He’s the only Indispensable on staff at the high-rise’s coffee shop, and it’s easy to see why. It’s not just his looks; companies claim that outward appearances don’t factor into job permanence decisions, but have you ever seen an ugly Indispensable? Yeah. Me, either.
Personally, if I had to guess, I’d say it’s because of his smile. Not how it looks, but how it feels — the way it warms you up faster than a peppermint hot cocoa and wakes you up faster than a redeye. At least it’s always had that effect on me.
“What brings you in today, Joni?” The moment he sees me, he flashes that smile, which I know is just a programmed response of his Artificial Neural Network but still sets my stupid, illogical heart aflutter.
“I just need an afternoon pick-me-up.” I catch the double entendre too late and quickly slide my payment card across the polished counter. “Just a small black coffee, please.”
“We do deliver up to the fourth floor, you know.” Apparently teasing is programmed into his AI as well. My cheeks heat up like a tea kettle.
“I like to get out of the office on my lunch hour,” I say. “Get a bit of fresh air, some exercise. You know how that is.”
“I used to.” He laughs and holds out my drink. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Joni.”
Charlene’s waiting for me back upstairs on the fourth floor, holding a thick binder in her hand.
The others must’ve been waiting as well; they’re hovering around their cubicles like slow-moving sharks, eyes fixed on me as I approach my desk. I can tell from their whispers that this isn’t an ordinary performance review. It’s the big one. The one I’ve worked an entire decade for. The one that every full-time employee dreams of.
“BusinessCorp wants you to know,” Charlene says, “we’re proud of all your work. You have an impeccable track record and are a real team player.”
“Thank you?” I say, my gaze still fixed on the binder.
“We want to make you an Indispensable,” she says. “You have two weeks to look over the paperwork and make your final decision.”
The first hundred-sixty-two pages describe the procedure in precise and clinical terms. Through a series of MRIs, cutting-edge brain-mapping, and DNA analysis, they’ll use my mind and body as a template to create a robotic AI — an Indispensable — that will not only look and sound exactly like me but will be programmed with my current knowledge, memories, and attitudes. It can learn. It can adapt. It can continue building the relationships with clients and coworkers that I’ve worked so hard to develop all these years. But unlike me, it will never age, never take sick days or maternity leave, requires no salary, vacation days or pension, and cannot be lured away by a better offer.
The last ten pages of the binder outline the compensation package: in exchange for selling BusinessCorp the rights to duplicate me, I receive a lump sum, which — if properly managed — is enough to retire on at my ripe old age of thirty-three.
My “pros” list fills the page. On the “cons” side, there’s only one: him.
I cross it out, embarrassed, and slam the binder shut. It’s stupid. He’s not even real. The office is empty, closing time long past, and as I grab my coat and head for the elevator, I search the pockets for enough change for coffee.
Indispensables only require one fifteen-minute break in each twenty-four-hour period for recharging, so the coffee shop stays open all night.
“Back again?” He chuckles when he sees me.
“I need an espresso, please.” When he raises his eyebrows, I add, “I don’t expect to get much sleep tonight anyway.”
The coffee grinder whirs, and he studies me over the top of the bar as he tamps the grounds. “Work issues or personal issues? You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to.”
“Both,” I admit, and why not? He always seems to see right through me anyway. “Do you mind if I ask… That is, I was just wondering…”
His fingertips brush mine as he hands me my mug, and suddenly, I forget what I was saying.
“You’re wondering about being an Indispensable?” He nods to the binder. “It’s a great gig. What’s holding you back? Do you have concerns about the procedure?”
“No. It’s not that.”
“Worried you’d get bored?”
“Not exactly; I have quite the to-read list.”
“Don’t we all?” He laughs. “Then what’s the hesitation?”
I swallow my pride and meet his eyes. “I think there’d be people I’d miss.”
“Loneliness, huh? I remember worrying about that, too.” He nods slowly, and I think he understands what I’ve left unsaid, because he grabs a napkin, scribbles something on it, and hands it to me. “It can be a tough transition, leaving the working world, and goodness knows I’ll miss my favorite customer. But if it were me, I think I’d take a chance. Check out this place. Maybe bring a book. Got any Dumas on that to-read list?”
I keep the napkin in my pocket through the procedure, and when BusinessCorp has extracted all the information they need to make an Indispensable version of me, Charlene shakes my hand, hands me a check, and wishes me luck.
With The Three Musketeers tucked beneath my arm, I take a bus to the address and find there a seaside coffee shop shaded by white umbrellas.
I don’t know exactly what I’m looking for until I see it. Until I see him.
He’s older and grayer, but he’s reading Twenty Years After with a frothy cappuccino in one hand. Panicked, I almost turn around and leave. After all, to him, I’m a complete stranger.
But something on the page makes the stranger smile, and the expression’s so familiar — so real — it sets my heart aflutter.
I take a deep breath and remember his words: Take a chance.
“Mind if I sit here?”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Wendy Nikel is a speculative fiction author with a degree in elementary education, a fondness for road trips, and a terrible habit of forgetting where she’s left her cup of tea. Her short fiction has been published by Analog, Nature: Futures, Podcastle, and elsewhere. Her time travel novella series, beginning with The Continuum, is available from World Weaver Press. For more info, visit wendynikel.com