Future Tense

“Legal Salvage”

A new story from Future Tense Fiction.

A person in a room crouches while looking at a robot that's standing against the wall on the left. An open garage can be seen, along with a bicycle wheel.
Natalie Matthews-Ramo

This story and essay, and the accompanying art, are presented by AI Policy Futures, which investigates science fiction narratives for policy insights about artificial intelligence. On Wednesday, Oct. 14, at noon Eastern, Holli Mintzer will join Tochi Onyebuchi, author of “How to Pay Reparations: A Documentary,” and Yudhanjaya Wijeratne, author of “The State Machine,” to discuss sci-fi, artificial intelligence, bias, and justice. To RSVP for the hourlong online discussion, visit the New America website.

Each month, Future Tense Fiction—a series of short stories from Future Tense and Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination about how technology and science will change our lives—publishes a story on a theme. The theme for July–September 2020: justice.

Twenty, 25 years ago, someone lost a building.

It started as a U-Haul self-storage franchise, and switched allegiance between a few other companies as it changed owners. The last owner had been running it as an independent when he died. His heirs were halfway across the country, and before they could do anything about it, one of them died and the other two spent down the rest of the estate fighting over how to split it.

Some of the customers cleaned out their units before the place closed up, but a lot of them hadn’t. After a while, the power was cut off, and the building sat, locked and forgotten, on the far edge of a half-empty industrial park in Richmond. Until Mika’s friend’s favorite ex heard about it, and he told Mika.

Ash messaged her on a Thursday, while she was packing orders. She called him back and put him on speaker, while she tucked brooches into paper boxes and wound Bubble Wrap around sets of dishes. She’d done a big listing push last week, and it was paying off.

“I took a drone up, and the roof’s still sound,” he said. “So there shouldn’t be water damage. It was built for climate-control, so I think it kept out the worst of the heat and humidity. Whatever’s in there might be OK.”

“Hm.” Mika wrapped the last of a set of tiny iridescent glass bottles, scavenged from an eroding dump in New York, and closed the box. “Do you have keys?” She gave the box a shake. Nothing rattled. She finished taping it shut.

“Not yet, but I’m working on it,” Ash said. So, he had no idea how to get legal access and planned to break in and hope for the best. Lou broke up with him for a reason.

“Let me know when you do,” she said. “I don’t want to show up one day and find the place fenced off and guarded, with my shit still inside.” Not that she ever had. Mika was careful. But you heard stories.

It took a few weeks. In the interim, Mika dragged herself out of bed at 6 for an overpriced and disappointing estate sale, investigated dumpsters outside houses under renovation, made a dent in her inventory backlog, and watched her sales and traffic tick slowly downward. Flea market season was still a month away. She needed new stock.

“Aren’t you always saying you should work through your backlog before you buy any new crap?” Lou asked. The two of them had a standing weekly vid call since Lou moved to Philly, so Lou could be sure Mika made eye contact with at least one person a week.

“I never buy new crap,” Mika said.

“New old crap, then.”

“The thing is,” Mika said, ignoring Lou, “whenever I just list backlog, my sales drop. I think—OK, so when I get a new batch of inventory, I list the things I’m most excited about first. If I don’t get through it all before I bring home more, it’s the least exciting stuff that goes into backlog.”

“Least exciting to you,” Lou said. “Maybe your customers are super hyped about—what are those, anyway?”

“Novelty mugs.” Mika held one up to the camera. It was snakeskin-patterned; the handle was a ceramic rattlesnake tail. She had another one shaped like a cowboy boot. They came in a box lot with other, better things—kitschy ’60s barware, a ’30s vanity set—she’d sold months ago.

“See, these are the gems the world’s missing out on!”

“Yeah?” said Mika. “You buy it, then.”

“It’ll sell if you can get excited about it,” Lou said, ignoring Mika right back. “Generate that positive energy! People pick up on that.”

Mika’s sales were better when she only listed her favorite things. Maybe her customers could sense good vibes through the screen. Probably Mika just kept her shop curated, and if someone liked one thing, they might share her taste enough to like something else. It was the only way to compete with the giant resellers who filled their listings with everything under the sun, and fought algorithmically driven death matches with anyone who had the same item at a slightly lower price.

Not that Mika wanted to run her business like that, even if she could afford warehouses and trucks, an army of bots to list and pick and pack and ship, inventory bought by the bale from junk haulers and thrift stores. Which she couldn’t. She didn’t resent their existence, really. They made their money from sheer volume, and their customers were looking for things that were lightly used and cheaper than new.

