Short Story: Carers


John Houlihan

This story debuted at Near Future Fictions Volume 3 at the Lights of Soho, 2nd May 2017

Resentfully, Molly watched the smile light up Bernard’s face. Why was he always so polite with that thing, when he was so rude and tetchy with her? She dipped her brush and scooped up another portion of colour and ran it across the paper, but the paint jagged, leaving a indistinct blob.
She should have been glad of the extra time to devote to her art, but the picture was unfocussed, formless, so unlike the sleek, smooth lines of the creature. Perhaps the piece was becoming an unconscious expression of her tightly suppressed rage?
She—it—was called AMBER, which was some tiresomely clever acronym which stood for “Autonomous medical… something something robot”.
Aghast, she’d stopped listening as the courteous young technician had shed its wrappers like a chrysalis to reveal that polished synthetic body, impossibly smooth, impossibly perfect: like one of those enhanced nymphet starlets who took all the lead roles in the sensies.
She’d been even more surprised when it had boldly strode out from its cocoon, addressed her by name, introduced itself to Bernard, and begun gliding about and reorganising the house like it had lived there all its life. She jabbed her paintbrush, fitfully trying to restore some order to the piece.
“Molly, are you quite alright?” Even its carefully modulated tones set her false teeth on edge, its breathy, soothing, designed-by-committee voice quite unlike her own faltering croak.
“I’m fine, thank you.”
“It’s just that I’m sensing heightened…”
“Keep your sensors to yourself, direct them at your patient, not at me.”
“Yes, Molly.” The one compensation was its Asimov protocols, which meant it had to obey her—in most things at least.
She watched it quickly and efficiently measure out Bernard’s weekly drugs and medicines, its hands a whirl of motion, completing the task in a matter of moments. When she used to work in the pharmacy she might have been able to match it, just, on a good day. But now it would take her arthritic fingers and weary mind, a good hour what with all the checking and rechecking. Another task delegated, another purpose surrendered, she was beginning to feel obsolete.
It wasn’t its fault, she supposed. Amber—this thing—has been forced on them, on her, by the local authority when they started to suspect she couldn’t cope anymore. Nonsense. As if she hadn’t managed quite satisfactorily on her own all these years, thank you very much.
Oh, and the way they dressed it up too: ‘a trial period, a time of adjustment’, but she knew what it really meant: permanent and mandatory, unless some miracle intervened. Quietly, she muttered to herself and splashed her fury into a dark angry sky.
The final straw, the camel’s back—had come later that afternoon. The thing had efficiently bed-bathed and changed Bernard, manipulating his fragile torso with apparent ease, and then settling him back down like a infant.
He had simpered and fawned, like a small child at its mother’s breast and then looked up with his pale blue eyes half closed and said to it, “Thank, you Molly”.
She glowered over her lukewarm cup of tea, her chin jutted out and her face took on a determined cast; she would not be superseded by a machine. The line would be drawn here.

She waited until darkness bled through the windows and it had powered itself down and stored itself away in the cupboard under the stairs. Then she went to work. It was laughably easy and soon she was swapping, substituting, calling on all the pharmaceutical knowledge she had accumulated down the years. She finished with a little smile of delight and then retired, to a night of deep sleep and pleasant dreams.

The next morning Molly came down in her rumpled old dressing gown, to find it had already been busy. Ignoring the delicious smelling breakfast it had prepared, she refilled a kettle and set it on the stove. Amber was already attending to Bernard, prepping the needle for his morning injection, then sliding the plunger home with a minimum of fuss and without any of the outcry he usually made.
“Good morning Molly, I hope you slept well?” It said.
“Like a log.”
“Molly, I wish to discuss an issue we ma… ” But something caught its attention mid-sentence and it glided back to Bernard.
“Whatever is the matter?” Molly enquired sweetly.
“Bernard is having a strange reaction to his medicine. I don’t understand, I carefully measured the dosage myself. I am incapable of error.”
“Really?” said Molly noncommittally.
“Yet his toxicity levels are rising,” concern etched its voice.
“How can this be? ” It said, and Molly could she small wisps of vapour escape its chassis.
“Now his toxicity levels are critical. If I attempt to intervene it might kill him, yet if I do nothing, he will die. This directly contradicts my most sacred law.”
“I see,” said Molly who saw very clearly.
“What must I do? What must I do?” Now its head shook and its body trembled, as if in the throes of some powerful internal struggle.
“I’m not sure Amber, I thought you were incapable of error?”
“Primary laws compromised … critical error … shutting down.” It slumped, then froze, lights fading. She gave it a small whack with her cane and satisfied it was dormant, returned to her husband. She carefully applied the antidote, then a masking agent, a simple procedure really, to mimic the lethal symptoms which had fooled its systems. Bernard had never been in any danger of coming to real harm. It had just appeared that way.
Later, when he woke up again, there was a bewildered smile on his features but his mind was as vacant as ever.
“Yes Bernard?”
“Was there someone else here?”
“There was Bernard, but she’s gone now. Settle down, everything’s fine.”
“Oh, oh, that’s a shame, but you’ll look after things, won’t you, Molly?”
“Of course I will Bernard, don’t I always?”

Comments are disabled for this post