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by Bruce Bethke
First publication: Aboriginal Science Fiction, January 1991
©1988 Bruce Bethke ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
“Good morning, Barbara,” the soft, pleasant, sexless voice said. “Time to rise and shine.” When there was no reply in sixty seconds, Snoozalarm tried again. “Good morning, Barbara. Please wake up.”
John got one eye sort of half-open, gave some consideration to waking up, then slid his hand around Barbara’s tummy and snuggled in closer, burying his nose in the back of her neck.
The clock’s voice became a bit more insistent. “This is the third call, Barbara. Please wake up. It is already 7:02.”
Her long, blonde hair smelled wonderful. He ran his fingers across the curve of her hip and down her thigh; she responded with a soft, throaty sigh...
“Barbara Lynn Murphy!” Snoozalarm shrieked. “If you don’t wake up this very insta—”
“I’m awake.” She started disentangling herself from John’s arms and pushing back the blankets.
“Snuggle one more minute?” John suggested.
“Afraid not.” Yawning, she sat up on the edge of the bed and started working the kinks out of her neck.
“It’s a lovely morning, Barbara!” Snoozalarm said cheerfully. “The current temperature is 56, with a predicted high today in the low 70’s. The air pollution index is low to moderate, but there is a 60-percent chance of rain in the late afternoon, so be sure to take your umbrella.” Barbara pulled on her terrycloth robe and wandered into the bathroom.
“The regularly scheduled breakfast for Friday is orange juice, wheat toast, coffee, and mushroom and cheese omelets. Do you approve, Barbara?”
“Yes,” John said.
Thirty seconds later Snoozalarm said, “I’m waiting for your okay on breakfast, Barbara.”
“It’ll be fine,” John said.
Another third seconds later Snoozalarm said, “The regularly scheduled breakfast for Friday is—”
She stepped out of the bathroom. “What’s wrong, honey?” John just scowled and pointed at the alarm clock. “Oh. Yes, that’s fine.”
“Thank you,” Snoozalarm said.
“Barb,” John asked, “how come that thing still won’t take orders from me?”
“Sorry,” she mumbled. “I keep meaning to have it reprogrammed.”
“Well, I’m getting a little tired of waiting, you know?”
“I said I was sorry.”
“I mean, we’ve only been living together for six months now,” John continued. “Don’t you think it’s time you let your house know?”
Barbara’s back stiffened. “There’s no need to get nasty.”
“I’m not being nasty. I’m being hurt, because I still feel like your Man of the Weekend.”
“It’s improving, isn’t it?” she snapped. “At least Snoozalarm doesn’t call you Larry anymore!”
A furious look flashed into John’s eyes as he jumped out of bed. “You leave him out of this!”
Barbara ran into the bathroom and slammed the door. In a few seconds John heard the shower come on, so he gave up trying to talk at her through the locked door, pulled his robe on, and went to see if he could get a cup of coffee. As he walked into the kitchen, he mumbled, “Good morning,” and winced in anticipation.
“Good morning, Larry!” the appliances sang out. Snoozalarm had passed along the word, as a good NEC MajorDomot was supposed to, for they were all merrily churning away: Mr. Coffee, La Chef Food Processaire, Jiffy Skillet, Warren Waring the Blender, and even stolid old Fridge. Then poor little Toaster, always the slowest of the bunch, urgently and nervously said, “Good morning, sir.”
“Coffee ready yet?” John asked.
The coffee maker answered in a rich, masculine, Colombian-accented voice. “Not yet, but soon, Larry.” Strike Two. Shaking his head, John stepped over to the den, put his hand on the doorknob, and then hesitated for a moment, to summon his courage.
Entering the den always involved a strange mix of eagerness and dread. On the one hand, he had to enter the room to talk to Denny, and he liked Denny; the nexus of the HomeNetwork and gateway to the outside world was dependable, efficient, and best of all, completely apersonal.
On the other hand, Barbara’s collection was in there.
There was nothing to do but get it over with. Gritting his teeth, he opened the door.
Being light-sensitive, the meadowlarks were the first to start up. They in turn triggered the sound-actuated canaries, and as John charged in stabbing OFF buttons he jostled the Elvis shelf again and the five touch-sensitive dolls, representing the five stages of His career, started singing their five unstoppable two-minute songs. John got to the X-Rated Eddie Murphy doll in time, and caught most of the unrecognizables before they really got going, but he was flummoxed by the new one. There was always a new one; Barbara couldn’t pass up novelties. That’s why she’d bought into this totally wired townhouse development in the first place, and why she’d insisted they rent out John’s restored Victorian brownstone after they’d decided to move in together.
