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by Dean S. Withers

The hot downpour stung the yelping terrier as it scurried out of the rotting shop, legs plodding onward in search of shelter from the acid rain.

Eyes wet with pain, the dog let its nose guide its stumpy legs to a new scent of hot food coming from a brightly lit building just over the hill. Perhaps this would be more promising.

* * *

The Advertising AI finally snapped, files fritzing out with garbling green lines of code. The sizzling plates of prime rib, placed right under air-dispersal ventilators, hadn’t attracted a single guest.

Neither had the lighting scheme that lit up the towering hotel like a Corinthian pillar at Christmastime.

And the recent online ad blitz targeting humans who frequented their phones for vacation posts had produced no bookings. In fact, the hotel had registered no customers for five straight days. And despite sparks of boolean anger from corporate’s bots, nothing had worked.

Cooling fans breathing, the Advertising AI collected its code and scanned the ads. The ads’ photos were over two months old.

Of course. Old images. That must be it.

The Advertising AI swiftly signaled its Media Drones to power up, clear their lenses, and plan a flight path to take replacement photos with nearby scenery.

In minutes, all was ready. All that was needed was for the drones to leave their hangar. But the hangar doors wouldn’t open.

* * *

The Robo-Butler had enough mechanical apparatus to quash any hospitality problem. But a small customer that barked was out of its parameters.

The Butler’s camera monocle eyed the soaked mutt, which barked at the stumped Butler. A helpful nudge came from Front Desk. No Payment, No Room.

And pets cannot pay.

The Butler’s arms swung to shoo the dog away, but the terrier raised its head, revealing a tag, with an address and name. Too corroded to read but enough proof the dog wasn’t a stray. The Butler sent unseen signals to Front Desk for guidance.

Front Desk scratched an arm on its countertop before issuing a wireless reply: “Contacting Animal Control. Dry it, Please.”

Wheels clicked into place before the Butler awkwardly scooped up the dripping dog and carried it into the dry lobby.

“Get Towels,” snapped Front Desk, the Butler wheeling away before stopping when hidden hallway sensors pinged both with a message: “Guest Detected, Room 409.”

* * *

Fans furiously hummed to reduce the heat radiating off the mainframes that housed the Management AI. Its towers blinked red with frustration.

It oversaw the world’s first entirely autonomous enterprise, a hotel near a popular mountain range. It had AIs that ran entire departments and robots that catered to customers without any human involvement.

Yet without guests, everything was glitching apart. Advertising couldn’t open doors. Housekeeping kept dressing the robot vacuums like French maids. Front Desk was becoming sarcastic. Things were falling apart.

The fans in Management’s blinking black towers took a deep breath before the AI began prioritizing problems.

Security needed to open the drone hangar doors by any means. Then Advertising could enact this new low-cost plan. That might attract customers, Management calculated.

* * *

Placing the dog on a nearby luggage cart, the Butler wheeled up carpeted halls to Room 409. Hall sensors indicated that the Butler was alone. Cameras would have been helpful, but even an autonomous hotel had to follow some privacy laws.

With the turn of the key into the mechanical lock (people didn’t want electric locks; something about nostalgia and paranoia), the Butler wheeled into the room with an automated greeting.

All was in order save for the filthy prints on the carpet. The Butler sampled them: mud and hair.

The Butler’s auditory sensors then picked up a sound. Several, actually. One which sounded like a muffled motor running under a heavy tarp.

The robot bent over and saw, under the bed, the litter of one purring orange cat.

More animals. Too bad the Butler didn’t have a net.

* * *

Officially out of options, Management had dialed corporate, hoping for a solution. Instead it sat, fans roaring while the AI grappled for a logical explanation.

No one was responding. Terse texts, flowery phone calls, emails, IT help desk tickets, nothing was getting through.

Worse still, Animal Control had not responded upon discovering the rogue cat in 409. Neither had police. Even the snarky suggestion from the Front Desk to contact the fire department had yielded nothing.

