Upgrade by Axel Schwarz

by


UpgradeCover

UPGRADE

Axel Schwarz

Just before sunrise was always Sam’s favorite part of the day. His place wasn’t much—two-floor walk up, peeling paint, a moody oven—but it did have a view. The bedroom wall was one large piece of curved glass, and as he lay in bed he looked out over the smooth slope of the station into the chalk dust and charcoal sea of space, waiting for the sun to peek out from behind Earth.

He had lived in the same apartment for so long he could tell the date just by the location of the stars. “November 1,” he said in a low voice. Without thinking he slid his hand toward his wife Rachel, stopping only when he remembered she wasn’t there. They used to talk about the stars, which ones would soon be disappearing from their mornings, which ones would be showing their faces in a few days.

His fingers traced the cold, empty divot on her side of the bed. He still couldn’t bring himself to sleep in the middle. Then he remembered the significance of today’s date, and felt a tear begin to well behind his eye. Sam coughed it away and shook his head. Before another one came he got out of bed. He could skip the sunrise today.

As usual he got ready in exactly ten minutes. Rachel used to chide him for being so proud of his consistency. It used to annoy him, but now he missed her scolding him as he checked the clock. In the kitchen, he searched for breakfast. He was never a cook, and since Rachel died every day seemed to be an epic struggle to find food. Sam decided—more like the empty fridge decided for him—to go to the Company cafeteria. The food was mediocre and he ate there more often than he’d like, but he didn’t want to eat alone today.

He walked down the two flights of stairs to the door leading out to the station’s hallway. Most of the apartments on the station had elevators, but he and Rachel chose one with stairs because it reminded them of pictures they had seen of ancient apartments on Earth, the ones saved from demolition now preserved in a handful of museums. Both of them liked old things, and Rachel’s hobby had been to fill their apartment with knickknacks from the past: chipped ceramic teacups, a frayed and faded woven rug, and for Sam a cracked baseball bat made of real wood. Their friends teased them about their funny tastes, but Sam knew they secretly enjoyed visiting Sam and Rachel’s apartment. It just felt different, more real somehow.

Going down the stairs made Sam’s knees ache and creak. When he reached the bottom he opened the door into the hallway. At this hour it was filled with an empty silence, not even an echo of footsteps from somewhere down the long corridor. As he walked, the walls beside him glowed with advertisements for the new B Android, following him like a lighted shadow. A disembodied female voice read the list of features scrolling down the wall. “New features…including…more facial muscles…for real emotion…and 10% more pores…so the skin looks even more human…” Sam shook his head and tried to ignore the ads.

As he approached the entrance to the Company cafeteria he thought again of Rachel. It was a day like this he had met her here in the cafeteria. He had showed up early, a brand new employee. She was alone at a table. Sam had felt shy, but gathered the courage to smile at her. Rachel was not shy. She invited him over, asking him questions about where he was from and what his new job was. It turned out they were both in the customer service department, so she gave him all sorts of advice about what to do, which people he should make friends with and which people he should avoid. By the time breakfast was over, the cafeteria was nearly full, Sam was in love, and the rest—as Rachel liked to say every time she told the story—was history.

Lost in the memory, Sam didn’t realize he was standing in front of the lone cafeteria worker serving that early. She was staring at him. “Sam? You okay?”

The question shook him back to the present. “Oh, yeah. Sorry, Carol.” Carol was ancient, her wrinkled skin draped loosely over her body, hairnet giving order to the last of her thinning strands of stark white hair. Sam was never quite able to figure her out. She spoke in a friendly tone, but it almost seemed forced, unnatural.

“Just some eggs and bacon, please. And a slice of French toast.”

“Sam?”

“Yeah?”

“I know. That’s what you always order.”

Sam smiled and shook his head. “Sorry, I guess I’m a little out of it today.”

“Oh yeah,” said Carol. “Upgrade Day.”

Sam scoffed as he grabbed his plate. “Upgrade Day…Upgrade Day…” he grumbled to himself. “Who cares about Upgrade Day?”

To his surprise, when he looked up at the endless rows of tables and chairs he saw his friend Harvey. Harvey had already spotted Sam, and was waving to him to come on over.

“Hey partner,” said Harvey. “Happy Upgrade Day!”

“Go to hell, Harvey.” Sam smiled.

“What, you’re not excited about the newest android?” A low laugh rumbled in Harvey’s prodigious belly. He had salt and pepper hair that was turning more salt every day, and had started to grow out a beard. Sam sometimes teased him to try out for the role of Santa Claus for the Company Christmas party.

