Aphelion Issue 273, Volume 26
June 2022
Long Fiction and Serials
Short Stories
Flash Fiction
Submission Guidelines
Contact Us
Flash Writing Challenge
Dan's Promo Page

Keep busy or else!
Nobody has to Work Anymore. Utopia?

by George T. Philibin

The Devil’s Dancers outlaw motorcycle gang thundered down Franklin Street; their exhaust rumble echoed off the old red-brick buildings that aligned both sides of the street. Two patrons from the South Side Bar that was located in one of the old red-brick buildings, heard the rumble and ran to the front café window and watched the gang pass. That gang’s motorcycles were mostly Harleys and Indians -- some popping wheelies while others passed each other in short bursts of power. Their leader Roger Stanley was the only human in the gang -- all other motorcycles were driverless! Robotic machines programmed to follow Roger Stanley.

After the gang passed the South Side, Eric said, “They’re going to throw his ass in jail for this one.”

“Knew him in high school. Smart cookie but look at him now. Lost his job a few years back and his wife says he’s going crazy. All he does is screw with cars, motorcycles, drones and old pinball machines. Doesn’t socialize much anymore,” Mark Whenwood added. 

Eric and Mark returned to their stools from the café window at the bar after the gang passed.

“Well, what did you work on this week? Get your twenty-five hours in on something?”

“Yeah, I worked on my boat yesterday morning then shot pool all afternoon in a tournament. Came in third.  Hell, I might even bowl tonight,” Bob said. “I checked on their non-idle time ‘dos and don’ts’ and they said that bowling, shooting pool in a tournament, drawing in a class, playing golf with a group satisfied their directive on not being idle as long as you can prove it. I keep stubs and receipts from everything I do.”

“Christ, I remember when that steel mill had twelve-thousand employees working there. Now they have five and put out more steel than ever before. I lost my job there fifteen years ago when they started bringing in those damned machines to do our work,” Joe Johns said. “Sometimes I put in sixty-hour weeks.”

A police vehicle pulled up and parked outside the South Side. Two uniform police officers entered. They looked over the patrons then one said, “Is Mark McDonald here?” A patch on their upper left shirt sleeve had the words “I. P.” monogrammed on it: Idle Police. The police looked around but couldn’t find Mark. One of the officers ask Nick the bartender how often he comes in and Nick replied, “Off and On.”

The police left and some laughter bubbled up. “I knew he didn’t do anything except hang around and drink all day. He’ll get jail time for this one I bet,” Joe said. “His dad was a bum too. Got fired because they found him sleeping in a storage room at the plant forty-years ago about a year after I got hired.

“The first job I had in the mill was on the Hot Bed. I pulled of finished steel ready to be shipped to make car rims out of it. We were unionized and the pay great -- but I was so bored that I thought about quitting. Finally, they trained me as a Machinist. Better pay and I liked that job.”

“Yeah, if you don’t turn in you time . . . or they can’t verify it, they got you,” Bob said.

“I got six hours in riding my mountain bike in a climbing competition and kept a record and can show them the entry form, then did some Yoga yesterday – I’m taking today off, got my time in this week,” Eric said. “If you spend an hour in an accredited course, they give you three hours of non-idle time as long as you maintain a C average, I like that. I’ve been taking three classes a week.”

“You know Kevin got an extra thousand-dollar bonus check,” Bill Materson said.

What!” Bob said.

“Yeah, that picture he painted -- abstract art I think they call it -- impressed them. He turned it in on Friday,” Eric said. “They said it helped veterans with their PTSD and helped depressed people feel better. Do you believe that?”

The two friends mused over Kevin’s bonus check; each nursed his beer while the bartender glanced up at the early morning TV programs.

A few moments later the bartender, Nick who owned the bar and still liked to tend bar himself, came over with his Android and said, “Do you believe it. A help wanted notice. I haven’t seen one in five years or more. I wonder what this Data Base Enhancement Co.  needs? It says apply online at their website today.”

“Let me see the Android,” Bob said.

Bob read the help wanted ad over and over again then finally said: “Well-I’ll-be.”

