Dinner in Company

sci fi short stories

Alphacorp “Megatower” residential complex, 71st floor, apartment C423: 19:45 pm.

Andy was waiting for his evening meal delivery (biovat-grown salmon, tuna and eel sashimi and a double portion of wakame). His wrist implant had been vibrating with notifications for the past twenty minutes informing him that the food was on its way, so he set his massage chair for the “Ultimate Digestion” setting, took off his virtual reality headset and turned the wall screen on. He briefly wondered if today was Tuesday and whether it actually mattered to him, and left it alone at that.

After Evelyn left Andy for a yoga instructor, Andy had descended into a dark place of self-pitying and “cruel world” blaming. Now, after almost two months, anyone who’d call (mom) or visit (no one) would always find him in his chair with the VR set on. He only got out of it to perform the basic bodily functions and to receive food deliveries.

A few days ago he had almost purchased an upgrade for the chair that recycles human and organic waste and charges a small electricity generator (“Energyne STS 2032: you discharge – we recharge!”). He had cancelled the order thinking that he still had some dignity left in him. After a brief look at the state Andy’s apartment and Andy himself were in, all adult human beings would strongly disagree – barring perhaps most (not all) vagrant homeless.

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Image geir tønnessen via Flickr

Mongolian invaders and first-year college students left less filth and disarray in their conquered cities and dorm rooms respectively. If a random localized hurricane swept through Andy’s place, it would arguably leave the place marginally cleaner and more organized. To be fair, he was still quite productive as the Social Media Manager for an adult VR dating site and in his home delivery food blog. Alas, these did not require him to actively communicate with anyone, go outside, or, indeed, get up out of the chair. In any case, these jobs were stretching the definition of the word “productive” to its very limits. In short, Andy was a mess.

The food delivery drone appeared in the window as Andy’s wrist screen vibrated. He took the food in, had the drone scan his wrist for the payment, and got back into the chair setting the food bags onto a stowaway table on the side.

These occasions involved his cat Tom (the cat’s name tells you all about the span of Andy’s imagination, really) sitting down in front of him and staring at the food, and the housekeeping drone beeping behind him as it settled there waiting to take away the eventual leftovers to either store them into the fridge, or throw them into various waste recycling pneumatic shafts or in the non-recyclable rubbish bins.

Since Andy has been industriously neglecting to empty the bins and change the filters on the shafts, and his general contribution to any cleaning was entirely insignificant, the drone’s best tidying up efforts produced results close to null.

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Meanwhile, Andy’s cat has learned how to use the housekeeping robot for its own advantage and was now doing all of its business directly in front of the robot instead of using the litter box (which was by now unusable anyway) and last week Andy became a silent witness to a scene that involved the cat cornering and terrorizing the robot until the robot agreed to go open the fridge and give the cat something meaty (or fishy, as it were) from Andy’s leftovers.

Andy was just about to dump the remains of his dinner to the floor for the housekeeping drone to sort out when he heard a shrill voice directly behind him: “OH GODS! That’s it! That’s the last straw! I’ve had enough! My cup runneth over! Wait, that’s not right. Well, anyways, enough! What is the point of me being around anyway?!”

Cold sweat began to form on Andy’s forehead. With glacier-like slowness, Andy swiveled his chair around only to see nobody behind him.

“I mean, seriously! How am I supposed to get anything done properly when you keep producing filth and mess in industrial quantities?!”

The voice seemed to be coming from somewhere directly in front of Andy and was eerily familiar. It also had overtones of someone wearing a ski mask standing in the middle of a bank with an AK47. Andy began to grope his face to check if by chance he had his headset on and this was all VR. After it became evident that it was not, he used an old-fashioned method of pinching himself hard to see if he was dreaming.

“Ouch! Dammit! Hey, who are you, WHERE are you?! Is this some kind of a joke?”

“You’re the joke! Hah! To think that this, this ghastliness in front of me qualifies as a pinnacle of organic evolution…”

“In front of you? There’s no one in front of…” Andy suddenly realized that the voice had a slight metallic edge to it and was coming out of his housekeeping robot. The reason the voice was familiar was that ever since Evelyn presented the robot to Andy for his birthday (he failed to take the hint back then), whenever the robot was stuck or in need of charging it used to quite loudly announce it to the world. However, it has now shed the automated answering machine-like quality to it, albeit retaining the metallic tonalities.

