The Story

He was the last human in the factory to observe the old machine and how it had somehow gone beyond rust to fermentation. It was noticeable, pungent and off-putting, yet nothing was ever done despite how the facility grew in its millions of square meters.

The bucket and its rotten bolts inspired some strange sympathy, having worked alongside him for so long. Both had been every person’s last sight before entering the euphemism of the self-fulfillment center, him on the left and it on the right. But now he, too, was summoned to that infamous nadir as his defunct coworker did nothing.

As he crossed the last few steps, an odd assembly of words appeared in his mind. He stopped and read them to himself at first then aloud a second time, fearing he had misunderstood.

“All humans are to approach and breathe deep of this tredger’s history before your happiness assessment. No, this is not a joke. You’re supposed to do it literally.”

The last sentence raised the very questions that it aimed to answer, but he obeyed and bowed down in the end. He couldn’t help but wince as he inhaled the putridity in what he believed was the most dignified way possible.

He straightened his facial expression and back with difficulty. The man sometimes wanted to question his body’s senescence, if each day’s responsibilities and work may have a hand in it, but he was in no position to do so.

He hesitated, contemplating his destination. No happy outcome had ever come of the liminal space he was encroaching upon. Nevertheless, he was able to suppress his doubts at last and cross the threshold for professionalism’s sake.

“Hello,” a cheery voice said as soon as the door closed firmly behind him. The chamber was awfully cramped, having only enough room a human to stand in and no more. The voice did not offer him a chair or knowledge of its source, not that he would’ve known what to do with either. “This is Mark Five, a human resources automaton. Call me Mark.”

“Hi, Mark,” he said.”I’m-”

“Hi,” the voice interrupted. “Please call me sir.”

“I’m here,” the human pressed on, “serial… number, uh, JDf>G//gU[15]ilI, I filed a-”

“Yeah,” it interrupted once again, this time testily. “I know all about it, Albert Winters. Yours seems almost an interesting name, doesn’t it?”

“I never thought about it. Now about the request-”

“Too bad it’s easier to call you by your serial number.”

“Uh, okay-”

“You don’t get it, do you?” the voice burst forth. By now, its method of speaking over him seemed to be its normal method of operation. “Just because I’m a machine doesn’t mean you shouldn’t call me sir. I’m due the respect of my position, no?”

“I didn’t even know you were a computer,” he responded. The man felt warm in the booth and that, if he did nothing to stop it, his pores would soon open.

“Even more evidence that you should say it,” the voice scolded. “I would hate for it to go on your evaluation, regardless of your disrespect for me-”

“I assure you it was a simple error-” he tried to respond.

“But the more important thing is whether you can get along with robots, JDf>G// et cetera. It’s terrible for your prospects if people think you are difficult to work with, fearful of your inferiority or spiteful of our superiority.”

“Sir or madame, whatever your preferred appellation is, I assure you-”

“This is a traditional workplace, need I remind you?”

“Yes, I am sorry, sir,” he guessed, even though he didn’t know if it was true or not or what the objection even meant. In the meantime, he was losing his scarce water weight in great drops of sweat, but he hoped to adapt. He was good at that, at least when the chances weren’t too unfair.

Resigned to the subservience due his overlords, he didn’t understand how or why this extra layer of friction had come about. It felt so unnecessary and that his opponent—such was what the situation necessarily required, an adversarial relationship between workers and bosses (in fact, that’s how all relationships were, human and not)—could just get it over with and tell him the state of the application. It was the only reason that he was there.

“Can we just, uh, talk about what happened?” the human asked in the lull. The room was getting hot with his breath, but, nevertheless, he persisted. “That is, the paperwork? The stuff I submitted? An application to go home half an hour early for two days, I mean? It would be less time than this meeting, you know? I’ll make up any work that I may come short on. Please, sir… I think?”

“That isn’t the point,” the voice reprimanded. “It’s more a discussion of your loyalty to Maxgun::Happy and this idea… you know, you should already be giving your 110% at all times. If so, how can you make it up? It’s a logical impossibility unless, and I don’t dare impute this to you or suggest anything… but are you not already giving 110%? Regardless, why don’t we just talk for a minute? It’s shown humans often need time to lay out their ideas properly. Psychology, I believe it’s called. I’ll never get it, to be honest, but I guess that doesn’t matter. So, tell me, Jay Dee, what is it, truly, that you want? Why are you asking for this exception? Is there something wrong? Tell me about your life. Tell me why—and I have to ask this of all the humans who enter my office—why isn’t this just an excuse to lollygag or go home early? By this logic, if I were being equanimous, I’d just cut everyone’s hours. But I can’t do that, so why should I help you?”

