There were a lot of humans in the production room where high vaulted ceilings and tall windows poured light all over their tubes and wires making them wink brightly as their hands ticked away at the keyboards aligned in replicated perfection up the rows of desks. Philip Voite and Hal Stern strolled up the long center isle. Their shining black shoes echoed off the vaulted white ceiling.
One of the humans was deflating.
Philip stopped, staring at the sagging head. He called out to Hal whose lit figure had proceeded in dark silhouette toward the far windows. “Over here; this one looks ill.”
Hal stopped, spoke without turning, “Nah; they sleep a lot when production gets heavy. Sleep maybe every 12 hours.“
Phil looked down again. The freckled hand looked so peaceful in the sunlight.
“But why in full daylight?” He had joined Hal at the windows now, looking out on the grounds. Below, humans with carts were scurrying from building to building, on foot; a practice which usually spooked him. “Why’d we hook them up with such nice bright digs if they are going to snooze anyway? If this one’s not producing melatonin, he may not be of any use for very long.
Sitting on the window sill, he looked at Hal: “Get rid of him and make sure this isn’t happening to any of the others.” He never could stand the sight of those mobile humans, walking about like people.
“Okay: We’ll check into it.” Hal kept his face turned away from Philip. He knew he was being examined.
“Get rid of this one.”
“Okay!” Hal surrendered, looked at Philip who was glaring back from under his brows. “The men are sometimes reluctant to do this. I’ll get Sheila.”
“Look, what do you mean “sometimes?” What’s going on here? You putting a lot of them away?”
Hal watched Philip turn away now: but for a second he looked almost alarmed. “Okay, Phil, look. A few have come down with something in the past month. I’m sure it’s no big deal. Sheila had them put away as soon a she caught a whiff.”
Philip paced. “Hmmm…Maybe we should treat them when it’s minor…or at least look into it — see what it is so’s it doesn’t get out of hand. What do they do over at SONIE?”
“I don’t know how they handle it. I don’t know if they have any problems at all. Listen. There’s a convention coming up in May. Discussions about the care and use of humans in factory settings. I’ll send Sheila and Delores and a bunch of the guys.”
Philip got up and started back toward the door. “Just don’t send the entire staff on the company dole.”
“No reason to be cheap, they are valuable resources,” Hal said, watching Philip’s back, dreading that glaring face again. But Philip did not turn to deliver his reply:
“Find a way to keep ‘em from infecting the whole fucking place. That’s all!”
There was a corner of MEGA’s brain which had not been excised properly. That is why he felt kinda blue today. That is why he sensed the tedium in his leaden haunches and became impatient when he met with data glitches. He stood up several times between bells. And he even slammed his fist and shook his head.
Hal was worried. MEGA looked more and more crazed. It was noon, the buzzer sounded and the humans stood up and turned toward the door. The assistants scurried in to unhook their chain and tubes and take them for their walk. Hal worried throughout the clanking chains, the tangled tubing, and the curses of the assistants as they become tangled with machinery, restraints, and the humans themselves rendered clumsy and helpless from hours of sitting —one of them peed without his catheter.
And then there was MEGA, looking about, awake and anxious, seeming almost conscious.
Unhooked now, he began a crazy jig. He whooped with his broken voice and shook his patchy red head. Those ape arms of his were flailing loose and hard when they knocked two assistants into the desks with a crash.
“OOOwowOOOwowoooWowoooWOW!” MEGA threw himself about, yowling like a cat in heat while three assistants clung, haplessly to him, desperate surprise on their faces.
Hal began to sweat. He pulled his gun out of the holster. “Get away,” he yelled. The men scattered off to the sides of the huge white room, bumping into desks, knocking aside feeding tubes and catheter bags, pulling them loose with tiny plops, squeaks and splashes.
And in their wake, Hal shot MEGA.
Now in silence, the humans stood, chained and facing the door. And the assistants outside of the room, bobbed over the cropped and bowed heads to peek within. Glaring straight ahead into the blinding sunlight, Hal held his gun straight out into the air before him as though it were a divining rod leading him toward MEGA who lay there now, all angles and silence. The three assistants who had lost control stood sheepishly, two on the left, one on the right side of the room, holding their own hands like naughty children.
One with a tube stuck under his shoe.
