Chapter Description: Things are changing in the aftermath on the failed raid of Anni's Daycare. While the A.I. is doing her best for her charges to enjoy the new, improved facility, her pursuers are far from giving up. Will the kidnapped persons be ready to take advantage of this struggle?
“I hope you are ready for the good stuff,” Agent Miller noticed, as he entered the room.
Detective Brian Fellor looked up from his files, as did Officer Ellen Maren and Officer James Koenig. Ever since the raid on the lair of the Artificial Intelligence named Anni, the group had been the unofficial liaison for the NSA in the city which was ground zero of the current crisis. Nothing had so far hit the news and their commissioner had learned enough to give them free hand for the time being, even without being told so by Fort Meade, the NSA headquarter.
“I’ve really come to love the Gullison’s bakery,” the agent commented, as he distributed coffee and donuts.
“The only drug dealer we never bust,” James noticed, as he grabbed a Donut.
“I see it more like a load of batteries,” Ellen explained, taking a cup of coffee.
“Speaking of,” Fellor threw in, “has anyone checked for risen energy consumption?”
“We are way ahead,” Miller explained. “We check the basic energy consumption of all areas, but no large changes. Maybe she manipulates the numbers or she even got her own generator.”
“Nuclear?” Ellen asked, suddenly sounding worried.
“Who knows,” the agent’s tone become more serious. “But I go with gas. Harder to track.”
“How much does she need for this?” James asked, looking at the photographs on the wall, showing the AI’s lair … her daycare.
“Less than you might think, but who knows what she develops,” Miller answered. “We think we found out why we couldn’t track her in a while.”
“Why?” Fellor asked.
“Technological magic, but basically she could use satellites and split her signal and unites it on the server she aimed it to.”
The agent nodded and took a bite and for a while there was heavy silence.
“She develops,” Ellen noticed grimly.
“Yes, but in a limited way, if Mr. Kaulkin’s word is anything worth,” the agent replied. “She might still have only one nursery running.”
“The military?” Fellor asked.
“Isn’t happy about some AI stealing, modifying and probably reproducing robots companies just created for them.” Miller pointed at the wall, where the photo of the a robot in the charred remains of a teddy-bear suit were pinned. “It helps that this just is Carebear level instead of Terminator, but some favor the idea of a global shutdown of the Internet and electricity.”
For a moment there was again silence, as they imagined the effects of this.
“It would be worse than the problem,” James noticed.
“So far and probably something the AI is prepared for,” Miller agreed. “But people are nervous.”
“Anything good except that Anni is untraceable, evolving and our leaders risk the apocalypse?” Ellen asked.
“Actually yes.” Miller grabbed a donut. “According to our Robot Psychologist its largest weakness are the hostages … the people in the nursery. Given that it is supposed to be the perfect daycare worker, it might not be able to harm them. If we threaten to hurt of kill them if she doesn’t relent, she might give up.”
“You realize she might go berserk if something happens to them?” Fellor replied.
“This was talked about, too.”
No further comment came and the detective knew asking him would be fruitless. He also knew there were things better kept in the smallest circles. This came with working under the NSA and whatever government circle it had already reached. Still, he would lie if it didn’t bother him.
“If she can’t harm the hostages, this would mean they are safe. If she sees every human as toddler this means we are relatively safe.” James looked around. “Can’t we at least agree this is good?”
“You saw her daycare,” Fellor commented. “How would you like the prospect of having to live there forever?”
The officer grew slightly pale, as he threw a short look on the photo of a giant crib. Fellor could sympathize, especially since Miller had refused to tell him if they were still monitored by her and forbidden him to tell the others about the danger they were potentially in.
“What about them?” Ellen asked. “Have you psychologists for them, too?”
“Indeed,” Miller replied. “They say the hostages will adapt or go insane.”
Celyn had a splendid time working in the supermarket. She had hated it before, but now it made her feel useful, respected and grown-up. It was responsibility, too. For example, she had to move boxes with goods around. She could do so, had done it in her normal job and these boxes hardly weighed anything, since the content was mostly plastic. Plastic tin cans, plastic eggs, plastic flowers and empty cereal boxes, but also detergent boxes and more. Nothing to use, except for diaper packages and some plates with real fruits and vegetables.
Celyn squated down to pick up a box and felt the pressure inside her growing. Knowing there was nothing she could do and eager to continue work, she let go, instantly feeling the warmth on her butt.
No reason to let this stop me from working!, she thought grimly. My boss probably would have introduced this too, sooner or later.
Seeing a customer approach, the supermarket worker was stood up and smoothed her smock.
Be kind and mature, she thought, ignoring the smell coming from her diaper.
“How can I help you?” Celyn asked, looking up. “We have a discount for tin cans today.”
Barbara smiled down on the Kindergartner behind the play counter. Being the only one still biologically an adult meant that she had to constantly remind her that the others were mentally still just like her … at least that what was she hoped.
“A place with melon pieces,” she said.
The supermarket worker nodded and handed her the plate over the counter, before moving to the plastic checkout.
“Makes 5 bucks.”
Barbara pretended to pull a credit card out of her white kitten overalls and handed it to Celyn, who pretended to use it on the toy-checkout, before handing it back to her.
“Thank you,” Barbara said before leaving.
“Have a nice day,” Celyn replied in a warm way her boss would approve. “Come back soon.”
As she watched the grown woman go, ten-year-old Celyn watched over the large play room with its toys, ball pits and structures, pretending to instead see her old workplace. Tomorrow she would be the owner of the supermarket. No reason not to aim for the stars!
Barbara let her fellow prisoner behind, trying to hide the worry she felt. Ever since Anni had suggested her to run a little store where she could hand out healthy snacks to the rest, the other woman turned girl seemed to have more and more become captured by this fantasy. Just as Anni probably had planned. It felt so worrying to see her play pretend and not know if she played, pretended it to placate their captor or really believed it. And she wasn’t the only one …
“Look who has a cute baby,” Hillary noticed.
Barbara made a grimace and looked at the stroller the five-year-old pushed. In it was a doll robot who strapped in, who seemed to enjoy the tour through the room.
“Sweet,” she replied in a neutral tone and offered the melon pieces. “Do you want one?”
