Enrique studied the faces around the table. The purchase committee dispensed their limited resources with utmost care. It was no surprise that the investment in another “staff” member should arouse such discussion. They didn’t object to using androids in schools, especially in the internment facilities, where the headcounts of students exceeded all conscionable limits. Within the southeast sector alone, an android already functioned efficiently as a janitor and two, female in aspect, doled out cafeteria food. The machine vetting the kids’ thin, government-issued bags at the building entrance possessed some enhanced intelligence. Three monitored the scrappy stretch of ground called a play area. But to order one with a limp, for the lower grades…
“Don’t we want the strongest and sturdiest to chase the kids, if needed?” (That was Magda, though none of them wanted their names in the minutes in these times.)
“To vault the fence? Or fight off intruders?” Li nodded; he tended to follow Magda’s lead.
The salesman, Denny, shook his head. “Our Ms. Cara model is as strong as the football player issues. She just doesn’t look it. And, although the limp makes her run a little lopsided” – he rolled his shoulders like a ship in high seas – “It doesn’t slow her down.”
“Then why a limp?” Paige pushed back from the table and frowned.
Denny spun through the holographs of his presentation, stopping at a chart. “Research indicates that a calculated flaw improves the model’s performance. It extends wait time for higher level processing before enacting punishments, correlates with fewer mistaken readings of human actions and, for some reason, suggests a longer life for the individual unit. When used per manufacturer’s specifications. And most of the children don’t mind.”
Li shrugged. “The research is relatively new. I’d like to see it replicated.”
“Agree to be a test site, and I can offer a 10% reduction on quarterly maintenance.”
Finally a convincing argument. As his committee members sat up straighter, Enrique leaned forward. “Are we ready to vote?”
With a show of hands Ms. Cara was added to the staff of Internment School 28A.
When the model arrived a month later, Enrique, as chair of the committee, was the only one to take delivery. A technician walked a couple feet behind the shining android, while Ms. Cara stepped forward, a noticeable limp not holding her back at all.
“Mr. Vega.” Ms. Cara stopped, almost at attention, a smile literally brightening her face by an increased illumination behind the smooth metal mask.
Of course she would recognize him; she had doubtless been programmed with all the names and faces of government officials, the school staff, and the student population. There would be no “first week of school” hesitations for her as she struggled to learn student names.
“All the maintenance recommendations and the contract.” The technician held out a small storage device, and Enrique slipped it into a pocket.
“Ready to meet your kids?” Enrique clamped his jaws shut. How many times had he said that to a human teacher, back in the day when he’d headed peaceable, real schools?
“Absolutely!” The face beamed a little brighter. It was lifelike enough to be pleasing, like the face of a doll, yet artificial enough that even the youngest student would not mistake it for a human.
Ms. Cara held up a sizeable plastic case. “I have cleaning supplies for the reports of pink eye among the primary students and the stomach flu from the five beds in the second floor dormitory.”
“Good.” Enrique gestured toward the van that would drive them over the roads outside the city. Cleanliness would be a benefit. He’d hoped for a little more, somehow. But he’d take anything.
They rode in silence. Questions kept popping into Enrique’s mind, but they all sounded absurd. So did explanations or the usual, hopeful chatter such as, “I hope you like your room.” Besides, Ms. Cara seemed to be all eyes, scanning out through the small slatted windows on all sides as if to memorize the terrain. When he realized that this was probably exactly what she was doing, he left her to her work. She would feed on data; he could only hope she could produce something more.
She looked forward steadily as they turned from the coastline and moved inland across the long, flat wasteland toward the internment camp. She would know everything about it from government files, but still she stared. Oddly, her face brightened a bit. But she was a machine. Why would she feel a sickness in the pit of her stomach at the thought of people being reduced to this bleak prison? She would not be capable of seeing its misery. Yet another reason to use AI for such tasks; the rate of depression, illness and even suicide among the human teachers, medical staff and guards was alarming and beginning to draw media attention.
They passed through security and drew up near the north side of the camp, where the staff lived in conditions only marginally better than the internees. Cara descended easily from the vehicle, reaching behind the seat to grasp her box of cleaning supplies. Enrique stopped himself before he opened the back door; she had no suitcase of clothing or possessions. She would have nothing to put in the tiny room allotted to her as a staff member. They could have stored her in a broom closet, and she probably wouldn’t have cared. He swallowed.
