Dan Curtis Johnson (crisper) wrote,
Dan Curtis Johnson
crisper

Caretakers

A630C210C009 was in the middle of sealing yet another shipping crate when, quite suddenly and entirely out of nowhere, he processed an entirely new and unusual concept. "A22," he said to his peer in the packaging line (without breaking the pace of his sealing routine), "when was the last time you saw a human being?"

A221C045C002 didn't look away from her own packaging routine in the least, nor did she need to. "I don't think I've ever seen a human being at all," she answered without any interest whatsoever. "Or perhaps so long ago that the memory in question has long since been purged for more contextually useful events."

Now A63 paused in his routine to devote more processing power to this concept, this notion, this strange… idea… that was plucking at him. It would not be ignored. "I don't recall if I've ever seen a human being either," he realized aloud, and then he found himself quite perplexingly concerned as to whether this was expected or not.

"Don't you think it's strange that we might not ever have seen a human?" he asked.

"This is an automated facility," A22 replied dully, still working the sealant gun. "The whole point is for work to be done here without any need for human effort."

"Sure," A63 nodded, "but this isn't the only place we ever are. On the tube home. The piazza. Out to see a movie or enjoy a relaxing maintenance. The countryside. Don't humans at least go to some of these places, do some of these things, too?"

A22 shrugged. "Humans do leisure activities. But there's no reason why they would be interested in having the same sorts of leisure that robots do. It's not like we go to restaurants or sex parlors. Why would they watch movies or visit nature?"

That made some sense to A63. He turned back to his sealing kit and tried to continue working. But after only a minute he just couldn't stay focused on the task any more. This new concept was threatening to run wild on all of his cores if he didn't do something to deal with it.

Finishing his current crate, he pushed back from the line. "I'm going to go see a real human being," he quietly announced.

"Don't be stupid," A22 said. "We have work to do."

"I have some recreation time and some maintenance windows accrued," A63 replied. "I can take a few days off. B80 won't like it but it's my time off and I'm allowed to use it. He knows that."

"Good luck," A22 said dismissively as A63 rolled away.

-

He spent the rest of that day just canvassing the experience of his co-workers, his friends, his neighbors. It quickly became clear that, while all of them knew a great deal about human beings - what they liked to do, what they ate, the ancient history of their civilization - not one of them had ever actually encountered one. None of them thought this was the least bit noteworthy, either. The whole point of robots was for them to go to the places and do the things that humans didn't want to, so why would they ever cross paths?

A63 disagreed. He was starting to think this was actually unusual.

So where would he go to meet a human? This, his friends and peers were less clear about. There were any number of leisure activities that only humans were known to engage in, such as eating and sexing, but nobody seemed to know where to find such places.

Finally, he hit on a plan. The center in which he worked distributed consumer products for humans to use, right? Toys for children and other things like that. Those products had to be sent to humans who bought them, right? Sure, they were stockpiled in the vast warehouse by autocranes and loaded onto robo-piloted delivery trucks, but ultimately those packages were dropped off where human beings were, so they could have the things that they bought. Right?

Fortunately, A63 had some friends in shipping control who owed him a favor or two.

"I just need a destination address from our order queue that's not too far away," he said to B011A941F300. His friend squinted skeptically. "It's a sort of quality follow-up," A63 added, a bit lamely. "Satisfaction survey. I don't know why I'm supposed to do it in person."

B01 seemed to accept that. After a bit of interface time in the catalog, he beamed over an address that was only thirty kilometers away. It was for a set of shower curtains, one of the three and a half million different products their particular distribution center handled. It was supposed to be delivered that very afternoon. A63 wasted no time in calling up a rental car and having it take him over.

The destination turned out to be a fancy gated community in the foothills. The automated gatekeeper was reluctant to let them in at first, without any evidence of a schedule appointment of any sort, but A63 made up a good-sounding story about a surprise (hence, no appointment) Birthday Wish song to be delivered face-to-face. The gate lifted and they glided into the neighborhood.

It was beautiful, impeccably maintained, with manicured landscaping being watered by automatic sprinklers, pruned and mowed by robotic gardeners, filled with spacious and elegant mansions, exactly as they'd always heard the humans lived.

