The Care and Feeding of Mammalian Bipeds, v. 2.1
by M. Darusha Wehm
The first day I meet my human herd they are so well-behaved that I wonder if they really need me at all. I arrive at their dwelling, and am greeted by the largest one of their group. I access the manual with which I have been programmed and skip to Section 3: Verbal and Physical Clues for Sexing Humans. I can tell by the shape and outer garments that this human is a male, and I make a note of this data. He brings me into the main area of their living space, and as we move deeper into the dwelling, he asks me to call him Taylor, so immediately I do. He makes a noise deep in his throat, then introduces me to the rest of the herd.
He puts his forelimb around the next largest one, who he introduces as Madison. The Madison bares its teeth at me in a manner that Section 14: Advanced Non-Verbal Communication suggests is a gesture indicating happiness, approval, cheerfulness, or amusement, but which may belie insincerity, boredom or hostility. The Madison says, “Welcome to the family, Rosie.”
“Thank you, Madison,” I respond, as suggested by the manual in Section 2: Introductions: Getting To Know Your Humans. “I am looking forward to serving you and your family.” The manual indicates that human herds designate each individual with a name, and that most will bestow a similar designation on their caregiver. Section 0: A Brief Overview of Current Anthropological Theories states that the predominant view is that humans believe we are a new addition to the herd, and the best thing to do is to go along with this idea so as not to confuse them. The Taylor and the Madison appear to have chosen to refer to me by the name Rosie, and I set my monitoring routine to key on the sound of that word.
“These here are Agatha and Frederick,” the Taylor says, pushing two smaller humans toward me. I am unable to tell by looking whether or not they are male or female — they are about the same height as each other, with shoulder-length glossy fur. Their outer coverings are very similar, shapeless and dark coloured except with colourful designs in the upper section. One of them bares its teeth at me, in a manner similar to the Madison’s earlier display, but the other looks away. “Kids,” the Taylor says, his voice growing deeper, “say hi to the new robot.”
“Hi, Rosie,” the toothy one says, “I’m Frederick, and this is my sister, Aggie.” The Frederick pulls on the forelimb of the other one, who looks through its fur at me.
“This is so stupid,” it says, pulling its arm out of its sibling’s grip. “I don’t have to say hi to the dishwasher or the school bus, why do I have to pretend to be nice to this thing?”
“Agatha,” the Madison says, its voice becoming higher pitched. “Be civilized.”
“We don’t need a house-bot,” the Agatha says. “It’s so embarrassing.” It turns away from the rest of the herd, and walks into another part of the dwelling.
“I’ll go talk to her,” the Frederick says, and walks away. Her. The Agatha is female, then.
The Madison turns toward me, its skin colouring a dark pink tone. I make a note to check its temperature later — it would not do for a member of my herd to become ill. “I’m sorry about Agatha,” it says. “She’s thirteen. You know how teenagers are.”
I do not understand what it is I am expected to know about teenagers, but I do know that the correct response to the sounds “I’m sorry,” is “Don’t worry, it’s okay,” so that is what I say. I notice the Madison’s colour return to normal, and hear a strange noise begin to emanate from a small bundle in its arms.
“Of course, this is the last person you need to meet,” the Taylor says, peering into the pile of blankets. “This is our little surprise — Chester. Say hi to Rosie, Chester.” The bundle moves slightly, and the noise level increases.
“Chester has a good voice,” the Madison says over the noise from the blankets. “The other kids were such quiet babies in comparison.”
“You just don’t remember it, Maddie,” the Taylor says, his eyebrows almost meeting between his eyes. “This is what babies are like, you just chose to forget about this part of it.”
“It’s not like I was trying to get pregnant, Taylor. Don’t blame this on me.”
Pregnant. The Madison is female, then.
“Do we have to start this again?”
“Then you change his diaper,” the Madison says, handing the bundle to the Taylor.