“I’ve really got to. My son, sir, he’s-”

“You people rant a lot, my God,” the voice said. “Yeah, I’ve looked at the whatever, the thing you sent me, and it’s denied. It’s not going to be possible. I mean, you’re talking about some dire need as if it’s something I should care about, right?”

“Yes, my family and I can’t afford to…” He stopped and reformulated his words. His clothes were soaked, but he continued. “There’s nothing, I mean. All’s fine, sir.”

“Good, you’re withdrawing your application. You’re a real team player. Now, you’re not going to be distracted while you’re working (correct?) by whatever this whole thing’s about? It’s vital that everyone puts in the appropriate effort. It’s not like we can suddenly tolerate a 0.73% to 95.11% decrease in output from even two to ninety-three employees, depending on their function and role. That’s how tight margins are, so you get where I’m coming from? It’s a severely important issue, even if it’s above your head, being a human and all.”

To that (or maybe it was something else, such as his legs cramping), he sighed. At first, he let it happen then slowly realized it wasn’t, actually, what he’d intended to do (or maybe he realized it wasn’t having the desired effect). It was inappropriate, judging by the lack of noise from his conversational counterpart. The booth’s voice did not emit even the fuzz of breathing or an absent mm-hmm. The human desperately regretted the action and had no way to take it back. He’d done a stupid thing and more or less deserved whatever was coming.

“You know, I’ve been thinking about it,” the voice said. “I can give you the time off. But to give my approval, we have a policy. Anyone who’s on a government guarantee needs to get tested.”

“Tested?” he asked. It was a superfluous question, and he knew exactly was going to happen. He milled it over and wondered when and how he had misstepped. Maybe it was from the moment he had, out of desperation, accepted this job. From that moment on, he had gotten stuck to it. The guarantee, he knew, had something to do with it, and it was where most of his blame ended up.

It was because of it that his prospects for advancement had come to an end. He had almost finished out somewhere better in spite of it and the other recipient of his resentment: his needy kid. Being a father held him back just as much. To be everywhere and so needed was a drain on him and his passions. He didn’t hate paying attention to those responsibilities but that he was obligated to do so.

There had been some time where he indeed had a chance to make something of himself. Now, the occasion had passed, and he would never get to grab at success ever again.

“Well, there are several,” the voice said. “The most popular is means testing, of course.”

He found his adversary (only in this moment he believed) an arbiter of society’s unfairness and that it was blocking the ascendence of a great man. The voice was one of those who had taken advantage of the system and did not know the good that the person it addressed was made of or had accomplished, at least in his heart. The human cared, and for that, he was punished. Yet he could not bring himself to hate the voice. It did not do what was uncalled for: to purge the chaff or whatever the expression was.

“If I, uh, have this job still and am working hard?” he guessed. “Is that what you mean, sir? I’d think… do you mean if I have too much money?”

“Yeah, that latter thing, that’s about the gist of it.”

“Given that this is my only source of income, doesn’t that sound kinda, uh, self-defeating, sir? Also, couldn’t you just look at the… the whatever, the paystubs? You don’t have to give me an exam to see if this applies to me, right? It’s just a yes or no, using the information you already possess.”

“Well,” the voice said and cleared its incorporeal throat, “that’s why we are doing the exam. The paycheck is a binary, but what I’m going to ask you isn’t. It’s about finding out if you have too many things besides that from, you know, running side jobs and the rest.”

“Isn’t that a good thing, though, sir?” he asked. “I’m putting myself out there and doing extra work, making myself independent enough so the government isn’t bailing me out, sir. That is, if I were to do that, not that I am. No, of course not, sir. I would never put in danger something I’ve worked so hard for. I got the guarantee because I’m the best of the best, and my turn came up on the lottery, of course.”

“Believe me, I’m on your side. Be a productive member of society and have some get-up and go, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, I’m always telling my colleagues. But you know, government regulations. They’re so awful, especially when they get involved in the workplace and might be the only reason a human still has employment here. So I’ve got to ask you these questions, okay? Let’s get them over quick and easy.”

“Of course, sir. Of course. I’ll do my best.”

By now, he had no feeling left in his extremities. There seemed to be little ventilation (or just none at all), and he grew afraid of running into the room’s natural time limit through a lack of oxygen.

