AFTER a few minutes of pretending to admire the paintings on the wall of the HR reception office, Mark went back to the front desk. “So,” he said.
“I’m sure it will only be a moment,” said Cynthia, without looking away from her computer screen.
“I really like your artwork,” Mark said.
“Thanks.” She smiled politely towards her screen while continuing to type. Then her computer pinged. “Robert can see you now,” she said. “You can just walk in.”
Robert, the head of HR, watched Mark enter with a big, sunny smile. “Mark,” he said, “it’s so good to see you! You’re looking remarkably well today.”
“Thanks,” said Mark. “You’re looking very well, too.”
“I just can’t believe how terrific you look,” said Robert. “Do you know what? I’m going to do a selfie of us both.”
“Erm…” muttered Mark, as Robert jumped up from his chair and ran around the desk.
“Smile!” said Robert, as he put his arm around Mark’s shoulders and held out his smartphone in front of them.
“Look at that! Gorgeous! I’m going to put that on our Twitter feed,” said Robert.
“Wow. Brilliant,” said Mark. “But I’m thinking you didn’t call me in today to take a selfie.”
“God, you’re clever,” said Robert. “That’s why I can see really big things for you in the future.”
“You can? Yes, I mean, that’s what hard work and commitment are for.”
“Take a seat, Mark,” said Robert, gesturing to a chair. “I can’t tell you how impressed we are with your forward-thinking, proactive contribution to our company. You’ve entered the left lane and left everyone behind you.”
“That why I feel very strongly about your future. I know you’re going to do great things. And in order to facilitate you, I’m going to see to it that you have a lot more flexibility. We’re ensuring that you aren’t hampered by your current position so that you can feel free to pursue new goals.”
“I’m delighted to be able to launch you into phase two of your career. This is a proud day for us both, Mark. Once you’ve been cut loose, I can see you rocketing into action.”
“Erm, hold on, Robert. Are you saying I’m being made redundant?”
“Yes, Mark, we’re promoting you to customer. I am so happy to be able to deliver a solution that will bring us both the greatest profits.”
“But… but…,” Mark stammered. “But, Robert, you know my wife just had twins…”
“Double return,” said Robert. “God, Mark, you’re an action man everywhere.”
“Robert, you’ve just made me unemployed.”
“You’ll be skiing off-piste.”
“Dammit, Robert, are you listening to me?”
“This won’t be taking effect until the end of the month,” said Robert. “Oh, sorry. I meant the end of the week. Strap it on for a while, see what you think.”
“Strap this on, you bastard!” Mark leapt out of his chair and threw a hard punch into Robert’s handsome square jaw. Mark expected (and half-hoped) that Robert would punch him back. Instead, Robert’s head spun around full circle and snapped back into place, then he fell sideways down on the desk, eyes open, still smiling.
“Holy shit,” said Mark as Robert convulsed on his desk.
Cynthia entered. “Oh, dear.” She walked over to her boss, who lay in spasms on his desk. “He’s late for his check up.”
“Is he OK?” said Mark. “I’m really sorry, I… I don’t know what happened.”
“You punched him. They all do.” Cynthia placed her hand on Robert’s neck to check his pulse. But she didn’t. Instead, she lifted open a flap of skin. Beneath it, little lights flashed. “He badly needs to be reprogrammed.” She pressed a few switches inside Robert’s neck, and his body slumped before coming back into life. “There. I’ve rebooted him.”
“So…” Mark stuttered. “Wait. So Robert is actually Robot?”
“Yes, that’s right. It works much better that way,” said Cynthia, checking her watch. “He’ll be up and running in about 90 seconds.”
“I always thought he seemed a bit unnatural.”
“It’s much better not to get too personally involved,” said Cynthia.
“So,” said Mark, “are you a robot, too?”
A voice came from Robot’s mouth. “Don’t be silly,” he said. “Look at that gorgeous arse. I’d like to slap it.”
“Oh, dear,” said Cynthia, reaching back for Robot’s neck controls. “This often happens. The experimental 1950s vocabulary tends to assert itself after a violent trauma. I’ll just boot him up again.” She operated the switches, and Robot slumped once more.
“Oh, by the way,” she said, without looking up from Robot. “Your redundancy papers are on my desk. Would you pick them up on your way out? Don’t forget to sign for them.”
A version of this story originally appeared in the German magazine Spotlight