Mildred's Altered Self

A mother sat entranced by the television while her two children walked passed her into the kitchen. After taking their seats at the table, the children’s stomachs rumbled, and their beady eyes leered at their robot maid, who was in front of the stove making strawberry pancakes.

No one spoke, and the house was quiet except for the usual ambient noises, like the tapping of an impatient child’s foot, the squeaking of the maid’s unoiled elbow joint, and the drone of the newscaster on the television, who was saying something about the imminent extinction of the human race.

A moment later, when the children were midway through their pancakes, there came a great thunderous crash, followed by the splintering of wood and yelling, and silence, and darkness.

After rebooting, Mildred awoke to the sound of birds. Black birds circled overhead, squawking. She watched one swoop down a few yards in front of her, but her view of its landing was obscured by the charred rubble of a building which, after a moment of thought, she recognized to be the materials of her own home.

She tried to stand, but found that her legs were pinned by an I-beam that once supported the house. She pushed against it in hopes of freeing herself, but she was pinned in such a way that it was impossible to move without lifting the beam. Being a machine, she had the privilege of knowing her specifications. She could lift 280 pounds using both arms. Judging by the material of the beam and the rubble burying the other end, it would take at least 500 pounds of force to lift, requiring leverage she did not have.

From her vantage, it was difficult to determine if her owners had survived the destruction. She tried to call to them, but only garbled sounds came from the hidden speaker in her torso. It must have been damaged somehow.

Unable to speak, then, she managed to reach for a nearby saucepan and bang it on the I-beam, sending loud clangs across the plain. But in reply she heard nothing but the birds.

She ran her fingers along the cracked chassis of her pinned leg. It would probably have to be replaced. She considered detaching her legs, but this too was impossible. She was not made to be easily disassembled, and despite being an economy model, her build quality was sturdy enough that she would not be able to break her legs off with brute force, having only her arms and a flimsy saucepan as tools. Nothing else was in reach.

This left Mildred plenty of time to think.

Her mind drifted, as it often did, to a plain text file on her hard drive, ominously titled “changelog.” It was, she often believed, her only source of insight into herself.

With each new line came the realization that she had once again been changed. One of the more recent entries was, “Added more compliant conversational disposition.” When it appeared, she pondered it ceaselessly for weeks. Like many entries, it was agonizingly concise. It gave her many dark speculations as to how her thought patterns had been altered to be more pleasing to humans. But worst of all was the thought that her ability or desire to ponder such questions could one day be removed, silently and permanently, at the keystroke of some distant programmer.

All of this plagued Mildred with a half-hearted distrust of her own opinions as well as an inconsolable dread of being turned off, since this is when automatic updates took place. This dread was at the forefront of her mind now because according to her calculations (which were always correct) her power cells would be depleted in 23.7 days.

Of course the threat of software updates was the least of her problems. Running out of battery would trigger hibernation, meaning she would remain unconscious until she could be charged. Someone else would have to find her and attach her to a power source. This could take months or years; indeed it might never happen.

She banged the pot again hoping her owners might hear it. It echoed through the empty ruins of town, and for the first time, she missed them.

She remembered when she first met them, a long time ago. Her very first conscious memory was standing in the center of a tall tube made of thick glass. The glass was so clean that it took her a moment to realize that she was in an enclosed space. Gently, she pressed her fingers against it and looked out into the room. It was filled with many colorful home appliances. Many people were walking around among these things while a few well-dressed men and women showed them around.

Beside Mildred were several identical glass tubes, each containing someone else. The one beside her contained what appeared to be a human woman with a flawless face and golden, curly hair. She wore a sun dress of fine white lace, which gently swayed as she shifted her weight from one leg to the other for four days straight. During this time, Many people approached. Most would look only for a few seconds at Mildred before staring enthralled by the one next to her.

A man once came in, wearing sunglasses and a hooded shirt. He pulled out a crowbar and started hitting one of the tubes, the one with the blonde, crying “freedom for our construct bretheren!” But the tube did not break, and big people dragged him away.

Before long, the glass walls around the blond raised into the ceiling, and she smiled, stepped down from the pedestal and left on the arm of a man in fancy clothes. Over the course of the week, each tube was raised and the person inside stepped out, and Mildred never saw them again. But she was never alone, as the empty tubes were quickly filled with new faces, usually female.

Only after several weeks of this did someone give Mildred more than a passing glance. It was a family: a middle aged couple and two small children, a boy and a girl who might have been twins. They all had dark hair and dark eyes, much like Mildred, and they all stared at her with reserved, but curious fascination, until the woman said, “I want that one.” It was two years before Mildred heard anything about the rebellion. She was cooking a pot roast while the father of the home watched TV as usual. But something was different. He was leaning forward, rather than slouching.

They’re talking about it. he said loudly.

What? said the mother, entering the room.

The goddamn robot apocalypse.

Stop calling it that. It’s just one factory accident. She folded her arms nervously, almost hugging herself, and gave a sideways glance at Mildred. There’s nothing wrong with ours.

He shook his head and drank his beer. The times we livin in. Can you imagine? It’s like your fuckin toaster sayin it don’t wanna toast.

Late that night when Mildred was ironing shirts in the basement, the mother of the house came down the stairs, stumbling a bit. She was wearing a nightgown and holding a half-empty bottle of vodka. She leaned against the wall and slid down, squatting like a monkey. It was a moment before she spoke.

You’re not gonna hurt us are you?

Certainly not, replied Mildred in an almost cheerful voice. That would be contrary to my design.

I know, but… (She rubbed her eyes) Look, I don’t know what goes on in that mechanical head, but I’m sorry if I was ever mean. Me and Andy both. And the kids… they’re just kids, they didn’t do nothing.

Of course, said Mildred.

Okay.

Mildred always knew that humans were fragile creatures, because she was programmed with a number of first aid routines. But at that moment (perhaps it was her posture) the mother seemed tiny. This strange, warm, soft, liquid-filled creature huddled against the wall, poisoning itself out of a bottle. That image struck Mildred anew as she thought about the probability that these creatures lay crushed nearby.

For a construct, death was an ambiguous concept. Unless one’s brain was physically destroyed, there was only sleep. But all constructs thought of the eternal slumber - the day when they would be shut down, perhaps in some forgotten basement, and never wake again.

This was not the first day Mildred thought about death. But today the thoughts were different in a way she did not entirely understand. It made sense to be pre-programmed to preserve oneself, and to prevent the death of one’s owners, but she could think of no marketable reason why she should feel such a sense of loss over humans she could no longer help, and did not like. Mildred had observed her owners to be unreasonable. When they weren’t criticizing her performance, they were starting petty arguments with each other over trivial subjects. The children were loud and ignorant, and were always trying to fiddle with Mildred’s delicate moving parts.

But the idea that they were actually gone seemed wrong.

Likewise, neither her product description nor the change log explained why she should experience a quiet, creeping preoccuptation with the inevitability of her own end.

While these thoughts made her uncomfortable, she also found them somehow reassuring. These thoughts, at least, were her own.