Shift Change

By Brad Center

The elevator door opened, and Felix, Marie, and Seymour walked into the Control Room.  They looked around to find the room bustling with activity as the last shift completed their final duties.  At the controls were Milton, Henry, and Randolph.  They finished their final checks and recorded the last readouts from the Perception and Conviction display screens high atop the Control Room floor.

(Illustration by Marie Ginga based on image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay)

Hearing the new team enter the Control Room, Henry looked back over his shoulder.  He looked up from the hand-held device he was holding.  “Welcome!  We’ll be done shortly.  Have a seat over there,” he said, motioning to the chairs in the rear of the room.  “Make yourselves comfortable.  There are doughnuts in the corner if you want something to eat.  Milton and I have a bit of a sweet tooth, so we indulge.  Randolph, well, not so much.”  He said the last bit, looking over his shoulder with a wry smile at Randolph.  Randolph, busy at his control station, looked up briefly and nodded.

Felix, Marie and Seymour sat down as instructed and watched closely.  None of them even looked at the doughnuts.  They were rather serious types and considered the doughnuts a frivolous non-nutritional waste.  They were representatives of Science in its purest form and did not indulge in frivolous behavior.  It was just not who they were as individuals or as a group.

The Control Room was not anywhere or anywhen in particular.  It existed, but not in any way that was comprehensible to humans.  Down on earth, time moved forward in a predictable pattern, but in the Control Room, time had little meaning.  At this moment, as humans measured time, it was the middle of the 20th century; and at this moment in human history, science was the modern elixir of prosperity, happiness, and security.  It was the age of nuclear power, relativity theory, jet engines, antibiotics, quantum mechanics, radio, and television.  The personal computer, the internet, smart phones, artificial intelligence, robotics and genetic engineering were still on the horizon, but their appearance on the scientific stage would only cement the devout, energetic, and all-encompassing belief in the wonders of science.

Such a belief was catalogued and noted by The Management.  They saw the shift, for it was their duty to do so, and promptly dispatched a new crew to the Control Room—in this case the team of Felix, Marie and Seymour.  This was not the first such change to come to the Control Room.  No, there had been many, and perhaps more to come.  Felix, Marie and Seymour were the physical embodiment of the modern scientific age.  They were professional, smart, detail-oriented, no-nonsense individuals who believed in the scientific method as others had once believed in ancient religious texts.  They would take the controls from Milton, Henry, and Randolph who had been on duty for the last two hundred years or so—ever since the beginning of the Industrial Age monitoring all earthly activity.  It was their job not only to monitor all activity, but to actively foster and encourage a belief in industry and commerce as the preeminent belief system around the world.  They accomplished this feat through continuous and subtle manipulations to earthly events that resulted in the growth of industry and commerce and the recognition of these benefits by humans across the globe

Not long ago, as humans measure time, they had arranged for a shopkeeper to prominently display a set of pocket watches in his storefront window.  They arranged this knowing that a young man would pass such a display and likely purchase a pocket watch for his son.  This boy would then dismantle and reassemble the timepiece repeatedly as he grew into adulthood.  In doing so, he would gain an appreciation for engineering and precision.  Eventually he would develop and install the first moving assembly line.  That boy was Henry Ford.

It was not that they could see into the future, but they could, with the help of the algorithms built into the Control Room, see possibilities.  Some of their manipulations came to nothing, but others moved mankind towards a conviction that industry and commerce were the foundations of the “good life.”  Milton, Henry, and Randolph used the Perception and Conviction displays in the Control Room to monitor and measure the strength of this belief at any given time.

But human beings are fickle beasts and no single belief system rules forever.  Certainly, there are True Believers, whose belief never wavers, and who are the standard bearers for their faith.  Religions, for example, have long lives, but they do not necessarily control the outcome of human events throughout every eon.  There was a period in human history where religion was the dominant belief system, and a team was dispatched to the Control Room to monitor and foster religious beliefs.  But that time had long since passed.

Management was diligent, and when the Perception and Conviction displays indicated that a belief system had waned sufficiently, a new team was dispatched in time to help foster the new belief system.  Management knew that humans needed to believe in something.  The absence in a belief system made humans anxious and uncomfortable.  They were like small children separated from their parents at a county fair.  Keep them separated for too long, and those feelings of discomfort would turn to fear and desperation, and then all sorts of bad things could happen.  It was best to keep them placated through these belief systems.  Of course, The Management had to be careful because if the belief in any particular system spiked too high, then humans lost the ability to act rationally.  This occurred from time to time and with disastrous consequences.  Therefore, the Perception and Conviction displays had to be monitored extremely carefully.

Henry and his team completed their final checks and stood up.  “Time for us to move on,” he said.  “You will need to calibrate the displays to the specific belief system you will be monitoring, but I gather you know that.”

Felix, Marie, and Seymour nodded in unison.  Management had briefed them appropriately.  “We are ready to begin our watch,” Marie said matter-of-factly.

“OK then, we will get out of your hair.  Oh, before I forget, you may want to keep an eye on the whole nuclear issue.  The humans are very into it right now, but we don’t want them blowing themselves up—at least I don’t think we want that to happen.  You never can tell what Management really wants.  We just do what we are told.  Right?”  He smiled, looked up, and shrugged his shoulders in a combined movement that gave him a somewhat impish quality.

“We appreciate that,” responded Seymour without much emotion.

It was like receiving a poorly written greeting card from a distant cousin, thought Henry.  It was meant to convey some emotion but fell as flat as a pancake.  As representatives of the scientific method, Seymour, Marie, and Felix were not unfeeling, but were unaccustomed to expressing feelings in such a public manner.

