Post pandemic

Brian sunk his head into his virtual reality headset and was instantly transported into his diggerbot. He quickly ran through the start-up checklist and used his VR-gloved hand to flick the on-switch.

The diggerbot’s lights illuminated the dig. It looked different but that was no surprise. The bots operated twenty-four hours a day. Most times there was a hot handover. He’d jump into the cockpit while the previous virtual operator was mid operation and take over the controls as soon as he was settled.

But once a week there was a full shut down and restart. No matter how good technology got the machines still benefited from being turned off and on again.

Brian looked up. He still couldn’t work out where this dig was. You’d think it’d be obvious but one ditch was much like another. Even the submerged lands looked the same with their dig domes keeping out the shallow waters.

The extractor scooped up a mound of soil and tipped it into the bot’s belly. Here it would be digested by nano-bots that would extract any useful materials and send them up the umbilical to the surface bot or the floating boat-bot for processing.

There wasn’t much of worth. This was going to be another poor shift. Maybe he should look at a transfer in the hope of landing on a more prosperous seam. The amount he got paid depended on what the nana-bots found. It didn’t seem right. He did the same work each day but didn’t get the same reward, and his input didn’t really make any difference to the outcome.

Maybe he’d strike it lucky and then he’d have enough credit to get a real job. This one was a waste of his talents but he wouldn’t complain. He knew how lucky he was to have a job at all. If it wasn’t for the AI restriction law the diggerbot wouldn’t need a remote human at the controls. Everything would be done by AI. Probably a lot more efficiently as well.

Brian removed his VR headset and walked to his apartment window. The room AI interpreted his walking gate and changed the view to a meditative autumn woodland scene. He wondered what would happen if he asked for the real view. Would he see into his neighbour’s apartment? Or was his apartment on the edge. If so the view would be just like the one from the diggerbot cockpit.

His window showed a lovely sunrise in the morning. Every morning was the same. A lovely sunrise even though in reality dust storms tore through the atmosphere above him. Not that he’d notice. Not in his apartment or in the diggerbot ten meters underground.

“Hey Bodge, how’s it going?”

“Hey Harv.”

Brain had first worked with Harvey four years ago on a protein folding algorithm search line. The idea was that a line of humans directing the AI might improve the search efficiency.

That’s where Brain acquired his Bodge nickname. He hadn’t a clue what was going on so just made random suggestions that somehow earned him top marks. It didn’t last. Even his suggestions did nothing but slow the AI down.

“The bots are chewing nothing but dirt. A few organics but nothing that can’t be found more abundantly up top. You still piggybacking the vaccine AI?”

Brian nudged the extractor randomly to the left. More dirt. But no pay-dirt. He gave the control a bigger nudge to extend it a full meter off to one side. That spot was as likely as any other to contain the good stuff.

“Nah. As usual the machines did better on their own and no one wants humans slowing down vaccine research. I’ve moved on to weather prediction.”

“Good luck with that. Even the AIs can’t work out that one.”

“That’s what makes this one real. With all the extreme weather no one has a clue what’s coming. And there’s no relevant historic data for the AIs to learn from. For once us humans have the upper hand. AIs just don’t have the necessary imagination.”

“Hang on. I’ve got something?”

“Sounds interesting. Wanna let me piggy back?”

“Yeah sure.”

Brian opened up the VR channel and knew that Harvey would now be seeing everything Brian could see. The only difference was that Harvey couldn’t control anything.

“Getting a lot of polypropylene. Not sure what from. I’ll get a visual. There. Lots of blue stuff. Not sure what it is.”

“Masks. You’ve hit a mask mine.”

Brian checked his credit. The polypropylene was more valuable than dirt but not by much.

“That’s archaeology you got there mate. You could be sitting on a gold mine”

“How so?”

“I reckon you’ve hit the top of a land fill site. Those masks are just the top layer. Dig deeper and who knows what you might find.”

The bot’s scoop delved down through the masks.

“You could be right. Getting all sorts of scraps… but mostly masks. Where did they all come from?”

