With a whistle, and a little too much excitement, Randolph swiveled in his tall leather chair in the control room of the LifeSupply Spruce Grove store. He just turned thirty and was making good money, enough to afford a small house next year. Randolph wanted to move up, save, invest, have a kid, and retire with money—all while taking care of his mom who he had transferred to Spruce Grove to care for. Simple, but right, he thought. And Randolph’s employer, LifeSupply, was a new breed of megastore that afforded him a lot of opportunity. It emerged after the government, in an attempt to prop up the economy, removed most regulations. The result was that LifeSupply, and few other companies like it, manufactured and sold nearly all goods and services. Nowhere to go but up, Randolph smirked.
“Order size,” Randolph said into a matte black and neon blue control globe on his desk, and a bar chart displayed average order by hour in his departments. Directly to the right of the globe was a wall of twenty monitors stacked four high, some of which showed customers walking through the aisles with small earpieces oblivious to others as they shopped.
Purchasing enforcement, the job that Randolph had just transferred into, entailed monitoring store activity to ensure customers, according to the training, “reached their full spending potential.” If a customer had a question, they pushed a LifeLine button in the aisle, Randolph looked up the answer and responded through the audio system in the floors. He also had to deal with complaints, but those were rare and usually went away with discounts. Randolph saw everything from his desk—from older men buying fiber supplements, to teenagers sneaking handhelds. All of it was tracked and monitored.
“It’s a beautiful thing, isn’t it Randolph?” A tall man with close-cropped curly hair stood directly over Randolph’s right shoulder. The man wore a formal white, collarless shirt with a small “LS” on the breast. “The store runs itself.”
“Yes, sir, Mr. McTavish,” Randolph replied. “I love this place—I mean look at how happy these people look.” Randolph gestured toward the monitors.
“You got that right,” McTavish said. “People got tired of buying through their computers, but they wanted the convenience, so we gave them in-person buying on steroids. Now, they walk through with their handhelds and earpieces and pull up all the information they want on demand. Reviews, price comparisons, specs, recommendations—it is all right there at their fingertips as they shop. They don’t even need to checkout, just pick something up, or have the bots pick it up, and walk out.” McTavish pointed to one of the video monitors showing a robotic arm on tracks lifting a recliner chair into someone’s cart. “We even made credit cards obsolete. Anyone can buy anything if they just sign onto our life-barter system and give us a year or two of service—not bad if you ask me. It’s God’s work, Rando!”
Randolph had never considered it—he only wanted a lakeside vacation home and to stay out of the growing number of unemployed—but McTavish’s comment made him wonder if their work didn’t serve some higher purpose. The LifeSupply store that they operated, Spruce Grove, was as big as many towns, so he was a public servant in a way. McTavish put his hand on Randolph’s shoulder as he looked at the “average time in store” line graph closely. “Uh huh,” McTavish said, pleased with what he saw. He took another minute to review the rest of the charts then clapped his hands together. “Well, keep it up, Rando. Get yourself a drink or something. Relax, the store looks great.” McTavish returned to his enclosed office at the back of the control room.
“Tea,” Randolph said into his control globe and kicked back to put his feet up, and a churning sound came from the fridge below.
Five minutes later, while Randolph was still telling himself how great it all was sipping tea from a giant straw, he received an urgent notification. “Details,” he said into the globe. One of the monitors changed to show the checkout time for the pharmacy department spiking. “What in the world?” Randolph said as he pushed his chair closer to look at the details. “Zoom.” Another screen switched to show a video with a woman of about sixty repeatedly hitting the pharmaceutical dispensary with a cane.
“What in God’s name is wrong with this thing?” the woman said, as she grew more frustrated by the second. She was 5’8” with short brown hair and wore a floral print shirt that had been buttoned incorrectly. Her body moved as if she was suspended on marionette strings, rocking gently back and forth, and she stood with her shoulders hunched over. The cane she leaned on wobbled as she stood.