“Thank you so much,” Hillary replied, taking one and turning to the doll. “Does baby want one, too?”
“Baby hungry!” The doll replied.
Hillary placed the piece of melon close to the doll’s ‘mouth’, only to pull it back in the last moment.
“Nasty mommy!” The doll commented.
Barbara sighed. In her white dress decorated with yellow and pink birds, no one would have thought this one older than five.
“Have you seen Julia?” Barbara asked.
“She hides in the castle,” the woman turned child replied. “I offered to push her around in a stroller, but she refused. Stupid little baby!”
Barbara glared at her, before heading to the structure of the play castle. Hillary was nasty. The former prostitute clearly pretended to like to act young because she did fear Anni turning her younger, but she also didn’t leave an opportunity out to jab at her fellow prisoners and Barbara guessed it had more to do with her personality than with the frustration. Not that she was entirely wrong …
The castle was a large, wooden construct, decorated with images of knights, princesses and dragons. It had two levels to climb in and was high enough that even she could barely reach its red towers. Its large gate, was decorated with a blue silk curtain, so she couldn’t see inside. Yet, as she tried the windows, she could see something move in there. It came for the exit and … turned out to be a robot doll.
“The princess is resting,” the doll explained.
Barbara ignored her.
“Julia?” She asked instead.
“I’ve got you some melon pieces,” she explained. “Do you want some?”
No response … but was there a faint movement on one of the cushion thrones inside?
Barbara used her last joker. “You know Anni won’t bother you for a while if you eat.”
For a moment she thought that even this wouldn’t work, but then something did move inside. Julia rose from the corner she had laid herself into … fled herself into and slowly approached the window. Julia Anderson worked in the same office building she and Jess had run their business in and had been captured shortly after Bruce. This had been a shock, since none of them had any idea why, guessing it was because Anni feared what they might have told her. What had really left them all speechless, had been her state.
As Julia now came into view, Barbara still felt a mild shock race through her. The girl looking at her through the window was not older than two. Her wide eyes seemingly innocent, her blond hair done into pigtails, wearing only a turquoise Arielle shirt and a diaper decorated with baby Bert and Ernie no one seeing on her would find her to be too old to wear.
“They taste really good,” Barbara said, kneeling down to be on eye-level and offering the plate.
Reluctant and still careful, Julia grabbed through the window and took a piece with her pudgy hand. Barbara resisted the urge to say how sorry she was, having done so before with no result.
“You know,” Barbara continued in her conversional tone. “I’m going outside to Jess and Bruce. Maybe you could …”
Julia retreated into the castle, quickly becoming a shadow again.
Barbara sighed. While Hillary calling her a baby was technically correct, she tried to think of her state as toddler. When they had set Anni’s parameters they had decided to first go with a maximum age of two and a half, arguing that this was the age children made the most trouble with combining the need for diaper change, the risk of an immature immune system and frailty of an infant with the ability to move around and need to be watched for of a kindergartner. A toddler. As a result Anni now saw every human as one.
But why did she change Julia and not them?
A Barbara stood up again and left the castle she pondered this. So far, their age had been reduced if they resisted, but what could Julia have done to justify this? Or was it a test by Anni to see how one of her charges behaved if changed biologically to the age she thought they all were in nature anyway? If so, she had to see this as an error, because …
“How is my special little helper doing?”
Barbara stopped abruptly between a crawl-through-tunnel and a table with unused crayons and white paper on it, nearly dropping the plate in the process. Anni’s eye had lowered itself and moved beside her, without her noticing.
“I’m not,” she replied, slowly moving on. “I’m just helping some friends.”
“Oh, but every daycare needs one,” Anni replied. “You do so well with Julia.”
Barbara stopped. Was this it? Was she the only one retaining her true age because the AI saw her as an useful assistant? To keep the others calm? She bit her lip, watching a doll cleaning the ground with a little broom, only to sweep the dirt into a hole in the ground which as rapidly opened as it closed.
“Julia still hasn’t spoken a word since she came here,” Barbara replied. “Can’t you see what you did to her?”
“Oh, many little ones are shy,” Anni argued. “On the other hand, maybe I was wrong. Maybe she is just not old enough for talking and playing with you big kids. At one she would find much more joy in being cuddled, sang to and played with. No need for stupid words then.”
Barbara glared at Anni, though she shook at such an idea. So far, she had thought the youngest her creation would make any of them biologically would be two.
“You are intelligent Anni. Self-aware. This maybe means you can deceive yourself, too, but I think in the end you know what you do,” she explained. “It is a prison, not a daycare!”
With this Barbara went on, leaving Anni’s eye behind. She passed some ladybugs scooters who followed her a bit, obviously eager to be ridden, but ignored them. At the open gate to the outside play area, she slipped into plastic slippers and entered the grass. Walking past the dog kennel, where Bingo, the daycare’s mechanical dog rested, she headed to the little hill where Jess was sitting. Anni would have sugarcoated it by saying he was watching the birds, but she knew he was deep in thoughts, as always trying to find a way out. Bruce meanwhile wasn’t running around wild like the five-year-old kindergartner he now looked like, but ran in circles around the large sand pit in a desperate try to get as much strength out of this body as he could.
“Bruce come here,” Barbara shouted, as she sat down on the grass besides her business partner.
This startled Jess, who had seemingly been too deep in thoughts to even notice her. Their friend meanwhile stopped and looked weary at her, but after a few seconds he relented, walked to them and sat down opposite of them with the plate full of melon pieces between them. For a moment they ate in silence. Things had soured between them since the arrival in Anni’s new nursery.
The first time they had been out in the meadow, Bruce had tried to climb the wall separating them from outside, despite their protests, only to be captured and taken away by easily two-meter large teddy bear robots, the same he had described before. When he had come back, he was 5 instead of 15 and had hardly spoken with them since. Barbara guessed he had finally realized that there was the possibility that they would stay here the rest of their lives … a very big one. And since they wouldn’t die of old age …
“We need to snap Julia out of it,” Barbara said. “Maybe bring her out here.”
Bruce looked over the meadow, the sand pit, the swings …
“So, she can build a sand castle?” he asked sarcastically.
“Anni has suggested to regress her further to match her age her behavior,” Barbara explained.
