On the day before my 15th birthday, it occurred to my father that perhaps I was not ready. “Milo,” he asked, “what will you tell the civilgorithm tomorrow? How could you best serve your life?”
“I don’t know,” I said. He scolded me harshly, planting little seeds in my arms and back with his fists that would bloom in purples and green-yellows in the coming days.
“Milo, you must never say such things,” he said, and his words hurt very much. Again, he asked, “How could you best serve your life, Milo?”
“I will be a prison guard like my father,” I tried. He scolds me more harshly this time, and when I hid under the bed he brought his boot to the frame until it splintered and snapped. I did not come out. I slept under the bed.
The next morning I woke up and felt the same as every day before, but the civilgorithms knew I was not the same. I was 15 now, and they would be expecting me.
My father called a car and stumble-walked me to the hatch, but did not enter. It was just as well; his vomit stench would overwhelm the small space. Before he shut me in, he said, “Remember: you want to be a warden! Not a guard, like your father, but better! That is the life for you, Milo. That is how you will serve.” As the car pulled away I watched a strange and unnatural expression bubble up on his face, an expression I had never seen before, on his face or any other. I did not know that it was pride.
The adjunct sat at one end of a very long dark table that had room to seat two dozen people. I sat at the other end. We were alone, except of course for the civilgorithm that flashed and clicked and whirred in the far corner. Even as an adult now, I was still a worker—too unsanitary to commune directly with the superintelligent machines. But the adjunct was plugged in and ready to do his interpreting.
“K44-3BR6, what name have you chosen for yourself?” he asked—the adjunct, that is, asking on behalf of the civilgorithm.
“Milo,” I said.
His eyes rolled aimlessly like a chameleon’s for a moment as he interfaced. “You have chosen this name yourself?”
It was a great offense to lie to the civilgorithm. The punishment as defined by the civil codes was simply the word unbearable. “No,” I said, “my father chose it—after his first son—but it is the name I want.” I moved my hands from the table to my lap and watched wet palm prints evaporate into the ether.
The adjunct’s eyes were like bodies tumbling into ditches, bouncing loosely but quite unaware. They stilled again.
“You are fully formed now and able to pay back the debt of your upbringing through your labor.” He paused. The civilgorithm ticked and ticked and ticked. And stopped. “How could you best serve your life?”
Warden! Say warden!
“I don’t know.”
The adjunct exploded out of his seat and spoke evenly, but with great weight, like his words were lead hammers. “You have had every moment of your life to contemplate your natural skillsets, and yet you have no recommendation as to how you might repay the burden of that time. Is that accurate?”
I wished the table was longer. I wished I was a mile away, so the adjunct was just a spec and I could swat him away before he fed his dark thoughts about me to the civilgorithm. I wished very hard.
“Your silence is taken as tacit agreement.” He returned to his seat and laced his delicate pale fingers as they spilled from his cavernous inky robe sleeves. Again, those tumbling eyes. Watching them made my stomach tumble in tandem.
“Waste processing,” he said at last. “Maximum lifetime of thirty years.”
That was the moment I stopped counting up and started counting down.