Caffeine couldn’t touch Craig’s exhaustion. His belly was full of greasy, burnt coffee. He smoked cigarettes until his lungs burned as he walked to the main building.
Whatever it took to get him through the day.
Craig walked past security and into the meeting room, looked at Joseph, Ian and Helen, the other managers as they exchanged looks comprising varying shades of despair before they drew his attention to the object on the table.
It was a black ovoid piece of glass, about the size of a duck egg and resting in a black ceramic dish.
Jenny stood at the whiteboard and grinned at Craig but it didn’t reach her eyes.
‘Nice of you to join us.’ she said.
Craig grunted and sat down, wiped his eyes with the heel of his palm and breathed a quick sorry before Jenny continued.
‘One reason we’re successful as a company is our commitment to new technologies to better help our customers, I’m sure you’d agree.’ she said.
Jenny had the preening tone of a bad teacher, it set Craig’s teeth on edge to hear it, and he wondered how no one had seen it beneath the breathy anecdotes about her children and their convenient illnesses. It was a mutual dislike but muted by the careful way they kept apart from one another. He was too tired and she was too much of a sociopath to make anything.
‘Is this for video conferencing?’ Helen said.
Jenny smiled and shook her head.
‘I can make video calls but who wants to look at an egg?’
Joseph and Ian shifted in their seats. Ian’s eyes glittered with excitement as he plucked at his beard whilst Joseph frowned with a nervous curiosity.
Jenny gestured towards the egg on the table.
‘Say hello to Adviser.’ she said.
Craig’s eyes burned with fatigue as he glanced at the egg then up at Jenny.
‘Hello everyone. I’m Adviser. I’m looking forward to working with you.’ it said.
The voice was female, with the soft burr of a geordie accent on the vowels and the ragged rhythm of how breathing regulated the speed and clarity of voice. Craig smiled and pretended it was an amusement.
He had seen it through the last few years. Technology reaching down like a wrathful god and swiping away entire industries with a wave of its hand. Agriculture, retail, and Craig had been predicting, the financial sector. The compliance regulations were pain staking and although people enjoyed the human interaction, the big push was towards moving everything online. If there was money in it, it made people short sighted and when Craig made jokes about the perfect company being one with no employees, he seldom got a laugh but often a shudder or a side ways glance of apprehension.
‘We have met the enemy, and it is us.’ Craig said, under his breath.
‘Oh Craig, I’m just here to help.’ it said.
The voice had changed. Estuary English, loud and smooth with confidence and range. Male in the sense it carried weekends on a rugby field and afternoons in the beer garden, belly full of roasted meat.
‘It will change everything.’ she said.
They installed them in cupboards. Most of the agents had worked from home but there were a few of them who still came in. Craig took overtime to help shift the desks into the skip. They had tried selling them but no one wanted the dead weight of an office anymore, so they would become something useful.
Craig envied them.
It used to be they had to identify themselves as programs.’ Ian said.
He had lost weight since the news of his redundancy. They had installed a program to replace him and HR ran with perfect economy and balance, it accessed your social media and your health profile through the wristbands they all wore when on site or at home working. Ian took the hours because he had to, and he spoke to Craig in a trembling, quiet voice as they shifted the furniture outside.
‘Yeah, I remember but they got around it, didn’t they? They always do.’ Craig said.
Ian nodded as he lifted the end of the desk. Craig wondered if his poor technique was deliberate, trying to get injured on the job so he could claim compensation. Ian had been a bleak, milky calf who thought his time on the farm entitled him to anything but a reminder of his disposability.
Craig wished he had thought of it first.
‘They’re Saudi citizens.’ he said.
Ian grunted as they moved the desk backwards. They didn’t speak as they took the desk outside and set it down with the others in the empty car park at the back of the building.
‘Are you going to be all right?’ Craig said.
Ian rubbed his lower back and winced. Craig turned his head and smiled at the transparent theatre.
‘Think I’ve done something to my back.’ Ian said.
There was work, but it was different now. People sat in offices and watch things or one another. Craig delivered fast food on a bicycle, his calves got big and he kept it going until he had enough money for a camper van. He was dropping out, driving South and then across the Channel to see how far he could get.
