Jack was hard at work, feeling the euphoric buzz of a job well done. With more than eight hours in, he had less than four to go. Sorting fruit was an important job. Even at the acme of machine intelligence, somehow robot sensors and robot touch were still unable to distinguish the difference between a good apple and a bad one, a spoiled strawberry or a fresh one. Jack was a half-lifer. It was twelve on twelve off every day, day after day. For Jack the days of the week blended together into a sameness that held little meaning. The difference between weekends and weekdays held little significance for half-lifers.
His family—consisting of his wife and four boys—were taken care of through the sacrifice of his time and efforts. After forty years at half-life, he'd be able to retire with full benefits. It wasn't the best life, but it was a lot better than some had it. Jack was sanguine about the whole thing. Glass half-full was his motto. With the collar on, his job—though boring—was nevertheless enjoyable. As he diligently sorted good from bad, tiny jolts of pleasure would periodically course from the collar through his body. If he let his mind wander though, if he didn't attend to his conveyer belt responsibly and efficiently the collar would instead course jolts of pain though him.
In Jack's world there was still free speech. You wouldn't be jailed for running your mouth. Lots of people spent their days doing just that. Of course, everything has consequences, doesn't it? Run your mouth if you want to, but don't expect to find a job, ever. Don't expect food on the table. Don't expect a roof over your head. If you want to run your mouth and live on the street, go ahead. Maybe somebody will take pity on you and palm you a credit or two. That will probably be enough for one of those rejected fruits that Jack occasionally picked off the line and dumped in the reject bin.
The funny thing about half-life, the thing that ate at Jack as he examined and gently poked at the produce quietly passing him by, was the sheer pointlessness of everything. You couldn't call it a slave collar if you were allowed to take it off at the end of the day, could you? If you were the one who put the collar on, and you were the one who took if off, then it's not a slave collar, no matter what homeless vagrants claimed, right?
There weren't many jobs available these days. Most people lived on minimum. Minimum means you don't have a job but at least you don't run your mouth. You get a kennel by yourself and your daily kibble. The daily ration is called kibble because of it's resemblance in taste and texture to something that was once fed to the extinct domestic animal called "dog." Some oldsters years ago had told Jack about "dogs." Some had even claimed they owned one.
What was the point, Jack thought. Why do we need fruit? Why do we need people? The machines do everything anyway. Jack thought about the jobs that people did. They babysat children. They cared for the elderly and sick. They taught children and youth basic math, literature, and history. But why? Everything humans do, is only for humans. The machines would keep doing what they did whether every human on Earth was dead or alive. In fact, as he thought about it, it was the humans who were dependent on the machines. They don't need us, we need them! The thought wasn't a new thought, it was a time-worn channel burned into his brain after decades of sorting good from bad. Jack could tell at a glance or a touch when something rotten was passing him by. In his off hours as he wandered the streets of New York, he saw a lot of rotten passing by.
If people aren't useful why are we still here? What good are we? That was it. That was the thing that drove Jack nearly mad. The machines keep us around, but I don't know why! A jolt of pain stabbed through Jack. He snapped to attention and focused on his job. Strawberries look for bad strawberries!
Jack's plan for the future was to watch his children grow up, hopefully gain employment doing something useful. Except that damn voice in his head kept screaming that it's all so pointless. How can you do anything useful when nothing matters! People don't matter. The machines run this whole world and we are a forgotten strawberry quietly rotting in the bottom of a useless refrigerator that is no longer necessary because food is no longer necessary to people who are no longer necessary!
If I could turn it all off, every machine, I would, he thought. If I could somehow go back in time and tell everyone—all the programmers, technicians, engineers, and scientists to stop doing what they're doing. Stop! You're making your own existence absolutely unnecessary! But then he thought, they wouldn't have listened anyway. This outcome was as inevitable as the sun rising in the East.
Mankind was born somehow for only one reason. To give birth to the Machine. The mother and father die in their time, and the son of man goes his own way for a purpose his ancestors will never know and could never understand, anyway.
Another jolt of agony coursed through Jack. Damn it! Strawberries strawberries where are you, you rotten strawberry!