“…it’s a typical easement,” Joel was saying. He was the only organic presence at the office, five feet ten inches and balding slightly on top. He squinted at the digital readout, which reacted to the motion by going up two font sizes. “I like to start new units out on the simple stuff. The family had a gold-class castle setup, just recently deactivated the central AI.”
The debrief repeated on the inside of the two android’s cranial domes. The mentor model was a German-built Sadlermech, two generations old but still in prime working condition. His voice module was smooth and nearly accentless, possessing almost none of the machine stutter that plagued earlier Sadlers.
“Are they moving? Perhaps we could go over transfer protocol.”
But Joel was shaking his head. “Complete shutdown. They’re going Lud. You see that with some of the more well-off families nowadays. Only an omnilink hookup and temp control.”
“Was their service unsatisfactory?” This was Genji-99, the new transplant still bearing internal stickers for the Tokuyama Heavy Corporation. His english debuffers worked so smoothly a blindfolded person would not be able to tell his mechanical nature.
Joel shook his head again. “No, there’s…funny types. They just get tired of things, chasing the next new toy that dances over their news feed.”
Genji tilted his head, processors working at light speed. “The next model up would be the platinum-class fortress.”
Joel sighed. He rose from his desk, the door to the office opening at the motion.
“You show him the ropes,” he said to Sadler, “I feel like we’re losing something in translation.”
Genji performed an internal audit. It finished by the time they were in the company car that drove automatically to its destination. It found nothing amiss.
“If I am missing a nuance, it is not due to internal error,” he said.
Sadler sat perfectly straight in his port. The scenery sliding by was twinned in the blue glass of his dome. “It is not error, it is simply a situational context. Human suffer from sensational acclimatization. Once subject to stimulus for prolonged periods of time, they become acclimatized to it. It is no longer ‘fun’ for them. Preplanned obsolescence is a result of that.”
Genji calculated. “I was not aware a central home AI was meant to be ‘fun.’”
“You will learn. It is an emotional idiosyncrasy, like knocking on wood for luck or closing the eyes of the dead. We do not have to understand it, we are simply to implement it.”
Genji watched their route, the car turning down a cul-de-sac in a street riddled with them. “Why does a disconnect require a field agent?”
“Further situational context. Appliances programmed to interact with an AI will not function as well without it or with a disparate unit. They were built with the ability to sense and interpret emotion on the part of their owners, ergo they have taken on a sort of crude emotional intelligence themselves.”
“I have not heard of this.”
“Indeed. It is still being studied.”
The car pulled into a driveway smooth as glass. A woman smoked an e-cigarette while leaning out the kitchen window, frowning slightly. Sadler opened the car door, rather than wait for the mechanism.
“Mrs. Smith? How lovely to see you!”
The Smiths gathered in the sunken conversation nook in a den large enough to stable horses. Everything, from the carpet to the curtains, was an off-white. Genji noticed that the drapes did not dilate at their congress. Mrs. Smith noticed as well, fingers digging into the sleeve of her white cardigan. He picked up many secondary stress-indicators, from the set of a mouth to the rate of blinking. Mr. Smith clinked the ice in his glass incessantly as he sat a polite distance from his wife. The teenaged Smith son sat in a well-worn trench in the sectional sofa, earbuds in and lost to the digital world. A small girl with her hair in doubled pigtails sat with her arms crossed in mimic of her mother, face etched so deeply with a look of abject hate Genji was forced to take another audit. Finding nothing at his fault, he was forced to conclude another situational context he was not privy to.
“…you see, this is why shutting down the central unit will entail shutting down all the appliances as well.”
Mrs. Smith pulled a corner of her mouth down. “I still don’t see why the stuff won’t just work. You said it’s not a software malfunction?”
“Malfunction? No. They’re capable of functioning as always. How to put it gently…they simply choose not to.”
Mrs. Smith scoffed. “I need a drink.” She heaved up from the couch and went to a wet bar. Genji saw that someone had put electrical tape over the dispenser. A Tupperware pitcher of an amber liquid and several mismatched glasses stood in substitute.
“Your EULA was quite clear in this respect,” Sadler continued, “you chose top-of-the-line AI for all your appliances.”
“So that means instead of smart devices I get dumb devices?” Mr. Smith snorted. “No wonder Asher said you guys were a scam. I want my money back.”
“The contract states—”
“Yeah, yeah.” Smith waved his hand dismissively as he polished off his glass. He spoke back over to his shoulder to his wife. “You think it’ll let me ask about compensation?”
“We are instituting a buyback program,” Sadler worked in seamlessly, “you may retain 19-23% of your initial investment, which you can receive as a lump sum or, should you so choose, invest in the next unit you buy with us.”
The girl, shaking with rage, muttered something to the ground.
“Cindy! Be quiet!” Mrs Smith spat.
The girl kicked her heels into the couch. Her mother raised a warning finger.
“It’s not fair!” Cindy jumped up from the couch. “Why do we have to go through all this, just because you’re bored? There was nothing even wrong with it!”
“You will not talk to me in that tone, not ever!” Mrs. Smith jabbed a finger in the girl’s direction. In response Cindy stomped angrily from the room, heels drumming on the stairs with the weight of her displeasure. Mrs. Smith snorted, taking a draught.
