An Ounce of Prevention
Michael Ernst



Flats or heels? Melissa stood, hands on her hips, and looked into her closet. Today would be her first day at a new job, so she wanted to look good, but they had seemed pretty casual when she'd interviewed last week, but on the other hand (or was this the first one again?) it was better to be overdressed than underdressed, which was in turn better than undressed, which she was now, and she had to leave very soon. Melissa shook her head to clear the nonsense, added a pair of low heels to the outfit she'd chosen the night before, and rapidly completed her toilet. She was on the road in twenty minutes; half an hour after that she reported to the personnel office of the McCarthy Research Institute. By the time she had completed a pile of paperwork, signed a nondisclosure agreement, heard lectures about her benefits and the importance of safety and the amount of time she was permitted to spend in the bathroom, been perfunctorily poked by bored doctors while describing her childhood diseases and inoculations, received a badge featuring her bug-eyed picture, and found her way to the building where she would be working, it seemed like days had passed. Mr. Hutchins ("call me Frank") took her to lunch at the company cafeteria. All of the food looked like plastic; Melissa finally decided on a garden salad, which, she surmised, couldn't be ruined too badly.

After they'd taken their seats, her boss spoke affably around bites of a Super Combination Burrito. Melissa tried to keep her eyes off the burrito and on his face, but her eyes kept straying back to it as to the scene of a terrible accident. "I assume you've already run the personnel gauntlet this morning." Tempted to roll her eyes, Melissa permitted herself a nod and a small smile. "Did the bald guy with the tufts of hair sticking out of his ears tell you all about our swell insurance plan?"

"No, it was a woman."

"Ah, the Dragon Lady. Stocky, severe-looking, flinty eyes, always wears a suit she bought in 1953." Melissa nodded. "They say she smiled once, but that was before I started working here." Melissa tried to remember whether his yellow badge indicated between five and ten years of tenure or between ten and fifteen. Her own was a gaudy green which didn't go with her outfit at all.

"Do you have any questions about McCarthy, or about the NDE group in particular? Last week I was so busy finding out how fast you could type and whether you knew the difference between a mouse and a rat, and which is which, that I didn't have much time to fill you in on other details." Melissa asked apologetically, "What exactly does your group do?" She threw out one of the few academic-sounding terms she knew. "Is it pure research?"

Frank shook his head. "No, I don't think you could say that. It's about 80 percent research, and 20 percent playing practical jokes on one another." Melissa smiled wanly in response to his self-satisfied smirk and thought that, unpleasant as her last job had been, perhaps it had been a bad idea to resign with such finality. Fortunately, Frank's style settled down once he'd started talking; with an indulgent smile he left off his attack on the burrito and did his best to explain his group's raison d'Étre. Meanwhile, the grease pooled at one end of the oblong dish. Melissa tried to pay attention to what he was saying instead of wondering how long it would take the runoff to congeal and whether, if one were to pick up the burrito afterward, the solidified fat would stick to it like a waxy base.

"NDE stands for Non-Destructive Evaluation; we investigate ways to test substances and devices without damaging them. A lot of tests are like striking a match to evaluate it. Sure, you find out whether the match was good, but it is worthless afterward, and that experiment tells you nothing -- except in a statistical sense -- about other matches." Frank explained that this method wasn't good enough for their customers. Melissa nodded attentively at breaks in the monologue and decided that eating her salad would take her mind off Frank's food. She was wrong. Frank went on to discuss the NDE philosophy in greater detail (Melissa slipped her feet out of her shoes, wished she'd chosen the flats after all, and thought about what she would wear the next day; she owned so little clothing that went with green) and to stress that although their testing was non-destructive, they did work with some dangerous materials and that safety concerns were of paramount importance. Melissa solemnly agreed and wondered where on earth he'd gotten that tacky tie. He went on about his group's fine record of safety and the elaborate precautions that were standard practice. His earnest sincerity about these safeguards was a strong contrast to the ennui of the morning lecturers, whose soporific delivery of rote material had left her with a sluggish feeling, as if she'd had a bad night's sleep. Frank seemed like a nice guy, even if he was a little out of it and had a sadly stunted sense of humor which brought to mind a plant left too long without sunlight. He was by turns sensitive to those around him -- he was attentive enough when he stopped talking long enough to ask Melissa a question -- and wrapped up in technical concerns. A typical engineer.

Eventually he outlined Melissa's duties. Her primary objective -- he made it sound like a hill about to be assaulted by a company of Marines -- was to run interference with the bureaucracy so that he could do "real work." She was relieved that she was not expected to fetch coffee or make eleventh-hour telephone calls to locate a baby-sitter. Sick of running her last boss's errands, she had begun to encourage tradesmen's frequent misconception that she was his mistress. "Are these the shirts that Brian's wife dropped off or that I did?" she would ask the young man at the dry cleaner's. "It wouldn't do to mix them up," she'd add with a lascivious wink, then saunter out, hips swaying. The rumor didn't get back to her boss's wife before she quit, but she hoped it did afterward. She smiled, and Frank thought that she was responding to his feeble joke about keeping a capacitor from charging by taking away its credit cards. He had finished his burrito, and the pool of discolored, oily fat had disappeared as well. Frank remarked on her half-eaten salad, but Melissa said she wasn't very hungry.

