by Dan Rice
Natasha slammed her hands against her keyboard and cursed. As if her team cracking the latest touchscreen voting machine nearly a year before the U.S. midterm elections wasn’t enough, now they were ordered to hack the Goliath, the Americans’ main autonomous battle mech. An impossible task. Unbelievably, the Americans had done security right for once.
She checked the time: almost midnight. The room was empty, a dozen unmanned workstations at a long rectangular table. She’d sent her team home nearly six hours ago, leaving her with only the hum of electronics for company. They had lives to attend to, lovers and children and other obligations. Outside of her job, Natasha had no life, and that was how she liked it.
Natasha reached for her cigarette in the ashtray next to her 30-inch monitor. She took a long drag on the cancer stick, the nicotine helping her focus. Glancing at the corner office, she took another puff. So, she wasn’t alone.
A large window allowed her to look at Boris, her obese boss, leaning back in his chair asleep behind his polished wooden desk. She thought of him as the horny chimp for how he always looked her up and down with a lascivious glint in his eyes. Apparently, he’d had an another argument with his wife and, as was his habit, chose to sleep in the office rather than go home.
Natasha hated and envied Boris. She wanted his job, a management position with just enough influence to grant her a toehold in the upper echelons of society. Turning back to her monitor and keyboard, Natasha returned her cigarette to the ashtray. Time to get back to work. If she cracked the Goliath, she might be the one sitting in the corner office.
* * *
Gavin Clement flopped like a clubbed fish onto the bed in his hotel room. The bed springs squeaked softly under his weight. He was exhausted after a fruitless day of negotiations; they had ended with a deal that was likely to make his career as dead as day-old roadkill.
“God damn police unions,” he muttered. He desperately needed to make a sale. Selling the Defender Autonomous Mech, the civilian version, or, as Gavin thought of it, the dumbed-down version of Allegiance Robotics’ military-grade Goliath Mech, was supposed to put him in line to be the next CEO.
Everything had been going great. He had police chiefs from D.C. to Juneau eating out of his hand and begging for more. Then the goddamned police unions interfered, whining and threatening strikes and making the erroneous claim that U.S. citizens would never tolerate being policed by AIs. Gavin fumed. Didn’t the morons realize their crime prevention software relied on artificial intelligence? Idiots.
Gavin was so exhausted he decided to go to bed early. Instead of falling into a restful slumber, he lay awake, obsessing over what had gone wrong that day and about a news report he had heard on the radio that afternoon about another mass shooting in an elementary school. Couldn’t the authorities do anything to stop the mass killing of children? His daughter attended elementary school.
Just contemplating the possibility of a shooting at her school made his heart run at double-time and his hands clammy. He grabbed his phone from the nightstand and said, “Video call, April.”
After several rings, his daughter’s ebullient face filled the screen. “Daddy! I just finished brushing my teeth.” The high-pitched wail of a baby came from the background.
“Hi, sugar baby, I was just thinking about you. Is that your brother crying?”
They chatted for several minutes, and April showed off her baby brother. His wife, looking haggard, appeared briefly and asked about his day. Gavin replied with a polite yet firm “Don’t ask.” Soon afterward, they said their goodbyes. He placed his phone back on the nightstand and, feeling a little bit better, fell asleep.
* * *
The alarm started buzzing at 7:00 a.m. Gavin slammed his fist against the snooze button twice before he could muster the energy to sit up and turn off the blaring instrument of torture. Still wearing his clothes from the day before, he smelled the sour stink of his own body odor.
After showering, he threw on some clothes and tromped downstairs to a room off the lobby for breakfast. Most of the tables were taken by what looked like a high-school girls’ volleyball team. The teenagers appeared to have plundered most of the pastries and fresh fruit.
The news was playing on an LCD mounted in a corner near the ceiling. Gavin could barely hear the newsreader over the buzz of the girls’ puerile conversations. April liked volleyball, and Gavin thought about calling her but decided against it. He needed caffeine before talking to anyone.
Gavin grabbed a plate and cup. He shoveled two spoonfuls of institutional scrambled eggs onto the plate and filled his cup with weak-looking coffee. He sat down at the last available table, about as far away from the TV as possible, which precluded him from listening to the news. The eggs tasted like used tires and the coffee like dirty water.
When he was about halfway through his meal, a shocked silence fell over the room. Gavin looked around the room and saw everyone staring at the news story unfolding on the TV.
“Oh my God,” someone said, and several girls broke into tears while others tried to comfort them.
Another mass shooting. The second in as many days.
Gavin had a eureka moment, realizing that he might know how to reboot his floundering career. “Obedience, are you there?” Gavin whispered, not wanting people to think he talked to himself.
“I’m always here for you, Gavin,” a sultry female voice said in his ear.
Inside his ear canal rested a small device, like a high-tech hearing aid, custom-built for a snug fit. It housed nanoscale electronics that allowed him to communicate with Obedience from virtually anywhere in the world. Obedience “existed” in several secret Allegiance Robotics’ server farms spread over the continental United States. At any time, she could be simultaneously helping any number of the thirty-member executive team.
“Get me all the data on school shootings from the past ten years,” he said.
“It will be on your tablet, Gavin,” Obedience said, her voice like a strawberry dipped in chocolate.
* * *
By the time Gavin had run back to his room and retrieved his tablet, Obedience had found and summarized all the school shooting data from the past decade. Gavin smiled as he walked over to the lounge chair in the corner and sat down. Having an Allegiance Robotics AI personal assistant was a real lifesaver. He didn’t know how he had managed without one for all those years.
Gavin read the summary. Dropping the tablet onto his lap, he leaned forward in the chair with a giddy grin plastered on his face. He didn’t even need to drill down into the data to know he had hit the jackpot.
