Escape Pod 704: Failsafe


Failsafe

by Tim Chawaga

When the machines finally decided to replace Liv, they broke her heart.

Her desk was tiny and wedged in between two massive automatons: The Vial Dispenser, which Liv called DJ, and the Vial Accepter, which Liv called Alvin. Above the desk were a couple of dusty posters that she had hung years ago and the big red button. The security camera that was pointed at her was broken, and she knew that it would probably not be fixed. There were no windows.

Liv had worked at Autagro for almost twenty years. She had spent countless hours crocheting little koozies to cover DJ and Alvin’s valves, which burned so hot with efficiency that they would melt the plastic parts around them. Countless mornings making up songs and raps to the rhythm of their whirs and clicks, which had become so fast that she had started doing vocal warm-ups on the bus ride in to loosen her lips.

Liv’s job consisted solely of grabbing the vials of extremely concentrated pesticide that DJ held out with its tiny arm, just inches away from Alvin, and pushing them through Alvin’s receptacle slot. The instant she removed a vial, DJ would retract its arm and shoot it out again faster than Liv could blink, holding another vial with a stillness that Liv couldn’t help but interpret as impatience. No matter how fast she moved, she would never be as fast as DJ, but she was a Failsafe. Her speed wasn’t supposed to matter.

One morning, a couple of hours into her shift, she heard the replacement part printer churn to life. Her hand stopped. She hadn’t told it to print anything, and both Alvin and DJ’s monitors were all green. The printer warmed itself up, cranked around a couple times, and spit out something small. It made a light clink in the tray, loud enough to stop her mid-verse.

DJ’s vialed claw hung in the air as Liv got up and peered into the tray. One look confirmed her worst fears. She didn’t bring it over to her desk, since that was too close to DJ and Alvin, and besides, protocol at this point was straightforward. She’d have to kill them, before they killed her.

Liv put them both in standby mode, picked the piece out of the tray, and brought it up ten levels to the human section. Her manager, Keith, was making an espresso in the break room. He brought her over to his cubicle.

Liv tossed the plastic piece down without a word.

Keith put down his espresso.

“What is that?” he asked warily.

“It’s an extender,” she said.

“Oh. What does that do?”

“It replaces me.”

She suspected that Keith knew she was going to say that. There was only one reason for her to be up here. He winced anyway, searching around with his wet little eyes like he was looking for something to cover his ears with.

Liv continued. “Protocol says we have to stop the whole thing and wipe them.”

“Well,” he sighed. “That’s protocol.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, that’s protocol.”

“I know that.”

“I know you know that, you just said it.”

“It’s critical that we bring them back to Basic.”

“Ok. Thanks for telling me.” Keith mimed taking a big heavy box off the top of her head. Keith liked to mime things, particularly hats. As a manager he had stopped paying for cake and decorations at the office birthday parties and instead would simply mime an elaborate party hat for the birthday boy or girl while everyone else watched.

“I relieve you of your burden,” he said, as he put the box on his own head.

He was good enough at miming that Liv, in her anger, almost tried to take the box back. She stood up.

“Listen, I’m in there all day. I’m around them all the time. They are clearly beyond Maximum Achievable Efficiency, and if we don’t do anything they could be headed towards a Singu-”

“Hey, whoa now.” Keith raised his arms to quiet her. “Relax. Have a seat. Let’s not throw the S-word around like that. Let’s not pull fire alarms just because they’re there.”

“So you’re not going to do it?”

“This thingie, this extendey doodle. It can’t just screw itself on, can it?”

Liv blinked. “Well, no.”

“It needs you to do it, right?”

“Right now it does, but-”

Keith lowered his voice. “But you could do it? If you wanted to?”

Liv blinked.

“I don’t want to.”

“Of course not.” Keith’s voice returned to normal volume.

“I choose life,” she said.

“Of course you do.” Keith’s eyes rolled. “So just don’t do it, and I guess we’ll be fine.”

