“Can you raise your left arm for me please?”
RATTLER lifted its arm. All the while maintaining the slight smile and comforting look it always wore. Who ever had initially install this unit was pretty good at their job. Alice had even caught herself relaxing when it was around. Not that there was anything wrong with that, but keeping herself distanced from her work was something the company went over in the initial job briefing.
Alice was an engineer for Smile, the industries foremost competitor in virtual intelligence. Something she was proud to point out to her parents when she had gotten this job right out of college. Virtual Intelligence had been the focus of her educational career, and when she was accepted by Smile to actually work on the technology that made it possible, she had almost been too shocked to answer the man who called to tell her.
“Thank you, now the other please.”
Alice scanned the screen looking for anything out of place in the diagnostics. The memory buffer looked more full than normal, but still within the normal range. She resigned to put it into her report and let administration decide if they wanted to look into it. She certainly didn’t have the tools here to optimize the entire system.
Alice turned away from the monitor to face RATTLER, “That’s all for today. You can go back to the front.”
RATTLER smiled and said, “Of course Alice! Thank you for taking care of me!”
Alice nodded as the unit turned and walked away, her heels clicking on the metal floor. It had been a year since being sent out here to “maintain” this location, but in all that time not one thing had really required her attention. Most of the time she kept healthy in the gym attached to her upstairs apartment, then worked it off sitting in front of her computer. She would go out, but she didn’t know anyone in town. Going out also required there to be places to go. Calling it a town was being generous enough anyway.
It wasn’t that she disliked where she was in life, Smile payed her very well seeing as she only sent them a weekly report and checked in with her regional supervisor once a month. It was just… boring. She had hoped that her job would let her get hands on with the technology that she felt was going to power the future. The longer she worked here though, the more she felt like just a technician instead of an engineer.
Which was the other thing. It had seemed strange at first, but Alice had grown less anxious about the idea since starting. The facility she had been hired to maintain was a day care. One that was fully automated with zero human presence at all. The location had apparently just been finished, and an on site engineer was the last thing needed to get it running. Even so, Alice had doubted that many parents would go for dropping their 1-4 year olds off with only a computer to look after them, but the turn out was surprising.
She wasn’t allowed into any of the common areas unless she needed to fix something, but based on what she had seen of the diagnostics, it wasn’t uncommon to have more than 20 kids at a time downstairs. Fortunately, the building was state of the art, and she never heard the circus that must go on down there during the day. It did still leave her to wonder where they all came from though.
Alice finished typing up her report and sent it and the data on to her supervisor. A few minutes later she received her confirmation, and after wrapping up a few small tasks, her day was done. Glancing at the clock it showed just after 3pm… with weeks until her next check in.
She stood and stretched, groaning. She didn’t have to come to her “cube” every day. It being the perfectly cubic box that she did most of her work in. It would be simple to automate the daily diagnostics and send them to her work phone to then send on up the chain, but she liked the routine of it. RATTLER certainly wouldn’t care, seeing as she lacked the capacity to anyway. In the beginning she had tried to engage it in conversation. Alice had been starry-eyed at the prospect of having a virtual intelligence as her responsibility, but the responses she got from it had always felt a little off.
Her demeanor was inviting. The patented sky blue sun dress and comforting aura did wonders on parents, and it had been difficult for Alice to believe she wasn’t actually a real person… at first. It was the small things. Missing a hint here and there, the perfect way it talked, and the constant slightly condescending tone. She knew it came from a good place, but she wasn’t one of the kids. It had never taken to her request that it use her last name instead of just “Alice”.
Alice walked out of her workspace into the dark metal hallway that connected all the various parts of the facility to each other. At first it had seemed like a labyrinth. The dim featureless walls didn’t help. It was expensive to build, but she sometimes wished that the engineers designing the place could have spared some of the budget for the service corridors. Fortunately, she could just call RATTLER to lead her to where ever she needed to go if she ever did actually get lost. Alice tried not to though. When she did RATTLER would inevitable make a comment about her being a lost little kid. Something she hadn’t cared much about at first, but after the 5th or 6th time she had started to feel self conscious about the impression she was making on the unit. Which was ridiculous anyway. It was a machine. It couldn’t get an impression of someone.
She had made and effort to memorize the route from her apartment to her cube. A short walk anyway, and a few minutes later Alice scanned her card and entered her home.
In stark contrast to the dimly lit service tunnel, her home was bright and sunny courtesy of the floor to ceiling windows that ran along the entire length of the opposite wall. One way of course. Alice didn’t want people seeing into her living room. Smile probably didn’t either.
“Welcome home Ms. Fushigi. You’re early. Would you like me to prepare your exercise routine?”
A twang of guilt and the smooth voice of Felix, the name of her Smile+ home package, greeted her as she opened the door.
