Smile

PART 1

“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-”

“Felix.”

“Yes Ms. Fushigi?”

“Just make me a coffee.”

“Of course Ms. Fushigi.”


“Ugh.”

“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?”

“No.”

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.

“Alice?”

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.


AUTHORS NOTE

This is my first abdl story. I hope you enjoy! All comments are welcome.

2 Likes

Very interesting. I enjoy the artificial caretaker trope a lot, as well as the contrived setup trope, so this seems right up my alley. I find it interesting that you refer to the machine as a “Virtual Intelligence”. Even as a scifi fan, I had never heard that term before. That left me slightly confused, though, because you mentioned it had a cable sticking out of it’s neck at one point. I was unsure if that was supposed to be a cosmetic attribute of the machine’s virtual avatar representing diagnostics, or a physical diagnostic cable attached to a physical “body”.

Now for some extreme pedantry, be warned:

I also noticed an off-sounding phrase " Smile’s stance on child learning and development was that there was no drop off with a VI verses a real human caretaker." I think I understand the gist, but I’m not sure “drop off” is appropriate here. Perhaps “practical difference” or something would be better.

(End pedantic section)

In any case, this is a fun start to an intriguing story. I would like to see how this pans out.

RATTLER has a physical body. I didn’t know that the term Virtual Intelligence had been defined either. In the story it’s a label for the units that Smile makes.

No problem at all about the pedantry! I used the term “drop off” because it’s more of a visual description.

That’s a nice story start, well written, a fun scenario and a patient but ominous introduction and context.

While I have suspicions on potential story arcs I’m happy to wait and see where you as the author decide to take it. Lots of options!

PART 2

Friday afternoon had come and gone, and Alice sat in her cube, frustrated.

Over the past few days the memory buffers for RATTLER had slowly continued to fill with seemingly junk data, and despite scrubbing through days of diagnostics she simply couldn’t determine the cause. To make matters worse, the increase had been faster than she’d originally anticipated, meaning she’d be forced to shut down the system by the end of the weekend. Definitely not something she wanted to resort to.

It had felt like she was an after thought for most of her employment with Smile. If she was being honest, Alice had initially been happy that something was finally warranting her being here. After a week of mind numbing failure though, she just wanted a nap.

But she was an engineer. School alone had been much more difficult than this. Though she couldn’t specifically remember anything more insufferable at the moment.

Alice sighed, “But I’ll always have you coffee.” She took a sip from her cup… and found it empty.

Feeling betrayed, she stood and stretched. All week she’d been avoiding this, but it couldn’t be put off any longer.

Grabbing her key card, Alice left her cube and headed for the nearest service ladder down. She’d have to go to the core… at the bottom of the facility.

VI’s didn’t need to sleep. Technically, they could run for years before their internal power supply needed to be recharged. The real problem was their memory.

Initial attempts to create a machine that could simulate human interaction had failed miserably due to the simple fact that it took a lot to process all the various inputs that a computer was assaulted with just to interact with real people. Sight, smell, sound, touch, taste for some specific models, all required massive amounts of storage and processing power to even imitate, much less replicate, the human condition.

Because of this, most VI’s had a core station close by where they can dump their memory buffers and have the core defragment the data. Then it’s compressed into a more manageable form that the VI can recall later.

Essentially, they sleep.

Only a few hours every few days was needed. Unfortunately, due to the sensitive nature of the data, it was always on its own network complete with power supply and triple redundant security system. This one was also at the bottom of a labyrinth of floors and tunnels housing all the supplies and auxiliary systems Smile had deemed necessary. Felix was down here somewhere as well. At least, that’s what she’d been told. She’d never found his base station.

Alice had a map, but she was horrible at reading it. Visitors definitely weren’t encouraged. The map designed reflected that. She’d come down a few floors now, and, squinting at her phone, she should see the next ladder down right around the corner.

She turned and looked down the tunnel. Dimly lit metal and cables greeted her.

Alice turned her phones flashlight on and examined the floor, but uniformly smooth metal ran down to the end where the tunnel seemed to split left and right.

Frowning, she opened her map again. This tunnel should be a dead end with a ladder going down. Alice swiped around looking for something familiar to orient herself with, but only succeeded in losing track of where she thought she had been.

She huffed, “Fine, I’ll just go back up and try again.”