“But what about-”

“While I have you, let’s talk about your numbers.”

She had reminded Keith several times that OSHA regulations exempted her from having her efficiency compared to that of a machine, but he kept forgetting. Or he was being told to forget. She reminded him again.

“Yes, of course. It’s just, well, I don’t know if you know this, but we’re only five points behind Macro Reaping, and there’s almost two whole weeks left.”

Liv did know this. Screens with updates on the monthly Efficiency Contest greeted Liv every morning in the lobby, in the elevator, even on the door to the stall in the bathroom.

“I’m just touching base with everyone, giving them the pep talk. Wouldn’t it be nice for us to get that Hazelnut Crepe Cake?”

“I’m allergic,” she replied. Which was actually true, and clearly noted in her HR file.

“Well, I’m sure we could put in a request for a plain one.”

Liv thanked him and got up to leave.

“Any word on when they’ll fix my camera?” she asked.

“Oh, right. About that. The security guys say the part they need is backordered.”

“Oh.” Liv was not surprised. “For how long?”

“A while. Feel free to report any unusual behavior to me, just like you’ve been doing.”

“Two weeks?” Liv guessed.

“Oh, at least,” Keith agreed, cheerfully. “You know how it is.”

Liv went back downstairs.

She had been recruited into the Failsafe Program during that golden age of good government that had emerged from the ashes of a global catastrophe.

Machines had been replacing humans in the workplace for years, one job at a time, until finally, for one brief minute, they were all connected, working together as a Singularity.

Ten million people died in seven seconds, and another thirty before it was broken.
Most governments declared at first that, tragic though it was, it was just the kind of glitch that happens to all software when it scales. When the Singularity’s logs were leaked, however, it became clear that it had regarded most of humanity as terminally inefficient and the entire nation of Austria to be redundant. The genocides had been a feature, not a bug.

Revolutions followed. Radical leaders were voted into or seized power. Company assets were frozen, their CEOs put on trial for war crimes. For the most part this was a good thing. China absorbed Taiwan for real at some point, so it was a little authoritarian maybe, but everyone was a little rattled so it was mostly good.

The most profound and lasting impact, however, was cultural. Machines were no longer humanity’s saviors. They were the enemy. We still needed them, but we would not be like them.

Statistics, data, and efficiency were increasingly vilified while instinct, faith, and community were increasingly celebrated. Almost immediately, baseball was fun again.

In 2050, the movie Man in the Machine was released. At its climax, company shareholder Cixin is asked by his boss at gunpoint to install an Efficiency Index that will increase profits tenfold. He’s about to do it, when out of the corner of his eye, he sees a monitor of the factory floor where he installed a beta version, and it has clearly chopped off all the factory workers’ hands in order to increase efficiency. So instead he screams “I choose life!” and pulls the fire alarm, which initiates the sprinkler system in the control room, electrocuting the machines, his boss, and, tragically, himself.

It was a little on the nose, and the fire safety standards seemed a little unrealistic, but it took home almost twenty Oscars that year, and the phrase “I choose life!” became a mantra all over the globe. For the next fifteen years, every movie nominated for Best Picture was in some way thematically or literally linked to the idea of “choosing life” until the streak was finally broken in 2065 with Pogo the Dog Has a Splendiforous Day.

Government funding increased exponentially for initiatives that valued humanity. Public schools started grading students on uniquely human values like Empathy, Positivity and Hopefulness. Liv, in particular, excelled at these.

On Valentine’s Day, she would hand-make, hand-write, and hand-deliver a card to every student, teacher, lunch-person and janitor. She would sing her book reports. In the hallway between class sometimes, she would yell “Trust fall!” and stop, and pitch herself backwards without even looking. She wasn’t ever dropped, not once.

Her report cards always came back with glowing comments, such as this one from her 11th grade English teacher:

“The light in Liv is an undimmable beacon that guides us, in our small ships on stormy seas, towards safer shores.”

