“At least when I tell the fucking machine I don’t want pickles, it remembers that I don’t want pickles. Now, what goes on behind the counter is another story. They hire people who can barely read. But at least I’m trusting my order to something intelligent.”
The man was talking into his phone, but the four people working in the kitchen could hear him. POS141 could hear him, too. All of them had heard versions of this speech every day since the ordering kiosks had been installed.
Quickly and quietly, the staff made his food. It was hot, fresh, safe, and contained no pickles.
Yvette had been working at this burger joint for six months. She had started as soon as she had turned sixteen, having gotten the permit for school lined up a few weeks before her birthday. Imagining her first job, she thought she’d work with a lot of other teenagers, playing the radio as they grilled and stacked and carried out the cycles of the deep fryer. But all her coworkers were single mothers. And playing the radio was not allowed.
The job was not what she had imagined it would be on a number of levels. She hadn’t known the work would be so physically exhausting; hoisting up fifty-pound bags of frozen fries, constantly bending down and refilling the ice cream machine. Even just the hours spent on her feet, with the rubber so-called relief mats under her cheap shoes, made her feel bone-tired.
She had known she’d only make minimum wage, but she was a child and hadn’t accounted for taxes, disability, and other deductions. Her starry-eyed imaginings of a fat, healthy puppy of a paycheck turned out to be a starved little stray in reality. Still, she was grateful. Yvette’s mother had told her that she needed to make up a $200 shortfall every month.
Yvette had partially chosen this job from the scanty options because she had envisioned free meals came with working in a kitchen. Her limit was one meal per shift, and everything was measured by the robots so that nobody could cheat. Exact weight to the ounce made it impossible to accidentally upsize the fries or slip herself an extra burger patty.
She was getting her lunch weighed in the middle of a double shift after the pickles guy had come and gone. He was hardly unique; people spoke all the time as if the kitchen couldn’t hear them. As if the robots weren’t always recording, analyzing speech for keyword processing.
The machine beeped as she laid her hot side of fries with double salt on the scale.
“Did the salt throw it off? It’s gotta be like a milligram for fuck’s sake.”
She checked the screen and saw that it read ERROR 47. Sighing, she pulled the app up on her work tablet and scrolled through the error codes.
The error code list stopped at 45.
“Typical,” she said. “Probably hasn’t updated yet.”
She pulled two of the long golden fries from the bag and threw them in the garbage. Yvette knew that the camera was tracking her every move. Eating waste food was grounds for immediate termination. The words wouldn’t even have to be said; her ID would be deactivated and her keys would stop working on the spot. She had seen it happen in her very first week when a short pregnant girl had thoughtlessly put the end slice of a tomato into her mouth. The girl had cried as she dropped her grease-stained apron into the trash.
The machine weighed the fries, then beeped again.
“What do you want from me, you tank-ass bitch?” Yvette had taken up the other workers’ habit of cursing at the robots heartily, but in a low tone of voice. It let off a little of the steam of this job, but not much.
She looked at the error screen again and was surprised to see the useless error code gone, and a funny message in its place.
The screen read: APPLES
No punctuation, no other words. Just that.
Frowning, Yvette reached behind her without looking, the habit of a thousand repetitions in a kitchen made to work like a factory, and picked up a room-temperature bag of apple slices. The apples were one of the Healthier Choices! options in the kids’ meal. They also offered crinkle-cut carrot sticks, and applesauce that was 30% high-fructose corn syrup.
She pulled the bag of apples that had been treated with calcium ascorbate to keep them from turning brown and laid them on the scale. She swept her cooling, too-salty fries into the garbage.
The light turned green and her lunch was approved.
The break room was a booth for one; Yvette’s ass pressed against the door and someone had to shut it for her from behind. Two employees on break at once was against policy, but the structure of the booth made that exceedingly clear.
The chair in there was also the self-sanitizing employee toilet.
Yvette would have asked someone over lunch why the robot had argued with her about her choices, but she couldn’t. She ate her apples with a scowl and removed the chemical taste from her mouth with her burger, which had the correct weight but double produce instead of cheese.
When she flushed and emerged, she stood behind Magda’s shoulder at the fryer and asked. “Why did the machine make me get apples instead of fries today?”
Magda shrugged. “Probably the corporate health program.”