Alice tried her best to retrace her steps, but eventually found herself in front of another ladder down. Shrugging, she slipped down the ladder. Once at the bottom, she looked around and found herself at one end of a long hall of doors. Closer inspection showed that they were matter encryption storage. Rooms holding the various elements used to fabricate… whatever RATTLER needed upstairs.

Consulting her map, it showed that encrypted matter storage was mostly on floor B3.5, but there was also some on B4 and B2. Alice was pretty sure she wasn’t on B2, but the storage areas for B3.5 and B4 were on opposite sides of the facility…

Now even more confused, Alice closed her phone. She was lost. Fortunate, she’d planned ahead. Having gotten lost more than a handful of times already, she had sketched some directions and taped them to the back of the service panels in the walls. Definitely easier to read than the map she’d been given.

Crossing to opposite wall, she gripped the heavy metal handle, and with a twist and pull, removed it. Grunting, she lowered it to the floor.

Standing up she looked into the wall and found… nothing. Just the standard control panel for this junction.

She felt around, shining her flashlight around the dark corners. Maybe it had fallen off? But there wasn’t even a scrap of paper to be found. Searching around the floor she confirmed it hadn’t fallen out when she’d removed the panel.

Giving the tunnel one last look she reattached the panel to the wall, and resolved to find another service panel. She must have never gotten to this one.


Alice sat, exhausted, cursing herself for skipping her workout routines. The ninth panel she’d removed leaned against the opposite wall, revealing a perfectly normal, paperless, junction box.

Her muscles burned as she got back to her feet. She didn’t want to, but it was getting late. All the kids should have left by now. Alice didn’t have an excuse not to.

She opened her phone and selected RATTLERS contact. A moment passed, then the VI’s hologram visualized itself from her phone.

Its usually upbeat self greeted her, “Hello Alice,” Its smile slipped a little before it continued, “You look tired.”

“Yeah, thanks, listen,” Alice paused, “I’m somewhere on B4… I think. Can you come lead me to the core?”

Its smile slipped away completely now, replaced by a look of concern, “Oh my gosh sweetie, I’m on my way. Do you need me to stay on the line with you, or will you be okay by yourself?”

Alice was already shaking her head, “I’m fine. Just come lead me to the core.”

RATTLER nodded and said, “Of course, just stay there and I’ll come get you as soon as I can. Call me if you get scared-”

Alice hung up. She should have just figured it out herself. Sure it might have taken a few extra hours, but at least she wouldn’t have had to deal with RATTLER. Hopefully, once this memory issue was fixed, it’ll go back to normal. In the mean time… Alice sat back down on the floor.

A few minutes passed. Then Alice started to hear the clicking of heels on metal. After another minute she looked over and saw RATTLER come around the corner.

“Alice, sweetie,” it said as it approached, “Are you okay?”

“I’m fin- WHOA!”

Alice started to get up, then felt herself be lifted off the ground and gentle placed on her feet. RATTLER dusted her off and straightened her clothes, even wiping a smudge of grease off her face with its thumb. All the while maintaining a loose but secure grip on her arm.

“Sweetie, you cannot push yourself this hard without getting hurt,” RATTLER continued, “I know you say you are a big girl, and you technically are not my responsibility. However, if you were to be hurt while trying to care for me, I do not know if I could continue to function.”

Alice was too stunned and exhausted to resist. So much so that she didn’t realize what was happening at first when RATTLER spun her around. It wasn’t until she felt the VI’s fingers at the back of her waistband that she pulled away.

“Hey hey HEY,” Alice twisted away from the unit and yanked herself out of its grip.

RATTLER seemed genuinely surprise, “Alice-”

“No!” Alice stamped her foot on the hard metal floor, “This is where I work! I am not one of your kids, and I will not be treated like one! You are a machine designed to take care of the day care upstairs! Where are we right now?!”

RATTLER paused for a moment then said, “B4.5 hall 32C.”

“And who is in charge of maintaining the equipment on this floor?!”

The unit composed itself, “You are,” it said.

“Right,” Alice lowered her voice. She really shouldn’t be shouting at it. For all she knew, the units strange new behavior towards her was just a product of the increased memory usage.

“Listen,” she continued, “Something is wrong with you, and I’m very close to just flashing your unit. Smile will probable just do it anyway, but it’s annoying and takes a long time.” Alice shook her head, “Just take me to the core.”

