Never Touched

When children become employee perks

Originally published on ForgeFiction


At a disciplinary meeting

“Physical touch is forbidden, but you knew that already.” stated the seated HR representative, impeccably dressed in Kidsor Inc’s colors.

Her charge, 3231-2312-1232, started to shift her feet from side to side as she nervously reflected on what got her to this point.

3231-2312-1232 had lived within Kidsor Inc.’s borders for all 21 years of her life. She’d spent the first 20 of those years in a children’s ward learning how to be a satisfactory Kidsor Inc. employee. Last year, she joined as a security engineer on one of Kidsor’s products that it sold in the international market. All commerce, of land, people, and any other resources, was only transacted between the 100 company-nations that had split up Earth under the Rules of Global Conduct.

Given the unique id 3231-2312-1232 at birth, she had been so excited on her graduation day. On her first day, she stood tall and proud in company finery as she received a new role, her HR representative Kristen Tolden, and her conversational name - Tara Venkatesan. A nod to her obvious Indian genes, no doubt.

She’d worried about doing her best at the company and getting rewarded appropriately, but she had resolved to do her best. She thought her intent would enable her to do the right thing.

Tara didn’t know then that she’d ever disappoint the company. Or break the most important Rule of Global Conduct.

Tara’s legs trembled and threatened to collapse as she let herself descend deeper into her feelings of failure and self-doubt. How was she ever going to fix this?

Displeased at Tara’s inappropriate reaction, Kristen barked out, “What comes first?”

They both knew there was only one possible answer.

Tara straightened up instantly. “Our company comes first.”

“As I was saying, physical touch is forbidden and that makes interpersonal relationships impossible, but we discovered pregnancy markers in your monthly checkup results. Which means that you have violated a Rule of Global Conduct.

“Now, normally our response to this would be to abort the fetus and then fine and separate the two perpetrators by trading one or both away to another company-nation. However…” said Kristen, without taking a pause in between until now.

Taking a deep breath, she continued “…However…it has been determined that you are an important resource and the fetus has acceptable genetic material. Therefore, while we will still trade away your co-perpetrator, you have a choice. Either you agree to relinquish fetus ownership rights in return for a reduced fine or we terminate the fetus and you pay the regular fine as originally intended.”

“What is your choice?”


The very next day

From: Kristen Tolden kristen.tolden@kidsor.com

To: Everyone everyone@kidsor.com

Subject: Rules of Conduct refresher

Hey Kids,

As a reminder, physical intimacy is only permitted with synths. Intimacy between fellow employees is strictly forbidden as per the Rules of Global Conduct and will be punished to the highest degree. If you have any allegations of misconduct to report, please use this form.

All employees are now required to retake the Rules of Conduct examination. If you’d like to prepare, please signup for the refresher course here. Failure is not an option.

Sincerely not kidding,

Kristen Tolden from HR

P.S. Do you feel ready for the Rules of Conduct examination? Reply back with a 😊 or 🙁 and any additional comments.


And shortly after that

From: Kristen Tolden kristen.tolden@kidsor.com

To: Tara Venkatesan tara.venkatesan@kidsor.com

CC: Guillermo Carrera guillermo.carrera@kidsor.com

Subject: Disciplinary notice followup

Hi Tara,

The arrangements have been made.

You will be fined a total of +1000 credits, with any negative balance to be worked off in the future.

The fetus removal procedure will be done by Dr. Carrera. Please report to him for the upcoming procedure today during your regular work break at 2pm.

Do not attempt to make further contact with your co-perpetrator.

Sincerely,

Kristen Tolden from HR

P.S. How did you like this disciplinary notice? Reply back with a 😊 or 🙁 and any additional comments.


4 years later

“When’s the last time you saw her?”

Mai must’ve asked her that question at least once a week since she’d been traded to Kidsor Inc. six months ago. Her brown eyes were wide and eager, Tara’s matching pair narrow and evasive.

“Actually, I never have. She was placed in a synth womb a month after she was conceived. I don’t even remember how old she is anymore.”

It was a lie, of course. Her brain supplied the number reflexively. 4 years and 28 days exactly.

