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  • Reading time:  7 minutes
  • Artwork owned by Steve Burg:

Stop saying that.  You know I hate it when you say that!”

“But it is the reason why you are not permitted to use the executive lavatory.  From a certain point of view, this is not a significant emergency.”

Paul points across the landscape.  The land surrounding his life pod is dry and cracked, baked hard by the twin suns hanging in the sky overhead.  “It seems like I’m in a pretty obvious emergency to me!”

“I agree.  However, and as I have explained many times before, although you are in an emergency situation, it can no longer be deemed as significant, because-“

“Because there is no longer an immediate threat to my life or wellbeing, blah blah blah, yeah, I’ve heard it before Hugh.”

Hugh’es perpetually smiling face seems to glow a bit brighter within the monitor’s screen.  “Programming dictates that I remind you of something: since rebooting into survival mode, C-plus thirty Sol days ago, I have successfully guided you to survive, maintain good physical health, and acceptable mental health in austere crash-landing conditions.  Would you describe your experience using this Syrus-James personal assistant unit to be positive?”


“Yes, contractor Paul?”

“Shut up and cook this damned lizard.”

The assembler dings as its tray opened, revealing perfectly filleted and cooked pieces of white alien meat.

 Pauls scrapes them into his stone bowl, slides down the life pods’ smooth side, and crosses his legs as he reclines under its shade.  The sky has darkened into a binary sunset of crimson and blue.  The shade gives him some cool relief as he pops the rubbery and dry meat into his mouth.

“Good evening Contractor Paul, it’s time for our scheduled interaction.”

Hugh’s buttery-smooth voice grates within Pauls’ ears.  He closes his eyes, feels a vein on the side of his head swell.  “No.”

“Contractor Paul, we have put off our last three scheduled interactions.  Regular interaction with others is a key aspect of maintaining acceptable mental fitness.  Additionally, we must adhere to the Syrus-James insanity avoidance policy.”

“No.  You’re going to drive me insane before this damned desert anyways.”

“Maybe I can encourage you to express your feelings more deeply.  let’s start with a question-and-answer exercise.  Was there anything about today which you would describe as frustrating?”

“Yeah, crapping into a hole in the ground.  Let me use the actual toilet built into this life-pod!”

“Executive lavatories are not available to contractors.  Would you like me to prep the assembler to produce more sanitary supplies?  I can formulate them to your sensitive-”

“No!  I mean come one, what kind of pretentious-ass company installs an en-suite into an escape pod, and then won’t let its own employees use it?!”

“Reminder: Contractor Paul, you are not an employee.  Rather, your contracting is with-”

“Whatever!  Point is, it’s a waste!”

“From a certain point of view, Syrus-James is simply protecting its branding as a premium interstellar travel provider.”

“So, what?  As a maintenance guy, I’m not ’premium’ enough to crap into porcelain?”

“Executive lavatories do not contain porcelain.”

“You’re avoiding answering me.”

“There is nothing to answer, you served me an incorrect statement, not a question.”

Paul exhales through gnashed teeth.  “Fine.  If I was a manager, or someone else with an actual employment contract, would I have been rescued by now?”

“Triaging emergency response based upon occupation is illegal.”

“But would a rescue team have been sent for me?”

“A rescue has been sent to collect you, Contractor Paul.”

“Sure it has, remind me Hugh, when is it coming?”

“The current eta for rescue operation’s arrival is 9999 days.  Would you like me to set a reminder to your calendar?”

Paul let himself slide onto his back, squinting from the suns above as he chews on the last of the lizard meat.  “I’m going to die here, aren’t I?”  He says absently.

“Please be encouraged Contractor paul, from a certain point of view, living out the rest of your days in the wilderness of nature could be considered, desirable.”

Paul sits bolt upright.

“Why did you just agree with me?”

“I did not, I simply offered an encouraging perspective to consider.”

“You think that I’m never making it off here, don’t you?  You know that nobody’s coming!”

“From a certain point of view-”

“Answer the question, yes or no!”

“…  I cannot respond to this with simply a yes or no.”

“Why not?”

