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By Leigh Alexander

Heroes

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A short story inspired by future cities

Podcst on Spotify Listen to the full story on Spotify I Google Podcasts I Apple Podcasts

“Our crown Jules,” sang Clarice, her face popping up suddenly in the workstation display. “Deadline day tomorrow, huh? Can’t wait to see what you’re gonna come up with!” 

“Junimo Productions is the world leader in family-friendly, epic animated stories with messages for young people about the world we live in, and it’s time to design our next hero character."

 

Julia didn’t like being called Jules, especially by Clarice from the West Coast office. Most Junimo animators worked at a state-of-the-art home station like Julia’s, an uneasy collaboration with the West Coasters, continually connected across multiple displays. 

“Can’t wait to see what you’re going to come up with too,” replied Julia anxiously, forcing the corners of her mouth up. On her desk sat a small, pyramid-shaped virtual assistant, and its little blue light indicated when her colleagues could see her. 

Julia had meticulously arranged plants around her workstation, and oriented the display to include a glimpse of her 24th floor city view, which made her look quite polished. In reality, her workstation was an island in the midst of the constant chaos generated by Olivia, her six year-old.  

Each of Julia’s colleagues had curated their own little windows in turn. Clarice always had a framed picture of Atmo, Junimo’s most popular film character, hanging in the background of her workstation where everyone would notice. Julia thought this was a bit much.

“This is it, team,” said the virtual assistant, at the direction of the animation team’s West Coast lead. “Junimo Productions is the world leader in family-friendly, epic animated stories with messages for young people about the world we live in, and it’s time to design our next hero character. One of you could be creating the next Atmo as we speak!” 

Julia looked down at her light table dubiously. She had sketched a decent tapir with digital watercolors and encoded a single animation node into its long narrow snout, so that it waved meekly. The sight of it filled her with dread. What made her think a tapir could be a hero character? 

“I’m so excited about my design, y’all,” said Clarice. “I’m just building the 3D model now.”

“Awesome,” said Stephen in his window.

Julia’s display chimed with notifications and voices. A visual feed of the morning’s news marched alongside the windows, and an advertisement for holiday packages sprouted from the light table, served by the free watercolor software she had installed there. 

When she swatted at the ad to dismiss it, the light table registered a bold, wayward black line in response to her movement. Out of the corner of her eye she spotted a news story about a trend called “forest bathing”, which apparently helped busy CEOs de-stress. Sometimes it felt to Julia as if she worked inside a slot machine.

“Junimo stories are about connection and friendship."


“Remember, team,” said the virtual assistant. “Junimo stories are about connection and friendship. Our fans turn to Junimo characters to help them feel inspired and secure.”

“Let’s see yours, Julia,” said Stephen. 

JULIA! YOU MAY ALREADY BE QUALIFIED FOR A 5.9% APR CAPITAL CITY CREDIT CARD!! Another ad on the light table. 

“It’s a tapir,” Julia said, trying to make her voice sound confident as she shared the animation on her light table with the channel. “My daughter Olivia saw one at the zoo and she just had to have the toy from the gift shop. She named it ‘Snazzy!’”

No one laughed, so Julia went on, earnestly.  “Now she can’t sleep without the stuffed tapir,” she said. “So I’ve made a tapir that’s waving.” 

“I’ve seen Clarice’s and it is ah-mazing,” Steven shared, swatting away an ad from his own light table. 

“Julia, Mr. Castell is requesting a meeting,” chimed the virtual assistant. “Would you like to be conferenced in now, or suggest a time?” 

“Suggest a time,” Julia said. She was upset with herself for sharing a tapir in the group channel before it was done, and it probably could be heard in her voice. The virtual assistant made Julia an appointment for after lunch. She hoped she could make a new test animation before then. 

“I thought the tapir was your idea of a joke,” Castell said. “Well, your little girl will be happy with the AR model, at least.”  

Julia took the meeting on her tablet so she could sit far away from the snooping virtual assistant and her noisy workstation.

"...soothing splashes of vivid green scaling the mirrorlike walls of her apartment tower."


"She often did her best thinking in a chair by the window, where she had a view of the vertical gardens, soothing splashes of vivid green scaling the mirrorlike walls of her apartment tower."

“I’ve just had a little bit of trouble concentrating recently,” said Julia. “The West Coasters do a bit more chatting than I’d prefer, and the virtual assistant --” 

“That could be part of your issue right there,” said Castell, who spoke very fast as a rule. “We’ve invested in home studios for our animators to help optimise creativity, but we can’t expect to be able to tell great stories about teamwork if we don’t make it a priority to stay connected with one another.” 

