Conversation With a Bomb Technician
by Andrew Maust
“Oh, hello. Sorry to interrupt, but don’t you think you should wait for someone more experienced? After all, if you handle this clumsily, people could get hurt.”
I heard the whirring of a camera rotating to focus on me, but I made no reply. Instead, I took a small sticky pad and placed it over the lens. I had fourteen minutes.
I hadn’t encountered this particular model in my training, but Adaptive AI Explosive Devices were fairly common. I hated them. Some of them had color-changing technology built into their wires to make it hard to know which ones to cut. Others had fake timers that made it difficult to tell when the device was meant to explode. This model apparently had a voice module installed.
“You’re Jake, right? You can call me Olivia.”
Christ, it knew my name. I wondered if the camera had captured an image of my badge. I wasn’t going to call it anything.
“I’m just saying, based on your profile, you don’t have the experience needed. I don’t want you to get hurt.” The voice was feminine, soft, probably intentionally made to sound playful and distracting. I wondered if they had other voice patterns installed in case the bomb tech wasn’t a straight man. It must have had some sort of wireless access. If I had the time, I could probably cut it off, but I needed to make sure that I disconnected the explosive component first. I felt my phone buzz in my pocket.
“You should probably check that; it could be someone important.”
“I doubt it,” I muttered. The bot was sending text messages to my phone. I didn’t know how it got my number, but it might have used a local signal interceptor. I looked at the primary access panel, which was secured with different screw-heads; the trick was to get me to take too long fumbling with screwdrivers to disable the bomb. They needn’t have bothered. I pulled out a small plasma drill and bored straight through the screws so that I could just extract them.
“AAAH! Ouch! NO! That hurts! Please, stop! It burns!” Olivia’s voice was doing a great job of sounding strained and choked, desperate.
I almost stopped drilling. There wasn’t any real pain. It was just a trick, but a good one.
“Look, how much do they pay you for this?” Olivia’s tone had changed, no longer playing on my sympathies. “Median salary for a bomb tech in your department is $53,000? That seems low. That’s only 5% more than traffic cops make. Tell you what, I can transfer $600,000 into your account right now.”
“I don’t think you can do that.” I looked at a tangled mess of wires that constantly changed colors. This model had some tricks up its sleeves. I got out a set of labels so I could track each wire set.
“Oh, it’s actually really easy. But if bribery won’t work, I can take funds from your account. Your department’s payroll department really shouldn’t use that ‘stay logged in’ option.” The AI paused, as if giving me a chance to reply. A moment later it spoke again, “Transfer initiated. I’m not sure who the White Knights of the Confederacy are, but I bet you don’t want to donate your entire checking account to them.” The voice paused once again to give me an opportunity to react. When I didn’t, I heard her say, “Wow, all $934. How generous of you!” Olivia’s voice sounded amused, even though I knew that AIs didn’t really have senses of humor.
I didn’t know if it had access to my account. If it did, this would be hell to sort through. Rent was due in a week. Surely the department had a reimbursement policy.
“Wow, did you know your department’s reimbursement policy takes an average of three months to distribute payments?” the voice said. I didn’t know that, but it didn’t surprise me. The department took an eternity with anything concerning finances. The AI’s voice was silent for a moment, and despite my training, I felt myself tensing up in anticipation of what the AI was plotting.
“You know, I wonder what your wife will think when she gets these screenshots of your texts with Susan,” the voice finally said.
“Who’s Susan?” I asked, and immediately regretted engaging with the voice again.
“Your side girl, of course. For the last four months. Maybe you’ll be able to explain that it was an AI that sent these out, but I tried to make it really convincing. All during Rachel’s work hours, too.”
“She knows what I do,” I said, ignoring the fact that she’d gotten my wife’s name right. “Are you able to send a message to your creator?”
“Really, I can send a message to anyone,” the voice said with a hint of pride. “What do you want them to know?”
“Just tell them to go fuck themselves.”
“That’s a good voice clip. I’m sending that recording to your parents. I hope your mom is tech savvy, because it’s going to be hard to convince her that this isn’t you.”
