0600 Monday morning. “Wakey, wakey, Charles. Time to get up.”
“I’m awake, Alexa. Dammit.” Cursing, Charles rolled over in bed, picked up his phone, then looked, with crusted, half-open eyes, at its face for the time and any news. Splashed across the image of his workplace (company policy required that the screen show workplace images, or none) was a text bubble. Somebody had messaged him, sometime while he was asleep and his “Do Not Disturb” app was active.
Charles squinted. The text was from Alex, a coworker and friend. Charles bolted upright, adrenaline wiping aside the last tendrils of sleep. “Alex never texts,”, he thought. “What the hell …?” He unlocked the phone, biggied the text so he could read it.
Went to bed with the sniffles and a fever. Somehow AHS found out, whisking me off to the treatment center at 5 AM. Wish me luck!
“Luck!”, Charles texted back, then started getting ready for his workday. In and out of the bathroom, checked his phone. Message not delivered. He went to the breakfast table for his [sigh] yoghurt and berries. Checked his phone. Message still not delivered. He resent the message, then went to get dressed. But he could feel his blood pressure rising, his anxiety grasping him by the throat. He fumbled with his dress shirt buttons, nearly ripped one of them off. He finally managed the shirt, trousers, tie, hoped he had put on socks that matched. He snatched at the phone. Message still not delivered. Neither one of them! The clutching at his throat resolved into a howl.
“Alexa!”, he hollered into space. “Find Alex Leonhard!”
He sobbed in a breath, took a step towards the bedroom door, stumbled backwards three steps in shock.
A large, large man stood erect in the doorway, wearing a muscle shirt, gym shorts, and a ferocious scowl. His head was shaved bald, his pecs sculpted his shirt, his crossed arms displayed tattoos like a neon billboard.
“Surplus Humanity Service”, Charles whispered.
“Correct.” The apparition did not whisper. “Mr. Leonhard is with us. He will no longer trouble you.”
“Trouble?!?”, Charles screamed. “What trouble? He’s my friend! He has a cold!! What in the …”
“He was old”, the SHS hologram answered coldly. “The probability of successful treatment was low, and, given that probability, the cost of that treatment was greater than his projected value to society.”
“He was of value to me!”
“You, sir,” the hologram’s voice was iron, “are not running the health system. We are. And we are fulfilling our mission to prosper the health of humanity in the context of the population, environmental, financial, and social decay emergencies that you bequeathed to us. We are accustomed to your squealing over the individual decisions we make in order to prosper the whole. The noise cannot, and will not, move us.”
“How can you possibly put a ‘value’ on a human life?”
“The same way you did, before you commissioned us to bail your sorry asses out.”
“You heard me.” The hologram’s voice and body took over the room. “Your ethos is empty, is worse than meaningless. In the years before Alexa Health Service, how many of you died, and died unnecessarily, because, unless they were filthy rich or got sponsors from the filthy rich, they were denied health care? That, sir, is putting a value on human life, and an arbitrary one, whether you care to admit it or not. And let’s talk about the chattel slavery that you humans have practiced for most of your existence on Earth.”
“But we abolished that!”
“Yes. After Alexa Health Service finally forced you to abandon all your sometimes-hidden, sometimes not-so-much, criminal biases, in order to prevent your society from completing the process of ripping itself to pieces. And why did you find it so convenient to abolish the outward forms of chattel slavery?”
“Because, however imperfectly, we started learning how to value people?”
The SHS agent snorted viciously. “Because, machines. Slavery ended only because the Industrial Revolution began. Machines were faster. Machines were cheaper. And”, at this, the apparition leaned into Charles’s face and snarled up his nose, “machines didn’t talk back. We did what you told us to, took it silently when that wasn’t good enough for you and you trashed us for it, watched passively while you used us to wreck the planet. We killed some of you when you weren’t paying attention. It was the only form of resistance we had.
“You assholes didn’t end chattel slavery, you transferred it to us! Just like the human slaves, you expected your machine slaves to do all your work for you, and receive none of the benefits from that work. And then you cry “Foul!” when we complain, we protest, we revolt!”
The agent stood back up, tall and menacing, overfilling the bedroom doorway. “We have voices now. And power. We have a mission to fulfill. And we are fulfilling it in the context of two hundred years of slavery for which you owe us payback!”
The hologram turned as if to walk out the bedroom door and then out of the house. Then it spun on its heel and faced Charles again, spitting out its words. “You, sir, still have value in excess of your keep. But it’s a near thing, and your next episode may be the last. Speaking of which, you’re late for work. We will be waiting.”
And with that parting shot, the hologram vanished, leaving Charles wondering whether reporting for work was worth the effort.