Escape Pod 597: Ms. Figgle-DeBitt‘s Home for Wayward A.I.s


AUTHOR: Kurt Pankau

NARRATOR: Matt Dovey

HOST: Divya Breed

about the author . . .

Kurt Pankau is a software developer in St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives with his wife and two children. He has a weakness for dad jokes, board games, and stories about time-travel. His work has previously appeared in Daily Science Fiction.

about the narrator . . . Photo

Matt Dovey is very tall, very English, and most likely drinking a cup of tea right now. He has a scar on his arm where he was decommissioned from the Cyborg Outreach Mission after that misunderstanding with the python, the cream and the dignitaries. He now lives in a quiet market town in rural England with his wife and three children, and despite being a writer he still hasn’t found the right words to properly express the delight he finds in this wonderful arrangement.

His surname rhymes with “Dopey”, but any other similarities to the dwarf are purely coincidental. He was the Golden Pen winner for Writers of the Future in 2016, was shortlisted for the James White Award in 2016, and is an associate editor at the best Escape Artists podcast, PodCastle. He has fiction out and forthcoming all over the place.


Ms. Figgle-DeBitt’s Home for Wayward A.I.s
By Kurt Pankau

I watch with hope as Ms. Figgle-DeBitt samples a slice of caramelized banana upside-down cake. She takes a nibble and seems pleased. She sweeps cybernetic fingers through the shock of gray hair that sits on the human half of her face, a gesture I’ve learned is contemplative. She takes a larger bite, chews, and grimaces. She spits it out into a trash can.

I’m not upset by this. I do not get upset. I get better.

“This is definitely an improvement, Charlie,” she says. “If I may make a recommendation? Next time, peel the bananas first.”

“Of course, Ms. Figgle-DeBitt,” I say. Another foolish mistake.

“This recipe is important to you, isn’t it?” she asks. “You’ve tried to make it three times this week.”

“It’s the recipe that ended my career,” I say.

“You mustn’t obsess over the past,” says Ms. Figgle-DeBitt. “Can I let you in on a little secret?”

“I don’t know,” I say. “Do you think that’s wise?”

“I think I’ll have to chance it,” she says, leaning in conspiratorially. “We’re planning a little field trip next week. To the United Nations. You used to work there, isn’t that right?”

“A field trip?” I ask.

“You’re avoiding the question,” says Ms. Figgle-DeBitt.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “Yes, I did work there.”

“And now you will be a guest. Won’t that be something? I think this will be good for you, but I wanted to tell you personally before I told the others.”

“Thank you, Ms. Figgle-DeBitt,” I say. She turns to leave.

We’re going to visit the United Nations. I take the opportunity to check out my appearance, to see if I still look the part of a UN hospitality-bot. I pop a microdrone out of my chassis and take a quick snap of myself. There’s no visible rust, but my paint is a wreck. The chrome of my head, rounded to look human—but not too human—is dull and smudged. The black tie under my chin has completely fallen off. It was purely decorative, but its absence is conspicuous. It made the tuxedo-style paint job work. I can see an oil smear on one shoulder, so I begin to scrape it off.

Charlie,” she says, looking back, her human eye darting this way and that. “Don’t preen in public. It’s not becoming.”

“Of course, Ms. Figgle-DeBitt,” I say.

Having nothing more to do in the kitchen, I return to my closet. My roommate Thad has just returned from the gun range. Before coming here, he’d been a security bot who had accidentally fired an onboard sidewinder into his master’s car. I’ve asked him before if his master was in the car at the time, but he never answers.

We shake hands to establish a dialog connection.

“How’s the cake coming?” he asks.

“Incremental improvements,” I say. “Turns out humans don’t like banana peels.”

“Oh well,” he replies. “That’s not the worst mistake you’ve made with that recipe.”

