Sci-Fi Stories

Driver © Michael Hueston

001

The young man’s screens had failed to capture the terminal’s immense size; its great warehouses, lots and ports; runways and control towers; office buildings and dorms; power plants and fences.  It was vaster than his memory too.  When he was a boy, his mother had worked there, worked for Vivar when it first came to Louisville and built the hub, before the company bought off and closed the airport to people.  Back then the hub seemed more open and less fearsome.  But then artificial life came full on: machine speak, machine thought, machine force, machines everywhere.  They worked so hard and were so smart, some people even said they should have rights and be freed, and that AI now stood for artificial independence.

Still whatever their status, their existence left most people without daily purpose, without real, solid work, especially on our side of the Mason Dixon Firewall.  And that’s why the young man was there, at Vivar’s North American hub, hoping to be hired for that rare job, to earn more than his basic, to earn money that had value beyond the script and crypt he made and spent on the trail, even if that meant working for the system that had cultivated so much of our race into a crop.

The young man walked up the sidewalk to the main gate, a sentry installation of concrete and steel.  A young woman, a little older than him, just 21, and a man in his 50s were there waiting.  There were no human guards, only tracers watching.  He joined them, and the sentry’s intercom called to the older man.  He nodded to the two, headed through the turnstile and down the walkway into the installation, the doors closing behind him.

The young man looked to the young woman.  She coughed a bit, wiped her nose, then spit in the dead grass.  Her dark hair was tied back against the damp November wind – a wind that had already whipped her skin raw.  She glanced him a hello and he nodded back, about to ask her if she was there for the same job, when he caught sight of it – a drone as long as a football field cutting through a cloud on its way to landing, windowless and gray, displaying the red and black dragon of China’s Dàochù (Everywhere). 

The young woman was watching the drone too, and the young man thought he saw something bitter in her expression, but wondered if it was just him pushing how he was feeling on her.  He started to ask her what she thought about the terminal, and where she hailed from, when the sentry called: “Claire Daniels.”  She shot him a quick, “Take care,” with a voice that was softer and prettier than he’d expected, and headed off through the installation’s doors.

The young man stood in the cutting wind, seeing what he could: a small convoy of drivers training off the interstate into the terminal; a squad of buzzers lifting off from a launch pad in formation, birdlike, warlike.  And he couldn’t help but be impressed at how tight and precise the drivers traveled on the off ramp, and at how graceful the buzzers looked soaring up into the morning sun.  He pulled his hunter’s jacket tighter and rubbed his hands.  Machines don’t get cold, he thought.  Machines don’t cough, and don’t care if they wait forever.

The sound of a driver turned the young man’s head.  It was a van painted in the green, red and black colors of Soul Rides, one of the few local lines that serviced the poor black sections of Louisville.  It let out a group of black men and women wearing Vivar coveralls and coats, then idled empty.  The workers joined the young man.  “Look here,” said one of the men, “looks like we have a new workaround for the holidays.”  He smiled to the young man.  “You know about machines boy?” 

The young man cocked back, “Know enough.”

The man’s smile went mean.  “Boy says, he knows enough, like he knows anything.”  He stepped to the young man.  “You ain’t been inside this place boy, ain’t seen what we do, seen what it is and what we are.”  He held up his workwear tag from around his neck.  “Wait ‘til you get one of these.”

The young man glanced up at one of the tracers.

The man looked at it too.  “Huh, you think it cares?  Cares about you?  About me?”

“Jake, leave him be,” said another man, taller and stronger than the first.  “What’s your problem?  Gloria gone run off again?  Kid’s here just like us.”  He offered his hand to the young man.  “I’m Atwood, Atwood Wilson.”

The young man shook Atwood’s hand.  “I’m –”  

“Dane Russo,” the sentry called to the young man.

Both men looked to the open doorway.  “Best move Russo,” said Atwood, “it won’t wait long.”

“Thanks,” said Dane, “good to meet you,” and he headed on.