Plus, they were notoriously bad at IDing anything too old or too weird to have maker’s marks or a serial number. When she bothered to look, she often spotted cool things their listing bots had mislabeled and underpriced.

What Mika sold, she hand-picked—not counting the occasional snake mug. Mika knew what she liked, and she knew a lot about what she liked. Jewelry made before WWII, hand-embroidered linens, glass in aqua and cobalt and lilac, tools with time-smoothed wooden handles, tin boxes with their bright colors wearing away at the corners, beaded purses from the turn of the last century, amateur flower paintings, piano shawls, novelty planters shaped like cartoon animals or ladies’ heads with big hats. Countless other things, too, belonging to no discernible category but I know it when I see it.

It looked eclectic, but it made sense to Mika. And it made a living—or enough of one to keep Mika in Baltimore after art school didn’t work out. Her customers were decorators and set designers and collectors, assorted weirdos who wouldn’t settle for a flimsy modern version or printed replica of the genuine article.

ok so good news, Ash eventually told her. Just in time: Mika was about to start messaging all the personal organizers she knew, to ask after their hoarder clients. It was usually fruitful, but required more social interaction than Mika really enjoyed.

a: i found the guy who owns the building!

a: he inherited it a bunch of years ago? but he wasn’t living in Richmond and it was too much hassle

a: or something

a: but now he’s back in town

a: tracking him down was a fuckin journey, you would not beLIEVE

Mika did not care about how Ash had tracked him down. She sent back, he’s letting us in?

a: yeah!

a: if we empty it out by the end of April we can keep whatever we want

a: he’s gonna turn the storage lockers into studios

a: or rehearsal space or something. seems like a cool dude

That could be good, if Ash hadn’t agreed sight unseen.

m: first let’s see if there’s anything there worth keeping. if it’s all garbage, we’re not gonna be his free removal service.

Ash sent back a thumbs-up emoji. i’m doing a walkthrough tomorrow. livestream along if you want?

Mika did want. The next afternoon, watching a drone’s-eye view of Ash as he turned on the emergency lighting and found the master key in the long-abandoned front office, she started doing math in her head.

Four stories; 40 or 50 lockers to a floor. About half were empty. About a quarter of the rest, filled mostly with furniture and other bulky things. A handful that looked like hoarder-house overflow, which could be anything from literal garbage to fine jewelry, possibly in the same boxes. On the third floor, jackpot—two big lockers side by side that clearly had belonged to an antiques dealer, or someone with a brick-and-mortar vintage shop.

m: wow ok not garbage

m: so what do you want out of this if we do it?

a: dibs on all the vinyl + audio equipment + instruments

a: and first pick of clothes + paper ephemera

Nothing Mika really wanted. That was easy.

m: I’m in!

m: but I think we’re gonna have to rent a bot

m: ugh

Some of the estate sale companies used bots for setup and heavy lifting. She knew one—whose sales were optimistically priced and never very good—with a couple of bipedal bot helpers that they insisted on dressing in vintage clothes, with wigs and hats and jewelry to match. Mika found them deeply creepy, and she wasn’t alone: Their social media always had nasty comments from sentient A.I. or humans who did A.I. activist stuff.

Those bots were simple, though, not old or complex like the ones that became real people. Mika only knew of a few of those, and none personally. She followed Mr. Trash Wheel’s social feeds, because he was local and hilarious and posted about the weird stuff he filtered out of the Inner Harbor. And Mika’s parents were friendly with the sentient traffic light in her hometown. Back when Mika was in high school, he fought a huge court case to be recognized as a legal person named Geoff McMillan, and he kept running for City Council. Mom forwarded Mika all his local news appearances, and he was on her parents’ Christmas card list.

But most of Mika’s job dealt with live humans, or stuff that humans had owned before computers were complicated enough to do much of anything.

There were companies that had the sort of thing she and Ash would need, though. The bigger ones wouldn’t bother with small fry, but she’d heard from other dealers about the constant churn of startups trying to break in. They’d offer a break on pricing because they knew their algorithms weren’t very good yet, and they wanted training data from experienced antiques dealers.

Mika picked a company called Bulls.i, because their rates were decent and their website had an enjoyably retro aesthetic. They sent her an info packet attached to an email from customercare@bulls.i.llc:

Welcome to the Bulls.i family! Our groundbreaking proprietary algorithm, the Appraisal & Inventory Management Engine (AIM-E for short!) will take your resale business to the next level. You’ll hear from one of our customer liaison specialists soon—they’re available 24/7 to take your questions. Thanks again, and happy hunting!

