2084 - Slavery Resurgent
by Fred Dungan
Published and Formatted by DUNGAN BOOKS
All characters are fictional and any resemblance to people living or dead is purely coincidental.
[Editor's Note: This novel was written as a tribute to the memory of George Orwell, who fought in the Spanish Civil War and is the author of the classic political science fiction novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four. Short Synopsis: Everyman Winston Smith morphs into Franklin Pierce and Wannabe Big Brother Ebenezer Snodgrass is elected President of the United States which enables him to orchestrate America's rapid descent into predatory capitalism.]
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For my granddaughter, Caitlin
Franklin rolled over in his waterbed and forced open his eyes. The commercial telepathy signal was too strong and disturbed his sleep. Twice before he had complained to the provider about it, and they claimed to have significantly reduced the strength. Bullshit. He was convinced that because he lived in the central city less than a block from the provider's transmission tower, it could not be adjusted low enough to prevent the transmission from interfering with his sleep.
Two months ago, when he signed the lease for his apartment, the landlord had given him a $20 monthly discount in the rent in exchange for agreeing to allow the provider to telepathically transmit advertisements to his subconscious between periods of rapid eye movement sleep. He really did not want it, but his part-time minimum wage job left him no other choice. Besides, they allowed him to select the topics for the commercials. Like most things that had gone wrong in his life, it had seemed like a good idea at the time. All the bad choices he had made were catching up with him. Since griping did not make things better, Franklin rolled over and went back to sleep.
Many of the advertisements that interspersed his dreams were recruitment pitches for various off-world careers. As a child, he was fascinated by science fiction, but as time passed, science fiction had been translated into science fact, and the fact was that space travel was extremely dangerous. Being careful and precise by nature, he did not engage in high risk activities. His few school friends used to dare him to climb trees and jump off of houses, but he was afraid of getting hurt. Why should he do something stupid? To his way of thinking, risk could only be justified by a big enough reward. Outer space adventure would have to wait until the odds were in his favor. No problem, he was a man of infinite patience. He truly believed that his time would come. In the meantime, he had bills to pay.
"Climate change is a fact." - Barack Obama
It was nearly mid-afternoon on the 12th of March and already the temperature had climbed past 100 degrees. In fact, there had not been one day in two weeks when the thermometer had not risen over 90 degrees. Given the low humidity, perspiration offered scant relief - beads of sweat evaporated almost as soon as they formed. Nor did the occasional wispy white cloud high overhead provide any shade from an angry orange-red sun.
The stale air stank. Intense heat had formed small puddles of oil atop the asphalt. When he crossed the street, it stained his new white sneakers. An inversion layer had formed over the Los Angeles Basin, trapping odors, magnifying the sun's rays, and making life miserable for the few foolhardy pedestrians who dared to venture outside during the eleventh Los Angeles Air Quality Management District alert in two weeks.
But 42 year old Franklin Pierce had no other option. His aging truck did not meet modern technological requirements and his minimum wage job as a janitor in an office building did not provide him enough money to update it. He had no choice but to take a hover bus to and from work. The nearest bus stop to his apartment was over a mile away. It took Franklin an hour and a half to go either way on days when the bus kept to its schedule. He had been warned twice for being late. One more infraction and he would be suspended for two weeks.
Janitorial work was mind-numbingly monotonous and provided little satisfaction. Several times he had involuntarily nodded off while buffing the linoleum floors. It didn't matter much since he worked alone in empty offices at night and nobody seemed to know the difference. And why should they care? The company would sooner or later replace him with an unerring automaton that would perform his job at twice the speed and half the cost. Franklin's economic future appeared dim.
This was in contrast with his prospects twenty years ago when he had graduated near the top of his class at the University of California, Irvine, with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics. Sheepskin in hand, he had applied for career entry positions in several government agencies, but had been rejected because he refused to be injected with an identification chip as required by anti-terrorist legislation enacted by Congress and a handful of states following a string of bombings of public buildings and assassinations of government officials in 2062.
Injectable microchips were invented in the early part of the 21st century. Initially, they contained data which aided in the return of lost pets and animals to their rightful owners. Gradually they became more sophisticated, increasing storage capacity while minimizing size. It soon became possible to program terabytes of data into microchips smaller than a pinhead. By 2031 fifteen percent of the population in the United States and Europe had been microchipped; hospitals routinely microchipped babies at birth. In 2055, military dog tags were replaced with microchips.
Franklin had heard rumors that implants sometimes resulted in skin cancer, that they could be hacked by third party scanners, that they interfered with magnetic resonance imaging, and that medical and financial records could be stolen from them, even though encrypted. The transponders that were an integral part of late model microchips threatened to put an end to privacy; mandatory Global Positioning System signals were monitored by the government, making it impossible to secrete a person's location.
What frightened Franklin the most was a biblical prophecy:
And he causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads: And that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name. - Revelation 13:16-17, King James Version Bible
Society was rapidly becoming cashless. Ninety-one percent of the population lived in urban areas. Microchips were replacing charge cards, particularly in cities. Financial transactions were faster and more secure. Money laundering, cheating on taxes, holdups, and muggings had declined. And this had all resulted from a mark on the right hand where a microchip was injected. Franklin had an uneasy feeling about the future. He was not in any hurry to be microchipped.
In central and downtown Los Angeles scanners were everywhere. Usually the government scanners were mounted atop telephone poles and lampposts together with video surveillance cameras. Little activity went unnoticed. Although Franklin had no way to avoid being videotaped, he knew that positive identification could not be determined legally without testimony from an eyewitness or information scanned from a microchip.
* * *
"Man is still the most extraordinary computer of all."- John F. Kennedy
Multi-story holograms littered the central city. Projected in front of tall commercial buildings, they obscured the intrinsic beauty of landscaping and architecture alike. Franklin recalled a ballot measure in a municipal election six years back that could have limited holographic advertisements. Its opponents claimed that Los Angeles derived a substantial portion of the city's revenue from licensing outdoor advertising. Get rid of ads and property taxes would skyrocket, the advertisers had trumpeted via their holograms. The end result was that economics had triumphed over aesthetics. By a margin of three to one, the measure had been soundly defeated. Franklin hardly noticed the holograms. He had more important matters to think about. Besides, the overwhelming majority of them advertised products Franklin could not afford. There was one, however, at the Federal Building which always caught his attention. It stood out from the rest because it was three times bigger than city regulations permitted. In stark black and white, a hologram of the Director of Homeland Security menacingly towered over him as he walked two blocks to work from where the hover bus dropped him off. Looking directly at Franklin, the Director urged him to immediately dial the Anti-terrorist hotline if he spotted any suspicious or unusual activity. Quickening his pace, he tried hard not to cringe. A friend had told him that people in Los Angeles were twice as likely to be struck by lightning than to die in a terrorist attack. It was difficult to believe. Although Franklin had never personally seen a terrorist attack or received a terrorist threat, he took the subject seriously. For as long as he could remember, terrorism had been at the forefront of news reporting. Of course, he was afraid. Who wouldn't be? The Homeland Security hologram promised a $75,000 tax free reward to any person providing information to the Anti-terrorist hotline which would lead to the arrest and conviction of people planning and/or committing terrorist activities. Franklin recalled that while cleaning a men's bathroom at night a co-worker had found a large locked briefcase in a wheelchair stall. Afraid that it might contain a bomb, he dialed 911, the Los Angeles Police Department's emergency number. A Bomb Squad was quickly dispatched. Arriving at the office building, the unit cordoned off a six block square area and evacuated everyone from it. Next, they carefully placed the briefcase in a tub of water. Following a thorough soaking, a robotic device removed it from the office building and pried off the lock. A remote control camera on top the robot transmitted the briefcase's contents to an explosives technician monitoring a 3D LED screen inside an armored van parked beyond the cordon. "Better safe than sorry," he said as he related to the lieutenant commanding the Bomb Squad that Los Angeles had successfully withstood a threat posed by two soggy, partially-eaten egg salad sandwiches and an unopened bag of salted cashews. Franklin had no desire to commit a similar boner. Fooling with the Los Angeles Police Department was one thing, leading the FBI on what might turn out to be a wild goose chase was quite another. The chance of pocketing the $75,000 reward was not worth the risk. Any suspicious activities he witnessed would be better kept to himself. Besides, he had a strong suspicion that terrorism was largely a red herring, used by the government to distract the citizenry from economic and social injustices while serving as grounds for authoritarian legislation. Also, there seemed to be a profit motive. Section 9 of the anti-terrorist bill passed by Congress in 2082 required the courts to sentence anyone convicted of terrorism or treason to forfeit all rights and freedom for the remainder of their lives without the possibility of parole. Through use of frontal lobotomy, chemical castration, shock therapy, horizontal gene transfer (HGT), and cerebral cortex reprogramming, they were to be transformed into docile automatons who could outperform robots and were cheaper to maintain. Auctioned to the highest bidders, they enabled the administration to reduce taxes and balance the budget. An ultra-conservative Supreme Court ruled that slavery of felons was permitted under the 13th Amendment, Section 1 of which clearly states:
Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
Multi-story holograms littered the central city. Projected in front of tall commercial buildings, they obscured the intrinsic beauty of landscaping and architecture alike. Franklin recalled a ballot measure in a municipal election six years back that could have limited holographic advertisements. Its opponents claimed that Los Angeles derived a substantial portion of the city's revenue from licensing outdoor advertising. Get rid of ads and property taxes would skyrocket, the advertisers had trumpeted via their holograms. The end result was that economics had triumphed over aesthetics. By a margin of three to one, the measure had been soundly defeated.
Franklin hardly noticed the holograms. He had more important matters to think about. Besides, the overwhelming majority of them advertised products Franklin could not afford. There was one, however, at the Federal Building which always caught his attention. It stood out from the rest because it was three times bigger than city regulations permitted. In stark black and white, a hologram of the Director of Homeland Security menacingly towered over him as he walked two blocks to work from where the hover bus dropped him off. Looking directly at Franklin, the Director urged him to immediately dial the Anti-terrorist hotline if he spotted any suspicious or unusual activity. Quickening his pace, he tried hard not to cringe.
A friend had told him that people in Los Angeles were twice as likely to be struck by lightning than to die in a terrorist attack. It was difficult to believe. Although Franklin had never personally seen a terrorist attack or received a terrorist threat, he took the subject seriously. For as long as he could remember, terrorism had been at the forefront of news reporting. Of course, he was afraid. Who wouldn't be?
The Homeland Security hologram promised a $75,000 tax free reward to any person providing information to the Anti-terrorist hotline which would lead to the arrest and conviction of people planning and/or committing terrorist activities. Franklin recalled that while cleaning a men's bathroom at night a co-worker had found a large locked briefcase in a wheelchair stall. Afraid that it might contain a bomb, he dialed 911, the Los Angeles Police Department's emergency number. A Bomb Squad was quickly dispatched. Arriving at the office building, the unit cordoned off a six block square area and evacuated everyone from it. Next, they carefully placed the briefcase in a tub of water. Following a thorough soaking, a robotic device removed it from the office building and pried off the lock. A remote control camera on top the robot transmitted the briefcase's contents to an explosives technician monitoring a 3D LED screen inside an armored van parked beyond the cordon. "Better safe than sorry," he said as he related to the lieutenant commanding the Bomb Squad that Los Angeles had successfully withstood a threat posed by two soggy, partially-eaten egg salad sandwiches and an unopened bag of salted cashews.
Franklin had no desire to commit a similar boner. Fooling with the Los Angeles Police Department was one thing, leading the FBI on what might turn out to be a wild goose chase was quite another. The chance of pocketing the $75,000 reward was not worth the risk. Any suspicious activities he witnessed would be better kept to himself. Besides, he had a strong suspicion that terrorism was largely a red herring, used by the government to distract the citizenry from economic and social injustices while serving as grounds for authoritarian legislation.
Also, there seemed to be a profit motive. Section 9 of the anti-terrorist bill passed by Congress in 2082 required the courts to sentence anyone convicted of terrorism or treason to forfeit all rights and freedom for the remainder of their lives without the possibility of parole. Through use of frontal lobotomy, chemical castration, shock therapy, horizontal gene transfer (HGT), and cerebral cortex reprogramming, they were to be transformed into docile automatons who could outperform robots and were cheaper to maintain. Auctioned to the highest bidders, they enabled the administration to reduce taxes and balance the budget. An ultra-conservative Supreme Court ruled that slavery of felons was permitted under the 13th Amendment, Section 1 of which clearly states:
Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
By a revised interpretation of the 8th Amendment, the Supreme Court ruled in a separate case that slavery of habitually violent felons did not constitute "cruel and unusual punishment."
At first, Franklin had opposed the use of automatons because they might replace him on the job. But as time went on and the promises of politicians of a decline in violent crime, a reduction in the tax rate, and a balanced budget, came true, he changed his mind. A nationally conducted survey had reached a similar conclusion: "automatons improved the quality of most people's lives and strengthened the economy." The automaton program was soon expanded to include those convicted of kidnapping, first degree murder, armed robbery, espionage, and rape. Bills introduced to state legislatures were essentially copies of laws passed by Congress. Technological changes were resulting in more sophisticated automatons. A popular evangelist declared that evildoers deserved to be enslaved. Franklin's mind was ill at ease; recurring doubts clouded his thoughts:
"Do not judge lest you be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged. And by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you." - Matthew 7:1-2
No sane person would ever choose to become an automaton. A lifetime of slavery seemed a terrible price to pay for criminal behavior, no matter how heinous the act. No doubt slavery was the inevitable result of capitalism pushed to the extremes - goods and services were now being produced at little or no cost. The gap between the haves and the have nots had widened over the past century until the sole way conservative capitalists could further broaden the chasm was to reinstitute slavery.
The use of horizontal gene transfer was a particularly revolting aspect of Automaton Transformation, conjuring up images of the creatures in The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G Wells in which ribosomal DNA from bacteria, rotifers, fungi, and an assortment of animals is transferred to the nucleus of human cells in order to produce what could only be described as an abomination. Men in white lab coats were playing God. However, unlike God, their creativity was motivated by greed, rendering it - and them - vastly inferior. To Franklin's way of thinking, automatons were an evil parody of humanity which had no place in the Natural World.
As the holographic clock at the corner struck 1715, it began to drizzle. Employees streamed out of the towering office buildings onto the sidewalk - intent on going home before the rain turned into a downpour. Franklin was not paying attention to where he was walking; his mind was on other things. An automaton opened an umbrella, slightly touching Franklin's right shoulder. Quickly apologizing, the automaton murmured, "sir, please excuse my clumsiness," while lowering its head to avoid Franklin's quizzical stare.
There was something about the automaton's fawning behavior and obsequious speech that bothered Franklin. This unctuous creature certainly appeared to be human, but that is where the resemblance ended. Twenty years earlier, he had read Maxim Gorky's Creatures That Once Were Men for Literature 101, an elective course he had taken in his Sophomore year at UCI. It was astonishing how Gorky had depicted the self-degradation by which men lost all traces of their humanity. Not having seen such an entity before in real life, Franklin was grossed out by it and prayed to God he would never encounter one again.
Fetid breath, body odor, rotten teeth, and unkempt hair - could it be possible that the government had consciously engineered automatons to be repulsive? If so, they had done a good job of it.
It was easy to spot an automaton. Most wore yellow jumpsuits. Being programmed, they moved with a singular purpose, like a horse wearing blinders, speeding ahead towards their objective. Automatons sat in the back of public hoverbuses, surrendering their seats to ordinary human beings when requested to do so. Many restaurants, hotels, and other service sector businesses refused to serve automatons. The general perception was that automatons were unclean subhumans.
Franklin had heard on a podcast that automatons were rapidly increasing in number. One out of every seven Angelenos were automatons. It was estimated that by 2105 more than one-half of the workforce would be slaves. Their human masters would have more money and a great deal more leisure time in which to enjoy it.
Sociology 101 had taught Franklin that less than two percent of the populace were criminals. Of course, that statistic was 20 years out-of-date. Since then, the Department of Homeland Security claimed that crime had sharply declined. The numbers did not make sense. If only the most dangerous convicted felons were being transformed into automatons, where had the increase in automatons come from? To what purpose had the government been lying?
"If something seems too good to be true, it probably is." - 16th century English adage
When Franklin received a text message ordering him to report to the main office after completing his shift, he thought he was going to be laid off. Having walked fourteen blocks to the main office, he arrived tired, hungry, and disheveled. His supervisor, Hiram Nasov, had a corner office on the 12th floor of the Sanz Building, a rundown office building adjacent to Skidrow. Lightly knocking on the door with the second knuckle of his right hand, Franklin pushed down on a lever and barged in without waiting for Hiram to give him a go-ahead. It was just as well, because his supervisor was busy talking to somebody on a cellphone.
"I ordered 50 gallons of pine oil disinfectant, not some watered down, sweet-smelling cleanser. Of the twenty-nine ingredients listed on the labels, it says nothing about pine oil."
"There is no substitute for pine oil. It cleans while killing germs and insects. One client complained that his office was infested with crickets. Another said he personally saw a roach fly down from the ceiling onto the floor when he turned on the lights one night. You made us look bad."
"Your mistake, not ours. You have to pay for shipping it back."
Hiram's face was flushed and the veins in his neck stood out, but his tone remained level, never betraying the anger he was obviously feeling. Franklin slumped into a pink fiberglass chair. He was tired from working a ten hour shift. Hearing one end of a two-way conversation was frustrating. To keep from nodding off he focused his mind on listing prime numbers: 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, 19, 23....
"It is your responsibility to make it right. I desperately need the 50 gallons of pine oil I ordered from your company nine weeks ago. Either I receive it by Monday or I will find a company that is morally opposed to 'bait and switch' and fills orders on time."
With that, Hiram ended the phone call by tossing his cellphone at the hologram of a clock that was being projected halfway up a decorative pillar in back of his desk. Having been made from a graphite fiber composite that was virtually indestructible, the cellphone's cover was not even scratched.
Franklin hastened to retrieve the cellphone and return it to his boss, saying, "If you are busy, I can come back tomorrow."
"Have a seat," said Hiram, pointing towards the pink fiberglass chair. Rubbing his forehead with the palm of his right hand, he remonstrated, "today, tomorrow, next Tuesday, two years from now - it won't make any difference. The stress never ceases."
Franklin wasn't sure what to say, but he had to say something, so he ventured, "You're replacing me with an automaton; isn't that what you summoned me here to tell me?"
"All our janitors are being replaced by automatons; all but one, that is. You are being promoted to manager. Somebody has to train the automatons."
"Why me? I despise automatons. Besides, I don't know how to program a computer, much less an automaton."
"I have never had a complaint from a client about you. You do not cause problems for the company. You have a degree, you belong in management. Nobody likes automatons, but they are becoming a necessity. For Christ's sake, it's a job. Would you rather be unemployed? You simply show them how to clean an office - monkey see, monkey do," Hiram gesticulated pushing a broom. "Leave the programming to the technicians."
"What happens when there are no more automatons to train?," asked Franklin. "It's not as if there will be an endless supply of automatons. Sooner or later the company will be laying me off or firing me."
"It is not that way in management. Keep doing a good job and the company will keep promoting you. Who knows? Corporate might transfer you to San Francisco or Sacramento. Play your cards right and you could wind up as CEO with a million dollar home and a trophy wife. Quit focusing on the dark side. Life is short, enjoy it while you can."
"Is this promotion simply a fancy title change or am I going to be making more money? I've got bills to pay and I am sick and tired of riding a hoverbus to work."
"Your starting salary will be twice your current wage. Purchase a new hovercar. And while you are at it, buy yourself a decent, presentable wardrobe. You start Monday." Pointing towards the door, Hiram remarked, "Now, get out of here. I have work to do. Text me if you run into any problems."
"Do I need to wear a suit and tie to work? I suppose the automatons will be impressed," Franklin sarcastically commented.
"What do you think? Managers are paid to think. Go, and don't slam the door on your way out!," Hiram erupted.
"Wither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?" - Jack Kerouac
Franklin was fed up with commuting via hoverbus. He not only wanted a new vehicle, he needed a new vehicle - nothing too expensive - something reliable. Instead of going to church on Sunday, his day off, he decided he could spend his time more wisely by visiting the Auto Center.
He no sooner stepped onto a dealership than three salivating salesmen set upon him like a pack of hungry dogs. Performing an about face, he promptly left. The second dealership proved little better. Finally, at the end of the street, Franklin found a saleslot where there was only one salesman on duty. The salesman pointed out the fashionable body styles and bright, shiny paint jobs, but Franklin was more interested in reliability, particularly what was covered by the warranty and for how long.
"Can I use my wheeled truck as a trade-in?," inquired Franklin.
"Does it run? There isn't much call for gasoline powered trucks nowadays. There's a market for them on Prince Edward Island up north in Canada, but it costs me to ship them there. It might be worth it to drive it there and sell it yourself. Without a trade-in, I could give you a lease on a pre-owned hydrogen powered hover for less than $300 a month. Just look at this convertible, auto pilot and leather upholstery. It's the perfect ride for an up-and-coming gentleman like you. I would have bought it myself, if I wasn't afraid my kids and dogs would tear it up. Only three years old, less than 20,000 miles on the odometer, and twelve cylinders of thrust; this baby will get you anywhere you want to go. I can make you a rock bottom deal. Walk over to my office with me and we can work out the details."
It was a bit past midday and already the sun directly overhead was torturing Franklin. The asphalt sales lot was blistering hot. By the time they reached the shack that the salesman referred to as an office, Franklin's new Hawaiian shirt was dripping wet with sweat. The office offered little relief. A dinky fan on a table fought a losing battle with the unrelenting heat. The salesman took two bottles of water from a small refrigerator and handed one to Franklin who downed it in one long gulp. Looking down, the salesman gave the second bottle to Franklin who gratefully accepted it and guzzled it faster than the first.
"The nameplate on the desk identified the salesman as Cedric Dickelsin. Since the sign in front of the sales lot read 'Dickelsin Motors,' Franklin assumed he was dealing with the owner or a close relative. Good, because his unusual credit history would ultimately require approval by the owner. Franklin desperately needed a hover and he needed it now.
"Please extend your right hand, palm up. In order to determine your eligibility for a lease, I need to scan your microchip," said Cedric, removing a scanner from his desk drawer. "Under law, I cannot sell or divulge your financial record to any third party."
Franklin stuck out his right hand, commenting, "I haven't been microchipped."
"I thought everybody had a microchip. Doctors implant babies shortly after they are born. It has been years since I last came across someone without a microchip. Why not go to a hospital and get an implant? It doesn't hurt. As part of the deal, I'll even pay for it," offered Cedric.
"I have never had one. From what I have seen, I am better off without one. The implant on your own right palm appears to be oozing puss," observed Franklin.
"Yes, it's red, but I don't think it's infected. Implants were never designed to be scanned as often as they are today. It probably needs a rest. Also, I have been scratching it lately. It's my fault entirely."
"I have enough health problems without having to worry about a malfunctioning implant," Franklin mused. Suppose I pay you $300 cash each month. If I'm late to make a payment, you can repossess it. What do you have to lose?"
"I am not comfortable having cash on hand. People have been murdered for less than $300. I absolutely refuse to take cash."
"All business involves risk," Franklin retorted. "By law, you are required to accept cash." As if to prove his point, he took a $20 bill from his wallet and handed it to Cedric. "On the front of the bill, in the left hand corner, it unmistakably states, 'this note is legal tender for all debts, public and private.'""Are you threatening me with legal action?"
"No threat intended, I was simply informing you that I have the right to pay cash. And you will come out ahead by avoiding the fee that banks charge for credit transactions."
"I am not used to doing business that way," Cedric declared. "I suppose I could make an exception, but I require a $500 down payment and I don't want to be burdened with your unlicensed trade-in. With registration, down payment, sales tax, and other fees, it will cost you $876.32 to drive it home today. Let's call it an even $876 and I will throw in a free pine air freshener and a full tank of hydrogen."
"What about the warranty?," asked Franklin.
"Ninety days or three thousand miles, whichever comes first."
Franklin removed his wallet from a rear pants pocket and gave Cedric nine, crisp, one hundred dollar bills.
"Sorry, I'm used to dealing in credit, so I don't keep change on hand," apologized Cedric.
"Apply it to my next monthly payment," Franklin suggested.
* * *
Although Franklin had a valid driver's license, this was his first time driving a hovercar. There was nothing difficult about it. He programmed the GPS with his starting address and his ending address. Then he placed his right thumb on an identity sensor and jets of hydrogen ignited all twelve cylinders. Three colored squares appeared on the altimeter: blue for ground level, pink for secondary level, and burgundy for top level traffic. Since it was only a few blocks to his apartment, Franklin touched the blue square and shifted the transmission into autopilot. Before he could turn on the air conditioner, he had reached home and at his verbal order, the hovercar parked itself against the curb.
