Short Story: Death of the Nannybots


The eggs are perfect, as usual, and the rest of breakfast just as good. For some reason Little Drue seems fascinated with the preparation, watching the housebot as it prepares the meal and serves it. She even asks questions. What an unusual child.
I don’t know why Drue attached to me. Perhaps because I am her biological parent, but that is such an antiquated idea. I know no other child that chooses to live with a parent. They all seem satisfied with their nannybots, which is the way it must be intended. Truth be told, I don’t know much about what is intended and never really thought about it before Little Drue showed up. She has awakened curiosity in me. Recently I have asked some questions, too. 
There really is no reason to ask. Why should we? Our symbiobots supply our minds with anything we desire, anticipating as our interests flow and change. We don’t have to think about anything except appreciating what is supplied. The same for our physical needs. Many people choose to be fed through tubes, choosing to avoid the trouble of chewing. Liquid diets are becoming the norm. I must admit, the artificial flavors are enticing. Little Drue prevented my own choice of becoming creche-bound. I decided to adventure by allowing a personal contact, and as time progressed, I am glad I did. We have an unusual life for the times, but it is somehow richer.
“I want to learn to swim today.”
Surprised, I look down to see Drue looking up at me. She no longer clutches my pant leg, now that she is eight. I miss that, but my symbiobot has provided a tutorial on age-specific behaviors, so I understand.
“I’m sorry, Little, but what is swim?”
I am already accessing my bot and receiving information. My immediate impulse is horror. I mean, to enter water until your head submerges and there is no air to breathe? But after the dire warnings and the images of drowning victims, the bot finally gets to less stressful images.  Some look like the people were having fun. I am terrified.
“Please, oh puleeze. There’s a special bot built just for teaching me, and a, um, that thing…” Drue’s eyes light up, “a pool. That’s what they call it, a swim-ing pool… real close.”
I think about the first time Little Drue made an unusual request. The ancient bike had to be found and reconditioned, a builderbot making new tires to replace the rotten ones. And the instructobot had made what seemed a life-threatening mistake into an enjoyable success. The infobot had made it seem that injuries were almost certain and that a lot of time and tears would be involved, but the long dormant instructobot knew some tricks, and Drue was riding within twenty minutes. She still uses the little bike, although we are looking for a larger one. I had promised her I would learn to ride if a large bike could be found, but to my relief, in two years nothing has turned up. I thank the recyclebots silently every time I think about it.
“I suppose we could look at the… pool.” I hoped it would be unusable from disuse or the instructobot obsolete and recycled. “We can decide after we see it. Just don’t get your hopes up.”
Drue smiles at me. That unnerving smile that seems to suggest she knows something I don’t.
The hulking bot shadowing Little Drue seems to be having a difficult time keeping up. Its massive treaded feet plod thickly along, always a fraction of a stride behind my precious Little.
I have come to realize that small children always have an impenetrable reason for everything they want, and Drue convinced me that she could walk the half mile to the pool. She said it would be fun, and tried to convince me that I should walk, too, but I saw no reason to be that extreme. My Segchair follows behind so I can study Drue in the outdoor environment.
The spires of habitat towers rise to touch the sky. Each houses fifty thousand people in individual identical spaces. A good half are creche-bound, and recently the info-news announced that the bound would be allotted less space as they never leave their capsule. The politicobots made the decision based on best use of resources. No one objects, least of all the bound, so new towers will house triple the numbers of people.
I see a window and wonder at it. Drue had insisted on a window. I rather enjoy it, so now we have two. Some other person in that tower we are passing must have a reason for one.
Somewhere beyond the slender habitats, there are factory farms, no humans in residence. The bots supply everything efficiently with no interference.
Little Drue is swinging her arms and spinning around occasionally. By now I know it is normal behavior for a child at play. The arms swinging seems to go along with something called “skipping.” Somehow Drue finds things to investigate as she progresses through the sterile jungle of empty corridors between buildings.
Surging ahead suddenly, Drue screams in excitement.
“Here it is. Here it is. See the sign? I almost missed it. It’s so faded that I can barely read it.”
The bot stops as though to look. I know it doesn’t need to, and it would have directed Drue back if she had passed the entrance.
Although the entrance is weed free and in good repair, there is an air of neglect in the facade. Perhaps it is the light layer of undisturbed dust leading to the door. Now that I notice, I realize our entire journey has been through such a layer of accumulated dust, unmarked by any travel. I will have to complain to the proper bot-authority.
