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Lancashire Times
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Kevin Wood
Writer
@KevinStphnWood
3:00 AM 21st January 2023
fiction

Putaway

 
Geoff manoeuvred the cardboard box onto the conveyor with some difficulty. Not surprising, as it weighed over eighty kilos. Of course, doing the job by himself violated all kinds of Health and Safety rules, but in the circumstances he couldn’t really get help. Not when the person he would have asked was in the box. Ben had been good with the manual handling stuff. It’s just a shame he had had an annoying habit of cracking his knuckles. Still, that problem had been fixed now, so all good.

A discolouration appeared on the side of Ben’s box. Blood. Oh well, no one would see it. Geoff entered some details on a computer terminal, and a printer spat out a label with a barcode. He duly fixed it to the front of the box. It has to be on the front, because the bar code readers in the vast warehouse would only read barcodes if they were on the front of the box. No one knew why, and they were forever having to take boxes off the conveyors and turn them round. It’s just the way it was.

Geoff pressed a button with his thumb, and the box rattled off into the gloom of the warehouse. Amongst the shadows, amidst the smell of oil, other warehouse operatives trudged through the noise, like troglodytes in a Peter Jackson orc pit. Great - th He wandered over to the supervisor’s station, and watched as the box came back round a loop, destined for the cranes. A robot crane swallowed Ben’s box and two others before whizzing off with mindless efficiency. It shot down an aisle between two rows of shelving, taking the boxes high up into the darkness. Somewhere, maybe thirty or forty metres up, it stored the box.

The only way to locate Ben’s box now was through the Warehouse Management System. Using a password gleaned from shoulder-surfing an installation engineer, Geoff logged in. Soon, he had located the record for the box, and deleted it. No more box, no more Ben, no more knuckles being cracked.

Geoff returned to his work in the delivery bay. Occasionally, a supervisor or one of the drivers would ask where Ben was, to which, he’d shrug and say, “Dunno, mate.” After a while, people stopped asking, and someone else was transferred in to replace Ben.

Every so often, a crane would try to put a box where Ben’s box was. The computer had told it that the spot was empty, so in its simple-minded fashion, it would try to store a box there. And find it couldn’t. So it would just stick the new box in the next available location and tell the computer what it had done. Neither was programmed to ask, “Why?” so Ben’s box remained undisturbed.

Of course, it wasn’t all plain sailing. Bodies have a tendency to… ooze after a while. They smell, too, but forty metres up there was only the robot cranes to worry about, and they never complain. The thing about ooze, though, is that it flows and drips. Drips onto the box stored below, which, in this case, contained T-shirts with a picture of a cute puppy-dog (Female, age 11-12). One day, the supply of T-shirts with pictures of cute puppy-dogs ran low, and the computer sent a command to the crane to collect a new box of T-shirts.

The crane disappeared into the murk, returning with the box of T-shirts, and a couple of other boxes it had collected on the way. The boxes were dumped onto a conveyor, and then the magic of the modern warehouse took place. The box of T-shirts rambled and rattled their way along conveyors. Every so often there would be a junction. Perhaps the box would continue, or perhaps a mechanical arm would push it onto a new conveyor. It passed over some conveyors, and under others, uphill and down, the computer seeking a more-or-less optimised route. Eventually the box slid down a chute to a waiting operative.

Mick picked up the box and put it on the trolley. He wasn’t the most inquisitive person in the world, but he knew his job. His job was to transfer boxes from the chute to the trolley, and then take them to the racks of other boxes. He was happy with that. Sure, this box smelt a bit strange, but what was that to him? He moved the box.

A few hours later, Diane consulted an electronic unit strapped to her wrist, took a puppy-dog T-shirt from the box, and put it into a plastic crate. Yes, she could see the T-shirt was stained with something that stank, but so what? Like everyone else in this pit of despair, she clocked on, did the job (more or less) and clocked out again. She followed the directions on her wrist unit and put a few more items in the crate before putting it on yet another conveyor. Those of a more analytical turn of mind might have wondered if there were more conveyors than stock in the warehouse. Diane was not noted for being a thinker.

