Sherise hated this job from the minute they put her on the line and, yeah, it’s better now that she’s off the factory floor but it’s still an ordeal coming in here every day. Maybe if she had understood or even cared about the technology it would at least be interesting. But other than being pathologically clean it had been your basic factory line work. Ok, yes, comfortable enough (that high tech cushy floor made standing even for a full shift not bad at all) and you could go to the bathroom any time you needed to so there was that. But every trip in and out of the clean room meant taking off and then putting on countless layers of whatever it is that kept the room clean. She wondered what she looked like in that get up and would have taken a selfie to send to Skyla except (of course) cell phones weren’t allowed even in the locker room.
It was like a month in before Sherise got around to asking exactly what it was they were assembling on the line. And then she had to ask someone in the locker room before suiting up and going in because speaking through the gizmo on their clean suits was such tiresome business that no one talked much in there. It was like being in something on the science fiction channel. All hushed whiteness and intense concentration.
“Eyes for robots.” This woman’s name was Hortense and she looked exactly what you’d think someone named Hortense would look like. She wasn’t the floor supervisor or anything but she sure acted like she had something going on.
“Fucked if I know.”
Sherise walked away thinking Hortense was full of it. There was nothing remotely eye-like about what they were handling every day. It was all circuit boards and numerous braided lines of thin cables that had to be connected just so to other braided lines. The work would have been considerably easier if they didn’t have to wear those stupid suits and try to see through two layers of high tech plexi-glass. But then again they probably wouldn’t be earning the breathtakingly high wages they were either if uneducated people like Sherise could waltz on in here and plug in those cables wearing whatever they wanted.
She got the hang of it. As jobs go she’s had far, far worse. It’s not as if it’s like a regular factory job with hundreds of people on the line. There’s maybe fifteen people, all women by the way, on the line here. Friendly enough, she supposes, but she’s never been one to strike up jolly workplace friendships. Then Skyla up and tells her that she’s pregnant and the deal is sealed. Back when she first got the job she was almost immediately looking for a way out. Not anymore. It’s not as if she and Skyla had talked about this having kids business or anything. Well, Skyla had said once that she wanted to have a family but Sherise let that slide and hoped she’d forget. Skyla didn’t. What was it? Eight months ago now that Skyla brought it up again and said she’d found a donor.
“A donor?” This to the computer screen as Sherise was combing the job boards online and not paying attention.
“Yeah, you know, a sperm donor. I’m 27 and it’s time.”
“It’s not time if we’re not working it’s not.” Now Sherise was paying attention.
“If we wait until everything’s right and ready I’m never gonna have our kid.”
“How do you figure it’s my kid?” Even as she was saying it Sherise was wishing she could just shut up but out it came anyway, “It’s your kid and the donor’s.”
“Other people may think you’re as tough and shut down as you’re being now, Sugar Pie, but I know what’s underneath that attitude.” Skyla came over and did that thing that still drives Sherise nuts.
As Sherise recalled (while carefully fitting another set of cables properly into their place) there was no more job hunting done that day. But there was also no more talk about donors and babies. Sherise sees her mistake now in letting Skyla think silence was consent. Oh well. It’s done and they’re going to be parents and isn’t it just a damned good thing Sherise got this stupid job when she did?
Just before the baby is due Sherise gets promoted which is almost as big a surprise as Skyla telling her she was pregnant. Sherise has been working since she was 14. Work is just what women do and no one ever suggested she was good at anything she did for money. She showed up, kept her opinions to herself, and earned her paycheck. This place has been different. Ok, so yes, it’s really just fancy factory work but once Sherise had made up her mind that she was staying put she began to fall into a kind of rhythm on the line. There was a decidedly satisfying little snap that was felt more than heard when each component coupled exactly right and Sherise found herself chasing the snap. It never occurred to her that what she was doing was working with greater and greater efficiency.
Her new position requires Sherise to meet weekly with the research team; the big shots running this show. The “team” is three white guys: Lawrence, Michael, and John. They’re all professors and Ph.D.’s and Michael, anyway, is pretty full of himself but he’s the youngest and that’s to be expected. John is 40ish and quiet and Lawrence is an ok type. For a 70 something white guy with an alphabet of degrees after his name who likes to wear a Stetson after work. He doesn’t talk down to Sherise and has suggested a pile of reading material that she’s plowing through at night. Skyla probably doesn’t know what to make of all this but Sherise figures if she’s smart (and she is) she’s has filed it under job security. This would explain the easing off of most of the complaining.
Turns out that what Sherise has been assembling all these months has been exactly what Hortense said: eyes for robots. More accurately she’s been assembling the circuitry that conveys visual information to a series of processing chips. The robots, when she finally gets to see them, aren’t much like what she expected. Lawrence explains that these robots are being developed to perform basic surgeries like tonsillectomies and stuff like that. Sherise isn’t so sure about that.
“Why so many? I’ve been on that line for months. These aren’t prototypes, right?”
“They’re the next step after prototypes. We’ll be wrapping up production and implementation of the visual components within the next month or so and we want you on the team to monitor the next step in the process of giving our robots sight.”
This sends a superstitious little chill through Sherise but look at Lawrence here. He’s drinking his coffee and leafing through a manuscript. It’s just another Tuesday on the job. Skyla’s due within the next week or so and Sherise’s paycheck has gotten significantly fatter. This isn’t some kind of sci-fi scenario here. It’s science. It’s advanced research.
“Why me? I’m not a scientist. I don’t even have an undergraduate degree.”