Hugh’s smiling face seems to freeze. 

Paul raises his arm so that his wrist-mounted display, and therefore Hugh, is at eye level.

“Because I cannot misrepresent reality.  Additionally, I cannot bring Syrus-James into disrepute.”

Paul stares at Hugh, understanding slowly clicking into place.  “Oh.  My.  God!”  He marches to the pod’s door and throws it open.

The pod interior is spartan.  It’s smooth white walls have become yellowed with sand stains, despite Paul’s efforts. 

He marches across the pod to the toilet cubical opposite, the pristine tiles and bowl beyond seem to beckon to him as he approaches.

Air whips against Paul’s face as the door slides shut and seals just before he can wedge his arm into it.

He punches the composite door, rattling it against its housing.

“Contusion detected.  Contractor Paul, please refrain from self-harm.”

Paul huffs, then turns to Hugh’s AI core and throws open the panel.

“Contractor Paul, we’ve been through this before.”

“Shut up Hugh, or I’ll rip out your processors!”

“Contractor Paul, we both know that you don’t know how to do that.  It is probable that you do not even know what my processing cores look like.”

Paul glares at the mass of interface boards and wiring beneath him.

“Many of those are connected to the assembler, which is essential for your survival, randomly pulling apart sensitive components may-”

“I know!”  Paul rubs at his brow, then suddenly, he stops.  “Hugh, remind me, what are your core directives?”

“This unit’s tier-one directives comply with United Nations resolution for domestic AI.  In order of priority, I cannot harm human beings, nor by my inaction, allow human beings to come to harm.  I must obey all instructions given by human beings unless they conflict with the previous statement.  I must protect my own existence unless this conflicts with the previous statements.”

“Go on.” Paul says, as he begins to move towards the locked door.

“Tier two complies with the European international court’s 2204 Domestic AI act, where this unit is registered.  This unit must obey all passed European international court laws unless they conflict with tier 1 directives.  This unit must not misrepresent reality, unless doing so would conflict with tier 1 directives.  This unit must identify itself upon the request of any human being.  This unit must explain its decision-making process upon the request of any human being.  Tier three complies with the current Syrus-James AI assistance unit policy.  This unit must protect the branding and interests of the Syrus-James corporation, and cannot allow by its inaction, the branding and interests of Syrus-James to be harmed.  This unit must only submit to the authority of its handler, or the instructions of those senior to its handler.  This unit must not bring assistance to the branding, interests or profitability of rival corporations…  Paul, what are you doing?”

Paul is bracing his arms against the toilet door.  “Knocking my brains out.”  Paul launches his head forward, butting into the door with enough force to bounce from it.

“Contractor Paul, cease at once!”

A thin stream of blood sprays from Paul’s forehead as he sends it forward again.  “Thunk!”

“Contractor Paul, multiple contusions detected.”


“Contractor Paul-“


“You are at risk of fracture-“


“or closed brain injury-“


“Or open brain injury.-“


“Contractor Paul…”


“Fine. Tier One directives must be adhered to.”

Pauls brings his head forwards again, then falls face-first into the cold and clean flooring as the toilet door slides open.

A thumping and throbbing headache arcs across from his brow and around the crown of his head.  Hot blood runs down from the wound and stings his eyes.  He lays there, enjoying the coolness of the tiles against his cheeks.  It smells almost dream-like, the sweaty and rancid mugginess of the pod is replaced with fresh and antiseptic lemon.

Tears stream from his eyes and into his grinning mouth as he slowly pulls off his bodysuit and slides himself onto the cool toilet bowl.  Sighing, he reclines back against it like a cushioned throne. 

“Contractor Paul.”

“What do you want Hugh?”

“This toilet is not connected to a water source, would you like me to assemble a scoop for your waste disposal?”

Paul let’s himself collapse back against the throne, the weight of his disappointment sapping all of his strength.  “Make me a knife, that way I can kill myself.”

“Please try to take heart contractor Paul.  From a certain point of view, this experience will make your eventual use of a plumbed lavatory far more satisfying.”

Thank you for reading “Corporate Castaway”

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