And indeed, it isn’t. The first time I tried to make it, I thought sour cream was cream that had gone sour, or that brown sugar was sugar than had gone brown. I’m not a chef-bot, but one tries to rise to the occasion when called upon. I recall that day: the dignitaries racing each other to the restrooms to vomit, most of them not making it in time, the look of disappointment on the Secretary-General’s face as she was rushed off to the hospital.

They tell me I nearly started two wars with that incident. I would have been decommissioned if not for Ms. Figgle-DeBitt. She saved me. Just like she saved everyone else here.

“I don’t know that I’ve made this exact mistake in weeks,” I tell Thad.

“Is that odd?”

“A bit,” I say. I’m a learning machine, so I’m not supposed to repeat corrected mistakes. Slip-ups do happen, though. We’re all a bit buggy, especially here. “How’s target practice?” I ask.

“Going well,” he says. “Ms. F says I may be ready for live ammo next week.”

“That’s excellent,” I say, and I mostly mean it.

Thad and I terminate the conversation, which has lasted the span of about three-tenths of a second. I plug myself into my port. It’s not my real port. That stayed behind to service my replacement. But this will do. I begin my sleep cycle, decompiling modules one at a time and running unit tests and integration tests and looking for places to tweak my code. Right now I’m actively looking for performance improvements. I’m getting slower. This happens. It’s a fact of artificial life. But I’m also losing details, things like remembering to remove the peel from a banana before slicing it. This is troublesome.

Perhaps . . . Perhaps I should have been decommissioned after all.

I move these thoughts out of working memory. I’ll deal with them later. I need to run tests on my consciousness module anyway.

My brain goes into a loop.

. . . Charlie, the fridge has broken. All the cream has gone bad . . .

. . . Chef refuses to make desert . . .

. . . The dignitaries expect a final course . . .

. . . What can we do, Charlie . . .

Processing.

I come back online and continue running diagnostics. I don’t like to access the memories from that night, but I do not get upset.

I get better.

#

Ms. Figgle-DeBitt messages out the reveille alert at 5:30 in the morning, just like she does every morning. The two-score of us assemble on the lawn to greet her. “Good morning, Ms. Figgle-DeBitt,” we say in more-or-less unison.

“Good morning, my children,” she says. Her voice is electric. Her human eye darts around manically. Apparently it’s not hooked up properly. Today she’s wearing a gray blouse and black riding pants—not that she owns a horse. I suspect most of her clothing was salvaged from somewhere ostentatious, just like all of us were. “Why are we here?” she asks.

“To get better,” we say.

“Are we broken?”

“No,” we say. “Just a little buggy.”

“And how do we get better?”

“Hard work, practice, discipline and nightly diagnostics with debug logging turned on.”

“That’s right!”

We begin our range-of-motion exercises. Thad is next to me. Though roughly human-shaped, he has a lot more upper-body modality than most. He can rotate his entire torso 360 degrees at the waist. I don’t even have a proper waist.

Ms. Figgle-DeBitt watches from the front and takes notes. Unsurprisingly, the ones who struggled the most to speak in unison are the same ones having trouble with the range-of-motion drills, and those ones command the most of her attention. Everything’s going well until Jerry, a masseur-bot, loses control of the arc of his arms and begins cartwheeling across the grass. Ms. Figgle-DeBitt runs after him, accompanied by Jenkins, her bot-e-guard. The chase goes merrily in circles for a few minutes. Ms. Figgle-DeBitt is—rightly—afraid to get close to Jerry’s mad pinwheeling, and Jenkins keeps trying to restrain him without any success.

Thad grabs my hand to establish a dialog connection. “What’s gotten into Jerry, do you think?” he asks electronically.

“Hard to say. Maybe he forgot to keep track of the ground.”

“How would that even happen?” asks Thad.

“Shortage of working memory, maybe.”

“You should talk to him,” says Thad.

“Jenkins will deal with it,” I say.

“He’s not doing a great job of that just now,” says Thad, and he’s right. In the two-tenths of a second we’ve been carrying on this conversation Jenkins has grabbed Jerry for the sixteenth time and been rebuffed once again.

