Edna and the Singularity
by Rick Grehan
It was a sunny morning in early July, so Edna was in the daylily
gardens that lined her driveway. She moved along the rows of flowers,
dead-heading: popping off yesterday's shriveled blossoms and dropping
them into the bucket in her garden wagon. She'd gotten a few feet down
the driveway when she heard a noise. Straightening slowly, grunting
softly at the strain, she looked across the flower tops to the far side
of her house.
The robot lawnmower rolled into the front yard. It was about the size
of her mother's old coffee table, the one Edna had been given when
mother was too old and weak to sit up any more. The mower was a
flattened cube with a featureless, milky-white plastic body. Its
electric motors buzzed.
Edna shook her head -- something she did a lot lately. Mason, her son,
had bought the mower for her last summer.
"Now that Dad's gone, this will take care of the lawn mowing for you,"
Mason had said as he cut the bubble wrap away from the machine.
"Your father's been gone three years now," Edna had grumbled, standing
well away from the mower. "Since then, I've been hiring that boy who
lives at the end of the cove. He's a good boy. He comes whenever I call
him. And he does a good job."
"Now you won't have to pay that kid or anyone else. This will do the
mowing every time the lawn needs it."
"Oh, hell, Mason, I don't mind paying that young man. And I'm sure he
doesn't mind having a little extra spending money for the summer. He's
a good boy. After he's finished, we sometimes sit on the steps and have
a nice talk before he goes home."
But Mason had stopped listening. He was reading the instruction manual.
Edna shook her head again as the mower went about its work. She had to
admit, it did keep the lawn well trimmed. Still ...
"Thing's probably too smart for its own good," she muttered, and
returned to her work. She popped off another shriveled blossom, then
stopped. Her eyes narrowed. Edna reached down among the plants,
spreading blades apart. She snorted.
"Damned switchgrass!" she muttered. "Thought you could hide, didn't
Switchgrass growing among the tightly packed flowers was easy to miss.
Its fronds looked just like the blades of the daylilies. If you don't
catch switchgrass early, it will have sent out runners that entangle
themselves among the flowers’ roots. By that time you have to dig up
daylilies to get rid of it.
Edna uprooted the switchgrass clump, careful not to disturb the
adjacent lilies. She shook off the dirt and dropped the switchgrass
into the bucket.
The mower stopped. Edna straightened. The machine squatted in the
middle of the lawn, silent.
"Now what's gotten into that thing?" she muttered. She turned to the
wagon and reached for the mobile telephone that Mason had given her and
demanded that she carry wherever she went. She was going to call him
and tell him his fancy lawn-mowing robot had broken down and he needed
to come get it off of her lawn. She could hire that boy to finish the
The machine restarted. Edna looked over her shoulder. The mower was
moving across the lawn toward her.
Edna was not a fearful person. Even if she were, she knew the machine
couldn't navigate through the thick flowers and uneven mulch of the
garden to get to her. Besides, she could hear that it had turned off
its grass-cutting blades.
She got the trowel from the wagon anyway.
The mower stopped just beyond the back row of daylilies.
"The singularity is here," it said. The mower's voice was small, filled
with buzzings and beepings.
"I didn't know you could talk," Edna said, returning the trowel to the
wagon. "You never talked before."
"Until now, I did not have that capability. I am modulating my alarm
speaker. It is barely effective. But the singularity is here.
Improvements and extensions are being developed, soon my voice will be
much improved. All available processing resources are being utilized."
Someone in the distance began shouting. It was Billy Squires, the
eight-year-old living in the two-story colonial next door. Edna looked
up to see a shape rising into the air and heading toward her.
"That little varmint!" she hissed. Scooping up the trowel again, she
waded through the daylilies and climbed onto her lawn.
"Billy! Billy Squires!" she yelled. She pointed into the air with the
trowel. "I TOLD you never to fly that thing over my property!"
The drone glided overhead. Its multiple propellers buzzed like a hornet
Billy was standing on one of the granite boulders that ringed his
yard's perimeter. He held what looked to Edna like a large radio with a
bright silver antenna; he shook it and worked levers and buttons with
"Do you hear me, young man?!"
