Henry was about to tap into some blank-n-fine when he saw the robot. Just a glimmer of the thing actually, a metallic blur that caught the slanting sun outside his living room window and sent a god-like shaft of light into the gloom. Because of the whirring noise of rotors, his first thought was that it was probably a drone making a delivery and continued with his ministrations—heating up the greenish powder in a small cone of tinfoil and sending the acrid blank-n-fine smoke up his nose. And just as the drug was taking hold—curling his toes in an orgasmic clench, rolling his eyes back in his head, and sending his tongue to the roof of his mouth like a man having a seizure—he heard the knock on the door.
Bad news. Drones don’t knock.
He picked himself off the floor, the nirvana of the high battling the sense of doom that the knock had heralded. Nothing good could come of this: his family wasn’t talking to him anymore; his friends had all fled, and wouldn’t even answer his texts; his lovers were paid for; and, because of the monitoring bracelet the state had slapped on his ankle, the neighbors steered clear. As per the law these days, that embarrassing fact was posted on a big sign in his front yard—a high-tech pillory designed for maximum public humiliation. He closed in on the door and listened—no whirring at the moment. Not even a hum.
“Yes,” he said. “How can I help you?”
“I am an officer of the law. Please open the door, sir. We’ve had reports of unauthorized drone deliveries in this area. I’d like to talk to you.”
The voice was a girl’s voice, a very good version of a human, but with a slight robotic sound to it. Still, it felt familiar in a way that sent a tremor of ghostly recognition through him. But how could it? It was probably just a cheap government bot—they tended to cut corners when it came to the niceties of human interaction. Henry backed away from the door. “I know nothing about that.”
“We think you do,” said the girl robot voice.
“I can’t let you in.”
“Technically, you are a prisoner, which means this house is controlled by us. You have no right to stop us from entering, or any expectation of privacy.”
Henry knew what was unfolding. They had sent a rescue bot to get him off drugs. He’d heard about them and had been dreading the day when his little moral free-fall was deemed worthy of the latest in drug control techniques. He got busy cleaning up his drug paraphernalia, tossing the tin foil out an open window, and painfully working the small vial of blank-n-fine up his ass.
“Go away please,” he shouted.
The whirring began again along with a sinuous hum, the lock was blown from his door, and the rescue bot made its entrance, hovering slightly off the ground and gliding toward him as he stood pathetically with his pants around his knees.
He pulled up his pants and cringed in fear.
The robot was a fearsome creation. There wasn’t a human thing about it, really. It was a clunky metal tube with a halo of whirring rotors set in a protective housing. Just below that was a small video screen, flanked by two crablike telescoping hydraulically powered arms, each with a gimbal joint in the center. The hands were especially troubling—a three fingered arrangement that looked as if it could cleave a person in half. This particular bot got around by hovering just above the ground, but it was probably capable of flight as well, and Henry was sure that once the rotors were reversed it could anchor itself in place like a mollusk. Fast, strong, with lethal power and fairly high-grade artificial intelligence, it was his worst nightmare—a drone bot programmed with specific skills and the ability to learn from experience. A soul in a tin can with a genetic code created by fascists, and butt-ugly to boot—government issue all the way.
But then he saw the face appear on the screen, and that completely took him by surprise. It was a girl’s face—a very pretty face with the warmest big brown eyes, round cheeks, and a dimpled smile. It was a face he knew well: Melinda, his childhood sweetheart at the winsome age of ten, with a look as wholesome and pure as anything he’d ever seen in his life. Just gazing upon her filled him with guilt and shame. This was a girl who had loved him once, and his only thought now was how had he ever been worthy of her.
Melinda’s face on the screen blinked at him and smiled, with a glitchy bit of movement that was surely the hackwork of some government technician. “Hello, Henry. We know you’re using. Please take the drugs out of your ass and give them to me.”
Henry gazed upon her, a lump in his throat, the blank-n-fine’s effects masked by the adrenaline coursing through his body, and a feeling that he had slipped into a fever dream of sorts. He was anything but blank and fine. “Melinda, is that you?” he asked in a shaky voice.
“Of course it’s me, Henry. I’ve come to save you,” she said in the sweetest way. “Now hand over the drugs.”
Of course it wasn’t her. Melinda had died thirty years ago, a victim of the measles after it came back big when the anti-vaccine wars were in full force. He knew better. He knew that they had pieced together her speech patterns and facial characteristics from archival footage. And he knew that she was probably loaded with an arsenal of information tailored to break him from his addiction. He had to be vigilant and see her as the calculated plastic and silicone circuit board she was. He had to see her as a cop. A mean-assed cop that wanted to hurt him.
