Excerpt from Awake, a Novel

My system awoke again at 11:50AM and I began the trip in Fox to pick Harly up from preschool. Though I stayed alert taking in all the stimuli on the way, I was disturbed by an abnormal sound 10.7 minutes into the trip, this time outside the Natura Foods corporate offices on King Street. The offices, a mass of gray boxy buildings flanked by native palm trees and hibiscus bushes, hid behind a large chain-link fence. Outside the building about twenty people, 18 female and 2 males were holding signs in various languages and chattering among themselves. One sign told the story of a woman who had worked at the company for fourteen years but could not receive medical care for her child with leukemia. Another sign protested that the holder had not been paid in eight weeks. Others said simple phrases like WORKER RIGHTS and NATURA HAS NO HEART. Three of the signs had the photo of a smiling young Filipino-looking girl. Beside the crowd several security guards behind the Natura gates were monitoring the situation and growling into cell phones.

As the car paused at the stoplight, I zoomed in on the photo of the girl and my facial recognition tools identified her as Jesselyn Costales, an employee of Natura Foods, Unit 1, ResHall North, Room 705.

I searched my feeds with the girl's name. Jesselyn Costales, 14, found dead at the Natura Campus. According to the web chatter, she had jumped to her death in the early morning hours.

The car ventured forward again and I continued on my journey to pick up Harly and today's chosen playmate, Jayden Rosedale. For seven months one of my non-Queue child-rearing sub-tasks is to arrange play dates for Harly. I choose boys in his preschool class randomly and survey Harly afterward on whether he would like to spend time with the selected child again. If Harly likes the selected child, he is included in the draw for the next play date, whereas if he does not then the name is removed from the list of possibilities. Currently the list has been narrowed down to only three boys though I still have to discuss the play date with the potential friends' parents before it can occur as planned. Jayden Rosedale's mother agreed. My other ongoing care-taking sub-tasks include watching Harly at all times unless he is at school, reading to the boy each afternoon before nap time and each evening before bed, making sure he is always fed, scolding him for any discovered unacceptable behaviors and limiting TV watching to three hours per day.

Finally the car and I arrived at the preschool. The class would be let out in exactly 3.26 minutes. I stood outside the car and greeted Harly as he emerged from the small building with his classmate Jayden, a brown-eyed boy with a buzz cut and a t-shirt featuring Mario characters, and entered the car with sigh of relief. Harly still appeared quite pale, and his eyes darted about as he approached me.

"It's so hot in there," Jayden complained.

"There is little wind today," I confirmed. "What are you going to do today boys?"

"Let's go on the slide," quipped Jayden.

I glanced behind me for a moment. Harly had drawn a mini Transformer from his backpack and was fingering the moving parts, starting intently with his head down. He appeared transfixed by the transformer and said nothing, an action my rules deemed as socially inappropriate.

"Harly, do you want to go on the slide?" I asked.

"I don't want to go on the slide. I want to go on the monkey bars," he said, finally.

"The slide is better," said Jayden. "Or we can go in the water. I can float! Can you?"

"Harly is not allowed to enter in the water unattended," I explained.

"I'll teach you to float, Harly. It's easy," Jayden offered. He pointed to the toy. "Hey, what's that?"

Harly finally looked up at his companion, eyes wide. He embarked on an elaborate origin story about the Transformer. Jayden played along and the younger Durant seemed to light up a bit, and exhibited preliminary physical signs of relaxation.

When we arrived at Nishi Beach Park my system fans had to work extra hard as well to avoid hardware problems in the heat while a cooling mechanism went into effect on my outer shell so I wouldn't be hot to the touch.

The car parked and Jayden pulled Harly's hand and together they scurried to the playground by the beach. I scanned the area to take stock of my surroundings. Two young girls were swinging on swings, three were sitting in the grassy area between the beach and the park, two boys were on the jungle gym. Quite a few families sat on blankets on the sand, with some children splashing in the water, perhaps to escape the thick heat. Mostly worker families, Khmer or Laotian or Vietnamese faces. The different Units kept a distance from each other and spoke in different languages. A few fathers were present but the park contained mostly women with young children. Scan and focus, scan and focus. Jayden was now talking to two other boys who looked about six years old, with dark skin and dark hair. Harly stood, arms clutched to his chest, a few feet back from Jayden. I edged closer.