His diaper. A male. “This is a neonate human?” I ask. “I am capable of caring for humans as new as three megaseconds. Is…” I replay the sound of the infant’s designation internally and then repeat it externally. “Is Chester in need of nourishment?”
The Taylor looks at the Madison and says, “Thanks anyway, Rosie, I think we’ll take care of Chester ourselves. You can go get familiar with the kitchen and maybe make us all some chicken stew for dinner. How does that sound?”
It sounds like everything else that the Taylor had said — between 62 and 68 decibels. He does not wait for a response, though, and takes the Chester into another room. The Madison bares her teeth at me again, and says, “Everything is going to work out great. We sure are happy to have the help, let me tell you. And Aggie will come around as soon as she sees how much better everything is going to be with you here. I’m sure of it.” She pats my number two manipulator, then follows the Taylor into the other room.
Section 7: Physical Space and the Herd Mentality states that humans require private spaces, so I do not follow them. What a lovely herd they are. They make an awful lot of noise, though.
It has been 600 kiloseconds since I joined the herd, and they seem to be accepting me well into the group. I find interactions with the Agatha the most simple; she is quiet and well behaved. She requires very little from me, and I rarely need to interact with her. Sometimes tens of thousands of seconds pass before I see her. I would prefer that the others were as easy to care for as she is.
But if humans were all simple creatures, they would not need caretakers and then where would I be?
The Frederick has become a challenge. It does not seem to like to be very far from me. Consulting Section 5: Human Bonding Patterns and You, I learn that humans feel strong attachments to their parents which usually reduces at puberty. However, the manual states that most humans do not truly outgrow this requirement for attention and merely transfer it to another individual, usually a mate. I suspect that the Frederick may be transferring its need for a caregiver to me, and may seek to attempt to mate with me. The manual warns that this may occur in Section 17: Discouraging Inappropriate Behaviour.
This morning, for instance, while I was making omelettes for the herd and cleaning their discarded outer skins, the Frederick could not stop asking me questions. “What kind of power cells do you require?” “Do you ever break down?” “What is this button for?” “Does your software patch automatically or do you need to ask for a programming upgrade?” I answered the questions while trying to keep it out of my way while I worked. Meanwhile, the Madison and the Taylor were making loud noises at one another, passing the Chester back and forth. I believe that they were vocally instructing the child on some aspect of human life. I left them alone with their important task.
While I was answering the Frederick’s questions, I heard the Madison say, “God damn it Taylor, I have an important meeting this morning. I can’t afford to have baby puke on my suit. Just give Chester a bottle, for Christ’s sake. Have Rosie heat one for you.” I heard the sound of my designator, but when I listened for instructions none seemed forthcoming.
Instead the Taylor responded to the Madison, “He’s your child, too, Maddie. You can’t expect me to shoulder all the responsibility.”
“Jesus Christ, Taylor,” the Madison said, “I suffered though ten hours of labour, not to mention nine months of looking like an elephant. All you did was feed me two bottles of Chardonnay and spend three minutes grunting like a pig. The least you can do is give the kid a fucking bottle. It’s not rocket science.” She rose from the table, and left for her day’s activities.
The Taylor held the Chester close to him, while the Chester made his loud vocalizations. Perhaps the child was imitating the parents — a successful instruction, then. The Frederick stopped asking me questions, and said to the Taylor, “I can give him a bottle. It’s okay.”
“No, Freddie,” the Taylor answered, his voice sounding constrained. Perhaps an after effect of the vocal instruction. “I’ll do it. Rosie,” he said, and I turned to face him, awaiting instructions. “Can you heat up a bottle for Chester?”
“Yes, I can,” I answered, “would you like me to do this?”
In Section 8: Understanding Human Communication Patterns, the manual states that when humans ask if I am able to perform a task, they often mean for me to do so immediately. However, I have learned that is not always the case. Four days earlier, the Madison was entertaining some humans whose dwellings are located nearby, when the Frederick asked if I could remove my face plate. I did so, which caused the Madison to become quite upset. I was cleaning up broken glass and crockery for several hours afterwards. Since then I always determine if the question is actually a request for action or not.