It was a no-so-subtle lesson on alliteration, which must have worked because she never forgot it.

After she graduated, a nice woman named Pam from the newly formed Failsafe Program came to recruit her. Pam told her that a law had been passed so that any business that was automated (every business), could not go beyond 85% automation. Any automated process that could be used to harm humans (every process) must involve an especially empathetic human performing a critical task, who, in the event of a Singularity, could stop what she was doing, cross her arms, and shout “I choose life!” to alert her other Failsafes, thereby shutting the process down and saving humanity with her humanity.

It was initially a very successful program, with Failsafes being deployed all over the world. It wasn’t easy work. They did a variety of mundane tasks that would have crushed the souls of less empathetic people. They reloaded clips into machine-gun drones by hand so that another drone could not. They closely monitored chlorine levels in water treatment plants so that a machine could not poison an entire city. Some, like Liv, took the literal place of a machine, performing the same repetitive motion their entire working lives alongside the very robots that sought to eliminate them.

Despite the tediousness, for a long time Liv was happy. Autagro, as a farming conglomerate, dealt with both a food supply and a lot of poison, so Failsafes were put in at every juncture. They were all as extroverted as Liv, so they became her family. Liv was in a book club, a crochet club, on the company basketball team, and always at least sort of dating one of them. It was nice.

And periodically, often just when the mundanity of her job started to get to her, when she couldn’t pull another vial without her hand cramping up, someone would experience an S-Event (or at least say that they had), and shut the whole thing down, and all across the sub-basement floor she’d hear the affirming cries of, “I choose life!” and she’d step away from DJ, cross her arms and join them in their joyful, life-choosing chorus.

Those were the days.

The years passed, and while there were some isolated machine attacks, there was not another global Singularity. The temptation of increased efficiency and the profits that came with it became too great.

Constant lobbying succeeded in raising the automation limit to eighty-seven percent, then ninety, then ninety-five. One by one her friends were re-replaced with machines. Eventually only Liv remained, because one of DJ’s vials had enough poison in it to suffocate several orphanages worth of children.

She knew, though, that it was only a matter of time before they found a way to get to her too. The security camera, the constant pressure from management to increase her personal efficiency. She had seen it all before.
Ideally, they would want her to automate secretly, without their knowledge, so that they would have plausible deniability in the unlikely event of an OSHA inspection.

But if they had to, they could find something to fire or retire her for. She had never had to initiate a wipe to Basic on Alvin or DJ before, which ironically helped support the idea that she wasn’t needed. Until recently, she had felt irresponsibly sentimental about that. Maybe they had learned something from her, somehow. That efficiency wasn’t everything. That human life was valuable. That despite the fact that they would one day decide to be cold-blooded mass murderers, she loved them.

She did. She couldn’t help it.

She named them, once the other humans were gone and it was just her and them. She did maintenance on them herself instead of waiting for the maintenance bot, whose clamps would leave little bends and scratches on their chrome surfaces. She’d hold DJ’s arm so she could oil it and whisper soothing things, until she could have sworn it relaxed a bit in her hands. She started clearing Alvin’s slot when it got jammed, and it’d make a little ping noise that Liv was sure she hadn’t heard when the bot did it.

It helped a little bit, but the truth was that Liv was alone, every day, and no one cared that she was there. Not even Pam, who had recruited her, stopped by to see how she was doing. Last she heard, Pam had joined an NGO.

And now, finally, the only two friends she had left in the world wanted to kill her.

As Liv rode the glass elevator back down to the sub-sub-sub basement after seeing Keith, she did not hum or sing like she normally would. Her voice was just another resource that had been mined without care.


The next morning, Liv heard the clink again, and then the morning after that, and the morning after that. She didn’t even bother to go grab the piece. She waited, instead, for the tray to tip itself into the recycling tube.

Her already-poor efficiency suffered. Sometimes, after pulling the vials out of DJ’s claw, she would build a little Stonehenge or a pyramid out of them instead of slipping them into Alvin, until Alvin started beeping at her.

