The reason for the meeting with Rose Taylor is to arrange legal representation for a homeless man named Keystone Bacharach, who spends his days on the steps of the public library with a coterie of other free spirits and unfortunates, and at night sleeps under a bush in front of the S.P.C.A. facility, where he can have a little privacy. What most people don’t realize—and Cindy, as an advocate for the homeless, does—is how psychologically harrowing it is to live on the streets, where through all the daylight hours you’re under public scrutiny. Your every gesture, whether intimate or not, is on display for people to interpret or dismiss or condemn, and your only solace is the cover of darkness, when everything’s hidden. And this is the problem: the S.P.C.A., in a misguided response to a rash of break-ins, graffiti tagging, and dumpster diving for syringes and animal tranquillizers, had deployed one of Knightscope’s Autonomous Data Machines to patrol the area, which meant that Mr. Bacharach was awakened every thirty minutes, all night long, by this five-foot-tall, four-hundred-pound robot shining a light on him and giving off its eerie high-pitched whine before asking, in the most equable of tones, “What is the situation here?” (To which Mr. Bacharach, irritated, would reply, “It’s called sleep.”)
A week ago, she went down there after hours to see for herself, though her sister had called her crazy (“You’re just asking to get raped—or worse”) and even Carly, on dropping her off, had asked, “Are you sure this is the correct destination?” But they didn’t know Keystone the way she did. He was just hurt inside, that was all, trying to heal from what he’d seen during his tour of duty in Afghanistan, and if he couldn’t make a go of it in an increasingly digitized society, that was the fault of the society. He had an engaging personality, he was a first-rate conversationalist comfortable with a whole range of subjects, from animal rights to winemaking to the history of warfare (light years ahead of Adam, her ex, who toward the end of their marriage had communicated through gestures and grunts only), and he was as well read as anybody she knew. Plus, he was her age, exactly.
He was waiting for her in front of the S.P.C.A., dressed, as always, in shorts, flip-flops, T-shirt, and denim jacket, his hair—he wore it long—pulled back tightly in a ponytail. “Thanks for coming,” he said, taking the gift bag she handed him (trail mix, dried apricots, a pair of socks, a tube of toothpaste) without comment. “This is really going to open your eyes, because, no matter how you cut it, this is harassment, pure and simple. Of citizens. In a public place. And it’s not just me.”
She saw now that there were half a dozen other figures there, sprawled on the pavement or leaning against the wall, with their shopping carts and belongings arrayed around them. It was almost dark, but she could see that at least one of them was familiar—Lula, a woman everyone called Knitsy, because her hands were in constant motion, as if trying vainly to stitch the air. The street was quiet at this hour, which only seemed to magnify the garble of whining, yipping, and sudden startled shrieks coming from the S.P.C.A. facility behind them, and if it felt ominous it had nothing to do with these people gathered here but with the forces arrayed against them. She said, “Is it due to come by soon?”
He nodded in the direction of the parking lot at the far end of the facility. “It went down there, like, fifteen, twenty minutes ago, so it should be along any minute now.” He gave her an angry look. “Like clockwork,” he said, then called out, “Right, Knitsy?,” and Knitsy, whether she knew what she was agreeing to or not, said, “Yeah.”
The night grew a shade darker. Then one of the dogs let out a howl from the depths of the building, and here it came, the Knightscope K5+ unit, turning the corner and heading for them on its base of tightly revolving wheels. She’d seen these units before—at the bank, in the lot behind the pizza place, rolling along in formation in last year’s Fourth of July parade—but they’d seemed unremarkable to her, no more threatening or intrusive than any other labor-saving device, except that they were bigger, much bigger. She’d only seen them in daylight, but now it was night, and this one had its lights activated—two eerie blue slits at the top and what would be its midriff, if it had a midriff, in addition to the seven illuminated sensors that were arrayed across its chest, if it had a chest. Its shape was that of a huge hard-boiled egg, which in daylight made it seem ordinary, ridiculous even, but the lights changed all that.
“So what now? It’s not going to confront us, is it?”
“You watch,” Keystone said.
The K5+, as she knew from the literature, featured the same Light Detection and Ranging device that Carly had, which used a continuously sweeping laser to measure objects and map the surrounding area, as well as thermal-imaging sensors, an ambient-noise microphone, and a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree high-definition video capture. It moved at a walking pace, three miles an hour, and its function was surveillance, not enforcement. She knew that, but still, at this hour in this place, she felt caught out, as if she’d been doing something illicit—which, she supposed, was the purpose of the thing in the first place.
But now it was stopping, pivoting, focussed on Knitsy, whose hands fluttered like pale streamers in the ray of light it emitted, which had suddenly become more intense, like a flashlight beam. “What is the situation here?” it asked.
Knitsy said, “Go away. Leave me alone.”
The K5+ didn’t move. It had been specifically programmed not to engage in conversation the way Carly did, because its designers wanted to avoid confrontations—it was there to deter criminal activity by its very presence and to summon the police if the need should arise. Now it said, “Move on.”
“Hey,” Keystone called out, waving his hands. “Over here, Tinhead.”
She watched the thing swivel and redirect itself, starting down the sidewalk toward them. When it came up even with her and Keystone, it stopped and focussed its light on them. “What is the situation here?” it asked her, employing the voice of one of NPR’s most genial hosts, a voice designed to put people at ease. But she didn’t feel at ease—just the opposite—and that was a real eye-opener.
What happened next was sudden and violent. Keystone just seemed to snap—and maybe he was showing off for her, thinking, in some confused way, that he was protecting her—but in that moment he tucked his shoulder like a linebacker and slammed into the thing, once, twice, three times, until he finally managed to knock it over with a screech of metal and shattering glass. Which was bad enough—vandalism, that was what she was thinking, and her face was on that video feed, too—but then he really seemed to take his frustration out on the thing, seizing a brick he’d stashed under one of the bushes and hammering at the metal frame until the unit set off a klaxon so loud and piercing she thought her heart would stop.
Just then, just as she was thinking they were both going to get arrested, Carly pulled up at the curb. The door swung open. “Get in,” Carly said.