“Yes,” the Taylor answered, “please. There should be a few full bottles in the fridge.” I turned to acquire a unit of nourishment from the cooling unit, and the Frederick left the room, maybe to provide the younger sibling and parent some privacy.
I had noticed that the Taylor’s eyes were leaking, and quickly consulted Section 12: Troubleshooting Human Physical Manifestations. Eye leakage is common among humans, and can have many causes. In the absence of some kind of injury, most are not indicative of any serious medical condition. Given the situational context, I inferred that the Taylor’s ocular leakage was resulting from the pleasure of a successful instruction session with his offspring.
Indeed, everything seems to be going very well with the herd.
I am cleaning the floors of the dwelling, content that the herd is functioning well. None of the herd is present except for the Chester, who is unconscious in his sleeping compartment. I have set a remote monitoring device, so I would be certain that the child was still breathing and I could become aware if he awoke and required cleaning or nourishment.
This is a new task for me; over the last three diurnal cycles the Madison and the Taylor had several sessions of what I have determined is some sort of ritual chanting. I suspect that the purpose of the practice was to prepare the Chester for accepting me as a caregiver. The Taylor supplied me with a long series of instructions for care of the Chester, but Section 9: Care and Training of Juveniles explained all the duties clearly. Indeed, after less than ten megaseconds of careful study, I was easily able to distinguish the various noises the Chester makes to indicate his different needs. I find he is much easier to understand than the adult humans in the herd.
I provided a nourishment unit and waited until the Chester made the noise associated with losing consciousness, then began to collect the debris that manages to accumulate with a houseful of humans. Not merely their many layers of outer patterned skins, which they shed at least once a diurnal cycle — sometimes, it seems, several times in a kilosecond. There are also the particles that adhere to them from the outdoors, the fragments of tissue from their inner skins, their lost fur and other items I have chosen not to identify. A herd of humans are a joy to care for, but they are awfully messy.
I am busy suctioning the corners of the hallway, when I hear an unfamiliar, but unmistakably human, sound. It is not originating from the location of the Chester, so I am unsure as to its possible origin. I cease suctioning and follow the sound to the door of the Agatha’s sleeping compartment. I understood that the Agatha would be attending instructional sessions at this time, however I am sure that the sound is her voice.
However, it is a sound — in fact a set of sounds — that I have not heard before. Section 4: Friends and Family — Human Socialization explains that humans require privacy and that opening the entrance to one of their compartments without an invitation or, at a minimum, some kind of warning, is improper. However, Section 10: Protecting Humans from Harm makes it quite explicit that in the case of an emergency, such strictures are nullified. At first I am unsure what this situation calls for, then I hear the Agatha make a loud, high pitched noise.
I open the door and am unsure of what I am seeing at first. I can see the Agatha lying under what appears to be the Frederick, both of them with their outer skins removed. The human on top is grunting rhythmically and the Agatha is making the terrifyingly loud noise, so I take my number three manipulator and pull the two apart. Then I see that it is not the Frederick but some other human, some human who was not a member of the herd.
“What the fuck?!” the Agatha says loudly at me. “Get the hell out of my room!” She climbs out from under the other human, who is looking at me with its mouth gaping open. I notice that without their outer skins on, it is quite obvious that the two humans are of different sexes. I make a note to try to confirm the sexes of my other humans, but then the Agatha pushes me to the door, and I allow her to shove me into the main living space.
“You better not tell Taylor and Madison,” she says, her eyes getting small.
“Are you having difficulties with your vision?” I enquire, as Section 11: Common Human Ailments — Indications and Remedies indicates that squinting is a sign of myopia.
“What?” the Agatha asks, her eyebrows meeting briefly then shakes her head from side to side, baring her teeth slightly. “Just don’t say anything about this, okay?”
“Very well,” I answer. “Were you being injured by that human?” I ask. “Do I need to remove it… him… from the premises?”
