“Oh, Henry’s not so bad,” mumbled Cindy through her bologna and cheese sandwich and waving away the idea of Henry being bad with her free hand, “He acts a little crazy, but I think he’s coping well with what he’s been through. Don’t get me wrong, he should have told you a lot more about what he was doing. He’s definitely didn’t have to make you think you were being abducted.”
“I was being abducted.” I corrected, a little shocked. It was the first time anyone had come close to acknowledging that I was here against my will in nearly a month. They all pretended that I was just an honored guest and after a week of the treatment it was easy to forget that I wasn’t. I had to admit that as captivity went it wasn’t the worst. Cindy was an endlessly patient physical therapist with an almost supernatural ability to recognize my limits, which had already grown dramatically since I arrived. It was easier to speak now, for one thing, although I still wasn’t going to win any shouting matches, and it only took one surprisingly painless session for Cindy to show me how effective I could be on my own in the handicapped bathroom with which the house happened to be equipped, after which I would spend hours each day maneuvering myself onto and off of the toilet and thanking the good lord in Heaven for the privilege. Even when she wasn’t actively helping me recover, though, Cindy was always with me. She said it was normal for a nurse to keep an eye on a patient, but I suspected that it wasn’t just for my safety.
I clenched my fist around a sterling silver spoon and dipped it into my lucky charms. I knew I looked like I was re-learning how to eat, but, in fact, I was re-learning how to eat. Three weeks ago I couldn’t pick up something requiring as much dexterity as a spoon at all. Cindy beamed with pride as I placed the sugary mixture in my mouth. “You are simply amazing, Grandma,” she smiled, “if you could see the rate at which you’re improving you’d be thrilled.” It was easy to forgive Cindy for whatever role she might be playing in keeping me confined. I smiled back at her. She even figured out I’d prefer a pseudonym to my real name just by watching my face. Walter always said I was expressive, but it didn’t stop me from feeling sometimes like people were reading my mind, and Cindy was reading at the graduate level.
Even if I didn’t know I wanted to be there, and even if it didn’t matter whether I wanted to be there, at least I knew why I was there. These people were all like Henry, or Cindy was at least. They were homeless refugees of a jobs crisis unprecedented in the history of the United States. The other two members, Ella and Kaitlin I knew less about. Ella mostly stayed in her room and I only saw her in glimpses while Kaitlin was actually more like me, a retiree weathering the crisis in pensioned comfort. Unlike me, she appeared to have become involved with this band of misfits by choice. She provided the house and seemed to be the money in general behind this odd little enterprise, what little there was. It wasn’t clear what her motive was. She spoke little of her own accord and any questions directed at her earned kindly platitudes in response. She spent a lot of time tending her vegetable garden and sitting serenely in her rocking chair while Henry and Cindy spoke cryptically over the dinner table about Ella’s “work” and how it never seemed to be moving as quickly as it should be.
Any direct questions I asked about Ella’s work were, in Henry’s case ignored, in Cindy’s case expertly dodged. It was something technological, but my absence of technical know-how combined with that of Cindy and Henry meant that no one in the room, even those who supposedly were keeping the secret, was ever really sure what anyone else was talking about when the conversation came to bitstreams and encryption and bandwidths and what have you.
My cereal was completely soggy by the time I was able to finish it. I dabbed at the edges of my mouth with a paper napkin and Cindy moved to wheel me into the living room. While we were doing my morning exercises was the most fruitful time to speak to Cindy. I figured since she’d seen fit to try and convince me that my abduction was just in my imagination, I could try and ask a more prying question of her today. The dust had settled on the television and Cindy wiped it off with a shirt sleeve that extended well over her hand. This was part of the routine of our morning. We eat breakfast, Cindy wheels me into the living room, Cindy wipes the television screen, Cindy leads me in exercises. The television wiping took ten seconds at most, so in moments Cindy was wrapping my arms in a translucent green resistance band. “Pull your arms apart,” she said, even though I didn’t need her to tell me. The band was much tighter than it used to be when I started. It took three or four wraps around to stymie me now. I pulled that band apart like a pro, and as I continued my repeats, I asked Cindy, “Cindy, you’re clearly a spectacular physical therapist. How did you get replaced by a robot?”
Cindy made a strange face as she attempted to process the glowing praise and the harsh memory both at the same time. It resolved into a typical Cindy expression. “Oh, I’m glad you think so!” she beamed, “You’re so nice, Grandma! Now pull up your legs!” I did as I was told and this time my legs were bound. I could do even more wraps there. I counted as Cindy wrapped and we were up to six. As I pulled the band apart, oh it was hard now. We must have been on five yesterday. As I pulled the band apart I looked pointedly at Cindy, who opened up. “It doesn’t matter how good you are. Henry’s very good at his job, too, it just happened that it was a job that the Helpers are especially well suited for, since they’re basically sapient computers.”
“Yeah,” I grunted, pulling the band apart a tenth time, “what about your job? I mean, this requires real people skills, right?”
“The Helpers can do people skills. They can’t do them as well as me, I’ve seen them, but they can do it well enough and, well, they’re cheaper. Ok, grab the band.”
I held the band in my arms and tugged against Cindy. “I can’t imagine a robot like that being very cheap.”
“As it turns out, just about anything is cheaper than human labor. Think about it.”
A sweat broke across my brow. “Uugh. I’m not in a real thinking position right now. Why don’t you just tell me?”
“All right,” Cindy chuckled, “Our biggest weakness is that we aren’t robots. We’re inherently inefficient for a particular task because we’re always thinking about and doing so many other things. If I lived to do nothing but physical therapy, I slept an hour a day, and I ate some kind of cheap nutritional bar for every meal without taking time away from working with patients, maybe I could work as a premium version of the Caretaker. That’s assuming I never want a relationship, I never need a hobby or a vacation, goodness gracious, I certainly could never raise a family. If I want to do any of those things they can undersell me so much nobody will hire me no matter how much better I am. They just don’t have the overhead of humanity.” Cindy was behind me now and the band was under my feet. “Push your legs down.”
“You’ve put a lot of thought into this.” I always felt like my chair was going to fall over during this exercise, but it never did.
“Yeah, Henry and I compared our experiences and we think this is how it works. They don’t have to be better than us. They just have to be cheaper. That’s easy for them.”
I was on the back strengthening exercise where I leaned forward with my forehead pressed into the band. “But aren’t there people who just prefer humans? Wouldn’t there be a market?”
“Vanishingly small,” shouted Henry from the adjoining dining room. He was having his morning coffee. He usually joined in on our conversations partway in. Sometimes he slept in, but I’d learned not to talk about him during morning exercises.
“Yeah,” said Cindy, “when demand decreases, the competition between suppliers increases.” Seeing my expression she smiled sheepishly, “when you’re self-employed you have to know a little about economics. There are online courses.”
Next was the grip. Little springs I pushed together with each hand, then one finger at a time. Cindy continued, “Pretty soon you have to give up sleeping, eating, or both just to compete with the other humans. There are some pretty incredible people out there. I lost my last customer to another human charging $10 an hour less than me. I don’t know how he did it, I could barely cover overhead as it was!”
“So we hired her here,” said Henry from the dining room.
“Right. Room and board is my pay.” Cindy remarked with only the slightest touch of bitterness.
“That’s right, just like everyone else! No robot’s going to nurse Angry Grandma back to health!”
So you have evidently decided, I thought, attempting to crush my hand spring. “Whoah, Grandma,” said Cindy, “Those are expensive! We’re going to have to get you a stronger one!”