This was a mistake. Jail? Deportation? Me? These thoughts tumbled about Kal’s mind as the robot escorted him down a bright hallway. Jail is for bad people—a place for the animals to rot in cages and devour each other in the jungles of Hell. Deportation is for those who don’t belong—those who will never melt in the pot. After all, to save a diseased body, you have to contain the infection or cut out the cancer. But Kal was no cancer. Decent people like him don’t belong in detainment centers, no matter how down on their luck.
His guard ushered him deeper into the prison and held him about the upper arms like a mother with an unruly child. The comparison proved somewhat apt, as the towering automaton looked down on Kal’s brown hair. Kal found its entire mechanical form imposing yet beautiful—all the way from its flashing red eyes to its tank treads.
They stopped at a cell door. It rattled open with an angry metal-on-metal crash. “Cell 003.” The guard’s speech echoed throughout the long corridor. The deep bass vocalizations matched a man’s voice but lacked emotional intonations. It reminded Kal of a stock narrator in a high school science film. A blue light shone from the cell’s wall, scanning Kal’s retinas. The guard spoke again. “Kal Patel. Fifty-eight years old. Born—.”
“Save it. I know where I’m from.” Kal looked up at the guard. “Do you have any idea where you’re from?” The robot released its tight grip. With its vice clamps now retracted, the jailer’s thin body and round head more resembled a sunflower than a cop. Kal flexed his biceps and then his triceps and wondered about the shapes of the emerging bruises. Would the claw leave one large black and blue discoloration? He knew the contusions wouldn’t take the form of five human fingers.
“Please repeat your statement,” said the jailer. “Try talking slower and clearer.”
Kal remained silent and explored the cell. He pressed a quarter-sized button located at shoulder height, and a bed slid from the wall. The crisp, fresh sheets and flat pillow reminded him of a hospital. The walls of the ten-by-ten room were graffiti-free. Only his cloudy reflection marred the brushed nickel.
“Don’t worry. It’s only one night in jail,” the guard said. Kal wondered if the joke was procedure. Maybe a little human touch to improve prison morale?
Kal sighed and reclined on the bed. One night would be enough time to count the cracks in the ceiling—if there had been any. Instead of cracks, he found one round light and his reflected likeness looking more like a long pile of dirt than a man.
The door slammed shut, and Kal winced. He inhaled deeply through his nose and out through his mouth. As a kid, if Kal had pictured himself in prison, he would have imagined a door of laser beams or an invisible force field. Then again, he had always been overly optimistic about the future.
Kal’s future had seemed bright when he was a child, back on the farm. The smell of hay and manure comforted him. The toil of physical labor had created his work ethic, though the daily grind lessened in his teens as automatons took over most of the fieldwork. Proud, devoted Hindus, the Patels garnered respect in their community. His father even sat on the town council. What would his parents say if they could see him now?
The cell doors rattled open, and Kal jumped out of his mind and onto his feet. A well-dressed man holding a briefcase accompanied the jailer into the cell. A smile and small wave greeted Kal. “Mr. Patel? I’m Counselor Thomas.” He walked forward and shook Kal’s hand. The Rolex watch on Thomas’s wrist jingled. Kal remembered the Rolex he used to own and squeezed his counselor’s hand harder.
“Are you my lawyer?”
“That’s right. Court-appointed deportation counsel.”
“But you’re a person.”
“I see we won’t be arguing you’re delusional.” Thomas chuckled. “You can’t afford an automated counsel, so I’ll be representing you.”
“You any good?”
“I’m excellent, but let’s put it this way—I have to sleep.”
Kal gave a few small nods and exhaled. “Ok, what do you need to know?”
“One second.” Thomas held a finger in the air.
Thomas turned to the wall as if to check his hair in a mirror. The blue light shone out and scanned his eyes. Without warning, a chrome table sprang from the wall, and two chairs emerged from the floor. The lawyer placed his briefcase on the slab and motioned for Kal to sit.