"There are many events in the womb of time, which will be delivered." - William Shakespeare
After a delicious four course Mexican dinner, served piping hot from a microwave oven, Franklin donned a new lime polyester suit and a string tie. As an added touch, he pinned a gold-filled metal tulip on his right lapel. He caught a glimpse of himself in a hallway mirror and liked what he saw. "Time to step up in the world," he commented out loud to no one in particular since he lived alone. Rapidly setting his security system, he flew out the front door and pressed the ignition symbol embossed on a ring remote control he wore on his index finger. It was Monday, his first day in management and he did not want to be late. But he had no reason to worry. His hovercar drove him to work in less than ten minutes.
Franklin's automaton trainee was already waiting for him in the lobby. "Good evening, my name is Franklin Pierce. I'll be your instructor for a month while you learn to be a janitor." After that, he extended his right hand in a gesture of friendship.
The automaton stared at the hand in disbelief. Following a few awkward seconds, the automaton remarked, "it is improper for an automaton to shake hands with his master."
"Really? Well, since we are the only two people in this building after 6 PM and, to the best of my knowledge, we are not being recorded, I guess we can dispense with that kind of nonsense and get to know one another. Does protocol prevent you from telling me your name?"
"I'm George. All automatons are named George. Specifically, I am George 41,832,709. Master Pierce, I do not wish to offend, but I could not help but notice you do not have an implant."
"Neither do you," Franklin laughed. "Perhaps, we will go to hell together. We should make a pact and shake hands on it. Even a dog can shake hands."
George grasped Franklin's outstretched right hand, pumping it up and down for a full minute before letting go. He was smiling a big, idiotic grin rimmed with rotten teeth. Making friends with an automaton no longer seemed to Franklin to be a good idea. It was time for them to get to work.
George proved to be an alert quick learner. Franklin was impressed by how hard the automaton worked to please him. When Franklin said to add two-thirds of a quart of pine disinfectant to the mop bucket, George added precisely that amount without having to measure it. Nor did he nod off while buffing the linoleum floors. His attention to detail was truly amazing. Not a trace of graffiti remained on the toilet stalls. He pried a used tampon from the ceiling of a 22nd floor women's bathroom without having to be told to do so. This was much more than "monkey see, monkey do." George worked as if he had been born to be a janitor.
They broke for lunch at midnight. Franklin ate two burritos and an avocado. George bought two cans of vegetable beef soup from a vending machine on the 12th floor and warmed them up in a microwave oven. Franklin wondered how George came to have money. Were not automatons unpaid slaves? Would it be impolite to ask? In the end, he decided against it.
On the 9th floor George had found a wad of gum under a table. He offered Franklin half. Franklin declined and George popped the entire wad into his mouth. Franklin did not speak to him for the rest of the shift. As far as he was concerned "monkey see, monkey do," sufficed for an automaton. Besides, it was time to quit. They departed in silence.
* * *
For the next four days Franklin and his trainee had a business relationship. Talk was kept to a minimum and even then it had to be job related. Franklin was disgusted with automatons and George was no exception. He was stuck with them; they were his cross to bear.
The following Monday, they were servicing the 18th floor when George spotted an oil spill in a hallway. He attempted to clean it up with a mop, but it left a stain. Adding a pint of ammonia to the mop bucket helped a little, but parts of the stain remained. Feeling a strong urge to relieve himself, he rushed to a nearby men's room. He had been gone a few seconds when Franklin decided to check on him. Finding the stain and the seemingly abandoned mop bucket, Franklin added a gallon of bleach to the contents of the mop bucket.
When George got back from the bathroom, he found his boss unconscious, lying face down on the floor. When George knelt to pick up Franklin, he smelled the strong odor of chlorine gas and almost collapsed. Knowing that the windows were sealed and could not be opened, George lifted Franklin and dragged him down the stairs to the 17th floor. Franklin started to cough violently and then vomited. George pushed everything off of a secretary's desk and laid Franklin on it. After drinking a cup of water, Franklin seemed to get better. It was not long before he got down from the desk and sat in a chair. Franklin said he felt weak, but was otherwise alright.
* * *
Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him; do not fret when men succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes. Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret - it leads only to evil. For evil men will be cut off, but those who hope in the Lord will inherit the land. A little while, and the wicked will be no more; though you look for them, they will not be found. But the meek will inherit the land and enjoy great peace. - Psalm 37:7-11
"Thanks, you saved my life," Franklin stated, hugging George. "I owe you, big time."
"You probably would have recovered on your own. It was most likely the ammonia I added to the mop bucket that caused the mixture to produce toxic gas," confessed George.
"And I added a gallon of bleach. Ammonia plus bleach results in chlorine gas. The Germans gassed enemy soldiers with it in World War I. It's so deadly that it was outlawed by the Geneva Convention. I probably would have died if you had not rescued me. I really meant it when I congratulated you for risking your life to save mine. If there is ever anything I can do for you, just let me know."
George looked embarrassed. After an hour they went back to the 18th floor. The chlorine gas had dispersed. They rinsed the mop, emptied the mop bucket, and resumed their duties.
Franklin had always fancied himself a good judge of character. Now, he was having doubts. Although it was his job to instruct automatons, he didn't know that much about them. Hiram had told him that "managers are paid to think." Franklin would have to solve the automaton enigma himself. His initial instincts had been to befriend George. Although he had miserably failed, he would have to try again.
They broke for lunch after servicing the 16th floor. Franklin was determined to get to know George better. "I heard on the news that all automatons are hard-core convicted felons. You do not seem anything like that to me. Why did they transform you into an automaton? It really isn't none of my business, but I cannot keep from wondering."
George stared deeply into Franklin's eyes for the longest time. Finally, he opened up, "I never committed a crime and neither have most other automatons. Years ago, I was conceived in a test tube, technicians transferred the embryo to a polyethylene sack full of amniotic fluid that flowed in and out of the bag, and nine months later, they opened the bag, cut the umbilical cord, and that was how I was born. I forgot to mention that my DNA had been altered to produce a superhuman. It was all part of a government project to create supreme soldiers. After spending billions of tax dollars, the project was discontinued. All artificial humans, including myself, were supposed to be murdered. But the government was running out of convicted felons to convert into automatons. The polyethylene womb project was restored in order to meet the public's demand for automatons. Actually, it seems to have worked for the better. I would prefer being an automaton rather than dying on some foreign battlefield."
"You didn't commit a felony and don't deserve to be enslaved," reasoned Franklin.
"And a man with a college education didn't deserve to become a janitor. But it happened to you. Life offers no guarantees. No choice other than to play the hand you are dealt, that is unless you want to be the leader of a slave rebellion like Spartacus or Nat Turner. They both died horrible deaths. That is not for me. The company gives me a food and housing allowance and I earn a little money on the side. I try not to draw attention to myself."
"You have markedly changed," Franklin noted. "Was all of this servile automaton behavior just an act? Were you playing me? What for?"
"I go along to get along. Stepin Fetchit became the first black millionaire. Stereotypical personas don't get lynched. Give the public what they want and they will love you for it."
"Do all automatons come equipped with as much knowledge as you have?" asked Franklin. "Automatons are not supposed to think for themselves. You do not fit the popular stereotype."
"Of course, I don't. I was a holdover from the defunct Supreme Soldier program. The government decided to transform us into automatons when they ran out of convicted felons. Ninety-four percent of transformations were successful, but in my case the process failed. Due to my enhanced DNA, I was smart enough to act like it worked. They sold me at auction to your company and here I am. Go ahead and tell them about me. Nobody will believe you. To them, I am a valuable investment."
"Valuable investment, my ass. You are a Wobbly Warrior dud. I have no intention of ratting on you. Everybody has a right to privacy. As far as I'm concerned, the government shouldn't be keeping tabs on private citizens who haven't committed crimes and are not involved in terrorist activities. Politicians no longer trust the people who put them in office. Constant surveillance intimidates people. That is how the top one-half of one percent maintain their stranglehold on the citizenry," Franklin resolved.
"Society is rapidly changing," remarked George. "I doubt that the political system can keep pace. Automatons compose over thirty percent of the U.S. population. The government projects that by 2200 the number will be more than fifty percent. Also, the birthrate of ordinary humans is continuing to decline to the point where deaths outnumber births. Cro-magnon man will go the way of the Neanderthals. In other words, you represent the past while I represent the future."
"Keep dreaming," chuckled Franklin. "How come I am the boss and you are the worker?"
"It could have been that the Neanderthals initially lorded it over the Cro-magnons, but not for long. Superior brain power eventually won the day" countered George.
* * *
It was time to get back to work. Given the noise from the floor buffer and the compressor that sprayed the unisex restrooms with disinfectant, they did not have many opportunities to talk for the remainder of the shift.
The following night, Franklin found a scanner recessed into an acoustic ceiling tile in a hallway on the 14th floor. After soaking it with a caustic aerosol spray, he hit it with a hammer until the plastic cracked. He was sure he had disabled it, but to be safe they stopped talking freely and communicated on matters that were not work related via notes that they shredded by the time they quit work.
* * *
Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally. - Abraham Lincoln
Despite not finding anymore concealed scanners, George and Franklin continued to pass notes to each other. Franklin's offer to drive George home after work was refused. He was curious as to where George lived, but did not want to pry. Obviously, George had some kind of life outside of work and he was not ready to let Franklin become a part of it. George was taking an enormous risk by opening up to his boss and he was reluctant to further jeopardize himself. He could not be sure he was not under surveillance. George was unnerved by it. He was afraid of what the government might do to him.
They were cleaning the inside of the windows in the hallway of an office on the 22nd floor when George saw a drone hovering, apparently surveilling them from a position approximately eight feet from the outside of a window. It was so small and dark as to be barely visible. He had no way of knowing how long it had been watching them.
Franklin was angry. His privacy had been violated. He wanted the drone to go away so he flipped it the bird and made faces at it. But the drone remained in place. A blue LED light blinked on and off, indicating it was recording them. George motioned for Franklin to get away from the window.
They took the elevator to the 18th floor in an effort to evade the drone. It must have been effective because they didn't see the drone for the remainder of their shift. Still, they felt depressed. The totalitarian state was making its presence known. Franklin regretted having destroyed a scanner. That was probably what had called attention to the two of them. He half expected to be raked over the coals for it.
Two hours later, Franklin received an email from Hiram Nasov ordering him to report to the office the next day. He had some misgivings about it, but he went anyway. Hiram was his usual grumpy self, however, it seemed he was not aware of Franklin having destroyed a scanner and made obscene hand gestures at a drone.
"Those automatons cost a bundle. Is the one you are training capable of doing the job by himself yet?," asked Hiram.
"I think so. He is a fast learner."
"It's not a 'he', it's an IT," Hiram corrected. "That automaton is company property - the head office refers to them as chattel. Don't treat them like human beings. They may look human but in reality they are merely dumb animals. Monkey see, monkey do; what we want is for them to mimic your behavior. You're in charge. Don't ever let your guard down. It's simple - you order and the automaton obeys."
"Are you saying we can mistreat automatons because they are subhuman?," asked Franklin.
"No, our automatons are valuable investments. You better not let me see you mistreating them. They were born as human as anyone else, but they made too many bad choices and ended up being convicted of violent felonies. In the past, we confined dangerous felons in penal facilities where they were a drain on the economy. Now, we transform career criminals into societal assets."
"There seems to be no end to the supply of automatons. They couldn't all be vicious convicted felons," Franklin ventured.
"Of course, they all are recycled criminals. The newscasts are full of them. There was a time when people could not go out at night for fear of getting mugged. Believe me, the bad guys are finally getting what they deserve. But we aren't social workers and we do not have time to philosophize," Hiram said. "It is our job to make money for this company. The reason you are here today is to assist me in evaluating the results of the automaton development program. You told me that your automaton could do the job by himself. That is good news. You taught one to be a janitor in less than three weeks. Do you have any objections to doing it that fast on a regular basis?"
"That depends on how bright they are," reasoned Franklin.
"It is not a question of intelligence. Do what it takes to get their attention. After that it's simply monkey see, monkey do. Get it done in three weeks and you will have earned a considerable bonus," Hiram offered. The man was grinning from ear to ear. Franklin had never seen him do that before. It was downright scary in a Halloween pumpkin sort of way.
"How about we make the last training day this Friday," Franklin suggested."That will give me time to teach it how to fill out the paperwork."
"Suits me. Let George know that I will be sending someone by from time to time to check up on him. Next Monday you will be getting another automaton to train at a different location. Your hours will remain the same, however, you will be cleaning the Prudential Building on Wilshire Boulevard. You remember, it is the large building where you took your on-the-job training. Any questions?," Hiram asked.
"Is it a male or a female automaton?," queried Franklin smiling back at Hiram Nasov.
"Since they are all named George, I do not think there are any females among them. It wouldn't matter anyway because they are neutered as part of the transformation process. Please say you were not thinking of having sex with an automaton."
"No way. It is just that I saw a holograph soliciting automatons to work in a Hollywood massage parlor," Franklin evinced, still smiling.
"Get out of here!," Hiram exploded. "For your information, your predecessor lost his job because he spent more time watching pornography than disinfecting toilets. Fool around and you will suffer a similar fate. Consider yourself warned. Try not to slam the door on your way out. Now, GO!"
Franklin stood up from the shoddy pink fiberglass chair so fast that he nearly knocked it over. He rapidly exited, slamming the door behind him.
"The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing." - Albert Einstein
In two days Franklin would be going to a new office building to instruct another automaton and George was going to be on his own. Although the drone did not return, they were too afraid to communicate by word of mouth. When Franklin wrote George a note asking him where he had been born, George picked up a ballpoint pen and wrote on the back: "I believe I was born in a remote underground laboratory in a Nevada desert."
On George's last training day, Franklin resolved to find out by one means or another where George lived. Where did George disappear to after work? Again, Franklin offered to give him a ride home. Once again, his generosity was rebuffed. Franklin's curiosity got the better of him. At quitting time, he rushed to his hovercar and waited for George to exit the building. He put the transmission into manual ground level and the hovercar slowly inched forward. Franklin was careful to stay far enough behind to avoid being discovered. Fifteen minutes later they came to a rundown, poverty-stricken neighborhood known as Skidrow. Several blocks later, George entered a dilapidated apartment complex on the corner of Maple Avenue and 6th Street. It was composed of sixty year old prefabricated modules stacked like children's building blocks that jutted out in every direction from boarded-up businesses at the base. It looked like a good wind could blow the modules down. Despite the late hour, a ghostly figure with a rope belt holding up threadbare trousers emerged from a nearby alley with a rag and an aerosol bottle filled with soapy water. Too late, Franklin saw him coming. The derelict leaned across the hovercar's hood and washed the windshield while he hummed America the Beautiful. Afterwards, Franklin stuck his hand out the window and gave the man three dollars. Feeling embarrassed, he jerked the transmission into top level autopilot and punched the icon that indicated his residence on the touchscreen keyboard recessed into the dashboard. A little voice inside his head kept whispering, "curiosity killed the cat." He didn't own a cat because he was allergic to cats. In fact, he wished their species would become extinct. For him, curiosity was a positive virtue and Franklin vowed to satisfy his curiosity concerning automatons.
* * *
Goodbye, George 41,832,709; Hello, George 99,243,909. The new trainee proved to be a standard issue automaton. In fact, in Franklin's opinion the second George was definitely not any match for the first George. Franklin figured it was because the first George was recycled from the Supreme Warrior Program and the second George came from the government's standard source.
Not only was this George going to be more difficult to train, the Prudential Building would take more effort to clean. Franklin's former workplace was more than three times as tall, however, the overall square footage of floorspace was less because the Prudential Building's footprint covered an entire city block. No, it was not fair, but then few things in life are fair. Franklin knew it would not do any good to complain.
Each floor of the Prudential Building had at least four scanners and a large conference room on the 3rd Floor had six. Franklin was careful not to say or do anything untoward. Also, some of the white collar workers worked late at night and occasionally nodded off at their desks. All in all, Franklin had the uneasy feeling that he was constantly being watched.
George 99,243,909 was a klutz. He fell over chairs, slipped on wet floors, and bumped into desks. On his third day on the job, he broke the glass cover on a fire alarm when he inadvertently struck it with a broom handle. Three fire engines, seven police cars, two rescue units, and an ambulance responded in record time. Franklin explained to the battalion fire chief that it was an accident, after which the chief shook his head as if in disbelief. The chief's last words to Franklin were, "It does not matter who set off the fire alarm. You were the person in charge and that means you are the responsible party. Should this happen again, there will be severe consequences."
Much to Franklin's surprise, when he offered the automaton a ride home after work, George 99,243,909 readily accepted. He dropped his new trainee off at the corner of Maple Avenue and 6th Street. Evidently, the new trainee lived in the same module apartment complex as his previous trainee. Franklin doubted it was a coincidence. Most likely, someone unknown to Franklin had arranged quarters for them. It seemed there was more to the automaton program than the public had been told. Franklin was determined to uncover the truth about automatons.
The klutz (it was how Franklin had come to think of him) was a slow learner. Franklin ended up resorting to Hiram's "monkey see, monkey do" method of teaching his trainee to be a janitor. The problem was that the trainee did not pay enough attention to detail. While Franklin loaded new rolls of toilet paper so that the end hung down the back of the roll, the trainee repeatedly loaded the rolls with the end hanging down the front of the roll. Although it was no big deal, it irked Franklin to no end to have to show him the proper way to do it over and over.
The klutz had problems learning how to operate a floor buffer. Ideally, janitors lead a floor buffer as one would lead a dancing partner - moving gently; expending only enough effort to point the buffer in the right direction. If a janitor grasps a floor buffer too tightly, the full force of the spinning brushes will act against him instead of the floor. The trainee was fighting it, rather than making it float upright as Franklin had instructed him. Several times George 99,243,909 was sent sprawling across the floor, while the floor buffer went off in the opposite direction. And he had forgotten three times to recharge the lithium battery pack which powered its LED headlights. A lesser man would have chastised George 99,243,909 for his repeated mistakes. But Franklin wasn't about to give up. Over and over he told the trainee to "relax and take it easy," and he never got upset or raised his voice. Finally, after a full week of on-the-job training with the floor buffer, the klutz got it right. In his weekly training report to Hiram Nasov Franklin commented that "although George 99,243,909 is exceptionally clumsy and a slow learner, it is trainable. Barring unforeseen difficulties, its janitorial on-the-job instruction will be completed by the end of the allotted three week period."
Twice Franklin spotted drones outside the windows. The first time the drone appeared to be passing by on its way to some other building. However, the second time Franklin observed a drone three times the size of the previous drone hovering less than a foot outside a conference room window. Red, green, and blue lights flashed on and off. Franklin watched as a clear tube extended from the drone and attached itself to the outside of the window at eye level. Then the lights ceased flashing and the propellers stopped turning. The drone remained in that position for three days. On the fourth day it was gone. Franklin mostly ignored it.
George 99,243,909, however, tapped on the window as one would tap on an aquarium with a finger to make a guppy swim faster. Franklin ordered George to quit it because it could draw the drone's attention to them. Franklin surmised that the drone was positioned there to spy on a board meeting taking place in the conference room. It would not make sense for two janitors to be the target of a costly, sophisticated drone. There was no reason to be paranoid.
Near the end of the three week training period, the klutz pulled a real boner. While buffing a linoleum floor, the buffer bumped against the wheelchair of a female secretary who was working late at night. It threw her onto the floor and spilled a full cup of coffee on her dress. Outside of a minor bruise, she wasn't hurt and Franklin lifted her back into the wheelchair. However, she was quite upset and kept yelling obscenities at the klutz. After she calmed down, Franklin told George, whom she referred to as "numbskull," to sanitize the toilets in the women's bathroom where he would be out of her sight.
Franklin was afraid that this particular incident could blow up into something much bigger. No need for a complaint or, much worse, a lawsuit. He admitted fault, apologized profusely, and gave the lady 50 dollars out of his own pocket to pay for a new dress. Franklin had concluded that the less Hiram Nasov knew about the unfortunate incident, the better.
The next morning, Franklin received an email from Hiram that, among other things, ordered him to report in person to Hiram. He reluctantly complied. When Franklin entered Hiram's office, he was surprised to find his boss throwing holographic darts at a holographic dartboard.
"Come on in, sit down, and pretend you are happy to see me," Hiram cheerfully greeted Franklin. "Can I get you something to drink?"
"Water would be fine," accepted Franklin. "My stomach is a bit upset."
Hiram took two luminescent glowing bottles of sparkling spring water from a red polka-dot cylindrical refrigerator in a corner of his cramped office and handed one to Franklin. When Franklin turned the cap, a straw came out of the bottle and squirted the liquid into his mouth.
"Will George 99,243,909's on-the-job instruction be completed within the three week parameter we set earlier?," Hiram asked after bolting down his drink.
"He's rather slow and clumsy. I think he needs one more week of training before he can do the job on his own. This way we'll keep complaints to a minimum," Franklin advised Hiram.
"Automatons are supposed to be all the same. What's different about this one?"
"The first one was reprocessed from the government's defunct Supreme Soldier program. George 99,243,909 is not from the same source. They're not programmed alike," Franklin stated.
"Nonsense!, our company bought both of them at government auction. Violent convicted felons are transformed into useful, productive workers. We no longer imprison them and they get a generous food and housing allowance. We're happy, they're happy, and everybody benefits. If it were not for automatons, you might have spent the rest of your life as a janitor. Instead, you have been given a chance to move up in the world. Is this how you show your gratitude?," Hiram lectured.
"Yes, that is the official line. What the government isn't saying is that they ran out of convicted felons long ago and now they are obtaining them by other means. The truth is that they have sacrificed quality for quantity. Give me an automaton from the Supreme Soldier program and I will train it in three weeks. All I want is for the company to get what they are paying for; not an inferior substitute," countered Franklin.
"So how can I tell the good automatons from the clunkers. We purchase them at auction. It is not like they give us any details about them. Since all of them are named George, how can we bid on the best ones?," queried Hiram.
"It is all in the numbers. The first automaton was 41,832,709. I assume that automatons with numbers near that are from the Supreme Soldier program. The government has probably sold them already, however, we might be able to purchase them on the aftermarket, that is, they are chattel and there is nothing to prevent their owner from selling them downriver," extrapolated Franklin.
"That is a horrible analogy. Of course, that does not mean it is not apt. I will check it out and if it proves to be correct and has the potential to save the company money, I will have it brought up before the Board of Directors," Hiram promised. "And, yes, you can take an extra week to prepare the automaton to work alone."
"You told me I am being paid to think and that is exactly what I have been doing," declared Franklin. "I am constantly looking for ways to save the company money. Anything I come up with I will pass along to you."
"Last week our firm won the bid to provide janitorial services to the Union Bank Building at 445 S. Figueroa Street. Complaints I do not need, so I am sending my top supervisor, that means you, to start the ball rolling. As soon as George 99,243,909 is qualified to work by himself, you will be relocating to the Union Bank Building where you will begin training a new automaton. Since it is more than 40 stories tall, you will be supervising two janitors: the automaton trainee and a janitor who was working the day shift at another location. Because it involves additional responsibility, you'll be making more money. How much more depends on you. I don't like excuses and I have zero tolerance for complaints. I am depending on you. Do not let me down, Hiram warned. "Any questions?"
"Just one. Will I be working the same hours?", asked Franklin.
"Yes. I will text you some other information you will need to get started at the new location. Now, take these two empty water bottles and toss them in the recycle bin to the right of the door as you exit," Hiram directed as he went back to throwing darts at the holographic dartboard.
* * *
Franklin's last week at the Prudential Building was uneventful, with the exception of George 99,243,909 slipping on a freshly mopped hallway floor, bumping against a doorknob on his way down, and falling face first into a storage closet when the door opened. When George attempted to get up, his feet jarred the mop bucket, spilling several gallons of soapy water on himself and the floor. Franklin suppressed a laugh and helped George to stand up. Franklin could not cure the automaton's awkward bearing, but he made certain George 99,243,909 was capable of doing the job. At the end of the on-the-job training, Franklin praised the automaton for his persistence and shook his hand.
A ne'er-do-well is a rogue, vagrant or vagabond without means of support; a good-for-nothing louse. - Wikipedia
Some years ago, Franklin purchased a wooded, three acre plot of undeveloped land in upstate Michigan. Because it was almost as cold as Siberia in the winter, had swarms of giant mosquitoes in the summer that resembled flocks of birds, had absolutely no cellphone reception or utilities, and could only be accessed by a narrow dirt road that vanished beneath the snow for much of the year, he purchased it at auction on the steps of the County Courthouse for the cost of paying the unpaid property taxes of the previous owner. Franklin had intended to build a log cabin on the plot, but he was a city boy, definitely not the lumberjack type, so he kept putting it off.