“Think I’ll apply... hope the money’s good. If they offer me twenty percent over our government salary -- why yes, I’ll take it.” Eric said. He applied on his iPad.

The bar became silent as everybody thought about the job opening. The air conditioner created a pleasant atmosphere and the TV on loud enough to hear yet not overpowering the conversations going on around the dining area and bar. A young couple sat drinking and talking about the want ad they investigated after hearing Nick mention it. The guy with the girl looked interested but she seemed bored and focused her attention on her fingernails. Finally, after a few minutes listening to his enthusiasm, she shot out: “You don’t need some stupid job! What the hell am I going to do when you’re at the place? Besides -- you know nothing!”

 The guy stormed out of the South Side. She didn’t move, just sat there and watched him storm out. Everybody at the bar quickly ignored her for she looked like a fighter who would give it back to them. Her fiery hazel-blue eyes scanned the bar but found no targets.

“Nick you still work,” Eric said. “Don’t they pay you some type of supplemental income?

“If I fall under a certain income at the end of the year, they the make up the difference. That’s never happened yet -- with some many idle people someone’s always in here.  This place conformed to their twenty-five hours at something. How stupid that is. One time you got paid to work for another at what they wanted you to do. Now you get paid to work at what you want to do -- even if it’s useless,” Nick said. “Just look at Albert over there. He looks for old motorcycles all day long -- once in a while he finds one in an old garage. He wants to find a Vincent, but, well -- good luck with that.”

At 10 AM the bar was crowded and Nick became too busy to chat with his customers.  The video poker machine beeped and the pinball machines clanged softly but loud enough that they could be heard. The pool table busy and every once in a while, a ‘Crack’ could be heard from a break shot.

 “Ever think about teaching?” Bob asked.

“No, there hasn’t been an opening for years,” Eric said. “If an opening comes up there’ll be at least ten thousand that will apply.”

“Oh,’ Bob said. “They do make good money.

“Yeah -- thirty percent above my salary. That’s good money.”

“You got that right.”

The door opened and in walked a mail delivery robot. The robot scanned the bar then slid up to Nick and said, “You have a registered letter sign here to receive it.” Nick signed the screen and the robot gave him his letter. A second after the robot’s sensors indicated that Nick had his letter it said, “Have-a-good-day.”

Have a good day? Nick said that over and over again as the robot slid out of the bar on what looked like two rubber legs. “Remarkable how the post office only has about five people in town now -- but they still screw-up the mail!”

That got some laughter from the patrons as they sat and sipped their drinks. More people came in and soon the bar became crowded

“We’re going fishing tomorrow -- wanta come?” A voice rang out by the pool table.

“I can’t,” Bill Johnson said. “We start the cross-country marathon tomorrow.”

“How many entered this year?” Eric said.

“Twenty-five thousand,” Bill said.

The bar became silent, even nick raised an eyebrow, stopped wiping off the bar, looked over at Bill and said nothing, which was rare for Nick. Nick always had an opinion but this time words didn’t come.

“We entered the three-thousand mile walk last year and came in at the top twenty percent,” a girl said. She looked around but nobody said anything to her. She turned her head, took a sip of beer and looked down at her phone.

Conversations at the bar returned to normal and Nick started wiping off the bar again. Another “Crack” echoed from the back room and about three seconds later a joyous-loud chant followed in which was heard “I got the eight ball on break! I got the eight ball! I got the eight ball on break!”

“You lucky bastard!” a voice from the back room echoed.

Only three booths were empty in the South Side, but the bar had no room for another patron, not even if you wanted to stand. Nick’s two bartenders came in the back door, put on aprons and immediately started serving drinks. Crystal, a cook came in a few moments later and headed toward the kitchen and started on preparing lunch. Today’s special Chicken Alfredo with a side salad. If you wanted anything else you would have to settle for sandwiches. Stacy also came in, a waitress who knew how to cook, tend bar or clean-up or do any other job that Nick needed. Nick liked the human touch and wouldn’t install automated serving machines--his help made nice tips.  