“Customer profile,” Randolph said into the globe, and the woman’s file appeared. Mary Tomlin, 62, of the neighboring town of Littleton. She had recently been let go from LifeSupply where her job was to sort and reorder orphan packages. A widow with one son, she had been in good standing until her productivity score dropped precipitously two years ago.
“Command not valid,” Randolph heard the machine reply to the woman. He noticed that the line behind Tomlin stretched to the end of the adjacent aisle, where a man had become bored and stuck his thumb in front of a holographic shelf advertisement so that the speaker’s head was not visible.
“Just let me talk to someone!” the woman snapped back, and she stared at the dispensary machine as if it just needed clearer directions. When the machine did not respond, she continued to berate it. Randolph was transfixed until he realized it was his job to resolve the situation, so he jumped, picked up a handheld and got a transport to the pharmacy.
“I’ll be back.” Randolph motioned to McTavish pointing out toward the store. McTavish just waved without looking up—he liked to watch clips of people embarrassing themselves and was too busy laughing to notice.
Randolph arrived at the dispensary determined to stop the problem but was shaken by how sick the woman looked. She was having trouble touching the right area of the screen on the pharma dispensary and her lack of coordination reminded him of his mother’s Parkinson’s. Her body looked brittle, her eyes darted around as if her heart was racing, and her lips were blue—Maybe it is a good idea to start slow.
“Is there something I can help with, ma’am?” Randolph said being sure to remember the opening line from his enforcement training.
“Yes, I need to talk to someone regarding my oxygen packs,” she said without looking over at Randolph, a foot to her right. The machine just kept repeating the words, “command not valid.”
“Do you have a health allotment?” Randolph asked.
“Would I be arguing with this metal box if I did?” she said, still without looking over.
Randolph paused to consider his next step. “Ma’am, I’m confused. What would you like me to do?” Randolph looked at his handheld for guidance. The woman turned to him, exasperated by his ignorance. “Somebody, somewhere at this place decided to stop my allotment, and I need it for my treatment!” The woman’s voice strained when it was raised. Others in the line took out their earpieces and looked up from their handhelds to see what they now thought would be an argument.
“I see,” Randolph said, starting to get frustrated and embarrassed. Randolph skimmed through her background again, afraid to look up before having more information. “Here it is,” Randolph mumbled to himself. Tomlin had been fired, and her annual health allotment stopped due to a “redirection of funds to support growth initiatives.”
“Does it tell you why I was let go?” she continued, startling Randolph while he was still reading. She poked Randolph in the shoulder with her cane. “Try searching NHX,” she said while she stared right at him.
Randolph quickly found and scanned the information on a condition called Neurotoxic Hypoxemia (NHX), which until recently, had been very rare. The cause was recognized as the chemical LifeSupply circulated as an air freshener through their stores and warehouses, Flozipan-45 or Flo-45. When inhaled, the chemical enhanced people’s need for possessions and status—it made them greedy and covetous. It also lowered the oxygen levels in the air and caused people to have chronically low oxygen levels in their blood.
Tomlin started talking again. “It happened right after our trip to the lake where Bryan and I celebrated our wedding anniversary. I remember thinking that I had never been that happy to come to work before—you know what LifeSupply warehouses are like. I was opening a set of glasses when I started feeling dizzy. ‘Probably nothing,’ I told myself. Then I dropped them right after taking off all the wrapping. An hour later I accidentally put a full package in the resorter—they had to reset the line operating system. I beat myself up for days afterward. Of course, my productivity score dropped, and I was fired in a month.”
“Ma’am, all I see here is that we no longer pay your health allotment for the treatment. There is nothing I can do,” Randolph said with a hollow confidence as he fidgeted with his handheld device.
“Hurry up!” a muttered yell sounded from the back of the pharmaceutical line amid snickers.
“So, what is your name, young lackey, for the evil mega-corporation?”
“Randolph Mayes, ma’am.” Randolph wanted to end the conversation as soon as possible.
