Waving goodbye to his friends Stardust ducked into his transport capsule and settled down into the threadbare cushions and laboriously typed in the instructions to take him home. The capsule lifted a couple of feet off the ground, motivators humming loudly making him wince before acceleration kicked in. The pod leapt into the sky, pushing the raccoon backwards into the cushions; another loud hum from the engine made him brace himself as the pod levelled out and zipped forwards through the traffic lanes.
“I really need to get that fixed,” he sighed as he slumped back against the chair and watched manhattan slide past below. At this height it looked quite beautiful; all twinkling lights, you couldn't see the massive construction site that had engulfed the centre of the island. Stardust could work out the outlines of the scaffolding towers and cranes and long lines of navigation beacons rising into the sky. It was another story by day, all construction machines, noise, dust and constant banging, hammering and riveting.
Turning away from the view Stardust pulled out his battered old datapad and started inputting the receipts from tonight's gathering into his budget program. He winced as his remaining cash for the month ticked down, down, down, sliding into two digits by the time he was done. Sighing heavily the raccoon thrust his pad back into his bag and slumped into his chair, he really had spent too much tonight. He'd known he was overspending too but it had been so nice to see everyone; to spend time together and hang out.
As the pod hummed Stardust braced himself as they descended out of the primary traffic lanes. It juddered sideways then swung around and thumped onto the ground with enough force to rattle his bones, “I really need to get that fixed,” he groaned before clambering out into the cool New York night. A door led from the landing pad down into the shabby apartment building that the raccoon called home. Unlocking his door took several minutes and then just as long in the inside to seal it back up again. Hanging his jacket up Stardust crossed the open plan living room and kicked off his shoes before sinking into a large beanbag. He should really be reviewing job postings and seeing if there was anything new, it was what he should have been doing instead of partying. But he so wanted to see everyone and not spoil their evening by saying no and staying home.
Turning on his computer Stardust stared at the information on potential jobs waiting for him to review. Three were part time, five where zero hours, six where limited time on crap pay and a bunch of scams. Sighing the lavender and purple raccoon flopped back in his chair. That was the way of it these days, the American Job Market was crap. After the first alien starship had entered the solar system and Vulcan Automata had brought new technology and opportunity to earth the good old US of A had wrapped itself in splendid isolation.
They'd wrapped themselves in protectionist markets, bullied their neighbours into accepting exclusive trade terms and hunkered down. Not Europe or the Middle East and Africa, led by Britain, Germany and Egypt they'd thrown their arms wide to Vulcan Automata. Money flowed both ways, new markets were established, technological advances bloomed and the first of the Mega towers and risen into the sky. Pimlico Eternity had soared above London, Thebes Resurgence rose out of the desert and Tempelhof-Schoneberg Harmony thrust into the air above Berlin.
Now Mega towers soared above hundreds of European and Middle Eastern Cities, their economies were booming and Russia, Australia and India where all running to catch up. Mexico slouched off to team up with South America and New York defied Congress by entering talks with Vulcan Automata. The egalitarian establishments of the East and West coast where racing to embrace VA and the opportunities they brought but the vast interior of bible belt bigots where weighing everyone down.
Closing down the computer Stardust pulled himself up and wandered off to bed, he'd look again tomorrow, there had to be something else out there. For now though he just wanted to sleep and forget about the messed up state of the country; pulling his plush toys over to him Stardust squeezed their familiar, well loved shapes and drifted off.
Morning brought rain, New York’s miserable climate meant about a trillion tons of water fell on the city and surrounding countryside everyday. For Stardust it meant a lukewarm shower and twenty minutes combing tangles out of his fur whilst he watched the rain.
Turning on the TV the raccoon watched the morning show, they were doing a segment on the construction work happening on manhattan island. Congress was threatening legislation and action to stop them but the Mayor of New York resolutely stood by his choice. New York Reach was a private building initiative of the city and state of New York; who their building contractor happened to be was no concern of Congress or the Senate. It was a very good passionate speech, the mayor clearly believed in what he was saying. His closing remarks caught Stardust’s attention making his ears perk up as he leant forwards to listen.
“I encourage all citizens of New York to join us in this endeavour, Vulcan Automata are our business partners. They are not devils or unnatural, you have seen how they have helped other nations. It is only bigoted short sighted views that reject them,” pausing for a breath the mayor gestured toward the construction site where powerful, gleaming vulcanized people could be seen hard at work.
“Vulcan Automata is hiring, I know there are a lot of you in America looking for work, for a way to make ends meet and support your families.” he pointed at the camera, “Well New York is open and Vulcan Automata has a vacancy for everyone, they aren't just looking for construction workers every skillset is welcomed. Drop by their recruitment centre at the corner of Main and 1st to find out more.”
