By Trevor Kroger
Luis swore he could feel the dull glow of the Rosen Robotics sign high overhead as he scurried into the building, nearly twenty minutes late for work. The whole of Metro North had been backed up that morning thanks to some out-of-work banker jumping on the tracks, ensuring no one got to work on time, but not even that would placate Campbell if he spotted Luis sitting down at his desk any time after 8:30. Though a fine project manager in every other respect, Campbell placed an almost fetishistic emphasis on punctuality — an utterly alien experience to most developers.
Luis, having worked his way through college with early morning barista jobs, found the demand manageable. Usually.
Hurrying across the shiny black floor of the lobby, Luis nearly ran into Sady as both rushed to catch the same elevator. The angry reprimand died before it could pass his lips when he saw the pretty young analyst. “Oh, hey!” he said before recovering and offering her a proper “Good morning.”
Sady gave a tired smiled. “Hi,” she said sweetly in that husky voice of hers. “The trains got you too, huh?”
Luis nodded. “Yeah. Damned MTA… Not that I’ve got anything against the MTA in general, you know, just doing their jobs…”
The elevator dinged open in the middle of Luis’s anxious babbling. He retained the presence of mind to chivalrously wave Sady in first. She rewarded him with another smile, this one a little less tired.
As they rode up together, Luis tried to think of something else to say. Just as it was forming in his mind, the doors dinged open again on their floor. “Have a good one,” Sady said as she hurried out.
The doors nearly shut on Luis as he lingered, watching the girl rush down the narrow lane between cubicles to her spot with the Analytics Team. Aardvark, as they’d been dubbed during the last restructuring. Luis ducked his head down as he travelled to his own team, Dark Dungeons. So named by another developer as a roundabout way of naming themselves after his favorite hobby and as “Double Ds.” Just as he came within view of his work station, he heard the familiar, nasally voice –
“I was just looking for you,” said Campbell, as he swooped in. Though nearly a whole head shorter than Luis, he always felt like the tallest man in the room. “You didn’t just get in, did you?”
Luis, feeling the conspicuousness of his backpack and still damp umbrella replied, “No.”
“Good, good,” Campbell said, not giving it a second thought. “Listen, I’m gonna need the whole team — but you especially — I’m gonna need you all to double down on the AGI project.”
God, not that boondoggle again… “Sure thing.”
Campbell did that thing that looked like a very happy chipmunk. “Great to hear! You’re my man, Luis!”
Luis nodded, smiling with great effort. “Yes, I am.”
He let his face droop back to normal once Campbell turned around and sauntered away. That damned AGI project… Luis had initially thought they’d misspelled “API” but no, it really was some grand stab at Artificial General Intelligence. A computer consciousness that could play chess, contemplate philosophy, and laugh at Campbell’s awful jokes.
The sort of no-end project that signaled the company was looking to trim fat from the budget. Luis spent the first hour that morning sending out resumes on Indeed.
By the time lunch rolled around, Luis hadn’t done much with the AGI other than check out the branch. The code looked like so many strings of spaghetti, what little parts made sense just appearing to be recursive. Luis got up from his desk and trudged back to the elevators, thinking of that food cart one block away with the good falafel. His back ached from sitting, and his eyes ached from screen glare, and he was so busy feeling sorry for himself that he nearly collided with Sady again. “Aw, damn! I’m sorry!” he said, chuckling a little from embarrassment.
Sady, not looking so tired anymore, said kindly, “Just one of those days.”
They rode back down together, Luis again puzzling over an icebreaker despite having one still unused from that morning. Despite the ice having been thoroughly broken from crashing into each other twice already, if not the five months working in the same office. “You going to lunch too?” he finally asked, just one floor from the lobby.
Sady shook her head. “Going for a quick walk. Stretch my legs, you know?”
“Yeah! Me too!” Luis agreed without really thinking.
