Escape Pod 890: The Mechanical Turk Has a Panic Attack
The Mechanical Turk Has a Panic Attack
by Francis Bass
Gab gripped her right wrist with her left hand at the small of her back. “Are we ready to order?” she asked.
The couple set their menus down on the brushed steel tabletop. It wobbled slightly. The man asked, “What’s on the cheese board?”
“The SEASONAL CHEESEBOARD is a selection of the best the Delaware Valley has to offer in Vegan cheeses. This month it contains a fermented cashew mozzarella, Real Lacto pepperjack from Pennlab, and a soft Pennsylvania Dutch Limburger made from coconut cream. The board also comes with stone seed crackers, torn sourdough, and raw treebark.”
“Oh treebark,” the woman said, “we had that at George’s retirement, remember?”
“Let’s get one of those,” the man said.
“What type is it?” The woman asked. “The bark.”
“We source our treebark from Adlaw Forests,” Gab said. “It comes from Adlaw pine, a geneered variant of Virginia pine. We use it raw on our SEASONAL CHEESEBOARD and SALAD 1, and pulverized in our PINE BREAD.”
A long silence. The woman squinted at her menu. Gab gripped her wrist tighter. She couldn’t leave, they had to dismiss her.
“That’s all,” the man said.
“No, no—the salad, too,” the woman said. “Salad 3.”
“Those will be out in ten minutes or less.” Gab turned and walked toward the back of the restaurant. Cheeseboard, Salad 3, table 6, bring a furniture wedge too to stop that table rocking. Real high-class, none of the tables can stand on this busted floor, nails sticking out all over.
“Can these be taken?” Gab stopped before table 9, the corner booth. Hand extended at forty-five degrees, gesturing at a pair of mostly empty plates at seats 1 and 3, her fingertips a foot or more away from any of the diners.
“Oh, yes,” the cute guy in seat 1 said.
Gab lifted both plates from the table, stacked right over left.
“Oh, waiter—uh, Gab,” the guy said, reading the tag on her breast pocket.
“What’s on the cheeseboard?”
Even more than usual, Gab wished she could break script now to flirt with this person. “The SEASONAL CHEESEBOARD is a selection of the best the Delaware Valley has to offer in Vegan cheeses. This month …” She hated the script. Not because it was hard, no, she was good at memorization. And not because the customers were a little ruder, thinking they were talking to an android. “… and raw treebark.”
“Ooooh, that sounds good,” the guy said. “What do you all think?”
“Repeat it again,” the old man in seat 4 said. “Didn’t catch that.”
“The SEASONAL CHEESEBOARD …” She hated how claustrophobic it was, she hated never joking with customers or chatting with the other servers, she hated being in permanent show mode. Being unable to abridge things when she was short on time, which she was now, was also a pain. “… and raw treebark.”
The table agreed to get the cheeseboard, and thanked her. Her eyes caught on table 2, on the other side of the dining floor, her side. She’d taken their order fifteen minutes ago, but still the table was bare metal, only napkins and glasses between the two diners—
“Water,” a man stuck his arm out in front of Gab and she almost crashed into it. He held an empty glass jug, which she took from him. She searched for the right phrase for a moment, then recited, “We’ll refill that right now.”
Cheeseboard and Salad 3 at table 6, tell Dave they’ve got a Cheeseboard at corner booth, water for table 11, yell at Dewi about table 2’s food—
Finally she made it back to the server station, an area in the back by the bathrooms, separated from the rest of the restaurant by a chest-high wall. It used to be fully cut off from the restaurant, so the servers could drop the android act, talk to one another while they polished glasses and punched orders into their tablets. But since Fadma, the manager/owner, had initiated her latest spree of renovations, the area was now visible and audible to any patrons that cared to look this way. “To show that we have nothing to hide,” Fadma had said. “Eventually we’ll get glass floors to look down into the kitchen, too!”
Even though they did have something to hide—they were not, in fact, a high-scale Avant Garde restaurant with a full complement of expensive android servers. Their food was sourced as cheap as they could get it, and most of their dish ideas were stolen from real Avant Garde restaurants in Manhattan.
Gab opened the fridge to grab a jug of water only to find there were none—just a few green pitchers of calcium water, she’d have to refill this empty jug downstairs, and where was Dave? Gab scanned the row of perfectly postured servers at the station and didn’t see them. Down in the kitchen then, she had to get down there to ask Dewi about table 2 anyway, so she lifted her tablet from where it was hidden in a shelf behind the wall—“nothing to hide!”—except the fact they were not androids that could wirelessly beam their orders to the kitchen, they still had to use tablets, and sometimes badger the chef about late orders, which Gab headed down to do now, down a set of steep stairs into the basement, empty jug in one hand and tablet in the other, her thumb working to input Cheeseboard and Salad 3—no, go back, not Salad 2, Salad 3—into the tablet, she reached the bottom of the stairs and stepped into kitchen, scanned for Dave, nowhere—
“Gab! It’s ready! Take it!” Dewi, the short, bald chef gestured at several plates of food haphazardly placed on the edge of the clean dishes shelf. Dewi turned her back on Gab, stirring an enormous pot of pumpkin bisque.
