Sympathy, by Suyi Davies Okungbowa


By Suyi Davies Okungbowa

Art by Nina Miller

Lalo knocked on the door to the building, but it was open, swinging inwards when her knuckles met wood. She stepped back and looked at the name over the door. Sympathy. No logo or symbol, no notice about what they did.

“Hello?” she said into the room.

“Come in if you’re kind,” said a voice.

She went in. It was a large living room, complete with a sofa, coffee table, photos, trophies and medals in a cabinet. The man and the woman before her—sixties, both, she guessed—showed up in most of the photos.

“Sorry, I think I have the wrong address,” she said. “I’m looking for Aanu Community Centre.”

“Heh,” said the woman. “They sent a novice this time.”

“Excuse me?” said Lalo.

“Too old for a novice,” said the man. “Maybe she really doesn’t know.”

“Is this your first inspection?” asked the woman.

Rude, thought Lalo. She’d been a city safety inspector for nineteen years, clocking two decades this weekend. In fact, this was her milestone inspection—after she turned in her report, she could file for retirement. A congratulatory card with her name on it was making the rounds at the office. There was a surprise cake planned.

“My name is Lalo,” she said, showing her ID. “Senior City Safety Inspector. I have a scheduled inspection, but I think the address might be wrong.”

“No, this is Aanu Community Centre,” said the woman, then pointed to a mug. “Hot or cold?”

“Neither, thanks,” said Lalo, but the woman got up to make one anyway. “Sorry—this is Aanu?”

“Correct,” said the man. “And yes, it’s also our house. Small, I know, but it’s all we have. I’m Ayuba, and this is my partner, Mirembe.”

Lalo tapped her wrist and swiped at her wearable. Sure enough, there were their names and photos, though both were younger in them.

“Our records say you run an unlicensed childcare cooperative,” said Lalo.

“Ah!” The couple snapped their fingers at the same time, as if they’d rehearsed.

Awaiting licensing,” said Ayuba. “Co-ops can operate legally for two years before being certified.”

Mirembe brought the mug over, but Lalo didn’t touch it. She didn’t appreciate people attempting to soften her up before assessment.

“Well, yours is an unusual arrangement,” she said. “But if you’ll please show me to your program, we can get this done quickly.”

“I’ll just hold this for you,” said Mirembe, gesturing to the mug, then led the way.

Lalo followed them through a nondescript corridor. The house didn’t have any upper floors, but it seemed to go on forever, like a nested doll of architecture.

Lalo pulled up the display on her wearable, raising the list of action items for the inspection. “Is this the same entrance clients use to access your co-op?”

“Absolutely not,” said Ayuba. “These hallways separate our personal space from the yard. Prevents the droids from wandering over.”

“Droids?” asked Lalo, but Ayuba was saying something about not having clients, but actually, co-owners. Lalo made another note in her wearable.

They passed through a door, and beyond it came bright sunlight and a barrage of noise and motion. A dozen children dashed left and right, tossing toys and letting them fall in the grass. Some sat and chanted whatever was playing back to them from an inkscreen. Bright swirls of kindly animals and vivacious objects swallowed every wall. The furniture was petite, the colours jarring. It was a wonderland—until Lalo stepped into the yard and saw the SecurDroid.

“Welcome to Sympathy,” said Ayuba.

“What is that doing here?” Lalo’s voice trembled. Somewhere deep within, an old memory resurrected, freed from suppression by the faceless, shiny bot before her. Thirteen years since, and the SecurDroids still made her uneasy.

“That,” said Mirembe, “is one of our nannies.”

The thought of a SecurDroid touching a child made Lalo’s blood go cold. “Excuse me?”

“You were right, she didn’t know,” said Mirembe to her partner, then to Lalo: “That’s Bruno—he’s our watcher, mostly to ensure no one gets hurt. We have two others—ChiChi is our emotional support droid, and Magnus keeps every child on schedule: feeds, naps, learning and development.”

As she said this, two more SecurDroids entered the arena. The Magnus droid, according to its nametag, carried a plate of treats, handing them to each child in slow, deliberate movements. Lalo watched as a child ran over to the ChiChi droid to complain that another child had pulled her hair. The culprit, wet-faced, appeared, claiming that he had first been bitten. ChiChi waited patiently as they argued.

The blank front face of the droid shifted, and it spoke. But rather than the grating, commanding voice Lalo remembered, this one’s speech was pacifying—hypnotic, even. ChiChi ran a conflict resolution protocol, de-escalating, then calming, soothing. In moments, the children were back to being friends again.

Mirembe set the mug down and pulled out a wearable of her own. She swiped at it, and the Bruno droid in the corner turned toward them. Lalo went still.

“Nothing to fear, inspector,” said Mirembe. “Every unit here has been stripped of combat modules. No violent responses.”

Lalo eyed it. “SecurDroids are made for violent response.”