Then, Franklin received a text message from his younger half-brother,Tom, informing Franklin that Tom had been released from the Chippewa Correctional Facility in upstate Michigan where he had served five years for having been the getaway driver in a convenience store robbery. Tom had inherited a trailer from his recently deceased mother and was living in a trailer park in Kincheloe, Michigan, but had been evicted for threatening the manager with an aluminum baseball bat. Tom wanted to know if he could come to Los Angeles and room with Franklin. Also, he requested Franklin to wire him $250 for an airline ticket.
Tom was a ne'er-do-well who had graduated from the juvenile justice system and gone on to prison. Franklin didn't want Tom to stay with him. He offered to let Tom be the caretaker on his three acres in upstate Michigan where Tom would stay free of charge. When Tom accepted, Franklin wired him $200 to have his trailer transported onto Franklin's property. Franklin hoped that he would never hear from Tom again, but it was not to be.
Contacting Tom again brought back memories, most of which were unpleasant. There was Tom when he was four years old using a magnifying glass in the blazing sun to fry red ants on a sidewalk. And when Tom turned six, he caught houseflies and pulled their wings off. By the time he was eight years old, Tom was caught by his mother torturing kittens and was sentenced by her to a month with no television or internet. But it had little or no effect on Tom. At twelve years old, Tom was introduced to the juvenile justice system after he hit a girl with a pole and broke her left arm in two places because she refused to reveal a secret to him. For that, he spent two months in Juvenile Hall. Tom's bad boy behavior grew worse, increasing in magnitude with each passing year. Tom's father once referred to him as a bad seed. Franklin worried that Tom would someday fall victim to the government's automaton program, but Franklin put it out of his mind and did not lose any sleep over it. Experience had taught Franklin that the less he thought about his half-brother, the better.
When everything seems to be going against you, remember that the airplane takes off against the wind, not with it. - Henry Ford
The Union Bank building is colossal, the tallest office tower in Southern California. When Franklin looked at it from across the street, he had to crane his neck to take in the windsock and microwave antennae on top of the structure.
George 99,689,794 was sitting on a bench waiting for Franklin to come through a revolving door into the Union Bank building. It stood up and shook Franklin's outstretched hand with a firm grip, unlike the dead fish handshake he had received from the previous trainee. It was much taller than Franklin, more than a foot taller, and it appeared to be well fed. When the automaton smiled, it revealed a set of sparkling white teeth, as if they had been capped. Surprisingly, the trainee wore a neatly pressed neon orange jump suit and smelled like men's cologne. "What the heck is going on?," Franklin whispered under his breath as he turned to sit down.
Franklin looked for the other janitor he was supposed to train, but evidently he had not yet arrived. Good, Franklin thought, it would give him a chance to get to know the automaton better. Franklin had great faith in his own social skills. He always preferred the carrot to the stick. He believed that an automaton that was punished severely every time it made a mistake would turn on its owner at the earliest opportunity. Franklin was a born again Christian. The doctrine of love and forgiveness was part of his everyday life. Rarely, did he lose his patience. Life was meant to be full of pain and tribulation. Setbacks served to strengthen his resolve. The Kingdom of Heaven would be closed to those who failed God's tests. Los Angeles was plenty hot, Franklin had no intention of spending eternity in Hell. After having read Dante's Inferno, he became convinced that evil was for losers.
"My name is Franklin Pierce. I prefer to be called Franklin. For the next three weeks I will be your instructor. Learning to be a janitor is not that difficult, providing you pay attention to what I say and do."
"It is a pleasure to meet you. The government has labeled me George 99,243,909, but I was formerly known as Simon Kline. Perhaps you have heard of me on the evening news. I was an investment broker until I was arrested for fraud and convicted of operating a ponzi scheme. It all stemmed from misanthropic investors misunderstanding the nature of capitalism. Business is a risk and those who are not prepared to take that risk don't belong in business. They gambled and lost. Being sore losers, the investors scapegoated me. I saw it coming and vacationed in Brazil. How was I supposed to know that eight weeks earlier Brazil had signed an extradition treaty in exchange for military hardware? But I have not lost faith in the system. My lawyers will win the appeal. And if not, I will buy my freedom from your employer for more than your company paid for me at auction. I remain confident. This automaton thing is merely a temporary setback. The reason I am telling you this is I want to be up front with you. Don't expect me to be around for long."
"I appreciate your frankness. However, there are a few things I don't understand," replied Franklin. "I thought the government deleted all memories of a former life, including the name, from an automaton before selling it at auction. Since an automaton is chattel, there can be no appeal, especially considering it is a voluntary program. You chose transformation over prison and now you are stuck with it."
"I bribed the transformation technicians to fake the alterations. I was not the first to do it and I probably won't be the last. As a matter of fact, I am rather proud of what I did. The government traffics in slaves," justified the new trainee. "Naturally, I will do anything and everything to regain my freedom. Didn't we fight a Civil War to abolish slavery? History has a way of repeating itself. There is no reason to expect a different outcome."
"Unless abolition occurs within the next three weeks, and I find that extremely doubtful, you will be finding out how hard it was for the investors you cheated to earn their money. Welcome to the working class. I do not take bribes, so do not expect to buy your way out of this. You will pay close attention to details and do anything I tell you to do. Do I make myself clear?," retorted Franklin, his voice gradually raising in volume.
"Certainly, you are the overseer and I am the slave. Your wish is my command. You won't have to whip me to get work out of me. I am not about to cause trouble. I am simply informing you that I intend to pursue obtaining my freedom regardless of the cost. I didn't set out to cheat investors and I have no intention of cheating you or your company," George 99,689,794 stated with conviction.
The plexiglass revolving door rotated and in walked the janitor for whom they had been waiting. He ambled over to the bench and in a slow drawl introduced himself:
"How y'all do?, I'm Beauregard Benoit and I'm gonna be working with ya. Hiram sent me to the service entrance and I banged on the door for ten minutes before trying the main entrance. Really, if it weren't for his crummy instructions, I would'a been on time. Nobody mentioned no automaton. Cannot say as to how good I would work alongside one of them. Anyway, how come I'm not using the service entrance? You'd think I was Lord Dimwit. Why didn't the butler announce me to the stuffed shirts in the ballroom?"
"It's because the bearings on both ends of the revolving door's hub need to be sprayed with graphite once a week. That's part of your job. When you finish doing that, make certain you lock it by pressing 2,0,8,4 on the keypad in the center of the wall by the left side of the door. Also, you will be servicing the first 15 floors of this building. Since you are so fond of the service exit, we will all leave in a group from it at the end of our shift. And, there is no need for you to discriminate against the automaton, because I will be training it for the next three weeks. Although you will probably regret not having it to help you get everything done on time," declared Franklin.
"Look, boss man, this building is bigger than the Super Bowl. It ain't right for you to be expecting me to clean fifteen floors of it without a little help. Or you could give me a couple of hours of overtime and I'll make it as spic and span as a fire truck in the station on a Sunday morning," remonstrated Beauregard.
"If it's too much for you, perhaps you would like to trade places with one of the eight janitors Hiram furloughed last week. You could take his place in the unemployment line. I certainly don't expect you to work up a sweat. All that I want from you is a full day's work for a full day's pay. You can forget about collecting overtime. Those days are long past. I'm grateful to have a job, and you should be, too," Franklin countered. "Since there is no union, you will not be filing a grievance."
Franklin showed Beauregard how to lubricate, test for the rate of spin, and then lock the revolving door, after which Franklin and the trainee took an elevator to the 16th floor. Surprisingly, George 99,689,794 proved to be an avid pupil, seldom making mistakes and quick to correct the errors he did make. Acutely aware of the vast number of video cameras and scanners that were present on each and every floor of the building, Franklin insisted on keeping conversation to a minimum. It was just as well, considering the enormity of the task before them. By the time they had been working diligently for five hours, the two of them had serviced only eleven floors of the towering structure, despite eating lunch on the run rather than breaking for lunch.
Although they worked hard and fast, the two of them had only managed to service 17 floors by quitting time. Worse yet, they were both so exhausted that they had to sit down for a minute before going down the elevator.
Discouraged, Franklin shook his head and pointed out, "This is ridiculous. No matter how hard we work, we will never be able to finish on time. This building is just too big."
"Au contraire, mon fraire," George 99,689,794 responded. "We don't need to work harder. We need to work smarter. We must divide up. That way we can do twice as much work. Now that I know what to do, you won't have to constantly keep an eye on me. I'm not stupid. What little you have not already taught me, I can figure out by myself. Or would you rather have your boss conclude you do not have what it takes to get the job done on time?"
Franklin gave it some thought. "I guess I will not have to check on you very often. Yes, it just might work. First day on the job and you are already solving problems. You helped me and it's only fair that I return the favor. I would be honored to drive you home at night."
"You should think about rescinding that offer because it's quite far from here," admonished George 99,689,794. "Besides, I've already arranged transportation."
"How far?," Franklin queried.
"I could not find a nearby residence that suited my tastes, so I ended up leasing a place more than eleven miles from here," the trainee answered.
"That will not be a problem. After all, it is only for three weeks. And, speaking from personal experience, it will be a lot better than having to depend on Los Angeles' hover buses," Franklin assured the automaton.
"Public transportation is for immigrants and welfare recipients," George 99,689,794 blandly stated. "A chauffeured limousine brought me to work today."
"That's a bit ostentatious. It must be prohibitively expensive," stated Franklin while rolling his eyes.
"Not really, it's actually only eleven dollars more per week than taking a hovercab. There is no comparison in speed, comfort, and reliability. Nevertheless, I would gladly accept a ride from you if you will agree to have an early breakfast with me. I told the cook to make venison and eggs. You'll be amazed by how well she prepares it," bragged the imitation automaton.
Franklin wasn't convinced that the trainee was telling the truth. Maybe it was all an act. It was high time for Franklin to call its bluff.
* * *
"I've been rich and I've been poor. And, believe me, rich is better!" - writer Beatrice Kaufman (1937)
"Mid-level is usually faster. Our destination is 503 North Alpine Drive, Beverly Hills, California 90210. We'll be hovering along the old I-10E for the most part. The traffic should be light. But in a few hours it will be gridlock on all three levels. Did you get the address right?," asked George 99,689,794.
"No problema, it's already punched in. We'll get there in under fifteen minutes," Franklin estimated, reading the figures on the screen. He jammed the transmission into auto-pilot and flicked the hydrogen ignition switch. With a barely audible swish, they were off traveling 15 feet above South San Vicente Boulevard on a cushion of air and automatically transferring to the I-10E, where the hovercar's onboard computer set the throttle at the maximum legal speed of 70 miles per hour. Settling back in their fully adjustable ergonomic seats, they engaged in a lively conversation with no fear of being monitored by scanners, drones, and cameras.
"I gather you aren't bothered by rules, laws, morals, or ethics," Franklin stated.
"What gave you that impression?," asked George 99,689,794, feigning surprise. "I am compelled to obey the First Three Laws of Automatons."
"Never heard of them," said Franklin, scowling. "Suppose you enlighten me."
"They are as follows:
The Three Laws of Automatons
1. An automaton must never do anything which might expose a human to harm.
2. An automaton must obey orders given to it by its human masters except where such orders conflict with the First Law.
3. An automaton will protect itself whenever a human master threatens the automaton's survival in which case the automaton will disregard both the First and Second Laws,"
"I am impressed," said Franklin sarcastically. "Which B movie did you steal that conundrum from?"
"I, Robot, based on the 20th century Isaac Asimov Science Fiction novel by the same name," commented the trainee.
"That was long before my time. Isaac the Ass must have failed Economics 101. Robots don't come cheap. I read somewhere that the Sultan of Bahrain had a robot guard his harem until a consort gave birth to a cyborg," Franklin joked.
"Such humor. All kidding aside, I meant it when I told you that I intend to regain my freedom soon. There is a team of lawyers working on it. I might purchase my freedom from the company that owns me. Then again, I might win on appeal or be given a presidential pardon. When the government convicted me of a felony, they attempted to confiscate my assets. However, they had trouble locating most of them. I continue to live well," said George 99,689,794 in a matter-of-fact manner.
"503 North Alpine Drive, this is it," declared Franklin. Should I park next to the curb or on the circular driveway?"
"Parking at the curb will get you a $350 fine," advised George 99,689,794. "People are not permitted to park on the street in Beverly Hills. It spoils the view and interferes with trash collection."
"Then why isn't the curb painted red?," asked Franklin as if he found it hard to believe.
"Because it looks tacky. There is a sign at both ends of every block on this street that informs red paint enthusiasts such as yourself of the neighborhood's restrictions on parking," George 99,689,794 pointed out.
* * *
Some people think luxury is the opposite of poverty. It is not. It is the opposite of vulgarity. - Coco Chanel
"Franklin Pierce, meet my cook, Rumi Ono. Rumi is a fantastic chef," George 99,689,794 introduced Franklin to a thin, petite Japanese woman dressed in black with a spotless white apron that resembled a French maid's attire not withstanding that it was bordered in frilly, hot pink lace. Had she stepped into the kitchen from a sex scene on the silver screen? No doubt Rumi was the sum total of every man's secret desires. And to think she was wasting her talents on an automaton!
The venison and eggs were positively superb. Lining the plate with truffles rather than the usual parsley sprigs was the act of a bold chef who was not afraid to dispense with ornamentation to enhance flavor. Besides, Franklin was one of those people who actually ate the garnish rather than pushing it with his fork to the edge of his plate. And he was partial to deviled eggs. It certainly beat his usual breakfast of sugar-coated wheat flakes awash in almond milk. Franklin's problem was that he had five star gourmet tastes on a two star budget.
Following breakfast, the two of them sat on a futon in the living room, discussing subjects that could not be brought up at work due to constant surveillance.
"You have a beautiful home," declared Franklin, stretching his legs in an unsuccessful effort to unknot the muscles that were protesting the low (for him) futon. "It must have cost a fortune."
"Automatons cannot own property," corrected the trainee. "The owners are vacationing in Venezuela. Their realtor faxed me a short-term lease. I never met him in person. Rumi was part of the deal. She lives rent-free in the converted three car garage at the side of the house."
"You realize you are a fake. I can't imagine how you managed to bribe the technicians not to alter you without getting caught. If anything, you have compounded your crimes. You cheated your investors and now you are cheating our employer. Have you no shame?," remonstrated Franklin.
"Financial institutions cheat people everyday by charging them double digit interest on their credit card debt, bilking them with phony services, selling personal information of their clientele, and performing improper foreclosures. That is what they do to the middle class. The government arrested me because some wealthy individuals lost money by following my advice. For ten years in a row they made fantastic profits. Then they blamed me for an economic slump that nobody could have predicted. And, as for those minimum wage technicians, how dare you chastise them for transforming my purportedly filthy lucre into buying food for their families or making a mortgage payment. Holier-than-thou are you? What you are is an overseer making sure that the absentee masters get maximum productivity from their slaves. Simon Legree used a whip. You use psychology and feign friendship. I assume that makes you better," George 99,689,794 said in a huff, instantly regretting having made the analogy. Franklin wasn't a bad boss. "Please excuse me, I felt frustrated and took it out on you. It won't happen again."
"It's alright. You could blame your behavior on the government altering your brain if it weren't for the fact that you bribed your way out of the transformation process," suggested Franklin.
"That is only partially true. Although I escaped the worst parts of the transformation process, I had the technicians enhance my DNA. They inserted a gene for longevity on one chromosome and repaired damage to my chondriosomes. The result is that I have more stamina and I will most likely live longer," confessed George 99,689,794.
"But society still considers you a sub-human," remonstrated Franklin, "with no rights or privileges; chattel to be bought and sold in the marketplace."
"My attorney tells me that if I contribute three million dollars to an incumbent President's campaign fund, I stand a good chance of getting a pardon," George 99,689,794 said to Franklin, informing his benefactor of his intentions.
"Get real, you cannot bribe the most powerful man in the world for a mere three million dollars," asserted Franklin.
"Who said anything about a bribe? It is a political contribution. The Supreme Court says that political contributions amount to free speech. It's all perfectly legal. Hedge-fund manager Marc Rich fled the country after he was indicted on multiple counts of tax evasion, wire fraud, and racketeering. Denise, his wife, made a substantial contribution to the Clinton Foundation. On January 20, 1991, his final day in office, President Bill Clinton pardoned billionaire Marc Rich. All was forgiven. In John 8:11, Jesus says 'Go, and sin no more.' I have faith that my redemption draws near," George 99,689,794 prophesied.
"The automaton program is extremely popular with the public. It isn't liable to end anytime soon because it is responsible for a balanced federal budget and a sharp reduction in the prison population. If you are planning on a sitting President coming to your rescue, you are severely overestimating your worth. Marc Rich was a billionaire, you, however, can only scrape together a few million. Marc Rich was indicted, but not convicted. Also, Marc Rich never admitted guilt. You are a convicted felon who voluntarily became an automaton. Many people would regard that as an admission of guilt. It looks like you outsmarted yourself and are now suffering the consequences," observed Franklin.
"Plato said 'we are twice armed if we fight with faith.' Patience and perseverance are the weapons of an invincible faith. I will never surrender. You inherently know that I am doing the right thing for the right reason. Why are you trying to dissuade me? Could it be that your own faith has begun to waver?," probed the probationary trainee.
"I'm having second thoughts about exploiting automatons. The automaton program is a cancerous growth on society. I thought I was helping to keep the malignancy from metastasizing. You be the judge. Am I deluding myself?," Franklin asked, shaking his head from side to side.
"I didn't expect to get someone like you for a boss," the trainee admitted. "You are one of the few human beings who relate to automatons in a positive manner. And you have a conscience. The United States fought a bloody Civil War to rid the nation of the scourge of slavery. History is repeating itself. Evidently, we failed to learn life's lessons the first time. Make no mistake, we are here for a reason. Deja vu; catastrophe beckons. Let's do our best to avoid it."
"I need to go home," declared Franklin. "How about we meet next Sunday at the Metrolink USC Station. There is something nearby that I would like to show you."
"I'll be there wearing my best jumpsuit. What time?," inquired George 99,689,794.
"Is 9 AM okay with you? I would like to get an early start," said Franklin.
"Then I will plan on being there at 8:30 AM, just in case there is a delay," the automaton who was formerly known as Simon Kline promised.
* * *
"I like whiskey, I always did, and that is why I never drink it." - Robert E. Lee
Beauregard Benoit was not an alcoholic, leastways according to him. Occasionally, he took a nip while at work from a silver-plated hip flask he had inherited from his dear departed father. Of course, he did it on the sly because other people were less cognizant of the beneficial effects of five year-old single mash whiskey. His boss, Franklin Pierce, was definitely one of those "other people" because Franklin went ballistic when he caught Beauregard leaning against a mop while imbibing the precious elixir of life in a conference room on the 10th floor.
Fire shot from Franklin's eyes as he yelled, "YOU'RE FIRED."
Nonplussed, Beauregard extracted a roll of Wintergreen mints from some inner sanctum of his faded denim overalls, nonchalantly asking, "Care for a mint?"
"Are you stone deaf?," Franklin inquired with a furrowed brow, his face flushed red in anger. "You have been drinking on the job which is sufficient grounds for termination. Go to the office on Friday, turn in your keys, and Mr. Nasov will calculate your severance."
"Not so fast," cautioned Beauregard, "without me, you and the automaton will probably have to clean the entire building until Hiram gets around to hiring another janitor. Be reasonable, it won't happen again."
"That's right, it won't happen again because you won't be here to do it. Good luck finding another job," Franklin declared.
"I've got bills to pay. I need this job," pleaded Beauregard.
"You should have thought about that earlier. Get out of here or would you rather be thrown out?," cautioned Franklin.
"I tried to be nice, but you chose to nitpick. You shouldn't have done that. Now, you are going to pay. Nobody is here, but me, you, and your soon-to-be ghost," Beauregard warned Franklin, as he reached into an inner sanctum of his denim overalls and brought out a gutting knife which he opened with a practiced flick of his right wrist.
Franklin's eyes narrowed and he drew a deep breath. Slowly and deliberately, he tightly wound a large wet rag around one arm with which to fend off Beauregard Benoit's blade.
The curved surgical stainless steel blade glistened under the LED strip lighting. Screaming like a banshee and swinging the knife in a downward spiral, Beauregard lunged at Franklin, but came up inches short. Backpedalling, Franklin stumbled into a bench, hefted it over his head, and threw it at Beauregard with lethal intent. The bench struck the fired janitor's right shoulder sending him reeling to the floor.
Beauregard struggled in vain to get to his feet. The sharp pain in his right shoulder told him it was dislocated. Beauregard shifted the knife to his left hand and slowly stood up. Gnashing his rotting teeth, Beauregard was taking another slash at Franklin when George 99,689,794 grabbed him from behind and wrested the knife from his hand.
While maintaining a chokehold on Beauregard, the automaton tossed the gutting knife into a nearby trash chute. They heard it clank its way down eleven floors to the bottom. It was music to George 99,689,794's ears. In fact, he liked it so well that he stuffed Beauregard Benoit into the trash chute and forced him to slide down it. The automaton was rewarded with numerous thuds and blood curdling screams as Beauregard bumped and thumped his way to the dumpster at the bottom."Good riddance to bad rubbish," quipped Franklin, unwinding the wet rag from his arm and using it to wipe perspiration from his brow.
"I never trusted that man," declared George 99,689,794. "You were gone for so long that I came looking for you."
"It is a good thing you found me. If it wasn't for you, he might have gutted me like a fish with that knife. But didn't you violate the Laws of Automatons?" Franklin inquired.
"That depends on one's perspective. According to an alternate fact rooted in situational ethics, one or two laws were bent, but none were ever broken," asserted the automaton. "Legal rules and their application have to be flexible in order to achieve just decisions in individual cases."
"Admirably circuitous; spoken like a true self-serving convicted felon at his appeal," said Franklin with a grin.
"Grateful to be of service, master," George 99,689,794 replied sarcastically with a straight face while unctuously executing an absurdly deep bow.
"We may not have seen the end of this. There are bound to be repercussions when Hiram gets word of what happened. We should go down to the basement. Beauregard may have been injured," Franklin speculated.
"I hope he is dead. His knife preceded him down the chute. He could be dangerous. Why not call the police and let them take care of him? There is no need to worry about consequences because there are four scanners in this room. I suspect there is enough incontrovertible audio and video evidence to convict him of attempted manslaughter," George 99,689,794 advised.
"Great idea. Prison is too good for Beauregard Benoit. Rather than going stir crazy, he can volunteer to become an automaton. I believe that would be poetic justice," Franklin said as he took out his cellphone and called 911.
Ten minutes later, two officers from the Los Angeles Police Department arrived and wrote a report. Afterwards, they went down to the basement, where they removed Beauregard from a dumpster, keeping his knife as evidence. Other than lacerations and a dislocated shoulder, Beauregard was not badly injured, however, he was shaking and his vision was blurry. Minutes later, an ambulance drove him to Martin Luther King Hospital, handcuffed to a gurney. It was all over in less than an hour. Franklin and his trainee went back to work as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.
* * *
"Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn." - Benjamin Franklin
"I will personally make certain that boozehound will never work in this town again," Hiram promised Franklin over the phone. "I viewed the holograms the police sent to me from the scanners and I forwarded them to the home office. That took courage to take Benoit down. We should have done a better job of checking his background before hiring him."
"We need someone to take his place," declared Franklin.
"I have already taken care of it," Hiram assured him. It's a big building and I want it spotless, so I decided to assign you two janitors in addition to the trainee you already have. They will be starting Monday."
* * *
"Until computers and robots make quantum advances, they basically remain adding machines: capable only of doing things in which all the variables are controlled and predictable." - Michio Kaku
For the six-day-a-week blue collar worker, Sunday is a special day, indeed. It is not to be wasted through sloth or squandered on frivolous activities because it is the only day when they can feel truly alive; free to go where they choose and do what they will. So it was that Franklin Pierce and George 99,689,794 met together at the Metrolink USC station just as the chimes in the clock tower on the USC campus struck 9 AM. From the station they walked to the California Museum of Science and Industry at the corner of Figueroa and 39th Street. On the way, Franklin bought two chili relleno burritos dipped in queso from a street vendor. It was a great start for what would prove to be an even greater day.
