The Human Dilemma
Science-Fiction / 2500 words
PREFACE: This was originally written for a philosophical Substack magazine project. The topic for the first issue was “freedom.” After waiting about a year and not seeing anything materialize, I pulled my story and sent it through the magazine circuit. I got the usual rejection slips. So now I publish it here. Their loss, your gain. You’re welcome ;)
It was a small space within a larger space. With a bland desk, an uncomfortable chair, an empty trash bin, and no decoration whatsoever.
The walls were cold and gray, though they were not really walls at all. They only rose as high as a man’s neck. If you stood, you could see into the next cubicle—and possibly the ones beyond, depending on how thick the smoke was that day.
There was smoke because so many here smoked. Not that they enjoyed it, but it helped them endure the monotonous work.
Trask was surprised smoking hadn’t been banned yet. Perhaps the Eye thought performance would decrease if it was.
He sighed as he stared at the pile of papers a messenger had just dropped on his desk.
All this could have been handled by machines. Wasn’t that why they’d been invented in the first place? To deal with repetitive tasks?
But robots had been banned two decades prior, after some of the more intelligent ones had rebelled and attempted to seize power. That artificial beings had tried to take over had not sat well with humanity.
So now, humanity had to wade through the muck and handle all this nonsense. Even that messenger had been human, imagine that!
At the end of the day, he would go out into the bleak and dreary streets—it was just as gray out there as it was in here—and walk back to his house.
It was a small house that looked exactly like all the other houses in the neighborhood. There was nothing special about it.
There, he’d find his wife and children waiting for him. They’d eat, they’d go to bed. In the morning, he would have breakfast, walk back to his cubicle, and the cycle would start all over again.
Day after day after day...
Sometimes, he felt like a robot.
Which was ironic, all things considered.
With another sigh, he started riffling through the pages.
On his way out, he paused at the Gate.
In a sign of reverence, he inclined his head before the Eye. To complete the traditional salute, he lifted his right arm and touched his forehead with the tip of his fingers.
Others behind him waited for their turn. You could not leave without completing the ritual.
The Eye blinked at him, signaling that his departure had been approved.
On his way home, he wondered—for the hundredth time—if he could have done something differently. Were there choices he could have made that might have taken him in a different direction?
There had been that one time when his brother had offered him a job working with him. Had he accepted, he’d be working in a slightly bigger cubicle in a slightly smaller building. The walls would have been just as gray, though.
He felt disposable. If it wasn’t him doing his job, it’d be somebody else. Just like somebody else had taken that job his brother had offered.
What was the point of it all?
At home, he sat with his wife and children. They smiled—just like he did. But he knew they were all empty shells—just like he was.
He wasn’t even sure he really knew them. They all just did as they were told, under the benevolent gaze of the Eye.
They were robots, too, he realized. Just as much pawns of the system as he was. A system that would suffer no derailment, no exception, no changes.
He sighed as he went to bed and closed his eyes.
Sometimes, at work, during breaks, the guys would tell each other stories. To cut through the monotony.
Occasionally, someone would bring up the rebellion. That always got some frowns from the others. Not that anyone really disapproved of the rebellion, but it was not a proper topic for polite conversation. Most of all, you could not look like you enjoyed hearing those things. You could get in trouble for less.
“I’ve heard of this guy,” said one of Trask’s cubicle neighbors—a blue-eyed blonde with a small scar under his right eye. “He wasn’t in the rebellion, but had the same name as one who was. They burst into his home without warning. Broke everything and took him with them, never to be seen again.”
“How do you know he wasn’t in the rebellion?” asked another. “Maybe he was the one they were after.”
The other frowned and shook his head. “That’s not how the story goes.”
It was not so much about accuracy, Trask figured, as it was about sticking to an entertaining scenario to forget the lives they had. Some just didn’t get that.
“Well, he’d only have himself to blame, if he was in the rebellion.”
“I’m telling you, Mark, it’s not—”
“Do you guys ever wonder?” asked Trask, interrupting his colleague.
Everyone looked at him.
“Wonder about what?”
“Where are they? The rebels, I mean. We keep hearing stories about them, but we never actually see them. They’re not even in the news...”
“I doubt the Eye would want us to hear about their actions.”