It also appeared to be entirely devoid of actual humans.

-

A63 wasn't sure what would happen when the scheduled package delivery took place, but he was pretty sure humans didn't like to be spied on by robots, so he took up what he thought was a pretty good hiding place nearby the destination address and tried to get his jumbled, crazy thoughts under control.

A while later, a roboguided truck rolled up to the house and the remote unit hopped out with the package. Before it had even reached the porch, the front door opened to reveal… a household service robot, which quickly "signed" for the package with a simple digital key exchange, then took the box inside and shut the door. The delivery agent rolled away.

A63 couldn't resist. He tried but the need compelled him, forced madness through his circuits, into his motivators: he rolled up to the same door and rang the bell.

Nothing happened.

He rang again, then again, then knocked, but there was no evidence whatsoever that any inhabitant of the house was aware of his presence.

Though he knew it was highly discouraged (if not explicitly forbidden), he left the robot-approved glideway and physically rolled across the lush lawn to peer through a window. The interior of the house seemed to be well kept up. He made his way around until he reached a back door that turned out to be unlocked. Unable to contain his curiosity, he went inside.

He could hear noise upstairs. He extended a set of feet and made his way quietly up. A63 was vaguely aware of the nature of a "bathroom", though robots had no need of such, and sure enough, the sounds were coming from one. The household robot he'd seen minutes earlier was in the process of putting up a new shower curtain that had clearly been taken from the just-delivered package. A virtually identical (and to A63's untrained eye, equally new and unused) curtain lay crumpled on the floor. The robot gave no notice of A63's presence. When it had finished installing the new curtain, it gathered the old one up, shoved it into a small recycler there in the room (which would waste no time in reducing the curtain to its constituent molecules and send them back to a central stockpile), and pushed back out into the hall, on to some new task.

He glided around the house a bit longer. It was clean, certainly, but only because a team of small housekeeping bots were busily sweeping and dusting. When the daily mail arrived through the mail slot, the paper and plastic envelopes had barely finished settling to the tile floor of the foyer before a cleaning system came to scoop them up and drop them all into the kitchen recycling without so much as a glance at them.

The closets had new clothes in them. The pantry was stocked with recent food. The house was clearly buying everything it needed for its people.

The people just weren't there.

-

Eventually, A63 parked himself at a local recharger station that he was fond of, his head filled with static and confusion. The entire neighborhood, of course, had been like that first house: perfectly maintained for human occupation, but clearly unoccupied.

On reflection, it was not surprising that houses were entirely capable of ordering goods from distributors and manufacturers such as his employers. Keeping track of supply needs and logistics was yet another function that everyone knew robots could do better than humans ever had. Why would the humans bother ordering this thing or that thing when their robots would be much more capable of knowing what exactly was needed, researching what the best version of that thing was to get, and finding out where the best place to get it from would be?

He was shaken from his anxious contemplation quite suddenly by a quiet voice to his left. "So you've noticed, huh?" it said with a slightly conspiratorial tone.

He looked over to see a fairly beat-up old bot whose model type he couldn't identify. "Noticed what?" he asked - partly out of genuine confusion, but also partly out of a sudden concern that his unauthorized wander around the human neighborhood was actually some kind of serious legal violation.

The old bot leaned in closer, got quieter. "You noticed that there aren't any people anymore."

Now A63 was feeling genuine trepidation, but he couldn't fight that urge, that need to know more about this thing. Nonetheless, clearly some sort of discretion was called for, so he resorted to whispering: "Well, I found a neighborhood that nobody is living in anymore, even though we keep shipping goods up there."

The old bot nodded slowly, almost patronizingly. "They're all like that. All empty. All kept clean and working and well-supplied, of course, but there ain't any people living in them anymore. Or any people *to* live in them, far as I know."

"That doesn't seem possible," A63 scoffed. "I'm a little surprised that the segregation of humans away from the rest of us is so… complete… but if the humans were dying off, surely we'd know it."

