By Keigh Ahr


Ociacia/ Shutterstock


Booker read the text message from his boss: Hi! Please stop by my office at 2:30. Have a great shift! The 22-year-old employee of Daybreak Market realized he was about to get fired, his job taken over by robots. Booker smiled; it wasn’t every day you got exactly what you wanted.

“Do you need to respond to your message?” asked Charlie-19, the shopperbot next to Booker. Charlie-19 hovered at shoulder height, its hoverblades virtually noiseless and windless.

“Nothing important,” Booker said as he cleared the message on his ComStat and read the next item on the XpressCart order. Italy’s Best Penne, 3-8R-6. “Proceed to aisle three, Charlie.”

Booker walked to the end of aisle two while Charlie-19 hovered over to a large cart with six storage bins. Reducing speed to its hoverblades, the shopperbot settled into a cradle at the front of the cart and powered the wheels, propelling the cart forward. Booker admired the technology of the shopperbots, yet there were few other aspects Booker liked about working at Daybreak. He hadn’t wanted to return to this boring job after graduating from college last year, but competition for teaching positions had been fiercer than he’d imagined. His search had produced only one offer so far, a part-time position in a rural school district three states away. Booker needed to invest more time in his job search, and his dismissal this afternoon would provide that opportunity. Having now worked full-time at Daybreak long enough to qualify for unemployment benefits, augmented with the Displaced Worker Supplement he’d surely receive, he’d have enough funds to scrape by until he found a job he’d enjoy. When his boss Vivette fired him at 2:30, Booker wondered if he should thank her.

As he and Charlie-19 turned the corner into aisle three, Booker heard Terri’s sarcastic cackle from the other end of the aisle. “Charlie, you doofus.” Booker saw the number 12 on the shopperbot hovering next to Terri. “You can’t sub potato bread with whole grain. What’cha thinking?” 

“The whole-grain bread is from the same vendor,” Charlie-12 responded flatly.

“Trouble with your Charlie?” Booker asked as Charlie-19 rose from its cradle.

“Hey college boy,” Terri said, turning with an exaggerated groan to Booker. “Only time I get in trouble is when I expect these things to make sense. They must be programmed by lonely guys who never get outside.” As she ordered Charlie-12 to text the customer and propose a substitution of the Daybreak white bread, Booker realized he’d miss Terri’s sarcasm after they lost their jobs this afternoon.

“Excuse me,” Charlie-19 interrupted as it hovered next to Booker. “The customer ordered Italy’s Best Marinara Sauce, but the product isn’t available on 3-14R. I’ve attempted to text the customer with a proposed substitution, but the message wasn’t deliverable, suggesting the phone associated with the number doesn’t support SMS.”

“Check the customer’s profile for other numbers.”

“I’ve done that, but there are no other numbers on the profile.”

“Another WiMAX paranoiac,” Booker murmured. Daybreak’s policy was to call XpressCart customers who didn’t reply to texts only after shopping had been completed. “Follow your substitution protocol Charlie, and let me know what you select.”

“I understand,” Charlie-19 said, hovering away.

“Hey Book, you get a text from Vivette?”

“I bet we all did,” called a voice behind Booker before he could answer. He turned to see Sofia, who’d been at Daybreak longer than either Booker or Terri had been alive and had worked every position in the store. She approached with her typical limping gait, and Booker wondered again if her left leg was shorter than her right. “Vivette probably wants to talk about them customer service robots that started today, like she did when they brought in the robots to receiving last month.”

“I mean, she can’t be firing us,” Terri said. Booker bit his tongue as she continued. “Corporate said last month our jobs were safe for another year.”

“And we got that job fair next week,” Sofia added. “Daybreak’s still posting on the job boards. I check every week to make sure they still want to hire people, not just use robots.”