“Obedience, this is incredible,” he said. “I love it. I love it. Sixty-two school shootings over the past year. Sixty-two. That’s... That’s—”
“An average 1.2 school shootings per week, Gavin.”
“Exactly. Our schools are shooting galleries. This is wonderful. Not only that,” Gavin said, “these halfwit, gun-toting teachers aren’t even qualified to hold a pencil. I mean, a teacher who shot himself in the foot while teaching gym class? You can’t make this stuff up. And... and this latest one. A shootout with a SWAT team in the middle of a high school. Listen to this. Are you listening?”
“I’m always listening, Gavin.”
That made him feel like a king: Obedience always listening. His wife rarely paid attention to him; nagged him constantly. Change the diapers. Take out the trash. Wash the dishes. Fold the clothes. It was enough to drive him mad. Obedience never badgered him.
He jumped up from the chair, accidentally allowing his tablet the slide off his legs onto the carpet. Oh well, it was crappy old tech, so last decade. He started pacing the path between the bed and the TV.
“Imagine. An Allegiance Robotics Defender Mech inside every school in the nation,” Gavin said, rapid-fire. “How many schools nationwide?”
“Yes,” Gavin said, pumping his fist. “The Defender costs about $300,000 a pop. Let’s say $275,000 with a government discount. What’s that come to?”
“Approximately $31 billion, Gavin.”
Eyes going wide, Gavin bit his fist. He dropped his hand to his side and said. “Oh my God, that is a huge untapped market. School defense. Defending our nation’s youth, the Defender Mech. What do you think?”
“I don’t believe the U.S. education system can afford to buy Defender Mechs, Gavin. The entire Federal education budget is approximately $81 billion.”
Gavin stopped pacing. “Crap. Our kids are worth so little? Wait a minute,” he started pacing again. “We’re not talking about education. We’re talking about security. Homeland Security can afford the Defender. Right?”
“Homeland Security does have the budget to afford the Defender, at least in theory,” Obedience said. “As you may recall, six months ago you tried to sell the Border Patrol on the concept of the Defender. They said it is overkill for their needs and too expensive.”
“So we cut costs and lower the price. The main thing is to enter this market before any of our competitors. Give me fifteen minutes to freshen up, then get me on the phone with the Homeland Security procurement office.”
“Consider it done,” Obedience said.
Fifteen minutes later Gavin was on the phone with a Homeland Security procurement officer named Don Jones.
“You? Again?” Don said. His grim face and queue ball head filled Gavin’s phone screen. “You’re the guy who tried to sell us that overpriced mech for border security. Homeland Security doesn’t want anything to do with your product.”
“All I ask is that you hear me out,” Gavin said, his smile never faltering.
Don rolled his eyes.
“You know you’re on a video call,” Gavin said.
“I’m giving you physical cues, indicating my level of interest.”
“Moving on,” Gavin said, “look at this latest rash of school shootings. The Defender can decrease the response time to a school shooting to mere seconds. I’m talking like under three seconds. As soon as a gun is detected, the shooter is neutralized before a single shot is fired.”
“You really are a tragedy profiteer,” Don said. “Homeland Security is not going to purchase the Defender Mech for school defense.”
“At least I’m trying to do something,” Gavin said. “What are politicians doing? Offering thoughts and prayers? How’s that working?”
“It’s a war machine,” Don said. “Go sell it to the DOD.”
The call ended and wallpaper featuring April’s smiling face appeared on the screen. Gavin affectionately brushed his thumb across his child’s features. He hoped that one day a Defender would be in her school, keeping her and her classmates safe from harm.
* * *
“Obedience, do we still have a functional prototype of the Defender?” Gavin asked.
“Yes, Gavin,” Obedience said and added. “The director wants a full report on your activities.”
“Tell her I’m prepping for a meeting with potential customers,” Gavin said. “And get me a car. I need to head north.”
“She insists on talking to you now, Gavin.”
“Car first. I’ll call her on the way.”
Gavin relaxed as the self-driving electric car entered the freeway. The chair massaged the knots in his upper back as the steering wheel, operated by the car’s AI, turned a few degrees so the car could change lanes.
“Gavin, the director is calling you,” Obedience said.
“Tell her I’m busy,” Gavin said. The large 20-inch flat screen lit up in the center of the dashboard. The screen read: incoming call from Director Claire Connelly.
“Crap.” Gavin took a moment to put on his game face, what he hoped was a sincere-looking smile that projected a go-getter attitude. He punched the answer button.
The heavily lined mug of his boss filled the screen. She frowned, extenuating her wrinkles and sickly complexion. The white hair covering her forehead looked brittle. All in all, she looked like a dying cancer patient.
“Gavin, what the hell is going on?” her voice was gravelly. With any luck, she’d start coughing up a lung and need to end the call.
“Claire, I just—”
“Cut the bull, you twit. Negotiations with the police fell through.”
“I told you the unions would throw a monkey wrench into the negotiations. You told me you’d handle it.”
“The chief and mayor were more receptive to the unions’ argument than I expected. I have another idea.”
“Obedience told me all about your idea. Do you have mashed potatoes for brains? Selling the Defender to Homeland Security for school defense, give me a break.”
Dismayed, Gavin inwardly sighed. He should’ve known Obedience would tattle on him. “I’m heading to Franklin High School, the location of the latest shooting, right now. I bet I can sell them on the idea of trying out the Defender prototype on a trial, maybe six months. It’s an inner-city school. There’s tons of crime that goes on in and around it. Having the Defender on the school grounds will decrease the overall crime rate in the neighborhood. Imagine—”
“Save your sales pitch. This is your last chance. Whatever you do, make sure the prototype has all the safety checks rerun before even thinking about deploying it in the field.”
* * *
Copyright © 2018 by Dan Rice