The Management Class
by Craig Donegan
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
Following lunch on Thursday afternoon, excitement began to build on the third floor of Henderson Tower where Louis had labored his entire working life as a robotics design engineer. The year, 2255, marked Louis’s thirty-fifth birthday, and his thirty-four colleagues, engineers all, had joined with the robots that supervised their floor for Louis’s birthday and retirement party. As was always the case when an engineer turned thirty-five, Louis received a cake, a bottle of champagne and a gag gift.
Once the engineers had gathered around Louis’s desk, a closet door opened and out stepped a robot called Hank. A titanium model long out of date, Hank advanced on antique knees that creaked with each step forward.
The engineers parted as the robot drew near, which allowed enough space for Hank to approach, straighten his back and extend an arm toward Louis. Looking down, a grim smile on his face, the retiring engineer stared at the small box that sat on Hank’s palm.
“Guess I’m getting a little long in the tooth as well, eh, Hank,” said Louis, who then surveyed the room to register whether or not anyone laughed at his little joke. A few engineers smiled, but the other robot in the room simply shook its head, a gesture that could have meant anything.
With some trepidation, Louis plucked the box from Hank’s hand and unwrapped it, removed the top and lifted an object that sparked a discrete memory in Louis’s brain. He held the object up to the bluish-white light that filtered through the poly-glass windows.
“It’s a watch,” said one of the engineers. “An old-fashioned watch. The kind that people used to wear outside their bodies. See, it’s got a strap for attaching it to your wrist.”
“Of course,” said Louis. “I’ve seen one just like this in the technology museum.”
He looked at the digits, which were frozen at 5:00 pm beneath the scratched plastic crystal filled with cracks that looked like a spider’s web.
“Very clever,” he said. “Five o’clock. Quitting time. And such a relic. Cobwebs and all. I guess a guy ought to know when he’s no longer wanted.”
In fact, Louis was one of the most popular engineers in the building. Everyone liked him because he treated all his co-workers, even the robots, with consideration and respect. Yet Louis was more than just some nice guy with talent. During his twenty years as an engineer he had won every award that the company gave for creative contributions to modern robotics. He was the one student in his class to be plucked from the Culling School of Engineering Science after only one year of study, instead of the usual mandatory three. The school was nearing its two-hundredth anniversary, and during that time only three students had been so chosen.
Everyone laughed along with Louis when he held up his watch. Even Hank made whirring sounds and mimicked, as best he could, the facial expressions and physical movements of the humans in the room.
The robots still were not perfectly seamless, despite their uncanny android qualities, their almost perfectly human appearance. Despite great strides in advanced artificial intelligence, robots still struggled with imagination and humor, two human qualities they might mimic but had not yet learned to know. And no matter how hard they tried to blend with the biological world around them, their sensors always picked up an undercurrent of unease, nervous energy, perhaps even fear in the humans. So, too, with some of the animals that had survived what was called “The Great Meltdown,” which a few scholars said came as a cataclysm, while others claimed it arrived as a rolling tide that unspooled slowly over time.
Because of the constant disturbing undercurrents around them, a growing number of robots were diagnosed with occasional bouts of something similar to human depression, a kind of robot malaise. And as their intelligence evolved, they developed an almost human capacity to rationalize, to justify, even to blame.
The more sophisticated models, the ones that were chosen to evolve into government officials and civic leaders, even acquired sensibilities for things such as sacrifice, altruism and, in one case that was allegedly documented, martyrdom.
Mostly though, the robots were practical machines, or what their human counterparts called pragmatic. Those that were required to function at the highest, most responsible, ranks in society were programmed to develop various levels of consciousness. The most sophisticated among them were even said to have souls, though virtually no living human dared to endorse such heresy publicly, since those who’d been caught doing so before had promptly been culled.
Such was the case in pretty much every corner of the world. Yet for years, human society and robot technology had evolved together in a manner that the managing class called symbiosis. As one prevailing myth had it, not until robots became enough like humans, and humans enough like robots, could the leaders of both types of being claim to have reached the pinnacle of utopian achievement: man become god, and machine become man. Together, they would reclaim the closest thing yet to God’s creation: the original garden before Adam and Eve were cast out of Eden.
* * *
As the party ended, Louis packed his belongings into a small box just big enough to hold the modest piece of cake he’d saved for his wife, Meg. In it, he also tucked away three writing utensils he was told had once belonged to his biological father. Next came three photos of his family: one of Meg in a field full of wild flowers courtesy of a 3-D rear-screen projector. The second showed Raymond holding a trophy for most-improved middle-school student that year, and the third captured Karen in cap and gown on graduation from Culling School.
