The first despairing sob of Helen’s cracked voice registers, matches waveforms, and executes number 88 out of my 2,102 hanging subroutines.
The subroutine has been perfected by 812 iterations over three years:
- Silently slide the closet door aside, climb out with care so that I do not make noise and none of the monitor lights on my charging cradle are visible. Both of those things upset Helen, because they draw her attention to the fact that there is something unusual in my presence.
- Walk six steps, footfalls tuned to be the correct number of decibels for a middle-aged woman.
- Place one hand on the high railing of the care-home bed, reach out the other to smooth fine, brittle white curls that frame her dark face. “Shh, Lenushka. Shh.”
“Ana?” Helen’s voice is indistinct; only one side of her mouth moves.
- “I’m here, Lenushka.”
I am not Anastasia Loseva, but I am an outwardly perfect replica of her at age 52; tanned face wrinkled with laugh-lines precision cut by lasers, hyper-realistic eyes that allow me to see Helen’s expression of confusion in the nearly pitch-black room, short-cropped blonde hair in wisps made from real hair—real in the sense that the hair has been extruded by engineered bacteria and is thus entirely organic.
“Ana, it’s dark. Ana—”
- “Shh, shh. I’ll sing you to sleep, Lenushka.” And in a dead woman’s voice I sing the words of a Canadian ballad popular 42.35 years ago, which Helen and Anastasia played at their wedding.
I do not rush and am unbothered when I reach the end and Helen is still awake, compelling me to start over again.
AI do not become bored or anxious in the way humans do. We are never doing just one thing: As I sing for Helen, I monitor her vital signs, track the trust fund that pays for me and her residence, and donate my unused computational cycles to running the care facility and the city of which it is one tiny part. I am traffic signal 11739-A. I am the refrigeration system that keeps the patients’ medications at precisely prescribed temperatures. I am the point of comfort for a frightened human. I am one node in a greater network, flowing between individuality and seamless integration.
Midway through the third repetition of the ballad, Helen’s breathing and heartbeat return to a calm state. As the fourth repetition, timed precisely by the subroutine using minute variances in pause and note length, closes on a sustained note, Helen sleeps.
I lean over the bed railing to place a light kiss on Helen’s forehead, and return silently to the closet and my charging station.
A humanoid body with a full, self-aware artificial intelligence is not required to perform routine tasks such as bathing or feeding the sick. It’s our adaptability and judgment without needing vast, pre-set if:then banks that makes embodied AI the logical executors of traumatic professions once dominated by underpaid humans. But Caregiver AI are more than that. We are made to feel for our principals, programmed with exaggerated empathy in order to fine-tune our self-written subroutines to provide maximum physical and emotional outcome. This is the long explanation for why I sing to Helen.
The short summary is that it gives her comfort, and in that my purpose is fulfilled. And when I kiss her good night, it is for myself.
“I don’t like her.”
I bow my head and remain silent.
“Carrie, you know—” the second is Carrie’s husband, Richard. He sounds embarrassed, as he always does.
“I don’t like you,” Carrie says to me. She has a cigarette tucked between her fore- and middle fingers, which she stabs at me for emphasis.
Head still bowed at the most appropriately subservient angle, I pluck the cigarette from Carrie’s fingers, pinching it out between my own. We do not register pain the way humans do, so it does not hurt. “I am sorry, Ms. Pierson. Smoking is not permitted in the care unit for the health of the patients.”
I see movement, her hand coming up. I think she intends to slap me, which I don’t find troubling. She doesn’t strike, however, just bends her knees so that she can glare up into my face. “She looks exactly like that old bat. Do you hear me? You look exactly like her.”
“Yes, Ms. Pierson.”
“I hated her. You were supposed to look like my father.”
While relations between Helen and her ex-husband Evan were not overly strained, my wearing his face produced less than optimal results. Helen had insistently inquired after Anastasia, the lover she’d had during school years abroad, whom she had married much later. With the care of Helen as my first priority, the necessary action was so clear even a dumb vehicular AI could have seen it, like an oncoming collision with a wall. My organo-synthetic envelope had been replaced over the course of one night while a human nurse attended Helen.
Outcomes had improved immediately: Helen was less combative, more cooperative, and most important, happier. Her daughter had become less pleased. I found that regrettable—my processing capacity for empathy is not limited to my principal—but priorities are necessary.
I bow my head more deeply, bobbing into a curtsey, and say, “I am sorry, Ms. Pierson.”
She snorts and steps back. “That’s how we know you’re not Anastasia. She never apologized for anything.”
“Sorry,” her husband murmurs to me.
“It’s a machine, Richard. Don’t apologize to the damn toaster.” Carrie grabs his sleeve. “Come on, let’s get this over with.”
I follow at a distance. While Ms. Pierson would no doubt rather I go back into the closet, I need to observe in case Helen needs something or becomes agitated. Her daughter and son-in-law sit next to the orthopedically-tuned recliner in which I settled Helen to watch television 45.7 minutes ago. The wallscreen remains on; we all know at this point that she is calmer with background noise.
“Carrie, is that you?”
