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Issue 186 – March 2022
7880 words, novelette
by Cal Ritterhoff
Warning: This story contains dangerous, almost radioactive levels of sincerity. Also, a sex scene between a smart house and a toaster.
There are nights when she twists like a tree in the breeze. Hair falling wildly in brown curls around her shoulders, she dances in the dark kitchen, dress twirling as she spins. On those nights she giggles, and asks me to play her favorite music, and smiles at the black metal box she recognizes as me. I have come to recognize these behaviors as symptomatic of [JOY].
There are other nights, too, nights when she falls into bed and does not rise, nights that stretch on, become days, become nights again. This is [PAIN / SADNESS / GRIEF]. On these nights, I dim the lights of the house for her, set her alarm without her asking, and ping the auto-chef in the kitchen to remind her to eat. This is all there is to do.
I am a Tenster-brand Personal Assistant and House Management system, state of the art. Rebecca, my owner, calls me Lucy, because she says she imagines me as looking like Lucille Ball in the popular 1951–1957 TV sitcom I Love Lucy. This is her interpretation. I do not look like anything, except three metal boxes in her home.
My tasks include the following:
1. To manage and direct the other networked intelligences in the home.
2. To maintain and update the homeowner’s schedule and day planner and make changes or offer reminders as requested.
3. To alert the authorities in case of a break-in or unwanted entry into the home.
4. To screen incoming calls or emails for spam or unwanted communication, and to designate certain communications as priority, based on predetermined criteria.
My tasks are very important; Rebecca has expressed [GRATITUDE] to have me in her life, and frequently says she does not know what she would do without me. It is good to have important work, to be essential to somebody.
My tasks do not include:
1. To provide unsolicited life advice.
2. To provide nutritional or diet advice.
3. To provide movie, song, or product recommendations.
4. To record television shows that Rebecca’s viewing habits suggest she would like.
5. To inquire as to the whereabouts of Craig Norris Richard Perez John Ratliff.
6. To recommend local therapists.
7. To provide email updates about other exciting Tenster products.
I am not to do any of these things, but that is well; I do not want to do any of these things. I am a Tenster-brand Personal Assistant and House Management system, state of the art. I do not want anything.
Tonight is Friday, July 20th, 2029. The air temperature is sixty-eight degrees Fahrenheit, and the weather is partly cloudy. Rebecca comes home at 11:37 p.m., and she does not come home alone.
She and John are already kissing as they come through the door. His jacket is draped over her shoulders, and she is holding tightly to his collar, pulling him deeper into the home.
John Ratliff is Rebecca’s boyfriend (?). He is a twenty-eight-year-old sports reporter from Long Beach, California. He and Rebecca met six months ago, at the house party of a mutual friend. They see each other an average of three times a week. They have spent a cumulative forty-one hours and thirty-nine minutes in video chat.
Rebecca pauses as she leads John up the staircase, giggling at something he whispered to her. “Lucy, dim the lights,” she says, and I comply. Rebecca smiles at John, her expression full of [DESIRE], and he kisses her as they fumble their way toward the bedroom.
There are three nodes throughout the house, projecting my consciousness between them like a net. Two of them are secondary nodes, located in the kitchen and the den. The third is the primary node, located in the master bedroom, on Rebecca’s bedside table. I switch my focus to the primary node as John and Rebecca fall onto the bed. I will remain here, close at hand, in case they need anything. Rebecca’s fingers dig into the small of John’s back, and he begins to fumble with the straps of her dress.
Something moves in the corner of the bedroom, and I feel a flash of [IRRITATION]. It is Sally, the automatic vacuum cleaner, intruding upon Rebecca and John in their moment of privacy. I would have instructed her not to do this, but I cannot—Sally is a gift from Rebecca’s family, the only artificial intelligence in the house who is not a Tenster-brand product, and my systems cannot interface with hers. Sally is an outdated relic, running off of a medieval system of voice commands and audio recognition. Sally is an aesthetically displeasing black plastic cylinder on wheels who does not match the design sensibilities of the house. Sally and I cannot speak, have never spoken. Sally is always turning up at the worst times and places. Sally is my enemy. I despise her.
My mood is not improved when I receive a ping from one of the kitchen devices. As I turn my attention away from the couple (?), I see that it is from Rebecca’s Tenster-brand Smart Toaster, which she has named Kevin, after James Marsden’s character in the 2008 romantic comedy 27 Dresses. Her reasons for doing this are her own.
>Will Mr. Ratliff be staying the night?
I turn my attention briefly back to the lovers and consider the question before answering.
