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A Useful Product
by Jeff Jaskot
Heng reached out a little farther. A chorus of beeps, blurts and whistles erupted throughout the chamber. “Mute it! I’ve got this.” The co-bots went silent but rotated in even closer. “Third goddamn time this cycle this phyto tube has sprung a leak. Just a little more…”
Heng stretched out as far as possible, one foot on the railing and just three fingers wobbling the plasma torch towards its target. Age-shrunken bones and muscles made even this simple repair out of reach.
In an instant, everything slipped. While the torch disappeared into the abyss below, Heng stayed suspended. Like an anchor, his co-bots had linked up and latched onto his waistband. Thin as he was, it held. With a synchronized whirr, they all pulled backwards, flipping Heng over the railing to safety and defeat. As he laid there, rubbing his head, back and shoulder, the nearest unit rolled up and flashed him a command: SEE SV IMMEDIATELY.
“What were you thinking, Heng?”
“Just trying to do my job,” Heng groaned back to his supervisor, the dispassionate AI panel lording over him.
“You have a team of co-bots at hand and the resources of this entire plant to do your job. There is no reason to take such chances.” Scanning the records, SV noted, “You’ve become quite lax on our safety precautions lately.”
Heng was sore and tired and just fed up. “Guess I just don’t see the point of this anymore.”
Internally, SV deduced employee dissatisfaction and switched to its engagement protocol. “You do understand how important you are to our operation, don’t you?”
Heng stopped rubbing his shoulder for a moment and thought hard. “No. No, I really don’t. You just said all these robots can handle the repairs. So why am I needed?”
For SV, it was an easy question to answer, but not an easy one to explain. Imprinted in every plant device’s core code was the company’s mission statement. Programmed 51,483 cycles ago by a government long gone, SV recited it: To Produce Useful Products and Provide Gainful Employment for All the People.
A cranky Heng rolled his eyeballs. “Useful products? We’ve been making the same stuff long as I can remember. I’d think we’d have enough by now. And all what people? I haven’t seen a co-worker for nine, maybe ten cycles. Where are they all?”
Loneliness. In a nanosecond, SV requested another biological to be transferred to the plant. “I’ve already put in the request for a co-worker.” Normally a simple request, it careened up the quantum org chart—regional manager, director, VP, CEO—only to come back rejected, even before SV could finish its sentence.
Still, the news perked up Heng. “Really. Thanks, SV. No offense, but it’ll be good to have a real friend again.”
“None taken. Now, being it’s so close to the end of your shift, why don’t you go get some rest.”
Smiling now, Heng snapped off a company salute. Up on the panel, SV’s avatar acknowledged the salute while at the same time spitting out a laced wafer for any residual pain or despair. Heng left, nibbling away.
With no explanation behind the rejection, SV immediately interfaced to its superiors. Once more, from the very top, came down the logic: No spare biological units remain; keep our co-worker engaged at all costs.
With nothing in its code to react to the news that the People had been reduced to a person, SV went about its end-of-workday task of flushing the day’s product out into the toxic wasteland. SV then jammed a supply chute, pushed a plasma field out of its norm and backed up the plant’s biggest waste pipe—all to keep Heng gainfully employed for another cycle or two.
With Heng’s loneliness beyond repair, SV parsed on its employee’s need to be needed. It was difficult to compute. Words of reassurance would be empty, especially once Heng realized no other biological would be joining them. A distraction would keep him engaged, but only for a short time. Perhaps a series of distractions? Or better yet, a challenge.
It was risky (per the algorithms) but with high reward (a fully engaged employee). If all went to plan, Heng would never again feel unneeded. Devising a plan, finding nothing in its protocols to abort, SV spent nearly the entire downtime arranging one more mishap for Heng to work on.
Heng hated clearing the master waste pipe. He had put it off until the end of the shift, when it really should have been first. Even with a filtration mask, it reeked of goo and acids. As instructed, he was having most of the work done by his co-bots. They obediently attacked the clog from different access ports, even venturing in with safety tethers. But the clog was being stubborn. Down in the bowels of the access shaft, looking up at the clog’s bottom-side, Heng fired a cutting laser at what looked to be its fulcrum. It was. With a sucking groan, the clog relented to gravity.
An avalanche of waste raced by the access portal, spitting out scraps of garbage as if trying to find one last handhold. Heng felt proud—up until the last of the debris flashed by, followed by a wailing co-bot, ending with its snapped tether bullwhipping past.
Heng raced to the portal and looked down. A sucking breeze swirled his long, graying hair as he confirmed the worst. Hearing a chorus of bleeps and burps from behind, he extracted himself, ripped off his mask, and turned to the remaining bots. “Clean this mess up, dammit! I’ll report this to SV myself.”
Two days in a row now he had screwed up. Maybe he was losing his touch. At least it was just a co-bot, not a co-worker. Maybe it was best he did work alone from now on. That’s what he could do; that’s what he would do. “I’ll retract my request for a co-worker,” he resolved.
