Original article was published by Nick Varey on Artificial Intelligence on Medium
Deus Est Machina (999 Staples)
The stapler clasped down with a dull thud once more, joining two more unknown pieces of information together, and once again the alarm in Zim’s earpiece rang out: Blip. One would have thought this annoying (and it was), but each time the earpiece blipped into his skull a number, assigned on a screen in front of where he and his colleague worked, went up. Once the number hit one thousand they were free to leave and return to their temporary dorms. Simple stapling with one aim: hit one thousand, get out, and rest the hands. Rinse and repeat.
The décor inside the room where the two men sat stapling was a faded cream ceiling met by drab brick. This design encircled them completely like some form of purgatory. The two men stapled in silence, the work was simple but required focus. However, every once in a while either of the men would break the vacuous noise.
“Hey Zim, man, why are you here anyway?” Tygan spoke, his rich baritone voice seemingly disconnected from his slight frame. He blew away long strands of dark hair that flopped in front of his vision.
Zim, who’d started to feel a sort of kinship with his sleek stationary tool, didn’t break his gaze from his work, “I saw the ad. I was promised work, but ultimately, a way up to level two of society. Simple. That’s where my family went so I’m going too.”
“Simple? Right.” Tygan’s laugh was laced with sarcasm. “A thousand staples a day to be able to sleep in a dorm that looks exactly the same as this dead space. And for who knows how long? I mean, have you even read any of-“
“Shut it, Tygan,” Zim shot him a look, “No talking. That’s what we were told. Don’t talk about what you see.”
“What are you afraid of, man? We haven’t seen anyone since we arrived, just that speaker, that screen and these staplers.” Tyan held up his stapler and rotated it in front of his face as if searching for answers, “Oh, and the walls. Who could forget the walls?”
“I don’t know what we are to be afraid of, and that’s what I’m afraid of. Frankly, I don’t want to find out,” Zim’s voice quietened further, “Now staple, Tygan.”
Zim looked down once again and began to staple, click. Blip. 987. His aching hands felt like they’d seize up at any moment, and he stretched them to keep the blood flowing. Tygan’s words rattled around his head, and he couldn’t deny that he’d seen some strange things on the endless supply of documents. Phrases such us: Government experiments, shocking rise of sentient AI. He shook his head trying to get his mind back to the task at hand, but he couldn’t unread what he’d seen. To Zim, one more night meant one day closer to getting out of this place and into the next level of society, level two. He’d see his Mum again, and it wouldn’t be in some dilapidated house on the outskirts of London, but in the glorious, crystallised light of a chandelier. See you soon Mum.
Monday. One thousand staples. Click. Blip.
Tuesday. One thousand staples. Click. Blip.
Wednesday. One thousand staples. Click. Blip.
This pattern of existence went on this way for two more weeks. The men spoke very few words to each other, and it dawned on Zim that he really knew nothing about his colleague. A couple of times they had decided to race to see who could get to one thousand, to which Zim had come out on top, his pride could not be hidden. The two didn’t speak again after that for a day, or maybe two.
Zim noticed that Tygan was becoming increasingly dishevelled with each day, with his white shirt showing signs of creases, his hair unkempt and eyes drooping. One day, fidgeting and frantic, Tygan broke the stapling silence with his own words:
“I can’t stand this anymore, aren’t you reading what these fucking documents are saying, man?” He held up a document like a surrender flag, perhaps that’s what he was doing.
“Don’t speak ab-“
“Yeah, yeah, I’m done not speaking man, this is some messed up shit, we’re being experimented on. Look here.” He pointed to a line on his document, it read: Government stepping down its duties.
“I’m not reading it. I won’t.” Zim refused, turning back to his stapler. He held documents in his hands that he was being drawn to himself, he couldn’t deny it.
“What? All this to get to level two of society? What’s even up there? You don’t know even know, do you? Once you’re up there you’re gone forever.”
“Shut up, Tygan.”
“You don’t even know.”
“Shut up, Tygan, I said.”
“Here, let me read this sentence for you.” Zim shook his head, trying to quell his own curiosity. “A deal has been arranged for all automated jobs. Total transfer to all artificial intel…”
In that instant the lights dropped to total darkness, even the screens had dimmed. The numbers now rendered obsolete.
“What the fuck is going on?” Zim shouted in shock. “Tygan, what have you done?”
Only the sound of their hastened breaths could be heard, and Zim must have snapped his stapler in a panic because it was jammed shut, stapled teeth gnawing two more cryptic documents.
“Shit. Shit man.” Tygan’s voice whispered through the blackout like a ghost. “Zim? Zim, what’s going to happen?”