He followed Sady back out through the lobby, the great big Phantom Drone swaying some over their head from the rush of air going back and forth, the front doors to the street swinging back and forth, as the many people at Rosen came and went for the lunch hour. Luis could smell a panini there, a large cup of bisque there, carried by in take-out bags. His stomach growled in protest, as he stuck beside Sady on the way out the building.
“So where do you usually walk?” Sady asked once they were outside, a chill gray sky overhead.
“Oh, you know, around,” Luis lied.
It seemed to satisfy Sady though. More than Satisfy, judging by the warm smile she gave him. “I usually go up 8th Street and loop back down Hawthorne.”
“Let’s do that, then,” Luis said much too readily.
The route proved longer than Luis expected for the meager lunch break allowed by Rosen. At the pace Sady kept, he didn’t even have time to worry over his growling stomach…
They talked mostly about the walk, and walking, at first. Luis felt like an imbecile. Then, a third of the way down the much longer than expected Hawthorne, “How’s your end of the project going?” she asked.
Luis had to stop himself from reflexively saying “Great!” Instead, he tried to explain, “It’s going about as well as it can, considering it’ll never work.”
Sady cocked her head, almost like a cat. “You think so?”
“I mean, I guess it could work in theory, but even if we get the code right it would need way more processing power than we have.”
Sady looked thoughtful. “I don’t know… Those autocabs they put out last year are pretty sophisticated.”
“It’s just a GPS attached to a steering wheel,” Luis scoffed. Seeing her face fall some, he elaborated, “I mean, yeah, it’s a big step, but it’s still really far from, you know, consciousness.”
She still looked disagreeable. “I’m sure it’s only a matter of time.”
Luis laughed bitterly. “Campbell wouldn’t like to hear that…”
Sady looked at him sharply. “What do you mean?”
Speaking more freely than he knew he should, Luis said, “Oh, you know how he is. ‘Retro’ this, ‘Kanban’ that, all that Agile jargon that makes managers feel special and creative.” He chuckled some, more bitterly than even he expected. The past three months of project stress just rolled right out. “He thinks we can do anything in a day just by saying we can. It’s all smiles and optimism, and then he turns into a raging asshole when it turns out there are actual limits on what can be done…”
Luis kept rambling on, citing all of Campbell’s failings as they rounded the last corner and found themselves back beneath the enormous Rosen Robotics sign. Awareness of what he was saying and to who slowly dawned, and as they passed back through the lobby, he said weakly, “Probably shouldn’t mention this once we’re back upstairs, huh?”
Sady smiled at him. He couldn’t tell if it was warm or nervous. “Probably not. Same time tomorrow?”
Luis’s whole world burst with light. “Sure!”
That one last exchange kept him running the rest of the day better than any burrito. He actually revised the existing AGI code and even wrote a few new lines. As people began drifting out for the evening, he ran a quick compile and simulation… And just about leapt up at what he saw.
“Holy shit. It could work…”
The next day, Luis forced himself awake earlier than usual and arrived with a few minutes to spare, despite the usual snarls with the metro. He was already into his second cup of coffee and teasing out a learning algorithm when Campbell passed by. “Looking good!” he declared in his cheerily obnoxious manner. Luis came out of his reverie long enough to briefly fantasize about taking the AGI project home with him, finishing it up solo, and selling it to some other company — no, his own startup! He’d thought of doing it, like every other developer in the Rosen stable. And like every other, he didn’t have the first clue of how to stand out from the crowd. At least until now…
It would need a catchy name of course. “Mendez Memetics” had a good ring to it. Luis imagined the long hard nights of work — though romantically lacking in headaches and eye strain — and imagined much more the glad-handing and hob-knobbing of shoring up investors, of giving keynotes, of sailing onto the TED stage to cheering crowds hailing him as the new Steve Jobs with Sady there —
“Shit!” he hissed, looking at the time. He’d been so focused on the code, he’d nearly worked right through his lunch break. Rather his walk with Sady, if she hadn’t left without him.