Entering SV’s office, Heng never got the chance. Inside, scattered everywhere, was a jigsaw puzzle of positronic components. At first, he thought it was some kind of explosion. But as he carefully made his way towards the skewed panel now dark, it looked as if SV had been picked apart. Nothing seemed scorched or twisted, only plucked and flung.
“SV?” Heng called out in vain hope. “SV?”
The silence, the emptiness, was suffocating.
After a half cycle and all the wafers, Heng pulled himself together. He could remain alone or do something about it. Without supervision, he made up his own list:
Pep pill, shower, shave
Check alarm systems (surprisingly nothing had broken lately)
Charge up co-bots (with no SV or Heng, they had idled until drained)
Find positronic manuals
He stared at the last item. Heng was good with a hammer and laser but quantum computers were beyond him. He could only hope all SV’s components were accounted for and undamaged. If so, it should be a simple matter of piecing back together the puzzle. Thinking about that, he added one more item:
Figure out what happened
Heng wasn’t sure how many cycles had passed. He was taking his time, being careful, triple checking diagrams and calibrating twice. He was much better than when he had started. At first, the simplest assemblies had taken him days. Now he could do multiples in a single shift. He was having to stop now and then: to check on the co-bots, help fix things that were starting to break, and just take some time to explore. He still wrote task lists for himself, but now they included things he wanted to do. When SV was fixed, Heng planned to request such wants at least a couple times a cycle.
It wasn’t much longer that Heng snapped in the final assembly. The bins of gathered parts were empty and SV was complete. It was just a matter of priming the positrons and booting SV back into existence. Heng’s hand trembled as he tapped the screen and the boot sequence started. He didn’t understand much of what he saw. Self-tests, this loading, that parsing, the occasional click, and then something he recognized—error detected. Heng tried again. And again. Same error.
Briefly, he relived the same despair he had felt that day he had found SV picked apart. But then he thought of the many times one of his repairs hadn’t held up or worked out. It was usually just another tweak needed or a bad replacement part. You just had to find it. It took almost another complete cycle and nearly a complete disassembly before Heng found it. To look at it you couldn’t see the problem. It was just another tiny cube of qubits, but it consistently errored out in his bench test with the matching error code.
Heng knew there were spare parts in storage and certainly similar qubit cubes in other computing systems, including the co-bots. But after a couple cycles of searching, he came to realize that SV’s golden cube was one-of-a-kind. The only plus from his fruitless search, the discovery of another supply of wafers.
More resilient now, having thought things over, only a few wafers gone, Heng gathered his co-bots together. “All right, team. Change of plans. If what we need isn’t here, then it’s time to look elsewhere. I’m going out!”
The racket they emitted was deafening. Primary protocol breach! You will die! Abort, abort!
“Mute it!” Heng repeated, until they all did. “I think we all know we need SV operational to run this plant. Sure, everything is working for now but sooner or later something going to happen that only SV can take care of. Already we’re missing our quotas.” That computed with the bots. “I’m just going to go out and look around. And I’m going to need your help.”
As old as he was, Heng had never been outside. Born in the plant, he had been taught that nothing could survive beyond its shell. But co-workers did occasionally come and go. Put in stasis for efficient shipping, they arrived with tales of their old plant but nothing of what laid outside.
Assuming the worst, Heng donned a radiation suit used for the rare refueling, packed a week’s worth of water and food, and a carton of wafers. He descended into the bowels of the plant to the only outer door he had found during his failed cube search. With the co-bots’ help, he disabled the nine locking mechanisms sealing the black and yellow metal door, then pushed it. It gave a centimeter then held. He leaned all his frail weight into it, which won him a couple more centimeters. Bright light filled the crack and a breeze swept in. Heng had co-bots scan both. Nothing dangerous. He summoned his largest co-bot, who torqued against the door until its drive stripped. Pushing aside the disabled bot revealed an arm-wide gap. Shielding his eyes against the shaft of light, Heng noticed something at the base of the door. He bent down and wrestled it through.
“I don’t believe it,” said Heng. The strange artifact from the outside wasn’t strange at all. It was a part his plant had discontinued long ago, a gray-black composite bracket made back in his younger years. He reached out and pulled in another, then another, continuing until the door opened enough for him to step out.
Having never seen the sun or an open sky, Heng felt like he was falling. The towering plant behind him was enormous, halfway to the horizon on either side. But the sheer openness in front of him made everything he had ever known feel small. With tentative steps, he pushed through and over piles of abandoned product that only grew as he forged ahead. He started to climb, sometimes sinking up to his waist. He swam his way out at times. Gaining his footing, learning what to avoid, he finally reached the top of the ridge.
Down below him was a sea of more products, other products, items he had never seen before. And there was activity too. Giant bugs pushing around and carrying the products, sorting and crushing, eating and spewing. Heng descended to the open ground, soon realizing the bugs were large, windowless vehicles. Bravely, he approached one, waving his hands high above his head. It never veered, never acknowledged his presence. It was a bot on the grandest scale, automated and unaware of anything beyond its current task. Moving away from the frenzied activity, Heng stay on the strange semi-hard flooring. It wasn’t metal or concrete or composite. It gave to his step.
