“Well, this is illegal, I think,” said Rachel.
“You’d be surprised, dear,” said Joffrey.
“I’d like to make a phone call,” said Rachel.
“Not with a demerit on your record,” said Joffrey. “Would you like another?”
Elsie jabbed her sister with her elbow. Seeing Rachel retreat, Joffrey spoke. “Hands, please.”
“What?” asked Rachel.
“Can I see your hands, please?”
Dutifully, Rachel held out her hands. Joffrey inspected them. “Conveyor belt, third station.” He pointed to a section of the belt over which hung a wooden sign marked with the Roman numeral III. “Your neighbors will get you up to speed.”
Rachel gave Elsie a withering look and slouched away. Joffrey turned to Elsie. “Hands, please?” he asked.
Elsie did as she was told; her hands felt empty without Intrepid Tina, whom she’d left safely stowed in the lockbox at the foot of her bed.
Joffrey’s eyes widened. “Beautiful!” he exclaimed. Setting the mug down, he began inspecting Elsie’s hands. “So … small!” he breathed. He looked at Elsie. “My dear,” he said, “you are the proud owner of hands that were positively meant for machine parts. I haven’t seen hands like these in years!”
Elsie, despite herself, murmured, “Thanks.”
Joffrey put his arm around her shoulder and walked her over to one of the contraptions, a glossy aluminum barrel-like object, set on its side, with a series of red and blue plastic tubes leading from it. There were three gauges on the front of the machine, one labeled ACK, another labeled UZ, and another with a glyph that looked to Elsie like an upside-down ice-cream cone. “This little baby,” Joffrey said, patting the side of the machine, “is the Rhomboid Burnishing Oscillator 2.0. RBO for short.”
“What does it do?” asked Elsie.
“Why, it oscillates. And burnishes. It burnishes while it oscillates. The ‘rhomboid’ bit is anyone’s guess.”
Elsie didn’t know what oscillate meant. But she didn’t say anything.
“Now,” said Joffrey, “the operation of this machine is fairly simple. A huge improvement over the 1.5, let me tell you. You hit this button here, wait ten seconds, and then pull this lever here and you’ll hear a little clanking noise.” Joffrey walked her through the various steps; a clanking noise, followed by a gentle spinning sound, came from the machine. “Once you hear that, you just open this panel here and … voilà!” Inside the machine, just beyond a little door in the chassis, Elsie could see a small octagonal metal nut—like one you would see threaded on to a very small bolt. “Grab it, please. And quickly,” he instructed Elsie. Doing as she was told, she slipped her hand into the small opening, grabbed the nut, and handed it to Unthank. Holding it between his thumb and forefinger, he continued, “Very good. This here is a High-Alloy Rhomboid Oscillated Bolt Nut. There’s one in every automatic daiquiri machine. Now, for all the manufacturer’s improvements over the previous iteration of this machine, the way I see it, it’s not enough. And so I’ve taken it upon myself to do some tinkering of my own. Cherried the thing up, so to speak. Needless to say, it voided the warranty.”
The machine made a loud noise as a set of what looked to be metallic teeth chomped down on the space where the nut had been. Joffrey smiled. Elsie stared at him.
He cleared his throat and continued. “Thing is, in order to maximize the efficiency of the machine, I’ve had to lose some of the … how would you put it … safety measures in place. So, instead of the machine just spitting out a new nut into this tray, someone with really small hands has to remove the piece manually. Like you just did.”
“Okay,” said Elsie. “I see, I guess.”
“Now, one thing you should know …” He paused here and looked at her, a blank look on his face. “Sorry, what was your name?”
“Lovely name. One thing you should know, Elsie dear, is that if your precious little fingers happen to be inside the machine when it recalibrates the dispenser, the greater machine parts community will be deprived of one of a pair of the greatest set of hands to come along in a generation.”
“What?” asked Elsie, trying to ferret out the meaning of the man’s last phrase.
“Or a couple years, anyway. Top ten, for sure. Beautiful, tiny hands.”
“It’ll cut off my hand?” sh
Again, Joffrey cleared his throat. “Yes.” Smile. “BUT: You’ve got easily five, six seconds to get in there and grab the nut before it comes down. A girl with your gifts, you should be in and out of there in two, maybe three.”
Elsie was still imagining the consequence of delayed action; at that moment, she became acutely aware of how much she valued the fact that she had two hands. She tried to imagine life without one of them—she saw herself in some future kitchen trying to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a hook for a hand. Even in her imagination, it was no simple task.
Joffrey snapped his fingers. “Stay with me, Elsie dear. The other thing you should know is that these nuts are so very valuable. So very, very valuable, that if one should be destroyed—and trust me, the machine will destroy it if it gets stuck and is not removed before the assembly continues—we, the factory, the orphanage, the greater community, are left with a world where there is one less High-Alloy Rhomboid Oscillated Bolt Nut in existence, and, by extension, one less satisfied automatic daiquiri machine owner. And that is bad. Very, very bad. Is that clear?”