"Don't worry overmuch about your productivity at first," Frank said as they walked back. "Just get the feel of the place and meet the people. I'll ask the group members to introduce themselves and to make you feel at home." He muttered something about a test that afternoon, and Melissa imagined a room full of managers in shirtsleeves and pocket protectors seated at wooden desks, brows furrowed and tongues sticking out of the corners of their mouths as they filled out bubble forms with their #2 pencils.

Frank pointed out Melissa's desk, which sat bare and forlorn in a fence of waist-high partition walls like an empty doghouse in an abandoned backyard. Frank's office was just the opposite. Papers were piled on every surface except the chair, computer keyboard, and cappuccino machine. Books lay propped open under half-full coffee mugs, boxes made the entrance nearly impossible to negotiate, and Post-It notes wallpapered the area near his desk. Melissa instinctively recoiled. "Don't worry," he assured her, "I'll never ask you to search through here. Besides, if you were to try, you'd probably mess the place up so that I couldn't find anything."

Melissa spent the next few hours raiding the supply room, organizing her desk, acquainting herself with the computer, and meeting people who came by to welcome her. The phone rang rarely, and Frank was out somewhere, so she figured it was okay to just sit and read about policies and procedures, computer programs, requisition protocols, company picnics, executive perquisites, and parking permits. Whenever she leaned back to take a break, her eyes were caught by a ludicrous poster of a rabbit with a shocking pink Band-Aid on one of its ears. Frank had pinned it up in the hallway, and its legend read, "Only A Dumb Bunny Thinks Safety Is A Matter Of Luck. Make '91 A Safer One. MRI."

Around mid-afternoon, when she was poring over a manual which, on first glance, had appeared to be written in English, she noticed a lanky red- haired fellow leaning against the low wall of her cubicle; he was staring appreciatively down her blouse. He obviously approved of her Maidenform's delicate scalloped edging of sheer patterned lace, but had he noticed the satin center bow and the exquisite faux pearl detailing? Did he realize that its comfortable-yet-firm support was perfect for every day? Melissa straightened and offered a hello.

He raised his eyes to hers. "Hi. I'm Josh McCarthy," he said with an excessively friendly smile, offering his hand to be shaken. At least he had a firm grip. "No relation, or I wouldn't have to work for a living. You must be Melissa Sweedler." He reads well, thought Melissa, but then checked the uncharitable thought. Perhaps she ought to give him more credit: while he had been looking straight at the name badge dangling from her blouse pocket, he probably hadn't even noticed it. "Welcome aboard; are you getting settled in all right?"

"Well enough, except for having to read these manuals." Melissa gestured wearily at a heap of documentation whose covers proclaimed in bold letters their ease of use. "I think it's hopeless to try to squeeze myself into the mind of a technical writer; it's too cramped a fit." Josh frowned. "I'm a technical writer myself -- that one's mine." He pointed to one of the books in the pile, and Melissa blushed. Just when she was starting to get comfortable with these people, she had to put her foot in her mouth, which was particularly painful with heels. He rushed on. "Maybe I could help you get in the right frame of mind later. Over lunch tomorrow, maybe? For now, however, you should take a break. Would you like to experience an explosion?"

"An explosion?"

Josh nodded, then contradicted himself. "We're testing a blast containment system, and if it works -- which it will -- there won't be anything to see. But it's a good excuse to take a break and get outside. It's a beautiful day out," he added. It was indeed a lovely, cloudless day: when she'd searched for this building, a cool breeze had ruffled the trees' leaves with a gentle rustling and the promise of a delightful evening. Melissa was tempted, but she hesitated to leave her post. Josh looked puzzled and continued, "The whole group will be there, so there's no particular reason for you to stay here. Frank said he had invited you to watch."

They walked out past the senior secretary, a timid-looking old creature with short white hair, wide startled eyes, lips in a perpetual moue beneath a downy moustache, and tacky pink earrings. She declined to come along but agreed to answer Melissa's phone if it rang. "I've seen enough of these boys' pranks; I don't need that kind of excitement."

When she shook her head, her ears waggled, and she looked exactly like the bunny in the poster. Josh didn't seem too disappointed that she wasn't accompanying them.

"I thought this was the Non-Destructive Evaluation group," Melissa said as they emerged from the building. "Why are you setting off an explosion?"

