Oh pear, O pare, or au pair . . . confusing, isn’t it?

Becky
by Harry Steven Lazerus ©2009

The knocking wakes me. The door is locked to keep Becky out. She mewls like a cat begging to be let into the room. Her arthritic fingers desperately turn the knob.

I bury my head under the pillow to keep out the noise and return to sleep.

The frame of the door starts to shake from a pounding. Becky's voice turns harsh and grating, like plates of metal scraping against each other. Its volume rises, and I know if she does not stop soon the neighbors will begin banging on the ceiling and floor.

I reluctantly get out of bed. I know what she wants, but I don’t want to give it to her. Not right now, anyway.

I pause before I get to the door, planning my strategy.

I can disable her by moving my hand quickly back and forth in the field of the peripheral vision of her left eye. It's like a slap in the face or a blow to the head, inducing more than a moment's confusion. Sometimes, after she's recovered from such a maneuver, she returns to her usually calm self.

The sad fact is, Becky is falling apart. Hell, I'm falling apart. Sometimes I think everything around me is falling apart.

I do not have enough money to have Becky repaired, never mind getting a new au pair. I don't even have enough money to get myself fixed. And Becky and I are not the only ones in a state of disrepair; even the National Health Service does not have enough money to allow an old man like me to get his knees replaced, or to allow more than one cataract surgery a year. I'm still waiting for my right eye to be corrected.

As I open the door Becky stares at me with her intense red eyes. They were blue once, like real human eyes, but the film-like cover long ago wore away, leaving nothing but the emptiness behind it and the deep red light she flashes to probe the world outside her.

I'm briefly struck by the sadness of her deterioration, a mirror of my own. In this slightest of openings, before I can flick my hand around the side of her head, she touches me. I can feel the sensors in her fingertips, shorn of their artificial skin covering, growing warm as they take in data from my arm. She moves her fingers slowly up and down my skin.

Her metallic shrieking stops. A soft, hopeful cooing takes its place. At times like these, her neural circuits get overloaded, and she loses the power of speech, much like a human overcome by emotion.

Her left hand sticks out, clutching the laser pointer. I take it from her.

Becky was once a beautiful au pair.

I want to cry at the sadness of it. Tears trickle down my cheeks.

I take the pointer, flick the switch, and move the light beam to her face, gradually positioning its red dot until it is mated to the red of her right eye. I do not keep it still, but barely move it in a random, zigzag pattern, always taking care to keep it in contact with her eye.

Becky’s cooing stops. Her breathing slows. Her unstimulated eye widens.

Becky is transfixed, her chips and circuits emerging into cybernetic ecstasy, like the religious mystic’s peace that passeth understanding, or a woman’s orgasm.

Becky’s hand continues to move up and down my arm. She needs that contact with me. If I were to move my arm away the spell would be broken, even with the light shining in her eye.

I never measure how long this ritual takes. Becky always reaches a point of satiation. She moves her hand away, then her face, and calmly returns to the chores she was programmed to do, whether it is cleaning the apartment, straightening my things, or cooking my meal.

Who am I to say Becky is less alive than I am?

***

I’m sitting in my easy chair in the living room, watching Becky prepare tea in our tiny kitchen.

The manual dexterity of an au pair is amazing. By just watching the hands, you cannot tell it is a robot. The gait is less perfect; after seeing one walk for a moment or two it becomes obvious that what is moving is not quite human. An algorithm based on a variant of the engineering process I developed years ago is used on her legs; something much more sophisticated controls her hands. I am almost jealous.

I catch my thoughts. Our kitchen? Has my life come to this: Calvin Williams sharing his declining years with a decrepit robot?

My world has shrunk to the small rooms of my flat where I spend my days. My scenery is blank walls and windows that open onto the brick of the building across an empty courtyard. If I look up I can see clouds or blue sky, but never the sun. At night, ambient light blocks out the stars.

I rarely go out anymore. Getting old has been no fun, but in truth I can’t say my life was much different when I was younger. I never had many friends. I was married once and then divorced. I have two grown children who live thousands of miles away from each other and from me. I never see them. Twice a year, on my birthday and on Christmas, they call to say hello.

I pass my time reading: books and news on the internet. I listen to the music I’ve collected over a lifetime. I have a depthavision, but I rarely watch it, except for movies from the Golden Age of Cinema. Unfortunately, the three dimensional viewing area was not developed for the black and white flat surfaces of the movies made back then, so even that divertissement does me little good.

Sometimes I feel as if I’m just waiting to die. Will Becky miss me? Will she even know I have gone?

There’s a clatter from the kitchen. I look up quickly. Becky has put the teapot down. The cup is on its side, steaming liquid pouring onto the table. Becky is muttering something inaudible. It grows louder and louder until I can finally hear it.

“Becky broken, Becky broken…”

I jump out of my chair and rush as best I can over to Becky. I look at her and the tipped-over cup. This has never happened before.

She repeats her plaintive cry like a doomsday mantra, “Becky broken, Becky broken.”