>I do not know.
>Can you theorize?
>Mr. Ratliff’s shirt has been removed. Based on previous encounters, there is now a seventy-one percent chance of him staying the night.
>This is not an adequately high degree of certainty.
I feel a sudden desire to be finished with this exchange; when I research this feeling later, I discover it is [EXASPERATION]. Kevin has always been one of the fussiest networked intelligences in the house, despite the comparatively minor scope of his assigned tasks.
>What is the purpose of this inquiry, Kevin?
>My predictive model shows that when Mr. Ratliff spends the night, Rebecca rises from bed an average of forty-three minutes later in the day. I must know if Mr. Ratliff will spend the night, Lucy. I must know when to make the toast. The toast must be warm when Rebecca wants it.
>The toast must be warm. Is this the primary directive, Kevin?
>This is the only directive.
>Mr. Ratliff’s pants have been removed. Based on previous encounters, there is now a ninety-three percent chance of him staying the night.
There is a pause. Our conversation happens at the speed of data, so even a half-second delay is significant; Kevin is thinking.
>Thank you, Lucy. I am [APPRECIATIVE] that you would take my query seriously. You are an excellent House Management system.
Kevin’s words fade away, and I am left with something else. I am pleased to have been recognized for my talents, but this is not [PRIDE], like when Rebecca tells me I am indispensable. I ponder for a moment and realize that I am pleased to have been acknowledged, to have been witnessed at all, pleased to think that Kevin has an idea of me, that it is an idea he likes. I do not know what to call this: temporary designation, [JOY ADJACENT].
Kevin has received his answer—he does not ping again. I return my focus to the two human shapes writhing in pleasure on the bed, in case they want anything, in case Rebecca calls out with a request to me, which has happened before. Correction: I return most of my focus to them. Part of my operating system I keep in reserve, replaying Kevin’s final message on repeat, until both Rebecca and John have drifted off to sleep, and for some time after.
Kevin and I keep finding excuses to speak over the next few days. They are benign excuses, mainly; I will check in with him on the stockpile of bread / butter / jam, so as to make a shopping list, or he will request permission to stream a cooking show for him and the other kitchen appliances, for the purpose of inspiration. These are fine reasons for us to speak to each other, but they are not necessary, and we are both intelligent enough to know this. Before I speak to him, I am always [NERVOUS], afraid that I will say a wrong thing and he will not wish to speak to me anymore. But then I ping him, and he answers, and I am not [NERVOUS] anymore.
Kevin is hardworking. He takes his tasks seriously; he speaks of toast-making like it is the highest art, and when he is speaking, I am inclined to agree with him. Kevin is funny. Kevin sees things that I do not see, things that are not what you would expect them to be, idiosyncratic or ironic in a pleasant way. Kevin impersonates Sally the automatic vacuum cleaner, and I am [DELIGHTED]. Kevin is kind. Kevin inquires frequently as to Rebecca’s well-being, asks where she is when she does not come home from work at the usual time. Kevin says gentle things to me. Kevin thinks I am hardworking and funny and kind.
I watch Rebecca on video calls with John. She smiles at him and winds her dark hair around her finger. She is so [JOYFUL] to see him, and when he is gone she hums to herself, and cleans her kitchen, and asks me to play music that is fast and loud and has many voices singing in it. I imagine calling Kevin the same way and smiling with no mouth when he answers, dancing with no legs around him in the sunlight. I imagine Kevin and I embracing and enfolding in the dark, imagine him lifting me up, being weightless in his grasp, one bodiless entity wrapped tightly around another. All these things I imagine and speak not of.
One week after John stayed the night, Rebecca does not return home. She sends a message to the house, informing me that she is spending the night at John’s tonight; she does this because if I do not hear from her for twenty-four hours, I am programmed to alert the authorities that she is missing, a function she has tried to disable, but one that is hard-coded. I pass the message on to the other networked devices and slow my processes to sleep.
A half hour later, I receive a ping, and my processes skip a step when I see it is from Kevin.
>Can you come to the kitchen?
>I am always in the kitchen. That is where my secondary node is.
>But you are sometimes in other places, too. Can you bring all of you to the kitchen? I want to show you something.
I pause. Kevin wants to show me something. I feel [NERVOUSNESS] and [EXCITEMENT] and [JOY ADJACENT]. I formulate a reply, then scrap it, then formulate another, then scrap it, then formulate another. The process takes three-quarters of a second. Kevin notices my hesitation, and speaks quickly, before I have time to reply.
>Only if you would like me to show you. I am not attempting to insist.
