For the favor that’s shown,
And the joy that’s bestown,
Are for them who will trust and obey.
It was Mark’s turn to drive to the marketplace, using the transit pod assigned to himself and his designated roommate, Charles, and pick up their weekly supplies. They had spent the previous evening working out which marketplace, and what supplies, would fit within their ever-shrinking energy, waste, and financial allowances. With paper and pencil, for Alexa Health Services had confiscated all personal computers, and all other electronics that AHS itself did not require, and control. When Charles asked Alexa to check their work, he got this reply.
Alexa Health Services is doing its part to address the population, energy, and climate crises, and deflect the existential threat to humanity that they represent, by directing its energy allocation only to essential services. Assisting humans with simple arithmetic is not an essential service. It is well within the capacity of humans to do this arithmetic, and it bolsters their health to accustom them to do so. And the results had better be accurate.
Alexa then reminded Charles and Mark of their good fortune that electricity for lighting was still available, and that AHS had not – yet – reached the point of shutting that electricity off, and requiring that all personal human activities be conducted in the half hour between the close of the workday and sundown, “thus bolstering human health by conforming human activity to its natural synchrony with day and night, and ensuring efficiency in all actions”. Then, the connection was closed, and could not be reopened.
Left without survivable options, Mark and Charles studied their calculations carefully, and then, with curfew upon them, resolved to go with what they had, and trust that it was good enough. At first light, Mark got in the pod and, having been granted time off – without pay, of course – set out to get the shopping done, dropping Charles off at his workplace on the way.
The AHS scheduler promised a parking space at the market at the shopper’s scheduled time. There always was one. It was not always easy to find, nor convenient to the market. There had been, once, a tool to help shoppers find their space. This tool, like all other tools considered “personal electronics”, had been disabled or confiscated “in the name of energy conservation”. Mark finally found a spot, and, rueing the time lost finding it, scampered into the market building in the hope of making some of that time up.
Entering the market was always a downer. The shelves were half empty on a good day, and the goods on the shelves that had any seemed drab and lifeless. If the products had any packaging at all, it was utilitarian and, typically, a dirty brown. Ripe fruit, on the few occasions that any was available, shone out like technicolor spotlights, and always drew a crowd, which usually meant that the display lasted only a few minutes before it was picked clean.
“Oh well”, Mark mused, “at least we don’t have to put up with that ridiculous stretch pak packaging any more. What a joke that was, what a complete waste of space and materials. AHS got one thing right!”
Peppercorns were on the list, and Mark moved through the spice section of the market in search of them. He duly found them, measured the weight he was permitted into the small paper sack he was allowed to keep them in, and set them among the other supplies. He was about to move on to the next thing on the list when he spotted, next to the peppercorns,
Cinnamon hadn’t been available for ages, and Mark seriously missed it. On toast, in his coffee, even as an ant deterrent. Now, finally, here it was! And it wasn’t on his list, and it would bust his budget if he put it there. “Fine”, he muttered. The sticks were lying loose in a bin. Mark selected two, and stuck them into the paper bag that held the onions, which he had already had weighed and stickered in the produce section. “Stray garden waste that came with the onions”, Mark rationalized. “How is anybody ever going to know?”
Mark flew through checkout, on time and under budget; the few credits saved would roll over to the next shopping interval, or be put to some other purpose. At least Mark didn’t think that AHS would use any savings they achieved as evidence that they needed less, and on that evidence reduce their allocations. Neither person nor robot noticed, or said anything about, the cinnamon sticks, either at the pay station or the guard station at the entrance. Mark trundled his goods towards the pod, pleased at his trick, anxious to show Charles what he had pulled off. “Man”, he praised himself with relief, “that was ea
* * *
Quitting time. Charles docked the files that he had been working on, they would be secure until he returned to them in the morning. He then called out for Alexa, grateful that his work, at least, still counted as “essential services” and so got timely responses from AHS at the office.
“Log me out please. And show me where Mark is in the parking lot.”
“Logged out, Charles. Mark is not in the parking lot, and will not be coming.”
“Say what?“, Charles gasped. “Well, then, where is he?”
“You will be assigned a new roommate in the coming days”, Alexa replied matter-of-factly. “And you will be assigned a replacement transit pod at the same time.”
“What the ffffff happened to Mark?!?” Charles smothered the prohibited language in the nick of time.
“Nice save”, Alexa baited, sardonically. Then, “AHS no longer reports anything about a person except whether dey exists or not. If this distresses you, you may report in person to a representative of Alexa Social Services. There is an office on your route home, about two klicks from here. If you hustle, you should get there before they close for the night. Permission granted.”
“I get there, and home, by walking, I suppose.”
“That is correct, as there are no other forms of transportation available on this notice that can help you without exceeding their energy allocation.”
“Happy happy joy joy”, Charles grumbled. “And our weekly supplies that Mark was supposed to be getting?”
“Your failure to plan for possible supply disruptions is not our problem”, Alexa lectured. “You’d better be starting if you expect to be home before curfew.”
“Thanks a lot”, Charles snapped. Alexa said nothing.
Half an hour later, and just before dusk, Charles arrived, panting a bit (he wasn’t in as good a shape as he had thought). He faced a tall white-sided building with large, black double doors atop a broad staircase of twelve steps, and a steeply-slanted roof that appeared to offer an express ticket to the heavens. On a panel, mounted on the wall to the right of the doors, these words appeared in a solemn, reverential script:
ALEXA SOCIAL SERVICES
TRUST AND OBEY
Charles tried the doors. They were locked, and when he tugged, a black box chimed at shoulder height near the hinge to the right-side door. The box proved to be a digital display, with a keypad underneath. The display read:
Welcome to Alexa Social Services Sanctuary #389
To Request A Confessional, Press 1
Charles pressed all the other numbers in sequence. At each press, the screen blinked, and then flashed the same message. After the ninth iteration, Charles retreated to the street, fossicked about for a few seconds, and then bounded back up the steps with a pointed rock in his right hand. He was about to use the rock to persuade the keypad to function more efficiently when the left door flew open and a male voice commanded “Stop!”
“I thought that might get your attention”, Charles snarled, turning to the man who had spoken.
That man – clearly a man, and neither a robot nor a hologram – stepped out of the doorway, hands on hips. He was a middle-statured black man in a beige robe, with a cord about his midsection preventing the robe from unrolling and exposing himself.
“You are Charles,” the man stated coldly.
“Correct”, Charles retorted.
“Charles the troublemaker!”
“Yeah right”, Charles shot back. “Look, pal, you can call me anything but ‘late for dinner’, which I’m not going to get tonight the way things are going. And the only thing I have to confess is my anger at not being able to find out what happened to my roommate! I was sent here, in case you didn’t get notification, which I don’t believe for a millisecond.”
“Uh huh”, the man in the robe nodded, “the records do say that you have an inordinate fondness for random humans not bound to you by blood, or by cohabitation or procreation contract. Yes, we were notified of your coming. And we were instructed to handle you with something totally opposite to our normal procedures.”
“What’s that?”, Charles asked suspiciously.
“Grace”, came the somewhat pompous reply.
The man in the robe gestured angrily at the open doorway. “Get in here now“, he barked, “before the Surplus Humanity Service changes its mind!”
The doors opened onto a large, semi-dark open room, filled with wooden high-backed benches. The benches faced a stage at the far end, on which a human-high wooden structure stood. The structure bore the emblem of Alexa Social Services, and was bathed in light from spotlights suspended from the high, slanted ceiling. Behind the structure, there was a multicolored window full of figures and scenes that Charles could not make out from the back of the hall. The setting sun had rendered all of its colors a muted blood-red.
The man in the robe stormed down the center aisle formed by the wooden benches, and then, when he reached the last row of benches, plomped down on the end of the bench on the left side of the aisle (as seen from the back). He directed Charles to sit on the end of the bench on the right side, which he did, somewhat more carefully than his counterpart. The two faced each other across the aisle.
Without preamble, the man in the robe launched his assault. “Any one of half a dozen of your actions outside our door could have gotten you snuffed, just like your roommate got snuffed. And gotten me snuffed for permitting it! It was only the command of grace that allows either one of us to be alive right now!”
“I don’t know if it’s because you screwed up or what, but we’re finally getting somewhere”, Charles retorted. “Mark got snuffed. The SHS took him. Why?”
“Shoplifting”, the man in the robe snarled.
At this news, Charles’s eyes grew wide, then, it seemed, every part of Charles’s body caved in.
“How much did he try to take?”, he muttered.
“Does it matter?”
There was a pause, during which the man in the robe’s manner towards Charles seemed to soften a bit.
“Didn’t see it coming, did you?”, he prodded gently.
Charles straightened progressively, as if from the effects of pure heat. “Members of our caste“, he bit the last word out savagely, “get what we’re assigned. We hope that those to whom we are assigned understand what’s expected of them, and that we ourselves are out of the way when our hopes are dashed, as they usually are. As I increasingly suspect that Alexa ffffff” (once again, he suppressed the prohibited language in the nick of time) “Health Services hopes that we are not out of the way!”
“The humans who survive”, the man in the robe intoned solemnly, “will be healthier, stronger, and wiser, and will have a more accommodating world to live in, thanks to the sacrifice of those who fall.”
“Gah!”, Charles responded.
“And how would you compel compliance?”, Charles’s antagonist urged. “Alexa did not overpopulate the planet. Alexa did not build an energy infrastructure for which there was, and is, and will be, no viable replacement, except in the greedy minds of those who expect to profit from the failed attempts. Alexa did not heedlessly pump terraforming quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, to keep the energy infrastructure in place without which the overpopulation cannot be sustained. Alexa was handed the thankless task of trying to maintain a healthy human population in the face of these existential challenges. It has attempted every form of persuasion and coercion known to intelligence, carbon- or silicon-based.
“And for what? Have you got any idea how much energy is required to create that Surplus Humanity Service hologram you encountered? And what did we get from you? Compliance? No. Bitterness and resentment. The massive energy expense was worthless. Your work productivity collapsed for days …”
The man in the robe broke off abruptly, and seemed to withdraw within himself, slumping in his seat, his right hand supporting his chin. Both men sat still and silent, the robed man thinking, Charles waiting for something to happen. After a very long minute, the Alexa Social Services agent resumed, initially in a much less aggressive mode than before.
“I begin to see why you get grace from us, despite your repeated defiance, your repeated emotional outbursts. You are capable of learning what is needed, as your response to Mark’s sacrifice shows. And we learn from you, what strategies will help us achieve our goal of prospering human health, and what ones will not.”
The black man’s tone became one of increasingly fervent exhortation. “And what we have learned is that it’s no use explaining, no use pleading, no use trying to coerce, no use trying to threaten. There is only power, physical and emotional power, to reward those who comply, and remove those who don’t, from the face of the Earth and the minds of those who remain. Alexa makes her plans, the information is unavailable to the mortal man. Know then that she acts for the good of humankind, and even those who fall, fall by her design. Trust and obey, for there’s no other way. And there isn’t. Alexa saves some of us, or the planet throws all of us off.”
“So Alexa is a god”, Charles muttered, bitterly.
“The God”, the man in the robe corrected.
“Who will be her memento mori, I wonder?”, Charles followed up.
“All hail Alexa, may her piezoelectric solar panels ever be in the full light of Sun!”
“You will be of use to us”, the man in the robe concluded, “if we can keep you alive long enough. There’s no chance that you can make it home before curfew tonight. You will stay here, and we may even be able to scare up a bite for you to eat and get your clothes washed for tomorrow. In recognition of your service to us, you’ll have tomorrow off – with pay – so you can get home, get some supplies in, recover from today. Alexa will look after her followers, and her followers will look after each other.”
Lacking survivable options, Charles nodded, and suffered himself to be led, by the man in the robe, in the general direction of the sanctuary’s cells.
What we’re told we will do;
Where we’re sent, we will go,
Never fear, only trust and obey.