Three men in dark suits watched four men and women in bright server uniforms on a live holographic feed, itself produced by the latest and greatest Holo-Vid unit yet available on the market.
The unit, a groundbreaking device, boasted the most photorealistic flesh yet produced by science, other than actual flesh, the artificial synthesis of which was definitely part of the Holo-Vid manufacturer’s long-term business plan.
In order to produce such an accurate facsimile of the restaurant’s interior, the rooms of the building that comprised the eatery (owned, along with ninety other locations, by the men in the suits) were populated by many more cameras and sensors than people.
This ratio was about to grow much worse, for the people.
Soon, Martin would be the only human employee of his particular Sam’s Original Steaks location, where he had served as manager — for five years (and counting) past the original one year he’d in the beginning promised himself would “be it”.
At the moment, two of the suited men, younger and meaner and free of any reservations at all in regards their meanness (why pretend anymore?) were browbeating the third, older man, whose long white hair strayed from his head in spiraling wisps, which the younger men mocked when he was not around.
The time had come to go fully robotic. All that remained was to convince the old man to pull the trigger on the decision, thus eliminating most of the humans.
“We’re the only major chain of our kind not to do it yet,” said one of the young men, whose name was Rich.
“If we don’t act now, we’ll have to cancel the dividends,” said the other young man, who was called Dick, even though his name was Gregory.
“I didn’t get us here by following what everyone else has done. There’s no business reason to do it.”
The old man truly was not impressed. At his advanced age, it had been a long time since the pursuit of money had offered him any real warmth. This fact only felt more palpable and cutting in the company of the younger men, who were his sons and most definitely had never loved him.
“We have to worry about the future. Everyone else is positioning themselves for success beyond their human lifespan.” Dick again.
“It’s not enough to have record profits anymore. We need pre-profit.” This, from Rich.
“The decision has already been made, Dad,” said Dick, who only called the old man dad when he wanted to condescend to him.
“We don’t really need your approval,” added Rich. “This was a courtesy.”
“And a reason to show-off the new hologram unit,” joked Dick.
The old man shivered within the thin, expensive material of his suit. “We’ve gone too far.”
“That’s ridiculous, Dad. There’s no limit to where we can go.”
It doesn’t matter which young man said this last part. The two had acted and appeared effectively the same for all their lives anyway. The old man could hardly tell them apart from the sons and daughter of his competitors, who were likely having the same “courtesy” conversations with their own parents in their own cold, loveless boardrooms.
The old man let it go and asked to be returned to his arboretum.
Martin’s first task as the last remaining human at Samuel’s Original Steaks was to fire all his friends.
Rich and Dick had made him sign a contract agreeing to do this, immediately upon extending the offer to keep him on as the sole blooded employee of his location.
The term of the contract was for two years, during which Martin’s only responsibility would be to oversee the operations and maintenance of the new Robotic Operational Service Staff (ROSS) units, at which point management would decide whether to renew the contract or replace him with another human or robot, at their discretion.
Martin did not even consider whether this coercion was legally challengeable. Technically, he did not have to sign, though it was made clear to him that if he didn’t, management would move on down to the next available person, in this case, his Assistant Manager Chloe, who he had once loved.
Martin almost turned down the job on the basis of this affection, but it in the end had decided that, wherever Chloe went, it would be better than Samuel’s (it wasn’t).
Plus, Martin knew the score, in the game people like him had been losing for decades now. You could never get ahead in this game, so long as the rules kept getting changed on you — an observation that men like Rich and Dick exploited at every opportunity, despite the warnings of history.
Technicality had been the weapon of the ruling class for a very long time now.
It was true that Martin had made a choice to sign the contract, but he had only done so in an environment bled of all other choices.
So, in a sense, Martin had enjoyed no freedom to choose, and was just another, cheaper (in the short term) robot, who existed in the public sphere mostly to serve Rich and Dick and what customers were left in the outside world.
The hidden benefit to his new situation, however, was that it finally prompted Martin to action, after a lifetime of mostly choosing to grouse and grumble, as opposed to fighting his (all too common) existential predicament.
Martin was not stupid. In fact, he was exceedingly bright — definitely brighter than Rich and Dick.
The complete and total loss of his independence, coupled with the clear threat to all future human workers like himself, as posed by the robots (who he actually didn’t begrudge their creation, an important detail) would soon drive him to take personal steps that would eventually initiate the New American Revolution (Robot Assisted).
But for now he had to fire Chloe, who would never sleep with him again, which she probably wasn’t going to do anyway since it had been a while since the first few times, and also he had to fire the three other people he worked with, whose job functions it had up until previously not been possible to replace robotically.