Hal lowered the gun. “Get him the hell out of here.”
And the three shot forward.
Lila Stern was home for summer. Up in her attic bedroom, she sat hunched, at a huge oak table, her back facing the darkness of the room which was packed with a hodgepodge of antiques from various periods, the bed with victorian iron frame, walls of mid-century bookshelves, a cherry wood art deco vanity, and a Frank Lloyd Wright chest of drawers. She stared into the screen, hands upon the keyboard.
Presently she typed the following message:
By the way, you are the worst dishwasher in the world.
Downstairs she could hear her father coming in. He would be making his way to the bedroom for a lie down. He seemed more and more exhausted by his work and had begun complaining. The humans, he’d told her, were harder to handle than most people thought. It wasn’t like raising cattle or chickens, they seemed to have minds of their own.
She thought about this while waiting for Gabriel to reply. It took thirty seconds or so:
it’s tough when you can’t face your accuser & i was rushing
so u could make your call & always willing to learn & improve
& try again to please (and next time perhaps u can inspect the work)
She pictured him at the old writing desk. The thing was as large as most bedrooms for godssake.
She stared at Gabriel’s message and then typed again.
That’s okay, supplicant.
I was well pleased with the spirit of your work.
He wanted to order a pizza. Sitting at the kitchen table, the lights dim, the fridge buzzing, her father appeared older than she’d ever imagined he could. He slumped forward, head in hands, the thick hair clumped between his thick fingers.
“Hal. Are you? Alright?”
“I’m goddam tired, Lil. GodDAM tired.”
She sat down across from him, kept her eyes on his hands while she poked at her phone. The order was always the same. Then she got up and poured him a beer.
This time she sat down next to him. “That job is getting to you,” she said, placing a hand on his shoulder.”Why can’t they put you in charge of people? You are an administrator. Not an animal trainer.”
Hal laughed. “They’re stuck with an old policy on humans, I guess. I never thought of it that way before. They still think that if it’s human, it ought to be managed by an administrator. But you are right. They should have started using animal trainers a long time ago.”
“Yeah. Like a lion tamer.”
“Oh, you don’t know just how accurate you are!”
“What do you mean?”
“I had to put one down today.” Hal rubbed his head.
Lila gaped. The doorbell rang.
When Lila got back upstairs, she noticed she was still online.
tthe spirit as always was willing
AH, BUT THE BODY?
Then she shut down. Lying on the bed she thought about Gabriel on the phone, begging to scrub her floors, do her laundry, grout her bathroom…it seemed so far away, the apartment with the yellow hallway and the neighbor who, she suspected of leaving lipstick kisses on her door.
The phone rang.
“Lila! Thank fuck you’re back!”
“Em, Hey: did you get some ee?”
“Got it. How’s life at home?”
“Hal is exhausted. A human went crazy on him and he had to shoot it.”
“Oh shit! I thought the process was more comprehensive now.”
“ I don’t know. I don’t get it. They are just too unpredictable. I think they should just stop using them. Programers could set the whole thing up without the need for keyed in data.”
“They are just so old fashioned in publishing. At SONIE my brother uses humans only for special projects. Aesthetics Implementation. Something like that.”
“Maybe Hal’s co. should check out SONIE. Little field trip.”
“Yeah. So: hiking on Saturday w/the supplement. Your dad still in a fuss about that?”
“Yeah. Says ee makes you behave like a human.”
“If that’s so, then humans got it good!”
“I don’t know about that. Last time the stuff was really speedy. Think I chipped a tooth with all the grinding I wound up doing. And all that yapping. You guys couldn’t shut me up!”
“S’okay. Maddie says you were like a cute little Chihuahua.”
“Great. Hey, Em: I hear something at my window…”
“Go look. I’ll stay on.”
Outside the garden stretched wide and empty, the fountain which used to haunt her with its head and shoulders, its wide torso, now stood obediently, waiting for spring.
“I don’t see anything, Em. But wait… there it is again.”
Again the garden, the fountain, the tree near her window, its branches cut away to clear it from the building… nothing.
“I don’t know, Em: spooky.”
“You’re letting this human thing get at you. Get some sleep. I’ll call you tomorrow.”
As she put the phone down, Lila heard the tapping again.
