"this is it." said sally.
the same robot that had driven sally to the police headquarters was driving her to work. she sat in the cab with him. they had had a nice conversation about doctors and wives and other shows.
now the robot pulled up in front of a tall faceless building. sally thanked him and got out.
sally's employer, universal upkeep underwriters, occupied the thirty-second and part of the thirty-third floor. she got in one of the elevators, which always worked perfectly, and went up to the thirty-second floor.
she was early. none of the other humans in her crew had arrived yet. she was part of a crew of seven humans and five robots, with a robot supervisor. universal upkeep underwriters was a company that specialized in insuring vacuum cleaners and garbage disposal units. sally's crew checked the serial numbers on the insurance applications against the databases of cleaners and units sold. the vacuum cleaners had 27-digit serial numbers and the garbage disposals units 31-digit numbers.
elizabeth, the robot supervisor, was at her little desk behind the row of fourteen terminals (two were for backup, in case one of the regular twelve broke down).
agatha, the most industrious robot, was busy at her terminal.
"good morning, sally," said elizabeth. if she was surprised at sally's early arrival she didn't show it. "would you like to pass out the work?"
"sure." sally answered. passing out the work was a break from actually checking the numbers, but mostly the robots did it. the robots had no objection to the humans doing it, but the humans thought volunteering for it was sucking up to the robots, so the robots usually did it by default.
sally picked a big pile of applications from elizabeth's out basket. she looked through them. although there were no written rules, the passer-out was expected to distribute the numbers fairly, so that no operator got too many "hard" numbers. a "hard' number was one with a lot of repetition of numbers and letters. this caused them to blur together. an "easy" number was one with few repetitions, or with easily spotted blocks of one repetition, like "7777777".
sally made a sincere effort to do this. she didn't want to listen to complaints from the other humans. ( the robots never complained.)
the other crew members began to trickle in. beth, the first human to arrive, raised an eyebrow at sally passing out the work, but said nothing.
beth's friend nancy was next to arrive, followed by edna, the friendliest of the robots, and sarah, the politest.
sally finished passing out the numbers. "thank you, sally", said sarah. "you really did an excellent job." beth and nancy smirked at each other.
patricia and roberta, two older model robots who hardly spoke to the humans at all, showed up next. then lulu and loulou, two humans who hung together.
bessie and ida arrived with a minute to spare, as they did most mornings.
they all settled into the routine. elizabeth tolerated talking, as long as they weren't too loud and kept up with the required pace. the conversations were usually as predictable as the work. lulu and loulou talked about winning the lottery, and their dreams of starring as actresses. loulou had the looks for it. ida and bessie talked about singing and singing contests, and sometimes even sang, if elizabeth seemed especially easygoing. beth and nancy talked about men, and their prospects of marrying one, preferably a famous one. sally and the robots didn't talk much.
on this morning lulu introduced another subject. she had visited madame, a card reader, the night before, and was eager to share her experience.
"i didn't get home until four o'clock," she said to her friend loulou sitting on her right but loud enough for most of the others to hear her. "but i couldn't get to sleep anyway. madame is wonderful."
loulou held up a finger to indicate she was inputting a particularly hard number.
"ok, go ahead," she said when she finished it.
"madame's system is derived from the ancient lemurian," said lulu. "she has no use for the atlantean or egyptian systems."
"cool." loulou replied.
"the beauty of madame's system is that it has no numbers. no numbers at all."
loulou laughed. 'i guess we can all relate to that."
bessie, sitting on lulu's left, chipped in. "i always liked the gondwanan sysyem myself."
"really?" lulu answered politely.
"yes, my ancestors were from gondwana." the reference to ancestors was improper and some glances were cast elizabeth's way but she gave no indication of hearing it.
"listen to this knucklehead," said ida. "you don't even know where gondwana is."
'sure i do. it was between atlantis and lemuria. but it sunk a million years ago."
"it was one and a half million years ago," edna the friendly robot said.
"thank you, edna," lulu called down to her.
"hey," nancy asked lulu, from loulou's right. "how many cards in madame's deck?"
"that's a number."
"who asked you!" loulou snapped at nancy. nancy had a somewhat bullying manner, but of the whole crew only lulu was even slightly intimidated by her.
elizabeth looked up and touched a little bell on her desk. they all fell silent and stayed that way until break time.
the seven humans and the two older robots were considered to need breaks, and edna often joined them, leaving agatha and sarah at their terminals. there was a small balcony on one side of the thirty-second floor overlooking the city and they usually went out there if the weather was all right.
sally stood at the rail of the balcony. bessie came over and stood beside her.
''hey champ, you feeling all right?" "champ" was bessie's nickname for sally because she was the most efficient of the humans.
"sure, why wouldn't i be?" sally answered without looking at bessie.
"you know what?"
"i had a dream last night, you were in it."
sally turned and looked at her. "that's nice," she said,
"did you dream about me?"
"no, i never dream."
"not even about numbers?"
sally smiled a little. "no."
bessie looked out over the balcony. the next three buildings were only about twenty-four stories each and on the roof of the third building over they could see what looked like three human males, two dark and one very pale, sitting on boxes. the pale man and one of the dark ones were strumming on instruments. the other dark man, a little fireplug shaped fellow, was clapping his hands and seemed to be singing.
"hey tex! tex!' bessie called. despite the distance her voice carried easily. "how you doing, tex? you taking good care of willie?"
the little man waved at her.
"who's your new friend?", bessie called.