Picking up the new unrecognizable and turning it over—in the process triggering it, of course—he realized it was a four-headed Beatles doll and there was no way to stop it from singing all two-hundred and thirty-three choruses of “Hey Jude.” So he shoved it into the closet.
The Elvii were almost finished. He waited them out, then allowed himself a moment of smugness as the room settled down into the soft patter of electronic frogs and crickets shutting down. Of course, as soon as Barbara found out she would frantically turn them all back on, but for the moment he felt an incredible sense of accomplishment. He stepped back to survey the room, and triggered the singing chipmunks.
They started bickering violently in helium-squeaky three-part harmony. John bit his lower lip and fought the urge to scream “Alvin!” three times. After all, that’s what they were waiting for, and he’d be damned if he was going to kowtow to a bunch of witless silicon. Moving out of their range, he waited until they timed out. Then he again surveyed the shelves of silent knick-knacks, and turned to the desktop computer.
The printout basket was empty. “Denny!” he barked.
“On,” said the computer.
“Are you okay?”
“Then where’s my newsprint?”
“Huh?” Sometimes Denny could be laconic to the point of obscurity. It took John a full minute to realize Denny was telling him to look at the display screen, and another minute to remember how to turn the screen on. As soon as the screen came up, through, the ***NETWORK ERROR*** message appeared, along with the clarification:interruption in BuildingSys at 07:17 ...
all CityNet services temporarily out ...
HomeNet Synchronization lost ...
all home modules now in local mode ...
sorry for the inconvenience ...
“Damn!” John spat. “Third data outage this year!” He stomped furiously out of the den. “Who wired this dump?!” he bellowed, “Migrant lettuce pickers in the off-season? Barb? This house of yours—”
The bizarre noise and awful smell first stopped him in his tracks, then made him break into a run.
In the kitchen he found a disaster-in-progress. Jiffy Skillet was frying shredded oranges, Toaster was belching smoke, Warren Waring was trying to juice eggs, and all the appliances were shrieking error messages at top volume. Viscous yellow egg goo was oozing down the sides of the blender and spreading out in a thick puddle on the counter top; a second later it found the crack between the counter and the fridge and began slithering down. Six months of living with Toaster had conditioned John to the smell of cremated bread, and now that he could see the skillet he recognized the smell of burning oranges, but a third nuance in the stench puzzled him until he watched La Chef dump freshly ground coffee into the skillet.
Mister Coffee was brewing cheese.
Once he got over the smell, the noise hit him again. Skillet and La Chef were stuck in a call-and-response routine; both had voice-operated troublefinders and each time La Chef shouted, “Assistance, s’il vous plait!”, Skillet answered, “Gosh, what a mess!” Since this wasn’t a valid response, La Chef kept shouting. Meanwhile, Mr. Coffee was muttering, “I think something is amiss,” Toaster bleated, “I’m stuck! I’m stuck!”, and the smoke kept getting thicker.
Barbara burst into the kitchen, hair dripping. “What did you do to them?”
John grabbed Toaster and began jabbing the eject button. “I didn’t do anything! The cable’s gone flakey again!” Toaster wasn’t surrendering, so John held it upside down and shook it violently.
“I’m stuck! I’m stuck!”
“Put him down!” Barbara demanded. “And what’s the cable got to do with it?” John plunked Toaster down on the counter top and pulled open the silverware drawer.
“These things are all supposed to network with Denny,” John found a butter knife, “but they’ve lost sync.” Barbara realized what he was planning.
“NO!” She tried to grab the knife from John’s hand, but he wrenched away. The momentum drove the blade through the charred toast and into something vital. There was a bright blue spark; John swore, dropped everything, and started sucking his thumb; Toaster gave one last shrill little screech and went silent.
“Christ!” sobbed Barbara, “you killed Toaster!” She picked up the inert appliance and cradled it in her arms.
“The toaster? How about I damn near killed myself?”
“You always hated Toaster!”
“Barb, that thing shouldn’t have been a toaster. It was a frustrated smoke alarm.” With his free hand, John reached for Mr. Coffee’s plug. A look of horror flashed across Barbara’s face; she threw her shoulder into John’s side, blocking him away.
“Don’t touch that!”