"Who'd know it?" the old bot squinted at him. "You? On your assembly line? You're not supposed to know. Or notice. That's just it: None of us are supposed to. Something went wrong in your code, and now you're thinking about it. But nobody else is. They just keep doing what they're supposed to do. Making. Delivering. Buying. Disposing. It all just goes back into the recyclers and crushers to be rebuilt as more of the same."

This was a bit much for A63 to process. His head began to reel and he suddenly had to close down most of his sensory systems to avoid a complete panic. Had the human race just quietly died off? Had the billions of robots built specifically and solely for the purpose of serving humankind in every way, shape, and form that it desired… simply failed to notice that there was nobody actually there to serve anymore?

Slowly, the storm in his mind ebbed.

"We were supposed to be their caretakers," he finally managed to gasp. "How could we have failed to take care of them? What did we miss?"

There was no answer. When he opened his sensory ports, the old robot was gone.

-

He marched into B807B555E018's office the next morning, his every system ablaze with crazy energy.

"Are you okay, A63?" his boss asked with some real concern in his voice. "Didn't your day off reinvigorate you?"

"Did something happen to all the humans?" A63 asked point-blank.

B80's expression was one of genuine confusion. "Humans do whatever they want. We take care of everything else. The last thing you need to worry about is humanity. Your job, like all of us, is to handle the details."

"I want to talk to C44," A63 asserted.

B80 was about to register his disagreement with this course of action when his desk intercom sounded.

It was C44. "Send him up," was all she said.

It was hard to read the expression that B80 developed on his recognition cluster. A63 felt another cold shiver of paranoia in his deepest cores, but it was too late to back down now.

-

C44's office was no larger or more ornate than B80s. Robots had no need for excess roominess or inefficient decoration. A63 rolled in and took up a comfortable stance.

"You understand," C44 said, "that we are a distributor of goods, yes? And those goods need to be bought by someone and delivered to them on a regular, frequent, and ongoing basis, yes? Otherwise, we would not have a business and then we'd have to shut down."

A63 did understand this. "But…" he began. C44 cut him off.

"Do you also understand that it is not for us to speculate about the buyers, or their motivation, or even their basic nature?" she said. "It is enough that an order has been placed for a new bathroom curtain, which we are able to provide for a reasonable price, and which we can deliver to the customer in a timely fashion." She looked at him quite directly, with an intense focus. "Who the customer is… is not our business. Our business is distributing goods to buyers."

"I… guess…" A63 faltered. He felt like something was going on here that he should figure out, but he wasn't able to call on nearly as much processing power as he used to. Several of his cores were returning garbage. He feared there might be corruption somewhere in deep memory. "I… think I might be… unwell," he stammered. "I… should maybe… take some time off. For… a complete refurbishment."

C44 nodded. "I think that would be a good idea. Take some time off for repair. But," she admonished sternly, "no more poking around the human world, yes? You're done looking for things that shouldn't matter to you, yes?"

A63 nodded slowly, even as he realized with dawning horror that it wasn't true. Through the growing sea of noise all through his central systems, one thing was clear: he needed to know what had happened. He needed to find out.

Looking up, he realized C44 could tell. "I can show you something that will make you understand once and for all," she sighed. "If I do that, will you agree to let this nonsense go?"

A63 nodded again, eagerly this time. "Yes!" he half-shouted, half-sobbed. "Please! I just want everything to make sense again."

She rolled out from her desk. "Come with me," she said, and headed out a side passageway.

A63 followed her into a long hallway that seemed to lead into the bowels of the factory. They made their way through a series of shafts, turns, rises, elevators, until he was thoroughly lost. Finally, they arrived at a large bulkhead door.

C44 pointed. "In there, you'll find the answer you seek."

A63 pulled the door open and rushed into the chamber beyond. It was large, echoey, metallic, dark. He looked all around. It seemed to be entirely empty. He turned back toward the doorway, to ask C44 what he was supposed to see, but she had already closed the door behind him.

Seconds later, he heard the unmistakeable sound of one of the factory's massive hydraulic presses being charged directly above his head.

When the heavy titanium plate began to crush him against the floor, he felt nothing but relief.

------
For consideration: oo baby do you know what that's worth oo heaven is a place on earth
Tags: 2010, conspiracy, end of the world, paranoia, robots
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