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The Futile Pursuit of a Functional Product; or, The Printer
A short story
There are some great and inventive names for Substack publications out there but for my money the best, and the one I wish I would’ve come up with myself is Written by Human, created by todays featured writer. It was a cool title when he came up with it in 2021, by 2022 it seemed prescient and in 2023 it appears as a line drawn in the sand, if not a call to arms of some sort. In a time of AI and chatbots it has an air of bold defiance to it.
And so it is with todays story, a tale that neatly compresses, captures and dramatises so many of the anxieties that people may be experiencing in these strange times. This is what art is for.has also informed me that I need to make sure that his good friend Ridoy gets the acknowledgement he deserves for editing this story. He’s done an excellent job. They both have.
Bill fumbled in his pockets for a moment and then grabbed a wrinkled bill. 'Perfect!' he exclaimed louder than one would want.
The delivery man stood there, face drooping from boredom and, most likely, a hangover. He smudged the papers with a signature and handed them over.
Bill finally snatched the box with unreasonable force. 'I'm gonna print so many pages with this bad boy.'
'Yeah. Enjoy.' the other man said, grabbing his tip and walking away.
He fixed his hat and went straight to his car; only 25 more deliveries. The sun was already torturing him for last night’s sins but it was a good day. A clear sky, birds choiring out of tune, and the cool breeze only the early days of spring can… He paused and raised the bill he had crumbled in his hand against the sun.
‘Did he just give me a $50 tip for a $40 dollar printer?’
Bill stood alone in the middle of the room. Silence, except for the sound of the wind rustling the fresh A4 papers on his desk, and Snickers, his little kitten, purring in the corner. His mind was catching and grabbing possibilities unfolding with unrealized potential; he was going to print and print and print. Books? Yes, books. Maybe his own book. Photos? Maybe his own photos. Music sheets, of course, if he could manage to find his old guitar.
He began ripping and tearing the cardboard box apart, untangling cables, and creating a pile of garbage. A modern-looking, all-white, "saving 25% of ink" machine was left amid this chaos. It was a technological marvel by all accounts.
He made space in his corner desk, right next to the phone. Plug in, power up, put the ink in. A few clunks and clops later, the machine came to life. Something in it started moving. The first print was expelled with lightning speed from its gasping mouth.
Bill started dancing, woofing and chanting around the object of worship laying flat on the floor. He kneeled to grab the paper with religious reverence.
Welcome to our Company. We're here to satisfy all of your needs. Please, read the manual for instructions to use your printer safely
He went looking for the booklet somewhere in the jumble he'd made earlier. He couldn't find it but that didn't discourage him. As a child, he was the family tech guy. How hard could it be to set it up? Printers are horses you saddle with paper, he thought and gently tapped the sleek, round back of his new stallion.
The first nagging issue was the wi-fi. Modern printers require wi-fi. Bill realized that there was no USB cable or non-USB cable, for that matter, to connect to his laptop. The internet was a requirement. Alas, the supposed convenience this aethereal connection offered was squandered by the enigma it imposed. The solution was found online; you need the app.
He downloaded the company's app and signed up. First name, Last name. Check, check. Date of birth, Gender, Address. Check, check, check. Religious beliefs, Political beliefs. Blood type, history of psychological disorders, intelligence quotient. Bill tried to skip ahead but that was impossible – he had to fill out the blank fields with the correct information. I mean, it’s for my own safety, he thought.
After downloading half a gigabyte of premium services he'd never use, he got access to the digital environment of the printer. There were many options, from "Infinite Printing" to "Permanent Scanning". Fortunately, he found the right settings and after typing the unique code he received on his phone, the printer came back to life.
This time, Bill was less excited to read the paper:
We require more from you before you can use our services. Please press the 'i' button
He pressed the button. Another print. After reading it a couple of times, he thought it was some sort of error or tech jargon he didn't understand. But no, the writing was clear:
Please insert an ounce of blood into the ink tank for identification
'Is this a joke?' he yelled.
A gentle voice on the phone responded with a long list of non-supportive information about customer satisfaction and safety measures. Without a doubt, this was not a joke. The company required blood ('Only a few drops, sir') for identification.
'How would that work?' Bill asked.
'Our "Sample Collector" is wrapped in a plastic bag. We provide the mechanism free of charge to make this easier for you. Mix your blood with the ink and press the 'i' button again,' the voice replied with the same blithe tone.
'And sir, make sure to press the button on the "Sample Collector" firmly.'
