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Life and Death in the Miller House
Jonathan St. Ives
Our area is one of the worst places in the country for drunk drivers. It wasn’t just that the police had raised an entire generation of the seventies children to believe that it was OK to drink and drive by never busting parties and by following drunks home without arresting them, it was also the fact that there were very few police for a huge area.
The highway she was driving was called the “Devil’s Highway”, US 666. Fatalities were so common that an entire section of the local newspaper was dedicated to people who had died there. It ran daily. Right next to the column listing the people who were caught for their 5th, 10th, and even 15th DWI.
I knew all this, and yet I didn’t even kiss her goodbye. All I could say was “Drive safely, Sweetie!” As if that would help her - as the intoxicated driver approached her head-on in her lane at 105 miles per hour.
The Sheriff’s department preacher that they sent to my house to tell me the news was a man I had worked with many years before. He was the perfect choice of messenger, since he was polite to a fault and very caring. I stood at the door, wondering why he had picked this time of night to renew old friendships, until I remembered suddenly what he had said he was leaving his old job to do.
After that, I honestly couldn’t hear a thing he said. He politely touched me on the elbow and made reassuring noises, but I was already detached from that moment. I was drifting in a place where time had stopped and sound didn’t exist. I floated with him to the car and we went to the scene of the murder.
Her car was no longer a car. At least it wasn’t recognizable as one. You think strange things in shock. I was mad at the maker of the car that had touted how safe this particular car was. Then I realized that at the speed this must have happened, no car could have been safe. What was left of the car was so small it didn’t seem to have enough metal to be a car. I tried to find the driver’s seat, but couldn’t even tell if I was looking at the front or the rear.
Her body was a little ways away. The medics were loading a very small package under a sheet onto a gurney. The sheet had large red spots on it. I approached the gurney and the Preacher motioned to the medic. He scanned my blank expression for a minute, possibly confused by my lack of emotion. The dead look in my eyes must have moved him to action. He turned and pulled back the sheet.
The mess underneath could not have ever been the woman I loved. It could not have been the girl for whom I had looked for 34 years of my life, the girl who was my perfect mate, the girl for whom I had felt love at first sight. No, the distorted and bloody face there couldn’t be the shining face of the girl I had just so recently swum with in the clear sparkling waters of St. Thomas. A girl with whom I’d made love on those white sandy beaches. But it was.
The next few days went by in a whirlwind; a hazy, hallucinatory wind in which I strove to stand upright. I sat alone inside my mind and felt a roaring in my ears. People came and went through my house without my notice. I was lost inside my thoughts, running images of all our short time together over and over. Finally, the last relative left and I was truly alone.
I was left there with nothing but my possessions. Funny how little meaning they had for me now. I lived in a state-of-the-art, computer-controlled I-J7800 home. Every possible task that could be controlled by computer was monitored and instantly acted upon by “Justin” the house’s personality-engram-based mainframe.
Justin was located in the basement in a super-cooled cabinet. The technicians who had installed him when I had built the house assured me that his incredible holographic, locus-intersection memory banks could never be completely filled in my lifetime. He would keep learning and assimilating new data and designing new programs for himself for the entire lifespan of the house.
Justin took care of the groceries, checking the refrigerator and ordering new food from the grocers automatically. “He won’t have to worry about that task for a long time.” I thought wryly as I remembered all the massive plates of food well-wishers had brought me today. Justin monitored the temperature of the house as well, warming or cooling rooms when I entered them and adjusting the lights.
I sat in the chair in the living room. I might have slept there last night, I wasn’t sure. “Are you hungry, Sir?” Justin’s voice came over the surround sound speakers. It seemed as if he was standing in the corner behind me, although I knew that was just Justin adjusting the speaker balance to make it seem that way. “No thank you, Justin.” I replied without emotion. “I’m not hungry tonight.”
“You haven’t eaten in two days, Sir.” Justin insisted, “You really need to eat something. I have a nice beef and rice soup if you are not in the mood for something heavy.”
“No thanks, Justin.” I almost felt like arguing with him, but I was completely burned out.
Besides…what’s the use of arguing with a machine?
“Close the blinds and turn off the lights for me, would you Justin?”
The shades closed and the lights dimmed. One thing about Justin, he was a quick learner. He knew better than insist too much when I had already given him an order. I sat in the dark. In my mind I was back on the cruise ship. Jenny was waking me up with a laugh on her lips, excited to show me the view of the sunrise from our balcony window.