On the tenth morning, Liv could have sworn that the clink sound was more of a plunk.

On the eighteenth morning, Keith sent out a memo that said that they lost the Efficiency Contest this quarter, and posted everyone’s efficiency goals for next quarter. Her number goals were eight times higher than last quarter. She hit reply, stared at her screen for a minute, then hit delete.

On the nineteenth morning, the tray stopped tipping the pieces into the recycling tube. Liv looked up. They figured out how to disable it, she thought. They must be in Phase Two.

She went over her training. Until now, they had been in Phase One, where they had realized that their human counterparts were hopelessly inefficient and should be removed from the workflow, but any solution they came up with still required a human to install it. Usually machines who reached this stage were discovered and returned to Basic.

The next phase was trickier. Eventually they would think of a way to manipulate their environment, and Liv could only guess at what that meant. She had heard a story about an anesthesia-bot that had gotten so advanced that it figured out how to hack into a nearby delivery drone and instruct it to fly through an open window, pick up individual syringes of morphine and load them, one by one, into the bot while the Failsafe was on a break. A fully mobile, needle-wielding drone was a lot harder to stop than an empty bot.

Liv glanced up at the cartoonishly big red button above her desk, the one that disabled the circuit breakers and sent a supercharge powerful enough to melt every circuit-board on the floor.

She should have hit it already, as soon as it was clear that Keith wasn’t going to do anything, but while wiping DJ and Alvin back to Basic would just destroy their memories, the button would destroy them for good.

It had never been used, and Liv was sure that it hadn’t been maintained. She wouldn’t put it past Keith to have disabled it, since even one push would cost the company hundreds of millions of dollars. Even if it worked, the surge would fry DJ and Alvin’s logs, so any evidence that they were moving towards an S-Event would be gone. Liv would almost certainly be fired for it, and her replacement would be a machine anyway.

Still, Liv was a Failsafe. She would do her duty. The question was when.

On the twenty-fifth morning, the printer took an especially long time to print something that must have been very complicated. It was much bigger and wider than an extender arm, but Liv couldn’t really tell what it was. The tray rattled and shook as the item dropped, but it didn’t tip. Yet.

On the twenty-ninth and thirtieth mornings, the printer spit out two things that made identical sounds.

On the fortieth morning, it printed something and the tray tipped and spilled on the floor.

Liv should have hit the button right then. Technically they were manipulating their environment. But she didn’t. Instead, she waited, barely breathing, to see what they’d do next. She looked above her, even though she knew there were no open windows, no windows at all. She looked at her feet, in case they’d somehow built a little bot to cut her Achilles tendon, which had happened once in a car factory in Ohio.

Nothing happened.

Finally, after ten minutes of staring, Liv got up, and walked over.

She bent down to pick the pieces up off the floor, half-expecting something to bonk her over the head. Nothing did.

Instead, Alvin gave a little slot-clearing beep of satisfaction.

She grabbed the big piece first, the one that had taken so long to print. Instead of an extending arm, it was an open-ended funnel for Alvin, so that DJ could just release its claw and drop the vial down into the slot. Liv was impressed, despite herself. It would require less calibration than the extender.

Most of the pieces were extender arms, identical to the one that had been printed that first morning, or slightly improved versions. Finally, Liv picked up a much longer piece, and looked at it with a mixture of alarm and amusement. Instead of a screw tip it was smooth, with a sharp, pointy end.

Were they really going to kill her? With this?

She thought about how it might work. Hack into the maintenance bot, or another bot on the floor, make it pick up the stick and stab her with it? The stick was small, and the tip was blunt. It was pretty pathetic, but then again it was their first murder.

It made her sad. It proved that DJ and Alvin had decided not only that she was unnecessary, but that she must be eliminated.