RATTLER nodded and half turned before motioning to the metal panel leaning against the wall, “Would you like for me to replace that for you? It looks like you have done so multiple times already.”

“What- oh,” Alice shrugged, “Sure.” It was heavy anyway.

The VI gripped the panel with one hand and lifted it to examine the inside before securing it to the wall again.

“What was that?” Alice asked.

RATTLER smiled and said, “Well I know you like to leave your drawings in there. I saw you attaching one a few weeks ago on the way to my core, and I wanted to put them somewhere I could see them better- I can put them back,” she quickly added seeing the look on Alice’s face, “if you want me to. I just liked them so much it seemed a shame to leave them where no one would see them.”

Alice just stared at the unit for a moment before motioning for it to start walking. It nodded again and started back the way it came.


She’d made it to the core. Unfortunately, Alice still wasn’t able to pin down the issue.

At first she had thought the core just wasn’t working right by not actually compressing RATTLER’s memories when she “slept”. Short periods of compression had ruled that out. The moment the VI came back out of her dock the memory buffers shot back up to where they had been.

It was starting to look like flashing the unit would be her only option. In which case, she would need her supervisors approval.

Despite how angry she’d been earlier, she did feel a bit sad that it had come to this. Flashing the unit meant wiping everything and reinstalling her programming. Essentially, she’d be installing a whole new VI. Admittedly, something she would normally jump at the chance to do but…

She looked around the core master control. In contrast to her cube, it was a relatively large room with multiple workstations at various points throughout. Normally, the only breaks in the uniformly gray metal walls would be cables, but the sketches she’d made to guide her down here were currently taped over most of the walls. She could barely make out a pattern where sketches of parts of the facility that connected to each other had been placed in clusters, but other than that it all looked unremarkable to her.

Alice sighed. It was getting late, and she wanted to catch her supervisor before she was asleep for the night. Opening a secure terminal, she attempted to connect to the emergency network messaging system.

After a moment the terminal stopped connecting and spat out an error message. Frowning, she tried again. Maybe she’d mistyped.

Again the error message.

Alice groaned. Could nothing work right today?

Trying it again for the third time, she got the same error message. She closed the terminal and started to run a diagnostic on her drivers when she noticed an error in her system dashboard. Hoping it would point her in the right direction, she opened it.

NO NETWORK FOUND

Alice stared at the screen for a full five seconds. Surely that wasn’t correct. In all her life, even in all her parents life, no one had had connection issues. Not since the advent of the HoloNET.

She opened another terminal and pinged the HoloNET, but after a minute of it failing to connect she canceled the command. Thinking for a moment, she queried the system for the hardware used to connect online.

NO HARDWARE FOUND

Again, impossible, she’d reviewed the facilities systems when she’d started here. They where redundant 4… technically 5 times.

Alice signed out of the terminal and leaned over it gripping the sides of the workstation. RATTLER hadn’t been entirely wrong. She was pushing herself pretty hard. Definitely losing sleep and meals trying to fix whatever was happening here. If she could just get this right, maybe Smile would give her more responsibility. Maybe even a position that mattered more than some day care in the middle of no where.

But first, she had to fix the network. Her professors had always said when you find a problem too big to fix, the best place to start was at the beginning. In this case, the communications array on the roof… all the way at the top of the facility.

RATTLER had long since returned to the day care to clean up for the day. Alice pulled out her phone and selected the unit’s contact.


AUTHORS NOTE

Part 2 with a bit more interaction between Alice and RATTLER.

2 Likes

This is intriguing, looking forward to more!

1 Like

PART 3

Rain battered the repulsion shield on top of the facility. Fortunately, the shields were standard on all VI enabled Smile facilities. Kept people from getting where they weren’t suppose to go, and made equipment maintenance easier.

Alice listened to the muffled sounds of the thunderstorm with her head and most of her torso buried in one of the relays that dotted the rooftop. She’d been wary of RATTLER after the way it’d been acting, but the VI hadn’t done much other than greet her once back in the core. After leading her up to the main floor of the building, she’d gone back to the front to continue doing whatever she did when the day care was closed.

“Probably choosing which coloring book to give me,” Alice muttered.

She extracted herself from the relay. Despite several hours of work she still couldn’t figure out why the facility had decided to take itself offline. The HoloNET was everywhere. It had to be a hardware issue, but no matter how many systems she checked, she just couldn’t find any problems. It should work. It just… didn’t.

