First In, Last Out

Andrew Leon

The Singularity may be approaching, but it can't happen all by itself. Someone is going to have to lead us to it by the hand...

It began with only myself and an idea. Pen, paper and dream. I planned it all as best I could, then brought in a friend with the practical know-how to push it through to patent. By the time we were legal I had a three man team, building by hand in my garage while I scrounged money and materials everywhere I could think to look. My girlfriend did the books and was my wife when the bank signed off on the loan. My staff of twelve formed an honour guard, my patent buddy was best man.

The world loves a good acronym, so we called them the Advanced Synthetic Industrial Machine Operator (model 5)--or the ASIMO-V for short. We couldn't build them fast enough. One year later we hired this factory, next year we bought it. The first new hand on the floor only had three fingers--great photo-op. Ten years later I'm pulling the plug. No choice, I'm afraid.

No choice.

I'm afraid.

It started with a weekend watchman, signing in and dropping off the radar. Insurance bit down for "leaving premises unsecured". With shadows in his past we didn't chase him too hard. Just hiked the prices a shade to cover the new premium and chalked it off to experience.

Then we began losing staff. Night shift workers first, clocking in, then sneaking out and not returning. Or so I thought. When we looked, we found they'd left their lives too. Unanswered phone calls, unanswered letters. Flyers stuffing letter-slots, curtains that didn't get drawn or opened. A pet dog barking weakly behind a frosted glass door.

We put in another demonstration model to take up the slack, half to fill the gaps and half as a publicity measure. Temporarily to begin with, until we saw no reason not to let it stick. The existing staff made the usual jokes, same ones you'd heard on the news, but what's two against thousands? Nothing at all, nothing to worry about. But more guys dropped out, gals too. Soon it's more than a couple of demo-mods hanging about, it's a dozen. Suddenly the guys and gals aren't joking so genuine.

Five thousand workers wanted a union. I'd been there, I was okay with it. Four meetings in, their rep doesn't show. Not the first to go missing in the nine-to-five by now, far from it. Rumours were whispered on the shop floor, which is to say shouted over the deafening noise. I was worried, but the boardroom wouldn't hear it. I talked about worker moral, they talked about Columbian knock offs, out-performing us on Turing and under-cutting us on price. And more staff abandoned us. Not to mention their entire lives.

I talked to a friendly policeman about my concerns, one specialising in industrial sabotage. He said he'd look into it on the quiet, but never got back. When I called his desk, the voice on the other end had questions that made me hang up fast. Next day his face was in the media, wife, children and senior officers appealing for any information, in particular his last known location, recent contacts. I was glad I'd called from the road, from a bar, and made a point of forgetting its name. His too.

Come last year it wasn't just disappearances, we had good old fashioned resignations too--but some familiar names showed up in Columbia, then two Indian start-ups mysteriously hit the ground running and our Legal Department soon had us fighting patent battles on three fronts. With models making up twenty percent of the workforce and original staff still vacating their posts and homes without warning, more of the eighty percent were absconding voluntarily, and taking tall stories with them. We were big enough that the media wouldn't touch them for the incredulity value, but every penny saved by a twenty-four-hour-a-day replacement was as quickly swallowed by the court costs.

Almost overnight our third-world workforce rivals were saturating the market, selling units at half what we needed to meet our overheads, and we had to start laying people off before they could jump just to keep the god-damned thieves in sight. Turn of this year we were up to seventy percent artificial, and still the human thirty dwindled, by fair means or foul. Now the claims coming from a vocal minority of our former workforce--those that could actually be found to ask questions of--started showing up in blogs and tabloids. When they hit the mainstream, it'd finally hit the fan.

Four months ago my buddy hit on a new patent. Three months ago my wife hit on him. Two months ago they both sold their shares to the bigger of my Indian competitors, and one month ago the rest of my board jumped ship too. My precious point-oh-one percent keeps the ball in my court for now, but, you know: damn it. They want to call time on the legal actions, the Indian ones anyway, cut our losses and move on. Move on to a buyout, naturally. I'm not made of money. Not much I can do at this point, really.

Not much legitimate, anyway.

Nothing to stop me spannering their works a little though.

Just now I dropped a couple of minor bombshells on the world via email. When those in the know put two and two together, I doubt our share price will recover in a hurry. The implication for the pickpockets isn't too attractive either. I wonder if they have had as much tidying up to do as we did.

I do feel for what's left of the staff--the breathing ones anyway. That's why I'm laying off anything with a pulse rather than a current. Golden handshakes for those with five fingers.

It was a mistake, I guess. Mine first, but now it's everyone's. All that's left for me is a long, silent walk around the automated roar of the midnight floor, to the generator room. Flip the master switches, lock the factory on my way out and do a disappearing act of my own.

Except, when I get there, the door won't open.

And behind me the machines all stop what they're doing.

©Andrew Leon Hudson 2014 All Rights Reserved

Date and time of last update 00:57 Sat 22 Mar 2014
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