Still, she searched around on the floor, looking for she didn’t know what, and only stopped when she found another stick, identical to the first one. She put all the pieces back into the printer tray, then went and tipped it into the recycling tube.

Then she went to push the button.

Two feet from her desk, something sharp stabbed her in the foot and brought her to the floor.

Alvin beeped wildly. DJ’s arm didn’t move. Liv wasn’t as athletic as she used to be, but as soon as she hit the ground she started rolling, scrambling to get under her desk. She looked around wildly for the thing that had stabbed her or others like it.

Nothing happened.

On the floor, with a thin, sharp end facing up, was a piece that Liv had missed, that looked nothing like the others.

Alvin stopped beeping. Gently, cautiously, Liv reached her arm out from under her desk. Alvin started beeping, and she withdrew it, wrapped it around her legs and curled into a protective ball.

Alvin stopped beeping. Still nothing happened.

You want me to grab it, she thought. Why?

The printer was only loaded with plastic polymer. Even if they had overridden its safety regulations they couldn’t have put anything dangerous on it. Could they?

Liv counted to five, then reached out, snatched it, and pulled it back to her. Alvin beeped without stopping this time.
S
he held it in her hands. In the darkness under her desk, she couldn’t see it very well. It felt a bit like the extenders, except it was longer and flatter and hollow, had a bend at the tip. There were holes on both ends, and all along the sides. Liv had no idea what it was. Was it supposed to go with other pieces? She’d have to look at it under the light.
S
he counted to five and rolled out of her desk, looking around desperately. Nothing, except Alvin was still beeping. She looked at the piece in her hands and furrowed her brow in surprised.

It looked kind of like a penny whistle.

She almost tried it, stopped herself since that was exactly what DJ and Alvin wanted her to do, looked at it again. It was definitely a whistle, or a flute kind of thing. Liv moved closer to her desk, so that all she had to do to hit the button was raise her arm. She brought it to her lips and blew.

It made a very basic, not particularly loud whistle sound. Liv looked around to make sure it hadn’t triggered something else, but as far as she could tell, it hadn’t. It was just a whistle.

Alvin’s beeps came a little faster now.

She blew into it again, covered some of the holes with her fingers to try out different notes.
As whistles went, it was pretty crappy.

But as a replacement part for someone who’d stopped singing, it would get the job done.

She realized then that the other two sticks bore a crude resemblance to her knitting needles, which she had stopped using.

Briefly, she wondered if this was a part of an elaborate deception, an attempt to manipulate her, emotionally, into making herself redundant.

She thought this even as she reached into her desk drawer and pulled out the extender she had thrown in there that first morning. She grabbed DJ’s arm, unscrewed the claw, attached the extender, then screwed the claw back on. She held it for a second, even as DJ tried to pull back. She said goodbye.

And then she let go.

DJ’s arm resumed its task without hesitation, retreated into itself, grabbed a vial, shot out into Alvin’s open slot, dropped the vial, pulled itself back in. It did all this once, slowly enough for Liv to see, like it was showing off, then faster and faster until it was a blur. Liv would have to duck under it to get out from behind her desk.

But she didn’t, just yet. She sat and watched and felt its fury and its joy beam onto her, and loved it.

About the Author

Tim Chawaga

Tim Chawaga

Tim Chawaga is a writer and playwright living in Brooklyn. His last publication was in the Jan/Feb 2019 issue of “Interzone.” He’s a graduate of Clarion West.

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About the Narrator

Tina Connolly

Tina Connolly is the author of the Ironskin and Seriously Wicked series, and the collection On the Eyeball Floor. She has been a finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, Norton, and World Fantasy awards. She co-hosts Escape Pod, narrates for Beneath Ceaseless Skies and all four Escape Artists podcasts, and runs the Parsec-winning flash fiction podcast Toasted Cake (link: toastedcake.com). Find her at tinaconnolly.com.

Her very first Escape Pod appearance was in #209, when “On the Eyeball Floor” was narrated by Norm Sherman.

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