An Apartment in Automatia
"Good morning. The time is nine-oh-five. The outdoor temperature is fifty-five degrees. Skies are partly cloudy. The forecast is for clearing with a high of seventy degrees." Upbeat instrumental music blasted from hidden speakers. "What is your order for breakfast, sir?" continued the emotionless gender-neutral voice..
"Nothing now," Ardan replied as he stretched languidly and took a deep breath of scented air. This was his first day in his new apartment. "I want to shower first." This is the life, he thought. Breakfast in bed if I want it.
Spidery plastic fingers sprung out of the wall and removed his pajamas. Naked, he walked into the shower which began running automatically. "A little warmer please." The water temperature rose. "Lather." Mechanical sponges soaped him thoroughly, a gentle caress that he found sensual, almost sexual in nature. Once he was lathered, gentle sprays rinsed him, followed by a blast of warm drying air.
When he returned to the bedroom, the disembodied robo-butler asked, "What would you like to wear, sir? May I suggest a fuchsia jumpsuit."
"No. Something practical. Denim jeans and a T-shirt."
A wall panel slid open revealing several pairs of jeans on rods. A drawer of underwear opened. After Ardan made his selections, the panel and the drawer closed, and he said to the air, "I'd like breakfast now. Bacon, eggs over easy, toast, coffee and orange juice. Serve it in the dinette."
He sauntered into the dinette, humming in time with the ever present background music. A mouthwatering breakfast waited -- crisp bacon, perfect eggs, warm toast dripping with melted margarine and steaming coffee, a better breakfast than he could've made himself. He devoured everything to the last scrap of toast. When he pushed her chair back, a machine that resembled a serving tray with arms and wheels appeared, wiped away spillage, and cleared away the dishes.
A horrendous clanking, whirring and whooshing came from the living room. When Ardan investigated, an army of mechanical devices with cleaning cloths for hands, insect-like robots with nozzles for arms, an automatic vacuum cleaner and other similar devices scurried about the room vacuuming, dusting, polishing, and scrubbing. It was unsettling, ominous even, all that inhuman activity.
An automated apartment was perfect for Ardan, who could have won a couch potato award hands down. When he was not immersed in interactive virtual reality holovision, he surfed the galactic wide net and chatted with strangers and aliens. He had retired at an early age and seldom left the apartment. It seemed a bore to ride the elevator down a hundred and fifteen floors to the entertainment and business levels. And why do it? All his wants and needs except human contact were provided by the robobutler. But, even that could be simulated with a full-body virtual reality suit. Actually he enjoyed the simulation of love more than romances he'd had with real women. The holovision women were exceptionally beautiful with bodies designed to his specifications and would do anything he ordered them to, no matter how outrageous.
Yes, Ardan enjoyed life in his cozy automated apartment. He had a stupendous view of the city and a virtual reality holovision in every room. At rare moments he worked out on exercise machines to keep his muscles from atrophying. For five years he lived this idyllic existence.
Then things began to go wrong…
Ardan yanked at his goatee in frustration. Two weeks previously, a cleaning robot had gone berserk and had to be shut off. That had not been too bad. He could live with a little dust while it was at the repair shop. (Actually his apartment was a mess. Crumpled clothes and dusty books were strewn around on the floor and piled on furniture, a thick layer of dust covered everything, cobwebs hung from the ceiling and when the trash disposal system went on the fritz, the disposal bin overflowed with food scraps, crumpled papers, junk mail and used food containers.) Next to go was the laundry machine, but it had a manual override.
The most recent breakdown had been a blessing in a way. The virtual reality holovision went out. At first he thought he would go crazy, but discovered that he enjoyed reading. Although no printed books were sold in Automatia, he downloaded them from the Internet, and his automatic publishing machine printed them, collated the pages, added glued backing and colorful covers.