Sam shook his head. “Meet the new droid, same as the old droid.”

“You mean you can’t tell the difference between the new A and the new B?”

“I can’t tell the difference between the T and the B,” said Sam. “Why do they need to make so many androids they have to go back to the beginning of the alphabet?

“Because they’ve got more pores, and more facial muscles.” Harvey was still laughing.

Sam waved his hand dismissively. “They already look like us, talk like us, how much more like us do you need them to be? It’s a little creepy, if you ask me.”

“Me too,” said Harvey. “Why do we need new ones when the old ones work perfectly fine?”

“Couldn’t agree with you more,” said Sam. Sam had liked Harvey since they first met, not long after Sam had met Rachel. Because Harvey worked in the maintenance department for the Company, his shift started earlier. He was usually in the cafeteria before the rush, when Sam liked to go.

“So, how are things?” asked Harvey. “You don’t look too happy.”

“Remember what happened exactly one year ago?” asked Sam.

“Oh, that’s right.” Harvey’s tone softened. “I’m sorry bud, I forgot.””As if I didn’t like Upgrade Day enough already,” said Sam.

“I don’t blame you,” said Harvey. There was an awkward silence, and Sam ate to occupy himself. “How are things at work?” asked Harvey. “That new kid Aaron still bugging you?”

Sam shrugged as he tore off a bite of bacon with his teeth. “Oh, he’s alright I guess. He stopped pestering me with all those questions, now that he’s got the hang of the job. It’s my boss that’s bothering me more now than anything.” Sam had never been a complainer, but he found himself doing it more and more since Rachel was gone. He made a silent promise to himself to change that.

“What’s going on with your boss?”

“He’s a new guy. Not much older than Aaron. Zach is his name. He keeps getting on me about being more efficient. ‘Increase your calls per hour, Sam. Don’t dawdle on the phone, Sam.’ It drives me nuts.”

“Dawdle?” asked Harvey. “That doesn’t sound like a kid to me.”

“I think he’s trying to use vocabulary he thinks an old man like me would use.”

Harvey laughed, and despite his best efforts not to, so did Sam.

“You’d think they’d value someone with my experience.”

“I know,” said Harvey.

“I help the Company by making connections with people.”

“I know,” said Harvey.

“It’s not about efficiency, it’s about building relationships with our customers.”

“I hear you,” said Harvey. “You sound like an old man.”

“I am an old man,” said Sam. He sighed. “Aw hell, Harvey. You think maybe it’s time for us to retire?”

“No way,” said Harvey. “I wouldn’t know what to do with myself if I didn’t work. And Harriet’s still working, so I’d just be at home getting into trouble.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, after I blew up the oven she doesn’t let me fix anything around the house anymore.”

Sam laughed. “That’s right. She didn’t talk to you for a week.”

“Ruined her mother’s china.”

“What I don’t know is, how come you can fix every machine in this whole station, but you can’t fix your own stove?”

Harvey stared at Sam in mock anger. “What I want to know is, how come you can’t increase your calls per hour?”

Sam shook his head. “You know they’re trying to get us to talk to two customers at once? They want us to use one ear to talk to one customer, and the other to talk to another one.”

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“Do they know you don’t have two mouths?”

“What’s that?” asked Sam. He stuck his finger in his ear and wiggled it around.

“Oh, come one. You still didn’t get your hearing checked out?”

“Nah,” said Sam. “It’s fine. It’s just my right ear, and it only goes out occasionally.”

“I’m telling you,” said Harvey. “That’s what doctors are for. Why don’t you go get it checked out? The Company’s doctors are just down the hall from you.”

“Don’t talk to me about doctors,” said Sam. His voice grew angry.

Harvey raised his hands. “Sorry, I know it’s a sensitive subject.”

“If Rachel hadn’t gone in for that checkup…”

“Sam,” Harvey’s tone had softened again. “I know you think they caused it. But they didn’t. I swear. We’ve all gone to the doctor lots of times. You included. You really should go get that checked out. I had the same problem a few years ago, and now I can hear like a twenty-year old again.”

“Hey,” said Sam. “The only good thing about Rachel not being around is I don’t have anyone to nag me anymore.” Sam realized it was the first joke he told about Rachel being gone. He considered that progress.

Harvey laughed. “Fair enough. I’m just saying it ain’t that big a deal.”

“I know, I know. I’m just being lazy.”

“Speaking of lazy,” said Harvey, “We better get to work. This space station’s not going to run on its own.”