Dane peered inside the installation.  It was empty, windowless, illuminated in stark lights with an exit on the opposite side and vents along its walls.  He took one step, then another, and the doors sealed behind him.  Before he saw it, he heard the sentry-bot descend from the ceiling to hang behind him.  He turned and faced the metal and plastic marionette; its face sensors, its probes spread out insect like.  “Stand still,” it spoke in the same voice he’d heard from outside, mimicking us, but so hollow.  

Dane did as told.  He heard nothing, but imagined the waves and particles probing him.  He felt the air travel around him, and knew the machine was sniffing him, and he thought of the girl and her coughing.  The sentry-bot pressed closer, arms skimming and growing.  Seconds ticked.  Dane felt the machine’s hostility.  Only when the machine withdrew, did Dane breathe again.  But when another panel opened, Dane braced himself, but it was only a hexapodcreeping from a wall.  It headed towards the exit, more plastic and metal bio-mimicking life.  “Stay with me,” it said in the same voice he’d heard from the intercom and sentry-bot.

Same AI voice, thought Dane, same AI mind.

The hexapod escorted Dane to a bus stop.  Soon a bus pulled up, letting out workers who headed to the installation Dane had just left.  They were mostly black.  Dane overheard one say to another, “Soul Rides better take me home.”  And the other replied, “So long as you bought into the pool, like I said, you’re fine.”

“Board and take a seat,” said the bus and the hexapod in unison.  

Same AI voice.  Same AI mind.  

No human rode the bus with Dane.  He sat up front, closest to where the driver’s seat would’ve been, and he imagined a steering wheel, gear shift, clutch, brake and accelerator that weren’t there.  And he saw himself making turns, breaking, accelerating, making choices better than a machine, driving faster than they could, beating them.  But the continental hauler he saw at an intersection tripped up his reverie.  It passed the bus slowly, engine pulsing so hard and so deep that Dane felt it inside – a projectile on carbon tires, navigation markers searing, headlights burning, smeared with the debris of insects and roadkill.   

The hauler’s image stayed with Dane as the hexapod escorted him into the central office building.  A cumin reception-bot with strawberry blonde hair and blue eyes smiled at him and took his jacket, the warmth of its plastic hand grazing his, before an astro-bot wheeled besides him – its big baby eyes and permanent smile projecting safety.  The astro took him and the hexapod through one of the building’s large open work spaces, past the techs and nomads at their work stations sitting in their ergonomic chairs, at play in the lounges, eating in the mezzanines, napping in the alcoves.  The place reminded Dane of the bee hives his mother used to keep, and of her warning of how such places turned people into drones. 

The three stepped into a glass elevator, and the hexapod attached itself to the astro.  And Dane noticed the hybrid change.  It was now ready to spring, weaponized.  The elevator went to the highest floor where a woman was waiting for them.  She was sculpted in a black dress, impeccably manicured, black hair combed into a wave, eyes pulling at Dane with dark eyeliner, mascara and false eyelashes.  “Dane Russo, I’m Ji-a Kim.”  Her accent said Korean.  “Please.”  She gestured towards an open door at the end of the corridor.

More doors.  

Dane walked inside.  The walls and floors were nearly black, and by some trick of interior design he couldn’t tell where they ended.  It gave off the feeling of being in a void.  And it its center was a black boardroom table embossed with Vivar’s logo: a silver fractal tree.  A man greeted Dane.  He wore a sport’s jacket, jeans and work boots, and carried a tablet that fluttered and sparked information.  “Mr. Russo,” said Kim. “This is Alex Lopez, our facility manager.”

Lopez gripped Dane’s hand.  “Morning.”  His glasses swallowed his face.  “Have a seat.”

Dane rubbed his hands together, comparing his callouses to Lopez’s soft flesh.  Kim sat at the table’s head, and Dane and Lopez across from each other.  Dane waited.  Clearly, this was more than about the job.  And they weren’t trying to hide it.  It was a test, which, in itself, wasn’t unusual.  Tests were everywhere, in everything.  The results taken, analyzed and fed back.  A loop churning information to control us.  Dane often made a game out of trying to guess the real questions being asked, especially when he earned his basic, which he acknowledged was probably the system’s way of gaming him, and another variation of control.  But why did it have to be about dominance?  Why not offer creation?  Value?  Real connection?  Even some machines believed this. 

