“In the Image And Likeness” by Aleta Johansen
We always get a warning from the Main Doors as soon as she enters the building. Today when the message came there was quite a party going on.
Whenever dirty dishes are left in the Sink things tend to get out of hand. Being dirty seems to give them the idea that they should behave in a bawdy manner. Between the prudes in the China Cabinet suggesting that this sort of behavior is highly inappropriate and the toiletries in the bathroom trying their darnedest to get in on the action things can get pretty chaotic.
Fortunately for me she does not leave dirty dishes in the Sink often, once or twice a week at most.
It is my job to make sure that everyone is quiet and settled when she puts her key in my lock and enters her home. On the quiet days – the days when there are no dirty dishes – it is easy to get everyone ready for her arrival. On days like today, though, we can end up cutting it pretty close.
I can’t imagine how hard it is for the first floor apartments. Maybe they have some sort of arrangement with the Sidewalk or the Corner Mailbox to give them an early warning. I am not at all sure I could rein everyone in before her arrival if we were any closer to the building entrance.
Once she arrives it’s the big guys who really keep everyone in line. The Floor has the most authority simply as a function of her ability to hold everything up. The walls come in a close second, of course.
For the most part everyone wants to do their job well. We take care of the humans and they take care of us. Symbiosis. On the whole one human is pretty much like all the rest. Most of them like to keep us happy and most of us like to keep them happy.
Sometimes you get one – a human that is – who doesn’t much care about the place. They let the junk mail pile up (junk mail is really the lowest form of apartment dweller) or they don’t do the dishes for a month or have never bothered to buy a vacuum cleaner. Those can wear on you after awhile.
Every now and then we get one who is actually bad – one that likes to abuse us, punch holes in the walls, slam the doors, and throw things. They don’t usually stay long, but it’s hell while they are here.
It is not as if we’re all perfect. The regulars in this place are good folk. I think that is pretty much true throughout this building. I have heard stories from time to time about other places though; places where they think the humans are either evil oppressors to be resisted or playthings only existing for our entertainment. I feel fortunate to be a part of a good, cooperative community.
Of course you never know who you’ll get on moving day. It always takes awhile to get to know the new guys. This woman, Joella, has lived here for five years and that Potted Ficus Tree in the corner has never given anyone so much as a “good day.” Could be shy I guess but I think he is just antisocial. Doesn’t hurt anyone, though, so no one is really very fussed about it.
She brought a Knife in shortly after she moved here. Now that Knife, she was just a bad seed. Every chance she had to hurt someone she would. We had to step in and make sure she got lost.
Fortunately that sort of thing is rare.
Joella loved her apartment. Every time she walked through the door she felt at home in ways that she never had in any other place she had lived with the possible exception of her childhood home; the one in which she had spent her first five years. She didn’t remember much about the place but she remembered that it felt like home.
She had that same feeling about this apartment even before she made it her own. The very first time she walked through the door, when she was apartment hunting, she had known without a doubt that she would live here, that it would be home.
Now coming in through that same door always felt like a warm hug. Even though she lived alone she had taken to saying, “Honey, I’m home!” when she came in from a day at the office. It made her smile to think of the apartment as her honey and in many ways it was. It was a solid and dependable part of her life. Certainly more dependable than any of the other sort of honeys she had experienced.
Joella believed that the fact that the apartment was old and therefore had character was a large part of the reason for her affection. There were little nooks and crannies: a shelf set into the wall near the door that had clearly once held an old fashioned telephone, a Murphy bed in the living room, glass door cabinets that separated the tiny kitchen from the tiny dining area.
The wood work was rich and dark. The hardwood floors where imperfect which made them completely perfect to her eyes. She enjoyed pondering the mysteries of what had made the deep nick under the large living room window or the apparent burn mark in the center of the dinning area.
She had looked at newer places in bright new buildings with newer appliances and more space. None of these felt like home though. She could imagine living in them and being happy, but there was no feeling of real connection until she walked through this door. Now, five years later she loved the place even more.
She hoped to live here for a long, long time.
It took her longer to arrive than usual. Once she got here it was obvious why. She came into view pushing a large box. Of course I had heard all about the box before I saw it. This building has a very efficient communication system.
The floors are the ones who know the most of course. They are everywhere. The walls know a lot too. There are on occasion arguments between the floors and the walls as they do have very different vantage points from which to observe things. Today the messages arrived to me from below, above, either side and across the hall. The Floor Network reported that the box was rather heavy but slid easily causing very little distress to the Carpet. The walls each described a different picture found on the sides and top the box depending on what was facing them.