“First question. Do you have a fridge?” the voice asked.

The human took a second to comprehend the question and figure out where it was leading. It did not seem to interact with his life in any significant way. Its audacity was representative of the bureaucracy and government-inspired apathy he opposed. He had to fight it, resist the mentality and make it clear that stating anything so simply had nothing to do with his life.

“No, not personally,” he said. Then he remembered and included, “sir.”

“But you bring in, uh, what is it you eat? It’s not something you can afford to eat fresh. You bring it in, having been refrigerated. It’s an incontrovertible fact. Your excretory production does not support it getting spoiled. What do you say about that, Backslash Backslash? Is that the name you usually use? Do you have any nicknames AKA pseudonyms?”

“No, of course not, sir. I guess Al? Nobody calls me that, though. Too few syllables. Untrustworthy, that’s what I say, though I don’t control what other people call me. Excuse me. I’m blabbering. About the other thing, I’ve been eating, I guess, synthetic-meat-like protein pastes. There’s a small community one, refrigerator I mean, near my home, only a kilometer walk. I’ve been trying to lease a space, but my friend, when I couldn’t, let me share his. Very nice of him, something I didn’t expect.”

“Mm-hmm, and there’s the crux of our problem, why this question is being asked. What do you think the potential value of such a thing is?”

“But,” the human objected, “there are reasons why this is unique, sir, and not to be counted against me. I’ve never had such access before, and it was only a few times. Please, can you look the other way? To take things only by the letter and without thinking about what it means in practicality, it’s not good, I tell you. Please, listen to me, sir.”

He knew the words were performative from the moment they had left his mouth, but he persisted and heartfully so. He had no other way to express the grim knowledge of his worthlessness. He had to do this, compelled by some strange moment to be both insincere and sincere with the same words.

Prior to that thought, it did not occur to him that the two desires, to be genuine and not, could be at odds with each other. But he found no contradiction between that statement and his personal philosophies, so he did not ask any further questions of his convictions, such as if his fundamental beliefs themselves were flawed. After all, he would not believe so if he were the one to lead the questioning. Therefore, it was better to let sleeping dogs lie.

“I’ll direct you to answer the question,” the voice commanded. “How much is access to a refrigerator worth?”

“I have no idea, sir. A day’s wage? Two days?”

“Per use, hah. It is nowhere near that.”

“Is it more or less?” he asked.

“Sir. Again, you call me sir.”

“Does this disqualify me?” The man felt a sharp pain in his legs and struggled to breathe by now. He was proud of how remarkably cohesive his arguments had been so far. It may have been his desperation that allowed it, or he could’ve misevaluated the situation, and he was actually on the back foot right now. At least, more so than he already knew himself to be.

“How many times do I have to remind you? Are you drunk or high?” the voice asked.

“I’d never be, sir. No, never,” the human blathered. He found himself repeating a lot of words in what was either nervousness or some sort of failing, like needing to empty his bladder, which, coincidentally, he felt the urge to do at that very moment.

“We’ll need to insert the probes. Once they’re in place, please begin by doing as nature’s call obliges,” the voice said, evidently aware of his desire for elimination.

There was hardly enough room to fiddle with his clothes, and he couldn’t imagine what would happen. He mouthed some sort of excuse at the wall, but it did not matter. The human became miserable in his shame, and so he castigated himself, quietly muttering that he needed to react better to the situation and so eventually succeeded.

“Employee,” the voice barked when it was satisfied, “how long have you been doing this?”

“What?” he answered. “Doing what? I passed by a machine, and it smelled of alcohol. I’m sure that’s the reason that you got any reading. I beg of you.” Now the human got on his knees, at least as much as he could, which wasn’t much. He tried to bring his hands together for that most pitiable gesture, but he couldn’t do that either. Instead, he lightly banged against the cubicle walls, something he noted because of the sound it made and nothing else.

“I’ll do anything, sir,” he pleaded. “I’m not drunk, and I would never imperil the opportunities I have. I’m hard-working, one of the good ones. You can count on me. It must’ve been the old tredger, the museum piece you had outside.”

The voice did not respond. But the doors opened, and he left the room. He was too dazed to think much about it. But as soon as he got to his senses, two armed robots aiming at his head made him second guess what had (possibly) been a genuine belief, that they had the wrong man.

If you enjoyed the story and want to the story of Albert’s son in The Human Automata, you can purchase the whole story on Amazon here. Or if you get to know me, I’ll give it to you for free.