Alice pulled out her phone. Her supervisor had told her not to call after hours unless it was an emergency, and looking up at the inky blackness of the stormy sky, it was definitely past that time.

She sighed and hit her supervisors number. So much for fixing the issue by herself.

The holographic screen flashed white from a moment, then displayed an error message.

“Aaaargh!”

Alice yelling into the storm above her. Literally nothing could go right today.

She took a deep breath. Getting angry wouldn’t help at all. Alice looked back to her phone, but the error message didn’t mean anything to her. She punched up RATTLERS contact, but got the same error from before.

She stood there thinking. At this point it was officially weird. Unless you were buried underground somewhere, phones had signal. The fact that both her phone and the facility were cut off from the HoloNET made Alice a little nervous.

Alice glanced around the roof. The only two people here were Alice and… well, RATTLER wasn’t a person, but she looked like one. She’d been promised that the building was one of the most secure that Smile had built. The competition would be very quick to get their hands on even a piece of the formula for VIs though, and the way this was going, Alice was running out of scenarios that didn’t involve foul play.

Alice walked over to the housing for the main array. If she pulled out one of the network cards it should send a signal to someone that the system was damaged. They should send someone out to at least deliver the broken part.

She opened the panel for the array and reached in to find… nothing. No array. No equipment of any kind.

Alice stood looking at an empty junction. It didn’t even look like anything had been installed. The housing was just empty.

Except… it wasn’t. Alice shone her phone flashlight inside to see something on the floor. Reaching in, she picked up what appeared to be some kind of plushy. She’d never seen the style before, but RATTLER materialized stuff like this for the day care sometimes. It looked like a cartoon doll with a red dress and diaper peeking our from under the clothing.

Alice turned it over a few times before tossing it back in the junction and shut the door. Yet another system to fix. Though, if RATTLER’s matter manipulator was damaged, it could account for the missing array. She doubted she’d be able to fix that on her own.

Then there was the issue of her phone.

“Fine,” Alice said. She’d resolved to do what she should have done the moment the facility went offline: tell her supervisor. Without a phone, she’d have to drive in to where she was based, but, at this point, Alice welcomed the opportunity leave.

She made her way down to her cube. The only thing she needed was the black box. She could use it to show her supervisor what the issues were with RATTLER and the array, then it would be simple to come back out and flash the VI while a maintenance team installed the missing equipment.

The walk back to her cube was tense but uneventful. It’d be impressive if anyone could sneak in to the building and get by all the security, not to mention RATTLER. She still couldn’t help but feel a little-

“Alice?”

Alice jumped and spun around as she came into her cube, her arm going straight for the head of the person just inside the door. Fortunately, RATTLER caught her arm just before it made contact.

RATTLER frowned down at her, “Sw- Alice, you know hitting is rude.”

“Sorry,” Alice said, going to pull her arm away, but was stopped by the VI.

Alice was reminded of the height difference between the two. Even without her heels, the VI was a few inches taller, and right now she was looking down at her with an expectant face.

“And?” the VI continued.

“And…” Alice searched for what the VI wanted her to say, “I won’t do it again?”

RATTLER nodded and released her, “Thank you, hitting is wrong and-”

“I don’t have time for this,” Alice cut off the VI as she moved behind her desk. She scanned her ID on the wall panel containing the black box before continuing, “I’m leaving. The communications array is gone and my phone isn’t connecting to anyone.” She pulled the black box out of its slot with a satisfying thunk.

The moment the black box was free, the maintenance lights kicked in plunging Alice and RATTLER into a deep red color. Alice made her way back around her desk and started into the hallway.

RATTLER moved to walk with her, “I had come here to discuss that with you.” The unit continued, “I have been cut off from the HoloNET, and have been trying to reconnect for 42 minutes. There is another problem though.”

Alice stopped and turned to the VI, rolling her eyes. Of course there was. “What?” she asked.

RATTLER went on, “We still have residents in the day care.”

“That’s not allowed,” Alice said, “It’s a day care. Kids don’t stay here overnight.”

“Not normally,” it responded, “But if I am unable to contact a legal guardian, I am programmed to keep residents for 24 hours then contact the proper authorities.”

Alice started walking again, “Then do that.”

RATTLER kept up, “I cannot. I’ve been disconnected from the HoloNET.”

