Author: Chris Hobson

George was the company’s fired man. Every chain had one, and George was Talljeef’s. It worked like this: a customer would grow irate about a mixup with their groceries, eyes even with their shoulders. Unappeased by the offer of store credit or vouchers, they’d demand satisfaction from a fired man.

Dialing up Central Stocking, Bloomfield or Nelscott would teleport the fired man in. “It’s unacceptable!” the manager would scream, spittle flying. “How in skies could you let this happen, George?”

Firing flesh-and-blood people meant severance payments and lawsuits — much better to axe an android. It was an irony lost on no one that fired men never lacked for work.

Programmed for humiliation, George awoke at the same time each day. One morning, his precog sensors soupy from sleep, he envisaged a heavyset man. One plump finger upraised, the human’s mouth hung wide open, giving vent to a scream. As George ran through diagnostics and washed his sprocket housings, he wondered longingly about the heavyset man.

This, thought the fired man, will be a good day.

Presently, “Store 459” blinked across his oculars. It was one of the newer stores he’d never visited before. With cheerful readiness, George headed for a bank of capsules, treads clanking against the metal floor. With a grunt, he hauled himself into a teleporter, punched in the coordinates for Talljeef’s Grocers 459, and listened for the jets to ignite.

On the way, George morphed into a balding septuagenarian with stooped shoulders. A rumpled sweater and slacks materialized. Arriving ten minutes later, he stepped out of the capsule with feet instead of treads. The stockroom of store 459 was dark and high-ceilinged, with rows of pallet shelves climbing to the rafters.

“There you are!” jolted a voice, high and strained.

George jerked around but found no one there. “Reporting for duty,” he said, snapping a salute to no one in particular. Anticipation made his neural network fire spikes of rapture; within moments, an inconsolable customer would be slinging insults at him!

Through an intercom, the voice rang, “Get to customer service on the double.”

George emerged into an expanse of tiles and freezers and glittering shelves. Every aisle seemed strangely empty. Had he misread the order, transported to the wrong store? As if in answer to his question, a man George had never seen before appeared. Wearing a black blazer, he was heavyset with tired, cerulean eyes. A mat of purple hair clung to his forehead.

George started. “Re…reporting for duty,” he repeated, not knowing what to think.

Alongside the human marched a pair of stockbots. They tossed handfuls of confetti into the air, each of their twelve metal feet marching in synchronicity.

“GRG-253,” bellowed the human. “In recognition of your many years of service, we wish to honor you with retirement. From this day forward,” he added, “you will be ensconced in beachfront accommodations.”

Into George’s hand, he plunked a certificate. Two photographers stepped forward, snapping photos of the fired man. Flashbulbs disoriented him.

Is this a joke? thought George, mortified. He was built for degradation, not…whatever this was. The premonition he’d had of the man screaming — what of that? Had he not been howling in anger? At that moment something inside George snapped. Sitting on the edge of a deli case, he looked skyward, gave a moan, and shut down forever.