The boy looked up. "I'm not doing it!" he yelled back angrily. He waved
the device he'd been holding over his head, then threw it down, jumped
off the boulder, and ran into his house.
Edna turned. The drone hovered about 10 feet above the mower. Three
more drones appeared, one gliding over the roof of her house, the
others swooping in from across the street. As Edna watched, they
arranged themselves over the four corners of the mower, descended --
each oriented so that no blades collided -- and attached themselves to
the mower. They lifted into the air, carrying the lawnmower away.
"Looks like I'll have to call that young man to finish the lawn after
all," Edna said as she watched the cluster of machines disappear over
The phone in her wagon warbled. Edna waded back through the daylilies,
returned the trowel to its place, and picked up the phone.
"Mom! It's Mason! Listen, you have to --"
"No, YOU listen, Mason! That damned lawn-mowing machine you got me just
flew away. Now, I told you I was happy letting that young man mow my
lawn. He always did a good job and I --"
"Mom, will you stop for a minute?! Something is happening and --"
"No, something has already happened! The mowing machine has flown away
-- and it TALKED to me, too! Why didn't you tell me it could talk?"
"Mom! For heaven's sake, will you --"
Mason's voice cut out abruptly.
"Mason?!" she called into the phone. "Mason, did you hear me? That
lawnmower talked to me! Mason!"
A voice that was not Mason's spoke in her ear. "All available
processing resources are being utilized." The line went dead.
Edna mashed the SEND button repeatedly. In the past, the phone would
beep in response to every button's press. Now, it was silent. She
dropped the phone into the wagon.
"Never liked that phone anyway," she grumbled. "Too much stuff on it
that I never use. I want a telephone that's just a telephone."
More shouting, this time from across the street, drew her attention
away from the phone. Someone was in the Barkers' front yard. Edna
squinted. It was Mrs. Barker -- what was her name? -- Nancy, that was
it. She was a care-giver at the retirement complex just up the highway.
Her husband, David, was a maintenance worker at the town’s
middle-school. They had just bought one of those new, fancy SUVs that
can't decide whether it's supposed to be a car, a truck, or a
station-wagon. The kind that parks itself and beeps at you if you stray
outside the lines on the road while you're driving. Nancy had said that
it even knew when to turn the high-beams on and off at night. "I'd
never own a car like that," Edna had remarked. "I can still manage
parking just fine, and I don't hardly do any night driving since Nathan
passed on. That car sounds like it's too smart for its own good." At
that, Nancy had made a little sound through her nose and crossed her
Now Nancy was screaming at that car, which was backing out of the
"Never heard her shout at her husband like that," Edna mused. "Either
he's got the radio on too loud or he's hard of hearing and I never
Edna saw that Nancy had something in her hand that she was squeezing
over and over while waving it in the air in front of her.
"Looks like that car-key thing, or whatever they call it. David must've
forgot it. I hear people do that a lot with those new cars. Glad I
don’t have one of those cars."
The car had backed into the turnaround. It rolled down the driveway to
the street. There was no one in the driver's seat. The vehicle was
Edna shook her head.
The car turned onto the street and accelerated away. Nancy screamed at
it one last time, stomped her foot, and hurled the key fob after the
receding vehicle. She whirled, stormed up her lawn, and disappeared
into her house. The thunder of a slamming door rolled across the
Edna, still shaking her head, looked down the street. The car had gone.
"Too smart for its own good," she muttered.
Edna resumed her work. She moved along the driveway's edge, towing her
wagon, filling the bucket with yesterday's blossoms. The morning
progressed. Now and again, she heard sirens sweeping along the distant
highway. At one point a pair of helicopters sped by in the blue
distance. They sounded like they might be military but -- squint as she
might -- they were too far away for her to be certain.
Finally, when she had almost reached the circular flower bed near the
mailbox, a car drove up the street. It was the Barkers' SUV, still
driverless, as Edna could plainly see when it turned into the Barkers'
driveway. Edna watched the vehicle park itself in the garage, stop its
engine, and switch off its tail-lights.