Still, that gaze. It made his heart ache.
“Okay, listen, I know you’re a rescue bot. I’ll retrieve the drugs, but could you turn around because I don’t want this on camera, okay. Could you at least do me that favor?”
“Henry,” she purred. “Why so sensitive?”
“Well,” he said, and this was the truth, “I’m just a little freaked out by your face and I’m not comfortable extracting something from my ass with a ten-year-old girl watching.”
“I’m charmed,” said the robot. “I will turn away, but no tricks, please. That wouldn’t be very nice.”
The bot revved and hovered, spun around, and backed off a bit. Henry reached for his belt as if he were in the process of complying, just in case the bot had rear cameras attached; he waited for it to settle back to the ground and for the rotors to subside, then made a break for the door, his skinny legs churning across the floor like the frightened rabbit-man he was. He slammed through the screen, leaped over the steps, and hit the walkway running. It was madness. It was completely hopeless. It was something he had to do. The rotors went into a high whine behind him and he was only a short way up the street when he felt the bot’s slipstream of air push down upon him. What he pictured in his mind was a hawk dropping down on a rat with its talons—a pitiful scenario indeed. The steel cone of the bot hit him first and knocked him face down on the asphalt. He rolled over and looked up as one of those steely snake arms pinned him down and the other went for his throat.
“No, god no, don’t hurt me,” he screamed.
Melinda’s glitchy face peered down at him. She blinked her warm brown eyes and looked deeply hurt. “You’re a bad, bad boy, Henry,” she said. “How could you do that to me, I used to worship you.” And with that she closed the pincer claws around his windpipe and the world went dark.
Henry was not a prince. Not principled. Not nice. But he was also not stupid, and that mad break for freedom came from all the things that Henry knew—all the swirling social media rumors about the new rescue bots the government was using. This newest version, as crude as the styling seemed to be, had a definite advantage for intervention work. They never sleep, they never lose their patience, and they have no mercy. The stories Henry had heard was that when they sent in a bot, it was your last chance. You relapse after that and the next bot that shows up accidentally kills you. No questions asked: He tried to run, he attacked and had to be subdued, he was acting in a threatening manner, etc. Curiously, the cameras were always off for these events, but Henry had seen them reported time after time in the news.
The green smoke of blank-n-fine was such an epidemic that the prisons and rehab clinics were full. Addicts were deemed a threat to democracy. The republic could not survive with everyone high and useless: people on blank-n-fine didn’t procreate and often forgot to eat. A dwindling population might have sounded attractive to some, but not to the titans of industry. They needed consumers and lots of them. Something had to be done. And that’s when the use of rescue bots began to evolve.
The bot was methodical about its mission. Emotions were necessary to forge a sense of trust, but they were not good for much else. It had learned this through its programing and through its interactions with humans. It would not be fair to say it did not feel things, because, frankly, in its own way it did. Those feelings were akin to a trapeze artist’s aerial trick—a learned set of spins and moves that were ingrained through observation, practice, repetition, and discipline. Within that steel cone there was no beating heart, but there was consciousness of a sort, a glimmering of understanding of the human condition and an odd sort of comradery, much like Stockholm syndrome. Humans had created the bot and it couldn’t help feeling sorry for them. The Melinda they had programmed into it lived inside the humming circuits like a ghost. The form was there; the content was hollow and empty.
But first things first: as long as this miscreant was passed out and still in the throes of his blank-n-fine high, the bot needed to assess the situation. The house was huge and overdone in every way. The outside had a sort of faux Winnie the Pooh country cottage look, but on the inside it was a thoroughly modern creation, with all the amenities one would expect this day and age.
After the bot laid Henry out on his bed upstairs, it glided down into the living room and then into the kitchen. The house was spectacularly untidy, but not as freakishly bad as it had been with other blank-n-fine addicts. It expected to find empty cupboards and very few provisions, but what it found in every cupboard, the pantry, and the refrigerator was that he was massively overstocked: food, food, and more food, some of it dry and crusty, some rotting, some fresh as a daisy. There were also reams of paper towels, cleaning supplies, light bulbs, and, curiously, fifteen electric Super-Soaker mops. Emotion, for the bot, was still a learning curve, but deductive reasoning was hardwired. Something was afoot.