“Might as well,” said Sam.

They got up and took their trays to the trash, then wished each other a good day before heading in different directions. Sam walked down the corridor toward his apartment. As he passed his door, he had an odd feeling about work. Part of him wanted to just go back upstairs and call in sick, but he didn’t like the idea of sitting around the apartment all day, thinking of Rachel. Work would take his mind off things.

Since he was still early he decided to take the scenic route to work. There was a cafe with a long bank of windows looking out over earth. He thought about stopping and getting a coffee, but instead just paused for a moment to admire the view. It was almost identical to the one from his bedroom, but this one felt different, less personal, less his.

The sun was up, the windows now covered with protective tinting. He always liked seeing the sun right before the windows darkened. Sam had never been to Earth, never seen the sun without a thick sheet of glass between. The closest he ever got was that split second before the tinting shot through the window, that tiny spark on the rim of the world. The sun he saw now was dull and artificial-looking, the stars less bright.

Sam sighed and headed for work. Today’s going to be full of sighs, he thought. He cut away from the scenic route back to the more direct one. By now the hallways of the station had filled, and he was following the stream of people down the right side, watching the people going the opposite direction on his left. Sometimes he felt like the workers were just like cattle, moving in one direction because everyone else in front of them was doing the same. Today he felt that more than ever.

On his walk he caught snippets of conversation–mostly from younger people, and mostly about the B Android. Have you seen one yet? I think so, but I wasn’t sure. Oh, I could totally tell. They look so real! I know. I can’t wait to get one.

When Sam got to his desk, Aaron looked up at him. His desk was next to Sam’s. Aaron covered his microphone and whispered, “Hey, Zach wants to see you.”

Sam pointed at himself. “Me?”

Aaron nodded and looked back at his computer. “Yes ma’am,” he said. “Ten percent more pores. It’s almost like human skin. Yes, you can get different color hairs.” Aaron looked at Sam and rolled his eyes. Sam smiled, proud of how far the kid had come under his tutelage. “Yes, ma’am,” continued Aaron.

Sam sighed–there’s another sigh, he thought–and headed for Zach’s office. I should’ve stayed home. What’s it going to be about this time? Calls per hour? Efficient communication? Pushing the new products more? How can I push something I don’t even like?

Sam paused at the closed door. He took a deep breath and reached up to knock, but was startled when the door opened. First he saw Zach, then the man who opened the door. ‘Man’ was a bit of a stretch. He looked even younger than Aaron.

“Sam!” said Zach. “Just the man I wanted to see. Sam, meet Barry. He just started work with us today.”

Sam held out his hand and Barry shook it, squeezing a little too tightly. He had seen so many new hires, and wondered if he had ever been like them.

“Nice to meet you, Sam. I’m really looking forward to working for the Company.”

“Well, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it just fine,” said Sam.

Barry turned to Zach. “I’ll see you later. Thanks, Zach.” He turned back to Sam and smiled before walking out the door. Sam nodded.

“Sam, come on in,” said Zach.

“Should I sit down?”

“What? Oh, no. Don’t worry, this will only take a minute.”

“That’s right,” said Sam. “We wouldn’t want to be inefficient.” He knew he shouldn’t be sarcastic to his boss, but he couldn’t help himself.

“It’s about your physical,” said Zach, as if he hadn’t heard Sam.

“My physical?”

“Yes. It’s Company policy to have one every year. Now, I know you didn’t have one last year, and of course the Company understands why. But we really need you to take one this year.”

Sam gave another sigh. He wondered if he should start counting them. “Zach, I—”

“Sam, I know losing Rachel was tough. But you have to understand, that was a total coincidence. The Company has the best doctors in the world.”

“They have the only doctors in the world,” mumbled Sam.

“What was that?”

“Nothing,” said Sam. “I suppose you’re right. I’ll make an appointment today.”

Zach handed him a sheet of paper. “Already made one for you. They’re expecting you right now.”

“Right now?” The question came out louder than Sam wanted.

“Yup,” said Zach. His smile seemed disingenuous, almost creepy to Sam.

Sam sighed. “Alright, I guess I’m due.” Without saying goodbye he turned and walked out, not caring if it was rude. He just wanted the physical to be over with.

The doctor’s office was a short walk from Zach’s. When Sam arrived, he smiled at the pretty young receptionist. She smiled back. Well, that’s the first good thing to happen to me today, he thought.

“Sam?” she said.

“Yes.”

“Just have a seat right there. The doctors will be with you in a moment.”

