“Ther number 38?” the Director called, looking up from hir lavender soft-bot.
“Yes.” said 38, feeling hir stomach tighten.
The Director’s windowless chamber was pastel blue with vases of soft yellow and green tinsels set fashionably on corner sconces. Hir desk was rounded at the corners and padded to eliminate sharp angles and hard surfaces.
“And ‘J’ is your little brl?”
”Yes,” said 38, rolling hir lips in.
“We’ve received several complaints.” The Director’s eyes locked with 38’s. “There’s been an incident. Before we talk, may I show you?”
“Please, Director. I want everyone to feel safe.” 38’s amoeba-footed soft-bot flowed smoothly to the virtual display platform.
The Director explained. “Touch-pass is a game for teaching cooperation and social skills without stirring aggression or competition.” 38 nodded and turned to the display.
A first grade classroom appeared with eight little brls sitting in a soft-bot circle. 38 identified hir little brl, J. An instructor pseudopod reached toward the circle and revealed a foam ball the color and size of a grapefruit. The first little brl took the offered ball. Everyone in the circle hand-patted to celebrate hir success. The first brl then handed the ball to the second and again everyone soft patted, and so with the third. Then the scene paused. J was next in line. 38 felt hir heart pound.
“Watch how J plays,” the Director said, and the play resumed. The ball was handed to J and everyone patted. But when J went to hand the ball to the next brl, the reach was further. J leaned and stretched. The scene froze again.
“The correct response,” the Director said, “was to ask for assistance and not to risk destabilizing the soft-bot.” The scene continued.
Shocked at the sight of J stretching, the next little brl refused to accept the ball and let it drop. J reacted by stepping one foot from hir soft-bot, stopping the rolling ball, and placing it in the little brl’s lap. All the little brls screamed and covered their eyes. The virtual instructor stopped the game.
“Yesterday I met with a ther who said hir brl had screamed all night. When I showed hir the scene you just watched, hir fainted. This morning hir reported nightmares of brls falling, heads bumping, and noses bleeding. Hir’s now on medication and is seeking long-term counseling.”
“I had no idea my J was so independent,” 38 whispered, tears welling in hir eyes.
“And so aggressive,” the Director added. “Walking is a reckless act that endangers everyone. Fetching the fallen ball demeaned all the other brls. We cannot permit anyone to do anything that everyone cannot do safely. Your brl reacted without thought, without consideration. Everyone in J’s class and many thers are being treated for stress. Several insist that both you and J be punished.”
“Perhaps another sensitivity session,” 38 said hopefully and accepted a tissue.
“When we issued J to you three weeks ago, we explained your responsibility.” 38 nodded. “You’re still young. Perhaps you don’t know how far our civilization has come.” 38 shook hir head. “As I suspected. Let me take you back.”
The classroom faded and 38 found hirself onstage with a dozen primitive humans. The humans were in strange tight-fitting costumes and stood precariously on legs without soft-bot protection.
“Oh my,” 38 said, averting hir eyes.
“No, you must watch. This is from the time before civilization.”
“What am I seeing? Why do they look so strange?”
“In the 21st century, humans still walked on legs. They ate food they plucked from the dirt, had two sexes, and used their fun parts to procreate. Keep looking,” the Director shouted as 38 tried to cover hir eyes.
“I, I don’t know what I’m seeing,” 38 whimpered. “Why are they so oddly shaped?”
“Before we standardized the cylindrical torso and perfected external procreation, this was how humans looked. The differences helped them to identify one another and to attract mates. They called themselves women or men, depending on their genders. Thers were divided into mo-thers and fa-thers. Brls were girls or boys.
“Here we see a dance troop preparing for Balanchine’s Serenade. In the 21st century, virtual and robot dancers were just coming into fashion, and many people still danced.” 38 looked incredulous. “You can tell the female-gendered from the male by their blue tulle skirts. Now watch.”
As the dancers leaped, glided, and pirouetted, often brushing and touching one another, 38 winced and ducked. “What if someone falls or breaks a leg?”
“When dancers required repair, they were replaced. Otherwise they were expected to continue, to endure the pain.”
“We have no rational explanation. Even after virtual reality became common, some humans persisted in doing things with their bodies. They exposed themselves to sunlight, snow, wind, and rain. They swam, ran, jumped from high places, and danced like you just saw. They walked everywhere. Some took long walks in the countryside. And they worked for hours.”
“Worked?” 38 sat up. The scene faded and 38’s amoeba-footed soft-bot glided hir back to the Director’s desk.
“Yes, worked, worked like machines.” 38 shuddered. Hir soft-bot gave hir a warm squeeze. “Now do you understand?”
“I understand,” 38 said, lowering hir head. “When do you think I’ll be well enough to pick up my little brl?”
“We’re not perfect, 38, none of us. We must be constantly on our guard.” The Director caught 38’s expectant gaze. “Out of sensitivity to the thers and brls, we had J euthanized. Hir attempt to walk and dominate marked hir as a dangerous throwback.” 38 began to cry.
“Don’t worry. Clearly your brl was defective, and you were not programmed to handle that sort of problem. As soon as you’ve completed your sensitivity refresher, we’ll issue you another brl.”
38 forced a smile through hir tears.
* * *
This is a nerf-world story that projects an outcome from overprotection from all things real and imagined. Do or have you had any such visions or concerns?