“Well, Randolph Mayes, I was told that my allotment would stay. I did work here for twenty-five years.” Now they were getting into details that Randolph wanted to avoid, and McTavish would not be happy that this woman was holding up business and causing a scene.
“Ma’am, we typically pay allotments based on your years of service, but LifeSupply reserves the right to stop if we believe the total amount distributed is sufficient. I am going to need you to file a complaint with customer service.”
“We both know all they do is ignore people. I’m not leaving!” she said and looked him in the eyes with fiery resolve that belied her frail condition. Randolph noticed sweat on his palms and looked around to avoid eye contact while Tomlin stayed fixed on him.
“Uh, I think you are going to need to exit the store please,” Randolph said softly. No response. “Ma’am.” Randolph took her by the arm to begin leading her out and Tomlin pulled back to refuse. Randolph looked confused when her cane came swinging from the ground across the space between them and hit him on the side of his face. More out of surprise than pain, Randolph stumbled over and dropped to a knee to protect his head like a boxer.
“They think they can just make people sick then ignore it?” Tomlin said. She swung twice more and hit Randolph on his arm, then his knee before he got up to walk away quickly.
“Crazy bitch,” Randolph said under his breath as he hobbled away holding his head.
“Sorry about that. I lost control of my arms,” she said with a smirk.
That night at the dining room table, Randolph told his wife Jules about the encounter.
“She could have cracked my skull open! It’s not my fault she has no way to pay,” Randolph said. “Maybe if she had been a better employee...”
“Exactly,” Jules said confidently.
“I knew the store used this stuff. I just didn’t know how much. It’s called Flo-45...” Randolph continued scarfing down his automated delivery for the night—takeout noodles, “...and it takes time to establish itself, which is why everyone isn’t running around crazy all the time, but once it activates it is strong. They think about how their lives could be better, and the chemical causes them to associate their dream with something, anything, they can buy—doesn’t matter if it’s toothpaste or a new patio. If a dad wants to connect with his son, who only cares about video games, he won’t just go buy the game, he’ll buy lessons, tickets to the launch of the new release, and a brand-new set of gear showing off his new passion. If it activates while someone is working, the person works without breaks for longer hours. The beauty of it is that humans never stop thinking about how to make their lives better, so they never stop thinking about what they want next.” Randolph’s eyes got big, and he raised his eyebrows as if to say this was serious. “I don’t know, Jules. LifeSupply wouldn’t use this stuff if it was really that bad. For all I know this woman pissed her money away gambling.” He looked away at a wall with a framed digital image of a beach and chewed his noodles.
“I know, honey,” Jules said. “You did the right thing.” Jules stopped to think, and they ate for another moment in silence. “How does, what did you call it, Flo work exactly?”
“The chemical draws oxygen out of the air when it’s circulated. People who breathe it in for a significant amount of time lose the ability to maintain healthy levels of blood oxygen and need supplemental oxygen packs to live. It starts with a lack of coordination and general confusion, but over time the chronic lack of oxygen wears on their heart and can cause them to go into a coma. If it isn’t treated, they deteriorate quickly.”
“Oh,” Jules said, surprised that it was that bad. She had stopped eating her noodles to listen.
Randolph was holding the bruise on his forehead where he had been hit. “I just hope McTavish is OK with what happened. He is the one that will eventually promote me.”
“I wouldn’t worry any more about it,” she said and put her hand on Randolph’s across the table.
“Calm moods,” Randolph yelled, and a device on the wall began playing the sound of the ocean.
The next day in the control room Randolph sat on the edge of his chair and bounced his leg up and down while he looked over his monitors. Still anxious from the incident and thinking of Tomlin, he pulled up the video feed of the autonomous transport wing to relax. A man with a brown beard and a baseball hat was scanning his body to be fitted for a new Ford Current. I knew I should have transferred to a different department—I hate dealing with people, that’s why I look at charts all day! I guess you take what you can get when your selfish sister leaves to live on an anti-tech commune, and you move to take care of your mom. “Oh well, better to commit now,” he said quietly to himself.