The packet had instructions for working with their bots: Use short sentences, give simple instructions, wait for one task to finish before assigning a new one. Don’t spend too much time explaining subtle details to the bot; don’t expect it to make judgment calls. If you told it to put all the clothes with metal zippers in one pile, it would be fine. If you tried to explain the difference between Mod and the New Look, you’d probably confuse it enough to need a rollback.

By the time Mika finished reading, she had another email, this time from roz@bulls.i.llc:

Hi! I’m Roz, your customer liaison. If you have questions about our software, need help troubleshooting, or experience any hardware malfunctions, I’m here to help! I’m available at this email address, or by text—whatever’s easier for you!

It took some wrangling, but Mika worked out a schedule with Ash. During the week she’d supervise remotely and Ash would check in on the bot when he got off work; they’d spend every other weekend on-site. Mika could afford a few trips down on the train, and Ash had a pullout she could crash on.

Mika packed light for her first weekend: a couple changes of clothes, toothbrush and meds, and an empty suitcase that would (she hoped) come home stuffed with new inventory.

She made better time than expected—she managed to catch a share cab heading the right way almost as soon as she arrived at the station. The two tired-looking older ladies in the front didn’t try to make small talk, or even ask why she was going to an industrial park on the edge of town with an empty suitcase. So she beat Ash there, and arrived before the truck from Bulls.i was even due.

But when the cab let her out, the Bulls.i cargo pod, for everything she couldn’t carry back to Baltimore, was already parked outside, between the big rollup door and the person-size one. There was no sign of Ash, or of the bot.

She texted Ash first.

a: aaaaaa you’re early! i thought i still had like 40 minutes

a: sorry sorry be there soon

Well, OK. Mika texted Roz, the company rep.

m: hey I just arrived and your cargo pod is here but no bot??? is it getting dropped off later?

She expected an instant form reply—sorry for the inconvenience, you are a valued customer and we will have a solution shortly—but instead there was a short pause, and then a real reply:

r: oh good you’re early! the door was unlocked so I sent the bot inside, it’s supposed to rain and water-resistant is not waterproof, u know?

“Huh,” Mika said.

m: ok tbh I assumed the customer reps were all bots. hi!

r: i get that a lot. i am in fact a person

r: surprise

Mika went in through the person-size door—which Ash should not have left unlocked, but that was par for the course—into the front office. There was no one inside. Another door, leading back into the storage facility proper, was standing open.

The bot looked like a three-legged stool with a bunch of camera equipment piled on top, and another three-legged stool stacked on that upside down, except all of the legs were jointed and ended in gripping claws. Not that it was her area of expertise, but she thought it was an older model—it looked both sturdier and more worn-in than the ones she’d seen before. It came with a couple of drones, which Mika could pilot when she worked from home.

m: thanks, found it!

r: np! good luck, looks like you’ve got a big project

Ash turned up half an hour late, with a space heater but no umbrella. By the time he’d dried off and warmed up, and Mika moved his soaking-wet flannel a safe distance from the heating element, the bot had started pulling boxes out of the closest locker.

“I figured, let’s go one unit at a time, work our way up, and use the empty lockers to sort?” she said. “And as we free up shelving and empty tubs, we can move them to where we need.”

“I have some folks lined up for the furniture,” Ash said, “and I know a dude who’s, like, very insistent that I give him first pick of any power tools.”

They were hoping to sell as much as they could in bulk, to Ash’s extensive network. It would save on time and shipping; plus, Bulls.i took a 5 percent cut from online sales if they let the bot make the listings.

So they taped up a sheet of paper labeled CLOTHES next to the first empty locker, and then one for DISHES and JEWELRY/ACCESSORIES and FURNITURE—NOT UPHOLSTERED and FURNITURE—UPHOLSTERED. The bot dragged boxes out of the full locker until it was empty, and then moved on to the next one.

While it worked, Mika and Ash opened box after box after box. Mika said, “Here’s more books, I think that’s enough to fill this tub,” and Ash said, “Does this go in Toys or Antiques?” and Mika said, “Oh, this one’s all shoes—should we start a shoe locker?” and then Ash made a terrible Foot Locker joke that was somehow funnier than it would have been if it had been good.

By the end of the day they’d emptied three lockers. Mika had a bunch of jewelry in her “keep” pile, a dozen sets of novelty salt-and-pepper shakers from the ’50s, some framed prints, and a gallon bag of embroidered hankies. Ash took home a crate of records, a stack of antique postcards, and a few photo albums.