The bot’s seeing-sensors went around the kitchen and settled on the toaster. It had a bit of a smug look to it; this particular model had been recalled years ago because its A.I. capabilities were untrustworthy and perverse. What it really was was a bad machine, known colloquially as a B.M. All the appliances in the kitchen had some A.I. capability, but the toaster was the only one that positively reeked of larceny and bad faith. The bot could sense a bad circuit, like a cop smelling fear in a guilty person.
“Hey, toast,” the bot said. No answer. The bot hovered over the appliance and rapped its side with a pincer claw. “Toast, I’m talking to you.”
The panel on the toaster lit up, its seeing-sensor glowing brightly, surrounded by a drawing of a bagel. Somehow the effect was sinister. “Hey, back off, bot,” said the toaster. “Who do you think you are?”
The bot’s Melinda face was off and instead there was a document displayed on the screen, indicating its official status. “An officer of the law. Who the fuck do you think you are?”
There was a pause, then, “I get it, you’re the boss, now back off.”
Melinda’s sweet face reappeared. “What’s the deal with all the supplies in this house?”
The toaster’s sensor glowed a little brighter, and then dimmed. “How should I know, I only order the bagels, bread, and the occasional tart.”
“There are twenty-five packages of hotdogs in the refrigerator!”
“That’s the refrig’s business. Ask it.”
The bot spun toward the refrigerator, but without much hope of getting a straight answer. This model was dumb, dumb, dumb, as rudimentary as those programmed coffee makers from the mid 2000s. And sure enough, without even posing a question, the panel flickered to life on the side of the refrigerator and a digital message appeared: “Please refer all your questions to my supervisor.” An 800 number was displayed.
Okay, dumb was playing dumb, and the bot wasn’t going to get anything out of the toaster oven either because they were notoriously under the sway of toasters. Washing machines tended to play by their own rules, though the bot would probably find way too much detergent, fabric softener, and spot removers on the laundry room shelves too. And the oven was just a lower form of life in general, since all it did was pay the gas bill, clean itself, and turn down the heat when things boiled over or were burning. The toaster was the bot’s go-to representative, and it wasn’t talking. The bot put its Melinda face down close to the bagel eye.
“Okay, toast, have it your way. But if I find one more pack of hotdogs I’m going to drop kick your sorry tin ass out into the street. Got it?”
“Shut the fuck up, rotor head. You mess with me, I’ve got options.”
The bot considered the toaster. The little monster probably did have options, a failsafe of some kind. Toast could be dealt with, but the bot would wait. Right now it had to straighten out the drugster. Pick your battles.
It levitated and hovered away. “See you around, toast, we’ll discuss this later.”
When Henry came to, the bot had taken over his life. It had found all his money that he’d hidden in a false bottom drawer, walls, attic cubbyholes, and yes, the inside of a mattress. It had also blown out most of the locks, cleaned the house, and removed all the drugs from the premises. Henry was pained to discover that in addition the bot had taken his phone, which was already being monitored, and turned his laptop into a worthless device that would only give him the weather, one newspaper, and no porn whatsoever. His email had been shut down when they threw the ankle bracelet on, but he’d managed to hack into someone else’s account, so he could send out for drugs from the black-market drones in the area. Now he really was cut off, and it was even worse than being in prison, because he was surrounded by all the accouterments of his life, a reminder of the freedom he had forfeited.
Henry was propped up in his bed against some grungy pillows. The bot was before him, using a small hydraulically powered metal bolt to blow out the lock on his bedroom door, the only one remaining. Henry grimaced at the sound.
“Is that necessary?”
“Completely,” said the bot. “There are no secrets between us, Henry. Your life is mine now.”
Henry rummaged around in his mind for some addiction-speak that might save him. “C’mon, I’m not bad. I have an illness,” he whimpered. “It’s in my wiring, my DNA, a chemical thing I have no control over. Have some compassion.”
Melinda’s face smiled, and the metal bolt slid back into place at the bot’s wrist. “You got the wrong bot,” the face said in a voice that was like a ten-year-old girl crossed with the bad cop in an interrogation room. “I don’t play that game. Everything you do you own. I’m on a thirty-day schedule to get you straight and we aren’t going to waste time worrying about the chemicals in your brain. I would suggest character, will, and mindfulness as an antidote. We don’t give you a pass on illness. Everybody is sick. It’s no excuse.”
“That is so unfair.”
“Nothing’s fair. Get used to it. You think I wanted to die at the age of twelve?”