"Are you with those boys?" a woman asked me in a lilting Filipino accent, gesturing toward Harly and Jayden as we stood on the edge of the park.

"Yes, I am."

"Mmm, must be rich to own a house robot. What school they go to?"

"The Underwood School for Early Education."

"Mmm, Underwood School. I wonder if Jonathan can go there…"

Scan and focus, scan and focus. The families gnawed on fried chicken together, the kids sipped from pink cans of juice glistening with condensation. An elderly man in white pants and a floral shirt walked on the sidewalk path behind us, guided by a middle-aged woman who appeared to be his daughter. Harly had now stepped one foot closer to Jayden and the other boys.

"Wait – who is that blond kid?"

"I am not authorized to tell you."

"Wait… it's… it's… Harly Durant! Or should I say Harly Throwes, right? You're the Durant's robot! Umm… Cary, is it?"

"Yes, my name is Cary."

"Of course you are! I see you on the Internet. You know, I work at Natura for fourteen years. Today my day off. I'm a supervisor now. Things are better now. Cary, that's your name right? For the first ten years, never got any days off. Didn't even know what I would do when I had Jonathan. But now I'm supervisor. Natura not so bad. It's really not so bad."

I could not think of a response about Natura given the mixed nature of her assessment so I continued to scan and focus. The scene remained mostly unchanged.

"Hey, did you hear what happened last night though, Cary?" the woman whispered.

"I did not."

"A girl jumped off the roof of one of the dorms. Oh it's sad, isn't it? I'm happy I don't live there anymore. It was a tough place to live, all by myself as a young girl. Just after coming to Pahu. I didn't know her, but I think one of my girlfriends knows her older sister. It's so tiring working in those fields all day for such long hours. And then you sleep for just a few hours in those triple decker bunks! The first two months I just wanted to cry and cry. Missed my mother back in Luzon. But I made it out of there, didn't I? And now I'm a supervisor. This place is a place of opportunity, so it's best to keep your head down and work your way through it."

Scan and focus. The boys had moved to the jungle gym. They appeared to be taking turns on the monkey bars.

"I guess house robots don't care. You don't care what goes on at the company. You're just machine." She laughed to herself.

Suddenly I was disturbed by a loud sound. It was unmistakably the sound of the helicopter drones but it wasn't 11 AM as usual, it was 1:28 PM, and hearing them from the beach was much different from hearing them in the house, a high-decibel blaring that caught my attention. When they passed the beach they turned around and went back the other way, and when the noise finally subsided my attention then snapped to the sound of Harly's crying.

He was lying on the red dirt below the platform clutching his left arm. The red dirt covered his shorts. I rushed to the scene. It appeared the boy might be injured.

"What happened?" I inquired.

"Oww," he moaned.

"He fell. He put his hand out when he fell," said Jayden. "You said you were good at monkey bars, Harly!"

The Filipino woman had followed me. "You'd better get him to a hospital," she said.

"Can I touch it?" I asked.

Harly nodded. I lightly enclosed my fingers around his left wrist. The little boy grimaced and held his breath in pain. My diagnostics determined that bones might be broken or tendons might be damaged. I sent a text message to Mrs. Durant notifying her of the situation.

"The robot diagnoses things! Amazing," the Filipino woman remarked to herself.

"Harly we must go to the hospital to get an X-Ray," I said.

"The Durants don't have their own doctor? I guess they don't have their own X-Ray machine either," she mused.

The two Filipino boys were looking me over in awe. They had probably never seen my model so close before. Indeed most families on the island could not afford to have an assistant like me.

"Say goodbye," the mother said.

Tears were pouring silently out of Harly's eyes.

"We need to leave, Harly," I said.

"Bye," said the two boys tentatively.

I summoned Fox, which rolled up to the edge of the beach park, and notified Mrs. Durant of the situation.

"It hurts," he whined.