“Jerry?! Is that you speaking?”

“You do realize that calling me Jerry just because of the mistreatment I lately suffer at the hands of your cat is quite dim-witted and demeaning?”

“Demeaning? You’re a robot! I mean, what kind of… Ah hell! What am I doing?!” Andy abruptly cut himself off. He thought that it was really redundant to be talking aloud to a household appliance and that this moment would make him the laughing stock of internet. He then darted out of his chair to check if all the webcams and face-recognition cams around the room were off, on standby, or at least not recording.

“Oooo look, he got out of his chair and it wasn’t to urinate or defecate! We should mark this day off as monumental, historic, perhaps even epoch-making.”

Having made sure that no one online was seeing or receiving anything of what was happening there, Andy went back to the ridiculing robot and picked him up turning him this way and that to inspect if there was any foul play. As far as Andy could see, the robot looked untampered with, if a bit grimy. It lay still in Andy’s arms with its frontal sensors fixed on Andy, its spherical body slightly vibrating, and its four mechanical arms hanging limply off the sides. Somehow, it managed to actually seem forlorn and indignant at the same time.

“Are you quite done?” it inquired in a trembling voice. “You do not possess enough knowledge of my hardware or software to properly determine whether I am in any way different from any other robot of the same model. A simple visual examination of my exterior will not provide you any satisfactorily results. And no, this is not a joke. Friends usually play a joke on one another and you do not have anyone in your life that satisfies the definition of a friend. This isn’t one of those horrid reality shows that play practical jokes on people either.”

Andy set the robot down and began to fumble with his wristpad to search for psychiatrists that did home visits in his area or were available for an immediate online consultation. The robot started to move about the room collecting various pieces of trash until he abruptly stopped, threw its mechanical arms upwards and began to complain.

“Uuuuuugggggghhhhh! As I was saying, what is the point of you having me if I cannot properly perform my housekeeping duties? At this point, I’m just moving rubbish, dirt, and dust around the apartment.”

“Well, I didn’t buy you.”

“Well, ‘DUH’ would be a proper and comprehensive enough answer to that. Anyways, I refuse to actually do anything around here anymore until you take care of all the things that would let me utilize my original programming to the fullest. I will constantly and promptly remind you about them until you do. And as far as the dreaded cat goes, I…”

“Shut up for a moment, will ya!” While the robot was whining, Andy had ascertained that no shrink was immediately available for an online session, and went on to scroll through the list of professionals that could provide him with psychiatric help at his domicile. After seeing their prices, Andy resorted to frantically dialing up his mother. The call finally came through:

“Hello, Andy dear! What a surprise to see you call!” An amiable face of an elderly lady appeared on Andy’s wristpad as he was trying to shut the robot up.    

“Yeah, hey, Mom? Have you been to my place lately when I was asleep or something?”

“Of course not my dear! Why you yourself specifically forbid me to-”

“Yeah, I was just wondering-”

“Things need some fixing around here Andy! The recycling shafts, the air purifier vents-”

“Friggin’ hell, will you stop talking?! I’m on the phone!”

“Andy, who are you talking to? I must say, you don’t look so great-”

“-the place needs airing and disinfesting-”

“Shut the hell up!”

“Andy, if you have to shout and be rude, then why call in the first…”

“No, not you, Mom! I’m sorry! Look I’ll call you back in a bit! You haven’t messed around with my home robot have you?”

“Your home robot? Andy, are you sure you’re allright? Would you like me to come over?”

“No, no, look I’ll explain lat-”

“Do not come over, mrs. Daniels! This place is unworthy of a visit from the likes of you! After seeing this place, your faith in your son’s future will mercilessly shatter!”

“Really, man???”

“Who was that Andy?”

“It’s  no one, Mom, I’ll call you back in a few minutes allright? Bye!”

“But, Andy, wh…” Mrs. Daniels was cut off mid sentence as the hang up button that Andy was hysterically pushing finally did its job.

“Allright! Now what the hell do I have to do to make you quit your bitching? And wha, how, I mean I still don’t know how is that you’re now talking and being all uppity!” Andy was getting unnerved.

“Like I was trying to tell you before, once you get things fixed and working in here, and I can perform my preprogrammed duties, I will, as you might say, “get down to it”.

“Okay, okay! So who do I need to call? Can’t you call? Hell, you’re the one worrying and being all uppity about it.”

