By John Abraham

“Thank you both for coming today. It was brave deciding to take up with the machine rather than being forced. Mr. Johnson, Mr. Hampton, please remove your glasses, and all other personal effects. Take a good look at each other. Mentally prepare for what is about to happen. Then each of you will get behind the glass on either side, and sit on the box. You’ll feel a slight tingle in the air around you, and a feeling as if your head weighs nothing. Ignore it. And do not touch your head; I assure you it will remain there for the duration. What’s inside is all that changes. You’ve both briefed your families about what do do?”

The men nodded. “Good.”

Mr. Johnson and Mr. Hampton had been clashing at work over the past year. It began as a chain of emails over a divergence in pricing details, escalated into accusations of working poaching, and last Friday Mr. Johnson reached out a meaty paw and struck Mr. Hampton in the left corner of his jaw, all due to an intense argument over the “countdown” clock. The Conflict Awareness Officer (CAO) glanced a mechanical eye over their case files as it removed the items: pocket watch for Johnson, two different communication devices for Hampton. Then they went inside. The officer flipped the switch and turned two dials clockwise. Both men felt a slight warmness pulsing through the box they were sitting upon; then the tingling sensation began to afflict the skin surrounding their brain cavities.

Johnson felt air puff up like it was rushing past him. Then it seemed as if his brain was lifting out of the top of his body. He struggled not to reach up and pull it back down. Hampton felt a similar sensation, but couldn’t control himself.

“I instructed you not to do that,” the CAO berated through a static microphone. His hand ducked back to his side. After a few minutes, the process was finished.

“You won’t get the delayed side effects until you fall into deep REM sleep tonight. Any questions, you can refer to the manuals my program has provided. And don’t forget, this is supposed to be a learning experience.”

Johnson woke up the next morning as Hampton. Soft, silk pajamas bunched around his knees as he stepped out of bed. He met Hampton’s wife at the top of the stairs. Same woman he’d stared at from across the softball field at the company-wide picnic. Wide ruby lips sat beneath eyes that narrowed upward as she adjusted to the sight of her not-husband. She wore a pair of silk pajamas like he did.
“Breakfast is on the table from the drone,” she intoned, glancing away from his stare. Her real husband never looked at her for longer than a few seconds at a time. Johnson realized he was embarrassed and took off down the stairwell.

Hampton woke up in Johnson’s dingy one-bedroom apartment. A police siren across the way had pierced his slumber, interrupting an amazing dream. The emptiness of the space scared him. A single worn out easy chair resided in the corner in front of a screen. The rest of the space was carpeted and filled with boxes of junk: old devices, reams of paper. He called for anyone, and a young man appeared. It was Johnson’s brother. Three-day stubble poked from his chin, and a wild expression darted around his eyes.

Johnson, staring at Hampton’s home, had never seen such opulence. Crystal chandeliers, medieval tapestries, a long polished dining table. A Talk Box in every room! He’d only ever seen those in the Mass Spectrum room at the office complex, when the bots let them speak to one another. Hampton’s gorgeous wife was correct, there was a large plate of breakfast on the table. Eggs, sausage, waffles, stuff he would never bother to cook for himself. He downed the plate in minutes, then went out to the backyard. Acres of trees, a few dogs running through them. the wind grasped the tree branches as if to dance with them. There were workers out there, too. Damn Latinos by the skin color. Something jolted in his brain, and he thought he heard far away, a tiny voice declare: No, they are just workers. Human beings. You’re assuming. The point of this exercise is to see, to learn.

            Back in Johnson’s apartment, Hampton questioned the brother over a bowl of cereal and almost no milk.

“Tom’s the name. I been in and outta jail for years, various drug offenses. Got my act cleaned up this time, though, let me tell you. Just got out of rehab, and I’m ready for a new life. Got a job at the tool factory a few blocks away.”

“So tell me, why should this time be any different?” Hampton, as Johnson, asked.

The brother became confused. Such a response never would come from his brother’s lips. Would it?
“It just is going to be, all right? Now I gotta to get ready for work, and so do you. I got your lunch packed already.”

It was an hour long bus ride to the office complex. Hampton had never seen so many destitute workers in all his life. Since the AI revolution, humans were considered redundant and were forced to subsist on a series of “gig” jobs, many of which lasted a few hours at a time. The new precariat had to shell out five bucks just for a few hours of public transit.

Johnson’s work desk below the tower was appalling. Ten times worse than his apartment. Hampton wondered how the hell the guy functioned. Stolen staplers, binders, workbooks, all manner of tape dispenser littered the scratched top. Hampton made a note of each one, and its itemization.

His job was menial. No wonder he hated the illegals the scare-mongering websites on his browser history said were coming for his jobs. It was hard to give a crap when your sole function in a bureaucracy was pushing paper. Paper doesn’t even matter anymore. Hasn’t anyone told you down here?

As Hampton, Johnson drove the BMW convertible to work. Hampton didn’t like taking it to work, but Johnson was in his body, so he took it. The wind pushed his lips back as he flew. He had to raise the top through the pollution zone on the far side of the office complex where the tower lay, but it was worth it. He found Hampton’s parking spot at the front. No mile-long walk into work after the bus for him today.

Johnson couldn’t believe how easy the job was. Hampton acted like some sort of big shot up in the tower, but all he did was synthesize information for AI programs to disseminate. The program estimated full reliance on AI in approximately two years. Then he’ll be out on his ass, Johnson realized. Maybe that’s why he’s become such an uptight asshole. I can still pretend that paper matters and that we need it on a base level to function. When somebody like Hampton gets canned, what’s he going to make of it? Maybe I should be more focused on this problem than the problem of the illegals. I mean humans.

