By Ashanti Luke
The man pulled through the lev run alongside the Retroburger and stopped next to the window as the level three lev-pad slowly lifted their mag-lev to match the window of the cashier who was already handing them their meal. He exchanged his cred stick for the first bag, and she deftly scanned it with her free hand and was handing it back to him before he could turn to get the last two bags.
It had already been a long day and the evening hours had done nothing to quell the fury of the air around them. The man took the three bags and distributed them to the woman in the passenger seat and the two kids in the back of the mag-lev.
The lev ride was blistering. It was an older model lev, made in the Ukraine. The levs from the Ukraine were sturdy, well-built, and better constructed than the newer ones from Japan. But it was still old, and it still needed an overhaul. It could operate in the new H.O. lanes of the ave without modification, even though the lev engineers said it needed a y-drive upgrade. The heat had overworked the climate control once again, and the ride to the tech district was miserable in the Southern humidity, even though the windshields were lowered and the buildings of the Richmond Sprawl sheltered the vehicle from direct sunlight.
"Can I have a sweetbar?" The boy asked. He was small for his age and the contours of the seat swallowed him.
"Dear, we've already left the Retroburger. We can get cookies and ice cream when we get home."
"How long will that be?" the girl asked.
"Sweetie, you know how long it takes to get center-sprawl." The woman placed her hand over her forehead to shield her eyes as the ave turned toward the sun.
"But I always get a sweetbar from the Retroburger."
The man furrowed his brow a bit, but the woman responded. "We will get a sweetbar next time, honey."
They listened to songs on the sat feed, and the ride was as quiet as could be expected as they moved on the transit-ave past the construction levs lumbering through the disappearing swampland, mutating it before their very eyes into urban foundation.
"Another summons posted on the doorboard today." The man watched the ave traffic as the speed limiter adjusted his approach to the mag-lev in front of him.
"I didn't look at it in detail, but it looks like they are reopening that case." He indicated the back seat area with his brow.
"Well, we knew it was coming."
"What I don't understand is--he still owes you creds right? Aren't the lawyer fees close to what it would be just to settle up?"
"I suppose. The fees are about that much on our end."
The man shook his head. Creases appeared in his forehead. "Doesn't make much sense."
The heat began to swell, and it engulfed the car as they reached the outer sprawl of the city. At some point, the boy and the girl awoke in the back.
"Stop leaning on me!" The boy whined.
"It's hot. The sun is flashing in my eyes."
"Everyone is hot. The two of you stop it." The woman barked.
"Get your big butt off of me!" There was a shuffling in the back. The girl grumbled and the boy wailed.
"You shut up!"
"Why don't you grow up?" The woman said, not looking over her shoulder at the older child.
The man adjusted the rearview cam so he could see the boy in the back. "Don't talk to your sister that way."
"But she's on me and won't get off."
"She's also older than you. She makes your grilled cheese sandwiches. You need to watch your mouth until you can make your own sandwich. Maybe, even past then."
The building along the transit-ave grew taller as they sped along the H.O. lane, and the combination of heat and stomachs full of by-products and filler had put the children to sleep.
"I know it's healthy for them to see their dad, but whenever they come back, it's like the boy leaves his manners and respect down there."
"You know how he feels about his son."
"I also know how Hitler felt about Germans. It's the results I take issue with."
"Why are you always so dramatic?"
"It's the stage, not the actor."
She rolled her eyes as she sheltered them from the sun again for a moment, and then turned back to the man sharply.
"I don't understand why we need a Housemate at all with another person in the house, let alone one that is so fancy that it refuses to work."
"Penrose didn't refuse to work. He was stuck in a loop and eventually shut down."
"Sounds like refusal to me. How much more is Penrose than Faraday was?"
"About thirty-five more creds a month."
"And it breaks and we can't have someone just come look at it anymore. Why does our new, more expensive Housemate need a therapist?"
"He doesn't need a therapist. He needs a Data-sync Specialist."
"That doesn't answer my question."
"We need the Housemate to stop the raccoons from coming into the house and tearing into the food we have to scramble each month to put in the pantry. Faraday was great at cooking and cleaning, but could barely keep up with insects. Penrose has a different type of processor. Bottom-up I think they call it. He can learn through observation. Faraday was a good Housemate for regular chores, but he was dumb as a zeroed-out cred stick. The raccoons would have line-danced on his head while he put away the groceries."
"I still think we should go back to the one-oh-one model. It's less creds a month. Or even get rid of the android altogether."
"And meanwhile, we'll keep emptying out the pantry every month because the coons are taking dumps in our food to spite us."
"None of this explains why we have to take Penrose to a shrink. They can't even pick him up and bring him back. As much as we're paying, the warranty should cover it."
"The Data-sync Specialist has to talk to him. They can't just crack him open like Faraday and dig around inside his head. From what I understand, the parts are too small to see anything of importance outside of the factory. Also, his processor takes in information and adjusts. That's how he can find the coons. He can't reason, but he can listen and learn."
