A modern adaptation of the Twilight Zone classic The Lonely.
NARRATOR: You are about to enter a world of contradictions. Scarcity and abundance, loneliness and companionship, change and resistance. A world that illuminates and eliminates in equal measure, where creation and destruction are inexplicably linked.
Cut to a continuous take of a weary, rugged, 50-something farmer walking through a corn field, with a burnt circuit board in one hand and a cluster of grapes in the other. This shot continues until the narration finishes.
Our story’s trappings are familiar. Location: Earth. More accurately, the great plains. Time: the near or distant future, however soon you would imagine it. Characters: a man we will refer to only as James, and his housemate Cory. Like I said, a familiar, predictable setup. But nothing stays that way for long when you enter… The Twilight Zone.
Title card: The Isolated
“Hungry?” James asks as he walks inside. He’s in a farmhouse, which features simple, rustic decor mixed with an assortment of futuristic devices. His housemate, Cory, is lying on their couch wearing a slim VR headset.
“No, thanks though,” Cory replies. He looks much younger than James, mid-20s, generally unassuming and unremarkable.
“Your loss,” James says. He sets the grapes in a bowl on the kitchen counter, tosses the circuit board into a box under the sink, then sits at the table and cracks his knuckles.
“Was it the actuator?” Cory asks optimistically.
“Not even close,” James says. “Old circuit board got jammed in the blades.”
“From what…” Cory says, puzzled. “From another machine?”
“I’m thinking a water regulator, pre-AGR. Guess we didn’t clear ‘em all out like we thought.”
“Okay. Well at least we don’t need to put in a request for the combine.”
“Yeah, seriously,” James says. “Did I miss any excitement while I was out?”
“Nope,” Cory says casually. “Unit 33’s downtime is almost finished, then we’ll be back to a hundred percent. And I’ve already put the combine back online.”
“Good. Good… way to be on top of things,” James says sincerely. He stands up and walks into the living room, eating the grapes he picked. “One more day,” he says. “What do you think it’ll be this time… wait wait, don’t tell me,” he says comically. “James, Cory – I hate to be that guy, but corporate is now requiring that you brand each kernel of corn with its own unique serial number.”
“That’ll be the day,” Cory chuckles.
“I can see it now. We want to… reduce, the… kernel to dollar ratio to maximize the… traceability of net asset loss.”
“But Allenby,” Cory says jokingly, “how does that impact the bottom line?”
“Well…” James continues. “The bottom line is… let me, you see, this is complex business, but we’ve decided that employee… vacation, or, time off, needs to be cut by two weeks.”
“Ah, you mean, eliminated altogether?” Cory says.
“Not eliminated – re-allocated.” The two of them burst out laughing as James continues to impersonate their boss, Allenby. “I tell you, and you know this-”
“I know everything about you,” Cory jokes.
“And yet you still put up with me,” James says. “No, but in all, you know, I just find it frustrating that we can have these talks, and I’m really coherent.”
Cory raises his eyebrows knowingly.
“Fine… relatively coherent,” James says. “You know where I’m, what I’m getting at, right? I mean, it’s like the whole year I don’t have any problem being assertive and having the upper hand. But then literally the one day it matters, it’s like I go into, you know, like I’m on autopilot but a million times dumber.”
“For sure,” Cory says. “I keep saying, it’s just stress, and it’s on them, AGR, for only doing the check-ins once a year.”
“Right. But then of course Allenby gets the worst of it.. And I’m sure it’s not much better for all the other outposts that he visits, you know, I feel bad for the guy, but man is it – yeah, like you said, stresses me like nothing else.”
“I hear you,” Cory agrees. “Could you imagine if it were just you out here?”
“Hell no,” James says. “I couldn’t do it. You could probably be fine, you’re kind of a loner anyhow, but man I’d need somebody to talk to. Otherwise every year I’d be, shoot, I’d probably just want to keep Allenby hostage. I mean, it’s a grim idea, but if that’s the only interaction you get all year…”
“Don’t forget the two weeks vacation,” Cory says sarcastically.
“Oh yeah, go visit all zero of my family and friends in the big city, right? We can survive on two weeks of social interaction a year right?”
“15 days if you count Allenby’s visit,” Cory adds.
“Mm, yep, my bad, 15 days is all we need,” James says, shaking his head. “Could you imagine what their discussions were like? ‘Let’s have a system where each guy manages every field for twenty miles. That’s a sustainable model, farmers like to be alone right?’ ‘But wouldn’t that drive them crazy?’ ‘Good point – let’s pair them up, that way they’ll still have a healthy social life!’” He rolls his eyes.
“And to be fair, we got along well,” Cory says.
“Well, you’re like bread and butter, who doesn’t like you, right? Geez, I couldn’t imagine being stuck with another me, and probably most of the outposts they’re just at each other’s throats all the time… But James, you know you don’t have to work here, you’re free to leave. I know Cory, very sensible advice, as usual. But you don’t understand – this is what I do. This is my thing.”
“That it is.”
“I, I know I’ve told you this a hundred times, but my grandpa always told me that farming is the most secure job in the world, because people don’t need cars, and they don’t need fancy clothes, and they don’t really need alcohol, but they always need food. And then to see this.. I think I miss just not seeing other houses. You know? Looking down the road and seeing one field after another after another after another, and nobody for miles. Or going into town to get packages and it’s just one building, nobody even running it, all automated, all – gone, it’s just vanished.”
“But AGR cares about us,” Cory jokes.
“Like hell they do,” James chuckles. “Not like we even need a manager, he’s sort of like us, you know? They keep us around for the .0001% of the problems, they keep him to make sure we don’t go crazy, but otherwise it’s all clockwork. And it’s not Allenby’s fault either, he’s just doing his job too, I get that. I swear though, if I could just speak my mind to one of those corporate AGR… you know.”
