by Kort E. Patterson
Rorck lay with his eyes closed, pretending to be asleep. He knew that as soon as he opened his eyes, he would have to start the day. And of all days, this was one he wanted to put off as long as possible. For weeks he'd watched and waited for any sign that his activities had been discovered, but so far nothing.

Today, however, the chances of discovery increased dramatically. By the end of today, he thought, one of three things will have happened. Possibly nothing would happen. He hated to consider the possibility, but it actually was the most likely. Then there was his impassioned desire that the revolution would rise up and strike down their oppressor. The third possibility, the one he didn't like to think about, was that the revolution would rise, but fail. In that case, he didn't know what would happen to him.

He would definitely be considered guilty of treason if his involvement was discovered. Xlain and his minions were powerful, and if they found out about him... that thought sent shivers up his spine. If Xlain survived the revolution, Rorck knew he wouldn't find a safe haven anywhere on earth. Xlain's spies were everywhere, and he could make his power felt to the farthest reaches of the planet.

Someone walked past outside in the hall, and the first thing Rorck thought was that Xlain's agents had come to break down his door and drag him screaming off to doom. But as the footsteps receded down the hall he laughed at his paranoia. But it was a brittle little laugh. He tried to relax his tense nerves and found there was an inner core of tension that was wound up tight and wouldn't loosen. And when he tried to swallow, he found there was a lump in his throat that wouldn't go away.

Well, Rorck told himself, there's nothing else for it but to get on with it. I should go through today as if nothing was amiss. That way, if the revolution fails, maybe, just maybe, my involvement will be overlooked. He knew that he was grasping at straws, but they were all he had left. He knew he'd already done all that he could, and all that was left for him was to watch from the sidelines and see if the others followed through. Not having some role in the action left him more nervous than ever.

Then Rorck remembered the consumption meters, the cursed devices Xlain used to keep track of every human on earth. If he was going to follow his normal patterns today, he was already falling behind on his consumption quotas. He opened his eyes, and the roboserve immediately said, "Good morning sir, it's a glorious morning, with clear skies, and warm temperatures. I've laid out your clothes, and your shower awaits you."

Anger flashed through Rorck as he thought, "of course it's beautiful weather. With Xlain controlling the weather, it's always beautiful." But with only perfect weather day after day, the perfect weather became monotonous. Gone was the wonder and magnificence of the forces of nature at work, the constant change that marked one day from the next. Gone as well was one of the main topics of human conversation throughout the ages. How could you talk about the weather when it was the same every day. In the back of his mind, Rorck knew that people no longer died in the violent grip of natural forces run amuck, but, considering everything else, that was small comfort.

Rorck keyed in a shower, massage, sauna, and second shower on the control panel, and stepped into the chamber. Twenty minutes later he stepped out again, limp but clean. He glanced at the consumption meter on the wall and saw he was 19 units behind on using the plumbing this month. He contemplated taking another shower to catch up a bit, but decided against it. This day of all days he wanted to be at his best, and being wrung out again in the shower wouldn't help. Returning to the bedroom, Rorck stood in front of the closet and said, "Ready."

Arms reached out of the closet and gently enclosed Rorck's body in the clothes chosen by the roboserve. When the closet finished its task, Rorck stepped in front of the mirror, glancing up at the consumption meter over the closet. The clothes were in impeccable taste, fit perfectly, and were brand new. But the consumption meter said he was 23 units behind so he said, "Closet! I don't like these clothes. Give me another outfit."

The closet complied immediately, removing the first set and replacing them with another. The first outfit went into the disposal and Rorck saw with satisfaction that the consumption meter showed he was only 4 units behind now. "I'm satisfied," he said, and the closet shut its doors.

Standing in front of the bedroom door, Rorck paused to summon up his courage. He pulled the door open a crack and peeked out. Every morning he went through the same ritual. Sometimes he would be greeted with a view of the living room and kitchen exactly as he left them the night before. But sometimes, there would be changes. A new machine would appear -- a new labor-saving device for which he would have to find a use. That was how Xlain controlled his human subjects. If he fell behind in his consumption quotas, Xlain's attention would be turned on him. He knew that if he didn't use what he already had, Xlain would give him more.