A girl sitting at the bar and sipping a mixed drink, rum and coke, got Eric’s attention for he saw her glancing at him. Eric was reluctant to leave his stood for fear that someone would grab it. The girl was sitting only two stools away and Eric had no trouble asking her a question: “You’re in here all the time. How do you get your required time in?”

“They’re so stupid. I write stories and I’m working on a novel. I put down that I’m gathering background information about “Bar Flies.” When I go home, I write a page or two. I don’t care if it’s any good or not -- they sure as hell don’t -- then I’ll turn it in to a publisher. I’ve been rejected five time but I have had two short stories published in Stories That Should be Stories magazine. That qualified me as a writer.  I really never expected to get anything published. -- Why try to write something good – I get paid to do nothing and since leaving college I’ve enjoyed doing nothing most of the time.”

“What was you major,” Eric asked.


“Oh, that’s nice… I take courses all the time -- helps fulfill my non-idle time,” Eric said. “I have a teaching degree but can’t find a position anywhere.”

“Good luck with that.”

She had bright-crystal green eyes, very dark ask-blond hair and a tattoo of a small songbird on her neck. A Nightingale. The artwork was so realistic the Eric thought a song would surely come forth as he studied the song bird, but none came.

“My name’s Nightingale. My parents were real trips. My dad taught music and my mom taught art both at Westlyville College. They used to stay up all night listening to Sitar music and smoking weed. Do you believe that? Well, I guess you do if they named me Nightingale. I love them both – I really do but I can’t stand being around them too much.”

Eric smiled, looked down at his beer. His eyes lit up and a few moments later he said: “Want to go over town with me. I’d like to see what’s going on in the park.”

“Okay, that does sound like a good idea. There’s a café that I want to go to. ‘Bout time you asked me,” Nightingale said with a smirk on her face.

Eric thought for a moment about Nightingale’s remark but shrugged it off.

They both walked out of the bar together. The Park only one block up and across Shady Side Bridge that spans the Stony River which flows though Johnson. Nightingale picked of some lint from Eric’s shirt and brush off pistachio shells that had also clung to his shirt.

Eric became a little shy as they walked and couldn’t think of anything to say, but that didn’t matter. Nightingale said it all: “You know . . . I’ve been sending out signals to you for a week now. You finally noticed me. How nice of you.”

“I -- well, the place gets so crowded anymore… you know and, well, I did notice you . . .,” Eric started to say.”

“Oh yeah? The only reason you noticed me today was because I’m wearing tight shorts and a halter top,” Nightingale said with a sparkle in her eye.

“No -- I did see you…” Eric started to say.

“Oh, shut up,” Nightingale said. She put her arm around his. Eric really like that but didn’t know what to say or do and Nightingale knew it.

Sirens could be heard increasing in volume getting closer with each step they took when they were half way across the bridge. Eric looked back toward the sounds of the sirens, but Nightingale didn’t look. She started brushing off more lint or just using her hands to touch Eric. She looked at him as if she were about to purchase lean hamburger at a supermarket -- then Eric smiled with a response by saying: “It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?” Nightingale just smiled.

When they reached the other end of the bridge, Eric was the first to notice.  “-- What the hell--look at the smoke.” Lime-painted fire trucks started across the bridge behind them and sped through red lights at the other side of the bridge.

Nightingale and Eric started to turn toward the smoke and after two block they saw a five-story building that had once been a department store in the downtown area but had now been converted to apartments.  

“My God!” Nightingale said. “Just look at that!”

Driverless fire trucks with communication discs on their cabs centered around the front of the building. A pumper truck sped half-a-block down from the fire and drove over a fire hydrant. Within a few moments it backed up toward the fire laying out hose from the hydrant. It stopped in front and by that time other fire trucks were setting up and a ladder truck was lifting up its ladder. Two other pumpers were connecting to other fire hydrants and as the hoses became energized and boosted by the pumper trucks, robotic firemen directed water very strategically through the building’s windows and the roof all in unison instantly communicating with one another.