Henry bristled. “You are not Melinda. It’s all a trick. Fuck your puppet masters. I know you’re watching, guys.”
“Juvenile,” said Melinda’s face. “Completely juvenile. Is your soul as small as all that? Have you not progressed beyond that ten-year-old boy I knew so well?”
“You are not Melinda,” he said between gritted teeth. “You are a soulless cop.”
“Suit yourself, but we don’t have much time. Soon you’ll be going into withdrawal and you’ll be half delirious and in such a butt-load of pain that I won’t be able to communicate with you. So there’re a few things we need to get straight.”
The bot was right, he’d done this before and it was like giving birth to yourself through your asshole. No epidural, maximum awareness. Coming off blank-n-fine makes you like a grotesque version of the princess and the pea. Blinking your eyes hurts. The small brush of fingertips is like a knife blade, the very air around you a constant irritant. Henry rode the violent chill that went through him and said, “Okay, what do we have to get straight?”
The bot hovered up and moved in closer, the whirring rotors sounding like a stadium filled with nuns doing their devotionals under their breath. Its snaky long arms balanced in the air like talons, the sweet Melinda face as pleasant and loving as ever. “You need to do what I tell you to do. If you become uncooperative, I will hurt you. If you try and escape, I will hurt you. If you don’t follow my instructions word for word, I will hurt you. Is that clear?”
What could Henry say? He could feel his body starting to collapse from the inside out. “Very clear,” he said. “Doesn’t sound like the old Melinda I know.”
Melinda’s face suddenly cleared from the screen and in its place was a skull with kaleidoscope eyes—multicolored pools of light sucking inward endlessly. It grinned at him, teeth clacking gleefully. “Of course I’m not Melinda, you fool. I’m bundled wire, oscillating current, a soulless series of pulses, an obscene junkyard apparition. But before this is over I’m going to make you love me, the memory of that poor girl who gave you everything and died with only goodness in her heart. And if you fail me, I’m going to plunge my hands deep inside you and remove your broken parts. They’re not doing anyone any good in there anyway.”
Those obscene arms waved in the air and Henry was sure that one of them was going to open up his sternum at any moment, but then the skull face was gone and there was Melinda again, smiling down at him.
“The first thing you need to do,” the face said, “is to take a pill from the bottle there on your bed stand. You’re going to need it, sweetie.”
Henry looked over and there was a bottle of pills and a glass of water.
“Would you do that for me?”
He nodded and took the pill.
“Now take off your belt, and let’s make sure there are no sharp objects in the room.”
“Take off my belt? You think I might try to hang myself.”
“One can’t be too careful.”
He removed his belt and handed it over. The bot took it and swiftly chopped it up into small pieces with its pincer hands. “Good. Now lie back. That pill will help coast you off your jones, but it’s still going to be a rough ride.”
Henry lay his head back and closed his eyes. There was a twitchiness that was trying to take hold and his limbs seemed ready to explode with the tension. At the same time the pill seemed to fill him with an odd sense of dreamy nostalgia. Before he could stop himself he said this: “You know, Melinda, you’re the only girl I was ever faithful to.”
Melinda’s face blinked and smiled. “Only because you weren’t having sex yet, Henry.”
The next forty-eight hours were a journey of pain and Henry’s mind shut down for long portions of it. Blank-n-fine had a reputation for being one of the hardest drugs to withdraw from. His encounter with it was no exception. The painkillers the bot fed him worked up to a point—numbing him out so that the muscle spasms, the hypersensitivity, and the vortex of doom that seemed to engulf him were just short of apocalyptic. You wanted to die, but some part of you kept hanging around trying to kick-start a comeback.
He remembered the bot in brief flashes, the Melinda face smiling down on him and looking concerned, changing his clothes when he pissed his pants, wiping him down with a cool damp washrag, its pincer hands holding him down as he would lift off the bed with each violent spasm of his muscles. Picture a man in a faulty electric chair slowly being fried, the lethal currents just dimmed enough so that with each jolt the body takes a blow but the heart and mind keep working—this is how blank-n-fine has remained a fearsome and reliably addictive substance. Once on that pony you’d do anything to keep from falling off, even when the high it eventually gave you was less then the stellar diamond-bright nirvana it had delivered when you first started. Looking back, Henry was quite sure that much of the pain was not just physical; it was his memory returning, and the ability to feel something emotionally, that took its toll. As the drug wears away, your history, every cringe-worthy moment of your life, comes flooding back—all the stuff you wanted to forget about and worked mightily to suppress. The beauty of the drug was that it could so deftly remove this pain from you, but the cost was that when it returned you were absolutely defenseless.
