Ramona was the only woman in the crowded room.
Her gaze was on the marble floor. She drummed her fingers on her thigh at a nervous pace. Her stomach growled. If I get this job, then we won’t have to skip dinner so much.
She had arrived before sunrise, hoping to get ahead of an expected long queue. Unfortunately, there was already a line about two hundred metres long snaking in front of the building when she arrived. Men kept joining the line at great speed after the sun appeared.
Job opportunities were hard to come by. Whenever a company held an open interview in search of human workers, it would become one of the—if not the—most-talked-about events. Men from all over the country would make it to the interview as if it were some sort of pilgrimage. The women were either not bothered or too ashamed—or both—to take part.
Ramona kept her head down most of the time to reduce the discomfort from stares paid in her direction by almost everyone in the room. It was helpful to not witness the attention. She had learned that in the last two open interviews she had attended the year before.
A man in a dark blue collared shirt walked into the room. His nametag spelled out TEDDY. He looked at the man who sat on Ramona’s right on the long bench fixed to the wall. He gave the seated man a nod, signifying that it was his turn to be interviewed. The man abruptly stood up and skittishly followed Teddy out of the room. Ramona moved over to his seat. The man on her left moved to her previous seat, and the queue moved forward.
Only two minutes had passed when Teddy came back into the room. Guess that guy didn’t make it, thought Ramona.
When Teddy saw her, he swiftly shifted his eyes to the man seated next to her and gave him a nod. Ramona stood up. ‘It’s my turn, thank you’, she said monotonously and proceeded to walk towards him.
The interviewer held his hands up to stop her from going any further. ‘We’re not hiring women. Only men’.
‘Maybe we could at least have a short session.’
‘No. That would waste your time and mine. And everyone else’s here’.
Ramona nodded respectfully. ‘Could you at least let me know why you’re not considering women for this job?’
‘Are you pulling some kind of prank? I don’t have time for this’.
‘No, I’m not pulling anything. It’s an honest question. Only through knowing the reasons will I be able to improve myself’, she said, trying to sound as courteous as possible.
‘Don’t waste your time. There’s nothing you can do. It’s biology’, he said, eyeing her up and down in condescension. ‘You can’t help it. You’d eventually get knocked up—we can’t even predict when—then you’d need time off to recover and breastfeed. We could keep you, but then we’d be one person short. We’d replace you, but the new hiring process would be a waste of resources. Also, PMS and period pains interfere with productivity. I mean, if you were us, wouldn’t you also think that a male employee is a better investment, seeing how much less troublesome he’d be? Be honest’.
Ramona nodded. Although it pained her, it sounded logical. She had to accept it until proven otherwise.
One of the waiting men interjected, ‘If you let this one in, the rest will want in too! In no time, you’ll have so many women working, and it’ll be the same as last time. No damn way we’re going back to the dark ages of crazy feminists! “Oooh, all the men in the world are harassing me! Why is everyone so unfair to me? Me, me, me.” Argh, sickening!’
The man’s rant seemed to have riled up the other men in the room. ‘You can marry money, we can’t! Why take our jobs too?!’ one man shouted at her.
‘It’s not your fault you’re a woman. It’s just the way it is’. The interviewer then looked at the next man. ‘Next!’
Ramona cut in, ‘What about—’
‘Oh, get out of here! We don’t have all day. Stop wasting our time!’ the men shouted, clearly agitated by her persistence.
One of them hollered, ‘I can see why she wants a job badly. Who’d want to marry a woman with a million questions like her?’ He laughed.
‘Not me! And I can’t even get a woman!’ shouted another.
All of the men in the room burst into laughter. Red-faced, she stormed out of the building.