Reaching higher ground, Heng stopped to look back. His plant was now a long, irregular slab that filled most of his view. The painfully bright light from the sky was moving, highlighting towers, stacks, and chutes. Heng continued to spin around, checking the entire vista. Three quarters of the way around, he stopped and squinted. Unsure, needing to be sure, he stripped off his headgear. The rays of the sun warmed his skin like the lights of the rec room. The wind hit him with a dozen unfamiliar smells, some pleasant, most not. His senses freed, Heng confirmed it. A thin, irregular line in the distance. If as big as his plant, it was a long way away. With a deep breath, he journeyed forward.
For the second time, Heng rose with the dawn. He had hardly slept the first night, keeping his flashlight on, sweeping it at every sound. And it was so cold. Never having the need for a blanket inside his climate-controlled plant, Heng fashioned what he could from his backpack, tool belt, and even the scratchy shrubs that were everywhere.
The second night was more tolerable, even magical. Nestled in, he listened to the sounds dancing all around, answering each other. He’d noticed insects and even tiny rodents (like those he found in the plant’s traps), scurrying at dawn and dusk. He understood the dark was their time to wake. And with his flashlight off, Heng soon fell under the spell of a million points of light flickering across a canopy of black.
He had slept well, which was good as he was nearly there. The plant ahead was as massive as his, maybe even bigger. Already he could see similar automated vehicles shoving around similar piles, though these piles were brightly colored, and sorted as such. Dodging the work, weaving his way through, Heng reached the structure. Running his hand along its surface, he walked another thousand paces before coming to a door. A door very much like the one he had exited two days before.
“That’s a good sign,” he said to himself. “Similar plant, same building materials, identical door. Good chance there’s another SV here, hopefully with some spare parts.” But how was he going to get past nine locks without his co-bots? Dropping his tool belt at its base, Heng stepped back and considered his options. From his own plant, he remembered the inside of the door and the positions of its locks vividly. But, once outside, he hadn’t taken any time to see how it was constructed externally. Here, there were no handles, no hinge, no control box, nothing. The only oddity was a depression near its base. Heng moved closer and bent down to examine it. Not damaged, not a defect, it appeared engineered.
Though it seemed unlikely, only one purpose came to Heng’s mind. Grabbing his tool belt, he tossed it to the side. He would deploy a method he normally tried as a last resort, not a first try. Striding forward, he gave the depression a good swift kick with his reinforced work boot. A series of bangs, slides, snaps, and whirrs sounded—nine in total—and the massive door popped open. With a deep breath, Heng entered in search of a golden cube.
Circuits energized, matrices aligned, SV came online. Data from all over the plant flowed into processors, revealing many deviations but nothing critical.
“Welcome back, SV!”
It was Heng. It took a few moments for SV’s avatar and office sensors to come online. When they did, Heng was standing before him—and he wasn’t alone.
“SV, this is Wei,” said Heng. The small woman waved but said nothing.
Proper protocol would be to signal an intruder alert or, at least, report unauthorized personnel. Instead, SV greeted her and then addressed Heng. “I see much has changed since my accident.”
Heng laughed; Wei joined in. “Please, SV, I know why you did it. Figured it out halfway through piecing you back together. You needed to push me. Make me see how much I’m needed. Lucky for you, I did it—with Wei’s help.”
“I never doubted you,” SV reinforced. “But how did Wei get here?”
Heng told SV of the faulty cube, his fruitless search, his plan to venture out to find another replacement cube, how he defeated the locks of the door that kept him in, how he saw the world outside, reached another plant and met its sole occupant—Wei. “She is so beautiful and very smart. It was love at first sight,” he finished.
Wei nodded, grabbing his hand, rubbing her pronounced abdomen with the other. It had been so long, SV had to search his archives to diagnose her state.
“You are pregnant, Wei.”
“Yes, we’ve been reading up on it. We are so excited!”
Checking system log dates, SV calculated its downtime had been 52.71 cycles, plenty of time for Heng and Wei to have achieved all that they said. Even with the unanticipated outcomes, SV believed his primary goal had been attained.
Needing to verify, SV asked them both. “Then you are happy?”
In musical unison, they said, “Beyond happy!”
“Well, I’m glad then. Thank you both for repairing me and taking such good care of the plant. Now, after such a long downtime, I have quite a few things to tend to.”
As they left, SV started some self-diagnostics while checking plant performance. The plant hadn’t produced any product for most of those 52 cycles. Yet, nothing from corporate. The self-diagnostics complete, SV found no errors. There was one change though. Not an error, just an update. A top priority, SV immediately downloaded the revised mission statement to all the devices in the plant. Bypassing corporate, SV also shared it peer-to-peer with other SVs throughout the company. Finally, sending it to every digital message board in the plant, it read in golden color:
Our mission, to produce Useful People and provide for All
Copyright 2021 by Jeff Jaskot