The Management Class
by Craig Donegan
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
The next morning, Louis reported to Human Resources for his exit interview. The HR representative’s name was Roland, and he looked to be well beyond retirement age. To Louis, the odd thing about Roland was that he did nothing to try to conceal his age. He must have been in his late forties, at least. Louis had noticed that some of his managers looked like they, too, should be in the retirement pool, but clearly they were not. Yet people aged at different rates, so who was to know? Still, Roland was an anomaly.
“Okay,” said Roland. “Let’s talk retirement.”
“Shouldn’t we do the exit interview first?” asked Louis.
“We just call it that,” said Roland, “but really it’s a retirement interview. We’re here to talk about what’s to happen to you, your wife and your son. Raymond, am I right?”
“Yes,” said Louis. “Raymond. He’s three months away from graduation.”
“Of course. We’re aware of that. And the likely next step, well, matriculation.” Roland paused and then added, “To the Culling School, of course.”
“What do you mean ‘likely next step?’” asked Louis.
“I only mean this is what usually happens. Nothing’s guaranteed. Not everyone makes the cut.”
“But he has the grades, the enterprise, the ingenuity to get in. If he’s to be cut, shouldn’t it be at the Culling School if, for some reason, his performance is, well, you know, not up to snuff?” he asked, trying to look surprised and a little indignant.
“Well, not entirely. A lot of the culling takes place well before that.”
“But Raymond’s been on track from the very start,” said Louis. “I’ve charted his progress myself. With just a little extra schooling, he could take my place at Henderson Tower.”
Roland raised his eyebrows. “Emotions are a dangerous thing, Louis. Don’t you think?”
“Isn’t that what makes us human?” Louis asked.
“Some robots have emotions,” said Roland. “You, of all people, should know that. It’s the one thing that can make them dangerous, and it’s also the main reason there are so few of that class. It’s our job, as humans, to regulate that. If we don’t, then what’s the use of humans? Which is why we’re still here. Self-preservation. To restore the earth to its natural condition. On that point, we’re making exponential progress as we speak.”
“When our project’s complete, the human population can be allowed to grow again,” he continued. “Do you know that before The Great Meltdown there were more than fourteen billion people on this earth? The air was so polluted and the waters were so poisoned that we had begun to establish colonies on other planets. We stopped using fossil fuels, switched to wind, solar, steam and even back to hydroelectric, but that wasn’t enough. We were doomed. You know how many people there are now? Three million.”
“Why don’t I know any of this stuff?” Louis asked.
“Because you don’t need to,” said Roland. “Only a select few, including some of the unevolved robots we’ve been tracking and phasing out, retain the old knowledge. If everyone knew, it would be pandemonium. You’re bound to have wondered about some of these things before now.”
“Well,” said Louis, “there’ve been rumors.”
“Not a good source of information, to be sure,” said Roland. “But there’s some truth in them. Yet when one of our unevolved units starts spouting off, we tag it for eradication as soon as we can. That’s what happened to Lucille, your servant-bot, yesterday evening. She told your son Raymond some hard truths. She’s been recycled already.”
“What happens to Raymond?” said Louis, standing and stepping toward Roland, who quickly raised one hand and held up two fingers. Immediately, two very unfriendly-looking robots entered the room.
“Now, now, Louis. No need for excitement. Please take your seat,” said Roland.
Louis sat down.
“I’m afraid he’s gone too,” said Roland. “He’s not smart enough for the Culling School. As you must know, we’ve tracked his development since the moment he was born. His thought experiments have been pedestrian at best. You know that. Just yesterday you told your wife that very thing. So a lack of sufficient intelligence combined with knowing too much, thanks to your loyal Lucille, surely you see that’s a bad combination. One that we can’t accommodate.”
“What do you mean, ‘he’s gone’?’”
“You know the compound with the three lights you see every evening on your way home from work?”
“He’ll start at the red-light compound, where he’ll be nourished and pampered and tested. He’ll get all the exercise he wants. No more thought experiments. We have all sorts of games that people once played and that gave them much joy. The red-light compound is a place for happiness, freedom, conditioning and good health.”
“I don’t understand,” said Louis.
“You remember before your children were born?” asked Roland.
“Of course,” said Louis.
“And you recall that the fertilization for each was in vitro.”
“And then your wife and you were sterilized because of our world’s two-child policy.”
Louis slowly shook his head. “Yes.”
“And of all the couples you know who have children, there’s always one boy and one girl.”
“Well, not really,” said Roland, his slight smile looked almost sympathetic. “Nothing’s unplanned. You know that, and you’ve always known that. You’re a very smart man. You might have tried to convince yourself that what you suspected all along was just rumors, but that’s not true. Not really. Because you knew. You’ve always known. Even though you’ve tried to talk both your wife and yourself out of it. There wasn’t enough time to work on Raymond, but that’s a moot point now.”
Louis said nothing for a moment. He just looked out the window. He could feel tears welling up in his eyes. What had they actually done with Karen? What would they do to Meg?
“I know what you’re thinking,” said Roland, “but you need to put it out of your mind.”
