Preamble: I have nightmares when I get too warm while asleep. One night last week, I wore long sleeves to bed and had a nightmare, and this story is a quick Friday-night-to-Saturday adaptation of that nightmare into short story (~9500wd) form. The basic outline follows the pattern of “Youth” (Isaac Asimov), or any of a number of other similar science fiction stories in which a tale is told from the perspective of species A about its interactions with species B, in such a way that the reader assumes that A is human and B is not. Language is chosen to be sufficiently ambiguous hopefully not to awaken the reader’s suspicions until the denouement at the end, in which it is revealed that it is in fact species B that is human.
It should also be noted that I am deathly afraid of needles, including tattoo needles, and the mere mention of them brings me into a state of utter panic.
The Crenshaw workforce dealership occupied the street-level floor of a large office building on Eighth Avenue. From the subway escalator, Coker was disgorged just a few feet from the main door; it detected his presence and slid open automatically almost the moment he reached street level. Coker dropped the stub of his cigar into the ashtray at the top of the escalator and strode across the sidewalk and into the dealership, removing his hat as he crossed the threshold. He glanced around curiously at the product showcase.
At one time, the space had been used by a luxury sports car brand to publicize its latest imports; the largely-unobstructed open plan floor and wide windows were admirably suited to the area’s current purpose. In most of the windows, and dotted around the floor, were full-scale models of the company’s products in various poses depicting the services they could provide to their owners. Of course, as with people, there was very little difference in the basic form; it was the accessories that really defined the unit’s function. A miner over there, with headlamp and pickaxe, poised to strike a fake wall of rock. In the nearest window, an aproned nursemaid smilingly bottle-feeding an infant. Further down, a chef, complete with floppy hat, tossing an omelet. Towards the center of the show floor was a replica office with several models in it; one sitting at a computer and wearing a phone headset, one lifting a file box onto a tall shelf, and a third, in a ludicrous lavender suit and tie, pointing at a flip-chart with a graph on it. Probably a very expensive version, designed to give presentations to customers, or maybe run training courses, without any assistance from the office, Coker realized. The models were clad with some sort of synthetic rubber skin that closely resembled the real thing, and they gave off a somewhat unsettling impression that they were just about to spring into motion and resume whatever frozen activity they were currently demonstrating.
Coker perceived that a salesman had trotted up to him and was bobbing up and down in his peripheral vision, trying to attract his attention.
“Howdy. Name’s Coker – I called this morning to come see your light office models and maybe buy four of them for our business expansion. Do you have any actual product here or is it all just dummies?” He gestured around at the immobile figures.
“Oh, this is strictly a showroom. We don’t keep product in the city – we have over seventy basic models and we’d have to pay licenses, city tax, and maintenance on them all. Typically, we go through the catalog here, discuss what you want to buy, and then we can take you to either a customer site to see the product at work in real life, or to a factory to see where they’re made. Both, if you’ve an interest. It’s a half-hour shuttle to the nearest factory on Long Island, and usually around another fifteen minutes to a customer site from there.”
“That’s fine,” replied Coker. “I have the rest of the day free, so let’s start by figuring out if you’ve got what I need.”
“No problem. I didn’t happen to take your call, but any of us on the floor can help you, so let’s get the catalog out.”
The salesman pulled a tablet computer from a large pocket inside his sports jacket and, with a few rapid gestures, called up a picture of an ambiguously gendered humanoid form in silhouette. He turned the screen to face Coker and began to talk.
“There’s three steps to building your worker – body plan, customizations to that body, and programming of abilities. We’ve got eight body plans to start with, and you can add as many as three physical customizations onto most of those. Some customizations might be mandatory if you’re picking certain ability programs to be loaded. And not all customizations can be combined. For example, you can’t really combine enhanced weight carrying with speed; the two packages are too different – but anyway, if you tell me about the work to be done, I can help you either pick the best standard product or build the exact custom item you need.”
“Hmm. What’s ‘speed’ in this context?” Coker inquired.
“Locomotion speed. Sprinting. Sheep farmers, horse ranchers, sometimes small animal breeders; they’re mostly the sort of folks who ask for that one. Cheaper than a sheepdog, in the long run – because it’s more reliable and you don’t need to buy and train a new one every few years.”
“I don’t need any of that. This is office work, sitting at a computer and a phone; no physical labor. Maybe fetching a coffee or something once in a while.”
“Okay, so let’s start with body plan. If there’s no real physical labor involved, I’d recommend either” – the salesman tapped a button on the edge of the tablet, and the silhouette changed to a more diminutive outline and a recognizably feminine form – “the Belle, or” – he tapped it again a couple of times, and the silhouette changed again to a taller, masculine outline – “the Light Joe. Both of those come with an English reading and writing ability package as standard, and a guaranteed 55 words per minute typing speed on a standard keyboard. Either will do what you need just fine, but people tend to choose the Belle more often for front-office work where she might be greeting customers in person, and the Joe for back office work with a moderate physical component, like shifting paper files around, delivering mail, that kind of thing. Same price, so that shouldn’t affect your decision. If you want to move bigger loads like copy machines, cases of supply items and such, you’ll probably want the Heavy Joe, which is a small upcharge.”
Coker mused a moment; while he did so, the salesman occasionally tapped buttons to flip between the two outlines onscreen.
“How believable are they, as a substitute for real employees?” Coker inquired. “Right now, all our offices are all staffed with real people – this is a bit of an experiment for us. New line of business, low margins, looking to minimize staffing costs, you understand.”
