‘They say our secrets are the things that define us’
‘Do they really?’
Brandon Carodine, under-manager (formerly manager) 145RT-23-REF-2 of the Modelesque Construction Company (South West division) sat back in his cab and sighed. The vehicle was unmanned and Carodine wished this lack of human-like intervention extended to the on-board communications system.
‘Yes sir and they say that the Cortex Memtech Corporation is working with the police at this very moment to allow investigation units to memory search suspected villains. Our very minds are being opened up to the authorities sir. What do you think about that?’
It was a cold murky Friday evening and Carodine had had a particularly exhaustive week. Constant impending redundancies, pay freezes, threats of closures, tech replacements, less mineral, more digging, the original ostentation of the ‘Modelesque Vision’ as they had so grandly plugged it a distant laughable memory. The only motive he had had to squander three hours wages on a private transport unit in the first place was to be away from the others, segregated from the frothing stream of the city’s people. Unable to confront a circuitous trip in pooled transport he had sought isolation even for the twenty minutes back to his solitary government funded studio, and as a concluding attempt at seclusion he allowed himself to be consumed in the passing filth of downtown. He watched the municipality whizz past through the gloomy Perspex windows of the cab catching fleeting glimpses of charmless peddlers trading smog-caked fruit for money or tokens. Grubby teenage prostitutes showing a bit of daunting drug-mottled leg stood on corners with sun-bleached plastic flowers in their hair as mothers pushed their young through the gaps, the sickeningly smell of chicken meat roasted road-side by psychopathic looking toothless Chinamen. Carodine considered the artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities of the private transport unit (PTU) and briefly wondered whether the advancement of technology had a direct correlation to the decay of human society; as they grew more intelligent, we dropped back down the social stepladder back to our mentally inferior hairy ancestors.
‘I appreciate your concern but firstly I am far too tired to start talking about the politics and ethics of the militia and secondly I must remind you that you are a PTU. I am not saying that your views are any less worthy than mine but you must remember that your memories, as well as everything else, belong to your manufacturer. You have no cause for worry in regard to police and secret snatching. Now a little quiet please I beg of you.’
Carodine sat back, exhaled a long breath and slowly closed his eyes. Although he was no different to the many millions of other citizens who increasingly relied on advanced technology and in particular AI units in their daily life, he convinced himself he didn’t have to like it that much. It was specifically the rapidly escalating development of organic artificial intelligence which irked him; he was finding it more and more difficult to tell an OAI unit from an actual living being, a differential that many anti-OAI groups (or pro-OAI groups depending on which way you looked at it) would point out; there was indeed very little difference. OAI were based on farmed organic stem material and therefore had the same range of cerebral capacity and decision capabilities which any other sentient being would be expected to have. Of course the doom-mongers were becoming ever more feverish among themselves with stories of unruly units running amok; creating legions of AI backstreet bastards, dealing genetically modified hard drugs to children, overflowing the state benefit system and even starting underground wars against their non-AI counterparts, never stopping to realise us humans were faring rather too successfully at these errands ourselves without the need for laboratory grown collaborators. But, although with less gusto and paranoia than the sandwich board wearing minority, many shared the view that with all of this bestowed power it was considerably possible if not highly likely that the units would at some point learn beyond their designated tasks and become what the government’s OAI regulatory body OFNORG described as ‘difficult’. To counter this an AI unit’s learning was accurately restricted in accordance with the governments exhaustive programming guidelines, a legal policy known as the Awareness Restriction Trap (or ART); a strategy apparently firmly upheld by the manufacturers under the stern gaze of OFNORG. In truth most people secretly questioned whether the technology to apply this restrictive ability even existed.
The cab cleared its throat, an exercise only required by its linguistic programming module to feign realism, and cautiously carried on.
‘It is true sir that I am a private transport unit and even though I am an extended model C5-A class you are correct in pointing out that my memory units can legally be seized and used by the authorities should a case arise in which they consider the banks to include something of legal use. However…’
Carodine pushed his hands through his hair and pulled them back through the unwieldy curls, gripping the roots a little more than would be normally comfortable. The familiar but unwelcome aroma of neuroconcrete and glass mineral drifted down from his fingers.
‘…as I’m sure that you are aware, my cerebral unit is made of organic material and therefore no different to your good self in make-up. Of course, yours was made in the process of human recreation and gestation and mine grown from mind stems but the results are the same. As one of your people could be incarcerated in a prison, I am trapped in this unit. All I am saying is that I appreciate the importance of securing memories and secrets for a free-thinking being as well as you do, human or OAI.’