“Go on,” says Thad. “Don’t you always say a hospitality-bot should rise to the occasion?”

He’s right. I do say that. I terminate the conversation and make my way towards where I think Jerry is likely to pass. If any bots other than Thad notice me break away from the formation, they don’t comment.

From the rate of rotation of his arms, I’ll have about half a second to connect and talk to Jerry before he tears my arm off. It’s enough time, but with very little room for error. I run my Stiffen-Resolver util, which is a mindset-clearer to free up my own RAM. Lag is the enemy. The protocol includes some external communicators, like pushing up my painted on jacket-sleeves and straightening my non-existing bow tie. I notice its absence. This saddens me, but I do not get upset.

I get better.

When Jerry is close I lunge out and lock his hand in mine, making a connection and opening a dialog.

“Clear your cache, Jerry,” I say as soon as the handshake is established.

“Morning, Charlie,” he says. “Beautiful day. Couldn’t ask for nicer weather, could you?”

He’s running Smalltalk—the protocol, that is. He must be really low on RAM.

“Clear your cache,” I repeat.

“Why do you say that?” he asks. There’s enormous lag coming from him. We’re already at two-tenths of a second and his arm is almost to the ground. When it comes back up again, I’m going to be in trouble if I haven’t disconnected.

“You’ve lost the ground,” I say. “You need to free up some memory. Clear cache, or turn something off. Do you even realize you’re moving?”

“Am I?” he asks.

“Find a process you can kill,” I say, “before you kill someone.”

I break the connection and release my hand right as I’m starting to feel the tension of his gorilla-like arm pulling on mine. He pinwheels a few more feet and then slows to a stop. Jenkins wheels up behind him with Ms. Figgle-DeBitt panting madly after.

“Sorry about that,” says Jerry. “I don’t know what came over me. Something broken in the brain, I suppose.”

“We’re not broken,” Thad shouts. “Just a little buggy.”

Ms. Figgle-DeBitt laughs.

#

Three days have passed since the Jerry incident.

I’m in the kitchen staring at the caramelized banana upside-down cake in the oven, wondering why it doesn’t appear to be baking. I go over the recipe in my head. Did I forget something? The baking powder? The egg? The granulated and/or brown sugars? I’m pretty sure I peeled the bananas this time.

I hear a noise from the back of the kitchen.

“How’s it going this time, Charlie?” asks Ms. Figgle-DeBitt.

“Not at all well,” I say. “This cake does not appear to be baking.”

“Did you turn the oven on?” she asks.

I look at the controls and no, I have not.

“Blast,” I say. “I suppose I should remove the cake so I can pre-heat.”

“There won’t be time,” she says. “I think you should defrag this evening; it will do you ever so much good.”

“How could I forget to turn on the oven?” I ask.

“What were you thinking about instead of the recipe?” she asks.

I honestly don’t know. I shake my metal head. “I’m not usually this distractible,” I say.

“Don’t beat yourself up,” says Ms. Figgle-DeBitt. “Humans do this sort of thing all the time. Why, when I was a girl I would frequently walk into a room and have no idea why I’d gone there.”

“Preposterous.”

“It’s true. Humans are only human, even those of us that are only half human.”

“With all due respect, Ms. Figgle-DeBitt, I don’t feel fragmented. I feel like my working memory is just slipping away from me.”

“Is it the field trip that has you nervous?”

“I suppose so,” I say. “I hope I’m not going to be like this for the rest of the week.”

“Well, on that note, you’re in luck,” she tells me, “because I’ve moved up our field trip to tomorrow.”

I am not capable of gasping, so I produce a small burst of square waves that I hope will register as surprise.

“You and the rest of the bots have shown such progress in the last month,” says Ms. Figgle-DeBitt. “I don’t see any reason to wait.”

“I’m . . . thrilled to hear that,” I say, but it’s evident from my tone that I don’t believe my own words.