As he found a seat in the empty waiting room, Sam’s heart started beating faster. His tongue felt thick and dry, and he looked for a water dispenser. There was none.

He thought he heard something, but he wasn’t sure what. Then he noticed the receptionist staring at him.

“Sorry, did you say something?” he asked.

She smiled. “I said they’re ready for you.”

Already? I just sat down. Sam gripped the arms of his chair and stood up slowly. Not wanting to show the fear that was building inside him, he managed another smile and walked to the other end of the room.

There he paused, hand on the door. Come on, get ahold of yourself. It’s just a doctor’s visit, for Christ’s sake. He tried to suppress thoughts of Rachel, suppress the memory of the phone call he got a year ago telling him she had suffered a cardiac arrest in the chair during her annual checkup. Even with access to equipment, the doctors couldn’t revive her.

“It’s right through there,” said the receptionist. Her voice startled him so much he accidentally pushed the door open.

“Hi, Sam. Come on in.” There was a man in a white coat standing in the middle of a metal room. “Please, have a seat.”

Sam nodded and stretched his face into a false smile. With slow, cautious steps he moved toward the chair. “Doctor,” he finally managed to say.

“Please, make yourself comfortable.”

Sam sank into the chair. It was far more comfortable than he remembered. The armrests were cushioned, as was the footrest, and it reclined like his chair at home. That helped him relax a little. Then Sam looked at the doctor and saw he was about his own age, fit and lean but almost completely gray. That relaxed Sam even more.

The doctor spoke again. “I hope you don’t mind if we have another doctor in the room. He’s been training with me for the past year.”

Only then did Sam notice a third person in the room. He was dressed the same as the other doctor, but looked much younger. Sam looked back at the older one, and before he could stop the thought it escaped his lips. “He looks like a kid.”

Realizing his rudeness, Sam looked back at the younger doctor. “Sorry,” he waved his hand. “I know you’re qualified. You just make me feel old.”

“That’s okay,” the younger one smiled. “I get that all the time.”

The older doctor laughed. “I know what you mean, Sam. My doctor’s younger than I am, too. It took me a while to get used to that.” He nodded to the younger doctor, who started asking questions. “So Sam, any concerns you have? Any chronic pains, trouble breathing, shortness of breath, chest pains or anything like that?”

“Well,” said Sam. He paused, wondering whether to continue. If his hearing was going, he didn’t want to lose his job and be forced into retirement. This doctor seemed nice, though, a man he could trust. At least the older one did. “I do have trouble hearing every once in a while.”

“Really?” The doctors looked at each other, and it made Sam a little more nervous. “In both ears?”

He shook his head. “Just the right one.” He tapped it.

“Alright, we can run a scan on that. Anything else?”

Sam thought of telling them about the occasional loss of feeling in two fingers of his left hand, the sore joints in the morning, the occasional lack of energy, a popping sound when he moved his jaw, the creaking when he bent down. But he decided to just see what happened with his hearing. “Nope. That’s it. Fit as a fiddle.”

“Alright then,” said the older doctor. “We’ll see if we can take care of you. Now you just lie back into that chair and we’ll run a full scan.”

“How does this work?” asked Sam. “This chair seems different than the one before.”

The two doctors looked at each other. “How long has it been since your last physical?” asked the younger doctor.

“I missed mine last year. So two years, I guess.”

“Oh, then yes. This is a newer model.”

“Well, it’s a lot comfier than the old one,” said Sam.

The younger one continued. “It’s not just that. The scanning capabilities are much better. And we’re supposed to get and even newer, better one next month.”

Sam snorted. “Upgrade,” he said.

“That’s right. Now just lie back and relax.”

“I know Doc,” Sam chided. “It’s not my first visit to the doctor.”

The young doctor smiled. “Of course.”

Sam watched as the younger doctor followed the older one into a room with a large window that looked into the examining room. “Close the door,” said the older one, but apparently the younger didn’t hear because he left it open.

“See, there’s nothing wrong with my hearing now,” Sam mumbled to himself. The glass was tinted, but he could still see them moving behind it.

“Just look up at the ceiling, Sam.” The older doctor’s voice came through a speaker somewhere in the room. “The straps are going to come on now. They’re just there to keep you still for the scan.”

Sam let his body settle into the chair. Before Rachel had died, he actually enjoyed going to the doctor, the sense of security a checkup gave him. He even liked the snug examination chair, and as the straps wrapped around his legs, arms, torso and head, that feeling began to wash over him again.