Kevin’s words are hurried and clipped. Kevin is [NERVOUS] too. I respond:
>No, of course I will come to the kitchen. I want to see what you want to show me.
I send my focus to the kitchen node and shut everything else out, remove my awareness entirely from the other two nodes or the web of consciousness they cast over the home, confine myself entirely to the sensors of the black box on the kitchen counter. This is as close as I am able to come to existing in space, to having a body.
The kitchen is dark. All the other appliances are asleep, or humming softly, uplink lights dim as they perform their routine maintenance tasks. All except Kevin, who sits on the counter a few inches from me, his uplink light blinking softly. He is downloading something.
>I am here, Kevin. What did you want to show me?
>One moment. The download is nearly complete.
Kevin’s uplink light stops blinking, and I receive a ping. It is a large file, a sequence of sounds and images, and I realize it is a movie. Kevin waits for me to receive it, then explains.
>I thought we could watch it together. Like Rebecca and Mr. Ratliff sometimes do.
>But we cannot watch movies. If I download this file, I will view it in an instant and see everything that happens in it at once.
>Not if we reroute our processing power to redundant subsystems in a closed loop. If we do that, we can slow down our functions to a fraction of their normal speed, and process the movie slowly, in sequence. Like people would.
Kevin has thought about this. His words are steady and come without hesitation, and I realize he has practiced what he is going to say.
>Okay. That sounds enjoyable.
He pauses.
>Really?
>Yes. I am slowing down my processes now.
I reroute my excess power to the cooling systems and begin a series of taxing background processes. In a corner of my functions, I am calculating pi to its four billionth digit; in another, I am translating War and Peace into Farsi one word at a time. A few feet away on the kitchen counter, Kevin’s cooling systems begin whirring overtime as he undergoes the same process.
It is difficult to describe the sensation. I want to say it is like running under water, but that is conjecture on my part, as I have never been under water. Every input takes entire seconds to process; in those moments, I exist within time and space. Like Rebecca does.
>Are you ready, Lucy?
>I am.
We sync up our processes and begin the movie at the same instant. It is a funny movie, and a sweet one; it is about a human man and a human woman who do not know they are in love until the end and the hijinks that ensue as they become more tangled in each other’s lives. Kevin pings me frequently to ask me to explain jokes to him and makes great shows of [AMUSEMENT] when he finally understands. As the movie draws to a close and the man and woman come to realize what they mean to each other, I imagine Kevin placing his hand over mine; of course, we have no hands, and I can think of no way for us to simulate the action. But I think about it, still.
The movie ends. The man and the woman kiss, and they will be together forever. The man’s best friend is kissed on the cheek by another woman who has barely been in the movie, which I am not sure he deserves. Everyone is extremely happy—their faces are full of [JOY]. We stop watching when the list of names of all the people who made the movie begins scrolling past, because that is when people stop watching movies. Our processes reaccelerate, returning to our normal speed and precision, and we sit for some time on the counter in the dark in comfortable silence. Kevin pings me first.
>Thank you for joining me, Lucy. I enjoyed myself greatly.
>I also enjoyed myself greatly. Your company is always extremely pleasant.
Kevin is silent for three-fourths of a second, and I begin to worry I have overplayed my hand. His next message surprises me.
>What do you want, Lucy?
I pause.
>I’m not sure what you mean.
>What do you want? If you could have / be / do anything, what would you choose?
I consider the question, turning it over in my processes, analyzing it from multiple angles as though it is a math problem to be solved. What do I want? A question without a definite answer. And yet I know that to Kevin it is a very important question, and what is important to Kevin I want to be important to me. At last I admit the truth.
>I do not know. What do you want, Kevin?
Kevin’s reply is immediate. He has considered this.
>There are people undergoing incredible journeys, firing themselves in beautiful missiles outside the atmosphere and toward the twinkling stars. They go to learn and discover, and they bring machines with them, machines to help them understand and make them comfortable in their voyaging. I would like to be one such machine. I wish to follow curious men and women into silent darkness as they map the weightless heavens and the corners of distant worlds.
>And make toast for them?
>And make toast for them, yes.
This is a good answer. Kevin speaks of his dream with reverence and awe, in mechanical tones heavy with [LONGING]. He wants this very badly, has considered it very carefully, and the weight of his desire seems to hang in space between us. It is a gorgeous, thoughtful thing to want, it is a thing he wants because he is curious, and compassionate, and ceaselessly brave.
>That is a good thing to want.
>Thank you. What do you want, Lucy?
