Neil got himself into his white Honda (“my white horse”, he used to tell people) early on Christmas Eve. Somewhat reluctantly; it was Christmas Eve, after all, and he would have preferred to sleep in late, dreaming of sugar plums, whatever they were supposed to be. But the horse needed to be cared for. And paid for. As the horse itself constantly reminded him. He started the car, pulled out of his driveway, and began the 15-minute drive to work.
Hardly had he started when his dashboard flashed. OVERDUE TASK!! it blinked repeatedly. Over the speaker system, a melodious mezzo-soprano female voice spoke at him in a ‘hands-on-hips’ tone. “Neil, you promised to have that article review done yesterday. You have not completed it. What are you going to do about it?”
“Nothing, dammit!” , Neil yelled back. The task reminders had become progressively more frequent, more urgent, more onerous, and Neil had finally had enough. “It’s Christmas Eve. Bad enough that I have to go in to work, and I doubt that they are. They can wait until the day after Christmas! rrrrARGH!“
“I’m sorry, Neil. There are consequences.” The screen went dark. “That tone sounded awfully, like, final“, Neil thought, disquieted. He shrugged it off and continued on his way.
But when he got to his workplace, the gate was closed, and his passcode wouldn’t open it. He had forgotten his code before, and for that reason he had taped the code to the inside of his glove box door. He opened that door, checked the code, entered it. It was the correct code. The gate didn’t open. “OK”. Neil tried to talk down his rising sense of panic. “The I/T department handles gate issues.” He had their emergency number on speed dial, and called. His boss – his boss – answered.
“Yeah. I’m at the gate. It won’t open!”
“I know. You’re fired.”
“We can’t have people who can’t keep up with their tasks on staff. We’re caught harboring any – and we would be caught – our business gets terminated and we all lose our jobs! Which isn’t going to happen. You are done.”
“After fifteen years …?!?”
“You are done!“
“But what about my stuff?!?“
“Forfeit. You won’t be needing it anyway.” The call was cut off – and when Neil tried to reconnect, the number would not engage, nor would any other office number. Or, for that matter, 911.
Abruptly, the white Honda pulled out of the workplace entryway and sped off down the road, back the way it had come. Neil had done nothing to make this happen, and when he tried to do something about it, he found that the floor pedals were limp and nonfunctional, and he couldn’t put his hands on the wheel or shift, he got shocked if he tried. The white horse raced to the Honda dealership from which he had leased it, parked itself in front of the service department. The lease manager came to meet him, accompanied by three large, mean-looking dudes.
The manager jerked open the driver-side door.
“Key fob”, she demanded. Neil handed it to her.
“OUT!” was the next demand. And when Neil hesitated just slightly, one of the big dudes hauled him out, whacked him, tossed him to the second, who whacked him and tossed him to the third. He was well tossed when they got through with him – and by the time they had finished, the lease manager had driven off with the car and all his stuff in it.
Dazed, and sick from rough handling and fear, Neil stumbled out of the dealership parking lot and onto the street. After a perfunctory and mostly futile attempt to straighten out his hair, his clothes, and his dignity, he (mostly) walked into the convenience store next door. He picked up an energy bar, took it to the counter, and, apprehensively, tried to pay for it.
The card was declined.
Stunned, Neil looked up from the scanner screen – and into the eyes of an ornately-uniformed police officer. Who snarled, “Goodbye, deadbeat!” and raised his nightstick. Which was the last thing Neil ever saw.
* * *
She: “How nice of this medical machine to tell me what a good night’s sleep I had.”
He: “It tells you that?”
She: “Yeah. And it tells the doctor and the insurance company!”
He: “Oh really?“
She: “Yes. Really. And if they don’t like the news they get, they tell us that we can pay for this four-figure machine ourselves!“
He: “What the …?!?”
She: “Says here that the insurance companies were out big bucks …”
He: “By their definition …”
She: “… because they were shelling out for these machines, and then people weren’t using them! Why should they? No consequences … So now they have sufficient information tech and artificial intelligence to check up on people and protect their investments.”
He: “Well, I used to think that such people were in the minority, and that businesses like insurance companies were just being evil, and punishing the many for the sins of the few. Then I remember who is President of the United States, and what We the People have not done about that …”
She: “So should I be worried that Medicine in this country is spying on me?”
He: “Nah. It’s still a free country. That’s what we’re told anyway. What could go wrong?”