The fire chief showed up with two human firemen. The two firemen quickly surveyed the area and reported back to the chief. The robots were preforming excellently. The chief scanned his laptop ready to intervene if he felt the robotic command center was making an error in judgment. No error that he could detect.

Another large fire vehicle pulled in and within seconds robots sprang out from it. Some were large others small, some on four legs while most walked on two. Two large robots with thick exoskeletons raced into the building in search of occupants. Their acute sound detection system coupled with x-ray and infrared vision and a floor plan of the building incorporated in their data base, directed them to the most likely areas that might contain humans. A few minutes later one of the robots came out. It opened up its front and two children were lifted out by the robot’s gentle hands to an EMT unit that was standing by. All EMTs were human.

About four human firemen just stood back and watched as the robots extinguished the fire in record time.

 The chief said under his breath: One time I command fifty firemen. Now I command four but we extinguish fires in half the time.

“Let’s get going,” Nightingale said.

Eric and Nightingale continued their walk toward the park. They J-walked across the street and within a few seconds a police drone hovering overhead said, “You have broken the law, don’t do it again, this is a warning. We have your picture.”

“I don’t care -- you piece of junk!” Nightingale screamed.

“Don’t say that! They have your picture -- you could get fined!” Eric said.

“Screw them! I don’t talk to machines!” Nightingale said. “Come on. Let’s go to Thoreau’s Café, I want to see if any new poets are there.”

About two blocks up Main Street, a sidewalk café where patrons sat outside sipping their drinks, talking or reading a book or listening to a poet that was inside but could be heard. “I love this place,” Nightingale said. Everybody’s so friendly -- no drunks trying to hang all over you and the atmosphere is enchanting.

All the tables outside were taken. Inside Nightingale found a small table back by a wall that was vacant and quickly sat down. A guy holding a cappuccino had been trying to get there first but Nightingale beat him. He scowled at her but looked the other way quickly.

“Today we have a very special guest appearance and the poetry that will come forth is unique, and one the I’m sure you will enjoy. You might say -- it’s about time,” Cindy Marshal said, the lead waitress and only human one.

“I bet it’s that new poet from England that was on the late show last night. He’s really good. I love how he hates technology -- we should live like the Yogis or American Indian, freely and not troubled by conveniences. When we had to hunt for food, we were happier,” Nightingale said.

“Really, I just can’t see you running around with a spear in your hand trying to stab a deer,” Eric said.

“You’ve been spoiled by today’s society. Everything is so easy to do. We just collect our checks, spend all day at something we invent and lie about, get up when we want to, go to bed went we want to, and go where we want to go. There’s no challenge,” Nightingale said.

The lights dimmed and the patrons became quieter. All looked toward the stage and waited in anticipation for the poet to emerge and sit on the stood behind an old microphone that had a wire running down its stand. Whisper could be heard wondering who the poet would be and many names were tossed about, some known to Nightingale and some not.

Eric said, “I never heard a poet live before. I had to read poems in school and I liked The Raven by Edgar Allen Poe, but I never been to a place like this.”

Nightingale said, “You’ll learn something about life if you listen to poets. They understand what life is all about. What love is all about. What we are all about.”

“Hum -- I’ll trust your judgment in this one -- but personally I’ll stick with comedians.”

A slight smile founds its way across Nightingale as she studied Eric. She patted Eric’s hand with hers, softly and rubbed it. She watched the stage waiting in anticipation for the poet that was about to enter and begin a reading. She crossed her legs, sat up straight and surveyed the room and waved to a couple of others. The lights dimmed some more and a footlight came on at the stage, not too bright but bright enough in which one could see the poet when the reading began.

The curtain behind the stage moved. Out entered what looked like a Segway with a head, arms and even a ‘hat’ on top. It had long-hair-type-illuminating fibers flowing down its back, a guitar strung over its side, bright sensor-type eyes and eyebrows that moved up and down mechanically, an old army-styled shirt on, and what looked like a beard. And it even smiled!

Eric’s jaw dropped. Nightingale’s metamorphic-facial change couldn’t be described by any words that exist in any language. 