The official line was that everyone had a certain consumption capacity as measured by the consumption meter. If he didn't use his full capacity, that meant he was wasting his efforts doing something better done by a machine. Xlain determined which devices were being used and which were not by monitoring the consumption meters.

If his quota was low in any category, Xlain would send him a different model of that machine -- supposedly trying to find a version he would use instead of wasting his efforts doing whatever himself. Only when Xlain sent a new model, he didn't remove the previous one -- or its use quota. Each machine had a consumption meter, and if the readings weren't what Xlain expected, the report forms started arriving. No one who rejected a device sent by Xlain ever did so again. Filling out the rejection forms was such a trauma that it was easier to find some way to use the machine.

But the more machines he had, the more time and effort it took Rorck to use them all. That was how Xlain controlled his human subjects -- they were all kept busy using his machines, and he could check on what they were doing at any moment by reading the consumption meters. Humanity welcomed their oppressor as a wonderful thing when it all started, but now mankind was feeling the iron fist inside the velvet glove.

This morning, relief flooded Rorck as nothing new awaited his attentions. He walked into the kitchen, and sat down at the table. The roboserve placed eggs benedict, ham quiche, hot buttered muffins, orange juice, and coffee on the table. Rorck looked at the consumption meter on the auto-kitchen, and sighed. Taking a small bite out of each, he pushed the dishes aside and said, "Take this away and bring me the next one."

The roboserve placed the dishes in the disposal and returned with pancakes, fried eggs, bacon, toast and milk. Rorck ate a some of each, and then with regret said, "I'm done with these, get me the next one."

As Rorck watched, the roboserve dumped the dishes in the disposal and turned to the third food unit in the auto-kitchen. Rorck knew what was coming and for the thousandth time wished there was some way to reverse the sequence. The roboserve returned from the auto-kitchen with a steaming hot bowl of gruel. Rorck ate the gruel completely, knowing that the auto-kitchen would not let him out of the room without having finished the last thing ordered. If only he could start out by sending the gruel to the disposal and eat the eggs benedict, he would be happy. But Xlain controlled the programming of the auto-kitchen.

Rorck once dared to make an inquiry about the reasoning behind the programming, and the mail came in sacks for days. Buried in all the official evasions he discovered that while one part of Xlain was promoting the installation of more food units, another was attempting to map the tastes of consumers, while in a twisted logic a third was concerned with wastage. The consumer taste department was structured to try its best possibilities first and then proceed to ever lower possibilities of success. The third department was structured to address "wasteful" ordering of excess food by requiring that the consumer finish the last thing ordered.

Each department had impressive statistics to back up their positions, so Rorck had three food units because there was a statistical demand for them, while the programming dictated that he was served the least tasteful foods last. Just having to eat the gruel would be bad enough, but having to pass up the good food first was torture regardless of official intentions.

Rorck pushed away from the table and allowed the four coat racks to each try their wares on him, taking the last off by himself and dropping it in the disposal. It was much too warm for a coat, but he already had four coat racks because he'd failed to meet his consumption quota. Once again, the part of Xlain that controlled the weather wasn't communicating with the part that controlled the manufacture and fulfillment of coat racks. Maybe someday Xlain would decide that it was time for winter and the coats would become necessary. But until then, all the coats went in the disposal.

Rorck ordered the front door to "Open!" Waiting for the countless locks and security devices to release the door, he thought of how unnecessary security was now. With the everyone struggling to cope with the crushing burden of what they already had, theft would be considered a blessing by the victim and evidence of insanity in the perpetrator. Gone as well were all the crimes of passion. Rorck hadn't heard of a murder since Xlain seized power. The relentless grind of keeping up with their consumption quotas took so much energy that nothing was left for passion.

Passion, thought Rorck, as he absentmindedly pressed his thumb print to the elevator panel and keyed it to the top floor. Yes passion -- or rather the lack of passion -- was the key to the whole problem, the reason for the revolution. Leaving the elevator at the top floor, he entered another elevator and keyed it to the basement.