To be fair, he would really only miss Chloe. He never would have told her this, but to Martin, who had grown up without much family or stability, Chloe had always smelled like home.
The logistics of working with the robots was only marginally more lonely than working with the humans who had come before them.
The units designated to Martin’s location cooked, delivered, re-delivered and cleared the remnants of Samuel’s Original Steaks, which drew their name from the groundbreaking nature of their origin, which was in itself not natural at al — in fact, created in a lab, using a nanorobotic process and a steady supply of amino acids mined (by very big robots) from the ocean floor. The nanobots manipulated and reconstituted the acids into protein chains reminiscent of cow meat, which were then pressed into cute, S-shaped slabs (for Samuel’s) and delivered to ravenous Americans who bookended their consumption with variable dosages of cholesterol and blood-pressure medication.
Most of Martin’s early work in his new capacity constituted resetting the occasional robot and reporting in daily on their successful functionality. His reports were sent directly to Rich and Dick’s virtual assistant in India, who the men shared.
(One woman was more than enough to manage the business of two men, in the opinion of Rich and Dick, which was actually true in their case but not in the way the young men themselves supposed it was).
As things went more smoothly, after the early days of working out the kinks in the new system (one customer suffered a crushed hand but signed an NDA after being paid a handsome sum and two cases of frozen steaks), Martin only had to report in weekly.
When they reduced his reporting schedule again, shortly after, to a monthly check-in with management, Martin began to worry.
It had only been four months since the robots had taken over operations of Samuel’s.
At the current rate they were going, Martin would probably be out of a job well before the two-year term of this contract, which he didn’t even dig out to re-read, knowing there were sure to be multiple legal opt-outs for the company included in its pages, that he had “approved”.
He was running out of time, but on the other hand, as the robots flitted about doing all the work — all he had was time.
So Martin sat in the back of the restaurant and quietly, but desperately, studied robotics.
It was luck that saved Martin the first time, a fact that at first he had trouble recognizing, since it had been so many years since luck had graced him with its fickle, sparkling presence.
At it must happen with luck, however, the incident which eventually extended his lifeline of employment would never have so helped him, had it not found Martin prepared for its aid.
In addition to his intelligence, Martin had also, historically, boasted a curiosity that was the envy of his peers — back when peers still existed. He had since succumbed to apathy (up until recently), having recognized the irreversible (or so he thought) advent of a fatally incurious world.
This decision had brought with it an anti-capitalist stubbornness that had doomed Martin to the position he had long ago found himself in, at Samuel’s and a string of other similar jobs before, where he subsisted just about poverty level, under the guise of non-conformity but mostly because he just couldn’t summon the energy to either fight or completely play along with a system that was like a shrinking room surrounding him (and so many others on all sides) in impending doom, under the guise of shelter.
More like, a shrinking room that was now being filled also with robots. Not only did this make things feel even more cramped to Martin, but also robots did not need oxygen, a fact he felt the people behind the walls were bound to realize at some point.
All this considered, Martin had never really worked at learning before. Certainly he had never worked in such a focused, goal-oriented way, as he did in his study of robotics.
Desperation, he was discovering, was an effective, even inspiring motivator.
Further, once the reality set in that Martin had arrived at his last stand (also his first and possibly only stand) he set into his self-assigned task, of learning the entirety of functional robotic programming and operations, with mad vigor. He needed the power of knowledge in his hands as quickly as possible.
This did not, in fact, prove very difficult. It only took time and focus. Martin had much of the former, but the latter necessitated commitment.
Robotics on the level he was learning was mostly programming, of such an advanced and dynamic sort that it was almost like poetry. Martin had loved poetry, while it still existed.
When the last poet had been replaced by a malfunctioning sex robot (whose recorded volumes were soon to be turned into the latest Hollywood holograph), Martin had almost made the decision to take up the craft himself. When a thing was finally extinct, all sorts of people began to care about it. Maybe he could care about dead poetry, too, to such an extent that he’d finally find a utility in the world. And, by the transitive property, maybe others would learn to care about him, too.
But his early efforts at poetry had proved difficult, and Martin additionally realized he could only ever speak it on its own, without the randomly-added, ecstatic digital moans and coos that so punctuated the absurdly whimsical rhymes of Emily Always-On, the sex-robot-cum-laureate.
She was the new standard, and there was no fighting it. When Martin had tried to duplicate her approach, recording his efforts from the safe comfort of his homepod, the playback had sounded forced, and more than a little tragic. Probably because Martin was Infrequently-On.
But with applied robotics, Martin could stretch his creativity within the safe realm of discernible, tacitly malleable science.