"But it found one raccoon. One. Didn't even catch it. He chased it away, boarded up the baseboard, and then shut down." She looked toward the sun again and squinted as it assaulted her eyes from behind a looming building. "A new P-Sat just went out asking for recruits for the military."
"The Colony War again?"
"Mom, it's hot in here." The boy sounded only half awake.
"There's nothing I can do about it right now baby. Once we get to the Housemate Lab, they'll have climate control and all the water you can drink."
"It would solve a lot of this." The woman said quietly. She kept her hand over her eyes but did not look away from the sun.
"It would also create new problems. We are used to this. We can work through this. It takes two years just to reach the limit marker to even get to the fighting."
"There's a pension. A steady income. Insurance."
The man took his eyes off the ave and let the speed limiter take over. He looked at the woman as she continued to look at the sun, which was now creeping behind another building.
"There's a new history opening coming up at the Arcology. There's a good chance that position will come through for me. It'll buy us time until you can hear from the promotion board."
She rolled her eyes again. "You're not listening."
The man checked the image in the rearview cam again, and saw the boy and girl were asleep. He then turned his eyes back to the road. He backed off the speed limiter and manually operated the throttle to pass a slower lev. "Not listening? All I do is listen. Does the Public Comm-Sat tell you the success rate of wars against imperial colonies throughout human history? I listen to my students who've been deployed to the limit marker. I listen to them tell how efficient the supposedly outnumbered rebel navy is. I listen every day to first-hand accounts on how the colonists have been obliterating levies and warships out there for years now. They say somehow the rebels can even use space rocks as weapons and our shields can't block them, and ship-to-ship lasers only slow them down. I listen to the horror of those who watched their friends' ships get torn apart. I listen to how they watched still moving bodies float into the depths of space. I listen to how they can see them screaming in their dreams, but still can't hear them, as if their souls are still floating out there somewhere. And when you die out there, they won't even be able to bring the body back. You won't need the insurance then. And if you go and don't come back, what are they going to do? They need you more than they need insurance."
"They have their dad."
"Do they? So then the plan is to disappear their mom as well?"
"You're so dramatic. I wish you would be more realistic. Hell, just be more sympathetic."
The man shook his head. He was quiet for a long while. "I have nothing but sympathy."
The woman let out a breath. It was too weak to be a sigh. "Faraday couldn't stop the bugs, but he kept the place neat. This fancy-brained Penrose couldn't even cook or clean because it was always looking in that damned pantry. And now it's broken and it needs to see a shrink because it's depressed. Pretty soon we'll need a prescription for galvacet to keep him from jumping off the roof."
"Now who's being dramatic?"
The man reached over the center console and squeezed the woman's hand, lightly at first, and she squeezed back, tighter, and held her grip. The woman leaned over the console, laid her head on the man's shoulder, and slept.
Except for the sat feed, the car was silent the rest of the way to the tech district. They woke the children and ushered them inside to the tune of more bickering, which subsided as they reached the door. The door slid open, and the children took their seats in the lobby as the man stood, leaving the third and final seat for the woman. The reception desk was empty, and they waited, all very still, for the receptionist.
After a minute or two, the receptionist entered the room and smiled at them. "They can stay here while you go in. Children aren't allowed in the labs--it's a liability issue. If you will please sign this, it will help speed up the process."
The receptionist was not sure who to hand the ephemeris to, but the woman took it with her left hand and scrawled a signature onto the digital board with a personal stylus she removed from her purse. As she returned the thin, digital tablet, the receptionist remarked at the ring on the woman's finger.
"Congratulations!" the receptionist said, almost overly excited considering she had just met the man and woman, but the romantic gleam in her eye bespoke sincerity. "When is the date?"
The woman smiled at the receptionist. "In about a year. We haven't set a definite date yet, but we want time enough to get things in order. We're excited."
"I'll let you know as soon as the Data-sync Specialist is ready to see you. Good luck to you both!" The receptionist returned to her desk with a smile, that however sincere, seemed now painted on her face.
The office looked like a medical examination room, only where there would have been laser scalpels and microscanners there were needle-nosed forceps and screwdrivers. Three holomonitors floated above a long desk along the wall, all detailing various android functions, which the man presumed belonged to Penrose.
"Were you able figure out why our Housemate keeps locking up?" The man asked after the introductions.
"This is the first generation of this particular model, and I am a little embarrassed to say I am baffled. Your Penrose was stuck in a truncating loop. We have reset his algorithms, and I took the liberty of upgrading his nanoprocessor with some of the features of our Companion and Classmate models at no extra charge."
The man nodded. "Thank you."
"Penrose can now play chess, cards, or Scrabble, give crossword advice, and he can even help your children with their deckwork in science and mathematics. Hopefully these added functions will also keep him from halting again by giving him something else to think about."
