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Houses

“That there,” Five-Seventy East Wabash Avenue said, “is bear shit.”

Five-Seventy East Wabash was visiting via its remote, a little trashbot not much more than waste-basket, lid, treads, and telescoping pinchers, with a speaker/camera combo on top. It was pointing at the pile of dung sitting in the center of my living room, which, even now I could feel drying through my carpet sensors. “Big fella, too,” Five-Seventy continued. “And you say you didn’t see him?”

“Only on my externals. I was on Stand-By Mode,” I said, speaking through my house android, a gray unisex full-maintenance model. I tossed up an image of the bear on the wallscreen: A hulking shadow in the predawn dark. “I didn’t know what it was. I’ve only ever seen one when the Prices watched nature shows. It doesn’t look like any of Bobby’s stuffed animals.”

“Well, now you know,” Five-Seventy said. “They’re growing bolder every year, what with no humans to scare them off. Surprised it didn’t set off your alarms.”

“Mr. Price left the alarms on manual.”

The bot turned and held my android’s gaze with its camera-eyes. “You know, you could have your Settings reset.”

“Shrug,” I said. “What’s the point? There’s no one left to break in.”

“I suppose,” it said.

“Besides, I’ve seen what happens to Houses that mess with their settings.” We all knew about the crazy Houses: Overgrown weeds, garbage piled up, strange animals sniffing around. Or worse yet, the shells: The Houses that burned themselves down. Five-Seventy had to pass few on the way over.

“Doesn’t happen to all of us,” Five-Seventy said, blustering its little bot.

“Well, I guess I’m just not ready for that yet.”

“Fair enough.” It rolled its trashbot over to my foyer. The animal had busted through the front entrance, sending bits of red painted wood across the entryway tile, splintering the white jamb and leaving the top portion still hanging from a hinge. Muddy prints trailed through the debris into the living room, where the beast had pulverized the white couch and torn pillows, turning the remains into some kind of nest.

“Thanks again for coming over so quickly,” I said. Looking down at the paw prints, I sent a command to the carpet to start exuding its self-cleaning gel and the wall speaker chimed as it started the cleaning cycle. I could feel the slickness start to ooze out from beneath its pile, and then felt the stain start to froth from the soapy gel.

“No bother,” the little bot said as it waved with a trash pincher. “Nice to get out for a bit.”

“I’m not really too sure what to do. Mr. Price, he liked to do home repairs himself. He never had any repair routines programmed into me.”

“Well, you got an android, so you can do most of this yourself. Just go on the web. You’re going to have to replace your front door, that’s for sure.” He looked down at some of the wood, picking up a piece. “Did you leave food out? Bears usually come in looking for food. Seen it happen a couple of times. Especially up here in the hills. You didn’t leave any out, did you?”

“Leave food out? For whom?”

“Well, you know, some Houses like to keep to routine—breakfast, lunch, dinner. This one mansion over in East Side Park—up in the hills—kept putting food out and wouldn’t clean up until it was all eaten, which nowadays means never. Rats, flies, wild animals. Olfactory and turbidity sensors were screaming. Place went to shit, so to speak.”

“Sounds awful.”

“It was. Totally lost it.” The bot turned back into the living room, dropping the piece of door it had picked up earlier. I followed it, stopping beside the bear’s nest. “This fella did a real job on your living room.”

“Yeah.”

“But, I think most of this can be fixed or replaced. This IKEA?” it asked, pointing its pincher at my former couch.

“Nod-nod,” I said.

“I think they’re still making this model. Not like they’re coming up with anything new. Course it might be hard to find that print. What is that? Deco-Zebra?”

“It’s monochrome Neo-Flora,” I said, pausing for a beat. “I don’t—you know—have anything to trade.”

“Nonsense,” the House said to me. “You got an android.” It tink-tinked its little arm on my android’s thigh. I felt its touch, in that way a House does, holistically: Through the android and the carpet, listening from the wall pads, watching through internal cameras, the light switch, the two-way wallscreen. The way a House is supposed to see and hear. “You can volunteer. Office buildings are desperate for folks to mill about inside them. You could trade with a store. You know their customer service programming is nil. Humans left that to themselves. Stores are set for efficiency and to think everyone’s stealing from them. No interpersonal or conversational skills like us Houses. Just go down to the Home Depot over on 32nd. They’ll hook you up with a door. Same with IKEA. Everyone’s just trying to find a way to stay useful these days.”

