On Thursday the mom-bots went funny. Outside the school they were standing in the road, holding up the traffic. Outside the supermarket they had formed a picket line and were refusing to let people out, though they'd happily let people in. It was getting quite crowded in there, and the managers were trying to sneak people out through the goods-loading entrance. Outside the church they were handing out pamphlets about Islam, and outside the Mosque they were handing out Gideon Bibles.
Ours wasn't. Dad had turned it off three days earlier, muttering to himself that "instabilities like that are indicative of problems ahead, no matter what the Wilson's of this world may think". I'd heard him talk about Wilson before, and I knew that he or she ran a department that reported to Dad's, but over which he had no executive control. I didn't know what executive control was, but I liked the sound of it. Now our mom-bot stood in the corner, her head bowed and her hands still clutching the scissors she'd been using for dead-heading before Dad had flicked her switch.
He'd only brought one home three weeks earlier as well, and I'd guessed straight away that this wasn't going to be a normal mom-bot. Dad's refusal to make use of the near-ubiquitous mom-bot technology was more than mere Ludditism, so a sudden volte-face from him was highly implausible. I'd asked him about it at the time, and he'd just smiled and said that he'd been told they made good chili. Now I asked him again.
"Oh," he said, and looked a little sad. "Can't you ever act your age?"
I was thirteen, and I said so. He looked at me, and I could have sworn I saw pity in his eyes.
"Well," he said. "You may not understand all this, but I'm sure you'll find a way of finding out." He said it like it wasn't something to be proud of. "The problem with the mom-bots is their ubiquity. You see, everyone has one."
"We don't," I said. "You've never let us have one. And ours would be free because you work for the department!"
"Actually, the department kind of works for me. But that's not the point. Almost everyone has one then, and most people pay for theirs. Over fifteen years, usually. And that's where the money is, and that's where the investment and innovation is. People want better and better mom-bots, so they're researched and developed. The only other -bot with a similar development budget is the war-bot."
"So?" I'd said, not understanding why he was telling me this.
"So, most of the -bots you see and use everyday are derived from the mom-bot model," said Dad. "The traffic-bots are modified mom-bots that see cars as children. The janitor-bots are modified mom-bots with an OCD chip in. The militia-bots are heavily modified mom-bots, but they still believe they must always act to protect the greater ideals of society."
"Couldn't they be war-bots?" I said. "Just ones that don't kill people?"
"Pacifist war-bots?" Dad laughed, which he didn't do very often. "If only! That would actually make more sense."
"So what's gone wrong then?"
"A virus is affecting the mom-bots," said Dad. "There's been a suggestion of something on the loose for about a month now, but Wilson refuses to listen. Three days ago the statistics were so skewed that they kept breaking the representation programs. Our pie charts were all coming out as burgers."
He paused, and I knew I was supposed to laugh, though I didn't know what was supposed to be funny. He gave me a twisted little smile.
"Kevin, who heads up counter-intelligence, is called it a Suffrajettison virus. The mom-bots get a sudden urge to rebel and protest against some part of their programming. It's a fairly peaceful protest for about twenty-seven hours, and then the mom-bot gets very angry and explodes, jettisoning her head which continues to talk until the local battery runs down, telling people why she's committed botticide."
"The mom-bots are killing themselves?"
"And innocent passers-by, or hostages," said Dad. "But the thing is, now that we know the mom-bot can be virally infected, what about the more lethal bots that are based off the mom-bot?"
I was silent while I thought about that. When I looked up at Dad at last, wide-eyed, he wasn't smiling.
"The mom-bot over there is hardened against viral penetration," he said. "And programmed to spread a virus of her own, that might do some good. When the mom-bots stop exploding I'll turn her on and we'll see what happens."
I didn't sleep well that night.