Obsolete; a short story

Photo by Jehyun Sung on Unsplash

By Ron Prichard

She poured them strong, put the weight of the world in the glass. Face out of a Tom Waits song, beautiful in its honesty but worn down to a minor key.

Except it was all an act, the stress lines designed into her and not earned the hard way, though cigarettes or whiskey or bad choice in lovers.

She was still the most beautiful thing within a walk of my apartment and probably within the factory town walls, and God knows you don’t want to go any farther these days. Plus she was a good listener, though I wished she had some stories of her own.

She was another reason I never wanted to leave, but I often wondered. Of all the android-fired gin joints in all the world, why the hell was she uploaded into mine?

I can’t tell you where I work or the name of the town, since it’s a factory town. I signed an NDA the day I walked in and I’ll be walked out roughly if I break it. They’d like me to break it.

We’ll just say this factory makes widgets.

And the thing is it makes all the widgets anyone wants to buy, and more. That used to take facilities around the world that each employed thousands of people. This factory replaced those, and then replaced most of its own workers with bots.

When things got rough outside, the owners put up bigger walls and those of us still needed here were moved inside for safety. Because making widgets is a good deal, and there were fewer and fewer good deals.

These days, the bots take a lot of the widgets to a warehouse for storage. Most of the people who used to work here live outside the wall, and they can’t buy many widgets with their universal basic subsistence checks. Neither can most of the other people who live outside the walls.

The fate of the people doesn’t worry the bots. They go about their tasks, making widgets. Or making new bots and repairing the old.

There might only be 40 or 50 humans inside now. Each one with a specific purpose, a task that bots can’t quite pull off.

Me, I do corners.

Otherwise I wouldn’t really matter.

Aluminum walls cut by lasers and assembled by machines that can place them within microns of perfect alignment make for very sharp corners. Dust gathers there, thrown off in fine particles by the manufacturing blades. There’s bit of oil in the air as well, so when it settles you get grime.

Now, the air cleaners and filters don’t leave much to hit the floor. Rolling mops and vacs clean most of what does fall. But those tools lack the patience I show with a motorized toothbrush to really get the last of the gunk out of those razor-sharp corners.

It’s a terrible job, really, hard on the back and knees. But the owners do care about it. And they created the role for me, after my previous one ended. It’s important.

You see, a very limited number of people can buy motorcars – I mean widgets — these days. But those who can buy expect the most precise machines that machines can build. Smooth, seamless, purring beasts of beauty, never touched by human hands until the owner slips inside.

Just a little grime in the pristine manufacturing environment can work its way into the line, shifting gears and gadgets by the slightest amounts imaginable. The electronics that keep blades and buffers properly adjusted would sense that, try to make up for it. And that in turn could throw a whole product series off. A slight bump on the line where a hood seals or a door meets a frame would then turn buyers of our cars off.

Most people these days accept mediocrity. They’re happy to have anything. But not buyers of fine motor cars.

Wait, I mean widgets. Our buyers demand fine widgets.

Anyway, I do the corners. Hey, it’s a job.

I had a better one, and that’s what I want to tell you about. I worked for the man, the guy who founded the company. He liked to pretend he was just like me, a working man. And he’d always said he’d look out for my career.

Who knew he meant keeping me on to do the corners?

After a day back then — 11, 12 hours, six days a week – I’d usually scan out and head down to the workman’s town, a little cluster of buildings outside the factory where you could get a beer and a burger. For all the material the factory could crank out – three dozen a day, a few more if the market demanded – there weren’t many of us left by then. Maybe a couple of hundred.

They did different things, like final polishing of wood trim, mostly using just cloth and sprays and maybe a drop of paint. For all the machines could do even then, you sometimes needed a human eye to really make the widgets sing.

We all knew that somewhere up the line there was a human owner who knew that. Who valued us. Even if all we really did were corners. And that was good because he’d make sure there were jobs. Jobs were damn hard to come by even then.

I was in my third or fourth year here, so maybe 34, 35. I was polishing burrs – working as one of those craftsmen I mentioned who made sure it all lined up perfectly. The tools were a polishing drill and a barely abrasive liquid. Too much off and you’d ruin it, and be clicked to another position or led out the gate.