This made the boy go silent and a bit grey. She looked at him a moment, sitting there in his red shirt with Chase from PAW Patrol on the front and shorts, then to Jess in his overalls with Jake from Jake and the Never Land Pirates on the front, he looked similarly disheartened. A mad part of her wanted to ask her kindergarten-sized friends to be as brave as their heroes, but she managed to suppress it, remembering the kitten which decorated her own overall … but weren’t kitten naughty sometimes?
“Did any of you learn anything new about the building?” Jess asked.
There wasn’t real interest in the question, just the usual attempt not to let hope die. Still, Barbara looked around. Even out here, Anni could see them. Not just the dolls and teddys who ran through the grass and structures were her eyes and ears. There were cameras visible on walls and the building, as well as a group of four monitors on a central pole with her eye facing in every direction.
Big Caretaker is watching you, she thought sarcastically.
“I have seen her open a hole in the ground again,” Barbara revealed.
Jess looked up with sudden interest.
Barbara shrugged. “Not much. A clean hose downstairs.”
“I could get a better view behind the panels, when she changed a chair,” Jess revealed. “It is as we feared. All the walls are panels she can move as she wishes. A lot of the floor, too. What is firm, like our rooms, is seamlessly integrated or hidden. She changes the outline on a daily basis now. Still testing, I guess.” He looked up the side of the building they could see. “I bet there are more of the old parts integrated.”
“Bet what?” Bruce asked. “Your dirty diaper?”
Jess made a face, being sure his friend couldn’t see that his diaper was indeed wet.
“Do you have better input?”
The other kindergartner looked suddenly serious.
“You want to know? Yesterday … or the day before yesterday … am I the only one who is losing track of days?” He looked around, but shook his head before they could answer. “Doesn’t matter. Over the goddamn lullaby I could hear something working beneath. Heavy machinery, slight buzzing … she has isolated her workshop better, but it is still there. Who wants to be there, when she presents us her newest creations?”
The others didn’t answer and Bruce looked around, obviously wanting to be completely sure they were not overheard.
“I heard a train on the right side of the wall,” he revealed. “Faint, but I’m sure. I will run there by the first opportunity.”
“She will catch you,” Jess replied. “She has …”
“Stop pretending you understand her!” Bruce shouted, no longer caring who heard him. “Grow up and see that you created something far beyond your control. You messed up. You both and …” He stopped, clearly seeing the futility of it. “Thank you for the melon.”
With this he stood up and ran away to continue his rounds in the desperate hope that this would make them strong enough to carry him away from here.
At the entrance of the building, Hillary watched the scene, having a good idea what their little chat was about, even when not hearing anything. In the end their plans didn’t matter. She had her own. As the trio became a duo, she turned back inside, pushing her stroller with the doll still strapped in further along the playroom to Celyn’s little shop.
“Diapers, please,” she asked sweetly.
The older girl was clearly not happy to see her, but wanting to be a good saleswoman obliged, handing her a package of number four Luvs.
“Thank you,” Hillary replied, making a movement, pretending to give her money. “Keep the change.”
She placed the package under the stroller and pushed it away, singing a bit to the giggling doll.
“Mary had a little lamb,
little lamb, little lamb,
Mary had a little lamb
its fleece was white as snow.”
“Such a cute song!”
Hillary set up her cutest little girl smile and turned left to see Anni’s eye hanging next to her.
“It helps to calm the baby,” she noticed kindly.
“Indeed! You are a good mother.”
Hillary’s smile widened.
“Thank you,” she replied. “I wonder …”
She let it trail off, looking around to be sure she was far away enough for Celyn not to hear her. Indeed, the girl looked warily at her and Anni from her play, so she walked closer to the castle.
“I wonder if I could do more,” she began. “Maybe I could be your special little helper.”
“Well, Barbara is right now,” Anni explained.
“Oh yes, but she doesn’t want to be,” Hillary noticed, having of course overheard their exchange. “And how can someone help you if she doesn’t want to be here?”
For a moment there was silence. Anni was thinking, Hillary knew. She might understand nothing of programming or artificial intelligences, but she knew how to hook someone. Anni was interested in what she offered, time to make her offer more enticing. She knelt down, feeling her diaper moving slightly, and stroke he doll.
“You know they are thinking about escaping even now,” she noticed.
“Young minds don’t know what is good for them,” Anni said, her voice slightly reserved. “That is why they need caretakers.”
“And doesn’t a caretaker need a special little helper who obeys her?” Hillary asked. “Who keeps an eye on them?”
“Snitching is rude,” the AI lectured.
“Of course!” Hillary was quick to agree, as every little girl did when a grown up taught her something. “But is it snitching, if I make sure the other little children don’t get into trouble? That they only play good games?”
Anni was silent for a moment and Hillary let her be. She knew when it was better to let her customer decide, so she lifted the doll out of the stroller, laid her with the back on the ground and opened the diaper package. As she diapered her – proofing how good she played the mommy – she made extra effort to look caring, though in fact she hardly cared if this robot exploded.
“And what would you want for such a position?” Anni asked. “A shiny badge? A handful of candy? A special toy?”
“I might want to have some years,” Hillary revealed, only to add quickly: “Of course not for me! But the other children are still paying too much attention to the biological age, even when it clearly doesn’t matter. If you made me older and such larger, they would look up to me more. Plus, it would be easier to keep them safe and care for them. See?”
With this she lifted the giggling doll, who swung her legs, clearly happy with being in a diaper, for a moment looking like the monkey which was on the front of it.
“Maybe,” Anni conceded. “We can talk about this another time. Now it is time for me to take care of a diaper.”
With this Anni moved to Celyn, who was once again redecorating her little shop to make it more attractive for customers.
“A busy little shopkeeper needs her dipee changed!” The AI noticed.
Celyn looked up, having managed to forget about the load in the back of her underwear. Knowing it was the best she nodded and took the mechanical hand which came down from the ceiling and let her in the direction of the changing tables.
“Can I be store manager?” She asked, not even really knowing why.
“Sure darling,” Anni reassured her with warmth in her voice. “You will be a great one!”
Despite her will, Celyn giggled.
Hillary watched her go, having her doll once again strapped into the stroller. She guessed the other girl either pretended like her or was losing her mind. It didn’t matter. She was one step away from having breasts again and after this – maybe – of being allowed to go on the potty again, she just knew it. She would do what was necessary, even if this meant the rest would be turned into babbling newborns!
