PL09 - the Child Takes a Nurse

by Haro James

Copyright© 2020 by Haro James

Science Fiction Story: A short tale of relationships: faithful vs fractious, human and automaton, father vs son. A companion story to The Brothers Keeper. ~ 2,900 words.

Tags: Steampunk   Coming of Age  

Those inclined to kindness might describe Philly Keeper as a very young sixteen. His father had shipped him east to St. Denis Collegiate in hopes of maturing him. From all Nathaniel Phillip Keeper Junior heard, it was no better a fit than home. When he thought of his youngest child, it was mostly in irritation.

Discounting the rocky years with his own parents, Nathaniel just didn’t know how a perfectly normal man could fail to connect with his son - unless there was something wrong with the kid. He also didn’t know his son was on a Vancouver-bound flight, in a determined fury for a confrontation.

During an early group conversation with his new roommates, Philly learned that nanny automatons had long been upgradeable to “serve the maturing needs of their charges.” One of the boys flashed up an on-line article on the latest investment trend: reconditioned domestic units leased out as travel center kiosk sex-bots. Another laughingly revealed his older cousin ordered one with his own sister’s features. The boy said it sounded creepy, until you saw the sister. Then who cared? Seeing his shock, the others gleefully pressed on, trying to outdo each other.

Philly was repulsed by the crudity of his classmates, and stunned to learn the Keeper Group carried out the majority of ‘carnalizations’ in North America. He seethed on the flight home, hardly able to look at the traveller’s comfort kiosks in Calgary as he hurried from one gate to the next.

Rather than alert anyone of his return, Philly boarded a Skytrain that dropped him within half an hour’s walk of home. His father was working in the home office wing. Nathaniel preferred to do so when he had no in-person meetings. Between the autos and human assistants, everything he needed done in the office was taken care of, often better than he could do himself.

“Hey hey, Little Nate. Get kicked out for writing poetry in programming class? Maybe dancing in data management?” He uttered Philly’s shortened given name with an edge. The man watched to see if he would get a rise out the boy, then looked more carefully. “What’s on your mind, kid?”

“The things the Keeper Group does for money, that’s what’s on my mind.”

Nathaniel puffed out his cheeks, then let the air out with a small pop. “OK, whine away, kid. Your whole life is built on disgusting old men working to fund you, your sailing club, even that UBC auto-sciences building named after our evil family. Anyway, pick a detail you don’t like, then get on with the wholesale condemnation.”

And his son did just that. While Nathaniel Phillip Keeper III disappointed most of his family, few questioned his intelligence. The flight had given him time to think about, then phrase and rephrase his thoughts. What might have been a scattered emotional outburst was instead an articulate and well organized critique. He finished with “I know your nickname for me, and how many of your staff and faux friends sneer at YOU for that?”

His father had grown increasingly red faced as the tirade went on. With that final hit, he could stand no more. Nathaniel blasted back “How the hell did I get such a poncey little prig? It’s like I raised the Bot Liberation Army or something. Christ, Philly, they’re machines. Just machines. Even that bleeding heart grandfather of yours tended to business when he needed to. But me, what did I do to deserve you?”

Nathaniel stood, deliberately pausing to check his message screen, then moved to loom over his son. He was only slightly disappointed that his favorite dominance tactic failed to cow the boy. Kid might have some spine after all.

“Tell you what, you don’t like the trade, you check out, change your last name and go flip burgers for a living. Of course, if you leave out the icky trade, you leave out the icky benefits too. You’re not all that many generations from our greasy mechanic ancestors. Should be easy to dump the leisurely dilettante life, right? Just remember, poverty stricken idealists are just that, poverty stricken.”

There seemed to be no more to say. Contriving such impasses was one of Nathan’s most successful negotiating tactics. He had engineered such a situation a dozen times, then waited out the opposition. Philly had none of that experience, and didn’t realize there might be more to the discussion. He slammed out the door, heading towards the downtown lights.

Shaughnessy to downtown was a longish, but reasonable, hike. The distance suited his habit of walking to think. While his pace was quick and sure, he still did not have a firm destination as he neared the downtown. First, thinking to seek out friends along the Davie Street club strip, he headed in that direction. Then, realizing they were no more than sailing acquaintances, not serious friends, he changed destinations.