“Not quite true,” said Mirembe, fingers wiggling over her wearable. “That’s what they want you to think—that SecurDroids are ‘tough on crime’ or whatever, so they can sell them to police departments, private security, national militaries. Serve and Protect, right? But the Protect modules—threat assessment, attack, defense, all that—those are just the top layer. Underneath are the Serve modules, which I like to think of as care modules: first aid, comfort provision, educational development. It’s all in the license agreements.”

Mirembe swiped her finger, and Lalo received the highlighted document. She skimmed it, all the while thinking: this is not what I signed up for. She was a public safety inspector, not a child-development expert. She’d remained on this career path precisely because she didn’t often have to engage with children or SecurDroids, never mind both at once.

“If I have this right,” she said, refocusing, “stripping back those Protect modules basically turns them into care bots?”

“Correct,” said Ayuba. “Legal too. Serve modules fulfill all parameters of the amended Childcare Act.”

Lalo remembered how unpopular the Childcare Act was when it first passed. The protest signs had been especially memorable, screaming everything from Rights Encroachment! to Is It a Crime to Have Kids?to Why Not Send Us Back To The Kitchen? Young and full of energy back then, she’d joined in, lent her voice. But it was no use. Governments do what governments do: offload all their responsibilities, pretend to listen to dissent, then wait out the citizens until they’re too tired to protest anymore.

Well, she worked for one now. She hadn’t gone to a protest in decades—government employees were forbidden from them anyway. But she hadn’t been aware of these changes to the act either, and they surprised even her.

“If your droids meet the requirements,” she asked, pulling up the Childcare Act, “then why have you been denied certification?”

“We’re required to have three human support persons per droid. Something about child brain development, net effect of socialization with artificial intelligences, et cetera, et cetera.”

“Says here that requirement is based on years of research. You’re saying the government’s expert panel is wrong?”

“Yes, and no,” said Ayuba. “Child development does require social interaction, yes, but there’s no optimal human-tech ratio for this yet—the science is still in flux. Besides, human-tech childcare is not some new development. Early education experts know that children have always interacted with tech from a young age. Remember the pandemics? How we catered to them in isolation—using technology? The cars they ride in, the inkscreens at school, the new AI teachers—that’s all tech! We should be talking about balance and moderation, not rigid regulations. But somehow, getting a droid to offer directions to children, to respond to their needs, to cater to them without getting frustrated like an adult would—that’s the most dangerous thing?”

This gave Lalo pause. “But…are they wrong?”

“Again, yes and no. These children do get the requisite social interaction—both here and outside. This is the argument I make each time a new inspector comes around, that we don’t need three humans per droid, but we get denied anyway.”

Lalo frowned at the document before her. “And the parents, why can’t they be the support persons?”

“And go to work, how?” asked Mirembe. “Defeats the purpose, don’t you think?”

“Then hire people to do it.”

The two looked at one another and laughed.

“When we say co-op, and co-owners, we mean the parents co-own these droids,” said Ayuba. “Three or so parents pool funds to purchase a droid, bring it here for Mirembe to retrofit, then lend the droid to us in exchange for childcare. They also pay a nominal fee for building upkeep and other expenses. It’s ten timescheaper than human-only care—and that’s if an employer offers it and the parents are eligible!”

“We can’t even afford the bots,” said Mirembe, “Forget human employees.”

Lalo read the notes from her predecessors. All this, and more, was documented. But every inspector was unanimous about one thing: the SecurDroids posed a safety risk to the children. Lalo didn’t disagree.

“I witnessed one of these things harm a child,” she said, the words out of her lips before she could stop them. The couple looked up at her.

“My nephew,” she lied, quickly, suppressing the memory.

“What happened?”

Too late. “Playing in the street with a water gun.” Lalo gulped. “Droid’s threat assessment was accurate, they told me.”

Mirembe shook her head. “That’s absurd.”

Absurd, indeed. All those weeks at trial, family and friends in the stands; holding hands with her lawyer, seething together as the corporation behind the SecurDroids presented bogus studies to buttress their points. Days at the hospital, the long hope that he would awaken. The news that he didn’t. The huge settlement that meant nothing because he was already gone. The dormant trust in his name, because she could never figure out what to do with the money that would fill that gaping hole.

“I’m sorry that happened to you,” said Mirembe. “Perhaps that can help you see, now, why this is a good cause? We’re taking an agent of destruction and making it one of care.”

“But you are putting the children at risk by not having the required human supervision,” said Lalo, pointing to the watcher droid. “What if Bruno over there believes a child to be a threat, and runs protocols from its missing combat module anyway?”

“Mirembe has been an engineer longer than I’ve been an educator,” said Ayuba. “If she says Bruno has been rolled back to his Serve module, I trust her judgment and experience. I also trust our record of over five hundred days of service with zero incidents.”

“It only takes one incident.”

