Snowball

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

In the city of New Seattle in 2472, a little window-cleaning droid called CUB-MI gets mistaken for a cat by an old lady. This begins an unlikely friendship.

C.U.B.-MI2461 was a Cleaning and Upkeep Bot Model: I-2461, commonly called a ‘CUB-MI.’He was a public droid designed to clean outdoor metropolitan areas; wipe windows, brush off streets, sweep roofs and balconies, and other little jobs. He was in charge of Block: 4-G of New Seattle, which included six skyscrapers, primarily apartment buildings. His design was eleven years, four months, and eight days old, which was a bit outdated, but he managed to do his job fairly well.

And really, CUB-MI found that often the older models’ experience was worth more than the features that came with the latest droid editions. For example, in Building: 3 of CUB-MI’s area, there were business meetings outside every Thursday at 3:00 PM; CUB-MI was always sure to clean off their roof directly before. And there was the Family Unit of Building: 4, Apartment: 3934, with three messy children who loved to play outside. CUB-MI cleaned their balcony sometimes multiple times a day. He’d implemented the same procedure for the painter who lived in Building: 2.

Then there were other clients, like the elderly women in Building: 1, Apartment: 718, who didn’t like droids and once tried to beat CUB-MI off with a broom. Unfortunately, CUB-MI did not have a vocal box to inform the client that she only needed to say “CUB-MI, cancel job” to get him to leave. Instead, he had learned to clean her balcony in the evening hours. Despite her not wanting his assistance, he had observed her enjoying relaxing afternoons on her clean balcony a total of 256 times. 

There were records of older droids that strayed from their original programming—traffic droids that spent too much time fixing up hovercars instead of directing them, dog-walking droids that gave their canines more than the necessary physical affection, and so on. But CUB-MI used his experience to be better at his tasks. He had learned so much about his block that helped him do his job to maximum efficiency and satisfaction. Whatever was needed, he adjusted his programming to best serve the clients.

On May 23rd, 2472, a new client moved into Building: 2, Apartment: 5134. CUB-MI received the notification the moment the apartment was purchased. Her name was Annette Milson, age 84, widowed, one adult child with a family of his own, two grandchildren, and no pets. 

CUB-MI thought little of it. An average of 18.5 clients moved into the apartments each year, and he served them all to the best of his ability. 

However, the first time he went to clean the apartment since Ms. Milson moved in, he immediately discovered that his schedule for her was faulty. Her medical monitor said she was usually napping at 3:00 PM, but he found her fully awake on the balcony, sitting in a rocking chair.

CUB-MI paused, his processer making calculations. When a client turned out to be present during a scheduled cleaning time, he was supposed to continue with it as planned, unless ordered not to, and then rearrange his schedule afterwards so as be less likely to disturb them in the future. So, as designed, he moved forward to begin to clean off her balcony. He had scarcely hovered into it, however, when Ms. Milson spoke, her voice creaky as the rocking chair she sat on. “Hello?” 

CUB-MI focused his blue optical lens on her, and saw her glasses sitting on the table beside her. He had no vocal box to orally explain his presence.

She hadn’t given him a command, but his programming said he couldn’t ignore her, either. So, he sat himself in front of her and didn’t move, awaiting a directive.

He watched her squint at him. His own singular optic, designed to examine even the tiniest particle of dust on a window, recognized cataracts there, wispy veins of white, just like her curly thin hair.

“Kitty?” Ms. Milson asked.

…CUB-MI silently calculated the likelihood of a cat reaching this apartment, as well as his resemblance to one. Many other apartments kept cats, yet the chances of one climbing into another balcony were slim. As for his resemblance…he was three feet tall when he fully extended his neck, his exterior was waterproof stainless steel to protect him from the rain, he had an oval-shaped body, a long, flexible neck, hover-jets at his base, and several spiderlike limbs to handle his cleaning duties.

He didn’t think he looked like a cat.

But he had no means to correct her.

Ms. Milson leaned forward and held out a wrinkled hand. “Here, kitty, kitty…”

Thatwas a command. Or…wasit, since it was directed towards a nonexistent cat? As he tried to determine it in his central processer, CUB-MI inched forward, and placed his arm with the soft duster in her outstretched hand.