The next failure, however, disgusted him. The autoshower went belly up. To his chagrin, he had to scrub his own body like a savage. He was starting to realize why the rent was so cheap. The rental android had told him that the reason was that the previous tenants had died there. Of what, it never said. Ardan thought the android had lied. But, since he lived on a pension, he had to conserve. With his automatics falling apart, he had used up his maintenance account. In addition, he had maxed out his credit purchasing holovision tapes and books.
"Toast and coffee," he demanded. Nothing happened. He kicked the autoserver. Something sputtered and sizzled. An awful burnt smell issued from somewhere. The autoserver fetched a cup of gray brackish liquid and a plastic dish with charred bread. Ardan cursed. Obviously, the cookbot had broken down. Since he was hungry, he decided to eat something that did not require cooking. "Get me a bologna sandwich." There was more sputtering and crackling. The dinette overhead lights flickered. The autoserver stood frozen. "For Clam's sake, it's completely dead."
Ardan keyed his vidphone.
A bland cartoon face appeared. "Apartment administration. How may I help you? If this is a billing problem, say 'Billing' now. If you require transportation, say 'Transport' now. If you wish to call someone, say 'Call' now. If this is a medical, fire or police emergency, say 'Emergency' now. If you need to contact building maintenance, say 'Maint' now. To repeat these choices, say 'Repeat' now."
A cartoon bust wearing overalls and a baseball cap appeared. "Building maintenance at your service. If there is a problem with the hallways or elevator, say 'Hall' now. If your windows need cleaning, say 'Windows' now. If you need help moving furniture, say 'Furnish' now. If there is a problem with heat, lighting or air conditioning, say 'Environment' now. If there is a problem with your automation equipment, say 'Auto' now. To repeat ..."
"Auto." Ardan tapped a pencil on the desk impatiently.
Another cartoon face appeared whose cap had a pliers icon on the front. "Mr. Fixit at your service. Please tell me which appliance is not operating up to our usual high standards." A list of appliance names appeared.
"Autocook." Ardan's figured that food was his most crucial problem.
Mr. Fixit reappeared. "Perform the following actions." He gave detailed repair instructions which also appeared on the monitor. "Your problem number is five-two-three-six-seven-eight." Ardan hastily scrawled this number on an old envelope. "If these actions do not repair the problem, call again. Don't forget your problem number. Have a nice day." The screen went blank.
If Ardan's printer had been working, he could have printed the instructions that Mr. Fixit had given him. But, as it was, he had to remember them. Nonetheless, he followed them to the best of his recollection. They did not repair the problem.
He called again, going through the whole rigmarole until Mr. Fixit appeared. After he repeated the number that he had written on the envelope, Mr. Fixit said, "Please state the nature of the problem, your name, galactic serial number and apartment number. A repair android will contact you for an appointment. Repair orders are filled in the order received. Have a nice day."
Ardan wearily supplied the requested information. Before he finished, the screen went blank. He had been disconnected prematurely. Ardan knew that failing to answer all questions was the same as not calling at all.
He rang up Mr. Fixit a third time, going through the whole rigmarole again. Before Ardan gave the requested information, he asked. "Excuse me. How long before a repair android contacts me?"
The stupid face on the screen blinked several times to show that it was cogitating upon Ardan's question. Finally it said, "At this time, we are experiencing a severely busy workload. The approximate time from request to customer contact is ... sixty days." The sixty days was said in different tone than the rest of the sentence. Mr. Fixit repeated the request for information.
"Sixty days? I can't wait that long."
But the screen had gone blank.
"Oh, crap. Now, this is an emergency. I'll call emergency. After all, I'm without food." He said into the vidphone, "Contact Emergency."
A simulacrum wearing a uniform and a stern expression said, "Warning. Persons calling this office for a non-emergencies will be prosecuted. The maximum penalty is one year of community service and a thousand credit fine." The frown turned to a smile. "How may I help you?"
"My food-server ..."
"State your name, citizen number and location please."
"Not that again."
"Mister or Ms Notthatagain, please remain calm until help arrives. Is this a fire emergency?"