“Wait!” Gab said, setting the empty jug and the tablet down atop a drum of almond butter. “Who’s all this for?”
“You!” Dewi shouted, not looking up from the soup. “Table 2!”
Gab looked at the plates—two salads, a tomato pie, fried greens with acorn meatballs—“Dewi, this is—I just need the salads, I didn’t fire their mains yet!”
“Take it, take it,” Dewi said, ladling some of the bisque into a bowl, “there’s no space get it out of here!”
“You’re killing me!” Gab said.
“I love you Gabriela,” Dewi turned to her now, bowl of bisque in hand. “Now move, take them, and tell Dave table 7 is ready.”
“Where are they?”
“Staff meal better be killer,” Gab said, picking up the two salads. She should carry them in two trips, but there wasn’t time for that, so she extended her right arm and said, “Put them on.” Dewi set down the soup and balanced the greens and the tomato pie on Gab’s forearm.
Gab walked up the stairs, right arm as level as possible, Still need that water, the furniture wedge, Dave wherever the hell they are, still need to put in table 6’s order, unless I did already, not sure, she reached the top of the stairs, walked past the other servers, right arm steady, looked to table 6, and the bottom of her toe bumped the protruding edge of a floorboard.
Her foot stuttered, and the plate of tomato pie, and the plate of greens with meatballs, slid and fell from her arm. One plate cracked. The other thumped and rolled. Cooked spinach and kale spattered the floor, mixed with ceramic shards. Tomato sauce covered Gab’s shoe.
She stood still in the mess.
What does an android do now? Clean? But she had these plates—the salads that hadn’t fallen—still clutched in her hands, where could she put them? Can’t put them on the dirty floor. No clear tables—as a human she would’ve asked, “Can I put this here? Do you mind?”, place them on some diner’s table—but that wasn’t in the script, this wasn’t in the script, or she’d forgotten, she’d forgotten her lines here.
Her muscles cramped. The salad plate in her right hand quivered. Wet sauce soaked into her socks. Diners turned to stare. The cute guy at the booth stared.
Do something! Do something! Be an android! But the plates, the stupid plates in her hands, getting heavy now, where could she put them? Her heart rattled fast. She was running out of air. Don’t breathe hard, you’re an android. She slowed it, sipped small breaths through her nose, instantly her chest clamped hard, her lungs burned, trapped, she was trapped by these two plates—
They would know, they would see, she was no android, and Fadma would fire her—the only job she could hold, the only one she was qualified for, more diners looking at her, some of them probably recording this, stock still server having a panic attack and standing in a puddle of spinach and tomato sauce, she had to do something—
Scream. Throw down the salads down. Shout that it’s a scam, that we’re all fake androids. Let out the rage you bite down out, the rage you hide from the customers, from Fadma. Scream—
Fired, no job, no way to get a reference, unless she lied, lied more, stay on script in job interviews, stay on script at internships, stay on script for the rest of her life—
Drop the salad. Ruin their dinner. Let them hear a human scream—
Ella appeared before her. The hostess. The only staff member allowed to act her human self. She took the two plates of salad Gab still held, apologized to the corner booth, and temporarily set the plates on their table. Then she took both of Gab’s hands, and guided them down to the floor. Gab knelt and picked up the largest ceramic shards while Ella took away what was left of the tomato pie and its plate. Ella returned with a broom and some sani rags, and Gab, in stiff movements, the proper android, helped her clean.
Gab walked to the server station, then down to the basement, away from the kitchen and into the storage area. She opened the walk-in freezer and stepped inside and started crying. And there was Dave, in the freezer, sitting on a footstool with their head between their legs. She kept crying, staring at quart containers of oat milk. Breathing deep now, she sobbed. Hot wet tears and cold filling her body, cold tomato sauce in her right shoe.
The door opened, Ella was standing there. How long had Gab been in here sobbing? The water, Dave’s table, and kitchen needs to remake those meals—
If she even had a job still.
Was she fired?
Was she done with this place?
“Hey,” Ella said, “Fadma wants to talk to all the servers for a uh, ‘quick huddle.’”
“Okay,” Gab said. She wiped tears from her face, sniffed, breathed deep. Put on her best server face, hated how quickly she could do that. Dave followed out behind her, and they went to the far end of the storage room, into Fadma’s cramped basement office. An array of monitors displayed overhead cam footage of the dining area, with a few screens showing the kitchen and storage space. Fadma stood in front of the monitors, saying hi as the servers squeezed in. Gab, at the head of the line, managed to claim a spot in the corner farthest from Fadma and those monitors. She could see, on the middle screen, instead of a live feed it was a recording, paused. There Gab was, plates loaded on her arm, moments before falling.
