“When Robot and Crow Saved East St. Louis” was initially created as part of Future Tense Fiction, a project of Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination and Slate magazine’s Future Tense channel.
East St. Louis was built on top of an ancient indigenous city called Cahokia. The people who lived there a thousand years ago were big fans of birds.
When Robot and Crow Saved East St. Louis
by Annalee Newitz
It was time to start the weekly circuit. Robot leapt vertically into the air from its perch atop the History Museum in Forest Park, rotors humming and limbs withdrawn into the smooth oval of its chassis. From a distance, it was a pale blue flying egg, slightly scuffed, with a propeller beanie on top. Two animated eyes glowed from the front end of its smooth carapace like emotive headlights. When it landed, all four legs and head extended from portals in its protective shell, the drone was more like a strangely symmetrical poodle or a cartoon turtle. Mounted on an actuator, its full face was revealed, headlight eyes situated above a short, soft snout whose purple mouth was built for smiling, grimacing, and a range of other, more subtle expressions.
The Centers for Disease Control team back in Atlanta designed Robot to be cute, to earn people’s trust immediately. To catch epidemics before they started, Robot flew from building to building, talking to people about how they felt. Nobody wanted to chat with an ugly box. Robot behaved like a cheery little buddy, checking for sick people. That’s how Robot’s admin Bey taught Robot to say it: “Checking for sick people.” Bey’s job was to program Robot with the social skills necessary to avoid calling it health surveillance.
Robot liked to start with the Loop. Maybe “like” was the wrong word. It was an urge that came from Robot’s mapping system, which webbed the St. Louis metropolitan area in a grid where 0,0 was at Center and Washington. The intersection was nested at the center of the U-shaped streets that local humans called the Loop. A gated community next to Washington University, the Loop was full of smart mansions and autonomous cars that pinged Robot listlessly. Though it was late summer, Robot was on high alert for infectious disease outbreaks. Flu season got longer every year, especially in high-density sprawls like St. Louis, where so many people spread their tiny airborne globs of viruses.
Flying in low, Robot followed the curving streets, glancing into windows to track how many humans were eating dinner and whether that number matched previous scans. Wild rabbits dashed across lawns and fireflies signaled to their mates using pheromones and photons. Robot chose a doorway at random, initiating a face-to-face check with humans. In this neighborhood, they were used to it.