“They save this for us, hot-shot lawyers. Some of these meetings can go long.”
“I guess they wouldn’t want me smacking the guard with one of these chairs.” Kal shivered as the cold of the metallic seat stung through his shirt.
“I think he could take it,” said Thomas with a head nod to the guard. “They don’t even bother closing the door when it’s out there. No, it’s because we wouldn’t want you criminals to get too comfortable. We aren’t at Club-Med.”
“I don’t know. Just an old saying like, ‘Way out in Timbuktu’ to mean far away.”
“Timbuktu’s a city in Asia.”
“Well, that’s a fact someone with your origins would know.” Thomas opened the briefcase and pulled out a tablet.
“My origins?” Kal rubbed his neck. “I’m from—“
“Whoa,” said Thomas, looking at the tablet. “Says here they have you for computer hacking and… Oh boy. You’ve been unemployed for over a year?”
“Yes, and my lack of a job is the only reason I coded without a permit.” Kal craned his neck in vain to catch a glimpse of the tablet screen. If only Thomas had a holoviewer. Who uses a tablet anymore?
“Coding without a permit is hacking, Mr. Patel.”
“Call me Kal.”
“Kal, this looks open and shut.”
“But the people I helped couldn’t afford bots or coding permits.” Kal leaned forward for emphasis. His arms rested on the cold table and turned to gooseflesh. “The real estate, vehicle, and social media presence upgrades are expensive and released every six months. Sometimes sooner. If they aren’t up to date, the automated property caretakers will malfunction, and the household’s finances won’t sync to the economic hubs. The owners would violate dereliction laws, lose their homes, and be deported within months. The government turned into the home owner’s association from hell.”
Thomas squinted his eyes. “Property values of a neighborhood will fall if one house malfunctions. Then the seedy element moves in. I know you must feel like Robin Hood. I understand, but a judge won’t—they’re all automated now. Criminals use human coders to mask their digital trail. Hackers, unlike bots, can alter the intrinsic traceable code markers. How do you know your customers weren’t hiding drugs or other crimes? They could be rapists hiding their identity. I assume some people who turn to hackers like you are good individuals fallen on hard times. However, most should be removed for the good of the country.”
Thomas placed his tablet on the table, blackening the screen before Kal could read anything. “Seen it a dozen times, my friend. The robo-judges are programmed to think in narrow terms.”
“Would either of you gentlemen like something to eat?” Kal and Thomas both jumped. The robot had entered the cell like a cat burglar.
“No, I’m fine,” said Thomas without looking up.
Kal shook his head.
“Very well. Please let me know if there is anything you need, Counselor Thomas.” The guard moved into the hall.
Kal’s eyes fixed on the cell door until his lawyer spoke.
“Where were we?”
“Good service for not-Club-Med,” said Kal.
“Yeah, lots of sensitivity protocols.” Thomas picked up the tablet. “Now, your job history—or lack thereof—could be more harmful to your case than the hacking.”
Sweat dripped down Kal’s back. He fought the urge to drum his fingers. No poker tells. Can’t let him see me panic.
“I’ve sought retraining,” said Kal. “I didn’t have enough money for private retraining, and I’ve had no luck in the public retraining lottery. My savings would’ve been drained without the coding money—. ”
“Hacking money,” said Thomas. “You padded your savings by hacking. Therefore it is hacking money.”
Kal’s eyes narrowed. “Point is my nest egg wouldn’t have lasted a year.”
Kal couldn’t tell if Counselor Thomas’s face projected boredom or pity.
“Poverty is not an excuse to turn to crime, Kal,” said Thomas. “The judge won’t believe you even could be retrained. You’re projected to have low aptitude in arts or performing. Those are the only categories left for humans without any savings—other than politics, but good luck with that.”
Kal felt the world tightening around him. Thoughts of a grand escape filled his head, but one look around the cell reminded him of the lone exit and the titan guard. Maybe a hostage? Kal looked for a weapon in the open briefcase, but they lived well into the digital age. No pens. No keys. Nothing but cards and cords.
