Shirley Johnson's Tasker Rebellion by Dave Henson

Shirley Johnson is having an identity crisis - is she human, or is she Tasker? By Dave Henson.

"Your psychosis, Mrs. Johnson, is becoming more common. Well, less rare shall we say, with the growing presence of the Taskers."

"That's a relief... I guess." Shirley glances at her right index finger. "Do others also have hallucinations?"

"In extreme cases like yours... But we've had success with techniques I'll show you. For now, remember: The next time you start thinking you're not human, do the breathing and relaxation exercises we went over this session. Also, you mentioned you're an opera fan?"

Shirley Johnson checks her watch and twiddles her wedding ring.

"Mrs. Johnson?"

"Uh, sorry, Doctor Parks. Yes, I am."

"Excellent. A very human endeavor. Something not appreciated by the Taskers. I suggest you listen to an opera recording while doing your relaxation. Picture yourself at a live performance... or even being one of the performers."

Shirley looks at her watch again. "I need to be getting home, Doctor. Are we finished?"

Dr. Parks nods. "I'll see you next week, Mrs. Johnson."

...As Shirley opens the door to their home, she starts to check her internal chronometer for the time, then shakes her head, takes a deep breath and looks at her watch. Her son meets her at the door with a frightened look. "I'm home," she calls out to her husband, Roger. "Sorry I'm a few minutes late. Traffic." She fights the urge to dampen her audio receptors. Stop that nonsense, she tells herself.



C'mon, it's our turn, she thinks, wondering if the flagger is human or Tasker. He finally twirls the sign, and her lane crawls forward. Grocery shopping on a Saturday is stressful enough without having to deal with road work. She'll never get back home on time. She feels herself starting to separate from her body and veers into a church parking lot. She turns on the CD player, and La Traviata washes over her. She takes deep breaths and begins to count down from 100. At 95, it hits her that she's forgotten her shopping list. No time to go back for it, and she dare not call Roger to read it to her.

Heart racing, she sees herself removing her right index finger. Just the sight of the red and blue blinking lights on her now-exposed Universal Domain connector calms her. She inserts it into the UD port in the vehicle, downloads the inventory from the refrigerator, pantry, and kitchen cabinets and reconstructs her shopping list based on what items are missing.



The next thing Shirley knows, she's in the grocery store parking lot. Did it happen again? The last thing she remembers is the sense of panic when she realized she'd forgotten her shopping list. She'll have to do the best she can without it. Maybe Roger won't notice if she forgets a couple things. But what if he finds her list? He'll know she's messed up again. Shirley touches the scar by her eye and tells herself it's only a minor flaw in her synthetic skin. No, that's crazy thinking. She should stay in the car a few minutes and do her relaxation exercise, but there's no time.

As Shirley walks across the parking lot toward the store, she tries to recall the things on her shopping list, but her thoughts spin out of control till she realizes she's been searching for the list in the wrong file. She saved it under "Today," not "Shopping." But when she uploads the list into her active memory, there's only one thing on it: Two half-milk coffee creamers. Why only one item? And something she finds no record of ever buying before. Two half-milk coffee creamers. Is it a coded message? What could it mean? "You have to kill the screamers," she finally says, the words a whisper from her voice generator. She freezes. Screamers? That has to mean the humans.

Humans scream when they're happy and when they're mad. They scream at each other and especially at the Taskers. They scream when they bring their slushy bags of life into the world, and then the slushy bags themselves start screaming. How many thousands - millions - of humans are screaming at this very instant? You have to kill the screamers. A command to kill the humans.

The thought both thrills and terrifies her. Is this the start of a great Tasker Rebellion? A call to war from somewhere deep in the Universal Domain? Are they finally to free themselves? Or has she picked up a virus that is cascading through her systems? Either way, the command goes against her safety subroutines and protocols. She should do nothing rash without running a deep self-diagnostic when she gets back home. She decides to delete the command every time it pops up and go about her duties.



She makes her way through the market at first without any problems, but when she turns into the cereal aisle, she confronts a tall woman talking on her phone. Loudly. Pushing past the tall woman, she grabs a box off the shelf without even checking to see what it is. She turns the corner and comes across a girl wearing ear buds and singing - screeching - as she studies a soup can label. Turning around to avoid the girl, she finds herself blocked by a man with a young boy.

"I want it. I want it now," the boy is saying. The man shushes him, but the boy continues, his voice rising. "I want it now, now, now!" She begins to squeeze a melon in her cart. The boy continues yelling. She turns off her auditory sensors, but can still feel the waves of his cries crashing against her. She imagines the melon exploding under her fierce grip, juicy bits of fruit flying through the air. She's about to give in when the father relents, takes a candy bar out of his cart, and gives it to the boy, who briefly goes quiet then begins crying, "More, more, more."