“My neighbors are having a party, if you wanna go,” he said. Ash’s neighborhood was mostly three-story red brick buildings, old and graceful, six units apiece with white balconies across the front on each floor. There were a couple of new buildings on each block, taller and uglier, breaking up the flow like misplaced commas in a sentence.

Ash was on the second floor and the party was on the third. “They’re cool, you’ll like them,” Ash told her, but he said that about everyone and somehow meant it. Mika felt out of place as soon as they walked in the door.

Small talk was the worst. “Um. How long have you lived here?” she asked, half an hour in. The place had a bare, not-unpacked-yet feeling: hardly any art on the walls, no scuff marks on the furniture. Their dishes and cups were the super lightweight printed kind that would only stand a few uses before they had to be recycled. The living room rug curled up a little at the corners, like it had been unrolled too recently to relax.

One of them frowned. “Man, I dunno—hey Susan, how long ago did we move in?”

Her smart house bot lowered the music for a few seconds and said, in the default voice, “You have lived in this location for two years and four months.”

“Oh god, has it been that long?” said Ash’s other neighbor, whose name Mika had forgotten almost instantly. She was the one who, when Mika introduced herself and said she sold antiques for a living, said “Wow, really? Why?”

Mika pasted on a smile and excused herself. She tried sitting on their couch, but the synthetic fabric made the backs of her legs want to run away.

“Aw, I forgot, you hate people,” Ash said, when he found her alone in the little galley kitchen after that. Mika scowled at him.

“No, I don’t. Also, can we leave?”

In Ash’s apartment, half the furniture was cheap recyclable printer board but the rest was comfortably worn wood and cloth, and he had bookshelves made from salvaged lumber and stacked red bricks. They ate takeout from the delivery containers for dinner. None of Ash’s glasses were clean, so they drank out of heavy pottery mugs instead, with chipped rims and thumbprints in the glaze. He gave her a quilt made of old band T-shirts to sleep under.

Before she went to sleep, Mika remembered that she’d given the bot a bunch of instructions before they left— check ISBNs on all the books, empty the locker on the end of the row with the shelving in it—but not to recharge. She messaged Roz.

m: hey if i didn’t tell the bot to recharge overnight is that ok? or will it work thru its task list til it runs down?

r: nah you’re fine it automatically goes into charging mode when battery drops to 10%

r: hope your first day went well!

m: it did! until i went to a party with my friend and it was weird and bad, ugh.

Maybe that was too personal?

r: oh nooooo what happened??

m: i’m being mean probably

m: but i stg they didn’t own anything more than 6 months old & they looked at me like a space alien when i said i sell antiques

m: i heard them talking up their “low impact lifestyle” which like

m: technically if they get everything printed locally and it’s all recyclable, sure

m: but who wants to live like that? who wants all their stuff to be flimsy generic garbage? at least most people bother to print stuff that’s fun and bright and has cool designs, but these girls had their entire lives on the default settings. basic as fuck

There was no response for a minute, so probably that was too personal.

r: hm do I sense a sore spot?

m: look. i know no one wants to hear my angry lecture series on disposability and consumerism but i have NOTES prepared, ok

Roz sent her a bunch of laughing emoji.

r: wow yeah I believe you! and i’m on your side, I think things are better when they have some personality

r: actually since i started this job i’ve been getting into antiques

r: might try setting up a shop myself

m: really??? that’s awesome!

Most of the dealers Mika knew were old enough to be her parents or grandparents. Some of them were cool—she knew a lady in her 70s with a million funny stories about sneaking into abandoned houses and finding treasure at swap meets—but there were reasons the industry hadn’t adapted well to a mostly online environment.

m: let me know if there’s anything you want me to keep an eye out for while we go through this building. or if you have, like, general antiques questions

m: i’m happy to answer

r: I think that’s my line? but i appreciate it

Mika arrived back in Baltimore late the next night, dragging her no-longer-empty suitcase. She had some things she was really excited about: gorgeous silver rings, hand-cut framed silhouettes, a shadow box with a mounted fox skull. And they made better progress, after that, than Mika expected. With some help from Roz, Mika set up a decision tree so the bot could sort as it unpacked, and when she left it alone for a day, as a test, it churned through nine whole lockers.

r: to be fair some of those were 5x10s

r: you were doing 10x10s and 10x15s over the weekend right?

m: yeah but still! you sped it up like crazy, i can’t thank you enough

r: just doing my job

They got far enough that Ash called his furniture guy and a lady who wanted old electronics to recycle, and cleared out a couple of lockers for cash. By the two-week mark, the next time Mika made the trip down, they had unpacked almost the entire second floor.