She felt like she was ten years old all over again, at the playground in front of her apartment building. A girl, slightly younger, had walked up to her, looked at her with a mixture of fear and disgust, and said, ‘Er…why did you keep asking my mother so many questions about our fan? My mother said you’re strange. And, she said she doesn’t like you’. Ramona’s heart sank. The other kids at the playground—most of them who were at the girl’s birthday party too—laughed at Ramona. One of them created a nickname for her at that moment: The Million-Questions Wonder Girl. The day before, Ramona attended the girl’s birthday party which was held at their apartment building. At first, she was reluctant to go without her brother, who was ill. She always felt uneasy in social settings, especially with the loud noises and endless chatter that came along with those. To go to one alone would be worse. So she was surprised that she actually enjoyed herself at the birthday party—which she was forced to attend by her mother so that she would, as her mother said, at least make a friend or two. While the other kids played with each other, ran around, ate buns and drank water, Ramona was occupied with an antique purple stand fan. It had fan blades—which she had never seen before. She was curious about the shiny purple thing with its head moving in a loop from left to right and then back to the left, so she asked the birthday girl’s mother about it: How did it work? Why did it move in a particular manner? What held the parts together? And so on. When she asked if she could take the fan apart to take a peek inside, the lady left her, saying that she needed to look after her daughter. She couldn’t have told that the lady disliked her. So she was devastated and confused by what the birthday girl said. With the kids laughing at her, she felt so humiliated. And now, with the men in the room laughing at her, the same feeling came back.
Ramona sat on one of the steps outside the building, sour-faced. She was hunched over, hugging her knees tightly together. She rocked her body back and forth as she replayed the whole incident earlier in her mind. Get a job and everything will be better. Get a job. A job. A job. A job. She started to feel frustrated. She looked at the long queue. Me, wasting their time? It’s not like they have anything else to do!
A fair-haired man walked up towards her. ‘I told you so!’ he yelled from afar.
She immediately stood up before he could reach her. ‘Shut up, Rowan. Let’s just go’.
‘How many more times do you want to put yourself through this? With all those people laughing at you—they laughed at you again, didn’t they?’
She didn’t answer. She didn’t need to. She knew her big brother was right. ‘I told you—I don’t need you to escort me everywhere. I can get around by myself’, she said, changing the topic.
‘No way. Not with the amount of rapes going on nowadays. Only getting from bad to worse. Gang members are getting bolder by the day. They see a lone woman walking, they just go for it’.
Ramona let out a grunt. Why do I even exist if everything about me is so wrong? ‘Meanwhile, you get to walk around as you like, just because you’re a guy. It’s not fair!’
‘Grow up. This is the real world. Nothing’s fair. The gangs are kings here now. With how The Administrator’s been cutting on security costs, I won’t be surprised if one day there aren’t any police bots left around here!’ He let out a soft sigh and then looked at her with concern. ‘As a brother, it’s my duty to protect you’.
‘Hmm…maybe I can create some kind of, I don’t know, a suit or something like that, which would become scalding hot when an attacker tries to touch me—’
‘Ha! And how’d you get the money to do it? Even if you have the money, you’ll be getting copyright lawsuits or whatever, before you’d be able to even put your suit together. Good luck!’
Just then, they heard a commotion nearby. Hey, what’s going on there? Rowan wondered. He walked closer to see what was going on. Ramona followed close behind.
‘You are poor thanks to you’, a middle-aged man with expensive-looking diamond cufflinks shot at a scrawny, ragged man who stood in the midst of other famished-looking men of various ages. They were all wearing black t-shirts and blue jeans; perhaps planned as such to show that they were part of the same group.
‘No, it’s thanks to your kind. Bourgeoisie! Rich pigs who take everything!’ protested another man from the small crowd.
‘That’s all you’ve got? Just throwing names? Shows your education level. Maybe if you didn’t slack off in school—’
‘Hey, you don’t know anything ’bout me! Don’t go ’round acting smart and all!’
The rich man maintained his nonchalant look, snobbish eyes looking at the man as though he was staring at the most boring thing in the world. ‘Well, I do know that your kind of people love to blame everyone else for your situation. Blame everyone else except yourself. Is it not logical that if you worked harder, you would be in a better position than you are now? Spending your time working could earn you an income instead of standing here and complaining’. He put both hands on his hips. ‘Do you not agree?’
‘There aren’t any jobs!’
‘Now that’s a lie, isn’t it? Look at those men walking out of the office. They have jobs. Why can’t you be like them?’ There were only two men who were in work uniforms within sight.