“Can they fully replace people, you mean? As far as work product goes – one hundred per cent. More than that, in fact, because you can buy specific attributes and abilities and know you’re getting the ideal worker for the job – guaranteed. As far as interacting with customers and employees, it varies a bit based on how you have them communicate. On phone calls, it’s rare that even an expert can figure out it’s not a person – you have to know exactly what questions to ask, and what to listen for in the answers. Obviously, face to face or on a video chat, customers will know at a glance. But honestly, market research shows that these days only really elderly people seem to care about that. The main problem you’ll have with employees is people asking if they’re the next in line to be replaced.”
The salesman consulted the screen, made a few more gestures, and turned it back to Coker. Onscreen was a female shape so exaggerated that it was practically a caricature.
“If you’re looking for something a bit different, some customers like to go the whole hog on their front office and order the Suzie QT body. I don’t exactly advise it, mind you – if for no other reason than more than one wife has been known to go ballistic on visiting the office to find their husband alone with half a dozen of these. But it’s there as an option. It wasn’t originally intended for office work, of course. Entertainment venues, mostly. Casino greeter, dancer, cigarette girl, military comforts, that sort of thing. Slight cost premium over the Belle, but not a huge amount. I have to warn you, it’s not particularly sturdy; it was designed for appearance, not long service life. Our standard service agreement covers twenty years of trouble-free operation; if you choose that body, it’s only ten.”
Coker shook his head and laughed. “No, I think I managed to avoid whatever kind of mid-life crisis I’d need to be going through to want one of those. And if I was actually in a mid-life crisis, I hope I’d just buy a sports car or a motorcycle and call it a day. This is a plain office work situation – and I won’t even be in that office most of the time, so no need for anything decorative.”
The salesman chuckled in return, just long enough to be deferential. “Good thinking. So, the Belle or the Basic Joe, do you think? We can sketch out an estimate and then print a formal quote and delivery schedule.”
“You said they’re the same price. What kind of money are we talking here? I don’t want to waste either of our time putting together a quote I can’t afford,” Coker inquired.
“Our office models start at around sixty-five thousand Feds. That includes a standard set of ability programming; data entry, records management, simple complaints processing. They have the equivalent problem-solving ability of a person with a high school diploma, and replace your average thirty-thousand-a-year white-collar employee. Once you figure in storage and maintenance costs, all that TCO stuff, the break-even point is usually around five years. Depends on how you finance it, too. Of course, we can provide models with more specialized abilities, but there’s usually a lead time on those because they take around three months to program. You’re buying four, I think you said? If you put them all on the same sales contract, I can do the ability programming itself for free; you just pay maintenance for the three months’ factory time. Delivery can be scheduled any way you want.”
“Whoa, there. Sixty-five thousand apiece is way more than my budget authority,” replied Coker, holding up a hand. “I’m not looking to build a Nobel prize research laboratory – I’m just opening a new warehouse and we need more help with the additional paperwork. New business since the China treaty, you know; lots more boxes to move – but not very profitable. Personnel and Accounting gave me money to spend, but it’s not a blank checkbook. I MIGHT be able to do twenty apiece, but definitely no more.”
The salesman’s pleasant expression was unchanged, as if he’d heard this particular tune many times before and wasn’t going to let it derail his rapport-building with a potential customer. He stroked his chin thoughtfully. Fixing his gaze on one of the nearby dioramas, he cleared his throat modestly.
“Of course, sir, a man in your line of business might have access to alternate means of funding, and we’d be happy to work with you to make that happen inside your corporate policies. For example, we have arrangements with one or two precious metals merchants here to organize mutually beneficial supply contracts.”
Coker knew exactly what the salesman was suggesting. Since the last war, the Federal Government had essentially forbidden the private ownership of valuable metals in an attempt to curb hoarding and regulate inflation. A thriving barter market for those metals had sprung up, mostly disguised as contracts to supply nonexistent electronics manufacturers with raw materials for circuit manufacture. On paper, the contracts referred to legal Federal money; in practice, only goods changed hands. People with access to mining markets had many opportunities to divert output into these sorts of schemes very profitably indeed, but Coker’s business dealt in manufactured items.
“We don’t handle minerals,” Coker replied. “We import and export housewares; consumer electronics, small electrical stuff, washing machines. We’re not licensed for anything else.”
“Even better!” replied the salesman, with some enthusiasm. “Are you aware that our products fall under a harmonized code that classifies them as domestic appliances? Exactly like a blender or a refrigerator; same import paperwork. And you said you were expanding into the Chinese market? Our clientele has a lot of interest in Chinese products, and most of them are quite hard to come by in the States at the moment; perhaps some trade in kind, acquiring and transporting samples for us to evaluate, or even full shipments of goods…?”
Again, Coker understood immediately. China was unwaveringly strict with its export permits; only inspected, licensed merchandise from factories with up-to-date tax payments was allowed to leave the country. There were vast profits to be made importing untaxed, not-intended-for-export Chinese products to the States – but “acquiring” them was likely to be a process involving cash deals at gunpoint in dark alleys, and “transporting” them would require cargo ships with secret compartments (specially fitted to keep the goods both undetectable, and in saleable condition), bribes paid to inspectors, artfully constructed paperwork… a great deal of trouble. Several years ago, in a lean period, Coker had once tried his hand at this sort of thing, and had barely escaped with his business reputation intact. Sure, the harmonized code matching his company’s import license would help the goods get into the States, but getting them out of China in the first place was a completely different matter.
“Swing and a miss again, I’m afraid. We only handle our own lines of merchandise. Company rules.”