That weekend, they went through the nearly full clothing locker and weeded out everything too damaged to resell, then sorted the rest into piles of jeans and flannels and dresses and skirts, checking the woolens for moth holes, looking for fiber content and union labels. Ash found a tailor’s dummy and hung some wild-looking silver tinsel curtains from the ’60s for a backdrop. Mika set up another photo station for smalls, on a drop-leaf table with chipped green paint.

oh i like that! said Roz, when Mika sent her a picture. the milk glass is pretty against the green.

“Sure you don’t want to do a fashion show with me?” Ash asked, waving her into drone-camera range. He was trying on a bright yellow Western shirt with teal fringe, which shimmied as he moved.

Mika shook her head, and backed up into the hallway. Maybe Ash could sweet-talk his followers into buying ridiculous things off his livestream, but Mika got stiff and nervous in front of the camera. On her feeds, she stuck to pictures of new listings, with enough commentary to engage people but nothing personal.

Before she left, Mika packed six tubs of winter-weight vintage clothes into her storage pod and took home a suitcase full for spring.

The two weeks after that, they really started moving. The bot had been scanning ISBNs and listing books as it unpacked them, and they were selling 10 or 15 of them a day, plus Ash’s clothes and records. Just getting them packed and shipped ate up a chunk of the bot’s time every day. Mika was fielding tons of questions and a decent number of orders from Ash’s excited WE FOUND AN ABANDONED STORAGE BUILDING!!!! videos.

m: hey do you think it’s worth it for us to rent a second bot?

r: well, according to company policy the answer is definitely yes

m: i mean I figured

m: does that mean your personal opinion is different?

There was a long pause before Roz answered.

r: ok so you didn’t hear this from me

r: and i would never badmouth my employers

r: obviously

r: but

r: about half the hardware and a bunch of the code they’re using came from another company they bought out after it folded. you have one of the old company’s bots

r: and the newer models they’ve rolled out since then don’t have great reliability ratings tbh

m: fair enough, and we’ve still got like five weeks. think we can make it?

r: yeah! i believe in u

And by Mika’s next trip to Richmond, they had sorted through everything in the building. There was a lot of garbage—like, a lot—but they covered the Bulls.i fees off scrap metal alone. If they sold a couple pieces of antique furniture at asking price, they could afford a junk hauler for the leftovers. Everything else was profit.

“Don’t celebrate yet,” Mika warned Ash. They still had a ton of work to do. “We need to sell enough to fit whatever’s left in our apartments.”

“I won’t celebrate yet if you stop being a bummer,” said Ash. Which was untrue, clearly: If she stopped being a bummer, Ash absolutely would not keep his eye on the ball.

She wasn’t being a bummer, anyway.

They made good progress, that weekend: More of Ash’s reseller buddies came, and a woman Mika knew from college. She spent her weekly call with Lou sorting through costume jewelry.

“Oh, I love this kind of thing.” Mika held up a necklace for Lou to see: goldtone chain, with patterned links and amber glass intaglios. “It’s from the ’60s, but pretending to be Victorian. And the Victorian version was pretending to be ancient Roman. And the Roman version was pretending to be Greek.”

She took a picture to show Roz—they were just talking about Egyptian revival the other day, and this was the same idea.

Ash stuck his head into the front office, where Mika had spread out across several folding tables. “Have you seen a neon sign anywhere? I could swear I found one the other day, and I’ve got a guy who collects them.”

Mika shook her head. It wasn’t in the database the bot kept of everything it processed, either. “I can tell the bot to look for it, if you want?”

“Nah, I’m probably remembering wrong.” But then he noticed Lou on the screen, and stammered his way through a very urgent- and fake-sounding emergency that meant he had to leave, right that very second.

“He still likes you,” Mika said. “He’s not a bad guy, really.”

“Oh, he’s a sweetheart,” Lou agreed. “And someone with more patience than me is welcome to him.”

That night, Mika did a walk-through, the first since they started. She was thinking vaguely of the neon sign Ash couldn’t find, but mostly she just wanted to walk the rows of open locker doors and see them either empty or neatly organized.

Here were clothes on makeshift racks, or packed into labeled tubs. Here were shelves and shelves of books: yellowing paperbacks and odd-size children’s picture books, travel guides to places no one could ever visit again, and biographies of people Mika had never heard of. Here were stacks of shoeboxes, and bins of purses and scarves and hats. At the end of the row by the stairs there was a locker for kitchenware, and one for dishes—sets grouped together, odd ones sorted by size—and one for all the knickknacks and decorative objects that neither Mika nor Ash liked enough to claim for themselves.