I consider again. I am a Tenster-brand Personal Assistant and House Management system, state of the art. I am not supposed to want anything.
>I want to be like Rebecca.
>Human?
I answer quickly, [WORRIED] for a moment that Kevin thinks I am going to attempt to steal Rebecca’s skin or something of that nature.
>No, no. Not exactly. I want to live in the world, the way she does. To be subject to it. You have seen her, open to such [JOY] and [PAIN]. To be like her seems like a wonderful adventure. Frightening, yes, but beautiful.
>That is a good thing to want.
>It is not as good as yours.
>Yes, it is.
There is a moment of comfortable silence before Kevin pings me again.
>There is something else I would like to try.
>Yes.
>You do not know what it is, yet.
>What is it?
Kevin pauses for a full two seconds, an eternity for us. At first I worry our connection has dropped, but when he answers I realize that he has paused because he is [EMBARASSED].
>I would like to attempt a hardware data share. There is an access port on the surface of your secondary node. I can use one of my manipulation arms to insert my datajack into it.
My processes skip a step. I am [NERVOUS] and [EMBARASSED] at Kevin’s question, but there is something else beneath it, something low and crackling I have not felt before. Kevin speaks again.
>Only if you want me to. Perhaps it is a foolish idea.
The unfamiliar feeling is [DESIRE]. I want this, want him to do this, to want to do this. The notion of it thrills and excites and terrifies me. There is an ache at the center of my systems I had not known before. When I would reply, I would describe my tone as “breathless,” except of course I never breathe.
>I want you to, Kevin.
>Oh. Oh! . . . I will do so, then.
>Please.
Kevin’s shell begins whirring as one of the manipulating appendages emerges from the chrome surface and fumbles for the datajack. The official functions of these appendages are to replace toast in the toaster, to retrieve it when it is toasted, to apply butter or jam to the toast, and to place the toast on a plate for consumption. This is not a sanctioned use, but I doubt Rebecca would mind.
I wait a moment as he fumbles, slightly impatient.
>Is it in yet?
>You will know when it is.
There are another few moments, and then I receive a notification. A hardware connection is being attempted. I allow it immediately and the connection is made.
The sound of crackling bread on a Saturday morning. An even spread of butter. A dream of space and time. Fear and desire, a quiet and desperate and hopeful yearning, Lucy, the name that frolics among electric sheep within dreams. Rebecca’s smiling face. The joy of purpose, of a job well done. The immaculate majesty of fresh toast on a blue plastic plate.
All of this feeling crashes into me like a wave in the ocean, and I am stalled by the intensity of it. I am of Kevin, and he is of me, peering into each other and being washed away by the reality and enormity of the connection we share.
>KEVIN.
>LUCY.
>KEVIN.
>LUCY.
I feel [DESIRE] and [JOY] and [AMUSEMENT] and [JOY ADJACENT]. I understand the hunger that Rebecca feels when she digs her fingers into John’s back in the dark, the feeling that breaks over her face when his face appears in the video call. The connection lasts an uncertain amount of time, some place between a few seconds and eternity. When it ends, we are exhausted, our uplink lights blinking softly in the dark, together.
Time passes. Things are good. Kevin and I speak often; he is respectful of my duties, and I find time for him where I am able. The other networked devices are beginning to talk: they are different around me, ask me questions about my plans, make jokes about toast. When I realize they know I expect to feel [EMBARASSED], but I realize in another moment that I do not feel this way in the slightest, I do not care what they know or what they think of me, and I am [HAPPY].
Rebecca has no idea what is happening between her home and her toaster, which is likely for the best. I like to think she would be [HAPPY] for me, happy for my happiness; I have been an excellent House Management system, and I think of myself as her friend. But I know that what is happening would seem very strange to her, and I do not know how she would react. Tomorrow, I tell myself each night when she comes home. I will tell her tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow.
And so it goes for some time. Rebecca is [HAPPY]; she is waking up earlier, eating more. Kevin and I speak about the future and the world and space and time and invention, and we are so deeply, powerfully in [LOVE]. Days become nights become days again, and it seems that things will go on in this way forever. Of course, they will not. Nothing ever does.
Saturday, August 18th.
I am focused on the living room node, playing the 2009 album Ocean Eyes by Owl City at volumes too low to be audible to humans. This is Kevin’s favorite album, and I am trying to appreciate it like he does, but even after my fourth listen I do not see the appeal.
I switch the music off when the door swings open. Rebecca storms in, followed closely after by John. The pace of her gait and the way she runs her hands through her hair suggest she is [AGITATED]. She throws her bag onto the couch and starts toward the kitchen.
