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Science Fiction Speculative Happy

Josh Einsley stood on the basement’s concrete floor as he adjusted flow rates on the control board for the Switzer Universal Toner System while Jinjo checked the tank. “Ah, there. The microbes just needed a little more protein.”

“Yep. She’s runnin’ good now, boss.”

This system was the best for generating pure toner for six of his 3-D printers upstairs. It was pretty good for the other 16. Josh looked up at the ceiling. All the feeder lines running up to the first floor were clean. No leaks. But with two printers down and three getting creaky, he was more worried than he let on.

This system was worth every single one of the copies of the 459 CADs he swapped for it three months ago. He heard it was now going for over 2,000 distinct advanced CADs on the tech market.

He patted the board and walked up the creaky stairs of the old warehouse he shared with 5 other maker businesses. In exchange for favors, he let each tap into his toner system. Good, but not good enough to sustain a business after the currency economy had died last year.

Josh sat down in the six-foot square office he had carved out of the first floor when he’d opened his printer shop. A bare-bones office. No papers piled up. No pictures on the wall. Just an office chair, a large table with six monitors positioned towards the chair, and a keyboard.

He opened his CAD-building program and began tweaking CADs for the last Toolbuilder printer he had acquired. Two months old and already obsolete. He shook his head. At least the local contractors still came in regularly to build specialized precision tools on it.

“There. Good.” He had optimized the CADs performance to his satisfaction.

He updated the drivers for the Toolbuilder and ran a virtual test. Should be working good now.

Time for a short respite. He turned on Musico, his favorite app for old-time rock music. “I need cheering up. Let’s try the Stones.”  

The beginning of this particular song always amused him. It led off with, of all things, a boys’ choir. When they sang, “No, you can’t always get what you want,” Josh replied softly, “Ain’t it the truth.”

While the song played, Josh pondered the nature of CAD inflation. It seemed to be proceeding apace, even speeding up. He shook his head and scowled. The song was not cheering him up.

He went into his spreadsheet and adjusted some figures, assuming inflation would continue for at least another month. Yes. Dammit. To get the latest Sondegaard printer he had his heart set on, the printer that would set his shop apart from all others, he had to gather and copy over a thousand unique Computer Aided Designs for the swap.

Most of the CADs in his shop’s collection had become far too common to attract a trade. Techs would disdain them. The Sondegaards wouldn’t even bother scanning them.

He could just imagine: “Nope, sorry.” And the affected yawn. This has happened too many times to him already in the past month.

Josh stopped typing and listened. Mick had just gotten to the third verse, the one where he tells of his famous encounter at the Chelsea Drugstore with the mysterious Mister Jimmy. Josh started singing along. This part always made him smile.

His dad told him a story years ago about how the Rolling Stones came up with that verse in Minnesota after a performance at the old Excelsior Amusement Park. The park was long gone before Josh was born. Mick supposedly met the real-life Mister Jimmy at the Excelsior, not Chelsea, Drugstore on the west side of Lake Minnetonka near the park. And the two men had ordered cherry soft drinks. And Mister Jimmy had not liked Mick’s song.

He laughed at the memory. Ya sure, Dad. Yoobetcha. But. Maybe it was true. Josh had never been sure about Dad’s stories.

He tapped on the floor security monitor. It showed the control board on the north side of the floor. Jinjo was adjusting the flow rate to one of the printers. Josh watched as he tapped in SET and then ON. Simple. A kid could do it. But Jinjo had skills. He knew when equipment got balky and what to do about it. He was worth all the CADs Josh paid him. He turned off the monitor.

Then he frowned as he tapped on his tablet’s screen to his Needed Work app. Damn. The building maintenance and repair guys were asking for too many CADs nowadays for their services. He shook his head and mumbled, “I need to do more swapping. Like yesterday.”

He smiled ruefully. He mumbled the words, “Nowadays. Things going to hell.” He shook his head. “My does time fly when tech accelerates.” He almost yearned for the good old days—way back when. As in, way back sometime last year.

He looked up when he heard the door squeak open. Kaig, the floor manager, stuck in his head. “You’ve got business up front, boss.”

The young man was smiling—very crookedly. His pencil-thin moustache seems to ride up the right side of his face all the way up to his ear. He winked.

Josh scowled “Okay, Kaig. What’s up?”

“You’ll see.” He laughed, opened the door wide, and bounded back out to the floor.

Josh grumbled to himself while saving his work. He closed files, Musico, and tablet and followed Kaig out onto the floor. Everything seemed normal. It looked like about six customers were running their CADs on several different 3-D printers. They were all bundled up for today’s classic, damn cold, Minnesota December day.

Six customers. He put on a pretend smile. Good. But not good enough.

An old contractor in bedraggled parka and boots already had a nice assortment of shiny new tools piled on the table next to the metal printer. A young man, probably his assistant, more likely his son, was fingering the crescent wrench. Yes. Maybe they traded him another three or four hundred CADs for use of the printer. He’d check later with Corey. Corey was a good haggler. Maybe some of the customers offered a few of the latest high-tech ones. Maybe.