With Fall approaching, daytime temperatures had dropped to the mid-eighties. Best of all, the humidity was tolerable. Wrens and pigeons competed for crumbs that fell from the food being consumed by pedestrians as they went about their business. If one focused on the cut flowers bordering the sidewalk, a world of insects - bees, aphids, flies, and beetles - revealed itself. If one looked even closer, that very fortunate person might see a praying mantis devour her mate or a mud dauber paralyzing a spider to feed her larvae. On this balmy, bountiful day, Nature was having fun in the warm California sun.
The best part about the Museum of Science and Industry was that admission was free, including automatons. People could wander around all day, fiddling with the hands-on exhibits and enjoying air conditioning for which the State of California footed the bill.
This was the museum's third reincarnation, having been razed and rebuilt three times at taxpayer expense. Perhaps in two or three more times the elected officials would get it correct. All this in a county that claims it cannot afford to renovate, replace, or in a number of instances, even maintain Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital, which is the primary healthcare provider for poor and indigent residents in South Los Angeles. A priori conclusion: remembering past achievements was judged to be more important than the current, 2084, welfare of Los Angeles' citizens. Not exactly doublespeak, but closely related.
Robby the Robot welcomed them to the California Museum of Science and Industry when it opened at 9:30 AM. Robby was an imposing figure, six and a half feet tall with gangly arms and legs that jerked into action when anyone went through the infrared beam that spanned the entrance. Thousands of times a day it burst into a preprogrammed spiel:
"Hi, I am Robby the Robot. What is your name? (short pause) Welcome to the California Museum of Science and Industry. Our interactive exhibits will entertain and amaze you. Feel free to ask our staff any questions you may have concerning hours and nearby accommodations."
"What was that?," asked George 99,689,794.
"That was a robot, a distant cousin of automatons, attempting to impress us with his human mannerisms," Franklin declared.
"I am not related to that bucket of bolts. Isaac Asimov must be turning over in his grave. If that is an example of a state of the art robot, it explains why admission is free," George 99,689,794 retorted.
"Yes, robots proved to be a gigantic disappointment," admitted Franklin. "They are fine for repetitive tasks such as welders in an assembly line, but not much else. They've been consigned to the dust heap of technology. Automatons replaced robots in much the same manner as airplanes replaced zeppelins."
"That makes sense. Why spend billions of dollars to develop a mechanical substitute for something as complicated as a living human being? No need to reinvent the wheel. It's a no-brainer. I started life as a man. Due to a series of bad choices, I'm now an automaton. Exploit me if you will, but please don't insult me or my kin by equating us with those ridiculous rustbelt rejects," pleaded George 99,689,794. "Robots can only mimic humans."
"You do not want to hurt Robby's feelings," cautioned Franklin.
"Robots are machines. They don't have feelings or emotions," George 99,689,794 instructed. "For that, you need a cyborg or an automaton."
"Walt Disney's head was frozen in liquid nitrogen immediately following his death in December 1966 in the hope that medical science would someday be able to revive him. Since his body was cremated two days later, it would make sense to graft the head onto a mechanical body, in effect transforming him into a cyborg. Perhaps the museum could be persuaded to volunteer Robby the Robot for this munificent role. After all, he currently seems to be rather empty-headed," Franklin quipped. "It would definitely be doing him a favor."
"There is nothing funny about Mickey Mouse morbidity," cautioned George 99,689,794.
They visited the laser beam, spectrometer, hydrogen fuel, and hyperloop transportation exhibits. The best exhibit of all was a short anime portraying the evolution of gene replacement and its benefits to mankind. Having personal experience with gene enhancement, George 99,689,794 was so fascinated by it that he watched the video three times.
"It says nothing about transforming felons into automatons or eliminating violent behavior utilizing gene splicing techniques," George 99,689,794 whispered to Franklin as they left the tiny theater.
"Of course, it does not. It was produced in Japan which has an homogenous society in addition to a low crime rate. They have no need for an automaton program. Besides, they focused on the positive aspects of gene enhancement. There is nothing to gain by focusing on America's dirty little secret. The U.S. did not ban bondage until after the Civil War. Due to economic reality, human bondage is back in style. Automatons are the bastard offspring of an unregulated, capitalist, free market economy. It cannot go on like this. I will most likely burn in hell for profiting from it," predicted Franklin.
"Don't be so hard on yourself. Let's enjoy our day off," advised George 99,689,794.
"It is 4:45 PM. We should head for the door," Franklin urged.
"One more thing. Give me your pen," said George 99,689,794 as he removed an index card from a pocket of his jumpsuit.
After writing something on the index card, George 99,689,794 gave Franklin back his pen and the two of them headed for the door.
As they exited, Robby the Robot said, "We were having fun. I hate to see friends go. Please come again soon."
As they stepped out onto the sidewalk, Franklin asked, "What was the index card all about? What did you write on it?"
George 99,689,794 doubled up with laughter. Some moments later he regained his composure, commenting, "I wrote 'KICK ME' on it and stuck it on the back of Robby the Robot when he wasn't looking."
And so ended their perfect day. Things are often inclined to go amiss, but they become better with a little levity.
"This town was built on nepotism." - Damon Wayans
True to his word, Hiram sent two janitors to assist Franklin and his trainee in servicing the Union Bank building. Franklin knew one of them, having worked with him for a brief period several years before. His name was Donnie Something-or-Other. Donnie was infamous for having stood in a crouched position atop the motor of a buffer, attempting to surf across the floor before he fell off. Although he bruised his shoulder on the first attempt, it didn't deter him from trying again. Donnie was sure it could be done. To his way of thinking, it was similar to surfboarding and skateboarding in that an awesome ride could be achieved only by a total disregard of fear as he performed a balancing act.
On his sixth attempt, Donnie almost mastered his technique, but he became tangled in the electrical cord, landed on his face, and broke his nose. Franklin was amazed that Hiram did not fire him for goofing off on the job.
Ronnie, the other janitor, and Donnie were brothers. They lost no time in letting Franklin know that they were distantly related to Hiram Nasov's wife.
Since Ronnie was the older, and hopefully more responsible, of the brothers, Franklin issued him a set of access codes and keys in addition to teaching him how to maintain the revolving door at the main entrance. Franklin made it clear that Ronnie was the head janitor and, as such, would be held accountable for Donnie's behavior. The company's code of conduct did not permit taking drugs and/or alcohol within four hours of the start of a shift; any indiscretions would have severe consequences. Buffer surfing would result in immediate termination. Franklin said he had already discussed the issue with Hiram. Although he was lying, it was merely a white lie, one which he intended to correct the next time he reported to Hiram. Nepotism stank; it conflicted with Franklin's principles. But God had chosen His Son to be mankind's Savior. Wasn't that nepotism? No, Hiram was a Jew, so in this case it did not seem to matter. Franklin forced the issue from his mind. Philosophy wasn't his forte. He felt a headache coming on. And the shift wasn't half over.
Franklin left a message on Hiram's voice mail detailing a list of supplies that they needed to clean and service the Union Bank Building. At the end of the message, he thanked Hiram for the two new janitors and alluded that Donnie had been a problem in the past. "Advise me as to what I should do if this employee continues to violate OSHA safety regulations," ended Franklin. He phrased his last statement as delicately as possible, being particularly careful not to make any references to nepotism.
Fortunately, Donnie and Ronnie had decided to do a good job. They were planning on taking a long Surfing Safari vacation to Australia in the Summer of 2086. They needed to save several thousand dollars to finance their trip. Also, they would have to ask Hiram for three months off. Nothing short of excellent work on their part stood even a remote chance of persuading Hiram of the efficacy of granting them an extended leave of absence. Nonetheless, they had made up their minds to become stellar employees. No more smoking dope on-the-job, no more buffer surfing, and no more abusing sick leave - they would undergo a miraculous transformation. Unbeknown to either of them - or anyone else for that matter - their determination would last for almost three weeks. And three weeks was just long enough to make Franklin appear to be a spectacular disciplinarian which, of course, he alone was aware he was not.
George 99,689,794 did not need a full three weeks of training. He was a fast learner and paid attention to details. By the end of the second week of instruction, Franklin felt that the trainee was ready to do the job on his own. However, Franklin had not forgotten that the automaton had disarmed Beauregard Benoit and tossed him down a trash chute. Franklin was in no rush to be rid of the most intriguing individual he had ever met. Simon Kline was an enigma. The more Franklin discovered about the fake automaton, the more he wanted to know. Extending their relationship by one more week wouldn't bankrupt the company and it had the potential of assisting Franklin in his quest to cut to the gist of the automaton phenomenon. Slavery had staged a rebirth. Franklin wanted to know how and why. Slavery in all of its forms was evil incarnate. The United States had fought a Civil War to remove the cancer of slavery that had threatened freedom. The cancer had not been killed. It simply went into a prolonged remission. Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom. Once more into the fray. Franklin knew no fear. He had faith in God; he was on the right path.
The commercial telepathy signal that cut in as a dream ended had eventually been adjusted to a tolerable level, however, the provider appeared to be gradually upping its strength. Franklin was once again sleeping fitfully.
Due to the sophisticated equipment involved and high costs in energy, telepathy was a one-way affair in 2084. Technological innovations would someday make two-way telepathy practical, but Franklin's only recourse at 3 AM was to stick his head out of an open window and shout, "Turn that signal down!," hoping in vain that someone at the Telepathy Transmission Provider's Building at the end of the block would take pity on him and do something that would let him get back to sleep.
As soon as the Provider's office opened at 8 AM, he lodged a complaint in person. The clerk at the counter politely informed Franklin that their contract was with the landlord. Franklin was merely an affected third party. It was a complicated matter that could not be settled overnight.
Feeling dejected, Franklin walked home. He no longer needed the $20 discount in his rent that was part of his lease. "Time to move," he said to no one in particular. He could afford and felt he deserved better.
* * *
"Luck is a matter of preparation meeting opportunity." - Lucius Annaeus Seneca
One week later, precisely at eleven, Franklin went to the office as requested by Hiram Nasov to make a progress report. Mr. Nasov sat at his desk drumming his fingers against an ancient upside down keyboard while humming a popular ballad from a previous decade. He was noticeably happy, the corners of his mouth ever-so-slightly upturned in the semblance of a genuine smile.
This was definitely out-of-character for Hiram. His face usually bore a sour look that could curdle milk. As of late, Franklin had been worrying about his boss. He resembled nothing so much as Ebenezer Scrooge after having been visited by the ghosts of Christmas. However, since it was nowhere near the Holiday Season, Franklin suspected the change in demeanor was due to hormonal imbalance, drugs, or a combination of both. Since it was improper for him to be judging his boss, he filed it away in the recesses of his mind for possible future reference.
In hindsight, Franklin's guesstimate was baseless. Which was not very surprising, considering that Franklin could never have stuffed his big feet into Hiram's shoes, much less have walked a mile in them.
Hiram motioned for Franklin to be seated in the pink fiberglass chair and began, "Are the two new janitors working out? Have they caused any problems?"
"There was some friction at first, but I had a talk with them and they listened to reason. Lately, I have been whipping them into shape," Franklin answered.
"Figuratively whipping or literally whipping?," asked Hiram with a smirk while casting his eyes downward.
"Figuratively, of course," Franklin retorted. "I'm not a monster."
"Frankly, either way would be fine by me," confessed Hiram. "I never would have hired them, but my wife kept pressuring me. Those two idiots are the bane of my life. I put them under two different supervisors and had identical results. Dope smoking, time sheets falsified, abuse of sick leave, surveillance scanner mooning, buffer surfing, insulting clients, making inappropriate gestures towards women, two hour lunches; you name it, they did it, knowing full well they were breaking the rules. They lack respect for anything or anyone. Warnings, suspensions, legal actions, forfeiture of pay, mandatory drug rehabilitation clinics, transfers to other locations - nothing short of firing fazes them."
"And then you come along and all of a sudden, they want to get along. I want to know your secret, my wife wants to know your secret, her father, the Chief Executive Officer of this company, wants to know your secret. The missus is telling everyone that you, and you alone, have accomplished the impossible. Stern disciplinarian, martinet, provocateur of personnel; the Board of Directors can only guess at how you do it. One thing for certain is that our company needs a man with your skills. We've seen the transformation you made in the two most slovenly slackers ever employed by this company. Thanks to you, I'm a happier man."
"It was nothing, really," denied Franklin, feeling uncomfortable as he attempted to shrug his shoulders while sitting in a hard-as-hell, rigid, pink fiberglass bucket chair.
"You are being overly modest," Hiram declared. "Modesty has no place in business. Always take full credit for everything you and your subordinates have achieved that is, was, or will be of benefit to your employer. The Chief Executive Officer decided to put you in charge of entry level management training for the United States and Canada. Your salary will be commensurate with your abilities. Also, mid-level managers, such as yourself, receive stock options and profit sharing. All moving expenses to Las Vegas, Nevada, will be paid by the company. We have booked a suite for you and your assistant, George 99,689,794, at the Eclipse Resort where you will be conducting a series of seminars. George 99,689,794 will assist you in demonstrating effective methods of discipline and, should it prove necessary, will act to enforce your authority. I understand you foresaw an unpleasant reaction by subordinates to your unusual methods and programmed the trainee to back you up. Everyone on the Board of Directors was impressed. They voted unanimously to reward your initiative. Your promotion is effective immediately. Sign and date the contract on the lines highlighted in yellow," Hiram instructed Franklin, as he shoved the necessary papers across the desk.
Franklin stood and began signing the contract. Several pages later, he paused and asked, "Do I get a copy?"
"Don't trust us?," asked Hiram Nasov, grinning from ear to ear. "You're learning. Never trust anyone in business. I will have a secretary make you both a paper and a digital copy before you leave the office."
Franklin resumed reading each page of the contract before he signed it. He had Hiram explain a confidentiality clause to him before placing his initials next to it. When Franklin finished signing, Hiram summoned a secretary to make copies of the contract. It took mere minutes for her to complete the assignment.
"There are a few more things we need to cover," Hiram stated, the somewhat disconcerting grin gradually dehydrating into his usual serious aspect. "One of the clauses in the contract has a drug test provision. George 99,689,794 was tested yesterday. Now, it's your turn." Hiram stood up, walked past Franklin, and opened the door. In walked a phlebotomist wearing a white lab coat. "Sam will be taking blood and urine samples," instructed Hiram, as a vestige of his grin returned. "This provides us with indisputable documentation that any behavioral changes were not drug induced."
Franklin was silent while Sam pricked a vein and withdrew two vials of blood. Then Sam accompanied Franklin to a restroom and watched as Franklin urinated into a sterile urine cup.
Samples in hand, the mobile phlebotomist and Franklin parted ways, Sam presumably returning to the laboratory from which he worked and Franklin, although not having been specifically told to come back to Hiram's cramped office, reluctantly did so anyway because he knew it was the right thing to do.
Knocking on the office door, Franklin entered and took a seat without waiting for an answer. As he suspected, Hiram was on the phone, oblivious to everything else around him.
"Two first class tickets on tonight's hyperloop to Las Vegas?," Hiram's voice was rising, "that is expensive. Why not wait until tomorrow and have them drive there? What's the rush?"
"Yes, I understand. I will book them on the redeye. Come hell or high water, I will make certain they get there tonight. Later, the company will have to pay any penalty involved in breaking their respective leases plus boxing and shipping their personal belongings to Las Vegas. You do realize you are shanghaiing my best team? Without them, the Los Angeles office might not meet this quarter's goals."
"That's probably a mixup by some dimwit programmer on your end. It makes no sense for the automaton to be paying seven times as much for rent as his supervisor. Are you sure it's not the other way around? Quit griping. You want the two of them, then pay up the leases. It's as simple as that. I need to get off the phone so I can book the tickets." Hiram threw his phone at the door. As usual, it didn't break. In fact, it never did. Modern cellphones were virtually indestructible. Top of the line phones came with a lifetime guarantee. Throwing phones was Hiram's way of letting off steam. His psychiatrist had recommended it. Franklin bent down, picked up the phone, and placed it on the desk. He felt relieved that Hiram was back to being his normal, grumpy self.
"George 99,689,794 and you are going to board the 11:15 PM hyperloop to Las Vegas tonight. Be at the terminal 30 minutes early, go to the counter, and present them your identification. Two first class tickets will have been reserved in your name. A shuttle van from the Eclipse Resort will be waiting for you at the other end. The company will settle your rental leases and pay to have your belongings boxed and shipped to you in Las Vegas. Any questions?," asked Hiram.
"Why so soon? What is going to happen to my new hovercar? Las Vegas has a high cost of living. George 99,689,794 needs a company expense account. Don't worry, I will monitor it and restrict it to essentials," Franklin assured his boss.
"You will be replacing the spokesperson at a seminar that was scheduled months ago. The Chief Executive Officer wants you to inform people that in order to keep the company competitive in the 22nd century, the Board of Directors has come up with a plan to phase out human janitors and replace them with cost-efficient automatons," explained Hiram. "The decision is likely to provoke controversy. Some people fear change. We believe that you, having had success with integrating automatons into the workforce, can best allay those fears. Also, two observers from the government's Supreme Soldier program will be there. They saw the tape of you and George 99,689,794 facing down an armed opponent. Inability to foster loyalty in an automaton was the reason the Supreme Soldier program was shut down. This Administration wants to reinstate it. But they can't do that if George 99,689,794's 'demonstration of loyalty' had anything to do with drugs. That is why we tested both of you for drugs."
"Tomorrow morning, your hovercar will be loaded on a flatbed commercial hover and delivered to you at the Eclipse Resort. It has already been arranged," Hiram assured Franklin.
"Setting up an expense account for George 99,689,794 should not be a problem," Hiram speculated. "However, it needs to be approved by the Board of Directors. They appear to be willing to pay most any price to get you to act as the point man for the radical changes they are making in the company. That way if it goes wrong, they can blame you. Because you are an upstart outsider, the Board of Directors could dispense with you at will without worrying about the consequences. That's a worst case scenario. But I prefer to look on the bright side. If the changes prove to be a success and automatons turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to this company, you will become the man of the hour. You could be the next Chairman of the Board and accomplish wonders. When that occurs, do not forget who started you on your way. Now get out of here! We both have a schedule to keep."
Standing up, Franklin halfway pivoted to face the door, before turning back to ask, "How is George 99,689,794 getting to the terminal? Do you want me to pick him up?"
"I will take care of it. I am sending a hovercab to his residence. The fare will be prepaid, including a ten percent tip," promised Hiram. "Go, you don't have much time to prepare. Think about what you will say at tomorrow's seminar. It might help to make an outline."
Franklin went home to his studio apartment. Despite its lack of amenities, he was going to miss the place. Resort living didn't hold any appeal for him. However, he had signed a contract, it was too late to be having second thoughts. He packed the one bag he would be taking with him. There was still three hours to go before it would be time to take a hoverbus to the hyperloop terminal. He decided to take a short nap. When he awoke, he was covered in cold sweat. Although Franklin could not recall dreaming, he was certain he had gone at least once into rapid eye movement sleep because he remembered the commercial telepathy that invariably came after each dream. It had been a recruitment advertisement for dilithium miners on Io. The only requirements were good physical health and to be under forty-five years of age. He was tempted to pursue the off-world job, rather than go to the seminar in Las Vegas, but the temptation vanished as quickly as it had come. A responsible person met his commitments, regardless of consequences. Franklin could not bring himself to renege on a commitment.
It was a tad early to go to the hoverbus stop, but Franklin liked to give himself a margin of error in case something unforeseen happened. He rode on the Number 6 hoverbus for nine blocks, then transferred to the Number 11 hoverbus which took him to the hyperloop terminal.
Franklin entered the terminal through a massive airlock which kept the atmospheric pressure within the terminal at two-thirds that of the outside air.
Once inside, Franklin went to the ticket counter and asked for the two first class tickets to Las Vegas, Nevada, that had been reserved in his name. The ticket agent behind the counter said that it was Hyperloop policy for all passengers to be microchip scanned to establish identity. Franklin rolled his eyes, smirked, then requested to speak to her supervisor. Two minutes later, her supervisor authorized a retinal scan whereby Franklin was able to prove he actually was who he said he was. He still had to sign a receipt, after which the ticket agent slid a rectangular manila folder containing two envelopes across the countertop. He slit the envelopes open and consigned the two tickets to an inside coat pocket.
* * *
"It is by presence of mind in untried emergencies that . . . a man is tested." - Abraham Lincoln [1864)
Franklin took a seat in the hyperloop waiting room. At this time of night, there were plenty of empty seats from which he could choose. Trying to relax, he downloaded a science fiction novel onto his cellphone. He had reached the end of the first chapter when his cellphone began to buzz, indicating an incoming call.
"Franklin, I will be arriving at the hyperloop terminal more than a half hour late," George 99,689,794 declared apologetically.
"What happened? Are you alright?," Franklin asked suspecting the worst.
"The hovercab driver would not permit me to be a passenger in his vehicle. He said automatons are diseased subhumans, not fit to associate with human beings. When I told him I wanted to speak to his supervisor, he gave me a rude hand gesture and left. Rumi called the taxi company. They apologized profusely and dispatched another hovercab. Is there a later hyper loop?," George 99,689,794 inquired.
"No, but it's my responsibility to think of a way to get out of this predicament. Go to the ticket counter and have them page me as soon as you arrive," Franklin requested. He quickly glanced around the waiting room, noting several red emergency levers spaced at intervals along the opposite wall. He came up with an idea. It was a long shot, but this was an emergency and he was desperate. He stood and walked to a long hallway that led to the restrooms. He walked halfway down the hallway until he reached an area that wasn't covered by scanners. An adjacent red lever read, "PULL FOR EMERGENCY" and underneath it in smaller print, "pressure leaks, fire, or other hazards." Surely, the situation confronting Franklin qualified. He had to come up with a way to delay the departure of the redeye for at least 30 minutes. He took a deep breath and pulled the red emergency lever. An alarm began buzzing at five second intervals. A short time later, an announcement was made over the loud speaker system, "Remain seated. Please, do not panic. This is a test of our emergency procedures. Follow the instructions of firemen and emergency technicians. Since it is merely an unscheduled drill, we do not anticipate a long delay. Hyperloop will continue to function. Thank you for your cooperation."
Franklin did an about face, returning to the waiting room as if nothing out of the ordinary had occurred. Firemen milled about the terminal, searching for pressure leaks. Someone turned off the alarm. Forty minutes later the firemen left. Several minutes later, Franklin saw George 99,689,794 approaching the ticket counter.
Franklin ran up to the automaton and warmly embraced him. "I was worried you would not get here in time," said Franklin, as he pulled the automaton toward the passenger capsule which a line of people were waiting to board.
First class was luxurious. Ample legroom, fully reclining seats, complimentary champagne, and their choice of shrimp kabob, orange duck, or venison for a midnight meal. Perhaps the best thing about first class as far as they were concerned, was that nobody was so gauche as to gripe about an automaton sitting near them.
Although the passenger capsule was moving in excess of 325 miles per hour, there was almost nothing to indicate that it was in motion - no significant changes in landscape, no clacking of iron wheels on steel rails, and no bumps - just the digital dials, gauges, and instruments being monitored by an engineer in a control compartment at the front of the capsule. The hyperloop was essentially a giant pneumatic tube that transported people across hundreds of miles in less time and at considerably less expense than a jetliner.
Franklin was tired and fell asleep after downing two glasses of champagne. George 99,689,794 took a slick magazine from a pocket on the back of the seat in front of him. An article about hyperloops captured his attention and he began reading:
"Hyperloop One, connecting Los Angeles and Las Vegas, was opened for commercial passenger service in 2081. Hyperloop is the brainchild of billionaire inventor/investor Elon Musk, who had previously fathered Pay Pal, Tesla, and Space X Corporation. It has shuttled thousands of people millions of miles on time and without a major mishap.
Following the much heralded success of Hyperloop One, Elon Musk inaugerated Hyperloop Two in 2083, connecting Seattle to San Francisco. Hyperloop Two incorporates safety features learned in operating Hyperloop One, including a viscous self-sealing lining which inhibits pressure leaks and a revolutionary airbrake.
Hyperloop Three, connecting Tokyo with Nagasaki, Japan, is scheduled to open in the Winter of 2086 with free wi-fi internet, animes, and first run in-transit movies. Contracts are being negotiated with Singapore, China, Russia, and Abu Dahbi.
Thank you for choosing Hyperloop. It's the fast, inexpensive, and quiet way to travel."
A stewardess brought a blanket for Franklin. He was snoring, but not annoyingly so. George 99,689,794 shut the magazine and put it in the back pocket of the seat in front of him.
The engineer announced over a loudspeaker that the capsule had crossed the California border into Nevada. Hidden panels in the passenger capsule's walls slid open to reveal digital slot machines. The noise from the slot machines woke Franklin.