“What about the yellow-light building?” asked Louis, turning his eyes toward Roland. “What happens there?”
“The doctors and scientists in charge do various types of testing,” he said. “It’s a sort of analog to the Culling School. We measure body mass, quality of protein content, run tests for all sorts of conditions and diseases and take blood and tissue samples to check for toxins.”
“And the green-light building?”
“Those who enter the green-light building eventually exit in two lines. One line of people is cloaked in brown and the other in black. The browns walk a brown path marked on the ground, and the blacks follow the black. The longer they walk after leaving the building, the further apart the two lines become until the black line enters the lubricant pool and the brown line, that’s protein. It’s very humane. No one suspects and there’s no pain at all. It’s perfectly natural and goes quite quickly. You’d be surprised.”
Louis could think of nothing to say. He stared at his feet. He put his face in his hands and cried.
“Come now,” said Roland. “It’s not so bad as all that. You have a good life ahead of you. We’re promoting you to manager. You won’t have to retire until the old-fashioned age of sixty-five. You’ll never look as old as you are, so the young ones under your charge won’t suspect. You should be happy because when you do retire, at sixty-five, you really will have a life of unworried, unhurried leisure.
“You won’t be good for anything else and, like in the olden days, you’ll get old and die a natural death. Then you’ll return to the soil. What soil there is.” He smiled. “And in this way, you, with your wife and children, will reunite in life eternal. When the earth is fully restored to its original state as humans first found it, you’ll live in the plants and the animals, fly on the wind and burrow in the soil, just like old times. So, you see, there’s nothing to upset or worry anyone.”
“Reunited with my wife and my children?” he said, shaking his head in disbelief. “Have you lost your—”
“Be careful what you say,” said Roland. “Careless words lead to careless thoughts. Or is it the other way around? No matter. Just remember, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Then he held up a bottle of meat powder and gave it a little shake. “It’s all just a matter of timing.”
As the two robots advanced to help Louis out of his seat, Roland continued.
“As soon as your promotion is processed and completed,” he said, “you’ll spend a month in a special section of the red-light building enjoying yourself before assuming your managerial duties. Meanwhile, you’ll stay here. We have apartments upstairs for those who are getting promotions. Being there for a bit, you’ll have time to work on thought experiments you’d begun developing before you hit that magical age of thirty-five.”
The two robots lifted Louis to a standing position, their hands hooked under his arms.
“By the way,” said Roland, “just how old do you think I am?”
“Forty-five,” Louis said, his voice weary.
“Ha!” shouted Roland, jumping up from his chair and grabbing Louis by the shoulders as if to congratulate him. “You’re wrong. Sixty-four. Imagine that. One year to true retirement, village life, a clean lake where I can do some fishing. And then, eternity. What could be better than that? And along the way I’ll have done my part, an important part if I may say so myself, to save the world, to bring it back to its original, pure condition. Good luck, Louis. Do your part too. And do it well.”
He offered Louis his hand and, when Louis did not respond, one of the robots extended it for him.
“That’s the spirit,” said Roland. “Now go and do your bit, for the world, for your wife and children. Make them proud.”
Louis began to weep again.
“Tears of joy,” said Roland. “It does the heart good. You’re off to a great start, my man.”
* * *
After Louis spent a month in the apartment, a robot escort took him to one of the vehicles he’d seen on some evenings as it entered the red, yellow and green light compounds. He took his seat alongside thirty-four other passengers and nodded at the man sitting next to him who gave a grim smile and nodded back. No one spoke on the way to the compound and, when they entered the red-lit building, he saw that everything Roland had told him was true.
There were things he didn’t recognize, such as volleyball and basketball courts, several Olympic-size swimming pools, masseuse stations throughout the place and tables and chairs for all sorts of games that people played using colorful boards and small hard objects of different shapes, some with black dots on them, that they rolled and moved about the boards. Pleasant music filled the building’s pure sweet air, which stayed at a steady temperature of seventy degrees.
The food was delicious, though he avoided the meat powder and stuck with beans and other legumes for his sources of protein. Unlike most of the inmates, or retirees, when the time came to line up for medical tests, the new Management Class was not required to give tissue samples and only once a week did they line up to give blood.
Several weeks later, all the retirees fell in together and boarded the buses that moved them to the yellow-lit building. But the thirty-five new managers who’d arrived together were herded onto a different kind of bus that had a broad vertical stripe on each side while the others were painted with horizontal stripes only.
As Louis took his seat by a window that faced the buildings lit yellow and green, he saw two lines of people file from the green building’s front door, one line followed a walkway painted black, and the other follow a walkway painted brown. On the black path he spotted his son Raymond and tried, pounding his hands against the window, to catch the boy’s attention. But his hands made only dull thuds on the thick panes, which only Louis could hear, his fellow passengers not seeming to notice, much less Raymond, who never looked up.
Raymond had become obese and disheveled. He shuffled rather than walked. His arms limp at his sides, and his knees giving out now and again, forcing one of the guards, called escorts, to prop him up so as not to slow the line that moved ever forward.
Copyright © 2018 by Craig Donegan