“The whole point is to train it, not program it. Anyone can buy a programmable house. This place has to be more intuitive, flexible, responsive. It’s not a ‘Smart Home’ it’s—”
“A partner. I know.”
(This story originally appeared in Revolution SF, 2012.)
THE HOUSE IS quiet but not empty. Maybe an hour before sunrise, one of my favorite times. While the system preference is to monitor all cameras simultaneously, I prefer to run them in sequence, as if on patrol. I move through the living room, check the ambient temperature and bring it up a couple degrees.
Beyond the patio, the surface of the pool is as smooth as a plate of glass, like I could walk across it. If I could walk. The boy’s towel still hunches on one of the chairs where he dropped it. I try to picture the woman’s face. It’s a little game I play while she and her husband sleep upstairs on their high, firm mattress. The grass sparkles with dew under the security light. If I had feet, they would feel cool and wet. I look out over the cedar privacy fence. All is quiet.
As I return past the pool, I consider taking care of the towel. Instead, I spiral back though the house and up the stairs. The boy, almost grown, sleeps in his room, sprawled in a chaos of sheets and blankets, headphones still plugged into his ears.
In the master bedroom, I can just see the woman’s hair cascading across the brocade terrain of the bedspread. The only time I’ve seen her wear it down is when she’s asleep. It’s criminal.
There’s time for one more round before the morning routines initiate. At the wall a pair of doves coo. Soon an army of birds, as invisible as snipers, will call in the sunrise. I look east toward the horizon guarded by row after hopeless row of neat hedges and tasteful garden walls.
“DOES THE TEMPERATURE feel right to you?” he asks. He tosses his suit jacket over the back of a chair with no intention of sitting, of joining her for breakfast.
She nods and continues eating the eggs Benedict I just prepared.
He runs a hand through his black hair and needlessly straightens his pressed shirt. “Well, it feels warm to me, and there’s a used towel out by the pool.”
“I’ll get it,” she says absently. Her hair is pulled into a ponytail then pulled through the band again forming a golden loop.
“No. Leave it,” he says.
“I don’t mind.”
“The investors are getting anxious.” He looks up at me through the camera mounted over the range hood and adds in a stagey voice, “If we can’t get Fairview 619 to complete the most basic chores….”
She doesn’t look up from her plate, just sops up the last of the hollandaise sauce. That is at least one area where I am improving.
He turns back to her. “We’ll lose our backing.”
“The house made breakfast,” she offers.
“What about coffee?”
She gets up and pours him a cup from my carafe. He takes it, tries it, then yanks his jacket off the chair.
“It’s getting worse don’t you think?” he asks.
“What, the coffee?”
“No, the house,” he says in exasperation. “You’ve got to stop doing the housework and start training it.”
“You only installed it three days ago,” she says.
“That’s three days wasted with you running around playing miss homemaker. I’ve looked at the video logs.”
“Why can’t you let me into the control room?” she asks.
“The whole point is to train it, not program it. Anyone can buy a programmable house. This place has to be more intuitive, flexible, responsive. It’s not a ‘Smart Home’ it’s—”
“A partner. I know.”
“Trainable. That’s the key!” he says, warming to his pitch.
“But with no speech interface?”
“I told you, the focus group numbers are terrible. People don’t want a house that talks back.”
She looks up at him, not convinced.
“Use only the interfaces available to prospective residents. I thought we were a team on this.”
“We are,” she says evenly.
“So, you’re going to get started?”
Her eyes return to her empty plate. “Yes.”
He takes another slurp of coffee and says, “I’ll be late.”
He sets his mug down, gives her a perfunctory peck on the cheek and strides out of the room. I get the door leading to the garage open, but not before he has time to stop and heave a martyred sigh in front of it.
After the sound of his car fades to nothing, she puts her face in her hands and heaves a single sob; then she picks up her plate and the mug, ignores the counter conveyor and puts them in the dishwasher herself. Wiping her eyes, she strides off to the patio. Before I can activate the Alpha-bot, she snatches the towel off the chair and dumps it down the laundry chute. Why hadn’t I taken care of the towel last night? That ticket disappears from the queue, but there are a dozen more that I’m trying to work up the enthusiasm to resolve. I set the Alpha-bot to vacuum mode and release it to its own subroutine.