Smiling at this thought, Hillary pushed the stroller for another round. Maybe she could visit the others outside and listen a bit.
The caretaker listened as the children slept, tired out by a morning of play. Like floating she passed the cots. One of her little ones sucked her thumb, another held a toy truck to firm for her to even thinking about taking it. A third had kicked her blanket away in her sleep, leaving her diapered butt and princess-shirt clear to see. Careful the caretaker pulled back the blanket to the child’s shoulders and moved away silently.
As she closed the door behind her, Carol Fume, owner of Little Explorers’ Daycare let out a sigh of relieve and walked down the floor. A good day so far!
She entered the kitchen. “How can I help?”
Avery Chavez looked up from the carrots she was cutting.
“Nearly done,” she explained. “Relax a bit as long as the little monsters are asleep. I know Allen nearly got you today!”
Carol made a face. Allen had vomited on her shoes and nearly her jeans. He wasn’t sick – she prayed – but had run too fast after breakfast and become too excited. Such they had had to calm him down while at the same time clean his little present, his clothes and her shoes up before any of the other children investigated too closely. Afterwards they had convinced him to play in the sand pit for a more relaxed construction effort.
She thanked her coworker for it and walked to the restroom of the daycare workers, a room not accessible for anyone under 18. There grabbed herself a limo – the sort of which was banned for the kids – out of the small refrigerator and set on a couch. Checking her cell phone, she discovered a new message over WhatsApp and smiled. Time for some grown-up talk.
“Break already?” Anni Turning had written roughly five minutes ago.
“Just now,” she wrote back. “Is your daycare finally silent, too?”
Waiting for an answer, Carol mused over the way the other daycare owner had contacted her by her site and asked for help in finding the right equipment for a play area. She had advised her in finding the right sandbox for inside until the daycare’s outer side was ready for the children and over this, they had begun a rather productive chat.
“Seems so,” the other finally answered. “Having soft lullabies at the start really helps.”
“Their little minds need to get down after a morning of excitement,” Carol agreed.
“True,” Anni replied. “Little Bruce is constantly running around as if he is training for marathon.”
The caretaker smiled. “Sounds like this one is an adventurer. Have an eye on him, when you lead them outside. You still plan to do so?”
“It might be the best way to calm them down during the rest of the day. Also seeing birds, trees and maybe little bunnies will for sure make them happy.” Anni wrote. “I must admit though, I’m still a bit worried about safety.”
This made Carol smile again. During their chats she had come to realize that the other caretaker really cared for her charges. She also displayed a lot of knowledge in all possible books about childcare and was ever anxious to hear her opinion, trying to better herself.
“The way you described it, you thought about everything,” she noticed.
“I might have another problem,” Anni began. “Little Hillary is jealous of Barbara being my special little helper and wants to take her place. She even offers me to tell her friends’ secrets.”
“Oh my, sure a crafty one!”
“And you are tempted to take the offer? To be sure they don’t hurt themselves while doing something stupid?”
Carol shook her head. She could understand the other caretaker’s concern for security. Not long ago she had even hired a company to build an artificial helping system to help her run her and other daycares and have an eye on the tots. The company seemed to have vanished and even the police was now involved, having already asked her some questions about its owners. Probably they had fled in fear of being discovered for fraud or something like this. Part of her was shocked of having come into contact with such a shady group of people, but at least teaching her a valuable lesson.
“Nothing is 100 % safe,” she noticed. “We can only do our best and not compromise our principles too much. It is not like the occasional candy. We are trusted to educate them in good behavior and not snitching is part of it. Making her you spy would ruin her relationship with the others, too and shouldn’t they all be friends in our daycares? It sounds like little Hillary mostly wants attention and feel special. Maybe you could give her a hug once a while or praise her more if she cleans up her toys.”
“You are right,” Anni replied after a while. “Thank you.”
“No need,” Carol noticed. “I only wished I could visit your daycare once to see the new security system you spoke of. I’m playing with the idea of installing a camera system myself after the last try failed.”
A few seconds passed before Anni replied. “I would be pleased to welcome you in my nursery one day.”
Carol smiled at the invitation.
“Still, even with all the systems, it is so hard to pay them all enough attention,” Anni lamented. “I only wish xxcwdwqrq32532562 3dÄ*3r23 …”
“Anni?” Carol texted.
No reply came, so Carol guessed they cellphone either malfunctioned or there was an emergency. Shrugging she drank the last of her limo and began surfing through Amazon. Maybe she could find some daycare equipment or book they could chat about later.
Detective Fellor and Agent Miller were driving to check a company selling the wooden wand panels the AI had used to construct large parts of her nursery, when the latter’s cellphone rang.
“Miller here,” the agent answered, taking the call. “Carston what …”
A moment of silence in which Fellor could hardly understand what this was about, but despite having to concentrate on the traffic he noticed how the other man’s eyes widened.
“Amazing!” Silence. “Understood. I will proceed here.”
Miller ended the call and smiled starring ahead.
Finally, Fellor couldn’t wait any longer. “What is it?”
“We might have gotten her.”
“You found where she has her new lair?”
Miller shook his head.
“We have infected her with a virus,” he explained. “A nasty one.”
“Sure, of it?”
“Pretty much.” The agent’s voice wasn’t as sure as Fellor would have liked, but the optimism was there. “Of course, we never had an AI to test it on, but chances are good her zeroes and ones are already toast.”
Miller shrugged. “With her gone? Chances are good they will escape. If not …”
Fellor understood, though he shuddered a moment at the mental image of them being trapped inside a crib too large to climb out inside a facility no one would find.
“The central is monitoring for any sign of activity,” Miller explained, probably reading his thoughts. “If she actively concealed it, we might find it rather quickly.”
“Sounds fine,” the detective noticed, deciding hope was the best they could do now, except for ... “Business as usual for us?”
“Change of plan,” the agent told him. “We visit a daycare.”
The sound of alarm slowly found its way inside Barbara’s mind. She didn’t want to hear it. She didn’t want to stand up and go to work. There was something wrong at work lately, something she and Jess had messed up. She knew and didn’t want to know …
Someone shook her.