The protestor went quiet, unable to come back with a counterargument.
His fellow protestors started to chant again, ‘The rich are thieves!’ He snapped out of his silence and chanted along, his raging eyes opened so widely that they looked like they were going to pop out of their sockets.
The rich man threw his head back and rolled his eyes. He shook his head as he scratched his forehead, saying to himself, ‘It’s as though I’m attempting meaningful communication with apes; what a waste of breath’. He looked at the men in front of him. ‘You people are’, he hesitated, sighed, then continued, ‘I’m sorry to say this, but your class of people are born with, how shall I say…low IQ. It’s not your fault. I feel sorry for you, but we all have to accept the fact that you will never be able to comprehend complex matters. On top of that, your emotions tend to get the better of you, holding you back from getting further in life—and there’s nothing you can do about it; it’s genetic. It’s the survival of the fittest and, alas, you’re the weak ones. You get what you give. You’ve not given anything meaningful to this country. We have. We pay almost all the taxes in this country. You do nothing but take. And now you want to bite the hand that feeds. Sad, don’t you think?’ He looked at them with sympathetic eyes.
The protestors were in a state of disbelief, as though saying to themselves, did he actually say those things? To our faces? The size of his balls! They jeered but no one specifically questioned the validity of his claims or debated him.
Ramona’s jaw and fists clenched. She felt their annoyance as surely as if it were her own. Yet, she looked down on their inability to critically debate the rich man. Nonetheless, she felt their anger. In her mind, she pierced the rich man’s eye with one of his diamond cufflinks, causing him to bleed profusely. ‘Rowan, I think we should join them!’ she said and started walking.
‘Hey, hey! What are you doing?’ Rowan pulled her arm, forcing her to walk away from the protest area. ‘Are you crazy? What would people think if they saw you—a girl—protesting? No one will ever want to marry you’.
She shut her eyes and let out a deep breath, trying to dissipate her anger. ‘I’ve said over again: I’m not interested in getting married. And really, why should I care so much about their opinions? Think about it, Rowan—most of them are shallow-minded, so why would their thoughts matter?’
‘Again with your outrageous thoughts’. He shook his head. ‘Stop being selfish. Think of us’.
‘I can’t see how what I said is outrageous. Don’t you think it makes sense that—’
‘Mona! Shut up!’ Rowan stopped walking and stared at her, exasperated.
She could only look at him bewilderedly, unsure why he was so angry.
‘Why can’t you just nod and move on? Not everything needs to be clear-cut sensible, okay? Choose your battles wisely. If you keep on arguing and blabbering about every single thing that you think is wrong, you’ll end up being known by everyone as an annoying pain in the neck. No one will listen to anything you’d have to say anymore’. He shook his head. ‘No one would even want to be near you’.
Ramona was taken aback. She felt embarrassed, but at the same time, unable to reconcile his suggestions in her mind. Asking her to nod at something she didn’t agree with was akin to asking her to say that something was white when it was clearly black. But what Rowan said about choosing her battles stuck with her. He’s probably right about that.
Suddenly, she sensed a piercing stare. Shifting her eyes to the source, she caught a woman with red buzz-cut hair looking at her with curiosity. She noticed a scar across the woman’s left cheek. The woman then turned away and walked into an alley, disappearing from sight.
‘Your kind is the reason we are suffering!’ someone from the protest group shrieked, grabbing Ramona’s attention once again.
There were now cries of panic coming from the protest area. Many were running away. The protestor brandished a gun at the rich man.
Immediately, four android bodyguards surrounded the rich man, shielding him from the gun threat. The fortified group proceeded to move backwards into the tall building behind them in an attempt to get the rich man to safety.
The gunman stood there, shivering, gun still pointed at the retreating group.
‘Hey, hey, calm down. This won’t do any good. Let’s go, okay?’ a fellow protestor tried to calm the deranged gunman.
It was pointless. The gunman stayed in the same pose and wailed about being hungry, not having money, no women being interested in him, and that he was of no use to anyone. Even his mother wanted him dead.
