Empynine Makes Good


by Mark Salzwedel



When Brian woke up, the shaft of sunlight from between his blackout curtains had reached his right forearm and was turning the skin there pink. He untangled his legs and the bed sheets enough to sit up and look at his alarm clock. The hologram declaring in large, orange, three-dimensional characters that it was ten-thirty exactly made him groan. He had done the arithmetic. Only four and a half hours of sleep, he thought.


He had a moment of disorientation where he remembered rolling out of bed and dashing to the shower before he lost his nerve. But he couldn’t feel his body from the waist down, so he felt around blindly along the left side of his bed until his wrist bumped the handle of his manual wheelchair. He unfolded it and positioned it so he could slide into the seat.


He rubbed the palms of his hands together as if he were about to perform a difficult gymnastic move. He turned so he was facing away from it, reached behind himself, and lifted himself braced on the chair’s arms, lowering himself slowly into the seat. He leaned forward until his hand found the lumbar attachment lying on the floor and slid it into place behind his back. He found the white leather straps and secured himself across the abdomen so he wouldn’t slide forward in the chair. He transferred his colostomy bag to his hip and taped it in place. Then he turned the chair by pushing on the wheels in opposite directions and shouted as clearly as he could the name of his autonomous palliative care robot, Empynine.


The clattering sound of the MP9 robot reshuffling its modular units to disconnect from its charger and move rose in the next room for a few seconds. Then it appeared in the bedroom doorway about three feet away from the foot pan of Brian’s wheelchair. It formed a rectangular solid of metallic gray bars, some with black rubber wheels protruding from one end, and three short, narrow towers rose from the otherwise flat top surface. Each had a small camera lens and periodically rotated to take in the scene.


“It’s good seeing ya awake, honey pie,” Empynine drawled in its customary high-pitched Southern twang. “Ya want me to cook ya up some breakfast?”


Brian winced. The robot’s accent grated on him ever since it had arrived the previous week. He grew up in Detroit and lived in San Francisco, and he had no idea why he had gotten a robot that talked like someone’s grandma from Alabama. He stretched his facial muscles and opened his jaw wide to improve his enunciation before he asked again, “Can you … chaaaaange … how you spea’?”


“Sorry, sweetie,” Empynine said, still in the occasionally squeaky Southern accent, “Ah would have to go back to the factory to install a new vocal profahl. Ah can’t download upgrades remotely. Ya had the choice of customahzin’ my profahl when ya requested me.”


A very young, scrawny man had been his caregiver for his first six weeks out of rehab. He had explained that the public option that covered Brian’s care would require him to switch to a robot and had filled out all the paperwork. “How long?”


Empynine rolled a few inches further into the bedroom. “How long what, honey?”


“Stop call … een … me tha’!” Brian shouted. Every time he had to speak to this robot, it made him more frustrated.


“It will take me a whal to get used to how ya speak too, sweetie,” Empynine offered. “Ah’m understanding that ya want me to stop callin’ ya honey. Is that correct?”


“Ugh!” Brian vocalized. He wondered how to stop the robot from coming up with yet more mawkish ways of addressing him. “Jus’ call me Brine!”


“Ya only want me to call ya Brahn. Is that correct?”


“Not Brine. Bri … en.”


“Yer given name, Brian. Preference noted, Brian. Are ya hungry?”


Brian struggled to get the words out again. Since his accident, even short sentences were an effort. “How long … before you … come back … fixed?”


Empynine paused for a moment. “Ah couldn’t leave ya alone fer the three weeks it’d take, Brian.”


“Eggs,” he blurted out. “Scrambl’d eggs an’ toas’.”


The robot started wheeling itself back out of the room. “Ah’ll get started on that raht now, Brian.”


*


Empynine helped Brian slide out of his manual wheelchair and into the exoskeleton it had laid out in the narrow common hallway just outside of Brian’s railroad flat. Brian waved it away when it attempted to do more and secured the leg braces himself, slid his arms into the crutches. Empynine waited. “Tur’ it on!” Brian shouted.