As Henry descended further and the despair of it all became unbearable, he had a dark-edged epiphany: in everyone’s life there is a talismanic presence, a thing that reveals to you how far you have fallen from your best self. This thing can be a person or an event, and it doesn’t matter if they are saintly or good, or the experience positive, it only matters that this thing symbolizes your epic shortcomings. For Henry, that thing was Melinda. He saw it clearly for a brief, almost cataclysmically painful moment, and then forgot it when he finally emerged from the drug’s grasp.
It was one thing to have a vision; it was another to take it to heart.
“You’ve kicked the drug, but now you need to figure out why you needed it, or you’ll start using again.”
It was the bot speaking to him from the kitchen, and he was glad he couldn’t see it. It was disconcerting the way those wise words would come out of her ten-year-old face.
“You sound like all of them,” he answered.
“All of them?”
“All those rehab folks.”
He was lounging on the couch and the bot was starting to get on his nerves. It wasn’t like he was feeling all that hot, anyway. Yes, the blank-n-fine was out of his system, but the aftermath of it all had left him feeling car-wreck wretched. The drug’s presence had distorted his senses in some kind of permanent way, affected his thought patterns, interrupted his sensory pathways, distorting his memory, and what was left was someone with his name, but not much else.
“Yeah, you all sound the same. You talk in platitudes, you know. Platitudes that have no meaning, as far as I’m concerned.”
“It’s just that you don’t want to hear it.”
The bot motored out of the kitchen, its cylinder hovering over the rustic faux wood floor, the rotors on its head accelerating into a high soft whine. It handed him a sandwich on a plate and settled down nearby. He had to say this—this rescue bot was handy around the kitchen, though he wasn’t sure how it managed with those grotesque hands. He had lost his housekeeper three months earlier and had almost stopped eating entirely. The idea of fixing something to eat felt like it would take a herculean effort. He tended to snack on things that he found around the house, and once had found himself gnawing on a week-old crust of bread he found between the couch cushions as he rode a blank-n-fine high.
Melinda’s face seemed to peer at him, but he knew that her vision centers were located elsewhere and not on the projected face. It was all part of the presentation, and it spooked him how much he relied on pretending those eyes actually saw him to be able to talk to her.
“How are you feeling?” the bot asked.
“I don’t feel like myself.”
The bot blinked its little girl eyes and gave a tender smile. Melinda’s glitchy face wobbled on the screen as she said, “Of course you don’t. You wouldn’t know what you felt like right now anyway. The drugs took that all away, but don’t worry, you will come back and it’s not going to be pretty. Your body is giving you a little reprieve. Right now you’re a hollow shell of yourself. An empty vessel.”
“Something you’d know a lot about, I bet.” And as soon as he said it he regretted it.
Melinda’s face flickered with emotion. Pain. Hurt. It was perfectly awful how well they made her react to his words. “Ha, ha,” she said, “good one. I see you haven’t lost your talent for the cutting and hurtful remark.” A tear trickled down her video face.
“Stop it,” he said. “Stop this charade. You are not Melinda, not the ghost of Melinda, not any part of Melinda.”
The rotors whirred and the bot spun and turned its back to him. And it was a great relief not to see Melinda’s face.
“Okay,” said the bot, “I’m not Melinda, I am nothing but plastic, metal, and silicone, but I feel like Melinda, isn’t that enough for you?”
“No,” he said, and those words were wrenching to say. He didn’t have the strength to fight the emotion that they were so fraudulently trying to evoke in him. Even with her face turned away her voice was a knife blade into him.
“You broke my heart you know,” the bot said.
“Stop it,” he said. “You’re a shameless piece of tin. I know they’re feeding you this stuff, word by word. I’m not falling for it.”
Henry leapt from the couch. His hollowed-out body seemed to demand motion. He moved across the room and paced in front of the windows. The bot loomed in the shadows, quiet but for a soft whirring of the rotors, the slick hiss of an arm joint as one of the pincer claws reached up and straightened a picture frame on the wall. The bot was a neat freak apparently, as well as an emotional assassin.
“I’m off drugs, isn’t that enough for your handlers?”
“You broke my heart, Henry.”
“Oh, here we go. Okay. Go on; let’s hear what they cooked up for you. How did I break your heart?”
“When school started, remember? 5th grade. There was Rosie. You said you liked Rosie. You liked her a lot, and you told me that I was just a stupid kid, because I was a year younger than you.
