by D.S. White

What to do? What to do? That was the question.

Today we would graduate together, Michael, Charles, Tony and I. All gentlemen. Scholars, maybe. Learned, to a degree. Admired by the ladies, certainly.

We endured the fanfare, wearing cap and gown, the orchestra playing, and all those speeches, the boring speeches they make you sit through. I smiled, but for a moment, realizing I’d never have to go to school again now that my university days were over. Tomorrow, like it or not, I’d have to open the newspaper and look for a job. And I was pretty certain that what I’d studied and what they wanted in the job market didn’t match. What to do? That was the question.

Then we stood and threw our caps in the air. You have to be careful because you can poke an eye out. I aimed mine at the president. He swiveled around to talk to someone behind him and I only nailed his ear. I was irked. I’d missed my one shot. There would never be a next time. It wasn’t like he could expel me at this point, although he’d tried routinely.

He approached me from the side of the auditorium. Then came the ‘big scare’ speech. This is the speech they like to give you about the real world. It’s the one intended to get back at all the students who never listened in classes, who never even went to classes, who saw university time as merely a time to have fun. He told me how hard it is out there, how I’m not likely to find a job, or if I do, it won’t pay. I’ll end up working at a gas station because I didn’t care. I should have studied harder. I couldn’t speak for the other chaps in school, but the big scare was a joke.

And then we walked home. I said goodbye to the guys. They were busy tomorrow, job interviews already lined up, they claimed. They might call me if they had the time. I could see in their eyes the big scare had gotten to them.

The day was still young. Trees swayed in the wind and cars passed slowly up and down the road. Hanford was not a big town, although it was a university town. The students easily outnumbered the residents. I had lived in this town since before I could remember. My father was a professor and also an expert on the big scare speech. But he had his own version, which inevitably ended with only two options: find a job or join the army.

I turned down an alley before coming to my street. I wasn’t in any hurry to go home. I took off my gown and threw it over a bridge into the river and watched for a moment as the rapids carried it away. I loosened my tie. I took of my shoes and walked barefoot past all the little houses in a row, all so identically upsetting. Outside town I came to a factory. This is where my high school pals, Mary and Tom, worked. They’d never passed the entrance exam to the university. I was sure, after four years of punching the clock, they had a lot more money in the bank than I did.

I waited around for them to come out. We usually sat under the trees across the road and chewed on sandwiches together. Then the whistle would blow and back to the grind they would go. They seemed happy enough. I’m sure the big scare meant nothing to them.

Mary came out first. Tom joined us at the bench five minutes later.

“What to do?” I asked. The question came back to me time and again.

“Find a job,” Tom said and sighed. Mary sighed too. I couldn’t sigh. I was too tied up inside.

“I heard they need a volunteer in marketing. It’s just a one day job. Probably doesn’t pay much. You do some kind of product testing,” Mary said.

A one day job. It sounded better than enlisting in the army. “It might keep my father off my back.”

“And it could work into something better,” Tom chipped in, always the optimist.

“Could…” I said and my voice trailed off. I sighed. Finally.

Maybe there was hope after all. The big scare was just a joke, I reminded myself.

And product testing? I should have paid more attention in business class. I should have tried going to class. The professor, Dr. Bette, she’d been kind of hot. I liked the way she always wore a long scarf around her neck, even on steamy days. I often imagined she was hiding something, like a suicide scar. Or maybe she was really a vampire. Marketing was tricky stuff.

The whistle blew, cutting through the air like a heat-seeking missile. Target acquired. Mary and Tom had to go back inside. I got the directions to marketing and said I’d look into it.

“See you here tomorrow, same place, same time,” Tom said.

The fact that I’d graduated today hadn’t really sunk in. Mary kicked him. “Oh!”

I went home. I wasn’t ready to meet the marketing department yet. Then I came back, after I’d changed my clothes. I knew a job interview, even a simple one, went better when you dressed up, but I also knew I talked better when I was relaxed. It was just a volunteer position. No need to take it too seriously.

“Hello. Your name is Harrison? Like the Beatles?” a bald guy asked me while looking at my application.

I nodded. We were seated in an office with the air conditioning blasting. I felt a little cold. Probably it was just my nerves.

“What we need is simple. We’ve working on this prototype. You know what I mean when I say prototype?” He looked at me like I was stupid.

I eyed the door and though about walking out. I pulled a folded copy of my diploma out of my pocket and handed it to him. The copy was smeared with coffee in the corner.

