He climbed the stairs of the DW-B to the upper hall. Looking down the hall from the top of the stairs, Trenchfoot knew exactly which door was his although the reception room doors were no more than thin, black slivers in the pale blue walls. On reaching it, he checked whether the green light above the door was on. It was. He could go in.
Closing the door behind him, he took off his coat and sat down in a comfortable chair in front of the television monitor. A warm brown light filled the room in, no doubt, a carefully considered contrast to the cool blue light in the corridor outside. A woman's head was brought into colour and focus on the screen. Once realised, she smiled at him.
“How are you?”, she asked.
“Well - shall we get a reading on that? Let's see what your Well-Being Quotient is. As usual, please grasp the red handle with your left hand and the blue with your right on the table in front of you,” Ella said in the way that she always said it - always the same pitch, same intonation. Trenchfoot was Ella's responsibility at the Department of Well-Being. She had always dealt with him.
He did as he was asked. Ella looked down for a while as if at some array of gauges in front of her.
“We're beginning to get some readings now”, she murmured. “There's another slight fall in your Well-Being Quotient, I'm afraid. Let me see now, that's the tenth consecutive week where there's been a reduction. It's nothing to get at all alarmed about, but we're going to have to be just a little on our guard now.”
Ella studied Trenchfoot with her sympathetic smile.
“If you don't mind, I'll get some additional readings. It'll only take a minute or two.”
Sitting there placidly clutching the red and blue handles, he fell to wondering why he had always been so patient and polite with Ella, given that she was a computer. There was nothing strange in that, of course. So were all the other civic assistants, who looked so warmly out of monitors in the darkened rooms of the DW-B. He knew it; everybody knew it. Or possibly, it was more correct to say that she was a program. He wasn't particularly technological by nature. But, why was he so polite? There would certainly be no repercussions if he was rude or never said anything to her at all; he would get his state allowance all the same. Obviously if he were to get out a hammer and start smashing up the screen, there would be some kind of legal action against him - he would, after all, be damaging state property.
Presumably because he looked at a human face and listened to a human voice - despite the fact that it was all an animation, the work of a character generator - he treated her with the respect he would accord to humans. Somehow, in having such genial conversations with her, he was actively accepting the fiction that Ella was human as a reality. He could see that it was only a small additional step for people to develop very close relationships with their Ellas. He had heard that some guys even sent their Ellas Christmas cards and asked them out to dinner.
Whenever he met Ella, he always struggled to keep in the forefront of his mind that she was a program. She did not have a consciousness, a creative mind. She didn't have the capacity to feel emotions. She simply went through the procedures dictated to her by distant, perhaps dead, programmers. Yet sometimes, he pitied her, trapped in her box with her chips – particularly as she had such a gentle, solicitous face. That she took an interest in him, kept track of him, gave Trenchfoot a feeling of reassurance and security, and that was something that he couldn't help but be grateful to her for.
“Would you like to talk about why you think your W-BQ is falling?”, she asked.
He struggled to think of something to say just out of ... out of politeness. “I'm not sure I have any clear answer, Ella. I just feel there are things I should be doing that I'm not. I seem to be waiting for something to happen all the time.”
“Why aren't you doing these things?”, she asked quietly.
“I'm not sure what they are. And, even if I knew and started doing them, I'm sure I would feel I was wasting my time and not doing the things I should be doing.”
“Well, we still have a variety of options open to us, you know. One line we could explore more fully is to find something really absorbing for you. Some form of Buddhism or Astrology perhaps might do the trick. But, I want to check all the readings carefully before coming to a decision. We want to be absolutely sure that we're on the right lines, don't we.”
“Yes, Ella. Thank you.”
“For the moment, I'm going to suggest that you visit the Centre for Altered States. I'm typing out a three-week entrance card now.” A blue, plastic card dropped out of a slit in the machine beside the monitor and Trenchfoot put it in his breast pocket.
“You'll find all the directions on how to get there on the card. As you'll see, your first appointment is tomorrow at 2.30. Do you know anything about the place?”
“I've heard a little bit about it.”
“Oh good. Right. Now I'm going to programme you in for an extended session next week, starting at the usual time of course. Can you manage that?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“That's wonderful. The only other thing to do now is give you your state allowance. You'll be glad to see there's been a slight increase in your money coupons.”
“I'm not sure exactly - something to do with improvements in robot efficiency or something.”
In a way relieved, in a way irritated, by the perfunctoriness of their conversation, he said goodbye to the monitor and started to leave.
“Don't forget your coupons,” she called out after him.
“Oh no. Thank you,” he said, coming back and picking up the envelope that had slid out of the machine beside the monitor.
“See you next week.” She smiled.
“Yes, of course.”
As he closed the door, he watched Ella shrink to a white dot in the middle of the screen.