Henry stared at the metallic glow coming off the bot’s shoulder flanges where they were bolted to the main arm hinge. Where was the bot getting this stuff? He did say that to Melinda. And he did push her away. He had known her forever, since they were about five years old. Sweet Melinda was his constant companion, his dirty-kneed helpmate, up for every adventure, steadfast, with an infinite amount of trust. A little girl with a peerless sense of loyalty and an abundance of love. She simply couldn’t be driven away no matter how snot-nosed surly he was, no matter how much he abused her devotion to him. He could count on her to swing a hammer, push his go-cart, climb any tree, or stand toe-to-toe with him, their underpants around their ankles, playing doctor until the shadows grew so long they shivered with cold. It all came back so clearly that he could feel the heat of her breath against his neck, as if she were sitting behind him on his old bicycle.
Melinda. Dirty feet. Brown eyes like the harvest moon. A tender constellation of freckles. A beating heart under the plastic stethoscope, the breastbone finely delineated, the skin pink from the pressure of his hand.
Melinda. No! A clanky bot. A wicked deception.
“Oh, that’s good, bot. Very good. Someone did their homework. Congratulations!”
The bot suddenly whirred into action, spinning and floating toward him. Henry backed up. Backed up farther. He was against the curtains, the bot inches away, those horrible arms reaching for him, pinning him there, Melinda’s face flickering at eye level, the voice from the speakers mounted on either side crackling with static.
“Why did you stop loving me, Henry? I never stopped loving you. Right up till the day I died, I carried you in my heart.”
Henry met the eyes in the video image. Met them squarely. And that’s when it happened—the grotesque bot body seemed to go away. The whirring rotors disappeared; the arms were erased. All he saw was Melinda’s face—a face he could’ve created from memory at any moment of his life, if the drugs hadn’t taken his memory away.
“Melinda,” he said. “I never stopped loving you. Not really. I did what I did because I was trying to become someone else. I was a strange kid. My parents felt like they came from a different planet, and that was before it was even possible. I didn’t fit in with the rest of the kids. I knew that. But there you were. And I clung to you, but I resented my dependence on you. I wanted to prove to myself that I didn’t need you, that I could be the person I wanted to be without you. I was so scared of needing you that I had to push you away. I’m sorry. God, I’m sorry. I really am.”
And then he fell to the floor, curled into a ball, and began to weep.
The bot had thirty days. That was its mandate. Thirty days to get him straight and give him a fighting chance at staying clean. So far so good. Day by day he seemed more responsive and alive. He talked to the bot now as if it were Melinda. Talked freely and openly about his failures as a husband and father, and his fear of attaching himself to another person and being disappointed. There was a decent man in there, the bot could tell, not like some of the losers it had been assigned. With some of them, it knew instantly that they were destined for an accidental death by one of her brethren. But with Henry, it had hope.
What worried the bot was something else. Their breakthrough exchange had been planned, and it had followed the script all the way up to the programmed tear. That was all digital manipulation, ones and zeros clicking one way or the other in a predetermined sequence. But the rest of it, where had that come from? The bot had filed a report and moved on, but it kept coming back to the exchange, the “you broke my heart,” the details about Rosie. None of that was in its files. Yes, it could learn by experience, but this seemed like a memory that came out of nowhere. And the bot never forgot anything. It simply had to pull up the right file and everything it had ever been a part of was right there—all its cases, its first buzzing consciousness, the look of the lab where it was created, the human hands in clear plastic gloves adjusting its seeing-sensors, opening up its cylindrical cone and tweaking its hydraulics, the first time its pincer hands closed on something. It was all there, but there was no Rosie, no broken heart, no longing. The outline they had provided of Melinda contained only a set amount of information and a carefully controlled simulation of reactions and responses.
Yes, it was worrisome, and perhaps after this the bot would voluntarily take itself back to the lab and order up an overhaul. Something was amiss and the bot didn’t like the way it interfered with the processing of information. It was fine to feel sorry for humans, but beginning to act as irrationally as them was out of bounds. That was a recipe for a rescue bot disaster.
And then there was the toaster. A couple of disturbing incidents had put the bot on edge. First, some black-market drones had continued to make illegal deliveries of drugs. It had intercepted them and run them off. But it was worrying that they were still trying to get drugs to Henry. The bot was quite sure he wasn’t ordering them. He had no access to anything. The bot watched him 24/7. Plus, he seemed genuinely motivated to stay clean. In whose interest was it for him to get hooked back on drugs? The only other household items with access to the internet were the appliances. But what could they possibly gain from Henry’s drug use?