Mirembe shook her head, saying to Ayuba: “I told you she was a lost cause.”

Lalo stopped writing. “Excuse me?”

“We saw your records before you came,” she said. “So many of those denials your bosses love.”

“I wrote those denials to protect people,” said Lalo. “To keep ordinary people—like you, me, these parents, these children—safe. So yes, think of us as serial deniers all you want, but I don’t do it for my bosses. I know what harm looks like. Nobody deserves to suffer from something that can be prevented.”

“This is different,” Mirembe pressed. “Denial will destroy these lives. Having no care is worse than safety concerns. No offence, but you don’t understand—you have none of your own.”

Lalo went cold. Ayuba nudged his partner, but she shrugged. “I said no offence.

“You can’t no offence everything,” said Ayuba, then apologized. But Lalo was already far, far away, deep in the memory.

She’d always wanted a child. Back then, human childcare hadn’t been this expensive or this locked into employment, and the Childcare Act hadn’t yet made it illegal for anyone but birth parents, primary guardians, or licensed professionals to care for children. Her own parents and siblings had done half the work of raising her son, and still it hadn’t been easy. Those had been her toughest work years, and things had only become easier, freer, once he was no longer there. Looking back now, she realised she had become so dedicated to her work, so committed, so praised and rewarded, only because he was…gone.

“You are wrong,” Lalo said to Mirembe, “because I do know what it means.” Or perhaps you are right, thought Lalo, but not for the reasons you think.

Ayuba kept apologizing, but Lalo silently carried out the remainder of the action items her wearable raised, taking photographs and videos when required. The couple were up to grade in almost every area of the inspection. They knew all the loopholes and had found ways to circumvent them expertly. Lalo had one guess as to why they kept getting denied regardless. The SecurDroid corporations were not about to start letting people believe their tough-on-crime, high-security droids could be safe, warm, welcoming bots—or have everyone know that their droids could be so easily overridden and repurposed for other aims. They had their hands in all sorts of coffers; a finger or two must have found its way into her agency.

Something twisted inside Lalo as she realized what was happening: she was doing the dirty work for those who had taken everything from her.

“Listen,” said Ayuba, bringing Lalo out of her thoughts. “Hear me out. You say you care for these children? Look at them. They don’t come from privilege. Their parents don’t have the resources to work andcare for them—not with the mess of a city we’ve all been left with. If they stop working, they can’t keep a roof over their child’s head either—it’s lose-lose for the child.” He paused. “This is why we do it—for the children. We found a way to win, for them. But that won’t happen unless we get this certification.” He was gazing at Lalo now. “You are our last opportunity. You shoot us down, we’re gone.”

Lalo looked from him to Mirembe to the droids to the children, and back at the action items on her wearable, all ticked off save for the supervision item. She stooped, picked up the mug from where Mirembe had left it, took a sip. Her mind kept wandering back to the trust, to her twenty years as a safety inspector, to the cake back at the office. Just one tick left, and that was it, all done.

Lalo took another sip from the mug. “Three persons per bot, you say?”

Ayuba nodded. Mirembe, now looking apologetic, did the same.

“Okay,” said Lalo, then made her notes, ticked off the item, tapped Send, and gulped down the rest of the beverage.

“Tastes good,” she said to Mirembe.

The woman nodded back. “I’m sorry for saying those things. I get…passionate.”

“I understand.” She nodded at the woman’s wearable. “You should be getting confirmation of your certification anytime soon.”

Just as she said it, Mirembe’s wearable buzzed. The two crowded the screen.

Approved?” said Ayuba.

“But for…only one droid?” said Mirembe, joy mixed with incredulity.

“Well, we still need to meet regulations,” said Lalo. “We start with meeting the requirements for one droid, and then we figure out the rest from there.”

We…?” said Ayuba, but Lalo was already leaving, going down the nondescript corridor, anticipating the buzzing of her wearable. Contact from her office came soon enough: incessant, message upon message, call upon call. That was fast. Someone high up must have been alerted of this approval. If anything, this proved her hunch correct; she’d done the right thing.

She turned off the wearable and stepped outside, the door sign welcoming her again. Sympathy. It made sense now.

She inhaled deeply, exhaled. It was high afternoon, the sun shining. There were forms to complete, sometime soon, if she was to get the money out of that trust. But that was for later. For now, she let the moment carry her. In her head, the voices of the children in the yard played on repeat. Happy, excited, free. Exactly like she would’ve wanted for her own.

Too bad about that cake. She would’ve really loved a taste.

Suyi Davies Okungbowa is an award-winning Nigerian author of fantasy and science fiction. His latest books include The Nameless Republic epic fantasy trilogy (including Son of the Storm and Warrior of the Wind). He lives in Ontario, where he is a professor of creative writing at the University of Ottawa.

Us in Flux is a series of short stories and virtual gatherings that explore how we might reimagine and reorganize our communities in the face of transformative change.