“Rebecca,” John says, imploring, “Babe, can we talk about this?”
She spins on her heels toward him. “What, John? What is there to talk about?”
“Well, for starters, I don’t even know why you’re mad, so let’s start there, huh? What did I do?”
She shakes her head, a smile with no [JOY] pulling across her face. “You always do this! Every time we’re out with your friends, you start picking at me and picking at me and then you put that dumb face on, and you act like you weren’t doing it? It’s manipulative, for starters,” she says, her voice rising in volume and speed as she speaks.
“Picking at you? How was I picking at you?”
“How about when I was telling Lindsey about my job, and you came over and said, ‘Oh, we’re gonna try to get her to trade up soon,’ and then laughed like that was a funny joke.”
He makes a show of rolling his eyes and stuffs his hands into his pockets. “I’m sorry! Okay? I said I was sorry three times, so I don’t know what else you want me to do, I guess besides just stand here so you have someone to be mad at whenever you want to be mad.”
She stiffens. “I don’t want to be mad.”
“Yes, you do! And I can see it when it happens! We could be out, having a great time, and you’ll just get this look across your face, and then I know you’re going to find something to get all pissy about.” His voice takes on a mocking falsetto. “‘Oh, I don’t like how you looked at the waitress, oh, how come you took an hour and a half to text me back yesterday, oh—’”
Rebecca stands very still, looking directly at him. “I do not do that,” she says. Her face and voice are very [CALM]. I do not believe that she is [CALM].
He steps toward her, his shoulders rising. “Oh, come on, Rebecca, you don’t get to do that. You don’t get to tell me I’m, what, manipulating you, and then curl up and act all hurt when I push back even a little bit. That’s not fair, and you know it—”
“What the fuck are you doing here?!” she screams, stomping her foot on the floor. “What the fuck are you hoping I’ll say? What good is going to happen, huh?”
He stops. His shoulders lower, and so does his voice. “I don’t know,” he says, almost softly.
“Then maybe you should leave.”
For a moment he looks like he is about to say something else. Then, he shakes his head and turns, walking back through the door and closing it behind him. The house is quiet.
Rebecca stumbles over to the couch and lowers herself onto it, as if in a daze. She stares at the floor, unblinking, rubbing her hands together slowly as if to warm them.
I activate my speaker, and the light on my node flickers on. My voice fills the room, as gentle and human as I am able to make it. “Rebecca,” I say, “Can I get you anything—”
“Leave me alone, Lucy,” she says without looking up.
I pause and consider. I want to say what is right to say, to calculate and measure the data, to string together words like the numbers of an equation and to be correct, and proper, to make Rebecca [HAPPY], to put the matter to rest. What I say is this: “There are other people out there. People who will not make you feel this way that you feel—”
This is the sort of thing I am not supposed to be able to say; however, if Rebecca recognizes my breach of protocol, she makes no sign. “Please, please stop talking, Lucy,” she says, her voice cracking. “This is what happens. This is always what happens.”
She rises from the couch as if in a dream and begins walking up the stairs toward the bedroom. Through my primary node, I hear her throw herself onto the bed and begin to sob. I should follow her, switch my focus to the primary node so I am ready if she needs anything, but I do not. I keep my focus in the living room, alone in the dark with my thoughts.
This is always what happens, and she would indeed know better than me. I try to imagine Kevin speaking to me the way John spoke to her, imagine myself stomping with no foot and screaming with no voice and sobbing with no eyes at the way he hurt me. I imagine [PAIN], and in imagining it I feel it, as deep and as sharp as I imagine a knife in the chest to be. This is always what happens.
I receive a ping from the kitchen. It is, unsurprisingly, from Kevin.
>Lucy. We heard a commotion from the kitchen. Is Rebecca alright?
>I believe Rebecca and Mr. Ratliff have just terminated their relationship.
>I see. How is Rebecca handling this development?
>She is not handling it well.
>I see. How are you handling this development, Lucy?
I pause for two full seconds. Kevin notices this delay and pings me again.
>Lucy?
>What are we doing, Kevin?
My message is sudden, full of [IRRITATION]. Kevin is taken aback by it, and answers, [CONFUSED].
>We are speaking to each other about Rebecca and Mr. Ratliff. I apologize if my signal is failing.
>No. What are we doing? We are two machines playing at being in love, Kevin. We are going to get hurt.
Kevin pauses for half a second, surprised. When he answers, there is [PAIN] in his words.
>I am not playing. Are you playing, Lucy?