The salesman turned off the screen of his tablet and slipped the device back into his jacket with approximately the same mien a sales clerk fifty years ago might have shown when stabbing the NO SALE button on a cash register. “Well then, sir, the price problem really boils down to this – you’ve come to us, and we are, I may say, a vendor of premium items. We could sell cheaper products, but we choose not to; it’s not how our brand is perceived. I have a certain amount of negotiation room, and my manager has authority to approve a slightly lower price floor still, but the number you offer is not in our ballpark, I’m afraid.”
There was a long pause. The salesman continued, in a softer tone. “I don’t know If you’re aware of this, but there are close on two dozen companies in the New York City area alone that consist of just one real person as CEO and several thousand of our products doing all the work. We really do make the very best workforce for purchase, and that’s not cheap to create and support. But, as you can imagine, there’s a certain defect level in any factory process, and I can put you in touch with…”
Coker raised a hand. “I got it. You have a buddy who resells the scratch-and-dent stuff that doesn’t pass quality control, or that gets returned by the purchaser, and he kicks you back a little under the table. Good enough for my purposes, I’m sure. Who do I call?”
The salesman smirked slightly and pulled out a small bundle of business cards. He selected one and handed it to Coker. “You don’t need to call. Just show up there during normal business hours, and give him this card. Tell him Lubie gave it to you and he’ll know the story. He doesn’t offer our warranties, obviously, but the product he carries is – how shall I put this – the very best of the second tier. I own one myself, in fact – even though I’d get an employee discount by buying here. It was built to be a cook, but it doesn’t do a whole lot of cooking; mostly the kids play with it.”
Coker read the address on the card – it was in an industrial park on Long Island – and nodded. “Much obliged to you. Maybe we’ll do business some other time, if this experiment is profitable; sorry to have wasted your time.”
“Not at all, sir, truly – we’re here to connect you with the product you need, even if we don’t happen to sell it.”
Coker half-bowed affably at the salesman, donned his hat again and headed back to the subway. A transfer to the Long Island Railroad and a short bus trip later, he was standing on an unkempt strip of mottled yellow crabgrass in front of a sprawling dull-gray aluminum-sided building with a few tiny, porthole-like windows. A weathered metal sign by the door read “Chas. Reynolds & Sons – Certified First-Condition Labor for Purchase”. Coker pushed open one side of the dusty swing doors and stepped in. He was accosted almost immediately by a middle-aged man who rose with alacrity from his seat at a turn-of-the-century woodgrain desk and darted forward to shake hands, smiling broadly.
“Well how do, sir! A pleasure to see you this afternoon; please, take a cigar or help yourself to a whiskey. I’m Mitch Reynolds, by the way; Charlie passed away years ago, but people keep asking.” He held out an opened cigar box in one hand and indicated a decanter and a stack of dubiously cloudy glasses with the other. “Were you looking for some quality workforce today?”
Coker handed him the business card and waved off the proffered cigar. “A man named Lubie gave me this, and told me I should see you about getting four workers.”
“Ah, Lubie is a good friend. If he sent you here, you can be sure you’re getting the best deal I can offer. Now, I’m sure he told you how I get my goods; I sell what I have on the shelf today, no custom orders. What were you looking for?”
“Nothing complicated, I hope. I need four workers to do the order entry and inventory management type stuff for a new warehouse. And they need to be pretty cheap; fifteen to twenty thousand Feds each, at most. I’m an importer; we’re trying out a new line of business now that there’s a treaty and we can bring stuff in from China. It’s low margin, so we can’t afford the costs to have people running that part of the operation. And as you can tell, we can’t afford Lubie’s prices either.”
The man’s smile narrowed. “White collar, desk job stuff, eh? And your budget is twenty thousand per unit?”
“Twenty thousand at MOST,” emphasized Coker. “Do you have anything in that range?”
The other man hemmed and hawed for a moment, then returned to the desk and picked up a thick binder. He flipped through several pages.
“The thing is, sir, what you want just runs more expensive than you’d like, because those models take a lot of time to finish on the factory floor. Twenty thousand is less than my wholesale price for workers with office abilities factory-programmed. Remember, I’m selling new merchandise here. It doesn’t have its factory origin label – they make us erase those, and the original serial numbers, so nobody tries to claim warranty on a factory second or overstock unit – but it is, fundamentally, the same quality.” He thought for a moment, tapping the corner of his mouth with an index finger. “I might be able to help you, though. Right now I have a big overstock on agricultural models; some farm conglomerate or other went bankrupt before taking delivery and a truckload of these came into my hands. They’re not designed for your application. But the production process isn’t like making cookies; there’s performance variation from batch to batch and even from unit to unit within a batch. It’s quite possible that we could cherry-pick the four best from this ag labor batch and they would do for your line of work just fine. Maybe need a little extra programming, but we can do that for a couple thousand Feds the lot, at most. We get all their performance data on the packing list when we receive them, so it’s easy enough to pick the four best units on, say, keyboarding ability.”
Coker sighed. While it was quite pleasant to get out of the office on this errand (which was the reason he had decided to do it himself rather than send an underling), negotiations of this type were not his favorite pastime. He would much rather be haggling over a few pennies per unit on a load of a million microwave ovens than negotiating to purchase four workforce units. Still, he was here now – there was no reason not to investigate fully.
“Okay,” said Coker, “here’s what we’ll do. Pick your best agricultural unit, and let’s sit him in front of your computer. We’ll get him to type out a letter or something, and maybe put a few numbers into a spreadsheet, see what he can do without further programming.”
“Fair enough,” replied the other. “Just take a seat and I’ll have one of my men bring in the best unit, and we’ll have us a little demonstration.” He shuffled through the leaves in the binder, ran his finger down a page, and picked up the desk phone.