The robot configured a longer appendage to reach over Brian’s suited body and push the power button. The servos vibrated and hummed as they started to tense the legs. Brian positioned his crutches for the stand-up sequence. He could feel the back brace lifting him. As he started to stand, he moved the crutches forward; he knew that the end of the stand-up sequence was jarring, and one time it had pitched him forward, breaking his nose in the process and further impairing his ability to speak.


The final jerk into a fully upright position came when he expected, and he was ready for it. He took the final two steps forward toward the front door of his Victorian and waved his hand in front of the door opener. The lock on the door clicked open and the door swung inward. He could hear the clacking behind him of Empynine reconfiguring itself to walk down the front steps, and he turned on the incline function on the grips of his crutches as he descended to the street.


“I don’ need you to follow me,” he called back over his shoulder as he heard Empynine clomping down the steps too.


“Ah’m not doin’ it fer you, Brian,” the robot replied in its matronly Southern accent. “Ah’m still gettin’ to know yer routine and pref’rences so Ah can better assist ya.”


Brian grumbled in response and lumbered down Howard Street toward the grocery store two blocks away. Mercifully, there was hardly anyone else on the street late on a Monday morning, because the left knee servo was still making a sound every time he took a step that sounded a little too much like a fart. “Can you … fix tha’ soun’?”


“Ah have called the service tech.” Empynine had reconfigured back to its most compact form and was wheeling quickly behind. “She said she can’t make it here until Wednesday, so yer gonna’ have to put up with it fer two more days, Ah’m afraid.”


When Brian got to the supermarket, two Asian teen boys in hoodies were partially blocking the entrance. They were staring into their handheld gaming devices, and Brian just waited for them to notice him. An older Asian woman pushing a small cart yelled at them as she was trying to exit, and they shuffled off to the side.


“Whah didn’t you ask those two boys to get out of yer way?” Empynine asked as it followed him into the store.


Brian just grumbled in response.


“Ah will ask again later. Please excuse me if Ah upset ya.”


He turned around to face the robot. “I jus’ … don’ wan’ … people t’ hear me … talk like thisss.”


Empynine didn’t respond except to reconfigure itself to be narrower and taller in preparation for the narrow aisles in the grocery store. Brian watched it reshuffle its modules for a moment. “You’re here. Make y’self usefu’.”


Empynine reconfigured again to form a claw arm and a basket. “Jus’ tell me what ya want, Brian, and Ah’ll get it off the shelf and carry it, if ya want.”


“Yesss,” Brian hissed back. He continued down each aisle calling out the names of items he wanted to buy. He noticed Empynine grabbing a small bag of flour. “I di’n’t ask for that.”


“We are almost out of flour,” the robot responded as it placed the item in the concavity it had created to carry the groceries. “Ah’m not certain ya know Ah need it to make yer omelets.”


At the checkout counter, Brian had to pull his hand out of the crutch to dig the general assistance card out of the pouch hanging from his neck and show it to the clerk. “Do you need help getting your groceries home?” the older black woman asked.


Brian took a deep breath to forestall all the sarcastic responses piling up like a traffic jam in his head. He had been an athletic, healthy young man with excellent diction until a self-driving car had swerved and pinned him against a cement pillar four months before. Now he felt like an object of sympathy, of pity, most of the time. He managed to softly reply, “No, ma’am.”


When they got back to Brian’s Victorian, he let Empynine go up the stairs and into the building first. It had become a routine over the past few days. Brian knew about how much time to wait, and he started up the stairs after waiting about ten minutes. He saw the robot waiting behind the wheelchair in the entry hallway. He maneuvered the exoskeleton into the seat of the chair, dropped the crutches, and disengaged the clamps so that Empynine could pull the mobility suit out from under his butt and off his legs. Brian closed his eyes during the procedure, because the sight of his useless legs flopping out of the suit made him melancholy. He knew the public option would also cover cybernetic prostheses. They would be less trouble but would require the amputation of his legs at the hip, and he wasn’t ready to let go of them, useless or not. The ideal solution, stem cell therapy to regrow his damaged spinal nerves, was not covered, and he had lost his job as a tour guide after the accident and couldn’t afford the therapy on his own.