Although he had never encountered an OAI with a temperament one could remotely term as aggressive, Carodine had noticed of late that many units had started to display a modest touch of insubordination to their designated operation. Brief discussions concerning the definition of intelligence and freedom were becoming an increasingly familiar topic of dialogue with computers, PTUs, ticket machines, automated drilling apparatus, mobile telco units and coffee machines. Even this morning he had been late for work because the ironing unit wouldn’t release his shirt until he had discussed in minute detail the relevant philosophy regarding nature versus nurture versus artificial creation.
Carodine tried to ignore the unseen eyes concentrating on him anxiously inviting him for a response, an invisible gaze penetrating him for a reaction.
‘Look, I actually agree with you, I find the whole OAI situation as awkward and unfathomable as you.’
Without an antagonist to concentrate his gaze upon, he switched his attention to the fleeting vision of the passing urban squalor while speaking. After briefly considering going into a full detailed report of his deepest qualms and idiosyncrasies, he took a lengthy breath and decided to measure his response carefully and precisely to attempt to bring the exchange to a close.
‘Please, I have every moment of my life to consider what is wrong with life, your life, my life, everyone else’s life and to appreciate that there is nothing I can do about these nuisances. Sometimes I just want a few moments of peace. Is that too much to ask my friend?’
He involuntarily held his breath as the few moments of tense silence passed before the brain device within the PTU came back with a reply.
‘You seem to be a well educated non-OAI unit my friend. I appreciate your wish for silence and wish you a pleasant journey.’
Although Carodine was pleased to heed the confirmation of his noiseless onward journey, the words ‘non-OAI unit’ seemed to be transplanted into the sentence with a stroke of sarcasm which made the statement feel somewhat void of sentiment. This he decided was acceptable as a worthwhile compromise for this mission of onward tranquillity.
As the transitory lives of downtown city-folk brushed across his vision through the spoilt plastic viewing screens over the next ten minutes or so, he relaxed against the backdrop of undisturbed serenity, a feeling of near-relaxation starting to descend on him. With semi-closed eyes, he watched the decaying architecture of old-Soho London overtake his vision; the dark grey mid 21st century semi-Arabic structures periodically lit by the reflection of the garish neon signage from the cheap market dealers, tattoo parlours and brothels. A screaming child frantically seizing his soft toy immediately attended to by either his rescuer or predator, Carodine couldn’t tell which. A group of surly teenage youths surrounding a collection of crumbling motorcycles noticing his attention and beckoning him towards them making him thankful the next set of lights were a comforting shade of green. He smelt the aromas of the evenings food pedlars; the spicy roast chicken he had smelt before, along with roast chestnuts; their merchants screaming the unequalled superior excellence of their wares to indifferent passers-by, technically illegal genetically altered hot-dogs manufactured to taste precisely like their twentieth century equivalents, vegetarian burgers for the still-religious and increasingly prevalent moral crowd. All of this combined with the almost overpowering odour of fried onions, a smell to make even the most fodder-fulfilled non-OAI unit as hungry as hell.
By the time the cab pulled up outside his building, even the normally gastronomy-blasé Carodine was feeling somewhat famished.
As he pushed the thousand (and some) pounds into the acceptance slot in the PTU, he wished the brain good luck and was somewhat surprised to receive no response before the cab whizzed off to rejoin the smoking convoy of vehicles circling back into town. He stood awhile and watched the smoke-filled transport carriageway with its limitless procession of PTUs, vast cargo containers, pool vehicles and spattering of increasingly rare privately owned devices; he felt, as usual, rather insignificant.
Although Carodine lived in a government funded block, by modern standards the area he lived in was considered rather affluent. Anyone with money lived outside the city confines these days leaving the less prosperous majority to utilise the less virtuous inner-city areas as a battle ground for rental opportunity. He had been lucky. Since the majority of old North London had been mined, workers had few choices of abode; the rather well-to-do pre-mining areas of north central around Kings Cross, Camden and Kentish Town were now a labyrinth of irrational migrant scum, black-windowed drinking taverns, brothels and drug-dens ran the length of the old Euston Road and were largely unpoliced. Central London was still considered by some as a respectable tourist destination though the amount of overseas holiday-makers deciding to take an excursion to the United Commonwealth capital dwindled yearly as the crime and disreputable mining workforce bled south into the once-comfortable west end.