“Marty? Bring over number 5027. Came in with the berry harvester surplus, should be in aisle eight.” He put down the receiver and looked at Coker. “That one has a 67 score on literacy, which is the highest of the shipment, but there are half a dozen that are just one or two points below that. You wouldn’t be able to notice the difference when they’re working.”
Coker nodded, but remained standing rather than accepting the invitation to one of the greasy-looking chairs in the office. He began looking around the room, trying to avoid the proprietor’s eye and the small talk that catching it would inevitably engender. There was very little to see; the office had obviously not been remodeled in at least fifteen or twenty years and it held as much charm as a prison lobby. A torn poster from the last-but-one Presidential election was taped to one window – all that remained was the “VOTE PRESIDENT ‘24” caption at the top, and the upper half of the candidate’s face. Not the winning candidate; Coker strained to remember the name of the also-ran in that election. Jones? Jonas? Something like that. In the footwell under the desk, Coker could see the system unit of an ancient computer. A sticky-looking dust bunny of hair, tobacco residue and who-knows-what protruded from the cooling vents on its rear. No way the fan in there could be turning, thought Coker. Amazing the computer was still working, really.
A door in the back of the office opened, and a man in dull gray overalls appeared, shepherding a worker in front of him. The worker was unusually tall; significantly more than six feet, though thinly constructed – a very odd body style, Coker thought. He looked at the store owner, who anticipated the question without being asked.
“Special body plan for that type of farm. They grow their crops on some kind of multi-level hydroponic shelf system to save space. That’s why they need harvesters on the tall side of average. Don’t worry, they are all compatible with standard office furniture. Manufacturers in the States have to design all their products to work with the normal anthropometric standards, so they aren’t accused of building people out of the workplace with non-human-sized worker body plans. They all fit standard clothing sizes too, so if you want, you can outfit them with uniforms or make them blend in with your office dress code just like people. At least these ones can reach those files on the top shelves, eh? Heh-heh! You can head on back now, Marty – thanks.”
The man in overalls went back out, and the door closed behind him.
“Okay. Hey there, 5027!” said the salesman, guiding the worker into the swivel chair in front of the computer. “Let’s see what you can do for this customer.”
He tapped the computer’s screen and opened a word processor to a fresh blank page.
“How about you just type out this,” – he rummaged around the desk and found a sales disclosure form – “this piece of paper here. Don’t worry about any of the formatting, just type the words as fast as you’re able without making any mistakes.”
5027 inspected the piece of paper and turned towards the screen. As far as it was possible for a face to show such things when said face was not attached to a person, 5027 looked puzzled. It looked back at the paper, then at the salesman.
“Type out, boss?” 5027’s voice was low in pitch.
“That’s right. Just read what’s on the paper and type it into the computer.”
“Type out. Okay.” Even though it was just responding with a worker’s normal acknowledgement of orders received and understood, 5027 somehow managed to convey an air of doubt.
Holding the sheet of paper in its right hand, the worker reached for the keyboard with its left. Glancing between the paper, the keyboard and the blinking cursor, it began to transcribe the text. It was almost painful to watch as it read a word, looked at the keyboard to guide its keystrokes, and then checked back on the screen to confirm the word had been entered correctly.
The two men watched this process in silence for a minute or two, during which time 5027 managed to copy a few sentences.
“5027, stop. Go back to storage now,” the salesman ordered.
“Back to storage. Okay.” 5027 rose and departed via the door in the rear of the office. Coker and the salesman eyed each other for a moment, each waiting for the other to comment first.
“What,” asked Coker acidly, “am I supposed to do with THAT in my office?”
“I do understand, sir. Can’t blame you for not being impressed. However, this is definitely the best I can offer in your price bracket. And if we ran them through standard office programming, they would improve some. Of course, I’d need a purchase commitment for that, since you’d be modifying the goods.”
“And no guarantees as to whether it would even work, right?”
“Well… not really. They weren’t built for it, you see. We can load any program you want, but it’s not exactly just a disc you put in the slot and away it goes. You’re applying an aftermarket set of very complicated guidelines and behavior path reinforcements on top of an even more complicated ruleset already loaded on the unit. Doing that on a unit that’s already up and running – it’s just not as predictable as factory programming, where you start with a basically blank unit and load a complete package of abilities that were all designed to run together. Basically, you can’t remove anything that’s already programmed, so the aftermarket route sort of tries to bend the unit’s existing programming closer towards whatever it is you want done. The amount it can bend depends on how functionally similar the unit’s original program was, how long the unit has been in service, and a few other things – including random production factors. 5027 there,” – he tapped what was presumably 5027’s entry in the binder on the desk – “my experience tells me he’s got potential up to maybe sixty per cent of a factory-built office unit. Maybe a fraction more if you run the programming twice, but you can’t keep reprogramming them over and over; eventually they go into overload, and then most of their abilities get scrambled.”
“So, for twenty thousand Feds, I can get a worker that will MAYBE be a bit more than half as useful as a person. Or I might get title to a broken unit that isn’t useful for anything, and I’ll have to pay license fees and disposal costs on top of the twenty thousand, and still have nothing. Sounds like I’d be much better off just hiring real people at thirty thousand a year. At least if this venture doesn’t pan out, I just fire them and my expenses are done.”
“It’s not quite as dire as that,” replied the salesman. “There are other points to consider, like the residual resale value of the unit; worst case, they’re usually worth something when parted out. But it sounds like this isn’t the plan for you.”
“Damn straight this isn’t the plan for me,” replied Coker. “You know, I thought it was a simple thing to buy a few workers to open a new plant. The advertisements all talk about how cheap it is, how there are a million options on the market for every price point. Doesn’t really seem to be true, does it?”