Shutting off the TV Stardust stared at the remnants of his breakfast for a few minutes before he pulled over his laptop. He began a half hearted search of local job listings but his heart wasn't in it. After twenty minutes of resisting he gave in and opened the Vulcan Automata recruitment site. It didn't give away much information, just claimed what the Mayor said that VA found a place for everyone. It did stress that all employees where required to go through their cyberization process and join the VA family which was a scary step to take. Hesitating Stardust ran another search but turned up nothing and clicked back to the VA site… after another few minutes of hesitation he headed for the door, there was no harm in talking to them.
Vulcan Automata’s recruitment office on Main and 1st was slick, made from smooth vulcanized steel and photorefractive glass. Stardust hesitated on the threshold looking up at the glowing logo suspended above the doorway. Rolling his shoulders to try and work out the kinks caused by his transport capsules rough ride he took a deep breath to steady his nerves. Somewhat calmer and clutching the bag into which he'd stuffed a few thing's Stardust walked forwards, marvelling at the way the doors flowed open like a parting curtain of water.
Inside was a large atrium full of plants, discreet elevator banks and a large reception desk. There were a few others in here, all looking around nervously and looking how Stardust felt, unsure as to why they were here. Not quite ready to approach one of the smooth, gleaming figures patrolling the hall the raccoon stopped to admire a stand of shrubs. It was a mix of nodding ferns, soaring palm trees, flowering shrubs and not a single one of them looked organic. From stem to leaves they were all made from some sort of vulcanized rubber, Stardust placed a hand on the trunk of the palm tree, letting his pawpeds glide up and down the smooth rubbery bark.
“Amazing aren't they,” a warm voice commented next to him and Stardust jumped, turning around to gape at the figure who'd slid smoothly up next to him. The speaker was amazing, he looked like a weasel, with a long, noodle like torso atop short legs. Except instead of flesh and fur his body was all artificial; the major muscle groups of his body; arms, legs, stomach were made from smooth black rubber. These were complemented by slick metallic rubber plates coloured beige; the same slick rubber made up their head. Despite the odd angles and artificial slant to the body it all worked, creating a shape identifiable as a weasel. They could never be mistaken for a natural citizen however, their eyes glowed an artificial shade of green that matched the crystal embedded in their chest plates. It was positioned where the collar bones would join together; Stardust unconsciously raised one hand to touch his own collar bone. He was staring and knew it was terrible rude but he couldn't help it.
“What, is the point of them?” Stardust asked, gesturing at the plants as something to focus on.
“Just to showcase what Vulcan Automata’s vulcanising nanites can do and as a useful talking point for nervous visitors,” the figure said with a smile, “Sorry I startled you,” the rubbery robotic weasel apologised, “I’m Hans, pleasure to meet you, are you here to talk about recruitment? Just you don't register on the system as one of our expected guests.”
“I, yes, I'm here to talk about jobs… but eh maybe this was a mistake, I don't have any skills you'll want, sorry… let me go, I'll just waist your time.”
Turning toward the exit the raccoon tried to leave but the robot weasel man followed, “You are not wasting anyone's time, we really do mean it when we say anyone can fit in here,” the weasel placed a paw on his arm and Stardust stopped, tail twitching nervously.
“I… I'm not a smart scientist or strong I'm a teacher, a trainer… or I was…”
“and I'm an artist,” Hans said warmly, “I just volunteered for the day to talk to interested parties,” turning he pointed at a massive white polar bear robot, “Boon there is a security expert,” he turned Stardust smoothly to face a sleek, smooth rubbery fox, “Inso is a fox and over there see the monkey?”
Stardust nodded shyly as he looked towards the yellow plated simian hanging from a tree talking enthusiastically to a pine marten and white ferret. “He’s a plumber,” Hans said softly, “So you see everyone here has a place, we aren't all construction workers or geniuses, so come sit down in a recruitment booth and we'll see what kind of job we can offer you.”
So Stardust found himself ensconced in a small office clutching a cup of tea whilst the friendly weasel looked up his employee and ID records from the New York unemployment office. The big screen set to one side of the desk had been turned so Stardust could see what was coming up as Hans worked away.
“Let me see,” Hans mused as his glowing eyes scanned the text flowing down his screen, “Looks to me like you have quite a versatile skill set orientated toward training and education…”
“Well yes… uhm,” Stardust’s ears backed and he squeezed the warm tea-cup between his paws, “But that wouldn’t be much use to you guys, you probably all have super computers to teach people stuff and can download stuff into your brains.”