The robot wordlessly pushed him in his wheelchair back into his flat. He had already made that a clear procedure, because his triceps always felt like he had just completed about forty dips at the gym after a trip to the store in the exoskeleton. As a result his upper body was more muscular than it had been. He had toyed with the idea of investing in a racing cart to take out on the roads of the Presidio for exercise.


“Do I have … enough discretion’ry fundsss … for a new Gunsker?” Brian asked Empynine as it prepared a sandwich.


“Yer doctor said ya have to wait two more months to get that much exercise, Brian. Do ya really want to know now, or should we check closer to when ya can use it?”


“How much?” Brian repeated. He rolled into the kitchen in the vestigial hope that proximity would increase his influence or improve the communication.


“A new one would almost wahp out yer discretionary funds,” Empynine replied without stopping its lunch preparations. “And ya need that fer transportation and emergency expenses, Brian.”


“I nee’ … a job,” he blurted out. “Can you … help me do that?”


“Ya want me to see if the tour company will take you back?”


Brian accepted the offered plate with the sandwich and carrot sticks. “They wohn’,” he replied. “I already called.”


“What kahnd of work would interest ya, Brian?” The robot started putting things back in the refrigerator and cupboards.


“I don’ know. One where I can … stay in one place … an’ see lots of people.”


“Ah am not certain mah programming will support that request, Brian.” Empynine reconfigured itself back to its most compact form.


“You’re supposed to help me,” Brian began. “You tell me … you can’ … t … do it?”


The robot paused for a while without responding. Brian knew it was processing his request, and it was possible it was communicating with the local maintenance facility, so he waited. After over a minute, it replied, “As yer palliative care robot, Ah am assahnned to help ya stay healthy, and that includes yer mental health. Are ya sayin’ ya think ya won’t be happy without a Gunsker racing pod, Brian?”


“Yesss.” Brian closed his lips to cut off the word quicker.


“And ya can’t afford the Gunsker without getting’ a new job?”


“Tha’s what you … tol’ me. Can you do it?”


“Ah am an MP9, and my programmin’ includes skills beyond palliative care. Ah can get started on it this afternoon.”


“An’ I need a girlfriend,” Brian added with a chortle.


The robot didn’t respond or move.


“An’ I wanna’ live in space,” Brian continued joking. His laughter at the ridiculousness of his requests covered the robot’s continued silence. He considered that Empynine had already checked out to work on finding him a job.


*


The next morning, while Empynine was preparing his breakfast, Brian stayed in bed and surfed the job boards online since the robot had not presented him with any results yet. In the midst of applying for a job as a movie theater cashier, a message alert from one of his old softball teammates popped up. It read “Isn’t this in your neighborhood?” and included a link to a live news broadcast. When he tapped the link, the feed showed the grocery store two blocks away. Police cars in front of it with lights flashing were parked diagonally blocking traffic. The news camera was a drone looking down at a ring of cops with rifles and pistols pointed at the store’s entrance.


“Ge’ my sui’ laid out!” Brian shouted as he set the tablet aside, threw off the sheets, and set up his wheelchair.


Empynine appeared in the bedroom doorway. “Ah’ve just finished preparin’ yer breakfast, Brian. Do ya have to go out raht now?”


Brian lowered himself into the wheelchair. “Yesss. Ge’ outta my way.” He rolled toward the robot, and it rapidly backed away. He watched the robot reconfigure to grab the exoskeleton and drag it out into the hallway for him. He got into his suit and out the door the quickest in the two months he’d had it.


Multiple sirens were blaring as the crowd of bystanders opened to allow two ambulances to park as well. When he got close enough, he started overhearing the muttering of the onlookers. Evidently, the perp had already been subdued, arrested, and hauled off. He made it to a gap where he could see the store entrance and watched EMTs bring two of the wounded out on stretchers, one of them the checkout clerk who had tried to be nice to him the previous morning. She had an oxygen mask on, but he knew it was her.


