M.K.Harlan

Storyteller

The advertisements flashed in front of my eyes with the latest upgrade, promising faster connections and a smoother interface than before. It was supposed to fix all the bugs, but that’s what they always said. Every upgrade fixed the bugs in the last one and brought with it a few more of its own.

The people around me were absorbed with it, those that didn’t have it were waiting in line to buy it. I looked for the few bits I had left from the last upgrade I bought. I didn’t have enough, not if I wanted to feed the baby. I don’t know when I will be able to afford the upgrade or any upgrade.

I will have to be content with the older model.

At work, I am the only one who does not have the upgrade. Already, everyone is using the new features to better interface with the computers here. They work quickly, not even moving. They don’t have to anymore.

The wireless signals between computer and upgrade are so seamless now that I don’t even see the telltale eye flicks that accompanied last month’s model.

I’m falling behind in my work already. I haven’t been here more than a few minutes and I am not so productive as the others. I try to concentrate on my work, pressing the necessary buttons when they light up on the panel and looking for the connections that need to be made to maintain the integrity of the systems. The computer terminal is plugged into the port I still have in my side. My terminal is the only one with a wired interface.

I’m too basic for the other terminals. I look for the things that used to give me pleasure within my systems, but I can no longer keep up with my work like I used to. My heart races and I shut off all but my work programming. The others have the pleasure interfaces up while they work, but I can’t afford that luxury. My unit does not multitask as well as theirs.

I am the only one that does not look fully human, the only one with my unit showing. I feel ashamed, but I can’t afford the upgrade if I want to feed the baby.

They come for me before lunch. Rather, they send a message for me and I do not notice it until then. I don’t know how long it’s been there. There is too much for me to process already. I unplug from my interface. It’s not that I would take a lunch, the only way to keep up anymore is to never take a break.

As I enter the offices I am greeted by the receptionist. “They’ve been waiting all morning. Have a seat.”

I sit quietly outside the doors, feeling like a child. I can’t work while I’m here, not without an interface to plug into. If I had a newer unit I could continue with my work while I sit here. I would be useful, productive.

The door opens and the receptionist waves me in, her interface connects her to everything in the building. As I step into the offices, she closes the door behind me without any of the tell-tale signs that come with older building interface units.

The overseers sit at a larger terminal than we have out on the floor. Their interfaces run seamlessly in the background as they focus most of their attention on me.

“It has come to our attention that you are no longer able to keep up with your workload. Is there something wrong with your terminal?”

“No, ma’am.” I answer, the images coming into view from my unit are of the latest upgrade. The ads are almost non-stop. They have been getting in the way of my work all morning. “It’s the ads. I can’t get them out of my way.”

The overseers’ gazes fix on me. “Do you have a problem with them? They are designed to help you make informed decisions. Without the ads you would not know when it was time to upgrade.” The woman’s head cocks to the side like a dog. “When was your last upgrade?”

I can not bring myself to meet her harrowing gaze. I have not had an upgrade for almost eight months now. Not since the baby was born. I am not ashamed of my older unit, I tell myself. I have to feed the baby, I can not afford to get the newest upgrade.

Her brow furrows and I can almost see her processing this information independently of her unit. She frowns even more and I know already that I have missed something. A message she sent. “How many months behind is your unit?”

I have all but shut off my unit to focus on what she tells me. The silence in front of my eyes, the sounds that I do not hear when it is like this, the colors and the quietness of turning fans distract me almost more than the ads ever can. “Eight months,” I answer, not meeting her eyes and a fly buzzes in the corner above a potted plant, long dead and dry. No one has remembered that it exists.

The overseer’s eyes narrow as she contemplates this answer, and then her gaze turns blank. “Eight months. You had a baby eight months ago.”

The dull sound of the advertisements is pushed very far back now. I can’t take it, it is worse than the silence I hear now. I turn off my unit. I can feel my heart begin to race and my breathing turn shallow, it is as though I cannot find air. My head hurts and the lights in the room are suddenly too bright. I can feel myself shrinking into something less than a person. I turn the unit back on and immediately I begin to feel the pains subside, even if the distraction of the advertisements is still there.

I nod to the overseer. “We had a baby eight months ago.”

Her lips purse. “Has the child been upgraded?”

I shake my head. “We can’t afford an upgrade, not even for the baby.”