“…no, just make me a coffee,” she said.
As she expected, it responded, “I must inform you, due to your previous request, you have already skipped your daily exercise routine 1 days in a row, and it is after 2pm. It is not-”
“Yes Ms. Fushigi?”
“Just make me a coffee.”
“Of course Ms. Fushigi.”
“Are you feeling okay Alice?”
Alice focused on RATTLER through her holographic monitor. It sat on the other side of her desk with a thick cable attached to the base of its neck. Despite its higher than normal memory usage, it seemed perfectly fine. Better than fine. It seemed genuinely concerned for her, or maybe it was just learning to read her better.
Alice went back to her monitor, “I’m fine.”
RATTLER frowned, “You look pale. Did you sleep well last night?”
Alice vaguely noted that RATTLER’s scrutiny seem to intensify the longer it sat there. Eventually it asked, “Would you like a snack? Or some juice?”
A pang of hunger shot through her when she thought of her coffee, the only breakfast she’d had that morning. She said, “Unless it’s bean juice, I don’t want it.”
RATTLER smiled and said in a playful tone, “The only juice made from beans is coffee silly! And that’s only for adults!”
“I am an adult.”
Through the scrolling text on her screen she could see RATTLER straighten in its chair. The line of questioning was a little strange, but her supervisor had warned her that after about a year the units started to develop something like a personalty for themselves. She’d note it in her weekly report.
RATTLER continued, “I’m sure you could make some friends if you left your home more.”
Alice swiped the screen over to the side and stared at the unit for a moment, “What?”
RATTLER shifted from one side of its seat to the other, probably the closest to uncomfortable she had ever seen the unit.
“Well,” RATTLER said, “I can’t see back here or into your apartment without actually being there.” It motioned to itself, “But I can see out the front door into the lot, and it’s been 37 days since you’ve driven anywhere.”
Alice thought about it, but was forced to agree with RATTLER. She could only vaguely remember the last time she’d left the facility. It had been to go to the store to get a few things. She couldn’t even remember what they were. Her Smile+ home package came with three years of home delivery. All she ever had to do was ask Felix to buy something and it was shipped straight to her.
“My habits,” she said pointing at the unit, “Aren’t your concern. Why are you even tracking that? You’re not a personal unit.”
RATTLER shrugged, “My job is to care for all the little ones in this building. You used to talk with me so much.” A hint of sadness crept into its voice, “About seven months ago you stopped talking to me about anything other than my daily checkups. I started to get concerned.”
Alice was impressed. The unit was programmed to emulate human interaction as closely as possible while still performing its function. Smile’s stance on child learning and development was that there was no drop off with a VI verses a real human caretaker. So far, Alice was sold on that.
And she knew it was just a machine, but Alice still couldn’t help feeling a little guilty.
“I’m not one of your ‘little ones’ for starters,” she pulled the screen back in front of her, “And I need to finish your diagnostic.”
She could still see the unit studying her through the screen, but it stayed quiet for a minute before speaking.
“You are grumpier than normal this morning,” RATTLER said, “Alice, do you need to go-”
“Please be quiet during the rest of the diagnostic. Talking could ruin the data.”
RATTLER nodded and smiled, but even for a VI, it looked forced.
They sat in silence for another few minutes before, finally, the diagnostics finished. Alice scrubbed through the data to confirm her suspicions. The memory buffer was even more full today than yesterday. Only by a small margin though, and it was still within the acceptable range. If it continued like this though…
Alice did some quick math. Based on the increase from yesterday to today, she’d have nine days until she would be forced to shut down the system. Plenty of time with the weekend only being a few days away.
She glanced up from her thinking to look across at the unit. RATTLER had risen from her chair with an expectant look.
It continued, “The children are starting to arrive in the parking lot. Could you please?” It pointed to the cable protruding from behind its head.
Alice nodded and disconnected the unit from the diagnostic. While removing the cable, she asked, “Have you had any drop in functionality over the last few days?”
“Not from my programming,” the unit responded with a smile.
Alice paused, “What do you mean?”
RATTLER waved her hand dismissively, “You know how it is. Difficult kids come and go all the time.” The unit shrugged and gave her a warm look, “I try to help everyone I can, even the grumpy ones.”
Alice was already back in front of her monitor. Smile didn’t pay her to worry about the kids. That was RATTLERS job. Nodding to the unit, she said, “That’s all for today.”
"Of course Alice- and, sweetie?”
Alice looked up.
RATTLER continued, “If you ever want a break, I could bring you some coloring books for you to draw in?”
Alice blinked a few times before responding, “Just go back to the front please.”
RATTLER nodded and smiled, “Of course, thank you for taking care of me!”
Alice listened to the unit walk away wondering just how much she should put in her report.
This is my first abdl story. I hope you enjoy! All comments are welcome.