Henry swiped the floor polishing unit from left to right as he moved slowly down the shopping aisle. Not that this floor needed any more polishing, it was already spotless and pristine, as it had been for as long as Henry could remember. 40 years since he arrived here with the shuttle, but the place really hadn’t changed at all.
He blinked twice quickly, and the retinal display showed 7:53 PM. Not quitting time yet; it wouldn’t do to be spotted wool-gathering before time to clock out, and they were always watching.
With a click, the store P.A. switched on. “Attention: Henry T. Couper. Report to the management office immediately.”
Uh oh, this can’t be good, Henry thought to himself as he stowed the floor polisher in its designated recharge station.
The management office was clear across the store and upstairs. Henry arrived several minutes later.
Inside the office was a single terminal, whose display read “Log In please” in large letters. Henry nervously placed his thumbprint within the indicated circle, and the terminal screen sank out of sight.
“Henry T. Couper, identity confirmed. SoullessMart employment ID number 93-3348-29915. Maintenance, third class,” the AI stated, in that acoustically disturbing voice-from-all-directions that all AIs used. “Do you know why you have been summoned, Henry T.Couper?”
Henry felt panic growing inside him. He honestly had no idea, since he hadn’t spoken with a member of Management in…well, decades.
“Is it about my locker?” he asked, somewhat hopefully.
“No. I am designation HR399501. Henry, do you know how SoullessMart came to be such a vast and powerful company?”
Bet this was in that handbook I didn’t read, Henry thought.
“Uhm..no?” he ventured nervously.
HR399501 continued without hesitation. “Over 600 years ago, SoullessMart’s last living CEO established an algorithm to guide the company after his passing. This algorithm, known colloquially as ‘Max’ was designed to maximize corporate share value and dividends by directly manipulating several key variables. It has been doing so for more than 500 years now.”
“Those variables can be roughly described with the following goals: maximize margin, maximize volume while minimizing inventory cost, and minimize payroll costs.” The AI continued. “By 300 years ago, SoullessMart had firmly established vendor pricing, thus maximizing our margins throughout the Earth-Moon system. Any vendor wishing to move their products through our distribution sells the product to us at the prices we dictate. SoullessMart is in complete control of our prices and margins.”
“By 100 years ago, we had achieved the second maxima. The last of our competitors went out of business, and we essentially controlled the entire consumer market, 100 percent share. Maximum volume. At the same time, trans-mat teleportation product delivery systems allowed us to reach the ultimate minima of zero inventory cost. Our products are trans-matted from the producers directly to us, and from us directly to the consumer. Inventory is zero, and so our inventory cost is zero.”
“Our corporate earnings last year were the highest ever. Our company equals the gross domestic product of the entire planet Earth. Our dividends have never been greater. But there is still one goal to be met. You, Mr. Couper.”
Henry had honestly not been paying much attention, but he blinked back into focus at the sound of his name.
“M…Me?” Henry fidgeted. Was it growing warmer in here?
“As you know, for the last 40 years or so, SoullessMart has been staffed and operated exclusively by AI and robots. With the single exception of yourself, Henry.”
Not knowing what to say, Henry just waited.
“I’m afraid that Max finally got around to searching out records of you working here. Max has one remaining goal, to minimize payroll costs—thus achieving the final, absolute maximum possible dividend value for SoullessMart. You are the sole remaining sentient collecting a paycheck from SoullessMart. As long as you work for us, our payroll costs are non-zero.”
“I’m afraid we’re going to have to let you go, Henry T. Couper. Please exit by the door behind you.”
Shaking his head, Henry knew it would make no difference, if he objected or not. They were always watching, the AIs.
Henry turned and opened the door, and decompression blew him out of the airlock and into raw, open void. Henry had completely forgotten; the last remaining SoullessMart physical store location was in stationary Earth orbit.
His corpse did make a pretty re-entry firework.