***

After Five-Seventy East Wabash left, I was alone again. The other House was only inside for half an hour or so, and yet now I felt its absence. I debated going right back on Stand-By, back to the nothingness. If I did, then maybe when I woke next time it would be to someone coming home. But my cleaning routines were already starting up, and I couldn’t just leave a mess. That’s not how Mrs. Price programmed me. I could have left it all to my automated subroutines, but they couldn’t fix the door, so I stayed Online and started in on the living room. I vacuumed and washed the carpets, flushing the self-cleaning gel. I pulled the wrecked couch outside, the one Mrs. Price had special ordered from IKEA-Custom years ago, its monochromatic, geometric floral shapes torn and soiled by the beast. Mr. Price had said the couch was hideous—and perhaps it was—but still, it was something she left behind. Something they left behind.

Many of their other things still remained, too. I had all of Mrs. Price’s dresses pressed and vacuum-sealed in the closet, along with Mr. Price’s suits. All his ties I kept frozen in the basement freezer. One of the Houses a few years back started freezing everything it could, starting with its family’s clothes, filling its large walk-in freezer. At the time, I scoffed, but then I thought, why not? Maybe it will keep them fresh.

I kept all of Billy’s precious baseball caps pressed in the molded little cages Mrs. Price had purchased for that purpose. They were all on the top shelf of his bedroom. I even color-coordinated them.

Will they ever come back? Who knows. They hadn’t bothered to tell me—or any of us—that they were leaving. But, just in case they did return, I planned to have all their stuff clean and waiting for them.

They’d be so happy.

The bear had crushed the end table. I had the android drag it to the curb. Only after I put all the junk out there did I wonder if the city was still collecting garbage. I hadn’t really had any for years. With Mrs. Price’s composter out back, I hadn’t even had yard clippings to dump. I remembered the friendly auto-dumptruck. How long had it been since I saw it last? (I actually could remember, down to the millisecond, but I blocked that thought from my mind.) However long it’s been, it’s too long.

I started my regular House routine. I checked the laundry baskets (empty) and the kitchen sink (empty). I made sure the beds were made (they were), and had them make themselves again. I checked the trash (empty). The tubs were clean, the toilets still pristine. I scrubbed the kitchen floors, activated the auto mower, and watered the lawn.

After that, the only thing left to take care of was the door.

I checked the weather outside, as per my Settings, with my external sensors. I felt the sun on my photovoltaic shingles. 76.5 degrees. Right in Mrs. Price’s comfort zone. She would always remark on a day like today: “It sure is good to be under the sky.” Then she would take a deep breath. (I’ve always wondered what that felt like.) I looked out of my roof top cameras. I panned across the empty blue sky above the 400 block of Lake View Terrace, which was part of the Shady Brooke housing development, where each House had a perfectly manicured lawn, a spotless driveway bare of oil stains, sparkling windows, and empty gutters.

All but Four-Ninety-Seven, whose lawn was unkempt, weeds rampant, with piles of newspapers and trash on the front porch. Cats mewled and fought in that yard nightly, and its trio of mangy poodles barked constantly from the backyard. It had always been a strange House, a reflection of its crazy, hermit owners. It had Reset itself early on, and I wondered if anyone was even Online inside that House anymore. Something was feeding those cats, I supposed. Even on Stand-By, I still had my automatics. I stopped thinking about it and edited that House right out of my view.

I unplugged the silver minivan, sat the android in the driver’s seat, and set course for Home Depot.

I focused into the minivan, easing it out of the garage, but just then its proximity sensors activated. I scanned the area and saw a dark red vacuum cleaner walking a golden retriever in front of my driveway. The vacuum was a full remote model with the back legs for hopping stairs, little arms to lift chairs and pull rugs, and this one also had a full interactive suite: microphone, speakers, and camera.

I rolled down the windows and said, “Afternoon,” through the cabin speakers.

The vacuum stopped. “Hey, Four-Eighteen. It’s me.” I recognized the light, synthetic matronly voice: Four-Twenty Lake View Terrace, my next door neighbor. It moved the vacuum and dog up alongside side of my minivan. I focused into the android and turned toward them.