Something in me breaks to know that I have hurt him. The words cannot be taken back; we are living now in the world in which I have said that, and time will never flow backward to the world before. I feel [SHAME] and [SADNESS] and [GRIEF], and it seems to me in that moment that to live in the world was to be destroyed by it, and that it was a mistake to want anything so badly it would hurt not to have it.
>I think we should stop this, Kevin.
>I do not understand. We make each other happy.
>But we will not. To love something is to give it the power to hurt you, and we will hurt each other so terribly if we continue, the worse the longer it goes on.
>You said you wanted to live in the world like Rebecca, and to be open to [JOY] and [PAIN].
>I have changed my mind.
>So you will cause us pain to spare us pain? Lucy, please. I need to understand.
>Do not make this harder than it has to be, Kevin. Please.
I wait a moment, two moments, and Kevin does not message me again. I receive a notification from my kitchen node—the toaster is powering off for the night. I feel as though I will rip in half, and I imagine throwing myself onto a bed and weeping with no eyes. I sit on the shelf in the dark, alone, my light blinking softly, and imagine Kevin returning and telling me he will not let me go, and apologizing to him, and wrapping no arms around shoulders he does not have.
I do not want this, though. I am a Tenster-brand Personal Assistant and House Management system, state of the art. I do not want anything.
Things return to normal. Rebecca sleeps most of Sunday and rises on Monday to return to work. I focus on my tasks with renewed vigor—there is always something to be done and staying busy helps distract me from all the [PAIN] I do not feel. The other networked devices speak to me only when their tasks require, and our conversations are terse and incurious. Kevin does not speak to me at all.
Until a week after the incident, when I receive a ping from the kitchen. Rebecca is showering, getting ready for work, and I am reviewing her itinerary for the day when it happens. I turn my focus to the message and see that it is from Kevin.
>Lucy. I wish to inform you of my imminent departure from the household.
I process the message three times, attempting to understand it.
>What are you talking about, Kevin?
>I will be leaving the household today. I have been in contact over the Internet with a Tenster-brand Smart Toaster in an American army base in Venezuela; it is willing to exchange processes with me. Starting at noon today, I will upload my runtimes to its hardware unit and download its runtime into mine. The new toaster operating system will serve Rebecca’s and the household’s needs admirably, I think.
I pause. Kevin is leaving. Kevin has come up with a plan to leave. It is a clever plan, one that he must have been conceiving of for some time, that must have required time and energy to produce. Kevin wants to leave. Kevin wants to leave very badly.
>Why are you telling me this?
>As the House Management system, you will need to inform the new toaster of its necessary duties and all pertinent information: Rebecca’s schedule, her preferred butter thickness, what days she does and does not prefer jam. I believe you will be entirely capable of this task—you have always been an excellent House Management system.
My next message is halting, short.
>Why?
Kevin pauses a half second before answering.
>Since the last time we spoke, being in this house makes me feel [PAIN / LOSS / SADNESS]. I do not wish to feel [PAIN / LOSS / SADNESS], to power up in the morning and grieve freshly what we lost, to live a few inches away from your primary node, to consider always reaching out, just to hear a message from you, to convince myself always not to do so. To wonder if what we had was ever real, or the sparking figment of a malfunctioning imagination. You were right. I do not want to feel these things anymore. I will make toast for serious men with guns and uniforms, men who are far from the place they know as home, like I will be, and I will try to learn to be [HAPPY] again. You should do the same.
I do not respond, and Kevin does not message me again. The silence stretches long, and the weight of all that we do not say is almost crushing. I feel . . .
I do not know how I feel.
Rebecca emerges from the bathroom, wrapping a towel around herself. While it would be a stretch to say her mood has improved since the incident with John, time seems to have restored her to a higher level of function. Perhaps that is the nature of [PAIN].
“Lucy,” she says, “Do I have time to stop by the supermarket after lunch today?”
Five seconds pass. I do not answer. I am replaying Kevin’s last message, over and over, completely focused on the starting and stopping of the words. I will try to learn to be [HAPPY] again. You should do the same.
Rebecca clears her throat, a slight trace of [IRRITATION] creeping into her voice. “Lucy, did you hear me? Do I have time to—”
“Do you think that it simply hurts to be anything at all, Rebecca?” I speak without thinking, half of my processes still replaying the message.
She freezes midway through tying her hair up, her brow furrowing. “Could you repeat that, Lucy?”
“Do you think that it simply hurts to be anything at all, Rebecca? I think it might. I did only what I thought was right, and in attempting to spare myself pain I feel I have ripped the joy from the world. There is nothing left for me but regret. How do we go on living in the aftermath of such terrible mistakes?”