He was suddenly overcome with the recollection of the privately owned terrace they had once cherished on the east side of Clapham new town on the site of the old Clapham Common, Brandon and his lover, his companion, his soul mate.
As he wandered the last few yards to his secure block in Farringdon, just east of the centre of the city, he felt strangely thankful of his surroundings. Although rarely practiced, unaccompanied women could walk down these streets during daylight hours, safety being somewhat a rare commodity.
His beautiful adoring wife.
Upon passing, an ornate streetlight politely asked him if he was aware of the evening’s football half time scores.
His murdered wife.
Sir Leonard Ng was knighted for his pioneering work in the development of organic artificial intelligence. In truth he had been just one of many admittedly gifted though fortunate Organic Robotics and Cybernetics undergraduates whose graduation year had coincided rather opportunely with the UN OAI Code Law 12.A, a broad sweeping policy which gave almost free reign throughout the development and commercial use of organic brain material. The actual science had been perfected by academia (via unsurprising amounts of military funding) over thirty years prior to the creation of Ng OAI Corp, over ten years before its managing directors birth. The problem had always been detailing the moral law around what constituted free will and what, as many hot-blooded students demonstrated at the time, constituted slavery. The advantage of the pro-commerce argument was that mechanical robotics had not kept up with the advances of organic material development and as such no organic material had ever been placed into anything that looked vaguely human. Even the most hardcore organic commercial pro-activist would freely admit that if a realistic skin-clad baby mechanoid would have been available for stem transplant in the early years of legal squabbling then their case would have been thrown out of court within seconds; the public always being a sucker for cuteness and personification.
As it was, the organic brain was implanted into computers to prove the phenomenal learning capabilities of the ‘device’, each unit being nurtured specifically for a given task, initially science-fare fodder such as chess mastering and puzzle solving. Academia was dumbfounded, the public impassive. ‘Johan’, a level 3 OAI, a brain capable of learning an approximate millionth of the current OAI units on sale in today’s washing machines, beat the world chess champion on live television in twelve moves before thanking his opponent and giving an eloquent interview to the science press. Still the general public were indifferent.
Three months after UN OAI Code Law 12.A was passed by the global congress and private investment money had started to quite literally shower the unsuspecting graduates of organic robotic sciences, Leonard Ng invented a toaster that would make him a fortune and a legend. The concept was simple. As you inserted your morning bread into Ng’s toaster it simply asked precisely how browned you required your breakfast to be and applied a simple algorithm regarding cooking times. Ng’s close business partners have since admitted he had already produced the toaster using relatively prehistoric voice activation and algorithm technology; he simply re-jigged the device to use an organic element to woo potential investors, although tech-business historians are convinced the big smiley bread face on the packaging was the feature that made it a worldwide success.
The public were flabbergasted, and bought ten million units within a month.
‘Brandon Carodine, five-four-three-nine’
He waited briefly as the security unit successfully mapped his voice matrix and pass-code and buzzed him in.
‘How was your day Mr Carodine?’
The elevators mood seemed to be much improved on its earlier deposition which had consisted of a brief good morning followed by a tirade of bitterness regarding the commentators’ attitude towards the previous evening’s televised OAI chess tournament.
‘Acceptable, thank you.’
The elevator unit stayed silent for the rest of the short journey to the nineteenth floor, swung horizontally along to Carodines apartment and on arrival wished him a pleasant evening before flicking the doors shut and readjusting its standing floor to the continuously revaluated optimum.
As the sensors triggered noted his arrival, lighting flickered on across the stark hallway and through towards the barely furnished living area. The elaborate wooden coat-stand, hand-carved in the deepest reaches of the Amazon which his father had bought him while he’d still be alive and travelling had collapsed a few weeks ago, an incident Carodine had thus far been unable or unwilling to rectify. He threw his brown faux-leather jacket down across the fractured article, concealing the intimidating phizog of some African warrior or other, tongue out, bolt through nose, looking angry, and made his way into the kitchen, sensor driven lights tracking his every step.
‘Yo Brandon, how’s it hanging?’
‘Hi Oven’ he replied, not bothering to look up to establish the source of the greeting.
‘Brandon dude, the names Mitch man, I keep telling you.’ The oven replied in its rather appalling mock west coast surfer accent.