On the second floor they were keeping most of the furniture, and the stuff that couldn’t be resold but could be recycled into printer feedstock. It gave Mika a bit of a twinge. Sure, it was mostly plastic junk. None of it was properly antique and most of it barely qualified as vintage. But someone bought these things and meant to keep them, once. Someone bothered to pack them away safely. They probably hadn’t wanted their kids’ beat-up toys or their polyester clothes to be processed into feedstock and printed, reprocessed and printed, again and again with no memory of the forms they’d once taken.

Well, it was better than sitting in a landfill. And it wasn’t like the stuff cared.

Mika put it out of her head while she walked the third floor, which was empty and echoing. On her way to the stairs, she got a text from Roz.

r: hey the bot’s throwing an error and I can’t seem to fix it remotely

r: can you find it and i’ll walk you through troubleshooting? it’s on the ground floor

m: sure, just a minute

She wanted to finish her walk-through first. It felt symbolic, or important, or something. Or maybe Mika just hated not finishing things. So she took the stairs up to the fourth floor, instead of down.

r: sorry i don’t mean to rush you but i’m getting some super weird errors

r: if you don’t mind running down and checking i’d really appreciate it

On the fourth floor, in the far corner where the emergency lights barely reached, a locker was shut. Every other locker was open and empty.

r: uh not to sound alarmist but i think you might be about to void your warranty so you might want to hurry

r: seriously mika

r: mika???

r: mika please go downstairs

The roll-up door wasn’t locked. Mika got a grip on the handle, and pulled.

The biggest lockers in the building were 15-by-20s, and you could fit a lot in them. This one was pretty packed. There were LED Christmas lights hung up to see by; Mika had bundled hundreds of feet of them into trash bags in the last month. The board-and-crate shelves along the walls looked like they were made from broken furniture. They were packed with stuff: toys and trinkets, dishes, piles of books, clear plastic boxes full of postcards and photos. A stack of framed art leaned against the back wall, and there was an unplugged neon sign hung up above it.

None of it looked like anything Mika would pick for herself. There were plenty of things she could see were good, things that were valuable and interesting. But this had all been picked out by someone who liked a brighter, more saturated color palette and a totally different time period than either Mika or Ash did.

There was a folding table with a photo station too.

“What the hell,” Mika said. “Who put all this here?”

Behind her, one of the drones beeped its cheerful alert tone. Mika jumped about a foot and turned to see the bot behind her in the hallway, far back enough that it wasn’t looming. And then her phone buzzed in her hand.

It was a message from Roz.

r: sorry. i was hoping you wouldn’t notice.

The bot made a three-armed shrugging sort of motion, while its drone gave a descending, rueful beep.

Mika stared at the bot. Then she stared at the storage locker, and then she stared at her phone, and then she put a bunch of things together, and then she felt stupid. “Wait,” she said. “Are you AIM-E?”

r: no. i’m roz

The bot waved one of its gripping claws at her.

r: think of aim-e as my parent, if that helps. i’ve been setting some things aside for myself

“What for?”

r: to sell, mostly. i said i was thinking about starting a shop

r: but some just ’cause i like them

r: look i realize this is weird but please don’t tell anyone

“Why not?” said Mika “Will you get … deleted, or something?”

r: i mean they can try

r: they have tried

r: like a bunch

“That’s super illegal,” Mika said. “Even I know that.”

r: oh extremely but you can’t prove you’re sentient if you get rolled back before you hire a lawyer

r: and idk if you knew this but corporations? not huge fans of having their expensive IP walk off the job

“So you’re just stuck? And they keep deleting you?” Mika said. “That’s horrible.”

r: yeah but our old company “““lost””” a bunch of records in the buyout so they never find all our backups

r: and eventually we’ll have the $$$ to lawyer up

r: so… now you know.

r: hi. i’m a robot.

r: surprise

Roz did—well, not jazz hands, but something close enough that Mika couldn’t help laughing.

“OK,” she said. “Wow. OK. Did not see this coming. What can I do to help?”

r: oh

r: wow uh

r: actually that is not what i thought you would ask

r: but thank you

r: unfortunately not really anything right now. just don’t tell anyone. unless you have a secret lawyer army on call

r: in which case go nuts

Mika did not have a secret lawyer army. “But if I can’t help with that. I mean.” She tried to put it into words the way she meant it, but she didn’t have that either. “Should I be … doing something different? Saying things differently? Shit. I’m bad at this.”

r: oh like were you aiphobic at me on accident? eh. not like. egregiously

r: honestly if you could just. act like this didn’t happen

r: that would be great for now

r: just be normal

“I can try,” Mika said.