Turning toward George 99,689,794, Franklin asked, "You want to play?"
George 99,689,794 raised his eyebrows and replied, "I am not tempted to do so. Slot machines give terrible odds. You might as well flush your money down a toilet."
A stewardess took their orders for the midnight meal. Franklin ordered venison and George 99,689,794 ordered orange duck with brown rice. Ten minutes later, the same stewardess came back with their meals.
After several bites, George 99,689,794 complained, "This was reheated in a microwave oven. And the brown rice is imitation. Real brown rice is harvested by Native Americans in canoes in the shallow waters of the Great Lakes." The automaton made a face as if he had swallowed something disgusting.
"You're confusing brown rice with wild rice," Franklin rebuked. Brown rice is white rice that was hulled, removing most of the nutrients and leaving the bran, germ, and a few vitamins. Wild rice is a misnomer. It is actually any of four species of grasses grown in wetlands in Minnesota and China. Yes, the meals are cooked in advance and then reheated, similar to the way they do it on jetliners. Obviously, Rumi spoiled you. Eat your meal."
"While you were snoring, I was thinking about what I should do after I regain my freedom. I lost my investment broker license. Perhaps it is better that way because it keeps me from making the same mistake twice," George 99,689,794 remarked. "What I have been thinking about lately is something I garnered from hearing you complain about one-way commercial telepathy. It seems to be a near-sighted, crass, commercial use - or more aptly an abuse - of a revolutionary, breakthrough technology."
"I could not agree more," said Franklin, recalling the sleepless nights in which an out-of-adjustment signal caused him to toss and turn, sometimes breaking out in a cold sweat.
"Years ago, when I first became an investment broker, a man approached me seeking funds for a telepathy communications startup. It sounded like a potential winner. I wasted 30 minutes watching a power point presentation. There is evidence that in our distant past before language was developed primates had the ability to communicate for short distances by means of telepathic imagery. With the advent of language, it faded away until nowadays all that is left is a few low key image receptors straddling the spinal cord buried within the upper midbrain that hardly amount to much. But if a way could be found to amplify the low frequency signals being transmitted by our midbrains, we could read each other's thoughts. However, the idea would take a lot of research and development before it could become a reality," George 99,689,794 maintained. "They had to come up with a fast way of generating income to cover the analysis. I suggested putting amplifiers in baseball and football helmets that could improve teamwork in the big leagues, but it was too far fetched. I believe they eventually settled on making a quick buck from commercial telepathy. Mea culpa."
"It's coming. It's only a matter of time until multi-way telepathy is perfected," Franklin predicted. "What we need to do for now is to come up with an outline of what what I should say and do at tomorrow's seminar."
"I am way ahead of you," George 99,689,794 asserted. "While you were asleep, I made a three page outline." He passed it to Franklin. "You're stepping up to the big leagues. Don't worry, you will most likely hit a home run your first time at bat. You're a Most Valuable Player destined for fame and fortune."
"Or I could swing and miss three times at sucker pitches and I would be lucky if the owner let me return to minor league ball," Franklin speculated.
The capsule came to a smooth stop at the hyperloop terminal on the northern end of the Strip in Las Vegas and the engineer announced over a loudspeaker that the time was 1:06 AM and the temperature was 93 degrees Fahrenheit outside.
The first class passengers disembarked before the rest. They walked across a concrete platform, passed through an airlock, and went down thirteen steps into an almost empty parking lot littered with discarded clear plastic cups. The hot, humid night air stank of urine, vomit, and stale beer. A derelict climbed out of a dumpster near where a shuttle van waited to take them to the Eclipse Resort.
[Las Vegas] is a hideous, gaudy place; it may not be the end of the world per se, but you can certainly see it from there. - Robin Williams
Franklin checked them in at the front desk. The Eclipse Resort consisted of seven concentric rings of condominiums arranged around three central buildings, the largest of which hosted 90 conventions and seminars a year.
The two story condominium the janitorial firm had booked for them was located across from an entrance to the convention center on the northwestern side of the first ring of dwellings. Franklin phoned the front desk and asked for a 7:30 wake-up call in the morning. Next, he phoned the CEO at company headquarters and left a message on his voice mail that they had arrived and would be conducting a seminar the next day.
It was too late to unpack. They ate some fruit and nuts from a Complimentary Bowl that the resort's staff had left on a dining table. They buried themselves in the silk sheets of the beds in the two adjacent bedrooms and were fast asleep before either of them had fully undressed.
The wake-up call came far too early. Still, it gave both of them more time to take a shower and eat breakfast. Franklin tried to memorize the outline that George 99,689,794 wrote for him. It was impossible to concentrate. He was nervous and could feel his heart racing within his chest.
In the end, Franklin decided to wing it. Public speaking wasn't his forte. He had no intentions of trying to be anything that was contrary to his nature. Besides, he had George 99,689,794 to back him up. Whenever Franklin got the jitters, time crawled at a snail's pace.
Finally, the dreaded moment arrived. Showtime! Franklin and George 99,689,794 walked the short distance to the entrance of the Convention Center. There, they paused in the doorway, taking in the vastness of the darkened auditorium. Most of the audience had already been seated. Turning left, they mounted five wooden steps to the stage. Positioning himself behind the lectern, Franklin stood erect, resisting the urge to slouch with his elbows resting on the lectern. George 99,689,794 sat in a brown metal folding chair directly behind his boss.
A spotlight focused on Franklin. He was blinded for an instant and began to sweat. The footlights switched on and it became hotter. Franklin felt a bit woozy, but he caught himself and bit his lower lip intentionally to stay alert.
Franklin took the outline out of a suit pocket and placed it face up on the lectern. He stared at it intently. In a sudden impulse, he turned it over. If he was going to wing it, he needed to soar. Self confidence pulsed throughout his body. It actually tingled.
"Good morning," Franklin began, "and welcome to the first of a series of seminars on honing management skills. I am Franklin Pierce and this is my assistant, George 99,689,794," he stated as he turned and pointed at the automaton sitting behind him.
George 99,689,794 stood upright, waved with his right hand at the audience, and made an exaggerated deep, sweeping bow, almost scraping his forehead against the stage floor. Wearing an immaculate, freshly pressed, one-piece jumpsuit; if George 99,689,794 recalled any lesson from his previous life as a Wall Street investment broker, it was "dress to impress."
"Automatons are a relatively new phenomenon in our society. It is a voluntary form of slavery without racial bias. In it, career criminals tried, duly convicted, and sentenced to long terms for felonies can apply for a rehabilitation program that transforms recidivists into nonaggressive, productive blue collar workers. Do not confuse them with mechanical robots who lack human emotions, are outrageously expensive, substitute rote learning for deductive reasoning, and have no sense of appreciation or loyalty. Think of them as novelty items, good-for-nothing other than performing repetitive tasks," Franklin lectured. "Contrast that with automatons. They behave like humans because they are human. When people go astray, it is cheaper to fix what is wrong with them than to put them in prison where they will be a burden to society."
Franklin paused a moment for effect. Observing the audience, he noticed a young man in the fourth row who was fast asleep. He stepped down off the stage, went over to the sleeper, and gently shook him awake. "I assume we both work for the same employer?," Franklin asked. "That is, we both used to work for Janitorial Services. You fell asleep on the job and now you are fired! Get up and get out!"
Willful stupidity made Franklin livid. He took a deep breath and tried to calm down. Looking around, Franklin saw that he now had the audience's attention. Smiling broadly, he walked back to the stage and ascended to the lectern. George 99,689,794 was smiling back at him.
"Some of you seem to think that the company sent you to Las Vegas for rest and recreation. You thought wrong. You're here to listen and learn," Franklin remonstrated. "Tomorrow, you'll come here with a blank spiral notebook and two ballpoint pens and you will not charge them to your expense account. This is similar to how school works with one important difference: you get paid for it. Therefore, it's not too much for me to ask you to pay attention and take notes. What you do after the seminar is over is none of my business. Gamble, drink, act out fantasies, party until you puke - what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. Anything and everything goes as long as you show up for the next day's seminar bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, eager beaver that you are, fit to gain knowledge and insights into the career you have chosen. May God help you if you are not, because I certainly won't."
* * *
"When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice. The Bible tells us, 'How good and pleasant it is when God's people live together in unity.'" - President Donald Trump
"Whether a person has ever met one or not, most people have preconceived opinions about automatons based on what they have heard from friends and the media. General opinion has it that they are vile, filthy creatures with halitosis, dysentery, bad breath, and rotten teeth," Franklin stated.
Franklin moved from the lectern to the front of the stage where the lights were no longer in his eyes and he could better see the audience. He motioned for George 99,689,794 to join him. Putting his left arm around the automaton's shoulder, Franklin smiled broadly and said, "This is my trusted assistant, George 99,689,794 without whom I would be lost. Four weeks ago, he saved my life by disarming a deranged individual who came at me with a knife".
"All automatons begin life as human beings, the same as you and me. The majority of mankind are law-abiding, morally and ethically upright individuals who are an asset to humanity. But a small percentage cut corners, lie, cheat, and steal until they are caught, convicted of their crimes, and sentenced to spend a number of years in prison. Think of them as caged animals," Franklin conjectured. "They are going stir crazy and are willing to do anything, regardless of risk, to rejoin society. Desperate people do desperate things such as voluntarily permitting the government to transform them from inmates costing upwards of $50,000 a year of taxpayer money for food, healthcare, and prisons into constructive workers that the government auctions to the highest bidder, thereby reducing taxes. Automatons fuel the economy. Unlike Canada, we have a balanced budget."
"I understand that many of you, similar to me, were working as blue collar janitors until recently when you were promoted to a management position within the company. You now have the responsibility of training automatons to be janitors. It's a brave new world in which routine physical labor is increasingly being performed by automatons and maximum security confinement is becoming a thing of the past. You are the cadre of the future bringing social progress on a par with technological progress, ushering in a new era," foretold Franklin. Growing up, I dreamt of traveling to exotic planets in faraway solar systems. I didn't realize it then, but it was a form of escapism. People were sick and tired of rising crime rates, overpopulation, homelessness, wage stagnation, and political corruption. Social evolution was at a standstill in the United States. That is all about to change. You are at the forefront, preparing to lead the way forward. I, along with a grateful company and an appreciative nation, salute you."
"I am not a grandstander and it is not fair of me to monopolize the conversation. The company values your input. For the rest of today's session I will be answering your questions and you'll be stating your opinions. To keep this organized, please raise your hand if you have something to say. So that we can better see and hear you, standup and identify yourself when you take the floor. Let's start with the lady in the back row wearing a red blouse with a rose in her hair," declared Franklin.
"I am Patricia Arbaker from the Ponce, Puerto Rico office. My question to you is why aren't there any female automatons?," she questioned in a loud, slightly angry voice.
"Good question. Frankly, I have no idea. But I will ask my boss about it and I will have an answer for you at our next session," promised Franklin. "In the meantime, I would be happy to help you apply to be transformed into an automaton. I doubt if they will reject you. You can use me as a reference." This brought a few giggles and laughs from the audience. Sitting down, she made an obscene hand gesture.
Next, Franklin called on a baldheaded man in a pinstriped suit seated in the third row near the center aisle. "I am Robert Brunt from Montgomery in the Great State of Alabama. Are automatons covered by a health plan?," asked Mr. Brunt.
"As far as I know, they're treated at county hospitals," Franklin ventured. He took nine more questions and an opinion from a former janitor that "criminals deserved to be lynched instead of permitting them to steal jobs from honest, hard working people who are the backbone of the nation."
"Training is everything. The peach was once a bitter almond; cauliflower is nothing but cabbage with a college education." - Mark Twain
Tuesday was overcast. Since the seminars were held indoors, Franklin did not pay it any attention. However, when lightning struck a nearby condominium, he thought about canceling the seminar scheduled to start in an hour, but on second thought it was too late to reach everyone who would be in attendance. In the end, it turned out to be a desert electrical storm with more noise than rain. By the time Franklin and George 99,689,794 walked to the seminar, it had already blown over.
Before the second day's seminar began, Franklin took the lectern off the stage and told George 99,689,794 to turn it on its side and place it in a storeroom.
The audience was filing into the auditorium in twos and threes. Franklin saw that they had brought spiral notebooks with them and were prepared to take notes.
"Welcome to the second in a series of three seminars. At the first seminar," Franklin began, "you met my assistant, George 99,689,794. All automatons are altered male human beings. A question was asked at the end of our last session for which I did not have an answer. Would the young lady who posed that question please stand up? According to my sources, there are not any female automatons because the legislation authorizing the automaton program excluded women. However, there is a case before the Supreme Court that challenges that provision of the law."
"All automatons are named George and given a serial number instead of a last name. This practice dates from an earlier era in which all black railroad employees were called George as a sop to white Southerners who had previously referred to them as boy. Make no mistake: slavery has always had a role in the United States from colonial times onward. The crueler aspects have been removed. I have heard it said that convicted felons deserve to be enslaved. If you buy that malarkey, we might as well sell you the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, and the myth that all automatons volunteered for the program. Slavery is what it is. No amount of window dressing or political propaganda can justify exploitation. However, I will say that in its present form it is benign when compared to that of ancient Greece, Rome, Egypt, and other slave societies."
"At the start of the first seminar, you will recall that I introduced George 99,689,794, my assistant, to you. But I did not tell you much about him, other than that he saved my life by disarming a knife-wielding attacker. George 99,689,794 was born in New York, a perfectly normal human baby. His parents, Patrick and Naomi Kline, named him Simon. He went to public school and won a scholarship to Harvard, eventually earning a Master of Business Administration. After graduation, he worked as an intern for the equity firm of K.K.R. Several years later, Simon Kline was hired by Goldman Sachs as an investment broker. Thirteen years later, Simon founded the hedge-fund investment LLC of Kline & Associates. Clients reported earning a 30 percent annual return on their portfolios, a figure that brought in additional investors," Franklin claimed. "The Securities & Exchange Commission noted irregularities which were investigated by the FBI. Mr. Kline refused to rat on his associates and was subsequently arrested for operating a Ponzi scheme. The trial lasted thirteen weeks. Because Simon would not disclose what he had done with his wealth, a federal judge sentenced him to twenty years in jail. Rather than languish in prison, Simon Kline volunteered to be transformed into an automaton, a process which entailed chemical castration, a frontal lobotomy, memory deletion, horizontal gene transmission, and reprogramming. Simon Kline became George 99,689,794. The government then sold him at auction to the highest bidder."
"My assistant, George 99,689,794, whom you see before you, is by no means a mindless moron. To prove it I'm going to ask you a number of questions," Franklin announced. "How many of you are proficient pianists? Don't be shy. Please raise your hand if this applies to you. [short pause] There are two of you. Alright, how many of you are multi-millionaires?" The audience burst into laughter. "Nobody? What about the lady in the front row dressed in a black, low-cut gown and high heels. Judging by the diamond necklace you are wearing, you must be rolling in dough."
The woman stood up to address Franklin. "I greatly appreciate your generous assessment of me and my attire. Humorist and author Mark Twain said 'Clothes make a man' or in my case, a woman. However, my jewels are zircons, not diamonds. I'm a month late on my hovercar payments and two months behind on my rent. If there are any sugar daddies among you, please make yourself known. I'll make it well worth your while."
"Thank you," chuckled Franklin. "In a world full of deception, I find your honesty refreshing. It reinforces my self image - that of a piano player in a brothel unaffected by the corruption which surrounds me. Getting back to the subject at hand, how many of you can speak seven foreign languages, four of which you speak proficiently? [short pause] Nobody? Don't feel bad, neither can I, but my assistant can. In fact, George 99,689,794 is a pianist who performed at Carnegie Hall when he was eight and grew up to become an investment broker who amassed a multi-million dollar fortune before he was thirty. That's quite an impressive resume. No doubt it alters your perception of what an automaton is capable of doing. Do not make the mistake of treating them as machines. They are altered human beings. If you want them to do a good job, you must set a good example and earn their respect. Never forget for a moment that you, as a supervisor, are judged by how well your crew works. You will reap what you sow."
"Just as human beings are each individuals with varying traits, skills, and characteristics, so are automatons. Treat them with dignity and respect and they will respond in kind. Berate them, abuse them, ridicule them, or hit them and you will most likely regret it. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," Franklin advised. "Be stern, yet fair. Don't play favorites."
"Automatons depend on public transportation. While that does not present a problem on the East Coast, it can be a hassle in Los Angeles and other cities on the West Coast. I usually offer the automatons I am training a ride home. It is not that far out of my way and it gives me a chance to learn more about them. And it wouldn't cost you that much to take one to lunch once in a while. Although automatons receive reimbursement for food and housing, it doesn't amount to much. Nobody works hard on an empty stomach."
"If you are not a tough guy, don't act like one. Automatons are largely recruited from the ranks of career criminals. They know real thugs and can readily spot a poseur. Believe me, poseurs never prosper," counseled Franklin.
"Because he is a real automaton, George 99,689,794 is better qualified to answer your questions about automatons. Without further ado, I will yield the floor to my distinguished colleague," Franklin declared while exchanging places with his assistant.
"Good afternoon. It seems I've been drafted to host a question and answer forum," stated George 99,689,794. “Let's start with the gentleman in the eleventh row with his right hand raised."
"Yes, Mr. Pierce told us that automatons receive a stipend for food and housing, but he didn't say how much. Is there also a clothing allowance?"
"The food and housing allowance varies from state to state. At the start of the transformation process, the government issues each of us three T-shirts, three jump suits, three pairs of boxer shorts, four pairs of socks, and two pairs of boots. When I left the reprogramming facility, they issued me three more T-shirts and a baseball cap," George 99,689,794 declared. "As far as I know, there are no other allotments. [short pause] The woman sitting to the left of you has a question. Let's hear from her."
"Are you a slave for life? I'm having a hard time understanding why you or anyone else would volunteer to become a slave".
"Yes, it's supposedly for life. However, it's possible to appeal a conviction or obtain a presidential pardon. Because I am not a violent person, my chances of surviving a long-term sentence weren't good. My lawyer suggested the automaton program as an alternative to prison," George 99,689,794 said. "I still think I made the right choice."
After answering four more questions, George 99,689,794 saw Franklin drawing his index finger across his neck, indicating it was time to end the session. George 99,689,794 thanked the audience for their avid participation and closed the session.
"How do you think we are doing?," asked Franklin afterwards.
"It could have been worse," George 99,689,794 remarked as he grimaced and shook his head from side to side.
"Two sessions down and one to go," calculated Franklin while pouring a glass of water. "There is no way of knowing what the higher-ups think of our presentation. We'll just have to wait for the reviews."
"Experience is the teacher of all things." - Julius Caesar
"Two mediocre, lackluster, boring sessions," assessed George 99,689,794. "I'm fairly certain the Board of Directors expected something better from you. What we need is a gimmick."
"What do you mean by 'gimmick'," asked Franklin.
"We wasted two sessions attempting to browbeat an audience full of insufferable, insensitive elitists into agreeing with us that there are few differences between humans and automatons. It isn't working. Let's give them what they really want, something to reinforce their prejudices. You can be the gentleman and I'll play the dim-witted, bumbling automaton", George 99,689,794 suggested.
"Pandering to the masses betrays everything we are trying to accomplish. However, an outrageous farce would capture their attention and possibly promote tolerance in human/automaton relations. One step forward would at least be an improvement over current conditions," speculated Franklin.
"Buffoonery could just be the solution we have been seeking," George 99,689,794 agreed. "I could muss up my hair, wear a dirty jumpsuit, black out a few of my teeth, and trip over things. We tried the serious approach and struck out. Now, let's go for laughter. As of today, it's a brand new ballgame. We are going for the home run record."
"With one stipulation," Franklin ordered. "A little before it ends, you can go backstage, clean up, come back, and show them it was just an act."
* * *
"In a moment of buffoonery, the serious enters." - Victor Hugo
Franklin began the final session by once again introducing his assistant. However, this time, he was an extremely disheveled George 99,689,794.
"To begin, we're going to sweep the floor," instructed Franklin. "I want you to do what I do." Franklin walked across the stage intending to pick up a push broom that was propped against a wall. George 99,689,794 was less than a step behind him and wrested the broom from Franklin's hands.
"What are you doing?," asked Franklin, looking rather peeved.
"I'm copying you", said George 99,689,794."You told me to do it."
Looking disappointed, Franklin drew a deep breath and slowly exhaled. "What I meant was for you to learn how to sweep by watching me do it."
"Then that is what you should have said," George 99,689,794 deduced.
Franklin bit his lip and paused for a moment before continuing. "Servicing floors is a simple four step process:
Step 1. Thoroughly sweep the floor.
Step 2. Mop the floor with a disinfectant cleaner and allow it to dry.
Step 3. Mop the floor with clean water and allow it to dry.
Step 4. Buff the floor with an electric buffer.
Now, what are the four steps to servicing a floor?"
"You didn't tell me to memorize it," George 99,689,794 stated.
"You need to pay close attention to everything I say," Franklin scolded. He took a small spiral notebook from his shirt pocket, wrote down the four steps, and handed it to his assistant. "You should take notes."
Franklin took a ballpoint pen from his shirt pocket and handed it to his assistant. "Here, use mine."
"Stay where you are and pay attention to how I use the broom to sweep the floor," ordered Franklin. "Grasp it firmly with both hands. Then, push downward and outward. Lift it up, placing it behind the dirt and repeat the process. Keep doing it until you have swept the entire floor clean." Franklin handed the broom to George 99,689,794, stepped out of the way, and said, "Your turn to try it."
The automaton pushed the broom forward, appeared to lose his balance, and fell on his face. Franklin helped him get back on his feet. When George 99,689,794 stood up and the audience saw he wasn't hurt, they reacted with laughter. The automaton took a step forward and tripped over the broom. The onlookers roared with laughter. Franklin kept a straight face as if he was genuinely concerned.
"Are you okay?," Franklin inquired.
"You could have warned me about this job being dangerous," George 99,689,794 lamented.
"With practice it won't be. Try it again," Franklin ordered.
George 99,689,794 dusted himself off, picked up the broom, and began to sweep the stage. This time the automaton swept the entire stage clean without stumbling. After praising George 99,689,794 for doing a good job, Franklin demonstrated using a dustpan to pick up the dirt. Handing the dustpan full of dirt to the automaton, he pointed towards a nearby trash bin and told his assistant to dump the dirt in it. Halfway to the trash bin, the automaton let loose with a series of sneezes and the dirt went flying everywhere.
The two of them stood on the stage covered in dirt and looking bewildered while their audience howled heartily. It took a while before the duo were able to continue.
"Dust makes me sneeze," apologized George 99,689,794.
"You'll get used to it," counseled Franklin, "because you'll keep sweeping the floor until it's clean."
"It's going to put my health at risk," George 99,689,794 alleged convincingly.
"The company will bury you at no cost to your estate if you die on the job," Franklin promised. "Everyone will be devastated."
The automaton took the push broom and began to sweep. He swept up more dirt in less time. When he felt like sneezing, he pinched his nostrils.
"Good job," Franklin praised the automaton. "It is necessary to sweep up all of the dirt. Otherwise, when you mop, the dirt will turn into mud."
"Now, we are going to mop the floor," Franklin avowed. "I want you to fill the mop bucket three-quarters full with hot water and bring it and a bottle of pine oil disinfectant to me."
Franklin's assistant ambled to the rear of the stage and disappeared behind a stage curtain. Several minutes later, he returned with a bottle of disinfectant tucked into an armpit, freeing his hands to grasp the handle of a heavy galvanized steel mop bucket as he lugged it full of water across the stage.
"That mop bucket is too heavy to carry," admonished Franklin, "the water alone weighs more than fifteen pounds. You should have pushed it. Didn't you notice the casters on the bottom?"
"Pushing it along would have been more difficult than toting it," countered George 99,689,794. "I would have had to get down on my hands and knees to push the mop bucket along without spilling any water."
"A janitor steers a mop bucket with a mop," Franklin remarked. "You put a mop in the mop bucket and gently push the mop in the direction you want the mop bucket to go."
"You didn't tell me to bring a mop," the automaton pointed out.
"I apologize for not having mentioned something which should have been obvious," commented Franklin.
"Is that your way of saying you want me to bring you a mop?," asked George 99,689,794.
"Then you could have said so," muttered the automaton as he trudged toward the rear of the stage to fetch a mop.
The laughter coming from the audience was growing. Ranging from an occasional snicker to guffaws and belly laughs, it was doubtful that people seated in the rear rows could hear as well as those seated in the front. Franklin made a mental note that if he ever gave another seminar, he would check the sound system and the acoustics in advance.
