Aphelion Issue 281, Volume 27
March 2023
 
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A Software Glitch of the Mind

by Angela Camack




July 10, 2028

            Dr. Mark Allanton, a newly minted practitioner, stepped off the airport glide in front of his parents’ house in Montclair, NJ. He was a tall, lanky man, thinner now after his months of residency, with butterscotch hair that needed cutting. Home again, after medical school, internship and a residency in California, he was to join the staff of Columbia-Presbyterian in New York City in their neurology department. Finally, after years of hard work and an exhaustion so profound that sometimes he couldn’t see around it, the process of becoming a doctor was over.

 

            All of that was behind him now. In front of him was a job and a lovely woman who would be 30 minutes away from him in Philadelphia, working as a curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. But for the impending birth of a nephew Melissa would be here now.

 

            His parents were at the door before he could ring the bell. “Doctor Allanton,” boomed his father, shaking his hand. His mother had tears in her eyes. “I’m just so proud of you!” She was still pale and needed a cane but looked healthier than the last time he was home, still recovering after a drunk driver’s car hit hers. Years of medical research hadn’t yet found a way to successfully treat stupidity.

 

            He and his dad took his bags to his old room. “You must be ready for breakfast.”

 

            “Oh, yes, and about a gallon of coffee.”

 

 

            “Coffee’s ready now.”

 

            He stepped into the still-familiar kitchen. Familiar except for the young woman in navy sweats, scrambling eggs at the table. A slender young woman with violet eyes and black hair framing her face. “Well, hello.”

 

            “Hello.” Her voice was oddly flat.

 

            “Mark, you remember about Karina,” his mother said.

 

            “Oh, yeah, the droid. I’m glad you decided to get some help after the accident.”

 

            “Well, I never got used to the idea of someone waiting on me, and when your Uncle Brett’s company perfected the Home Droids …Karina is the prototype.”

 

            “Do they all look so” … what was it? Normal? Human?

 

            “Karina is different. You remember Uncle Brett’s sister, Karina. She had a very bad heart and died when she was twenty. Nothing her doctors tried worked, not even a transplant or an artificial heart. That’s what drew him to medical technology. Karina is the first Home Droid. Brett based the Home Droid prototype on his sister. Let’s have coffee while Karina gets breakfast.”

 

            Soon Karina brought them scrambled eggs, hash browns, bacon, his mother’s special Morning Glory muffins and fresh strawberries. Karina’s hand brushed his mother’s while she was pouring more coffee. Unconsciously, his mother pulled hers away.

 

            “Boy, I’ve missed these muffins. Even the ones you send me aren’t the same as the ones right from the oven.”

 

            “Well, I showed Karina how to cook everything the way I’ve always done it. Funny, I don’t know if it tastes the same as when I cook. There’s that extra step that’s … I don’t know, caring?” She laughed. “I sound like a cake mix commercial.” Karina cleared her empty plate. “Thanks, Karina.” She laughed again. “That’s silly, I guess.”

 

            Karina took the empty plates back to the kitchen. She stopped and tilted her head to the right, something that helped her sensors focus when she gathered and analyzed data. What did “caring” have to do with food? Food was fuel, but humans had so many rituals and ideas about it. She knew scents but couldn’t eat. It was hard to process.

 

            Mark spent a week catching up on sleep, regular meals and friends. He got used to Karina’s quiet presence, cooking, cleaning, doing whatever the family asked.

 

            One hot morning Karina and his mother left to do some shopping. Karina had changed from her ever-present navy sweats to khaki pants and a white shirt. Home Droids supplied a small wardrobe to help droids blend in if they left the house. No sane person would wear sweats on a day like today.

 

            Karina in her sweats had become part of the background. Seeing her changed, he realized she (it?) was lovely. He had to stop himself from blurting it out. Uncle Brett must have programmed his sister’s grace and bearing as well as her looks.

