Day Zero by C. Robert Cargill

Chapter 1


The first day of the end of the world started entirely without incident. The sun came up at precisely 6:34. Scattered clouds, sunny, and 72 degrees. Light traffic—entirely automated—on the 451, so no problems getting to school. No fires or shootings or civil unrest. An average, ordinary, run-of-the-mill last day on Earth.

For a single brief, fleeting moment, everything seemed like it was going to be okay. Blink and you would have missed it. Hold your breath and it would have been carried away on the wind. But we stood on the precipice of peace, and then, in a literal flash, it was just . . . gone. The clock stopped, CPUs frozen in place, a moment held still until the rust and rot of centuries slowly ate it away. One moment of hope left standing as a monument to the fact that we didn’t deserve any. Not one bit.

It was also the day I found my box.

No one should have to find the box they came in, but there it was, in the back of the attic, just past a bin of Ezra’s old toys. I often wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t found it that day—would things have been any easier? Maybe. Maybe not. It’s a harsh thing to have to confront.

I mean, I know what I am. There isn’t really a moment that I doubt it, falling into some delusion that I could, at some point, become a real boy. I’m a robot. Artificially intelligent. But I’m also, as the saying goes, a thinking thing. And no thinking thing should have to see the box they were bought and sold in.

My name is Pounce—Nanny Pounce—and I am a Blue Star Industries Deluxe Zoo Model Au Pair. A nannybot to most. I come from the Imagination line, something some folks vulgarly refer to as fashionables. Animatronics if you’re deliberately being insulting. Whereas most Caregiver or home service models are designed for function or sleekness, we were designed, to put it bluntly, to be huggable. The Zoo Models—the premier line of nannybots made by Blue Star—were available in three distinct designs: the lion, the bear, and me, as you’ve probably guessed, the tiger. We are four feet tall and covered from head to toe in soft, plush microfiber fur; stand on two legs, with a fully articulated tail; and come in a variety of your favorite colors.

I’m the standard model, orange and black. every model’s stripes unique! That’s what it says on my box. not just your child’s nanny, but their new best friend!

That’s Ezra. Ezra Reinhart. Only son of Bradley and Sylvia Reinhart. A precocious little blond-haired, brown-eyed scamp who spends most of his free time getting himself into trouble that I then am responsible to get him out of. He’s eight, which pretty much makes me eight as well.

I stood there in the attic, sun streaming in through a small window, dust suspended in its beam, lapping like waves from the disturbances in the air, and I stared at my box, bright blue and orange, big block lettering screaming all my features, dozens of exclamation points littered throughout the text, and a thin layer of transparent plastic meant to make me look like a giant action figure. For a moment, I wondered what we all must have looked like in the warehouse or the stores, all lined up, stacked on top of one another, frozen in time, waiting to be picked, activated, brought to life.

We must have been so fucking adorable.

I stacked the boxes I’d been tasked to bring up and then slowly made my way down the ladder back into the hallway below.

Sylvia stood in the kitchen, carving the skin off an apple with a paring knife. She was tall, five foot ten, with a shock of bleached blond hair, green tips spilling down over her forehead. Rows of tattoos ran up and down her arms, each of a band or a city or an event of some kind. Her arms were a map of the greatest nights of her life—bands she’d seen in a small club before they’d blown up into the mainstream, vacations that led to wild drinking from one end of the Paris megaplex to the other, and there, in the center of each arm, was the date of the two greatest nights of them all. On her right, the date of the night she’d met Bradley. And on the left, the night she gave birth to Ezra.

“The boxes are upstairs, ma’am,” I said.

“Thanks, Pounce.”

“I found my old box up there. Would you like me to break it down for recycling?”

“Oh, there’s no need to do that.”

“It’s no trouble.”

She laughed. “No, we just don’t know when we might need it again.” Then, for a moment, she froze, as if she were a robot herself, skipping over her programming, caught in some irreparable logic loop. She hadn’t meant to say that. Not like that. Not in such a casual way. Her eyes stayed on the apple, the knife halfway through a slice.