"No. I'm trying to tell you ..."
"Is this a medical emergency? Is someone at your location ill?
"No. It's the damn ..."
"Are you reporting a crime? Are you in immediate danger?"
"No, dammit. I'm trying to tell you ..."
"Is it one of the following emergencies? You've noticed a peculiar odor, an accident has occurred involving injuries to persons or property damage, there has been a flood, hurricane, earthquake or other natural disaster in your vicinity."
"None of those."
"I'm sorry. I don't understand the nature of your emergency. Is this a false alarm? The penalty for calling this office in a non-emergency is one year community service and a thousand credit fine."
"I've been trying to tell you. My food-server is out of order."
"That is not on my list of valid emergencies. I am assuming that you simply made an error, so you will not be penalized. Do not call this office again. Call information for the correct city service. Have a nice day."
The screen went blank again. For the first time, Ardan felt dismay rather than annoyance."If I could only talk to a human being," he lamented. "Contact Information."
A repulsive female face appeared. Ardan wondered why they didn't get better artists to draw the things. "How may I help you sir?"
"I need to talk to someone regarding my food server. It's inoperative. I need it serviced immediately."
"For repair of automatic equipment, you need to call your building maintenance. Please state your building number. I will connect you."
He was back where he started. "No thanks."
"Have a nice day." The ugly face disappeared.
He thought his problem over. The sensible thing was to get on the maintenance list and wait the sixty days for a repair android. But, what was he to do for food in the meantime? He could not afford to eat three meals a day in a restaurant all that time. His stomach growled. It was late afternoon, and he had already missed two meals.
He called several other city departments. Each simulacrum either referred him to another office or to information. He gave up in disgust and decided to go to a restaurant. Perhaps a solution would present itself once he could think about something other than how hungry he was.
The sun set while he dressed. But the lights did not turn on. Normally the illumination adjusted to the amount of light in the room.
"Oh crap. The lights aren't working either."
As he stormed toward the hallway, he bumped into the door, which failed to open. He rubbed his nose and swore, glaring at the offending barrier. After a moment, however, a knot of fear formed in his belly. If the door did not work, how was he to leave the apartment. With all his strength, he tried to force it. It did not budge a millimeter.
Easy, he told himself, now you've got a real emergency.
The vidphone glowed eerily in the dark apartment. He patiently explained his dilemma to the smiling simulacrum he had reached by calling Emergency Services. "So you see. I'm locked in my apartment without food."
"That is not on my list of emergencies. The penalty for calling Emergency Services when no emergency is involved ..."
"All right, dammit. It's a fire then." Ardan screamed, "Help, fire." He figured that fire androids would break the door down. Once out of this apartment, he would leave it forever, even if he had to live in the street.
"Stay calm, sir, until help arrives" said the cartoon. "Is the fire electrical in nature? Are dangerous chemicals involved?"
"Uh ... oh, it's the bed ... yeah, that's it ... the bed's burning. I was smoking in bed, and the mattress caught on fire."
"A dangerous practice."
The screen went to black, leaving Ardan in total darkness.
He paced while he waited for the fire androids to break down his door. Suddenly it was as though a thunderstorm had whipped up in his apartment. Water falling from the ceiling soaked his clothes and furniture in seconds. Blindly, he squished through puddles and tripped over small items, searching for a dry spot. It was horrible. Floor lamps and small tables were traps that pitched him into rising water. Walls were barriers to ram into with head jarring force.
The downpour stopped as suddenly as it had started. As Ardan stood ankle-deep water, he realized that no fire androids would break down the door. Heat and smoke sensors would affirm to Emergency Control that the sprinkler system had put out the fire. Wet and miserable, Ardan stumbled to his water-logged bed and drawing up his knees, huddled there, trembling. After a couple of hours, despite his cold and hunger, he fell into a nightmare infested sleep.
