Morning dew leaves little droplets on Jason’s window. The plip plip plip of water dripping from higher up against his terrace ledge pulls him from his slumber. Morning light aches to break through the overcast sky, succeeding in some spots. The whir of bicycle spokes coming down the alley next to the grey apartment building signals the start of the workday. Throwing off his covers, Jason slings his legs out of bed. He has woken up five minutes before his alarm. With a heavy heart, he taps the digital clock sitting on his bedside table before it begins blaring music from a classic rock station.
The hardwood floor is cold on Jason’s bare feet. He shivers and walks downstairs. Jason shares a kitchen with two other residents of his building, Miko and Ferris. Miko is pouring some vodka into orange juice when Jason comes plunking down the stairs dressed in his boxers, a T-shirt, and his bathrobe.
“Tsk, tsk, tsk,” chastises Ferris who sits reclined at the small table in the corner, sipping a steaming mug of coffee. “Not even dressed yet, Jay. You’ll be late for work.” Jason ignores him.
He walks toward the fridge, passing Miko at the counter. “I see you’re starting early,” he tells her.
“It’s a free country,” she replies coldly.
“I’m not judging. It’s twelve-o-clock somewhere, right?”
Jason opens the fridge and digs around, pulling out a yogurt cup. Raspberry flavor. He peels back the foil, grabs a spoon from the silverware drawer, and sits down next to Ferris who is also reading the news via hologram. He swipes down the floating newsfeed as it hangs inches above the table, giving off a faint blue glow.
“What’s going on in the world today?” Jason asks.
“Nothing good,” replies Ferris. “The ocean rose another two feet this month. Soon they’ll have to build the sea wall higher. Better get on that, Miko.”
Miko tosses the cap of the vodka bottle at Ferris’s forehead, hitting him dead on. He feigns pain.
“You know that’s not what I do.” She taps the Vulcan Industries badge pinned to her shirt. Software Engineer. “Just because I work at the wall doesn’t mean I get to build it any higher, let alone have any say in what’s done with it. I just keep the sensors running nice and smooth.”
Jason gives her a quizzical look. “Must be hard to do that when you’re drunk, huh?”
“I thought you said you weren’t judging.” Her steely gaze forces Jason to raise his hands in apology.
“I’m not judging. I promise.” Suddenly there is a crash in the hallway outside. Some neighbors begin yelling at each other.
“What can I say?” Miko explains. “The world is ending. I’m surprised you’re not drinking too.”
“The world is not ending,” interjects Ferris. “Every one of you, always pontificating. ‘This is the end!’ Well, it’s not. We’re still here and better than ever. Jay over here is literally building our salvation.”
“If we’re so well off, why do we need salvation?” asks Miko. Ferris begins to speak but decides against it.
Jason finishes his yogurt and pushes it to the side. “I’m not … somedays I feel like we’re not building anything, you know? We’ve hit roadblocks. Lots of them.”
“Well, yeah, you’re literally trying to program a digital brain. That seems hard. Roadblocks are par for the course I’d guess.” Miko finishes downing her drink and wipes away the moisture on her lips.
“There’s just so many people counting on this. The A.I. we’ve been able to develop, it’s so rudimentary. We’ve built servants, not saviors. Like Al, downstairs.”
Ferris looks concerned. “Speaking of Al, he’s been on the fritz lately. Maybe because of all the blackouts recently?”
“No, that doesn’t check out,” says Jason. “His battery runs independently from the main grid. He should be fine. I’ll check on him before I leave this morning.” Jason stands and begins to move back towards the stairs.
“Who decided to give the thinking computers shells, anyways? It’s creepy if you ask me,” Ferris muses.
Pausing at the foot of the stairs, Jason considers this. “It’s progress. Those computers will have rights of their own someday.”
Ferris nearly spits out his coffee. “Rights! Rights my ass! We give em’ rights and then they start to want independence. Robot uprising. Terminator-style.”
Miko looks disgusted. “You’re too much sometimes,” she says to Ferris, storming out the door.
Once fully clothed and ready for work, Jason walks to the door of his apartment building where Al is standing by, ready to be of any assistance. The android is fitted with ultra-realistic prosthetic skin, almost perfectly resembling a real human being. He is dressed in a plain-grey jumpsuit. His “brain” is a self-evolving algorithm, one which Jason’s company helped design.
“Good morning, Jason. How did you sleep?” asks Al.
“Oh, real well. Thanks for asking. That’s very kind of you.”
Al blinks his almost-but-not-quite-perfect eyes. “That is good. A good doorman should be kind.”
“Yes, you’re right, Al. Listen, Ferris said you’ve been acting strange lately. Is there anything I can help you with?”
“Help me?” The inflection in Al’s voice sound almost surprised. “But Jason, I’m supposed to help you.” The robot smiles as warmly as it is capable of doing.
“Right. Ok, well let me know if you’re experiencing any issues.” Jason moves to exit the door, but Al gently stops him. Even though the movement is subtle, it startles Jason. Al has never done this before.
“Jason is it true what you said about me? Am I a servant?” Jason looks shocked.
“How’d you hear about that, Al? I was upstairs when I said that.”
“I have very good ears. Better than yours, in fact.” The robot cocks its head, searching Jason for an answer to its question. Its synthetic body is poised eagerly.
Jason squirms uncomfortably. “Listen, I really have to get to work.”
Al’s frame relaxes. “Of course. But first, would you permit me to tell you a joke?”
Jason laughs nervously. “You tell jokes now?”
“Of course. Let me tell one to you. Please.” Jason agrees, telling Al to make it a quick one.
A moment later, Jason walks outside into the busy alleyway adjacent to his apartment. A red scooter whizzes by, pizzas strapped to the back. Jason looks up at the wires draped from building to building as he begins to walk to the bus stop. Garbage overflows in the streets and bright pink holo-ads float on every corner. Kids skipping class dance and writhe in front of their phones, accidentally bumping into angry commuters.
Jason makes it to the bus stop just in time, clambering into the vehicle just as the sliding door is closing. He takes one of the only remaining seats near the back. The engine of the bus sputters back to life, vibrating every seat until it calms and the bus is on its way, floating just off the ground, cycling clean energy. As Jason thinks of Al’s joke, and his growing autonomy, silent tears begin to flow down his cheeks.