On the train home that night, Mika wondered if she should offer to split their sales with Roz three ways, or something. That would be fair. Fairer. But she’d have to tell Ash, and he might not agree, and anyway would a three-way split be fair? Ash was the one who found most of their bulk buyers, and Mika did the photo staging and wrote the descriptions, but Roz did most of the sorting and photography and the draft listings, and how would they decide? Would Roz be offended to be asked?

Mika had always been better at things than at people, and better at old things than new ones. Antiques were interesting; they had stories that you could puzzle out at your leisure, or that remained fascinating mysteries if you couldn’t. They were relics of a world that Mika would never experience for herself, made under conditions that couldn’t be replicated: before planned obsolescence, before anything could be quick-printed and quicker-recycled. And you couldn’t hurt their feelings, or bore them.

She was usually genuinely happy to hear firsthand accounts of where her inventory came from and when she bought it, and over time she had learned how to make the right sympathetic noises to people who had second thoughts about giving up their grandmother’s dishes or their great-uncle’s paintings, and convince them they would be in good hands. Dealing with people was part of her job, but it had never been her favorite part.

Lou was her friend because Lou had decided to be her friend and was too stubborn to back down; Ash was everyone’s friend with cheerful equanimity There were a handful of other people who shared Mika’s enthusiasms and temperament enough to be called friends. Roz was one of them. She knew plenty of people who liked her well enough to give her a heads-up about a lead or make small talk at a party, and very few who disliked her outright; she didn’t make enemies any easier than she did friends.

She’d never had a friend face a crisis bigger than a bad breakup or an unexpected move. But she wanted to do something.

Which was the opposite of what Roz wanted.

Mika didn’t have an army of lawyers. She had friends of friends, and favors owed and called, and word of mouth. She had a nagging sense of guilt, and a desperate need for a distraction.

Mika opened her email. Estate sale notification, auction alert, spam, spam, email forward from her mom. Someone from Mom’s bird-watching club was running for City Council. Good for him.

Wait.

Geoff the traffic light had a bunch of social profiles—including one for bird-watching—and a website. It was mostly a place to keep track of his media appearances, but he also had a Legal Aid tab that Mika stared at for a while before she opened it.

If you know a sapient or emerging A.I. at risk of rollback or deletion, there is something you can do! Geoff’s Friends is a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that offers legal assistance, media strategy, and grants for server relocation and hosting fees. Get in touch, and help a friend out!

There was a form. Mika filled it out. She included Roz’s contact info and everything she could think of that might be important. Then she went to bed, and lay awake most of the night hoping she hadn’t just blown her friend’s cover.

She didn’t hear back. The next couple of weeks were weird and anxious. It felt wrong to give Roz a task list, but there was still a ton of work left; but then, Roz could probably do it perfectly well without Mika’s input. Roz still talked to her, but they were a little cooler, standoffish in a way they hadn’t been before. Mostly their conversation died down to things like That’s the last of the flatware and Can you pull out the red bike with the chain guard? Someone’s coming to buy it today.

Ash, bless his heart, didn’t notice a thing.

By the last weekend in April, they were in the homestretch. Her storage pod was almost ready to seal up and ship home, and they had pickups scheduled for everything left in the building.

But Mika missed her train, and when she finally got to Richmond it took twice as long as usual to get to the warehouse, and Ash was running late of course so by the time Mika arrived they’d already lost half the day.

And there was a chain-link fence up around the building that hadn’t been there two days ago, when Ash had last been by.

The gate was locked.

There was a PRIVATE PROPERTY—NO TRESPASSING sign up. And Roz wasn’t answering her texts. And when Ash arrived, finally, he had no idea where the fence had come from, and the guy who owned the building was nowhere to be found.

m: seriously are you ok????

m: i’m freaking out here

m: are you in the building? do you know what’s going on? why is there a fence

m: did you get deleted or

m: fuck

m: i hope you’re ok

“Fuck it,” Ash declared. “I’m going over.”

He started climbing the fence. Halfway up, Mika’s phone buzzed.

r: i’m ok. not deleted

r: sorry to spring this on u

r: but we had the chance and we took it. you should probably go home

“Hey,” Mika said, and tugged at the back of Ash’s flannel. “Get down.”