The salesman made a “whoa” gesture with his palms. “Sir, there’s no need for strong language. I can assure you the workers you want exist, and I think can even be found at the price you want. It’s just a question of shopping in the right way to meet your priorities. These things are slow and expensive to make, and they last a long time – so they’re priced accordingly. You’ve got basically four different types of marketplaces for customers with different needs and purses. Crenshaw and his peers sell the top of the line; models built exactly how you want them, guarantees, financing plans, maintenance agreements, accessories, custom uniforms, same day replacement in case of accidents – the works. Here, I cater to a customer who wants top quality new product, but doesn’t need it custom built, and doesn’t care about name brands. And then there’s a whole network of dealers who work as a sort of trade association with the big factories to buy their own house-label product. Not made with the same care as the name brands; some corners cut, you might say, and nowhere near the number of add-on options – but generally a very reliable product. If you pick a model that gets Government contract acquisitions, you can usually ride their purchase volumes and get a very attractive price. There’s two dealers like that less than ten minutes away by car; would you like their names?”
“That’s three,” replied Coker.
“Three different types of marketplace. You said there were four. What’s the fourth?”
The salesman avoided Coker’s eyes. “Well now, I don’t know that you want to look down that path. It’s a bit… specialized.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s a little difficult to put into words, sir, especially as I don’t know your background – I don’t want to give offense.”
“You already offended me as much as a man likely could, by showing me that semi-functional berry-picker and telling me with a straight face that it could type my correspondence,” Coker retorted, though not with ill-will. “Just say what you mean to say in plain language, explain whatever part I don’t understand, and there’ll be no offense taken.”
“As you say, sir. I didn’t want to get into this, because the other marketplace isn’t one I’d recommend to just any customer, especially a first-time customer. It’s what we call the ‘retired’ market. Used goods, no warranties or promises – and no two the same, generally.”
“Where do they come from?” asked Coker. This sounded promising, he thought. Perhaps he could stay under budget and wave the surplus in Accounting’s face.
“Everywhere. Nowhere. You’re not given a history of the units, and their previous license tags are erased and overstamped to protect the privacy of the previous owner. You can often work out some of the story by looking at the unit, though; sometimes by observing how it does a job of work. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you it’s a real mixed bag of functionality and remaining service life. Most customers don’t run these units until they completely stop; they tend to have more frequent breakdowns toward the end of their service life and repairs get more and more expensive. Some customers just up and replace their workers as soon as the ten- or twenty-year guarantee period ends, in fact. Sometimes they get replaced when a new machine or technology comes along and it just isn’t cost-effective to try and reprogram existing workers for the new process. Of course, there’s also companies that go out of business, and their workers get liquidated and auctioned with the other assets. There’s altered workers, too – not completely useless, but damaged in some way that isn’t cost-effective to repair. Losing a leg on a worker fifteen years in, for example – expensive to replace. But a missing leg won’t affect the ability to type, or to answer phone calls. Gosh, I once saw a lot of over a dozen Government units that all had their legs removed on purpose to fit in some type of experimental airplane or rocket ship they were testing. Call center operator bought them all; I think he paid two hundred each for them. Great bargain.”
“Buyer beware doesn’t seem so terrible,” Coker replied. “Sounds like a man could find anything he wants there. I assume the prices are good. Why the caveats?”
“Prices can be very good; you won’t find them lower elsewhere. I’d think you can find office workers with at least ten more years of relatively maintenance-free service life, for around eight thousand. Maybe closer to five, if there’s an oversupply at the moment. But again, it’s not a simple matter.”
“What’s not simple? I walk in, I ask for what I want, I pay. Cash and carry, no?”
“It doesn’t work that way. The folks who run these dealerships buy their stock in bulk at auction. They don’t do much in the way of sorting – mostly they sort by date of manufacture, because that information is stamped on the unit and can’t be argued about. Workers that are obviously physically damaged get put aside into the bargain bin, or just disposed of. They absolutely do not try to figure out the installed abilities and history of each unit they receive; it’s just not worth it to them. And I’m not saying they’ll lie to you, exactly, but it’s very much like buying a used automobile with no warranty. Totally your responsibility to look over the merchandise, listen to what noises it makes, decide if it’s good for what you want, and negotiate a price you’re willing to pay. You might get real lucky and arrive the day after a Government surplus auction. Maybe there’ll be twenty units there from the quartermaster’s offices, all with logistics packages and perfect for your line of work. The Government facility marks will be struck out, of course, but those sorts of workers are pretty easy to identify, and you might pick the four best-looking units and walk out a happy man for twenty-five thousand the lot. But on the other hand, you might think you got lucky, then find out you accidentally picked up a bunch of Air Force ordnance loaders. They know how to operate a stock computer and move packages around, but their programming is full of hundreds of pieces of specialized information about what bolts and cables go where when you’re connecting a certain type of missile to a certain type of jet fighter. So, once you get into details, the factory-programmed abilities are totally different from what you need, and you’ll be stuck with them. Or you might get workers with hard-to-see internal functional issues that make them unreliable – maybe even dangerous. People have been killed by runaway workers before now, especially ones that have been given some back-alley bootleg programming to be bodyguards or fighters. Takes a lot of experience to judge that sort of thing, and the men who supply bulk lots of sorted workers for medium-size industry specialize in reclaiming the wheat from the chaff there, as it were. So most of the really good stuff never even makes it to the retail shelf; what you see there is almost all leftovers. It’s cheap merchandise, but cheap merchandise has a different kind of price, sir. I wouldn’t want to steer you that way, given the dangers. But again – I don’t know your history, and I don’t want you to think I’m passing judgement on your experience. Just want to be sure I’ve mentioned the risks.”