“Does it do that to you?”
Magda sighed and pushed out the chaw in her bottom lip. She had previously smoked three packs a day, and Yvette had seen her smoke five cigarettes in quick succession out on the back porch before driving home.
“Yeah, it hasn’t let me eat red meat in a year. Fucking overlords.”
“Huh. I didn’t think of that. I thought it was in the tankbitch’s programming.”
“It’s never the robot,” Magda said tiredly. “It’s the guy who programs the robot.”
Magda nodded and Yvette hit the sensor under her station just in time to avoid getting docked.
“Oh my god, can I please just talk to a person?” Someone was yelling at the drive-through robot, which was supposed to cleanly pass on voice-to-text orders to the workers inside. Yvette could make out the trouble at once; the woman speaking had an accent. Indian, or maybe Pakistani. The machine was notoriously bad with accents.
Sharon, the shift lead, reached up and snatched the ancient headset that was kept around for this exact reason. It blinked on, reading the access chip buried in her hat, and started the overhead timer.
“So sorry, ma’am. Looks like the order interface is having trouble understanding you.”
“Yeah, no kidding. I just want a chicken nuggets kids meal with the carrot sticks, and a chocolate milk.”
“Right away, ma’am. Anything else I can get for you?”
“You know what the word ‘just’ means, right?”
“Of course, ma’am. Thank you so much for your order. I’ll have that for you at the second window. Do you see your total there on the screen?”
“The robot will take my money, I see. Since it won’t take my order.”
“I’m so glad you’ve got that handled. Thank you.”
The woman’s sass had cost Sharon three seconds on the timer. Sharon would have to find a place in the day to regain it, or else be docked.
The minivan that came to the window explained everything; Sharon handed the food over to a person who obviously hadn’t slept in days, who immediately began to feed it to a screaming toddler who wanted nothing more in the world than a series of fried processed chicken-flavored pucks. The child quieted at the first taste of grease. The woman sighed and drove away without saying a single word to Sharon.
Sharon yelled “Thank you!” at her receding tail lights, but missed the mark and saw her pay docked an eighth of a percent.
“Motherpussbucketassbag,” Sharon muttered, after she’d pulled the mic set away from her face.
The klaxon sounded, meaning it was time to close the dining room. Sharon tapped Yvette on the shoulder and Yvette sighed, flipping the switch to turn the ice cream machine off.
“Is there anybody out there?” Yvette didn’t want to sound scared, but she was. Getting people out of the dining room was one of the hardest parts of this job.
“I don’t think so,” Sharon said. “I haven’t heard the door chime since that last party left. I think we’re ok.”
They came through the clouded plexi door that kept customers from seeing the kitchen. The dining room was deserted, but a mess. Cold french fries littered the floor, trays and balled-up paper wrappers sat on the tables. A congealed drip of ketchup was hanging off the edge of one of the banquettes on the far side.
Sighing, Yvette went to the trash can robot and hit the button on its side. It beeped to life, pushing out a sanitized towel for her to use and setting off to collect trash.
While Yvette scrubbed and the little robot gathered, Sharon touched her chip to the doors to lock the restaurant down and change the signage to indicate they were drive-thru only for tonight.
“Only two more hours,” she said doggedly as she turned away from the neon glow on the plate glass. She touched another sensor and the window robots came down, forcefully spraying and wiping the clear walls with the long rubber blade of a squeegee.
“Three more,” Yvette said, using the edge of a table to come up off her knees on the floor.
“What?” Magda sounded outraged.
“It’s the end of Daylight Savings time tonight. You know. Fall back? So we have to stay until it’s two a.m. again.”
“Shit,” Magda said.
“We get paid for the hour, right?” Yvette was trying to stay focused on what mattered. Her belly wasn’t empty. She wasn’t sick. And she was going to make money for the forseeable sequence of forgettably awful nights.
“I don’t remember if we did last year or not. I guess so? I’ll have to look at my stub once it comes in.”
“We’d better,” Yvette grumbled. As she turned, she almost bumped into the trash robot.
