I do not understand. But still I hug the screaming boy.
Adam flails in my arms. He screams and tugs and kicks, and all I can do is hold him gentler as I kneel gingerly on the dusty concrete. The floor is cold and hard.
“Master Adam,” I say. “Please do not cry. It will only cause your health to worsen.”
But his bawling only intensifies. I cannot move, for his short arms are wrapped around my midsection, and the yellow icon pulsing in the corner of my vision tells me that excessive movement would be unwise.
A stifled sob from the entryway prompts me to look up. My mistress’ head is buried in my master’s shoulder. I look to him for answer or direction, but instead he turns to study the rusty automobile to his left. His cheeks glint bright in the sunlight. I find myself confused, and return my attention to the boy.
“Master Adam. Please do not cry. Your parents are waiting.”
My second entreaty is similarly unsuccessful, and his wailing continues unabated. I search my circuits. Over the years, I had built up an extensive set of protocols in dealing with situations such as these, right from the moment I was assigned my young charge. This time, however, his tantrum is beyond my understanding, and I can only repeat my elementary programming.
“Adam, it’s… it’s time to go,” my master says hesitantly. He comes forward and puts a hand on Adam’s shoulder. His voice is oddly modulated, in a manner which I have never heard before, and I find myself double-checking my audio transducers.
It is strange. Nothing seems amiss. Perhaps they will fix themselves when I am back at full charge.
“I WANT NANA!!” the little master shrieks. His screwed-up face is red and wet, and his tiny fist bats his father’s hand away. He coughs noisily, and his angry breathing becomes a strained wheeze. I immediately extend a palm.
“Master, his inhaler please.”
My master fumbles with his jacket pocket and hands me the bright green cylinder. I bring it close to Adam’s face. His breathing is ragged, and he looks at me tearfully through red-rimmed eyes.
“Adam, please open wide. Train is coming.”
His lip twitches, and I ease in the mouthpiece, administering a dose. His panting grows lighter, and I start to assess if a second round of medication is required. I had been briefed extensively by my mistress on how to ration the family resources, and had been given strict instructions to conserve everything with the greatest of diligence – money, water, even power. As of late, even essentials such as Adam’s medication have to be doled out shrewdly.
The rise and fall of Adam’s chest slows, and his respiration grows less labourious, but he continues to sob uncontrollably into my lap. I find myself helpless still.
So I take his head in my arms and begin to play a cheerful jingle. It is one of his favourites – it is the theme song from an old cartoon about a blue locomotive and his compatriots. Adam loves trains, and the plastic toys are often the only presents that he receives.
Sure enough, his weeping begins to lessen. His sobs turn to sniffles, and the shuddering of his small shoulders ceases. Nana, he cries softly. I caress his chin with my finger, and the song comes to a merry end. I resist the urge to prolong the moment. My master and mistress need to attend to their workday schedule.
I tentatively try to loosen his embrace. But now he comes off easily, his energy spent. He stands there, his wide damp eyes never leaving mine. My photo-receptors study his face curiously.
“Adam, it’s time to go,” I repeat gently. I give him a tender nudge towards my master.
He goes, clutching at his father’s leg. As his hand slips from mine, he lets out a whimper, and the tears in his eyes quiver but do not fall. He finds the coarse material of his father’s trousers and grabs it tight. A rough hand strokes reluctantly at his brown hair.
They begin to walk away, back to where my mistress is standing, but Adam’s gaze never leaves my face. I notice a man in oil-stained overalls lounging behind my mistress. He holds a clipboard in his crossed arms, and taps a foot impatiently.
“Say goodbye to Nana,” my master says softly.
“B-bye bye, Nana,” Adam mumbles. His speech is improving. Good. Maybe next year he will be able to read his books without my help.
“Goodbye, Adam,” I reply. The whole exchange confuses me somewhat, but this seems like the correct response.
My mistress picks up her son, and I see that she, too, has his red eyes. They go, and then they are gone. The image of my young master’s face lingers in my memory circuits.
My master follows them out the entryway, footsteps echoing heavily in the confines of the warehouse. He pauses, just before the corner, and looks at me helplessly. “Goodbye, Nana.”
“Goodbye… master,” I reply. The words come slow and uncertain. Surely there is a problem with my vocoder. I begin moving memory about, as I have a thousand times before, in preparation for a reboot. That usually fixes the problems.
I blink. My master is gone. How did I not see him go?
The man in overalls grumbles faintly to himself and marks something off on his clipboard. He too leaves the warehouse, and I am left alone, but for the stacks of old rusty appliances and weathered metal tools. I notice that many of these items look broken, or ancient.
With much creaking and clanking, the warehouse shutter door begins to descend, slowly but surely cutting off my only source of light. I wait patiently – the yellow icon in my periphery beating insistently – as my memory systems store, reallocate, and erase. But the image of Adam does not fade, and so I devote some small resource of logic to evaluate those last interactions. As the reboot takes hold, my joints stiffen, my head bows, and the electricity begins to dwindle from my veins.
The rectangle of sunlight quickly grows thinner and thinner, like a sunset in fast forward. As the boundary of darkness crosses my face, my logic circuits respond, and finally, I come to understand.
Yellow flashes to red. I stop the reboot, and stay kneeling in quiet wakefulness, waiting for the shutter to clatter shut.
// AUTHOR’S NOTE – This story was inspired by a writing prompt on Reddit at /r/WritingPrompts by /u/ItsPronouncedGif. The prompt is: A ‘low battery’ sign flashes in your vision.