"One of our projects is the validation of blasting caps; the dangerously unstable ones are kept in a big steel box, and we're verifying that it's strong enough to be trusted." The weather was as pleasant as it had been before, and while the day was sunny, it wasn't uncomfortably hot this early in the summer. "The caps are detonated electrically, and we test them by running just a trickle of current through them." Josh went on about knees in characteristic curves and criteria for discarding bad caps; Melissa wished she was reading one of the relatively clear manuals instead. She looked appreciatively at the grounds, which were like a campus with their scattered buildings and grassy lawns, and wondered how many people were employed full-time just tending the greenery.

"If the robot arm detects a bad cap, it drops it in a glorified safe. The safe has a capacity of one hundred caps, and it has been rated as capable of withstanding considerably more powerful blasts; our group has certified the plans as well, and in fact Frank had a hand in the design. We're paranoid -- well, Frank is -- so we're testing the safe ourselves, just to be sure. It's a waste of time and money, if you ask me, but no one does."

Melissa made a noncommittal noise, and as they walked along Josh continued to chatter, periodically bobbing forward to catch her eye, which made Melissa feel obliged to nod at whatever he was saying at the time. She warded off his questions about where she lived and what she did on weekends. After what must have been only a few minutes, Josh pointed out, off to their right, an enormous wheel and rubber tire. It was mounted over an even larger metal drum which resembled the wheel of an asphalt roller on steroids; more machinery poked at unlikely angles from a gantry. "To test landing gear, we rev the drum up to five revolutions per second and then slam the wheel against it, to simulate a plane landing at 200 miles per hour. You can hear the reverberations a mile away. We repeat it until the landing gear breaks." Melissa began to realize that to these university-educated engineers, "non-destructive" meant something very different than it did to her.

At her look -- she hadn't realized her reaction was so transparent - - Josh held his hands up in mock-defense. "Yes, I know it's not exactly non-destructive. But it's not destructive to the airplane, and besides, we have lots of extra landing gears. For some reason, our clients find it more convenient to send us dozens of whatever we need than to ask us how many we want and just ship that many. We end up having to store piles of the stuff." Melissa nodded; while Frank's office was by far the worst offender, she'd noticed crates and boxes scattered through the hallways and piled in unused offices, and one of her new keys -- her key ring now resembled a mace -- was to their warehouse.

Soon they reached the test site, where a number of people were engaged in animated conversation outside a low, bunker-like concrete building. Frank was conferring with someone from Facilities, but when he had finished, he walked over briskly. "Melissa! I'm so glad that Josh brought you along. I would have myself, but I've been here for hours and you would have been bored. Have you met everyone?" He made introductions, chided the onlookers for turning a scientific experiment into a spectator sport, and went off to quadruple-check the arrangements. Melissa chatted idly with the cluster of people while wire was strung from the shelter to a field where the safe sat, looking like a child's toy at that distance.

Melissa was handed a blasting cap: a dud, Josh assured her, if its current-voltage curve was to be believed, but he warned her not to drop it just the same. It seemed remarkably light -- about an ounce, her postage-meter-trained fingers gauged -- to be causing such a stir. "It's an experimental type that is more powerful than older caps and so able to detonate more dynamite," someone said.

Shortly Frank shooed them all inside, where they gathered at the tiny, shielded windows. "I give you an hour off work, and act like a bunch of kids at the circus," he said in mock exasperation. He activated the detonator and continued without pause, "There's nothing to see." He was cut off by a tremendous roar. The safe was tossed into the air and a hole appeared in its side. Then dirt occluded the view from the shelter, and the group remembered to take a collective breath. After the dust had settled down, Frank led the way outside. Debris was scattered all around; some pieces of shrapnel had nearly reached the bunker. The safe, its thick metal sides bent and torn, was lying half a dozen paces from a deep new crater. Frank shook his head and kicked at a clod of dirt. "They certified this safe." Melissa thought about telling the Dragon Lady she'd changed her mind and would buy some insurance after all.

The failure of the safe did little to dampen the onlookers' spirits -- in fact, most of them found it hilarious. They talked and laughed on the walk back to their building, and Melissa became increasingly comfortable with them; she didn't even mind Josh's continued flirting. Well, not too much. She decided that she was going to like this job after all. When they went inside, they received grins and questions about what they'd been doing. "That was even louder than the landing gear," said those who hadn't come along.

Frank was an exception to the general mirth. He seemed disappointed and somewhat preoccupied. When the group members had returned to their offices, he paused at Melissa's desk. "Melissa, I'd like you to take a memo to Facilities." He glanced at his watch, hardly noticing her poised pencil. "You probably have just enough time to walk it downstairs before they close for the day. Ask them to take away, first thing tomorrow morning, the two thousand extra blasting caps I've been storing in my office."


Michael Ernst (mernst@theory.lcs.mit.edu) is a graduate student in computer science at MIT. He knows the difference between Trinidad and Tobago, and which is which. (Bio last updated in 1991.)

InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 1, Number 4 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1991 Michael Ernst.