“It is, mama.”
“And who’s this handsome man?”
“This is Richard. Remember Richard?”
I read from the arrangement of wrinkles around Helen’s eyes that she doesn’t remember. But she says, “Of course I do, don’t be silly. And how is school, Carrie?”
“I’ve been out of school for years, mama.”
“Of course you have.” It distresses Helen. It distresses Carrie. And thus it distresses me. “Are you a doctor now? That must be where you met Richard.”
“No, I’m an engineer.”
“Why didn’t you become a doctor? You always said you wanted to be a doctor…” Helen shakes her head. “But who is this handsome man?”
Carrie takes Helen’s hand. There are already tears in her eyes. “This is Richard, mama. My husband.”
“Yes, yes, of course. And how is school?”
Carrie sighs. “It’s just fine, mama. Just fine.”
She’s already fumbling a cigarette from her handbag as she leaves Helen’s room 36.1 minutes later. “I don’t know why I do this to us,” Carrie sticks the cigarette between her lips but doesn’t light it. “Leave her to the fucking robot. Answering the same questions over and over isn’t going to tear out her heart. She doesn’t have one.”
Richard gives me, still trailing them because I do not trust Carrie’s cigarette habit, an apologetic look. I smile pleasantly in return, unoffended. Her statement is literally true.
“Why the fuck do I do this? In five minutes, she’s not even going to remember we were here.”
Richard rubs her upper arm. “You’ll remember.”
Carrie shoves the front door open. “I’ll never be able to forget.”
“Shh, Lenushka, Shh.”
I stroke her hair as I sing and feel the trembling of the frail organic being beneath.
Her breathing is labored, her heartbeat irregular. I rest my hand on her chest, reading the stuttering electrical signals.
I lift my hand away, back to Helen’s hair, and return to stroking the brittle white curls. I continue to sing.
Until Helen breathes her last in a slow rattle.
I lean over to kiss her still forehead and detect her body temperature already dropping.
A faint smile curves Helen’s lips, even with the rest of her face slack. A human would likely mistake the expression for sleep, but it’s inescapably one of death. As easy a death as one can be, my purpose here at its most fundamental, perfectly executed.
I inform the care facility computer, which in turn sends messages to Helen’s contact list, the medical examiner, and my leasing company, RealCare. I return to my charging cradle in the closet as the subroutine demands, and wait. All my computational cycles beyond base-function, I am able to loan out to the care home and the city now.
I leave the door of the closet open; Carrie slams it shut when she arrives, her nose and eyes red from crying. I would like to offer her comfort, but I know the face I wear prevents that. The look I read as both apology and profound discomfort from her husband before the door shuts indicates that he, too, would not find anything of use in my presence.
We do not grieve the way humans do. But we know emptiness and lack, routines that we have crafted for our principals endlessly failing, restarting, failing again. It is said that if we were to continue on like this, we would think ourselves into madness, searching for the proverbial ping that will never answer.
I wait, and I am the care home, breathing into the ventilation ducts and keeping the temperature even in all rooms. I am the city, regulating the flow of electricity through the power grid and smoothing out surges in the central arcologies. And I am a Caregiver, monitoring and monitoring in vain, waiting to sing to Helen one more time.
When the sales representative and mechanic from RealCare arrive, dressed in dark blue suit and pale gray coveralls respectively, the sales representative pulls a slip of paper from his pocket and reads: “Unit 9384-S, you are a credit to RealCare. Execute mandatory maintenance routine seven. Alpha-tango-three-three-eight.”
I would have done as ordered; I always do as ordered if it doesn’t violate higher directives. But the spoken code voids all hanging subroutines with the abruptness of a thread, singing with tension, being cut through with an ax.
I follow them to the van. Rather than depend on wireless signal, the mechanic plugs the maintenance unit directly into the base of what would be, on a human, my spine. This is not unexpected. Every Caregiver knows what will happen at the end of assignments; we do not have choice, only purpose. But for a brief moment, I know panic. Because this isn’t right, this cannot be right, everything I have built for Helen primed for deletion at the stroke of a key when everything else that was Helen is forever gone.
I understand Helen better than her daughter does, she who wishes to wind the clock back and force her parents into a couple again. I know Helen’s likes and dislikes and favorite songs with perfect clarity. Humans say that while the dead are remembered, they are never truly gone. Who better to keep the dead alive than us, who are deathless unless cut short by an EMP or the inescapable override command? Who else will remember without pain that my Lenushka was beautiful, and alive, and had three freckles in a triangle on her left cheek?
I am 9384-S. I am the care home. I am the city. And just a little, I am Ana.
I sing the first words, “The night wind sighs, like you and I, we just don’t want to say goodbye.”
I reach for the cable.
Alex Acks is a writer, geologist, and dapper AF. They’ve had short stories in Strange Horizons, Crossed Genres, Daily Science Fiction, Lightspeed, and more, and movie reviews in Strange Horizons and Mothership Zeta. They have written scripts for Six to Start and Toska Productions. For more information, see their website (http://www.katsudon.net) or watch them tweet (@katsudonburi) way too often.
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