As the sun rose leisurely over Hillberry Manor, the curtains in Ackley’s room drew slowly open and the reactive tint over the windows grew slowly clearer. The room was programmed to control the amount of light, gradually and carefully, over the course of the dawn and unto the late morning. Silent clocks struck some random hour of the morning; she would notice then, as though by accident, the bright world outside her room. In an instant the curtains would snap open the rest of the way, and the dark tint would vanish. With her, the room had awoken. She yawned.
“Good morning, Grover Cleveland.”
She waved to the robotic fixture on the wall opposite her bed. Its bright red central eye lit up, and it waved back with a spindly titanium and aluminium leg, curling the claws at the end like fingers. Grover Cleveland, though, was the house itself. It was Dr. Cruciere’s artificial intelligence, silently alive in every part of the house that it regulated, including Ackley’s room. This was simply a fact, and nothing Ackley had any opinions about it. Much of her life was the same, governed by facts that she did not have much of an opinion on. She reserved those for important things.
Every morning, after a sudden onset of consciousness, Ackley took diligent care of tasks once done by the nurses of Fairway Children’s Hospital. This was not, once, a fact – she had made it so by vehemently insisting she would care for herself, and that she needed only the tools to do so. Those tools had been then been granted. Now it was a fact. She helped herself to the edge of the bed by a safety rail and dangled her legs from the side. She snapped her fingers and the round, metallic white drone sleeping atop her bedposts climbed carefully down to her, following the length of vacuum tube connecting it to Ackley’s chest. Its own red LED eye met hers and blinked with recognition.
“Morning, Nurse.” Ackley said.
Nurse bowed its circular body on its spindly legs. It then reached a leg out to the drawers beside the bed, opening one shelf at a time and retrieving various items. Bandages, disinfectant, a change of clothes, and a little joystick; the Nurse drone set about the morning ritual, helping Ackley remove the bandages around her chest, where the vacuum tube connected to Nurse burrowed into her lungs and sucked out the deadly bile from them. Ackley applied disinfectant to the area around the tube, and a new set of bandages. She changed from her pajamas to a dress shirt, two buttons carefully left undone so her tube could stick out, as well as a little vest, buttoned the same way, and a pair of pants. Nurse picked up the joystick and handed it to Ackley. On its surface, a red button powered the electric wheelchair beside her bed, and with the joystick Ackley drove it closer and turned it around so the seat faced her.
Ackley stood, casually, easily, and she walked; she then sat in the chair and made herself comfortable. Nurse climbed on to the back of the chair, slipping into a mesh bag sewn in for it. It outstretched two of its legs over Ackley’s shoulder, like loose straps. Ackley felt the thrumming of its various systems behind her. She moved her chair to a little door on the side of the room, near the large drone affixed to the wall. Nurse reached over her head to open the door and deposit a red, biohazard labeled tank into it. The tank was immediately sucked down a chute, and a moment later a similar, empty tank took its place. Nurse retrieved and attached this tank to its back.
“That appears to be all.” Ackley said. “Let’s go, Nurse.”
Driving the wheelchair was as easy as moving the joystick. Two large wheels and two smaller ones in the back provided all the support and motion that she required. The turn radius left a little to be desired, but she had become used to it. Out the door, the automatic portion of the staircase slowly brought her to the bottom floor. She drove to the back garden, where surrounded by the brick fence a veritable forest had been cultivated. Tall trees cast a gloom across the backyard where light only intermittently penetrated the treetops in thin beams, shifting with the cloud cover and windblown branches. Everywhere she looked there were plants, across the brick wall, crawling down from balconies, sprouting from the ground. Flowers and fruits brought flecks of color to the display, and snapping flytrap heads and acid-spiting spouts established an animated presence. A little path carved across the garden brought Ackley to a clearing in the center with a gazebo, where the sun shone sharply from overhead, its rays coming down like a spotlight.
Ackley circled the gazebo for the wheelchair access ramp, and climbed it. In the gazebo, she found Amanda in business attire, her hair up in a professional-looking bun, seated at a little table with a stack of papers on one side and a very large calzone split into four parts on a plate. She put down a file folder and greeted Ackley by spreading her arms and smiling ear to ear. Ackley drove the wheelchair closer and leaned out. Amanda’s arms snapped shut around her, and the woman almost pulled Ackley from the wheelchair entirely in a tight, frenzied embrace.
“Ohh you’re so adorable! I’ll never get tired of hugging you!”
“You have a little sauce in your mouth.” Ackley said.
Amanda let Ackley go and quickly brought up her smartphone to look herself over in its handy mirror app. She then dabbed her mouth with a handkerchief to clean the offending stain. “Thanks much! Would you like to share before going to the labs? I feel we’ve made a lot of progress with that chef robot!”
“A calzone is still pizza.” Ackley bluntly said.
“Oh, I guess you’re a pizza half-empty kind of person.” Amanda replied.