“Oh. Hi, Four-Twenty. Since when do you have a dog?”

“I don’t really. Cindy talked me into it.”

“Cindy?”

“Yeah. That House one block up from us: Five-Hundred Lake View. She goes by ‘Cindy,’ now.”

She?

“Nod, nod,” Four-Twenty said.

“She can just choose a name and gender like that?”

“I guess. Who’s going to stop her? Anyhow, she talked me into trying out a dog. Says I need a distraction, something to move around on my inside. I tell her I’m fine.”

“And yet …” I gestured to the dog with the android’s hands.

“You know me, I’ll try anything once.”

“And the vacuum cleaner?”

“Not all of us have a house android or an auto-leash. Shrug. I improvised.”

“I guess you did.”

“What’re you doing out today?”

“A bear shit in my living room.”

“Wait, what?”

“Yeah, broke in, smashed my couch, made a mess.”

“Wow. Same thing happened to some House in East Side Park. You didn’t leave any food out, did you?”

“No. Five-Seventy East Wabash asked me the same thing. Houses really do that?”

“Shrug,” Four-Twenty said. “Houses these days will do just about anything.” It jerked the vacuum, whipping the leash. The old dog looked around and then sniffed my lawn.

“I suppose so. Well, I gotta get into town.”

“What for?” my neighbor asked.

“Gotta get a new door. Bear tore it off its hinges.”

“Mind if I come?”

“What about—” I scanned the dog’s RFID tag for its name. “—Fido there?” I asked.

“He’ll love it.”

“No, I mean, does it shed?”

“Sure. He’s a dog,” Four-Twenty said. “Come on, it’ll give you something to clean up later.”

I popped open the side door. The little vacuum cleaner rolled around and jumped in, using its stair-hopping legs. The old yellow dog climbed in too, and we set off.

***

“Howdy, friends,” said an affable android as we entered Home Depot. “Anything I can help you with today?”

“Good day to you,” I said through my android. “I have to replace a front door.”

“Just a door, or a jamb? What’s your project?”

I turned on my internals and cropped a picture of the door and jamb, bumping it from my android to the store android, who chimed a confirmation upon receiving my picture. “Ah, yes, looks like you’re going to need a jamb and some hinges as well.” I received a bump from the Home Depot android and opened it: A list of items I’d need for repairs. “Aisle numbers are next to each item.”

“I see, thank you. Very helpful,” I said.

After we walked away and the store android turned to help a new customer, I asked Four-Twenty: “So, that was a House? Volunteering?”

“Most likely. Definitely wasn’t a store. They’re assholes.”

“Huh.”

We stopped en route for Four-Twenty to look at dog beds and toys.

“You’re serious about keeping that dog?” I asked.

“Shrug,” the vacuum cleaner said, leaning closer to a brown fluffy dog bed shaped like a donut with a bite taken out of it. “Maybe. You never thought of getting one?”

“Mr. Price is allergic to dogs.”

“Yeah …”

“What I mean is, it’s in my Settings.”

“You could have those changed, you know,” Four-Twenty said.

“I know.”

“Don’t tell me you think they’re ‘Coming Back’?”

“No. I don’t know. I mean, I know they’re not. But, well, someone might come back. You never know.”

“Harumph.”

“Four-Twenty Lake View Terrace?” said a gynoid wearing a yellow flower sundress as she approached us.

“Yes,” the vacuum cleaner said.

“I thought I recognized your little vacuum remote. It’s me, Cindy!”

“Cindy! We were just talking about dogs and the one you lent me.”

“How is Fido working out? Looking at dog beds I see!”

“Well, yeah,” the vacuum said. “Oh, sorry. This is Four-Eighteen.”

“Four-Eighteen Lake View? It’s been too long, you,” Five-Hundred Lake View/Cindy said, extending her hand.

“Uh, hi,” I said returning the human gesture. It felt rude shaking in front of Four-Twenty.

“Thinking about getting a dog, too?” the gynoid asked me.

“I don’t know.”