All he needed was one sharp object. “Guard,” Kal shouted. “I’ve changed my mind. What’s there to eat?”
“I have submitted a food order. It will be here shortly,” said the guard. “Sit tight.”
No choice of meal. Every day, techno-societal progress stripped away more of Kal’s options.
“Funny,” said Thomas. “Most people lose their appetite at this point in the conversation.”
Kal looked his counsel in the eyes. “I’m a quick study. I started my life planting seeds and slopping hogs. At twenty years old, I graduated summa cum laude from MIT with double majors in computer science and electrical engineering. Times changed, and so did I.”
“How many years have passed since you last changed your career?”
Kal bit his lip. “Forty years.”
“Exactly. Even a decade ago your skill set was impressive, but software design isn’t in demand anymore.” Thomas sighed. “Look, it’s not like I’m unsympathetic. I’m stuck with cases like yours for a reason. Public defenders are the only human lawyers left because we’re cheaper than the law bots. God knows how long that’ll last with the speed of technology today.”
“Then let’s do something, Counselor,” said Kal. “You know your days are numbered. Let’s change things.”
“A battle for fifty years ago.” Thomas chuckled. “No one cares when a career goes extinct until it’s theirs. The outrage always proves short-lived. Before long the words “efficiency” and “cost cutting” lose their evil connotations. Everyone then jumps back on the freight train from hell called progress. Me? I’m saving my money and hoping they institute a universal salary before I’m dead.”
“I’m not a lawyer. I’m a computer programmer.”
“Computers do computer programming now. But…” Thomas paused.
“Go on,” said Kal.
“You may be in demand elsewhere. Not everywhere has the digital infrastructure on par with America. Of course, you won’t make as much money as you did in your heyday.”
“I could adjust to overseas. They still need coders there.”
“Your skills are a bit behind, even if we ignore you coded without the proper permits. Coding is a chrome-collar job, even in the developing world.” Thomas flipped the device, finally allowing Kal a peek. “You should think a little further out.”
Kal looked upon the red orb on the tablet. “Mars?”
Thomas blacked the screen. “The algorithms suggest off-planet employment. As I said, you have little or no aptitude for the arts, so the no-collar jobs are out. They still need white-collar jobs up there, and their retirement age is ninety. You’ll only have thirty more years of required employment. One of the companies up there will pay for your entire relocation.”
Kal had read about Mars. Cheap living if you didn’t mind stale vaporator water, recycled air, and city domes that didn’t quite filter out all the cosmic rays. Retiring at ninety meant little when the average Martian died decades earlier. “But I’m still of use on Earth. A bot lacks creativity. My code is art. If I did the stuff I’m accused of then I can think far outside the box.”
“Someone put you back in the creativity box, or you wouldn’t be sitting in this here box. What do you consider art anyway? Even the ‘art’ careers will be gone in time. Soon, computers will paint and write masterpieces of maximum aesthetic pleasure for the human brain. Beautiful androids will act out Shakespeare in the park before you know it. If a circuit board is the next Twain or DeNiro how can a—,” Thomas paused to look at Kal’s file, “‘programmer and entrepreneur’ argue creativity and art?”
“Food’s here,” said the jailer.
Kal looked upward and took the tray. No steak knives or chopsticks, only a milk carton and a fruit cup with a white spoon.
Kal picked up the spoon as delicately as if he were disarming a bomb. How quickly his counsel had pegged him as a Martian, while he enjoyed his cushy Earth job. Thomas continued speaking, but Kal focused on his utensil. He had one chance left to fashion a weapon. Even if the jailer didn’t buy his hostage-taking threats, he could scare Thomas and wipe the air of condescension off him. Soft plastic curved between Kal’s thumb and forefinger. The tiny utensil folded onto itself like a contortionist until it snapped.