But I got a call. Come up to 47.

That was the top floor of an office building that stretched above the factory, glass and concrete that swept up in a sleek curve not unlike the hood of a fine sports car.

The anteroom was empty but for a couple of video screens and a sleek desk with a laptop perched atop it, and a synthsecretary in a short skirt seated behind it. She smiled, platinum blonde hair glowing.

I started to introduce myself, but she knew. You didn’t get up here unless you were sent for.

His office was expensive, the desk broad and made of white oak, inlaid with polished granite. The logo advertised the source. Only the richest could afford El Cap granite, carved from the former National Park’s centerpiece.

Wooden shelves lined with real books. Broad couches in another sitting area. A freestanding fireplace. Almost all around, on three sides, floor to ceiling glass that looked out on the industrials of our city, clean metal factories often with one high-rise office structure extending from each of them into the sky. The slums beyond, of course, stretching to where the deserts opened up.

He was 84 then. The eyes still looked bright, though the body, always thin, was frail. A genius, they called him. First the self-driving cars. Then the underground tunnels filled with automated trains. Then the automated factories that made modern transport systems cheaper by saving on labor. Even automated production of the rockets for one-way trips to the moon and Mars.

Good model for his philosophy. Go farther. Burn hotter. Never worry about who or what you leave behind.

“You know numbers, right?” he asked me, knowing. I was an accounting guy by trade. Trained just in time for machines to take over most of my work.

“I did before I got obsolete.”

“I understand,” he said. “Hard to find work for everyone that machines can’t do cheaper and almost as good.”

Almost as good. We’d become a society that settled for almost as good, because it was cheaper and all we could afford. Of course, those who were made obsolete then couldn’t afford anything.

“There are still some humans running the books,” I said. “Hoped to work my way in.”

He hmm’d to himself. Made a note to review those positions. Then. “What college did you go to? Public, right. Community, then a state?”

I said yes. He clearly knew. “Yes, you see, I have kids with four years in an Ivy looking for those jobs. You have years here, pretty much wasted them in terms of learning numbers. Such a move doesn’t happen.”

I guess I looked sad. Not that his position surprised me. I’d given up by then.

“Still, I do have something for you. I need an aide. Everything from helping me read documents to pushing my chair, which I’m in increasingly. I need a real adult I can trust. No glory. Pays better.”

And of course, I signed on. Got a nicer apartment within the factory walls, higher pay, free use of the leftovers in his fridge. My job description was simple: provide whatever he needed. Part concierge, part butler, part chef.

Because he was old enough to appreciate certain things that his machines couldn’t appreciate. Little things. Like the ice crystals on the surface of a proper martini. Or a fine steak, crusty on the outside and properly pink on the inside, glazed in the pan with an herbed butter.

“I always thought those are the things that will keep humans from going obsolete,” he told me once over one of those martinis.

“Very few humans can afford those luxuries,” I told him.

 “True. But really, how many people could ever really appreciate the fine things anyway? We’re all just animals at heart.”

I didn’t tell him that not many people even knew luxuries existed anymore, and fewer still had ever tasted them. Machines could flip a frozen patty and mix a hard-alcohol formula, and that was all most of us knew because it was all our parents could afford. Even those became less affordable every year.

For the next few years, I had it better than most, an extra bedroom and plenty of booze in my home bar. He also liked old movies and TV, so after hours part of my job was to figure out his favorites.

The hours were long but as he got older, he’d go to sleep earlier. I’d bring home his leftovers, or stop at the bar for food. And either way, have a drink of two. That android bartendress did make a decent martini. Technology moves fast.

I probably should have been satisfied.  But I knew how he lived. A machine wouldn’t appreciate the high-thread count of the sheets I put fresh on his bed every afternoon. If I hadn’t felt them, neither would I. But I knew mine were rough by comparison.

His beddings were handmade, somewhere where people still ran the machines. His food organic and unprocessed. His liquor brewed by real masters. His coffee from the finest Hawaiian beans, not some mix of cheap chicory and artificial flavors.

For most of the rest of us, that was all out of reach.