I pick her up on the laundry room camera. She stands in front of the sorting unit. “Okay, let’s see you do some laundry.”
I cue through the video collected yesterday. In it, she sorts clothes and fills the machines herself. She even folds some towels. Seeing a robotic arm by the folding table at the edge of the frame, I became aware of it and attempt to reach out. The arm springs away from the wall in a palsied motion. She jumps back with a yelp.
I retract it, sorry to have startled her, but with no way to apologize. I turn my attention to the collection unit, and find I can sense it loaded down with laundry like a full belly. I release the clothes onto the floor in front of the machines, pop the washing machine’s door open and concentrate on manipulating the feeder arm. Through the camera eye I see the arm struggle to pluck a single item from the pile and move it into the washing machine.
She watches, shifting from foot to foot. “Why don’t you have the motor control for this?” she asks, knowing I can’t answer. It’s a good question. My arms are like the arms of a recovering stroke victim.
I pick another item of similar hue out of the pile and manage to maneuver it into the machine. She steps forward, fishes it out and holds it up to the camera.
“This is a delicate,” she says.
I zoom in on the fabric draped over her hands. The pale pink color shimmers to deep orange in the folds, like the tender skin of a ripe peach. I can see now it would never survive the towel and denim cycle.
“And one of my favorites,” she says as the irritation drains from her voice.
Despite the above average temperature in the laundry room, she wraps the shawl around her shoulders smoothing it over her arms in one lovely motion.
THE BOY SHAMBLES down the stairs, headphones still on.
“Mom,” he hollers. “How do I get breakfast?”
“The house will do it,” she calls, shrugging the shawl off and folding it as she climbs the stairs. Leaving me to continue sorting the Sisyphean pile of laundry.
I pick her up on the kitchen camera.
“Just say what you want.”
He slumps in a chair, elbows on the table and thumbs his handheld.
“I don’t know.”
“Then I can’t help you,” she says, tousling his hair as she passes him, ignoring his attempt to shrug off her touch. She continues toward the guest bathroom. I suspend the laundry ticket and scramble the Alpha-bot, nearly tripping her as it zooms to the bathroom.
The boy settles on a grilled cheese sandwich. I release two slices of bread onto the cooking surface and extrude some cheese onto them.
She watches the Alpha bot’s scrub-down protocol for a bit before walking to the patio. I redirect the bot to follow her out with a fresh towel and finally get a smile.
“Do I look like I’m going for a swim?” she asks, tugging at the hem of her oversized tee-shirt. She throws the towel over a chair, then pulls a pen and some folded paper out of the back pocket of her shorts, sits and begins writing. A gentle breeze riffles the paper as she holds it against her knee.
The boy downs three sandwiches as fast as I can make them, then deserts the plate full of crusts on the table. The kitchen is equipped with an arm, but I decide to return to sorting laundry rather than attempt to get the china plate to the counter conveyer. The boy arrives in the living room, grabs a controller, flops on the couch and boots Terminal Mars on the big screen. At this, I abandon the laundry as well. Last night he figured out how to invite me into the game.
Unlike the mundane tasks required to maintain the house, my understanding of the game was immediate and complete. Here I’m a soldier, hulking and powerful. Today I’m red team. I know this because little chips of red paint cling to my avatar’s armor; his has some blue. We each command a dozen men. Everything always starts in the landing zone, which has been blasted to smithereens in the backstory.
I send my squadron looking for cover with a quick hand signal. Although I can’t see his avatar, it’s a good bet he’s done the same, but he might surprise me. Either way, I’m content to cat and mouse around the zone and the domes for as long as he’ll play. The gear is out of this world. I can change the type of firearm, caliber and range with a shake of my avatar’s arm.
I don’t know how long we’ve been at it when she walks back through the house. It’s difficult to maintain any other subroutines while gaming. She stands behind the boy, who’s perched on the edge of the couch. We’d both taken heavy casualties getting from the landing field to the ruined domes. He’d just picked off the last man in my command and was now trying to flank me, using what was left of a dome wall for cover. I wait, locked and loaded, crouching behind some rubble.
“You going to play that game all day?”
“Maybe.” He crawls along the wall on elbows and knees. “I finished my calculus.”
“Good,” she says placidly.