Soon, Little Drue is running around a large room with a giant hole in the center. She screams to hear her echoes as they reverberate from the hard walls. I find it disturbing, as her voice amplifies. I would leave immediately, but Drue found the line of instructobots. She marches up and down the line, her hands clasped behind her like a character in an old military vid as they inspect their troops.
Coming to a decision, Drue announces, “I want this one. It looks like a real person.”
The bot did, indeed, look human. Somehow it had escaped the recycler, I suppose because I hadn’t seen one of this model for decades. There had been no reason to disguise bots to appear human for years. But another thought occurred, too, that someone learning to swim might prefer a comforting human-like bot instead of one of the mechanical types. After all, learning to swim would probably be stressful.
“I like that one, too,” I said, agreeing as I admired the form and countenance of the synthetic. The workmanship was impressive, with the device appearing to be a thirtyish woman, red-haired and slightly voluptuous, in some kind of green, two-piece clothing. The clothing seemed quite scant.
I reach out and chuck the synthetic under the chin, and it wakes up immediately.
“Hello,” her voice seems at once husky and soothing, “You may call me Solyndra if you like, and please tell me your own names.”
Drue giggles. She isn’t used to conversing with mechanicals that appear so human. My Little introduces herself, omitting the Little, and then introduces me.
“It is my pleasure to meet you, Drue,” the bot focuses her eyes on me, “and also you, Pac. Please, tell me what I can do for you.”
Somehow both Drue and I easily forget that we are conversing with a bot. The effect of the synthetic captivates us and within a few sentences, we feel that we are in the presence of a real person.
Solyndra laughs and questions and makes suggestions and provides explanations. She explains that the hole in the room will fill with water as we speak, and immediately water bubbles from the bottom. With skill and compassion, the bot reinforces Drue’s confidence and allays her fears about learning to swim, and I am caught up as well. I decide to challenge myself and try to enter the water, too.
“All we need is proper swimming attire,” states Solyndra, “and then after we get in the shallow end of the pool, I will demonstrate how wonderful swimming can be.”
A room adjacent the echoing chamber takes our measurements and produces a bright pink, skin tight bathing suit for Drue, complete with a ruffle around her hips. My swimming clothes are more staid, a dark blue baggy set of “swim trunks” that made my legs look very pale and skinny.
The lesson went well, and I consider the past hours as Little Drue and I ride a carbot toward home. Both of us had enjoyed the experience and now know how to stay afloat and dog paddle. Solyndra promised us that with very few lessons we would be able to do more, becoming competent swimmers who could cross the entire pool and even dive below the surface to touch the bottom. I had my doubts, especially about myself, but could see Drue would learn quickly. She seemed naturally comfortable in the water now that she had her first experience behind her. We joke and laugh on the way home, relating to each other our fears and how silly we had been.
I sleep a dreamless sleep, exhausted from the unusual activity, but anticipating the morrow.
Strange, the housebot hasn’t opened the window covering to let in the morning light. Even the muscle ache awakening me hasn’t kept me from noticing. The bright beyond the drape seems to force its way in regardless, and I wonder what the hell is going on.
I hear Little in the common room, banging on something.
I notice my symbiobot, implanted behind my ear, remains dead. I have no way to access the time or the morning news or order my breakfast. Again, what the hell?
My feet slip into my slippers as they touch the floor. At least something seems normal. But I am going to have to get the bot to prescribe a pain killer for my muscles. The swimming had been more strenuous than I had thought.
The door opens, and Drue peers in.
“I can’t get the cereal cupboard open,” she whispers as though afraid to raise her voice, “and the bot won’t wake up. It just sits there like it’s turned off.”
A power outage, and the tower must have run out of backup. The bot probably sat down to charge and ran out of battery. But they are supposed to be good for several days, so something isn’t adding up. I try my symbiobot continuously, feeling the loss, again with no luck.
“I’m hungry, Pac,” complains Little, “and I can’t get the cupboard doors open.”
I get up. “Okay, okay. There has to be a way to open them.”
Entering the common room, I notice the housebot sitting in its alcove, motionless. The cupboard resists as I pry at it with my fingers.
“I don’t know, Little… it doesn’t want to open.”
We sit starring at each other. What else can we do? The bot isn’t going to help.
Finally, Drue brightens. “I know.”