Another trip around the warehouse, and the T-shirt arrived with Joji. He popped open a cardboard box (size 2, as instructed by the computer screen), swept T-shirt and packing slip into the box, sealed it, slapped on the address label, and dropped it in the “Next Day” pile. He didn’t even spend the time to notice the stain. Not his problem.

It was, however, a problem for Gemma (female, aged 11-12). She arrived home from school, and was given the long-awaited (since yesterday) box by her Mum. Eager anticipation quickly faded to disgusted annoyance when the box was opened.

“Mum, it’s gross! What’s that stuff on it? And it stinks!”
“I can tell – let me see the packing.”

Gemma’s Mum, an experienced online shopper, quickly located the returns slip. She managed to fit quite a few words into the “Reasons for return” box. Not that it made any difference. Two days later, Ravi in the returns department glanced at the slip, hit the button to regenerate the order and dropped the T-shirt in the waste bin. Three days later than originally intended, Gemma’s desire was sated.

Ben’s box remained at the top of the Highbay, untouched by the cranes, because the system did not know he was there. He had been deleted from the system. Yes, in theory the computer could decide to putaway another box in the same place at any time, but who can know the mind of a computer? Certainly not the programmer, who wrote the box storage algorithm while surfing the internet for funny cat videos. Yet one day the randomised distribution pattern decided a new box should be putaway in the – supposedly – empty space where Ben resided. A chance action that could have happened after a day or a decade, but which chose to happen now.

The crane stalled.

Forty metres below and lounging beside some conveyors were Jon and Tim. They were paid the same as everyone else – next to nothing – but considered themselves the elite. They were the Jam Busters, and trained in Working At Height. Any time the boxes fouled on the conveyors or in the cranes, they were the people who cleared the jam. Usually by means of poking the boxes with an old broomstick.

A call came through on Jon’s walkie-talkie. He checked the time and said, ”Sure, be right on it.” He turned to Tim, an eighteen-year old lad, fresh out of school. “Got a crane in fault. Come on, this’ll take us just up to the end of the shift.”

Tim shrugged, and left his pastime of taking boxes at random from one conveyor and putting them on another. He watched as Jon activated a series of interlocks that turned off the crane. Nothing was going to start it moving until they’d finished, regardless of what the computer said. Ten minutes and twenty safety precautions later, they reached the level where Ben’s box was stored.

“Ah, man, what’s that smell?” asked Tim.

“Ah. One of those,” replied Jon, nodding to himself.

“Yer what?”

“I mean, we mark the storage location as Barred on the system, and then the crane won’t try to use the space for putaway again.”

Tim started prodding at the box, which has been crushed against the back of the storage location by the crane. The cardboard gave way, and the remains of an arm flopped out.

“Sick!” said Tim.

“Yeah, yeah, now put it back.”

“That’s an arm!”

“Yes, it happens sometimes. Now put it back and we’ll go down.”

“But it must belong to someone,” said Tim, pushing it back with the toe of his boot.

“Yes, it belongs to whoever is in that box. Now it’s only fifteen minutes ‘til the end of shift, so let’s go down. I’ll set the location to Barred and we can knock off.”

Jon started heading back down to ground level before Tim could raise any objections. He found a computer terminal and updated the status of the storage.

“See,” he said to Tim. “That means we won’t get the same problem again tomorrow.”

“But shouldn’t we tell someone?”

Jon sighed, and checked his watch. Only five minutes to end of shift.

“If we do that, then first we’ll have to tell the supervisors. They’ll want to go up to look for themselves. Then they’ll call the police, who’ll shut the whole place down. After that we’ll be answering questions for hours. Get the idea?”

“Yeah, but…”

“And by the time we get through that, it’ll be time for our next shift. You know what?”

“What?”

“They won’t even pay us. This way is better. Trust me.”
Tim stood for a moment, undecided, then turned in the direction of the supervisor’s office. “Nah, I think we’d better tell someone.”

Jon glanced at his watch again and sighed. “Fine, but first, you see that box over there?”

“Yeah.”

“Just take a look inside and tell me what you see,” said Jon, hefting a wrench behind his back.

A few minutes later, Jon watched the cardboard box trundle around the conveyors, then deleted it from the system. He made sure the storage location was set to Barred to prevent any more awkwardness, and finished his shift.