A short story
When the law was finally passed it was believed the world of robotics would be put to rest quickly and efficiently. But then the war ramped up again, and with the rapid need for wider conscription, a stretched workforce and the scarcity of clean food and effective medicine it was natural that the black market’s efficiency outdid the robotic retrieval teams, who quickly became thinly spread as the fit and semi-fit were sent off-world to fight.
Many robots attempted to get
back into their old trades, but signed their own death warrants in
doing so. They were rounded up and sent to the compounds, despite the
need for labour and demands from the civilian population that they be
put back into service. The ongoing petitions and robust promises made
by those who wanted to overthrow the governing forces made no
difference. As conditions became more extreme laws were slow to
change. The robots remained illegal.
a relatively small percentage had enough skills to operate in various
parts of the market. They made cheap tech, antibiotics and
cigarettes, selling them to the humans. It secured their safety
amongst the street-level population and gave them time to revive the
old Fleshing trade.
In tin sheds and abandoned buildings they set up labs that churned out human-looking eyes, ears and finger and toe nails - the latter being one of the omissions made in the later Nine models as aesthetics gave way to a world that needed robots to be purely industrial. Their synthetic hair worked just fine. Eighty percent of the human race were as bald as peanuts, thanks to the combination of pollution, radiation and contaminated water, and most were still vain enough to sport wigs of varying qualities.
And so it was that a Nine model named Windom found himself working in the Central Post Office, sitting in front of a small screen and sorting through the GlobeNet mail that needed to be processed and sent safely to the spider-like grid of smaller offices, who then had the job of discharging it all to the intended recipients. Notes of love and friendship, anti-war paraphernalia, short descriptions of the comings and going of individuals still working a regular job while human existence teetered, bills, shipping schedules, news feeds - what was being let out anyway - baby photos and requests from soldiers asking family members for food and blankets. ‘Space,’ they wrote, ‘is cold.’
Windom saw them all. As they zapped past on the screen his eyes saw and processed every word, sentiment and soliloquy before sending it straight to its respective destination.
He lived in cubicle in the North district - one of those enormous housing complexes that were dumped by hulking sky cruisers of old, made for the military as temporary lodgings and now apartment complexes for service workers and groups of young cadets who lived in packs of four or five and always asked Windom for cigarettes, even though he didn't smoke, and repeatedly said so. His life was pleasantly routine, non demanding and included the odd trip to the nearest legitimate marketplace.
That was until Lucinda came to work at the Central Office.
Lucinda was loud. Lucinda was demanding. Lucinda would burst into his office in the middle of the day shift wearing worn pants and a ratty army jacket, and would wave her tablet containing a list of statistics in front of Windom’s face.
'These numbers Windom. . . ,' and she would shake the tablet at him. 'These numbers aren't good enough. These numbers don't please me. You need to be getting this out faster. What do you do? Sit here and read everything before processing it?' And she would sweep out, yelling, 'Better numbers, Windom!'
Windom said nothing. He had, in his career as a human, become a quiet and diminutive being, something of a necessity in the face of being found out by a retrieval team, caught and sent to one of the compounds. He merely increased his speed by five percent and sat, and the words flew past his eyes, day in, day out.
'Dear Dad. . . ’
'I expect to be called up any day now, all the girls do. . .’
'May He call up the Dispossessed to arms, to overthrow the Lords of Destruction who have enslaved His children at this, the End Of Days. . . '
Lucinda would be happy for awhile, then. . .
He jumped, his sensitive hearing jolting his central processors, to find her standing behind his chair. For a nanosecond he thought she had caught him reading, but her focus was on the dreaded list of statistics within the thin plastic frame that dangled from her bony fingers.
'Windom, these numbers . . . !'
Windom increased his speed again. Lucinda was happy again . . . for awhile. Then she burst in and loudly proclaimed the lack of cheerfulness she was feeling as a result of Windom’s output. He began to dread the sight of her army jacket, the sound of her shrill voice. His quiet little job, once so soothing, began to jar. He would wake up in the mornings and have an odd longing to stay in bed. He started to drink a lot of coffee and found himself having nervous, rambling conversations with his co-workers, who would ask, 'Are you okay Windom?'
He wasn't okay. Something had to be done.
He turned up to work that Monday morning with a spring in his step and five minutes early. At 6.00am he turned on his screen, opened GlobeNet and began to sort through the morning arrivals as the night shift filed from their cubicles. He spied Lucinda once, her reflection caught briefly in his screen as she strode through the corridor behind him, but he didn’t see her again until it was almost time to leave.
There was a loud and sudden commotion at the front desk - Windom couldn’t see what was happening from his cubicle but he could hear Cora, the daytime receptionist, saying ‘You can’t go in there, I need to call Management!’
But the retrieval team shot down the corridor like a bullet. The men and women in their familiar grey uniforms were armed and went straight to Lucinda’s office. Windom heard the door being flung open with such force it hit the wall, and Lucinda’s cry of ‘What’s going on? Why are you here?’
There was no answer from the retrievers, just the sound of furniture being flung aside, of Lucinda shrieking and a window breaking. Windom quietly sent a note to maintenance. When the retrievers appeared again they were carrying a restrained and screaming Lucinda down the corridor. She was face down with a gloved hand gripping each of her thin upper arms, her bound ankles held at waist height. To Windom it looked as if she was floating down the hallway, the phalanx of uniforms silent except for one saying, ‘Containment achieved, commencing to vehicle now,’ into his mic while the scanner made a few loud looping sounds as it shut down.
That evening after work Windom and Cora sat together at a little corner café. They treated themselves to the concoction that passed as tea and watched the light rain fall outside.
‘Was it you, Windom?’ asked Cora. Windom said nothing. He sipped his tea, which he quite liked. He often heard rumours that you could still buy real tea leaves on the market, but had no idea what it tasted like and no desire to try something he didn’t miss in the first place.
‘That was bad of you.’ Cora drew her shoulders in on herself, as if she was cold. ‘It wasn’t just you that could have been found out. What about the rest of us? When I heard the scanner being switched on . . .’ and she actually shuddered.
Windom put his hand over hers. ‘The scanners they use in populated areas have to be very short range. Its regulation. I knew we would be safe behind the glass in our cubicles.’
‘But what if. . ’
‘Its over now. You’re safe.’
‘She was so mean to me,’ said Cora.
‘Those models always were combative. Part of the personal adaptability that went awry and made robotics so unpopular in the old days.’
Her blue eyes widened. ‘She was an Eight? They haven’t been seen for decades, Windom!’
Windom chuckled. He felt as light as he did when he was new. Maybe it was just because Lucinda was out of his life. Or maybe it was because his hand was still on Cora’s and she didn’t seem to mind.
be surprised to know who’s out there. The age of some of those that
pass for human.’
Cora gazed out of the dirty window at the figures hurrying to get out of the rain, their shapes blurred by the rivulets of waters slipping down the glass. The evening was quickly gathering darkness as the lit bins on the pavement began to go out. A military vehicle roared overhead, briefly interrupting the café's quietness with a blast of noise. But all Windom saw was Cora. Her synthetic hair shone dully under the lights. Her lips were deliberately shaped with a slight imperfection. And her eyes looked, to him at least, like pools of blue water that reflected a memory of long-extinct oceans.