“And you, yourself have not been upgraded. Where does your money go?

“Babies must eat. I have to feed the baby.”

“You must be upgraded.”

“You don’t pay me enough to upgrade.”

I watch as she seems to contemplate something. “You do not do enough work for us to pay you more. If you were to upgrade your unit we might be able to consider a raise in pay. Until such a time, however, we suggest you install your child with an upgrade at the least. Any older and the upgrade may be rejected. Chances of survival decrease and the population can not afford to lose anymore, there are too few viable adults.”

I shake my head again. “I can not upgrade the baby. I can’t afford it.”

The male overseer, silent until now, speaks, he does not move or look at me, there is no emotion in his voice. “You are incapable of caring for the child properly. I will contact government services. They will take the child and give it the proper upgrades. It will be well cared for. Then you may use your earnings to buy a proper upgrade. Once you have upgraded sufficiently you will be given a raise. Perhaps then, when you can afford it, you may try for another child.”

I can feel my knees begin to weaken. The advertisements come to the front again. “Please, don’t.”

The female overseer speaks again. “It for your own good. If you can not afford the upgrade for yourself or the child, how can you expect to function properly in society? How can you expect the child to grow properly?” She smiled like she was doing me a favor.

“Please, I’ll upgrade, don’t take the baby.”

“You said you cannot afford the upgrade.”

“I’ll take out a credit, whatever I have to do. Just don’t take the baby.”

The male overseer’s eyebrows rise. “What of the child? Will it be upgraded soon?”

I nodded quickly. “Please, don’t take him.”

The overseers do not blink, they do not look at each other and they only seem to look through me as they converse with one another via their units.

“One month,” the woman says. “At the end of the month you and the child will have been upgraded. If not, you will be terminated and the child will be reported to the government. We don’t want to lose you, but there are others with better upgrades.”

I nod and when they speak no more I exit the offices, grateful. The advertisements increase for the upgrades. By now, the work day is over. I have lost several hours pay for this little chat.

As I make my way home and pass the lines of people waiting for their upgrade I can hardly concentrate for the advertisements. I stop only to buy formula for the baby. I have to feed the baby. I cannot afford the upgrade today.

It is something that I have not told anyone, but I do not want to upgrade the baby. I like him the way he is. Even if he cries and screams and defecates in his diaper. I do not want him to grow up dependent on a unit as I have. I want him to grow old and think for himself while he does it. I want him to learn on his own, rather than have the information fed to him. it was that way when I was younger.

When I get home my wife is in the living room,  she upgraded last week, her job required it more than mine at the time. She is absorbed. The baby is crying on the floor. I pick him up, trying to shove the advertisements to the back of my thoughts. He needs changed.

It isn’t an easy job, but I change him and I feed him. The advertisements for not only my own upgrade, but one for him flood my vision.

As I watch him I cannot bear the thought of subjecting him to this. It was so new and intriguing when they first came out. I had never thought it would lead to this. Not in my wildest dreams. I can not do it. I can not let them take him.

I pack a bag for myself and for him. My wife is to engrossed in her upgrade. She will likely spend all of her credits again on things the unit tells her she needs, even if she does not need them.

I take the baby and as we exit the house I can not take the advertisements anymore as I stumble, almost dropping him. I breathe deeply and turn off the connection. It is only a matter of time now before they notice and come looking for us. I have to get out. I have to run. Or they will take us both.

The lights come on and my body feels weak as they stand over me. I do not know how long I have been here, strapped to the cold metal table. I think about the baby, the baby I never had.

“It didn’t work.” It is the voice of the male overseer.

“I don’t understand why. He should have been rushing to buy the new unit.” The female overseer comes into focus now as she shines a light in my eyes and checks my pulse. I am too tired, too weak to fight her. “There must be something wrong with the advertisement algorithms.”

“Perhaps, not everyone can be persuaded.” The man stands over me, looking down with curiosity. “The company will be disappointed, but it is a problem that can be dealt with. Eventually there will be no resistance to the units.”

The woman looks at him in almost the same way that he looks at me. “Should I terminate this one?”

The man looks away, his eyes shifting and I can tell that he is consulting his unit. “No, continue your experiments. Independence is such a tragedy. No one should have to suffer without the guidance of the company.”

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