laicos was talking to the press worker. “So how does it work?” he asked.
“Easy,” said the guy, laughing. “I open the valve and the meat slurry goes in right over there. Then, I seal the valve, and twist this thing to lock in the base of the container, then hit the buttom and the press pounds it flat, then I sent it down the line.”
Mr. Lacigol had been reading the operations manual. “Do you set the sealing lid?”
“No, dawg, that takes too long,” said the worker. “I just fire and forget. It gets used immediately anyway.”
Mr. Detirips recognized immediately the problem: the heat of the press would warm up the sausage just enough for a bacterial outbreak before it got used in the cutting and baking part of the plant an hour later.
“I think we need that lid on it,” he said. “It keeps the bacteria out.”
“Heck no,” said the worker. “That’ll cut into my time. I hit the button and cruise my phone while I wait.”
Mr. Laicos started making the case that maybe there was a way to do both, while Mr. Lacigol got on the phone to corporate, which told him that he had no authority there. Mr. Detirips seemed to be surveying the press while Mr. Lacigol tried another phone number.
The worker, however, would not budge. “Man, it’s all the time I get,” he said. “Without my phone, this job would have nothing for me, know what I mean?”
Mr. Laicos seemed at a loss for words, as did Mr. Lacigol. “I think I see the problem,” said Mr. Detirips. “It’s not the lid at all. It’s this locking chain right in there,” he said, making a complicated gesture with this hand.
“Where?” said the worker.
“Right in there,” Detirips pointed. He skimmed the side of the machine with his hand, coming away with a glob of congealed grease and meat product. The worker bent forward to inspect the depths of the machine, and Mr. Detirips suddenly flung the grease blob at the feet of Mr. Laicos, who stepped backward, stumbling into the console and putting out his hand to steady him. Something clicked and the machine started up.
“What was that?” asked Mr. Lacigol. “My shoes!” said Mr. Laicos. On the other hand, Mr. Detirips just smiled and walked away.
The machine made another noise and opened up. Mr. Laicos emitted a thin shrill scream at what he saw inside. The worker who had been speaking to them had apparently been in the machine when Mr. Laicos had stumbled backward and engaged the button. Two hundred tons of pressure had come down on him from above, and now he resembled the sausage.
Mr. Lacigol got on the phone to corporate again. They would need a replacement for this worker, and this time he would oversee the training himself.