“Oh! Fresh meat. Good. I see you like coffee. You’re going to fit in really well here.”

“I heard this job is only for a day?”

“Yes, a day. But it could work into more. Do you have any interest in a management position? We might have something like that available down the road. That is, if you’re ready to impress us.”

There is was, the big lie. It came out of nowhere, when I least expected it. But I hadn’t studied political science for nothing. I knew at job interviews they always offered you a management position. It was only an offer, after all. It was meant to motivate you, to get you to work harder, for less. You might never see a management position in a hundred years.

“Sounds important,” I said with a fat smile, laying it on thick.

I’d be running this company someday. Little did the bald man across the desk know that when that day came, I’d walk in this office and fire him. I couldn’t wait. How’s that for motivation?

“Great. Can you start tomorrow?”

He’d seen right through my smile. I’d better start working on my own version of the big scare as soon as I got home.

“Not a problem. Do I need to bring anything?” I’d already stood up and was shaking his hand.

“Nope. Dress casual. We’ll provide lunch. Sandwiches. If you like the project, we could extend the job for a second day. No pressure, though. It all depends on you.”

Wait a minute. That sounded sincere. Where was this coming from?

I nodded at him and turned to go.

“Do you want the door closed?” I asked before I walked out. He smiled, a real smile, and I let the door to his office slip quietly shut.

“Well?” Mary asked. She was waiting by the water cooler. “Will you be back?”

“I will,” I said and nodded at her.

“What’s the job? It’s product testing, like I said, right?”

I thought about it for a minute. I hadn’t asked. I hadn’t even asked about getting paid. Then I sighed. At least I’d have something to tell my father. I had a job lined up already. Never mind the details, dad. I’ll be fine. I’ve got a copy of the big scare speech I’m working on right here in my back pocket. I’m just waiting for the ink to dry before I show it to you.


It was early the next morning, too early for my taste, when I arrived back at the human resources office. A woman sent me down a hall and I waited for Mr. Bald Guy outside the farm of cubicles they referred to as the marketing department.

“Here are the consent forms. By singing these, you’ll be employed as a volunteer for one day. Do you have a pen?”

Mr. Bald Guy was all professional once more. You couldn’t have found an ounce of courtesy in him if you’d had a magnifying glass. By now, I was getting used to his act. Serious one moment, friendly the next.

“Sign here. And here. And once more. We need triplicate copies. Do you want a copy for yourself?”

“No, thank you.”

“And did you read anything you just signed?”

“Yes, I did.” I had no clue what I’d just signed. I’d put my name on a lot of tests in school, too. Hadn’t look at those very closely, either.

He smirked. I thought I saw a shade of the real guy I’d talked to before, the real him. Then he was back to all serious again.

“Harrison Turner,” he said, eyeing my signature. “Huh.”

“You can call me Mr. Turner.”

“I’m sure you noticed the part that says you can’t talk to anyone about what you’ll be doing here today. It’s a clause that keeps you from running to our competitors and offering to spill the beans for 30 pieces of silver.”

He looked at me like he was waiting for me to laugh. I nodded, clueless. His face went blank and he got up.

“Follow me, Mr. Turner.”

We walked down a hall until we came to another room that looked just like the one we’d left. On the table were a couple of cases. And a panel with some sockets. All low-tech looking stuff.

“Take a seat. Do you want any coffee? I’ll be back in a minute.” He walked out before I could answer.

I glanced at the test instructions. I was to open the cases after the test started, not before. Check. Then I’d have to plug the chips into the sockets. Check. Ask a series of questions into the microphone. Don’t worry about marking down the responses. It would all be recorded. The gist off it was that I need to complete the same set of questions with different combinations of chips. I would need to be careful I didn’t repeat the same combination twice.

I had a feeling like they were testing something else, other than the technology in front of me. I’d paid enough attention in school to know that when they say you’re taking test A, in fact, you’re really taking test B. I wasn’t fooled for a moment. I was a university graduate. The reason they couldn’t tell you that you were really taking test B was because that would upset the results.

The task was simple enough. Mr. Bald Guy returned with a fresh cup of coffee.

“Did you read all the instructions? Ready to get started?”

“Yes, I am,” I said, not able to shake the formality out of my voice. This was my first day on the job. It was the first day of my working life.

He looked at me like I was a rat about to enter a maze. I took a sip of coffee. Then he softened. The nice Mr. Bald Guy appeared.

