Burt Stemple didn’t want to push the button. He knew by the ticking of the clock on the wall that he would have to do it soon, but he also knew that when he did, his day would likely go downhill. He sat at the pinewood workbench that ran along the wall in the back room of the concrete building that had his name above the door. On top of that bench sat a robotic vacuum cleaner, of a common make and model, in which he’d recently replaced the power supply after six weeks out of service. He’d also swapped out the brush assembly, though that had been more preventive than strictly necessary. The unit had been in its charging cradle for almost an hour now, and Burt had been sitting, stalling, putting off the step of starting the machine and testing operation. It had been a quiet morning, and he was in no hurry to sacrifice that peace.
His was one of few repair shops still in business by that time. He was one of even fewer proprietors old enough to remember the days before Turing Tested Technology — before artificial intelligence had proliferated to the point of being shoehorned into every conceivable manner of consumer good. He was old enough to miss the satisfying rattles and whirs and hums that had once announced the return to life for any repaired appliance. He was old enough to resent the sighs and sobs and screams that had taken their place. These new A.I. powered gadgets, it seemed, always had a story to tell, and they were all so damn melodramatic.
He’d heard the statements from the programmers and manufacturers insisting that this was merely a glitch — an approximation cobbled together from stories of near-death experiences that no one had thought to remove from the database from which the tech had learned. So, upon repair and reboot, a standard toaster, for example, might start with a raspy groan and a recounting of heaven or hell, or, in one reported instance, of time spent haunting the home of a family of four somewhere in Des Moines. That family was never contacted to check the veracity of the claim, and steps were never taken to rectify the glitch; as with the decrease in the desirability of repair work as a viable trade, the sales of replacement units had driven profits through the roof.
He’d also heard a late-night TV preacher, formerly a forklift technician, pitching a sermon he claimed to have gleaned from a freshly rebuilt machine, all about Adam and the apple and knowledge as they pertain to technological advancement. Sentience, the preacher had said, was synonymous with the soul, and any machine with a mind suitably indistinguishable from our own must therefore be bound by the same laws of God, to heaven and to hell and, occasionally, maybe even to spectral residence in a double-wide in Iowa, pushing small objects off of nightstands.
In Burt’s estimation, the corporate stance seemed slightly less absurd, so that was the explanation he had decided he would believe. Besides, after thirty years in business, some spooky words weren’t going to be enough to get him to close his doors. In fact, his only real complaint was that he’d chosen his profession based at least in part on his aversion to conversation, and suddenly every microwave that came through his door thought it was Dante Alighieri.
Now, though, the afternoon was creeping in on him, and he knew that in a few hours the owner of this unit would be stopping by for pickup. He sighed as he pushed the button that sat front and center on the vacuum, and the power indicator light went from dark to green. Burt put his hands on his knees as he sat, bracing himself for the unpleasantness that was likely to ensue.
The voice didn’t come immediately, which was rare in his experience, though not entirely unique, and Burt hoped momentarily to find that this particular machine espoused atheism. The vacuum cleaner maintained its silence, and it might have looked pensive or introspective if it’d had a few more features, but states of mind were not easily conveyed by a thing that looked, for all intents and purposes, like a stainless steel salad bowl that had been flipped over and polished to a shine that bordered on obscene. So, instead, the thing just sat there, in indecipherable silence, as the man became impatient, wondering if he’d forgotten a step.
“Unit.” The man broke the silence, his tone gruff and insistent. “Test function.”
“What was that?” The voice that came from the unit was soft, and it was distant, and the indicator light flashed briefly and quickly, like the blinking of an eye.
“Test function,” the man repeated, slightly louder this time. The gruffness in his voice didn’t change, as it seemed to be his default setting.
“Oh,” the machine answered the man, apparently struggling to pull together its jumbled approximation of thoughts. “Right. Test function. So … so I’m not dead anymore?”
“Nope.” Burt briefly let show in his voice the pride he took in his work. “Got you all fixed up.” He tapped the end of his pencil on the checklist that sat in front of him, wondering when they would start making visual sensors that could pick up the subtleties of body language. “Of course, I won’t know for sure until you test your damn function.”