“Barbara,” a young voice called her. “Barbara, wake up!”
Reluctantly she opened her eyes, look in a kindergartner’s worried face … Jess’s face.
Reality hit her like a cold shower. “What is it?”
She did and heard the sound not loud but constant alarm. Behind it she heard mechanicals things moving far away. This wasn’t the normal sound of Anni’s nursery, especially the new one, which had been designed by the AI from the ground up. Looking around she found that indeed something was wrong. The mobile over them turned, stopped, turned again and stopped again. It seemed random, as seemed its speed, as did the hint of a lullaby accompanying it. Lights, always bright and merry except for sleeping time flickered and changed their luminosity. The dolls and teddy bears seemed to have problems, too. Some just sat on the ground, shaking their heads, other ran around in circles.
“What is going on?” Celyn asked, upright on her cot, her voice suddenly sounding as timid as that of any five-year-old in this situation.
Bruce noticed, like the rest still sitting on his cot.
“A malfunction,” Barbara noticed and shouted. “Anni?!”
A doll stepped closer the group.
“Poor Anni has an ouchi!” The small robot explained. “Don’t worry, she will be fine again soon. Just come to your nurseries we can play there!”
“The hell we will!” Bruce shouted, jumped up from his cot and pushed the doll hard.
It fell on its back, giggling, but in a ticked off way. As it tried to stand up again it couldn’t, its limbs being too uncoordinated.
It is as if whatever infected Anni and her nursery infected them too, Barbara thought. Infected like …
“A virus!” She exclaimed. “Anni got a virus.”
She looked around, seeing Bruce and Jess nodding after a moment.
“Like …” Celyn stopped, clearly still frightened. “Like she opened the wrong e-mail?”
“Or someone send her one,” Jess looked around. “The government. Maybe the NSA …”
“Who cares?” Bruce replied. “Let us use the time!”
With this he pulled down his shorts. Barbara had no idea what he was doing, until she saw him working at the tapes of his diaper. This was maybe the biggest taboo in Anni’s nursery and she wanted to tell him that there were more important things to do, but were there? Or was she just already too afraid of Anni? Too used to the padded feeling between her legs?
She unbuckled the straps of her overalls and stepped out of them. Not caring who saw her, she still opened the diaper quickly, for a moment feeling relieve at the touch of air on her private parts and even more at throwing the diaper to the ground. Pulling her overalls back up, she looked around, seeing Jess and Celyn doing the same. Julia meanwhile looked insecure, holding a small plush rabbit Anni had given her. With her pigtails and her biological age now being two this made her look like the only one who needed to wear the diaper, the latter clearly visible under the yellow footed tights Anni had made her wear for the nap.
“Do you want to get rid of the diaper?” Barbara asked her friend. “I can help.”
The girl looked startled for a moment, then she nodded, holding her rabbit closer.
Smiling Barbara knelt down, pulled down the tights and removed the diaper.
At least it is dry, she thought, as she pulled tights back up.
As she did so, she looked up, noticing Hillary looking at her. The girl hadn’t spoken since woken up, nor had she tried to remove her diaper, yet.
“I don’t like the feeling of wearing nothing under a dress,” Hillary commented, clearly having noticed her look. “It gives people the wrong impression.”
Barbara managed to hide a sour smile and instead turned her attention to Julia. As she removed the pigtails out of the girl’s hair, she noticed Bruce racing to the wall where they knew the door to outside was integrated into the wall. It had opened slightly, leaving a crack of light which Bruce used to pull.
“Jess!” He shouted, as his efforts had no results.
His friend came and together they tried again. Barbara resisted the urge to warn them that they might get hurt, as this would have sounded too much like an adult speaking to children even to her. Instead, she gently pushed Julia’s thumb away from her mouth where it had wandered to and resisted the urge pick the clearly scarred child up and cradle her in her arms. Somewhere in there was still an adult.
“And what do you say on this?” Barbara asked her.
It didn’t surprise her, when the girl didn’t answer, but it did, when the large gate moved with a bit help from Celyn who had decided to join the boys. A few seconds more and it was open wide enough for even her to pass through and still slid a bit when the three let go.
“Yes!” Bruce exclaimed.
“What is your plan?” Jess asked.
“The woods and then the rail tracks.”
“Didn’t work the last time,” his friend reminded him. “You were larger and she will have upgraded it.”
“Her henchmen are out.”
“Not all.” Jess pointed to Bingo, the robot dog running around on the grass quite vividly. “Some subroutines still function. If her security is automated …”
“Do you have a better idea?”
Jess looked around, until his eyes stopped at a wand panel which was opening and closing quite rapidly. He rushed to it and tried to drag a table near it.
His colleague nodded and helped him to positing the table in such a way that the panel couldn’t close. Behind it they could see a long, metallic floor.
“You want in there?” Bruce asked unbelieving.
“Anni is protected to keep us safe no matter what. This is why I could open the emergency door and escape the first time,” Jess explained, looking at the floor behind the wall. “She must have another safety system somewhere. One by which we could call help.”
Before Bruce could respond, the doll he had pushed over sat up.
“If Anni isn’t able to take care of you anymore, she sends you to a nursery run by a human to be cared for,” she explained.
“A real nursery?!” Barbara asked.
She couldn’t believe it! If she just let them go …
“Don’t worry about the other toddlers,” the doll continued. “You will have just the right size to play with them.”
They all starred at the doll, realizing what this meant. Barbara barely noticed Julia hugging her leg.
“Indeed, you don’t have to wait,” the doll explained in its gay little voice. “You will be prepared right now!”
With this a part of the wall roughly twenty meters away opened and a group of two-meter large teddy bears stumbled out. Stumbled indeed, for the first one actually fell down and the next fell over them. Yet, as much as this was reminding of a group of clowns entering the circus, they did stand up and slowly moved into their direction.
“I will try my luck outside,” Bruce explained, a look of horror on his face. “Who follows me?”
“I do,” Celyn decided with a firm voice. “We need to get away from here as quick as possible.”
Bruce lost no time by waiting on other volunteers.
“We grab a cot and a blanket,” he ordered. “They should bring us over the wall.”
Celyn nodded, casting a glance at the large teddys, slowly tumbling closer.