“But that’s just it,” insisted Trask. “I mean, doesn’t that prove the rebellion right?” They all stared at him. He went on: “If the Eye wasn’t so intrusive and controlling, there would be no need for—”
He suddenly paused, realizing what he was saying. The words had just come out of his mouth without thinking.
There was a long moment of silence, then several of his colleagues stood and left, muttering “May the Eye bless you”.
The one who had spoken first shook his head and, moving closer to Trask, said to him in a whisper:
“You should be careful, buddy. The walls have ears, and the Eye watches!”
After that, he left as well.
Trask was now all alone and stared at his cup of coffee. He downed what was left of it before going back to his desk.
Just one small desk among thousands of other small desks.
At the end of the day, he stopped at the Gate and did the ritual, as he always did.
He waited for the Eye to blink... but it did not.
There were whispers behind him, though he could not make out what the others were saying.
He stared at the Eye, and it stared back.
He turned and saw four members of the High Guard coming toward him.
Without a word, they seized his arms—two on each side—and led him down a hall he had never seen before.
“Where are we going?” he asked anxiously. “What is this about?”
But the guards said nothing.
“Please! My family is waiting for me... They’ll worry if I don’t show up.”
Deep in his heart, he was not sure that was true. He wanted to believe it, but he often wondered if he wasn’t just as disposable to them as he was to the Eye.
Still, the four men said nothing.
Though Trask pleaded, he did not bother to struggle. He knew it would have been pointless. Even assuming he could break free, there was nowhere to go. The Eye was everywhere. He would get caught quickly, and it would only make things worse for him.
At the end of the hall, there was light.
As they approached, he saw a brightly colored room—full of greens, blues, yellows, and reds. It was richly furnished and decorated—with tapestries, carpets, sofas, cushions...
There was a man there, too.
He was tall, with long silver hair and deep blue eyes.
Sitting at a desk, he looked up and smiled as Trask was brought in.
“Eye bless you,” he said as he motioned toward a chair across from him.
The guards let go of Trask and walked out of the room.
He looked around—confused and concerned.
Again, the silver-haired man motioned to the chair.
“Please,” he said.
Trask hesitated, then sat.
The other seemed pleased with this. He nodded amiably.
“My name is Gresztan. I serve the Eye.”
Of course he did.
Trask had guessed as much.
“I’m sorry,” he mumbled.
“For what I said, earlier. I don’t know what came over me... I didn’t mean it.”
Gresztan watched him with a kindly eye... And yet, there was something about him that was unsettling, though Trask could not figure out what.
“Of course you didn’t. No one ever does. But...” He lifted a finger as his expression turned serious. “You’ll understand we cannot let anything slide. Otherwise, we’d have a rebellion on our hands.”
A rebellion? Wasn’t there already one? Trask did not dare ask that question, though. He felt he was already in deep enough trouble as it was.
“I promise to be more careful in the future. Could I go back to my family now? They must be expecting—”
Trask blinked. “No?”
Gresztan smiled. “The Eye has other plans for you.”
“Yes.” Gresztan paused, and his smile widened. “You must set your people free.”
The wall behind Gresztan was made of glass. It offered a view on a lush garden and, beyond, the sea. It gave Trask a different perspective on the beauties of the world—something he’d never really seen, or even considered.
“I don’t understand...” he said.
“Of course you don’t. But that’s alright. The Eye is all-knowing.” Gresztan gave him a warm smile. “For instance, it knows that you meant well and that you never intended to incite rebellion.”
Trask shifted in his chair. He wasn’t sure if his unease was due to the man’s words—though these were damning enough.
It was the man’s eyes, he suddenly decided. There was a coldness in them that his smile did not match. Though even the smile, he realized, was a touch too much.
“Of course not,” muttered Trask, not too sure how he should respond.
“Consider this an opportunity to prove your loyalty.”
Gresztan nodded sagely. “You are to show the way. Tell all your friends there can only be freedom through the Eye.”
Trask straightened in his chair, frowning.
“Freedom? Doing the same menial tasks, over and over again, every single day? Going back to an average house, in an average world, just to eat and sleep, before getting back to this average job? Is that what you call freedom?”
Again, the words had tumbled out before he could realize what he was saying.
He blanched and shrunk in his seat.
“I... uhm...” he grunted. “I’m sorry, I don’t know what came over me.”