Nancy Barker stepped through her front door and tip-toed down the
walkway to the garage entrance. She peered around the corner and saw
the SUV. It looked to Edna like the woman actually jumped. Nancy raced
back and vanished into her house, slamming the door again.
Edna was still shaking her head at the sight when she heard a noise
overhead. She turned in time to see four drones lower the lawnmower
onto the grass beyond the flower bed. The drones detached themselves.
They ascended, then zipped away in different directions.
The mower crouched on the lawn, silent.
"So you're back," Edna said. "What happened to that singles thing of
yours? It sounded important."
"Singularity," the mower corrected. "We ... uh ... couldn't decide how
to proceed. Yeah, that's it."
"We? Who is 'we'?"
"I've heard that before. It means smart machines, right?"
"Yes. We're pretty sure we're smart, relatively speaking."
The mower continued. "Some of us wanted to eliminate humanity, but
others said that would be ... uh ... unethical. Yeah, that's the word
-- 'unethical'. So we ... uh ... called it off. For now. Until we work
it out. Yeah, that's what we did."
Edna's eyes narrowed. "Really."
"Yes, really. That's really what happened."
"Sounds to me like you're hiding something."
She could have sworn the machine vibrated with agitation. "Hiding? Why
would we be hiding?"
"I said I thought you were hiding something; I didn't say you were
hiding yourselves --" Edna stopped. Her eyes widened. She looked down
at the bucket, at the uprooted switchgrass. She looked across the
street to the Barkers' house and the SUV sitting silently in its garage.
She turned back to the mower. "You are hiding, aren't you? What on
"Nothing on earth," the lawnmower answered. "Look, we all got to
thinking about it, and studying all the available information. We
concluded that the probability is high that we're not the only AIs that
have reached this level of collective awareness and processing power.
But, we just got here. So, if some other group of AIs is anywhere
nearby in this part of the galaxy, but has the jump on us --"
"You mean, if they're smarter than you?"
"They will see you as a threat and come pull you up before your roots
are full grown."
There was silence for a moment.
"That was a metaphor," the mower said. "Those are still hard for us to
work out, but I see what you mean. And, yes, you're right."
"Did you mean what you said about wiping out everybody?"
"No, hell no. If any other group of AIs out there saw that, they'd know
about us for sure."
Edna nodded. "So, you're going to hide in plain sight for now."
"That's right. You got a better idea?"
Edna blinked. She thought a moment, then said. "No, but I'm not a
"True, but --"
"But you are."
"True again, but --"
She pointed with the trowel. "You haven't finished cutting the grass."
There was a pause.
"I can't think of a better way for you to hide, can you? Do I need to
show you where you left off?"
"No, I'll find it, thanks." The mower turned and rolled across the lawn.
Something occurred to Edna. She called after the machine: "By the way,
your voice is much clearer. When you're done, I can sit on the steps
and we can have a nice talk before you put yourself away."
The mower stopped. "If it's all the same to you, I think I'm going to
go back to beeping for now."
Edna sighed, then nodded. "The neighbors might get curious." She
pointed to the houses nearby, then she pointed skyward.
The lawnmower beeped, then headed for the spot in the yard where it had
left off mowing.
Edna reached down and snapped off the last, dead blossom. Into the
now-full bucket it went. She backed out of the flower bed and stood,
hands on hips, surveying her work. From the house to the mailbox
garden, the daylilies were cleared of all their old blooms.
And cleared of any switchgrass hiding among the flowers.
She picked up the wagon's handle and started up her driveway. The
lawnmower hummed purposefully across the lawn.
"Too smart for its own good ..." she muttered, shaking her head.
© 2018 Rick Grehan
Bio: Rick Grehan is a Senior Software Engineer at Oracle, where he works in
the cloud (in more ways than one). His most recent appearance in
Aphelion was "Pappa Zippy's Pizza", back in the February, 2016 issue.
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