by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright May 2016
inspired by conversations with Michael Tanner
This is taking place in a world with avatars, driverless cars and sophisticated prosthetics. These are going to make disabilities less disabling.
But how will these mesh with civic and city hall duties? That is the topic of this story.
Linda Lou Lomond always liked getting involved.
She had been a devoted mother who had raised four lovely children and while she had been doing that she had run a crafts business and earned a black belt from her karate school.
But three years ago, at age 53, a climbing accident while hiking in the mountains had laid her low. For three years she had been learning to deal with prosthetics and medical wearables instead of grandkids, crafts and karate. She was coming along well at mastering these and now it was time for a new challenge.
As she had been recovering she had taken up doing a lot more reading. What she found herself reading about was local events. And as she read she found she was participating, in a virtual way, at events taking place in City Hall. She got involved there. She helped out on committees there. She was now well-known and on friendly terms with the mayor and lots of staff members.
One day Linda got a call from Nancy, one of the mayor's staff. She said to her, "Linda, we have something new coming, and it's something you may be interested in participating in."
"Happy to hear about it." said Linda.
"We're installing an avatar in City Hall."
"It's a robot. One that can be run by remote control."
"The really neat part is: because of your disability and helpfulness around City Hall, we can get the government program that is installing the avatar to put one of the remote controllers in your house, for you to use."
At first Linda was speechless, "...Really?"
"That way you don't have to be so virtual. And you don't to use the bus and your prosthetics to get over here when you want to be physical. I know you still find that to be such a pain... literally, these days. Yeah, instead just hop in the remote controller at your home and, voila, you're over here in City Hall."
"Oh my! Yes, that sounds wonderful. Where do I sign up?"
"This is an experimental program. You'll have to do a lot of reporting on how well it's working for you. Is that OK?"
The technicians for Acme Robotics Products knocked on the door, and with some huffing and grunting brought in the remote controller. It was big, big enough to hold a person, plus the electronics to support monitoring motions of that person. They had to bring it in in pieces and assemble it in the study room.
"This is much like your prosthetics." said Bob, the head technician, "It will use the same command structure. When you get in and issue the 'swap' command the remotes will pick up your inputs instead of the prosthetics. When you 'unswap' your inputs will go back to controlling the local prosthetics. Make sense?"
Linda nodded, "Will it really be that easy?"
Bob grinned, "This is the first real-world run. So... surprises are likely. I'll be here for the next week helping you adapt, and us debug."
Linda look relieved at that, "When do we start?"
"We'll be a few more hours installing. We'll get you in starting at noon tomorrow, if that sounds convenient for you?"
"It does!" Linda couldn't wait.
Yes, it was like prosthetics all over again, only more so.
The first time she appeared in City Hall she was in a small unfurnished room. Nancy was there along with another technician. Linda issued her first remote command, she waved at Nancy.
"Ah... you're there, Linda. Good! This is John. He's going to be helping you."
John waved and said, "Look in the mirror. See what you look like."
Linda did. She looked like a robot. She had legs and arms but everything about her was quite machanical looking. That done, she looked back at John.
John said, "The first lesson is getting down and getting back up again. That way if you fall you can get up. Ready..."
It was the start and for the first week she was spending full time on the basics -- walking, picking things up, seeing and listening through the remotes. She was a busy girl indeed!
And there were glitches. At first she couldn't figure out how to roll from flat on her back to getting on her knees. It turned out some programming was needed to fix that, and a few days later she could.
It turned out Bob and John were there with her for three weeks, not just one. But at the end of those three weeks Linda could confidently walk around City Hall. She could open doors, use the elevator and even walk up and down the big, curving, marble stairs at the front without needing to hold onto a hand rail.
Nancy was delighted. At the beginning of the fourth week she came up to Linda while she was in the robot, drew a deep breath, and said, "OK... Are you ready to lead a tour group around City Hall?"
At home, in her body, Linda gasped. The robot body did nothing. She finally got herself together enough to say, "...When? ...Right now?"
Nancy nodded and pointed down the marble stairs to a group gathered in the main lobby, "If you can't, I'll have George guide them."
"Oh, I can! I can! I'd love to!" Linda was so excited.
Nancy said, "On you go, then. Shoo, shoo, shoo."
In her own body Linda was so excited and proud as she walked the robot down the stairs, up to the group, and said, "Welcome to City Hall. I'm Linda, and I'll be your tour guide."
The group stared in amazement.
A year later things were much different. City Hall was on its third iteration of robot, and Linda was on her fourth iteration of remote controller. This latest controller was much smaller. It wrapped around her neck and that was it. Also the government was no longer paying for her updates, but Linda had proved such a helper around City Hall that they paid for the latest one. (It helped that this latest version was also a whole lot cheaper.)
This latest robot was much more graceful than that clunky first one. It was both more graceful in how it moved and how it looked. It was now stylized to look like a fairy princess, like a VR animation, and surely a long way from the totally mechanical man the first one had looked like.
And Linda was getting a lot more graceful in her control of the remote. She could ballroom dance with this one. And, if they dressed it in gymnastic clothing she could do simple rolls and summersaults -- if she tried those in the fairy princess dress there was a lot of ripping and shredding.
And there were more surprises coming.
Nancy came up that day and said, "Linda, would you like to try out a different avatar? We are getting one that can be used for maintenance. It can inspect things that are behind the walls and "dumb" -- not outfitted with their own surveillance sensors."
"Happy to." said Linda.
Next week the new avatar arrived. It was small, fly sized and shaped. "This one can't fly." the accompanying technician said, "But we should have a flyable one in about six months."
Linda looked at it, and looked over the controls for it, "Why can't it fly? I see wings on it, and I see 'wing controllers' in the command set."