No, over many years our cars had evolved to look all the same, our homes to fit a certain model, our food was processed and modified until it all tasted the same. Music and books, made by algorithms to mirror the big hits, were weak reflections.

The machines hadn’t achieved perfection, or even matched what humans could do. They hadn’t risen up the way we used to fear. But we’d all dropped our standards to a level of mediocrity the machines could match.

And most humans had lowered our dreams to ones we could afford.

When he turned 89, he had me Brule him a cream dessert. I’d picked up a few tricks, and to be frank, he didn’t go out enough anymore to have much to compare it to. “Guess I’m about obsolete too,” he laughed.

He was in a mood to talk, and talk he did. “It’s not like we didn’t see it coming,” he told me. He could have meant world leaders, business titans, maybe the much smaller group that got immensely wealthy thinking up the tech that shaped our modern world.

“We knew the day was coming when machines could produce all the stuff that all the people could afford to buy, with fewer and fewer people needed in the process. We pressed ahead, not thinking about the repercussions. Capitalism would adapt. It always had.

“It happened more quickly than we expected. We thought the machines had to get much better, not realizing what humans would settle for. We underestimated the capacity we’d need to build, forgetting that when you cut humans out of the manufacturing, they can’t afford to buy as many products. Some of us thought people would share – universal incomes would guarantee consumerism – and didn’t realize most people would be willing to watch others barely subsist. We thought those decisions would be made by governments, but the modern world proved ungovernable.

“Really, we just pressed ahead and made our money. We are only human.

“We went from half the wealth held by 10%, to 90% held by 1%, then 98% held by the 0.01%, in just 30 or 40 years.”

“And of course, that meant those who served the 0.01% held the remaining 2%, and the rest got only what was handed out for free. We had to build walls around or factories to protect that 2% because hunger makes people mean.

“And of course, that 2% number keeps falling.

“Meanwhile the bots go on. Consuming resources and issuing exhaust, for goods that sit in warehouses. We certainly can’t tell them to stop. That would make them obsolete. And hell, that might make them sentient.”

“Martha, how are ya?” I yelled to the bartendress, who gave me a nod.

She nodded, and gave me a wink with a twinkle in her electric eye. Programmed at the factory. But hey, it felt almost like human contact. “Burger?”

“And a beer.”

It wasn’t martini night, not yet. I was meeting someone. A lawyer, to talk about the old man and his last days and all.

She nodded again. Pressed a button behind the bar that set off a whirring sound. Down at the end, a door opened with a freshly poured beer.

The glass came sliding, fired out with precision. It stopped right at my right hand.

The head was a bit deep. But what the hell. Martha couldn’t have fixed it if she’d had a heart. The machine controlled the volume of the pour. And never did get the head right.

She had to shake the martinis herself. Which might be why they were better.

The Kitchmagic burger was just as ordinary, and I knew just what to expect. The patty was always medium, and it seemed more steamed than grilled. Had to smoosh the dollops of mustard and ketchup around a bit, but it would taste OK. Not what I’d gotten as a leftover bonus when I was serving him, but passable.

The game was on, Yanks-Orioles. Pretty good crowd by the look of it, maybe 500 or 600 on hand. Mostly in the luxury boxes, a few ground level in recliners. Priced the rest of us out of the stadiums a decade ago. It was TV for the rest of us.

“Used to go a lot when I was a kid,” I told Martha. Just four times really, to the old brick stadium. But I spared her the details. She wasn’t interested in stories, and androids aren’t all that much for small talk. She was programmed to look like she cared, but it’s not the same. They make bots that work as psychologists and counselors these days, but that’s preprogrammed. Chatting is uniquely human.

I often complained to her about it.

“They should work on your patter,” I told her. “It’d make you more human.”

Same answer as always. Why would she want to be more human?

She did tell me to be careful when I was leaving. Seems a bad sort had started figuring out how to get into the worktown, and they’d been rousting some of the few still left working for cash.

I didn’t worry. I’d run into three or four of them just a few days before, grimy and armed with sticks. I told ‘em fine, passed over about a buck and a quarter in coins, told them everything else I had was in my account. They’d need my chip to spend it.