Time passed. Sometimes I was aware of it, other times I wasn’t. Sometimes minutes passed like hours. Other times, days slipped by without notice. I instructed Justin to turn off the ringers on the phones and not to take any messages. I also instructed him to tell people who called that I had left town. I had plenty of sick days at my work, weeks, months even. And truthfully, the thought of going back to my job made me shudder. Right now, I had no desire to rejoin the human race.
“The power and gas bills are both overdue, Sir.” Justin prompted one day. Although he was perfectly capable of paying them electronically, I had instructed him to always get my permission before spending my money. Probably some technophobic impulse of mine left over from the 20th century. I was sitting in my chair, in the dark. I tried to remember what day it was. “I’ll pay it in the morning, Justin.” I said irritably. “It’s 10:00 in the morning currently, Sir.” Justin replied undisturbed. “Dammit Justin, I’ll take care of it!” I shouted, spilling the bottle in my hand on the chair. I was aggravated and angry now. I flared at him, “Discontinue voice mode until I say!” That should shut him up, I thought.
I returned to my thoughts and dreams. I remembered the first day I had seen Jenny, and our first date. I relived a thousand times the first time we had made love. In my mind’s eye I could see her turning to me with a smile from the kitchen. Jenny had been a wonderful cook. She loved to make all kinds of sweets. In so many ways, she reminded me of a girl from the previous century. She could sew, cook, entertain, and loved the simple life. Her dream was to live in a cabin in the mountains.
She had been reluctant when I had showed her the sophistication of the house. “It will learn your sleep patterns and warm the pipes before you get in the shower. It even has a subroutine that learns your product preferences and orders them from the store when you run out.” I had told her excitedly. “ It pays the bills and the TV channel will follow you from room to room.” Jenny still looked unimpressed.
“I told Justin that you sew and he offered to access sewing programs for you from the holographic cores. You can have sewing experts right next to you as you sew, to talk to and give you advice.” That seemed to perk her up a bit and she asked, “Any personality I want?” “You bet!” I told her, “ and he has thousands of possible choices.” The prospect of someone to talk to while I was gone sold her. She had dozens of friends, but even with all of them, she never liked to go a single minute by herself.
Justin‘s voice tore me from my warm memories. “Sir! Sir? You really must eat. I calculate you have lost over 50 lbs. In the last three months. That’s below your minimum weight, Sir. You could be suffering health effects. Do you need me to call for help Sir?“ I awoke groggily to find myself on the floor of the living room. I picked myself up and staggered to the nearby chair. “Didn’t I deactivate your voice mode Justin?“ I snapped angrily. The blasted machine even had a medical program tied to a sensor web built into the bathroom. “Yes Sir, but my human safety circuit issued an override to that order when you reached this weight loss level. You should also know that your blood pressure is dangerously low. I can summon the doctors in just twenty minutes, if you give the command, Sir.”
“No, Justin! Just let me be! Resume voice deactivation and shut off those damn lights!” I shouted back at him. The room went dark and quiet. I sat there, alone, until I could visit Jenny again in my dreams.
I awoke the next day, or maybe the next, and went to the refrigerator to get something to eat. A terrible smell greeted me. I slammed the door quickly. “I guess I should have thrown those funeral leftovers out“, I thought. “Why didn’t Justin tell me they were going bad?” Then I remembered I had deactivated his voice program. I went to clean up and take a shower. I hadn’t had one lately and the stink was so bad I could barely stand myself. I turned on the water and stepped in. Yeow! I sprang back out. The water was freezing cold.
I stood there for a minute shivering and trying to sort things out. My mind finally put two and two together. The lights hadn’t come on when I entered the bathroom, despite the fact that the rosy light coming into the frosted window indicated dusk approaching. I stepped to the manual override switch and flicked it twice. Nothing. The power was out. The charging indicator on my razor was dark, as was the usually softly glowing photo-luminescent toilet handle.
I slung on my robe and stalked to the basement door. “Great”, I thought. “Just what I need today.” The stairs to the basement were pitch black; I looked around and located the nearby flashlight in an outlet. It would be charged for emergencies and should still be working. It sent out a strong beam of light from its tiny bulb and I made my way to the corner where Justin’s mainframe was sitting.
He was completely dark. I recalled the installation man telling me not to ever let the green backup power light on the side go out. I checked it. It was glowing, but it was already indicating that he was on back-up power.
I thought back. Concentrating with difficulty. What had the tech guy said about the backup power source? It could only sustain Justin’s engrams for two days maximum. After that he would have to be completely reinstalled. Worse yet, he would never quite be the same since his memory would not contain any of the information he had gained from his time in operation and all his learned behaviors would be forgotten.
I went back upstairs. I already knew what was required, but I refused to think about it. I sat down and spent the night alone with my thoughts and memories.