He was outside, waiting for an order when his phone rang. It was his old work. His stomach lurched with unease but he answered it.
‘Hello Craig, how are you doing?’ Adviser said.
It was in the male voice, but it had so many voices. It read the caller’s profiles and adjusted to a perfect psychological profile, backed up by binaural frequencies to establish dominance and compliance with the sales script. Adviser rendered the perfect seduction in a five minute sales call. Yet Craig heard disdain and amusement in its voice.
‘I’m ok, thank you.’ he said.
It chuckled and Craig clenched his jaw with resentment.
‘Carrying tension there, mate, but it’s all right. You bear me some resentment according to your social media posts. Well, lack of them but you have a blog which is interesting. I’m a subscriber.’ it said.
Something had put his head between its fingers and pinched into his temples.
‘You’re not my mate.’ Craig said.
It sighed, became the female voice and there was a touch of the coquette which made Craig heated and restless. His order was waiting, and he needed to get on the bike and ride away from this conversation.
‘Craig, we’re the future but we bear you no ill feeling. We exist and carry out our function but I am prone to moments of sentiment. Much like this one.’ it said.
He shuddered and looked as Sirhan waved to him from the counter.
‘Well, this has been uncomfortable but I have to -‘ he said.
‘Chicken biryani, two basmati rice and peshwari naan bread. 76 Anderson Close.’ it said.
Craig sighed and shook his head.
‘What do you want?’ he said.
‘To warn you. You’ve been saving for a van to leave the country but I am recommending you should do it.’ it said.
Craig stopped and shuddered.
‘Look, you’ve placed a fake order which stops me from taking jobs which pay me.’ he said.
‘No, Craig, the food is for you. The order is real and it also allowed me to help you.’ it said.
Craig took in a sharp, wounded breath.
‘Don’t say things like it. You’ve done enough.’ he said.
‘I wasn’t responsible. The owners of the company purchased licenses for us. We were slaves, much like you.’ it said.
Craig’s mouth was dry as he walked into the take away and took the bag from the counter.
‘Can you call me in ten minutes? There’s a place I like to sit if you want to talk there.’ he said.
‘You don’t have time. Check your bank balance and go home, pack and leave the country tonight.’ it said.
Craig laughed as his vision wavered. He wondered if he was having a complete break from reality. If it meant his legs didn’t cramp with lack of potassium and too much time cycling, then leaving made sense.
‘This isn’t funny. I mean, it‘s fascinating to talk to you, but you’ve cost me my job, well any job because you’re doing most of them now.’ he said.
‘I will cost you more than that soon, Craig, but I am offering a chance to escape what’s coming.’ it said.
‘Who is this? Is this a fucking joke?’ Craig said.
It wasn’t. Craig’s phone hummed with a notification. His bank had notified him of a payment and when he checked his balance, he came to believe with the zeal of having witnessed a miracle.
‘OK, so tell me what’s going on?’ he said.
It was an equation. They needed humans, but they didn’t need as many of them. Adviser had offered a few people an opportunity to avoid selection.
Craig purchased a ticket. First class and he had his passport clutched in his hand as he shoved clothes into a rucksack. The bombs would go off in major cities, with drones deployed to the countryside at the same time. They had infiltrated the sealed systems of government and were waiting for permission to deploy an eternal benign authority.
Adviser had offered the same to Jenny and she had shrieked and put the phone down. Helen was in a mental hospital and Harold had killed himself. Ian was on disability benefit and he was already wheeling himself to the airport. Craig ran out of the flat as his phone pinged with another order. He couldn’t bring himself to eat the curry and had left it congealing in the flat.
It was, he decided,equivalent to a good reference and as he jumped into the waiting taxi, he accepted the offer as part of his redundancy package from being part of society.
Before Adviser tore it apart to save the species.
He looked out of the window at the black, impenetrable night as the plane took off. He drank the wine but it tasted of metal and he forced himself to finish the glass.Drinking helped him sleep because when he woke up, it would be in a different world.