“I think I have a pretty good eye,” replied Coker cautiously. “I’ve hired a lot of people in my time; I have to think that counts for something towards checking the quality of used workers.” He mused for a second. “Maybe what I’ll do is try my hand at buying just one at first. If it goes well, I’ll go back for more. If not, I’ll eat my losses and maybe squeeze Accounting a little harder, buy something new.”
“If that’s what you want to do, sir, there’s four – no, five retired worker dealerships pretty close by. I’d personally recommend Ray’s though. He’s over on the east side of town by the railroad. My driver will take you there if you’d like. From his place you can walk back to the LIRR and you’ll be back in the city in forty-five minutes.”
“Thanks, I appreciate it – I took the train over here, so I don’t have a car with me.”
“I wish you the best of luck, sir. Anything else I can do for you today?”
“No,” said Coker, “you’ve been most helpful. Have yourself a pleasant day.” He was about to push open the door to leave when he turned around, a sudden question in his mind.
“Actually, sir? I would like to know one more thing. How is it you-all in the trade are so keen to recommend my business to the next man in line? I assumed with Lubie it was kickbacks, maybe merchandise leaving the factory by the back door, but what’s your angle sending me to this Ray character?”
The proprietor looked taken aback for a moment, and then he guffawed.
“First of all, sir, you can be absolutely sure about my ‘angle,’ as you put it, that there’s no goods leaving the Crenshaw factory by any back doors. Lubie is a sharp dealer, for certain, but he’d never get them to compromise their business principles. They’d truly rather just set merchandise afire than have the slightest possibility of tarnishing their good name. That’s why the factory label has to be struck out for resale. Most of what I get is units where the programming has failed. Say for instance that someone ordered a Heavy Joe with pathfinding and marksmanship abilities for some paramilitary application, and the marksmanship programming didn’t take properly. Well, a week after that I’ll get a catalog listing a Heavy Joe with ‘partial non-functional abilities’ at a good wholesale price, and I’ll buy him, figure out what usable abilities he has, update his license papers and resell him, properly labeled as to what he can do. It’s a salvage job, simple as that; no cheating. And as far as your first question, sure I know Ray and he knows me – but no money changes hands. It’s a small community, and we all try to be good neighbors. Today you’re looking to buy at the bottom of the market, but if your venture does well, your next purchase will be from the middle of the market – that’s where I am – or maybe even at the high end where Lubie does business. We all help each other in trade, because happy customers come back to our type of product and that’s how we grow the industry. I do assure you we’re not the guild of evildoers some make us out to be, but I guess it’s gonna take another century or two for that image to wear off. The average man on the street still thinks we’re trying to take his job; he doesn’t realize we’re trying to make more jobs for people, by increasing the range of things that can be done without people.”
“Fair enough,” said Coker. “That explanation makes sense. I hope I didn’t offend you, either; I just didn’t see how the pieces all fit together; it being my first time in the market, and all.”
“No offense taken at all, sir. You’ve been a sight more restrained with your questions than many, and right courteous also. Give my regards to Ray, and you’ll find a welcome here when you’re shopping with a heavier purse, perhaps. Just head on out to the black limo in front and tell the driver I said to take you to Ray’s.”
Coker raised his hat to signal a courteous goodbye, and exited the office. The limousine to which he had been directed was old, but well-maintained, and the driver operated it smoothly. The ride was no more than ten minutes, and when the car pulled to a halt he was in front of a tall, solid sheet-metal fence with a door in it. Posts above the top of the fence held several layers of razor wire, and the insulators to which the wire was tied implied that it was electrified. The fence was seemingly endless in either direction; if it was as deep as it was wide, it enclosed an area of at least a few acres.
“Ray’s, boss.” The driver pressed a switch on the dash and the passenger door swung open hydraulically.
Coker stepped out and nodded to the driver. “Tell your owner thank you kindly,” he said.
“Yes, boss.” The car pulled away, and Coker turned his attention to the door. On one side of it, there was a mail slot in the fence, with unevenly-applied self-adhesive letters spelling “RAY’S” and the street number. Just above the mail slot was a video doorbell. Coker took off his hat, pressed the doorbell, and waited.
Nobody spoke through the doorbell, but someone on the far end must have looked at his image and decided he looked like a reasonable prospect, because the door latch buzzed. Coker pushed it open and walked in.
He was standing on a worn-to-the-dirt path with tall weeds all around. The enclosed area was indeed several acres in size, and dotted around the expanse were various structures that looked rather like barns without walls; they had corrugated fiberglass roofs and were surrounded by chain-link fences. In the closest, he could see an assorted group of perhaps twenty workers of all shapes and sizes parked under the fiberglass shade. They were almost entirely motionless, but occasionally he could see a limb move, so they were obviously functional. He walked a little closer and looked them over. A very heterogeneous bunch; one of them looked new, or almost new, but of the rest he could see, most were clearly outside their twenty-year warranty and at least half were vintage models well over forty years old. One of them looked even more ancient than the rest, and Coker guessed that it might have left the factory as much as seventy years ago. Very unusual; you didn’t see that sort of thing much except in stately homes where the antique workers were regarded much the same way as the antique chairs and sofas.
A throaty voice boomed from loudspeakers around the compound, making Coker start.
“Feel free to look at my private collection there, but if you want some directions on where to find things, or when you’re ready to buy, come on over to the office. It’s the building at the end of the path.”