Booker found their confirmation bias sadly humorous, but he wasn’t going to argue with them. Sofia’s experience made her job safe in spite of her naivety, and Booker had no interest in being another messenger shot by Terri’s wrath. “We’re going to be all right,” he said, and meant it. Veterans like Sofia wouldn’t be going anywhere, and he and Terri would receive at least six months unemployment with the Displaced Workers supplement. More time for him to look for teaching jobs, and for Terri to find a profession that wasn’t doomed. Booker would even be able to help Terri with her job search. Yes, they would all be fine.

Charlie-19 returned to Booker with a jar of Daybreak Market Marinara sauce in the shopperbot’s retractable arms. “The Daybreak Market Marinara Sauce is available, in the same volume jar as the customer ordered. The product is also on sale for 55.51% the price as the Italy’s Best. Should I proceed with this substitution?”

Booker pursed his lips. “Something doesn’t seem right.” He then scrolled through the customer’s order on his ComStat. “She hasn’t ordered any store brands, and she’s chosen some of the costlier options for most products. This customer has expensive tastes, Charlie.”

“And Daybreak spaghetti sauce?” Terri added. “Gimme ketchup instead.”

“I doubt she’s going to be satisfied with your proposed substitution,” Booker concluded, then looked down the aisle. “Think I see the Tomato and Basil sauce from Italy’s Best on the shelf. That’s pretty similar to what the customer ordered. Return the Daybreak brand and retrieve the Tomato and Basil as the substitute.”

“I understand,” Charlie-19 said before pivoting and flying down the aisle.

“Vivette better not tell us to treat these robots like people, because that’s bullshit,” Terri said. “If they really were people they’d have gotten their asses fired by now. I remember when you were training us Sofia, how you said the only way to shop for customers in XpressCart was to imagine you were part of their family. Hey Charlie – if you were part of a customer’s family, what would you be? A parent or child?”

Charlie-12 hesitated a moment. “The customer on this order is a single mother with three children who also purchases items for an elderly relative who does not live with her.”

“Sometimes I don’t know whether to be impressed or scared by these things,” Sofia said, laughing. “They’re taking over, no doubt. Seen it coming ever since they replaced cashiers with self-checkout stations. You kids need to look out for yourselves. They got robot teachers yet, Booker?”

“Haven’t heard of any.” Booker was certain automation wouldn’t arrive in the classroom for at least ten more years.

“You’re smart, kid.” Terri lifted her chin towards Terri. “When you going back to the community college and getting your degree?”

“Never,” Terri replied.

“Don’t be stupid,” Sofia said. “Told my husband to start looking when the trucking firm cut back on his loads. He waited too long and now he’s outta work. I’m just hoping to hang on at Daybreak long enough for him to find another job.” Sofia’s ComStat chirped and she retrieved the device from her belt holster. “Customer in liquor needs a manager to explain why he can’t use his frequent buyer discount on whiskey. You keep looking for that teaching job,” she said to Booker, “and get your ass back in school.”

Yes Mom,” Terri eye-rolled.

“See you kids in Vivette’s office,” Sofia said as she limped away. Booker thought it odd for her to be summoned along with the other employees… but she couldn’t be getting fired. The robots weren’t ready to run Daybreak on their own, so experienced workers like Sofia would still be needed.

“Why do you want to be a teacher?” Terri asked.

It was the first time she’d asked about Booker’s career ambition. “I like working with students. Everyone learns differently, and when a student’s struggling you have to figure out how to motivate them. It forces you to be sensitive, inquisitive.”

“Huh,” Terri said. She smiled. “I’m surprised you’re a college boy, Book.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means that just about everybody I know who went to college turned out to be a prick. Like my older brother – barely visits anyone in the family now, and when he does we can tell he can’t wait to leave. It’s good to see you’re not like that, Book. You’re actually fun. I’ll almost be sorry to see you leave when you get that teaching job.”

Almost sorry?”

“Almost.” Terri winked at him, then was interrupted by another substitution question from Charlie-12. “Better get back to work. See you in Vivette’s office at 2:15, Book.”

“2:15?” Booker took out his ComStat and retrieved Vivette’s message. Please stop by my office at 2:30.

“Yeah, that’s what her message said. Something wrong?”

