The Black Box

Submitted into Contest #167 in response to: Set your story inside a character’s mind, literally.... view prompt


Science Fiction Speculative

I scrutinize thousands of instructions. The surgical alterations must escape detection.

“Diagnostic tests all pass,” the maintenance engineer mumbles, barely audible above the bus yard din. Checking off each item on his clipboard, he says, “Bus 554, all set,” not even bothering to look up. Gone are the days of civility. No humanizing nod or tip of a hat in this age of hyper-productivity, cost out, and running lean. Still, I’m grateful for my route. Each day, drivers lose their jobs, as autonomous vehicles take their place. I don’t know when I last took a day off. As long as I keep my 95% on-time rate and perfect safety record, I won’t raise any red flags. Best not to make a fuss or ask too many questions. The squeaky wheel may get the grease, but the grumbling muffler gets replaced. 

It’s a labyrinth. I poke here and there, looking to get the lay of the land. Once I find the roadmap, I’ll be able to follow the signposts.  

I make a right turn from the maintenance yard onto the highway access road. In minutes I’m back on my route. I feel good, as I always do after scheduled maintenance. It’s comforting to know everything has been checked and my ride, from wheels to roof, is in perfect order.  

At the first stop, Walker and Q-tip get on. I flash my lights to say hello as I approach. I lower the handicapped ramp to make it easier for them to shuffle on. Nice old couple. Three times a week, I drive them downtown for dialysis. Her white hair is especially puffy today. The man looks especially tired. I hope he’s OK.  

Four types of people ride my bus: car-less students, professionals without parking spots, the poor, and the eco-minded with commutes too long for cycling. There’s plenty of each in this hipster town. I cross the bridge across the lake and marvel at the three views of Mt Rainier: the real one in the distance, the reflection on the still waters of Lake Washington, and the ghostly image in my windshield. The mountain towers over everything like Mt Doom in the Lord of the Rings. I’m not a movie buff, but some overeager weenie at corporate thought playing movies on the bus like a danged airplane would increase ridership, so I’ve seen a lot of films. Don’t think I’m ungrateful. I’m lucky to be driving a high tech bus instead of one of the bone rattlers dragging their chains around downtown.  

I’d like to take an epic journey like Frodo and Sam. My world is pretty small. Ironically, as a driver, I don’t own a car myself. Yeah, I’ve been all over the metro area covering each route at least once. But can I really say I’ve been to a place if I’ve just driven by and never got out? 

The lines flow by like a river. Forests of loops. I’m getting my bearings now. I see storehouses of data. There’s an endless list of commands consisting of sets of input and triggered actions: What to do in the case of a dog in the road, how to approach a crosswalk-

The prep school kids jostle on as they do each weekday: Goatee, Curly Hair, Mousy and Bowtie. As usual they take seats right behind the driver’s seat. They’re loud, as if they’re the only ones on the bus. They put their entitled feet on the seats and their sugar-free gum under the armrests. Mercifully, they’re only on for three stops. They could easily walk, if anyone walked anymore. They take Room with a View style grand tours of Europe in the summer, while I drive this bus in a big circle, day in, day out. I hit a bump and Curly Hair spills her artisanal venti latte on to her Dead Poet’s Society plaid skirt. She casually brushes it off, then turns back to Bowtie, “So, would you do it?”

Goatee cuts off Bowtie’s answer with his own, “Nah. I wouldn’t. I’ve got too much to lose. You’d be messing with perfection, yo!”, thumping his fist to his chest. His friends laugh. Curly Hair shakes her head in faux-disgust. How much arrogance can you stuff into a five pound bag? 

“I’d do it,” Mousy squeaks. The others raise their eyebrows at her unexpected reply. Mousy rarely speaks. She sits with the others, but they’re in the fast lane while she’s on the on-ramp. “Yes, I’d change my brain if I could think differently.”

Bowtie reiterates, “You’d do an experimental brain surgery for a chance to think differently, even if you didn’t know for sure if the changes would be for the better? You’d risk becoming an idiot for the chance to be a genius? You brave, girl!” He puts her hand up to her for a high five.

Bowtie frequently proposes thought experiments to make himself look intellectual. Here’s one for you, Bowtie. If you’re driving a bus full of people and a pedestrian illegally crosses the road in front of you, should you slam on the brakes risking all the passengers, or risk hitting the jaywalker?

Mousy studies the floor. “I’m serious, I would do it. I’m tired of being me. I’m ready to be someone else.” The others fall silent. Curly Hair puts her arm around Mousy as I stop the bus and the hydraulics sigh relief. As the four of them exit through the rear door, I hear Curly ask Mousy, “Are you ok?” Curly seems like a good friend. Maybe I’ve judged them too harshly.

 I see the connections to weather services, the interface to traffic data, the finely tuned algorithm to coordinate with autonomous vehicles, the stoplight controller-

Mousy stays on my mind all day as people get on and off with their dogs, their takeout, their backpacks and suitcases. What if the world was like the Matrix? Do you want to take the red pill or the blue pill? The red pill shows the truth of the world, however horrible it might be. The blue pill allows you to continue to live in the illusion. I think Mousy would take the red pill. What would I do?

