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Author's Chapter Notes:

This first chapter will just exist to flesh out the world. Shrinking will most likely start in the next chapter, if I feel satisfied with the world as I've made it.

Darren's alarm woke him up with its blaring siren, a delightful change from the weeks of unemployment when he was free to wake up whenever he wanted. After the inactivity of the past month, Darren was ready to start his new job as a Systems Analyst for Novatech. He didn't know much about the company except that it was a privately owned bio-engineering firm that according to his interviewer Miranda was "at the very cutting edge of the field. We're solving problems that people don't even know are problems yet." At the time, Darren thought that was hokey company-speak, but for some reason, when he had fully waken up, he was optimistic about that tagline.

Darren got out of bed and into the shower, letting the warm water cascade over him. He heard the bathroom door open and then the shower curtain behind him when he felt the cool touch of a hand on his back.

"How's my workaholic this morning?" a familiar voice said.

"Great," Darren said, turning to face his girlfriend Ariel. They'd been living together for a while now, and dating for even longer than that. Darren always assured Ariel that he'd never let go of her as she was so far out of his league that if they broke up, he might as well quit dating since he'd never date someone better in the future. Some fluke of luck or fate had brought them together, Darren would always say.

Ariel reached up on her tiptoes and gave Darren a kiss, pushing her body against his. When they finally broke their passionate embrace, Darren smiled, "As tempting as the offer is, I fear that would make me late on the first day. I've got to meet with my boss first thing, then I've got to tour the factory floor to see how they're running their systems."

"Well, good luck," she said, feigning a pout as her advances were rejected. "I want to hear all about your day when you get back. Okay, hon?"

"Sure thing."

Darren got out of the shower, leaving Ariel alone to complete her morning routine. After brushing his teeth, towelling off, and getting dressed, he got his keys and walked out the door for his first day at a job that would change his life.

Arriving in the open atrium of the Novatech Industries central offices, Darren marvelled at the high-reaching wood pillars that stretched all the way to the glass ceiling some 2 or 3 stories above his head. The entire building was designed with the comfort and relaxation of its employees in mind and all the natural light that poured into the well-furnished atrium bolstered its function as a meeting place for people in the different branches of Novatech so they could discuss their products and hopefully create collaborative projects between the different branches.

Darren, walking up to the receptions desk, saw many intellectual-looking men and women in lab coats lounging on black leather chairs around circular glass tables, holding coffees and chatting about this or that. This really seems like a workplace I could fit into, Darren thought, At least coffee is onsite. As he reached the receptions desk, the beautiful blonde woman closest to him smiled. "Welcome to Novatech Industrial Laboratories. You're Darren Westerberg, yes?"

Darren nodded. "Yeah, I'm new. I'm supposed to get a badge and then report to—"

"Miranda Christiansen, in Logistics and Systems Analysis. Third floor."

Darren smiled. "Are you a psychic or do they just thoroughly brief you on every new employee?"

The blonde smiled coyly, "Don't ask questions you're not ready to hear the answers to." Darren paused for a minute at this strange exchange, but as the blonde behind the counter started to laugh, his guard relaxed. She slid a plastic badge in a sleeve across the counter. "Miranda will be waiting in room 317."

Darren walked to the glass elevator on the rear wall and rode it until the third floor. As the doors opened, a voice from seemingly nowhere said, "Third floor. Engineering offices and meeting rooms. Enjoy your visit to Novatech." This building is supremely futuristic, Darren thought. He followed the room numbers around to a corner and then down more hallway until he found a well-furnished meeting room with an ovular table. Three or four people, including his interviewer and new boss, Miranda, were sitting around it, waiting for, Darren assumed, him.

"Welcome, Darren," Miranda smiled, "Glad to have you here. Don't worry, you're not late. In fact, now that you're here, we can get started a little early."

Darren took a seat in one of the black office chairs surrounding the dark cherry wood. Miranda, seated in a white leather egg-shaped chair at the head of the room, began to speak of company policies regarding safety and sexual harrassment in the workplace (specifically that none would be tolerated). She detailed the nature of the group's training, shadowing a senior member of the System Analysis team on their rounds and observing how they handled the various challenges that go with planning the best way to organize the company so that customers can get the products they need with as little hassle as possible. As Miranda wrapped up, three people with badges similar to Darren's walked into the room. Miranda assigned each of them to the three others sitting around the room and then Darren was assigned to follow Miranda herself.

As they left the room, Miranda started speaking to Darren. "As I detailed in the email I sent you yesterday, vis-a-vis your training, I'm interested to see your thought processes with regards to the current setup. It'll be really enlightening to see how we can proceed from there."

The two walked in mostly silence through the halls back to the elevator, and then they rode the elevator down to the sublevel industrial plant. Crates and barrels were stacked as far as the eye could see. Forklift operators moved crates marked for shipment through to the docks and put them on trucks with almost military precision. Miranda put a hand on Darren's shoulder, looking slightly up to meet his gaze, "Go on. Look around."

Darren walked through the shelves, amazed at how well everything was organized and how precise all of the workers in the industrial bay managed to work. The forklifts arrived one after the other without any awkward attempts to drive around one another. The entire floor was a well-oiled machine. Darren marvelled at the clockwork orchestra going on around him. Every part seemed to work in perfect unison. The labels on the shelving units clearly displayed the code for each item and each crate was marked with its code so you knew that it was in the right place. It was almost a perfect floor.

Just as he was finishing his round and walking back to Miranda while trying to think of a way to put his thoughts into words, a forklift that he could see was self-driving careened around him and managed to embed itself in a barrel. As a floor manager ran up to get the barrel off the fork, a green syruppy liquid began to pour out of the holes left behind. It's sloshed onto the floor, creating a two-inch thick film that soaked Darren's shoes and ankles in the slime. He jumped back, trying to keep his clothes from being further ruined when Miranda walked up.

"Well, hopefully that doesn't reflect badly on our organization. These self-driving forklifts were a recent addition to the line, and as you can see, we still have some bugs to work out with their automated programming. But at least it was a barrel and not your stomach, eh?"

"Yeah," Darren said, kicking off the green sludge from his shoes.

"You go take a rest in one of the break rooms. I'm sure you're all amped up from that near-death experience, but we've got full bagel bars and nap pods in there. But I expect your evaluation on the floor by the end of the day," Miranda said. "304 is my office."

"Sure thing," Darren said and started to walk off the adrenalin boost he'd received.

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