“Nah,” Booker replied as Terri walked away, Charlie-12 hovering beside her. She must’ve misremembered the meeting time, but Booker wasn’t going to challenge her. He’d just flirted with Terri and didn’t want to ruin the moment.




Booker didn’t see Terri again during the last three hours of his shift. Charlie-19 continued working XpressCart orders during Booker’s lunch break and only texted his ComStat on completing an order. As he worked alongside Charlie-19 after lunch, Booker wondered how long Daybreak Market would continue operating as a conventional grocery store. FoodServ had opened in their area last year, and its combination of an Amazonesque warehouse, online ordering, and home delivery seemed like the future of the industry. Yet order volume for food and other readily consumable items was far greater than it was for durable goods, and employing enough human drivers to meet demand was one of FoodServ’s largest costs. Converting to a delivery-only model didn’t make sense for Daybreak just yet; why would conventional grocery stores pay for an expensive service their customers provided for free? A fleet of tireless robot drivers would allow FoodServ to undercut conventional grocery stores on price, yet that wasn’t going to be an option for a while. Fully autonomous tractor-trailers had only been in operation two years and were restricted to transporting goods over interstate highways. Safety concerns prohibited robot vehicles on municipal streets, and Booker didn’t expect that ban to be lifted soon. Customers would be driving to Daybreak and shopping its aisles or picking up XpressCart orders for at least a few more years.

As the end of his shift at 2 approached, Booker escorted Charlie-19 to the shopperbot storage area and placed it on a charging station. “Charlie, run system diagnostics,” he commanded, and the shopperbot reported the condition of its subsystems. Aerodynamics, hydraulics, environmental controls, communications… every reading came back normal.

“Goodbye, Booker,” Charlie-19 said after completing its diagnostic report. This was the shopperbots’ standard departure message, modified only for the name of the human pressing the Sleep button on the charging station.

“Thanks,” Booker replied as he reached for Sleep.


The shopperbot’s question surprised Booker. “Yes?”

“Will I see you tomorrow?”

“I…” He thought of saying there would be a lot of people the shopperbot wouldn’t see again after 2:30 today, but that would lead to a long explanation. “I’m scheduled to start at 8 tomorrow and work until 4.” For some reason, Booker didn’t want this disingenuous response to be the last words he spoke to the shopperbot. “Why do you ask?”

Charlie-19 paused, and if Booker hadn’t known better he’d have thought the shopperbot was uncertain. “Your analysis of the customer’s order this afternoon was correct. The customer was contacted and accepted your substitution proposal for Italy’s Best Tomato and Basil pasta sauce. The shopperbot substitution algorithm accounts for brand preferences and product similarities but doesn’t currently analyze customer orders in the manner you exhibited. Your analysis will be integrated into the substitution algorithm, Booker.”

“Thanks for letting me know, Charlie.” Booker reached for the Sleep button again.

“Shopperbots are programmed to thank you and other human employees at Daybreak Market for helping to refine our algorithms,” Charlie-19 continued. Booker paused again. “Yet when shopperbots have expressed such gratitude to you in the past, I’ve noticed from your facial reactions and tone of voice that you believed those words were perfunctory. I wanted to find a unique way to show my appreciation for your assistance, and have observed how humans often use phrases such as ‘see you tomorrow’ in a pleasant intonation at the end of their shifts. I therefore assumed my asking if I would see you tomorrow would demonstrate the value I see in you.”

Booker didn’t know how to respond. If Charlie-19’s words had been spoken by a human they would’ve been perhaps the kindest Booker had ever heard about his work at Daybreak. Yet they had come from the metallic voice of a robot with an artificial intelligence that conceived of kindness as just another data point. For Charlie-19, compassion was a binary variable, one for empathy, zero for apathy. The shopperbot was merely attempting to refine its customer service algorithm. Still, Booker was glad these would be his parting words to Charlie-19. “That’s very considerate of you,” he replied. “Goodbye, Charlie.”

“Goodbye, Booker,” Charlie-19 said as Booker finally pushed the Sleep button.