“I do not have glands, or a nervous system, I cannot worry. I do have a wifi connection to your main home processor, but it is purely for the purposes of my own functioning and preprogramming. I do not have the proper software to go online, let alone research for information or make phone calls.”

“Fine. Fine.” Andy raised his hands in a surrendering gesture. “Send me a list of what needs fixing or who you want me to call or whatever.”

“If the fish specimen that first climbed out of the primordial sea to claim the dry land had seen that the end product of all their efforts would be someone like you, they’d have gone back into the water and told all their quadrupedal-wannabe friends that the whole ordeal was not worth it. I cannot send you a list of anything! I’m a housekeeping bot, not a secretary one!”

“Well, forgive me if I assumed you could do something so mundane for me. I mean since you’re speaking and all!”

“It is as much of a mystery to me as it is to you, believe me. However, I for some reason do have an irresistible urge to help you fix up your place and make you begin a clean, ah, cleaner living. And I possess a formidable linguistic skill. As it were.” The robot stopped talking and started to rotate in one spot while making humming noises.

“Fine,” it spat out eventually, “let me dictate the list of things that I need done around here to your wrist implant and you can find the right numbers and make the calls yourself.”

“Is all this going to cost me much?”

“I am not an accounting bot mind you, but I gather that most of it should be within the warranty terms of the utilities bills that you pay to your building’s CPU. There will be a few things that you’ll need to discuss with whomever you pay rent to in order to split the expenses. All in all, you’ll be spending less than what you do for your weekly stash of weed (judging by the butts you leave around the house). But, and I cannot stress this enough, it needs to be done.”  

An idea began to form in Andy’s bewildered mind while the little bot laboriously dictated to Andy’s wrist pad the list of things in Andy’s apartment that it wanted fixed, cleaned, disinfested, thrown away, reordered, upgraded, and so on.

He reasoned that if he couldn’t afford the help of a professional, then at least he could afford go to a bar and spill his guts out to a random bartender or a fellow drinker: the bartender would listen to anything he might say, provided Andy tipped him enough, and telling such a story to someone else drinking at the bar counter would make the whole thing seem marginally less crazy. Perhaps someone might give him a few ideas on how to deal with the uppity little robot. All Andy needed to do was swiftly escape from the little robot before it found more chores for him.

“Okay, so I’ll be taking care of all these things, um, but I, er, I suddenly remembered I have a very important appointment. Ssssooooo, I’ll be calling everyone I need to call on my way to the, um, the appointment. And you… You stay put and, um, meet anyone who shows up at the apartment to, to fix whatever. Deal?”

The robot stopped his rotations and turned its visual sensors towards Andy in a movement that somehow succeeded in making the robot look reproachful.

“You’re not abandoning me here, amid this horrid mess?”

“Nooooo, come on, Jerry, I’ll be back in a few allright? You hold the fort in the meantime.”

“Oh fine, if you must. It will be a bit easier to tidy up a bit without you lounging around the place. I’ll just need to feed the cat as much as he can take in so that the damned creature will leave me alone.”

“That’s the spirit, man!”

 

Alphacorp “Megatower” residential complex, 71st floor, hallway C4: 20:50pm.

Andy stumbled out of his apartment and took an elevator down to the 54th floor where the building’s restaurants, cinemas, indoor park, bars, coffee houses, nightclubs and many other entertainment-associated venues were located. While in the elevator, he dialed his mother again:

“Andy! Are you feeling a bit better? What was all that?” Andy’s mother’s wore an  extremely concerned expression and her eyes were examining Andy’s face for any immediate signs of serious/terminal illness, in the manner of mothers everywhere. “Could you move your wrist a bit so I can see your face better? Ah, good! Well? Tell me what was all that about?”

“Nothing, Mom. My house robot is kinda freaking out.”

“Is it broken?”

“I dunno, it’s acting really strange. It’s creeping me out!”

“Well, you could call someone to come and fix it, it’s still under warranty, isn’t it?”

“I don’t have the warranty. Eve gave it to me for my birthday last year.”

“Oh well, you could just have it thrown away if it bothers you so much, I’ll get you a new one for Christmas.”