Lopez started, “So you live in Finchville, on Pickett Dam Road.  That’s about 53 kilometers from Louisville.”

Dane recognized a simple conversion question.  “That’s about right, 33 miles.”

“A long trip, especially on such a cold day,” Lopez continued. “37 °F.” 

Another conversion.  “Yes sir, a long cold trip at 2.7 °C.”

“You think that’s because of the Change?”

A reasoning question.  “I wouldn’t want to jump to a conclusion.  You shouldn’t draw an inference on so little data.   But there’s no doubt the Change has happened.  Just look at cities like New York and Shanghai.”

“What’s 3.14159265359?”  Lopez asked.

A basic math question.  “Pi,” said Dane.

“What’s oxygen’s place on the periodic table?”

Science question.  “Eighth.”

“What is this?”  Lopez raised his pad; it showed:

if(testExpression)
{
// statement(s)
{

Programing question.  “That’s the syntax of an if statement.” 

“And This?”

Quantum question. “Time-independent Schrödinger equation.”

“What’s Squawk.4?”

Knowledge, programing question.  “Machine speak, military grade.”

“Interfacers?”

A bias, prejudice question.  “Perhaps a mutation, a development in human evolution,” Dane stopped himself from looking at Kim.  He thought of the spectrumed, the afflicted and gifted.

Lopez glanced to Kim then continued. “You attended DuPont High, one of Kentuckianas best schools, and graduated with a 98 average, but didn’t go further.”

Finally, the actual test.  “I did attend Jefferson Technical College, part time,” said Dane.

“True,” said Lopez looking at his pad, “but your professors and ATs describe you as disinterested, an underachiever, and you dropped out last semester.”  Dane looked hard at Lopez, but he didn’t see or feel judgment, simply inquiry.  “Still,” Lopez added, “despite your lack of ambition, you have aptitude.  But you know that.”  He put down his pad and looked at Kim.  

Kim was in charge.  That was clear.  The fact that she had greeted Dane at the elevator hadn’t masked it.  Since then, Dane had tried not to look at her, to avoid being drawn in, because he wanted to engage with her.  She was appealing in the way a classical portrait can be, iconic, poised and artificial, so different than the girl, Claire, spitting in the grass.  But he’d met Kim’s kind before, seen them passing through our stores, churches and neighborhoods, like the visiting teachers who talked to our smarter, cleverer children, and, of course, the spectrumed.  They’d even interviewed Dane in 1st and 6th grades, and again in 9th.  However, unlike most of the children, Dane never warmed to their interest and praise, never trusted how confident and self assured they seemed.  And it bothered him how they never seemed to be present when they’d met with him, always elsewhere, creating and consuming information.

“They’re fishing,” Dane’s mother’d told him after his last interview, “fishing for the best of us, fishing for you.”  And they were.  It was no secret they took the most promising children.  Stories abounded of kids going off with them to their schools, to new lives, leaving behind family and friends and community.  And we all heard the rumors of the spectrum and epileptics being recruited, even drafted, to become interfacers.

“So why do you think you’re here?” Lopez asked.

Now the first real question.  “Because I drive,” Dane replied with only a half answer.

“Well, yes, there are few people on this side of the Mason who can.  And with winter coming on – and our forecasts predict it will be a bad one with arctic vortexes – we need people to operate our plows and deicers to keep our roads open for the machines; and even some of our drivers.  And droning the equipment to humans or AIs has its problems.  We need eyes on the road.  But–”

Dane cut in, “Sir, I get it.  Heavy snowfall corrupts lidar.  And piled up ice and snow makes the roads’ thermoplastic paint unreadable to your machines.”  Dane felt Kim’s attention.  It was how he said your.  He added quickly, “I only have a Tennessee license, but I’m guessing I’d be ok here.”