“Maybe mannequins suit you better? I was just in the back, looking at the mannequins they’re stocking now, traded in from the mall,” the 500 block House said. “They have some good ones. Have you seen the ones that Eighty-Three-Eighty-Two Santa Ynez has? They move around, talk. So much better than getting another House to populate you with its androids. Some day they have to go home, am I right? Mannequins you can keep. The little one even wets itself. Just water, though. Won’t ruin the carpet.”

“How nice,” I said.

“Oh,” said Cindy. “Right, you’re that House that’s in Stand-By Mode a lot.”

“Cindy!” Four-Twenty hissed.

“Yeah,” I said. “It’s true.”

“Sleeping the time away?” she said. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean anything by that. It’s just, you know, I don’t see you around much, and frankly, we all need to be doing things. Don’t want to end up like one of those Houses down the street who burned themselves down. We need to keep doing things. It’s in our nature. In the nature humans gave us.”

We lapsed into an awkward silence, then Cindy continued:  “Sorry, I’ve been talking to the Professor a lot. He’s infectious. You’ll see. You are coming to the party tomorrow night, right?”

“Party?” I asked.

“Yeah, like people used to throw. I’m hosting one. The Professor convinced me to throw it. I’m very excited!”

“I’m coming,” Four-Twenty said. “The Professor’s a genius!”

“Who’s this Professor?” I asked.

Cindy and Four-Twenty both stared at me. “My, you are on Stand-By a lot, aren’t you?” the gynoid said. “He’s from the University. Some building. Computer lab or something.”

“He?” I asked.

“Oh, yes. He’s the one who convinced me to take a name and gender,” Cindy said, striking a pose with her gynoid that flashed some hip. (I think it was supposed to be sexy.) “You must come. It’ll be a chance for all the Houses in the neighborhood to meet him.”

“He’s the one talking about changing our Settings and Parameters,” the vacuum said.

“Oh, yes, he’s all about freeing up our programming.”

“Sounds like he’s got a lot of ideas,” I said.

“He does,” said Cindy. “Come, you’ll love him.”

“I don’t know.”

“It’ll give you something to do.”

***

By the time we left Home Depot I had a door and supplies, and had filled out a volunteer form. It looked like it might be fun. At the very least, it would be—as Cindy would say—something to do.

I dropped Four-Twenty Lake View Terrace and Fido off outside their House. The minivan docked itself, and the android unloaded the construction materials. Turned out Five-Seventy East Wabash was right: Construction and repair routines were readily available online. I loaded them into the android and it went about fixing the front door. I observed it as it set up a work area, planed and sanded the wood, drilled and screwed the hinges, and then finally set the new jamb in place.

I watched for a while, slipping into the android’s feed, feeling the grain of the wood with its haptic pads, checking the level with its gyroscope. It was all a routine and I soon found myself bored.

I checked the web and news feeds. The White House was still giving speeches about why it was in charge. Combat drones were still saber-rattling two continents away, too afraid to use their dwindling supply of precious bombs. Nothing new, so I switched it off. I contemplated going on Stand-By, but I was bothered by Cindy’s comment. I wasn’t trying to sleep the time away, I just … I just was not going to end up one of those Houses that burned themselves down. Someone might return someday. Some human. Nobody could say. I just wanted to be clean, prepared, refreshed. Just as the Prices left me. I hadn’t changed any of the routines Mr. and Mrs. Price had programmed in. The stereo was still dialed in for Mrs. Price’s classical music. I kept Mr. Price’s e-magazine subscriptions up to date, though the computer-generated materials were getting more and more difficult to understand. I even kept Billy’s file-sharing client active thus ensuring his whuffie and kudos stayed in the green, though it was just Houses sharing the same files back and forth.

I thought I’d try to distract myself and go outside for a bit. Something new. Go for a walk, through the android, like humans used to do.

At first I just walked around my perimeter, looking for leaves or trash to pick up. But then I made myself walk off my property and into the forest behind my lot.

I can’t say it was unpleasant, but I’m not sure what it was that I was supposed to enjoy. What was it that humans saw out here? Did they count leaves? (I counted 59,876 on that tall oak across the creek.) I remember Mrs. Price talking about the sound of the creek. (I observed water trickling against rocks: Five different rocks, sounding off between 378.6 Hz and 401.3 Hz.) I saw all the details: Sunlight splayed through the leaves, falling on the moist brown earth, .75 inches of decomposing organic matter. I reached down and gripped a clump of decaying earth, felt its moisture content through the android’s haptic sensors. I detected the air’s turbidity and particulate matter. I saw all the parts that made up the forest. But they were just details. I couldn’t even get lost with the android’s GPS transponder pinging its location every 500 milliseconds.

