Science Fiction Robots dystopia outside voice

Don't Talk to the Robots

By H.L. Fullerton
Aug 31, 2020 · 1,021 words · 4 minutes

Photo by Photos Hobby via Unsplash.

From the author: In a world ruled by robots, a boy goes outside for the first time—and things happen.


Before we go, Mom squats and zips my coat.  She adjusts my hat so it covers my ears.  I'll push it back up when she's not looking.

"Remember," she says, "don't talk to the robots."  I nod and she stands, nibbles on her thumbnail, and stares at the top of my head.  "You have to be very quiet.  Outside voice," she reminds me.

I nod my whole body, nearly bounce out of my shoes.  I've never seen robots up close before, only heard them from our window.  Maeven runs down the hall and says, "Don't let him come.  He won't be quiet."  But this time I know what she's doing and don't argue with her.  Mom takes us both.  As we creep down the stairs--quiet like ants--I stick out my tongue at Maeven.  She can't tattle or Mom will send her back to our apartment.  I like outside already and I haven't even seen it yet.  Sometimes it's hard being the littlest; everyone gets to tell you what to do and there's no one for you to boss. 

The robot in the wall says: Please sign out.  Did you remember your key card?  Please sign out.  You did not sign out.  Please--  Mom hurries us through the door and we are outside with the robots. 

Please say a command.

Did you say, 'Go to...First...Street'?

Welcome to First Street.

Walk.  Walk.  Walk.  Walk.

Recalculating.

On the corner, two robots are deep in conversation.  Neither is listening to the other.  They don't notice us sneak past them.

Sorry, I did not understand that.

Arriving at destination.

Welcome to Frank's.

Thank you for shopping at Frank's.

This week's sales--

Maeven ignores the robots, keeping her eyes straight ahead.  I look everywhere.  There is so much to see.  Mom puts her finger over her lips to remind me to be quiet.  I frown back.  I've been very quiet and want to tell her so.  Instead, when she isn’t looking I touch a crossing guard robot.  It doesn't say anything about the touching; it orders: Walk.  Walk.  Walk.

We walk.  The robot voices crowd us, begging for attention. 

Watch your step.

The tram from...Rawling...will arrive in three...hours... and...fifteen...seconds.

Tickets are available--

Mom keeps us moving down the street. 

Please say a command.

"Walk," I say in my best outside voice.  Maeven hears me and tugs on Mom's coat sleeve.  She points at me, then the robot who is now following us.  I shouldn't have said anything to the robot.  I know the rules.

Mom herds us to the side of the building and stands in front of us while the robot walks past, ignores a crossing guard's warning to Stay on the sidewalk, and gets hit by a bus. 

Only the humans stop what they're doing.  The rest of the world continues on.  Dad always says if it wasn't for the robots, humanity would have died off.  That's why they're in charge now.  I want to ask Mom if this is what the end of the world was like, but my mittens are in the way. 

Clear.  Clear.  Clear.

Assistance needed at Barton and Elm...

Please remain safely on the sidewalk.

A band of street-cleaning robots rush to the scene and remove the debris.  The bus requests a repairbot, but there are so few left that none shows.  A man in a brown coat across the way signs at Mom.  She lets go of our coats long enough to make the 'all's fine' gesture, and then we are crossing the cleared street at a run.  We don't slow down.  I grab Maeven's hand, worried now that we won't find Dad.  That we will return home without him.  He's already been gone so long.  Maeven squeezes my hand, but not in that mean pinchy way of hers.  She's scared, too. 

We get to the hidey-place.  It is crowded with people.  Everyone is signing so the robots can't hear.  Some of them breathe so loud I think the robots will come and talk to them. 

Scan your eye...dee...card for assistance.

Invalid.  Invalid.

To report a card lost or stolen, say or press one.  To apply for a new card, say or press two.  To speak with someone in customer service, say or press three.  To repeat this message, stay on the line...

I put my hands over my mouth and pretend I'm an ant.  Mom's hands move so fast I can't tell what she's saying.  I look at Maeven for help.  She explains Mom is trying to get me a card so we can ride the tram to where Dad went scavenging.  Some people here are selling hideys and others, like Mom, are bidding.  Cards for sale are scanned to prove they're still active.

A woman in a blue coat tries to get the desk robot to issue her a card.  She keeps pressing two, but nothing happens.  She starts to cry.  The robot says, Sorry, I did not understand that.

The door opens and a robot walks in.  Please say a command.

The bidding comes to a standstill.  People shift away from the robot as it moves through the room.  Some flee outside.  It approaches one of the sellers who holds out a hidey card for scanning. 

Access denied.

More people leave.  The robot hears the crying woman in the blue coat.  It goes to her.  Someone pulls her away.  The walking robot talks to the desk robot.

Please say a command.

Sorry, I did not understand that.

Their voices sound the same.  Mom whispers, "Let's go," in my ear. 

Without a card, we can't board the tram to look for Dad.  "We have to find Dad."  I use my inside voice. 

Robot heads swivel.  Did you say, 'Find Dad'?

Maeven pinches me.  Mom tries to cover my mouth.  I jerk free.

I remember my whispered, "Walk," how the robot walked even when the crossingbot told it not to.  Maybe robots like being told what to do.

"Yes," I yell, and think how long I've waited for someone to listen to me. 

Finding...Dad, the robot says.  Grown-ups stare at me as if I'm scarier than the robots.

This story originally appeared in Plasma Frequency.