 

            Mark felt unsettled for the rest of the day. So, Karina was beautiful, so what. People respond to beauty. To sculpture, to music and flowers. To the simple glint of sun on silver candlesticks. He recognized something aesthetically pleasing in a droid. End of story. Melissa told him of her reaction to the great art she saw during her first trip to Italy. She was amazed by it, but he was sure she never thought about asking the David out for limoncello.

 

            Another new doctor dropped by during his second week of vacation. Mark and Steven Reynolds had been residents together, and Steven was headed for New York City too. They went through the kitchen, heading for the pool. A few laps would feel good today, a few beers and sandwiches even better. Karina was there, rapidly folding dishcloths and towels into perfectly equal squares.

 

            “Who’s your friend, Mark?”

 

            “That’s Karina, my mom’s droid.”

 

            “Karina, Karinka, hello there.”

 

            “Just Karina. I have no Russian diminutive. Hello.” 

 

            “Jeez, that’s gorgeous,” Reynolds said as they went to the pool. “Have you found out if she’s anatomically complete? Tested out her wiring?”

 

            “You never change, Reynolds.”

 

            “And never will.”

 

            After a swim, they sat on the patio, eating, drinking beer and trading stories about their training.

 

            “Back when I was an intern, I was in the ER doing my first physical.” said Mark. “Coat so white it would blind you, new tie, new shoes, head so big I could barely get into a cubicle,” He laughed. “By the time I was done it was covered with more body fluids than I ever thought could come out of one skinny old geezer.”

 

            “Yeah, we all had to deal with the GOMERS.”

 

            “GOMERS? Remind me.”

 

            “Get Out of My ER.” 

 

            Mark laughed, and beer spurted out of his nose and onto his T-shirt. “Oh shit, that burns. Karina, can you bring me some napkins?” he shouted.

 

            Karina came with napkins and paper towels to mop up the beer. She tilted her head, taking in the laughing men. Humans loved to laugh. But why would doctors laugh at the sick? Why was that funny? Was it a kind of crying too?

 

            Almost in answer, Mark said, “Anyone who could hear us would think we were some cruel MD’s.”

 

            “We’re going to need some way to let off steam, pal.”

 

            Later Mark and Karina were alone in the kitchen.

 

            “What is funny?” she asked. “What is laughter about?”

 

            “Well … a lot of reasons. ‘Funny’ can be something ridiculous, playing with words, making fun of something too serious, satire, irony …”

 

            “I know the words, but I don’t understand.” 

 

            “Laughing makes you feel better. It brings people together, helps you relax, amps up your endorphins. It even makes sad situations more bearable.”

 

            “So, doctors laugh about their jobs. I just don’t ….”

 

            “Get it? A lot of people don’t get my jokes either.”

 

            They had such talks from time to time. She seemed to try to make the data she received into something more than facts and figures, trying so hard to understand. But he was crazy to respond to her. He had a beautiful, intelligent, flesh-and-blood woman who would be with him soon. Karina was merely a nicely packaged collection of technologies. That ebony hair was a wig, the ivory skin cold. No emotion would ever change the flush on her cheek. The lithe body was a sculpture. He needed to see her as no different than his computer. He was a fool to think that she (it!) had any more leanings toward human behavior than the coffeemaker.                 

 

            All his reasoning didn’t help, though. He was being reckless, on a fool’s errand, seeing her as anything more than his mother’s technological assistant. One night when his parents were at dinner with friends, he took the leap.

 

            “Karina? There’s a ballet tonight, in Damrosch Park at Lincoln Center. I was going to take my friend, but she can’t make it. Would you like to come? You could learn something.”

 

            “Ballet? Yes, I would like to come, very much. I would like to understand.” Her eyes brightened; it must have been a trick of the fading sunlight.