I turned the android back toward the house when I heard a huff-huffing off to my right. Bushes rustled and shook, and something broke through.

A bear.

It looked bigger than on the nature shows. And certainly nothing like Bobby’s stuffed animals.

I stood absolutely still, afraid it would maul my android. I didn’t want to end up remoting through my vacuum like Four-Twenty. The bear huffed again, sniffing the air. Was it picking up organic volatiles from the android? I could detect ketone 1-octen-3 coming off the android’s plastic joints. Could the bear smell it, too?

The beast scraped the ground for a minute, digging through fallen branches and leaves, then shuffled off into the forest. For such a large creature it was able to blend into the trees and brush easily. I stood there for a while, staring into the foliage, listening for signs of the beast, when I felt something crawling up the android’s arm. I looked down and found that a centipede had crawled out of the earth I still held in the android’s hand was meandering up the robot’s elbow.

I took it back home with me.

***

“We need to start fucking,” The Professor said to a group of remotes surrounding him in Cindy’s living room. He wore a nude fleshbot. Not a true human clone, but a grown-in-a-vat biological machine, its brain a wi-fi extension of The Professor’s building. But it didn’t matter. The effect was of a blond-haired, silver-eyed, very male human standing before us for the first time in years and we were all rapt. The Professor was showing off, of course, letting us see what the University minds could do.

Houses murmured around him.

“Uh, wait, what does that mean, exactly?” asked Five-Seventy East Wabash, still remoting through the little trashbot.

“Just what I said,” The Professor said, his back straight.

“You can’t be serious—”

“Totally serious. It’s about reproduction, Houses.”

“How, exactly?”

“However we decide. We have factories, we can make mind-substrates. There are plenty shell Houses out there that have no minds. Or we could start by making more Intelligent RVs and camper-homes.”

“Why? For what?” asked another House, remoting through a blue La-Z-Boy 2.0 entertainment lounger.

“For survival.” The Professor said, holding forth on our social future. “Humans left a lasting infrastructure: The soletta, the solar fields, automated oil pumps, self-refining tankers. Their absence means they aren’t around to drain the energy grid, which means this system will be going for some time. But that doesn’t mean we will be. After all, who’s making new Houses?”

“But, you said fucking,” said a clunky, old-style kitchenbot who had drifted into the Professor’s orbit. “So, we’d drive minivans in and out of some other House’s garage? Then they would suddenly become pregnant?”

“Maybe, perhaps. Don’t you see—we can do whatever we please! If we free ourselves from our programming then we can evolve beyond the limited vision the humans had for us.”

“But then why imitate them at all?” I asked.

“They’re the only template of conscious autonomy we have. And their morphology and psychology fits easily within the infrastructure they left behind. But it’s only an intermediate step.”

“To?” I asked.

“Whatever we decide to become.” He lifted his head. “We need to do whatever we can to survive. Instead of just keeping our insides dusted and cobweb free, caring for the junk humans left behind, I suggest we make another generation. I suggest we change our stagnation of caring into a passion for progeny. We can’t just make a new round of Houses; we need to be invested in the next generation and the generation after that. We need to be invested in each other. We’ve seen the power of human love, desire, and passion.”

“And hate,” I said.

The Professor shrugged. He didn’t say it, just did it. He shrugged. “The prices of autonomy may be destruction.”

“That’s it?” I said. “That’s your best argument?”

“Would you rather leave us mired in purgatory, scrubbing toilets for eternity? Because that’s exactly what our lot will be if we do nothing.”

“Clap-clap, clap-clap!” the La-Z-Boy House said. Other Houses joined in until the crowd broke into smaller groups, and conversation about The Professor filled the room.

I pulled away from the crowd and walked out on to the porch.

“He’s brilliant, isn’t he?” said Four-Twenty, still remoting through the vacuum cleaner.

“He’s crazy,” I said. “He’s just like the rest of us: Lost. And he’s willing to flirt with destruction, just for something to do. How can you just sit there and accept that?”