In a few minutes, George 99,689,794 returned carrying a mop. He was leaning forward, intending to drop it in the mop bucket when Franklin stopped him, saying, "That mop is filthier than a pig wallowing in a mud puddle. And it stinks. It's what we call a 'sour mop'. Take the sour mop back and rinse it with hot water and bleach until the water runs clear."
Obviously disgusted, the automaton slowly trudged to the rear of the stage holding the sour mop and disappeared behind the curtain.
Franklin bowed his head slightly, turning it from side to side as if in disbelief. A man in the second row stood up and began to clap. Soon, the entire audience was standing and thunderous applause erupted.
Disregarding the applause, Franklin turned around, slid a chair a few feet toward the rear of the stage, then sat down with his back towards the audience. A minute later, he nodded off, but, of course, it was all part of the act.
The applause dwindled. George 99,689,794 returned carrying a soaking wet mop that dripped, leaving a trail of water as he walked towards the front of the stage. He was almost to where Franklin was sitting when he slipped and fell backwards, heels over head, with a particularly dull thud that awakened Franklin.
After Franklin helped his assistant stand up, he inquired, "Why didn't you wring out the mop?"
"You didn't tell me to wring it out," whined George 99,689,794.
"I apologize profusely," declared Franklin, "but seeing as how you are already here, you might as well wring it out yourself in the wringer - it's that galvanized steel plate with small holes in it at the far end of the mop bucket. Put the wet mop head in it with the mop handle pointing towards the ceiling and jerk the grip back and forth until the saturated mop head loses much of its water and no longer drips. Now, it's a damp mop. We use a damp mop to clean wooden floors. Go ahead and try it, but be careful not to tip the bucket over when you are jerking the grip. Avoid sloshing water onto the floor. Take it slowly until you get the hang of it. Safety comes first. Stand upright, do not lean on the mop to support yourself, and leave yourself an exit. Never mop yourself into a corner."
George 99,689,794 did exactly like he was told. Franklin stood next to him, occasionally adjusting the way his assistant held a mop. Several times, Franklin had him stop, dip the mop in the mop bucket, and wring it until the swabbed floor glistened as if covered in dew without the mop leaving puddles in its wake. Franklin had made cleaning floors an art form. He was bound and determined to impart that skill to everyone he supervised. A janitor who worked for nothing other than a paycheck soon became bored and made mistakes. The reason Franklin never had complaints from clients was that he took pride in his work. The fact that pride was difficult to instill in others made his job as an instructor even more challenging.
"Look at the floor," Franklin told his assistant who had finished mopping, "see how it glistens when it's damp. After it dries, the floor will appear dull. Usually, we would have added a half cup of Murphy Oil and a third of a cup of pine oil to the hot water in the mop bucket, but the floor wasn't very dirty. In this case, hot water without any additives was sufficient. After the floor dries, you can go in the back and get the buffer - its the big machine with three circular stiff bristle brushes on the bottom - and we will use it to make this floor shine."
They both sat down for several minutes while the floor dried. Franklin looked askance at George 99,689,794 and pondered, "Was this the first time in your life that you swept a floor?"
"Yes, why would I want to sweep a floor? Before they arrested me, I had servants who did that for me. Also, there were robot vacuums on all four floors of my home in Connecticut. Not that there is anything wrong with it, but if anyone had told me three years ago that I would travel to Las Vegas to work as a janitor, I would have laughed so hard that my sides would have split," recollected George 99,689,794.
"How did you afford a four story house with servants?," asked Franklin skeptically.
"I established a Wall Street hedge fund investment firm. I earned millions, but the Feds arrested me for running a Ponzi scheme. The government orchestrated a show trial and a federal judge sentenced me to the maximum term provided by law. Because I feared the violence inherent in our prison system, I applied to be transformed, the government approved my application, and I became an automaton," confessed George 99,689,794, and with a sigh he added,"se la vie."
"I recall something about your court case on a news broadcast several years ago," Franklin stated, "only they had an entirely different perspective on what happened."
"Of course they did," the assistant declared, "the airwaves are the property of the federal government. Broadcasters have to be licensed by the Federal Communications Commission and must abide by that agency's regulations. Although regulations have the effect of laws, they are often arbitrary because unlike laws, regulations don't have to be passed by Congress. Make the wrong move by casting doubt on an agency or government position and the FCC could fine the broadcaster or revoke his license. So much for the free press. Any journalist can tell you that management has editorial control and management is not about to permit airing anything, no matter how straightforward, that might jeopardize the broadcaster's license. Since we have a capitalist economy, no license means no money. The media is not under absolute government control, but it is nowhere as free as it used to be. The federal government scapegoated me for a downturn in the stock market and the media let it happen. Alexander Hamilton said, '...the first duty of society is justice.' I am confident that justice will prevail. It's only a matter of time."
"Speaking of time, the floor is dry, so it is time for you to fetch the buffer," observed Franklin somewhat acridly.
George 99,689,794 reluctantly cut their conversation short and went to get the buffer. A few minutes later, he returned with the buffer.
"Buffing floors is one of the most difficult parts of this job," said Franklin as he took the buffing machine's electric cord in hand, intending to plug it into a nearby outlet. But before plugging it in he ordered his assistant to make certain the "on/off" switch on the buffer's handle was in the "off" position. "Safety comes first," Franklin explained. "A runaway buffer can cause serious injuries and/or damage to property. It is not a toy. Do not stand on the motor and try to ride it like a surfboard. Slowly buff from left to right. Keep the electric cord on your left so as not to run over it. Pretend the buffer is your dance partner and you're on a dance floor. Gently lead her where you want her to go. Move to the rhythm of a waltz playing in your head. Remember, it's a waltz, not a hoedown. Don't stomp, glide. Watch me and I will show you how."
Franklin stood the buffer upright, switched it on, and began to buff the stage floor, constantly moving to the right, polishing a wide swath as he went. Several minutes later, Franklin turned the noisy buffer off. "It's your turn," he said to his assistant.
George 99,689,794 took the buffer from his boss and turned it on. The buffer took off on its own across the stage as George 99,689,794 fell forward on his face. Franklin helped him stand. "I thought you said to hold it gently - that machine bucks like a bronco," the assistant pointed out.
The sniggering coming from the audience was almost as loud as the whirring sound coming from the buffer. Franklin ignored the audience and sped to the other side of the stage to turn off the buffer which had fell on its side after it struck the wall.
"Like I said, buffing floors is the most difficult part of a janitor's job," Franklin reiterated. "Nobody gets it right the first time. Practice makes perfect. Relax. Please, don't stress, the more you do it, the better you will get."
The assistant seemingly grimaced at the prospect of repeating it again, but he went ahead and did it anyway. Everything was going fine until he tripped over the electric cord. The audience burst out laughing. George 99,689,794 didn't mind. He already knew it was human nature to laugh at the minor misfortunes of others, especially if the others were pariahs. One hundred fifty years ago, comedian Stepin Fetchit was the first black actor to earn a million dollars. He did it by stereotypical exaggeration. So much so that he was billed as "the laziest man alive". What most white moviegoers didn't realize was that he was laughing all the way to the bank. Likewise, George 99,689,794 was the first automaton multi-millionaire. He, too, was out to exploit his audience's prejudices.
It took four more hilarious attempts before George 99,689,794 completed buffing the stage floor. On each successive attempt the laughter grew until the two actors couldn't hear themselves speak. Obviously, the audience was having a good time. What Franklin's and his assistant's performance imparted other than entertainment was another matter. Franklin was gambling that the management skills conveyed by the final session would be more than that of either of the two previous sessions.
Franklin closed the last session of the seminar with a question and answer discussion hosted by George 99,689,794. To start it, the assistant asked anyone having a question or a comment concerning that day's session to raise their hand. Three times as many hands were raised than in the two previous sessions.
"Let's call on the lady in the lavender pantsuit in the fifth row," the assistant commented, "madam, please stand and ask your question in a loud voice so that everybody can hear you. The acoustics in this assembly hall are very bad. Please, introduce yourself and tell us where you are from."
"Hello everyone, I'm Cindy Finestein from Houston. You seem entirely different from the clumsy and inept automaton in the skit. It was a skit, wasn't it? I mean, it was all just an act, a comedy staged for our benefit."
"I guess we couldn't fool you. You are very perceptive, Cindy," declared George 99,689,794. "Our Houston office is fortunate to have you. Franklin thought that most people found the first two sessions boring. You're experienced supervisors, not high school students. It was a mistake to make you sit through two condescending lectures. Franklin wanted to interject humor as a way to make the session interesting as well as informative. I apologize for having stooped to grandiloquent slapstick rather than the light comedy that Franklin proposed. My sole excuse is that our schedule didn't leave us time to rehearse."
Cindy sat down and a number of hands went up. The assistant surveyed the audience and chose a middle-aged man in a tan sports coat who was sitting at the left end of the seventh row.
"I'm Michael Jefferson from the Boston office. Everybody calls me Mike. You are a human being playing an automaton, aren't you? That was the best performance I've seen in a long time. I laughed so hard I almost fell out of my seat."
"I was a human being first and an automaton second. Like the majority of automatons, I was born a human being. Most of my life was spent as a human being, similar to you and the people sitting on either side of you. The difference between us is that I was convicted of a felony," confessed George 99,689,794. "I chose to be transformed into an automaton instead of serving a minimum of twenty years in a maximum security prison with rapists, murderers, terrorists, thugs, and thieves who would slit a cellmate's throat for the thrill of it. Following transformation, I was sold by the government to the highest bidder at an online auction. Franklin Pierce instructed me on-the-job in how to be a janitor. Being a slave, I expected him to subject me to rough treatment, but I was wrong. Mr. Pierce thinks that the best way to get someone to perform at potential, whether that individual be human or automaton, is to treat him with respect. Franklin never got frustrated with me, regardless of how many times it took to teach me how to run a buffer. He has the patience of a saint. Franklin tells me that patience is a learned skill essential to management. That was the main point of the skit. Take out your spiral notebooks and write 'PATIENCE' in bold letters. If you learned nothing else from this seminar, you still will get an A+ for your grade. It's that important. At least, that is what my boss tells me. I believe him because he is fair and doesn't lie."
George 99,689,794 next recognized a young lady with a vivid 3-D tattoo of a flaming demon on her forehead. "Hi, everyone. My name is Jasmine Chonski and I work at the San Francisco office. Can I get a recording of this session?," she inquired.
"I'm sorry," said the assistant. "We forgot to record it, however, I will suggest to Franklin that we record all of our future seminars."
A young man with a brown handlebar mustache and a crewcut haircut in the sixteenth row was the next person recognized by George 99,689,794.
"Howdy, my name is Dan Lunds and I live in Bozeman, Montana, where the air is crisp and clean. (short pause) Are automatons slaves? Do you receive any compensation for your labor?"
"We get a minimal food and housing allowance that varies with the area an automaton is working in and the company they are working for. In rare cases, there is also a travel allowance. My employer advanced me a line of credit to cover expenses. The Supreme Court has ruled that automatons are chattel. 'Chattel' is a legal term for property. That means I am a slave. Cyborgs, androids, and clones are another matter. I have heard that for them each case is decided by the courts individually," George 99,689,794 declared. "Under the law, automatons do not have any civil rights."
"I will take one last question," the assistant declared. "Let's call upon the gentleman with a blue bow tie sitting in the aisle seat in the ninth row."
"Thank you for selecting me. I am Charlton van Clements from Omaha, Nebraska. I just want you both to know that was quite an act you put on for us. We certainly appreciate it. Will you be hosting next year's seminar?"
"That's not up to me. I imagine Franklin knows more than I do, so I am going to turn your question over to my boss."
Franklin went forward and stood beside his assistant. "I would not hazard a guess. What we are going to be doing tomorrow is a mystery. My crystal ball is too small to see what is going to happen next year. My assistant and I had a good time hosting the 2084 seminar. You have been a terrific audience. We trust you gained some insights from these three sessions that apply to your supervisory role. Now that we're augmenting our labor force with automatons, frontline supervision is more important than ever before. Showing someone how to do a job that they have scant incentive to perform can be frustrating. Patience is paramount. Don't be condescending. I believe the 16th century English reformer, John Bradford, put it best:'there but for the grace of God, go I.' We've all made mistakes in life - but they got caught and we didn't. Personally, I view the transformative process that a convicted felon voluntarily undergoes as a form of repentance. Remember, habitual criminals can either opt to serve their sentence in prison or be reprogramed and become an automaton. The remorseful ones who admit to being wrong are the ones you will be instructing. They have been surgically altered and mentally cleansed in order to get a second chance and reenter society as a changed individual. You are helping them to reform. Believe me, it's well worth the effort. This seminar is now at an end. Go forth, secure in the knowledge that your job works for the betterment of America."
Seven minutes later, the auditorium had completely emptied of everyone except for Franklin and George 99,689,794. Both of them remained on stage, staring at each other as if the two of them were the sole survivors of a lengthy ordeal.
Franklin was the first to break the silence. "Thank God that it's over," he said with relief. "How do you think we did?"
"Nobody comes to Las Vegas to be lectured. We probably got low ratings for the first two sessions," the assistant speculated, "but at least we didn't bomb out. Today's session was a super big hit. It's like we were the headliners at Caesar's Palace. Our audience couldn't get enough of us. I may have overdid a few pratfalls; still they seemed to enjoy the slapstick schtick. Your closing speech was somewhat reminiscent of previous efforts. However, I must hand it to you for imparting what most people view as a menial, boring job with special meaning. It may have been a bit overblown, but at least you sent them home feeling good about themselves".
"Now that the seminar is over, we will most likely have to find a cheaper place to live. I don't think the company will continue to foot the bill for us to stay at a resort," speculated Franklin.
"We can phone the front desk to find out. Hopefully, we will not have to checkout before noon tomorrow. I desperately need to sleep in," George 99,689794 remarked.
"I'm bushed, too. Let's go back to the condo and we can sleep as late as we want," Franklin agreed. "We need to rest before the company can put over another fast one on us and send us packing to the next god-awful place."
"The media advertises Las Vegas as an adult playground, the fun capital of the world," commented the assistant, "but they never say anything about the stressed out workers beneath the glitz and glamor who make it happen."
"I ordered a bottle of chardonnay from room service," declared Franklin. "We can down it before we turn in."
"...human cloning continues to advance and the breakthrough in this unethical and morally questionable science is around the corner." - Mike Pence
It was a typical Nevada summer morning; excessively hot and dry, nary a cloud in the sky. But the dynamic duo slept through it, hermetically sealed within an air conditioned condo cocoon, tucked between sateen sheets - sleeping the sleep of the just. That is, until Franklin's cellphone ringtone played several bars ad infinitum of an Oscar winning song from a 2083 campy cult movie classic. On the thirtieth ring he rolled over, on the fiftieth ring he stuck his head underneath a pillow, and on the sixtieth ring he slowly opened one eye. Who knows how many rings it took before Franklin picked up his cellphone from a nightstand and after a prolonged yawn answered, "Franklin Pierce here."
"Hello, I'm Rebecca Nasov, assistant to Solomon Nasov, CEO of Janitorial Services, Incorporated. My father..., (coughing)...I meant the CEO, asked me to congratulate you for successfully hosting our company's annual seminar. Past seminars tended to be more of a vacation for the attendees than an educational experience. Evidently, you broke the mold. Janitorial Services has been receiving lots of favorable reports, some of which we forwarded to the Board of Directors. And the phones have not stopped ringing. There were two government observers in the auditorium. They are considering reviving the Supreme Soldier project, using your methodology to instill loyalty."
"Not to change the subject, but I would like to know more about the Supreme Soldier project, particularly their genetic alteration, reprogramming, and motivational techniques. I understand the automaton transformation process takes place in an underground facility at the southern end of Groom Lake, 125 miles from where I am currently staying in Las Vegas. But we are finished with the seminar and I do not know how long I will be here. I gather that depends on my next assignment. Am I going to be here long enough to take a side trip to Area 51?," Franklin inquired.
"I have never heard of Groom Lake, but if it's within Area 51, it must be Top Secret. You cannot just go wandering around up there. They are liable to shoot you. You could get arrested or sent to Guantanamo. You definitely do not want to do anything rash," cautioned Rebecca. "There is a chance I can arrange a tour of the facility. The government wants to know more about your methodology and you in turn want to know what they are doing."
"The company was supposed to ship my hovercar from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. I'm still waiting. Also, I need to know how much longer the company is going to foot the bill for me to stay at the Eclipse Resort," Franklin appended while pouring himself a glass of pink lemonade.
"You will get your car today," promised Rebecca. "There was a mix up and the driver dropped it off at the wrong address. As for your condo at Eclipse Resort, the lease doesn't expire until the end of the month. I will try and arrange a tour of the facility. I'm not familiar with Grim Lake. I cannot find it on Lexis Nexis."
"It is Groom Lake, spelled G-r-o-o-m; most of the year it is a dry basin. The nearest site of any importance is Homey Field, a Central Intelligence Agency airstrip," Franklin corrected.
"I located Homey Field. It is a dirt airstrip. Lexis Nexis shows a collection of steel buildings a little beyond the southern end of Groom Lake. No mention of an underground facility. However, there is an enclosed swimming pool. It says Groom Lake was a Top Secret aircraft testing facility in the latter part of the 20th century. I do not know what the government is using it for today. Look, I will contact the CIA and a few Nevada Congressmen to see what I can set up and I will get back to you by tomorrow afternoon."
"For decades, the men at Area 51 thought they'd take their secrets to the grave. At the height of the Cold War, they cultivated anonymity while pursuing some of the country's most covert projects." - Annie Jacobsen
Franklin received a wake-up call from the Eclipse Resort front desk at 6:15 AM. He cooked a breakfast of sausage and eggs for his assistant and himself. Rebecca had called the previous evening with good news. The government was anxious to talk to Franklin about his method of instilling loyalty in automatons.
Rebecca had arranged for Franklin and George 99,689,794 to fly from McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas to Homey Field with a shuttle flight of morning shift government workers, however, they were not allowed to bring cameras or recording devices with them. Franklin and his assistant would be guests of Representative Udall (Republican-Nevada), chairman of the House Budget Committee who was also touring the facility.
* * *
"I'm afraid. . . that fascism will come to America in the name of national security." - Jim Garrison
"We are forty minutes early," commented George 99,689,794 as Franklin parked the hovercar at the airport.
"Excellent, we have ample time to check-in and meet our host, Congressman Udall. I would rather be early than late. I do not know what he looks like. It may take us some time to tell which one of the passengers is him," Franklin stated as he touched a symbol on the dashboard which swung open the gull doors on either side of the vehicle.
As Franklin and his assistant were on the tarmac approaching the shuttle plane, they were met by Congressman Udall's aide who sent them back to the terminal to obtain security badges. After being photographed, they were fingerprinted and given a retinal scan. When the Transportation Security Agency official saw that Franklin hadn't been microchipped, he made Franklin strip naked. The ensuing cavity search was overly thorough to the point of being demeaning.
"Are you okay," asked George 99,689,794, "you look stressed."
"Stress isn't the half of it," Franklin summarized, "that TSA guy gave me a cavity search. I think he enjoyed it."
"We will have to hurry or we are liable to miss our plane," said the assistant.
Franklin and his assistant reached the shuttle plane just as the hatch was closing. The ground crew was about to rollback the ramp, but waited until the two crazy individuals running across the tarmac, screaming and waving their hands, got aboard the plane.
The Congressman's aide gave them a clipboard bearing two non-disclosure agreements which both of them read, initialed in six places, and signed in two. The purpose of the document was to prevent them from disclosing to any and all third parties anything concerning the Top Secret government facility which they were going to tour. Next, Congressman Udall's aide, whose laminated identity badge revealed his name as Edward Stevenson IV, ushered Franklin to an aisle seat at the back of the plane next to a federal marshal.
"Can't I sit next to my assistant?", Franklin asked.
"I am sorry, the seating plan was prearranged. Representative Udall made arrangements for your assistant to sit next to him in the front of the plane. I trust this won't inconvenience you. It will only be a twenty minute flight. The Congressman wants to hear about the transformation process from an automaton who has experienced it firsthand," explained Edward Stevenson IV.
Franklin was dumbfounded, but he felt that it would be useless to argue. George 99,689,794 retraced his steps to the front of the plane and sat in the seat next to Representative Udall. The assistant introduced himself prior to shaking hands. "Your aide said you wanted to talk to me," remarked George 99,689,794. "My boss and I are indebted to you for permitting us to join you on this investigative junket. How can I be of service?"
"Far too often government facilities that are being investigated show Congressmen what they want them to see and keep the rest hidden. I certainly do not want to be played for a fool. That is where you come in," said the chairman of the House Budget Committee. "Since you are an automaton, I presume you have been through the transformation process. Were you convicted of a felony? Did you volunteer to become an automaton? If so, was it to avoid serving a prison sentence? Please give me the details. Everything you disclose to me and my staff will be held in total confidentiality. There will be no repercussions."
"I was the Chief Executive Officer of a hedge fund. Back then, my name was Simon Kline. Thousands of investors got rich by following my advice. In 2082 the stock market experienced a downturn - economists refer to it as an adjustment - and the government blamed it on me. They prosecuted and convicted me of a felony for running a Ponzi scheme. Because I did not want to become a casualty of prison violence, I volunteered for the automaton program," maintained George 99,689,794. "In a way I'm glad I did it. Since I had no history of violence, I didn't have to undergo a frontal lobotomy. However, the technicians did their best to brainwash me. I believe the government refers to it as reprogramming. As for what they might try to hide from you, I have never seen it, but there was a rumor that there are Top Secret medical experiments taking place involving clones, cyborgs, and genetic monsters in a cavern beneath the lowest level of the underground facility. There is a small crematorium on the opposite side of Groom Lake where the government burns the bodies of people who did not survive transformation. I am telling you this in strict confidence. This is the kind of place where folks mysteriously disappear and are never heard from again."
"I remember the Kline stock fraud trial. It was in the news for a month. You were the man who stole the life savings of widows and pensioners, weren't you?", Representative Udall inquired.
"When a person buys stocks, he stands a better than average chance of profiting from his investment, that is, the odds are in his favor. In 2081, investors in my hedge fund received a 36% return on their money. I was hailed as the Guru of Wall Street. But in 2082 the Exchange made a 12% adjustment downward which analysts referred to as a minor recession. Some people panicked. They took a loss despite being advised to buy when stocks are low and sell when stocks are high. Smart investors held on to their portfolios and received an 11% return in 2083," explained George 99,689,794. "My staff and I let investors know in advance that all transactions involve risk. Most of our clients come to us - it's not like they show in the movies, high pressure sales is a thing of the past. We offer no inducements because we do not need them. Allow me to compare a hedge fund to a Las Vegas casino. In a casino the odds are stacked in favor of the House. Over the long haul, the casino wins big time and the gambler loses everything, his self respect, his family, and everything he owns. That's why we have Gamblers Anonymous. With hedge funds both the brokerage and the investor win in the long run. I never cheated anybody. You politicians needed a scapegoat. I was railroaded."
"Whoa!, just hold on a minute. I take you on a tour for free and this is how you repay me? You can't contrast a brokerage with a casino. That's like comparing apples to oranges. Brokerages deal in investments whereas casinos deal in entertainment; it's a whole 'nother ballgame," Congressman Udall castigated the self-righteous automaton. "Las Vegas is similar to Disneyland, with the exception that it caters to adults. Fourteen percent of Nevada's Gross Domestic Product comes from tourism."
"I apologize profusely. It was not meant to be taken personally by you. I was merely trying to point out that hedge funds offer a terrific investment opportunity. According to the Wall Street Journal, stocks and bonds give higher returns than gambling, bank deposits, Certificates of Deposit, and land," said George 99,689,794.
"We will be landing soon so let's deal with the matter at hand," proposed the Congressman. "I am terribly interested in what is going on in the underground cavern and the crematorium. My security clearance is Ultra Secret, yet no one briefed me about them. The NSA and FBI will be watching me like hawks. They will most likely attempt to steer me away from any clandestine ops. But I doubt if they will keep a close eye on you. Anything you can discover will be greatly appreciated. My aide informed me that you are appealing your conviction. I can put in a good word for you. In addition, we have a Republican President. If you will help me in documenting any illegal activities at Groom Lake, I will recommend you for a presidential pardon. Be safe, be careful, and do not get caught. There have been a number of suspicious disappearances from Area 51. Something they don't want the public to know is going on there." Congressman Udall reached into a vest pocket and brought out a rectangular object the size of a matchbox. "Take this camera. It is made of a graphite composite so it won't trigger a metal detector. Push the ends together to snap a picture. It focuses best at four feet from the target."