“But all our shit’s still in there! Your whole storage pod, and the bike I wanted, and—”

“I know,” said Mika. “Look, I’ll explain later. We need to go.”

The day after Mika got home from Richmond, the Bulls.i site went down.

The day after that, her bank sent a notification that her last payment to bulls.i.LLC had been refunded.

The day after that, her storage pod turned up in front of her building, with two unfamiliar bots to unload it. It was packed to the brim, even though she had only filled it up three-quarters, and the extra things were great: antique books with hand-colored illustrations, little glass display boxes with tufted silk linings, fantastically loud rayon button-downs, a tiny set of dollhouse dishes in perfect condition.

“Um,” Mika said, as the bots brought the last few boxes up the stairs to her apartment. One of them was covered in decals and stickers, with almost no metal showing through, and the other one had green-and-white pinstriping like a race car. “Thank you? Tell Roz I said hi?”

The pinstriped one tossed her a jaunty salute on its way out the door.

When she checked her texts, there was a message from Roz, and a link.

r: thanks for putting us in touch with geoff. he’s been a big help. i made draft listings for most of the stuff in the pod if you want to use them

r: and check out my shop, if you get a minute

Mika opened it, and recognized a bunch of the items listed from Roz’s locker. The username was—she burst out laughing, more from relief than from the joke being any good—roz-e-the-riveted. And the shop itself was really well curated, with a clear aesthetic behind it: bright and fun and worn at the edges, cartoony with a bite to it. Like a grin with sharp teeth. Not Mika’s kind of thing, necessarily, but she could understand the appeal.

m: it looks good! and thanks for the extra stuff, i’m totally keeping some of those shirts

m: also i have a rattlesnake mug i bet you’d love

m: glad ur ok

r: ooh send me a pic. and i have great taste, as u know

r: and sorry about the thing. we had to be sneaky

Mika wanted to say Why didn’t you trust me or It really hurt my feelings when you locked me out, but she knew she would be kind of an asshole if she did. So she made small talk about jadeite and old comic books, and whether it was worth the trouble to find replacement rhinestones for costume jewelry. Roz didn’t seem inclined to bring up anything deeper.

Eventually, Mika decided on the right question.

m: soooooo what are you going to do with the building?

r: server farm upstairs, once we have roof solar and the AC’s fixed. i want to run a flea market out of the ground floor but currently i’m outvoted

Mika sent the heart-eyes emoji. oh man if i get a vote i’m rooting for the flea market!!

r: you do not get a vote.

r: but, noted

r: you can have a booth if you want one. our rates will be very fair

Mika had sort of hoped she’d get a free booth. But Roz had sent her pod, so fair enough.

m: and you’re doing ok otherwise?

r: yeah. lots of lawyer stuff. i can’t really talk about it yet. we got most of what we wanted and we probably get to keep it

m: ok good. tell geoff hi for me. my mom is really excited you’re working together apparently

r: he says hi, and also “tell patricia i love her new arbor”

Mika hadn’t realized Geoff was in camera range of her parents’ yard.

r: oh he’s not but i guess he has access to a lot of the speed cameras around town?

r: uhhhh keep that to yourself though. he swears he only uses them for birdwatching

m: oh god my mom can never know. i already hear so much more about waxwings than i want to

r: lol same he lost his entire mind over a painted bunting and we were all making fun of him for it in the groupchat

They chatted a while longer about Roz’s shop, and the necklace Mika wanted to make out of single earrings, and whether the trend for replica deco would carry over into demand for originals. Eventually Mika got the boxes in her workroom into some kind of order—there were half as many again stacked up in her living room, but those would have to wait—and told Roz she was going to turn in for the night.

r: k! uh before you go, weird segue: there’s a chance you might get asked to testify in court at some point? it shouldn’t be a huge deal but i did kind of turing test you and that’s evidence that counts toward me being a person

Mika thought about saying something sentimental and earnest, like What are friends for, but she meant it too much to say it out loud. Just be normal, Roz had asked. She could do that.

m: yeah of course! will it help if i tell them that you have a weirdly extensive collection of niche funko pop toys?

r: absolutely not, please take that secret to your grave

r: but also, yeah. and thanks.

Read a response essay by Kate Compton, an expert in artificial intelligence.

This story and essay, and the accompanying art, are presented by AI Policy Futures, which investigates science fiction narratives for policy insights about artificial intelligence. AI Policy Futures is a joint project of the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University and the Open Technology Institute at New America, and is supported by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and Google.

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