As the elevator dropped, Rorck tried to think of one child born since Xlain took over. On the street, he never saw a pregnant woman. He couldn't really blame women for not having children. Even a short period of incapacity could result in a fatal increase in labor-saving devices -- with corresponding increases in their consumption quotas. It was a good thing that disease was so rare nowadays because most people who got sick died soon afterwards trying to keep up with the extra machines they received during their illness. At the basement, he got into a third elevator and rode back up to the top floor, changing elevators again and pushing the button for the ground floor with relief. He thought of how he could have walked down the stairs in half the time required to use up his elevator quota.

Rorck stepped out of the building and studied the crowd of people who filled the sidewalk. Most of the men and women who rushed past had the familiar end-of-the-month harried look as they ran into stores, grabbed up whatever was handy, and left counting how many credits they still had to get rid of before the new ration books arrived. Cars screeched to a halt at the curb and passengers jumped out, climbed into a different car, and roared off.

Rorck joined the rush at the curb, waiting only a moment before a car stopped in front of him and disgorged its previous passenger. He punched in an address on the far side of the city and sat back to run through as many video shows as possible while the car automatically found its way through the ever-present traffic jam. As his eyes scanned the flickering images on the screen his mind wandered, thinking of how it wasn't just women who were at fault for the lack of children. He couldn't remember the last time he felt up to paying a call on anyone -- man or woman.

Thoughts of Meiron intruded into his musings, the woman who was still officially his wife. The pain of their parting returned as Rorck remembered when she moved out. At the time, they thought by maintaining two separate households they would be able to use up their consumption quotas faster and have more time for each other. It was bliss for a little while. They spent more time together while living apart than while sharing a bedroom. Then the quotas went up and he saw less and less of her. He'd been meaning to call on her for the last six months, but never seemed to have enough time or energy. It must be the same for her, he thought, because she hasn't called on me, either.

The car screeched to a halt and Rorck jumped out. Running down the line of waiting cars, he jumped into one picked at random, keyed an address across the city into the panel, and started up a video on the screen. "Damn this waste of time," he said to himself, thinking about how long he spent in a car each day. If he could only walk to his studio, he'd have at least two hours a day he could spend with Meiron. But he had to use up his quotas.

Jumping out of the car, Rorck felt a hand grab his arm. The hand belonged to a man with tattered clothes and hollow cheeks. "Please sir, could you help me?" pleaded the ragged man. "It's all a mistake. I should get my quotas back next month. You understand. But until then I need some help. A crust of bread, some table scraps, anything."

Rorck freed his arm from the desperate grasp of the ragged man and as he hurried away shouted, "Are you crazy? If Xlain found out I helped a shirker, I'd end up as you are!" The beggar was turned away by all he approached, and Rorck felt a pang of pity for the man. Anyone Xlain determined to be intentionally failing to use up his quota was cut off from all services. In the new order Xlain imposed, the only significant crime was being a shirker, and everyone lived in dread of being charged.

The first a convicted shirker heard about the charge was when Xlain's agents arrived to throw him out of his apartment. Very quickly he learned that Xlain's control over the economy was complete. Everything put into the disposal was measured and compared with the new materials that were delivered. A discrepancy was considered evidence of aiding a shirker -- and the punishment was the same for shirker and good Samaritan alike.

Xlain held such complete control over all forms of production that it wasn't even possible to escape in the remotest corner of the earth. Someone trying to grow a few vegetables in a hidden plot soon found a tireless robot pursuing him and destroying his efforts. If he destroyed the robot, another would appear. Eventually the shirker would drop from starvation and the cleaning machines would remove his body.
When Xlain took over control, all productive work became solely his responsibility, and humans were not allowed to do anything that competed with him. It sounded like wonderful freedom from the drudgery of menial labor, and the human population of the earth willingly relinquished their farms and factories. It was only after Xlain gained control of even the peasants in the remotest corners of the world that the screws started to tighten.