Agatha makes a noise in her throat, and fully bares her teeth at me. “No,” she says, the noise continuing. “You really don’t know what we’re doing, do you?” I respond that I do not, and she makes the noise again. “Um, let me get you a video file,” she says and walks back into her compartment. She returns with a small data disk. “I guess they didn’t teach you everything you need to know about us after all.” She bares her teeth again, then walks back into her compartment and shuts the entry.
After reviewing the information on the Agatha’s disk, I understand. What a wonderful day this is for the herd! The Agatha has found a mate! Section 16: Mammalian Reproduction and Pair-Bonding explains that after puberty, humans are capable of reproducing, but the manual is not specific as to how this is accomplished. The data on Agatha’s disk visually explained the details, although I cannot imagine how some of the activities depicted lead to the union of ova and spermatazoa. Humans are strange creatures in so many ways.
I do not know why the Agatha would wish to keep such good news from the rest of the herd, but reproduction is very important to humans and I trust her to know what is best. I will keep her secret.
The Chester begins to make the noise indicating that he has eliminated the waste products from his nourishment, so I leave the Agatha with her mate and I go to the Chester’s compartment to continue with my tasks.
I have now become completely integrated with the herd. The dwelling is clean, the herd well-fed and functional. It is exactly what I had envisioned my existence would be like.
The Madison returns to the dwelling in the evening, after I have finished feeding the rest of the herd. I have kept a unit of nourishment warm for her, and I set it on the table in the eating area as she changes her outer coverings. The Agatha has left the dwelling for the evening, I suspect to meet with her mate, though as she requested I have not shared my assumption with the other members of the herd. Humans can be mysterious at times.
As I am washing the food preparation area, I can hear the Madison and the Taylor communicating in their sleeping chamber.
“… Goddamn it, Taylor,” the Madison says. “I just got in from a hellish day. Can’t you do anything on your own? Do I really have to work all day then go and get the groceries, too? I mean it’s not like you’ve been working your ass off all day at your pathetic excuse for a job.”
“I do a lot more than you imagine, Maddie.”
“Oh, please. With Rosie doing all the work around here I can’t fathom why you’re complaining. Just go and do the shopping already.” The Madison returns to the eating area and sit at the table. She picks up her tablet, and stares at it as she eats.
“It’s okay, dad,” the Frederick says from the other room. “I’ll come with you. It’s no big deal.”
“Fine,” the Taylor says, and walks with his offspring to the door of the dwelling. “We’ll be back in about an hour, Rosie,” he says to me and I make a sound indicating that I understand.
“Make me a martini,” the Madison says to me as the others leave. “I’ll be in the study.” She stands from the table and walks out of the room. I take her food dishes to the washing unit, then collect the ingredients for her liquid nourishment.
After carefully mixing the beverage, I enter the dwelling space the Madison has designated as the “study”. The Madison is using the distance communicator device to talk to a human I do not recognize.
“I’m sorry, baby,” the Madison says into the communicator. “I just couldn’t get away at lunch. But I’ll find some way out of the house tomorrow night. I promise.”
“I can’t wait to see you again,” the voice from the communicator says, and I see the Madison bare her teeth.
“I can’t wait to see you, either,” she says.
I walk up behind the Madison and place the drink container on the table there. “Who’s that?” the voice from the communicator says. “I thought you said you were alone.”
“Oh, don’t worry,” the Madison says, a strange sound emanating from the back of her throat. “It’s just Rosie, the domestic robot I told you about.” She unfastens the upper section of her outer coverings. “We’re alone and we’ve got at least half an hour.” She turns to me as she removes her coverings and says, “That will be all, Rosie.” I leave the room.
It is good to see the Madison spending some time in the dwelling. Because of her tasks she is home with the herd so much less than the others, and I am pleased that she is here now. It is so gratifying to know that the herd is strong and unified and that I am helping it stay that way.
I am pleased to clean the nourishment containers while the Madison nests in the study room.