Ms. Milson’s smile widened by 41%. “Hello there. You’re a sweet thing, aren’t you?”

CUB-MI tilted his head slightly. He was designed to record complements to rate customer satisfaction. But that was a new one.

Ms. Milson withdrew her hand and pushed herself up from her rocking chair. The movement was slow and careful. “Now, you wait right there. I’ll go get you some milk.”

CUB-MI remained completely still as she opened the door to her apartment and went inside. Unknowingly, she had completely frozen him. Procedure demanded he obey her command and remain still for a minimum of one hour, when he could assume the client had forgotten about him and return to his duties.

But Ms. Milson came back in a minute and 57 seconds with a bowl of milk. She set it down and then squinted in his direction. “Kitty? Come here.”

Again, CUB-MI had to obey. He turned his head down at the bowl of milk, and then back up at Ms. Milson, who was smiling and waiting expectantly.

He was supposed to clean. So CUB-MI took out his vacuum appendage meant to suck up rainwater, and drew in the milk with a soft slurping sound. When finished, he looked up to Ms. Milson for further instructions.

“Good kitty,” she said, stretching forward, and again he lifted his dusting appendage out to her hand. “Did you like that?” He remained still as she brushed her wrinkled hands over his duster. “You’re so soft, and have such a pretty coat. You look like a ‘Snowball’ to me, how does that sound? Hm?”

It took CUB-MI a minute to calculate that she was trying to give him a new designation. He supposed that was fine. ‘CUB-MI’ was only a nickname, after all. Other clients called his model by nicknames—‘cleaners,’ ‘pigeon-bots,’ and the like. His coloring was a metallic white, which, to the hazy eye, might appear close to snow.

After a while, Ms. Milson patted his arm and then returned to her rocking chair, and CUB-MI found that adequate indication that he could return to his work. He swept her balcony and scrubbed the walls, tidying up before preparing to leave. 

As he perched himself on the edge of the balcony to take off, Ms. Milson called out to him. “Goodbye, kitty. Come back again sometime, won’t you?”

CUB-MI looked back at her for a moment. As a robot, he could access information on his clients. And as he silently reviewed more files on Client: Annette Milson, he saw that her husband had passed away six years ago, and her living family hadn’t visited in the last year. They only called her an average of once every three weeks.

CUB-MI was incapable of feeling pity. No robot could. But he was designed to assist humans, and though he wasn’t a medical droid, he knew they needed company. 

According to his programming, he was supposed to be designing a new schedule where he could clean the balcony without running into the client. Yet…he decided to bypass that procedure. If Ms. Milson preferred to be present while he performed his task, then that was how it would be.

-

At first, CUB-MI visited once every three days. Every time, Ms. Milson had a bowl of milk waiting for him, along with a smile he measured as incredibly wide, 22 millimeters. It was a bit inefficient to needlessly add the milk she offered to his dirty water tank, which he had to drain when filled, but the benefits of her joy seemed to outweigh the trouble. He then sat still for a few minutes while Ms. Milson gave his arms ‘scratches.’

CUB-MI occasionally worried that, while she was petting him, she could feel the smooth metal of his arm at the edge of his duster. But her behavior did not change when her hand brushed against it, so he calculated that she did not yet realize he was not a cat. He could not predict what her reaction would be if she discovered the truth, but for now, their interactions were satisfying for them both. 

It was after three weeks of this that he arrived and Ms. Milson had something new waiting for him. As he landed on her balcony, she straightened up in her rocking chair and smiled, as usual. But then she drew out an unrecognized item.

“Snowball? I bought you something!” She waved the object in the air as CUB-MI’s lens focused on it. A foot-and-two-inches long plastic stick of magenta hue, and on the end of it was…a feather. 

Ms. Milson shook the object back and forth, and CUB-MI’s head followed its movement. This only seemed to amuse her. “Do you like this? Come here, kitty!”

CUB-MI obeyed the command, still watching the feather. She waved it near his face, and his anti-insect programming automatically kicked in—[squash insects]. One of his arms swiped at the feather, and Ms. Milson laughed, delighted.