Finally, he shoved the tip of the gun into his mouth, closed his eyes, and pulled the trigger. Blood and pieces of brain matter gushed from his head. He crumpled to the ground.
The rich man remained safe in the building, secured by his bodyguards.
Ramona was in shock.
‘Mona? Are you okay?’ Rowan shook her; she’d seemed catatonic for several seconds. He, on the other hand, like most people there, didn’t look as disturbed by the gore. That must have been the third suicide he’d witnessed that week alone.
Suicide among men was as common as passing clouds.
Ramona blinked and looked at her brother. ‘That was…crazy. He shot his brains out…. I thought he was mad at that man, why did he—I don’t understand’.
Rowan sighed. ‘He was probably madder at himself for being a loser. I can relate.…’
‘What? Are you going to shoot your brains out too?!’
‘Ha ha, of course not! Then who’s going to take care of you and Mother? To think of it’, he teased, ‘I’m not so sure you’ll ever get any marriage proposals’.
Ramona shook her head. ‘I’ve already said many times that I’m not interested in that. I want a job so that we can have a better life—remember, you told me that getting a job gives us money and money gives us food and pays the rent’.
Rowan winced. ‘I think the one thing I regret the most in my life is telling you that’.
‘Never mind’. He started walking. ‘You do know that getting married to a rich guy will also give you a nice life, right?’ He then sighed. ‘Why am I even repeating myself over again. You’re too obsessed with getting a job for no apparent reason. You’re stubborn to a fault. Let it go. Be flexible, Mona’. Again, he sighed, shaking his head. ‘Sometimes I wonder if I should have mentioned about the marrying stuff before ranting to you about work. I wonder if that would have made a difference. Mother must be hating me for eternity for this’.
‘But I’m not interested in getting married. I want a job. Wake up in the morning, go to work. At work, I’ll get to do what you do: fix the lights, the pipes, the machines—only the rare issues because the machines can self-repair the rest—fix the door—’
‘Okay, okay, I get it. But if you don’t get a job, we’ll be stuck the way we are now anyway. So you may want to also think about a plan B—to get married. Then you’ll get to live worry-free in a big, beautiful house’.
‘But…’ she gazed at her feet, ‘I’d rather have us the way we are now’.
‘The way we are now? You mean me putting scraps of food on the table, and starving for a couple of days towards the end of the month? I can hardly pay the rent! No way’. Rowan shakes his head. ‘I—I’m not even sure if I can even keep the job’.
Rowan was one of the lucky few who were employed. For the past twenty years, jobs had been scarce. Trillion-dollar corporations hired, on average, only about three human workers per building, excluding the owners and board of directors.
Most human workers were hired to complete rare physical tasks that, although simple for people, were rather complex for machines; the cost of acquiring those machines was far greater than simply paying workers low wages.
Other than those, the machines dominated. It was ridiculous to hire people to do things that the bots could do so much better in terms of quality, quantity and cost. What’s more, the machines didn’t ask for sick leave, didn’t strike against unfavourable company policies, didn’t steal money or have ‘bad days’ like whiny human workers did. There was absolutely no logic to reverting back to a human-intensive workforce.
Regardless of the strong case to move to full automation, the decades of gradual displacement of human workers were marred with violence. Disgruntled ex-employees destroyed manufacturing machines, some risked their lives by blocking autonomous trucks from moving by lying down on the road at the exact moment they knew the trucks would appear—after which they would either damage the trucks or set them on fire, and so on. Security had since improved to be more intelligent, protecting the assets from the reach of vandals. There were still several anti-machine movements around, but they mostly only organized protests.
Rowan sighed. ‘Things aren’t looking good there. Talk’s going around about plans to cut our wages again. Apparently, some shareholders aren’t happy with the…umm, if I recall correctly, they said “flat profit margin trend”. The pigs know they can do whatever they want to us, since so many are literally dying for a job’. He clenched his fists and spat. ‘But hey, what does an underclass man like myself know?’
They both stayed silent for a while, walking on with their heads down, hopeless and at a loss for words.