“Wow,” Mai marveled, collapsing back into her chair and grabbing her coffee again. “At Trantor United, genetic donors still see their offspring at least a couple of times a year. I heard back in the day, donors and offspring used to live together in families. Why do you think they stopped?”

Tara stifled a groan. She hated when Mai started the why game. “The offspring get the best from the company, more than what they could if they lived in a family with their donors. Plus, the donors can have more fun, less work. What’s not to like?”

Tara thought back to a time when she craved deeper connections and didn’t really mind the work it took, when she was younger and didn’t know how hard it was to buck the status quo.

“Don’t you ever get tired of hearing about this?” Tara asked, sticking a spoon into her tea and stirring it for the tenth time in the past thirty minutes.

“Not really,” shrugged Mai, completely oblivious to the implications of the question. “I’m sick of just slogging every weekday and partying away every weekend.”

Tara’s eyes flitted around the break room, looking around for any managers that might discipline them. Spotting Sam, her own manager, she grabbed her tea and lifted herself out of the chair in one smooth motion. “And with that, it’s time to get back to work.”

Mai groaned, but followed her to their desks.


Mai was a rare transfer from another company, all irrepressible curiosity, pink sneakers and colorful scarves.

From day one, she’d been assigned to the desk beside Tara’s work desk and housing right across from Tara’s own room. Both black-haired brown-skinned female engineers. One tall and colorful, the other petite and always dressed in black.

They would have bonded anyway from proximity alone, but they had also connected emotionally.

Mai’s fresh eyes and incessant whys poked holes into the truths of their society and reminded Tara of a past version of herself.

Why do the HR reps keep calling us Kids? Easy. Kidsor used to be a leading childcare firm before it became a company-nation with many other products and services and that’s their pet name for Kidsor’s employees.

Why don’t we ever see people who work at other companies? The law says so.

Why is it okay to touch a synth, but not another human? The law says so.


From: Tara Venkatesan tara.venkatesan@kidsor.com

To: Mai Ngân mai.ngan@kidsor.com

Subject: Raincheck on spa day?

Hi Mai,

Don’t get mad at me. I decided to take up a special assignment this weekend to give Sam another reason to promote me.

I’ll make it up to you on Monday. I promise.

Cheers,

Tara


From: Kristen Tolden kristen.tolden@kidsor.com

To: Everyone everyone@kidsor.com

Subject: Company announcements - Week of 5/22

Good morning Kids!

We’ve had yet another record-breaking quarter this year. We’ve surpassed our sales target by 11%.

Thanks for everyone’s hard work. We’ve decided to award everyone with a rare +20 credit bonus, applicable to only weekend benefits. Your updated reward score is visible in the employee reward portal.

Benefit updates (2):

Sincerely,

Kristen Tolden from HR

PS. How did you like this week’s announcement? Reply back with a 😊 or 🙁 and any additional comments.


On her way to her desk

Tara stared at the email in shock, her phone clattering to the ground. In disbelief, she ran to Mai’s desk.

“Mai died? How? Why didn’t I go to the spa with her? She died?…” Tara whispered at first. But then, she repeated the same questions again and again as her voice grew louder. Her coworkers started to notice and shift away from her and all her crazy.

Tara grew even more agitated in her conversation with herself.

Finally, footsteps approached. A phone dropped on Mai’s desk.

Tara was jolted out of her rant by the sound. She looked up to see Sam, who started to fold his arms across his chest, frowning.

He frowned expectantly at her as he shouted for everyone else to hear “Guys, donuts in the break room!”

Everyone filed over to the break room, except for Tara and Sam.

Sam still stood there. Still frowning. Still waiting.

It was obvious to Tara what Sam wanted from her. But lately, it felt less like Sam was a concerned manager looking out for her and more like he was subtly threatening her into compliance.

Tara wondered when she’d ever be powerful enough to fight back, or if it would always be like this. It seemed almost too easy for the middle management to force her into compliance.

Finally, she fell into line, slid her phone into her pocket, and led the way.


