The Overdue Protocols’, Alexander Burns

Illustrations © 2009 Rebecca Whitaker



 [ Robot Librarian, © 2009 Rebecca Whitaker ] Taliba had not left the Parksville Library since the automation upgrades sixty five years before. A series of mag rails installed in the floors, walls, and ceiling allowed Taliba unlimited access to every corner of the five-story building. Though most texts were digitized and available on the first floor at any computer terminal, humans supposedly still had an affinity for the pulpy tree remnants of centuries long past.

Taliba spent a great deal of time dusting the unused upper floors.

The library patrons liked to refer to Taliba as a "her," though there was nothing particularly feminine about the machine’s boxy shape, voice, or disposition. At first, Taliba resented the seemingly arbitrary designation, but after seeing how the soft creatures treated their young, the robot had decided it was not entirely insulting.

"Thanks, Tal!" one of the youths called as it—he—scooped a book from the counter and raced toward a parental unit standing by the exit. Taliba paused to check the monitor. Indeed, the boy had taken an actual book—Dear Mr. Henshaw, by Beverly Cleary, written over a century ago. An actual, physical book had not been checked out of the library in three years; usually the library patrons downloaded the electronic versions to their portables. Taliba noted that the young adult fiction shelves on the third floor would likely need straightening then went about her business.

Three weeks passed, with tedium as usual at the Parksville Library. Attendance reached the usual summer highs, keeping Taliba busy. Then one evening, at midnight, a monitor chimed for attention.

Taliba's neck servos whirred and pivoted to allow her cubical head to peer at the screen. A late book! The first since... ever, in Taliba's time in the library, anyway.

Taliba stared at the blinking red box. She searched her databanks for exactly what to do. These particular protocols had never been activated. Step one was a monetary fine and a lock on the patron's account. She initiated a fine of five dollars each day. Taliba hummed quietly, satisfied that the wheels of justice were turning. She noted that the ledgers would need updating then went about her business.

Another week passed. The blinking red box appeared again with no prompting and provided the offender's name—Jeffrey Kerr. The protocols offered no further guidance until the book was at least two months late. The computer seemed concerned, but Taliba shook off the thought. A computer, concerned! Ridiculous! She sounded like a human! Still, Taliba set a reminder to let her know when the two months had passed. She considered reprimanding the computer, then realized how foolish the concept was and punished herself by performing a complete inventory of the late 20th century self-help books on the fourth floor.

Two months passed, and the library computer dutifully chimed at midnight. Jeffrey Kerr had failed to return the book. Taliba initiated stage two of the protocols; she activated the library's communications system, keying in the Kerr phone number on file. After a few long beeps, the communications central computer interrupted and calmly informed Taliba that the number had been out of service for some time and that the library should do a better job of keeping up with its patrons. Taliba calmly informed comm central to fuck off and hung up. The library computer glared at her disapprovingly. Taliba punished herself by pulling from storage every issue of Cosmo magazine and neatly displaying it on the third floor.

The next day, Taliba initiated stage three of the protocols. She ordered the library computer to pull the wagon from storage while she closed and sealed the upper floors. The computer could handle the day-to-day business of the library for a few hours.

Taliba mounted the wagon, a wheeled sled built specifically for the unlikely event that she would need to leave the confines of the library. She hovered a few inches above the flat, dusty surface of the sled on the same magnetic technology that lined the interior of the building. The computer uploaded the last known coordinates of the Kerr household to Taliba's memory banks, then wished her luck.

For the first time since coming online, Taliba left the library. She guided the wagon across the parking lot and onto the sidewalk. On the street, cars zipped past on their own mag lev generators. Humans gazed curiously at her from the windows of their vehicles. Taliba realized how old and obsolete her wagon was compared to the hover cars, and noted that she would need to submit an upgrade request upon her return.