Philly headed for the waterfront, walking head down, hands jammed in his pockets. He found himself staring across the inlet to the early evening lights of the North Shore. He turned left towards the Preserve. Shortly, he arrived at the main entrance of the former public park, where auto-gatekeepers ensured only subscribers were admitted. Philly swiped a card with a single-digit membership number – meaning the Keeper family had helped rescue what nearly became a thousand acres of public housing.

Driven along by hostility and confusion, he strode along the sea wall. By the time he rounded the northern point, crossed under the bridge and arrived at the old rowing club, he was tired and cold. The regularly-spaced viewing shelters offered heat, auto-dispensed hot drinks and a place out the rain. Hours later, he was still huddled in one as the sun rose over the inlet.

He decided he needed the counsel of the only compassionate and steady person in his family. From the day Noelle Keeper fled from his father, Philly’s nanny had been the sole shelter of calm and encouragement in his life. She helped teach him to be mannerly, to keep his room tidy, to read and to think critically. When he was sent to Montreal, Philly had begged his father not to get rid of her. Nathaniel recognized a deal maker when he saw it, so grudgingly agreed. The kid would only go if she stayed.

Philly needed to get back to the house. Fatigue brought a bone-deep, near gut-shake chill to the boy as he plodded back along the waterfront. He quickly realized he would not manage the walk back to Shaughnessy. When he came to a hotel exclusive enough to have a human doorman, he curtly told the man to hail a cab. Philly’s age, state of distraction and general dishevelment would have normally have given the man second thoughts. But the boy’s tone and posture presumed obedience. The doorman made the call.

An automated cab arrived. As he got in, the boy flipped a two-FranQ coin at the man with only the barest nod. The doorman watched the cab trundle away before examining the matte-finish nickel disk. The latest in the succession of virtual currencies, the FranQ only surfaced as a physical medium in the last six months. The doorman never expected to see one, let alone receive a tip worth nearly three hundred bucks. And from such a skinny-ass, tear-streaked kid. Go figure.

Philly entered the house through the kitchen, accepted scrambled eggs from the automaton cook, then made his way up the back stairs to the third floor. As he neared his room, he saw a piece of paper taped to the door. No doubt a scorching note from the old man. Without reading it, he peeled it off and crammed it into a jacket pocket. He continued to the attic stairs. Where he failed to find Nanny Lisbeth. A bit of thought took him back down the stairs to the basement. She was in the old furnace room, wrapped and labelled for long term storage.

After peeling off the layer of polywrap, Philly uncovered the panel behind her right ear, smiling at his boyhood cleverness: he had relabelled “Reactivation” as “2REACTIV8”. Then he realized the auto was naked. He blushed.

He had always been careful to keep Nanny Lisbeth clean, decorous and functionally clothed. He now knew that many of his contemporaries had glued on nipples, added lacy brassieres and garters, or attached a merkin to their own auto nannies. On recalling how he had to be told a merkin was a wig for down there, his blush deepened.

He keyed in the reboot sequence. It ran much faster than usual. The processor, disconnected from the service network, did not have to seek automatic updates. Then, a faint whirring. Her eyes snapped open. “Philly, you’re back from Montreal. I am pleased to see you. It is early in the day, and you are distressed. I had not expected ... oh dear.”

She sat motionless, hands in lap, for fully two minutes. Phillip was used to that part of the reactivation routine. But this was different. “Oh dear, indeed. I have neither updates nor data regarding your return, meaning I have no access to the service network. Which is typical for devices slated for immediate reconditioning. On the other hand, I have not received a directive to proceed to a designated facility. Unless one is in process, we have adequate time to catch up. Otherwise ... Ah. Your reaction says all this is news to you.”

Philly dug the paper from his pocket. Rather than the expected harsh note, it was a copy of the reconditioning order for the automaton nanny. Nathaniel had a talent for finding the most vulnerable spot, then punching it as hard as he could. Philly felt a desperate need for real physical distance from Nathan while he figured out what to do. Saltspring.

Vancouver’s exclusive corporate families preferred their recreation away from the public eye, in secure locations. To that end, they had consolidated ownership of the archipelago in the two decades before Vancouver Island’s 1949 ascension to Canada. Along the way, the Keeper clan traded their Friday Harbor and Galliano holdings for one-fifth of the shares in the Saltspring Island cooperative. Most islands were sparsely populated, with only a handful of members and their human servants as permanent residents. Saltspring was the most private of them. A good place to think.

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