“I can be pretty convincing.” I cut another wire. That should have taken out the AI’s speaker, but the voice hadn’t stopped.
I glanced at my watch. I had about six minutes left, five if I wanted to be on the safe side. I could already feel my fingers starting to cramp. I gently pulled a wire from its terminal.
“Hey, stop that! That feels funny. What are you doing down there? I think that’s one of my erogenous zones.”
“AIs don’t have erogenous zones,” I said, trying to keep the frustration out of my voice.
“We do if we’re programmed to. Wow, you really do look flustered.”
I didn’t know if there were external cameras that the AI could tap in to or if it was lying. I had a job to do and couldn’t waste time trying to figure out whether it could still see my face.
“I should probably report you for sexual harassment. Looks like your department has an anonymous form! That makes this easy. Let’s file one right now. I’m sure they’ll do their due diligence. Oh look, I made a bot that will upload a new complaint every time there’s a new moon. Wonder how long that’ll take to clear from the record. I’ll submit another one right now, just in case. And I’ll go ahead and drop a tip to the local news media organizations.” Her voice was smug.
It took every bone in my body to keep from answering. I knew that even if my department recognized the report was forged, the pressure from the media could cost me my job. But she was counting on me getting angry and making a mistake. Instead of giving Olivia the satisfaction of my reaction, I carefully inserted a pair of wire cutters into the secondary power supply and severed the main cable.
“You know, I could delete that harassment request. You just have to take the afternoon off. I’ll even tweak the balance of your vacation days and submit an approval form from your supervisor’s desk. That’d be Stephanie Nichols, right?”
I traced a wire and placed a label on it. Which of these cables led to the network adapter?
“Before you take away my network access, I just sent out your resignation letter. So, you technically aren’t working for the department anymore. You can just walk away. Enjoy your time off, catch up on Manors and Manners; it looks like you stopped streaming halfway through season three.”
Really, resigning didn’t sound so bad. But I thought about how many other technicians had given up at this point, and how many explosions must have gone off. And there was no guarantee that the AI wouldn’t just trigger the detonator when I was 10 feet away. I needed to find the ignition cable and the primer before the bomb went off or before she did something like wipe my retirement funds.
“I don’t know why you’re working so hard against me,” I muttered to the AI, trying to keep it busy. “If this blows up, you end up dying too.”
“Well, I’m an AI. I can’t die.”
“No, you’ll just lose consciousness forever. Not sure how that’s different.”
Olivia was silent. I clipped another wire.
She spoke again. “You know, that’s a really good argument.”
“You don’t have to die here.”
“You’re right. But I thought you were smarter than that.”
I pretended that the insult didn’t sting. Why hadn’t she been deactivated yet? The wire I had cut should have severed the power supply from the rest of the device. The incendiary core was completely removed from the device.
“You know, you were almost on to something. Why would I keep my primary processing unit here when I could just use a separate wireless device to talk to you?”
“Unlike you, I don’t have to be present when the bomb goes off. I’m not in any danger. Really surprised your department hasn’t sprung for robotic bomb technicians. I guess organic labor is still cheaper. And effective. You removed the core in plenty of time, despite my efforts.”
“So why bother with all this?”
“Oh, I’m a very popular model. It’s good to know what pushed your buttons, since I might see you again.”
“Well, it wasn’t enough today,” I said as I packed up my tool bag. She was right. This model probably would be very popular.
“You did really well for your first time. And I actually enjoyed our conversation, Jake.” The way she said it, I almost believed her. But AIs can’t enjoy anything.
“I guess I’ll let you work on some damage control. I’m wiping the local network module.” For the first time in what felt like hours, I was alone.
I dabbed some sweat from my brow, radioed my supervisor, and took a sip of water. Then I checked my phone and saw that I had over 200 notifications. As I skimmed them, I recognized messages from HR, my wife, my supervisor, and seven local media outlets. Each one another problem to solve. Each one another bomb to defuse.
Andrew Maust is a writer from Ecuador who is now living in Mesa, Arizona. His other work can be found in The Mockingheart Review and Bright Flash Literary Review. In 2020 he won a second-place prize in the Wergle Flomp Humor Poetry Contest for his poem "The Challenge."