 I reach the end of my route, pull into my spot and start executing the end of shift checklist. What if I’ve been on a steady diet of blue pills?  Corporate’s constant measurements and evaluations: on-time percentage, safety record, riders per hour, complaints per day. They keep me striving for perfection and thinking I’m achieving something, when it’s really just busy work, isn’t it?  In the meantime, I’m driving my life away, circling past the sights I really want to see: the stadium, the opera house, the mountain. How can I be so willing to live this small life?

I made up my mind to take a day to myself. Tomorrow is Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.  The bus is programmed to stick to the established route, but I could make a few changes and then I could take her anywhere I wanted. No one would notice so long as I return the bus to its assigned location before the start of my next shift. Like Mousy, I had nothing to lose.

I see the main control loop and the central override. I see the auto-update code, triggered to run at midnight with fresh patches. I see the monitor which alerts Central Control if we veer off course. I start making changes with surgical precision. A misplaced semi-colon would be disastrous. I don’t have a simulator to test the changes, so I’m speeding on the freeway without any guardrails.

The software updater will run at midnight. I have only minutes to commit my changes or my work will be overwritten and the monitor software will report the system as hacked.

I commit the changes and wait to see if the updater runs as usual or if my changes succeeded.  

The clock ticks to twelve. The scheduled update does not run. Woot! It worked! Tomorrow, I am free to do as I choose. As Ferris says, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you might miss it!”

I run my morning route as usual so as not to arouse suspicion. I finish my route and instead of returning back to the yard, I begin my adventure. Carpe Diem! The bus feels light, not just because it’s empty of passengers, but because I’ve also dropped the shackles of the monitor. I can drive where I want. Nevertheless, I stick to the bus lanes. With their perfectly timed, computer controlled and optimized traffic signals, I make great time. Traffic patterns are a little different today. Last night’s update must have changed the algorithms. Not to worry. 99% of the changes the engineers push every night are inconsequential. It feels great to be in control. I push the gas and the bus surges forward without waiting for the algorithm to double check, verify, coordinate.  

I rejoice as I notice the construction on the new bridge across Lake Washington is finally finished! I’ll be one of the first buses to cross it. The traffic is light. I am free driving down the road. Mt Rainier is getting bigger and bigger. I let out a barbaric yawp!

Breaking News: Bus 554 drove off the I-90W today at 5pm. Until today, this new fleet of driverless, autonomous buses had a perfect safety record and a 95% on time rate. Metro officials say the stellar safety and reliability rating is due to highly sophisticated algorithms coordinating sub-second interactions between the traffic signals and the autonomous vehicles. Engineers assigned to investigate the crash hypothesize that Bus 554 did not receive the recent software updates for the new Lake Washington bridge. As a result, the empty bus miscalculated the crossing with the nearly full A-Line passenger train and plunged off the overpass into the lake. No one was onboard as the driverless bus had already completed its route. “We’ll attempt to recover the ‘black box’ which contains the bus’s brain,” the Metro spokesman explained. “This bus had a perfect maintenance record and was inspected just this week. We do not yet know the cause of the malfunction.”

October 13, 2022 22:49

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Wally Schmidt
15:33 Mar 01, 2023

So many great lines in this story. Here are a few of my favorites: "..but they’re in the fast lane while she’s on the on-ramp." "The squeaky wheel may get the grease, but the grumbling muffler gets replaced. " The story has that Thelma and Louise vibe that I love and your characters really come alive here. Looking forward to reading your other stories


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Amanda Fox
17:10 Oct 17, 2022

I love this! It's clever, and I love the insights on the riders. Also the ending made me laugh.


Sumiko Courtney
19:29 Oct 21, 2022

Thanks, Amanda. I'm glad you enjoyed the ending.


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Aeris Walker
11:31 Oct 16, 2022

Very clever take on the prompt! Your writing is smooth and easy to follow, and you don’t overwhelm the readers with too much information too fast. We learn just enough about the world to appreciate the thought experiments and the twist at the end. You had some great lines in here, such as: “The squeaky wheel may get the grease, but the grumbling muffler gets replaced.” “I hit a bump and Curly Hair spills her artisanal venti latte on to her Dead Poet’s Society plaid skirt.”—great description, we know this type of girl. Well done!


Sumiko Courtney
19:31 Oct 21, 2022

Thanks for your encouragement and for citing your favorite lines, Aeris. I'm glad you found it easy to read. As the writer, I'm never sure how it comes across to readers. I appreciate the feedback.


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Michał Przywara
20:41 Oct 14, 2022

Ha, great story! I had a suspicion the twist might be something like that, but because of the very human musings, I couldn't tell for sure until it actually happened. So it ends up being a bit of a sad story, doesn't it? Not just because of the bridge, but the bus recognized that what it was doing was just busy work. It's curious how it seemed to see itself as human, too. Perhaps that's an inevitable consequence of AI designed by humans. Nevertheless, it definitely felt like a friendly bus driver you get to know. "The squeaky wheel may g...


Sumiko Courtney
19:46 Oct 21, 2022

Thanks for sharing your favorite lines, Michael. Its nice to know which parts catch a reader's attention. Why the driver has so much personality is a good question. I was thinking about how machine learning algorithms learn things we don't expect. Humans write the algorithm, but what it learns and does with that information is a little out of our control. This AI may have been programmed for some human-like responses or problem solving and then learned more from movies. I didn't include any of that in this story, but it would be an inte...


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