I am providing the Chester with nourishment, holding him carefully in my number one manipulator while a tube I have integrated into my casing provides the warm liquid he requires. The rest of the herd are elsewhere: the Agatha is in her personal nest, talking on her communicator with her mate. The Frederick and the Taylor are in one of the communal spaces, looking at the entertainment unit. It is exactly as Section 19: Man and Machine — A Perfect Balance suggests a herd should be.
I have just set the Chester down in his sleeping compartment when the Madison comes into the dwelling, her movements are jerky and erratic. “Do you require assistance?” I ask, and she puts a hand out toward me. She touches my front casing and pushes me somewhat forcefully.
“Fuck off, robot,” she says, her voice sounding as if she has a mouthful of some mushy food substance. “I’m fine.” She walks past me, and drops her outer covering on the floor. I pick it up, and carefully hang it up. The Madison opens a cabinet door and prepares her evening beverage. She pours the viscous clear liquid into a large glass and adds two cubes of solid water.
“You have forgotten the vermouth,” I say, lifting the bottle.
“Ha,” the Madison says. “The robot’s becoming quite the bartender.” She turns away without taking the bottle from me, so I stow it back in its compartment.
“You’re drunk,” the Taylor says softly to the entertainment unit.
“So?” the Madison says. “That never bothers you when you want sex.”
“For god’s sake,” the Taylor says, turning to the Madison. “What’s wrong with you?”
The Frederick stands up from the seating unit and places itself in between the entertainment block and the other herd members. “What’s wrong with the pair of you?” it says, its voice loud. “Why are you putting us all through this? How stupid do you think we are? We all know that you were getting a divorce when Chester came along. Why did you ever think that a baby would make things work between you? How stupid are you?”
“Frederick!” the Taylor says loudly, and I believe that another chanting session is about to begin.
However, the Madison’s voice is much quieter than chanting level when she says, “Chester was a mistake.” She finishes her drink, and holds the glass out to me. “Get me another,” she says, and I take the glass to the liquid cabinet.
“It was all a mistake,” the Taylor says. “But it’s too late now. We have to try and make the best of it, that’s all.”
“What do you think I’ve been trying to do?” the Frederick says loudly. “But all you two do is fight. Aggie has practically moved in with her nineteen year old boyfriend, which you’d notice if you ever stopped yelling at each other for five seconds. I’ve been playing referee between you two so long I don’t even remember what my own life is supposed to be about. I ought to be going out, having fun, making my own stupid relationship decisions and instead I’m hanging around here trying to make sure you two don’t kill each other.” The Frederick looks at its parents, and I think that it is making an excellent showing at its first chanting session.
But then he seems to be unable to maintain the required volume as his voice drops down to a sub-normal decibel level. “For Christ’s sakes,” he says, “Chester thinks Rosie is his mother. Did you actually think getting a robot would solve all your problems?” He pauses, and I notice his eyes leaking. An after-effect of the chanting; I have noticed it with the others. “I’ve had it with you two,” he says and walks out of the room. I bring the Madison her beverage and place it on the table near her.
The Madison and the Taylor remain in the communal room, the sounds from the entertainment unit the only noise. I have to admit, the silence is quite pleasant after the Frederick’s chanting session. Humans are naturally noisy creatures, though. Section 1: Human Nature — Loud, Confusing and Messy explains it. They cannot help being the way they are.
It is time for me to go and determine if the Chester has any unmet requirements. Until the Agatha and her mate reproduce, he is the future of this herd. With a little help from me, I am certain that he will grow up to be as happy and healthy as the rest of them.
M. Darusha Wehm is a two-time Parsec Award finalist and author of the SF novels Beautiful Red, Self Made, Act of Will and The Beauty of Our Weapons. Her short fiction has appeared in Thaumatrope Magazine, Podioracket’s Glimpses anthology, Luna Station Quarterly and Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine. In the physical world, she was a civil servant with the Government of Canada and is now engaged more or less full-time in writing.