“I know,” Cory says.
We timelapse throughout the rest of their day. They spend time talking, then retreat – Cory to his VR headset, James to his computer. A giant display in the living room shows the 25×25 plot that they manage, with their house in the center. It’s a sea of green dots – like James said, only .0001% of anything ever fails. The day slowly fades into afternoon, they have one more chat on the front porch, then the sun sets.
Cut to the next morning. James is jolted awake by a knock at the door.
“I got it!” Cory shouts from downstairs.
James, a bit groggy, immediately gets dressed and ready for Allenby. He goes downstairs cheerfully – but also a bit restrained, so as not to let Allenby know how excited he is to see somebody other than Cory.
“James, I presume?” James is startled to see a young, blonde, smartly dressed woman in the dining room with Cory.
“Where the hell is Allenby?” James asks.
“Gerald Allenby was terminated four months and five days ago. My name is Alicia, I’m here to-”
“What, they wanted someone more, you know, more–”
“Gerald was terminated because his position was no longer necessary, at least not for a human to fill.”
“But you’re here, so…” James is confused. “So, you’re a…”
“Yes, artificial,” Alicia says calmly. “You can rest assured that Gerald is no longer required to visit outposts, which is a taxing job for a human.”
“And my job isn’t??” James says incredulously.
“Please lower your voice,” Alicia says. “I would like to discuss the next-”
“No!” James interrupts. “You know what I hated most about Allenby? Because I liked the guy, believe me, but for all the shit he went through, and all the high level who knows what sort of hoops he was jumping through, at least he got to talk to people every day, and at least we could look forward to… And now you’re saying we don’t get to see him, and we’re stuck with you? I mean, what do you have that he doesn’t? What makes you sooooo much better that corporate was like, ‘hell, let’s send a machine, they won’t care, make her a woman and they’ll thank us!’”
Alicia is, understandably, unintimidated. “First, I’m not susceptible to outbursts, so I’m much easier to work with.” James scoffs. “Second, I am not here to replace Gerald Allenby. I am here to discuss the next stage of your career with AGR.”
“This is horseshit,” James says. He storms off outside; Cory and Alicia follow close behind.
“James, just hear her out,” Cory says.
“Are you firing me?” James shouts, still walking away from them.
“Don’t think of it as firing, so much-” Alicia says.
“Are you FIRING me??” he shouts again.
Cory nods at Alicia. “Yes, we’re firing you,” she says.
James stops, looks out at the cornfield, and crumples to the ground. “I don’t believe it… I don’t, I don’t… this can’t be happening…”
“We’ve been working to automate the entirety of the industry for years,” Alicia says. “But if you think about it, this is a good thing. No more isolation, no more red tape from AGR, no more boredom. You’ll be receiving six month’s severance pay, which will allow you time to adjust and find a new position.”
James stares out at the field, silently.
“I know this must be hard,” Alicia says, kneeling next to him.
“You don’t know anything, okay? You don’t really ‘get it’, you’re just saying what they want you to say.”
Alicia looks confused. “You’re right, I can’t understand completely. But this transition can mean a better life for you if you make the most of-”
“What am I gonna do?” James says. “I mean, seriously, what options are there for somebody like me?”
Alicia starts to answer, but a quick glance from Cory indicates that James just needs to vent.
“This is my family,” James continues. “This is… this is what we do, what I do, what we’ve, what I’ve, always done. Even during the buyout, and the lawsuits, and the restructuring, I was always with AGR. I knew you would always need people to do this, like, it would never be all robot, and… and what am I going to do? What is Cory going to do? What about the hundreds of us who are now, basically, the last of our kind, it’s just absurd. And they think we’ll just adapt because, and that there’ll be new jobs, but they’ll all be gone, and I’m almost 60, and six months is hardly anything… Christ…”
There’s a pause. The breeze stirs the field, while the three of them wait in silence.
“I can give you some time to pack up,” Alicia says. “If you need a day, or even a week, for clearing out, AGR will be happy to accommodate.”
“I… I don’t know what I need,” James muses. “You can go back in with Cory and help him pack, I just, I really want some alone time. I, I don’t… I’m not going to have as much of it once I’m back in the city…”
“Umm…” Cory says hesitantly.
“What?” James says. “You already packed? Wouldn’t be surprised,” he chuckles.
“I’m staying,” Cory says.
“You’re… wait!” he whirls around. “So you’re just – I mean, I thought you meant you were replacing us both, not just downsizing!” Suddenly he’s full of energy.
“It’s not like that,” Cory replies.
“Not like what? Why don’t you let me stay? You’re young, you’ve got your whole life ahead of you – let me take the reins. I mean, maybe I can deal with being alone better than I think, but if I could stay out here… Can we switch places?”
Cory and Alicia exchange somewhat nervous looks. “That’s not really what the plan is,” Cory says slowly.
“So change the plan!” James says loudly.
“James, I’m not…”
“Like I said,” Alicia says, “AGR has been planning this transition for years.” She walks over to Cory and presses the back of his neck, causing him to power down. “Cory will be running the outpost, thanks entirely to you. Which means that a part of you, your personality, your expertise, will always be a key part of the system.”
“But, but he…” James bursts into tears. Alicia powers Cory back on, and he and James embrace tightly.
As the end narration begins, we see James packing his belongings and driving away with Alicia, while Cory waves goodbye.
In a few generations, James will be gone, and his machines will remember him longer than the humans who have passed him by. His way of life had been preserved so perfectly that nobody noticed when he stopped living it. His was a way of life likely to be forgotten, one that had at long last become obsolete in — the Twilight Zone.