Luis rushed back to the elevators, where he saw no one. Not even the receptionist. He paced back and forth for a few minutes, feeling sick and wretched that he missed her until she came hurrying down the hall, distracted by something in her bag as always.
“Oh, hey!” she said, her face lighting up as she saw Luis. “Been waiting long?”
“Huh? Oh, I just got here,” Luis replied, trying to look casual despite the thin sheen of sweat on his brow.
“Uh-huh.” Sady smiled like she didn’t believe him but didn’t think any less of him either.
The walk felt shorter this time, though it covered about the same distance.
“Where do you want to go?” Sady had asked.
“Oh, anywhere. You lead,” Luis had answered, pleased at his own chivalry.
The conversation thankfully didn’t rest just on Rosen this time, mostly because Sady had binge-watched a whole season of Mad Men the night before and couldn’t stop talking about it. Luis had only ever caught an episode here or there but told her he’d seen every episode, loved every minute. He was sure she’d see through it in a minute, but they kept up a happy chatter all the way back down Hawthorne.
“Back to the grind,” Sady said, as they returned to the Rosen building, her grim tone belied by her obvious joy.
A joy Luis hoped was all for him. “Just a few more hours,” he said. He wanted to ask if she wanted to get a drink after quitting time but by the time the words were ready to pass his lips, the elevator opened back up on their floor.
“Same time tomorrow?”
They kept it up through the end of the week, Luis never once asking Sady out for a drink.
He agonized all weekend over how to rectify things come Monday. How to expand those daily little walks into an actual outing together, something more intimate. His mind recoiled at the “D” word, if only out of superstitious fear that articulating it would jinx him. On the bright side, he’d gotten so far along on the AGI project, he could coast through the rest of the two-week project sprint. Not like Campbell ever paid attention…
Despite leaving early, Luis arrived at Rosen fifteen minutes late on Monday morning. Worst of all, Campbell was right there in the lobby!
“Luis! Good to see you.”
“Hey, sorry about the time but the Metro–”
Campbell waved a hand to cut off the excuse before it could begin. “It’s all right. This stuff happens. Though I did want to speak to you about something…”
Luis felt his blood run cold. He’d heard those words once before, right before a three-month period of unemployment. As he followed Campbell to the elevator and up to their floor, he tried to assure himself that’s not what this was about. A mid-project change in requirements. That made sense. Not that it explained Campbell’s dour expression, but he could just have gas…
“So, I don’t know if you’ve heard but Rosen is doing some restructuring,” Campbell said gently, after leading Luis into the small conference room just across from the kitchen.
“I, uh, hadn’t heard anything,” Luis said, a lump forming in his throat.
Campbell wouldn’t meet his eyes. A bad sign. “It’s all very normal business, of course, but sadly it looks like our department is getting reduced.”
Luis collapsed into a chair that creaked at his weight. “Oh shit,” he said.
“Yep,” Campbell said, his face all warm understanding. “We’re not throwing you out on your butt — and certainly not right away.” He settled into the opposite chair, his fingers dribbling over his tablet. “I pulled for you, you know, because of all your work on the AGI project.”
Luis, his mind spinning, could only grunt dumbly, “Huh?”
“Well, you’d be perfect for the direction we’re going,” explained Campbell. “With what you’ve written, the next simulacrum line will be leaps and bounds better than the last.”
“Last what?” Luis asked.
“You know Sady over in QA?” Campbell looked at him, a hard glint entering his eyes. “She’s one of the models in beta. Mimics human interaction and whatnot. She’s had an awful lot to say about you…”
Trevor Kroger is a librarian between libraries somewhere on the East Coast. His fiction has appeared in Eastern Iowa Review, Blood Moon Rising Magazine, Babbling of the Irrational, and Potluck Magazine. His novels Fiend and One Nation Under God are available through Amazon.