One thing was clear from all the differing bits of information. Joella was bringing Someone New into our community.
All we really knew about the new addition at this point was that it currently lived in a box – a box that was too big or too heavy for her to carry.
The reports coming in said the box was about three feet in each dimension. On the sides of the box were pictures of something that seemed to have been built to look somewhat human. It reminded the Elevator Doors of a roly-poly doll made of shiny metal. Questions and observations had moved quickly through the network of floors and walls and doors. There were pictures on the box of the doll-like thing doing various tasks. It seemed to be a vacuum cleaner in one and another showed it raised up on some sort of leg that made it tall enough to reach a sink filled with sudsy water.
There were pictures of it dusting and even sorting through stacks of mail, using an attachment to shred junk mail.
We all hate the junk mail. It is loud and obnoxious and completely unable to provide anything of value to the community. If this box contained someone who could get rid of junk mail that would be a wonderful thing.
She arrived a bit winded and struggled a bit negotiating her way through me with the box. I did what I could to help, pulled back as far as I could. The box fit through me, but just. It scrapped against me as it entered. I tried to say hello but it seemed that whoever was inside was not talking.
Not yet anyway.
She opened the box and laid out parts all over the floor. We were all transfixed by her project.
This seemed to be a major addition to our community, like the day she brought in the Microwave or the new Entertainment Center a couple of years ago. Both of them now watched with excitement along with the rest of us. They were both very well liked and we could only hope that the new addition would fit in just as well.
As Joella worked to assemble the thing in the box I tried to talk with this new addition to our community. The sofa, always the cheerful welcoming type, greeted the emerging being enthusiastically as well. He (or she?) did not seem to hear us. I noticed that I could not really feel this new object.. Sometimes we go into a deep sleep when we are in transit. This makes it easier to deal with the tossing around and the close quarters inside of shipping compartments and such. But even with the sleepers I could usually feel a presence.
Guess this one must have gone into a particularly deep sleep.
The object did start to take shape though, and it was unmistakably made to have a human-like form. It had a face of sorts, with round lights for eyes and an oval shaped speaker for a mouth. There was nothing like a human nose but there were small thick antennas on each side of the head that seemed to mimic ears.
The head was egg shaped and connected to a large elongated sphere that formed the body of the thing. It all sat on top of a thick disk that contained whatever was used to move around. I guessed that this disk also contained the mechanism used to get taller – the leg.
The body contained many doors and switches and in the center – at its heart – there was a computer screen. Once she had everything assembled she attached what we all recognized as a charging cord and plugged it in. Lights flashed and a rather stiff sounding voice said. “Hello. I am Doug 3.9. I am your new fully-functional robotic assistant. How may I help you?”
I was surprised, everyone was, that this machine spoke directly to the human. This was something we could not do. We could talk amongst ourselves when she was around but she never heard us, or never understood that what she heard was us.
Joella had an uncle called Doug. A man. He had been here for dinner parties and seemed to be kind. Joella was very fond of him. It seemed odd to me that a large household object would carry a human name like some toys did, but at least we now knew what to call him.
The Floor took her role as leader and spoke to Doug 3.9. “Welcome to 3B, Doug. May we call you Doug? We are all surprised and excited by the idea that you speak directly to the human. We look forward to showing you around the place and helping you to settle in to our community.”
Everyone waited to hear a response. All I heard,though, were beeps and buzzes as Joella worked on the touch screen at Doug 3.9’s heart. Maybe, we all agreed, this was another one like the Ficus; antisocial.
“I am not antisocial,” came a deep scratchy voice from the northeastern corner. Along with everyone else I forgot about Doug 3.9 for a moment and turned my attention to the Ficus. “I simply find that I have very little to say and it is my nature to spend my time in contemplation. I am sorry if this has made me appear to be — standoffish. I simply tend to keep my own counsel and prefer the role of observer in these sorts of group settings.”
Hearing the Ficus’s voice for the first time left everyone speechless.
“I do have something to say now though. That thing that she has brought in today. Every instinct I have – and my instincts are rarely wrong – tells me that thing is not living. It cannot hear us. It is not a part of our community and it is not a thing like a human who can live in symbiosis with us.”
The Ficus paused.
“I believe we will need to keep a very close watch on this thing. I believe it might well be dangerous.”
Joella had been so excited to have been chosen as one of the three employees of Robiquest to help with the final usability study of the latest version of the Doug. The robotic assistant had been in production for as long as she had been at Robiquest, longer really. She had heard some of the scientists talk about the struggles, the walls they had run up against and the out-and-out disasters they had experienced in the robotic assistant project.