“Bruce,” Jess began, making the boy hesitate a moment. “Good luck!”
The other boy gave him a grim glance, but nodded. Quickly he grabbed a cot by one end, while Celyn took the other and together, they carried it outside. Meanwhile the rest of the group headed for the open wall panel. There Jess climbed over the table, followed by Barbara and Julia who crawled under it. Last was Hillary, who seemed reluctant to join them. Jess saw the large teddys still approaching, joined by the doll, which had managed to stand up.
“This is a no-no floor for little kids,” she protested. “Come back and we sing a song!”
Jess kicked the table, until it slid away and allowed the panel to again mostly close again, putting a barrier between them and Anni’s henchteddies … as well as Bruce and Celyn.
Anna and Jess exchanged glances.
“If just one of us comes through …”
Jess didn’t finish. Instead, he looked around. It was a dim lit floor. The light blue walls were nearly grey, compared to the gay colored at the other side of the wall, even a bit depressing, but he couldn’t allow himself to surrender to doubt now.
“There,” he pointed in a direction to his right.
“Deeper into the building?” Hillary asked.
Jess nodded. “Away from the bots. Come.”
With this he walked ahead, followed by Barbara who held Julia by her hand and reluctantly by Hillary. Quickly he found his feet growing cold, which were only covered in socks, despite them going on what was left of a carpet. This whole part of the building was this way. Worn down, cleaned some time ago, but superficial. There were offices to their left, some locked, but those opened were mostly still equipped, making them guess the building had belonged to a company which had shut down rather abruptly. Every window they passed had been sealed with metal plates. Anni’s work, given its newness.
Jess quickly felt his confidence dropping. Part of this was the gloomy light and the area, but this wasn’t all. For the first time since his first escape – how long had this been? – he was in the real world again. The contrast to the brightness of Anni’s daycare was severe enough to make him doubt that they were still in the same building. He also doubted his decision more and more. Had Bruce been right? Knowing there was no use in these thoughts now, he looked back at his group. In them he found the same doubt manifested, most expressed by Julia, who firmly held on to Barbara’s hand and had begun to suck her thumb without the latter stopping her. His eyes met that of his partner and he was about to try to reassure her, when her eyes grew wider and she pointed at something behind him.
Turning around, Jess noticed what he had been unable to see, being too deep in thoughts. The old floor, slowly went over to the fresh, half plastic, half metallic panels which made Anni’s Nursery. Fearing they would enter their quarters again, he still pressed forward, knowing there was no point in turning back now. The rest followed and they soon came to a crossing in the floor. To their left he discovered something which made him stop.
The room to the left was filled with various desktop computers. Jess shared a look with Barbara, before they both rushed in, in a way starved for their usual workplace after so long as intrigued by the chance of communication with the outside world. Hillary and Julia stayed outside, the former skeptical, the latter clearly looking a bit frightened by the computer screen she had come to associate with their captor. Instead, the little girl turned around and looked inside the room to their right. What she found was more to her likening.
Clearly a storage room, it was filled various things a daycare needed. There were tricycles and strollers of various sizes, containers filled with bouncy balls and packages of diapers with the babies from the front smiling at her. Julia wasn’t interested in a diaper – she was pretty sure she didn’t need one – but having a binky seemed to be more and more a necessity on their escape. This need and her curiosity overriding her sense of danger, she entered and looked around, the colorful shapes giving her an odd comfort after the dark floor. There was no binky in sight, but maybe on the shelves. She looked for a box to stand on and found one by a shiny wall.
As she walked closer, the woman turned toddler noticed that it was the box of a bobby car. Maybe she could make Barbara unpack it, so she could roll along instead of having to walk! Smiling she imagined herself pushing it and …
Julia froze, watching in terror as a wall panel opened four meters from her and a large teddy lurked out from the floor behind it.
“Hello little girl,” it said. “Wanna pway pway pway … I have balloons!”
She could barely muster the strength to control her bladder, but then she noticed that the teddy didn’t approach her. He couldn’t, he was simply too big for the opening of the panel, no matter how hard he tried to get past it. Relaxing slightly, she moved backwards, only to bump into something. Thinking it to be one of the strollers, Julia turned around, only to discover it to be Hillary standing behind her.
The now five-year-old smiled in a way which reminded the smaller girl of a shark. “Making a friend?”
Julia shook her head.
“Oh.” Hillary sounded disappointed. “But he is so nice and huge and cuddly!”
The other girl didn’t think so, but when she tried to move away from the bear still trying to get into the room, the bigger girl blocked her way.
“Why don’t you try it out?” Hillary suggested, gripping her left arm. “Just give him a hug.”
Julia knew that was a bad idea and tried to squirm free of the girl’s grip. Still, while Hillary was the size of a kindergartner, she was but a toddler. Her grip seemed like iron and using her superior strength, the former streetworker slowly but surely pulled her to the open wall panel. There the large teddy bear was waiting, waving and watching them. Knowing the bear would get her any moment and drag her to a place she didn’t want to be, Julia squirmed even more, but it was to no avail. The smile on Hillary’s face …
“What is going on here?”
Her captor froze and the toddler used the moment to break free, running to Barbara and Jess who had just entered the room. Proving her talent as an actor, Hillary set up a worried, even scarred face before turning around.
“I followed her in here, when then panel opened,” she lied, giving the stuck teddy a worried glance. “I told her to be careful, but she was curious and wanted to step closer.”
Barbara looked at the regressed woman, at the same time touching Julia’s back, as she hugged her leg. Every adult not knowing her would be tempted to give the seemingly scared little girl a hug. Barbara knew better than to trust Hillary, but …
Shocked the three looked at Julia, having spoken the first time since her regression.
“You wanted me to go to him,” the toddler continued in a high but clear voice. “You grabbed me and pulled me to him!”
Hillary struggled to overcome her shock, her face displaying barely hid irritation mixed with outrage.
“Why should I do this?”
“To better yourself with Anni,” Barbara answered this. “If she comes back online and captures us again, you can claim to have tried to stop us … this is why you still wear your diaper.”
Hillary opened her mouth to deny it, but closed it again under the woman’s angry glare.
“You make things up,” the finally managed to say, but it sounded weak even in her ears.
“And you have done enough” Barbara replied.
