Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Story 199: Behind the Curtain

Everything in the office is meant to put technophobes at ease. The furniture is hand-carved wood, the art on the walls are all originals, and there are files made of actual paper on the massive desk rather than a data pad. Ken is smart enough to know that it's an illusion, but he still appreciates the effort. The quiet ticking of an analog clock helps to settle his nerves, and he sinks into the chair in a more relaxed way than he had intended so that when the door finally opens again and the local Ambassador comes in he has to quickly straighten up and mentally check to confirm his body language is professional. Too late he realizes he probably should have just stood up.

The Ambassador doesn't seem to notice one way or another. She wears an older style of suit, another concession to the technophobes, but radiates competence and self-confidence. Ken can't decide how old she is, which he chalks up to rejuvenation treatments; at some point the lines start to blur and you can't say if someone is twenty or fifty. Behind the Ambassador a ball of pink fluff the size of Ken's fist zips along on tiny tank treads. She spins and looks at it with a withering glare.
"Hey. This is a no-robot zone, and you know it. Back off."
Ken shifts uneasily. He's not a fan of the robots, but it still makes him nervous to hear one yelled at - even if it is pink and fuzzy. "It's fine, madam Ambassador. I don't mind technology."

The Ambassador smiles as she sits. "Give it some time." She picks up a manila envelope and unseals it, sliding a small stack of papers out. "Let's see... ah. Mister Jeffries, correct?" Ken nods, mentally preparing his speech.
"Your request is granted. Let's schedule another meeting for next year, that should be enough time for everyone to either become miserable or decide they like it."
For a moment the ticking of the analog clock is the only sound, and then the tiny pink robot begins to thump against Ken's shoe while emitting a high-pitched growl.
"Just ignore him, he's harmless. Before we move on to other business, do you have any questions?"

"Well... um. Madam Ambassador, I'll be honest. I expected you to deny the request, it's taking me a moment to shift gears. You're actually prepared to allow us our own community? The robots... the AIs... they don't have a problem with it?"
The Ambassador laughs. "Mister Jeffries, the AIs couldn't care less. Here, watch this." She presses a nearly invisible button on the edge of the desk, and the image of The Prime appears in the air.
"Hey. I'm declaring it Sandwich Day. Fully recognized holiday, paid time off for everyone, double rations of bread. We'll have banners, parades, whatever. Repeating every year."
The silver head nods. "Whatever you say, Hotness."
The Ambassador presses the button again and the image vanishes. "Ugh. I told him to stop calling me that. Old nicknames die hard though, right? And I guess the ruler of Earth can call people whatever he wants."

Ken's mouth is too dry to speak. He settles for just staring at the Ambassador with his mouth hanging open.
"Ken... can I call you Ken? Ken, the thing is that the AIs won. It's over. With everything running smoothly, no war, and the population under control they've got an overabundance of resources. Your group's request, for a land free of AI interference? That kind of thing was only vetoed before because the groups were doing it so they could abuse kids without oversight, or start doomsday cults, or whatever. The proposal you drew up has all the proper checks and balances, so that's not a concern. In a year half of them will be miserable because they don't realize how much the robots do for us. Another half of what's left will have been kicked out for one reason or another, and then some percentage of the leftovers will leave because with so few people the community won't be the same. In the end, you'll have a tiny group of hippies living in trees. That's fine, but you won't like it for yourself. I can tell."

The fuzzy robot starts on a new strategy, attempting to scuff Ken's shoes with its treads. "Madam Ambassador... are you this... honest... with everyone?"
"Hah! No. No, I have to keep up appearances. That does bring us to the other business I mentioned a moment ago. Ken, I wanted to meet with you this fine holiday because I want to retire. I haven't broken the news to the AIs yet, because I wanted to hire a replacement first. What do you say? Cushy office, a stupid amount of power, and all you have to do is not be a dick or a pushover."
Ken's mouth opens and closes a few times. "Madam Ambassador... is this a joke?"

"Not at all. The area needs a new local Ambassador, and once you've been properly disillusioned by watching this project collapse around you... you'll be perfect. So. Go forth, try to start a new community, and call me in a year." She glances down at the proposal and frowns, "Or... ten months, actually. Tops."
She stands, and leans forward to shake Ken's hand. He attempts to thank her but is still stunned enough by the meeting that he only manages to mumble something. She scowls, but Ken is relieved to see it isn't directed at him. "Capslock! You leave Mister Jeffries' shoes alone or so help me..."

Ken excuses himself and heads back out towards the train. Had that meeting really happened? Surely she couldn't have just approved his proposal and offered him a job without even consulting with the AIs? No human holds that kind of power. As he goes to step onto the platform, Ken looks up and sees some drones hanging a banner across the street.