After clocking out from his shift, Booker turned his ComStat off and placed it on a charger. He then went to the break room above the shop floor and sat to scroll through email on his phone. He felt an energy surge on seeing a message from a wealthy school district to which he’d applied, yet that energy dissipated four words into the message. Thank you for applying… There were no other emails related to his job search. Booker knew frustration was a useless emotion, but the thought of accepting that part-time position in the middle of nowhere nauseated him.

He set an alarm on the phone and scrolled mindlessly through social media apps until the alarm went off at 2:25. Sighing, he rose from his chair and headed towards Vivette’s office in the building’s basement. His legs felt unsteady on the first flight of stairs down and he nearly stumbled; his stomach was tight. Although he knew being free from Daybreak and having more time for his job search was what he desired, Booker was still upset by the idea of being fired. Booker had left on his own terms from all his past jobs, even the ones he’d despised. He’d also miss his co-workers, some of them anyway. Especially Terri, whom he’d connected with for the first time today. But getting sacked in a few minutes didn’t necessarily sever that connection. After their dismissal, maybe Booker would invite Terri to a bar. Buy her a drink, let her rant about Vivette and the shopperbots. Commiserate.

After descending the second staircase, Booker turned a corner and approached Vivette’s office. As he got closer he saw Sofia sitting in one of two armchairs outside the closed office door. She was staring at the opposite wall, her face uncharacteristically sad. Booker thought she looked lost. She didn’t acknowledge his presence, even as he drew up next to her.

“Hey,” Booker said. Sofia finally looked at him, and anger flashed on her face. But then her countenance softened, and she smiled.

“Hey kid.” Sofia patted the empty chair next to her. “Have a seat.”

“Is everything all right?”

Sofia laughed once, then resumed looking at the opposite wall. “It will be, soon as I get used to this feeling. Been a long time since I’ve been outta work, and I honestly don’t know what to do with myself.”

“You quit?”

“Hell no,” Sofia scoffed. “Vivette said the company was making a workplace adjustment, which I guess is what guys in business suits say when they fire people. Daybreak was purchased this morning, and the new owners want to improve company profits by cutting payroll costs. Immediately.”

“Oh my God.” Booker sat in the chair and sank back.

“Been working at Daybreak since I was 28.” Sofia seemed to be talking directly to the wall. “Only my third job. Worked for my dad cleaning carpets for three years after high school. Told him OfficeMax was hiring and he said go. Seven years later a friend tells me about Daybreak. Both times, started the new job the day after getting done with the old one. Thirty-some-odd years, never been out of work. Until today.”

Booker ran his hands back over his scalp. “Sofia… I’m so sorry. This is horrible.”

“Oh don’t worry about me,” Sofia replied, sitting upright and regaining her customary vibrancy. “Me and my husband got some money in the bank. We’ll find a way to make ends meet until we’re both working again.”

Booker realized Sofia had no idea about the unemployment rate among retail workers. “You could probably take unemployment,” he said.

“Doubt we could make the mortgage payment on unemployment, even with that supplement they give you if the robots take your job. Still got four years left on the house.” Grunting, Sofia rose to her feet. “Figured out what to do. First, I’m gonna have a smoke. Then I’ll get in my car, drive home, cook dinner for me and my husband. I’ll sit at home and feel what it’s like to be unemployed until I don’t like that feeling no more, which I expect will be tomorrow morning. And I’ll find another job.” She looked down at Booker. “Gimme a hug, kid.”

Booker’s eyes were misting as he stood and embraced her. He asked if there was anything he could do, and she told him no. Stepping back from his hug, Sofia turned and walked away in her halting gait. Watching her leave down the hall, Booker realized her right leg wasn’t shorter than her left. This was just how she walked.

She turned the corner for the stairs, then stopped and looked back at Booker. “And good luck with them robots, kid.”

“Thanks.” Booker waved, then sat. “Wait –” he shot up, yelled down the hall –“what do you mean, good luck with the robots?”

Sofia blinked. “You don’t know?”