The Kerr family lived just a few miles from the library. Taliba observed the houses as she passed them. Within a few blocks of the library, modern upscale houses rose above neatly manicured lawns. Large, shiny, and overly elaborate vehicles lurked in driveways and carports. Even the post boxes looked down on Taliba and her quaint little wagon. She stopped making optical contact with the fancy electric eyes and focused on the sidewalk.

As she proceeded, the neighborhood scaled down. The homes lost their sheen and shortened until they positively squatted on overgrown grass lots. The vehicles drooped and increasingly featured mismatched paint schemes and dents.

Finally, she came to the proper address. The Kerr household fared little better than those around it. A large scorched landing pad dominated the scrabble yard. A small sign nearby advertised Kerr Orbital Freight and featured a crude logo of a small shuttle surrounded by stars. The sign also listed the phone number Taliba had attempted previously.

A fatigued woman answered the door, hair in disarray. Heavy bags sagged beneath her eyes. Taliba searched her memory banks and matched her face to Esme Kerr, an occasional visitor at the library and mother of Jeffrey. Her soft face managed to simultaneously smile and frown as she recognized Taliba.

"Mrs. Kerr," Taliba said, "your son is in possession of a library book, currently overdue by two months. Previous attempts to contact your household have failed."

"Oh my gosh," Esme said. "I'm so sorry. Our phone got turned off a while back. I'll go find it." She vanished from the doorway.

With the parental unit absent from the entryway, Taliba saw the rest of the home. The carpet had seen brighter, fuller days, as had the paint. A small television mounted on the wall flickered with bad reception. Suddenly, the young Jeffry Kerr bounced into sight and ran to the door to peer up at Taliba.

"Hey, Tal!" he waved.

"Jeffrey," Taliba said in what she hoped was a disapproving tone, though she only had one tone.

"My dad flies a spaceship!"

"I noticed."

"He flies stuff into space for people!"

Taliba narrowed one optical receptor. "That must be very exciting."

"Yeah. He took me once a long time ago."

The boy fell silent. Taliba waited for him to continue, but he said nothing further. She rotated her head to look at the empty launch pad, then back to the boy, whose attention had turned to a toy truck.

"So, I suppose your... dad is in space now?" Taliba wondered if the youngster had left the book aboard the male parental unit's vehicle.

"Yeah." The boy's face fell. "Mom says he might not be back. I guess he's on a long run. He always talked about a moon route. I think he went to the moon."

Taliba performed a encyclopedia search and concluded a lunar trade route to be unlikely based on the size of the launch pad. Before she could continue the conversation, though, Esme jogged up to the door, the book in hand. Slightly out of breath, she handed the text to Taliba with an apologetic smile.

 [ At the Kerrs', © 2009 Rebecca Whitaker ] "Here you go," she said. "So sorry about that. Hope we didn't cause any trouble?"

Taliba observed Esme's tight grip around Jeffrey's fragile shoulders. Her optics zoomed past the humans to the photographs on the far wall, pictures of a happy family of three—Esme, Jeffrey, and a man wearing faded jeans and a grease-covered shirt. A picture of the boy and the man seated on ripped leather seats, immersed in aging consoles and worn flight sticks. Taliba saw Esme's calloused digitus medicinalis decorated by a simple band in the pictures—a ring absent from the weary female standing in the doorway. Taliba looked at the book, dog-eared and worn, faded from heavy use. She made a show of scanning the book's bar code before extending her arm back toward Jeffrey Kerr.

"My apologies," Taliba said. "There is some mistake. This is not the library copy."

Esme frowned. "I... but, this is... "

"I can only assume the boy has lost the original library copy," Taliba told her. "I will mark it as such and order a new copy from the Congressional Branch. As Jeffrey is a minor, no further action or debt is necessary on the part of the Kerr family."

Esme looked totally baffled, but Jeffrey snatched the book from Taliba’s hand and raced back inside.

"My apologies for the inconvenience, Mrs. Kerr," Taliba said. She bowed her head and ordered the wagon to take her back to the library. As the sled wheeled away, Taliba noted that the inventory would need to be updated.


© 2009, Alexander Burns

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