Kal held the sharp handle and tested his weapon. The point pressed hard into his finger, creating a small indent in the skin. He would have to draw blood for anyone to consider him as a serious hostage taker. Maybe a bit more force? With a silent prayer, he jammed the shiv into his left palm under the table. The spoon weapon shattered in its test run along with his hopes. The sting of failure dwarfed the discomfort of his scratched hand. Kal, knowing his fate, refocused on the verbose counselor.
“So Kal, can you give us the name of your customers? The judge could factor cooperation into your sentencing algorithm.”
“Get on with the trial.”
“Let’s get this over with.” Kal’s mouth smiled, but his eyes did not.
“Let’s hope they accept our argument. Maybe I can arrange a continuance.” Thomas’s fingers came alive on the tablet.
“Sure,” said Kal.
Thomas placed the tablet on the table. “Now we—”
The tablet’s screen flashed, and a monotone voice played. “Verdict rendered. Kal Patel has been found guilty of computer hacking and unemployment.”
“Appeal,” said Kal.
“Right,” said Thomas.
“Appeal denied,” said the tablet.
Kal slumped in his chair.
The jailer rolled into the cell on its treads, and the door closed behind him. Kal saw his melancholy reflection on its chrome body.
The tall robot’s eyes flashed red as it vocalized. “Kal Patel. Fifty-eight years old. Born in South Bend, Indiana. Currently resides in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Deportation to Mars set. Transfer to spaceport scheduled for 0800 hours tomorrow.”
Kal lowered his head into his hands. Thomas shut his briefcase, stood, and patted Kal’s shoulder. “Don’t worry. It’s only one night in jail. Tomorrow you’ll be out somewhere, with an exciting new beginning.”
Thomas walked to the door. It remained closed. “Hello?” he said. The top half of the jailer rotated away from Kal to Thomas. “The Senate has passed a bill instituting automated public counsels, effective immediately.”
“I… I…,” stammered the former counselor. “Please let me out. I have to call my wife.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Thomas,” said the jailer with the programmed graceful tenor of the Queen of England. “Analysis of your bank account and career prospects determined you could not support yourself. You will be detained until you apply for job retraining.”
The former Counselor Thomas dropped his briefcase and stared like a statue. “But I have savings. My wife and I can cut our expenses.”
“One moment,” the guard said. It remained motionless, unaffected by the sweating and trembling Thomas. Kal marveled at the calculations whirring in the guard’s CPU and wondered if he would recognize robot emotions if they did exist.
The robot’s red eyes flashed, and it spoke. “The cost-cutting measures required to avoid deportation would prevent domestic program upgrades. The Thomas household would violate dereliction laws. Applications for retraining or deportation location selection opens at 0800 tomorrow morning.”
“The robots that stole my job finally designed robots cheap enough to steal yours.” Kal chuckled. “You were right, Counselor Thomas. I don’t care anymore whose jobs are automated. I’m sure the taxpayers will appreciate the savings. Do you think a robo-counselor would have gotten me off?”
Thomas responded with silence. Kal brimmed with self-satisfaction at his comments. Let’s see how Thomas likes Mars. He looked at the jailer, awaiting its next instruction. Kal again caught his distorted reflection on the robot, only now Thomas’s melancholy image joined him in the chrome mirror. Kal’s twisted smirk disappeared. Thomas had displayed some semblance of empathy to Kal. The robot showed no soul past its scripted and genteel words.
“Don’t worry, Counselor.” Kal placed his hand on Thomas’s shoulder. “It’s only one night in jail.”
Ryan Benson resides outside of Atlanta, GA with his wife and children. Ryan keeps himself busy writing short fiction stories and a novel. The Sirens Call Publishing, Trembling With Fear (Horror Tree), Dark Moments (Black Hare Press), and the anthologies The Collapsar Directive (Zombie Pirate Publishing) and A Discovery of Writers have published his work. You can find him on twitter @RyanWBenson.