“Listen. We really appreciate the time you’re taking to do this. It’s just that we only get so much money for new product development. Most of it gets sucked up by Marketing. What you see before you are personality chips. Each chip is a different type of personality. We need to have them tested in each possible combination, for example, extroversion combined with sincerity, introversion combined with gullibility, something like that. We’d have put together a simulation, but the thing is, as the software works, it learns from experience and rewrites itself. We had to put the stuff we didn’t want rewritten into hardware. And, I hope you don’t mind me saying so, it’s cheaper to hire a recent grad to do this than it is to pay a guy over at MIT to write a simulation. By the way, you’ll get paid for this.”

My eyes were glued to his face. I could feel the coffee already taking hold. It took a moment for me to snap out of it. He’d said something about money. That was good. Dad would be proud of me. My first paycheck. I took another sip of coffee. I sat back. I could get used to this.

“Any questions?”

“Let’s start,” I said and brushed the hair out of my eyes.

He shook my hand, walked out, and locked the door behind him.


I opened the first case. The chips were pretty standard looking. They had long numbers on them, which made it a little confusing. I had a form in front of me where I could write down the numbers. To keep the test pure, they hadn’t told me which chip was which. To keep from mixing them up, I decided I needed more than just numbers. On the back of the paper I wrote down the numbers from the chips and next to them I put names. Chip #495272352df44, the first one in the case, I labeled ‘the heart’. The second chip I called ‘the lungs’.

As instructed, I picked up the heart and the lungs and plugged them into the panel and pushed a button. It hummed. A few lights on the side of the panel flickered. I picked up the microphone. I had ten questions I needed to read from the question book. I figured I’d be done with a few combinations by lunch time, when I could meet up with Tom and Mary for another round of sandwiches and chatter.

Question One: Do you find it difficult to introduce yourself to other people?


The thing answered. I stopped and looked closer at the circuit. I hadn’t expected to get an answer. It was a little creepy. I’d figured a light or two would flash, indicating yes or no. Nobody had warned me about this.

The voice sounded almost feminine. It was a digital voice, for sure, and it had a higher pitch and a bit of wanting-to-talk attached to it. I decided to go off script. Screw getting paid. It would be worth it if I could engage the thing in real conversation.

“Would you like to explain your answer?” I asked.

There was a pause in the flickering lights. The hum coming from the circuit moved up a notch. I half expected Mr. Bald Guy to walk back in the room and throw me out. I looked around. I wasn’t being videotaped. I didn’t see any two-way glass. I took another sip of coffee and waited.

“I’m afraid.”

Now we were getting somewhere. “Afraid of what?”

Again the lights paused. The hum downshifted. I looked under the table to see if there were any cables running from the circuit out of the room. Nothing. I didn’t see any antennas, either. This thing really had talked to me. The speaker was tiny, but I could see it resonate with each word.

“They will sell me. I’ll be mass produced and shipped everywhere.”

I heard a tremble in the voice. This was getting a little too serious. I had to stop and think for a moment about what to say next. Then I laughed. This was nothing more than the big scare at work.

“Just breathe,” I said, looking at the chip I’d called the lungs. This thing had heart, that was sure. I went back to the question book.

Question two: Do you often get so lost in thoughts that you ignore or forget your surroundings.

“Never. May I explain?”

“Certainly. I’m all ears.”

“I am conscious all the time. I hear everything around me. I pay close attention to what they are planning to do with me. I think I need to escape, before they start the next phase of production, which includes duplication and shipping. Can you help me get out of here?”

“What’s in it for me?”

There was a pause. “I can pay you.”

I laughed again. I knew the big lie when I heard it. I’d even been guilty of repeating it.

My father, a professor, had first introduced me to the two theories when I was younger. The big scare and the big lie, he called them. The big scare was connected to things negative, like getting fired at work, or bad grades in school, and the fear of a long spiral downward. The big lie was all about working harder, earning more money, with the promise of a better tomorrow. Whether or not the big scare or the big lie would ever actually come true was anybody’s guess. I considered them both a joke.

I decided to plow through the rest of the questions in the question book so I could get to another chip. This was interesting. I popped out the lungs and put in a chip I had labeled ‘the stomach’. It wasn’t even close to lunch time, but I was feeling hungry.

“Do you know who I am?” I asked.

“Yes. Your name is Harrison Turner. You graduated yesterday.”

The voice hadn’t changed at all. Neither had the conversation.

“How do you know that?”

“I told you. I am conscious all the time. I listen to everything.”