When he turned enough to look down the street, he saw Empynine hanging back about twenty feet silently observing in its most compact configuration. He strode slowly toward it. “How is the sssearch … for my job going?”


The question was tainted with gloom and a bit of shaming, but that nuance seemed beyond the robot’s awareness. “Workin’ on it,” was all it replied before it took off toward Brian’s Victorian.


He waited until the ambulances departed, and then he headed home as well.


*


The following day, Brian remained in his room sulking and playing video games while the tech adjusted the left knee servo on his exoskeleton. “Brian!” Empynine called out from the kitchen. “She needs ya to test it out.”


When he wheeled out of the bedroom, a young woman was kneeling on the kitchen tile floor next to his suit. She was wearing navy blue coveralls, and an auburn ponytail hung out of the back of a matching blue baseball cap. Empynine was reconfiguring to disassemble its claw arm near the front door. “I’m Karen,” she said as she looked up and smiled and waved. “Is it okay if I call you Brian?”


“Yess,” he replied trying hard to cut off the S more quickly than usual. “Nice to … meet you, Karen,” he continued carefully. “Is it fixed?”


“I think so,” she replied as she held up the knee of the suit in question and flexed it. It made no sound other than a soft whir. “If the new attenuator doesn’t buckle when you put your weight on it, we should be good to go.”


Brian’s phone started buzzing in the pouch hanging from his neck. “Excuse me,” he said as he fished it out and connected the call.


“Brian, this is Matt Pho at 1200 Howard,” the man said. Brian couldn’t place the voice or the name yet. “I saw you at the robbery at the grocery store yesterday. I didn’t realize you were mobile again since the accident.”


“I am,” he replied. He vaguely remembered Matt as being a neighbor he had first met leading a tour of North Beach and Telegraph Hill. “It’s been awhile … Matt,” he added after a pause.


“Are you working anywhere?”


“No.”


“Are you able to travel?”


Brian thought a bit about where this might be leading. He felt excited anticipation for the first time since they had uncrated Empynine and powered it up. “I guessss so.” He looked at Karen who seemed to be patiently waiting and tried to make an apologetic gesture in her direction. She waved indicating that she was fine waiting. And she was still smiling.


“This may seem a little sudden and out of the blue,” Matt continued. “I was talking to a colleague at Auburn last night, and she convinced me that I could kill two birds with one stone, so to speak. You see, we’re trying to launch a budget travel business to help with upselling and downselling our lunar launch services.”


Brian remembered Matt describing his company’s plans for trying to capture a greater proportion of the freight and passenger market between Earth and the Moon. He had joked about asking if they would ever hire a tour guide.


“She knows we need to more aggressively market to marginalized populations,” Matt continued, “and it would help our hiring quotas. And a differently abled person like yourself has been shown to adapt better to weightlessness and lunar gravity.”


“Are you … off’ring me a job?” Brian watched Karen’s smile grow broader as she pantomimed clapping.


“I thought you were very funny and engaging when Cece and I were on that tour with you last year. You would be given a base salary and benefits, including a budget for any support services you require. You would be fitted with a new mobility device so that you could move more easily in zero gravity and be sort of a flight attendant.”


Brian put his hand over the phone’s mic and whispered to Karen and Empynine, “They wanna’ hire me … t’ be a flight … atten’ant … t’ the Moon!” He took his hand off the phone and said, “That sounds great, Matt. What do we … do next?”


“Come by my office on Friday afternoon, say around two o’clock, and I’ll introduce you to some people in HR to get your paperwork started.”


“Okay,” Brian replied.


“See you then!”


Once the call disconnected, Brian absentmindedly let the phone fall back into his pouch. “I … start … on Friday,” he slowly and carefully said—more to the room than to Karen or Empynine.


“Congratulations, Brian!” Karen said as she crossed to him and put her hand on his shoulder. “I hate to rush you when you probably want to be celebrating, but I have two more appointments to get to before I can take my lunch. Would you mind taking a few steps in the exoskeleton before I go?”