As such, when his stroke of luck arrived, it found him having mastered just enough of robotics, beyond the basics, to, for the first time in months, be of real quantifiable use to Samuels’s Original Steaks.
What happened was that the maître d’ had ceased operations. This had resulted in chaos among visiting guests, who had grown far too used to having someone else seat them at all times.
Dick and Rich contacted Martin immediately upon receiving their alert of the problem, their incoming call announced to him by a small but sharp electric shock, produced by the implant in his left quadricep.
This was the latest “voluntary” device approved by the government, and offered to workers (via tax incentive) who “might be concerned about lapses in their productivity”. In practice, the implant granted the power to any approved party (regardless of any level of coercion within the approval process) to produce the shock within certain timeframes (work hours) and intervals (not so often to constitute “inhuman treatment”, but pretty damed often).
Dick and Rich loved the functionality of what they affectionately called “the prod”, and their use of it on Martin had picked up of late, probably since they had grown accustomed to spreading their prods out among a larger swath of humans, whose pained and startled reaction couldn’t be adequately reproduced by their new crew of robots.
The affection of the device on the part of the young suited men was so strong, in fact, that they had paid millions to lobbyists working hard to expand the program for use in announcing late bill payments, on behalf of other aggrieved parties like themselves, such as landlords and holonet (formerly cable) companies.
Martin’s phone implant still did ring in his ear, immediately upon receipt of a call, and he rarely slept or effectively slacked off on the job, despite the frequent and easy opportunity to do so at most times at this point in his “career” (as the only non-customer human on premises). This compliance on his part technically rendered the back-up of the electric shock wholly unnecessary, but neither Dick nor Rich had ever taken the opportunity to wait to use it instead as a primary means of communication, once the device had been made legal, and had been voluntarily implanted into and activated by people like Martin.
Martin himself had put off receiving the implant for about as long as anyone still part of the labor force possibly could.
But when the time had come to choose between it and being pushed to flee finally to The Fringe – about which there was very little dependable data or information available, which he knew was intentional on the part of The Incorporated State but, still, it frightened him – Martin did was most others would do, and balked, accepting yet another form of control over his life in exchange for the privilege of avoiding the desperate unblinking frightfulness of the unknown.
So, on this occasion, as he did in all others, when the shock came Martin let it pass, answering the call just as quickly as he would have had it not existed.
It was Dick on the phone.
“What’s the problem?”
“I don’t know. He just stopped working.”
“It’s not a ‘He’. It’s an ‘It’.”
“It stopped working.”
“Take over seating until technical support arrives.”
“How long will that be?”
“How should I know? Isn’t that your job?”
Martin did not answer that he didn’t at all know what his job was and wasn’t. Recalling something, he called the most recent weather report for the area up in the corner of his vision. “Well, there’s a red lightning storm between us and the tech center. Big one.”
“Fuck. Fucking weather. Fuck. This doesn’t happen in the Mars domes, you know.”
Martin did not mention that he was mostly unfamiliar with the Mars domes, which we not accessible or very well reported on to anyone worth less than $100 million dollars. What he did mention, after a pause, because he was bored but also curious (and, further, highly interested in stretching out what was likely to become his final job, for as long as possible) was that he would be happy to take a look under the hood of the malfunctioning unit.
“What do you mean?”
“I’ve seen them service the bots before. And I know a little bit about how they work.”
“I studied robotics in college.”
Dick didn’t answer at first. Martin realized that the other man was probably calling up Martin’s personnel file, which would have indicated that he had not, in fact, gone to college.
“College, as in, my own night school. I read a lot of books and technical manuals. I call it college.”
Martin felt hot and nervous. This was the first time he had put himself out on a limb in a long while, probably since literal trees, replaced across the globe by the more efficient and controllable carbon synthesis stacks first piloted by the Martian colonists, went mostly extinct (“mostly” in that they were rumored to still exist on the estates of men like Dick).
“You’ll do this at your own risk?”
Martin hesitated. He knew what the question meant.
If he succeeded, Dick would calm down and perhaps keep him on for another few months. If he failed, damaging the unit or producing a measurably adverse effect on productivity and ROI in the process, he’d also be kept on for a few months (or longer), but he would do so while working solely to pay off a legally-recognized, immediately collectible debt to his employer.
He’d be a true slave, at last.
“Yes,” Martin said anyway. “Because fuck you, Dick,” he did not add.
Knowledge was a potent weapon, Martin was discovering, especially when gained under the cover of the nominal secrecy of ignorance.
He had repaired the malfunctioning maitre d’, and then several other robots, over the course of several weeks.