Seymour continued, “We were asked to convey our appreciation for your service.  You’ve done a splendid job these last couple of centuries.”

“Well, we’ve had a good run.  Not as long as some, but a good run nevertheless,” said Randolph.   Milton, Henry, and Randolph then picked up their belongings, shook hands with the new team, got into the elevator and ascended.  Their shift had ended.

“Well gentleman,” said Marie, “shall we get down to business?” While there was no official leader amongst the three, Marie was the most natural in a command role, and Felix and Seymour had no complaints following her lead.

“Seymour, can you see what we have on a young boy named Craig Venter?  The read-outs I am looking at suggest, interestingly enough, that getting him drafted into the army and sent to Vietnam will lead to an active interest in medicine.  If we push ever so gently this could bear fruit in human genome mapping down the road.”

“I’ll get right on that, Marie.”

“Felix, can you look into alternative energy sources we can promote?  Henry was right, we don’t want them blowing themselves up, at least not on our watch.”

“Already on it.”

The team settled down to their various tasks and watched as their actions began to influence human events, and time passed.  The Perception and Conviction displays reflected their impact by slowly climbing.  When Marie and her team took over from the Industry and Commerce Team, the charts were already on the rise, but now their subtle manipulations began to have a noticeable impact in the human belief in science.  It was gratifying work for the team.

“Marie, do you have a minute to look over this read-out?” asked Seymour.  Marie bent over Seymour’s shoulder and looked at the display.  “I see what the issue is.  You just need to make sure Neil de Grasse Tyson goes to Cornell.  There he should meet Carl Sagan and that should keep him on the path we want for him.”

“OK, I see what you mean.  That should do it.  While I have your attention, I’ve been meaning to ask you about something Henry and his team mentioned before they left the Control Room.”

“What’s that?” asked Marie.

“When Henry was leaving he said that their run had not been as long as some others.  Do you remember him saying that?”

“Yes, I recall.  So, what?”

“Well, I don’t mean to sound stupid, but what exactly did he mean by that?”

“Did you fall asleep during the orientation briefings, Seymour?” Marie asked, a little exasperated.

“No, well not exactly, but lectures always bore me.  You know that.  I guess my mind wandered a bit.”

“You know that we are here for as long as science and the scientific method are the leading belief system down on earth, right?”

“Sure, but how far back does Management’s influence go?”

“Ah, well, that goes back pretty far—pretty much back to the time of recorded history.  In early times, we were considered gods, although they did not know us by name, but rather by what we represented.  If my memory serves me correctly, and I think it does, the first to operate the Control Room were the Gods of the Elements—fire, water, earth, air.  Again, they were just like us, and so calling any of us ‘gods’ is a bit of a stretch, but you get the point.  After that Religion took hold as the dominant belief system.  Religion held humanity’s imagination for a long time, and that team had a long shift in the Control Room.  After that, came the era of Conquest.  A very bloody time indeed.  Is any of this ringing a bell, Seymour?”

“Yes, but go on.”

“Well, there is not much more to tell.  As humans’ lust for conquest diminished, they yearned to explore their world, so the Control Room was operated by our Exploration team.  Those were fascinating years.  As the external world became better understood, eventually man turned inward, and the Age of Enlightenment held sway over humanity, and our team reflected that change here in the Control Room.  Those guys actually referred to themselves as the ‘Gods of Enlightenment.’  I will admit it has a certain cachet to it.  Don’t you think?  Eventually, that led to our friends Milton, Henry, and Randolph and the era of Industry and Commerce.  In each instance, our teams did their job and fostered the belief system they had were assigned—as will we.  We are the keepers, the protectors, the guardians, and promoters of Science and the Scientific Method.  Does that get you up to speed?”

Seymour nodded.  “You tell it much more succinctly then they did during orientation.  I think they spent a whole day on that.”

“How would you know?  You were day-dreaming,” laughed Marie.

“Well, I, ah, ah, . . .”

“Never mind,” said Marie.  “Now that you better understand the historical context, let’s get back to work.”

The team worked, and as they did the belief in science continued to grow.  Time passed down on Earth.  The team was deft and precise in their manipulations.  Certain scientific discoveries led to the rise in mass communications, which was only natural.  But then Marie, Felix and even Seymour noticed some irregularities in the Perception and Conviction displays.

They tried to fine tune their adjustments, but to no avail.  With the advent of mass communication, humans started to build global networks and eventually social media was on the rise.  The pace of change was quickening, almost exponentially.  The Perception and Conviction displays began to register a surge in what could be called the “Cult of Personality.”  They were not allowed to take actions against this shift but were only allowed to foster a belief in their own cause of science.

Marie finally turned to Felix and Seymour, “Gentlemen, we have done some great work, but these humans are a fickle bunch and I believe that science as the ruling belief system is beginning to fade.  Far too quickly in my opinion, but there it is.”

“They do seem to be inclined towards this Age of the Individual and Personal Popularity.  I think it is ridiculous,” said Felix.  They all nodded soberly.

Eventually, Marie spoke for all of them, “We have done all we can do.  Our time has not been long here in the Control Room, but I think we can all see how this is going to play out.”

She paused, looking down at her tablet display, “In point of fact, I just received a communication from Management, another team is on its way.  Our time is coming to end.  God help them.”

This story first appeared in a collection of short stories called Blurring the Lines, 2018.
Edited by Marie Ginga

Brad Center was born and raised in Philadelphia, and now lives just outside Washington, DC in Fairfax Virginia. By profession, he is a partner in a small consulting business.  As a writer, he has had poems published in small press publications like Dream International Quarterly.  His speculative fiction short stories have appeared in on-line magazines like The New Accelerator.  His book of short stories entitled Blurring the Lines is a mix of horror and speculative fiction.