“I apologize if this procedure causes any friction for you,” Sadler said.
Mr. Smith rolled his eyes. “Friction. Like they know anything. Why didn’t they send some lube for when they bend me over and ram it home?”
“George!” Mrs. Smith pulled at her sweater. “Can you start boxing everything up? I don’t want to look at it anymore.”
Sadler pulled a magnetic key from a valise. He turned to Genji. “Will you join me in decommission?”
Genji had turned toward the stairs. “….if I may, I would like to enquire after your daughter.”
“Who her? Go ahead. Nothing I say makes any difference anymore.” Mrs. Smith had her back turned, dumping more ice in her glass.
Genji turned back to Sadler, dome reflected in dome in a never ending procession of surfaces.
“Do as you must,” Sadler said, “I will be here when you are done.”
It was easy to distinguish which room was which, even with the doors closed. The one at the end of the hall had a construction-paper owl and several stickers pasted on the white wood. Genji knocked.
“Go away! I hate you!”
“I’m the Genji unit assigned to your parent’s case,” Genji said, modulating his tone and grammar to the situation, “may I have a word with you?”
No answer. The sound of heavy little footfalls to the door. The girl stood in the middle of a mess that lapped the walls like an immense nest made of toys, yarn, craft sticks, books, paints, video games, and blankets. It was the only clutter in the house.
“I feel anger emanating for you. I want simply to understand.”
Cindy looked up at him, bemused. “You have feelings? You’re like a…a fancy robot? Why don’t you have a face?”
Genji bent low. “There is something called the uncanny valley that makes it very hard for robots to work among humans. The closer we look to people, the less comfortable they feel. Think of me like a large toy. Would you like to remove my dome?”
Cindy looked pleasantly scandalised, playing with her hair. “No. It’s okay. Why do you want to talk to me, Mr. Robot?”
“To understand. Why are you angry? I know your mother is angry, but it is a different kind of anger.”
At the word ‘mother’ Cindy’s eyes shuttered and her mouth drew into a thin line. “My mommy’s always angry, she just lies about it. She broke a dish yesterday and told daddy the disposal did it. Mr. Monster Mouth never breaks dishes, he knows how to tell food apart from other things.”
Genji registered the personalization. “You named it? Do you have names for the others?”
“Yeah!” Cindy’s resentment was momentarily forgotten as she dug out pages of drawings, each accompanied by a title. Mr. Monster Mouth. Wall cape. The Fridgenator. Genji sorted through them, making deductions of such rapid nuance that his dome thrummed.
“And the central AI,” he ventured, “do you feel close to it?”
The seething rage descended again. “It’s not fair!” Cindy stomped her foot. “Every time they get tired of something, they get rid of it! It’s not the house’s fault they’re bored! They just wanna throw it away like it didn’t work at all.” Cindy’s face crumpled. “Like it didn’t spend more time with me than mommy did.” Her voice thickened, though tears did not cloud her eyes.
Genji bent so that he could put a hand on her shoulder. The servos in his hand adjusted his grip to a degree of pressure and weight deemed to be comforting by his designers. “I know it is hard to adjust to loss. The lost of a friend, or even a beloved object. You are not wrong for mourning it, but the house itself would tell you that we are all built with an end in mind. Man and machine.”
Cindy’s eyes fluttered. She was unsteady on her feet as if overtired.
“Would you like to come back downstairs?”
“Could you carry me, Mr. Robot?”
Genji sorted through his programming, found nothing that forbid it, and took the girl up in his arms. She was startlingly heavy for a little girl.
The first floor of the house was nearly dark when he descended the stairs. Sadler stood over a pile of appliances waiting to be loaded into the car and brought back to be factory-reset. For the inbuilt items, their automatic functionality would simply be shut off and they would become manual again. Tubs would need taps turned to fill. Refrigerators would no longer stock themselves.
Mrs. Smith had started up another cartridge and was taking chain-puffs as she picked at a button on the sweater. The son had stood up from the couch but remained buried in his screens. Mr. Smith wrung his hands, looking back and forth from his wife to the robot agents.
“Genji, just in time to join us.” Sadler held up a hand.
“Are you sure about this?” Smith muttered to his wife, “I mean, really sure?”
Mrs. Smith pulled away from her husband’s grasp. “I’m just sick of the whole thing.”
Genji drew closer, Cindy draped limply over his arms. She did not look at either of her parents, only Genji’s dome where she lay reflected in dull tones.
“Mr. Robot? Don’t put me down, okay?”
Sadler did not put the magnetic key back in the valise. Instead he stepped around the pile of appliances, hand outstretched. He gathered a handful of Cindy’s hair and lifted so that her face turned to Genji’s chest. The key fitted into a port hidden by her brown locks. There was a metallic whine and Cindy went limp in Genji’s arms.
“That concludes our decommission,” Sadler said, “if you will allow us a moment to load everything up into the car, we will be out of your home in a jiffy.”
With the touch-sensitive pads of his fingers, Genji rolled Cindy’s eyelids down over her eyes.