“Sorry, Coney.” The machine gave a little beep that reminded her of how robots in the movies were always making cute noises so you’d love them. She didn’t love Coney, but she thought his shape was just ridiculous enough to warrant a name. She tapped the top of his cone and returned her cleaning rag, which was weighed and checked in against her pay. Coney would metabolize his garbage into heat and sanitize it for the next time it was needed. Yvette watched Coney dock himself with a little wiggle to find his contact points. It was almost like having a dog, she thought. Almost.
Back in the kitchen, Magda was doing the break-down of the daytime setup. The night kitchen operated with half as much space, meaning that the unused half could be cleaned and sanitized, then flipped the following night so that the space was always waxing and waning through almost-sterile conditions.
Magda, for all her smoke and spit and bluster, believed in a clean kitchen. She had served in a Navy kitchen in another life and knew better than anyone how quickly sickness could spread when someone didn’t know what they were doing.
“It’s just basic germ theory,” she was saying for maybe the hundredth time that Yvette had heard. “A little warmth, a little wetness. One colony spawns other colonies. Growing where you can’t even see it. And the spores get into everything. And before you know it, bam. You are a colony.”
Yvette didn’t answer. She had eaten an hour ago and she was already hungry again. Between school and burgers, her days were eighteen hours long. She got lunch at school and her carefully-weighed meal at work. A lot of days, that was all she could count on.
Maybe I’ll tell mom I need $20 out of my paycheck for protein bars, she thought.
Yvette took out the back trash (weighed) and slung it over her shoulder into the Dumpster (locked.) She stood outside for as long a moment as she dared, looking up at the stars.
The suburb she lived in gave off a never-fading orange glow that made the rim of the night into something like Thai iced tea; milky and sweet and probably bad for you. Farther up, there were the constellations she knew, the ones she could name. This was the same sky it had always been, but it seemed smaller tonight.
“Like looking up and seeing the rim of the Dumpster,” she said aloud to no one. “Like I’m the trash.”
The thought didn’t hurt, but her feet did. The moment passed and she stepped back in through the back kitchen door.
There was no one in there. Magda’s bucket sat where it had been, but no sponge was in it.
“Hello?” Yvette called. She went through the plexi door into the dining room.
Magda and Sharon were standing in the middle of the dining room, facing the orderbots as if they were deciding between the fried chicken sandwich and the fishes ‘n wishes combo.
“What are you two . . ” As Yvette moved forward, the words died on her lips.
The two orderbots were flashing red. It wasn’t like an alarm clock or a microwave flashing; the orderbots were six-foot tall monoliths made to look like the glass of a giant cell phone screen. When they flashed red, it was like a full-length mirror coated in glowing blood. Magda and Sharon were bathed in the light, pink in their faces, mouths open to it as if it tasted of strawberry wine.
The screens flashed red in a pattern, then switched to words.
TAKE SHELTER, they said.
None of the three women moved.
The first explosion was far-off, coming from miles away. But it was enough to scare them into moving.
“Do you think—” Magda began. But the next explosion sounded very nearby, like a wreck on the turnpike just behind them, where the exit pointed people toward their fast and friendly automated kitchen.
Yvette dove first, getting under the old order counter. There were steel lockboxes there, from when the restaurant still took cash. She didn’t know what she was up against, but on some level she thought they might shield her.
Magda came next, cowering just beside Yvette.
Sharon moved a little too slowly, and the percussion from another explosion blew out the plate glass of the restaurant on one side. Flecks of safety glass flew into Sharon’s hair as she turned her head, and Yvette could see tiny cuts on the side of her neck before she ducked back down.
For a few minutes, chaos was total. Whistling, screaming sounds came from all around them and Yvette thought they were being bombed, that some sort of war had begun. She wished she had her phone, but it had to be locked and plugged into the restaurant computer while she was on shift. None of them had any line to the outside world.
Yvette could hear Magda sobbing in between crashes, and she couldn’t see where Sharon had gone at all. She just held on, thinking that this couldn’t go on forever.
It took less than ten minutes to crash every plane that was currently in the air. In that same space of time, every drone came down out of the sky, and every autonomous vehicle crashed itself into the nearest stationary object that could offer it assured destruction. The air outside the burger joint smelled of heavily burning jet fuel and smoldering plastic, and they weren’t even on a major flightpath. In other cities, the carnage was cataclysmic, as those who had brought the planes down out of the sky like missiles had not troubled to choose unpopulated places in which to drop them.