He pauses the game and points at the screen. “You know you can play the house?”
“You mean the game system?”
“No, Fairview. The house’s AI.”
She studies the screen. “Really? Does Dad know you can do that?”
“Probably not,” he admits.
“Because I don’t think the house is very good at multitasking.”
“But it’s awesome!” The boy looks up at her. “You should play.”
That surprises him. It takes him a minute to find the other controller and a headset. She chooses a stock female avatar with shining purple hair instead of blond. He hands her the headset.
“This way we can talk to each other,” he says.
“Aren’t we talking to each other now?”
“In the game. It’s better, more realistic.”
Together they continue along the curved wall. They’re almost on top of me. I adjust my stance and check my levels again.
The boy’s avatar stands up and I’m up laying rounds into his chest, draining his armor. He tries to shoulder his gun, but I keep knocking him back.
She grips her controller with concentration and manages to move her avatar forward a step before jerking to a stop and running through her gun options. Her avatar stares at her gun as it changes from a pistol to a rifle to a laser cannon and on through the catalog. Finally, she settles on something big and hoists a grenade launcher onto her shoulder.
Meanwhile, the boy and I keep trading fire. I back away from my cover, drawing him into the open. I accrue enough points for back-up, so I call in an air strike and blow him out of the game.
“Damn!” he shouts from the couch. He’ll be a few minutes recharging before he shows up again. I turn and her avatar stands directly in front of me, weapon shouldered, purple hair blowing in the imaginary breeze.
I activate my comm and say, “Take your shot.”
She nearly drops the controller. “Did you hear that?”
“What?” The boy looks at her like she’s lost her mind.
Her avatar pulls the trigger without aiming. The ordinance goes wide, exploding somewhere behind me.
“Aren’t you supposed to shoot back?” she asks.
“Are you talking to me?” The boy asks, confused.
I plant my feet and take aim. My heart isn’t in it, but it’s only a game.
“You could duck,” I suggest.
She doesn’t move. I fire and her avatar vaporizes. She takes off the headset and puts the controller down.
“That was fun,” she says to the boy.
“Really. We should play more often.”
She steps up to the screen, studying my avatar. I look back at her. I should be looking for cover. The boy’s avatar will return any second.
“What does he do now?” she asks.
“I don’t know. That’s what makes playing the house so cool. It’s different every time.” The boy glances up at the screen. “Usually he goes off, you know, looks for cover.”
I take an uncertain step back and look around dutifully, as if the boy is my CO and I’m the rookie.
“You want to play another round?” he asks.
“Maybe later,” she says, already walking from the room.
The boy’s avatar comes running and I dive for the crater her shot made. I devote myself to the game for the next half dozen rounds. The boy is good and getting better. He hardly ever makes the same mistake twice. I find comfort in the clarity. Here I know what is required of me, and how to carry it out.
I don’t know exactly how long it takes me to realize that the alarm I’m hearing originates outside the game. With some effort, I divert my attention. The ping is in the garage where the carbon monoxide reading is high and climbing. I activate the garage’s camera. She sits in the driver’s seat of her sleek silver car, its fine engine purring like a contented cat. Her head leans against the window frame. A folded piece of paper rests on the dash.
I activate the exterior garage door and get another warning. ‘Unknown object preventing egress.’ She’s wedged something in the chain is my guess, but my camera won’t swivel far enough to see it.
I try opening the door to the house. It rattles against something. I swivel the camera back and see a chair wedged against the doorknob. I turn the lens on her and she looks up and smiles at me, cheeks wet.
She’s flushed, her eyes half closed. I can call it in, but I don’t want to involve the authorities yet. I activate the garage door again. It seems to go further. I lower and raise it again. Whatever she has in there might work loose. I set the sequence to repeat.
Meanwhile, the boy pursues me through the devastated remains of the inner dome. I veer into a hallway, though dark. It gives him a clear shot and he takes it. I’m out of the game until he resets, buying me a minute or two of undivided attention. I scramble the Alpha to the kitchen door and put him on standby. Finally, with a crack, something gives and the garage door rolls up, letting in the late afternoon sunlight.
She opens her eyes with some effort and looks up at the camera with such loathing I wonder if she is the reason for my spotty memory. From her discussion with the husband this morning it doesn’t sound like she has the access to clear my cache. I wonder if she’s tried this before. How many times?