Bill hung up the phone in disbelief. There was no way he was going to cut his finger so he could print a couple of documents for work. He went online in search of more information.
The forums and support groups were plenty and they all admitted it was a harmless procedure that ensured the machine would work properly. Most comments gave reminders that the purchase was NOT refundable, so you should go through with it or it's money down the drain for something as innocuous as a drop of blood. Bill hated to waste money.
The plastic bag was stuffed inside a small box. The "Sample Collector" was similar to an EPI pen, only instead of administering a drug, it took a tiny bit of your blood. They even had a little pictogram of how to prick your finger without causing a mess. Hey, at least they've thought this through, Billy said to himself.
He picked a new tank. Following the instructions he found on the internet, he removed the plastic bottom. There was a round hole, wide enough to insert the mechanism. This looks easy!
Bill sat on the floor and spread a few A4 papers in front of him. Time to go in, he thought. He pressed the button on the top gently. The tiny needle at the bottom was pressing against his middle finger. It didn't hurt at all. He didn't expect to hurt really, but he didn't feel anything. He looked for blood. There was none.
'The fucking needle is blunt, God damn it!' he yelled and pressed harder. Finally, the needle went in. Sharp pain – it was like a tiny hook grabbed a piece of him from the inside of his finger. Blood droplets rained on the crisp, white A4 papers underneath him while he was screaming.
Bill took a moment to close his eyes and relax while the cold water was running through his hands. The pain had sobered him up. This printer situation is ridiculous; they're asking for blood, human blood, for a printer to work. 'Ridiculous! I could sue them,' he said. He cleaned the wound and wrapped it with a piece of cloth.
The office was like a murder scene. Bloody paper, cables dangling, and Snickers' tail hanging off of the printer’s mouth.
'Get out of there, Snickers!', he said. The otherwise playful kitten didn't move. Bill ran and grabbed it by its tail. It was stuck. He pulled harder; something was pulling back. After a pop, the kitten was free – at least half of it.
He almost passed out, but his uncontrollable vomit helped him stay conscious. He was holding the half-chewed lower body of his cat.
'Oh God,' he cried and stumbled away, trying to guzzle his insides.
The printer paid no attention; a hellish crackling noise came from within and an eyeball popped out. Snickers’s eyeball. It rolled toward Bill like a red golf ball.
A piece of paper slipped out. It was bloody and damp and smelled awful. Bill didn’t want to touch it. Or read it. He forced himself to pick it up from its corner.
WE CAN PROVIDE RELIEF. WE CAN END SUFFERING. PRESS 'i' FOR INSTRUCTIONS. PRESS 'i' FOR INSTRUCTIONS. PRESS 'i' FOR INSTRUCTIONS. MORE BLOOD. MORE BLOOD.
The gaping mouth of the machine fluttered its plastic tongue and the disgusting mechanical slurping threw Bill flat on his back, breaking the ink tanks.
Black ink started gushing out. He tried to get up quickly and get the hell out of the apartment but he slipped and fell again. Fear took over him. Ink touched his lips. He spat it out but more ink dripped into his mouth. He gulped. Instead of the metallic taste he expected, a sweet liquid trickled down his throat.
A warm sensation numbed his mind. He suddenly felt relaxed, safe, immersed in another world. The homey scent of a fresh paperback overcame him, the tactile texture of a paper sheet wrapping his body and the distant echo of laughter – his laughter – drowned all worry and pain. But that didn’t last. A few moments later, he was back in the room; half his cat a few feet away, vomit, blood and ink forming a pool, and the hellish printer still not working!
Bill crawled his way to another box with ink tanks. He ripped it open and tried to quench his unnatural thirst.
'He's dead,' one of them said.
The officer remained silent, trying to gather an ounce of sanity in the face of the scene they'd just entered. Blood, vomit, and ink. A cat's half, A4 papers still floating mid-air and a man… What could you make of this man?
Ink dripping from his chin. A black, crooked smile typed on his face, eyes glimmering with the unseen visions of mundane horror. Legs and hands spread in divine submission.
'He's dead alright. Suicide.' With his boot, the policeman gently pushed the man's grotesque belly. Suddenly, a blast of black, thick liquid exploded from every orifice of the inflated body, spraying him and his partner.
'What the fuck is this?' He tried to spit it out, ignoring the foul smell and the inevitable answer to his question. The other man was licking his soaked uniform. 'What are you doing? Get it together!' Then, he stopped.
An almost silent chugging was coming from the machine on the desk.
The print whooshed and landed on the feet of the officer.
NO WI-FI CONNECTION. TRY AGAIN
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