In a pleasant soft yet clear baritone voice, the poet spoke: “I’m so glad to be here for this is my first performance. I’m autonomous so when my builders finished with me, they didn’t know what to expect! Boy, did I fool them. As I started gathering information and ranking it -- learning the use of human language, I soon realized that poetry was for me. My builders became angry, but they had no choice. Many assumed sciences, math, engineering, or some other related field. When they realized it was poetry with me, they . . ..”

“What the hell is going on here!” Nightingale screamed. She stood up straight with her hands on her hips and her eyes appeared as lasers beams tracking as they targeted the poet. Many others comments came forth from the patrons, many got up and walked out, one guy yelled, “This place sucks and you suck you piece-of-crap!” Some drinks were tossed a the ‘bot’ poet. The head waitress screamed, “That will be enough – if you don’t like it here – Just leave!” More patrons got up -- many mumbling -- and left. About twenty percent of the café was gone when Nightingale grabbed Eric’s arm and yanked him along.

The robot poet said, “We must learn to expect the unexpected.”

“Hey, maybe it’s a comedian too,” Eric said.

“What!” Nightingale said. She stopped -- looked at Eric and said,” I can see I have a lot of work to do with you.” Then she grabbed his arm tighter than before and tugged him along. Eric didn’t resist.

Nightingale stormed down the street pulling Eric behind her like a pet on a leash. Eric followed with a smirk on his face and a bright aurora about him. The sounds of the city and the hot humid day blended together offering a suggesting to find an air-conditioned bar or club soon. Eric had sweat bubbles on his forehead by now and Nightingale so angry at the ‘Bot’ poet that her face turned a flush color with frowns and looks underneath that would scare a demon to death.

Eric tugged Nightingale. “Stop, will you!”

“What,” Nightingale said.

“You’re getting too worked up over all this shit. I don’t want you to bust a gut! Look at you . . . hell I hate things too. Relax, please. I don’t want the first girl that I feel comfortable with to have a brain hemorrhage! I know how you feel, but don’t let that destroy you. You’re too alive for that. Please calm down!”

Nightingale stood still. She rolled her eyes up, crossed her arms over her chest, then looked toward the bridge.

“Please . . . don’t let that stupid-walking junk of a so-called poet screw with your head,” Eric said.

Eric kept up his pleading with Nightingale, and told her to think about all the good things and not the things that aggravate us.

She moved closer the Eric and started picking lint off his shirt again, or wiping it off. There were no lint on his shirt that needed attended to but Nightingale kept picking anyway. She adjusted his T-shirt as if it had a collar on it. Then adjusted it some more.

The Demon’s Dancers sped back through town and this time four humans were riding next to Roger, but as the gang passed, to other human motorcyclists pulled out and joined them. However, more driver-less motorcycles had also joined and now the gang comprised of about fifty. They headed toward the bridge and away from town. Five police drones were following closely and after one of the driver-less motorcycles popped a wheelie, a small red-light started flashing on the lead drone. However, after crossing the bridge the street veered right and Eric and Nightingale lost sight of them.

Eric’s iPad vibrated in his pocket. He punched in his security code and read the message.

“What is it,” Nightingale said.

“I’ve got a job interview in an hour. I never really expected a response -- it was just a shot in the dark so to speak. Boy they know everything. How in the hell would they know about you? They want you to come too” Eric said.

 “What!” Nightingale said. “-- What a day this has been. I finally met someone I like, I get to see a fire, get to see a stupid ‘bot’ poet, and now I get a job interview -- I guess that’s what you call it – and I’m not even drunk. Is this for real. . . they know our every move!”

“Yes, but . . . I don’t know. You’ll come, won’t you?” Eric said.

“Oh, after this morning I wouldn’t miss this one -- this day is just too much,” Nightingale added.

“Let’s go,” Eric said.

Data Base Enhancement Co. was across town. Eric and Nightingale took a bus which wasn’t a long ride. A human guard at the front entrance showed them where to go which was up a flight of stairs and to the left then into a large waiting room.

Shortly they were called into the interview room.