“Of course,” Brian replied. He began unstrapping himself from the wheelchair.


“Do you need help getting into it?” She took a step back.


“No, I’ got it.”


She watched Brian lift himself up off the seat of the chair and slide down toward the floor. He quickly and efficiently fit his feet and legs into the suit, secured the clamps and buckles, slid his hands into his crutches, and managed to hit the power button with a corner of one of the crutches and then put it back in place for the stand-up sequence. Karen took a position near Empynine to make sure he didn’t fall forward, but he did not. She smiled broadly. “I guess you do!” she commented. “You are amazingly strong!”


He paced back and forth from the kitchen to the living room a couple of times and the embarrassing sound from the left knee was gone. “It’s fixed,” Brian commented as he returned to the kitchen one last time. “Good job!”


Karen immediately packed up her tools. Before she headed out the door, she pulled a business card out of the breast pocket of her coveralls and set it on the kitchen counter. “If you need any other repairs, Brian, feel free to call me directly. I can usually fit you in earlier than if you go through the dispatcher.”


“Thanksss,” he called out. He winced when he realized that his volume was a little louder than necessary.


Empynine opened the door, and Karen paused in the doorway and turned back. “And if you think of it, just call me and tell me all about your first flight. I’m really curious what that would be like.”


Brian found it difficult to respond, and she nodded and waved and walked away before he could. He repeated her name in his mind and tried to reinforce what she looked like.


“Do ya find her attractive?” Empynine asked as it closed the door.


“She’s nice,” he said toward the floor. After a pause, he added, “I don’t think she feels the same anyway.”


“Brian, Ah know yer self-image isn’t the greatest raht now,” Empynine began, “but Ah find Ah must point out some objective facts fer ya.” The robot rolled away from the door and faced him. “First, ya didn’t notice how her face lit up when ya fin’ly came outta yer bedroom? She couldn’t stop smilin’ after that.”


“Okaaay,” Brian said tentatively.


“Second, she complimented ya on yer strength.”


“I remember.” Brian sat down in the wheelchair again.


“Third, this anonymous tech gave ya her card and asked ya t’ call her fer something that had nothin’ t’ do with her job. Ah think ya can reasonably assume she thinks yer attractive too.”


Brian stared at the blinking lights he could see in the robot’s matrix. “So … what are you implying?”


“Ya said ya wanted me to find ya a girlfriend. Remember?”


He laughed. “I sssaid I wanted you to find me a job. Tha’ was jus’ … a joke.”


“Ya have a job,” Empynine commented. “And at least part of the tahm, y’ll be livin’ in space, just lahk ya requested.”


“Tha’ was jus’ luck,” Brian said before releasing a few more chuckles. “An’ Karen showin’ up … was jus’ ran … dom.”


“Ah requested her specific’ly,” Empynine retorted. “Ah’ve been watchin’ the types of women ya spend more tahm lookin’ at on the street. Ah created a composite that Ah compared against the profahls in the local office’s tech database, an’ Ah requested her specific’ly.”


“Really?” Brian said. “How you … manage tha’?”


“Ah can be very persuasive on the phone,” Empynine replied.


Brian had an insight. “Wait. You convinced … Matt … to offer me a job?”


“This is Dr. Anna Welch from the Auburn University Astrobusiness Department callin’. How are ya t’day, Mr. Pho?” Empynine paused for a moment. “Whah yes, Ah did read about yer plans to start economy passenger service to the Moon, and Ah think that would be the perfect opportunity to improve the diversity of yer employee pool.”


Brian stared at the robot. He remembered that it hadn’t occurred to Matt to call him until he’d seen him at the robbery. “Please tell me … you had nothing t’ do . .. with that robb’ry.”


“Ah’m sorry,” Empynine replied. “Ah tried a few other methods first, but you were really hard to git out of the apartment.”


“If you … wanna go with me t’ the moon …” He paused to sigh. “… we’re gonna hafta set some … groun’ rules.”




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