“I thought we were making hero characters,” said Julia, watching a spider climb her windowpane. 

“Heroism is about friendship,” Castell said matter-of-factly. 

“Can I switch off the virtual assistant when I don’t need it?” Julia asked. It was remarkable that a spider could climb all the way up here on the 24th floor, she thought. Did it come because of the garden? Maybe the gardeners brought some spiders up, the same way they sometimes brought bees. Were spiders an important part of the ecosystem? If Olivia saw a spider on the window and asked how it got up here, would Julia be able to explain?

“So we will need you to at least check in with it, even if it takes some getting used to,” Castell was saying. Julia realised she hadn’t been listening at all. 

“I feel like the virtual assistant is judging me,” she blurted, and in the awkward silence that followed, Julia somehow found herself continuing to talk. “I feel like it’s listening to everything I say and recording data about my attitude.” 

“What would be the sense in that?” Castell laughed. “Think of it logically, Julia. Do you think a machine’s gonna be able to know more about your attitude than your teammates in the group channel?” 

“I guess not,” Julia said. Now she felt illogical as well as uninspired, and she was sure her face was red, too. 

“I never signed up for this,” Castell said irritably. 

“I’m sorry,” Julia said, shocked. In the three years since she’d been hired to Junimo’s character animation division, among the most competitive in the world, she had never actually disappointed anyone. Junimo had been her dream job, and she felt the loss of her joy like a missing tooth. 

“Sorry about that,” Castell said, “I was talking to an ad.”

“Oh,” Julia laughed in genuine relief, and then added some extra laughter so that her attitude would seem good. 

“Forget the technical stuff,” he added. “Connect with your teammates. I’m gonna have a forest bath.” 

The video call disconnected. 

Julia did not want to connect with Clarice. She imagined Clarice being caught in the web of a giant spider with special powers, and started sketching on her tablet, suddenly possessed by the fervor of what she was sure in that moment was an original idea. 

"She was so engrossed in her spider-hero animation that she might have missed her bus"


At 3PM, Julia migrated all her progress from the workstation onto her tablet and went out to fetch Olivia from school. She was so engrossed in her spider-hero animation that she might have missed her bus, but the newest silently gliding smart buses were constantly sending updates to the bus shelter display. 

Julia often found it easier to work in transit than at home. Drawing and implementing simple animations was a pleasant way to pass the time, and there was no group video, just text summaries from the virtual assistant scrolling along the side of her tablet in a neat line: 

Clarice has submitted a draft render. Clarice has implemented an algorithmic map. Clarice’s most recent upload to Secure Channel has received 180 views and 78 stars. Stephen went to lunch at 12:05. 

Julia caught herself staring at the feed for who knew how long, her stylus frozen in air above the tablet. By the time she and Olivia were on the bus home, though, she had drawn a fabulously hairy and unexpectedly cute spider hero. She was about to put a kerchief around its neck, for personality, when Olivia spoke. 

“Mom, can we get a Magic AR Robot?” 

“You already have a kitty from Magic AR,” Julia said, showing Olivia her tablet screen. “What do you think of this spider?” 

“I don’t want that,” Olivia said promptly. She was squeezing Snazzy, the plush tapir from the zoo gift shop, Julia felt anxious at the sight of it. 

“You didn’t really look,” replied Julia evenly, flicking personalised ads away from the image so she could animate its legs for Olivia. “Will you take a real look, please?” 

“I looked,” Olivia said, flaring her little nostrils. “Spiders aren’t for kids.” 

Julia’s heart sank. Olivia was right. First a tapir, now a spider? What if she just didn’t have it in her anymore, that magical something that had once won her the chance to design all the villain vehicles for Atmo 2? She was so much better at drawing vehicles than characters, anyway. 

“What should I draw,” Julia asked her six year-old daughter despairingly. Out of the large bus windows, a flame-coloured sunset danced among the glittering panels and spires of the city as they sped past. Sunset. The deadline was tomorrow morning. 

“Robot,” Olivia said, swinging her legs so that Julia had to chide her for kicking the clean seats. 

“It can’t be a robot,” Julia sighed. “Mr. Castell wants us to design things to do with people and their feelings.” 

“Roboth have feelingth,” protested Olivia, wiggling a loose tooth with her tongue. 