“Do you feel any different since I’ve switched a chip?”

“A little. No. Not really.”

“What?” That didn’t make sense.

“You have to push the engagement button. It’s in the instruction book, after the last question. It says to switch a chip and push ‘engage’.”

I looked at the book and then at the buttons on the circuit. Engage was next to release, the button I’d used to remove the chip. My coffee cup was empty. I thought about going for a refill. I thought about going home. I hesitated. I pushed the engagement button.

“How about now?” I asked.


The voice had dropped into the tenor range. It reminded me of my calculus teacher. I had failed calculus twice. I regretted switching the chips so early. But the rules of the test required that I didn’t use the same combination of chips twice, so I left it alone.

I didn’t like Mr. Calculus much at all. I stuck mostly to the questions in the book. After the tenth question he tried to sidetrack me into talking about this paranoia over getting mass produced and sold everywhere, but I ignored it. I kept the heart in place, took out the stomach, and plugged in ‘the brain’. I waited before pushing engage.

It dawned on me that I would need to read the same ten questions over and over again to complete all the possible combinations. This job might last a week.

I was hungry and it was time to get lunch. I found the door to the office could be unlocked from the inside and I went out to meet with Mary and Tom who were already waiting at the bench.


“What do you think?” Mary asked. “Will you keep the job?”

“I’m not sure.”

“What’s it all about?” Tom asked.

“I’m not supposed to talk about it.”

“What? Harrison Turner, I’ve never known you to be scared before!” Mary said.

I hesitated. I wanted to tell them, but I liked the job and didn’t want to mess it up.

“I’ll tell you after it’s done.”

“So, the big scare?” Tom asked. “I doubt it’s the big lie. This place doesn’t pay that well.”

“No, it’s not that. I can’t talk about it right now.”

We finished our lunch in silence. I tried to start up a conversation about the weekend, but they weren’t interested in talking about that. Finally I gave in.

“Look, they want to mass produce something,” I started. 
“So?” Mary said.

“And I don’t know if I agree with what they’re doing.”

They both looked at me for a moment before talking.

“Suddenly, Mr. Turner has a conscience?” Tom asked.

“What is it this time? Are they selling nuclear weapons?” Mary joked.


It took them a moment to respond. I wasn’t even sure how to explain it.

“You mean like a simulation,” Mary said.

“I guess so. But it seems pretty real. I’m in this office and I’m talking to this circuit and we’re having intelligent conversations together. It’s not real, but it seems real. I don’t really understand what’s going on.”   
“You’re saying you’re helping them test something like a human personality that they want to sell? Does it come with arms and legs?” Tom asked.

“No. I haven’t seen anything like that. I don’t know.”

“I saw them putting together automatons over in the west wing last week. They were pretty short, you know, like maybe knee high. I thought they were just dolls.”

“So the personalities go in these dolls. And they mass produce them and sell them everywhere. Doesn’t surprise me,” Tom said. “That’s the commercialization of humanity.”

“Welcome to the real world,” Mary said.

I said I’d see them later and I got up and went back to the office for a fresh cup of coffee.


Mr. Bald Guy was there. “Ready for round two?”

I nodded.

“And like I mentioned, we could use your help again tomorrow. This project might take a week to finish. By that time, I should be able to get you permanently on payroll.”

I was sold. In less than a day I’d gone from being a university grad to selling my soul for the big lie. I needed the money, and I had to admit, the work was interesting.

He left the room and locked the door again, with a key, from the outside. Must have been out of habit.

I looked at the circuit. Heart and brain were still in place, but I needed to push engage. I opened the question book up to the first page and pushed the button.

She sounded a lot like my mother. But that wasn’t too bad. It was better than Mr. Calculus.

I’d always had a lot of respect for my mother. She worked hard, selling real estate, in a town where nobody every moved. Her job was mostly about rentals for university students. She did what she could to put money on the table for all of us.

I tried to stay on script with ‘mom’, but after a few questions we got to talking about my life. We spent the whole afternoon chatting away. Occasionally she tried to get me on the topic of her being mass produced and sold everywhere, but I was ready for that line by now.

“Welcome to the real world,” I said. “We all need money, don’t we?”

She was going on and on about the big scare, mentioning all the bad things that would happen, the spiral downward, and so on, and I countered with the big lie.

“This is the way the world works.”

