by Ralph Greco Jr.
I shut my phone down from my latest Amazon Prime Spree as the limo screeched to a halt. Then, jumping out and running across the tarmac in what I prided myself as record speed, I was up, in, and off before I even had time to register the chopper blades jolting my molars.
In five minutes, we were over a scene unlike any I had ever witnessed (and I had seen a lot from the Woodstock festival to an unforgivingly cold week in Paris when a trio of my fellow workers and I stopped that city from going dark from a computer-hacked blackout in the late’ 90s) the circle of five objects below me an interesting, modern-day Stonehenge-like mess.
Or at least that was the first image that came to my mind when I first looked through my binoculars.
“The only spot I can safely put down is at the eastern edge of the parking lot, right to the side of the Food King,” the pilot announced in my ear.
I gave him a thumbs-up, and we descended.
How many times in my life have I asked myself that particular question?
The truth of the matter is, ever since those days of yore, the late 1960s (actually, just two weeks after that big weekend get-together at Max Yasgur’s farm where I had been hired to help with the sound-system), I have been involved in the world in this particular way. First, in the circuitry of machines, I had no real clue about but had been tinkering with ever since middle school, to growing in my haphazard learning about the room-wide computers of the day, to finally tripping into the nescient days of A.I. (which happened years before anybody could imagine) to being on-call now to various private corporations and governments (even one porn mega site) where only a handful of us are skilled enough to save the day.
Don’t thank me; it’s just my job.
But what I was being called to right then was entirely a scene of a different stripe. And frankly, where I have certainly been scared before, I was downright unnerved by the fact that five ‘grocery robots’—those brand in-store mobile robot-like machines that beep through the aisles of your local food store, alerting grocery staff to a needed clean-up and in some cases cleaning the mess themselves—had somehow rolled from three different stores, seemingly over hill and dale (ok maybe one small hill, a couple of parking lots and one pitted playground) to meet below in the lot of the biggest supermarket in the area, the Food King the pilot was even then descending into. Each of the five machines, ranging from two seemingly identical ones that I guess might measure a foot over my five-foot-eight height (these were from the Food King) to a gun-metal grey four-foot height box, to two others squat and colored two-tone cream standing on a fluted base, had gone silent to their home-base telemetry (not very much more complicated than radio relay) and been found gathered here in this parking lot in the pre-dawn of this day.
I had been called to round up the things before an early morning shopper or employee of one of the stores might stumble upon this odd little robot-y coffee clutch.
As I jumped free of the wagging chopper, I was instantly reminded of Asimov’s famous robot laws. Not knowing if any of these protections to humankind existed here; still, I knew these machines usually could only get within a foot of an obstruction when they had to all but stop and turn from it. And even though the bots seemed to be courting their own company quite snuggly, I didn’t sense any real danger now that I was among them.
Still, I stepped gingerly to the semi-circle, and just as I was about five feet away, one of the tall grey grocery ghosts turned from its brothers, seemingly welcoming me to step between them.
The chopper was off and away by then.
Equipped with image capturing technology, I knew they could all ‘see’ me, but I did not expect—as much because I did not know any of these robots could do more than beep, as I had no idea they could think—what I then heard.
“Too man-ee,” one or more of them said.
Zapping them all dead from the app on my phone, I then signaled each nervous store manager with a text blast. I didn’t know if I could offer much more than: “We will email a report at the end of the week.” And while I didn’t think we’d get this kind of revolt again, I had time to consider well what the bots had just said to me as trucks and cars speed my way.
In the just-because-we-can-we-do world we live in, with the purview I’m allowed, too often these days, I wonder what we might be losing in our evolution. In all our seeming connecting, posting, and downloading, are we indeed growing so weak in our drive for ever more convenience? Again, my mind flipped to something from past media, this time from the film “Inherit the Wind,” where the Henry Drummond character warns “Progress” has never been a bargain. You have to pay for it. Sometimes I think there’s a man who sits behind a counter and says, ‘All right, you can have a telephone, but you lose privacy and the charm of distance. Madam, you may vote but at a price. You lose the right to retreat behind the powder puff or your petticoat. Mister, you may conquer the air, but the birds will lose their wonder, and the clouds will smell of gasoline.
Was that croaked, metallic, and seemingly hard to articulate “Too man-ee,” a plea, warning, a worker’s complaint? I feared we couldn’t readily ignore what the robots had met to say to themselves as much as themselves this day. But if I did indeed repeat what I had heard before I powered the things silent, would anybody care to hear what I think the grey boxes might have been trying to say?