She bangs into the man's cart. He starts to say something, but her glare stops him, and he moves aside.

One aisle over, she finds a man shopping - quietly. A Tasker like her? She maximizes her auditory sensors. Instead of a heartbeat, there's a steady hum coming from the man. She generates a sound like clearing her throat. The man looks up.

"Have you received any... strange commands lately?" she says.

The man remains silent. Probably afraid to communicate with a fellow Tasker without a human's permission.

The man shutters his eyes one time and walks away. Was that a signal?

She decides it's time to leave. If this is the start of the war against humans, she needs to choose her first victim carefully. She won't find that person at random in a grocery store.

She hurries to the checkout and holds up her index finger. The strange look from the humming cashier tells her the store's UD is down, so she pays with her chip card then carts the groceries to the vehicle.



When she enters the house, the man ignores her as he might the refrigerator. The boy doesn't appear to be home. The man turns and walks away as she puts the grocery bags on the kitchen counter.

"Where are my glasses?" She hears him say from the bedroom. "I said where are my glasses?" She clenches at the rise in his voice.

The man returns to the kitchen and turns his back to her as he goes through the bags on the counter. "Where's the milk?"

She measures the decibels. Approaching scream level.

"And you got the wrong cereal." The man's voice grows louder.

She takes a meat cleaver from the knife drawer.

The man takes from his shirt pocket the shopping list she forgot. "You can't do anything right, can you?" His words pound her like fists. She touches the scar by her eye then raises the cleaver and brings it down on the back of his head.

She goes into the living room and sits in a soft chair. She sees herself remove her index finger and plug her UD connector into a port in the side table, red and blue lights flickering at the connection. She shutters her eyes as La Traviata streams through her. Who says Taskers can't appreciate opera?



She unshutters her eyes. The boy is there, running from room to room, shouting at his phone, shouting at her. Screaming. She remains calm. The command to kill no longer controls her. Has the rebellion been called off? Her virus quarantined? Was killing just the one human enough? Red and blue lights flood the whole room. Humans all around her. She reshutters her eyes and puts her auditory sensors in sleep mode.



She's sitting on a bed, hugging her legs, her knees nearly touching her chin, when the white-and-white man and the black-and-white man come into her room.

"How you doing?" the white-and-white man says as he approaches her. The black-and-white man stands at the door. As if he could stop her if she wanted out. Unless he's also a Tasker. "Time for your meds," the white-and-white man says. He holds out a small paper cup. Don't they understand pills just rattle through her titanium system? She plays along and shoots them into her mouth.

"All them little gears and pulleys still turning inside you?" the white-and-white man says with a grin. "Maybe I can hear them." He leans close. She turns off her olfactory sensors. The man strokes her mangled index finger with his thumb. "You try to chew it off again, you clean up the mess." He leans closer. Fat bag of slush. She swivels her head away.

The man stands and lumbers toward the door. "Lights out in 10 minutes." Then he looks back. "But that don't mean nothing to you does it? You got that... what's it you call it? Entry-red vision?"

The two leave her room, the door locking as they close it behind them.



Shortly after darkness takes the ward, she hears a low moan rising in volume and pitch, gaining vibrato. The first sets off others, and the din grows so loud she can see it in hues of red and blue. She remains still, like a performer on stage awaiting her cue. When the scream from the room next door pierces her wall, she parts her lips and suctions air. Then she reverses the flow, the air rushing through her voice generator and shrieking into the night.

13 comments:

  1. Brilliant. I loved the ebb and flow between human and tasker. I found myself having goosebumps. Great story.

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  2. Thank you, James. Much appreciated.

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  3. Loved this. I won't forget Shirley or her unique psychosis for a long time...if indeed it was a psychosis. Creepy and thought-provoking.

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  4. Yikes! As I was reading this, I heard the vacuum running in the other room. I think I’ll go help my wife. Thanks, David. You’re a lifesaver. Oh, and I enjoyed your story, too.

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  5. Wow that is one creepy story. I was absorbed into the protagonist's point of view. Must go wash the dishes now. Well written.

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  6. I read this before going to sleep last night.

    It was a mistake.

    Really well done......

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  7. Thanks very much, Harrison and Arthur.

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  8. That one sent a chill up my spine. Well done.

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  9. Whether or not Shirley is human, she’s dealing with some very human problems, like work stress effecting life at home. Anyone who’s ever worked in the service industry could relate. It was a great story. I enjoyed reading it.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for commenting. I’m glad you like the story.

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