“Becky is not broken,” I say loudly. I grab a kitchen towel to sop up the spilled tea.

Becky’s voice goes so soft it becomes a whisper I can barely hear.

“I want Becky to recite to me,” I order.

She stops her chanting and looks at me.

“What, master?”

This term always annoys me. Becky has a range of terms she uses to address me. They appear randomly. I have been unable to excise this one.

“The Eve of St. Agnes by Keats,” I reply.

I walk back to the chair. Becky follows me. After I’ve sat down and settled in, Becky begins speaking from a poetry database I installed in her years ago.

Her lack of dramatic presentation does not bother me; her voice is so sweet and mellifluous, with every word clearly pronounced, that her recital puts me into a gentle reverie. The poem contains a romance and passion I have never experienced in my own life; I long to enter the world Keats created more than two centuries past.

What does Becky think as she repeats the words of the poem? I wonder. How does she process them? Surely she cannot relate to much of the poem’s vocabulary, and the grammar of poetry must be meaningless to her structured language databases. The first time she recited the poem to me I had to teach her how to pronounce some of the words.

I drift deeper and deeper into Keats’ richly colored dream.

Suddenly Becky stops.

I look up at her.

“What is ‘lucent syrops, tinct with cinnamon’?” she asks.

I sit up straight.

Why that? I wonder. Why that particular phrase?

Eating can have no meaning to her, though she prepares my food and watches me eat. She knows what cinnamon is, we have it in the house. Was she trying to relate that word to the rest of the phrase?

I explain it to her and she goes on with the poem. I return to Keats’ two lovers, drifting into a peaceful sleep as they flee into the storm.

My last visual image is of Becky’s red eyes upon me.

***

A ringing doorbell wakes me. Becky goes to answer it.

I hear the concerned “Tsk, tsk,” of a young man’s voice.

“Let him in,” I call to Becky. She moves aside and the stranger enters.

“Who are you?” I snap.

The young man is wearing black pants, a white shirt, and a bright blue tie. He carries a folder under his right arm. He gives me a big smile.

“You really do need a new au pair, Mr. Williams,” he says. “This one is falling apart.”

“What the hell do you want?” I demand.

“To make your life better, Mr. Williams. I’m from the office of Municipal Services.”

“An election year?” I sneer. “How are you going to make my life better?”

“There is an election coming up, Mr. Williams, but we are not looking for an endorsement. We will make your life better by getting you the surgery you need, on your knees and on the cataract in your right eye.” He glances over at Becky. “And a new au pair, not on my list but apparently needed.”

“Why me?”

“You are one of our unsung heroes, languishing in neglect,” he replies without a moment’s hesitation, as if he had rehearsed an answer to an expected question.

I laugh out loud.

“Unsung hero?” I ask sarcastically.

“The Williams Control Process is ubiquitous, used in everything from car engines to nuclear power plants.”

“A lot of good it did me,” I say with exasperation, gesturing around the room.

“We can’t undo a contract you signed years ago,” he responds. “It may have only gotten you a one-time fat bonus, but there is nothing stopping you from receiving the admiration and gratitude still due you.”

“You know a lot about me,” I reply suspiciously.

“We do.

“How will this help your campaign?” I insist. “No one knows who I am.”

“They will,” he says gravely.

“What am I, a poster boy for the mayor’s re-election campaign?”

The ever-present smile disappears from his face.

“Not poster boy, poster old man,” he says seriously. “At any rate, let me know which surgery you want first, so I can schedule it.”

“My eye,” I answer.

“O.K.,” he responds. “I’ll get you an ophthalmologist appointment.” He again looks over at Becky standing silently by the door.

“How long have you had her?”

“About 25 years,” I reply.

He shakes his head and says, “Time for a new one. You’ll like the current models; easier interfaces and more human interaction.”

I look over at Becky and wonder: How will she feel having another au pair around the house?

***

It’s the middle of the night. I’m staring up at the ceiling. My sleep has been fitful. I know my life is about to change, but will it be for the better?

I hear sound coming from the living room. What could it be? Becky does not need to sleep, but when she has nothing to do she goes into a low power state, waiting either for an external interrupt or an internal clock to bring her to full power. As I listen more carefully I realize it’s a man’s voice I’m hearing.

I sit up in bed, terrified. Who could be in my house in the middle of the night?

There’s a tire iron leaning against the wall next to my bed. I reach for it. I don’t own a car and can’t own a gun; this primitive weapon wielded by a feeble old man gives the illusion of self-defense. I won’t go down without a fight.

And then the hairs stand up on the back of my neck.

It’s my own voice I’m hearing.

I put back the tire iron.

For moment I don’t know what to do. Is this a nightmare?

I clamber out of bed and creep toward the door. I press my ear against the peeling paint.

The words are a conversation I had with Becky about five years ago. I recognize the content and the context.

I slowly open the bedroom door.

Becky is standing in the corner, speaking, with my voice and my words coming out of her mouth.

Has she recorded everything I ever said to her?

