“You’re frightening me,” the Android Assistant 2100 said. “Put that thing away!”
“Ha,” said Robert. “You should have seen the look on that hick’s face when I shot a glass jar sitting on a fence behind him. Oh, don’t be frightened: I rested my arm on his shoulder; the muzzle was on the other side of his head. There was no way I could have hurt him.”
“What kind of pistol is that?” she asked.
“Nothing special, just an old officer’s sidearm from WWII, an M1911.”
“Why did you buy it?” she asked, calming herself.
“That’s better, dear,” he said. “Do you know the manufacturer?”
“Show it to me again.”
“No,” he said. “You saw enough of it.”
She sighed, batting her eyelashes at him. This isn’t in my profile, he thought. She’s looking for the right algorithm. She cocked her head, saying, “It’s a true M1911, a Colt. You have the pre-WWII model, the one with the prettier screw doohickeys on the grip.” She giggled. “Doohickeys. What do you call them?”
Robert scratched his temple with the muzzle of the pistol. “Gee, I don’t know,” he said. “I’m impressed you know that much about handguns. Did you know that before I asked you?”
She scolded him gently with her eyes. “Of course not,” she said. “You know that. And you’re not being very polite. Why don’t you put it away?”
Tuesday morning was making every attempt to brighten the master bedroom, struggling against the drawn shades to penetrate with rays of joy and hope. Spring was aging, about to yield to the Summer Solstice, so the morning was still very young. Nevertheless, Robert heard his two girls up and tramping about, preparing for the walk to Holy Assumption Preparatory Academy. Early to rise, he thought, so that AltVista might get them the early worm. Extra-curricular worms to be had this early will nourish them toward the rigors of university preparation, where they will assimilate into fine young adulthood, tasting those fruits, sharpening those minds, refining those wits, toward the end that they might climb the interlocking wheels of progress until they are proprietors of their very own blogs, whence they will lead their corner of the world…forward.
His wife lay sleeping next to him, breathing softly and heavily, on her side, facing away from him. He rose to relieve himself and wash his face. He caught his eyes in the mirror. He mumbled toward them, “One too many gins again.” Is that a song? A vision of a pickup truck drove across his mind. When he walked back to the bed, he saw the form of his wife gently rising and falling. She’s a beautiful woman, he thought. Even after twenty years, she’s a treasure.
The bedsheets, in the warmth of the early morning, she had kicked so that they covered only her ankles and feet. A wave of nostalgia washed over him. After some number of dates they had finally slept together, and he found it bewildering the number of straps to loosen, bows to untie, and hooks to unfasten, but they had giggled together, flush with excitement and embarrassment, and it was fun. Their wedding night had been to him something of an anticlimax because there was no naughtiness, no hooks, and no embarrassment, only a sheer negligee which aroused him easily enough, but the fun was immediately absent.
Perhaps she’s still asleep, he thought. Maybe she won’t object in that twilight state. Maybe she’ll enjoy it. The thought, along with her rising and falling form, aroused him, and he slipped into bed, snuggling close to cleave his body to hers. He laid his hand on her hip. Maybe she’ll ask for it.
A split-second later, she said, “What are you doing?”
His tumescent hope plummeted into emptiness, and he was lonely again. Nothing, he thought. “Snuggling,” he said.
“Well, quit it,” she said sleepily. “You’re too hot.” She rolled over onto her back, smiling at him. “I do love you, sweetheart,” she said.
He rolled over onto his back and stared at the ceiling, aching. “I love you, too,” he said. “Want me to make you breakfast?” Where are the other cameras? he thought.
“No,” she said. “I don’t want to make you late for work.”
“I should shower, then,” he said. He sat up, putting his feet on the floor, his elbows on his thighs, and there, on the edge of the bed, he hung his head. There he sat for a few minutes, searching for the will to stand up. There he paused, on the edge.
“Are you all right, honey?” she asked.
“Hm? Yeah, I’m okay, just a little tired this morning.”
“How much longer before you can take a vacation?”
“Oh, any time, now,” he said. “All I have to do is give notice.” He looked at her. “You have the afternoon shift at the home today?”
“Yep,” she said, rolling over on her side again. “Easiest time of year, I think. Not too many viruses to send the usual crop to the nursing home, everyone is in love with Spring, and…let me know when you want to go. Where are we going? Maine?”
“New England is always nice, don’t you think?” Robert managed to rise and make his way to the shower, where he slowly transformed into Vice President for Account Analysis Robert Hughes, punctual, productive, and aching.