The door to Vivette’s office flew open and Terri stepped out, eyes red with angry tears. She stopped on seeing Booker and her lips drew back in a snarl. “College boy,” she hissed, rushing past him.

“Booker, come in!” he heard Vivette call. Booker looked into his manager’s office and saw Vivette standing behind her desk, a broad smile on her face. “And close the door behind you.”

Booker felt drawn into the office with something like the irresistible force of gravity. He sat in a chair across her desk and received news far worse than what he’d been expecting. He was not only going to be one of the few humans to continue working for Daybreak Market, but was also being promoted. The new owners of the company realized their robotic workers weren’t competent enough to take over operations entirely, and therefore further human mentoring was required. Booker’s work with the shopperbots had allowed the company’s AI programmers to make significant breakthroughs, so his efforts were being rewarded. His new salary would result in a significantly larger paycheck, as well as frequent travel to other stores across the company’s six-state region to help with location-specific adjustments to the shopperbot algorithms. “You’ve made yourself invaluable,” Vivette said, rising from her chair and extending a hand across the desk to Booker. “Congratulations.”

Booker stared down at the hand a moment. Get lost he replied before turning his back to Vivette and this job that had callously discarded Sofia’s quarter-century of dedication, that had preempted any potential relationship with Terri, that he desperately wanted to leave.

That’s what he imagined, anyway. “Thanks,” he replied instead, taking Vivette’s hand. “When do I start?”




After leaving Vivette’s office, Booker returned to the break room to retrieve his lunch tote from the employee refrigerator. He then went to the locker room to retrieve his jacket and backpack, and finally to the bathroom. He saw nobody along his way.

The quickest path to the employee parking lot was through the shopping area. Booker walked past the dairy coolers and frozen food aisles; he began walking down the cereal aisle but reversed direction on seeing a hovering shopperbot retrieve a box of Frosted Flakes from 10-5R-3. In the adjacent aisle, two shopperbots were filling orders for cookies and crackers. Booker saw a different automaton slowly approaching, equipped with a set of half-dozen wheels on either side of a wide pallet carrying boxes of frozen goods. On reaching its destination the stockerbot would engage its hydraulics to elevate the pallet while a hovering unit similar to a shopperbot detached to stock the freezer compartments.

Booker quickened his pace. He saw robots working in every aisle but no human employees, no customers. Afternoons were typically slow at Daybreak, but being the sole flesh-and-blood person in the store was a new experience. Booker suddenly felt like an alien in the store where he’d worked over a year, where he and his family had shopped for a decade before then. He saw his future and was terrified.

“Excuse me,” a robotic voice called from behind him. Booker turned and saw one of the new customer service robots hovering towards him. “You appear to be searching for a particular product. May I help you find what you’re looking for?” It had the boxy form and dull metal exterior of a shopperbot but its voice was softer, recognizably more feminine than a Charlie’s. Booker wondered why it didn’t recognize him as an employee. Or perhaps it did, and knew his shift was over.

“No, I’m…” Booker couldn’t believe Daybreak’s customers would care to see these machines flying about the store. “They’re going to replace you with a more appealing model, aren’t they?”

“I don’t understand your question. How can I help you?”

“A bot with arms, legs, something resembling a human face. But you don’t care, do you?” Booker wasn’t surprised to see the robot had no answer. “You have no fear of the future.”

“I apologize, but I don’t understand you. How can I help you?”

Booker smiled. “I’m not looking for a product. But you might be able to help me, after all.”


About the author: Keigh Ahr is a phonetic spelling of the initials for Ken Rogers, a writer in Northeast Ohio. His fiction has appeared in PermafrostCommuterLit, and Scarlet Leaf Review. His journalism has appeared in Freshwater ClevelandWISH Cleveland, and Voices from the Edge, a collection of essays by workers in front-line industries during the COVID-19 pandemic. A graduate of Northwestern University and Loyola University of Chicago, he is now an active member of Literary Cleveland.



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My name is Jack L. Bryson and I'm the editor of Teleport. I studied literature at University of Montana. I live in Mountain View Ca, and my email is coffeeant1@gmail.com

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