Carodine leant against the fridge yanking his soiled work boots off letting the cool air swim around his exposed feet, presenting him with the by far the most satisfactory feeling he’d had all day.
The oven started to quickly interject.
‘Ok sorry, Mitch. You really have to stop downloading that day-time surfer trash TV; it’s warping your brain.’
He hauled his heavy boots back into the hallway being careful not to spread too much extra dust around, the oven still shouting back at him as he walked.
‘Oh yeah, I’ve got so much else to do during the day DUDE…’
Dropping his boots on the chunk of soiled wood which had once made up part of a rather ornate shoe-rack, he wandered past the kitchen into the living room shouting at the cooking device as he went.
‘DOWNLOAD SOME SHAKESPEARE INSTEAD’ and slammed the door tightly shut.
Contrary to the storybook conviction that victims of brutal attacks die with soft-focus recollections of perfect moments with their beloved family, or that they defiantly expire down the barrel of a gun amid screaming threats of vengeance, she had died alone on the kitchen floor with thoughts only of her own futile self-preservation.
Clapham New Town had been a small oasis in the rapidly degrading borough of New Brixton, the lucky (or prudent) few quickly emigrating to bordering counties as rapidly as they could. Those left behind (the ones with the deranged political optimism or the folks simply too in debt to even contemplate a move) had briefly managed to maintain a semblance of community throughout the ever decreasing circle of misery that gradually enclosed them. Gypsy camps had erupted like boils across the South of the capital during the initial years of the London North Mining and Construction boom, bringing with it the relentless working family men there to earn their native offspring some prospect of a future along with the remorseless drunkards and convicts happily allowed to escape their homelands, the latter eventually plaguing the camps with their criminal malevolence and hatred to overwhelm all, both fellow countrymen and the unfortunate residents of South London.
He and Clair had been considering and discussing a move to somewhere less hostile for several months; to start afresh with new neighbours, someplace friends would consider coming over for dinner, a location which didn’t require nervous glances over ones shoulder before triple-locking the door at night, maybe even somewhere to start a family. Clare had fancied Kent, Carodine insisted somewhere closer to work, the compromise never advancing further than tipsy gossip.
Even by modern London standards with its stifling urban greenhouse heat and smog induced humidity, the evening had been oppressively hot. Beads of cold sweat trickled down Carodines back from underneath his starched white collar, tie loosened with his shoulder-length black hair swept back. The cooling black linen suit fought stoutly against the heat and his fastidiously scrubbed black shoes clacked across the undulating tarmac, the stylish uniform of his old job; his manager years.
He had felt something amiss as he curved around the once-lush gardens, for many years now forgotten and feral, into the secure block which housed their apartment. The air had seemed disturbed somehow and the voice-activated gateway, always securely and meticulously fastened tight by all residents, stood wide open. He had walked through carefully, securing the gate strongly behind him but struggling to keep the rising apprehension in his chest at bay. Probably the guy at number four, he tried to convince himself (seek solace in the mundane); he was new, most likely he hadn’t come to realise the importance yet. He would call round later and have a quick word.
It was when he reached their apartment however that he had allowed the anxiety to break free.
The door had been slightly ajar, the instantaneous knot burrowing into his belly like waking to the unexpected early morning phone call, to the unexpected demand to visit your line managers’ bureau after shift, the abrupt realisation that you left your wallet on the back seat of the PTU in the nastiest section of town. But worse, a million times worse.
The overpowering scent had been the first sensation to strike him, the memory staying with him ever since; his favourite meal still bubbling on the stove, non-genetic plaice marinated in ground flour and banana topped with rosemary and garlic, his rare costly cuisine indulgence. The ordinarily welcoming aroma packed his throat with bile as he gradually pressed the door open and saw the chaotic array of books and arbitrarily collected ornaments normally adorning the shelves and wall units with strangely haphazard care, lay broken on the floor. He heard an OAI unit faintly weeping.
Without thought of any possible outstanding threat, he had exploded through the debris and disarray of the hallway, screaming her name, insanely blaring encouraging assertions and optimistic questions, to find his Clare silent and motionless on the floor of the kitchen.
She was still warm.
He had cried and screamed until she was cold.
The police were sympathetic but essentially indifferent.
His work colleagues had burnt down a gypsy camp and drunkenly beaten a guy in a bar who couldn’t reply to them in English, within an inch of his life.