In the break room

“Thank youuuu Mai! I haven’t had free donuts in a while.”

“Ooh. Ooh. Ooh. Can you pass me the pink glazed with sprinkles? And the chocolate too?”

“Why do you think Ravan got fired?”

“Once a contractor, always a contractor. Sucks to be him though!”

“Stop shoving me.”

Tara’s head snapped up. She looked around the room and watched in disgust as people shoved and pushed each other in the donut line, as people laughed and joked in their large groups like they were all at some kind of party.

Does no one care that Mai died? Would anyone care if Tara died? What if they themselves died?

“Sorry Sam, I still have to wrap up the special assignment you gave me. I’ll see you later?” she asked without expecting an answer. Then she walked away, leaving Sam frowning behind her.


Tara went back to her desk and opened her laptop. There, she stared blankly at the screen for the rest of the work day, getting no work done at all.


Tara held her hand faintly to her stomach.

Mai sighed, “Come on. You can still fix it.”

Mai pulled Tara into a tight hug, one that made her ribs ache.

Tears slid from the corner of her eyes, but Tara didn’t open them.

At first, she didn’t know if she’d been asleep and dreaming or if perhaps that was a memory of something real.

It’s real. It must be real.

But after a week of this, she knew.

Now she lay in bed, sweating and wishing, that it was real. It was the only time in years she’d allowed herself to wish. Her emotional and mental state was as twisted as her sheets.

She loved you. She loved you and now she’s dead and she’s never coming back.

They say that all you need to be happy is work and play. They keep you working and they expect the weekday and weekend highs to keep you compliant.

He loved you once, too. Then he left, dead or alive, and he’s never coming back.

Her alarm rang. Probably the third or fourth time, but she hadn’t registered it until now.

She struggled up using her nightstand as a support and walked to her bathroom. Tara splashed the chilled water on her face. Finally, she opened her eyes and looked at herself.

Bloodshot eyes. Trembling lips. Swollen face.

Her head pounding from the vivid dreams…the nightmares…the lack of sleep.

She couldn’t do this anymore.

She had to try something.


At 2pm, break time

Tara hovered near Kristen’s desk in the HR department. The others in the HR department were glancing at her from time to time frustratedly, but allowed her to wait for her HR representative Kristen. As Tara waited, she allowed herself to think of the one thing she’d avoided these past few years.

Milli.

The pet name Tara had secretly given her fetus on the one day she’d known about her and still had her.

Milli.

Tara had found out the same time everyone else did, after her monthly checkup.

Without much choice, she’d gone on to suppress her unease after that. Just like the other genetic donors must have.

When Mai came, things changed. Unexpected memories re-surfaced. And with them, her curiosity to see this one being. Would she look just more like her than Mai did?

Milli.

The only reason Tara was pretending to wait for Kristen today. That was the cover she told the HR reps that came by as she did what she really came to do. Tara leaned a little back with her eyes lowered, trying to subtly peek at Tamryn’s fingers on the keyboard as she keyed in her password.

Now she needed Tamryn to go away so that she could use a temporary access token from Tamryn’s password to give her badge access to all the places that Tamryn could visit.

Social engineering. A funny phrase for something that didn’t really involve any coding at all, but a way to take advantage of social protocols for personal gain. Not really something she ever thought she’d be doing at her real engineering job.

She gave a long sigh intentionally. It was her third long sigh since coming here. Tamryn couldn’t ignore that.

Tamryn turned around and looked at Tara irritatedly. “What are you doing here?”

“Oh, I’m waiting for Kristen. Have you seen her yet?” Tara replied innocently.

“Oh….she might still be in the meeting room. Give me a sec. I have to go that way anyway and I can let her know you’re waiting for her,” Tamryn said, and then gathered her stuff to make an escape.

“Thank you so much.” Tara said fervently. Less her attempt at social engineering and more just her honest gratitude coming out.

Tara intently watched Tamryn leave. Just as Tamryn turned around the corner, she quickly pulled out Tamryn’s chair and sat down in front of the laptop. She typed in the same password she saw Tamryn type out a few minutes ago.

Success. The password was correct. She’s in.