Sun streaming through the windows woke him. His joints were stiff, his mouth was filled with cotton, and he had stomach cramps. His sunken, hunted eyes darted around the apartment. Walls were streaked with dark blotches, brackish puddles covered the floors and the furniture stank of mildew.
"And I was worried about the cost of repairing the bots. I'll have to replace everything."
Desperation was a physical sensation, like his hunger pangs. Although, thirty-six hours was not an awful long fast, the prospect of being trapped without food for sixty days was frightening. He frantically searched for a tool to force the doors open or break into wherever the robobutler stored groceries. Almost everything he might have used, such as plumbing pipes, was behind hard plastic. Finally, he unscrewed a table leg and pounded on the autocook cabinet. After steady hammering, a spring popped, and the door flew open. When he peered inside, tears welled up. Not only had the autoserver's control unit failed, but its refrigeration unit as well. Frozen food was rotting and stank terribly. Water had dripped over bread, cookies, crackers and pasta, turning them to mush. The only food worth eating was in cans which he had no way of opening. Finally, he cracked open a jar of olives and wolfed down its contents.
Once his hunger was relieved, wild schemes of escape whirled through his mind. A glance told them that the ventilator opening was too small to crawl through. He pounded the table leg against the hard plastic doors. They would not even dent. He gazed around. The only available route was highly dangerous. Nonetheless, he smashed a window and crawled out on the two-foot wide ledge one hundred and fifteen stories above the street. Gripping the rough brick, he peered down cautiously. Ant-sized vehicles crept along a narrow black ribbon. His head whirled, and his heart pounded against his ribs. A terrible vertigo threatened to make him fall. He imagined what it would be like, tumbling over and over, screaming his life away, until he smashed like a bug on the concrete below.
He took deep breaths to calm himself. A bitter wind tore at him as he hugged the rough stone and shuffled sideways a few centimeters at a time. After what seemed like hours, with numb and bleeding fingers, he reached a cornice beyond which were the windows of the apartment next door. He froze and had to argue himself into continuing. Once past that point if he lost his nerve there would be no easy return.
He prayed fervently to be transported anywhere away from the ledge. Even his flooded apartment which smelled of mold and rotten garbage was preferable. Nonetheless, he took a deep breath and stepped around the cornice. As he shifted his weight from one foot to the other, his vidphone buzzed. The unexpected sound startled him into almost losing his grip. Nonetheless, he hung on precariously. After he regained his equilibrium, he thought, Rescue at last. I'll explain my predicament to whoever is calling. They'll get help.
As he sidestepped cautiously back, he cursed himself for not ringing a friend earlier instead of almost killing himself on the ledge. He prayed that the caller would not hang up. The vidphone buzzed for the seventh time. One more time and the answering machine would reply. Somehow he managed to crawl back into the apartment and pick up the vidphone before that happened.
His voice quivered as he said a weak hello. To his vast disappointment, a simulacrum with a stern face appeared. "Are you Ardan, citizen number 215-3478-4545-902-U?"
Ardan nodded numbly.
"This is our final warning.Your vidphone account is overdue. Service will be terminated immediately after this conversation."
Ardan was aghast. He knew his bill payer account was low, but he did not realize that his bills were not getting paid. He calculated quickly. His retirement check would not be deposited for another ten days. "Please, I need more time."
"You must apply for an extension in person. Meanwhile, your service is discontinued."
"Wait, you can't," Ardan screamed. "The vidphone is my only link to the outside world!"
The screen had already gone blank. Ardan's gaze returned to the window. It took a lot, but he finally got the nerve to return to the ledge. This time, somehow, he made it to his neighbor’s window, which he crashed through, receiving several cuts and bruises. Luckily or unluckily his neighbor was not at home. He started to call Maint again, but as soon as that bland cartoon face appeared decided that it was not worth the trouble. He took the elevator down to the ground floor and walked away, throwing away his citizen card and anything else that could identify him. He kept walking until he was out of the city.
Copyright © 2002 by Joseph Vadalma
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