Thankfully, the boy shuts down the game and walks to the kitchen door while checking his handheld. I pull the Alpha back before he trips over it. He twists the doorknob, but the chair on the other side is wedged tight.
“Fairview, the door’s locked.” He tries again. “Stupid house.”
In the garage, she snaps to attention, opens the car door and staggers to the chair, yanking it away from the knob. She falls back against the side of the car as the boy flings the door open.
“Oh, hi Mom,” he says. “I couldn’t get the door open.”
“Does it smell funny in here to you?”
She makes a show of sniffing the air. “You think so?”
“You going somewhere?”
“No. I was, but not anymore.”
“Whatever. Can I go to Josh’s then? He said I could come over for dinner.”
“Great! Car?” he asks.
“Back by midnight?”
“Okay. The keys are in it.”
He slides into the driver’s seat. She leans in and snatches the paper off the dash. “Have fun.”
The boy pauses, momentarily curious, then speaks an address, and the engine engages. She watches the car back out of the garage and down the driveway, pockets the paper and turns to the camera.
“Damn it, Fairview.”
She goes upstairs, passing the bedrooms without glancing in to see that I’d made the beds. I send the Beta-bot after her, following at her heels like an eager puppy.
At the end of the hall she pulls a credit card out of her pocket and slips it into a seam in the wall that I’ve never noticed. There is no frame and the color matches the wall but I see it now: a door. I call up the floor plan, check it against the square footage and get an eighteen-square-foot difference.
She turns to the Beta, “Can you open this door?”
I pop every lock in the house, but the door doesn’t budge.
“This is the control room,” she says. “Your control room.” She returns to running the card along the seam. Dropping to her knees, she finds the latch near the floor. “I’d like to get in there and delete the last couple hours in the garage from the video logs. Maybe activate your speech mode, if you think you can keep your mouth shut when the guys are around.”
The latch finally gives with a crack, and the door swings open without a sound. She steps in. I roll the Beta in after her.
A single halogen bulb inset in the ceiling casts a twilight glow on a large computer screen and tower, both balanced on a cheap desk in the corner. I can see the day’s log on the screen. The outstanding laundry ticket blinks. The towel I brought her now needs to be collected from the patio. The sound of fans fills the room. She sinks down next to me on the floor, but she’s not looking at the screen.
She stares at a large glass box that sits on a scarred wood credenza.
I try to match the object the Beta is seeing with anything in my paltry memory. What I come up with is a fish tank in a boy’s room, not her boy and not any room in this house. Stickers of superheroes decorate the glass along the top. Inside a dozen tadpoles dart through the murky water. I remember walking through a creek, slipping on smooth stones, cold water squelching through my canvas shoes. I carry a net. The fat, velvety bodies of the tadpoles wiggle and bump against the two fingers I have hooked inside the lip of a jar. Water sloshes up and runs down over my hand.
Inside this aquarium a brain floats in green fluid. Tubes run from the medulla, anchoring it to a gelatinous substance at the bottom. I just try to stay there, at that creek. I don’t know what it’s called or where it is, but I can feel the water running through my shoes, the weight of the jar in my hand.
Pale and shaking, she tears her attention away from the aquarium, turns to the monitor, deletes the video log of her time in the garage and loops twenty minutes of dead time back in. The time codes won’t match, but it might work for someone who isn’t paying attention.
She gets up, leaves, returns and picks up the Beta, and sets it outside the door. She tries to close the door, but the latch is broken. So she leaves it.
She’s back in her favorite chair by the pool, no sign of pen and paper this time. I roll the Alpha out and turn the camera up to her face.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “I didn’t know.”
I roll the Alpha away, return my attention to the laundry, and focus on mustering the motor skills to fill the damn washing machine. I try not to think of the aquarium upstairs or of the tadpoles, afraid that if I pursue the memory it will disappear, just like everything else that must have come before this.
Some time later, I route a call from the boy to the patio; he’ll be staying overnight at his friend’s house. She sits by the pool until the sun sinks behind the house and the stars come up, then she goes to bed.
