Apathy Rules

words by Matt Handle | Tuesday, July 15th, 2014

Apathy RulesAndrew watched the surgical machine saw off his right arm at the shoulder joint with the same sort of detached interest he might have shown toward a television program while listening to music on his handheld. Some fuzzy part of his brain knew that the pain was likely exquisite, but the morphine drip had rendered him comfortably numb, to borrow a phrase from one of the songs on that same handheld’s playlist.

The infection had set in shortly after his mishap at work and after weeks of the doctors trying different medicines, it had been decided amputation was the only way of ensuring the infection didn’t spread to other parts of his body. Andrew didn’t mind really. The artificial replacement they were installing would be twice as strong and his company was footing the entire bill. He was receiving one hundred grand worth of enhancements for nothing but a few weeks of rehab and the vague feeling that the operation ought to hurt much more than it actually did. All in all, he didn’t think it was a bad deal.

The rehab turned out to be difficult, but Andrew managed to get through it. A month after his hospital stay, he was back on the company’s assembly line, producing almost three times his former hourly average of the giant metallic servos that were his company’s bread and butter. His new arm made the job much easier, his mechanical fingers as nimble as little spiders skittering along a web. The extra strength came in handy as well.

Intimacy proved challenging. His wife, Amber, said all the right things, encouraging him during his therapy and congratulating him when he won the Employee of the Month award not long after his triumphant return, but he could feel her pull away a bit whenever he tried to wrap his robotic arm around her shoulders. She’d smile and tell him she loved him, but it only took one look in her eyes to know there was a new distance between them, a gulf made of cold metal and alien fear.

Although not perfect, his marriage soldiered on. It was almost a year later that the first dark purple spots began to appear on his left arm. They started around his elbow and slowly spread up and down the surrounding flesh. A trip to the doctor told both him and Amber what they already suspected. The original infection hadn’t been thwarted after all, merely delayed. The surgeons told Andrew there was no time to spare. They needed to cut out this newest threat before it spread beyond his extremities and into his pulmonary system or brain. He barely had a chance to hug Amber and tell her it would all be okay before he was back under the knife, another arm being replaced with a better, disease-resistant piece of hardware.

This time the physical therapy was easier, the strength and motion of his new arm matching that of his right one after mere weeks of pain and focused exertion. Before he knew it, he was back on the assembly line again, breaking efficiency records that had stood for decades. With his two robotic arms, he could not only churn out the servos faster, he no longer needed the assistance of the assembly line’s crane-like machines that moved parts from one work station to the next. He was just as strong as them, practically a robot himself! More honors and accolades came rolling in and before his next birthday arrived, he was promoted to lead assembler and making nearly twenty percent more salary.

He thought the additional money would help smooth things over at home, but they only continued to get worse. According to Amber, it wasn’t his arms that made her so uneasy. She thought he was distant, consumed by his work and that he didn’t properly prioritize the time they spent together. Before he knew it, they were separated. Amber moved out in order to live with her mother and Andrew wasn’t sure when or if she might return.

To avoid the loneliness, Andrew threw himself into his work like never before. He was at the plant nearly around the clock, determined to move up the corporate ladder and prove his worth to his wife and any others who might still doubt him. His annual check-up determined that the infection had been stopped this time, however the brighter outlook this news brought Andrew was short-lived. His employer was bought out by a larger conglomerate and a new wave of automation was being introduced that promised to make his job and most others on the assembly line obsolete. The new machines would be faster and cheaper, better even than Andrew with his robotic arms.

It was a drastic step, but when his new boss offered up the opportunity for additional body enhancement, Andrew agreed after only minimal resistance. Amber had filed for divorce and a thorough search of the job market told Andrew he was better off sticking with his current firm, no matter what changes it might require of him, than striking out anew.  Replacing his legs and feet with a set of Mecanum wheels would allow him to move into the transportation division. Now instead of building servos, he would shuttle the giant cylindrical motors from mechanized assembly line to the distribution warehouses on the other side of the company’s manufacturing complex.  His arms gave him the strength of any of the company’s smaller robots and his new wheels made him just as mobile.

Andrew sold the house and split the profits with Amber in the divorce. Having replaced so much of his body with new parts, the place would have required major modifications in order to accommodate him anyway. His new apartment was closer to work, had a sizable elevator and offered hallways wide enough for him to move about without difficulty. Social outings were awkward. Cybernetic modification was slowly moving into the mainstream of industry and science, but he was still an anomaly and the looks people gave him while out in public told him he was a long way off from fitting in. When he wasn’t working, he spent most of his time online. There was an anonymity on the Internet that he found comforting.

He lived like this for many years, alone but self-sufficient, a hard-working, contributing member of society. His workplace became almost as solitary as his home. He was surrounded by the monotonous hum of machinery, but virtually all of his co-workers were gone, replaced by robots that didn’t look all that different from him. Andrew could only shake his head at his former teammates’ lack of adaptability and dedication. They’d all given up, falling into the depths of poverty and despair while he bravely carried on. He was proud of himself. Yes, he’d had to make sacrifices, but no one could say that Andrew Coleman wasn’t a man of the times. As the world changed, so did he.

That was essentially the message his boss voiced to him one day after a factory recall dropped the company stock price by almost fifty cents. The times were changing. Andrew hadn’t had anything to do with the software defect that had caused the recall, but the company brass was dead set on avoiding any future mistakes. A new wave of self-diagnostics and system integration was on its way and anything that couldn’t be converted would have to be eliminated. That included Andrew and his non-holistic, biological brain. His boss explained that Andrew had a choice to make. He could either sign a five-year contract and be part of the company’s new neural synthesis project or he could take a three-month severance package. Andrew signed the contract the very next day.

When he first awoke after the surgery, he was disoriented.  Doctors told him that his motor skills were perfect and details such as his work assignment and the company directives were immediately retrievable, but he couldn’t remember simple things such as his name or how long he’d been in the hospital. Numbers and formulae flowed through his consciousness with ease, but any effort at creative thought or emotional connection resulted in an unpleasant buzzing sensation that started in the back of his head and throbbed until he stopped. The doctors assured him all was well. These were only temporary side effects and he’d be back on the factory floor in no time. His name was Android and he was a very important cog in the machine.

Android smiled at that and closed his eyes to rest. Nothing to worry about at all.

Matt Handle writes stories about imaginary characters because it’s more socially acceptable than talking to those characters out loud. You can find other examples of his patented weirdness in the online zine, Blank Fiction, and in his debut zombie apocalypse novel, Storm Orphans, available on Amazon.