by Charles Carreon
Harry Zeman remembered the
first day he saw her. She walked through the swinging metal double doors
at the back of the store, straight up the bakery aisle, neat, natural,
practically dressed. Supposedly, she'd been hired straight out of high
school, a management trainee through a special program. Supposedly, she
had family in Idaho, and had moved to the area in search of opportunity.
Supposedly. He watched her step up to the counter, grab a bag, flip it
open crisply, and start bagging the groceries that flew from the hands of
the clerk as he scanned them.
No stiffness or ladylike reserve impaired the flow of her movements, which
were simple, authoritative, efficient. The bags were packed, set in the
basket with neat, easy turns of the waist. She looked like she was
modeling her uniform, long auburn hair swinging in arcs like a silken
Zeman knew what she was. Her employment records were false . The paycheck
she picked up each week was voided automatically. The house she occupied
was owned by the company. She generally did not eat unless others were
about; when she slept she did not dream, and when she appeared to watch TV
she was having her chemical memories edited, revised and updated.
She was a special type of ringer, sent out by the company for a two-year
tour at his store. Everyone knew ringers were doing duty as assassination
decoys, models, and jet-set prostitutes. And that they were too expensive
to use as ordinary grocery clerks. But company management had thought up a
special application, worthy of the expense --pacers -- ringers with a
special purpose. Pacers were calm, attractive, obedient, above all,
efficient. They did a lot of work, but that was secondary. The important
thing was they set the pace for human employees. Never sick, never late,
never impertinent. They didn't take drugs or steal or fall in love with
other employees. They were, in short, subject to none of the sins that
flesh is heir to. They set the standard for flawed humans, and that was
the purpose of the project -- to raise the standard. And the project was a
roaring, silent, top secret success.
To test his ability to participate in this project, Zeman had been
subjected to strange tests. He was given blatant opportunities to steal
from the company -- the computer virtually threw apparently untraceable
funds at him. A bachelor without other inclinations, he suddenly found
several women initiating liaisons. He reported the potentially lucrative
computer snafu. He rebuffed the women. Then he was called back east to a
special management seminar, put up at the Four Seasons, and informed that
he was being let into a special pension plan, on top of getting a very
healthy boost in his salary. And then, they introduced him to Sheena.
Sheena was a veteran pacer, due to be phased out after one last tour of
duty, at his store. They explained the program, how it had been ongoing
for twelve years, and the fabulous results Sheena had accomplished at
various stores during that time. Pacers, they told him, could increase
productivity and morale by as much as thirty-four percent -- depending on
the baseline you were starting from -- the combined result of decreased
tardiness and sick time, and just plain working harder and smarter. The
suits smiled smugly when they said this. A pacer, they said, works like a
mechanical rabbit at a dog track, keeping the greyhounds moving at top
speed. Behavioral modeling -- changing the parameters of human performance
-- lots of fancy words.
At first it felt strange to have Sheena in the store. He'd look through
the two-way mirrors that gave him a view of the floor, and watch her in
motion, mopping up a spill, gathering scattered carts and misplaced items,
stocking shelves and directing customers. Unfailingly friendly, quietly
serious, utterly disinterested in small talk or anything other than the
task at hand.
The change was gradual at first. He didn't want to believe it, because he
always thought his people worked at maximum, but as the changes became
more obvious he had to accept that she was having an effect. The place
began to hum. The floors looked cleaner and the checkstands more tidy, as
workers adopted the ethic of ceaseless, productive motion. Customers
started leaving compliments in the suggestion box. In this new environment
, slackers quit to find work with the competition, and the employees who
remained worked even harder.
Zeman's top employee was also his charge. Under cover of a close
friendship, he monitored her condition with a few weekly tests, and with
frequent evening visits, screened out the attention of those who might try
to make friends with an attractive young clerk. Being one of the older
models, she needed that kind of screen, because her maintenance routine
required non-interference from outsiders.
The lab techs who'd trained
him back east had explained how important "TV watching" was for Sheena.
She needed to do it every night for at least two hours. Any show was fine,
as long as she watched it at home, because the TV in her house was fitted
with a laser that projected binary code directly into the retinal
photoreceptors of her eyes. Ordinary sight detected nothing except perhaps
the slightest flicker in the screen, but to Sheena's chemical memories,
the transmissions channeled through the optic pathway were packed with
meaning. The software beamed into her, unwinding the randomly forming
logic strings that built up each day. Thus were eliminated the processing
slowdowns and quirky tendencies that would precede the "evolution" of
unprogrammed characteristics in the unit. But watching her sitting there,
laughing at some old rerun, it was hard to believe she wasn't just
enjoying herself without a thought in the world.
The techs had told him she
had no subjectivity at all -- no sense of self -- just circuits that
mimicked subjective conduct. She acted as if she had a mind, but she
didn't. "Like a videocam," they said, "she can record and process a scene,
but she never knows she sees it." Her reactions to the scene made it seem
as if she were seeing it, though. "So be careful," the techs told him,
"and if you start to get a fixation" -- and here they looked at each other
with what seemed like unease -- "be sure and give us a call. " He assured
them that he would not develop any fixations, but if he felt one coming
on, he would be sure and call the company.
But when it happened, he didn't. It happened too suddenly, like waking in
a nightmare and having it all be terribly familiar. He realized one night,
sitting with her on the couch, that although he knew he was alone, he
didn't feel alone. She was unthreatening. No matter what he did, she
couldn't think him strange. He couldn't please or displease her. He
couldn't offend or distress her, but she reacted to everything he did.
When the company decided to try the pacer project, it was a trial deal.
They didn't spend the extra money to get custom ringers made -- instead
they bought the available, suitable hardware from vendors, and had them
softwired in-house. So, many of the pacers, like Sheena, came with extra,
unnecessary features, like fully functional sex packages. Her successors
would be custom designed and sexually neuter. But not Sheena -- she had
pleasure-simulating subroutines built into chem-memory, which tempted
Zeman to experiment.
As the obsession deepened, he cursed the fourteen months he'd spent
avoiding play with this wonderful toy. He told himself repeatedly that he
knew her for what she was, but then how could he explain buying her
clothes, taking her out to movies and night clubs? He was drawing in their
moments together like air, needing every breath more. He was racing to
devour all of their allotted time, because he knew that on October first,
at ten p.m., she was supposed to be lying in a wooden box on the back
porch of her residence for pick up. Operation would automatically cease at
All through September he fought with himself. He considered calling the
techs at the company. He couldn't believe they weren't watching out for
this kind of slip up. As he worked, his mind repeatedly wandered from the
spreadsheets, schedules, and invoices. He would catch himself just staring
through the two way mirrors, watching her moving through the aisles,
leaving order in her wake.
On October 1, at 9:59 p.m., they were nowhere near her house. They were
not even in the right state. He was piloting a rental car south along the
cliffs above the Pacific ocean, about eight-hundred miles from their
little town. She seemed to be watching the waves off to their right
intently as dark cumulus chased each other over the horizon, starkly
backlit by rich moonlight in a sky of velvet. The waves glowed. Mist
speckled the windshield. The tires fretted the edge of the pavement as he
kept acceleration high.
The dashboard clock was synchronized to the microsecond with the watch on
Sheena's wrist. Her head was turned toward the sea as the clock flashed
9:59:56, and he held the wheel straight on a tight curve, launching the
car into flight. Startled by the changing gravity , she turned her gaze --
a look of surprised pleasure -- swiftly back to him, and spoke his name in
questioning wonder, in a voice so sincere he could swear she knew. He
smiled back as moonlight rushed in the windows.
Copyright 1994, Charles
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