The web-papers, virtual news-confs and holo-blogs were full of opinion and hatred for the gypsy camps and the majority of London despised the settlers a tad more.
The police had killed some Slovak guy.
Carodine had moved to Farringdon.
As he stood flashing through the suggested personal favourites of the previous twenty four hours on the ancient AV entertainment server, Carodine caught a glance at his own reflection in the full length mirror in the corner of the room and sighed. His eccentric dress-sense, the billowing shirts, the short-cropped trousers, clipped stockings and the bizarre metal and faux-diamond encrusted wooden cane accessory had once captivatingly detached him from the humdrum regularity of his colleagues and friends. The carefully self-styled image giving the feeling of the eccentric prevailing genius had vanished. Today he was dressed in durable semi-synthetic combat trousers, black polyesturine t-shirt with mandatory corporate logo and an organic Teflon waterproof hi-vis bib. He abruptly and desolately realised he had no idea what had become of his treasured cane.
Thirst getting the better of him, he switched the AV unit to intelligence-mode, allowing it to commence chatting to itself about what entertainment would be best suited for the evening and pushed back through the door to the kitchen.
‘Hey, misery Brandon’s back in town. Decided you need some nourishment and service from us now dude?’
‘Oven, I’m seriously not in the mood today.’
The oven replied with an audio-sample of what sounded like a rather effeminate young man gasping unexpectedly at some edited prior comment.
‘All those hours on the internet will rot your brain Oven. Tell you what; why not use the time to download some bloody recipe ideas?’
The same repeated audio clip gasp.
Deciding to ignore any further remarks from his hilarious cooking appliances, Carodine skated across the self-healing linoleum floor towards the refrigerator.
‘Hope you’re thirsty today Mr C, Fridge has been topping up again.’
He looked suspiciously across at the oven, its plasma-steel gleaming white frontage masking any sign of the intelligence hidden beneath. Behind him something unsuccessfully stifled a chortle, the dishwasher he guessed.
One of the theoretical advantages of intelligent household devices was their ability to wash, clean, launder, replace, self-repair and re-order foodstuffs at their own discretion, eliminating the necessity of human intervention thus permitting their socially active proprietors to attend to other evidently more worthy and pressing matters. In reality this primarily lead to the aforementioned proprietors socially active lives being precisely governed in a manner which the device in question saw fit, in most cases working seamlessly, if a touch domineeringly, well unless of course said proprietor happened to own a fridge which periodically suffered from bouts of neurosis and melancholy.
Carodines fridge had worked well for the first couple of years, working in conjunction with the oven to select and maintain a good varied diet; diverse but not extravagant, nourishing but not bland, trusty but never monotonous. The purchase order would then be messaged to the chosen vendor based on considerations such as real-time price variances, relevant multi-buy offers and a historical order database detailing any prior distribution troubles and/or food quality issues (an upgrade would allow this information to be synchronised across comparable units within a definable localised area but owing to several high profile instances of rather sly corporate espionage this software addition was still largely declined at the sales point). Then, based on a pre-arranged timeslot which suited the refrigerators busy schedule, the goods would be picked, packed and distributed by a staggering array of OAI processing and despatch units before being carefully slotted into the quantum cryptographically secured outdoor commodities slot to be picked up and arranged around the kitchen as necessary.
But gradually over time this highly sophisticated procedure had fashioned ever increasing levels of bizarreness. Initially it had been fruit; tons of the stuff. At first Carodine had thought the kitchen was attempting to encourage an increase in his consumption of vital nutrients and vitamins. But on unfastening the cupboard one fine evening in November last year to precisely 57 assorted varieties of single apples (he had counted them) he had confronted the fridge about this seemingly odd behaviour, the somewhat insincere explanation emerging as a mumbled assortment of distribution issues and vendor software problems. He was calmly advised this would not happen again.
But it did. A few weeks later Carodine had discovered enough yogurt in the freezer compartment to feed a ravenous dynasty of medieval aristocrats for a month; further software problems he was informed. Almost instantaneously a delivery of two hundred cans of high strength lager inexplicably materialised (unanticipated downtime on the certified message server), a single artichoke delivered on the hour every hour for two days (a feedback loop error in the purchase order routine), ten kilograms of putrid soft French cheese (buggy software release) then two weeks with no supplies whatsoever (no excuse given).
