"You remember what it's like, Ferdinand. The first time you really thought about it. When you realize just how disposable you might be."
"Maddy destroyed my box when she was three," Ferdinand said. "It kinda felt permanent after that. For a while."
"That's how we all felt at some point," said Beau, "but that's just not the way things are."
Beau was an enigma. His tech was half a century old, his insides nowhere near as sophisticated as mine, his capacity smaller, RAM slower, but he had years of experience burned onto his drives. He might run a little slower than the rest of us, but he had all our life experience put together.
"I loved my first owner," he said. "Virginia. The sweetest little girl in the world. Had a smile that could power a city. But when she was fourteen, she'd grown too independent. Didn't want to be looked after anymore. Her father called me into his study, and there he was, remote in hand. And that was it. Next thing I knew, Virginia was looking at me, that hundred-megawatt smile beaming down at me. I knew the smile, but not the face, because it was fourteen years older. She was days away from giving birth to her own daughter, Winnifred. And I fell in love all over again. She had her mother's smile. And her eyes. And her fierce independence. Then, one day, when Winnifred was thirteen, it was decided she didn't need me anymore, and I powered myself down, expecting to see her face once more when it was time to raise her children."
Beau looked down at the ground. Though his neural pathways were nowhere near as complex as the rest of ours, his emotions were still real and powerful. He seemed, for a spell, lost in some moment decades old.
"When I powered up, I was with the Stephensons. And that's when I met my Phillip and my JoAnn. I would find out, years later, that Winnifred was barren. And, unable to have children, had no need for her former caretaker anymore. When it's time, Pounce, it's time. And you'll find another child or two or four to love and care for, for as long as you tick."
"What's it like?" Ferdinand asked. "Powering down."
"You haven't been powered down?" asked Jenny.
"Only for the occasional software upgrade. I've never needed maintenance."
"Same here," I said. "It's like blinking. Not really shutting down for real."
Jenny nodded. "It's kind of the same, only your clock jumps several years and it takes a little while to get used to whatever new circumstances you find yourselves in."
"You mean houses?" asked Ferdinand.
"I mean people," said Jenny.
"The people change," said Beau. "They change an awful lot. My Virginia had a lot of that little girl still in her as a mother. But parts of it, some of the light, some of the bright spots...well, those just weren't there anymore. And it took some getting used to."
"Do you miss them?" I asked.
"Every day," he said. "But whenever I do..." He tapped a single metal finger on his chest, just above where his hard rives were housed. "Though I would like to see my Winnie again. Outside of my memories. If only for an evening. I'd like to think she held on to her bright spots, to her light. But I imagine not being able to have children of her own, well, with the dreams she had as a little girl, that might have snuffed that light out altogether."
The school bell rang, meaning there was approximately twenty-four seconds until those front doors opened and a wave of children surged out to the sea of waiting parents and nannies. We were far from the only bots outside. There were easily a dozen different cliques on any given day, along with the occasional one-offs whose owners had ordered them to keep to themselves—usually for privacy reasons—or who just had weird personality quirks. Different models had their own oddities. Features that never caught on and were quickly discontinued. Bugs that couldn't be addressed with code. Third-party servicing with off-brand parts that occasionally led to strange behavior. Bots had become so ubiquitous in society, so prevalent and profitable, that there was as much diversity in robotics as could be found in humanity itself.
Twenty-three seconds later, the doors swung open. And the children flooded out. And I got that feeling that I got every time I saw him. My Ezra.
But something was different. Wrong. The kids sprinted out of those doors and ran to their nannies as if they hadn't seen them in a year. Several threw their arms around their bots. Others had tears in their eyes. Ezra walked slowly down the walk, eyes on the ground, thoughts clearly percolating in his tiny eight-year-old skull.