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By Natalia Yanchak
At the grocery, Hailey bumps in to an old acquaintance:
“Hailey! I haven't seen you in a dog's age. And I see you've still got that glorified shopping cart!”
“Hello, Mabel,” Hailey says, forcing a smile.“Look at your unit! It doesn't even have arms.”
Hailey is not the least bit amused by Mabel's observations. “He does. And he's very useful. I don't need much anymore.”
“Oh Hailey, if only everything in life was so simple.”
“We get by.”
“Why don't you and your...” She lowers her chin, looking over the tops of her reading glasses. “... help join us for a game? We're still doing cribbage on Thursdays. It's so much easier with this one around the house,” Mabel says, tapping her android's head. “Anyhow, my Geri prepares and serves all the food, then cleans the mess afterwards. I can just sit back and enjoy the game.”
“Mm-hm? Well, I appreciate the invitation.” Hailey nods a little and turns to leave. Mabel catches her shoulder.
“Listen, hon,” Mabel grips Hailey's pale green viscose blouse and leans in closer, as if worried she might offend someone. “These things are only good for a few years. And you never know, a few years may be all you have left. I'll have the pamphlet sent to you. You know, my son-in-law gets a great deal.” Mabel rides off, pompously sitting on the cushioned seat of her robotic scooter. A bumper sticker reads: You've been graced by the presence of my GeriForce 5000.
“Just ignore her, Om.” Hailey, delicate and grey at 73, places a stack of partially-prepared OmniFood automated entrees into the OmniMove's basket. “If you ask me it's all a bunch of phooey. Loyalty, above all else. You've never let me down. Not once.”
Hailey and Om leave the store. In a perky, metallic voice he utters: “You have 27 minutes before food storage temperature loss. Would you like me to recommend transportation?”
“Oh yes, please.” Hailey responds.“The travel time by bus is 19 minutes but takes a longer route. If we go through the park we will arrive at home in 14 minutes. However, upon arrival my batteries will be exhausted.”
“Thank you, Om. Let's walk.” Hailey sits on a small bench seat that folds out from under Om's armpit. They veer off the sidewalk and into the grassy park, increasing speed slightly as the robot corrects his motor's torque.
“I am glad you decided on this method of transportation, Ms. Hailey. Today is a lovely day.”
They travel together in silence, watching birds sail through the blotted sunlight as it filters through the trees.From the outside, Hailey's four-foot tall OmniMove is unimpressive: a small mango-sized head with one beady camera-lens eye, a wire basket belly framed by a robust mechanical arm. Rounded shoulders in an off-white moulded plastic give a human appearance: durable and washable, his temperature-controlled skin is smooth to the touch. He is mobile on all terrains thanks to treaded, caterpillar-track rollers. The voice of a young man -- a calm timbre despite gurgly syllabic limitations --emanates from a speaker behind a moulded plastic grid where a mouth should be: “Ms. Hailey, we have arrived.”
Hailey wakes from a light doze at the foot of The Burgundy Arms: a government-funded highrise for independent retirees. Hers was a life of detail, working as a bookkeeper until a softbot made her redundant. She put her only child through school before he moved away, then her husband left for something younger. Then belt-tightening measures imposed during the Depression led her here, to a sterile one-bedroom apartment on the 37th floor.
Om is at the charging station, facing the window, looking out over the city lights. A view of the smog as it hangs over the dark river, clouds punctured by the tips of tall downtown buildings on the opposite shore. It was verdant and picturesque once. On Om's chest a pink LED pulses softly, slowly, as if it were taking a laboured breath with each rise and fall in brightness. At 17:45 the LED switches off and Om powers up. Rotating his head slightly, he hears Hailey's voice in the other room. Hailey is at the phone console, the image of a middle-aged man on the monitor before her.
“...and how is your assistant? Did Maintenance visit?”
“Oh, yes, thank you for arranging that. A man came by last week and said my Om was working surprisingly well.” She smiles, seeing her own small grey head in the bottom left corner of the screen.“But I do wish you weren't so far away.”
“I know, mom, I miss you too.”
“When will you come visit?”
“Well, that's why I called. My contract ends in four months and I got a great offer for work in Taipei City,” he explains, excitedly.
“Mom, it's not like it used to be. It's competitive out there. I have to take what I can get, when I can get it. I don't want to end up in one of those Tenements for the Unemployed. I want to make you happy, comfortable.”
“I know, dear, and I am so proud of you.” She stares into his eyes, wishing she could hold him, her precious son, just for a moment. She hears something beep off screen, his gaze distracted by another device.
“Sorry, mom. I have to take this. I love you and... I'll try to visit soon.”
“I love you too... ”
And before the words have left her lips the screen flicks to black. Hailey remains in her seat for a few moments, unmoving, alone. She places her elbows on the console and holds her head in her hands. In the background she hears the whirring treads of Om as he begins to prepare dinner.
“Om?” She mutters.
“Yes, Ms. Hailey?” He moves closer and as he nears she flings her arms around him. Hailey feels the warmth of his artificial skin against hers.
“Thank you,” she sniffles. With all the precision his servomechanisms offer, he gently places his oven-mitted claw against her bony back.
In the morning, Om brings the mail as Hailey drinks her tea. Among the coupon books and flyers is an envelope from Home Helper Incorporated. Hailey passes the envelope to Om, who inserts the short end into his receptor utility. The envelope emerges with one end opened, which Om returns to Hailey. Inside is a brightly coloured pamphlet emblazoned with grinning seniors interacting with scooter-like machines. Cleanliness above all else! From the internal tank, super-heated steam disinfects your floors! The vacuum tube cleans upholsteries and removes unwanted residues. Both water and waste reservoirs are maintained via the patented Home Helper Autonomous Charging Station (additional charges may apply). Instruments on the Utility Arm include tools for the kitchen: knife, spatula, ladle, scissors and tongs! And a set for small repairs: screwdrivers, drill, saw, vices even a hammer! The InfirmaryPlus pack can be customized to meet your medical needs: blood testers and syringes pre-filled with medications and prescriptions! Never forget to take your pills again (additional charges may apply)! On the reverse side a dealer's name and address is printed, with the message: Mabel Strauss has recommended the GeriForce 5000! Place your order now to receive an exclusive referral discount! Don't delay!
Hailey looks up at Om, who is at the counter preparing breakfast. He turns, gripping a tray in his clawed arm, which he places before her. It is exactly how she likes it: white bread toasted to a golden brown, imported marmalade and a soft, unripened cheese set at room temperature. She tosses the pamphlet on the table. Om scans the document without moving.
“Is there anything else you require?” He nudges forward, eager for her response. Hailey looks up at him and notices he has her old, frilly apron tied around his obtuse basket belly. She smiles.
“No, thank you, Om,” She looks back down, taking up a butter knife to spread some marmalade. “But please dispose of this junk mail.”
“Yes, Ms. Hailey.”