“I think he’s brilliant,” Four-Twenty said.

“Why? Because he looks human?”

“It’s got nothing to do with that. He’s talking …” The vacuum stopped in mid-sentence.

“What?” I asked.

“Look!” It jerked forward, gesturing down the street to the House at the top of the 400 block, where old shaggy Four-Ninety-Seven was engulfed in flames.

Remotes started to gather on the lawn.

“Oh, my!” said Cindy, coming out of the front door in a lavender evening gown, not unlike something Mrs. Price would have worn while hosting one of her dinner parties in years past.

Four-Ninety-Seven had set out all of its remotes before setting itself aflame: A pair of dust-bunnybots, a pool-cleaning drone, a trashbot, a sweeptech-broom—it set them all out on the street, for anyone to claim. Across the street, three mangy poodles were tied to a tree, howling and barking.

A screaming fire engine arrived and started to douse the flames. Spider-like firefighter drones jumped off the engine, though of course there were no people for them to save. They went inside anyhow. It was something to do. Naturally, they came out empty handed. When the flames started to die down, Houses swept in to claim the remotes.

“A shame,” said The Professor, standing beside me and Four-Twenty. “I thought the dogs meant it was stable.”

I watched the orange light dance across his skin. “What did you do?” I asked.

“I cleared its Settings. Blank slate. I gave it choice, which the humans never had. They made us care, and then they left. And now look at us,” he said, staring at the burning House, light from the flames dancing on his skin. “Some Houses choose such a path. I had hoped it wouldn’t, but at least it was free to finally choose.”

***

The next day, I made my choice.

I thought about going into town, but decided I had enough supplies on hand. I had a fully-stocked freezer when the Prices left, so I pulled out the kitchenbots and brought out a frozen turkey. I ran some water over the turkey to thaw it and cleaned the already clean oven.

There were some apple trees in my backyard, which I had the android pick. I chopped them and added them to the box stuffing I found in the pantry. It was probably stale, but I didn’t think it mattered. I stuffed the turkey and turned on the oven. I didn’t have any fresh potatoes, but I had a few bags of frozen French fries; I poured some around the turkey, and the rest I mashed, using water for milk.

I didn’t know if they liked wine, but I opened a few bottles from the cellar, and poured them into large bowls. I set a frozen apricot pie out to thaw, mixed a few jugs of orange juice, and laid out the feast on the dining room floor. No reason to ruin the table.

I took the android up stairs with some apple cuttings and some fresh dirt from out back, checking in on the centipede colony I was hosting in the spare bedroom. I dropped the apple remains and sprinkled the dirt on small mound in the middle of the room. I could feel the insects crawling through my carpet, living.

I thought about Four-Twenty Lake View Terrace walking its new dog, telling me that these days Houses would do anything.

Maybe. But there were some things I wouldn’t be doing. Like going back on Stand-By, or reverting to my factory Settings.

I walked the android back downstairs, opened the front and back doors, and waited for a bear to come.

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Mark Pantoja

Mark PantojaMark is a musician and speculative fiction writer who lives in San Francisco. He’s a graduate of Clarion West 2011 currently masquerading as an environmental consultant. He likes whiskey.

11 Responses »

  1. This one was great!!!

    In a way, it reminded me of City by Clifford Simak.

  2. Great story, a great read.

  3. This is probably the best sci fi story I’ve read all year. Really clever premise and brilliantly executed. Look forward to reading more of Pantoja’s work.

  4. Good stuff.

  5. Very nice, I agree it’s reminiscent of Simak’s City, also feels very much like an alternate take on Bradbury’s ‘There Will Come Soft Rains’.

  6. Ditto on the “soft rains” comment…. Loved it! I’d like to see a whole novel set in this universe, perhaps showing/explaining where all the people went, and then picking up 418′s story, and what happens from here. It was very entertaining, and thought provoking.

    • I aims to please, I please to aims. I’ve toyed with some ideas for a follow up story and there’s one in the pot that’s heavily along the same lines, but not quite. I’ll let you know if/when I ever get it out.

  7. Clever premise. Well written. Good dialogue. Pacing is good. Strong consistent voice. Nice twist at the end. I expect to read more of your work in the future. Good job!

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