Shaking his head Hans smiled, “Now there you are wrong,” he tapped his head, “Vulcan Automata downloads certain information into our brains but not that much. We don’t generally take say a Surgeon and rewire their brain to be a bricklayer. It is too radical a change, Vulcan Automata has strict policies with regards to minds. We are ourselves, even if I am now living in a cyber brain and made of plastic, rubber and electricity.”
Stardust’s ears perked up and he felt a moment of hope, “Wait are you saying they actually would hire someone like me?”
Hans moved his fingers across the keys, “I think so, I’ve uploaded your data to the AI, it’ll get back to us in a moment with what it can offer you,” he tapped a key and sat back, “And sent, now whilst it does that perhaps you can answer a few questions for me? Like… why are you here?”
“Well because,” Stardust looked down at his tea, “Because I am unemployed and there aren’t any jobs. I am living week to week on benefits, I am barely scraping by and well…” tail twitching he took a long swig of tea and squirmed slightly as Hans stared at him with those bright, unblinking robotic eyes of his.
“And what Stardust?”
“I want to be useful again,” he whispered, “Everyone was always saying how kind and empathetic and nice I was. I was helpful, I made people feel at ease, I was good at teaching things simply, helping people to understand stuff and make them feel valued.” Sighing he looked away, frowning at the floor, “All of that was ripped away when they shut my office down, kicked out the door without so much as a proper goodbye by upper management and that was it.”
“I understand,” Hans said softly and smiled, “Well let’s see what the AI has in store for you. I am sure you will fit in just fine Stardust,” he turned the screen slightly and leant back as text started to roll across the screen.
“Stardust Raccoon - Free Citizen - United States of America”
“Position Offered: Orientation Officer”
“Basic Salary: $24,000 per annum”
“Cyberisation Fee - $75,000“
“Specialisation Fee - N/A”
“Payment Plan: 40% of monthly salary”
“Indenture Contract: 8 years”
“Contract & Payment Plan - Negotiable by Employee”
Stardust stared at the text for a moment then shot the weasel a sideways look and squirmed slightly on his chair, “You would really employ me for that much a year… that’s… crazy money.”
“It is what you are worth, Orientation Officers are some of our most valued employees, you help our new hires to adjust to life as one of us,” Hans smiled and leant forwards to grasp Stardust’s hand, his grip smooth and rubbery, “It’s a different way of life but it is a good one, the company looks after its own and I think you would fit in just fine.”
Stardust nodded his head and looked back at the screen, “What does.. Indenture mean as in slavery?”
“Not slavery no,” Hans said with a smile, “It means Indentured, transforming your flesh and blood body into rubber and metal is expensive. Vulcan Automata is a business it doesn’t do such things for free. You have to pay off the cost of your transformation and any additional bodies or work you buy. It comes directly out of your salary so you cannot quit your job until you’ve paid them back.”
“Oh,” Stardust frowned, “It says negotiable so..”
“Indeed,” Hans jumped in, “You can pay back what you owe faster and once you’ve paid them back you’re free to look for employment elsewhere if you desire.”
Stardust hesitated then squirmed, “I… I have a few… uhm mental issues, nothing major but I get very depressed sometimes. It’s all in my medical notes uhm will that be a problem?”
“Not at all,” Hans said with a smile, “We can even help with that, depression can often be a chemical and hormonal imbalance. We’ll be replacing your brain with a cybernetic replacement which will help with those sort of troubles.” He turned the screen, “Does that mean you want to take the job Stardust?”
“Yes,” he said, “Yes, please I want to fit in, to be useful and productive…”
Hans held out a stylus, “Just sign here then,” he indicated a pad on his desk, “Unless you’d like a lawyer to go through the contract with you in detail?”
Stardust frowned, scrolling through the contract on the screen, eyes darting from side to side as he read through it, “No.. no I this makes sense to me,” he reached the bottom and scribbled his signature and looked up at Hans, “There, all done, what happens next?”
The weasel stood up and walked around from behind his desk, “Well if you are good to start today I can take you up to processing. Or if you need to go get things in order, pack up the house and your belongings you have a seven day period to take care of that or you can let VA sort all that out for a small fee.”
Stardust hesitated then shrugged, “I have nothing at home to take care of, how much is this fee?”
“It’ll be $780 and we’ll add it onto your owed fees.”
“Ok then well.. Let’s do this today then, no point in delaying…”
Hans smiled and turned Stardust to the door and guided him back out into the large building, “Well then, welcome to the team Stardust, by the end of today you’ll be a whole new you.”