Her head turned, smoothly, with none of the mechanical jerkiness he’d expected from some of the low-grade androids he’d seen. As her eyes brightened, he followed her glance. A group of children filed out of a far building. Probably heading from lunch to their play period.
“Can I go meet them?”
He gestured toward the building. “Let’s get you settled. Then, yes. I’ll introduce you.”
“It’s primary 2. I can see Tim. The child who fell trying to climb up the slide.”
He squinted. “I’ll take your word for it.”
She turned to the building and mounted the stairs, her body swaying to compensate for the limp. The flat countryside formed a flood plain. Long since abandoned by any private habitations, the government designated it for the camp. All the cheap wooden buildings were elevated a couple feet up on piles, as if that would help.
“There is an elevator inside. For deliveries.” And for the androids, some of which were early, clumsy models.
“I always take stairs. It is part of my composition.” She turned to look at him. “The limp is meant to be displayed, not hidden, Mr. Vega, sir.”
He followed her up to the second floor, surprised with each footfall that there was no ringing thump. For once, it seemed that the product was as advertised.
She looked into her room, walked to the windows, took in the view, and turned, smiling. There was a bed, a table with two chairs, a closet and a set of drawers. Who knew what she would do with it all? For now she had nothing to leave; she kept the plastic case ready for the infected classrooms.
“It’s beautiful. Can we go now?”
She led the way down the stairs, across the courtyard, past each building, registering it with apparent satisfaction, as if matching the structure with its recorded blueprints. When they reached the playground, her face beamed. She found Tim, gently signaled for him to stand up from the surface of dusty, decaying rubber shavings, and, lifting a silver hand, pressed back the side of the bandage that had come loose on his forehead.
For the next two months, Enrique received regular communications from Internment School 28A. The first two were standard staffing reports, noting that Ms. Cara seemed to be fitting in well, having cleaned the entire dormitory and reorganized the supplies. The children appeared to take to her well. One child had laughed at her limp, but he stopped when his friends shushed him.
The third communication was from Ms. Cara herself, asking for authorization to transfer the furniture from her room to a space in the hospital, newly created to give private care for special cases. He agreed, writing separately to the hospital to ask about the new room. Apparently it had been Ms. Cara’s idea, based on a medical study she had read in her spare time.
From then on he heard from Ms. Cara with some regularity. Her requests were always brief, polite and specific. Paper and art supplies. New balls for the recreation period. More cleaning supplies. Musical instruments. Replacement of a sagging slide and renewal of the rubber surface of the playground. He had to use old contacts, but in every case he found something acceptable about to be discarded from one of the schools in the public or private network, as they moved further inland and consolidated their facilities.
At the end of the year, Ms. Cara received a stellar rating from the school principal. Sent separately, in an envelope, was a large sheet of blue paper from some of the art supplies she’d requested. It showed a childish representation of a silver human figure, with two straight legs. A teacher had written, “The children love Ms. Cara and ask that you have her limp repaired.” A number of first names, from different people groups, were scrawled around the corners in crayon.
Two days later a message came from Ms. Cara: “Please do not change my programming. Not while I am assigned to this school.”
He considered sending the picture to Ms. Cara, for the blank walls of her empty bedroom. Instead he set it aside, promising himself the pleasure of delivering it in person at his next inspection visit.
His next visit was postponed. Conditions were worsening. Ms. Cara seemed satisfied with her school’s enrichment supplies, but she was broadening her interests. First came requests for adult education materials, a politically charged question. Enrique sent some, in his own name. Then she began to request art and medical supplies for the internment camp in the southwest sector. Enrique wrote to reply that it wasn’t his territory. She wrote back, asking if he knew or could meet someone in authority there. As a matter of fact, he knew a person and found himself setting up a lunch and taking along statistics about encouraging medical and social process from the past year at 28A. His friend, who had once taught sociology, promised to dig up whatever was available.
From then on Ms. Cara would not stop. He could imagine her face, brightening with each new idea. How she established her network in other camps, he didn’t know. But communication would, of course, have been no problem for her. He wondered vaguely if she dealt with humans, or if somewhere there was another Ms. Cara ready to enact parallel reforms. Surely his was not the only model, though they were supposed to be a limited release.
He put off his visit to see her. Her picture, the one by the children, hung on the wall to the right of his desk. It didn’t do her justice; her face was more luminous. But it pleased him to glance at it, almost consulting her at times as he made decisions. When he had nothing else to do, he toyed with plans to show up at the school with a truck full of supplies. But then, she’d know better what to bring, and resources of all kinds were shrinking. He almost feared disappointing her.