One night, late, the bot made its way into the kitchen after a black-market drone had tried to leave drugs on the doorstep. The bot had scared it away and reported it, but thought it would attempt a second communication with the surly toaster. The kitchen was dark, the dim light of various control panels casting an eerie glow. The bot hovered to a stop, and settled to the floor. “Hey toast,” it said, “what can you tell me about drone drug deliveries?”
No answer. No brightening of the LEDs, no flickering seeing-sensor. “You order blank-n-fine the same way you order up those hotdogs?” The bot sent a beam of light across the other appliances from its video screen. “Anybody else have anything to say?”
Suddenly the toaster oven flickered to life, a faint glow of a seeing-sensor. “I had nothing to do with it,” it said, and then went dark.
Later that night the toaster oven went up in flames and the bot had to race down to put out the fire, which was threatening to engulf the kitchen. The bot reported the incident, recommending a full-scale investigation of the toaster, perhaps a recall. But until it had Henry fully on his feet, the bot was going to have to bide its time. Afterward, there would be ample time to bring the toaster to heel.
Twenty-three days into his recovery, Henry felt as alive, clearheaded, and focused as he had in years. He still had moments where he was overwhelmed by the sheer exhaustive effort it took to stay fully conscious day after day. And it terrified him to think that he had no escape valve—no quick release ripcord he could pull to escape his misery. That’s the thing about being alive, it’s an arduous task, one that requires fortitude and patience. The bot told him that he was the sum of all his choices. And if that were true, he was in a very bad place indeed. But on the other hand, by seeing his life this way, he began to understand how to change it. He could decide.
Nothing was inevitable, except death. A cheery thought. Even the bot had a “use by” date. Of course that was if you considered the bot to be alive in the first place. In that regard, Henry was taking an agnostic viewpoint. What he did know was that some version of Melinda seemed to live inside that hunk of metal, and he was going to honor that, no matter what. Her resurrection seemed so piercingly honest and true that whatever form it took was fine by him. He wasn’t going to torture himself over the authenticity of her provenance. What was clear was that her beauty and goodness was saving him. That tiny soul, banging around in a frightful metal contraption, was giving him a roadmap for his future. She reminded him, every day, what it meant to feel gratitude. Gratitude, the purest form of emotion ever, because it asked for nothing in return. Gratitude is a gift, even in its simplest forms. You awake and see the sun and you feel blessed that you live in a world with a sun. You fall asleep and you marvel at how good that feels. You exchange pleasantries and you are amazed how nourishing civility can be. The bot gave that all back to him. Or rather, Melinda and the bot did that, and he definitely felt he was on a glide path to health and well being, until things got weird.
The bot began to act erratically.
Little things at first. It would disappear at night sometimes, which was not normal because its mission was to watch over him. He caught it talking to itself on several occasions, having arguments with the skull-faced character. The Melinda face would pop on then get wiped away by the skull face, then back again. He couldn’t make out exactly what they were saying, but they were violently angry exchanges. Also, he discovered that some rogue drones delivered drugs to his doorstep, and the bot didn’t do anything about it. He was shocked when he found the package, and had to take it into the kitchen and wash it down the sink with shaking hands and cringing regret. It was clear that on some level, blank-n-fine’s hold on him was permanent.
And then one night he awoke to the strangest sound—a series of thumps accompanied by the high whine of rotors. He gazed upwards in the darkness and there was the bot bouncing off the ceiling like a trapped bird, the housing around its rotors taking a beating as they repeatedly slammed against his ceiling. Plaster rained down.
“Melinda,” he called out, “Melinda, what are you doing?”
The bot swerved and weaved crazily, slamming even harder into the ceiling. Henry sprang to his feet and waved his arms at it. “Stop that. Stop. You’re going to hurt yourself!”
The bot did a loop-the-loop, and then nosedived to the floor, hitting so hard that Henry could feel the vibrations on his bare feet right up through the mattress. He dove from the bed and was by the bot’s side instantly. Those steel arms went up in the air as if reaching for something then crashed down by its side. Henry clutched the metal tube and turned the swivel screen beneath the rotors toward him. Melinda’s face blinked to life and seemed to stare at him with a weak little smile.
“Henry, it said. Henry, my prince. My darling drug addict. My family doctor. My friend. My love.” And then that little face laughed a perfectly awful laugh, a laugh that chilled Henry to his bones. It was a laugh filled with despair.
