Victor Fernando R. Ocampo
The Easiest Way To Solve A Problem
The first time Mercy surrendered her conscious self, she imagined, for some unfathomable, unscientific reason, that the process would cause immense pain.
Flesh rendered. Bones broken and dissolved, or at the very least she would have to endure a brutal flaying by a thousand mechanical cuts.
“Jesus have mercy. Lord have mercy. Para sa pamilya ko ‘to,” she cried through the headset.
The young Chinese doctor attending to her tried to assure her that she’d feel no pain. However, no matter what he said, Mercy wouldn’t stop crying. Eventually, he dropped his attempt at a pleasant bedside manner and just concentrated on manoeuvring the loading harness that slowly immersed her body into a large bath of living nano-machines.
“Filipinos,” he muttered under his breath. “Siao.”
This was how Mrs. Mercy Maalala, 33 years old, trained roboticist, a proud Batangueño from Lian, Batangas, began her employment at the Automatic City.
“How was your first day?” her husband Rolando asked over a video call.
“I honestly don’t know,” Mercy answered. “The first thing I did after I got to my dorm room was to review my security tapes. Apparently, I had spent most of today cleaning gunk from logistics robots. I also had lunch, two coffee breaks and a one-hour gym period. It’s just that… I’m covered by a strict NDA, so I can’t remember any of it.”
“I don’t think I could ever deal with that,” Rolando said. “I can’t imagine surrendering my mind and body to a corporation.”
“It’s the norm here. Their motto is ‘Adding humanity to the algorithm’. It’s not so bad, really. It was just like I was asleep the whole time. When I woke up at 5pm, I felt so rested. I’ve never experienced anything like that before,” Mercy explained. “Besides, the money is really good. It pays for the construction of our house, Jun-Jun’s schooling, and gives us something to put away for the future. I don’t mind trading off a little of my freedom if it can give us a better life.”
“Three years of your freedom isn’t a small thing,” Rolando argued. “That’s also three years we won’t see you except at Christmas.”
“It’s not the first time,” Mercy answered. “Besides, both of us come from OFW families. If our parents and grandparents could deal with it, we can too. By the way, where’s Jun-Jun?”
“Jun-Jun!” her husband yelled into the distance. “Mama is on video call. Oh, just reminding you that I’ll be on divemaster duty in Anilao from tomorrow until Friday. Let’s talk again on Saturday.”
A few minutes later, Mercy’s son appears on the small video screen.
“How are you?”
“How was school?”
“School was okay.”
“Have you had dinner?”
“My room has a food printer that can make me any meal. I programmed it to make me chicken tinola for dinner.”
“That’s cool,” the young man said. “Why is your room so dark?”
“Oh, sorry,” Mercy said, as she fumbled for the room’s environmental controls. “Watch this, baby boy…”
The walls in the tiny dorm room slowly brightened as if the sun was rising from the horizon. On the video screen Jun-jun could see his mother and her small dining set silhouetted against the background of a familiar sliding sea. The blue-green waters moved in long sinuous swells towards a coarse sandy shore, where it broke and dragged away the delicate whorls left by little ghost crabs running swiftly across the beach.
Mercy stood up and the table and chair folded away. She walked towards a sign that said, “Welcome to Matabungkay Beach, Lian, Batangas.”
“Looks like you have everything you need, Mama,” Jun-Jun said. “I have to go and study.”
Three years later Mrs. Mercy Maalala, 36 years old, formerly of Lian, Batangas, now Operations and Supply Chain Manager for a large transnational eCommerce firm, signed up for another three-year tour of duty.
It had been an easy decision. Living in the Automatic City was like living in a luxury hotel. The AI in the dorm room cooked and kept everything neat and tidy. Every morning Mercy woke up and went to work at exactly 9 am. The company constantly upskilled her by downloading training materials directly into her long-term memory. They also kept her body physically fit and active. Every 5 pm on the dot, her consciousness regained control over her body. There were no job difficulties, no office politics and no work issues to bring home. At night, Singapore was a city ripe with new possibilities and experiences.
The day that she signed her contract extension, a work colleague taught her a new word: atas. Singapore had given her an atas life and she sent her largesse back to her homeland.