"The software isn't finished." said Harry, the technician.
Together Linda and Harry had her practice walking the six-legged fly robot up and down walls and ceilings, and behind walls where it could walk around old piping and air conditioning duct work. The core of the main city hall building was over a century old. Inspecting this way was going to be a whole lot cheaper than ripping apart ceilings and walls.
That night, after Harry left, Linda got the wings buzzing.
It wasn't easy, and it took a few days of after-hour practice, but Linda got to where she could buzz around a room. Linda had to order up half a dozen replacement antenna during the first week from all the wall crashing, but after that she had the basics mastered. Harry didn't say a thing.
City Hall was now an open book for Linda. She could buzz the little avatar down air conditioning ducts and sit in grates and listen to what was happening in all the main offices.
During the day she alternated between her "civic robot", the princess robot, which walked around and did public relations activities, and her "fly robot" which surveyed the behind the walls areas to evaluate the condition of the building. With what she discovered, plans were made to update the utilities infrastructure and add more earthquake protection.
Much to everyone's surprise she also discovered a long-forgotten time capsule in what had once been the back cornerstone of the main building. This got lots of city news coverage. The mayor was delighted with that.
Jimmy Johnson was delighted too. He was delighted to just sit and talk with Linda when she was being a fairy princess. Linda liked it too. He was interesting and he made break time much more enjoyable.
One day he asked, "Any chance you want to get together for dinner?"
Linda laughed at this, "Don't forget that I always eat at home. I'm on a special diet. And while it's not as bad as it was a year ago, it's still a lot of work to get my real body out of the house.
"I'd go with you in this to some entertainment, but this only operates inside the City Hall building."
"Ah well... I'll be thinking about something we can do. I really enjoy your company."
"Well... there's always VR." said Linda.
"Hmm... good idea." said Jimmy, "Got any favorites in that?"
They settled on City of Super Heroes and doing some VR chat room afterwards.
Once she had mastered the flying, Linda spent her evenings exploring in the fly avatar -- buzzing around was such unique fun. She explored lots of places in the building. She was impressed with how busy City Hall stayed after hours, and how much of that business was hanky panky. In her mind what she saw made afternoon drama shows look like family cartoons.
Her first thought was to start reporting people, but she hesitated. Her second thought was there was plenty of surveillance equipment in City Hall these days so she was far from the first to be seeing this. Whoever else was seeing this was not reporting it, so why should she? Instead she just gathered information -- like she was keeping up on an afternoon drama. If she got around to gossiping she could now be as juicy as the best of them.
But one day something did come up that was a mystery not covered by surveillance. She discovered another obscure door, and this one lead into a sub-basement. She started down, but got a warning that her control signal was failing. This place was beyond her limit. She would have written it off, but there were footprints in the dust on the stairs and they looked to be fairly new.
The next day she talked with Jimmy.
"Jimmy, I've found a room in the basement, and this one leads to a sub-basement that I can't explore in the robot. Would you like to find out for me what's down there?"
"Shouldn't some maintenance guy be checking that out?"
"Oh... probably. But it's just opening a door in the basement. I thought I'd ask you first. I know you like exploring."
Jimmy grins, "Will you come down with me, princess?"
Linda laughs at this, "I can, if you want."
They head for the basement.
They are going down. This is the oldest part of the building. It hasn't been worked on for a hundred years.
As they get near the door the princess avatar gets low signal warnings even earlier than the fly avatar did.
"I'm as far as I can go." says Linda.
"No surveillance down here, right?" say Jimmy. Linda nods.
Jimmy comes up to her and takes her in his arms. He strokes her hair and looks deep into her eyes. He moves his face closer...
At first Linda is like she is nine years old and this is some never-met-before uncle who gives her a big hug. She hasn't a clue what to do and just stands there. Jimmy is patient, and it pays off. In a minute, Linda starts remembering, and enjoying, and her actions change to those of a sixteen year old at the end of a first date. She actually gets the robot to melt into his arms a bit. She looks up and lets Jimmy kiss her lips. He does that, then works down around her neck while his hands move up and down her arms. Linda lets it happen. It is a strange, strange feeling for both of them.
Then Jimmy backs off and laughs. He smiles at her, and holds her hands, "A first for me."
Linda smiles back, "Me too." She can't think of anything else to say. In her body at home she is blushing.
Jimmy has another quick laugh. He takes a moment to quickly hug and kiss her once more, then says in a dramatic way, "Let your hero continue on, my princess."
He keeps going deeper while Linda waits for him.
He hasn't gone too much further when he yells back to her, "My comm signal is going out too. I guess the building is blocking out everything. ...There's a lot down here, Linda. It's some kind of big sub-basement."
Then he says in a surprised and suspicious way, and not to Linda, "Who are you?"
Linda thrills at the words, this was not expected and Jimmy didn't sound at all happy about what he had found.
Linda hears sounds of scuffling. Jimmy says, "Hey, hey, HEY!"
A gruff male voice says, "Shut your trap! Put your hands behind you."
As best Linda can tell Jimmy does what he was told. He doesn't shout to her. She knows what she needs to do. As quietly as she can she heads back up, while she is doing so she alerts the mayor.
These were for-real bad guys. There was some hostage drama, but the bad guys were surprised by an overwhelming police response that came quickly with Linda's alert so it didn't last long and no one got hurt.
The sub-basement turned out to be an ancient one. It had originally been used to haul heating coal through a tunnel into the building from a nearby canal. But the coal furnaces had been abandoned long ago and both they and the tunnel completely forgotten about... until these guys found it and they were using it to smuggle illegal stuff into City Hall.
Once again Linda had discovered something exciting, and once again she was a hero of the day.