Julia glanced at the virtual assistant updates. The deadline for “Hero Characters” is tomorrow morning at 9:00 AM. Six team members have submitted in advance of the deadline for “Hero Characters”, earning 2185 Junimo Points. 

“Robots are artificial, sweetheart”


“Robots are artificial, sweetheart,” said Julia. “It means they don’t have feelings.” 

“No,” Olivia said, the beginnings of a cranky sulk beginning to redden her round cheeks. Julia decided to leave the topic, rather than risk tempting one of Olivia’s rare but tumultuous tantrums in a public space. 

“How about if my boss likes my pictures, then we can get a Magic AR Robot?” she offered.

The perfect temperature and gentle glide relaxed Julia as she chatted to Olivia, distracting her, hoping she would forget. The bus called out Olympia Tower, Julia’s stop, in a soothing voice, but she was still startled; now Olivia’s dinner and bath time, she would only have a few hours left to work on her design. After Olivia’s bedtime, she could work until she got too tired, but worryingly, Julia felt tired already. 

She had enough time, she told herself, hustling Olivia off the bus, firmly holding the small hand on the way into their building. She would figure it out. 

In the elevator, Olivia suddenly began to wail.

“What is it,” Julia sighed.

“Snazzy, Olivia wept. “I left Snazzy on the bus.”

The loss of Snazzy had made Olivia so unhappy that any possibility of working productively with her in the house vanished. 

When Clarice announced on video chat that she had never been so proud of one of her own designs as she was of the one she had just submitted for consideration as the next Junimo Hero, a frazzled Julia clocked off a little early, claiming Olivia was sick. 

The child was distressed enough, sobbing face down in bed, that she might as well be sick.

It was all very good for people like Clarice and Stephen to be inspired by human connection and to connect their personal accounts outside of work. They didn’t have children. 

At first, Julia had little hope that Snazzy could be recovered from the driver and conductor-less bus.

The city buses were like efficient servants; she could lose herself in work while in transit and never even notice the infrastructure. But surely people leave things on buses all the time, she thought, poking around in her navigation app for information about the routes.

“It looks like you’re trying to find a bus route,” crooned the virtual assistant. Julia felt a flush of fury at it. Why did it keep “helping” even after she had shut down her office displays?

“I can see why you’re the top of the line model,” Julia tossed back snidely. 

“Thank you,” said the assistant, unable to detect sarcasm. “What can I help you with today?” 

“I need the lost and found for bus number 238, Elmyra road,” Julia said weakly, fully expecting the assistant to mishear her, to justify her hatred of it. 

“Bus number 238 from Elmyra road does not have a lost and found,” the assistant told her. “At 8pm tonight, bus 238 goes to the Eastern Dispatch Hub and begins recycling duties.” 

“Recycling duties!” Julia was incredulous. She felt swift, embarrassing tears spring to her eyes. If it was one of those ever changing modular smart buses, it would be discharging its passenger carriage at the depot and attaching the waste pickup cabin. 

It was probably fully automated, which meant maybe no one would find Snazzy at all, even if Julia could make it to the depot in time.

“What time is it?” Julia asked the assistant, and then laughed at herself. Practically every screen in the house showed the time. 

“It’s 7:30 PM,” the assistant replied, and it also laughed, without knowing why. 

Julia sprung for a driverless taxi to take her and Olivia to the depot. By the time they were on their way, Olivia’s crying had given way to sniffles, but she looked tired, her cheeks ruddy and tracked with tears. 

Julia was tired too -- there was little hope of submitting a promising design to Castell before the morning. But she felt Olivia’s distress as if it was her own, temporarily pushing her professional crisis into a distant future to focus on the scarce hope that Snazzy might be found. 

“I don’t know if Snazzy will be there,” Julia said carefully, thinking it best to prepare Olivia’s expectations. “The buses are going to be changing into recycling vehicles, so Snazzy might get lost.” 

“They change?” Olivia unexpectedly sat up straighter. “Like Magic AR Robot?” 

“Yes, like a Magic AR Robot,” said Julia, unsure exactly of what the coveted toy did. 

“Are the buses alive?”


“Are the buses alive?” Olivia stared at her mother. 

“No, but they can change by themselves,” Julia explained, looking at the estimated arrival time on the car’s location display and willing it to improve. 

“The bus will take care of Snazzy,” Olivia said, reassured. Julia squeezed Olivia’s hand, allowing the statement to hang uninterrupted in the car.