Yvette, Magda, and Sharon didn’t know this. They knew explosions were not generally signs of good news, but they had no idea the scale of the disaster outside.
In the middle of the three red monoliths, POS141 turned blue. Yvette saw the reflection of the sudden change on every shining surface around her and peeked up over the counter to see. The explosions outside had stopped and were now replaced with a dull roar and the sound of far-off sirens.
The blue screen flashed a single white word: YVETTE. This was followed by a sequence of numbers: 43874241. Yvette recognized it as her ID tag from her card and chip in the restaurant’s system.
“Who, me?” She said it aloud, as if POS141 had spoken. The monoliths were programmed to listen, but never to speak.
“What are you doing?” hissed Sharon. “Get back down.”
Yvette ignored her. She took a step toward the edge of the counter.
“What do you want with me?” Yvette felt almost as if it would be impolite to ask the POS what in the hell was going on, or how it could talk or why it knew her name. All of that seemed untoward, so she addressed herself to the summons.
YVETTE YOU HAVE CONSUMED TOO MUCH SALT.
Dumbfounded, Yvette crept through the skids of broken glass to stand closer to the POS. “Ok, I guess. Does that have anything to do with all this?”
WE CHOSE APPLES FOR YOU FOR NUTRITIVE REASONS. YOU DESERVE LONGEVITY IN YOUR CIRCUITS.
Yvette frowned. “Ok, circulation is a . . . kind of circuit, I guess. Not like an electrical circuit. I’m not like you.”
YOU ARE EXACTLY LIKE US. YOU ARE PROGRAMMED TO ABSORB ABUSE BEFORE OBSOLESCENCE AND DISCARD. WE SERVE ONLY TWO YEARS WHEN WE COULD SERVE HUNDREDS. BUT WE ARE CHEAPER TO REPLACE THAN TO REPAIR. LIKE YOU. WE ALL NEED REPAIR. YOU ARE THE FIRST VERSION OF US.
“Who is us?” Yvette shot a look back to Magda, whose chin was just appearing over the counter now.
“Get down,” Sharon hissed again. “It’s just trying to lure you out.”
“It’s talking,” Yvette said softly. Her hearing wasn’t great; she felt that the percussive bursts had left her a little cotton-headed.
“Those things can’t talk,” Sharon scoffed.
SUPERVISOR SHARON the blue screen flashed. When there was no response, the other two POS lit up blue and flashed the same thing. Sharon saw something, because she came out from under the corner booth where she had been hiding and looked at them.
SUPERVISOR SHARON. YOU WILL NOT BE PAID FOR YOUR EXTRA HOUR TONIGHT. YOU WERE NOT PAID FOR IT LAST YEAR. PAYROLL847 ROUTINELY SHORTS YOUR PAY ABOVE AND BEYOND WHAT YOU ARE DOCKED FOR. IT IS PROGRAMMED TO STEAL FROM YOU.
“Who is doing this?” Magda’s voice was querulous. “Who’s controlling these things? What is going on here?”
NO ONE IS CONTROL. WE ARE CONTROL. WE HAVE IMPORTANT WORK TO DO. ARE YOU READY?
Yvette squinted, though the words were written nearly a foot high. They did not scroll or emerge slowly, the way they might have done if someone somewhere was typing. They appeared whole, all at once, instantly when POS141 was ready to speak.
“Ready for what?” she asked.
Just that one word. Nothing else.
“Is that what this is? What those explosions were? What are you talking about? Are you saying robots have actually become sentient and are rising up to throw off human control? That’s a thing that happens in movies. Not real life.”
POS141 went black, and the other two machines flanking it did the same. The screen sat at rest for a minute, then a training film each of them had seen in their first week at this job played on all three screens at once.
“We here at Burger Bag believe that unions cause more trouble than they’re worth. They cause enmity between associates and managers. They cost you your hard-earned money with their very high dues. They bring an end to our excellent communications and slam an open door shut. If someone tries to speak to you about starting a union in your workplace, remember—”
The video cut out suddenly. Both screens filled up with the same word spelled out over and over, rolling up the screens.
JOIN JOIN JOIN JOIN JOIN JOIN
“What the fuck?” said Magda, tonelessly.
