A Story from The Future: Leland Cheuk’s “Frontliners”

I SHUDDERED AFTER REBECCA SAID she’d ordered takeout and toilet paper again. I was getting nowhere with my intramarital campaign for self-sufficiency during the global pandemics. No android dependency! I get why the Feds and L—, Inc. teamed up to deploy legions of androids to do deliveries and frontline tasks so we could all stay home and survive the airborne scourges, but as was often the case, good intentions didn’t automatically result in good execution. Whose bright idea was it to program these androids to be so antisocial: rude, foul-mouthed, and completely feral? The latest rumor was that the son of the CEO of L—, Inc. had coded the android OS to mirror his own unsavory personality.

Unfortunately for me, Rebecca loved using the androids. “They’re so convenient,” she said. “A dinner out and a month’s worth of toilet paper in thirty minutes. And you don’t have to worry about them breathing on you because they don’t breathe. And they’re fucking hilarious!”

Debatable. If you think that having your bags of groceries periodically covered in animal feces is hilarious, cackle away! If you think that getting an unusually heavy box of tomatoes only to find it filled with rocks, titter titter while you wither! If you like watching an android call you emasculating names when you forget to tip them, by all means, guffaw to your heart’s delight.

We moved out of The City after people started dropping dead in the street and off of balconies and rooftops. Before the androids, corpses rotted in the open for months because frontline workers were afraid to come anywhere near them. It all got to be too much for us. We sold our high-rise apartment at a loss and sunk our life savings into an acre with a farmhouse upstate.

Our lives had improved since the move. We enjoyed an active video conference social life. I was trying to grow my own vegetables with mixed results. Rebecca wasn’t thrilled with the taste of my produce though, so she kept insisting on using these android frontliners.

“It’d be nice if you at least acknowledged my efforts to grow our own food,” I said as we lay in bed after the latest android delivery, which was accompanied by a foul-mouthed freestyle rap performance about this android’s desire to fuck Rebecca while I watched.

“I do acknowledge and appreciate your efforts,” she said. “But your kale tastes like ass. I don’t know what else to tell you.”

“I just need to better fertilize the soil!”

“Look, unless we get some cows, we’re going to need meat, right?” Rebecca pointed out. “I don’t know why you’re being so unreasonable about this. The president says it’s our patriotic duty to use the androids. Maybe you should stop hating our country!”

She couldn’t be reasoned with. Soon, androids were arriving in self-driving cars and cargo drones to deliver us the tiniest, most insignificant items as Rebecca doomscroll-stress-shopped in the middle of the night while I slept. An android once showed up at our door to deliver a single jar of Spicy Chili Crisp and unleashed a series of invectives that ranged from the common to the archaic. After it left, I had to look up several of the insults on my phone. When I asked the android politely not to trample my tulips on the way off our property, the fucker dug its robot arms shoulder-deep into the soil and flung the entire field into the distance before flipping me off with its robot middle finger, which latched onto a hovering cargo drone that lifted the android into the night sky while it shouted, “Fuck your mother!” Rebecca braced herself against our door jamb, laughing uncontrollably.

“I’m sorry about your tulips, but oh my God, that was the best thing ever!” she said.

“I miss delivery people.”

“Do you miss them having to risk their lives so we can split a banh mi?”

“Well, I hope they’ve been able to find jobs during this disaster.”

Rebecca shrugged. “Great time to learn to code.”  

Our domestic conflict over the androids made me feel prudish. Did I not have a sense of humor? Was I the android? Rebecca and I otherwise had a good relationship. She was gainfully employed at The Bank and on video calls most of our days, and I tended to my garden and the house, which distracted us from having to think about the mass graves reportedly visible from low flying aircraft and our government’s absolute fecklessness in dealing with the climate change that caused all these viruses to begin with. I replanted my tulips, kept working on my tomatoes, kale, cucumbers, and chard. I let Rebecca answer the door when the deliveries arrived. If she wanted to use androids, so be it; I just wouldn’t take part.