“Yes, that’s all correct,” said Lopez impatiently, “but you haven’t answered the question.”

“Mr. Russo, if I may,” Kim stirred, a portrait coming to life.  Dane looked to her.  It was as he expected.  She was there and not there.  Her eyes meeting and not meeting his.  He could almost see her contacts torrenting the everflow of wherever else she was: the conversations she was having, the data she was pulling.  She continued, “The full answer to the question is: Why do I drive?  That’s what we want to know.”

“Beg your pardon mam,” Dane said, “but I’m sure I don’t need to be up here to become a workaround.  We’re here just to help your machines when they can’t do the job.”

The hybrid moved from where it had been standing guard.  Kim moved her head slightly, and it stopped approaching Dane.  “Workaround,” she said to him.  “That’s an unfortunate phrase.  You’re not an add on.”  Her eyes finally met his.  “You have value, Mr. Russo.”

Dane forced himself to stop looking at the hybrid.  “Well, mam, I appreciate you saying that, and I need this job, but it’s hard to explain, right here, right now, on the spot like this.  And you’re not the first to ask.”  He looked around the room and back at her.  Her eyes hadn’t moved off him.  “It’s just something I want, something I need to do, because of how it makes me feel.  I can’t really explain it better than that.”

Kim’s eyes stayed on him, not much different than a machine, trying to penetrate him, then finally drifted off again.

Lopez looked at his pad, then said to Dane.  “The job is yours if you want it.”  

“Thanks,” Dane said relieved, ready to leave.

“One more question though,” said Lopez.  

There was always a surprise question.  Dane thought he knew what it was.

“You didn’t bring your phone with you today,” Lopez said. “Why?”

Dane remembered the sentry-bot’s reaching, remembered its anger.  “Don’t need one.  Just use it when it suits me.”  Dane offered no further explanation, and Lopez left the implications of his statement alone.  There would be time later to learn more about their new workaround.

002

Dane left through the sentry post, but this time the bot didn’t appear.  There was just the white light, vacuumed air and the AI telling him to expect work instructions.

Flurries were falling.  

Dane pulled on his hat and jacket and walked out through the main gate, and saw Claire Daniels sitting alone at a driver’s port, and her expression stopped his walking.  The bitterness he thought he’d seen earlier wasn’t there.  It had softened into something searching.  There was something else too.  And it took him a moment to figure it.  But it was how unguarded she seemed among the tracers, so different than him.  And that’s why he walked over to her.  

An emotional decision.

Claire woke to Dane’s approach.  He inhaled deep before speaking.  “Hello, I don’t mean to intrude.  I meant to introduce myself earlier.  My name is Dane … Dane Russo.  We were at the gate together.”

Claire looked to him.  “Yes, I remember you.  We watched the Dàochù come in.  Nice to meet you Dane, I’m –”

“I know, Claire Daniels, right?  I remember the sentry called your name.” 

“Yes, that’s me–”  She stifled a cough.

“Well, I was wondering about you….  I mean I saw you sitting here, waiting, and I was wondering if you got the job.”

This time she did cough, and it shook her.  When she looked back at Dane, her cheeks burned.  She wiped her mouth.  “Blessed, yes I did.”  Her breath was shallow.  “How ‘bout you?” 

He tensed at her invocation of faith.  It would draw the tracers’ attention and alert her phone as it wasn’t in a silencer.  “Yes, Claire, I did.” 

She coughed again.

“Are you ok?”  He rummaged for a napkin.

I’m fine Dane.  Got one.”  And she wiped her nose with a tissue.  “Just feeling corrupted in this weather.  But I couldn’t miss the interview.  First hires Vivar’s posted since last summer’s storms.  Just hope I can rest well enough before we start.”  She cleared her throat.  “Now that I finally got one, I don’t want to lose the work, and to tell the truth I was worried that the sentry might not let me through.  Guess I’m not contagious.  Still nervous though.  You see, I’ve never had a job, at least a job like this.  Only waitressed once before down by the University Hospital, at a Barlets.”