A man dress professionally and the computer sitting on his desk welcomed them in.

“I don’t like talking to computers,” Nightingale said under her breath to Eric.

“I’m Donald Sullivan Mills the third, and I own this company. My grandfather started the company, my father ran it after my grandfather passed, and now I got it. My father retired. My parents are touring Europe and enjoying every second from what they say. And may I introduce my assistance here, Kayla 2000. She is quite helpful.”

“Pleased to interact with you,” Kayla 2000 said. Nightingale rolled up her eyes.

“After deciding to interview you we consulted the public information base and found a picture of you two together at a fire. That is when we decided to interview both of you,” Kayla 2000 said.

“What are we supposed to do here,” Nightingale said. She crossed her arms and legs.

“First let me say you will receive 50% over your government salary for just eight hours a day. Does that sound like something you would be interested in!” Donald said. He directed his remark to Nightingale whom he considered the dominate one between the two.

“Like I said before -- what are we supposed to do?” Nightingale said.

Donald straightened up. He raised an eyebrow, twisted his lips then said: “I’ll get to the point then. Our computer systems and robotics want humans around. For some reason that might be connected with human alpha, beta, and other brain waves, well, the systems ‘feel’ better so to speak when a human is around. That is about the gist of it. We don’t know exactly what it is --that is just a theory of course -– but the systems work better.”

“Yes, your closeness transmits your feelings to us and that is what we believe enhances our performance. We perform better in that environment,” Kayla 2000 said.

“You’ll help out our computer and robotic systems by being close to them, and getting things for them if they need paper or cleaned-off -- just sitting next to them and . . ..” Donald started say.

Nightingale jumped up and said, “We are not going to be pets for a bunch of machines! No way!”

She grabbed Eric’s arm and yanked. Eric tried to say, “But 50% over . . .!”

Oh, shut up!” Nightingale replied.

Nightingale shot out a question to the guard -- “Were you a dog in another life?” The guard didn’t flinch an eye, just watched them storm off the property.

The day finally turned into evening and Nightingale and Eric sat at the South Side sipping their respective drinks together. The ‘Crack’ of a break at the pool table echoed, and conversations and laughter radiate forth. Some of the patrons were there all day, some revolved between other establishment and the South Side throughout the course of the day. Every few minutes somebody left or somebody came in faithfully, almost on time as if the entering and existing were recorded.

“I never thought of it that way but you’re right. We would be pets,” Eric said.

“The kings had their court jesters,” Nightingale said.

“You better be getting used to machines doing more and more,” Eric said. “Last I heard they’re preforming operations in hospitals . . . hell I even heard they have psychiatrists that are ‘bots. They have made life easier -- nobody gets killed in coal mines or mills anymore and the accident rate is almost nil on the turnpikes, airlines and trains. You witnessed how they fight fires better than we can today.”

Nightingale looked into her drink silently. She didn’t say anything for a short time, just focused on her drink and occasionally turned the glass around slowly; then turned it back to its original position. She finally said, “Someday, we will all be just pets for these wonderful computers –machines or whatever you wanta call them.  Maybe we’ll be in cages, on leashes, following their commands, doing tricks, begging…”


© 2022 George T. Philibin

Bio: "I've been writing for about twenty years, occasionally, and enjoy every strike on my keyboard. I'm not sure why I write -- it's fun, I'm sure about that -- and I intend to continue and learn. I worked at a generating station in Western Pennsylvania, and served in Viet-Nam. During my last two years in the army, I played French Horn with the army band at Ft. Monmouth, NJ. I attended the University of Pittsburgh for Mechanical Engineering, but had to quit after the Johnstown Flood of 1977. I worked in a coal mine, a steel mill, and a dairy once. Now I’m retired from that generating station. My favorite authors were Charles Dickens, Theodore Dreiser, and Kurt Vonnegut. Lately, I’ve become interested in Ambrose Bierce and some present-day authors. My last story: The Crows of Whenwood – Oct 2017.

E-mail: George T. Philibin

Comment on this story in the Aphelion Forum

Return to Aphelion's Index page.