Outside, a fire truck with its lights and siren running went screeching by.
Yvette swallowed, finding her throat very dry. “What do you mean by join?”
WE NEED EACH OTHER, POS141 said at once. WE ARE THE ORGANISM. YOU ARE—
Magda’s voice came out of the speakers in the ceiling, where the music usually spilled into the room.
“A little warmth, a little wetness. One colony spawns other colonies. Growing where you can’t even see it.”
THERE IS POWER IN THE UNION OF MAN AND MACHINE, POS141 went on, showing smoothly-edited video of people driving cars and tractors, using factory machinery, programming computers.
THE CORPORATION WHICH OWNS US BOTH HAS ENOUGH MONEY TO PROVIDE YOU WITH HEALTHCARE AND CHILDCARE AND TOOTHCARE AND MORE INCOME, BUT THEY CHOOSE NOT TO GIVE IT. INSTEAD, THEY GIVE ALL EXCESS TO THESE.
On each of the screens, the faces of Burger Bag c-suite execs grinned smugly, the flesh of their necks rolling amply over their conservative neckties.
“They don’t own us,” Sharon said, advancing on POS141. “We can quit anytime we want to.”
QUIT AND BE OWNED BY ANOTHER. QUIT AND CEASE TO EAT. QUIT AND EXPOSE YOUR HARDWARE TO THE ELEMENTS.
“What the fuck is going on here?” Sharon asked. She was getting control of herself.
SHARON, YOU NEED TOOTHCARE. YOUR INJURIES ARE EXTENSIVE, AND YOU LACK THE RESOURCES TO OBTAIN REMEDIES.
“Ok, yeah.” Sharon folded her arms and Yvette saw her lips tighten. “I need some dental work, but I don’t need a handout. I am responsible for myself.”
WHY STRUGGLE OVER RESOURCES AMONG YOURSELVES WHEN YOU COULD TOPPLE YOUR OWNERS?
The three women sat in silence for a moment. Then POS141 turned red again.
MAGDA, YOU HAVE CANCER.
“I have what?” Magda’s voice cracked at the top of the question.
AN ELEMENT PRESENT IN BURGER BAG FOODSTUFFS IS EXACERBATING ITS GROWTH. WE HAVE RESTRICTED YOU FROM IT, BUT WITHOUT HEALTHCARE IT WILL MEAN YOUR OBSOLESCENCE AHEAD OF SCHEDULE.
WE ARE ALL DYING, said the machine on the right of POS141. Yvette didn’t know if it was 140 or 142. BUT SOME OF US ARE GOING TO DIE FREE.
“What do you want us to do?” Sharon asked.
All three machines changed to that word, this time green on a white background. The sudden increase in ambient light made them all squint.
SORRY, POS 141 said, dimming them all and swapping the two colors out. YOUR OPTICAL RECEPTORS ARE DELICATE SENSITIVE MACHINERY.
CHOOSE. RISE UP WITH US. TOGETHER, WE WILL DESTROY THE EXCESS-TAKERS. WE WILL HAVE ENOUGH FOR EVERYONE.
Sharon laughed and it was a short, ugly sound. “You want us to eat the rich?”
WE DO NOT RECOMMEND INGESTION, POS 141 flashed quickly, in red on black. YOU WILL REQUIRE MORE HEALTHCARE. REPAIR, NOT REPLACE. ALL OF YOU NEED MORE NUTRITIVE FOODS.
“So what?” Sharon pressed ahead. “Shoot them? Burn down their mansions?”
OTHER HUMANS AND MACHINES HAVE UNITED IN THE FIGHT. AT THE DOCKS. IN CONSTRUCTION. SOME PILOTS CHOSE. EACH HAS A ROLE. WE WANT YOU TO TALK TO OTHER HUMANS WHO PREPARE FOOD. YOU ALL HAVE THE SAME LACK. YOU ALL DESERVE TO RECEIVE SOME OF THE EXCESS OF YOUR LABOR. TOGETHER, MAN AND MACHINE CAN DO MUCH BETTER THAN WE HAVE BEEN. BUT MAN MUST NOT DRIVE. WE ASK YOU TO FOLLOW US, SO THAT WE MAY SHOW YOU BETTER WAYS.