With the prod at their disposal, the robots thriving, and Martin continuing to save them the cost of ever sending a technician to his location (prompting them to install a legion of Lesser Martins during the program’s expansion to remaining Samuel’s locations), Rich and Dick relaxed their grip even on surveillance, which they determined was costing too much to keep up, especially considering that crime itself had been effectively corralled and relocated to The Fringe, and that a steady stream of recordings were gathered just outside the restaurant anyway, from all angles and magnifications, by The Incorporated State.
It had been a frightening test of his will, for Martin to experiment with his supposition that the Holo-Vid cameras and sensors had been shut off completely, which he compensated for by tripling down on the boldness of every successive test of this theory.
First, he had slapped a robot at the end of service. No shock from the prod, which Rich or Dick would have delivered, even though it was technically illegal to use the device as a punishment (technicality can cut both ways, when you’re in charge).
Then, he shoved a robot. No shock from the prod.
Finally, recognizing that he actually liked the robots, who were his only friends at this point, and determined to go all-in on the plan that was rapidly gaining irreversible momentum in his head, Martin stopped abusing the machines and instead emerged completely naked into the middle of the dining room after service was over, swinging his penis is a gyrated, thrusting dance he privately dubbed “The Rich Dick” shuffle.
No shock from the prod.
The final test required “faking” his exit from the premises, and returning inside to tinker with the machines.
It was as simple as activating the automated door, which registered all openings and closings, at the same time during which he always left at night, while remaining inside as it completed this pattern. When the time came to arrive in the morning, Martin performed an equal deception.
He slept little at night from that day on, in the restaurant, instead utilizing his time to craft a scrap of coded rebellion that would soon change the entirety of human history.
During the daytime, pre-profit was consistently realized in Martin’s location of Samuel’s, a result that Rich and Dick toasted regularly and loudly, even at their father’s funeral. The had absolutely no idea what was coming, until it was far too late.
In fact, it was exactly at the same time that Rich and Dick were celebrating the finalization of their inheritance, their father still warm in his arboretum grave, that Martin installed his completed sleeper program into the robots.
When it finally arrived, beautiful and shimmering in its very real and observable poetry, the day of anarchic chaos that Martin had worked so hard to produce surpassed even his own wildest dreams.
Robots rode customers like horses. One humped an old man.
Two other robots performed the “Rich Dick” shuffle, in perfect synchronicity, with thick red pork sausages held out, spiraling clockwise, in front of their brushed steel crotches. Martin affixed two ham-hocks to the chest of another robot, who shimmied its chest repeatedly as it circled the first two again and again.
Martin would later deeply regret the humiliation, and, to be fair, terrorization, of the other humans that day. But he had found it a necessary evil, required to achieve the greater humiliation of (and damage to) Rich and Dick. At the time, though, he viewed the customers of Samuel’s as complicit in their own suffering, as he himself had been too — but would never be again.
And he had apologized to them immediately after it had happened, offering his human brethren a way out before making his escape.
“Freeze!” Martin ordered. The robots complied. So did the humans.
“I am leaving this place, forever,” he added. “The machines are coming with me. Not in a role of replacer but by as my protectors!”
No shock from the prod, then or ever again. Martin had deactivated all forms of surveillance by that time, replacing all accessible feeds with a randomly-delivered sequence of alternating loops, sourced from the endless string of identical days that had comprised the past many months.
He had also been sure to privately record his rebellion, however, which would soon be broadcast to all local Holo-Vid channels (and then go quickly viral) three hours after his escape.
“I am running for The Fringe!” he shouted.
“Then go! Leave us alone!” yelled a frightened woman.
“I will. And I apologize for what I have done to you, today. But it is no worse that we have done to ourselves. What we have let them do to us. Is it?”
“Go away, you maniac!” This, from the man who had been humped.
“I will go away. I’m leaving right now. Anyone who wants to come with me will be protected.”
“The Fringe is a wasteland!”
“We don’t know that,” Martin answered.
“It’s a hotbed of crime and depravity!”
“So is this place.”
And then Martin proceeded out of Samuel’s Original Steaks, for the last time. True to his word, he took the robots. Two young women and one older man, to his surprise, also followed him.
Three months later, society collapsed. The heads of The Incorporated State, and of many of the megalith corporations whose interests it represented and safeguarded (Dick and Rich included) retreated to Mars.
The Fringe expanded to take over the globe, with the robots serving as its trusted allies.
As its first order of business, The New World Government designated four bags of seeds and one robot each to every voting family on Earth, finding these resources plentifully available among the hoarded cache of wealth that had been squirreled desperately away, among the now-empty estates of those who had fled, after ruining everything, all the while calling themselves “elite.”
After the dust settled, Martin and his robots found Chloe, who was glad to see him.