She runs to her toy chest and roots around. Proudly she holds up a long skinny object. She shoves the thing toward me with a look of expectation on her face.
“Here… it’s a tool that the bot used. He was gonna throw it in the recycler. Can you use it?”
I look at it doubtfully, not having any idea how to use a tool. Tools are for bots.
Drue isn’t going to let me off easy, though.
“Look, just stick the end into the crack,” she demonstrated, “and push hard on the other end.”
The cereal is okay, but I’m not used to it because the bot always cooks something for me. After I force the door on the cooler, the milk helps. Nothing helps my skinned knuckles, though, and I am hoping the power will come back up so I can get a pain killer.
Bored, we decide to go outside. Thankfully, the door is unlocked. I figure it is a safety procedure when the power goes off. I’d always thought locked doors were odd anyway, as there was no reason to lock them. I remember researching it and discovering that locks were a holdover from the wild days when people would take things because there were shortages and sometimes people would even attack other people without locked doors.
I have never used the door to the stairs, and it takes some effort to understand how to use them. I am very happy to be close to the bottom of our tower. I might have given up if we had been further up.
There are a couple of people walking around outside, and one is watching from a doorway. Very odd. We hadn’t seen anyone yesterday and hadn’t expected to, and now there are three people besides us in the corridor.
Running up to the closest, a man in morning slippers just as I have, Little Drue startles him.
“I’m hungry,” he says quietly. “What should I do?”
“I can show you,” Drue offers, “if you want to come with us.”
“I haven’t been outside before.” The man looks lost but follows Drue back as she returns to me.
I don’t know if it is a good idea to invite this guy to hang around, but as he looks about without any apparent focus, it seems he is probably harmless.
The girl in the building entrance cringes away as Drue approaches her. Her eyes get very wide, and she runs back inside and disappears, panicked.
We wander toward the woman some distance from us. She is in the direction of the swimming pool, and it has occurred to me that I might check there to see if the building has power.
By the time we get to the woman, she is finishing a good cry. Her eyes are red and puffy, and she wipes her nose with her sleeve.
“My bot is dead,” she moans, “and my symbiobot, too. I don’t know what time it is, and I’m missing my shows.”
I stay silent as Drue invites her to accompany us. I’m not sure about anything, so why not?
“Oh, I can’t leave,” the woman seems horrified. “I might get lost. How would I know where to go or how to get back? No, no, I’ll just stay here.”
The man following us looks uncomfortable. The thought of getting lost seems to awaken him to the possibility. Without a word, he withers and begins to shuffle away in the direction we had come.
I look up and suddenly realize that there are fifty thousand people in each of these buildings, and I am surrounded by buildings. There are all these people waiting for the power to come on, for their bots to wake up, and they have no idea what to do.
The building with the pool looms ahead, and we hurry in to see if it has power. We are disappointed. The Solyndra bot slumps in her charging alcove, just like all of the other synthetics, her charm completely absent in what had been a vivacious and thoroughly engaging creature. There is nothing left.
I have become much less round and have learned to run and carry and break. None of us would have survived without Little Drue. Somehow, she had paid attention to the housebot enough to learn several things. Cooking for one. She also had paid attention to what was being cooked. Fortunately, the group had an old woman in the early years, someone who understood seeds and plants. We all learn from each other now.
I had no idea that big creatures existed on the farms. The bots had used them for making milk and protein. They were starving when we found them, but after we released them from their enclosures, they did better than we did. We learn from watching them and thank them every time we kill to eat.
We had gathered those people we could. Those that would leave the towers. Many would not, and they starved. Many of us died that first winter when we experienced a natural winter. The great engines that controlled the weather had died along with everything else. Sometimes accidents happen, and sometimes people just seem to die for no reason. The numbers of our group seem to be stabilizing, some years losing more than are born and sometimes our numbers growing.
My daughter, Little Drue, has two of her own children now. And my two surviving wives have gifted me with three who have made it to the age of acceptance. The children learn faster than those of us raised by bots. Sometimes I wonder about that. There must be a reason.
The bots still sit in the towers. They have never awakened. While some would have them come to life and return us to our days of ease, I have come to believe we are better suited to the effort it takes in a natural world.
Yesterday someone came up with the idea that we could use written symbols like the old symbiobots did to communicate ideas and even learning. With practice, we should be able to draw them. I like the idea. We can pass on our great discoveries to our children’s children… and beyond.

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