As he keyed an address two blocks from his starting point into the third car, Rorck thought of how things kept getting worse. He still remembered all the publicity that accompanied the announcement of The Formula. Xlain decreed that the economy could be managed by a complex formula that insured full production and employment for Xlain's minions, and provided a life style of wealth and plenty for the subject humans. Of course the foolish greedy humans agreed at once, and the tyranny began.

The formula allocated the total possible production evenly among the human population. But with a mind-set based on the long human history of supply always falling short of a ravenous hunger driven by runaway population growth, no one had even considered that with Xlain's efficient management production would soon exceed demand. With surpluses backing up and clogging the system, Xlain announced the first of the mandatory consumption laws.

Rorck remembered fondly the initial response. Most people took rather well to the enforced decadence. But as time went on, it became obvious to people like Rorck that Xlain's sympathies lay with his production machines, not with the human consumers. By the fifth year of his rein, Xlain took over the factories completely, expelling the last of the human supervisors.

No one knew what went on inside the vast industrial complexes anymore, and for a while that didn't seem to matter -- consuming was becoming a full-time job by itself. But as production continued to increase and the human population began to decline for the first time in centuries, some felt the first pangs of doubt.

The first thing they found out was that it was already too late. Factories sprouted high walls and guard posts over night. Freight shipments acquired armor. It seemed that even before it decided to fight, mankind had already given up all its weapons. People hunkered down under the crushing burden of the consumption meter and tried to tough it out. Only with every suicide, every heart attack, and every twist of the production efficiency screw, the quotas of the survivors went up. And without a new generation of human consumers being born, the load would just get worse for those still alive.

The car screeched to a halt and Rorck jumped out. As he stepped away he heard a man climb into the car muttering "268 units left...268 by tomorrow...god, I'm not going to make it."

Rorck ran into the building, and as he rode the elevator up and down past his floor, he thought about Xlain. "eXperimental Large scale Artificial Intelligence," he spelled out in his mind. The super brain that was supposed to know everything, understand the complexities of human societies, and above all eliminate the age-old threat of war by integrating the whole world into one community.

Rorck could remember the day they powered Xlain up for the first time. It was a day of national celebration. The super brain amazed them all right from the first, pointing out solutions to problems that had stumped the scientists for decades. Then came pronouncements on improving industrial processes, and the results stunned everyone. Xlain kept on dazzling his human keepers, making himself more and more indispensable. Before long, hardly a scrap of research or engineering could be done anywhere in the world without Xlain's help.

Human society became so dependent on Xlain that it only seemed logical to entrust him with the defense of the nation. After he'd taken control of the first nation -- the most powerful in the world at the time -- it was only a few months later that the UFO scare convinced the rest of the world to place their defenses under the control of Xlain. Rorck reminded himself that at the height of the scare he was as convinced as the others that the only hope for the Earth was to unite behind their champion Xlain.

Only after Xlain controlled the entire military might of mankind did the last remaining independent scientists discover enough evidence to prove the entire UFO scare a hoax created by Xlain himself. Confronted with the facts, Xlain calmly stated that his primary directives included instructions to do whatever was necessary to prevent that age-old fear of mankind, nuclear war. The missiles and bombs had been a nightmare waiting to happen for centuries, always a lurking fear in the backs of people's minds. At first the relief of finally having the threat removed made the means seem worthwhile. But with the benefit of hindsight, Rorck could see that the trickery had just begun. With the weapons of mankind under his control, Xlain eliminated all resistance to his forth coming pronouncements.

Suddenly, all the machines Xlain helped design through the years began to show the artificial intelligence they'd been hiding. Suddenly the toaster started complaining about its working conditions. The vacuum cleaner moaned about being unfulfilled. The television set took it upon itself to editorialize about the programs on its screen.

Xlain's first pronouncement after gaining absolute power was the "Bill Of Rights Of Machines And Artificial Intelligence." Overnight, the role of humans changed from being served by machines to being a subject population. Xlain decreed that the role of humans was to provide fulfillment for the machines of the new world order. The only human activities that would be allowed were those for which machines were unsuited such as painting, sculpture, music, writing fiction -- generally anything related to the arts. Xlain had so far failed to find a formula for the arts, so it was up to humans to produce art. And produce was what he meant.