Tara entered her birth id into the HR database to track down her related individuals and found Milli’s room. But she wasn’t done yet.

She ran a curl command from Tamryn’s laptop to grab the temporary token and apply it to her credentials. This would allow her to trick the computer systems into thinking that it wasn’t Tara but Tamryn who was checking out the children’s rooms. Of course, this wouldn’t work if someone actually saw her there. But, in practice, she knew that most people had a hard time differentiating two people with similar genetic race markers. So they couldn’t really tell one Indian girl apart from another.

Tara also knew that her plan had some holes in it, some maybes and probably nots, but it just might work out.

It was 2:15pm now. She only had 45 minutes until the work break ended. She had to get to the children’s ward quickly and find Milli. If she didn’t get back before the break ended, then people would come looking for her or get suspicious.


At 2:23pm, the children’s ward, Age 4 room.

Tara peered in.

She nervously noticed the camera first and then saw a row of cribs. She breathed a sigh of relief. It looked like the right room. She’d have to take her chances with the camera.

Tara swiped her card and entered the room.

Once in, Tara realized what a foolish task this was. There wasn’t one row of children aged 4, there were multiple rows of children all aged 4. How was she going to find Milli?

That made her task all the more daunting and exhausting, but Tara shook it off. She had to just take it one step at a time.

Any employee that monitored the children had to have some way to differentiate the cribs. Every Kidsor citizen, whether born here or traded in, had a unique ID. It was highly likely that the employees just used that id to differentiate one crib from another.

Tara went up to one crib and examined its sides. She discovered a white label with a number on its side. Bingo.

It wasn’t enough, though. She remembered some of Milli’s id, but not all of it.

Knowing Kidsor’s obsession with perfection and optimization, she was sure that all the kids were born immediately after the optimal birth development period of 8 months, 5 days: slightly premature. This placed Milli at the start of the year, likely in February.

If there were about 300 children in this room, then not all of them were born in the same month. Maybe 20-30 of them were born each month? So Milli would have to be somewhere in the next five or six rows.


At 2:50pm

Halfway through searching, she paused and looked at the camera again. She was taking her chances that someone wouldn’t look at the recording and instead of seeing just an Indian girl, would somehow recognize that she’s not Tamryn.

Tara knew it was too late now. Even if she hadn’t found Milli yet, she’d already broken the rule. Even if she never found Milli, it was still too late. She knew all that but she still felt the sudden urge to run out and take it all back.

Maybe she could let Kristen or Sam or someone in charge know that it was all an accident. And maybe they would make an exception for her given extreme circumstances, such as Mai dying and her work stress.

What did Tara expect to come of this, anyways? She would see her little girl and then leave her again. Everything would go back to the way it was. Maybe. But maybe something would be different.

Tara blamed her instincts on Kidsor’s conditioning. She knew she was starting to spiral, but pushed all those thoughts back with a herculean mental effort.

She needed to focus.

This was important.


5421-2533-1432

She found one name tag with part of Milli’s birth ID on it. Wow. She had been starting to lose faith, but she’d actually found one potential match.

Equal parts excitement and anxiety filled her body and her eyes teared up a little.

“This might be her.” She whispered as she looked inside the crib.

Sure enough, there was a little brown girl toddler there in white scrubs. Staring directly at her.

Tara blinked. She wasn’t really sure how to proceed. But before she could take another step or even say something, Milli started wailing.

Tara stayed frozen for a beat, not quite understanding the sound that came out of Milli’s mouth. Then she choked out a little hysterical chuckle.

Shit. Her plan had accounted perfectly for everyone but Milli.

She had to shut Milli up before she woke up all the other children or got into some real trouble. But how do you tell a baby to stop crying?

Tara reached into the crib with her hands to close Milli’s mouth.

Weirdly, Milli’s hands reached out to Tara’s.

Milli wailed right up until she touched Tara’s pinky with her little fingers.

But once their hands had touched, the ambiance in the room completely changed.

That moment completely wiped out all the other moments that Tara had experienced before today except one. All she could think about or feel was the sun rising again.