Who knows? He smiled at the man who hefted the wrench, who waved it and saluted in return.

Jinjo and Corey were checking out the three printers, the balky ones, the ones Josh planned to have techs fix—if he could lay hands on the required CADs. But if he could afford replacements, these old printers would go as scrap straight to the toner vat. Truly outdated. Last year’s models.

Corey was as adept at maintenance as Jinjo and Kaig. They worked for every copy of every CAD Josh’s business could gather. How long would they continue to work for him? He was sure there were plenty of other small businesses, ones that were far better than him at raking in the CADs, ones that would be happy to pick up three more skilled assistants.

He looked out through the tough, plexal glass covering the east and south walls. He’d gotten it printed at, of all places, a sheet metal shop. It was hell to install, but it let in a lot of light, kept out most of the cold, and showed passersby that Einsley’s was a true printer shop. Well worth the hassle and the CADs.

He was barely able to see the half-plowed snow in the tiny parking lot through the frost. The sun’s glare was almost blinding. More CAD inflation, he grumbled silently. The local guy with the snowblower told him this morning he wanted ten more advanced CADs to finish the job. Damn.

“In front of the counter, boss,” Kaig said.

There they were, a boy and girl, both just barely old enough to start virtual schooling, he guessed. No wonder he missed them. They were too short to see from behind the counter. Both were as blond as blond could be, round chubby faces, a pair of living, breathing stereotypes, Norwegian Minnesotans bred to the bone.

“What the he-- heck?”

Kaig nodded towards the corner near the entrance. Just below the sign painted on the outside of the pane of plexel. “Einsley’s Printer Shop,” could be seen vaguely in reverse through the frost.

There she was—a true beauty. Her blond hair pulled back tightly in what Josh’s sister called a French fishtail. She was wearing huge, dark sunglasses. Probably because of snow glare. She was tapping on her tablet. She looked up, smiled briefly and nodded at him, and then went back to work.

“The mother?”

“Yup.”

Josh nodded and walked back to the counter. He looked down at the children.

The girl spoke up. “We’d like to print some toys. Uh, please, Mister?” The boy nodded and giggled.

“I’m the owner, Josh Einsley.” He smiled at them, feeling a bit silly. “What are your names?”

The girl answered. “I’m Clarissa Sondegaard. My brother is Brandon Sondegaard. I’m seven and he’s six.”

“Almost six and a half!” Brandon grinned up at Josh.

Josh opened his mouth, and then the name registered. Sondegaard? He gained some control and answered, “Right. Well, umm, let’s see what you’ve got to trade.”

The children fished in their jacket pockets and drew out identical flash drives. Josh took them and inserted Brandon’s into his reader. He set it on Read and Register. It registered only 8 CADs. A pittance, compared to that of his adult customers who would bring in hundreds. Clarissa’s drive held 17.

“Well—”

Brandon tapped his foot. “I know we don’t got much…”

“Don’t have much,” his sister corrected him. She looked up at Josh with wide eyes.

Josh felt awful. How could he turn down such cute kids. Then he got an idea. “Wait a second. Have the two of you ever considered trading with each other?”

Clarissa asked, “What? We can do that? We got CADs to print toys from Mom and Dad. I got some from my friends. But we didn’t trade—" Clarissa looked at her brother in confusion. He looked back. Neither of them had a clue as to how swapping worked. Just that you printed stuff with flash drives.

“Sure. If you want, you can use this register for free.”

They both nodded at Josh. Very tentatively.

“That’s the thing with CADs, you know. Computer Aided Designs. You can copy them over to as many flash drives as you want.” The girl nodded. The boy still looked puzzled.

“So, all you have to do is trade with each other for any copies of CADs you don’t have, but the other has. You keep collecting them. The neat thing is, when you trade them, you also get to keep them. Over time, you’ll have a lot of them. And you can print the designs the CADs specify at any time.”

“Wow!” The kids grinned.

“Let’s do it!” the boy said.

Josh looked up and saw Kaig holding his hand over his mouth. He was damned close to laughing out loud. Josh frowned and shook his head slightly. Kaig grinned and nodded. He made the zipping the lips motion with his index finger and pointed to himself.

Two of the customers, as well as Jinjo and Corey, had stopped what they were doing to find out what would happen next. They were all grinning.

Josh plugged in the flash drives again and reset the register to Scan. He then typed in “Copy” for both drives. The kids had three CADs in common beforehand, so when the copying ended, each had an identical 22 sets of CADs. The kids’ eyes grew wide when Josh showed them the readout.

“Now, in the future, do this kind of trading with your friends. You can gather lots of CADs and so can your friends. Maybe in a few weeks you’ll have a hundred.” Josh chuckled.

“Just do it on your mom or dad’s computer, with their permission, of course.” He looked at the mother who smiled and nodded at him. Josh was impressed that she was staying out of it. He wondered if she was treating this as some sort of learning experience, a field trip for her kids.