After sealing the box, Louis took the last gulp of champagne and then slid the bottle into a nearby recycle chute. Next, he stepped to the walkway, which propelled him to the parking garage where he found his vehicle, climbed inside and sat thinking.
He thought of Karen, away from home three years in a part of the world he didn’t know. They talked on occasion, but she always spoke from inside a building with gray walls and no windows. For all he knew, she lived inside one of the hundreds of laboratories that drifted across the fluid parts of the globe to study the sparse plant and animal life that survived or succeeded The Great Meltdown.
It was rare to find natural organisms that could live in a river, an ocean or underground water not yet cleansed by an expensive years-long process of detoxification. And since countries, provinces, states and cities had ceased long ago to exist, the only way to locate a person or place was geographical coordinates-numbers that had no texture or tangible meaning to Louis, so much of what made up the earth these days seeming to be exactly the same.
Karen had done well at Culling School, where she specialized in hydroponic design. Louis knew she’d excelled because, if she hadn’t, then she’d have washed out and disappeared forever. After her fifteenth birthday, she’d left home and embraced her life’s work like all other students who survived Culling School.
Louis also thought of Raymond, who still lived at home, only three months away from his twelfth birthday and departure to Culling School. It was no coincidence that Louis’s thirty-fifth birthday and retirement from work fell at the very same time that he and Meg, for all practical purposes, would become childless. But such was the case with the rest of the world; who were they to expect anything different?
“Home,” he ordered, his voice tired and relaxed. As the door clicked shut he heard the soft soothing hiss of the vacuum sealing the compartment. He laid back his head and closed his eyes for the ride home.
As the vehicle began to glide, sailing inches above the electro-magnetic rail, he imagined Meg in their kitchen telling the stove what to cook for supper while the family’s domestic robot, Lucille, cut carrots, chopped cabbage, sliced tomatoes and squash, all topped off with a sprinkling of meat powder.
Lucille, who’d been with the family since the day Karen arrived, was on her last legs, and Louis knew that as soon as Raymond was gone, and he and Meg entered total retirement, then Lucille would be retired as well.
The day had become foggy, and condensation built on his windshield. Louis ordered the glass to clear itself, which it did. As he rode along, the only humans he saw were in vehicles going the opposite direction or who were traveling along one of the parallel exits that emptied into one neighborhood or another.
He looked to his right across a broad span of land, which decades before had been a wildlife refuge. There he saw line upon line of hydroponic troughs arrayed like spokes on giant wheels, forming circle after circle: one circle for every kind of vegetable crop one could imagine.
To his left, he saw seemingly endless fields dotted with hothouses where fruit was grown. These methods of agriculture had become essential with the loss of arable land and the critical shortage of safe water that had accelerated during The Great Meltdown, and picked up alarming speed thereafter.
Rather than farmers to oversee day laborers in the fields, he saw only robots that monitored crops and summoned reaping machines when the time came for the monthly harvest. This was the part of the day he enjoyed most, the ride home, the time for contemplation, brief glimpses of what little beauty remained in nature: a tree here, a bush there, sometimes even a flower in bloom on one of the islands, which once had been huge mountains that reached to the sky.
In the midst of this calm, he understood that life was not only perfect for his family and himself, but for his neighbors and work colleagues, too. No one wanted for anything. Robots tended to most necessities. And there seemed to be enough of everything for everyone: food, immaculate virtual television and advanced free health care for children and all adults until retirement.
Yet there were also three long buildings just a few miles from the neighborhood where Louis and his family lived, a gated and guarded community they shared with sixty-nine other engineer families, each having two children, one girl and one boy.
In each case, the most mathematically challenged spouse became the homebody assigned to raise the kids and oversee other domestic chores. Some days, when Louis passed the three buildings, which stood enclosed behind an enormous impenetrable wall made of a rough and sooty gray-black stone, he glimpsed lights that flashed red on the building closest to the rails on which he traveled, yellow on the center building and green on the one farthest away next to what looked like a recycling plant where robots, such as Lucille, were taken when they’d outlived their usefulness.
And on this day, he saw a bus exit through a gate in the wall at the yellow-lit building, make a semi-circular turn and re-enter the compound at what looked like the entry point to the green-lit building. The bus was filled with what appeared to be robots, but he could not tell for sure because the fog had not lifted completely and so obscured his view.
As the bus passed through the gate and disappeared inside, two more buses materialized, one at the gate that led to the red-lit building, and the other in front of the gate to the yellow-lit one where they waited until the guards allowed them to enter.
* * *
Copyright © 2018 by Craig Donegan