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art by Tais Teng

Automatic Selection

Victoria "Torrey" Podmajersky has written novels about superhero grandmothers (Gathering Grace, published 2008), the world at the other end of technological apocalypse (seeking publication), and is currently working on the only authorized biography of the new CEO of Death. Follow Twitter.com/torreybird for the latest updates from her life in Seattle, WA.

Clay felt his blissful night sputter and die in the morning reality of public transportation. "No, really--I don't take the bus."
Her jaw dropped open--but she kept the morning-after smile fastened to her face. "I thought you were joking. How else are we going to get there?"
Unsmiling, Clay looked into the open door of the bus. The mannequin driver turned toward the door, his plastic smile lighting up with the syllables: "Welcome to City AutoBus, your fully automated, completely safe rapid transit option. Your city thanks you for keeping the streets and sidewalks clean and clear!"
The edge of a wrinkle pushed into Clay's forehead as he anticipated how this scene would play out. She was a nice girl--and she had been enthusiastically accommodating on their first date. "We walk."
Her eyes widened as she made a sound of disgust. "You must be kidding. In these shoes?"
"I could walk you to your place--you could change?" They had gone to his apartment the night before; without sweeping her place for automation, it would be safer for both of them if he stayed out.
"Look, I just don't get it. Why would we walk--it must be 3 miles!--when we could get on the bus right here? Damn it, there it goes." The bus hissed to life; from behind the closing doors, they could hear the cheerful reminder: "Please keep your arms inside the windows, inside sensor range!"
"Listen--" maybe this isn't a good idea. "Do you want to just go to a place close by? There's a diner around the corner, with a real waitress and cook. My treat." Most places didn't mess around with waitstaff soaking up customer cash in tips. Robots never ate profits.
"But my friend Marianne--"
"You could call her--make some excuse. Or better yet, invite her to this place. It's called Sunnyside Diner. I'll buy her breakfast, too." Clay suppressed a wince as he promised his paycheck.
"Isn't it. . ." her voice dropped to a whisper "unsanitary?"
"Oh, no--it's clean. Haven't you been to a diner? It's fantastic."
Her face was uncertain--but he sensed weakness. He gestured down the sidewalk with a huge smile, trying to salvage the morning with sheer dogged enthusiasm. "Come on--what have you got to lose?"
"Listen, Clay, you're a nice guy--"
"Uh-oh. Nice guy." He kept his smile stapled against his teeth.
"No, really--I'm not sure this is going to work. I have a funny feeling," she faltered. Her hands, even the one clutching her purse, flew to her abdomen. "I mean, I don't feel so good." In moments, her face went from worried to nauseous to pale.
Crap. "You don't look so good." He caught her as she swayed off balance--and felt the cold clarity of intuition. "Do you--I mean, I know we used protection, but--"
"Yeah--I have an IUD--"
"Sensor monitored? Timed release?"
"I-I think so. Unnh." She stumbled.
Clay was already turning toward a woman walking down the sidewalk. "Excuse me--Could you call 911? She needs to go to the hospital. Now."
"What? Oh--" The woman stopped suddenly, her shoulder bag swinging forward with inertia. She took in his off-the-rack clothing, in stark contrast to the insta-tailor fit of the girl's dance clothes and wan face. She dug into her bag.
"There's an emergency--a woman is sick. No--a stranger. We're on..." She looked up for a street sign, but the voice on the other side filled in the address.
"Right. No, medical only--no fire. No, no police," she said, her voice uncertain. She stared at Clay; he kept his face stoic. "No--Yes, I'm sure. Just medic. Thanks." Her phone clicked off.
"They're on their way."
"Thank you."
She hesitated, alternating between staring at Clay and looking in the direction of the siren. Another couple paused before hurrying along.
The ambulance sped to the curb. The engine idled loudly, drowning out the murmurs of the small crowd that was gathering.
"It's her--she's sick--" Clay told the pair that leapt from the ambulance. With amazing efficiency, they disengaged his date, lowering her to the ground with gloved hands. In seconds, one checked her airway and breathing, verified her pulse, as the other scanned her fingertip ID chip and attached her to the portable biometer.
Clay started to back away. He had done enough damage already.
"Jennifer. Jennifer Wells, can you hear me? I am a medic. I'll be transporting you to St Agnes Hospital Emergency. Do we have your permission to continue?" Even before she answered, the back of the ambulance opened, and a stretcher was lowered to the ground.
Clay thought she nodded--he wasn't sure. He was putting as much distance between himself and the delicate biological sensors as possible. He was the last thing Jenny needed now. Besides--I'm a nice guy.
Clay fought back tears as he walked away. I shouldn't have risked it. He had been smart enough to figure out that the automated world kept breaking around him, and that it couldn't be an accident. Further, whatever caused it had only gotten worse over the past three years. Whenever Clay triggered the human-sensing technology endemic to the city, he also set off some malfunction.
But it wasn't something you explained on the first date--especially not the first date you've had in a while. Clay felt the dry spell resume as if it were tangible, a personal desert in a city of relationships. He kept walking, watching the sidewalk, his thoughts too dark to want to show his face.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, January 20th, 2011

Author Comments

I was preparing for a meeting among people who are building the "Internet of Things" and people who are protecting datacenters and people from hackers, viruses and threats. Clay and his predicament seemed to embody a natural future connection between the two groups, at least in my superhero-fiction-addled mind.

- Victoria Podmajersky
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