The man in the baseball hat had just sat down to a simulator test drive when McTavish walked up behind Randolph. McTavish let out a deep sigh to signal that he didn’t want to have this talk. “Rando, can we talk about the incident yesterday?”
“Of course, sir.” Randolph spun around in his chair to look at McTavish, who suddenly looked very serious. McTavish wore the exact same shirt as yesterday, only grey—the collarless button down with the “LS” on the breast.
“Here is the deal...” McTavish took a breath and considered the best way to relay the information, the way a parent would to a small child. “Our job isn’t just about making sure customers purchase to their potential, it’s also about protecting everyone’s right to buy. People like this, what did you say her name was?”
“Mary Tomlin, sir.”
“Well, people like Mary Tomlin think that just because they can’t keep a job, or they are getting older, they have the right to piss and moan and make everyone else miserable too.”
“I get it,” Randolph said. “She didn’t even file a formal complaint with customer service.” Randolph was eager to add more justification.
“Right, well we both know they ignore people.”
“Right,” Randolph said to show McTavish that he was already well aware.
“The point is this: running this store isn’t just a job.” McTavish leaned in closer to show Randolph he really wanted him to listen. “It is a civic duty. Without the economic output of our store, our country would be in the tank, and everybody would be living in unfurnished shacks like the twenty-five percent of people unemployed by one of the big seven. So here is what I want you to do if she comes back.” McTavish pulled up the protocol for resolving purchasing incidents on his handheld and asked that Randolph study the training material.
“Small disruptions create big problems,” Randolph read from the training material to show McTavish he was committed.
The recommended employee protocol for purchasing incidents was not what Randolph expected. The next time Tomlin showed up, Randolph was supposed to bring a neutralizing implement, or a magic wand to the LifeSupply staff, to shock her unconscious. Then he was supposed to escort her out in one of the transports and leave her at the main door. Seems a bit extreme, he thought as he looked at the example diagram, which showed a store employee extending a three-foot-long grey stick with what looked like a stress ball on the end, to shock a smiling customer.
“I know what you are thinking,” McTavish yelled a moment later from his office. “She won’t get hurt! Remember, civic duty!” Randolph finished the training and told himself that this was a good thing—it was an opportunity to stand out from the others on the purchasing enforcement team by doing the hard tasks.
Still, when Tomlin returned the next day, Randolph chose to procrastinate and walk instead of ride out from the control room to delay dealing with the problem. When he got to the pharmacy, he tried to explain to make it easier. He tried to explain that the company had paid her retirement allotment for the last two years, but LifeSupply was running a business, after all. He tried to explain that the company stopped insurance years ago to save money and that decision helped them pass on savings to customers like her, so she should be thanking him. Finally, he tried to explain, although he was dumbfounded at this one, that her Hypoxemia was not LifeSupply’s problem—anyone could contract the disease.
Tomlin didn’t care. Someone somewhere had repurposed her treatment money, and now her brain was dying because there wasn’t enough oxygen in her blood. Tomlin looked even more frail than the last time Randolph saw her. Her face had a grey hue with wrinkles around her mouth, and her cheeks clumped together in loose skin from having lost weight. She also repeated stories in between her snarky comments about Randolph’s inability to help, which usually started with, “Did you know that I worked here?”
The back and forth went on for ten minutes until Randolph knew what he had to do. He picked up the magic wand from where he left it and addressed Tomlin. “It might be better if you close your eyes.” This was not part of the protocol, and he didn’t know why he said it. Once Randolph pushed the wand into her rib cage, she fell out of her chair and shook on the industrial carpet. Randolph reached a shaking arm down to help her up, but she refused his help. An instant later she vomited all over the floor then curled up in the fetal position. After turning away and nearly passing out himself, Randolph called the transport. Driving out, Randolph told the other customers to make way as Tomlin’s head was resting on his shoulder and drool was falling from the side of her mouth.