It was already late when they arrived at the depot, incandescent as a small city. Julia’s heart sank when she saw buses, nestled side by side in neat rows like dominos, disassembling themselves already. Their sleek front carriages followed white markings in the depot lot, marching of their own volition to some other assignment. 

“The robots,” Olivia said, and waved at them. 

“These are city vehicles,” Julia said, her gaze frantically searching the vast, inscrutable depot for any sign of human life.  There was nothing but the lamp-like eyes of the marching carriages in the dark as the vehicles flowed through their automated conversions. “They aren’t robots. They can’t see you.” 

Olivia’s face fell, and Julia instantly and sharply regretted herself. “It’s just been one of those days, honey,” she added heavily. “I don’t know if Snazzy -- “ 

“Hey,” a voice rang out from across the depot. Julia squinted into the bright lights to make out a tall figure jogging toward them. Now, she thought, we’ll be told we aren’t supposed to be here. But the spring in the figure’s step was unexpectedly merry, and Julia soon saw the person waving. 

As the person drew nearer, Julia saw it was a woman with close-cropped hair and a yellow sanitation jumpsuit on, and the woman was flushed and smiling. In the dark of the depot, neither Julia or Olivia could see that the woman was carrying something. 

“Snazzy!” shouted Olivia, pointing. 

“I take it this is yours,” the employee said, handing Snazzy to Olivia with a grin. 

“How?” Julia gaped, so flooded with surprise and relief she felt her hands shaking and her eyes welling, as if the return of Snazzy had somehow righted the universe. 

“I’m one of the automation supervisors here,” said the woman, whose name patch read ELIN. “The vehicles will signal if they get to the depot with anything still in the passenger cabin.” 

“I thought it was all automatic,” Julia said, dazed. 

“Someone has to go in the cabins and pick up abandoned valuables at the end of the day,” Elin laughed. “I’d like to see that go all automatic!” 

“The bus knew it had Snazzy,” Olivia said triumphantly.

“You’re Julia, right?” Elin said too Julia. “Your virtual assistant called and said you were on your way in a car, coming to look for a tapir. I gotta say, I’ve never saved a tapir before.” 

“You really saved our whole day,” said Julia. The joy in Olivia’s face made it suddenly impossible to care about Junimo Productions. 

“Thank you,” said Olivia dutifully. “And thank the robot.” 

“Hang on a sec,” said Elin, nodding in the direction of the silent, sleeping machines. “You’ll see something cool.” 

"Julia thought it looked almost beau­ti­ful, like a sort of ballet, in a way she hadn’t thought machines could look. "


One by one, elegant rows of light gleamed on as the machines began gracefully to change, their sections gliding neatly apart. Julia thought it looked almost beautiful, like a sort of ballet, in a way she hadn’t thought machines could look. 

“You were right, Mom,” Olivia breathed. “They do change!” 

“You should always listen to your Mom,” Elin grinned.

In the car home, Julia began to draw again. 

“It’s a robot?” Olivia peered over the tablet with interest. 

“I guess it is,” Julia said calmly. “These are the headlights, and this bit in the front gives it a face.” 

“Like you made in Atmo 2?” 

“Yes, a little,” Julia said. “It’s a robot that can change. See?” She pressed the rudimentary animation node she had encoded into the transforming robot’s front wheels, playing a few simple frames that turned them into brave, strong machine arms. 

“Mom, you draw the best,” Olivia said. For a moment Julia felt anxious at the best, and felt the urge to reach for her tablet to see what Clarice had submitted to the server, in case it was better. 

“Would you watch a movie where this robot was the hero?” Julia asked her daughter. 

“Yup,” Olivia said emphatically. 

Julia sighed, as if releasing a knot that had been tied in her belly, and her stylus began to move more swiftly and confidently across the screen. The silent car purred along its designated road, and Julia saw city lights sparkling along the river. 

“You want to stay up late and watch Atmo 2 while I work tonight?” Julia suggested.

“No, it’s a baby movie,” said Olivia. 

But then she patted her mother’s knee reassuringly. “Snazzy wants to watch it, though.” 

“Thank you, Snazzy,” Julia said.

“I think I’m getting a Magic AR Robot soon,” Olivia said.

About the author

Leigh Alexander is a future-thinking American author, Guardian writer and tech journalist with a gaming background.

About the illustrator

James Dawe is a London-based artist and commercial illustrator, whose photo-collages and digital manipulation result in dramatic and distorted imagery.

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