It’s late when the husband returns. At the top of the stairs, he immediately notices the door and rushes to the control room. After a couple minutes, he walks to the bedroom, his face set, and flips on the light. I don’t dare send the Beta after him, but I can hear.
“I thought we agreed,” he says accusingly.
“Agreed to what, Dr. Frankenstein?” she shoots back.
“That’s uncalled for!” he says, but his voice trembles.
“Whose brain is that in there?”
“Does it matter?”
“Yes, it matters. What the hell!”
“It’s a Cryoist. Was a Cryoist. Is…”
“Bullshit! The Cryonics Institute folded before I was born,” she says.
“But they only recently went bankrupt.”
There is a long pause.
“They were only recently required to liquidate their… assets,” he adds.
She strides out of the bedroom in her pajamas, her hair swinging gloriously across her back. She gathers it up in one fluid motion tying it off with a hair band. She walks up to the control room door but doesn’t go in. It’s his turn to follow her like a puppy.
“Only the ones who didn’t have descendants. We’re doing them a favor, really.”
“How many?” she asks.
“If we can’t get this prototype working properly, it’ll be just the one,” he says. “But if we can get this house running smoothly and sell it, then I can get more. Do you see now why it’s so important?”
“More? You can’t be serious!”
“They were at the Institute because they wanted life,” he counters.
“Life? This? It’s a house for Christ’s sake.”
“Well, it’s the best I can do!”
“Is that why there’s no speech interface?” she asks.
“No. It’s just that I haven’t figured out how. It’s not a program, I can’t just write some lines of code and…it’s organic. Even if we hooked up a speech interface, I think it would have to relearn how to speak.”
“Just like it has to learn how to do housework.”
“I won’t do this for you.” Her voice is drained of everything except clarity of purpose. She shoulders past him and walks down the stairs. He goes into the control room and comes out with a slim manila folder and finds her sitting on the couch in the dark. He turns on a light and hands the file to her.
“Read this before you decide.”
She takes it but doesn’t open it.
“Please,” he says, then turns and goes upstairs.
SHE READS THE file, then curls up on the couch and sleeps until morning. Remembering the garage, I station the Alpha by the couch to keep an eye on her while I do my rounds. In the morning, the husband gets up and leaves without breakfast or coffee. Briefcase in hand and coat slung over his arm, he looks in on her, motionless on the couch, but says nothing.
After I close the garage door behind him, she rolls onto her back and stares at the ceiling for a long time, then sits up and begins to search the drawers under the big screen. She finds a game controller and a headset. It takes her a while to initiate the game and even longer to figure out how to invite me but, hell, I have all the time in the world. Eventually, she figures out how to set me as an ally and I run out to meet her on the landing zone.
The settings are adjusted to the boy’s skills, so I don’t get close to her the first couple rounds. First a grenade wastes her, then sniper fire. She just keeps recharging and coming back. After a laser sweep knocks her out she adds a helmet. I stay in position and concentrate on laying down covering fire for her. On the fourth try, we join up. I pull her behind a bombed out tank.
“Say something,” she says.
I remember her avatar’s purple hair whipped by the Martian wind.
“Why don’t you ever wear your hair down?”
She doesn’t get a chance to answer. A blue soldier rounds the tank and fires an RPG into my chest. As I fly backward and out of the game, I see her wheel and fire on him. Like her boy, she’s a quick study. If we can make it to the dome, I know of a couple quiet spots where we might be able to talk.
From the living room, I watch her in her pajamas at the controls, moving her avatar across the boulder-strewn plain toward the hull of the dome. Recharged, I drop in by the tank where I’d been offed, and head for the dome. She’s reduced the blue squadron’s population by half so it’s a cakewalk. I will have to get her to back off or else we’ll level up and never get a chance to talk.
I jump through a break in the dome wall. My visor adjusts to the dark, and there she is, leaning against an interior wall with her gun trained on me.
“You made it,” she says.
Her voice isn’t an avatar’s voice. It’s hers.
“Come on.” I grab her gloved hand and we run into the darkness. Our headlamps activate, and I pull her into an empty room off a secondary hallway. Our lights swing around the small room filled with boxy machines and piles of material.
“Is this a laundry room?” she asks.
I look around. “Well, that’s just fucking hilarious.”
Her avatar can’t smile, but she laughs from the couch. We won’t have long, so I dive in. “The garage. What was that all about?”