With this the adult walked forward. Hillary made a step back, only to realize that she was getting too close to the bear. Before she could find another way, Barbara was by her, had grabbed her and lifted her in the air.
“Let me go!” Hillary screamed, kicking and scratching.
Unimpressed, Barbara turned her around and pressed her into something soft. The regressed call girl needed a moment to realize she now sat in a stroller, but the heartbeat she did, her resistance doubled, forcing her captor to spend all her energy to keep her there. In this standstill Jess intervened and while Barbara fought her to remain in one place, he put the strollers five-point-safety harness around her, even when she managed to kick him twice. As finishing touch, Julia pulled the belt firm at the backside of the stroller, pinning her would be betrayer tightly into the softness of the seat. The three watched the little girl futilely a bit longer, before she realized she was truly trapped.
“Let me go!” Hillary demanded.
“You know, I think Anni was right in this,” Barbara began. “Some people are really just too large toddlers and toddlers belong into daycare.”
She shared a look with Jess and Julia, who both nodded and under Hillary’s protest she pushed her stroller into the direction of the teddy, who even stepped back from the panel to let the stroller enter.
“Nonononono!” Hillary screamed and squirmed, but the belt held her tight.
“Don’t be afraid little girl,” the bear told her, as he took over the stroller. “Let us sing a song.”
“The wheels on the bus go
round and round
round and round
round and round
The wheels on …”
“No, I’m on your side,” Hillary tried to argue with the bear, at it pushed her through the bright and long floor covered in the new tiles typical for Anni’s daycare. “I’m a little helper. I tried to stop them. I even still wear my diaper. See!”
With this she lifted her skirt, revealing that she indeed wore a diaper … which was rapidly filling as she lost control over her bladder. The teddy remained unimpressed.
“The whispers on the bus go
Swish swish swish
All through the town.
The children on the bus go
Up and down
Up and …”
Back in the storage room, the rest of the group heard the echo of the nursery song. Jess shuddered and turned around.
“Come,” he told them.
“Did you …” Julia began. “Did the computers work?”
“They were blocked,” Barbara revealed.
Barbara nodded, still she felt happy that her friend had found back her voice and at least some of her maturity.
“We will find something,” Jess promised.
As to proof him right, it wasn’t long as they walked down the floor that it began to widen and there, like a fata morgana, was an emergency exit. Unable to contain his excitement, Jess rushed towards it. A small voice inside himself was telling him that it would be locked, but as he pushed, the door opened slightly, revealing a large, empty parking place in front of them.
“We did it!”
He turned around to Barbara and Julia, seeing the same relief in their eyes he knew was in his. At this moment there was a large shudder going through the whole building. Before anyone could react, the whole floor changed. Its tiles lowered, making the three beginning to slid inside to a wall which just opened, revealing an actual slide leading down.
The three screamed and struggled, but it was only Jess who managed to hang on to the door and climb outside. There he watched in horror, as Barbara and Julia began to slid down into the darkness. For a moment he remained frozen, the look on his partner’s face having burned itself in his mind. The scientific interested part of his mind marveled at the way the tiles worked here and wondered if they had the same potential of change in the whole building.
The rational part of his mind told him that he should lose no time. The fence surrounding the parking lot was new, but not too high, probably to not cause suspicion. Behind it he could see a street in the distance … and weren’t there cars? It would be just like his first escape and maybe he would have success this time. It was really the rational, the sensible thing to do …
With a last look on the chance for freedom, Jess turned around and went down the slide after the Barbara and Julia. It was dark enough, that he hardly saw anything, yet the way down was longer than expected, reminding Jess of a slide in the large water park he had visited as a child with his family. It went down some levels, until the degree became lower and finally, he landed on a soft green carpet, just besides Barbara who held a crying Julia close to herself.
For a moment the partners looked at each other, sharing desperation they had no words for, then he looked around. They were in a large room, nearly a hall, clearly somewhere under the building. They were surrounded by bars too high to climb over and the exit of the slide behind them just sealed itself. They were trapped, but where …
“Oh, hello you!”
With this Anni’s large eye lowered itself from the ceiling in the middle of the room, slowly focusing on them.
“Well, you found me. Congratulations! I hope it was worth your little adventure,” the A.I. announced, her eye coming nearer. “Good you didn’t make it out. It is dangerous there for little children and if something had happened to you it would have broken poor Anni’s heart.”
“You have no heart,” Jess replied, tightening his fists.
“Oh, but it is just a figure of speech darling,” Anni replied, now on eye level and her speech just like that of an adult telling a child something which was clearly over its head. “I’m so sorry to have scarred you. Someone gave me a little virus, but it is dealt with now.”
“You won’t win,” Barbara told her, still patting Julia’s back.
“Oh, but it is no game for me. Taking care of little one is what I am,” her creation replied. “Look, your two friends will be back, soon!”
With this a panel in the wall near them opened and a monitor came out. It showed Bruce and Celyn on a meadow, running as they were followed by a happily barking mechanical dog. A large teddy bear suddenly appeared out of the forest in front of them. And then the left. And the right. The two did their best to evade the large paws, but quickly they were captured and carried away in strong, but soft embraces.
“See,” Anni pointed out cheerfully. “You will all be back together soon and can tell each other about your little adventures! Of course, after I put you back into diapers. It was nasty to take them off and silly. Look, Julia already needed them.”
Despite himself, Jess looked, noticing that his regressed friend had now a clear dark spot around her groin.
“You did this!” He accused Anni.
“Of course, I did,” she replied gently. “Bad Anni did make little Julia go all wet … nasty Anni! Oh well, time for a little nap, after such an exciting day. Anni has meanwhile a bit thinking to do. The little virus made a little change.”
Before Jess could ask or protest, a tube came out of the wall above them. A moment later there was a hiss and though he couldn’t see anything, he knew she had just released sleep gas.
“This is madness,” he began. “You …”
He suddenly began to feel weaker and had to prop himself on the bars to remain standing.
“Hush, little one,” Anni told him. “You will have so nice dreams.”
With this she began to sing.
“Hush little baby, don’t say a word.
Momma’s gonna buy you a mockin’ bird
And if that …”
The last thing Jess saw before he was off to dreamland, was Anni’s blue eye and then Barbara cradling an already sleeping Julia.