“When you’re older, you’ll understand a certain saying.”

“What’s that?” Clarissa asked.

“There are no longer any more zero-sum games and never will be again.” Just as he finished saying those words, he had goosebumps. He didn’t know why.

“Um, okay,” the girl responded.

“Oh, by the way, concerning toys, I do believe we have enough here to cut a deal, don’t you?”

“Really?” the boy asked.

“Really. What do you say, print one toy for each of you in exchange for copying your 22 CADs?”

“Sure!” the kids said in unison.

Josh ran the Copy function of the register. The readout showed the shop receiving their copies of the kids’ CADs.

He watched as Kaig led the children to two of the smaller printers. Kaig gave Josh a smile and a big thumbs up. He showed each of them how to insert their flash drives and how to select the CADs for the toys they wanted printed.

Those kids have a happy future in front of them, Josh thought. And then he thought more about the broader implications of the opposite sense he had of “zero-sum” and what he had felt. Yes, that thing, that thrill, just as he said those magic words. Something in them somehow seemed to apply to him and his business.

The next thing he knew, the mother was standing right in front of him, sans sunglasses. She smiled even more broadly than she had before.

She stuck out her hand. “I’m Saundra Sondegaard. I’m so impressed by how you handled my children.”

Josh heard them giggling as the printers made that chukchukchuk sound. He shook her hand. “I’m glad to be of help. By the way, your name sounds more than familiar.”

Her smile widened. “I had hoped you had heard of Sondegaard Printers.”

“You’re—” Josh started to say.

“Yes. My husband, Michael and I built the first general-purpose 3-D printer last year. I see you have one the newer models over in the corner.” She pointed to Josh’s right.

“Unfortunately, I don’t have the CADs to get it repaired. It worked great until the intake sensors wore out.”

“No need. Our latest one, it’s sixth generation, is far superior. We’re getting closer and closer to producing the first general-purpose replicator.”

“Uh—Wow!”

“When I learned you had an early Switzer toner system, I knew I had to find out more about you. Most shop owners I know wouldn’t have considered taking that step so early in the overall printer technology development process.”

“Um. Process?”

“The process of development that is leading to a fully enclosed production and recycling system. When you said what you said to my children, I knew you understood.”

“Uh—”

Her eyes were glowing. Her smile widened even more. “When our economy crashed, what replaced it?”

“Trading. Swapping.” Josh slowly nodded as comprehension grew. “I’m a trader. Every time I trade, the distribution of CADs widens just that much. If I could trade with some major players, I could—ah, you?”

“Exactly.”

“So, the kids--?”

“Yes. That was a test. For them and you. I brought them so they could learn more about printers, and I could learn more about you.”

“Are you interested in cutting a deal?”

“More. I want to tell you what our ultimate goal is. I want a printing system that can be fully copied just as we copy CADs today. A true replicator.” She opened her tablet and showed him an image of a mock-up. The printer was fully enclosed. It had one intake from a large vat.

Josh’s eyes widened in surprise and sudden understanding.

“I’m interested in a potential partnership with you. We could begin by creating more Switzer toner systems and offer them in trade paired with my printers.” She waved her right hand for emphasis toward Josh’s collection of printers on the floor.

“With the help of your people and mine, the three of us can receive customer feedback and fine-tune the system until toner production and printer become one. At which point we fine-tune the precision. We then scan the entire system and create our first replicator CAD.”

Josh’s eyes widened. Cascading images of what such a system could do filled his mind. But all he could think to say was, “Makes sense.”

“We trade that first CAD for a LOT of first-rate advanced CADs. But as we improve the system and make printing the replicator more efficient, we create less expensive CADs. We offer to trade them for fewer and fewer CADs. We may be the ones to turn CAD inflation around. Imagine CAD deflation. This would result in a growing volume of business, thus far more CADs for us. And more CADs for everyone.”

“Yes!”

“Printer development will accelerate and accelerate. Around the world. Human life will never be the same again.”

It was as if a dark, gloomy valley, Josh’s life, was suddenly lit up by the sun. The clarity of the vision struck him with awe. There was nothing else to say, except…

“Please step into to my office,” Josh pointed at the door. “I believe we have lots of interesting things to discuss. Kaig will make sure your kids don’t get into any trouble while we talk.”

She nodded at him, “I’m sure he will.” They both watched the kids for a moment as the printers built their toys.

Josh smiled as he opened the door to the office. He finished the song in his soaring mind, “You can’t always get what you want—you get what you need.”

Mick’s promise. It turned out to be so true, so true.

August 18, 2022 20:11

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1 comment

John K Adams
23:48 Aug 25, 2022

A bit too jargon heavy for my taste in stories. I'm embarrassed at my low tech status. Found it difficult to track it. You define CAD for the children (and me) 2/3 through the story. I like something with a bit more emotional at base. However, sidelight on the Stones at Excelsior. Pat Boone being more their speed, the kids at that show weren't ready for Mick and co. The Stones were booed off stage that night. Bet they laugh about it still.

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