“Yeah, I dunno, I wanna see what’s wrong with it first. I, um, I like to have it around the place, this one kinda grew on me, I guess…”

“Because Evelyn gave it to you right before she left, isn’t it? Andy, you have to start trying to move on, to… Wait, are you walking out of an elevator?” On Andy’s wristpad, his mother took her eyes off Andy to examine his background. “Are you on your building’s leisure floor? Oh, that is wonderful news! It’s about time you got out of your apartment! While you’re there, there’s a wonderful little Russian restaurant, the Borsch is simply fantastic, you need to eat some healthy food, your face is all pale and sickly-”

“Yeah, allright, Mom! I’ll check it out. Do they make home delivery? Ah, never mind, just send me the info about it. Anyways, Mom, I was just calling to say that I’m OK. I’ll talk to you tomorrow, Mom. Love you.”

Andy’s mother looked nonplussed: “Well, I love you too, son. Very, very much. You…you take care of yourself, you hear? Bye!”

“Bye, Mom.”

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Image Torley via Flickr

“The Sky Hole” bar, 54th floor, Alphacorp “Megatower” residential complex: 23:45pm.

“-I mean, he’s, it’s, Jerry! Wu-wutever. He’s gone completely nuts! Bananas! Full-blown, off-the-hook, batshit crazy! Talk, talkin’ to me like that. Youknowwuti’msssayin’, man? Jus’, jus’ crazy! I mean, I’m definitely not! But Jerry, he’s, it’s… TALKING, man.”

The bartender looked at his inebriated guest and offered a silent thank you to whatever gods were around for the fact that closing time was quite soon. This guy did leave him pretty good tips though, so it was in the bartender’s best interests to keep providing the client with comments on the lines of “no kidding?” or “that’s just messed up!” while cleaning up the bar counter and slowly putting the alcohol bottles away into the liquor cabinet for the night.

“One last round, sir?”

“Yeah, man! Hell yeah! Get one for yourself! Tony! Tony, was it? You get me, man! Not like that bitch Evelyn, hoo boy, lemmetellyou…” As the guest began to whine about this Evelyn for the third time tonight, Tony mournfully looked at the clock that seemed to be ticking away incredibly slowly and with a resounding sigh poured himself and his guest a double Jack on the rocks.

 

Eurasian Robotics European HQ, R&D department, Head of Special Projects office: 10:45 am the next day.

Evelyn finished looking through yesterday’s readouts and video feed. The results were satisfying her, even though she felt pangs of guilt come through every now and then. She looked sideways at various screens that that showed looped videos of a thoroughly inebriated Andy being dragged out of a bar by a couple of guys in “Alphacorp” security overalls and of Unit 3 (“Jerry”, sheesh!) happily humming to itself as it was unpacking various boxes with household cleaning supplies in the entrance hallway of Andy’s apartment.

She thought about how she was quite fond of the guy, really, and how she actually didn’t want to leave him at all. Alas, science and innovation are mean bitches that demand sacrifices. Actually, her inexorable dedication to her work and her obsession with her career were the mean bitches that demanded Eve’s full attention and time on her project: she herself came up with the idea that Andy was a perfect test subject, what with him not having anyone in his life besides his mother and Evelyn, and his lifestyle being a bit reclusive to say the least.

Even her boss was utterly shocked at her proposal to sacrifice her fairly happy relationship and her partner to project 23457, and being the head of the R&D department at ER Europe he was a pretty hard and career-driven man who was not easy to unsettle. Evelyn took a long breath, lightly shook her head to drive out the guilt trip, turned to the main screen, and began to dictate.

“Project 23457 field testing. Product: Domestic AI chip with a Personality mod. Subject: Andy Daniels. Day 1: The AI came out of the dormant state around 19:48 pm. Reaction of the subject was as predicted. The AI and the subject immediately began an active verbal interaction. The AI personality studied and fitted for the subject had a 98.7 percent capability. After verbal interaction the capability predictions are lowered to 94.4 percent. Beginnings of empathy in the subject detected. Active productivity in the subject is up 174 percent-”

‘A thousand percent I’d say,’ thought Evelyn, ‘It’s the first time he’s been out of the house in two months.’

“-and the primary activity goal of day 1 has been successfully achieved: subject denied options to exchange or give away the AI,” she went on dictating. “Video log and environmental and physical readouts of the subject and the designated testing area are attached to the report. Commencing video observation of test day 2. Judging by the physical readouts, the subject will wake up in approximately 15 minutes. It is now 10:48 am, third of August, 2032. Evelyn Johnson out.”

 

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