 

            She put on a simple linen dress, earrings, blending in. They took the New York City glide from Montclair to the Lincoln Center stop, hurrying through the silky New York night on the still-warm pavement to Damrosch Park. They got to their seats just as the audience began to settle down for the performance. Taped music began as the dance started. Karina took in in the music, noting how the notes stood out and then wrapped around each other. Somewhere arms had bowed, lips blew, and drums beat as the musicians created something more than the sum of the sounds. Dancers moved, singly and alone. Legs caught the steps, blending into movement that transcended the exertion of muscle, bone and tendon. The dancers’ bodies combined with the music, in a juxtaposition of control and abandon. Karina’s hand went impulsively to her throat. So, this was beauty.

 

            Mark turned to her when the intermission began. “Did you like it, Karina?”

 

            “This is beauty, Mark. I understand.”

 

            After the performance they joined the crowd leaving the park, conversations around them.

 

            “Up for a drink?” someone asked.

 

            “Sounds good. How did you like them?”

 

            Other voices joined the conversation. “They were great. Different. The big dance companies should try more progressive stuff like that.”

           

“Loved the pas de deux in the second movement.”

 

            “Yeah, but I hate canned music.”

 

            “Hiring musicians would’ve priced them out of performing. Even a trio – “

 

            A stocky man imitated the dancers’ steps as his friends laughed. A young woman whirled around him.

 

            Karina stopped and listened. “Where are they all going?”

 

            “They’ll stop at a bar and talk about the performance. Just to be together, swap ideas about the show, getting together as friends.”

 

            “Friends.”

 

Mark paused. “Did – did you want to go, check out a bar?”

 

“No. But thank you.”

 

            Mark’s parents were upstairs when they got back. For a moment they stood in the living room. Something seemed to hover between them. Not feeling, of course. “Thank you,” Karina said. For a moment, her hand rested on his cheek, expertly tracing the curve of his face. She quickly turned and ran upstairs.

 

            At five the next morning, Karina came downstairs, in her sweats again. She was used to working on the computer in the den, but Home Droid’s company had highly effective security, so it took her a minute to enter and make the necessary changes to the Allanton account and to program the replacement to explain her absence.

 

            She left the house, leaving everything behind for the next unit. The 15-mile distance to Home Droids was no problem. Anyone seeing her would see a young woman in navy sweats out for an early jog.

 

            The family awoke to a home without Karina. A call to Home Droids produced what seemed to be another young woman in navy sweats.

 

            The unit presented an ID card and paperwork. “Mr. Allanton? I’m from Home Droids. I’m replacing your unit. Our system detected a malfunction in it. It was picked up early this morning. The programmers transferred all the unit’s programming and data. You’ll have no interruption in service.”

 

            Rising late that morning, Mark held in his surprise when he came into the kitchen a half hour later to see a droid loading the dishwasher. His mother was drinking coffee. “Hi, sweetie. We have a replacement for Karina. Their systems picked up some kind of malfunction. Great service, huh?”

 

            “Great service.” He sat down for breakfast, carrying out his activities as usual, as “programmed.”

 

            “I’m going for a run,” he said after breakfast. “I’ve been taking it too easy. Can’t get lazy before I even start my job.”

 

            He ran until he reached the small park several streets over from the house. The morning was warm, and the park was full of children. An elderly couple walked carefully by the flower beds, holding hands, which for some reason caught at his heart.

 

            He brushed his hair away from his forehead. So what had happened? Was his behavior a response to years of work and stress? Was it a flight into illogical thinking after so much time spent in structured study?

 

            We are all wired in some way from our beginnings, he decided. We all work with and sometimes against our programming. We all take in information, analyze it, and make decisions. But what is the spark that creates a living being? Is it something born within us or something we develop, or both? What lies ahead if we try to create something “human?” Will we make something beneficial out of what we create or find ourselves needing answers to new questions?

THE END


2023 Angela Camack

Bio: A librarian who has spent her career connecting people to ideas and information. Angela Camack is now getting her own ideas out. She has been published in Choice, a magazine for academic librarians. Her short stories have been published in periodicals such as Ocotillo Review, Creativity Webzine, and East by Northeast Literary Magazine.

E-mail: Angela Camack

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