(Here is an exerpt from one of my stories that is featured in REDLINES: Baltimore 2028- JTH.)
Cory stood at his normal perch in the Mertz Rental facility, adjacent to the airport, surveying the automated vehicles as they zigzagged through the parking lot, each following its programmed drive path and moving out towards their destinations. Some of the vehicles would pull over to the curb where newly arrived renters would jump into the cars, bags in hand, and speed off the lot. To Cory, it reminded him of a tapestry in a museum, a multi-shaded palette of threads stitched and woven at a breakneck pace, breaking off, stopping and starting, the blur of curved forms punctuated by the squeal of tires on the pavement. He checked one of the monitors that wrapped around the desk in front of him to see what was scheduled. Data cascaded down the page that corresponded to the lines of cars in the lot. When the schedule wasn’t so heavy, he could actually read and keep track of the data; but those days were few and far between. He rarely had any tasks to do, other than troubleshoot when a car didn’t respond to its instructions and went off course. Last year, he only had 3 instances of these ‘route permutations’ as the programmer Sunil liked to call them. In the living room on his wall at home, Cory still proudly displayed the plaque he received at the holiday banquet for averting a disaster with the last of the accidents; that day, he had overrode the dispatch system to keep four rogue cars that were careening through the lot via altered paths from running into the rest of the fleet. “Car #42876r”, he would say, using the inventory control number while recalling the number of each vehicle as he recounted his heroism. If he was at the bowling alley, he would be more to the point, “The first one was a silver Ford Focus 5-door. Windows were down and the stereo was even blasting.” Cory had memorized the old keyboard shortcut to bring up the override screen, which was still present in the system despite that fact that it had been updated. Sunil had written a patch for the system that effectively fixed the glitch that produced the route permutations, leaving Cory to muster up enough professionalism to stand sentry over a fleet for which he could do nothing. He would muse to the screens in front of him, “It kinda feels like I’m riding in one of the cars all day, but I’m just standing here watching them go.”
When Model 1 of Electronic Data Associates Automated Route Protocol Administration Units (ARPAU) arrived at the rental facility, Cory thought about how 12 years after he had finished at CCBC- Essex, today might be his last day of work. Ever. While he prided himself on his methodical approach to his job, he wondered how he was he gonna be able to compete with a thing. The ARPAU 1 was a sleek, rectangular box on wheels that was jacked directly into the monitoring console in the station. A tele-scopic pole with some type of camera device sat on top of the box, and from what Cory could discern, served as the eyes and ears of the unit. The engineer who was installing the robot with Sunil’s assistance was less than forthcoming, which Cory took as a sure sign that the end was near for him. He tried humor: “Does it take smoke breaks?” The engineer didn’t even bother to look up when he responded. “Not hardly, and I hope you don’t smoke in here, because it has a built in smoke alarm system.” Sunil was empathetic. "Cory, don’t worry, this is a pilot program, so we need you to help work out the bugs in this system.”
“Thanks Sunil, but that’s not exactly reassuring,” Cory said as he stepped out to get some air.
Tammy passed by Cory in the parking lot, pushing her cart, laden with the brooms, towels, sprays and vacuums she used to clean the offices around the lot. She was never one to mince words, even when she was in one of her better moods. “Looks like they trying to put you out with the trash, homey,” she mused when she passed. She laughed, one of those hacking, hybrid cough chuckles that come out of folks when they are party or witness to something that has them questioning the whats and whys of their own existence. “Much money as you saved this company, they finna replace you with a fancy X-box.” Cory was too out of sorts to be angry about it.
“Nothing I can do, Tam. I’ve worked hard since the day I got here, and that’s what I’m gonna do until they tell me my time is up.”
“I hear what you saying Cory, I just think its messed up. You a good dude and you always done your job well. No reason for them to put a robot in your spot.” Cory shrugged, finished his soda, and went back to his station.
Six months, three motherboards, two power supplies and 5 data cables later, ARPAU 1 was re- moved from the station. A tight smirk was affixed on Cory’s face as the same engineer, now humbled, quietly dismantled the bot and rolled it out of the station, without even apologizing for repeatedly accusing Cory of sabotaging the unit. Cory had shrugged when the camera unit was installed in the station three months into the project to monitor his interaction with the robot. “Interact?” he guffawed when discussing the initiative with Francella, his manager. “What interaction? This isn’t one of those android units they show on wired.com; the thing doesn’t talk, and the only reason it looks at me is to record video of me doing something so it can replace me!”
“Its not going to replace you, Cory. There will always be something for you to do here; but let’s face it, you get paid to stand and look at traffic all day.”
“I disagree, Fran; I get paid to make sure that these cars don’t go off track and kill somebody. I think I am worth my salary just for that.”
“You are worth it for that, Cory, but we haven’t had a permutation since Sunil patched the system. So there isn’t much for you to do.” When the ARPAU 1 was removed, Francella brought Cory lunch. “Well, you outlasted R2D2.” Now it was Cory’s turn to laugh.
“Yeah, this round. I’m sure they’ll be back.”
ARPAU 3 arrived 14 months after ARPAU 1 had been removed. This unit still required being plugged into the wall, but the torso of the unit looked more like a human torso. The torso was placed on three legs with wheels for feet, along with an articulating arm. Atop the torso sat a square head on a swivel, with two circular lens protruding out the front of the head that served as ocular sensors and two grilled openings under the eyes, one for speaking and one for recording sound. ‘Hello’, the unit said ina choppy, digitized croak, head swiveling in Cory’s direction. “Well alright, I like this one already,” Cory replied, “but it needs a little more hair on its head if it’s gonna be as handsome as me.” The engineer, a different one this go round, smiled. “I’ll go back to my car and see if I left the wig unit in there.” Cory felt upbeat but the improvements of this unit meant that he would soon be out of a job, no matter what fluff Francella tried to sell to him. “Don’t worry hon, this thing will probably be more of a bucket of bolts than the first unit.” Tammy unwittingly made Francella out to be a prophet; 3 months in, ARPAU 3 trapped Tammy in the monitoring station when she passed through to vacuum the area after hours. The unit’s security protocol was tripped off because it was programmed for human interaction based on Cory’s work schedule. The unit blocked the door when Tammy attempted to exit and when she pushed the unit aside, it grabbed her arm with its own in an attempt to right itself, and severely dislocated the frightened janitor’s shoulder along with fracturing her wrist. The engineer had removed the unit before Cory even arrived at work the next day.
Cory ventured downtown to walk the Inner Harbor one weekend when he saw Tammy; it was about 4 months after the accident, and she was out with her family. Her arm was still in a sling, probably because she was still waiting for a settlement check from the vendor; based on the nature of accident, Cory and his coworkers figured Tammy would be getting something in the low six figures. Tammy looked like she was already spending the money.
“Hey Cory! They replace the terminator yet?”
“Hey Tam, nope, it’s just me right now. How are you feeling?”
“I’m feeling okay, but I’ll feel a lot better when I get my check. Y’all,” she said to her kids, “this is the man who work with that crazy robot in his office. Say hi to Mister Cory.” The kids all mumbled some type of greeting, more interested in their cotton candy or a game on their Com than the man who worked with their mother. Cory in turn greeted them, all the while wondering if they would ever get an opportunity to work when they were older, or would this moment be a preview of both his and their future stations in life, just walking aimlessly all day, eating confections while machines ran the world.