The lights dimmed, and Sam heard the low hum of the scanner as it moved up and down his body. The sound was soothing, and Sam fell into a light sleep. Only the loud click as the scanner locked back into place snapped Sam awake.

His room was silent and still dark, and for a while the only thing coming out of the other room was a small wedge of light from the doorway. Since the straps were still on Sam couldn’t move his head, but he saw it out of the corner of his eye.

“Here we go.” The voice of the older doctor came out of the cracked door. “It’s just as I thought. Pretty extensive degradation.”

That alarmed Sam. Degradation of what?

“He’s got some burned circuitry in his right auditory processor,” the doctor continued, “and some fraying wires running down the left arm.”

Auditory processor? Wires? What the hell are they talking about?

“And look at the rust build up in all those joints,” said the younger. “I’m surprised we didn’t hear him squeak walking down the hall.” They both laughed.

Sam’s heart was thumping, his breathing short and quick. They must be confused. Why do they keep using mechanical words to describe me? Are they talking about something else? He strained against the straps, but they wouldn’t budge.

“It’s a shame,” said the older doctor. “The S model was a great one when it came out, but they’re all starting to fall apart these days.”

S model? What the hell is he talking about? “Doctor? Doctor! DOCTOR!” He thought he was yelling at the top of his lungs, but no sound came out. That only made him try harder.

“So, what should we do with him?” asked the younger.

“Send him to the junk shop, see if they can use some of his parts.”

Junk shop? Parts? Sam was frantic now. He twisted and contorted his body, but it felt like it was glued to the chair. Something other than the straps was holding him there. Then the chair started moving forward, and the wall in front of him opened up into a gaping black rectangle.

Sam struggled but could not move. He yelled but made no sound.

“Have you seen the new Barry yet?” asked the younger doctor.

“No, I upgraded last year with the Aaron. I try to go every other year, otherwise it gets too expensive.”

“I hear you,” said the younger. “Still, they’re just so much better every year. These new ones are so lifelike.”

“I know,” said the older. “That’s why I turned off this Sam’s voice box. The programmers make them sound so real, even the screams. It’s a little creepy.”

Sam’s heart was pounding, his throat raw as he was swallowed by the blackness. The last thing he heard was the younger doctor’s voice.

“It’s almost like they really feel something.”

Food for Thought

1. The first letter of each character’s name is significant. What is that significance?

2. In the end were the doctors correct, or did they make a mistake?

3. Are there any characters that are human? If so, who? What is your proof?

4. What is the overall message about technology in this story?

5. How is the author commenting on things you see happening in today’s society?

About the Author

Axel Schwarz is a writer and teacher who lives in San Diego with his wife Melanie. His novel ?California Boys is available on Amazon. For more on the author, including soon-to-be-released books, go to AxelSchwarz.com. In the near future, you can find him working weekends behind the counter at his wife’s pastry shop, Patisserie Melanie.

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4 Comments

  1. I absolutely loved the line, “…and as he lay in bed he looked out over the smooth slope of the station into the chalk dust and charcoal sea of space…” Beautiful writing.

    The biggest question the story left me with was whether or not fear/terror qualifies as “pain.” Even if Sam couldn’t physically feel what was being done to him by the doctors, he felt the emotion of blind terror. Assuming that emotionally intelligent machines are possible, this raises an interesting moral dilemma in replacing them.

      • Well, I must confess that I am strongly against that kind of AI development. I wrestled with this idea for a long time, because I can’t really “prove” that my misgivings are wrong. But, then I read a rather simple argument on the subject that changed my view. Basically, the idea is that there is no logically “right” stance on this topic. It ultimately boils down to personal preference. So, generally I don’t like taking a stance for or against something unless I can solidly back it rationally. But, really, I don’t want machines to exceed human intelligence and creativity because I personally don’t want to live in a world where I and my friends/family are obsolete. I don’t want them to have human emotion because there is some part of me that finds the idea dehumanizing. I do also think, though, that there a lot of ethical concerns. Why damn machines to suffer the same existential doubts and fears and pains as we do. It doesn’t seem like it would serve any purpose other than making the inventor feel good about him or herself. It would be a hell of an intellectual, technical achievement, but I don’t see how it helps anyone or anything.

        • I don’t want machines to exceed human intelligence and creativity because I personally don’t want to live in a world where I and my friends/family are obsolete

          We create our replacements every time we have children. On balance, I find them a joy.

          But I agree that creating a class of children who are also things could be pure evil. Certainly we’d try to make it so. Only a miracle could keep it from becoming a systemic horror.

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