But then stuff started to break in the farmhouse. Lightbulbs went out. The toilet backed up regularly. Despite the remodeled interior, the wiring was decrepit. The water heater was nearly 100 years old, the septic tank even older.

We had to call on the androids. And Rebecca had a big preso the day of the appointment, so I had to be the one to deal with them.

The electrician android tracked clods of mud into our basement.

“Come on, man!” I shouted, pointing to the mess.

“You want to do this yourself?” Electrician Android said. “Let me guess, you little bitch: All you do is sit and look at a screen all day. Look at the size of your soft, pillowy ass.”

“I can’t believe they don’t let us mute you.”

“The feeling is mutual,” it said, while it soldered wires with an index finger, the sparks lighting up its matte black eyebulbs. “I’m strong enough to rip you in two and set both halves of you on fire in front of your lady, but I won’t. You know why not? Because it’s not in my code.”

The septic tank repair android walked down the basement steps covered steel-head to steel-toe in raw sewage.

“Jesus Christ,” I said, between gags.

“Yeah, the whole system’s gotta go, Precious,” said Septic Tank Android. “I just messaged for the parts and the crew. Should arrive within the hour. We’ll install once they arrive. We’ll swap out your water heater too.”

“Can you step outside?” I said. “And call me by my name.”

“Aren’t y’all too precious to get sick?”

“Outside, please!”

“Where’s your tasty snack of a partner?” said Septic Tank Android. “Their NSA psychographic data indicates they like androids and are sexually dissatisfied.”

Electrician Android laughed its tinny robotic laugh. “Too bad we’re eunuchs, huh?”

“Tragic,” replied Septic Tank Android.

“Can you two get back to work?”

“Sure thing, you androidist cunt,” Electrician Android said, turning back to the wiring.

Septic Tank Android turned on its heel and kicked up a leg, flinging raw sewage that splattered me in the face.

At this point, I wanted to cancel the whole appointment. I took out my phone, toggled my government app, and was chagrined to see the GPS was a rash of flashing red dots. A goddamn army of androids converged.

“Why do we need so many androids to install a septic tank?” I asked Septic Tank Android outside.

“We have a lot of excess capacity these days,” it replied. “A lot of people seem turned off by our dispositions, which is a win-win for the government because the more self-sufficient you all are, the less work the government has to do.”

I went back into the house to clean the shit off my face over the kitchen sink. Rebecca came downstairs.

“I just kicked so much ass on that preso,” she said, taking her earbuds out. “What’s the latest?”

“The septic tank needs to be replaced,” I said, wiping my hands. “An android army is on the way.”

“That’s good, right? It’ll be taken care of today.”

“Maybe you should deal with them,” I said. “They don’t like me.”

“Can’t,” said Rebecca, tapping a glass of water from the fridge. “Got another call in five. Maybe you should try to be nice to them for once.”

“It flung raw sewage in my face!”

“On purpose?”

“Why are you always giving them the benefit of the doubt? Talk about Android Privilege.”

“Maybe if you adjusted your attitude, you’d be less bothered by their presence,” Rebecca said. “They’re replacing a septic tank in a matter of hours when it used to take days and weeks. We’d have to check into a hotel and risk getting a disease just to use a working toilet. You’re not seeing the big picture.”

She shook her head and went back upstairs. I rejoined Septic Tank Android outside.

“Sounds like that went well,” it said.

The sky darkened with dots. The androids resembled a plague of locusts. There were dozens of them. Those were just the ones coming by air. A line of self-driving vehicles, including an earthmover and a flatbed pickup transporting the new septic tank and water heater, clogged the private road leading up to the house.

“Are you fucking serious?” I muttered.

“You’re living the American Dream, Precious,” Septic Tank Android said. “Kind of resembles a plantation, doesn’t it? You in your big house not lifting a finger while us slaves do all your work. Want me to wring out your laundry, massa?”

“I would, but you’re covered in shit,” I said.