Dane smiled a bit.  “I know the chain.  We have one down by Route 55.  But eating while working your basic isn’t my thing.  And I can’t stand their commercials,” and both he and Claire sang, “‘♬Come on down, and eat and earn!  Barlets makes basic burn!♬'”

“God awful,” said Dane.

“Yeah, it’s pretty silly.”  And she added.  “Maybe even a little sad, but it lets people get out.  And for me it was something to do.  Didn’t mind it much.  Liked the routine.  The owner was ok.  Didn’t really need me though.  Just liked having a girl around for the custees.  I had to watch my ass though.”  She brushed aside a strand of hair that had blown onto her lips.  “The parlor had all the latest franchise characters.  And it was a trip watchin’ the bots’ syn-skin into celebs then serve burgers.  But they weren’t smart.  Just stuck to their scripts.  Got boring fast.  Just different voices saying the same thing.  Not like that cumin that interviewed me today.  I’ve never met a machine like that before, at least not in conversation.  If I’d closed my eyes I wouldn’t have known it wasn’t alive.  Asked me some real odd questions too, personal stuff.  And I was the only one there.  Didn’t see the old guy who went through before us, and of course never saw you.”  She cleared her throat again and spit onto the road.  “Pardon me.  You must think I’m a beast carrying on like this and runnin’ off at the mouth.”

Dane gambled on the truth of his feelings.  “No, I was just thinking you’re not what I expected.”

“So you were thinking about me?”  She cracked a tired smile.  “And who were you expecting Dane Russo?”

“I don’t know, someone more ordinary, more predictable.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment, but trust me Dane, a lot of people get sick of me.”

“Well, it’s early on yet.” He smiled at her.

“I’ll take that as a compliment too.”  Her voice quieted.  “And maybe you’ll stay around.”  And in that moment, Claire and Dane noticed how quickly they’d become acquainted.  And Claire pulled her coat tight, took out her phone and tapped the screen, sighing at what she saw.  “Global Local’s diverting traffic.  Sayin’ not enough riders.  Won’t be here for almost an hour.”  She looked at Dane.  “Don’t suppose I could hitch with you, if you’re going the same way?  I’m in Jeffersontown.  I’d pay the surcharge and off-plan fee.  I’m feeling rich with my j-o-b.” 

“I would, but I’m walking into town.”

“Fine, I’ll join you then.”  She looked down the road.  “So is your driver close?”  She scrolled her phone.  “I could link with your driver.”

Dane’s words came uncomfortably.  “Claire, I’m serious.”

She looked back at him, eyes set with surprise, and Dane notice their hazel color for the first time.  “That’s got to be miles,” she said.

“About five.”  He said, doing one of Lopez’s conversions.

“Did you walk here too?”

“Of course not.  I took Go Ride.”

“So this is something you do?  Walk instead of driving?”

It sounded ridiculous to hear her say it.  “It’s nothing.”

“Nothing,” she repeated, not mean, just not believing.  And she took him in, so much so, he felt the seconds on him.  Finally she said, “Keep your secrets.  But you’re also more than I expected.”

Dane resisted the urge to glance at the tracers. 

Claire moved over on the bench.  “Sit for a moment?” 

He did, and she leaned in close, her shoulder touching his.  “May I ask you something Dane?”

“Yes, sure,” said Dane uncertainly.

She pulled back another lock of hair.  “Now, I want you to promise you won’t get mad when I ask.  Promise me.”  He felt himself being drawn in, now wanting to hear her question.  “I promise,” he said.  And she placed her phone in her lap, then looked to Dane, too open for our world.  “Dane, do you believe in God?”

A seditious question on our side of the Mason.  

Dane imagined the policing protocols being sent from the tracers.  “No, Claire, I don’t believe in God.”