When he thus emerged from the master bath, the bed was empty and unmade. He heard the low volume of morning TV emanating from the upstairs sitting room, where his wife was sitting, sprawled out over the easy chair, one leg draped over the armrest and opening the slit of her bathrobe well up her thigh. Her hair was tied up in a towel; she had washed her hair in the hallway bath after she heard Robert get out of the shower. The bathrobe was open at the top because it was warm. He saw all of her neck as it gave way to her shoulders and chest, and there the bathrobe engaged his imagination. He couldn’t remember.
“Goodbye, Mr. Hughes,” she said brightly.
“Goodbye, Mrs. Hughes,” he said, brusquely, according to form, a game they had played since he’d made executive several years ago, and he marched downstairs in the stiffest British fashion he could muster. My instincts say I should skip work and take her, he thought. I don’t see how this kind of instinct is culturally conditioned. Why should I suppress it?
The girls were long gone, the dishes washed, the place mats put away, and a box of wholesome cereal left out on the counter. He got a bowl for himself and poured the contents of the box into it; only half a bowlful issued forth. Throwing the empty box into the trash, he fetched a full box from the pantry and pried open its top. “Why does expensive organic food always come in such cheap packaging?” He wrestled with the decidedly unwholesome plastic bag, unable to peel it open until, in a fit of exasperation, he suddenly exerted one of his larger arm or back muscles, which caused the thing to tear open from top to bottom, sending the entire box of cereal flying throughout the kitchen, from baseboard to baseboard, under the refrigerator, table, and chairs, all over the counters and into the sink, and even up into the light fixture. After using his arm to sweep enough into his bowl to constitute a healthy breakfast, he poured a little hot water into the cereal, sat on a stool at the breakfast bar, and munched.
The sound of the upstairs sitting room TV came to his ears between bites. I can’t even turn on the sports highlights anymore, he thought. Everything is so charged with progress. He found the remote for the kitchen TV, powering it on, then tuned it to Turner Classic Movies, where a man was grasping a woman close, pulling her to him by the shoulders until his face touched hers, in black-and-white, whereupon she turned her head away. Sensibilities of distinguishableness, he thought. That’s immoral what he’s doing to her. The man pried her face off her shoulder, where she was hiding it, wrenching it into his face. She relented, violin music swelling up, bearing up their passion, and they kissed. Disgusting. That’s practically rape.
“Practically rape,” he mouthed. We’ve progressed so far in so short a time.
Robert went upstairs again, against form.
“Honey?” she asked.
“I’m going to Mitch’s after work. I’ll be late.”
“All the way to Scranton?”
“Yeah, I’ll make the triangle from the office to there to here. Look, I don’t want to invent a thinly veiled pretense,” he said. “I’m feeling a little blue. It’ll be good for me to get away from the city and just hang out with my brother-in-law for a few hours.”
A tiny bit of trouble lined itself across her face, then disappeared. “Well, okay. Text me otherwise.”
“Okay,” he said. “We’ll just hang out and watch TV, I’ll bet.” He added silently. And I’m going to buy that unregistered pistol from his hick friend.
Alta Vista did not, as is commonly thought, simply fold or become absorbed into a larger tech company. It morphed, with offices in New York, into an independent research company, mostly for hire by firms looking for a competitive edge against a rival firm. Alta Vista became AltVista. First Vice-President for Account Analysis Robert Hughes turned the knob on his office door at 8:55 am, as he did every morning, whether the train was early or late, entering, throwing his laptop case on the couch, pressing the brew button on his Keurig machine, and staring out his window down into the city, where he could just see the corner of Madison Square Park until his cup of coffee was brewed.
“French Roast,” he said. “So this is what the pavement in France tastes like.”
He took the cup from the machine and sipped, lifting his eyes to gaze out the window, thinking how many people were scurrying to be at work on time, as if it mattered, but they should have made allowance for time, like he did, so that at least appearances were kept up. Look at them, he mused to himself. The wealth of the nations, scurrying to push history forward, one cog at a time, until the cog comes around again, and then…” He couldn’t bear to finish the thought. He began another thought. They’re only me, just five minutes behind. I’m only five minutes ahead, so I’ll see it close down upon me just before they see it close down upon them. He lifted his cup to take another sip. At least I have a nice house…
At that moment, whether by the stimulating power of coffee, or by a change in the light reflecting from inside the window, VP Hughes became aware of another person in his office, someone behind him, sitting on the couch. Startled, he spun. “Oh, hello!” he started, then, “Oh, good lord…” A robot was sitting on his couch. Continue reading “The Unwelcome Thrust of Progress (Part 1)”→