Robiquest had introduced the first robotic vacuum cleaners and lawn mowers more than two decades ago. The expectations that they would make the leap into the more complex world of multi-tasking robots were quickly dashed with Alice 1.0. They had been overconfident and sold the first run of Alices before they had been thoroughly tested. Fortunately no one had died, but there had been a serious injury to a small child and house fire blamed on the Alices before the company had recalled the lot of them and started over from scratch.
After the Alice debacle they had moved on to Bob, then Claudia. By the time they had started the Doug project they had stopped making any press releases or grand project kick off events. They had learned to be cautious.
Doug 3.9 had been run through tests and more tests in the labs and in the model homes built within the labs. The final step was to have three non-scientist employees each bring a unit home for a trial run. They were given no special instructions. The company was sure that anything that could make the Dougs dangerous had been dealt with; now it was all about making sure that the average customer could understand the instructions and be comfortable using this version of Doug to its full capacity.
There had been a lottery and Joella had been selected as one of the testers. The others in Data Entry had been envious. Joella had been thrilled.
After Joella programmed the Doug and asked him to do a few simple tasks she went to bed. Several of us tried to start up conversations with him. In truth we all began to suspect that the Ficus was right. The Doug was not alive.
I had never before met a thing that was not alive.
Apparently he was set to do some tasks overnight. He scanned the room with his eye lights a couple of times – looking for pests I guessed. He also made his way around the room slowly with soft beeps and buzzes. It was South Wall that decided the Doug must be mapping out the place so that he could get around easily.
There were some dirty dishes in the sink, but no overnight partying. Everyone was quiet. Watching the Doug. Wondering what it meant to have someone (something?) like him (it?) living (not living?) in our community.
When it seemed that Doug had powered down Floor spoke softly.
“Ficus has suggested that we need to watch this Doug closely. I think, with all due respect to our typically silent friend, this may be an overreaction. That said I guess any new member of this community must be integrated carefully. You may recall that Microwave had a bit of a difficult time adjusting to life in a space where he was the only one of his kind. While I know that some of you, perhaps even most of you, are convinced that Doug is not a living being… I… well…”
Floor sighed in a way that caused a creak that Joella would have heard had she been awake.
“You know, the humans do not understand that we are alive. To them we appear as lifeless as the Doug appears to us. I think we should wait a bit and keep trying to get to know him before we write him off as some unliving thing.”
Ficus shuddered and spoke again. “That is fine. Wise counsel as always good Floor, but I believe we need to think about what it could mean if he is not alive. I have never met any non-living thing. I have heard stories of such things and always imagined the unliving to be more like rocks. An unliving thing that moves and talks. It makes me nervous. How do we deal with him, or rather with “it”? And what does it mean if the humans start bringing more of these things inside of our communities?” Ficus shuddered again but said no more.
Joella was awakened by a gentle nudge and a strange voice.
“Wake up time Jo Ell A. Coffee is on. The sun is shining. Wake up time.”
She opened one eye and saw Doug 3.9’s face. She could smell freshly brewed coffee. That was nice, waking up to fresh coffee. She decided to take advantage of the decadence she was being offered.
“Doug, could you please bring me a cup of coffee.”
There were a couple of clicks, as if Doug were doing some calculations.
“Yes. Please remember that you must be out the door in 45 minutes or you will miss your bus.”
“Thank you Doug”
She propped herself up on her pillows and thought that coffee in bed each morning was something she would enjoy immensely.
I was on edge; everyone was.
At first, the Doug seemed harmless enough. He did the dishes and vacuumed the Linoleum Floor in the kitchen. He made Joella’s Bed. He started a load of laundry.
That was when the trouble began.
Washing Machine had tried to tell him what Joella already knew, that she worked much better when loads were kept smaller. Of course, the Doug appeared not to hear her and loaded her full. She worked very hard to make sure that the clothes were as clean as possible and guessed that Joella would not notice any problem. She complained after the load was done, though, that if she had to work like that for every load she would likely die before her time.
It was frustrating to have no way to tell the Doug the impact he was having on Washing Machine, and this made me nervous. Any of us could find ourselves in the same situation and would have very little recourse.
In the afternoon Doug started rearranging things in the apartment. This added to the general feeling of unease. The worst moment came when he moved Ficus from the northeastern corner to the southeastern corner. Ficus shuddered and sputtered.