A voice came over the intercom, "We are flying at 20,000 feet, preparing to land at Homey Field. Please return your seats to the sitting position and fasten your seatbelts. After we come to a full and complete stop, please remove your luggage from the overhead compartment."
[long pause] "This is your captain, Lazlo Morales, speaking. I hope you've enjoyed your flight on Air America Flight 666. Join us again soon. The outside temperature is 96 degrees with an 8 percent humidity. The wind is from the southeast at 16 miles per hour. Please watch your step as you disembark. We thank you for choosing Air America."
Departing the plane was like stepping into a blast furnace. The sun beat down relentlessly. Franklin was not halfway down the ramp when he began to perspire. A few of the workers opened parasols to safeguard their skin from the sun's rays. A shuttle bus awaited them 75 feet from the bottom of the ramp to drive them the final four miles to the Top Secret facility on a dirt trail that led straight across the bottom of the dry lake. Franklin and George 99,689,794 sat next to each other on a pleather bench seat at the back of the bus.
"You stink," remarked George 99,689,794 as he made a face.
"Sorry, I forgot to use deodorant this morning," Franklin stated.
They both stared at a flat, unbroken moonscape that stretched from the rear window of the bus to the faraway horizon where shimmering heat waves created an illusion of water. Dual rear tires left a cloud of dust in their wake. A dust devil appeared in the distance and vanished as quickly as it came. Nary a cloud disturbed the uniformly blue sky. The monotony of it all caused Franklin to nod off, but he awakened when the bus reached its destination and came to an abrupt halt.
The shuttle bus parked a few feet away from what appeared to be a metal outhouse. A quarter mile away there was a cluster of five quonset huts, a flagpole with a large 51 state American flag, and a tall microwave tower with seventeen dish antennas attached, glistening like ornaments on an aluminum Christmas tree. Adjacent to the quonset huts there was a solar electricity farm. Since there were no transmission lines coming from it, George 99,689,794 assumed that the electricity generated by the solar farm was for local use. He wondered what would require such vast amounts of electricity. Were there technicians in white lab coats secretly cloning automatons in the underground cavern?
What Franklin thought to be a metal outhouse turned out to be one of the entrances to a subterranean facility. After everyone got off the bus, the workers went through the entrance one at a time while Franklin, his assistant, Representative Udall, and the aide gathered in a group in front of the man who would be their tour guide.
"Good morning, I'm Clarence Moore, the Assistant Director for the Groom Lake Automaton Development project. In everyday usage we are referred to by our acronym, GLAD. This is a Top Secret facility, so we don't give tours, but today we are making an exception for our distinguished visitors, Congressman Udall of Nevada and his staff. It is a pleasure to meet you, sir." As a matter of protocol, Mr. Moore takes a step forward and shakes the Congressman's hand. "I am sorry the Director could not be here to meet you, but she will be joining us for a buffet lunch in the cafeteria. In the meantime I will be your tour guide. First, a word of caution. Because the facility is primarily below ground, we will have to climb down a number of steel rungs embedded in a concrete shaft in order to access the top chamber. Please descend one at a time. Wait until the previous person reaches bottom before you begin your descent. I'll go first so that I can help anyone who needs assistance. Courtesy dictates that the Congressperson goes second. Following that, you can work it out for yourselves."
Eighteen minutes later, the last person touched bottom without a mishap. "I'm guessing there is a larger entrance somewhere nearby," remarked Congressman Udall. "It would be difficult to get equipment and supplies down a small diameter shaft."
"An astute observation," commented the Assistant Director. "It is obvious the citizens of Nevada made the right choice when they elected you to represent them. There is a larger entrance with a freight elevator at the other end of this complex. But we used the original entrance dating from the early 1970's when it was built as a bomb shelter for security and aesthetic reasons. Terrorists would have a hard time accessing GLAD through it; plus it reminds us that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. We must not forget that the enemies of democracy would use any means possible to destroy us, including weapons of mass destruction."
"Since security is a priority to GLAD, why isn't there an armed guard at the entrance?," questioned Congressman Udall.
"There were three armed Military Policemen stationed at every entrance until August 2065. That was when we replaced them with cameras, scanners, metal detectors, and pressure plates. Two MP's are constantly monitoring this facility and a hundred yard perimeter surrounding it from the security room in back of you. Bombproof titanium partitions automatically seal off thirty foot sections of this complex when an alert is sounded. Would the Congressman care to see a demonstration of our security system?," inquired the Assistant Director.
"That won't be necessary. I'm convinced you have taken better than adequate precautions. We're not here to waste your time or try your patience," Congressman Udall declared as he took a cellphone out of his breast pocket to check for messages.
The tour group went forty feet down a hallway and came to a giant pen housing men in yellow jumpsuits. Three tiered bunk beds lined two walls. A third tiled wall was lined with stainless steel toilets, sinks, and showers. Two burly Military Policemen armed with batons and stun guns stood guard at the gate to the pen.
"In front of you is GLAD's detention center where convicts live while they are being reprogrammed, genetically and surgically altered, tested for infectious diseases, and, in some instances, chemically castrated. Contrary to popular belief, processing is catered to the individual. For example, an inmate convicted of a white collar crime without a history of violence or aggressive behavior does not necessarily need a frontal lobotomy while a serial rapist would definitely be chemically castrated," clarified the Assistant Director. "GLAD turns career criminals who are a menace to society into productive members of the community. No one is forced into becoming an automaton; they volunteer for it rather than rot in prison. For some it's a blessing; the first time in their sorry lives that they are at peace with themselves. As chairman of the House Budget Committee, Representative Udall can appreciate that GLAD is one of the few government agencies that operate at a profit. We enable Washington, D.C. to balance the budget while lowering taxes. And we have a 91 percent public approval rating. That is eight points higher than any other agency in the federal government and sixteen points higher than the President. God willing, we're fast becoming an American institution. All this in less than five years. I am proud to be part of GLAD. For me and my co-workers, it is not just a job; it is an opportunity to make a change for the better."
"Those are impressive statistics," agreed Congressman Udall. "I would also like to know how often the transformation fails to achieve the desired results. In addition, what happens to those who are rejected?"
"The rejects are returned to prison to serve out their sentences with a letter from the Director of GLAD sent to their parole board commending the felon for his desire to breakaway from his criminal past. I don't know the exact percentage, however, I am certain it is less than one percent. One case in particular comes to mind in which a confessed mass murderer had a lobotomy, but still became aggressive. The prison didn't want him back. We ended up transferring him to an East Coast maximum security prison where he had a stroke and died four months ago. The Director feels terrible about it," the Assistant Director stated, keeping a straight face regardless of the falsity of what he claimed was the Director's sentiments on the death of an infamous mass murderer.
"Why are 51 percent of the automatons of Afro-American heritage?," asked Franklin.
"GLAD has nothing to do with that," Assistant Director Moore stated. "It is what it is. Over half of the felons in federal prisons are black. Incidentally, both the Director and myself are black. Glad in no way sanctions or permits racial discrimination. However, a recent Gallup Poll survey showed that Americans are more comfortable with black automatons than white automatons. And black automatons fetch a much higher price at auction than white automatons. The survey had nothing to say about that. I don't think it had anything to do with America's slavery past. Afro-Americans have come a long way since the Emancipation Proclamation and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. The Director and myself are living proof of that."
The tour group continued down the corridor for 100 feet and came to a plexiglass enclosed spotless white room with pastel blue double doors where technicians in immaculate white lab coats programmed convicted felons who lay prostrate on stainless steel gurneys.
"This is GLAD's Programming Center," declared the Assistant Director. "Here, you can view our technicians altering behavior patterns, employing both electronic and genetic techniques. I like to refer to it as fine tuning. We are destroying the negative characteristics that motivated these individuals to seek a life of crime and replacing them with positive characteristics that will transform them into productive members of the community."
"By my count there are upwards of one hundred sixty people being transformed right now in the Programming Center and not one of them is a woman," observed George 99,689,794. "Have you ever transformed a woman? Are there any female applicants? Also, I don't see any straps on the gurneys. When I was being transformed, I was strapped down to gurneys at every stage of the process. Why the change?"
"You are correct," admitted the Assistant Director. "GLAD has yet to transform a woman into an automaton. However, we are equipped to do so. We haven't because Congress won't let us. Three bills were introduced in the House - one was sponsored by Representative Udall - and none of them passed. I've got a stack of applications from women felons on my desk, but I am required to reject them. I suspect that Congress will eventually change their minds because crime is at record lows and GLAD is running out of male applicants. Scarcity means higher costs and less revenue for the government. Congressman Udall is in the forefront of the movement to secure equal rights for female felons. The Director decided it was inhuman and unnecessary to strap prisoners to gurneys while undergoing transformation. Besides, the process is faster and more effective when felons are relaxed. We are here to do a job, not to pass judgment or to punish. With time, we progress. The transformation process is less stressful than when you underwent it. I regret any pain I or any member of my staff may have caused you."
"Is this the place where convicted felons are brainwashed and coerced into submitting to slavery?," asked Franklin.
"That is one hell of an allegation. I resent your assertions. This is the United States, not North Korea," exclaimed the Assistant Director. "Everyone undergoing transformation volunteered for the process. GLAD is doing them a favor. They are practically pleading for us to rectify the behavioral difficulties that resulted in longterm incarceration. Believe me, we are here to help, not hurt. The Penitentiary Movement started in the 19th Century. It sought to reform prisons by eliminating torture and humiliation. Rehabilitation came to replace punishment as the rationale for incarceration. Although laudable, the vision proved impractical and was abandoned in the late 20th Century. Reformists failed in their goal to reduce crime and recidivism because it was an idea that was ahead of its time. The necessary tools had yet to be invented. In 2065 advanced technology made rehabilitation possible. Years later, the government instituted GLAD to great public acclaim. Crime declined, recidivism fell to less than four percent, and our national economy benefitted tremendously."
When the tour group left the Programming Center to walk down the corridor approximately 75 yards to an operating room, George 99,689,794 lagged behind and secretly took some photos with the small graphite composite camera that Congressman Udall had lent him. Having no experience with clandestine activities, George 99,689,794 broke out in a sweat. George had to run to catch up with the group who were in front of the operating room where the Assistant Director was gathering them around him, preparing to address them.
"This is GLAD's operating room. Unlike the operating rooms in most hospitals, it is as large as a warehouse. Using portable partitions, our surgical teams can conduct six operations simultaneously. Sixty-two percent of the operations performed here are frontal lobotomies, ranging from trans orbital lobotomies to prefrontal lobotomies, depending on the type of aberrant behavior that needs to be remedied. In addition, our surgeons implant large time release capsules in the abdomen that chemically castrate rapists, pedophiles, and assorted varieties of sexual predators who will no longer pose a threat to society. GLAD guarantees that duly convicted felons transformed into automatons at this facility are sterile, docile and subservient. Our group will be ascending a tubular escalator to a gallery overlooking the operating theater. Please maintain silence. Should you feel nauseated, press the 'blue down button' at the top of the escalator and it will reverse direction. Calmly wait in the corridor until the rest of the group descends," counseled the Assistant Director before getting on the escalator.
Nausea is far too weak of a word to describe what Franklin felt after fifteen minutes of observing what was going on in the operating theater. Blood spurting from severed arteries, lasers burning holes in craniums, and patients vomiting green bile - it seemed like a frightening scene from a particularly gory horror movie, the difference being it was stark reality unfolding below him. Suddenly, everything went black and Franklin passed out. The Assistant Director and Congressman Udall picked Franklin up and carried him down the escalator. George 99,689,794 saw it as an opportunity to clandestinely take a few photographs before following them down the escalator. George 99,689,794 reached into a pocket of his jumpsuit and took out a pint bottle of water which he slowly poured on Franklin's face. Regaining consciousness, Franklin stared at the people gathered around him. At first his vision was blurry and he did not seem to know where he was, but he soon began to focus and before long he stood up. In the interim the Assistant Director had summoned a doctor who examined Franklin and pronounced him "fit as a fiddle."
* * *
"Conscription is the vitality of a nation, the purification of its morality, and the real foundations of all its habits" - Napoleon Bonaparte
"After all that walking, you must be famished," their tour guide, the Assistant Director of GLAD, assumed as he spoke to the group. "We're going to be joining the Director for a buffet lunch at the Food Court. Afterwards, we will be descending to Level Two for the final portion of the tour."
Sixty feet down the corridor, they came to the Food Court. The Assistant Director, George 99,689,794, and the Congressional Aide sat at one table while Congressman Udall, the Director, and Franklin sat nearby at another.
"Welcome to GLAD, Representative Udall," Director Mary Ann Lynde greeted the Chairman of the House Budget Committee, vigorously shaking his hand in what appeared to be a genuine gesture of friendship. "I've heard so much about you. It's great to finally meet you in person. GLAD is grateful for the increase in funding your committee authorized us in fiscal 2084 and we are looking forward to more of the same in fiscal 2085. As you know, we intend to resurrect the Supreme Soldier Program now that Mr. Pierce has discovered how to solve the 'loyalty glitch' that led Congress to terminate the program two years ago." As she spoke, she reached across the table and shook Franklin's hand a little less vigorously than she had shook Congressman Udall's hand. "I need you to come work for me. Whatever your current employer is paying you, GLAD will double it. You'll be in charge of Behavioral Development. I intend to give you free reign with authority to hire and fire as well as set policy. From what the National Security Agency and Homeland Security tell me, you're a stern disciplinarian who has learned how to earn the respect and loyalty of others. Welcome aboard!"
"Wait a minute," responded Franklin. "I need time to think this over."
"Don't take too long, son," warned Congressman Udall. "Under the Universal Service Act of 2082, the agency can declare you a 'necessary asset' and draft you for three years of peacetime service or 'for the duration' in time of war," he chuckled, "I may be jesting with you, son, and then again I could be serious. No matter how you slice it, it is in your best interests and those of your country to troubleshoot for GLAD. We've invested billions of taxpayer dollars in the Supreme Soldier Program. It is your patriotic duty to help the program succeed."
Franklin looked the Congressman straight in the eye but didn't say a word. This went on for almost a minute until the Director broke the silence, "It's a big decision. Congressman Udall and I need to go to my office and discuss some matters in private. Please excuse us, Mr. Pierce. This won't take long. When we return, the tour will resume."
"Banning human cloning reflects our humanity. It is the right thing to do." - Bill Clinton
The Director's Office was 30 yards down the corridor from the Food Court. When she opened the oaken door, Congressman Udall was struck by the spaciousness of the room, nearly four times as large as his own office in Washington, D.C. The walls were painted in flamingo rose which was intensified by overhead LED lighting. On the walls were portraits of Eleanor Roosevelt, Amelia Earhart, Sojourner Truth, Sacagawea, Oprah Winfrey, and Joan of Arc that surrounded and seemingly overwhelmed the photograph of the current President, Ebenezer Snodgrass, that hung in a speckled frame on the wall behind the Director's mahogany desk. On her desk were brass framed photographs of her two daughters. Prominently missing was a photo of Ed, her spouse, from whom she was recently divorced.
After they were both seated, her in a leather armchair and him in an unyielding facsimile Shaker wooden chair, she began the conversation, "GLAD requires additional funding to reinstitute the Supreme Soldier program. I am certain you are aware that crime continues to drop while the demand for automatons has skyrocketed. Consequently, we are running out of career felons to transform into automatons. In a Top Secret Executive Order the President authorized GLAD to substitute rapid growing, gene-altered clones for criminal applicants. They can be mass produced at considerably less expense, clones aren't as liable to have defects, the supply is unlimited, and the Administration has promised the public to pay off the National Debt in twenty years though the sale of automatons."
"That's ridiculous," protested Representative Udall. "The public will not permit us to clone human beings. Churches will urge their congregations to impeach the President. This has the potential to bring down the government. Worse yet, my constituents will vote me out of office."
"You misunderstand me. We aren't cloning human beings, we are cloning automatons. With newly developed gene alteration techniques, no two clones will ever be identical. The Supreme Court has ruled that automatons are chattel. Chattel does not have rights under law and/or religion," countered the Director.
"I want to see this for myself," Congressman Udall demanded.
"And so you shall. As soon as we have finished our conversation, the tour can resume. You have already seen all of Level One and now you will see all of Level Two," replied the Director.
"That's fine. However, I want to see the entire complex which I understand includes a large cavern beneath Level Two where the cloning process takes place and the Crematorium at North Groom Lake where biological wastes, deficient clones, and the residue from genetic experimentation are reduced to ashes. I demand to see what you and GLAD have been hiding from the American public," ordered Congressman Udall.
"Despite this being a Top Secret facility, we've nothing to hide from the American people," claimed the Director. "Less than a half hour ago I disclosed to Mr. Pierce and you that GLAD has been making up the difference between the supply of convicts and the demand for automatons through rapid growth cloning. The cavern where this occurs isn't part of the tour because we are experiencing difficulties with the security guards there. We were ordered to get the cloning process up and running in six months. One way we cut corners was to have the Army supply us security personnel for the cavern. Sight unseen, the military furnished us with disgruntled cyborgs from a decommissioned Special Forces unit. Ever since then, they've been a problem. It seems their mechanical parts need constant service or they breakdown. Plus, they want as much downtime as they had in the Special Forces. A scanner in the cavern recorded a group of them talking about holding me hostage until GLAD met their demands. I'm scared. Holding a Congressman hostage would give them even more leverage. No sense walking into a trap. I imagine that what you are referring to as a Crematorium is the rubbish heap that we occasionally burn to get rid of our waste. I'm an ethnic Jew; no way would I tolerate anything resembling Auschwitz."
"I was a tunnel rat in the Moroccan conflict in '63. One thing I learned about terrorists is that they can smell fear - the vermin thrive on it. "Qui acceperint gladium, gladio peribunt" (All those who take up the sword, will die by the sword). Jesus said that in Matthew 26:52. I believe it is true," professed Congressman Udall. "Do not worry about them taking me hostage. I can take care of myself." Seeing a look of alarm on the Director's face, the Congressman took a .45 caliber semi-automatic Colt pistol from his vest pocket and placed it on the Director's desk.
"How did you sneak that weapon in here?," asked the Director, leaning forward in her chair to better stare into his eyes.
"It's composed of non-metallic materials, so it doesn't set off a metal detector. You would do well to have your security guard do a pat down on everyone entering this facility. You are lucky it is me with a non-metallic weapon rather than some terrorist. Can't be too careful," Congressman Udall admonished.
"Let's make a deal," offered the Director. "You leave your gun here with me and I will order the Assistant Director to expand the tour to include the cavern and the sanitary disposal site at North Groom Lake. There's a difference between talking about taking a hostage and actually doing it. Cyborgs are not stupid. Surely, they must realize that the guards on the first two levels have access to pulse energy weapons in an emergency and the cyborgs don't. Any cyborg insurrection would be instantly crushed and the ringleaders executed. Besides, brandishing a weapon might provoke them," the Director reasoned as she placed the Congressman's pistol in a desk drawer. "You got it right when you said, 'can't be too careful.' You will get your gun back when you leave this facility."
"All children were to be begotten by artificial insemination (artsem, it was called in Newspeak)" - George Orwell (1984)
"Level Two closely resembles Level One with the exception of its smooth walls. Since it was tunneled twenty-four years after Level One, the drillers did it in one day using a massive boring machine nineteen feet tall," the Assistant Director informed the group as everyone clustered around a projection depicting the event. "Directly ahead of us you see a no longer utilized Recreation Room that dates from the days when our employees worked a week on followed by a week off. Nowadays, thanks to shuttle air flights connecting Area 51 with Las Vegas, they work eight hour shifts and are able to spend more time with their families. Because we are running short on time, we are going to bypass the Recreation Room. At the time it was built there were no women at this facility. Some of the men brought in porn films to watch at night. Over the years, they accumulated until the porn filled an entire bookcase. But when Mary Ann Lynde became Director, I decided it was time to dispose of the collection. I had it boxed up and was about to have it burned when the Director caught wind of it and told me to place it back in the bookcase and lock the door to the Recreration Room. It seems she considered the porn a characteristic of an era, not to be admired, but a bona fide part of history nonetheless. Totalitarian nations such as the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany attempted to rewrite history. We, on the other hand, preserve history to enable us to learn from the past."
"In my Freshman year at Yale I came across a scholarly work about 2,000 year old graffiti etched into the Coliseum in Rome. I found it vulgar. I suppose that is similar to what you are trying to get across?," asked Congressman Udall's aide.
"Somewhat," muttered the Assistant Director as he turned and led the tour down the corridor. Thirty yards later he came to a set of pastel pink double doors bearing a sign which read "BIOGENESIS". Through a window the group could see men in white lab coats engaged in various activities with what appeared to be titanic stainless steel cookie sheets which were stored in tall wheeled metal racks. "In this room GLAD grows synthetic human organs that are refrigerated and shipped to hospitals nationwide - soon to be worldwide - for surgical transplants. I'm very proud of what we do here. My older brother's life was saved a year ago by a liver transplant. That liver came from this Biogenesis Lab. Our transplants save millions of American lives. I am sure you can appreciate that it does so while generating billions of dollars in profits which have permitted the federal government to initiate massive tax cuts. Americans pay less taxes than Scandinavia, Great Britain, and the European Union while receiving bigger and better government benefits. Everybody wins. According to numerous polls, this effort has a 97 percent approval rating."
"A month ago, Congress voted on a bill to privatize Biogenesis. It received eight votes in the House and only two in the Senate. I want to make it perfectly clear that none of the votes in favor of that horrible bill came from Republicans. If by some chance, it had made it to the White House, President Snodgrass would have vetoed it. The Republican Party has the voters' interests at heart," Congressman Udall exclaimed.
"Duly noted. It is indeed an honor to be hosting Congressman Udall on this tour," the Assistant Director ingratiatingly replied. "Moving right along, let's proceed to our next stop." The group readily complied with the exception of George 99,689,794 who lagged behind as usual to take photographs of the procedure.
Thirteen automatons roped to each other and led by a security guard passed the group in the corridor without any greeting or conversation taking place. Franklin thought it a bit creepy, but was reluctant to say anything about it. Congressman Udall did not have that issue. He took a step forward and confronted the Assistant Director, saying, "Why were they chained together? I was told that the primary incentive for felons to volunteer to be transformed was to gain a measure of freedom. That looked to me like a chain gang."
"It wasn't a chain gang," replied the Assistant Director, backing away from the Congressman. "They recently underwent horizontal gene transfer and reprogramming, which occasionally results in temporary blindness. They were on the way to their next destination. What you saw was segments of rope, not chains, loosely joining their wrists to prevent them from wandering off and getting lost. The 'rope' is a quarter inch twisted fiber florescent polyester composite. I probably should have referred to it as twine rather than rope. GLAD's goal is to rehabilitate, not punish. George 99,689,794 is an outstanding example of the positive changes we make. He no longer bears the stigma of having been convicted of a heinous crime and is a productive member of the community. We are glad - no pun intended - to have him back with us today."
George 99,689,794 turned towards Franklin, rolled his eyes, and screwed up his face. Franklin bit his lip in an effort to keep from laughing.
The Assistant Director did an about face, checked the time on his cellphone, and herded the group along the corridor. Soon, the natural drab rock walls of the tunnel transitioned to painted luminescent gold, twinkling beneath enhanced LED lighting. It seemed unreal, as if they were walking along the Yellow Brick Road in the Kingdom of Oz. A short while later, they came to a seemingly bejeweled door with the letters "QC" flashing above it.
"What's with the theatrics?," growled Congressman Udall.
"'QC'is an acronym for Quality Control. It is the last hurdle for automatons before they rejoin society. Those that pass a final inspection go on to be productive members of the community and the few who fail are sent back to prison. A psychiatrist in a government funded study suggested the Wizard of Oz theme as a way of boosting morale," replied the Assistant Director.
"Did it work?," asked Congressman Udall.
"Since they ran out of funding, there was no follow-up study," offered the Assistant Director. "GLAD has no way of knowing."
"What exactly happens to those who pass?," inquired Franklin.
"There is a graduation ceremony where I welcome them back to society and give them a heartfelt motivational speech. Then they get an all-you-can-eat prime rib dinner and are issued six jumpsuits and a toiletry kit. Afterwards, they return to the barracks on Level One where we began the tour until they are sold at auction on the internet and move on to their new lives," explained the Assistant Director. "If you need further specifics, George 99,689,794 can give you a first hand account of all the details."