Coker looked down the path and saw, some distance away, an old double-wide mobile home sitting across it. The structure looked as if it had been airlifted in from one of the poorest trailer parks in the county, and none too carefully; the cheap plastic siding had fallen off it in several places and one of the windows was boarded up with plywood. He walked towards it, passing several more barns full of similarly motley collections of workers, and pushed open the door.
The room in which he found himself had probably been the living room, originally, but was now being used as an office of sorts. It was crammed with grimy papers and objects; figurines modeling the body plans of forgotten product lines from decades ago, catalogs of farm implements and uniforms and tools and a myriad other accessories, empty cans of beer and cola, coffee cans full of cigar ends, unopened mail, and a myriad cardboard boxes full of who-knew-what. At one end of the room, a dark passage led to the other rooms in the home, and a low breakfast bar – covered in more detritus – provided a view into an adjacent small kitchen.
An enormous man was half-sitting-half-lying on a couch at the end of the room opposite the kitchen, smoking a villainous-smelling cheroot and swiping to and fro on a tablet computer. A liter bottle of bourbon – open, and half-empty, the cap nowhere in sight – stood on a small coffee table within easy reach. Also on the table were several cigar boxes, a lighter, and a sjambok. The wrist strap of the sjambok was well-worn, as if its owner had been carrying it with him daily for quite some time.
“Would you be Ray? Mitch Reynolds sent me over,” asked Coker.
The man laid the tablet face-down on his chest but did not get up from his recumbent position. When he spoke, it was the voice of a ten-cigars-a-day man. An incongruous gold tooth glinted in his lower jaw.
“Yeah, I’m Ray. Can’t imagine why Mitch would send a customer like you my way, but any business is good business, they do say.”
“He didn’t want to, but I insisted,” smiled Coker. “I’m looking for one office worker today, and maybe another three if the first one works well. And I’m not in a position to pay what Mitch wants for a shiny new one; I just want to try this sort of thing out and see how well it works. So I don’t really care if it’s only got a couple good years in it before it needs major overhaul. Is that all your stock out there? In the open?”
“The barns are covered to avoid sun damage; we don’t need walls in summer. In winter, we don’t run this place at all – we aim to have the whole inventory turned over by halfway through fall, every year, even if we have to take the last batch to auction or parts reclamation and lose money on ‘em. And it’s not like they’re gonna rust, now. What’re you looking to spend?”
“Somewhere around six or seven thousand,” replied Coker.
“I can see why you couldn’t do business with Mitch,” the other said, wryly. “Items with a sticker price less than ten are way up the back of the field. I’ll take you in the cart.” He stood up, grabbed his sjambok, and led Coker outside to a small four-seater golf cart. They navigated across the bumpy landscape in silence. The cart stopped by another of the barnlike structures and Ray motioned Coker towards it. “Have a look, long as you please, see if there’s something you like in there. Prices from one to ten thousand. If the one you like is just a little over your budget, we can talk, but you’re not getting a ten thousand dollar worker for five, so don’t even bother to ask.”
“At the risk of sounding like a rube,” replied Coker, “is there anything you can tell me about how to figure out which one might be suitable? I take it I can’t bring them out for a test drive.”
Ray laughed uproariously, his gold tooth winking in the sunlight. “Mitch was doing you a service by not wanting to send you here. Mister, you sound like the kind of customer that a man like me could skin alive, right down to the very bones of your wallet.” The bourbon had clearly put him in a good mood.
“But it sounds like you’re not going to do that today?” grinned Coker.
“It would be too easy. Look, anyway, I don’t sort these units. I run a storage facility here, more or less. I buy them in bulk, I keep them here on the lot, people who know what they’re doing – and some who don’t – come and buy at retail. I add a few points onto the price, you get a bargain, and that’s how I make a living. Honestly, now, I don’t know the history of these units – I only know what I paid for them. The people who really know what they’re doing bring all sorts of stuff – instruction manuals, test fixtures, special documents probably stolen from the factory, to figure out what abilities they’ve been programmed with. The one tip I can suggest to you is, if you give the whole group an order, mostly the ones who respond to it at all will be the ones who have an ability that’s related to it. Any unit that doesn’t respond either didn’t hear you, or doesn’t know how to carry out that kind of order.”
“Much obliged – I’ll give that a try,” replied Coker. He got out of the cart and approached the wire of the barn. What would be a good question to ask? A specialist task, related to the import/export business… ah!
“Boy! Proposition 56 audit!” commanded Coker. There was no response from any the small knot of workers behind the wire.
“Too recent,” commented Ray from behind the wheel of the cart. “Prop 56 was only ratified two years ago, and the newest unit in that lot was probably programmed thirty years ago or more. Try something more generic.” He was clearly not as ignorant as he claimed about how to judge the capabilities of this merchandise, thought Coker. Well, he could try again.
“Boy! Inventory count!” he exclaimed. He felt a bit like an apprentice sorcerer reading phrases at random from his master’s spellbook to see what effects they might have. However, this time, there was a response. Five of the workers focused on Coker, saying “Inventory what, boss?”
Ray was on his feet immediately. “Boy! Boy! Boy! Boy! Boy!” – pointing his sjambok in turn at each of the units that had responded to Coker’s command – “Step up to the wire. All others, step back.”
“Step up, boss,” and “Step back, boss” sounded from a chorus of throats, and the five articles of interest stood side by side in front of the two men.
“Now what?” asked Coker.
“Now you look at them, and pick the one you want,” replied Ray. “If it helps any, the one on the left is technically sold already, for nine thousand. If you can beat that price, I’ll tell the other purchaser his unit got damaged accidentally – but I won’t go a cent lower, because he’s prepaid.”
“Yeah, we can ignore that one then.”