‘I wish I was born a girl’, Rowan said after a few minutes. ‘Then I could go hunt for some Grander to marry, and bam, just like that, we’d be set for life!’
‘Strange. I was wishing earlier that I was a boy so that I could get a job and walk around town freely’.
‘Mona, does the word Grander honestly have no effect on you whatsoever? Grander, Mona! Rich man!’ Rowan shook his head. ‘Look, an underclass girl has a better chance of marrying a Grander than an underclass guy has of getting a job. So, what you just said doesn’t make any sense’. He paused. ‘Look, you don’t want to be a guy. A man’s fate is to remain unmarried and poor till the day he dies. No, correction—I meant to say an underclass man’s fate. It’s bloody fantastic if you’re a guy born in a rich family’. He nudged her with his elbow. ‘It’s good to be a girl, trust me. Those rich men collect wives like crazy’.
‘But isn’t that like being a sex bot? Sleeping with men for money, except that you’re not a bot?’
‘Well, yeah…but it’s better than dying from starvation. Can you argue with that?’ At once, he regretted asking her the question when she started thinking about it deeply. ‘Stop thinking so much. Don’t you feel pain in your brain from so much strain?’
‘But there are no pain receptors in the brain so a person won’t actually—’
‘Mona. Stop. Oh, man. Maybe you should get a job. I don’t think any rich man would want to marry you if you keep talking like this’.
Ramona kept her mouth shut, only because she didn’t want to be irritating.
Mrs Rey put her index finger on her lips, signifying to her daughter and son to be quiet. The pounding on the door persisted.
‘Rowan! Open up! Your payment’s way overdue!’ demanded an angry man outside the apartment. ‘I’ll break this door down!’
Ramona’s eyes were filled with terror. He’s going to kill us! There’s no way out from here besides that door. We’re too high up to jump out the window. What to do?
Rowan put his hand on Ramona’s shoulder and looked at her with reassuring confidence, shaking his head, as though saying: He’s just bluffing, don’t worry.
Sure enough, the ruckus outside halted ten minutes later. The man was gone. No door was broken.
All three of them breathed easy. None of them spoke of the matter and went back to what they were doing earlier, as though nothing disturbing had just passed.
Ramona received a notification from her comm, a small flexible rectangular biomaterial communication device latched on the back of her neck. Comm spoke to her in a female voice transmitted via electrical signals to the auditory cortex of her brain, so that only she heard it. Incoming mail from a sender named Madam Pot. Would you like to read it?
Yes. She instructed in her mind.
She saw the contents of the mail through the thin, soft lenses she wore. The words appeared in an opaque rectangular visual that hovered in the air, as though it were only twenty inches away from her.
Dear Miss Ramona Rey,
I am Madam Pot, the human resource manager for Grander Gulliver.
The Grander would like to invite you to visit his estate. Do reply if you would like to accept the invitation, and I will provide you the estate’s address.
Please note that this invitation is only for you. You are not permitted to bring any company with you.
‘Huh?’ Ramona blurted. Mrs Rey and Rowan looked at her curiously. She proceeded to read the mail out loud to her mother and brother.
Mrs Rey jumped out of her chair gleefully. ‘Ahhh! This is so wonderful! A Grander! Reply now that you’ll go’. It was strange to see her mother so excited. She was always trudging around sluggishly, as though she was suffering from debilitating depression. Perhaps she was.
‘Gulliver. That’s the security company, right?’ Ramona looked at Rowan.
‘Yeah, the family owns the security business’.
‘But how does he even know about me? I’m not socially active, never went to those clubs and all. This is too strange’. Ramona pursed her lips, perplexed.
Although naturally pretty, the twenty-year-old was not glaringly spectacular in terms of style and sexual attractiveness to demand a second glance.
Her dark brown hair was usually tied up in a messy bun. Her grey eyes were made dull by the dark circles under them, which seemed to be a permanent feature of hers since childhood. She wasn’t exactly the belle of the ball with her pallid complexion and bony figure. Even her posture lacked any sort of charisma, a slight hunch formed from her habit of looking down a lot.
‘Who cares? Just go and see what happens! It’s better than nothing’, her mother fussed, looking at Ramona with hungry eyes.