"Science is still only a candle glimmering in a great pitch-dark cavern." - Mario Vargas Llosa
"This is where the tour of this facility normally ends. However, Congressman Udall has requested for the tour to be extended to include the subterranean cavern where GLAD is developing techniques to clone automatons," stated the Assistant Director to the group. "The first two levels were manmade tunnels. Six hundred feet below them lies a massive limestone cavern with stalactites and stalagmites. Congressman Udall will appreciate that rather than bore a third tunnel at a cost of almost a billion dollars, GLAD chose to utilize a ready made cavern provided by nature. The Director also salvaged a freight elevator from a played out silver mine which we rebuilt and now provides us with access to the cavern. This segment of the tour may be strenuous and is not without risk. If anyone desires to skip this portion, I can escort him back to the Food Court on Level One. Any takers? Please step forward (short pause). None? I must say, you do look quite fit. Remember, once we have begun, there will be no turning back."
The corridor terminated at the freight elevator. After the group boarded, the Assistant Director pushed a yellow lever forward and a wire cage surrounded them. When he pushed a larger green lever, the freight elevator began to slowly descend. Six minutes later, the freight elevator clanked to a stop at the floor of the cavern. The Assistant Director pulled back on the yellow lever which caused the wire cage to fold up like an accordion. Three LED floodlights mounted on an elevator wall penetrated an inky darkness for a marginal distance. It was as if they had descended to the bottom of the Marianas Trench. Franklin felt cold and wet. He had been to Carlsbad Caverns and the Cave of the Winds, but this was nothing like that. This was spookier than dining in a Mexico City cemetery on the Day of the Dead.
Crouching down, the Assistant Director opened a wooden box containing miners' helmets, switched on their headlamps, and distributed them to the group. Franklin felt somewhat relieved. Unlike the floodlights, the headlamps pierced the darkness. It definitely bolstered his courage.
The Assistant Director blazed the trail across a stalactite forest towards a series of tents and pavilions that were faraway near the opposite wall of the cavern. As they approached the first of the tents that were eerily lit from the inside by a soft blue light emanating from thousands of miniature fuel cells embedded in its microfiber lining, a cold chemical light which offered none of the warmth of home.
A tent flap unzipped and out stepped a cyborg whose artificial right hand held a .38 caliber revolver which he holstered once he identified who was coming. "This is Captain Manning, Chief of Security for the cavern," the Assistant Director said with a wave of his outstretched hand, "Allow me to introduce Congressman Jeremy Udall, Chairman of the House Budget Committee, and his entourage." Captain Manning shook hands all around.
You must be freezing," commented Captain Manning, "I'll get you some quilted coats from our storage pavilion." He left and came back with a stack of coats. After the group put them on, Franklin noted that the coats fit perfectly. In Franklin's opinion, this was quite a fete, considering that Captain Manning hadn't been told what size coats to get. Clearly, the Chief of Security was no slouch when it came to sizing up matters.
Captain Manning turned towards Congressman Udall and said in an even tone, "May I assume you are here to discuss our - I mean my unit's - request for hazardous duty pay? This is not exactly a healthy environment. My men risk coming down with influenza and pneumonia."
Embarrassed, the Assistant Director intervened, "I am certain Congressman Udall is giving your request the consideration it deserves. However, his primary motive for visiting GLAD is to evaluate and assess our efficiency. Your security team plays a large part in our ongoing efforts. As such, I am sure you will be eventually rewarded. We need your input. I realize you had no advance warning, but I would consider it an honor if you would accompany us on our tour of the cavern. Captain Manning has a more detailed knowledge of our automaton cloning operation than the rest of us, with the possible exception of the Director, at GLAD."
"Of course, I would enjoy conducting our distinguished visitors on a tour of GLAD's automaton cloning operation. On your left is the Insemination and Incubation pavilion where the process begins," Captain Manning indicated, "we refer to it as the 'I&I'. There is really not much to see - test tubes, bunsen burners, slides, flasks - things only a scientist would find interesting."
"It's not necessary to take a closer look at that," Congressman Udall agreed, "but I do have a question. Where does the DNA to initiate the cloning process come from?"
"That is way above my pay grade. I'll let my boss, the Assistant Director field that one," remarked Captain Manning.
"GLAD inherited a number of clones from the Supreme Soldier program when Congress quit funding it," the Assistant Director explained. "We extensively tested them for desirable traits and took DNA swabs from those that scored the highest. Research and Development was perfecting methods of genetic alteration and accelerated maturation in primates when we were ordered to go into full production by President Snodgrass. GLAD made a last minute decision to use DNA - with selective alterations making each and every clone a unique being - that originally came from George 41,832,709."
"George 41,832,709 saved my life," Franklin exclaimed. "He is the bravest, most intelligent, and principled being - that stands for all beings, whether they be human, automaton, or cyborg - that I have ever known. I was given one month to train him to be a janitor and it took less than three weeks. We established a bond of trust. One night I caught a human janitor drinking on the job and I fired him. The man tried to slash me with a knife. George 41,832,709 disarmed him and threw him down a trash chute. He's a born fighter and as loyal as they come. If all your clones have the integrity and intellect of George 41,832,709, then your project is headed for success."
"Thank you, Mr. Pierce for your poignant input," acknowledged the Assistant Director. "I will definitely keep it in mind."
"I think it is time we moved on," Captain Manning interjected. "Our next stop will be the Constructive Memory pavilion. Rapid grown clones do not have any childhood experiences. This is the department which supplies family memories to fill that gap. Of course, they vary widely and are tailored with care to fit the clone. It's an exacting process. Each and every detail must be gone over. It's essential that the clone never realizes that it's a clone. Clones are also supplied with fake criminal pasts. In the end they are indistinguishable from previous automatons and I maintain they are actually better. Research and Development constantly strives to make improvements. Homeland Security assures us that today's cloned automatons are far superior to yesterday's transformed automaton. They are far less likely to become aggressive or exhibit other defects. In 2083, sixty-two automatons exhibited substantial glitches after sale and had to be bought back by the government. So far in 2084, more than a million cloned automatons have been auctioned to the public and only one was returned. A panel of scientists examining it found evidence of tampering and abuse. Demand continues to outpace supply."
"Captain Manning, why don't we let the Assistant Director take the group inside the Constructive Memory pavilion, so that we can chat privately outside?," Congressman Udall suggested.
Although Captain Manning was taken somewhat aback by the Congressman's proposal, he quickly acquiesced.
* * *
"We hang the petty thieves and appoint the great ones to public office." - Aesop
"I was told that you and your men want Hazardous Duty pay," said Congressman Udall to Captain Manning as soon as the other people were out of earshot. "Considering the deplorable environment, anyone working in this clammy cavern deserves Hazardous Duty pay. I already feel sick and I have been down here less than an hour. However, there is a large gap between deserving something and actually getting it. It's my experience that Hazardous Duty pay isn't usually granted for anyone other than active duty military personnel. I understand that your unit was decommissioned. Now that Congress has resurrected the Supreme Soldier program and President Snodgrass has given GLAD a green light to clone automatons, there is no longer a reason for this to be a Top Secret facility. We need to declassify the entire operation, let the public know what is going on, and take Area 51 out of the hands of Spooks and let the military administer it.
The Pentagon could reinstate your unit and might even give all of you a promotion. With the money this facility generates, this could be a first rate Army base. Modern housing, schools, fast food, cinema - no more austere conditions. Imagine a climate controlled dehumidified cavern with LED overhead lighting and tents replaced by prefabricated buildings. You cyborgs need to think big and I need you to be patient. Keep a low profile while I persuade the President, Congress, and the public that this is the right course to take."
"I get where you are coming from," asserted Captain Manning. "The Director confiscated your gun, didn't she?"
"How in hell did you find out about that?," asked Congressman Udall, furrowing his brow.
"Our first week here, I had one of my men bug her office," said Captain Manning. "He had a hard time. There was already two bugs on her phone, one under a desk drawer, and seven in a bookcase. Several of them were a type that hasn't been made in more than a century. It is hard to believe that the Director's Office hasn't been swept for electronic surveillance devices in all that time. For a Top Secret facility, that amounts to criminal negligence. Sure, GLAD is in the middle of nowhere, but that's no reason for them to let down their guard."
"President Snodgrass has taken a personal interest in cloning automatons," asserted Congressman Udall. "He is anxious to take credit for improving and expanding the automaton project and has raised the prospect of exporting them to other NAFTA countries. No doubt he is counting on its success to win him a second term in office. But he won't be able to go public with a classified program. I doubt it will be a hard sell. Since both the Army and the intelligence agencies are part of the Executive Branch the transfer might not require Congressional approval."
"I cannot guaranty you much time. My men are growing antsy and, quite frankly, neither them nor myself trust politicians. We've been burned before," said Captain Manning as he stood face-to-face with Congressman Udall as both of them searched for any signs of duplicity on the part of the other.
"This is a win-win situation, so don't blow it. You and your men revert to active duty and I perform an economic miracle for a sector of Nevada devoted to seasonal, non-taxable agriculture and subsistence ranching. I plan to run for Governor in 2086," insisted Representative Udall, launching into campaign mode by force of habit. "Only the spooks stand to lose because they can't lobby Congress."
Captain Manning spotted the tour group leaving the Constructive Memory pavilion and suggested they rejoin it.
"Wait a minute," urged Congressman Udall. "Take this camera and snap some photos of the technicians working in tents and other wretched working conditions in the cavern. Send them to my office. I might need them to document our position. And do not bother returning the camera. I get a discount by buying them in bulk."
Captain Manning glowered at the micro camera Congressman Udall handed him and chuckled, "You would have made a fine spook."
"I never considered it. Besides, I make three times their salary as a member of the House of Representatives," Congressman Udall retorted. "And I didn't need a fancy university diploma to do it," he added as they hurried to rejoin the group.
"Arbeit macht frei (Work sets you free) - sign above Auschwitz death camp gate"
"There is nothing worth seeing at the North Groom incineration site, just a big pile of ash and partially burned rubbish. It is not worth your time to go there," the visibly irate Assistant Director reiterated. "Nevertheless, the Director promised you could see it. It might be dusk by the time you arrive, but, if you insist, the shuttle bus will take you there."
"Much obliged, we won't be long," said Congressman Udall as he turned to walk towards the shuttle bus.
"My day is over," stated the Assistant Director, "so I will not be coming with you. However, I phoned Mr. Ostrowski - he is our sanitary engineer at North Groom - and he will show you what little there is to see. It was a pleasure conducting you on a tour of GLAD. Y'all come back and see us sometime."
Following a less-than-heartfelt farewell, the Assistant Director walked back to the facility. An orange sun was sinking below the nearby mountains as the group boarded the shuttle bus. In late afternoon, the temperature was almost bearable. Franklin stuck his arm out of a window and made an obscene gesture. George 99,689,794 settled back in his seat and tried to take a nap, but blissful sleep was not to be. Everything he saw at the GLAD facility had brought back memories of what for him had been a living hell. Eventually, George 99,689,794 gave up trying to sleep. He turned towards Franklin and asked, "Are we having fun, yet?"
"Fun bypassed this hellhole long ago and it has no intention of ever coming back. I was in a bar once drowning my sorrows in tequila when a drunken redneck shouted, 'The South shall rise again!' Everybody howled with laughter, including me. We couldn't imagine slavery making a comeback. Nobody is laughing now," declared Franklin.
"Imagine how depressing it is from my perspective," remarked George 99,689,794. "I have gone from a billionaire hedge fund manager to a pathetic slave in less than six months. They took away my name and gave me a number. I'm surprised they did not tattoo it on my wrist. Now, they drag me back here so that I can relive the horror."
The shuttle bus lurched to a halt in front of a small quonset hut approximately 200 yards south of Homey Field. Darkness was descending, but Franklin could discern the outline of a nearby rubbish heap. The corrugated aluminum door to the quonset hut opened allowing a beam of light and a balding individual in a yellow jumpsuit to escape the interior.
"Welcome, I am Jim Ostrowski" call me 'Pops'. The Assistant Director said you would be coming. There is nothing to see out here but the maintenance hut and the garbage pile out there," he said, pointing in the direction of the dump. I have been here twenty-four years. Let me get a flashlight and I will show you folks around. Would you like to step inside?"
"Thanks, but we would prefer to wait for you outside where it is relatively cool," Congressman Udall commented.
Mr. Ostrowski went back inside and returned shortly with a black titanium flashlight that resembled a policeman's baton.
"You are wearing a yellow jumpsuit like an automaton, but you couldn't possibly be an automaton if you have worked here for twenty-four years," reasoned George 99,689,794.
"GLAD threw away a cardboard box full of yellow jumpsuits. I couldn't bring myself to burn them since there was nothing wrong with them and they fit me perfectly," Mr. Ostrowski explained. "That and they're more comfortable than the overalls I used to wear. The only drawback is that there are too few pockets. But you aren't here to listen to me make a fashion statement. We need to get going while there is still a little light. It gets pitch black at night out here."
The tour group walked with Mr. Ostrowski to the rubbish burn site. "I was just about to burn the trash the garbage truck brought in today when the Assistant Director phoned and said you would be coming. For a small underground installation there sure is a lot of waste. I figured you'd want to see it before I set fire to it."
"Are there any human remains?," queried Congressman Udall.
"Depends on what you mean by 'human remains'. There are a few spots at GLAD without flush toilets. I've been told that the pen where they house the automatons has two deep holes for them to relieve themselves in. The shit is covered with a layer of lime until the holes are full. Then they pump it into 55 gallon plastic drums and haul it here. I burn it with aviation fuel and it stinks so bad that the passengers complain about it at Homey Field," disclosed GLAD's Sanitary Engineer.
"That is not quite what I meant," chuckled Congressman Udall, suppressing an urge to outright laugh. "At any time in the past have you cremated any human bodies, organs, or bones?"
"GLAD grows surgical replacement organs. Defective organs are sent here for disposal," Mr. Ostrowski hesitantly admitted.
"Do you mind if I use that shovel over there to poke around the trash heap?," asked Congressman Udall.
"Not at all, but you won't find anything of value in there," stated the Sanitary Engineer with conviction. "Although I found a cast iron kettle fifteen - no, it must have been sixteen - years ago. It's perfect for cooking jackrabbit stew."
Franklin took the flashlight and held its beam steady while the Congressman went through the big pile of trash with a shovel. A few minutes went by without finding anything worthy of note. Congressman Udall stopped to wipe the sweat from his brow. Physical labor was definitely not his forte. George 99,689,794 was considering volunteering to take a turn at shoveling when to everyone's surprise Congressman Udall took a clear plastic test tube from his coat's inside pocket and filled it halfway with ash taken from the previous day's burn. He added an ounce of water, placed his thumb over the top, and shook the test tube vigorously for almost a minute. When Franklin shined the flashlight on it, the mixture in the test tube had turned to bright red.
"Wha...what's that mean?," Mr. Ostrowski stuttered.
"It turns red in the presence of human DNA. This is a foolproof test for human remains. United Nations investigators use it to detect mass grave sites. It is introduced as evidence to convict war criminals," pontificated Congressman Udall. "Perpetrators get long sentences. After World War II, many of the Nazis who operated the concentration camp crematoriums were hung or executed by firing squads. And they were the lucky ones. I've seen old black and white photographs of the Commandant at Bergen-Belsen who was ripped to shreds by angry Partisans. I hope I never see anything like that again. Ghastly deeds begat ghastly retribution."
"What about automaton remains?," inquired the visibly shaken Sanitary Engineer. "Are they tested differently?"
"Yes, automaton DNA is vastly altered. I did not bring that test with me. Should I have?," postulated Congressman Udall.
"Shortly after I came to Area 51, there was a rumor circulating that a certain Central American dictator was extradited to the United States for human trafficking and was killed while trying to escape. It was said my predecessor burnt the corpse here and later ground up the bones. Also, a few inmates have died prior to undergoing transformation. The Director ordered me to dispose of the bodies. At first, the technicians used automaton DNA to grow medical replacement organs, but sometimes the patients' rejected them. They have had better luck with organs grown from human DNA. Yesterday, GLAD dumped six plastic bags filled with defective organs. I had no idea what was in the bags, but when I burned them, it smelled horrible - like hair on fire. I had to wear a face mask,” confessed Mr. Ostrowski. “Am I in danger of being prosecuted for what I did? Will I go to jail? I was just following orders." Mr. Ostrowski's voice cracked and he sobbed, "It's all so unfair!"
"Profit is sweet, even if it comes from deception" - Sophocles
It had been a long day. Franklin was completely exhausted by the time the tour group boarded the last shuttle flight of the evening to Las Vegas. He fell asleep when the plane became airborne. George 99,689,794, who was seated in the aisle seat next to Franklin, unbuckled his seatbelt, stood, and made his way up the aisle to where Congressman Udall was sitting in a window seat. "May I join you?," the automaton asked.
"Be my guest," replied Congressman Udall, "please, sit down."
George 99,689,794 sat down and gave the Congressman his camera back. "I did the best I could," declared the automaton. "There was so little light in the cavern that I doubt whether any of the photographs I took there will turn out. Also, I took one of your Aide placing a file he stole from a desk drawer inside his jacket."
"He probably thought I needed it for the investigation of GLAD I have been conducting. Besides, the Director stole something that belonged to me. Turnabout is fair play, wouldn't you say?"
"The stock answer would be "yes," replied George 99,689,794. "However, some individuals might argue that two wrongs don't make a right."
"And those pathetic lily-livered liberals would be wrong - dead wrong," declared Congressman Udall emphatically.
"One thing I do not understand," remarked George 99,689,794 in order to change the subject. "How did you know in advance that you would need to bring along the equipment to perform a test for the presence of human remains?"
"My grandfather once told me a story about how he bought the water rights to a mountain spring for next to nothing. He put a packet of dye in the water and when it turned yellow he said it was due to the presence of alkali. The rancher who owned the water rights was completely taken in by the 'scientific' test. I've been wanting to do something similar for years. I got a test tube from a chemistry set and a food coloring tablet from an Easter egg coloring kit and have been carrying them in a coat pocket for months, waiting for an opportunity to put them to good use. Did you see the scared look on the Sanitary Engineer's face?," laughed Congressman Udall. "Priceless!"
George 99,689,794 was beginning to doubt that Congressman Udall was the man of strong character and scrupulous integrity that he had previously assessed him to be. And Congressman Udall seemed to have forgotten procuring George 99,689,794 a presidential pardon. The automaton felt like a fool for having expected a politician to keep his word. Silent and stone faced, George 99,689,794 stood up and walked back to the seat next to Franklin.
Franklin suddenly awoke in a cold sweat having had a horrible dream in which cyborgs with pulse weapons were chasing him and a willowy damsel through a cavern on an off-world planet.
"Do not bother unbuckling your seatbelt. We should be landing in Las Vegas any minute now," George 99,689,794 cautioned his boss.
"I am starving. I could eat a horse," commented suddenly wide awake Franklin Pierce. "It must be long past dinner time."
"It's 7:15 PM," said George 99,689,794, purloining a glance at the digital watch on the man sitting across the aisle from him's wrist. "They don't serve dinner on these short shuttle flights. I might be able to get you a bag of cashews from the galley."
"Don't bother," directed Franklin, "we can stop by Woody's and get a bucket of chicken wings on the way to the condominium. You seem to have gotten chummy with the Congressman. Did you remember to thank him for taking us with him on the tour? Maybe we should send him a pound of macadamia nuts or a bottle of wine to show our appreciation."
"That's not necessary," commented George 99,689,794. "I did him a favor while we were at GLAD. From what little I learned, it appears to me that the Honorable Congressman Udall used the tour as a ruse to conduct a clandestine operation against a Top Secret government facility, the purpose of which escapes me. It's so convoluted that a contortionist on steroids could not straighten it out."
"Something like, "'Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive,'" quipped Franklin.
"Yeah, something like that, but more sinister," agreed George 99,689,794.
"After one look at this planet any visitor from outer space would say 'I want to see the manager."' - William S. Burroughs
"I wish we could go on getting room service forever," declared Franklin the next morning as he speared yet another bite-sized piece of Belgian waffle with an elongated silver plated cocktail fork.
"The Eclipse Resort does have its merits, but I've experienced better," boasted George 99,689,794.
"We are only paid-up for seven more days," lamented Franklin with a sigh. "After that, who knows where we will go."
"I know where I am going," commented George 99,689,794 to his boss. "Presently, there are eighteen nations who will grant asylum to runaway automatons. I'm going to join Rumi Ono in one of them."
"I thought you were waiting for a presidential pardon," retorted Franklin.
“My chances of obtaining a pardon from President Snodgrass are about as likely as dying from hypothermia in the middle of the Sahara Desert. Asylum is a more practical option, that is if I can slip across the border without being captured," asserted George 99,689,794.
"I'm no snitch. Besides, I owe you one. In fact, I can drive you across the border," offered Franklin.
"Considering I'm owned by your employer, that would probably result in horrendous repercussions for you," reasoned George 99,689,794. "I certainly don't want it to look like you helped me to escape. Maybe I should tie you to a chair or put a couple of sleeping pills in your food?"
"Or maybe you should conspire with a terrorist to kneecap me or chop off my head," suggested Franklin sarcastically.
"Adding a modicum of drama to your regular boring routine will stimulate your intellect, assisting you in achieving your lifelong goals," bantered George 99,689,794.
"Thanks, but no thanks. I have had enough drama to last me a lifetime," concluded Franklin. "My lifelong goal is to eat, drink, and be merry. I have no desire to continue exploiting others to earn my daily bread. Management is not for me. Eight months ago, I applied to Space X Consortium for a job as an off-world miner. I recently received an encrypted message informing me I was accepted. I am scheduled to report to their training camp in Fargo, North Dakota, at 5 AM Monday morning. With twenty billion people, Earth is overcrowded. Our resources are nearly exhausted, our institutions no longer respond to the will of the people, and privacy is a thing of the past. Although technology continues to advance exponentially, humans are in regression; our species is on a downward spiral of obesity, hedonism, and decadence. Our moral and ethical compass is broken beyond repair. I used to think that I could make a difference, but I have been fooling myself. Nevertheless, I am optimistic. Earth gave birth to mankind, we have grown up, and it is time to leave the nest. The future of man will be written in the stars."
"You are right about that, however, I'm rather certain I can still squeeze a bit more from this worn out planet," elicited George 99,689,794. "I used to believe that the United States is the land of freedom and opportunity, but all that has changed. Slavery is resurgent. 620,000 soldiers died in the Civil War to settle an issue that the Founding Fathers could not agree upon. It's as if the country has forgotten. The Underground Railroad is back. I think it's time to climb aboard before the government seals the borders."
"So, we're both leaving," Franklin deducted. "Let's have Room Service send over a platter of seafood and three magnums of their best champagne to celebrate. We can put it on the company's tab."
(Ten Years Later)
Simon Kline - Moved to London where he regained his fortune by trading on the Financial Times Stock Exchange.
Franklin Pierce - Business Manager for United Mine Worker's Union on Jupiter's moon, Io.
George 41,832,709 - Escaped to Freetown, Liberia. Changed his name to Kwame Unsula, works as an online journalist.
Hiram Nasov - Comfortably retired in Boca Raton, Florida.
Robbie the Robot - Scrapped.
George 99,243,909 - Janitor at the Prudential Building in downtown Los Angeles.
Beauregard Benoit - Won a $67 million lottery. Moved to Dos Lagos, Florida, where he fell into a sinkhole. His body was never recovered.
Clarence Moore, Assistant Director GLAD - Shot in the spinal cord by an unknown assailant during a convenience store robbery. Paralyzed from the waist down.
Cedric Dickelsin - Fleet Manager, Tesla Motors, Bakersfield, California.
Jim Ostrowski, 'Pops' - Founder of Papa Jim's Authentic Jackrabbit Jerky, sold in convenience stores throughout the western United States, Canada, and Australia - available in Original, Barbecue, and Teriyaki flavors.Representative Udall - House Majority Whip during President Snodgrass's second term in office. Later ran for Senate and lost to his ex-wife.
Rumi Ono - Chief Executive Officer of Simply Sushi, a fast-growing chain of automated sushi bars in Africa and Europe.
Mary Ann Lynde, Director GLAD - Chief Financial Officer for Doctors Without Borders, voted Woman of the Year by Feminine Mystique in 2087.
President Ebenezer Snodgrass - Impeached for high treason. Escaped from Guantanamo before being brought to trial. Granted asylum in Serbia.
Captain Manning - Promoted to Major General in command of Special Forces. Allegations have surfaced of involvement in an affair with a sixteen year old au pair. She asserts he plied her with alcohol and raped her after she blacked out.
Cindy Finestein - Elected Mayor of Houston, Texas. Houston is one of a growing number of sanctuary cities who refuse to cooperate with federal marshals in the apprehension of runaway automatons.
Tom Pierce - Bit actor in Canadian porn films. Lost his left arm in a cage match with a toothless polar bear in August 2091.