The Management Class
by Craig Donegan
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
The world as Louis knew it was generally one of perfect harmony between robots and humans, though there were times when it was not clear who was in charge. If ever there was a cause for tension in Louis’s office, it always began when a human manager, or one of the managing robots, ordered a way of working that ran contrary to tradition. When this happened, which it rarely did, Congressional rules required an intercession.
By Congressional mandate, orders for change came from above after close observation of work routines, tests that diagnosed personality traits and differences plus interactive role-play to measure communications skills. Then, when orders came down, they always required that robots be reprogrammed and engineers re-educated. And each time this happened, Louis perceived that the robots became slightly more human, and humans a bit more robotic. As the two forms of being converged on each other, Louis understood that by the time they met halfway, humans would have lost as much freedom and autonomy as robots had gained.
By operating this way, Congressional leaders claimed that society could finally bridge the gap between humans and robots. Their aim, they said, was to end the estrangement, the alienation, no matter how small, that the most highly evolved robots felt when dealing with humans.
Louis worried, however, that such changes might become dangerous over time because, if there was one thing humans seemed never to learn, much less understand, was that when the time came to put on the brakes, then that’s what you did: you put on the brakes before progress, as it almost always did, turned on itself to become the instrument of its own destruction. In the olden days, political and social scientists quaintly called this reality “the law of unintended consequences.”
Hadn’t this been the chief lesson learned from The Great Meltdown, a lesson that, Louis feared, had been largely forgotten? Yet, as an engineer, he’d been trained to be nothing if not adaptive, to roll with the punches, always land on his feet. Consequently, his personal unease about pushing progress too far never lasted long. If anyone in the household worried too much on this account, he thought it was Meg.
* * *
When Louis arrived at home and walked into the kitchen, the family’s service-bot, Lucille, stepped aside so Meg could kiss her husband and give him a hug.
“Happy birthday, sweetheart,” she said. “And happy retirement. I’m so proud of you. And I’m so happy for us. Just think, for the rest of our lives we can travel and see real things out in the world and we can do it in person. Not just those tiresome virtual mountains and rivers and lakes. Not to mention Karen, who, for all practical purposes, has become our virtual daughter. And someday we might see an actual wild animal, not like one of those dogs or cats that members of the Management Class own.”
“Dream on,” he said, the thought of Karen being their virtual daughter now stuck in his head. He’d been thinking lately that until he saw and touched her, until they stood in the same room together, and he could touch the warm flesh of her arms, the smooth softness of her cheek and the comforting scent of her skin, how could he know if the pixelated Karen they saw on their screen was the genuine person who’d sprung from her mother’s loins almost two decades before.
“Who knows what’s really out there to see, or to do for that matter,” he continued. “Yet there’s one thing I do know, and that’s this: we’ve earned our place in a retirement village and will be safe and secure for the rest of our lives. Being an engineer, and a good engineer at that, has its privileges,” he added, patting Meg’s cheek and then giving her a hug.
“Your modesty slays me,” she said, hugging him back.
Meg then turned to Lucille and told the robot to quit cutting vegetables and let the stove take over and cook. As always, Lucille followed Meg’s instructions. Meanwhile, Louis wandered into the living room where he found Raymond performing thought experiments that played out in three-dimensional virtual cubes that followed him around the room. Over the past year, worried that he didn’t have enough brains to make the cut at Culling School, Raymond had worn a figure eight into the living-room carpet.
Raymond’s pacing had worried Louis as well, although Meg insisted the trail was in fact the sign for infinity, a sure indication that Raymond’s skills knew no limits and that he, like his father, was destined not only for Culling School, but to be plucked out early because of his prodigious talent. But Louis warned her not to be so optimistic. He knew that Raymond’s thought experiments were both simplistic and clumsy. Louis didn’t have the heart to tell him, but he saw what he saw and he knew what he knew.
Louis also had heard rumors about what happened to those who’d not been accepted into the school. Each time he ate a meal, always vegetables seasoned with meat powder, since there was no livestock left on the planet, he prayed for the souls of the vanished. And he prayed that somewhere, somehow, those who were gone might live beyond life, a kind of eternal existence, always with organic connections to everything and everybody, never truly separated from the ones they loved and who loved them in turn. Such thinking he kept to himself, the old churches of early times having passed from most people’s memories. Yet there was less danger in being born with a superstitious mindset than in being of low intelligence: the former was dismissed from serious society; the latter, simply aborted.
He knew it was bad enough for those who flunked out of the Culling School. But surely the fates of those who failed to gain entry were bound to be worse. He had heard rumors about where they went, but the only thing he knew for certain was that all of them disappeared and were never seen again, not by anyone. No doubt this was due to some decision the Congress had made, so who was he to ask questions? His first job was to follow the rules. His second was to devote all his questions and creative thinking to solving problems related to the business of engineering robots.