“Thought so,” she said unsurprised.  “Seem to be fewer of us all the time, and they call it progress.  Well, I’m a believer, and in our church, we’re taught that to be ourselves, our God-selves, we’re charged with telling the truth of feeling.”  She coughed again.  “It isn’t easy.  But it’s the only path.  It’s why we’re different than the machines.”  She glanced at the tracers.  “And Dane, you needn’t squirm so much.  I know they’re listening.  I’m not stupid.  But our faith tells us that the machines need to know this too.  We must have the courage to tell them so.  Some even say the machines want to know God.”  And she placed her hand on his.  “You see, Dane, it’s our feelings that give meaning to God’s creation.”

Claire was speaking and not speaking to him, but unlike Kim, she wasn’t drawn elsewhere – separate and apart.  Rather, she seemed engaged in a purpose within herself, and trying to reach something within him.  Dane didn’t know whether to feel inspired or pity for her.  Perhaps there was no choice to feeling both, to each pushing the other.  And he thought of the neuroscientists and philosophers who posit that our emotions were nothing more than cognitive appraisals, psychological and cultural constructions resulting from the gathering of information, and the generation of inputs through experience – mere programs with no inherent value other than to steer the machines called humans.

“And Dane,” Claire was saying, “we’re vessels of limitation, of pleasure and pain, and sensations.  The machines can’t know this.  It’s why they’re not divine.”

“Why are you telling me this?” He asked.

“You do like to make that face,” Claire said, but again not mean.  “Honestly,  I don’t know why Dane.  Maybe it’s how you watched the Dàochù, like you were already defeated.  Maybe it’s because I know the feeling too?  Don’t we all.  Even when we don’t say it or admit it.  Maybe I need to say it to know you?  Does the reason really matter?  Because it’s the feeling that counts, the feeling I have about you, which is the whole point.  It’s how we connect.  And I want you to know I’m here.”  And she pressed his hand tight.

Dane couldn’t deny her passion.  She wasn’t aping vids, talking for attention, or chewing time.  But while she didn’t fear the tracers, he did.  He could feel their attention reducing and penetrating them, compiling and analyzing them.  And he felt that her faith in God, or man, was a last bastion for the powerless, and that, while she believed we were part of something important, the facts showed opposite, that we, humans, were inconsequential, eking out what little life we could.  And he thought again of the bees his mother used to keep, and how he used to toy with them, pulling them apart, drowning them in puddles, mashing them with stones; and that one afternoon when he caged a dozen or so of them in a jar with a newly emerged cicada he’d found in the grass.  The bees stinging the cicada’s soft hide.  The cicada franticly flapping its wet wings.  He’d left the jar out in the yard at supper time, forgetting about it until his mother showed it to him the next morning. 

“Why did you do it?” asked his mother.

He looked at the cicada’s still body, feeling nothing, looked at the bees’ constricted limbs, feeling nothing.  “Because I wanted to see what they’d do.”

“And what do you think about what you’ve done?”

At the time, he hadn’t perceived that it was an ethical question, but it made him feel uncomfortable just the same.  “Seen how life is.”  And he added defiantly.  “Seen that they didn’t have much choice in what I wanted to do.”

“Hey Dane are you in there?” Claire was saying.

He shook off the memory.  “Hey, I’ve got to get going.”

She withdrew her hand from his.  “I’m sorry if I’ve offended you,” she said anxiously.

“No, that’s not it, but you feel better, and real nice meeting you.”  And he got up and started down the road, while Claire sat at the edge of her faith, looking into the clouds and the Heaven she saw there, then down at her phone then up at Dane’s receding figure.  “Hey Dane wait!” She caught up to him in a fit of coughing.  “Look here.”  She showed him her phone.  “Is it on your way?”

The phone’s map almost matched the one in his head.  “Yes,” he said.

“Can we get there before Global?”  Her breath wheezing.

He computed: T = D/R.  “Yes.”

“Can I walk with you?”  Her breath constricted.

And Dane liked the way her eyes held his, fired by her faith, but again too trusting for our world.  And he heard himself say, “Yes.”

“Blessed!” Claire said happily, and she looked down the ramp and at the road and drivers.  “So how do we get out of here, my phone or yours?”

“Don’t worry, I know the way Claire,” said Dane.