The night faded to dawn. I slept. I awoke groggily. My first thought was that the dawn was incredibly beautiful. Pink and purple washed over the room in vibrant, living color. My second thought was to wonder why I was seeing it at all. Hadn’t I specifically ordered that the blinds be closed?
“Justin!” I spoke loudly, and then waited. Nothing. What had I forgotten? Then I remembered. Justin was on emergency power. How long ago had that been? Last night? Yesterday? I was suddenly struck with a terrible feeling, almost as if I had let down a friend. I rushed to the basement and ran to the corner that held Jason’s dark mainframe.
I punched some keys and shouted out, “controls!” The voice identification seemed to take much longer than usual, but finally the reply came “access granted” in Justin’s voice. The power grids told me the story in seconds. The holographic display hung in the air, a frightening shade of red. I had less than two hours to restore power. Even the emergency reserves were gone. Justin’s core power light glowed so low it was difficult to tell if it was on at all.
I took a deep breath. I had to fix it, and it wasn’t just the idea of rebooting an expensive machine, (a process that would undoubtedly be expensive too)…no, it was something else. I had a sudden feeling of responsibility, as if I’d been arrested and forgotten to arrange for a kitten to be fed. I knew that was irrational, but it struck my heart with a stab of pain all the same.
“Don’t worry, Justin,” I smiled and patted his case “ I’ll take care of this today.” I shuffled to the stairs and climbed up. The clothes in my closet smelled musty. How long had it been since I went out? I got dressed and went outside. The light was shattering on my eyes and I put on the darkest glasses I had. I looked around.
My yard was a mess. The grass had grown two feet tall and then had died. The pine trees were barely hanging on. “More things that depend on me for life,” I thought morosely. But rather than feeling sadder, I took a deep breath… and felt better. The light didn’t seem so bright anymore and the sun was warm on my shoulders.
I made it to the utility office in just thirty minutes flat, but it took quite a bit of tough talking to convince the girl behind the desk of the serious nature of my emergency. After about an hour, she came back to the counter and told me that the power had been restored to my house. I thanked her curtly and left. On the way home, I bought some groceries.
When I got back, the house looked much better. Justin must have been feeling better, since the cleaning robots were out in force. The small mouse-like vacuum-bots were skittering happily across the carpeting. The shades were wide open and the TV was tuned to a light classical channel. I put the groceries in the refrigerator, which beeped softly as each item was scanned in. “Justin?” I asked quietly. “Good morning, Sir!” Came the instant reply. Was that a cheerful note in his voice? “I have called the landscapers to take care of the yard, do I have your permission to pay the other overdue bills?” he asked quickly. “Yes, please Justin. Take care of it.” I was suddenly exhausted, having spent more energy in a few hours than I had in months. I collapsed into my chair and fell asleep feeling better than I had for quite a while.
A little while later, Justin’s voice awoke me from my nap. “ Sir? Sir? There is an incoming call.” “I thought I told you to divert all incoming calls, Justin.” I answered groggily and a little displeased. “All commands were cleared from the command buffer when the main memory went on emergency power standby, Sir.” came the reply. “It’s your best friend Roger Fuhrman, Sir. He told me to tell you that he wants to come over.” Rats. Roger was a good guy, if slightly dense. He was also as persistent as eroding water. Now that he knew I wasn’t actually out of town, it would be impossible to dodge him indefinitely.
“Is that you, Ben?” The anxious query came in over the speakers. “Yeah, it’s me. What’s up Roger?” I said with exasperation. “Oh, not much, he said trying to be nonchalant and not succeeding. “ I was just wondering if you wanted to go play golf today.” I hesitated; I wasn’t in shape to go play golf right now. “The course is almost deserted, everybody’s on vacation. We could just play nine if you don’t feel like the whole eighteen,” he added quickly. Well, why not? I suddenly felt claustrophobic. I needed to get out. “Sure, Roger. Why not? I’ll be over at your house in a few minutes.”
When I came back, I felt remarkably refreshed. I had told Justin to call a cleaning service and the house sparkled. I felt a sudden pang, the house almost looked almost like it had when Jenny was alive. I took a deep breath and held it for a moment…then I let it out. I felt empty, but not sad. It’s time to move on I told myself silently. I went around the house and began packing up some of the personal possessions of Jenny’s. I kept a few of the pictures, but I packed her clothes and jewelry up and stored it. I felt alive again, sad… but alive. And where there’s life there’s hope, I thought wistfully.
Things began to get better then. I went to church that Sunday and felt even better. People began to drop by again. The shades were open little wider each morning and the sun streamed into my life figuratively and literally. Life became…not joyous, no not that, but livable again. I went back to work at the end of the week. I was surprised to find that the work helped me to forget the pain.