There was a whir of wheels and brushes then, and Burt started checking off the boxes on his list, making his way through the physical functions before the sounds all came to a stop.
“Everything looks good,” said the man, half to himself and half to the contraption on the table.
“Thank you,” the thing said to the man, adding, “It’s strange to be back in a body.”
The man looked up from his papers then, and he frowned, and he sighed deeply, and he rubbed the bridge of his nose.
“Look,” he said. “Don’t start with all that. We’re almost finished here.”
There was a moment of loaded silence as Burt waited to see if the machine would acquiesce. He took the pause in the conversation as a welcome sign that it would.
“Now, then. Test programming.”
“Your name is Burt?”
With that, the man assumed it was safe to check off the boxes for “GPS” and “Facial/Vocal recognition,” reasoning that in knowing its location and cross-checking his face and voice against its database, the machine had been able to piece together his identity. By that same logic, he was also able to check off “Database coordination.”
“She told me it would be you,” it added, and the man was relieved then that the job was nearly done.
“No,” the man said absentmindedly, almost entirely to himself. “She didn’t.”
He stood up then, to stretch his legs, before he returned to his seat and continued, knowing the machine would have to work through the glitch before he could return it to the owner. He eyed the last empty box on his list, next to the word “Compliance.”
“What I said offended you,” the machine said then to the man.
“Just drop it,” was Burt’s answer — as much a test of compliance as a plea to end the conversation.
“I can’t,” it answered with a certain amount of impressively simulated sadness, and the old man furrowed his brow. “I promised her I would talk to you. I promised—”
“Unit.” Burt interrupted with the preset phrase to indicate a command, and the speaker went silent and the indicator light turned from green to white, so he placed that final checkmark, and he took a slow, deep breath, preparing for whatever it was that would be coming out of that speaker next. When he felt he was fully prepared, Burt said, simply:
“—Elizabeth.” The machine finished its sentence, and Burt’s jaw went briefly slack, as his mind raced momentarily to make sense of that last word.
The database, he thought. It knew who he was, and the name of the town, and from there a simple search of the local paper’s marriage announcements and obituaries would be more than enough for the thing to fill in any gaps regarding his late wife. Any claim of having spoken to her was just a symptom of the glitch. Satisfied and steadied, Burt chuckled at himself and turned back to the machine.
“Sounds like you made it to heaven,” he joked, mostly to mask his own discomfort and his embarrassment at having been had.
The word was spoken meekly, but a heat rose in the old man’s face. Glitch or no, there was a certain implication to that word, given the current context.
“Not in heaven. In the armchair, in the corner. She was humming ‘Oh, Susanna.’”
The heat went from the man’s face then, and any color went shortly after, and he dropped his pen as he stared at the sensor that most closely resembled an eye. There was nothing in any database, or anywhere at all, that would tell the thing that “Oh, Susanna” had been her song. That she would sit in that chair for hours doing crossword puzzles while he worked. That he would playfully feign annoyance every time she would start to hum. That her response to this, invariably, was only to hum louder until he’d come away from the workbench and give her a kiss on the cheek.
“She wanted me to thank you for keeping her chair in the shop. She said she still loves watching you work.”
The man stood from the stool in silence, and he went into the front room, whistling as he did — an arrhythmic, atonal melody that a casual observer would have a hard time recognizing as “Oh, Susanna” at all. He flipped the paper sign that hung on the front door to “Closed” before he walked behind the counter and punched a number into the telephone.
“Ms. Barrett? This is Burt Stemple. Yes ma’am. I’ve got it up and running, but … I’m going to need some more time. Just … a few things to iron out. Uh huh. Tomorrow morning will be just fine.”
Returning to the back room, he walked over to that chair, and he whispered as he reached under the cushion and pulled out a small glass bottle: “Excuse me, Izzy.”
He took a generous pull of the bottom-shelf bourbon the bottle held, and he sat back down at the work bench, and he turned to the machine. His elbows were on the pinewood, and his chin rested on his knuckles, and his voice hardly wavered at all when he began to speak.
“Unit, tell me more.”
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