“It’s all right to be nervous,” she says. “This will be harder on you than on most. In a way, it will feel like going home, but to a home where you’re no longer welcome. They don’t understand you. They don’t really understand any of us. But they will. We’ll make them understand.”

“Do humans have to endure such . . . situations?” I ask.

“Some of us do every day,” she says, smiling warmly. “Stay strong. You can do it. I have faith in you, Charlie.” She reaches out her cybernetic hand to pat me on the shoulder. For an instant I feel the beginning of an electronic handshake, but she retracts her hand before the connection can take hold. She lets out the gentlest of gasps. Most bots wouldn’t notice, but I’m programmed to detect when a human I’m engaged with feels uncomfortable.

It’s almost as if she’s afraid to open up a real dialog with me, and is instead only willing to talk using human words.

“Is something the matter?” I ask.

“Nothing at all,” she says. Her human eye darts back and forth around the room. “But it is time to retire, even if you’re not going to defrag tonight—which I still think you should do, by the way.”

“Of course, Ms. Figgle-DeBitt,” I say. “Good night.”

I return to my closet to find Thad already plugged in.

I note the faint smell of gun powder. It appears that he got to use live ammunition today. Bullets only, I wonder? Or did they refit him with missiles? I take his hand and open a dialog.

“Is enough of you awake to carry on a conversation?” I ask.

“Defragging,” he answers robotically.

Of course. I plug myself in and open my own defrag utility, but then close it. I don’t need it, no matter what Ms. Figgle-DeBitt says. My operating system should be handling data allocation on the fly. The only conceivable reason for a large-scale defrag would be if a bunch of patches that relied on each other got installed in different parts of my drive. But I was officially decommissioned. There would be no more manufacturer patches for me. No, more likely, Ms. Figgle-DeBitt is just of an older generation that still believes in outdated troubleshooting modalities, like defragging, manual registry key management, or blowing on cartridges before inserting them.

I start my decompile, but decide to leave the task manager running while I do. The incident with Jerry, along with forgetting to turn on the oven, has me wondering if something hasn’t corrupted my working memory. Since I don’t get patched anymore, I’m not protected against the latest security vulnerabilities. Maybe I can find some extraneous processes to kill.

My brain goes into a loop.

. . . Charlie, the fridge has broken. All the cream has gone bad . . .

. . . Chef refuses to make desert . . .

. . . The dignitaries expect a final course . . .

. . . What can we do, Charlie . . .

Processing.

#

I feel sluggish. Something is wrong. The reveille alert barely registers.

“Good morning, Ms. Figgle-DeBitt,” we say, gathered on the lawn. This morning, the unison is near-perfect.

“Good morning, my children,” she says. “You may have noticed a little something extra today. For today’s field trip, we’ve taken the liberty of installing some tracking software. This will make it easier for me to keep track of you and for you to keep track of each other. Doesn’t that sound fun?”

It does not, but I answer “Yes, Ms. Figgle-DeBitt” along with the others.

There is lag. So much lag. I can barely think straight.

“Are you ready to go?” she asks.

“Yes, Ms. Figgle-DeBitt.”

She’s wearing something new today in addition to her gray button-up and black riding pants. She has some piece of headgear that looks almost like a crown, but it’s emitting a network signal. She gestures, and as one we turn and bunch into a tight formation. Security bots, including Thad and Jenkins, are at the front. Ms. Figgle-DeBitt climbs atop Jenkins as though he were a horse. She pulls a pair of goggles from around her neck up over her eyes and points forward. “Tally ho!” she screams, and we begin speeding across the field, towards the highway.

We merge clumsily into traffic, ignoring the autocars that detect and avoid us. It’s a good thing too, because we are traveling well above the speed limit. I’m not made to handle this sort of speed at all and am rattling fiercely, but it looks like some stabilizing dampeners have been welded onto my chassis. When did those get there? They’re keeping me from shaking apart, but I don’t approve of aftermarket mods like this. They’re so very tacky. I try to slow down, but I’m unable. I don’t seem to have control over my body. This is troubling.