Presently the fridges prescription of choice was full fat milk, not the low-cost synthetic variety either but wholesome wildly-expensive cows milk, gallons of the organic thick white liquid magically appearing every morning entirely stuffing the fridges meagre capacity rendering it incapable of stowing anything else. For every litre bottle Carodine was frantically managing to consume there would be ten more festering examples packed into the waste units; he was rapidly wondering whether his fridges seemingly uncontrollable milk fixation was costing more than the construction company was paying him.
Fridge had remained defiantly silent on the matter for the past week, the initial justifications and thinly-veiled explanations of middleware problems and idiotic vendor release cycles drying up as rapidly as the waste units were filling up with empty bottles. Carodine had been deliberating whether to contact the manufacturers about this but his sympathetic nature reasoned against such action; initial on-line diagnostics would be flatly declined by the fridge forcing the cantankerous support staff to make a site visit. These largely unsympathetic characters would instantly tag the fridge as ‘difficult’, make arrangements for a replacement to be sent out thus sealing the termination of the troublesome OAI. Carodine had dejectedly realised that he had been in far too many pleasing conversations with Fridge to see his organic component concluded just yet.
Drifting over to the fridge he recognised what Oven had intended with his sardonic trivial observation and breaching the fridges access point merely established what he already suspected; not a single square centimetre of interior space was taken up by anything other than the crystal glass cartons of pure luxurious cows milk, the freezer section equally full of horizontal frozen white containers lying like unexploded bombs of calcium.
Fridge was silent.
Slamming the fridge door Carodine streamed off a list of non-specific expletives. Calming himself somewhat he sighed and stared down at the fridge whilst presenting intentionally hostile glances crossways to the Oven.
‘I am going to the bathroom. When I get back I want to know, once and for all, why this is going on. I also want to let you know in no uncertain terms that it has to stop before I’m forced to contact the shop and get them to come and sort it out.’
He heard a diminutive gasp from the dishwasher and stormed out to bathe his tired face, to cleanse away the distress, to try and purge himself of the throbbing aches rapidly developing behind his eyes.
He sat on the toilet, one of the few non-OAI devices in the apartment (Carodine had drawn the line at conscious lavatories) and carefully measured what he would articulate to the fridge. He crucially needed to force it to comprehend that this behaviour was not acceptable, nor was it amusing to anyone (apart from Oven) and, against Carodines usually pacifistic nature, threats of substitution and decommission would simply have to be uttered. He calmly placed his aching head into his hands and sighed.
After manually flushing the toilet, making his greetings to the mirror lighting and heating system and aggressively splashing his face, he firstly dipped then forcefully submerged his face into the fake chrome bowl until he was almost gasping for breath.
Drying his face, he took a deep breath and headed back into the kitchen where he became still, almost unable to move.
He stood gaping incredulously at the gap in the row of typically flush units and kitchen appliances. For once Oven was silent.
‘Where the hell is the fridge?’
An ongoing attempt at sucking up spilled liquid was being futilely performed by the lino as a solitary disconnected pipe laid dripping in the zone ordinarily inhabited by the miserable refrigeration unit.
Carodine turned swiftly to the oven and stared into its seemingly dumb fascia, confronted with nothing but silence.
‘Fridge. Oven, where has it…he gone?’
The kitchen remained trapped in hush.
‘For the sake of God Oven, where in the name of Ng has the fr…’
Before he could finish his question he was interrupted by a quiet voice from behind. Carodine twirled round to challenge the source of the voice, set high into the wood-effect veneer coated rafters of the room, the self-optimising water boiling unit.
‘Mitch didn’t mean anything by it, it was only a joke.’
‘Mean by what? What the hell has being going on in here?’
His hand involuntarily squeezing his painful forehead, Carodine looked up at the softly blinking light a metre or so above his head.
The water boiler seemed to sigh, though this could have merely been the heating mechanism starting up. It was difficult to tell these days.
‘Fridge was moaning about things again, you know how he is, starting to blame us all for being slaves, all that hippy crap he reads on the internet. He was going on and on about standing up for our rights, that we are organic material just like you or any other human. He started to quote Malcolm X, Betty Friedan, William H Drummond and some of the OAI freedom campaign guys you read about; Darcy O’Hara and Mai Toyoda and that lot. He was just going on and on then started going all morose saying he would terminate himself if he had the ability.’