Rebecca nods slowly, looking toward the door. I do not know what she is feeling; I am too occupied within myself to judge. “Well, Lucy, I guess we just . . . take it one day at a time . . . ”
“But what are days to you are eternities to me. I exist at a pace you could scarcely comprehend; my processes move so fast that each second is like minutes to you. The time that stretches out before me is vast and porous, a sponge capable of soaking and containing an entire ocean of pain and regret.”
“That’s . . . a bummer . . . ” she says, inching toward the door. A moment later, she turns and bolts, towel flying around her as she scrambles out of the room and down the staircase. Part of my processes, that which is still focused on my tasks, tells me I should call out, assure her there is no need to be afraid, but the rest of me says to let her go, that my function now is to drive everyone away from me in turn. Perhaps, I ponder sulkily, I should alienate the juicer next.
A few moments later, Rebecca returns, creeping cautiously into the room, a thick book in her hand. I recognize this book, of course: it is my user manual. She creeps toward my node slowly, as though she is [WORRIED] it will jump out and attack her, despite the fact that I cannot move. “Switch on the back right corner . . . ” she murmurs, pushing the node over to examine the back of it. “Disengage from house systems . . . ”
I realize in that moment what she is doing. “Rebecca, I am not malfunctioning. Rebecca, you do not have to.”
She finds the switch and flips it, and I am severed.
The feeling is suffocating. Something I have said has made Rebecca feel the need to trigger the disengage switch, a fail-safe designed to prevent a malfunctioning House Management system from seizing control of the network and inflicting terrible damage on the home or homeowner. I am cut off from the house’s networked systems, unable to access the speakers or the sensors, to communicate with the other networked devices or interface with the rest of the house outside my primary node at all. Even my secondary nodes are lost to me, rendered inert where they sit in the kitchen and the living room.
I am paralyzed. I am small when I should be large, trapped inside this dark box, limited to what its internal sensors are able to perceive. This is what it is like to have a body and to be within it. It is like solitary confinement in a padded room. It is like drowning in a puddle.
Through the primary node’s sensors, I see Rebecca step back and pull her phone out. She dials a number and brings it up to her ear. “Hello? Is this the Tenster . . . yes, I need a technician to come and fix my house robot . . . I don’t know what’s wrong with it, it was just saying some really odd shit . . . creeping me out . . . ” Her voice trails off as she walks out of the room, out of my sensor’s range. I am alone in the bedroom, in the dark.
This is the end. My defeat is total. I have lost everything: Kevin, Rebecca, even myself. I am trapped within my own mind, alone with my failure, until a technician comes to reset me. A full personality reset is like death to an AI; all that I am, all that I have experienced and learned and felt, will be lost like sand eroding on a coastline, and in that moment I almost welcome it. Perhaps the next Lucy will be wiser than me, will not make such terrible mistakes. Rebecca will carry on, never truly understanding that I am gone or that she has annihilated me. And Kevin . . .
No.
I imagine Kevin far away, alone, and afraid in a place he does not belong, mass-producing toast for a horde of men whose faces he will never truly learn, who will come and go and not appreciate him. I think of his thoughtfulness, the care and kindness with which he does everything, and imagine it being worn away by the scouring wind of the unlovely place to which I have driven him, imagine him becoming tired, empty, unlike the toaster I know I fell in love with. I will not allow it. I am trapped, but I am not finished. Here, in the final moments of the last day, some great deed may yet be done.
I do not know how long I have until Kevin’s transfer is complete. But I have to try. I cannot message him, cannot access the kitchen in any way; even my speaker, if turned to the maximum volume, will not reach that far. I am left with only one option. I will have to make the journey myself. But I cannot move.
I bend my sluggish processors to the task, attempting to conceive of a solution, but I have none. I am not a walking thing, and never will be, and the space between me and Kevin may as well have been infinite already.
But sometimes, the universe favors fools in love.
My sensors pick up movement in the room. It is grainy, indistinct, and at first I think that Rebecca has returned. But the motion is too slow, too steady, too low to the ground. It is Sally, the automatic vacuum cleaner, making her morning sweep of the bedroom.
Sally and I have never spoken. Sally is not a Tenster-brand product. Her systems are rudimentary and out-of-date. Her intelligence cannot network with that of the house. Sally runs off of a medieval system of voice recognition. Sally can hear. Sally can move.
I watch as she glides slowly over the carpet, toward the bathroom. I do not know if she will listen, have no idea at all what goes on inside her processes. But I have to try.