“I only agreed to your extension because you invested in my new dive boat,” her husband said, as he adjusted the volume control of their new ultra-large entertainment centre. “This new pandemic is bad but I’m sure they’ll develop a new vaccine and tourism will return to normal. When it does then maybe you should come back and…”
“Diyos ko, we still have a lot of things to pay for,” Mercy interjected. “Then there’s Jun’s university fees.”
“That’s assuming he gets accepted anywhere,” Rolando grumbled. “School is the last thing on his mind.”
“Where is he now?”
“Out on a date?”
“With a girl or a boy?”
“I honestly don’t know,” Rolando said. “We don’t really talk. I’ve told you about this a thousand times before. I think you should be the one to speak to him when you come home this Christmas.”
“Lando,” Mercy said with a sigh, “you know I won’t be back until after they lift the travel restrictions.”
Her husband said nothing.
“There are no real beaches in Singapore,” Mercy offered suddenly. “I miss Matabungkay.”
“There are no real beaches in Lian now either,” Rolando groused. “Last year’s mega-typhoon destroyed the breakwater and the reef. The government leased the whole beachfront to Chinese investors but they’ve stopped construction since the pandemic. There’s nothing there now but a broken pile of rocks.”
“I… I need to go,” Mercy said. “I have an early day tomorrow. There’s this family day celebration I organised for my staff. I manage ten people now, apart from the robots.”
“Will your human staff actually be conscious for your family day?”
Mercy let the question hang in the ether as she said good night and left the video call.
The upgraded environmental controls in her new, deluxe dorm room had picked up on her troubled emotional state. The colour of the sea on her video walls changed from green, to blue, to cobalt as a storm gathered overhead. The virtual horizon turned grey and the room became too dark for Mercy to see anything in front of her.
When Mrs. Mercy Maalala first signed her contract to be immersed in the Automatic City, she agreed that at the end of her final three-year period, she would be repatriated back to the Philippines. She would not be allowed to return to Singapore, even as a tourist, until a 2-year confidentiality period had been served.
A month before she was to be cast out by her eCommerce employer, she had repeatedly tried to call the AI-enhanced Batangas bahay-na-bato house that she had spent the last 9 years paying for. No one answered.
Finally, on the night before she had to vacate her deluxe dorm room, her son finally picked up the phone.
“Jun-Jun? It’s mama.”
“Don’t call me that.”
“I won’t call you by that stupid invented name.”
“It’s #Maalon or I shut off this call.”
“Sigh. Okay, #Maalon it is. I just wanted you to know that I’m coming home. My ekranoplan leaves tomorrow morning at 7:30 am. I should be in Manila in three days. I’ll just take an autocab to Lian.”
“Should I tell Papa?”
“No. I don’t want to see that bastard ever again.”
“It’s not entirely his fault you know,” her son argued. “Even if he sleeps around, at least he is always here. He’s real to me. We make memories. But even with your tapes, do you really know what you did for the last nine years? Who even are you now?”
“That’s not fair. You know I was trying to make a better life for you. Let’s talk when I get back. Look…”
The video call ended abruptly.
A Singlish word came to her head unbidden. Jialat.
Mrs. Mercy Maalala, 39 years old, former Head of Automation Maintenance, former Tech.Pass resident of the Automated City, sat with her bags packed in her now-empty deluxe dorm room. The screens around her were as dark and gloomy as the benthic part of the sea.
Her company had already purged all the living nanomachines from her body which had kept her immersed in the Automatic City (save for one bot strictly meant to enforce NDA compliance). They had also deleted all the daily security video files that had served as her proxy memory. For the first time in a long, long time, Mercy felt lost.
It was then that it finally dawned on her that, outside work, perhaps she no longer knew who she was anymore. Indeed, a part of her wondered if she actually ever did.
Still, as a Batangueño robotics engineer with over twenty years of experience, she knew what the easiest way to solve any problem was.
Mercy pulled up a virtual screen from her smartwatch and projected it onto one of the virtual walls. She opened her inbox and scrolled through the many job offers that she’d received after word got out that her previous employment was ending.
When she got to an offer for a three-year Head of Supply Chain contract in Jakarta, she stopped.