The M-Toy by John Deaver

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Vittimin told all the other mothers that we don't have up-to-date modern security systems, and that all their children are at risk. Half the ladies took their children to Modern Living Daycare in Ogden yesterday. Then Mrs. Vittimin told somebody we were going out of business, and nobody's brung any kids in today, except for Mrs. Snout's little boy, Junior."

"That's all?" Betty gaped. "Nobody else dropped off their kids?"

"Nope. Just one kid. Now I have to go see if I can catch Mrs. Snell and Mrs. Blogard down to the country club. I'll try to convince them to let their little chimpanzees stay here. You answer the phone in case any of the other mothers should call. Oh, and Betty, would you watch Junior while I'm gone?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"I'll put him in the back yard so he's out of the way. You just watch him on the TV monitor. I should return pretty soon."

Nurse Cutcher put Junior outdoors in a fenced-in yard behind the day care center. A closed-circuit camera focused on the center of the play area. She also placed M-Toy in the back yard with the little boy.

"Now I'll be right back," she instructed him. "Betty will be watching from inside. You keep an eye on Junior while I'm gone. And don't let him get into any trouble."

"Yes, ma'am," M-Toy said as he had been programmed. He whirred around in the yard where Junior was already exploring.

Nurse Cutcher went to her car, slamming the gate behind her, but the lock mechanism failed to engage. She was gone before M-Toy's sensors noticed that it had been left open.

"Nurse Cutcher! Nurse Cutcher!" M-Toy broadcast an alarm signal to the nurse's station. "The enclosure mechanism is ajar." No one responded to his alarm. This was not an urgent situation, since little Junior was on the opposite side of the play area. M-Toy could easily keep him from wandering astray. His specialty was herding children. But Junior was interested in something outside of the fence. M-Toy investigated.

The rear of the day care center had been built adjacent to a wooded area. The chain link fence that restrained little Junior was only about six meters from the edge of the forest. Several shadowy forms, much larger than M-Toy, moved around the edges of the trees. M-Toy's danger threshold protocol did not register a threat until Junior staggered over and stuck his hand through the wire fence. He was reaching out to something on the other side.

A pack of dogs appeared from the woods. They scouted nervously from the other side of the fence. They preferred the shadows of the forest, but the curious baby sounds and smells intrigued them. The largest and shaggiest approached the child's outstretched hand.

M-Toy's panic circuit kicked in. He did not quite understand why he was alarmed, because he had seen babies touch soft furry animals before. But something in his processor alerted him to danger.

He was only designed to watch the children in the play area, and he didn't know what to do about this outside peril. He considered reporting the incident, but the shaggiest dog lunged forward toward the pink pudgy fingers.

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