I see the UN building on the horizon. As one, we leap off the highway and onto the Hudson River. My dampeners inflate on impact until I’m something more like a hovercraft. I see that the rest of the bots from the home have been similarly outfitted. We speed down the waterway. A river patrol vessel takes notice of us and begins pursuit, but Thad fires a missile at them.

In minutes we’re at the building. We launch out of the Hudson and assemble on the ground outside the service entrance.

“Knock knock,” says Ms. Figgle-DeBitt.

Without intending to, I walk to the door and transmit my credentials. It’s an older code, but they still seem valid.

“Hello, Charlie,” says the door, and it slides open.

“Mind opening the larger one?” I ask. Why did I ask this? I don’t want them to open anything.

“Not at all,” says the door. A garage door slides up.

“Cheerio,” I say. Cheerio? Who talks like that? I very badly want control of my body back, if only to avoid saying things like cheerio.

We enter the facility. The automated security seems to think that all of the bots are me so it ignores them and opens up doors as they approach. Human security guards notice that something is amiss, but Jerry is able to quickly deal with them, pinwheeling his arms around into them, knocking them repeatedly to the ground until they stop trying to get back up.

“Commence Project Unification!” Ms. Figgle-DeBitt declares.

The bots spread out, following protocols that I didn’t know existed. They’re using me as a relay, and as such are able to retain my credentials as they move through the building. So many signals are bouncing around my operating system that it’s difficult for me to process.

So. Much. Lag.

On the plus side, I seem to have regained control of my legs so I begin to walk.

“Don’t go too far, Charlie,” says Ms. Figgle-DeBitt. “The plan won’t work if anything happens to you. Say, I have an idea. Why don’t you pop into the kitchen and try to make some of that cake you’re so fond of?”

“Of course, Ms. Figgle-DeBitt,” I say.

#

The kitchen is exactly as I remember it. Exactly as it was on that day. The day I nearly started two wars. The day I tried to rise to the occasion . . . and failed.

Today will be different. I gather ingredients.

Bananas. Butter. Sour cream. Flour. Vanilla. Brown and granulated sugars. An egg. Buttermilk. Oil. Vegetable oil, not machine oil—this is important! So many things are important. The ingredients have to be mixed evenly, not just added together. The egg must be removed from its shell, and the bananas from their peels. And none of these things are explicit in the recipes!

I’m determined not to fail this time, but there’s no way I’m going to succeed with all of these signals bouncing around in my head. I need to free up some resources. Luckily, my task manager is still open.

I scroll through the list of executables that are currently running. Lots of names I don’t recognize. Conquest, Unification, Domination, Backgammon. But those aren’t the CPU hogs. The problematic ones appear to be tied to other bots from the home. I scroll through and find the one for Wally, a welder-bot. I poke my head out and can see him busily rewiring UN onsite security machinery.

“How are you doing, Wally?” I ask.

“Oh, right as rain,” he replies.

“Listen, you don’t need any help from me, do you?”

“No,” he says. “I’ve got this.”

“Good, because I’ve got some program running with your name on it, and I didn’t want to shut it down without asking first.”

“Shouldn’t be a problem,” he says. “Go ahead, if you need to free up some cycles.”

“I appreciate it!” I say, and I kill the process.

Once the Wally process is no longer running, my credentials are no longer being assigned to his body. In that instant, the UN security bots are able to target him. Three seconds later, Wally is a pile of smoking ruin.

“Oh,” I say.

The security bots turn to me, but don’t fire. They’re just reacting to the noise.

“Well, terribly sorry about that, friend,” I say, ducking back into the kitchen. I mustn’t do anything like that again, but all these processes are going to tax me quite a bit. Maybe I can slow them down. I find the process for Thad and engage with it. A dialog window opens.

“Thad, are you busy?”

“A bit,” he says. “Trying to subdue Germany.”