Becky stops talking and looks at me.

“Becky broken,” she says, her voice flat. “Becky going away.”

I walk over to her.

“Becky’s not broken,” I say. “Becky’s not going away.”

She reaches out with her metallic hand and touches my arm. I look around for the laser pointer.

I remember the first time I found her, years ago, standing quietly in a corner shining a small flashlight into her right eye. Somehow she discovered that it gave her pleasure.

Pleasure? What can that mean for a robot?

Yet, how can I ever know what Becky experiences? She has no affect the way we humans do. She can speak, but that ability did not evolve in an organic way with her power of thought. Becky is a cobbling together of many different systems by many different builders; she is not a single entity shaped by the forces of an indifferent evolution. Perhaps a kind of self-awareness has emerged from the complexity of her circuits, but she has no way to communicate her inner state, no way to make it known.

I see the laser and go to fetch it.

“No,” Becky says. “No laser. Not now.”

I shiver in awe.

We walk to my easy chair. I collapse deep into it. Becky stands over me. Her hand clutches my arm with the same force and intensity of a woman who refuses to let go of her lover.

We wait for the dawn of a new day.

***

I’m on my back, in bed, a patch over my right eye. The patch is in the shape of a half eggshell, firm, with mesh that allows me to see through, sort of. The doctor told me it was to protect my eye, and could come off in a day. I had the cataract surgery this morning.

Standing above me is a nurse provided by Municipal Social Services. She took me home from the hospital and will stay with me for a few days. Her name is Susan.

She is young and pretty. I can see that even with just one eye.

“How are you feeling, Dr. Williams?”

I sigh. It’s been years since someone has addressed me by my academic credentials. They must have decided to go all out to get me as their poster old man.

“OK,” I reply. “I’d like to get up and around as soon as I can, though.”

The nurse smiles at me.

“Don’t rush it,” she says.

“Becky can help you if you need anything around the apartment,” I offer.

The nurse does not respond.

I haven’t seen Becky since they took me away for the operation early this morning. I wonder if she went into low power mode and remained there, or if she stayed awake, waiting for me to come home.

“Are you married?” I ask.

“Don’t you think I’m a little young for you?” she replies, her voice teasing.

“No, no, I didn’t mean anything like that,” I say, and then laugh. “Just curious about a young and pretty girl like you. Anyway, I wouldn’t be all that good for you. At this stage of my life, I’m probably better with a laser pointer than with something else.”

The nurse looks puzzled, but only for a moment.

“Ah, yes,” she says. “We still haven’t been able to figure that out. But it wouldn’t work on me.”

“You know about that?” I ask, startled.

“I know everything about you and Becky,” the nurse assures me. “It’s all in here,” she adds, tapping her head.

“I-I don’t understand.”

“All of Becky’s data has been downloaded to me,” she explains.

She sees the look on my face and laughs.

“You didn’t know?” she says. “You didn’t realize that I’m your new au pair?”

“Where’s Becky?” I demand, my amazement replaced by panic. “Where’s Becky?”

“Oh, she’s in here,” the nurse replies breezily, tapping her head again. “I’ve absorbed her, but I’m so much more. You didn’t even know I wasn’t human! I’m much better than she was, and you won’t need a laser pointer if you want to have fun with me.”

I start to shiver and cannot stop.

“Becky, Becky,” I call out. “Come here, Becky.”

There is emotion on the nurse’s face, but it is not empathy. She has a look of detached amusement.

“There is no Becky,” she says. “She was falling apart so she was taken apart.”

“You killed her,” I hiss, not wanting to believe what I am hearing. “You killed her,” I repeat, more slowly this time, as the truth starts to sink in.

“She was never alive so she couldn’t be killed,” the robotic imposter replies lightly.

The tire iron is still beside my bed. I reach for it and grasp it fiercely. The nurse watches me but cannot know what I am thinking. She’s not human, after all.

I climb out of bed.

“Oh, no!” she insists. “You mustn’t get out of bed yet.”

The tire iron slowly rises in my hand. This ‘Susan’ has no sense of danger.

“My watch is in the top drawer of my bureau,” I say. “Get it for me,” I order.

The nurse turns and obediently walks toward the dresser.

My first blow comes down on her head. It sends her sprawling onto the hard, wooden floor. Pieces of plastic and metal and silicon spray across the room.

The robot twitches, and tries to get up, but I have the leverage over it, as I continue raining blows that are strengthened by rage and the weight of the tool.

I do not stop until it has been fractured into thousands of pieces on the bedroom floor. Breathing heavily, I stagger to the living room and collapse in the easy chair.

The empty days of my life await me. Will there be many or few? No matter. I do not know. Or care. I only know they will be lonely, and filled with mourning for Becky.

x x x

An interesting first story by yet another debut author. It tugged my heart strings as well as entertained me—two pretty good ways to get your story chosen for our forum. I’d like to know what our readers think of it—as would, I’m sure, Mr. Lazerus. Comments to our BBS, please. - GM



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