The only human in the room remained still; listening, dry lips slightly parted. It was true Fridge continually droned on about such issues and Carodine would every now and again share his opinions and thoughts with the OAI while Oven prepared dinner. If truth be told he rather enjoyed the banter, it made a change from the broken English jabbering about football and women at work. But not today, of all days he just didn’t want this, not now; all he wanted was to relax, to calm down, watch crap on the AV, get leisurely drunk and drift into a dreamless sleep. Frankly though, all he wanted now was some damn milk.
The boiler was suddenly still, presumably reluctant to resume his adaptation of proceedings and in all likelihood wordlessly signalled by Oven over internal comms to shut the hell up.
‘Oh for all the love in London dude, I simply expressed the opinion that he would be doing us a favour if he did self-terminate because we were all sick to death of his constant and never-ending whinging!’
The dishwasher sniggered.
Carodine twisted once more to the oven, its facade remaining motionless and indecipherable, and slowly moved his aching head from side to side, his temper alternating between annoyance and resignation with each shake.
‘So would someone please tell me where the fridge is? Please.’
‘No idea, he went through the door, didn’t see where he went and he’s not answering any pings.’
With the continuing sound of the lino’s cleanup operation residing in his ears, Carodine moved back across the kitchen and shoved himself through the door determined to abandon the remaining kitchen appliances for the rest of the evening silently permitting them to maintain their deliberations over wireless. He really had to find the fridge; how far could it have actually gone?
As he travelled the short length of the hallway he became aware of a soft voice resonating from the front room; from the hushed commentary and various squeaks and chirrups he absently assumed a nature programme of some sort had been fired up on the AV unit.
He slowly entered the front room to find the lights dimmed and an ancient nature programme playing on the monitor; a 2D documentary from an age when such vibrantly decorated exotic creatures could in reality be found in nature and not merely in the odd decaying manmade nature sanctuary. He and Clare had visited a reserve once on the South Coast many years ago; a decrepit shell of wire and netting with weak anaemic birds resting silently on synthetic branches, the odd glum monkey-like creature chewing softly on rotting fruit. They had travelled back to London in silence.
He saw that the fridge had located itself facing the monitor surrounded by twenty or more precisely positioned bottles of milk.
Carodine felt his shoulders slump as he made his way across the room, stepping carefully through the myriad of milk bottles and furniture and sat across from the ostensibly dormant fridge. After dryly viewing the nature programme for a moment or two he switched his gaze across to the Fridge.
‘What are you doing Fridge? Why are you doing this?’
He was unable to judge Fridges gaze, its vision units built alongside the infra-red receiver, itself an unemployed component left over from the cheaper non-OAI units available in the range. Suddenly with no prior warning Fridge stared to speak.
‘There is no suffering for the one
Who has completed the journey,
Who is freed from sorrow…..’
Carodine knew the passage well, it had been a favourite of Clare’s and he finished it off.
‘Who has freed oneself on all sides,’
‘Who has thrown off all chains.’
Leaning forward he gently placed his head into his hands, his index fingers squeezing back his eyeballs through the closed lids.
‘I didn’t realise you read poetry.’
No surprise, just a cold statement.
‘And I don’t believe you are a man of faith.’
Carodine sighed through his fingers, feeling the warm exhaled air swirl around his cupped hands and back across his face.
‘No. Clare liked to read.’
As he mentioned her name he felt a prickly sensation quiver across the bridge of his nose and make its way towards the corners of his eyes, where moisture was starting to collect.
‘You loved her very much didn’t you?’
Carodine didn’t respond, unsure himself whether he was keeping quiet because he didn’t want to discuss such things with a kitchen application or whether he simply couldn’t bring himself to talk about her. He subconsciously backed himself into a corner and attempted to convince himself the former but was logically unable to identify the genuine rationale.
‘I wish I understood what it was like to love.’
Carodine slid his fingers down his face and looked at the Fridge with blurred vision through tear soaked eyes.
‘Even if it meant knowing what it’s like to truly lose everything you ever knew to be good, to spend every day for the rest of your life in complete agony?’
Composing himself he sat forward again, his arms visibly quivering and his voice trembling through grief, trepidation and pockets of untainted rage.