“Okay everyone, quick huddle,” Fadma said.
Fire me. Fire me. She’d be screwed. She’d be herself at least.
“So, I wanted to use this as a teachable moment, this is Gab—where’s Gab—Hi!—so here’s Gab, and watch what happens here.” Fadma pressed play on the screen, and there Gab stumbled, then stopped and let the plates fall. And stayed frozen for a while. Then Ella showed up, took her plates, and they started cleaning.
Had it really happened that fast?
“So, Ella, great job, and Gab, amazing,” Fadma beamed. “This really sells the effect of an Avant restaurant, and elevates the dining experience. Not the tripping, ha ha, but freezing in place like that—when I went to THE DENTIST to do their tasting menu, the android at another table spilled a glass of water at one point, and froze just like that. If Gab had started panicking, or apologizing to everyone, it would’ve ruined the whole Avant Garde theme that we’re going for. Instead, she met our customers’ expectations, and confirmed for them the, the kind of experience that they come here for. Alright, I know you’ve all got lots of tables, so I’ll let you get back to it! Thanks for being my teachable example, Gab, ha ha!”
Gab’s legs shook as she walked out of the room. She told Dave about the corner booth’s order. She told Dewi to fire table 2’s mains again, finished putting in table 6’s order, and finally filled the jug of water for she didn’t remember who, only to see that someone else had already gotten them a new jug.
When Dave’s cheeseboard came up, Gab asked to take it to the table instead. Dave obliged, they were hardly keeping it together anyway.
In the doorway to the basement, just out of sight of the diners, Gab took a paper napkin and a ballpoint pen. She pressed the napkin to the doorjamb and scrawled her cell number on it. She folded it over itself several times, then took the cheeseboard from Dave.
She walked out to the corner booth, pointed out the Limburger, the pepperjack, the mozzarella; the crackers, the sourdough, the treebark. She set the thick wood slab down on the table, and left the napkin tucked under one corner, the corner closest to the cute guy at seat 1.
Maybe he wouldn’t notice it. Maybe he’d think it was from the kitchen. Maybe he would get Gab fired.
Maybe he’d call, and maybe a human would pick up.
Again, that was The Mechanical Turk Has a Panic Attack, by Francis Bass, narrated by Valerie Valdes.
About this story, Bass says:
It is never as simple as robots taking workers’ jobs. More often, the threat of machines or AI is leveraged against workers to make their jobs more precarious, and the workers more easily exploited. Or the machines are implemented but they are mechanical turks, while obscured humans continue to do most of the real work.
And about this story, I say:
I really liked the empathetic way this near-future science fiction story looked at some of the potential fallouts of changes in society. Escape Pod recently ran another story, “Hey, George”, by Elizabeth Guilt, that also looked at this particular intersection of the people who wait on us and the technology used to ensure that that help stays as invisible as possible.
I really liked here the way Bass showed Gab trying to be the best machine she could be–even though she could be a better server if she were allowed to be a human. It clearly showed both the challenges of working in food service in general — the constant lists in her head about what table needs what and when–but now also having to layer this extra role on top of it.
As Bass’s story points out, there continue to be jobs that require a human to do it, but, yanno, for various reasons, the person paying would prefer not to have to think of said human as a person. They would like the transaction to be seamless and machine-like…even if we still need a person behind the scenes, carrying out that illusion for the comfort of everyone else. Or, as Bass states, it’s never as simple as robots taking workers’ jobs.
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Our opening and closing music is by daikaiju at daikaiju.org.
And our closing quotation this week is from Douglas Adams in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, who said:
“This planet has – or rather had – a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movement of small green pieces of paper, which was odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.”
Thanks for listening! And have fun.
About the Author
Francis Bass is a writer living in Philadelphia. His writing has appeared in Reckoning, Electric Literature, and others, and he has self-published many other works. You can find him online at francisbass.com.
About the Narrator
Valerie Valdes is the co-editor and occasional host of Escape Pod.
Valerie lives in an elaborate meme palace with her husband and kids, where she writes, edits and moonlights as a muse. She enjoys crafting bespoke artisanal curses, playing with swords, and admiring the outdoors from the safety of her living room. Her short fiction and poetry have been featured in Uncanny Magazine, Time Travel Short Stories and Nightmare Magazine. Her debut novel Chilling Effect was shortlisted for the 2021 Arthur C. Clarke Award, and was also named one of Library Journal’s best SF/fantasy novels of 2019. Join her in opining about books, video games and parenting on Twitter @valerievaldes or find out more at http://candleinsunshine.com/.