“I don’t know what to think,” Randolph said. He was still shaken from the day’s events. “Jules, I electrocuted an old woman unconscious today!” Randolph raised his voice and paced back and forth in his living room. Jules looked indifferent as she scrolled through pictures of couches on the flat screen. “The disease is real though. The few places left not funded by the company all agree that Flo causes it. Of course, no one knows about it because the research is done out-of-company.” Randolph paused to consider what this meant—that no site would cover the finding if it was not funded by the company. “They use the stuff in our office too.” His voice sounded a little scared.
“Probably not as high of a dose. This lady probably just had some other medical condition before NHX,” Jules said without taking her eyes off the screen. “Do you like the brown or blue?”
“Jules!” Randolph yelled so hard his voice cracked. “You aren’t even taking this seriously!”
“What?! There is nothing I can do Randolph.”
“Today I noticed something else strange. A man was yelling at one of the service machines in the electronics department saying he would rather die than live without an all-in-one smart laundry. He was in tears.” Jules was silent and thought for a moment.
“Randolph, what is it you always tell me—the line you learned from your training?” Jules said, finally looking away from her screen.
“About the one in a million.”
“Oh, one doesn’t matter unless it’s a million,” he said, still pacing. It was a principle meant to ensure employees stayed focused on the big picture.
“Exactly,” Jules said pleased with herself for putting a tidy end to the conversation.
Tomlin did not appear again for two weeks, and by that time Randolph had almost slipped back into complacency. The store, or at least his section of it, was running smoothly. But beneath his satisfaction was an uneasy sadness. Randolph’s time in the data governance department before his transfer to Spruce Grove had instilled in him the idea that customers were just objects without personalities. Tomlin stood in stark contrast to this view and reminded him of how he needed to help his mother cut and eat her eggs because of her shaking hands. Her medical allotment was bound to run out in the next couple years as well.
The day Tomlin showed up again Randolph was sitting at his desk when the store’s live feed switched over to a woman holding a sign in front of the main entrance. It was drizzling out and Tomlin, who was now being pushed in a wheelchair, was wet, with her clothes hanging off her body. She led a small group and spoke into a loudspeaker. “Special Offer – Poison on sale inside LifeSupply!” The others chanted a “hey” and raised their signs in unison.
“Pull up followers,” Randolph said into the blue orb a minute later. “Over five million,” Randolph said to himself. “How is that possible?”
“I’ll tell you how it’s possible.” McTavish suddenly appeared over Randolph’s right shoulder again. “This woman hates America. She is a con artist trying to extract money from the company because of her own shortcomings and she is against free enterprise,” McTavish barked.
“Ahhhhh,” Randolph nearly screamed in frustration at the screen. “I can’t believe she came back.”
“I can. I’ll take care of it this time, Rando,” McTavish said as he walked back to his office and grabbed a magic wand with a few other items. “Just cut the feed when I get out there would you?”
“But it has over five million people following it right now.”
“Just put up an error message. No one will know the difference.”
“But if she is gone when the feed comes back...”
“Just do it Randolph!” McTavish raised his voice and turned away to walk out.
McTavish was average height with a gut, like a one-time athletic man that had spent most of his time chuckling with a mouthful of chips in front of a screen, but he walked with an overconfidence that belied his stature. Randolph froze and listened to the quiet hum and dings of the computers while he waited for McTavish to arrive outside.
“Who are you?” Tomlin asked as McTavish walked up to confront her. Her short brown hair, usually parted to the right, had been pushed straight down by the rain, which made her look desperate.
“Ma’am, did you know that there is now a law that says anyone obstructing economic progress of any kind can be jailed? Do you know what that means? Do you know what you are doing here with your little protest?”
“Keeping you from watching pornography on your handheld?” Tomlin said. McTavish smirked and continued to look at her with a smug satisfaction. “I’m just here exercising my rights. I just want this place...”
