Steve lit the stove and put a pot of water on. He opened the tea to find out it was empty, and he made a mental note to pick up some more. And eggs, he was running low.
He’d have tea later.
He looked about the kitchen for a minute, trying to think of a reason to busy himself in the kitchen. Unsatisfying, he wandered to his living room, turned on his console and read the news, what little of it there was. There wasn’t much happening these days.
Desperate for something to do, he guiltily opened up some videos he saved from the night before, and 10 minutes later, that, too proved unsatisfying.
He cleaned up and decided to leave for work, even though it was far too early. I’ll take the long way, he decided.
During his walk, he thought too much, his mind progressed down paths as familiar as his walk to work. The same fantasies and thoughts preoccupied him as ever. As soon as he realized this, which he did without fail, he became ashamed and his eyes narrowed and focused on the world about him.
The city was empty, a shell. Well, not completely, the massive bed-farms were everywhere, great windowless monoliths, jutting drearily through the husk of the city. Steve’s gaze naturally and subconsciously avoided the great blotches. There were still cars, but it wasn’t the same as before, with the familiar yellow of the old cabs missing.
He passed someone on the street, they nodded and said, “Hello.” That, at least, was a nice change.
Steve, caught up in his own world, arrived at work 30 minutes early. The doors unlocked and opened before him, the elevator, too, anticipated him and Steve didn’t even have to break stride to get on. It took him to his floor without prompt. Everything automated.
Steve’s job, along with relatively few others was making sure that automation went smoothly as possible. 99.9% of the time, the machines did their jobs to near perfection, but every now and again there’s an unknown variable that throws a wrench in the works, and 99.99% of the time, that variable is human. But since the machines were smart, they learned and there were less and less humans to worry about each day, Steve’s job grew increasingly obsolete.
The last time he really had to do anything was after a hurricane hit the coast, and power lines went down all over the place. The problem was that one section was over this heavily armed nutjob’s property who didn’t take kindly to the machine’s meddling. Steve told the machines to reroute the lines around the property and that was that.
Steve sat at his desk, his console had already booted up and was ready for him to work. He missed the morning ritual of his youth of setting up his work station himself, a kind of preparation for the day.
“Heya, Steve.” called a voice from behind him, it was Helen, one of the dozen or so other people that worked there. “Wanna grab some breakfast?” She was not beautiful, or even pretty. Homely would be the word, but after working closely for so long, one starts to appreciate the small beauties of the opposite sex. Her face was roundish with dark eyes and strong eyebrows, a flattish nose and small, but plump lips. Steve was not sure how he felt about her, and even less sure how he felt about that.
“Sure. Got anywhere in mind?”
“Of course,” he smiled.
“Of course,” she returned the smile. “Just gimme a minute, I gotta ask Bobby.”
Shit. ”Alright. I’ll be here…working.”
“Right,” she said and walked down the empty corridor.
It wasn’t that he didn’t like Bob. Well, it was that he didn’t like Bob, but he didn’t know why. Bob was perfectly nice, but conversations with him were always a bit halting. A feeling of superiority exuded from him.
“Ready? Bobby can’t make it, he’s in a meeting with the Director.”
“Oh? Yeah, yeah I’m good.” They proceeded towards the elevators, “What’s the meeting for?” asked Steve.
“Oh, the new update took effect today, I assume they’re ‘deciding a plan of attack’ or ‘coordinating high synergy damage control scenarios.’ Y’know, stuff like that.” they laughed.
Steve had forgotten about the update, but how? It was the biggest thing to happen in almost 5 years, and they’ve finally finished testing. Supposedly it was an extra level of problem solving in Low Certainty areas, essentially making their jobs even more unneeded. Steve fell quiet as he brooded on this. After awhile, he became aware that Helen asked him a question and was expecting an answer. I should kiss her, he thought. Shocked by this thought, all he could make out was, “Uh, Pardon?”
“So are you going to Go Under when they finally realize we’re useless?” A taboo question.
“I don’t know, I haven’t decided. It still creeps me out.”
“Why? The government is pushing to make it mandatory for all non-essential personnel, anyways.” she said, “They say it’ll be nice, not a care in the world.” She didn’t sound sure of herself, most the stragglers that were left awake almost all had an aversion to The Sleep. They all either had an attachment to past, or a distrust of the Machines or authority. Usually all three.