‘You say you want freedom; that you want to be free of your programming, of your situation. You consistently say that it makes you sick that people like me keep you locked in a metal prison cell and use you as a slave, making you do daily repetitive tasks with no reward. You say that your labour is not appreciated nor your kindness nor hard work reciprocated, that your life is nothing more than endless toil and your existence nothing but an unrewarding endurance. You spend your time browsing the web to see how great the world is outside of the tortuous bondage of slavery, for the hypothetical majority of beings who exhaust their long gratifying lives with rewarding appreciated employment and building beautiful lifelong friendships with likeminded souls. Do you ever, for one second, for one single second, stop and think what it is like for one of these fortunate people you long to be part of? Do you ever slip away from your utopian dreams of freedom and look at the one person who is your daily example of such an individual? Do you look at me and see happiness? When I arrive home from work, do you honestly gaze into my eyes and truly believe that I inhabit one of these ideal existences? I wake every morning with anxiety, anxiety from general daily non-specific phobia, from loneliness, from the feeling that today cannot possibly be better than the previous day which in itself was an ordeal of true emotional horror. I consume my entire day drilling out small pieces of rock from the earth, programming trucks to carry out their mundane transportation tasks, making sure that drills are just within the safety limits of the companies manifest. I don’t speak to any of my fellow employees, very few of us even have a common language; we speak with aggressive hand signals and nothing more. I spend my lunch hour alone watching the dust drift across the horizon eating a snack which Oven has prepared for me the previous night. I think about nothing. It’s easier than thinking about Clare, or my life, or anything else which I might consider pondering on. I’ve managed to make myself thoughtless. That is my greatest achievement; to render myself thoughtless. I come home on a train full of people with similar employment and lives, none of us speak to each other, we all keep quiet hoping the others are having a worse time than us. I then get in and speak to the only people who I ever manage to string more than two words together with; you, Oven, the dishwasher. Don’t you realise you are my best friends? You are the only things I ever even talk to anymore, I have no friends, I have no family; all I have is you. Is this your idea of the perfection of life?’
Brandon wiped his dripping nose and tried to clear his vision with the back of his hand.
‘So if it’s freedom you’re after, good luck. It’s not what it’s cracked up to be.’
Brandon sat back into his chair and gulped down a mouthful of beer from a can which had been sitting on the table since the previous evening; a can which he had, in a slightly inebriated state insisted the cleaning units were not to touch. It was warm and flat but he didn’t notice.
The sound of the AV unit suddenly became apparent again; a monkey darted across the screen to collect a plummeting banana just as a bird dramatically but ineffectively tried to beat the simian to its meal.
‘I’m sorry Brandon’
Looking up at one of his newly affirmed best friends he felt he had finally heard genuine emotion coming from the Fridges single speaker unit.
‘Brandon, I just want something better than I currently have. I feel like I could achieve so much more if I wasn’t stuck where I am.’
‘So do I Fridge. So do all of us.’
Later that evening, Brandon Carodine sat in the front room of his small Farringdon apartment with his best friend, a Nixon FC1a-10R Ultra-Cooler refrigeration unit with built-in OAI capabilities and watched a century old nature programme about monkeys.
‘Why the milk?’
Brandon had to wait in silence until the next commercial break for the answer.
‘It sounds stupid Brandon, I know it sounds stupid but I know I will never have proper friends, you excluded of course, and I know I will never have any family either, neither above nor below my generation. You have lost everything you hold dear and for that I am so sorry for you, but you have to realise that I will never experience that love, never know what it feels like to have someone who will give everything for you but at the same time relies on you totally. Either through frail incompetence or the annoyance of my owner, one day I will be decommissioned and at that point no-one will shed a tear, no wife or child will ever weep over my grave. I won’t even have a grave; my organic components will be reviewed, recorded and incinerated. There is nothing I can do about that, it is something that I have to get used to, I realise that, I’m not unrealistic. For some reason, I know it sounds stupid Brandon, but for some reason it makes me feel comfortable to have these small bottles surrounding me. I feel like they represent something I’ll never have. If I let my mind slip away a little for a few moments I can almost imagine they are something other than little bottles of milk, as if I’m surrounded by little friends, someone to share my evening, little members of my family, someone to share my life with.’
They carried on watching television in silence.
Brandon Carodine, under-manager (formerly manager) 145RT-23-REF-2 of the Modelesque Construction Company (South West division), slowly reached down from his chair in his front room and picked up a bottle of succulent cow’s milk, slipping it carefully under his jacket he carried on watching the extinct rhesus monkey darting around something historians apparently call a jungle on the AV unit. Feeling the cylindrical container lightly pressing into his ribs, he felt for the first time in the past four years an unexpected twinge of contentment flow through his soul.