McTavish cut her off calmly. “We didn’t do anything wrong, and you don’t have any rights.” The other protestors stood in uneasy positions around McTavish, letting the rain turn them from damp to wet waiting for him to make the next move. “There is something you should understand. It is not the store’s goal to make your life any better, in fact, we want the opposite. As you have problems, we sell solutions. If you had any money, we would be happy to offer you your treatment.”
McTavish looked around at the crowd of roughly thirty people. “Why doesn’t everyone just go home?” He stood, hands on his hips, while Tomlin stared up at him without blinking. A second later she spat at his feet. McTavish chuckled and considered the small act of aggression, then prodded her with the magic wand in the neck. When Tomlin’s body went limp, he slung the woman over his shoulder. A few others rushed over to Tomlin to help, only to get shocked into unconsciousness as well. Randolph’s first instinct was to grab his handheld and tell someone, but when he realized that he was the person that it would get reported to, he put it down and sat in silence.
Tomlin woke up on a cot in a small basement room with advertisements on the walls. Randolph stood at the door, not quite sure why he came to visit.
“Come on in.” She looked at him and smiled.
“They’ll let you out soon,” Randolph said finally. “They just need to make sure people forget about the protest on the live feed.” Tomlin sat up.
“Oh, I know, I’m not worried. I’m dying anyway.” Tomlin chuckled as she looked up at a digital advertisement screen for a self-help program where a tan man holding a clock was saying, ‘It’s your time.’ “You know when my husband died, I didn’t even get any time off from sorting boxes. You would think a machine would be doing the job by now anyway. My son had already moved away, and I became really lonely. It felt like my life had just evaporated, like everything I spent my time doing meant nothing at all.” Randolph and Tomlin stared at the glowing light of the ad’s display. “Then this Flo stuff took hold, and I had to start using oxygen packs, and...it’s surprising how fast you lose control of your life.” I know it...Mom can’t even go to the movies anymore.
“I’m sorry,” Randolph said.
“That’s OK.” She said looking at the floor now, even more somber. “We’ve let this place trick us into thinking that our lives are only as valuable as the possessions we accumulate.” Tomlin lay down to rest, and Randolph sat quietly next to her for the next ten minutes in silence.
During his walk back through the store, Randolph noticed two mothers swinging at each other over a set of patio furniture, and a man stroking a power generator as if it were his cat. Everywhere he looked people seemed crazy. He thought about how he had to hand Tomlin her food in the cell, and the one thing the store still didn’t sell was that feeling of connection to another human. Back at his desk, Randolph looked up pictures of other cases like Tomlin’s — there were thousands — and found a picture of a man with a grey beard fighting to get back into a warehouse after having worked forty-eight hours straight.
“Interesting isn’t it, Randolph?” McTavish said looking at the monitor Randolph had open. Randolph turned around, looked down and saw the magic wand still in McTavish’s hand. “The company discovered early on that as more people struggled to keep up their way of life—rising living costs, bigger income gap blah blah—they bought less and actually saved their money. This was horrible, even if we only compete with the six other companies of our size. So, headquarters began experimenting with different ways to give people a little nudge. This is how they discovered Flo. Do you feel it now?”
“That’s the beauty of it, you feel the same in all other aspects of life, but underneath there is this raging beast lusting over the boat you have always wanted, or the plug-in that will make you look good to your neighbors.”
“It is a great way to keep people interested,” Randolph said. He wanted to sound excited, but his voice shook as he said it.
“Interested, ha! People are obsessed. And the important thing is they buy more and work longer after the chemical takes hold. These cases, like our friend Tomlin’s, that are starting to appear now are about what the company expected, but if a few people have to become vegetables to ensure we continue to provide for the economy, well, that’s OK.”
Randolph didn’t know what to say. “Good point. I just wonder if...”
Before Randolph finished, McTavish prodded him in the neck with the magic wand and he dropped out of his tall leather chair.