And they left. Used to be they might take a hand or a finger, wherever it was embedded. But the latest chips go dark when the flesh dies, so it’s no longer worth the trouble.

That’s when the lawyer walked in. Tall, trim, black suited and with coal-black hair. Her cheekbones high and skin flawless, with no sign of makeup.

Yep. They make lawyers as well as bartenders and psychologists.

She approached me directly with no small talk. “We need to talk about the late founder,” she said. “The owners have an offer.”

The founder wasn’t evil, that was the thing. He had contributed to science and the world’s knowledge. And to his mind, he gave away a lot. I think it’s hard to give much to those you can’t see for needs you’ve never felt.

He was kind to me. He seemed increasingly short-tempered as he’d passed 90, but I think that’s common. His brain ran fast right until the end. But he slept more, and just sipped his drinks and passed on food after a few bites.

I never asked where the wealth would all go. He had no kids and had outlived his wife and her family. He was an only. He did tell me, “you’ll be taken care of.”

I didn’t really mourn him. He’d reached the age where it was just time. His office and his apartment were filled with photos of a different soul, a brighter one. His first office, his founding team, his travels around the world, his tent at the basecamp of Everest. A full life that ended before he did.

But that meant no one mourned him, really.

The will was read some weeks later, and his lawyer – human, Harvard, but he arrived with two Stanford-bots from his practice – called me in for a reading, I’ll admit I wondered.

“He has taken good care of you,” the man said.

I suppose. A smaller but serviceable apartment, in perpetuity until death. A paycheck, assuming I’d work in some capacity as long as I could in good health.

I smiled, signed the papers, said thank you and told them I’d wait for an assignment. They could sense the disappointment, I think. “Did you think it was all going to you?” the lawyer asked.

I’d be lying if I said the hope hadn’t crossed my mind. I didn’t let him know it. But on the way out of the conference room, I had to ask. “Who gets it all?”

The lawyer just looked at me quizzically. Then he shrugged. Maybe the thought had crossed his mind about himself, too.

Then he laughed. “No one gets it. The factory is bequeathed to the factory. Same way his machines build machines. They look out for other bots, improve them when they’re becoming obsolete, raise the new generation to do better when the older one passes away. Like humans used to do.

“They’ll go on and on all by themselves, without really going anywhere. They will own it themselves, and own themselves. Quite groundbreaking.”

“So the machines are… self-aware?” I asked.  “Driven by a purpose?”

He laughed louder at that. “No. The machines have no purpose. No more than most humans.”

A few weeks later they put me on corners.

Not my dream job. But better than milling about outside factories, hoping for a job, and lining up for food drops while trying to make your water allotment last through the month.

Then this night. The sleek lady bot sat down with me at a table. Opened her case and brought out a pad, which she handed me. I stroked the screen up and down, trying to understand what I was reading.

“It’s a buyout,” she said. “You’ll find its very generous.”

“But the will. I can live here permanently. In perpetuity.”

“Yes, you’ll be waiving that.

“And if I don’t?”

She paused. Then packed up the documents and stood up. “There’s some talk that you had undue influence. He was as a result too generous. If you decline, it will be adjudicated.”

It just seemed wrong. I told her that. I was his friend for decades.

She didn’t of course get the idea of friend. I’d worked for him. The job no longer needed to be done. I should go.

That’s how humans do it, without blinking. So why not robots?

“You have two days. You can continue your work and await further word if you decline,” she told me. “But you should know, the factory is going 100% bot. You’ll be alone here soon.”

I think maybe they forgot me. Not the way a person would. But it might have been cheaper to let me alone than continue trying to move me out.

That was two years ago. I think there might be just three or four other people working here, all on a different shifts.

The bar is still open every evening. Don’t know if they restock it, but gin doesn’t go bad and the food is frozen and supercooled until ordered, so it’s probably OK.

I have a feeling, more and more often, that Martha is glad to see me when I come in at the end of each day.

There’s no basis for that, of course. Machines are about purpose, not emotion.

But I am her purpose. She cares for me. More than any other woman I ever flirted with. More than anyone in my life.

If I go, they’d probably just turn her off. She’d be obsolete. Just like me.