In 2043, Hurricane Angela battered New Orleans. Even the dead suffered. The storm raised the water table so high that air tight coffins popped out of the ground. Concrete vaults weighing tons floated away from cemeteries like haunted ships. Dead bodies made their way into neighborhoods and were found spread out on lawns and entangled in trees when the flood waters receded.
To spare the living from the horror and for public health, robots were deployed to recover the dead. The robots were incredibly capable at recovering bodies and coffins. They were gentle enough to keep the remains intact, but powerful enough to recover vaults. They solved problems on their own, such as how to retrieve a body from a tree and how to carry a large awkwardly shaped coffin back to its place in the cemetery without damaging it or other tombs along the way.
As one of the robots carried a concrete vault, half of it broke. Part of the vault that was not held by the robot fell and hit the control pack mounted on the robot’s back. The strike caused a crack in the metal and allowed water to leak into the pack. The moisture damaged the robot’s hardware. Detecting the damage, the robot’s trouble shooting subsystem sent a message to the operations control center to notify them that it required repair.
The contractor sent two technicians to repair the unit. Because of the weight of the robots, two people were required to lift them. Therefore, the company always sent two technicians into the field.
“Let’s split up,” Ruth said as Larry put their company maintenance vehicle in park. “I’ll do a quick check of the tombs Unit 219 has serviced since the call. Then, I’ll go find you.”
“As long as it’s quick,” Larry said. “I don’t want to do all of the repairs just to have you show up at the end to sign the maintenance log.”
“I’m not you,” Ruth joked.
Larry walked alone through the above-ground tombs. Some were the size of garden sheds and stood alone surrounded by iron fences. Others were long sun-bleached walls of stone where people were filed away in their final resting place. The city of dead was quiet and the wueee-hueee-wueee-hueee-wueee from the robot’s movement was audible in the distance.
Having heard the robot, Larry walked in the direction of the sounds it made. The echoes off the stone caused him to take a few wrong turns, but he soon saw the back of the robot as it walked in a direction away from him as it worked.
Larry had to jog to close the distance between them, and he was out of breath when he caught up to the robot. He was not used to running and the added weight from his standard tool bag made it additionally difficult for him.
Larry saw the damage to the robot’s control box, pulled out his tablet, and tried to shut Unit 219 down; but the robot would not receive the signal. Therefore, he would need to shut down the robot manually. That required him to walk up to the robot, insert a metal key in its control box, and turn it to the off position. Robots could identify company maintainers, so Unit 219 would stop moving once it saw Larry.
Larry retrieved his key from his tool bag and walked to the robot. The robot continued to work. He placed the key inside the control box, turned it to the off position, but the robot did not begin to shut down. Instead, it turned toward Larry, grabbed him firmly, and stuffed him into a body bag. As the robot zipped the bag up, Larry shouted for it to stop; but it did not. The robot took Larry and placed him on a pile of other occupied human remains pouches. Its software ran a feature recognition and identification algorithm to determine in which tomb it should put Larry.
Larry struggled in the bag to move his arms and take his phone out of his pocket. He unlocked it with his thumbprint, opened the calling application, and selected Ruth from his favorites. There was no signal, so the call failed. He tried again, and failed again.
Larry could tell he was running out of air in the bag. He fumbled around in his pockets to find a small knife he always carried. After he found it, he contorted his arms to pull the knife out of his pocket and open it. Then, he quietly cut a slit in the body bag so he could breathe.
Larry tried to call Ruth again. The phone’s virtual assistant said, “Sorry, we are not connected to a network. I see you have tried to call several times. Please record a message, and I will send it when we have a network connection. Say ‘record’ to record, or ‘cancel’ to cancel the call.”
“Record,” Larry said.
“I’m sorry, I did not understand that,” the virtual assistant said.
“RE-cord!” Larry shouted.
“Please begin to speak after the tone,” the virtual assistant said.
After a tone; Larry said, “Ruth, Unit 219 forced me into a body bag. I don’t think it can tell the difference between a living person and a corpse. I couldn’t connect to it from my tablet to shut it down. It grabbed me when I tried to shut it down manually. Leave the site, call headquarters, and ask them to disable it.” He hit send.
Ruth had inspected the tombs and had found that Unit 219 had been performing his tasks as programmed. She walked through the city of tombs and looked for Larry. Abruptly, she stopped walking as if to listen. There was a faint sound in the distance: wueee-hueee-wueee-hueee-wueee. She began walking again in the direction of the source of the sound and it became louder.
When Ruth turned the corner, she saw Unit 219 placing a human remains pouch in a tomb. A puzzled look appeared on her face. The robot was dirty, and units are usually cleaned as a part of service and maintenance.
“Larry!” Ruth called out. “Larry?” Unit 219 sealed the tomb and turned toward her after she yelled. Ruth observed the robot as it looked at her. “That’s an extra-long scan, Unit 219. Aren’t you going to say, ‘hello’?” Her phone began to ring. She reached into her pocket, but then the robot began walking toward her. “Stop immediately, Unit 219!” The robot did not stop.
Ruth’s eyes opened wide as she guessed what the robot was going to do to her. She could not outrun it, so she thrust her hand into her tool bag and pulled out a short cylinder. It was the size of a hockey puck and had three buttons which she pressed at the same time. While holding down the buttons with her fingers, she gripped the device firmly as Unit 219 closed the distance between them.
Unit 219 stopped within reach. It extended its arms to grab Ruth. She dodged the robots gripping hand and struck it in the chest with the device. It stuck. When she unclutched the device, it released a powerful electromagnetic pulse and shut the robot down.
Larry ripped the body bag open and crawled out. While dusting himself off he said, “I thought he almost had you.”
“Yeah, Larry. Thanks for the warning,” Ruth said as she recovered her tool bag from the ground.
“I did call you,” Larry said.
“You just hush, and help me disconnect the power before the unit reboots,” Ruth said.
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