Steve, wanting to lighten the mood, asked, “Did you watch any of those shows I sent you?”
“Don’t avoid the question.” she smiled, “I mean, I don’t want to Go Under. No one left does.” her face grew serious “But I know you see that there’s no avoiding it forever.”
“I know of one way to avoid it…” Steve grinned.
“And don’t talk like that! I might take you seriously. Anyways, I think we have 3 months left, maybe 6 if we push it. Maybe forever if we ran away and become mountain people.”
“Heh, that’d be nice. I always wanted to grow a big bushy beard and live in a log cabin.” He let that daydream take him for a bit.
“Anyways, nobody’s ready to make the decision. I talked to everyone and if they’re not outright opposed to it, they just hem and haw.”
“Hem.” Steve said, “Haw.”
“Ha ha ha…”
They made their way down the mostly empty streets.
The Golden Spoon, didn’t use automation, but rather waiters, busboys and cooks. This is the way people left preferred it, as such it was perpetually packed. Helen and Steve sat down and ordered. He got the tea he wanted, after he mixed in milk and sugar, he took a sip and relaxed. Life wasn’t all bad, though the tea was a bit weak.
“Do you want to come over tonight?” Helen asked. “Maybe we could watch some of those shows you sent me.” a weak smile appeared on her face.
Steve’s heart skipped a beat, “Yeah.” He looked up from his tea and smiled, “Yeah, that’d be nice. My favorite’s The Zen of –”
“Helen! Steve! Guys!” It was Bob.
“Hey Bobby, what’s up?” said Helen.
“Bob.” stated Steve.
“Sorry I was busy earlier, but I had to tell you in person. We’re fired!”
“Yeah, they’re keeping on Ted and Bruce, but everyone, including the Director is fired. It’s the new update, and higher up finally realized how little we did.”
“Wouldn’t we get an email about that?”
“Yeah, the Director is writing it now, he should be done, actually.”
Helen interjected, “‘Thank you for your years of service….deeply regretful…moving toward the future…’, yeah. So that’s that.”
“That’s that.” Steve echoed.
“Anyways, guys, I’m off. I’m going home.”
“You’re not going back to work?”
“Really? There’s no point, also the Director said we don’t have to go in for the two weeks. That was just to appease the higher ups. Bye guys.”
“Bye Bobby.” Helen said.
For the first time, Steve wanted Bob around, just to break the silence.
“So, The Zen of Tao is my favorite…”
“Do you still want to come over?” Helen asked.
“Yeah, sure. I mean, of course.”
“Okay, well we can go now if that’s cool with you. I just got to get my car.”
“Lead the way.” Steve gestured with his arms and they walked back towards the office. Steve looked around and he let his eyes settle on the bed-farms. He grimaced. No he thought, I don’t want to Sleep.
“I’m not going to Sleep. I can’t.” Steve said, staring at the nearest bed-farm. Helen looked up as well.
“I hope you get the choice.” she looked at Steve. I really should kiss her. What’s the worse that could happen. God dammit.
“What about you? What have you decided?” Steve asked her.
“I haven’t.” Helen admitted. “I was hoping everyone else would have a unanimous response. To know I wasn’t alone in the decision. Y’know.”
“It’s just that everything is so empty. What’s the point of staying awake if there’s barely anyone to share it with. And it’s not like you can start a family, not anymore.”
Fuck it. Steve put his arm around Helen. She didn’t say anything, she started walking closer to him.
“I have been Asleep before.” Steve admitted. She stopped, a step later, so did he.
“Yeah? And? Why did they wake you?”
“Oh, I wrote in a bug that turned off machines at random times. I did it as a joke and I was 95% sure I didn’t actually put it in. But for whatever reason, QA couldn’t find out the cause, so they woke me. That was 8 years ago.”
“But…what’s it actually like?”
“When you’re Asleep it’s literally the best thing ever. You feel…great, in every possible way. It’s perfect. But waking up, when you wake up you see how far from perfection it really is, it’s really pathetic. You see that the perfection is empty. Empty as this city.” He laughed “Sorry for getting so faux-poetic on you.”
Helen stepped closer.
“I don’t want to Go Under again. And neither should you.”
Before he realized, they were kissing. At first he wondered why, then decided to stop thinking.
They stopped and stared at each other for a few seconds. “C’mon, we got a coupla blocks to go.” Helen said.