“Just-” they’d reached the service door that led to her car, “Just keep them here until I’m back. Do your thing, whatever it is, and I’m sure it’ll be fine.”

“I am sorry for this but I was not programmed for these scenarios,” the VI continued, “What should I do if the children return before you do?”

“I’ll be back before then, but, “Alice paused and thought about how to word this, “If, somehow, I’m not back by the time this place is open again just do what you’re programmed to do, and whatever you do, “she pointed to the unit, “do not let those kids go without a parent. Smile will have more than my job if anything happens to them.”

Alice pushed through the service door and straight into the pouring rain. She fast-walked to her car and jumped in as quickly as she could, but still ended up soaked in the process.

She took a moment to sit in the car before starting it. Wiping her wet hair out of her face, she entered the address for her supervisors office and hit start.

She watched as the car pulled around the side of the day care and started to pass in front of the big glass windows that dominated the front wall of the building showing her a view of the now dimly lit interior of the play area. These windows didn’t have the same treatment that hers did. Parents had complained at first that they couldn’t seen their kids as they rolled up to get them at the end of a day. One of her first jobs had been to program them to show the interior of the play area.

Alice glanced around in the interior and saw RATTLER briefly before her car started to pull away-

WAIT!

Alice hit the brakes and threw the car into reverse. Coming back to inspect the interior of the day care, whoever she had seen was gone now.

And it was a whoever. It had been too short for RATTLER, and too tall for one of the kids. She’d only seen it for a moment, but Alice was sure someone was in the day care.

Alice couldn’t leave now. Not with children still in there. If it was just RATTLER that would be fine. Unless they could somehow disable her unit Alice pitied anyone who tried to take on the VI.

She reluctantly got out of the car and ran to the front door. Fumbling in the rain, she was able to scan her key card and get through the door. The dark interior of the front room greeted her. Normally, a hologram would be there, but with the facility in maintenance mode the only thing she could hear was the rain pounding on the outside of the building.

Cautiously, she started towards the door into the rest of the day care. The shadowy figure had looked like a woman, but with the main lights off it had been hard to tell. Still, if she could get into here without RATTLER or herself noticing, she must be dangerous.

Alice slipped into the main area of the day care. Here the floor turned to carpet, and the walls were lined with cartoonish depictions of fields and castles with dragons and wizards smiling at her. Across the room was an obviously designated play area with toys packed into containers and rows of empty cubbies where she assumed the kids put their things during the day.

A few doors led out of the room, but none had any lights shinning through them. She started across the room to where she had seen the figure standing. If she could find RATTLER-

“Alice?”

For the second time that day, Alice jumped and spun around. This time RATTLER was well out of range of her though. It stood in one of the doorways leading deeper into the day care. The VI stepped into the room with the main lights slowly coming on.

Alice pointed across the room, “There was-”

“Alice!” RATTLER ignored her pointing and quickly walked up to her. Once close enough it pushed her wet hair back and surveyed her soaked clothes.

“Sweetie, you cannot run around with your clothes like this!” RATTLER looked back towards the front room, “And you are making a mess of the carpet tracking water in like this!”

“Forget about the water!” Alice said, “Their was a wo-”

“Young lady!” RATTLER said gripping her shoulder, “I have tried to be nice! It is plain to me though that you have been neglecting yourself this past week.” It caught Alice’s gaze before continuing, “Where are we right now?”

Alice stood, stunned, by the sudden outburst from the VI. After a moment she responded, “In the day care! I’m trying to tell you-”

“And who,” RATTLER said cutting her off again, “is in charge of this day care?”

She could feel herself deflate as she realized what the VI wanted. Maybe if she just played along she could find a way to get her point across.

“You are,” she said.

“That is right,” it said with a smile, “And one of my primary duties at this day care is to ensure that all of its residents are healthy and happy!”

It ended the line a bit more cheerfully than what Alice thought was warranted.

“Unfortunately,” the unit continued, “it looks like Ms. June was not able to say hello to you when you arrived, and your parents never signed any forms for you. Can you tell me your parent’s phone number?”

Alice stared at the VI mouth open for a few seconds before responding, “I’m not giving you my parents number.”

“That is okay sweetie!” RATTLER started to push her gently, but firmly, the rest of the way across the room, “I am sure Ms. Mira can sort you out.”