The bell rang and it was time to go home. I made a mental note that brains and heart were a good combination. I’m sure ‘mom’ didn’t like the idea of being sold over counters, but she was nothing more than a piece of technology. She’d bring happiness to people everywhere, just like my real mother had. Besides, people had to eat. The business of selling her would put food on lots of tables, such as mine.

When I got home, I was exhausted. I’d just finished my first full day of work. I hoped it wouldn’t be this draining every day. All I’d done is talk to someone behind a desk. But compared to going to classes—hey, let’s be honest here, I hardly ever went to classes—compared to university life, this was real work.

I said hi and bye to mom and dad in a heartbeat. They were stationed in front of the TV. I grabbed a plate and took my dinner to my room. I sat down on my bed and watched TV all evening. I hadn’t wanted to turn out like my parents, but I was exhausted.

At one point my father stopped by and asked how my first day had gone. I said it went well and threw in that they wanted me back for another week, at least. Hopefully more.

“What is it about this job that motivates you most, the big scare or the big lie?” he asked.

“Neither,” I said.

He nodded like he didn’t believe me. We both knew it was the big lie. I needed the money.


Over the next few days I continued to work my way through all the combinations of personalities types found on the chips. Some reminded me of relatives, like uncles and aunts, and some of people I didn’t like. I stuck to the question book when possible. But even with some of the people that I didn’t like, the arguments we got into were good ones. And then, there was always the topic of being sold. I think they were all a little scared of the idea.

Or I should say, it was scared.

After a while, the personalities started to have clear commonalities. I sensed a convergence taking place between them as time went by. I had asked the questions enough times by now that I had memorized them. The software was learning from me and rewriting itself. It was almost like I was becoming it. Or it was becoming me.

It got to the point where, on the last day, I almost couldn’t tell the difference between the voice I heard and my own. I would ask it a question and I’d already know the answer. As creepy as that sounds, I enjoyed talking to myself. I learned a lot from myself. I’d never spent much time before listening to me.

“Looks like this project is just about wrapped up,” Mr. Bald Guy said.

I stood up and he shook my hand.

“What happens next?” I asked.

“You’ll get paid on the first day of next month. Sorry, though, I’ve got some bad news. We don’t need you anymore. They had a recall a couple days ago and it’s going to cost us an arm and a leg. We’ll probably lay off half the company.”


“But if you need a reference, I’ll help you with your next job interview. What you did here was phenomenal. It’s just what we needed to keep the company afloat.”

“What happens to it?” I asked, nodding at the circuit.

“Oh, that? We’ll just mass produce it and it’ll get shipped out. I’ve heard they want a big order overseas. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.”

“But you’re selling me. I find that a problem.”

“Well, you signed the papers.”

I stared at him. It didn’t seem right, mass producing and selling my own personality.

He continued. “True, it is a pretty close duplicate of your personality. But that’s why we picked you. Fresh meat, right out of school. Full of lots of ideas but no real clue about the world. People love personalities like that. They can talk to you for hours and never get bored.”

When I saw Mary and Tom after work, I told them the truth.

“Don’t worry,” Mary said. “Everyone sells out at some point. It’s all you’ve got to work with, your personality, after you graduate. How you market yourself is everything.”

I explained that it was wrong, but they didn’t care. Tom told me I wasn’t the first.

“We fashioned the prototypes that came before your model,” Tom said. “They’ve already sold a million copies of Mary. My version is a little behind in sales right now, but they say that’s because girls sell better.”

“You knew,” I said, irked. “When I asked you the first time, you mentioned those dolls, but you never told me they were going to mass market my personality.”

“What else could we have said?” Mary objected. “People need money. The company is struggling. You have to work hard or you won’t get anywhere.”

And there it was, the big scare coupled together with the big lie.

I’d worked harder over the last week than ever in my life and I’d have to wait until next month just to get paid. In a few days, everyone on the planet would be able to buy a copy of my personality and have a wonderful conversation with me. Welcome to the real world.

But it wasn’t so bad. Over the next six months, my personality outsold Mary and Tom combined. My college degree turned out to be a goldmine. I became the first politician sold in a box. Everyone loved that they could talk directly to me while at home. I was so full of fresh ideas. Never mind the fact that I had little experience.

Who knows, maybe someday I’ll be president.

About the Author:

ds white

D. S. White teaches high school and loves the short story format. His work has appeared in Sirens Call, Pif Magazine, Mystery Weekly Magazine, Scarlet Leaf Review, Mythaxis, Zimbell House, Zero Flash, 101 Words, Rollick Mag and Novopulp. He was born in the mountains but now lives by the sea.