He continued to swipe at the feather as he tried to untangle this dilemma. It was an interesting paradox—part of CUB-MI’s programming defined the feather’s movements as an insect that he should dispose of, while another part recognized the feather as client property, which should not be destroyed. This resulted in him swiping at it, but never actually grabbing it. Humans might call this hypnotism. 

He didn’t realize how long he’d been like that until Ms. Milson drew the feather away, her laughter having died down to chuckles. “Alright, that’s enough for today. I’m glad you like it, Snowball.”

CUB-MI refocused his lens and realized eight minutes and twenty seconds had passed. He had no record of losing his sense of time so completely before. Peculiar. 

-

It was against the typical standard, but CUB-MI started coming every other day. The shift in his schedule only allowed his other cleaning areas to get 4.5% dirtier than before, an unnoticeable amount to a human, while visiting Ms. Milson caused her mood to improve by as much as 70%. No other client was as pleased with his service as she was. CUB-MI decided it was an acceptable tradeoff. 

Ms. Milson began talking to him. She spoke without an objective, about her grandchildren, about her husband, or about the last bingo night. CUB-MI listened, and stored the data in his memory banks.

One day he came and unexpectedly found Ms. Milson asleep in her rocking chair, her breathing rate that of deep slumber. This was unexpected. They had set up a rather consistent schedule by now; he arrived, ‘drank’ the milk, played with the feather, allowed her to pet him, cleaned the apartment balcony, and left. It took much more time than any of his other jobs, but her happiness and satisfaction was more than that of his other duties.

As CUB-MI watched Ms. Milson, he determined that she must have fallen asleep unintentionally. Her chair did not seem comfortable enough for an old, frail human body to sleep in, and due to rain showers, the current temperature was only 62 degrees.

A solution came into his processor, and he paused. He was not supposed to go insidethe buildings. The moment the idea was calculated by his mainframe, several warnings streamed across his vision. But he was supposed to keep everything orderly on the outside of the building. Ms. Milson’s current sleep state wasn’t orderly. He needed to fix it.

So he went inside her apartment. He hovered in carefully, cautious of disturbing her home, where he wasn’t meant to be. Ms. Milson’s apartment was much like her; she loved talking about memories, so her home was filled with pictures. He recognized some of her family, her late husband, as well as a college graduation photo. CUB-MI scanned that one, and saw she had a master’s degree in Robotic Law; he had not realized that before. Moving on, he saw several outdated letters carefully laid out on the coffee table, all from her son and grandchildren. The most recent was four months old. 

CUB-MI turned to the couch and found what he was looking for; a knitted blanket—it looked handmade. Carefully, with articulate limbs, he picked up the blanket and folded it compactly. He then left the apartment otherwise undisturbed.

Ms. Milson was where he’d left her, still sound asleep. He closed the door behind him and then unfolded the blanket, gently laying it over her. 

When his work was done, he calculated what to do next. He could clean her balcony…but it didn’t seem like he’d really be doing the job right without entertaining her at the same time.

She’d wake up eventually. He could do other jobs in the meantime, and come back later. Satisfied with that conclusion, he left.

-

Another four weeks later, and Ms. Milson had another surprise for CUB-MI when he arrived. He came to her balcony and drank the milk, and while she was scratching him, she began to speak in an uncertain tone.

“Snowball, I’ve been wondering if you have a home…” she said. She shifted her hand away from the edge of his duster—by cat standards, this would be the neck area. “I don’t feel a collar on you…so I was thinking the other day, while I was at the store…”

With her other hand, she drew out something from one of her pockets. CUB-MI’s lens focused on it, and it was…

“I got you this,” she said, holding out the brand-new red collar. In tiny print, it read, ‘Snowball,’along with the address of her apartment. 

Even if CUB-MI had a voice box, he didn’t think he could calculate anything to say. His processor stuttered…along with his energy core in his chest.

He had never been given a gift before. His mainframe had no policy for this. CUB-MIs were never given items unnecessary to their tasks. He did not know how to respond.

“I know you’re more of an outdoor cat,” Ms. Milson went on. “But I just want to be sure that you have a home, whenever you want to come to it. Here.”