This time she called out from the window, “Anybody out there?” Nothing. She locked the window before she went to bed.
Halifax Stern liked living far from the city. Liked his giant lawn and gardens. He liked a good drive in the morning marking the distance of his home from the huge white building with the droves of blank, drooling faces. When he opened the west doors and smelled the garden, padded out to the dining room and sat down to eggs and toast, coffee and the the soft buzz of the printer making the morning news for him, he was very grateful for his indispensable position at Voigt Publishing.
It was altogether, about twenty minutes to the factory. Passing the vineyard on his way, Hal thought about another tasting this year. Oliver waved from the cottage door, his wellies indicating that the rain had finally soaked the field which they were beginning to worry about. He drove past all of this with gratitude, but as he was driving toward Voigt, the pleasure diminished increasingly, until he was brooding again.
Of all the things which seemed pointless, all of this work, all of this ardent control and ugly restraint, all of the long corridors and wheeled carts and quiet shoes, all for printing manuals. Giant, dull, silent, non-interactive paper volumes.
At the entrance, the staff stood in line for inspection. Hal greeted them civilly, wondering what made them accept the indignity. Then he remembered MEGA.
At the elevators he noticed that he hadn’t slept at all: he was exhausted.
So by the time he arrived at the production room, he felt utterly put upon, utterly mistreated, and a lump grew in his throat at the thought of it.
In the room the humans sat clicking away. He stood at the threshold and surveyed the grounds outside swelling toward the tennis courts, the pool. Philip would be out there now, precious sneakers slapping the red court, tendons surfacing, outrage stretching across the lower half of his face as his opponent, Mira Debtwaller, skipped happily toward the friendly ball. Everyone and everything was good to Mira.
Bruce Debtwaller rang and rang his little bell but nurse did not come on her quiet little sneakers and he had begun to despair. What is more, the blanket had fallen from his knees and he felt stripped and helpless. And so he began to cry, hatred for nurse welling up large and hot in his throat.
She took her time in the kitchen, having a good smoke and a long chat on the phone with Mira, the old man’s daughter. Mira was her best friend. That’s how she got this gig, but the old man was belligerent and sometimes downright cruel and she took her hour in the kitchen to tell Mira about this and also about her boyfriend whom the old man reminded her of.
Mira looked so bright and pink on the screeen that Katlin kept adjusting the color. He’s just angry about getting old, she said: he’s not mad at you, Katlin.
But that didn’t make it any better when he told Katlin that he could smell her pussy.
He’s just jealous of people having sex, Mira said.
Katlin shrugged. He’s just mean. Like Fred. Fred’s mean too. They both: they don’t wanna give you any credit. NO gratitude. I hate that.
She blew smoke in the air and looked at pink pink Mira.
Mira, you look great. You happy?
Ug: there he is with the bell again. I outta bust iz fingiz.
Oh, c’mon Kate, what am I paying you for? Go give the old man his tea, will ya?
How are things at Voigt anyway?
Look, don’t say anything in front of dad, but Hal had to shoot one of the humans yesterday. Philip was so distracted that he didn’t even put up a fight when I kicked his ass in tennis this morning.
Your dad would just shit.
ANd you’d have to clean it up.
YOu are sick, girlfriend. Lemmie get him offa my back ova heh.
Yeah: you give my daddy his tea and yummers.
In the living room, the old man sat applying his translucent thumb over and over again with what looked like deep concentration.
Aw right! Aw right a-ready! Jeeziss! Look, nurse has your tea and biscuits.
Nurse is a goddam mean little bitch. Making me wait. Can I have my blanket back? You didn’t wrap it right. It fell. He wiped a tear from his rheumy eye.
Can you STOP swearing? You have no class. You’d think my daughter could get me a nurse with some class. We can afford it, ya know. I’m the one. I’m the one who taught the world how to optimize human labor. Not for me they’d be runnin’ around, raping, mugging, tearing the place apart. Put ‘em to good use, I said: optimize!
Optimize. Optimize? Yeah: they’re so “Optimized” that…
That what? Stupid bitch. YOu don’t even know what the —
They’re so OPTimized that Hal had to shoot one a-ready. Howzat?
There. Got nuthin’ to say now, do ya? So. Shut up and drink ya tea.
But he was crying again and didn’t want her to see, so he did as she said.