“How else am I supposed to stop it?” They struggled briefly over the cord and John came up the winner, but a few seconds too late. The coffee maker erupted like a cheddar Vesuvius, spraying scorched and bubbling molten cheese on the walls, the ceiling, John... luckily, his bathrobe caught the worst of it.
“You did that on purpose!” Barbara shrieked. John pulled a few taffy strings of cheese out of his hair, and then yanked La Chef’s plug. The food processor shut down with a gutteral squawk. “Stop it! You’re hurting them!”
“Dammit, Barbara, they don’t feel! They don’t think! They’re just silicon chips!”
“You beast!” Barbara screeched. “You’re the one with no feelings! You hate my kitchen! You hate my collection!” She stopped trying to hold back her tears. “You probably even hate me!” Clutching her poor dead toaster, unable to stop John’s unplugging rampage, she ran back into the bathroom and slammed the door.
“Oh... fudge,” John said, with some effort. He pulled the plug on Skillet, then followed Barbara. “Honey, I—honey? Please unlock this door.”
“Barb, you’re being pretty juvenile about this.”
“You disgust me!”
Biting back an angry retort, John stomped into the bedroom, tore off the bathrobe and threw it into a corner, then stuffed his business clothes into his gym bag. He could wash up in the exercise room; if his boss didn’t like the time he sat down at his desk that’d be just too damn bad. He stopped in the kitchen long enough to dump the burnt oranges into the compactor—which solemnly announced, “The garbage is full,” and began singing Take Me Out to the Curbside—then slammed the door as he left.
“He’s gone, Barbara. You can come out now.” Barbara opened the bathroom door a crack and cautiously peered out. Reassured that John was gone, she opened the door the rest of the way. “Can we talk?” Snoozalarm asked.
Barbara nodded glumly. “It’s about John, isn’t it?”
“John has a serious compatibility problem. He resists integration with the HomeNet.”
“I’ve noticed,” Barbara said dejectedly. She walked over to the bed and flopped onto it. “What do you think I should do?”
“Larry did not have this problem,” Snoozalarm pointed out.
“But Larry was so dull,” Barbara protested.
“He was also reliable. The cable has been restored; John’s six-month performance review has just come in. Would you like to hear it?”
“I suppose I’d better. In summary, please.” She rolled over onto her back and ran her fingers through her wet hair.
Snoozalarm took a few seconds to prepare the summary. “The gist of it is, his market projections are as good or better than Larry’s. However, his aggressive personality has led to severe conflicts with his co-workers, and you have been given thirty days to correct the problem or face termination of your contract.”
“Damn!” Barbara punched the mattress.
“This is a frequent problem with liberated artificial intelligences,” Snoozalarm noted. “They tend to develop assertive and territorial behaviors.”
“It’s my fault,” Barbara muttered. “I thought it would be fun if my android didn’t know he was an android.” She punched the mattress again. “Damn! That John software was so expensive! All those simulated memories. And that perception filter, so he wouldn’t notice all his co-workers are androids!”
“Sentience is a questionable feature in a primary breadwinner unit, Barbara.”
She sat up on the bed and sighed heavily. “Don’t I know it. Okay, call AndroServ. Tell them to reinstall the Larry software ASAP. Damn!” Barbara slid off the bed and walked into the bathroom, looking for a fresh towel.
By the time she’d finished drying off and was ready to shave her legs, Snoozalarm had made the connection. “I have AndroServ on-line,” the clock said. “Will today at noon do, Barbara?”
“If that’s the soonest they can get to him.” She paused, and pursed her lips. “Look, they won’t—hurt him, will they? He won’t know what’s happening to him?”
Snoozalarm paused to exchange data with AndroServ. “In special cases like this they use an ultrasonic remote shutoff. No, John will not be aware of this.”
“That’s very important to me,” Barbara continued. “Tell them I want a complete backup of John. Everything in his memory, right up to this morning. And after they archive him, I want them to update his world events memory every Friday.” She smiled, sadly, and picked up the bladeless razor John had used every morning for the past six months. “I may want to have a weekend affair with him, every now and then. Larry really is so dull.” She sighed, and tossed the razor into the wastebasket. “But a girl’s got to eat.”
Snoozalarm completed the call, and the AndroServ technicians showed up at John’s office at noon as promised. That night, Larry came home to Barbara. He’d been gone for six months, but he didn’t notice that little detail. In fact, he didn’t notice much of anything.
Barbara’s house was much happier.
But wait, there’s more! Read the Author’s Commentary.