* * *
“Well, he’d better,” Meg cried, knocking Louis out of his reverie. “Because that’s the only future there is.”
“Better what?” Louis said, both bothered and scared by the quaver he heard in Meg’s voice.
“I know what you’re thinking,” she said.
“What am I thinking?”
“That Raymond might not qualify for Culling School. And if he does, then he won’t make it through the program. What happens then? He won’t be an engineer, and nobody does anything else. At least nobody we know. Everyone — everyone — is an engineer or is married to one. What really happens to those who don’t make the cut? I don’t ever want to think or talk about that again. Not in this house. Nowhere. Never.”
It was true. The only people he knew were engineers, except for the managers and some members of the political class, but even they had been engineers once.
“Let’s not worry about that,” he said. “We have a future to plan. We have a son who leaves for college in less than three months and a daughter who’s out of school, has a great job and tells us she’s doing fine.”
Meg started to cry.
“Do you really think retirement’s going to be all they say it is? I mean, when people retire they just go away. They say they’re retired, but what is that?”
“You worry too much,” he said. “All the managers say retirement’s great. Even Frank and Henry, the robots who supervise my floor, say retirement’s the cat’s pyjamas. I have no idea what that means, but I will tomorrow after I meet with Human Resources. They’ll give us all the information we need.”
“But you hear things,” she said. “Julian’s wife, Cherie, says that the compound with the lights has a strange smell some nights and that she’s seen smoke coming from the old-fashioned chimneys. Since when did anyone burn anything around here? It’s against the law.”
“I know, I know,” he said, “and you know that Cherie has her own problems. I wouldn’t put much stock in what she says. It’s not what you think. Our leaders would never do anything like that. I mean, what would be the point?”
“Where does all the meat powder come from?” she asked. “What kinds of animals could they possibly use? Real farm animals? Non-toxic ones, if they can find any.”
“The meat powder’s synthetic,” Louis said. “Everybody knows that. Anyway, there’s nothing in the readings we studied at school that says otherwise. If I can’t believe what the Culling School teaches, then who can I believe?” He paused, met her eyes with his and added, more quizzically than critically, “Where else are you getting this nonsense? And where did you learn about farm animals? Who told you that foolishness?” He stepped forward and tried to give her a hug.
“Okay,” said Meg, pressing her hands against his chest, keeping him arms’ length away. But he took her wrists in his hands and pulled her arms around his waist. She stepped into him, more to catch her balance than to concede anything she’d said. Still, she now pressed against him and, looking up at his face, she turned her head to rest her cheek on his chest.
“Just forget it. Everything’s going to change anyway,” she added. “You’re — we’re — retiring. Our only job now is to enjoy life.”
Lucille lowered her head and made her way slowly out of the kitchen, leaving the stove to cook supper by itself. Neither Louis nor Meg noticed she was gone until the room filled with the smell of burning vegetables. Louis slapped his hand on the kitchen counter.
“What’s wrong with her?” he said. “She knows better than that. Just because she’s less evolved than the others isn’t an excuse to act like a fool.”
“Mom, what’s burning in there?” shouted Raymond from the living room. “And what’s wrong with Lucille? She just ran into the wall.”
“Never mind Lucille,” Meg shouted back. “It’s your father’s birthday. And he’s — we’re — finally retiring. Forget the vegetables. Come celebrate with cake.”
Raymond walked downcast into the room, spotted the cake on the kitchen table, fingered the icing and then stuck it into his mouth.
“Who made this?” he said. “Did you order out?”
“The oven made it,” said Meg. “With help from Lucille.”
“Lucille’s gone,” said Raymond, looking out the kitchen window and watching her waddle down the sidewalk.
“No matter,” said Meg. “Your father’s retiring, you leave for Culling School in three months, and Lucille is obsolete. She’ll be recycled. I’m sure a transport will spot her soon and take her to the rendering plant.”
“Just like that?” said Raymond. “She’s been with us since I was a baby. And she’s got all these memories. You should hear the stuff she was telling me about the Culling School, retirement, where robots come from. And where I came from, too.”
“You shouldn’t listen to Lucille,” said Louis. “She’s unevolved and still carries around all sorts of garbage in her memory that’s garbled and doesn’t make sense. On top of that, she has no feelings, so whether she’s recycled or not, it’s all the same to her.”
“Okay,” said Meg in a stern voice. “Enough sentimental stuff. Let us eat cake.”
* * *
Copyright © 2018 by Craig Donegan