When the Sick Hyena Laughed

This is a short story that I wrote for a competition that was hosted by the RSA called Ethical Futures. It didn’t win, unfortunately, but it was still fun to enter and write. Here it is for whoever is out there to enjoy.

“You’ve been sick a lot recently, more than anyone in the office,” Elizabeth said in a slightly off-putting sing-song voice, a plastic smile moulded across her rubbery-looking face.

What about you? I thought. You’ve been off for a month this year at least. Isn’t maintenance the same as sick leave?

Instead, I said: “I’ve had a bad run recently. I caught flu, had neck trouble … stress. Plus, my girlfriend left me.”

“We understand. However, your medical records show no prescriptions for what you describe, and your medicine cabinet is completely empty.”

We: it was always disconcerting.

“I can’t afford the premiums.” That, at least, was partially true, but it was mainly because I hated the way my cabinet kept insisting I take the bloody medication, even if I didn’t really need it.

“Your bank balance says otherwise.”

“Are you accusing me of lying?”

She smiled that same production-perfect smile, her mouse-brown hair shifting slightly as she shook her head.

“No, but if you are sick, you must take medicine.”

“Like I said, I can’t afford it.”

“You have enough for binaural music and cigarettes.”

“It relieves my stress.”

“We understand,” she said, really saying that she didn’t. She shuffled some papers on the desk, a programmed action to make them fit in. It gave me the creeps. “The fact is, Peter, your performance is disappointing. On average, twenty percent of your day is spent unproductive: coffee breaks, reading the news, trying to talk to other employees, taking long lunches -”

“I’m doing the best I can.”

“We understand,” she repeated, “but we feel you can do better. You’ve refused to be chipped or to get an interface for religious reasons, but if your production continues to be substandard … well, maybe you should reconsider your position. There really isn’t anything to be afraid of.”

“Fine, I’ll consider it.”

“Good.” Smile. “Peter, we will come to the point. You need to promise you will not be sick anymore. We’ll be monitoring you closely, and expect to see you consult your doctor for some medication. We are willing to give you another chance.”

“Okay, I promise. Anything else?” She pushed a writing tablet towards me and asked me to sign. I passed my tag over it, got up, and walked out her windowless office, the door shutting behind me quietly. Damn HR bots. Predictable. Couldn’t stand them, though: clinical; something not quite right with the way they looked or behaved; almost human, but not. I preferred the older models. At least they didn’t pretend to be something they weren’t.

The silence was oppressive as I headed back to my cubic. No-one spoke as I walked past, each of my colleagues sitting in their tiny, walled-off spaces, staring blankly ahead of them, lost in parallel digital world; productive and efficient, unlike me.

Screw it, I thought. I’m getting a cup of coffee first.

The canteen wasn’t empty, which was unusual. A solitary red-haired suit sat alone amongst the dozen sterile white chairs that stood around the metallic table. It was James, one of the new managers they’d hired in the last reorg; can’t say I particularly liked him or any of the others, most of them in their fifties but not looking a day older than me, always tanned, always handsome. I got coffee, and they said I was avoiding work. Managers got coffee, and they were given bonuses for good delegation.

James had joined a few weeks before, and always acted as if he wanted to be my best friend, but I suspected that it was him putting the pressure on Elizabeth. He looked up from his cup and grinned, a perfect white line of teeth flashing from freckled flesh.

“Saw you with Elizabeth. What’s up with that?”

“You don’t know?” I asked, sarcastically.

He laughed. “Twenty years ago you could probably get away with calling in a few sickies. Not going to happen now.”

“Coffee, white, and two sugars,” I said to the machine.

“Please repeat,” it asked. Damn cheap Chinese junk. Couple hundred thousand for a HR bot, and they couldn’t get a decent drink maker.

“Coffee. White. Two. Sugars,” I repeated mechanically, and then turned to face James. “This time was legit; hell, I was coughing so bad -”

“Like I’ve said before, get some lung scrubbers, or an interface. You’ll quit smoking in no time.” He saw my grimace, shook his head, and chuckled. “Principles can only take you so far, Peter. Listen: get over it, and take off the tinfoil hat. The world’s only out to get you because you’re out to get it. Stop living in fear.”

“Twenty years ago I was treated as a human, not a machine.”

He shrugged. “Humans are machines, but we can hate it or just go with it. Either way, you’re still a machine. My advice? Enjoy it.”

“Coffee ready,” said the machine. I took it, and stirred it with a small synthetic spoon that the dispenser had thoughtfully plopped into the cup.

“Why can’t everyone accept me, instead?”

James laughed again, and smiled. “Because there are more of us. Just chill, Peter; the world doesn’t have to be so serious.”

Taking the steaming coffee, I went back and sat down at my desk, staring at the virt helmet lying on top of its smooth surface. Maybe I was wrong. Was there a difference between a virt helmet, and an interface? Between popping a few anti-depressants and simply conditioning your brain function whenever you wanted?

I’d always thought it was because I could take the helmet off and leave it behind for a few hours, that I had some privacy, or because a pill didn’t last. But everyone else was part of the machine, magnetically connected, all the time, to this … man-made God that watched constantly.

I wanted to stay human, and have a soul, but maybe it was all an illusion. When was the last time someone existed who wasn’t directly or indirectly affected by technology? Nothing in my life was really private. Just because I could disconnect from the net didn’t mean I wasn’t still a part of it.

I was just … dormant, on standby.

I sighed, picked up the helmet, and connected. The day turned out to be productive, and I helped describe a lot of information for the machines to understand.

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December 31, 2007