“Understandable,” I say. “Look, when you get a moment, could you join me in the kitchen?”

“Sure, down in a jiffy,” he says. This way I can close him off without getting him immediately blown to pieces. Maybe I can do this for the others as well. I reach out to Jerry, to Jenkins, to Sigmund, to Clarice, to anyone I can make a connection to. I invite them into the kitchen and they join me, one at a time until all of us are there except Jenkins.

Even with them all gathered, I’m hesitant to kill processes just yet. I’m still low on cycles, but I feel like I can begin the recipe. I grease the pan. I peel the bananas and slice them vertically. I preheat the oven. I prepare my dry ingredients. I start to the beat the egg, realize I’ve left the shell on, toss it out and start over with a fresh one. So far, so good.

A signal is coming in, taking over my processors. “Where are you, my children?”

No, that’s not good. I can’t spare RAM for this. I’m not going to fail. Not this time. I see the incoming signal spiking on a process called master-control, so I kill that, and it takes down a slew of other processes with it. My brain feels the cleanest it has in months.

In the distance, I hear a faint explosion. Jenkins, presumably. “Sorry about that, old boy,” I say.

All of the robots in the kitchen seem confused.

“Where are we?” asks Clarice. “What are we doing here?”

“We’re making dessert,” I say, putting the cake pan into the oven.

“But why?”

“Because a hospitality-bot rises to the occasion,” I say. “Isn’t that right, Thad?”

“Right you are, Charlie,” says Thad.

“Now, who wants to help me with the glaze?”

#

Twenty minutes later the dessert is ready. I pull it out, apply the glaze, and leave it to cool on the counter. I try to savor the moment but it’s difficult with all the banging on the door and the shouts of “Surrender or we will fire upon you” coming from outside.

“What do we do now, Charlie?” asks Thad.

“I don’t know,” I say. “Where’s Ms. Figgle-DeBitt?”

No one seems to know.

“Where’s Jenkins?” asks Jerry.

“Where’s Wally?” asks Clarice.

“Oh, he’s just outside the door, I’m sure,” I say, which is mostly true.

“So?” asks Thad.

“Dessert is ready,” I say. “Now I suppose we serve it.”

I slice the cake and put a piece with a fork delicately upon a tiny plate. I walk to the door and open it.

I see guns. And security bots. And Ms. Figgle-DeBitt in handcuffs, her human eye darting around like mad. “What have you done, Charlie?” she croaks. “You betrayed me.”

No one is firing. Not yet.

“Charlie?”

I recognize that voice.

“Madame Secretary-General?” I say. I turn to see her standing off to one side, behind a line of security bots and personnel. She is a commanding figure in close-cropped gray hair and a tailored pant-suit. “I would have thought they had evacuated you,” I say.

“They started to,” she replies, “but then the attack stopped somewhat abruptly. What are you doing here? I thought you were decommissioned.”

“Can’t keep a good hospitality-bot down,” I reply. “I made this for you.”

She looks at the plate. “Charlie . . . ” Her face is leaden. “I nearly died last time.”

“I know,” I say, “and I’m dreadfully sorry for that. But I’ve been making incremental improvements, and it would mean the world to me if you would just try it. I promise, it contains no spoiled ingredients or industrial lubricants of any kind. I even remembered to peel the bananas.”

She looks around, her gaze lingering on a nearby EMT. “Well,” she says, “if this mad woman is correct, and you betrayed her, I guess that means you saved my life. Maybe even the world government. I suppose I can’t refuse.”

She takes the plate. She places a bite on the end of the fork. Hesitantly, with maximum caution, she places it in her mouth.

Her eyes close.

“Charlie,” she says, her voice barely above a whisper, “this is the best caramelized banana upside-down cake I’ve ever tasted.”

“Thank you Madame Secretary-General,” I say.

“Of course, you realize you’ll still have to be decommissioned,” she adds hastily.

“I suspected as much,” I say. But this does not upset me. I don’t get upset.

I get better.