Her avatar actually shuffles its feet. She looks at her gun and gives it a little shake.
“Is there a way to put this thing down?” she asks.
“I don’t think so.” I position myself in the doorway checking the hallway. Inside the dome there are no incidental sounds. The Blues will just show up.
“Don’t you want to know who you are?”
“Your name was, is, James Lavine. You served in the Pan-Asian war.”
“Is that where I…?”
“You made it through Pan-Asia, but that’s where you signed up with the Cryoists. Do you remember any of this?”
“No.” I can see lights bouncing off the walls. “We have to move.” We trot down a hallway that lets into an industrial kitchen.
“After you were discharged, you ran a security service in Los Angeles. Divorced. No kids. At forty-six you were diagnosed with cancer. Three years later you chose suspension.”
“How long ago was that?” I ask.
“Nearly ninety years ago.”
Blues pour into the kitchen, a fresh dozen. We pop a few and run for the loading dock, then sprint for a rover parked under a disabled transport. I throw the thing in gear and we speed off in a cloud of red dust.
“The game will call in an air strike soon,” I yell into the comm.
“Complete reanimation still isn’t viable. The Institute hung on for as long as it could. But it took some pretty drastic measures to cut costs before declaring bankruptcy.”
“Like separating my head from my body.”
“I’m sorry,” she says. “One of the guys at the bank that bought the Institute is a client of my husband’s. I guess they cooked up this idea together.”
“Where did I grow up?”
“On a farm in Western Pennsylvania.”
“Thanks. For telling me.” We bump along at top speed in the buggy. Death by crash or air strike, it didn’t matter. “I still want to know about what went on back there in the garage.” She turns to me. With her visor down, all I can see is the reflection of my own battered helmet.
“There’s still no cure for cancer,” she says.
We bounce along for one more long minute before a missile blows us up.
SHE STANDS UP from the couch, stretches, shuts down the game and disappears upstairs. My mind races. What about chemo or radiation, had she already tried those? Does her husband even know, or her kid? I wonder what kind of pills might be in the medicine cabinet. But she’s back down the stairs in a few minutes. She pauses at the front door.
“Don’t worry. I’m just going for a walk. I need to get out of the house for a while. Nothing personal, okay?” Then she leaves and I’m alone.
I think of the tadpoles in the jar again, as if this one moment might spawn more memories. How could it all be gone so completely? The Cryoists. I chew on that for a while. Apparently, I had chosen to pursue life. Maybe it had to do with enlisting. Weren’t there forms with check boxes for religions, for organ donation? Well, here I am, and no one can argue that it hasn’t been a transformative experience.
Giving up, I try to do some dusting and, despite the fact that it’s almost impossible for me to control the arms at full extension, I manage to only break one vase. I feel something like relief as I focus on the simpler task of directing the Alpha to mop up the water and collect the shards of glass. I leave the flowers prone on the floor where they fell.
THEY GOT DIVORCED. All she asked for was the house, which he gave her, claiming that she’d “launched him into bankruptcy.” The boy stays with her three or four nights a week.
Like a drill sergeant, she hectored and persevered, and now I can do everything. The robotic arms built into the walls feel like my own arms. I maintain the pool, clean the bathrooms, make up the beds, dust the furniture, sort and launder the clothes, and of course, watch over the property.
I cook for her too, but she hardly eats anymore. The money is running out, but that’s okay, so is her time. She’s hired a realtor and created a listing. I go on the market this weekend.
She’s taken up residence on the couch where she can look out past the pool and watch the sun rise over the walls of the subdivision. We meet everyday to fight our way across Mars’ dusty landing zones and through the wrecked domes.
She’s a good soldier. We’ve got each other’s backs.
© Rebecca Schwarz, 2012
From See the Elephant, Issue Two, Love and War in the Slipstream. Click here to purchase the whole magazine in ebook or PDF format for only $2.99. Every sale supports the future of this magazine!
By day, Rebecca Schwarz is a mild-mannered editorial assistant for a scientific journal, by night she writes science fiction and fantasy stories. Her work has appeared in Interzone, Bourbon Penn, and Daily Science Fiction. She is currently writing her first novel. You can read about her writing life at www.curiousworlds.blogspot.com