Rowan interrupted, ‘I just looked him up. He has a hundred and twelve wives—’
‘A hundred and twelve?! He must be really rich to afford so many! How impressive’, Mrs Rey exclaimed.
The words sex bot kept blinking in Ramona’s mind in bright neon lights. She sighed and shook her head. ‘I don’t know—’
Mrs Rey couldn’t hear her. Her mind was busy making plans already. ‘We’ve got to fix you up right away. Pretty you up!’
‘If he’s reached out to me, that means he already knows what I look like, and obviously, is okay with it. Or else he wouldn’t have bothered’, Ramona said.
‘You just need a little makeup. And your hair—the colour is too serious for men. You have to look a little more fun’.
Rowan’s face turned pale.
Noticing this, Mrs Rey said, ‘Don’t worry Rowan, we don’t need you to buy anything. I’ve still got my old makeup stuff. I’ll get Tammy from the second floor to do Mona’s hair. I helped her move her broken fridge out of her apartment a few months ago, and she owes me. I’ll ask her to do it tomorrow’. She clasped her hands and said joyfully, ‘Ohhh, just think about it—you’ll be married to a Grander!’
Those last few words shook Ramona to her core. ‘Mother, wait. Maybe give me some time to get a job first?’
‘What?’ Mrs Rey looked at her incredulously. ‘Here you have a big chance, and you want to pass it up for an impossible thing like getting a job? Pigs will fly before anyone gives you an interview, let alone any work! No, no way’.
‘But I—I don’t feel like getting married. The whole societal idea on how this works…everything’s so pretentious. I don’t feel like being part of it’.
‘Oh my God, Mona! You need to grow up—this is the real world! This crazy talk of yours…Why do you always have to make life harder than it already is?’
Ramona’s breathing became shallow. ‘It’s the way I am; I can’t help it! I’ve tried but I’m just not able to see things the way everyone else does!’ She started hyperventilating and rested her forehead on her palm, trying to catch her breath. Mostly, she felt disturbed and trapped by the thought of committing herself to a lifetime of pretentiousness.
‘Come, come, my poor girl’. Mrs Rey held her daughter close, stroking her hair.
After several minutes, Ramona leaned back on the chair. ‘I’m okay’.
‘Sleep on it, okay? Maybe you’d feel better about it tomorrow. But try to think of us all. We’re three months behind payment for the apartment. In a few days’ time, the lender will come knocking on our door again. Your brother’s too high and mighty to work for the gang downstairs. At least with them, he could earn more’. Mrs Rey spoke with an artful mix of warmth and sarcasm.
‘You want me to be knocking on other people’s doors to collect debts and maim them if they can’t pay?’ Rowan raised his voice in outrage. ‘And if I get killed by another gang, who’s going to provide for you both? What if a gang member says he wants to rape Mona? I’ll tell them I don’t want to be part of their gang anymore, and they’d just be like, “Oh, sure, sure, that’s fine”? Think that through, Mother!’
Mrs Rey started crying. She slumped on the chair, looking depressed as she usually did. ‘Why do I have children like these? One is very, very strange in the head. The other is a boy. Why am I so cursed and unlucky?’
Rowan walked out of the apartment in a fury, slamming the door on his way out.
Ramona looked at her mother sympathetically. She understood that her mother was in constant stress with the family’s financial predicament. I need to try to be normal. ‘Don’t be sad, mother. I’ll try my best…let’s see how it goes with Grander Gulliver’.
Mrs Rey smiled a little, though still sobbing.
With her body hunched forward, Ramona stared at the floor, her mind restless.
Why are these my only options—to marry a rich man or have my family die in destitution?
I wish I was like the other girls, she thought, hugging herself, industrious in trying to marry into a rich family. Most importantly, they seem to really want to. It’s like they crave it—to be a Grander’s wife, being known in high society. To be a somebody.
Maybe after visiting Grander Gulliver in his world, I’ll grow up, get out of my head, and understand the real world.
She shrugged. Let’s see how it goes.
She activated her comm and replied to Madam Pot. I accept the invitation.