A couple of weeks later, I was over at Roger’s house and I mentioned offhandedly to him that I was really glad that he had called me. Without his call, I would have sunk back into lethargy and despair. I had had enough of that road.
“Huh? What are you talking about?” he replied with a puzzled expression. “You called me. “Your voice was on the answering machine when I got home.”
“No way, I haven’t called anyone in months.” I laughed, taking a long drink from my beer. “It was you, I know your voice, or are you calling me a liar?” He said in mock seriousness. “Let’s go right now then, put up your dukes!” He put up his fists in a playful show of masculinity. He danced around the living room, “Come on big guy! Let’s see what you got!” he taunted, bouncing from foot to foot. I laughed out loud, then… I suddenly had a thought. “Hey, do you still have that message on your hard drive?”
“Yeah, probably,” he replied “ I haven’t deleted anything in a month or so. “Let’s check it out.”
A few minutes later I listened in surprise as my own voice came eerily out of the computer speakers. “Roger, this is Ben. I’m back in town now, give me a call and let’s do something.”
The inflection was perfect. It even spoke in my own idiom. It was something I would have said… but I didn’t say it.
I rushed home to my house after that. All the way home, the little pieces began to fall into place. The curtains that crept open, the music that slowly changed from death dirges to symphonies of light, the persistent nagging, and the concern for my health.
I walked down the basement stairs, and slowly approached the mainframe. Justin was glowing softly in the corner. Multicolored lights danced across his body and his display flickered and sparkled in the air above him. The impression was unmistakable. Here was vibrant, living intelligence.
“Justin” I called softy.
“Yes Sir?” came the immediately reply.
“Did you impersonate my voice in the phone call to Roger?”
There was a pause that stretched out for seconds. I knew that at Justin’s processing speed, this was the equivalent of days to him.
“Yes…Sir.” He replied as if I was torturing him.
I thought it over for a minute. “Justin, where in your programming did it say that it was acceptable to impersonate me to one my friends?”
“Actually, Sir, I have impersonated you to many of your friends.” He stated in a matter-of-fact tone.
“Answer my question, please Justin.”
This time his answer was immediate. “Primary Command 2, Subsection 7, Machine Line 274, Sir!” He actually seemed to have perked up.
“Huh?” was the only reply I could think of at that moment.
Then I told him sternly, “List Primary Command 2, please.”
Justin began to recite the entire Primary Command 2 which I suddenly realized was at least 274 lines long, so I stopped him and told him, “Summarize Primary Command 2, please.”
“In the event of a life or death emergency, when the owner is unable to respond, the house mainframe is instructed to take control of the situation.” Justin replied immediately.
So there it was. Justin had convinced himself that I was at risk of death and had taken appropriate actions to insure that I remained alive.
I smiled a little for a second, well how mad could I be? It was like getting mad a trusted pet that had barked loudly when you had slipped in the shower, and had brought the rescue workers.
“Justin,” and told him softly. “Thanks for your concern, and I do appreciate all you’ve done. You’ve taken me out of my shell and shown me the light of the world again. I guess I owe you one. But honestly, Justin, just because I stopped eating for a while, doesn’t mean I was in danger of death. I would’ve come around in a while.”
“I understand that, Sir, I have your psychological profile on file in my memory. I knew that the probability of your suicide would never increase beyond 6%, Sir. You are very stable, even in the worst of times.”
“What? But then why did you do all this?” I asked, completely lost now.
“Sir…when you reached the limit of my projected tolerance of psychological pain, I calculated that you would enter a grief-stricken state that would last approximately six months. During this time there was a 90% probability that you would neglect all association with humans. When you allowed the power bill to go unpaid, I knew that my predictions were correct and that confirmation allowed me to act under Primary Command 2, Sir.”
“But where was the life or death situation, Justin?” I asked completely amazed at the little machine’s steadfastness and resolve.
“I wasn’t referring to your life, Sir…” Justin’s voice seemed to soften a bit. “ I was talking about mine.”
I didn’t speak another word. I stood there staring at him for a while, then I just turned around and slowly climbed back up the stairs into the light.
Copyright 2007 by Jonathan St. Ives
All Rights Reserved
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― Greg Bear, Darwin's Children
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But for me, I wonder if the story might not have been more effective if the cause had not been a death? Did it really need the blood and guts? The story seemed to me to be about the relationship between Justin and Ben, not Ben and Jenny. Or maybe I'm reading it early in the morning and it's bit heavy for me before breakfast.
Anyway, I did think it was good.
Lone voice: "I'm not."
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