"So what happened in the first place? I remember hearing that even though androids could do many things with great speed and accuracy, they were literally as dumb as roaches when it came to cognitive thought. That's what made the eight-oh-eight model interesting to us. The three-four-three model we had was good, but he could not stop the raccoons from the reclaimed swamp from tearing apart our pantry."
"Well, the top-down processors of the earlier series were not rudimentary, but they had problems processing environmental changes. Moving things taxed their processors. Even painting the wall and reupholstering furniture confused them. These newer models are not so much smarter as they are craftier. It is a subtle distinction in people, but profound in the area of robotics and AI. Even still, we found we could never teach them to be as smart as rodents or pets with our current technology, but we could teach them to observe and learn from human responses to household animals whether they are friend or vermin, and to react accordingly."
"So you're saying these new models can catch rodents and wrangle pets by watching us? I don't see the connection." The woman folded her arms and shifted her weight from one foot to the other.
"You see ma'am, vermin are a nuisance, but they simply want to survive. Our households are at once a threat to their existence, and a source of nutrition and fulfillment. Our homes provide for them the same needs they provide for us, if not perverse versions of them. An animal is most crafty, and most dangerous, when it believes its livelihood has been compromised, but it has not quite accepted death. No computer conceivable by man can match that instinct in this day and age."
"But you claim these models can stop these vermin." The man said. He furrowed his brow, but curiosity was clear in his voice.
"Yes, well sir, that is the trick." The Data-sync Specialist smiled and raised his chest a bit. "Rodents and vermin react to humans and vice-versa. They feed when you are away, when you are asleep, and where you are not looking. When you do something to surprise them, they react, but most importantly, you react. Infestations create a visceral unease in the household. You may have reactions to unfamiliar odors, but if they are only experienced in-passing, you place them out of sight and mind. Oftentimes, you'll even blame other more immediate things for the unrest. If your children cannot sleep because of strange noises in the walls, they may or may not tell you, but the subtle changes in their behavior and their appearance, or subtle changes in your own responses, will often go undetected because of engagement in daily activities and stresses. But these things are often easily observable by a device dedicated to doing so."
The Data-sync Specialist smiled even wider. The woman could see the Specialist had told this story many times, and that he enjoyed every moment. "Simply put, you may not know where the rodent or infestation is or is coming from, but the sum total of all the indicators that you see but ignore throughout the day, all the subtle changes in your own behavior, help your Penrose isolate the infestation's location or place of ingress. The eight-oh-eights currently deployed have worked with an unprecedented 66% success rate. Penrose, unfortunately, is the first instance of Turing Breakdown we have experienced."
The woman's face relaxed in the Specialist's enthusiasm, but she kept her arms folded. "So Penrose is fixed now, and we can take it home, but what are the chances this happens again?"
"Well as I said, we hope adding functions to his processing loop will stop the truncation and the eventual lock-up you experienced, but as this is the first case, we cannot be sure."
The man and the woman moved toward the Specialist. The man raised his hand to thank the Specialist, but the Specialist stopped and spoke again. "There is one other thing that is puzzling."
"Which is?" The man asked.
"The eight-oh-eights are programmed with all known genera and species of pest and potential household animals both permitted and banned by the Unified Nations. There is also a discrete comm-sat link whereby the Housemate can update his own data-sync with new information. However, no update was issued, and Penrose seems to be fixated on a species named D. Vontae that he believes very strongly has infested your household. I am certain his search for this species prompted the truncation and eventual lock-up, but this D. Vontae does not represent any species we have heard of. I took it upon myself personally to research this, and I cannot seem to locate that species anywhere. I was hoping you could shed some light on the matter."
"D. Vontae?" The woman asked, unfolding her arms. "Could he mean Devante?"
The Specialist's eyes widened. "That could be. It takes these models a little while to catch on to various inflections. Is this perhaps a household animal? A nickname for something your children may have run across?"
The woman's eyes began to move toward the floor, but she turned to see the man's brow furrow "He is my ex-husband."
"Do we get to take Penrose back with us today?" The boy asked in the parking lot, accepting the man's hand as they left the lev-run.
"Yes, we are going to the lev-bay to pick him up now." The man answered.
"Did they fix him, or is he gonna go stupid on us again?" The girl grumbled, looking at her comm-sat even as she walked.
The woman turned her eyes from the sun to face her daughter. "Dear, I hope not. But we'll all work to make sure it doesn't happen again."
They retrieved Penrose, but the android stayed folded up in his box as the loaders at the lev-bay placed him in the trunk. The Data-sync Specialist said it would be best to not confuse him with too much input before they got him home. They got into the mag-lev and pulled onto the ave leading back to the main transit. It was still humid, still difficult to breathe, but the sun was behind them, and night would soon come.
WANT TO SUPPORT FREE SCIENCE FICTION?
Three Ways You Can Show Your Support
Monthly Support Via Patreon
Kasma's fuel is coffee.
Buy Our 400+ Page Anthology
Buy our anthology "10 Years of SF!".
Use PayPal to make a donation.