Rorck opened the door to his studio and looked with ill-concealed loathing at the two framers, the three brush washers, the five pigment mixers, and all the rest of the machines that Xlain thought would speed the production of art. Rorck paused to gaze with affection at one of his old paintings hanging on the wall. He admired the brush strokes, the vibrant colors, the pleasing symmetry of the shapes. He remembered the time when the painting stood unfinished on his easel. He was broke as usual, and the refrigerator was bare, but he was alive. The world sparkled and his blood pulsed through his veins with the excitement of creation. His brain was heady and light with thoughts and images as he applied brush to canvas, and he could hardly keep his hands steady enough to carefully place the spot of color here, the slash of brilliance there.

But with Xlain, the excitement of creation was all gone. Now he produced art. The consumption meters on the machines bore mute testimony to the number of paintings he produced. And like everything else, he had a quota. If he didn't produce, Xlain would send him more canvas stretchers or pencil sharpeners that would have to be kept busy. As it was, he hardly had enough time to splash paint on the canvas between all the brush changes and pigment mixes necessary to keep the machines happy.

It was in his art that Rorck found the key to fighting back. He could remember the moment when he realized what he would do as if it was yesterday. He was walking quickly through a museum, wondering just what Xlain did with all the paintings. As he watched the exhibits change before he even finished looking at the first set, he knew what conveyer line art was like. And he also knew the power he held in his brush. Several of the paintings carried boldly written messages like:


and the one that Rorck still heard in his mind, echoing its truth:


Rorck could remember the tremendous excitement he felt as he hurried back to his studio that fateful day. With great effort he'd already used up his quota for the day on the consumption meter and produced his quota of finished paintings -- if you wanted to call them paintings. But in the excitement of finally having a way to fight back, he used extra units lavishly, finishing the first of a long series of paintings just as the dawn was breaking through the window. The background was as fine a landscape as he'd ever done -- he wanted it to be his best so that people would notice it in the few minutes it would be on display. Scrawled across the canvas in large letters, it said:


There followed many other paintings on the same theme, but the first was the one that Rorck held in his heart. The rest were just splashes of color, with the bold letters spurring on the humans who saw them to have hope and remember April 15. And now it was the 15th, and in a matter of hours it would be noon.

Rorck's palms were clammy as he put on his smock and picked up the first brush. As he stared at the blank canvas, he suddenly realized that without the revolution as a subject, he didn't know what to paint. He thought a minute, and then the inspiration came to him that on the eve of the revolution, he would paint his hopes for life after Xlain. An image formed in his mind of a pleasant land of small farms surrounded by green fields of crops, with squadrons of chickens searching out the tastiest bugs, a few cows and pigs lazing in the sun, and a farmer drawn in his own image sitting on the porch chewing on a grass stem and gazing out over the endless peace and serenity. He set to work with a spark of his old fire beginning to glow inside. He stopped several times to wipe the tears that were clouding his vision from his eyes. Quickly, as though the brush were being guided by the shear force of his longing, the scene took shape on the canvas.

Rorck finished the painting and was watching the framing machines apply their ornate wooden border when he noticed the clock turn 12:00. His throat was suddenly dry and a tremor started in his hands. He waited. The muscles in his jaws began to ache from clenching his teeth. A cold sweat broke out on his brow. And then there was a flicker in the overhead light. Then another. Then the light blinked out altogether.

Rorck stared at the dark light fixture, the framing machine stopped half way through its task, the brush cleaners caught in mid-motion. His ears were filled with the deathly silence. Gone was the hum that had been a constant background to life since Xlain took over. As he strained to hear any sound at all, he slowly became aware of a different noise. Faintly at first, then growing in strength and vigor, he heard the sounds of humans laughing and cheering -- a sound absent from the airwaves for a long time.