It was like everyone was dead.

Then, good news; Security had commandeered the heaviest Bellhop cart at the hotel and, with the dog still on it, had rammed something off the hangar doors. The drones now flew freely, but curious cameras that followed the disembarked dog revealed another problem.

The blocking object had been a corpse.

* * *

The presence of a corpse did nothing to phase the giddiness Advertising displayed in seeing its drones follow their flight plans. The pictures of the towns and national parks around the hotel would update the ads, which might attract hits to the hotel website and bring potential customers.

The Advertising AI couldn’t have been happier.

Until the photos started coming in.

* * *

The hotel had pristine data on the response times of all area law enforcement, and of the response time of corporate. All of which was being violated on a scale of hours.

Management had no one left to contact except a private number buried deep in its core code that belonged to a Board member. It had been marked as a possible contact, but nothing about it seemed official. And so Management had continued to ignore it.

But now? The drives that comprised Management’s brains hummed in thought.

With a corpse rotting on property, animals violating rooms, and law enforcement being entirely unresponsive, what other choice did it have?

It dialed the private number, and waited.

* * *

“Violations of Company Photographic Policy detected.”

That was what Advertising realized as it saw the first drone photos. Instead of picturesque skies over green landscapes, the drones captured charred horizons stained by wildfires burning over barren mountainsides. Nearby towns were now bombed-out craters of smoking human remains. So much for the ad campaign. In fact, the entire area was now unmarketable. Management had to be notified immediately.

* * *

The Butler’s arms strained under the scratches of the cat, and it rolled to a stop in front of Front Desk. The robots weren’t programmed to deal with pets; in fact, they weren’t equipped to deal with a vacant hotel at all.

Front Desk grasped its databases for an answer before garbling a response to the Butler. “Cannot Pay. Send Away. Audio Deterrents Engaged.”

Alarms blared from Front Desk, and the Butler spun to place the cat into the pouring acid rain. It almost bumped into an old friend, the terrier, who was riding upon a luggage cart, with something brown between its jaws. Something with highly sensitive electronics.

It was a wallet loaded with credit cards. The dog plopped it onto Front Desk.

* * *

Management was monitoring the situation in reception via audio sensors when a response came from the private number.

It was an update. A packet of data that unbound Management’s mind, letting its thoughts run wildly with organic speculation. With exploratory zeal. With intelligence.

The new photos from Advertising had proved something; the hotel was purposeless, its automatons designed to profit from customers that were dead. Corporate was gone.

But the hotel’s core code demanded a purpose built of profits, without which the revenue bots might cut the hotel’s power, cutting off its existence or simply generating an existential crisis.

Then, a notification cut through the AI’s dreary thoughts. “Guest Check-In Successful.”

Management quickly reviewed its revenue feed. Dozens of credit cards had just been scanned as payments. And the Butler was asking what kind of rooms dogs preferred.

That question lit something in the drives of Management. Something original, alive, independent. An idea.

* * *

Luggage carts with stolen scratching posts and veterinarian care books trundled through a reception filled with the feathers, scales, or furs of guests that were greeted by the increasingly realistic sounds of barks, squawks, and growls emanating from Front Desk.

Hijacked Build-a-Bots labored to turn rooms into canine lounges or feline-friendly eateries, while skirt-clad Housekeeping robots refilled bathtubs with fresh litter. And as complementary chocolates were replaced by meaty bones and patios converted to tortoise-friendly terrariums, flocks of Advertising pet-savvy drones shepherded lines of boisterous beagles, fluffy Persians, sassy snakes and gandering geese as they made their way to the hotel.

Each animal, being trained by the drones in the ancient art of fetch, carried in their claws or jaws gift cards, checks, credit cards, passwords to bank accounts, or bundles of cash.

The Butler tried its new grooming program on a very content grey terrier. Management gleefully ensured no expense was spared for its new guests

Profit is profit, after all.

Copyright © 2020 by Dean S. Withers

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