I thought this up a while back after reading some tech articles. I’ve toned it down a bit from the original version.
“Sometimes You Does Catch a Break”
By Shari Paul
The high-pitched whine of a laser gun charging stutters my heart. I freeze, arm extended to the top shelf and the box of hypertension meds there. I’m breathing too fast, I imagine my blood pressure climbing higher and my vision spins, dizziness stabbing into my skull. Well I had a good run, I guess. No one with a chronic illness like mine was supposed to last very long after the apocalypse anyway and I had defied expectations for the past five years.
It takes almost a minute to get my breathing under control, during which time nothing happens. It takes another for me to decide that I need these meds, ginger and garlic and other herbal teas only do so much. I inhale, snatch three packs and shove them into my backpack. Even if they’re past date, they should have some effect. The bot that has its plasma gun pointed square at me doesn’t move.
It stands near the door to the dispensary, almost seven feet tall. Vaguely humanoid, it has wheels for feet and a small cannon for one hand and the gun for the other. Even without them, it could probably break me into pieces. Or so I’d heard. In this part of the world, there hadn’t been too many of the bots in use and the ones that were had been easily overpowered or avoided. Other places had not been so lucky, and their fall had eventually meant ours as well.
I wait for another minute, counting the seconds under my breath, before raiding the shelves again. Insulin is out of the question, but there are plenty of other stuff that people can use. If this thing’s going to shoot me, it probably would have already. Maybe it’s defective, or low on power. The pharmacist who’d brought it in is nothing more than a pile of bones near its feet.
It whirrs to life again when I finally zip my bag shut and turn to leave. The gun is still aimed in my general direction but I don’t think it’s focusing properly. Its camera whines and rotates endlessly. I should probably take one of the pills so I don’t just cap out from the fright. My heart is racing and sweat rolls down my back.
“Calm down, you look like you go drop right there,” says someone.
“What?” I say, jerking backwards in surprise, my heart in my throat.
Through the open door, I see a figure, masked up, with a cap on their head and long-sleeved shirt, heavy boots on their feet. They look like they’ve just stepped out of the fields, though I don’t recognise him from my commune. They say, in a slightly muffled voice, “It can’t see you.”
“What?” I ask again, confused. “What are you talking about?”
“Your skin is too dark,” they explain. “This type, the assistant model, the first batch had problems recognizing darker complexions and well, the next update brought the apocalypse on us so they never fixed the problem.”
“What?” I say again, not sure I’m hearing correctly.
“Yeah,” they say with a nod. “The developers, was a set of white or light-skinned people right, so the things weren’t used to recognizing anyone that didn’t look like them. That’s why when this whole thing went down it mash them up but didn’t do too much around the people it couldn’t see. Of course, the police and army bots had no problem with the dark skin. We just got lucky, an unexpected benefit of being dark and Third World, eh?”
I’m not sure I want to trust this person but what little I can see of them under their mask is about my complexion or a shade lighter. And besides, the thing hasn’t shot me yet.
I take a deep breath, lower my head and make a quick dash out the door past the bot. It whines, shifting, sensing movement, but the shot slams into the wall long after I pass. I don’t stop moving until I’m in the front room, looking through the dirty windows at the overgrown street, abandoned cars rusting in the tropical heat scattered about the knee-high grass and roaming packs of wild dogs. I bend over, hands on my knees and start hyperventilating.
The person doesn’t come over to help, for which I’m grateful. When I stand up straight again, they’re staring at me with a slightly worried look, brow furrowed and eyes searching my face. I ask, “How did you figure this out anyway? I saw the videos of these things hunting people who looked like us before the whole place went down.”
“That was the police bots. They’re the ones that are supposed to recognize everyone. Last I heard they’re resistance pets now,” they say with a shrug. “Anyway, I used to be a reporter. News still going on but no one to publish it. I still write it down, force of habit.” They chuckle a little.
I smile back, though my mask hides my mouth. “I used to have an office job,” I say. “Now I farm.”
They nod and for a moment we just stare at each other in silence. Then they say, “Well, at least we don’t have a lot of those things here. But watch yourself. Them bots is still not the most dangerous things around.”
“Uh yeah, thanks,” I say as I straighten and make my way to the door. I need to get home before the others realise I’ve gone out and start nagging about my health. This was for my health.
“Don’t worry about it,” they say. “Sometimes you does catch a break.”
“For real,” I say, and head out the store.