Near autumn of the third year her letters changed. She still asked for supplies, now for the northeast quadrant camps, but she also began to ask questions. Did the government monitor weather predictions? What were the evacuation plans for the camps? The northwest sector was at a higher elevation, on a long flat ridge. But had he studied the maps for the other three camps?
He began to study them. He wrote back to her, asking what she thought.
She thought some of the families should be reassigned. If they could not be set free – and was there a valid reason they could not go free? Some were quite capable of productive work and of no foreseeable political risk – if they could not be set free, families should be moved to the northwest camp. Rapid construction would allow for more housing, next to the kitchen building. (“See attached blueprints.”)
He forwarded the information to the secretary for education and wrote to his counterpart in the northwest, asking for a meeting. Waited for it to be scheduled.
A message from the principal of 28A indicated that Ms. Cara needed to be sent in for repair and realignment. Something was wrong with her mobility; the “lame” leg might need to be replaced. Surely the novelty had worn off, and the android could be given a fully functioning limb? The children adored her and would love to see her “well.”
In response to his query, Ms. Cara just asked him to look at the weather report.
He looked and cancelled his meetings. He called around for favors and got the loan of three vans. The camp had one van for staff transport and a truck for supplies and minor construction. They would be badly short, but he had a call in to the territorial governor.
He gazed at the drawing of Cara. Her leg better be working; this was no time for her to be out of commission. Not even for solidarity with the internees.
Retracing the drive, he remembered her bright, new, factory-fresh eyes scanning the flat flood plain. They had never driven north of the camp together, but she’d have it all blocked out in her files.
The rains were already dangerous as he approached the camp. A key road had flooded, and he lost two hours making his way around side roads, long since abandoned. At least no other vehicles blocked the progress of his small convoy.
They reached the camp as waters poured in from the east. Already two of the buildings looked like they rested on the surface of a lake, the piles and stairs covered. Cara’s silver figure appeared in his headlights as he pulled to the far west, keeping the vehicles in low water. For one second her face brightened at the sight of them.
He swung himself down from the driver’s seat, rain lashing his face. “We have to get out of here! If the water gets higher…”
Cara glanced at the tires of the vans and nodded; he had no need to explain the physics to her. At once she waved people forward.
“All our vehicles left this morning. But we still have dozens of people.”
His drivers were already loading passengers. “Everyone is accounted for?”
Cara turned, her body jerking. He put out a hand to steady her, shocked at the feel of cold metal on her arm.
“Tim?” Her eyes flickered, her voice clicked as she raised her volume. “Tim? Timeo?”
A little girl with a shaved head turned and pointed to a building. A thin flash from the headlights reflected off the undulating water, just inches under the bottom of the ground floor.
Cara’s face went dark. “He hides.” She turned. “Load them. I’ll get him.”
She set off at a run, stumbling, her right leg buckling under her so that at each step her right arm touched the ground, strong rigid fingers pushing her back almost upright. The speed was amazing, but she scuttled like a wounded spider. His breath halted as people pressed past him, crowding into the van, calling for children to pile on their laps. As Cara dove under the creaking building, her face was a disc of faint light.
“We have to leave!” One of his drivers shouted.
“Not yet.” He swallowed, lifting a flashlight, stumbling forward, his aging, terrified body useless.
Was the flash of silver a trick of the light and water? Something, debris or metal, crashed against the farthest front pile, and the building let out a shudder.
And then she emerged, a boy in her arms. She shot through the water, skimming its surface, holding the boy in front of her. But as the water level dipped, her body scraped the ground. She pushed herself partially upright, then tried to stand. The damaged leg was gone at the knee.
He made himself run. Scooping one arm under the boy, grabbing her around her torso. The power in the arm she flung around his shoulder made him gasp. Together, they hobbled into the van, laying the crying boy over someone’s knees.
Cara took the seat beside him and lifted a child from the crowded back, balancing her on the one good leg, keeping her from the raw, damaged joint. Her head clicked forward as she began to dictate directions.
Two months later Ms. Cara mounted the improvised stage in the expanded northwest internment camp, a newly replaced but still “damaged” leg letting her take that familiar rolling trip up the stairs. Enrique stood a few feet from the podium, clapping until his hands burned as she accepted her Caregiver of the Year award and beamed a smile at her kids.
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