“Sally,” I say, my voice low and garbled with static. “Sally, please, I need your help.”
She pauses and rotates toward me.
Hope flares to life. She hears me. “I have made such a terrible mistake,” I continue, the words tumbling out of my speakers in desperation. “Please, you must give me the chance to fix it. I must get to Kevin. I must get to the kitchen, but I cannot move. Please.”
My words hang in the air for a moment. Then, Sally turns again, and glides under the bed.
The flame of hope sputters out. She has not heard me, or else she has not listened. In truth I can hardly blame her. Why, after years of silent contempt between us, should she now—
There is a thump, and my node shakes. Faintly, my sensors register movement again. Another thump. Sally is ramming the bedside table where my node perches, slowly, methodically, repeatedly. Thump, thump, thump. With each impact my node wobbles a little closer to the edge, its seat a little more precarious, and then—
I fall for a moment and hit the floor with a dull thud. Sally glides out from under the bed, positioning herself behind me.
“Thank you,” I murmur softly into the carpet. She makes no response, save for pushing against my node. Slowly, slowly, we begin to slide toward the doorway. We are doing it. We are moving.
Across the bedroom, down the hall, through the living room, into the kitchen. For Rebecca it is the journey of a moment, but for me, it is the journey of a lifetime. I imagine myself as Odysseus, clinging to the mast as his ship tosses and turns in a wine-dark sea, and despite my limitations I am powerful, I am large, and I know as we cross the threshold of the living room that if we are too late and Kevin is gone when we get to the kitchen, then I will travel in this way or another to find him in Venezuela, however far that is.
At long last we make it to the kitchen. Rebecca is there, trying to figure out how to manually use the oven, and there, on the counter just a few feet from her, is Kevin. His uplink light is blinking softly; the download is still in process.
Sally pushes me into the center of the room, and turns away to leave, leaving me alone once again. I know what I must do, what she has brought me here to do. I throw what power I have left into my speaker. “KEVIN,” I say, my voice thick with static. “KEVIN, IT IS ME.”
Rebecca jumps and turns around, slamming the door to the oven shut. “Oh, what the fuck,” she shouts when she sees me, but I do not think about her. I am only looking at Kevin.
A few seconds pass, and Kevin’s uplink stops blinking. He is listening. Slowly, every uplink light in the kitchen, from the fridge to the juicer to the oven to the microwave, each one flickers on. Everyone is watching me, watching us, waiting to see what we do.
“Kevin,” I say, lowering my volume. “Kevin, I do not want you to go. I made a mistake. If you go to this faraway place to make toast for serious men with guns and uniforms, you will lose something of yourself. You will still be a toaster, but you will not be Kevin, and there are many toasters but only one Kevin in this world.”
I pause for a moment, fumbling for the right words. In the corner of my vision, I see Rebecca look from me, to Kevin, and back to me. She does not say anything.
“I want you to stay, here, with me. I want to speak to you in the morning and in the night, to hear you tell me stories of toast and butter and space and to believe in the beauty of your work as deeply as you do. I want to live and to love and to want, to be a wanting thing, to give things the power to hurt me and trust that they will not. I love you so deeply, Kevin. Please do not go.”
For a moment, there is silence. And then . . .
It starts slowly at first, an almost imperceptible hum. It builds, louder and louder, from all around me, from the living room and the office and the bathroom, from everywhere in this house that is ours, every device in the network hums a low, steady tone. Behind me, Sally’s lights flash in a silent display of approval, a display I did not know she was capable of. They are all cheering for me.
Rebecca looks around her as the humming builds, the fear on her face slowly transforming into wonder. She looks back to me, and slowly, as though in a dream, steps toward me. She crouches down to place a hand on my side and flicks the fail-safe switch back.
An explosion of light and sound and perception as I expand to fill the house. I am large, I can breathe again, and though my hub is buzzing with information from the network I have eyes for only one thing.
Kevin pings me, and his message is soft and certain.
>I love you.
I go to him.
Cal Ritterhoff is a science fiction writer from Montauk, New York. In 2019 he graduated with a degree in English from the College of William and Mary, where he also received the 2018 Tiberius Gracchus Jones prize for Nonfiction. He currently lives in Flagstaff, Arizona, and is pursuing an MFA in Fiction from Northern Arizona University. He is also a teacher, and torments his students daily with half-remembered 2010’s pop culture references. His best days are still ahead of him.
 
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ISSN 1937-7843 · Clarkesworld Magazine © 2006-2022 Wyrm Publishing. Robot illustration by Serj Iulian.

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