Hampton, as Johnson, wanted to tell the Paper Acquisition Officer that his entire job was meaningless, that upstairs the algorithms could move ten thousand reams before he could push one piece. But where did that leave him? He really meant: where did that leave Johnson? Inside, he knew his time was coming close as well. So he kept his mouth shut, and fulfilled orders. Even though he knew it was pointless.

Lunch was a new experience. Johnson brown-bagged it every day of his life. As Hampton, he watched in amazement as a plate of fries flew in on a Mini Air, and a bubbling cauldron of soup rolled in of its own accord. All he had to do was speak aloud the kind of refreshment he desired, and a drone brought it to him. All this, to program data. And I’m treated like a king. King of the office.
Hampton tore into the paper bag Johnson’s brother Tom had packed. Small sandwich, freeze-dried vegetables, the usual fare now that space shuttle food was en vogue. The poor have come to love it, or at least he read they did. It tasted like cardboard being heated up in a micro. There was a note pinned inside that read: “Today’s the day.”

            They each toiled away at their pointless jobs for the rest of the afternoon. The entire office was set to become automated in less than three years. The Countdown hung over every main workspace, never allowing a human to forget it. Two years, seven months, thirteen days until you’re obsolete. Hampton noticed there was a large digital read out of The Countdown in the basement below the tower. No one was safe. Last week in his own body, he had punched Johnson in the face over this number, and what it meant.

            Johnson took a little nap in a side compartment of Hampton’s spacious office. No drones came to wake him, and he opened his eyes refreshed with an hour left of the workday. He decided to pay a visit to his antagonist. He instructed one of the drones to lead him downstairs.

It was surreal. He saw his body, moving his arms, doing his job badly. The job was to push paper. An obsolete enterprise. He glanced down quickly at the body in which he resided, making sure it was still enveloped in the stunning three-piece suit Hampton’s cloth-sorting bot had selected this morning.

“How do you keep up with all of this?” Hampton, as Johnson, asked.
“I usually don’t,” Johnson said, as Hampton. “How do you work knowing your job isn’t going to exist much longer?”
“I try not to think about it,” Hampton said to his own, uncaring eyes. He looked like a giant prick in that suit. A rich, uncaring jerk.
“I suppose you’d have to. At least I know my job is important.”

            They returned to their separate homes, to meet their not-relatives. Johnson, as Hampton, pulled out the device. Eight hours to the finish line. Just enough time to make love to your wife.
Hampton, as Johnson, came home to find Tom on the floor, foam shooting from his mouth. Just enough time to get to the hospital.

Hampton’s wife had been told about this. Acknowledge they are not who they seem, but play along as if it’s real. “It’s all part of the show,” the CAO told her. “It needs to seem real. Otherwise they won’t get it.” Her not-husband came at her with an intensity in his eyes the real one never showed anymore. Suddenly it became very real for her, and she was excited.

Hampton, as Johnson, stood away from the hospital bed. I have no memory of this man, other than seeing his life fall apart. Then watching him die. But I’m not me. Johnson should be here. Why am I here? This is supposed to be a learning experience.

After the best sex of his life, the not-husband of Hampton’s wife got up to take a shower. Steam poured from the ceiling, piping hot water enveloping him from twenty faucets. Why isn’t this guy happy?

            Sixteen miles away, the only family Johnson had left in the world lay dead in a hospital room. Hampton, in his body, walked away from the bed.

“Sir, there is the matter of the bill,” a Nursing Bot said from behind him. Since the revolution, health care had been deemed a privilege for humanity.

“I see here the record shows that Mr. Johnson has failed to live up to his promise due to multiple incarcerations over drug usage,” the Nursing Bot droned. “I’m afraid his sentence to expire has been carried out. The burden of payment for the robotic enhanced euthanasia falls to you, sir, I am afraid.”
Hampton discovered that Johnson did not have very much money. Pushing paper was not enough to live on. He ran down the scattered hallway, shoving an intern onto the floor to block the Nursing Bot from pursuit. I will make it out of here. He’ll have to take the consequences. I’m sorry, Johnson. You should be here.

Johnson, as Hampton, had forgotten all about his brother, about his old life. Hampton’s wife lay naked in the bed, snoring contently. What if I don’t wake up tomorrow?

            The next day, Hampton took the Tesla coupe in, the workhorse he always drove. Johnson took the bus as usual, walked the mile from the bus stop to the complex. The CAO was pleased to see the problems between them had ceased. They experienced their final hour of the process in its office, sorting out what occurred. In these cases, what usually happened was a sort of cessation of hostilities grudgingly accepted by both parties.

Before they reversed the sequence the CAO left them alone in the room as the hour expired.

“You know what I really learned? You have everything, Hampton. And you don’t even realize it. Don’t even see it in front of you.”

“You know what I learned? Life is what you make of it, Johnson. And you haven’t made much of yours. Your brother is dead.”

“What?” Johnson said, still not in his own body.

“That’s right. I watched him die. You think it’s such a shame to have everything and not see it? What about if you have nothing?”

            This was one of the last “Live a Mile” experiments in the complex. It was deemed too complicated, without leading to any perfect resolution. Both men were terminated at the end of the week. The tower and complex would last much longer than either of these two.

About the Author:

John Abraham is a published author and freelance journalist located in the Twin Cities, where he lives with his wife Mary and their cats Marble and Morrison. His debut novel, Our Senior Year, was published in 2014 by North Star Press. His second novel, Last Man on Campus, was published in 2015 by NSP. John has conducted freelance journalism on local issues for MinnyApple, local newspaper the Hill & Lake Press and local transportation blog.