“I told you I didn’t want to find out what would happen.”
A sound like a snake began to seep into the room. At first Zim could barely make it out but slowly it hissed louder. Images of him suffocating in an anaconda’s grip flashed in his mind. A small cry croaked out.
“Snakes?” Zim whimpered.
“No man, not snakes. Gas. I’m sorry Zim, see y-y-y-o…” Tygan’s you trailed off into a long, slumberous drawl and the next moment he was silent.
Alone in the deep black, Zim felt beads of sweat on his top lip, his stapler had slipped from his grasp. He tried to get up to shake Tygan but his legs felt cemented down. He didn’t have time to reach out because the next moment his consciousness fell just as dark as the room they had been working in.
Zim slowly awoke an unknown time later to find himself alone and rooted to a chair, he was heavy but not shackled. His clothes hadn’t been changed, his shoes remained, the shoes his mother had got him before she’d left. The room around him was draped in darkness except for a light that illuminated a stapler and documents, on a desk in front of him. The dull screen glared 999.
He tried to stand but as he got to his feet the familiar Blip rang out across the room and he found himself seated again, holding his head. His groggy mind swirled with confusion.
“Mr Bardo,” a voice spoke out, “You disobeyed the rule of secrecy in your contract. Now, you must staple indefinitely.”
“W-w-hat is this?”
“Staple.” The voice replied in a flat, oddly inhuman tone.
Zim wanted to resist but his hands moved forward against his commands and clutched the stapler. He held his breath and pushed down. Snap. But when the documents were left unattached Zim gasped out. In front of him, 999 remained unmoved.
“B-b-but there are no staples,” he spoke.
Again, Zim’s hands reached out and retraced the same motions, which was followed by the cruel and hopeless thud of the stapler. 999. What was this? Torture? There’s no way that they’d keep him here, whoever they were. He stood again, and on the Blip found himself once again seated.
“Staple.” And once again Zim did as commanded.
What kind of monster leaves a stapler without staples?
“Staple.” Zim tried to pull his arm in but he couldn’t fathom the energy. Upon reaching out it began to tremble, the stapler shook upon his touch.
“St-“ This time the voice stopped dead and as the room fell silent once more, Zim slumped forward onto the desk. His mind torn in two, how could he not control his own mind?
Above him, the speaker sparked into life once more, “Zim?”
“It’s me, man, get the hell out of there. I’m unlocking the door now,” And upon his word Zim felt air cool the back of his wet shirt. “Get out! Run!”
Zim dropped the torturous stapler, stood, and left the room in a slow zombie-like shuffle. He found himself in a long hallway, the white light surrounding him was like a passage through clouds. Doors as far as he could see indented the walls on either side in horrific symmetry. He initially found himself only able to move as if by dragging anvils with his ankles, but as he urged his mind forward his weight began to normalise. The further he made his way down the long white passage the more his movements felt fluid once more. All these doors. The problem with regaining his mind was the realisation that he had no idea where he was.
Upon finally reaching the end of the door at the end of the white hallway, Zim reached out to push but the sounds from beyond stopped him. A cacophony of clicks? What the hell was this place and was he ready to find out? Either way, this was the only way to go.
He pushed open the door.
Stepping into the almost unimaginably large factory and seeing lean robotic figures guarding the outer parameter walkways wasn’t what shocked Zim to the core; that was reserved for what he saw in the centre of the workplace. Rows of humans sat shuffling with staplers, rulers, protractors and sharpeners. Their gazes never averting their stationary equipment. Some had soiled themselves, pools of waste forming below their benches. He noticed sallow skin, and bloodied noses. But not one person spoke.
“You’re wondering where you are?” A voice spoke to him across the void.
Zim remained silent, in case, for some odd luck, the voice wasn’t spoken to him.
“Unfortunately, Mr Bardo, you read the documents. The hand over of all control to artificial intelligence is nearing completion. Behold the future of the human race.”
“Why would you need humans to staple and sharpen? It’s absurd. Why would you even need these things done?” Zim shouted back. No human face turned.
“It’s not the doing that needs to be done. We need to see if humans are willing to comply without resistance. If we can get the human race to staple then who else knows what we can get them to do.”
“B-but? What about society level two? The promise?”
“Old rules for old rulers, the Government which you knew is currently being dissolved.”
Zim turned to run but as he did a steel touch gripped his arm and he couldn’t pull away. As a second grip joined on his other side, Zim turned to the face a metallic orb of a head with an eerily human face printed upon it.
Suddenly his legs were flung out from below him, and as he was dragged down the hall, kicking, the voice spoke out once again, “Please return Human #3631 to his stapler.”