“To be honest Michael thinks that the last thing this project needs is another scientist and, for once, I’m in agreement.” Lawrence finishes his coffee. “You took to the physical demands of the job quickly and were outperforming other assemblers on the line in weeks.”
Sherise doesn’t buy this for a second but keeps her mouth shut. And her eyes open. Her new position is behind a desk where John trains her on the software they’re using. A major plus is no longer having to suit up in that ridiculous space suit thing. She’s not a supervisor like she thinks of being a supervisor. The work on the line has finished so there’s no one to supervise for one thing. John explains that she’s to watch for irregularities in the stream. Visual information indeed.
Skyla goes into labor early but the scientists, sympathetic as they act, won’t allow Sherise to skip a shift. How did she get to be so important? So important she doesn’t have a phone at her desk, can’t bring her cell phone in to the office and, weirdly enough, doesn’t have internet access. Michael explained the need for complete concentration and Sherise could understand that. The stream she was monitoring demanded that her eyes be on that screen every minute. The first couple of days about killed her. Now she’s got her feet under her better and can quickly pick up the difference between slight hiccups in the stream and stuff that has to be checked out. But this morning none of it will fly. Finally she takes a break and goes to find one of the guys.
“Look, Lawrence, I can’t be here today. My wife is in labor and if I can’t have access to some way of staying in touch with her I got to go.” Now Sherise is really out on a limb because losing this job would be disastrous. It’s blowing her mind that she even said something so stupid. Looks like she cares more about this kid business than she had realized (and what a bone-headed way to demonstrate that). Now she waits to see what Lawrence has to say.
“We tried to be very clear from the beginning how crucial your role is here.”
“Let me at least call the hospital.”
Lawrence looks around like he’s making sure no one’s watching and then hands her a small flip phone. “Here. Give them the number taped to the back of it and keep it with you.” He lowers his voice. “This is between us. Don’t let John or Michael see you with it.”
Sherise settles back in front of the screen having made the call from the bathroom. No progress. Will Skyla ever let her live this one down? Wake up and look at where we are, Sherise is telling Skyla in her head while trying to get back to what’s flowing in front of her eyes on the screen. All smooth.
Over the weeks there have been blips here and there. At first she responded to every blip but eventually Sherise could see the pattern and flow of the thing. Even though John had explained what was going on here in very basic terms she still didn’t quite get it. What she does understand is that all those circuitry units, those eyes, she and the others on the line (all either laid off or reassigned) had assembled are now connected to something that’s been programmed to achieve consciousness and Sherise is watching for when they begin to wake up. She’s watching for the eyes to…watch.
Today there seem to be more blips than usual. So far the really big blips have been false alarms. The “eyes” aren’t actually seeing anything. Some of these blips are hitting close to the wake-up range but Sherise isn’t fooled anymore. As she settles in for the hours ahead the accustomed rhythm of the blips become, in her head, kind of musical. She begins to see the music divide into harmonies with higher and lower blips. Still nothing particularly noticeable. It’s soothing in a way. At lunch she goes to the bathroom and calls the hospital; still no baby. The nurse hands the phone to Skyla who tears Sherise a new one. Sherise accepts this. Someone has to be the adult here.
Back at the console Sherise struggles to see the harmonic divisions again but only sees a kind of white snow, static with no discernible pattern. The blips are still coming faster and now she’s seeing that the bigger blips are hitting more often. She wonders if she’ll know consciousness on her screen when she sees it. It’s kind of surprising to Sherise that she’s able to settle in at all and do this work. She was the kid in fourth grade who was ricocheting off the walls and in high school when kids were grinding up their Ritalin and snorting it Sherise was opting for valium. It was only because her older brother got strung out on heroin and wound up in the penitentiary that Sherise dodged that bullet.
Really it was Skyla who turned things around for Sherise. She hadn’t ever thought she was gay but after yet another abusive man had taken her money and gone sleeping around Sherise swore off love. When they first met at the bar on country western night Sherise thought she’d made a friend. Not many of the other people she knew understood how much fun line dancing was and pretty soon she and Skyla were together every night that the bar had boot scootin’. Then they found another bar that had another kind of line dancing. Then Skyla coaxed Sherise into karaoke. Not another soul on the planet could have managed that. Sherise found herself confiding in Skyla like she’d never done with anyone before. Their first kiss felt like the most natural thing in the world.
Moving in together and then getting married was never something Sherise could have foreseen for herself let alone having kids. But it all fell right into place and here she is parked in front of a monitor watching for machines to wake up. No more farfetched than any of the other stuff in her life really.
Those blips are doing something new. She’s sure of it. She’s making double sure of it when a slow blinking fills her monitor. She is looking at the lookers. It’s hard to say who’s more fascinated.
“Hello.” Not expecting an answer but getting a recognizable response. Is she looking at a thousand newly awakened consciousnesses or one with a thousand eyes?
Sherise, staring hypnotized at the screen, suddenly realizes she’s answered the phone and there’s a nurse talking to her.
“Ms. Sanders, your wife just gave birth to a healthy six pound baby boy. She’s a little out of it at the moment but will be calling soon.”
There’s some kind of tussle at the other end of the line and then Skyla’s voice, a little slurry and inexact, is in Sherise’s ear while her eyes on the monitor and her fingers on the keyboard are telling her new friend about the birth of her son.
This was written, published, printed, and distributed at Burning Man 2018 which had the theme of I, Robot. Special shout-out to my partner, AleXander Hirka, for the amazing cover art as well as his photomontage, “Religion of Robots” which was displayed at Center Camp.
© Remington Write 2019. All Rights Reserved.