The rest of her complaints fell on deaf ears as RATTLER pushed her through a set of automatic sliding doors and into another room. This one was well lit, and well know to Alice. It was one of the most well know features of the day care dubbed “Ms. Mira”. The Miracle Division had designed and implemented it, hence the name.

A long raised section of floor stretched out in front of her with soft padding on either side. Holographic projectors lined the length of the room allowing the interior to take on the appearance of whatever was programmed. Currently, she seemed to be standing in an overly pink nursery room complete with plushies strewn across the floor.

A kind looking woman not much shorter than Alice came into view. The hologram walked forward and seemed to step out of the wall as it came up to her.

“Hello cutie,” it said punctuating the last bit with a smile, “What’s your name?”

Taken aback by everything Alice took a moment to respond, “A-Alice.”

The woman nodded, “Well, Lizzy, can you hop up onto this platform here for me?”

The hologram pointed toward the raised section of floor, and Alice walked closer. She’d read about the system, and was not very excited for what came next. Once up on the platform it started to move her slowly down the room.

“Please keep your hands and feet inside the ride at all times!” Ms. Mira said excitedly, “But don’t worry! If you do fall we have trained professionals here to catch you!”

Alice glanced around and saw that some of the plushies had animated and started to follow her along the length of the room. It’d be creepy, if they weren’t… well… plushies.

She was so engrossed in watching the stuffed elephant do cartwheels across the floor that she didn’t see Mira approach from the other side.

“Lizzy, can you be a big girl and stay still for me please?”

Alice turned to see the hologram standing in front of her. She sighed and said, “My name is- h-hey!”

Mira had gripped her shirt and lifted it over her head. Once off she knelt down and started to fiddle with the button of her pants.

“Hey!” Alice tried to danced away from the projection, but found that her feet were stuck. She looked down and saw two of the plushies holding her in place.

“Please stay still Alice.” Ms. Mira smiled up at her, “We need to get these nasty wet clothes off you, so we can get you in your uniform. Can you be a big girl and help me please?”

Alice cringed at the thought of being stripped naked by this machine, but she knew its weakness. If only it had come before it took her clothes.

“Fine,” Alice grimaced and allowed the machine to continue its work. After a minute of tugging and pulling she stood shivering and dripping wet on the platform as it began to move again.

“Thank you so much, Lizzy!” Ms. Mira beamed at her as she wiped her down with a towel, “I’ll be sure to let your parent know you were very good for me!”

“You do that,” Alice muttered as the machine continued on.

She slid forward for another few feet before the floor came to another stop. This time Mira walked up to her and said, “Okay! Now I need you to be very still for me please! This is for your growth chart. We’ll get to see how much you weight!”

Alice perked up and asked, “Can I see you weigh me?”

Ms. Mira responded, “Of course! Just look over here…”

The hologram pointed to a digital screen that appeared on the far wall of the nursery. A few of the plushies ran up and seemed to watch it intently. The number started to fluctuate, and Alice shifted her weight from foot to foot causing the numbers to rise and fall. Ms. Mira looked over just in time to see Alice bending her knees before jumping as high as she could.

“Alice no!”

She came crashing back down onto the platform with all the force she could muster. The moment she landed the holograms vanished, and the voice of Ms. Mira was replaced by a cold, expressionless recording:

“WEIGHT OVERFLOW DETECTED”

It repeated a few times before Alice said, “Alice Fushigi, override!”

There was a pause, then:

“OVERRIDE ACCEPTED STANDBY MODE ENGAGED”

“That’s right,” Alice said walking off the platform.

She exited Ms. Mira’s room and almost collided with a motionless RATTLER. The unit stood slumped forward seemingly unaware of anything going on around it. Alice patted it on the shoulder and walked toward the back of the day care. Somewhere back here was a service door leading into the interior of the facility.

First thing was first. She needed some clothes.


AUTHORS NOTE

Close but not quite there yet. Maybe next chapter.

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Typo - ‘competition’

Typo - ‘car’

I think your spellchecker is sabotaging you, which is a shame, because I’m rather enjoying the story and its scenario. Shades of Asimov.

Fixed :+1:

Thanks for the feedback. I catch a lot when I’m editing, but it’s so much harder to spot stuff when I’m the one who wrote it.

One thing that can help is running it through a text-to-speech program. Wrong words like what @BabyAnna pointed out become very obvious when a computer is reading it to you. :slight_smile:

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I’ll definitely be doing this in the future! :grin: