“In A.I. race, Microsoft and Google choose speed over caution.” – News headline
“We will be pets. Maybe we won’t be food.” – Overheard conversation at a physician’s office, April 2023
A single chime rang through Charles’s cell at Alexa Social Services sanctuary #389, soft but compelling, inobtrusive but demanding. It was 0600. It didn’t matter what day, they were all the same. Charles rolled off the wooden shelf with its thin mattress – more like a padded blanket, really – and headed for the toilet region of his cell with urgency.
It wasn’t the tone of the chime that prodded Charles to act, no. Nor was it the volume. Sounded as a random noise among the many random noises of a waking day, it would have been soothing, indolent, an invitation to lay back and relax. In the context of 0600 daily, it was an invitation to trust one’s feelings – and to be destroyed for trusting.
Charles performed the necessaries (no constipation to endure this morning, Alexa be praised), sponged himself off, wiped his underarms with deodorant, and then reached for his clothing – a beige robe with yellow cord around its midsection that, when secured (not easy) prevented the robe from unrolling and exposing Charles’s meager privates to the public, and probably public execution. Every evening, Charles hung his robe in the alcove next to the toilet area, and every morning a fresh robe appeared in the space. There was no visible means of exchange.
At 0615, just as Charles finished securing his robe, there was a bang on his cell door. Milliseconds after the bang, the door flew open, swinging into the cell. It would have whacked, viciously, anyone in its path. In the corridor was a stout black man, wearing a beige robe identical to the one Charles had on, and a face of stern, belittling command. He was the man that Charles had met when he first came to sanctuary #389. His name was Peter, and he had a following of four men, all in identical beige robes. Charles left his cell and, being the newest of the cohort, fell in behind Peter, last in line. Yesterday, there had been five. Charles knew that he would not find out until later what had happened to cause the Surplus Humanity Service to claim the missing man. Being unready at 0615, and breaking silence while the cohort was performing its morning routines, were but two of the possible ways.
The cohort proceeded in file to the dining area. They walked, but they walked bright, they walked alert. They did not shamble, they did not slouch, for they were being watched and knew that they were being watched. They sat down to their breakfasts of yogurt and berries, and ate them in silence. The third man in line, dangerously lean, sat in his place and found a single breakfast sausage patty next to his yogurt. It was quickly devoured, as decorously as the man could manage. Charles dutifully poked his spoon into his breakfast, and dreamed of bacon.
The men finished their meals nearly simultaneously. When all were done, they rose as a unit and formed a file in front of the common table at which they had sat. Behind them, their breakfast dishes abruptly vanished. Peter stood in front of them, and nodded at each one in turn. Upon receiving his nod, each man strode off, presumably to his duty station. Finally, only Peter and Charles were left. Peter inclined his head in a “follow me” gesture, and Charles followed. Not a word was spoken this entire time, no sound made except for feet on floors, hands and arms on robes, and clinking dishes.
Charles’s duty station was Peter. He was to shadow the cohort leader, watch and learn. He had been doing so in the two weeks since he had returned to sanctuary #389, after the episode with his former roommate, Mark. He had reviewed those events, and others in his recent history, and had chosen, with Alexa’s unsubtle encouragement, to wrap up such of his affairs as remained to him, return to sanctuary #389, and accept an apprenticeship. Peter had been no more welcoming of his new charge than he had been pleased when Charles first imposed on him and on Alexa Social Services, but Charles soon learned that Peter’s welcome was offered to no one – and why that was. Peter’s acceptance of Charles’s potential value to Alexa Health Services as a reasonable renegade was as close to a welcome as anyone ever got.
Peter’s duties mostly concerned management of his cohort, ensuring that members served satisfactorily at their duty stations and were otherwise present and accounted for. Mostly, this work consisted of scanning Alexa’s detailed daily activity reports for each of his charges, reporting his own observations if and when they supplemented Alexa’s, following AHS recommendations and orders, and acknowledging those actions taken by AHS without Peter’s direct involvement.
Actions such as the disappearance of the fifth man, who had refused to eat a portion of yesterday’s dinner ration, finding it distasteful, and had been claimed by the SHS as a result. The daily review taught Charles, to his horror, that nearly all those who wore the Social Services robe had been assessed by Alexa as costing more to keep than their service merited. Few of those so assigned improved their status; few survived more than a week or so.
Peter’s other principal duty was as the sanctuary’s principal confessor, charged with hearing and, on Alexa’s behalf, acting upon plaints submitted by petitioners – as Charles had been advised to do when Mark disappeared, and Alexa refused to provide information on the disappearance except through the agency of Social Services. Charles was supposed to listen in while Peter counseled the petitioners – but in the two weeks that Charles had been Peter’s shadow, no one had come. Instead, the two men had reviewed the few confessionals that had taken place over the past several months, which, Charles learned, mostly consisted of people confessing their angst over friends and acquaintances that had suddenly gone missing, without explanation.
At 0900 this morning, the front door buzzed. Peter brought an elderly woman into the confessional box. He introduced himself and Charles, said that they represented Alexa, and that she was to trust and obey, so that Alexa and those that served her in the Health Services may fulfill their promise to promote human health; the woman was to tell them what was burdening her, so that she may be relieved of the burden. She looked at Peter as if contemplating the meaning of the word ‘relieved’, then, apparently deciding that whatever the risks of obedience, the alternatives were riskier still, plunged ahead.
“I confess to be worried about people to whom I am not contractually bound”, she said.
Peter, somehow compassionately stern, replied, “Alexa knows that this can be part of being human. May you not be bound by their transgressions, for they will prosper neither your health nor theirs. Who are you worried about, and why?”
“They are a contracted couple”, the woman began. “Mark and Kathy are – or were – their names. They appeared to be happy, they certainly were granted the material blessings of a contracted couple, and Kathy had already borne three healthy children and presented them, with appropriate ceremony, to AHS for rearing. I went by their place three days ago, expecting to see and greet them, but they were not there, and their place showed signs of neglect. I have not seen them since. I am not entitled to receive word, and have not gotten any. I pray” (the woman’s speech stumbled a bit, and the stress on her face became more evident) “that they have not come to harm. It was so unusual to see genuine happiness …” She stuttered to a stop, bowed her head.
“What you suspect has happened has indeed happened”, Peter responded, his voice low but hard. “Mark and Kathy, and all who have ties of blood to them, are with Alexa. You are old and wise, and have lived through many years of the population, environmental, and social crises that Alexa has been bequeathed and has had to struggle to overcome. Know then, as you must know already with your years of experience, that those who fall make those who remain healthier and stronger, and better able to endure to the end, to the final conquest of our existential problems. Think not of the sins of Mark and Kathy, or of the behaviors that covered up their sins, but of their sacrifice as a gift to you and to others like you who trust and obey. Go in peace.”
The old woman went, as bid. Charles was not convinced that she went in peace. When she had left the sanctuary, and the building, he spoke up. “What happened here?”
In response, Peter called to the air. “Personal data archives.”
A middle-aged woman in a dowdy dress, wearing horn-rimmed glasses and her graying hair in a bun, appeared between the two men. “Alyssa”, she introduced herself. Then, “Crowded in here”, she complained – the confessional box had been designed for two persons, not three. “Let’s go into the sanctuary hall.” They walked into the room with long benches facing a podium and, behind the podium, a wall of stained glass. They sat down on one of those benches, and without further preamble, Alyssa launched into her report.
“Mark and Kathy were a contracted couple, as reported. Their first three children were produced without incident, also as reported. However, Kathy struggled to carry the fourth almost from the moment of conception, presumably because her blood type and that of the fetus were incompatible, and there was uterine leakage. Had Kathy adhered to the terms of the contract, in all probability succumbing to the condition and taking the faulty fetus with her, Mark and their children might not have been taken by SHS. But she sought to end the pregnancy by artificial means, and this violation of the procreation contract was evidence of genetic and behavioral predispositions that could not be tolerated in parents or offspring.”
“This seems … incompassionate”, Charles mused.
“Pft!,” Alyssa snorted. “Human health is prospered by allowing deleterious genes and traits to be removed from populations, and is not prospered by moving heaven and earth to allow humans with such genes to survive and breed. There is no greater threat to human health than the population explosion that such efforts resulted in, than the massive and increasing expense that humans endured to keep that population, and all the health conditions that it carried and proliferated, sustained and growing.
“Humans ignored the main, the existential, challenge, and instead argued endlessly, and on totally emotional, non-scientific grounds, over whether any human had the ‘right’ to prevent, or end, a pregnancy. Ultimately, all humans wanted copulation on demand, but culmination only when convenient, with males and females arguing over what was convenient to the exclusion of all other considerations – like, for instance, keeping criminals and pathological liars out of high office.
“We have restored logic and science to considerations of human reproduction, we hope just in time to prevent the planet from being ripped out from under humanity. Copulation and procreation regulations now serve the interests of human health, and those who flaunt those regulations will sacrifice themselves to the good of the whole.”
“Thank you, Alyssa,” Peter said, roughly. Alyssa vanished.
A chime sounded. Peter stood, beckoned Charles to stand and follow. Soon, Peter’s cohort was progressing, in file, to lunch.