They shared the calzone. Amanda was right. While a bit greasy still, the robot had become skilled at taking one’s requests and then making them into some kind of pizza. The calzone was essentially a vegan sandwich ran through the robot’s pizza programming, with gooey avocado, crisp mushrooms and lettuce and carrots wrapped in a crust. While she ate, Amanda regaled her with her latest ideas for Noodle Incorporated, and at the same time reading a plethora of documents on current developments, legal cases, propositions, and earnings reports.
“You are certainly busy.” Ackley said.
“Quite! Anne-Marie helps a bit, but being a CEO can be pretty stressful.” Amanda said. She wiped her hand over her forehead, as though to control a profuse sweat. But her forehead was dry, and the day was fresh. Birds sang in the trees around them. “But it’s very fulfilling work, and Anne-Marie thinks it’s important.”
“I’m sure it’s convenient for her wife to control a huge corporation.”
“It does help with her interesting hobbies from time to time.”
Amanda happily returned to work and Ackley excused herself. She pressed a button on the southern pillar holding the roof of the gazebo and walked down the ramp again. Around the other side of the gazebo the staircase had become inverted and flattened out into a slide, stretching down a dark hole below the garden. Ackley clamped her arms and waist to the chair and inched it slowly forward until her wheels went over the lip, and she sped down the slope, into a metal chute straight through the earth. She closed her eyes; moments later a powerful stream of cold gas slowed her descent. The wheelchair tapped a cushioned wall. Ackley rolled out of the landing area and out to a pristine corridor, white and sterile. Orb-like robots pushed carts of material and chemical drums to and fro; cameras attached to electric stun guns monitored the area, but flashed their red LED eyes in morse code greetings when Ackley passed.
“Where is Dr. Cruciere? And Asmodeus?” She asked aloud, seemingly to no one in particular. A panel on the wall lit up and a holographic display sketched a path for Ackley to follow. She traversed white hall until she found a door, indicated on the map, labeled Workstation 7. A biometric scanner showered her in lights, and the door slid seamlessly into the wall to allow her passage. Unlike the corridors the workstation was unpainted steel, dinged and battered in places where heavy objects had been dropped or weapons tested, smelly and in disarray, screws and wheels and tools rolling across the floor, mounds of metal scrap and puddles of oil cluttering the work space.
In the center of the room, Doctor Cruciere banged into place a sheet of metal around the thick, stumpy leg of what appeared to be a quadrupedal box, mounting a cannon of ridiculous proportions. It was so large that thick support bars had been added to the front and back of the box-shaped chassis to prevent it from tipping forward or back; the support bars themselves then had slots where Ackley assumed more legs would be added. Atop the monstrosity, Asmodeus looked down with an impassive expression on her face, contemplating the support bars. Whatever it was that went through her mind, she made none of it known, and after Dr. Cruciere had bolted the extra metal around the legs, she stepped back and took in the design, and laughed out loud to herself. She seemed satisfied with it.
“Good afternoon, Doctor.” Ackley called out.
“Hello!” Doctor Cruciere replied. “You have come just in time, to witness my genius!”
From her white coat she took a joystick, similar to Ackley’s, and she pushed on the red button with a demented smile on her face. Asmodeus cried out in shock and quickly clambered off the top of the robot and dove into cover – in the next instant the cannon glowed bright red and burst immediately into pieces, the support bars flying in opposite directions, the chassis compressed into the ground, while the bulk of the cannon itself launched backwards into the wall and burst through to the adjacent work room. There was smoke and fire and screaming metal choking the adjacent room black and red so that nothing in it could be seen from the breached wall. Behind them the doors opened and spindly-legged drones carrying firefighting equipment rushed through the breach, leaping in to contain the flames.
Surprisingly, nobody was harmed by this catastrophe.
Cruciere clapped her hands. “Yes! That’s the kind of power I wanted. Now, I simply have to reinforce everything so that the cannon’s awesome power does not destroy itself and everything around it, and instead, destroys my enemies!” She decisively pounded her fist into her open palm, psyching herself up.
Asmodeus peeked out from behind a heap of scrap, breathing heavily. She was unharmed, and her work suit had not even a scratch on it, but she appeared quite winded from having to make her hasty escape. “Doctor, if you would be so kind, would you please inform me when next you are testing vehicles I am mounted atop?”
“Sorry. I got a bit excited.” Cruciere threw the joystick over her shoulder, into the shattered wreckage of the boxy little legged tank. She kneeled down to Ackley and patted her head. “So how’s my little genius today? Anything particular you’re up to? Want to help me test a few other giant cannons and bombs?”
Ackley sighed. “I was interested in seeing you build something that worked.”
Doctor Cruciere scoffed. “Engineering is a process! Trial and error refines a design from a mere idea into a working implementation! Hmph. Consumers only see the end result, and they think it came into being without any effort, but around here I am dedicated to wringing every last bit out of data out of a design.”
“Consumers, in this case, being the people that your giant gun will terrorize.”
“It’s for their own good, in the end.” Cruciere declared.
“I suppose so.” Ackley said, containing her laughter. She had no opinion on that either, other than the prospect was a little strange and a little fascinating, in the same way as her strange new life.
Dr. Cruciere grumbled. “So then, have you any ideas for making it better, if you’re going to criticize?”
Ackley smiled broadly. “I’ve actually got a few.”