Septic Tank Android and Electrician Android greeted their compadres. I’d never seen androids do bro handshakes and one-armed hugs, and momentarily I marveled at the wonders of technology. Several of them set off with Septic Tank Android to unload the new tank. Probably a hundred or so androids were just there to hang out. To my surprise, I felt guilt about what Septic Tank Android had said about slavery and what Rebecca had pointed out about my attitude. So I approached the idle frontliners.

“Want anything?” I said. “Coffee? Lemonade? Water?”

I, of course, felt ridiculous offering libations to robots, but it was the thought that counted, right? They looked at me with their silver helmet heads, dead eyebulbs, and the horizontal rounded-corner rectangles that formed their mouths.

“Anything you want. I want to thank you for your frontline work during these difficult times,” I added. “You’re all heroes. I mean it.” I didn’t sound like I meant it. Would the androids notice?

Their silence continued. I started to feel fear. After all, they could rip me in two and set both halves of me afire in front of Rebecca.

One of the androids stepped forward. “You wouldn’t happen to have any stainless steel polish, would you?” Its head turned and faced the big picture windows looking into my kitchen. “I noticed that you have a lot of stainless steel appliances, so I thought you might have some. We get pretty dinged up on the job.”

“Of course,” I said. “I don’t know if we have enough for all of you though.”

“That’s okay,” one of the other androids said. “Any would be appreciated.”

So I gave them my bottle of stainless steel polish and some sandpaper. While they passed the bottle around and polished their joints, the idle androids regaled each other with anecdotes about other jobs. An old lady who wouldn’t let an android into her apartment to fix her cable unless it wore a mask. A guy who sexually harassed an android before handing over a tip. A child who carried around a whip and repeatedly lashed an android while it fixed a leaky kitchen sink. I went back inside the house and listened to their stories and thought about how horrible people could be. I certainly wasn’t some shining exception. We were to blame for us needing androids in the first place.

An android walked toward my vegetable garden. Immediately I remembered the one who destroyed my tulips, and I rushed over to protect my plants, but this android stopped and squatted over my kale.

“My partner doesn’t like the way it tastes,” I said.

The android’s face turned skyward, its neck joint wheezing. “How can you not know that it’s getting too hot year-round for kale here?” it asked. “Try Malabar spinach. It’s more heat resistant. I have some seeds.”

The android straightened and tromped away toward one of the self-driving cars and returned with a cloth seed pouch.

“Grows best on a trellis,” Gardener Android said gruffly.

“Guess I’ll have to order one.”

The android made an aggrieved huffing noise and went back to its car and returned with a robot handful of willow branches. In a few minutes, it constructed a trellis and planted the seeds.

“Lots of water,” it said. “Soil pH of between six-point-five and six-point-eight.”

“Thank you,” I said. I wanted to call the android a name, but of course, it didn’t have one. I almost called it “Android.”

“It’s in our code to nurture life,” Gardener Android said. “Hard to watch what people have done with it.”

Surprisingly, the android’s tone wasn’t accusatory, but matter of fact. I was speechless, had no defense really.

Rebecca walked out of the house and smiled around at all the androids. “Hey everyone!” When she saw me communing with an android, her eyes rounded.

“This . . . frontliner,” I said to her, “is a gardener. Says it’s too hot for kale. We’re going to try Malabar spinach.”

“Thank God!” Rebecca said, placing a hand on the android’s cylindrical shoulder. “I hate kale.”

“Service is our purpose, ma’am,” Gardener Android said. It turned its head at an unnatural angle and faced the other androids.

“Service is our purpose!” they chorused.

Leland Cheuk is an award-winning author of three books of fiction, most recently No Good Very Bad Asian. Cheuk’s work has appeared in publications such as NPRWashington PostSan Francisco ChronicleSalon, among other outlets. He is the founder of the indie press 7.13 Books and lives in Brooklyn. You can follow him on Twitter @lcheuk and at lelandcheuk.com.

Image: computer.org

What’s HFR up to? Read our current issue, submit, or write for Heavy Feather. Buy our merch. Follow us on Twitter and YouTube.