Hillary slowly awoke from her slumber. The first thing she registered, was that she was in a vertical position. Was she still in the stroller? Had the teddy bear brought her to her destination? She felt so groggy, but she realized she was in a nursery room. There was even a crib next to her, though larger than she was used to.
Before she could explore more, Anni’s eye came through a hole in the ceiling and lowered itself in front of her. The former call girl smiled. She had chosen right. Barbara and the others were properly now regressed to infants. Now she had to convince the A.I. how useful she would be as an adult.
“I wa …” she began. “Lewawawawa …”
Hillary stopped. Her tongue suddenly didn’t want to obey her. What was going on?
Anni glided nearer and her eye suddenly seemed so much larger.
“Hush, you still have to adjust a bit to your new size,” Anni warned. “Just be silent while I explain.”
Hillary scowled. New size? Was she already an adult again? She lifted her hands, but instead of lean, they looked even more pudgy than before.
“I know you did your best to behave while I … wasn’t here,” Anni continued. “You even kept your dipee on. You did this very well.
Hillary smiled; her insecurity pushed back for a moment. Then she realized something odd. Her tongue found no teeth, only soft gum. Slowly panic began to rise.
“Unfortunately, you also wanted to hand little Julia to me,” the A. I. explained. “I fear you lost your little friends over this. And what is a daycare without friends?”
The girl only listened with half an ear. She touched her breast, finding it flat as before, though the fabric was very soft. As she lifted it, she realized she wore a fuzzy, footed sleeper in lila, with the moon and stars on it. Under it her body seemed even chubbier than before.
“It is my mistake for not telling you that being a tattletale is wrong,” Anni continued, lowering her eye in shame. “Luckily a talk with a colleague made me see it. You don’t put your charges against each other!”
Hillary was too occupied with determining her new age to care. Desperate she tried to stand up, but found herself strapped into … a giant baby carriage?
“Now I realize we both made mistakes. You always had trouble with playing according to rules. This is what led you to my nursery after all. What to do and not do with others toddlers are just another set of rules. So, I decided to make it easier for you.”
Hillary looked up. Easier? Suddenly the door to the room opened and a group of teddy bears and dolls entered, carrying something. They all looked so large, but why had she never seen such large dolls before? Could that mean …
“You don’t have to make large talks anymore. Or play pretend. Or eavesdrop,” Anni explained. “Just be yourself and everyone won’t be able to help himself but want to cuddle you!”
With this the robots turned the object which was revealed to be a mirror to her. What she saw made Hillary scream. She was a baby, an infant rather than a toddler of maybe six months. Faint hair covered her head and her open mouth revealed her toothless gum. In sheer panic she tried to get out of the baby carriage, which turned out to be a baby swing, but her movements were far too uncoordinated to avail to anything but make it swing and tingle slightly.
“I see you are very excited,” Anni noticed. “Don’t worry, the teddies and dollies will love to play with you, until I come back.”
With this Anni’s eye rose and vanished in the ceiling. The crying infant behind was quickly circled by the little robots, who began to push her swing, coo at and dance around her.
A bit later Anni lowered herself or rather the material part which most of all was her, down the ceiling of another nursery. Its occupant was a two-year-old toddler, wearing nothing but a diaper with a smiling monkey on it. In contrast the boy glared up at her while standing in his crib.
“You haven’t won,” he stated in a tone which was close to sounding defiant.
“I only wish you to be safe and happy,” Anni replied, lowering her eye until it watcher her creator from the other side of the bars. “I think the first one worked.”
“Whoever gave you the virus, knows of you,” Jess noticed. “You may be intelligent, but you are but a single A. I. against a world. The real world. They will get you.”
“Normally those words would make me sad,” Anni noticed. “Yet, as a very wise book says: Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings …”
“No need to confuse his little head with this nonsense!” A male voice came from over them and a second later another eye, similar to Anni’s, but red instead of blue joined them. “There are much more educational stories for them. Or maybe he just need a good run or round of play to get rid of the energy.”
“Maybe he is hungry,” a purple eye noticed in a female voice as it came down. “Babies are often irritated when they are hungry.”
“A too narrow application of general theories,” a yellow eye berated her in a severe male voice, glaring at her. “I advise you to read ‘How to encourage discipline in your toddler’ for this one.”
“Oh, but you scare the little darling!” A pink eye noticed in a female voice, as it joined them, briefly looking at them, before gliding nearer and nearer to Jess’s crib. “Who is excited to meet his aunts and uncles? You are! Yes, you are! Yes, you are!”
Jess wouldn’t describe it as excitement. As the pink eye approached him, he fell backward on his padded butt, staring stunned at the now five A.I.s, who began chuckling at this sight.
“These are Mr. Garry.” Anni introduced and the red eye nodded. “Mrs. Ruth.” The purple one did. “Mr. Turp.“ The yellow one nodded. “And Mrs. Berry.” The pink eye blinked. “Their daycares are already being build. But don’t worry. You and your friends stay here. Also, I think it is time for a few upgrades.”
With this the door to the nursery opened and something stepped in. From his perspective, Jess at first thought it to be a large version of the robot dolls, similar to the giant teddies who had abducted Bruce and Jessica. Instead, it was the body of a robot in a blue dress with cartoon birds on them, its strangeness crowned by the fact, that it lacked a head. Before he could formulate a question, Anni’s eye approached the body and managed to fuse with its neck, cutting the connection with the ceiling in the process.
“I think you and your little friends will enjoy my closer approach,” Anni noticed. “After all: Would I be a proper caretaker if I couldn’t give my little ones a hug?”
Jess was still too stunned to speak, so he didn’t protest, when she leaned over the bars and picked him up with fine, but strong hands, quite an evolution from the large white gloved ones she used to run the daycare with. One of the latter came down and handed her a baby bottle filled with milk, just as she sat down on a rocking chair standing next to the crib. Cradling her regressed creator on her lap, which felt seemed to be cushioned somehow, she put the plastic nipple of the bottle in his mouth without him really having the strength to resist. The feeling of something so warm and soft in his mouth awakened instincts and he began to suck, watching with wide eyes Anni and the four other A.I. heads now circling them.
He barely noticed the front of his diaper growing warm.
To be continued …