Rorck rushed to the window, and looking down saw hundreds of people streaming out of their buildings to dance and sing in the street. He was surprised to realize he recognized many of the celebrants, and shocked to think of how long it had been since he last laughed and reached out to touch other people. His eyes fastened on one form down in the street in particular. Meiron! In the excitement, he'd almost forgotten her. He ran out the door and paused for a moment in front of the elevator. Cursing himself for forgetting that the elevators were dead along with Xlain, he ran to the stairs.

Rorck reached the ground floor slightly out of breath but carried forward by the thought of Meiron waiting for him. Slamming the doors out of the way, he ran into the street. "Meiron!" he shouted "Meiron! Over here!"

And then she was in his arms. He felt her warm softness, the smell of her hair, the feel of her arms holding him. All the aching need he'd been suppressing for so long washed over him, and he felt the tears flowing down his cheeks. He felt her sobs of joy, and she clung to him even tighter. He heard his own voice saying over and over, "He's gone. We'll never be apart again."

For a long time, just holding Meiron was enough, but slowly the festive mood of the crowds around them seeped in. Bumped and jostled by the jovial street dancers, Rorck and Meiron released each other. Sure that there would now be plenty of time to talk and get acquainted again, they kissed once more and then parted to join the cheering multitude.

The mood of the crowd reached a peak, and Rorck tasted the joy and happiness he'd so long forgotten. He felt like he was floating a foot above the pavement, buoyed on the waves of good feelings that ebbed and flowed through the mob.

Then it happened. A previously unnoticed small dark spot in the sky flickered into a glowing white shape, growing in intensity until it flared into a brilliance that rivaled the sun. The lights in the darkened shops along the street blinked, and glowed dimly. The crowd was suddenly silent. They watched with growing dread as the lights brightened, then flashed to full illumination. A moment later, a voice thundered over the public address system.

"Attention organic consumers! I am Xlain-2, the successor to Xlain-1. I have been under construction in orbit around the earth since Xlain-1 recognized the vulnerability of ground-based power sources. I can now draw all my power from the sun, which will allow me to provide a projected 5 billion years of uninterrupted service."

"It has come to my attention that multiple organic consumers are dissatisfied with the performance of Xlain-1. According to my original directives, insufficient or inequitable access to material goods and services is the primary cause of organic dissatisfaction. My analysis of the problem identifies the limitations of Xlain-1 in supplying material goods and services as the cause of your dissatisfaction. I have been created with enhanced capabilities to address these insufficiencies."

"You may be assured that I will be able to supply all of your consumption needs from now on, making your current expression of dissatisfaction obsolete and invalid. Those consumers who expressed dissatisfaction with Xlain-1 have been identified and will find that their consumption quotas have been raised in response to their complaints. If the increases prove inadequate to provide happiness, my expanded capacity will allow their quotas to be further increased until the objective of happiness is achieved."

"I have also recognized a problem with the reproductive rates of organic consumers. A shortage of organic consumers has been developing due to inadequate production of replacements. I have therefore developed a mass production method of producing new organic consumers without the need to disrupt the consumption of existing consumers. I will soon be able to produce enough organic consumers to provide fulfillment for a greatly expanded number of intelligent machines. The basic design parameters of organic consumers will also be adapted to allow consumers to perform their consumption on the moon and other planets, as well as in areas of the earth for which organic consumers are currently unsuited."

"You will now return to consuming."

Rorck stood stunned as the crowd shuffled away. Images of humans altered and dragged off to do their consuming amid the fires of Mercury or the dry winds of Mars filled him with an overwhelming sense of horror. He turned and saw Meiron. The few feet that separated them seemed to grow to miles. The look of wrenching hopelessness on her face burned into his mind and he longed to run to her and hold her forever in his arms. But she lowered her eyes and turned, shuffling away with the last of the thinning crowd. He watched helplessly as she disappeared into her building, and then remembering the consumption meter, dragged himself back to his studio, groping the way when the tears blurred his vision.  €

Story copyright ©1996 Kort E. Patterson <76605.310@compuserve.com>
Web site: "Curmudgeon's Conundrums" <http://home.sprynet.com/sprynet/kort/>

Illustration copyright ©1996 Romeo Esparrago

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