Flash fiction comes in all lengths. The very best flash fiction has character, conflict, and plot. For me, flash fiction is all about mood. I hope you enjoy “All Systems Nominal.”
All Systems Nominal
Lynette M. Burrows
The soft whirring sound of M.A.R.C., the best medical assistive robotic caregiver money could buy, moved closer to the bed The bed’s occupant, a human male, age 100, didn’t respond.
M.A.R.C. extended its sensor arm precisely two inches above the human’s still form and swept the man from head to toe. Readouts of respiration, pulse, core temperature, blood pressure, and other biological measures flickered across M.A.R.C’s chest. All systems nominal. Sleep mode. A mechanical arm reached out and tucked the blanket under the old man’s chin.
M.A.R.C slid back away from the bed and into its charging station. The parameters of its programming satisfied, it wouldn’t stir again for another sixty minutes. If the patient’s implanted A.I. detected an anomaly, it would alert M.A.R.C. M.A.R.C.’s programming included responses for all medical emergencies and would summon human help if necessary. But for all systems nominal, it would wait until the next programmed time to check on his patient.
His Early Life
When the man had been a fetus suspended in the nutrient soup of the artificial womb, the analysis of his DNA indicated that he had a forty percent risk of diabetic and vascular dementia and an eighty percent chance of developing cancer. The chances that he would develop one of the few incurable cancers that remained were less than one percent. Confident their offspring would lead a long and healthy life, his 100-year-old parents did not push the abort button.
His parents cherished the child he became. And he cherished them.
He grew into a productive citizen and amassed a great fortune. When his parents reached their second century mark, they held an extravagant end-of-life ceremony and pushed each other’s euthanasia buttons.
During his grief, he rebooted their A.I. backups frequently. They comforted him.
As time passed, he rebooted the backups less and less frequently. His work became his solace. He spent time in meetings with the world’s greatest scientists and engineers and robotics manufacturers.
He tweaked and improved many time-saving devices and created a master control center for all of them. The world’s oldest citizens called this, his primary invention, the Jetson Control Center. His own home had one. It was the one he tinkered with to test new ideas.
Even with the amazing buttons of the master control center, he found that some things required a more hands-on-approach. But androids that looked too human, whether from his or someone else’s company, frightened real humans too much. Even androids and robots painted clownish colors did not ease human fears. He created androids and robots that looked machines and still the humans were frightened. But when his androids and robots looked like toys or dolls or puppets the humans were unafraid. In fact, the real humans loved them.
The First Alert
In his sixties, his implanted A.I. alerted. He went to the doctor for confirmation. Chance had not favored him. Diabetic. He poured all his energy into refining the artificial pancreas. His body rejected his. They tried every known metal and even tried an organic transplant. His body rejected each of them. Not even rejection suppression medication helped.
He refined and improved the first robotic caregivers and created the M.A.R.Cs. And as the diabetic vascular dementia took over his brain and his body, he relied more and more on his A.I.
His A.I. restored his sense of balance and kept his paranoia from flaring. It allowed him to continue to function as the COO of his corporation, but it did not support creative thinking. Still, he felt and was productive. It was unusual for him to stay in bed past 6 a.m. But his A.I. Did not send M.A.R.C. an alert. So M.A.R.C. Stayed in his charging station, leaving only to check on his patient every hour.
M.A.R.C. went to the bed. His sensor arm swept across the old man. All systems nominal. Sleep mode.
The Last Alert
The medical bed’s A.I. recognized that the old man lay without moving for too long and rolled him on to his right side. His deep regular breaths didn’t change. His open, unblinking eyes remained unblinking. The AI that supplied his dementia addled brain with sufficient connections to overcome his condition ran a continuous alert to the old man. The hologram message floated above his unperceiving eyes. Backup Failed.
“All Systems Nominal” is about dementia and human hubris and Murphy’s Law. Dementia is a horrible disease process that comes in multiple forms. All of its forms cause deep heartache for victims and families and caregivers. If you or a family member or a friend are dealing with dementia, please reach out to the Alzheimer’s Association (it’s for all types of dementia, not just Alzheimers). They have information and resources and support. And they could use your support if you’re inclined to offer a donation.