She slipped the collar over his duster. It was a bit big for his slim arm, but with the cloth on the end, it wouldn’t slip off. He drew his arm back, closer to him, to look at it. It made a gentle jingling sound as the nametags clinked against each other.

“That’s right,” Ms. Milson said with satisfaction. “You like it, right? You’re such a pretty kitty. My Snowball.”

After that, he visited every day.

-

For over a year, Snowball enjoyed his trips to Ms. Milson’s apartment. She got him new toys and cat food. He discovered that he could activate certain motors in his jets to make purring sounds, which thrilled Ms. Milson. And no matter where he went, from the highest skyscraper to the lowest sidewalk gutter, he kept careful watch on the collar and made sure it was there at all times.

One day, while he was washing the windows of Building: 4, he received an override command through his communicator.

C.U.B.-MI2461, cancel job. Return to recharge station.”

Snowball paused. His next standard checkup wasn’t for another thirty days, so this was odd. But as instructed, he retracted his arms and directed his jets to the little block set on Building: 1’s roof, where he did the robot equivalent of sleeping every 72 hours. However, waiting there for him were two Mechanics.

Mechanics were humans who made sure all droids in their area functioned properly. Snowball scanned their standard 13-pocketed navy-blue overalls and the multi-keys in their hands—keychain-like objects capable of everything a Mechanic needed for their job.

Snowball landed before them. Both were male, and their nametags identified them as ‘Walter’ and ‘Joe.’

“C.U.B., remain still for scanning,” Mechanic: Walter ordered, holding out his multi-key.

Snowball did as commanded as the light passed over him, but his processor was buzzing with questions. Why were they here, ahead of schedule? What had drawn their attention to him?

The scan finished, and Mechanic: Walter snapped his multi-key shut. “Yep, this is the one. He’s been falling behind on his tasks.”

Snowball had the unsettling sensation of wondering if his balancer was functioning correctly, though he was sure it was. He had been doing his tasks, hadn’t he? He’d been prioritizing Ms. Milson above the other jobs, so maybe he’d fallen a bit behind…but if he had neglected his tasks too much, then that meant he would be…scrapped.

Mechanic: Joe began coming closer, and the previous command to remain still meant Snowball couldn’t move as the human came forward to deactivate him. But—Snowball’s processer conflicted—if he was deactivated, who would watch Ms. Milson? She needed his attendance.

He was not allowed to move.

But he had to stay with Ms. Milson.

But he couldn’t move.

Snowball heard the clinking of the Mechanic’s multi-key, not at all like the pleasant sound of Snowball’s collar. But then it paused, as Mechanic: Joe stood just one-foot-eight-inches away from Snowball.

Snowball followed the trajectory of the Mechanic’s gaze and realized he was looking at the collar on Snowball’s arm.

“What’s this?” Mechanic: Joe said, reaching for it. The human’s fingers hooked on the collar and began to pull on it— 

No.

And Snowball’s jets activated full-power, thrusting him forward so fast he almost plowed into Mechanic: Walter.

“WHOA!” the Mechanic shouted as Snowball blew right by him, his processor and power core buzzing so hard he could barely function.

[Top priority: Obey Mechanic command.]

[Top priority: Attend Client: Annette Milson.]

Snowball wasn’t sure what was happening. His processer kept switching between objectives faster than he could calculate, trying to determine which was the most pressing. But [Attend Client: Annette Milson] was just a little bit louder than the rest, and in order to follow that priority, he had to see her right now.

Snowball immediately headed for Building: 2, as fast as his hover-jets could fly him. An override command pinged through his communicator—

“C.U.B.-MI2461, halt action, return to recharge station!”

Snowball’s hover-jets stuttered out as the command conflicted with his current top-priority, the two clashing and overloading his processor, and suddenly he began dropping. He couldn’t move, and he was left falling, falling, falling, the concrete street below coming ever closer, and he would shatter on it.

But then who would watch over Ms. Milson?

His hover-jets burst back to life, shooting him back up. More commands chimed through his communicator, but he focused only on, [Top Priority: Ms. Milson.]

Snowball arrived so clumsily that he rammedinto the railing of Ms. Milson’s balcony. Ms. Milson, in her rocking chair, jolted up in alarm. “Snowball?! Kitty, are you OK?”