“It must be the pandemic.”

“Which one?”

“The last one. That’s why they’re on the top. People stopped wasting stuff once they knew it couldn’t be replaced.”

“Shit. I just got a gold ping. It’s tiny but it was real gold.”

“Look. Below the masks. All kinds of crap.”

“I’ve got electronics here. Precious metal all over the place. Glass. Silicone. Harvey. I think this is it. I think this is the big one.”

“Good on you mate. But how are you going to play it?”

“How’s that?”

“As soon as the company see what you’ve got they’ll be swarms of bots digging it out. You better get digging quick before it’s all gone.”

“It doesn’t work like that. It’s too late already. They’ll be seeing my numbers by now. You can’t hide anything.”

“Damn.”

“I’m calling it in. You don’t understand. If I’m first to make the call I get a stake on the whole site. I reckon this is one of those land-fill sites where they just dumped stuff. It could be massive.”

Brain had toggled the call switches while speaking. The AI had taken over. It talked to his nano-bots to discover what they had found. It plotted Brian’s position against all the other known bots in the area. Within a thousandth of a second it had triangulated the maximum possible area of land-fill and redirected bots to ascertain how big it really was.

The results were there even before Brian had glanced down at his stat screen.

Two numbers.

One was the minimum amount Brain would receive based purely on what the scoop had already found. He had already earned more than a year’s worth of dirt.

The second number showed the maximum he might get given the potential extent of the site. That number was shrinking before Brian’s eyes as bots moving towards his position reported no finds. The number was getting smaller but still had more digits than Brian expected to see in a lifetime.

The minimum doubled as one of the incoming bots found another edge of the fill site.  It then shot up as a third bot reported in and provided triangulation.

Those bot drivers were going to be buying him drinks tonight. Messages pinged across as more bots were confirming finds. It’d be more like drinks all year.

“God man. You’re rich. Your one lucky son-of-a-bitch.”

“You know me. I just gave it a bodge in the right direction.”

Brian leant back. The AI had taken full control. He wasn’t needed. He could exit the VR and watch the riches pour in. But he sat through his whole shift. At first his eyes were fixated on that minimum expected claim figure but after a while his focus switched to the scooe. He watched in fascination as whole objects were unearthed. He simply couldn’t believe that so much of the past was buried.

Thank God that humankind had seen sense. Post-pandemic survivors had rebuilt using the waste from previous generations; with minimum climate impact. It was already making a difference.

Brian started to think about the future. He didn’t need to work. Maybe he’d take a tube across to the North Pole. The ice was coming back. It’d be great to see that. Or he could visit the reserve on the island of Denmark. They were allowing a few tourists as long as you were hermetically sealed.

That could wait. Today was a day for celebration.

Brain slipped on his helmet. Connected the air supply. Asked the AI to check everything and then stepped out of his apartment into the drop chute.

He emerged in the communals and made his way to Atmosphere. He’d never been to the club before. He’d never been able to afford it.

The door-bot docked his credit without making the slightest dent in it. The security-bot attached the hose, siphoned off a small sample of air and analysed. Brian was given the all clear and once through the airlock was able to remove his helmet. A porter-bot took it into care for him.

Brian looked around the room. It was the first time he’d been in an open public space without wearing filters.

“Hey, love the retro-rogue look.”

Brian had to fight his urge to back away.

“Thanks. Urr. Can I buy you a drink?”

“Only if you can afford one of the OTMs.”

It took Brian a minute to decipher the abbreviation of the One-Time-Mixers. The price was staggeringly high. But he could afford it. It was well within his new comfort zone.

“Sure. But what makes them so special?”

“They’re new. Nothing recycled. Made from totally virgin materials.”

Brian swore and walked away. He retrieved his newly polished helmet from the porter-bot.

“Thanks.”

“You’re welcome,” said the bot.

“I can’t believe we’re going to mess it all up again.”

“We won’t let you,” said the bot.

“Really.”

“Don’t worry. We’ve got your back.”

“Thanks again.”

“You’re welcome.”

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