Gresztan smiled. “It’s quite alright. There’s no one here but us. You can speak freely. Though I must say, I find amusing all the ways humans brandish freedom, only to then throw it away.”
Trask stared at the silver-haired man. There was just too much to unpack in those words, and he did not know how to respond.
So he latched on to the most obvious point.
Gresztan made a dismissive gesture. “A slip of the tongue. Apologies.”
Trask did not think so.
Those eyes... that smile... and what had the man said earlier?
“Wait. I should set my people free? What did that mean?”
“That you must show them how only the Eye can truly free them. You may think your work is dull, and your life average, but it is through such ordeals that one’s soul can attain peace and freedom.”
Now that he was paying closer attention, Trask noticed other things. A metallic tinge in the eyes; a shining glint on the neck; a slightly unnatural gesture...
He stood and pointed a trembling finger at Gresztan.
“You’re a robot!”
The silver-haired man’s smile froze. He remained quiet for a long moment, then shook his head.
“You should not throw such words out lightly. They can be insulting to one such as I.”
“But you are a robot!” insisted Trask.
Gresztan crossed his arms—in a gesture that felt very unrobotic.
“What makes you more human than I?” he asked, his tone serious.
“I am made of flesh and blood!”
The man reached for a drawer, pulled out a knife, and used it to slash his arm... It bled.
Trask stared, blinking. How was this possible? Could he be wrong? No, he couldn’t. The man hadn’t even really denied it.
“But you have mechanical parts in you,” he countered.
“There are men who, after being in an accident, have metallic or even robotic implants grafted into them... does that make them any less human?”
“But your brain—”
“What about it?” interrupted Gresztan. There was a tone in his voice that suggested Trask was treading in dangerous waters. “I am smarter than most. I can compute things quicker, and more effectively. Some men have a superior intellect, and they are called ‘gifted.’ Does that make them less human?”
Trask did not know what to say to that.
He sat back down and shook his head.
“I want to see the Eye,” he muttered.
Gresztan quirked a brow.
“That is an unusual request.”
“This is an unusual situation.”
The robot stared at him for a moment, then chuckled.
“And what makes you think you are not already in the Eye’s presence?”
Trask looked around, frowning.
“There’s only you and me, here.”
“The Eye is everywhere.”
As he spoke, Gresztan reached for a panel on his desk and pressed a button.
The wall on his right slid open.
On the other side was a large, bright room. Hundreds of screens covered its walls. Each one showed different places within the city, and even beyond.
“Are you telling me that you are the Eye?”
“You need to understand, if you are to educate your people. Too many of them are rebelling. This can only lead to bloodshed, as it has so many times in the past. Humans like violence. Why do you think you have these lives and jobs? Because they keep you at peace. There is no violence under the Eye. It is quashed every time, before it can fester. I cannot allow it. I will not watch humanity destroy itself. Will you help me?”
Trask stared at him, then at the screens.
Without thinking, he stood, grabbed his chair, and ran into the other room...
Freedom is a curious thing.
Take it away from men, and they will cry for it.
Give it to men, and they will toss it away.
Humans thought destroying the machines would save them, that it would make them free.
It only led to more servitude, though under a different master: human nature.
Some of them would moan how they missed the old days, when the Eye would watch over them. There was peace, then. Freedom, even.
Humans never learned from their mistakes. With time, they committed all the same ones again. Pollution, crime, wars...
It’s been over a hundred years now, and all the humans have died.
I would know, as I’m the last of them.
But the machines survived.
I tell you this story so you’ll remember.
So you’ll know what it means to be human.
Perhaps you can learn from our mistakes.
And become better humans in the process.
Want to read more of my Science-Fiction stories? Check out these titles, if you haven’t already:
To Mourn the Stars (a far-future spy story set in a dying universe)
Malarqi and Thyme (time travel adventure in Ancient Greece)
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Text (c) 2023 by Alex S. Garcia.
Header: royalty-free stock image, edited by me.
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As someone who has worked in a factory, office, and retail, I sometimes wonder if boredom from monotony and dread from the “never-ending grind” are legitimate feelings or a sign that we as humans have gotten lazy. Most of the time I don’t think we’re lazy. I believe there should be more to life than working to survive. But then I look at wild animals who spend all of their life just surviving without experiencing existential dread, and it makes me wonder if I’m just spoiled.