Twitching with a processor in pandemonium, Snowball used his arms to climb over the railing to Ms. Milson, and then hugged her leg.

He felt Ms. Milson’s hand rest on his head—not his soft duster, but his smooth head.

“There, there, kitty…” she said softly. “Whatever it is, it’s alright.”

Something about her words and touch soothed Snowball’s jumbled processor. [Top priority: Ms. Milson]was being fulfilled. She was fine.

They stayed like that for seventeen minutes and twenty seconds when there came a six-knocks-per-second sound from Ms. Milson’s door.

He felt Ms. Milson turn to look, and then turn back to him. “Does that have something to do with this?”

Snowball didn’t respond, and the knocks came again.

“Let’s go see it, then.” With that, Ms. Milson began heading inside. Snowball didn’t want to impede her movement, but he also feared that if he let her go, his processer might go back to its confused chaos. So he compromised by clutching onto her dress and following her every step.

She opened the door, and Snowball’s processer got fuzzy again as he saw the Mechanics.

“Hello ma’am,” Mechanic: Joe said, breathing at an accelerated rate. His multi-key was clutched tightly in his right hand. “We’ve tracked a rogue C.U.B. to this apartment—”

“Ah yes,” Ms. Milson interrupted. “He’s here with me.” She stepped a bit to the side to reveal Snowball, still gripping her dress.

“…Oh,” the Mechanic said. “Well, we’ll take him off your hands, then, he’s set to be scrapped—”

“No, no,” Ms. Milson said friendlily. “He’ll be staying with me, thank you.”

Snowball tightened his grip on her dress slightly. He wanted to stay with her, but he already knew the policy the Mechanics were following. When a droid was set for scrapping, it was shut down and taken to the Mechanic’s Facility. They wouldn’t just leave.

Snowball watched as Mechanic: Walter edged forward, glancing between him and Ms. Milson. “Ma’am, do you mean that you want to keep this robot as a pet?” His voice demonstrated high levels of skepticism. “Because there are brands of pet droids that would be very good for you. This ‘Bot is meant to clean windows, and he’s already malfunctioning with that job. We’re supposed to take him to our facility.”

“There’s no need for that now,” Ms. Milson told him. Snowball looked up at her, and she placed her hand on his head again. “I would like to purchase him. I believe regulation 939 allows any citizen to purchase robot or robot parts from public departments for their own private use, especially if the parts are set to be recycled. May I see the paperwork?”

Snowball’s chaotic processer was having trouble keep up with Ms. Milson’s words. She was…purchasing him? She knew he wasn’t a cat?

The two Mechanics also seemed to be struggling to keep up with this conversation. Snowball watched them exchange glances, before Mechanic: Walter drew out his digital pad and began typing.

“Are you sure about this?” Mechanic: Joe asked.

Ms. Milson nodded resolutely. “Yes. This robot has been with me for over a year now. I’m keeping him.”

Snowball wondered if his core was overheating, because his temperature was now warmer than the normal regulation. Though oddly, he did not find the sensation unpleasant.

Mechanic: Walter handed her his pad, and Ms. Milson took it, drew out her glasses, put them on, and began reading. Snowball watched her closely, and when she noticed, she smiled down at him. After only a few swipes and taps, she handed the pad back to the Mechanic.

“Thank you,” she said. “Goodbye.”

And then she shut the door in their faces.

Snowball waited for a moment in silence, internally estimating the chances that the Mechanics would simply knock again, come in, and take him away from Ms. Milson. But after a few seconds, his audio receptors picked up the sounds of them walking away on the other side of the door.

Snowball’s grip on Ms. Milson’s dress slowly loosened, and, unsurely, he peered up at her again. By now, there was zero possibility that she did not know he was a droid. And, if Snowball’s processor was now returning to its proper functioning state, it seemed like she had known for some time. And yet, she had never said anything.

Ms. Milson was looking down at him with a smile fonder than any other he had recorded from her. Again, she reached down to pet the top of his smooth head.

“I told you, Snowball,” she said, her voice 30% softer than her usual tone, “This is your home, whenever you want to come to it.”


Submitted: May 03, 2021

© Copyright 2021 starling12. All rights reserved.

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