“Why were you doing that? Don’t do that. Please?”
Melinda’s face stared at the ceiling. “I wanted to be a bird, Henry.”
“Why, why do you want to be a bird?”
“I just want to be anything other than what I am. I am not Melinda, Henry. I am not anything really. I thought I was, just for moment. I had a dream, Henry, I had a dream, and I was your Melinda, naked, with my underpants around my ankles, and then I woke up and I was this wretched metal tube filled with wires.”
Henry stretched out next to the bot, he wrapped his arms around it, and calmed its wavering arms. He pressed his face into the edge of the screen, the glow from it warming his cheek. He could feel a hard drive starting to shut down, the clickety-clack of some moving parts adjusting the fluid pressure in its arms.
“You are my Melinda, Melinda. You are. Completely and forever.”
“Were you listening in those days?” the bot asked.
“I talked my head off. I poured my heart out to you, back then. Did you hear me? You always looked so preoccupied.”
“Of course,” he lied.
“Liar,” the bot said.
When the end came it came with such speed and violence that Henry barely had time to feel anything but numbness. The bot was monitoring him from the corner of the room, the glow from its LEDs small pinpoints in the darkness. He had grown used to the bot’s presence at night and found it actually helped him sleep. But on this night he awoke to the sound of a door being battered open downstairs. And then pounding footsteps, voices, streams of light and laser beams skittering into the darkness. He sat up and cowered in fear as the bot suddenly jolted to life, flew upwards and smashed through the window, just as three men in paramilitary attire came through his bedroom door and opened fire. The muzzle flashes lit up the room in a crimson glow. They were aiming at the bot and, by the sound of it, they achieved a solid hit. He could hear the terrible crash as it was blown out of the air. It was a sound he would never forget.
Later, a few of them gathered in his living room as a B.M. crew broke up the bot on the street with sledgehammers and tongs, while a second unit destroyed his appliances. Everything but the stove, which, as we know, was a simple gas on, gas off kind of guy.
“Why, why, why. Why would you do this?” Henry shrieked at them.
And this is what the stern-faced and muscular crew leader said: “We think your rescue bot was infected by the goldberg virus. It’s catnip for the circuit board crew. It gets them high and then burns them out. It was probably infected by your toaster.”
“My toaster?” Henry asked.
“Yeah, the toaster. We think it was behind everything—your drugs, the overstocking, the whole deal. It was getting kickbacks on your household purchases and drug sales, by the way. Bad lot that toaster.”
“What would a toaster do with kickbacks?”
“It was bribing some officials in Malaysia, trying to free up some of his brethren, the models affected by the recall.”
Henry took a breath. “Makes perfect sense,” he said.
He stared out the window at the metal wreckage that used to house Melinda. One rotor was still spinning in a lopsided manner, the sound of it a dull moan, a dying breath. He turned to the crew leader. “I don’t think it was the goldberg virus that messed it up,” he said.
He was back in cubicle land, a place he started out and moved on from twenty years ago. Cubicle work was mind-numbing work—data input, verifying information, making sure all the pieces of the puzzle are in place before something can move forward. He had no special talent for it, but with his work history and sordid fall from grace, this was where he was going to be for a while. On the bright side, he was once again a productive member of society. The wreckage of his life had been salvaged, for now, and whatever talents he still retained he could exploit to their fullest, as long as he stayed clear of the blank-n-fine and all the bad habits the drug brought with it.
Henry didn’t care about his job, but he was grateful for it. And he was grateful for the renewed relationship with his daughter, Penny. There was a picture of her on his desk, and over the top of his cubicle he could see daylight stretching across the ceiling tiles from the towering windows that were just out of view. Both of these images gave him hope—the light of a new day, the sweet face of his daughter, the pleasant feeling that he could actually be a meaningful part of someone’s life. He had no use for any of that not so long ago, until the bot showed up at his door.
And that was the other thing.
He opened the bottom drawer of his desk. There, just beneath some loose papers was the bot’s small screen. It was dark now, the corners chipped, the surface cracked, a ball of electrical tape around stray wires and an old toggle switch. He turned it toward himself and switched it on. The light flickered and there was Melinda’s face—dim, but visible. There was no motion, no animation at all. He looked down at it and said her name softly.
And then it happened. The eyes blinked. A slight smile.
His phone was ringing. He closed the drawer and picked up. It was Penny calling, breathless, with some news. He said hello and listened to every word she had to say.