“Boy! Step back,” commanded Ray, gesturing with his sjambok again, and the leftmost unit retreated to stand with the other rejected specimens. Coker looked at each one of the remaining four in turn. Conveniently, none of them were wearing any clothing, which made a physical inspection easier. Of course, there was no reason why they should be wearing clothing, since, unlike people, they didn’t need it for either modesty or legal reasons. Still, it was fairly unusual to see workers without clothing; besides some jobs that required protective or other functional clothing, most owners preferred to dress them to blend in with their human workforce.
The first unit was in rough physical shape, looking as if it had spent a lot of time working in some industrial process, and it was old to boot. Coker shook his head and Ray ordered the worker back with the other rejects in the same manner as before.
The second was more interesting. It was perhaps thirty years into its service life, and had no obvious damage. “Boy! What is five per cent of one thousand dollars?” asked Coker.
“Fifty dollars, boss,” the worker replied instantly.
“Mmm, put this one on the maybe pile,” said Coker, and proceeded to the third. This one was significantly shorter, and had several jet-black rectangles painted onto its body.
“Government ident markings. Erased before I bought it, so it could be anything from a cook to a fighter pilot,” said Ray, following Coker’s gaze.
Coker posed a different question to this one. “Boy! In the general ledger, what must you do every time you post a debit entry?”
Again, the answer was immediate. “Post one or more credit entries totaling the same amount, boss.”
The other two units in line failed to answer Coker’s questions satisfactorily and after more orders from Ray, only the two units that had passed muster stood in front of them. Coker asked each one of them a few more questions, each of which was answered with alacrity.
Finally, “What are the prices on those two?” Coker asked, looking from one to the other.
“Either one will be eight thousand. But I’ll give you a credit note. If you come back for those other three you mentioned, I’ll give you a seven-fifty rebate. So you’re getting it for seventy-two-fifty – if you do come back for more. If not, I spend the seven-fifty on booze.”
“It’s hard to choose,” agonized Coker. “They both seem pretty responsive to the sorts of orders I’d expect to be giving them, and they both seem to be about the same vintage and condition.”
“Welp, you have to pick,” said Ray. “I figure if you don’t have any other way of choosing, you can do this the old-fashioned way.” He tossed Coker a fifty-cent coin; the motion was unexpected, and Coker barely caught it. “Call it and flip it.”
“Heads the tall one. Tails the short one,” replied Coker. He flipped the coin high in the air, caught it in his left hand, and slapped it onto the back of his right. When he revealed it, the coin was face-down. “Tails!” he said.
“The short one it is, and you can keep that coin as a souvenir of the occasion,” replied Ray, opening a gate in the wire fence. “What’s the stock number on that? Show me your license number, boy.”
“License number, boss,” said the worker, turning to show the markings on its side.
“Six-D-zero-F-F… quit moving… zero-two-four-four-A-G. Good. Get in the cart.” Ray mumbled something into a walkie-talkie.
“In the cart, boss.” The worker shambled out through the open door and mounted the rear of the golf cart. Ray closed the gate and locked it, and the two men got back into the cart.
“Now for the paperwork and license labeling, and you’ll be on your way,” he said as he kicked the cart into motion. They drove back to the office building, but this time pulled up in the rear. A few collapsible chairs, and table with a payment terminal and some other unidentifiable equipment on it, stood under an awning there. Coker handed his credit card to Ray, who swiftly ran the charge and passed the terminal to Coker for fingerprint authorization.
“This won’t take but a few minutes. You can take a stroll, or stay and watch, as you’ve a mind,” said Ray. He ordered the worker into a chair, put down his sjambok (which had been on his wrist this whole time), and began transcribing the unit’s license number and other data onto a sales blank. Coker had no desire to wander through the knee-high weeds around him, and stood by quietly.
While he waited for his merchandise, Coker idly studied the coin in his hand. It was the commemorative minting from ‘65 – not valuable in any way, but also not commonly found in circulation now, almost sixty years later. The reverse showed the signing of the Articles of Surrender in Virginia, and it was heavily worn by more than half a century of rubbing against other currency in pockets. Coker knew who the figures seated at the table were, of course, but without the cue of gray or blue uniforms to help him, could not identify which was which. After inspecting the coin closely, he decided that probably the figure on the left was Grant, because his shoulder seemed to show an epaulette or insignia. Coker’s American history was rusty, but he seemed to recall that the pictures of Lee at the time showed him in a plain greatcoat with no insignia on it.
He turned the coin over to look at the obverse; for some reason, this side showed a little less wear. The slightly haughty-looking profile of First President Davis stared rightwards into infinity. “DEO VINDICE” curved around him at the top of the coin, and “1865-1965” at the bottom, neatly bracketing the image.
A loud buzzing distracted him from the coin in his hand, and he looked up. With the paperwork complete, Ray had clamped the worker’s arm into a fixture on the table, and was using a tattoo gun to strike out the dealership markings and enter the new license number assigned to the unit, the number that identified it as Coker’s sole property and responsibility.
The worker was squirming and yelping, and Coker had to look away. It was damnable, at a time like this, just how much they looked and sounded like people. He fixed his gaze on the flag of the Confederate States of America as it fluttered over the dilapidated mobile home-turned-office, and kept it there until the sounds ceased – and with them, also the stinging of his conscience.
Postscript: Yes, this is not science fiction, it is alt-history fiction. That’s a clue I didn’t want to provide before you read it!
2 thoughts on “A Short Nightmare”
I enjoyed this .It it has more to tell. Please wear long sleeves to bed again if that’s what it takes to to produce such a piece.
Damn, that’s creepy. And really rough at the end. Aaand now I’m gonna have nightmares. Well written with a clear style that makes it readable.