Digital Sonata

The grey clouds rolled overhead, the light dim in the gloomy mid-afternoon sky. We rolled beneath, two vigilantes spinning our pedals toward our rendezvous with destiny.

The map pin guided us to a crisp white warehouse emblazoned with the Tigres logo, tucked away at the end of a cul-de-sac in an industrial ghetto. There were no signs of occupancy beyond the security cameras dotted around the facade.

“Are they watching on those cameras, do you think?” I asked, as I skidded my bike to a stop in the shadow of an unmarked low rise office with peeling paint.

Leon pulled up beside me, glanced across, then pulled out his phone, putting it to his ear in imitation of taking a call. “We have to assume they are, bud,” he said, pointing across to the crumbling office, his phone still silently to his ear for the cameras. “There used to be a shared loading zone down the back of Medicorp here. If it’s still there, we can sneak in the back through there.”

The office’s carpark was empty, even during regular Saturday afternoon office hours. Just a cracking asphalt monument to the hopes of building something here in Belview, long ago abandoned for remote workers from across the globe. We left our bikes by the entrance and scuttled along the walls, through to the loading lane at the rear. Packing crates, wooden pallets, and other assorted detritus was scattered around the telltale neon green line down the centre that provided direction for the early self-driving vans. The line pointed straight toward the warehouse where Maia was being held. We followed it.

The loading dock was unattended, and unsurveilled. The only thing moving was an automated forklift, fully laden with boxes, which moved and sat next to the bay, waiting for a receptacle in which to unload its cargo. “Bingo. We’ll find your girlfriend yet, bud,” remarked Leon. I shushed him and we snuck past and into the cavernous warehouse.

Inside, it was a hive of activity. Machines flitted to and fro, busily collecting and packaging tchotchkes according to their arcane commands. Pallets were piled high with cardboard and plastic packages, all waiting to be loaded or unloaded. Forklifts ferried them from one area of the grand floor to another, ready to be shipped away to customers. Throughout it all, there was not a single person in sight, except for Leon by my side.

“Remember when Tigres promised 3000 jobs with their big new warehouse, so long as they didn’t have to pay Pepsico exchange fees?” he asked.

“I was a bit too young to understand it, but what I do remember is my dad taking a shift in one of those warehouses back in the old days,” I replied, leading us forward to crouch behind a pallet of boxes. “On his feet all day, rushing from one AI order to the next. Some jobs aren’t worth saving.”

A machine rushed past, loaded high with household decorations, all crammed into a central basket, its wheels spinning under electric power. It stopped with a creak, pulled a snow globe from the shelves with a clawed manipulator, dropped it in its basket, and then buzzed back up to speed, rolling onward to the next item for collection.

“Sure, the jobs sucked, but they meant your dad could put food in your belly. Now there’s not even that, just gigs on apps or hustling for Bizclub investors,” Leon said.

I led him over to the next aisle, dodging around a frantically speeding pickerbot loaded up with sporting goods. “It’s hard to believe that people ran these factories without any robots at all, once. They’re so big, so complicated, so mechanical,” I said. I still couldn’t see anybody across the vast cavern of the warehouse, just row after row of pickables, machines and packages. “Are you sure we’ve got the right place?”

Leon pulled out his phone as we shuffled past an array of fashion accessories. “Yep, this is definitely the place. Maybe they’re holding her down the back, in the old management areas?” he asked, as he gestured toward a garishly striped door, too narrow for the machines to enter, on the other side of the space.

We worked our way across, dodging past an array of different working machines, all performing their own duties to keep the warehouse system functioning. “They never stop, do they?” I asked.

“Never. They do one thing, and they do it for their whole life. No breaks, nothing outside of their single purpose,” Leon replied, as he ran his hand through his short, buzzcut hair. “If you dropped one of those pickers in the Amazon, it’d run from tree to tree trying to find one which is a tea set. That’s what makes them robots, and us human – we can do all sorts of different things, driven by our own imperatives,” He paused, contemplatively, before adding, “Well, mostly by our own imperatives, anyway.”

“And today, our imperative is to save the jewel of Belview,” I replied, as I flung open the office door, with its garish yellow diagonal safety stripes, serving to separate the zones of human and AI workers.

The corridor beyond was dusty and empty. “She has to be here somewhere, right?” I asked Leon. My voice echoed off the plain walls and faded tiles. It was strangely haunting, this place built for humans but abandoned because the machines had no use for it.

Leon led the way forward, until we came to a steel door with a heavy grille inlaid in it. I could hear the whirr of fans beyond. “She must be in here, in with the electronics. Go get your girl,” he said, and beckoned me to go first.

The door swung open easily, and I stepped forward into a data centre full of servers. From floor to ceiling, rack upon rack of computers stood, matte black cases disturbed only by flashing LEDs. A cleaning robot scuttled low to the floor, its low hum contrasting with the server fans, which resonated together like a swarm of crickets. A long plastic appendage extended from the cleaning robot, stretching up and scrubbing between servers to brush away some particularly stubborn dust.

I stepped forward to continue the search, only to be met by a thump on the back of my head. My vision swam as I fell to the hard tiled floor.