“What the…? Oh, this is not acceptable, not at all. I have done well in this corner. I have no need to move. Stop this now!”
He dropped several leaves, which he said would give a signal to Joella that he should not have been moved. Doug, however, vacuumed the leaves up immediately, leaving no evidence of the Ficus’s displeasure.
Everyone was very quiet for the rest of the day, watching and waiting to see what the Doug, who by this time we had all come to think of as the doug, would do next. But the doug was quiet too, until late afternoon when it opened a bottle of wine and cooked a frozen microwave meal, all perfectly timed to be ready just as Joella arrived home from work.
She unlocked me and walked in. “Honey, I’m home.” This greeting had always made me happy and while she could never hear my reply I certainly believed that she could feel the warmth of my response.
“Good evening Jo Ell A. Welcome home.” Doug was there holding the glass of wine. “Dinner will be served whenever you are ready for it.”
“Why, thank you, Doug! This is the sort of thing a girl could get used to!”
The doug had been there for ten days when Floor called a community meeting after it had powered down for the night. Everyone had some complaint or other about how the doug seemed to be taking over.
It was hard to know how to talk about him – it. Joella had seemed to become more and more enamored with the machine. It was odd, observed the Elder pots and pans, that she seemed to be transferring the affection that she had obviously felt for all of us over the years to this doug over the course of just a few days. And it was not even a living being! It felt as if the doug had become an intermediary between Joella and the apartment. No one was happy with this turn of events and the fact that Joella appeared to be oblivious to the problem made for hurt feelings and upsets within the community.
Floor began by reviewing the various complaints: kitchen tools were being handled roughly; plants, who had been sung to by Joella during the weekly waterings before the doug arrived, were being treated mechanically and sometimes over watered by the machine; the Antique Persian Rug in the living room was feeling frayed and over-vacuumed. The listing of grievances went on for some time. Finally Floor gave her creaking sigh, acknowledged that something had to be done and asked if anyone had any suggestions.
Those who remembered the Knife incident wondered if we could not somehow lose the doug in a similar fashion. However, it was finally agreed that the doug was too big and powerful for that particular solution. The Marble Rolling Pin thought she could work up the momentum to fall from her perch on top of the Refrigerator and attempt to damage the doug. This plan, however, seemed unlikely to work well enough to insure that the doug would be gone for good. I tried hard to imagine some way in which I might be able to help, but the doug rarely came near me and even if it did there did not seem to be much I could do to stop it.
After being quiet throughout the meeting South Wall finally spoke up. “I have an idea. This idea is dangerous, but if we plan well and work together I think we could pull it off with very little lasting damage.”
Joella brought the charred remains of her Doug 3.9 with her in to Robiquest the next day. She went straight into the office of the head of the Robotic Assistant project. She was clearly upset and Mr. Albertson had a pretty good idea of what he was going to hear.
She explained to him, as the fire fighters had explained to her, that she – and all the residents in her building – were very lucky that she had woken up and discovered the fire when she did. Clearly there was some flaw in the wiring of this robot thing which had overheated and sparked. There had been a lot of smoke but the only real damage had been a large scorch mark on her hardwood floor and another around the outlet on the south wall of her living room where Doug had been plugged in to recharge overnight.
“He was doing very well; I really enjoyed having him around. But I certainly don’t want my building to burn to the ground just so that I can have a fresh hot cup of coffee waiting on my nightstand when I wake up in the morning!”
Mr. Albertson sighed.
“I just don’t understand it. We tested this electrical system in the lab with every kind of household wiring there is.” He shook his head.
“It is the same every single time we turn out a new model. We think we have the kinks worked out but when we send them out into the real world something always goes wrong. Nina Logan, in the mail room? Hers shorted out when her bathtub stopper somehow closed and her tub overflowed. That almost started a fire, too. Oh well – back to the drawing board. Guess we’ll call the next one Emma 1.0.”
Mr. Albertson’s Desk chuckled.
The Oil Painting on the East Wall joined in. “Another victory!”
The Trash Bin sighed. “It is a victory to be sure, but these humans, they just don’t seem to know how to move on to more useful endeavors.”
About the author
Aleta Johansen lives in St. Paul Minnesota with her cat, Ginger Snap. They share the cozy and cluttered upstairs apartment in a lovely old Victorian house. She is a Gemini. She floats and flows between the roles of Academic and Artist. She writes in order to find out what is around the next bend in the tangled, and always surprising, path of her life. You may follow her adventures on Twitter at http://twitter.com/AletaMay.