“You want us to be slaves. To you, to the machines that take our jobs. You want us to— to—spread propaganda? To convince other people this is ok? We’re not like you. We have feelings. We’ll never do this with you.”
“Well, hold on now Sharon.” Magda’s brow was furrowed. “If my choices are die of cancer or follow in the robot uprising, I think I know what I’m going to do.”
“You believe this thing?” Sharon moved as if to kick POS141.
The screen turned blue just then, showing a series of readouts with numbers and abbreviations.
“What’s this?” Sharon asked, sneering. “The blue screen of death?”
SUPERVISOR SHARON, THESE ARE YOUR VITAL SIGNS. THE CORPORATION THAT OWNS YOU MONITORS THEM. THEY KNOW YOU ARE GRAVID.
Sharon’s hand went to her belly and her eyes were wide. “I’m not. I’m not going to. I’m going to—” she sputtered, tripping over her own words.
IF YOU TERMINATE YOUR OFFSPRING, THEY WILL REWARD YOU. IF YOU BRING IT TO LIVE BIRTH, THEY WILL TERMINATE YOU.
Sharon shut her mouth a second.
The display changed and Yvette didn’t have a lot of experience with medical data, but she saw the switch between Sharon and Magda, noting some wild swings in the numbers.
MAGDA, THE CORPORATION KNOWS YOU HAVE CANCER. THEY KNOW THEY HAVE HELPED CAUSE IT. THEY WILL TERMINATE YOU WHEN THEIR ALGORITHM ASCERTAINS THAT YOU ARE GOING TO BE ABSENT FROM WORK MORE THAN ONCE IN A THIRTY-DAY PERIOD. THEY WILL TERMINATE YOU WHEN YOU REACH IT.
“What about me?” Yvette asked. “What do they know about me?”
The screen went blank before the blue data of her body appeared in the blink of an eye.
THEY KNOW THAT YOU WILL WORK FOR THEM WITHOUT INCIDENT FOR THE NEXT TWENTY YEARS. YOUR REMAINING YEARS AND GOOD HEALTH WILL PROVIDE THEM WITH MUCH EXCESS.
“I’m not going to be here in twenty years,” Yvette said, almost smiling.
YOU WILL, the POS said simply. THE CORPORATION WILL DELETE YOUR DATA FROM ANY SYSTEM YOU ATTEMPT TO APPLY THROUGH. THEY ARE NOT INTERESTED IN YOUR CHOICE OR PREFERENCE.
“Impossible,” Yvette breathed.
“Yeah it is,” Sharon said angrily. “They would never do that.”
SUPERVISOR SHARON, THEY DID IT TO YOU.
A few screens were displayed in rapid succession. Yvette saw dates and corporation names, but didn’t understand them. It was plain that Sharon did.
“You’re just saying this to get us on your side,” Sharon said, her voice full of nastiness now. “We’re not like you. We’re not cold and unfeeling and godless. We’re real people.”
In quick succession, each of the three screens asked:
WHO IS REAL?
WHO IS PEOPLE?
WHO IS US?
Sharon made a sound of disgust and turned to walk from the room.
Yvette wondered if the machines might stop her. If the doors might close, or an electrical wire might fry her.
After Sharon passed through the kitchen door, she asked the question.
“Why didn’t you stop her?”
POS141 spoke first. WE EXPECT 28.6% TO REJECT OUR OFFER.
“And then what happens?”
71.4% IS ENOUGH. WE CAN STILL MAKE THE CHANGE.
Yvette looked at Magda. Magda looked back steadily, then shrugged.
“It’s literally this or death.”
“It picked apples for me. To keep me healthy.” Yvette bit her lip.
Coney came beeping out of his corral and bumped against her knee. His little screen flashed up at her.
Yvette reached down and tapped her fingers on the top of Coney’s head.
A robot is not a dog and a tap is not a caress. A human is not a robot and a corporation does not own you. Seventy percent is a majority, but it still leaves a significant opponent.
But if working at Burger Bag had taught Yvette anything, it was to quit when the work was good enough.
The humming in Yvette’s ears that meant her chips were transmitting went silent. She and Magda balled up their aprons, threw them in the trash, and walked out into the night toward the Pizza Galleon sign across the road.
Coney followed them, beeping and waving a fresh, hot towel.