Short Story Sunday #6 .. on a Saturday

March 23, 2013 at 3:44 am | Posted in Boyfriend, Parents, Robot, Short Stories, Teen, Writing, Reading, YA, Young Adult | Leave a comment
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Short Story Sunday

In today’s short story, the final in our Short Story Sunday Series, Nadia discovers that having a robot to do everything for you isn’t what it seems; there are things a robot can’t do. For that, she’ll need . . . another robot!


By Steven Mathes

Jonathan needs to get a grip.

“This is Jonathan,” Jonathan says to her, pinging a metal finger against his metal chest.

Jonathan’s teenager Nadia fondles another device, her Clever Companion. She looks up in condescension.

“If you were alive like Rufus, I’d almost care.”

Rufus is bio‑patent pending. It looks like a headless, fuzzy monkey. Or a fleshy, hairy, throbbing book bag. Here at this house Jonathan does the chores. Companion does nothing but eat feces and defecate food.

Jonathan is inorganic, but at least his designers took a stab at making him look human. His chrome and plastic face has all the correct human parts, and can show expression. He has a little pink apron painted on his body tube. He is programmed to act jealous, and does it quite well. He has plans for the furry fleshbag Rufus.

The breeders love the way the market for that fleshbag Clever Companion has grown. They have big budgets for development, with all sorts of newer, more stylish models just coming out. They never think about long‑term consequences.

“No Clever Companion at the table,” Jonathan says to Nadia. “Jonathan knows it’s not sanitary.”

“His name is Rufus,” she says.

Nadia pries Clever Companion’s tentacles off her shoulders, and it scuttles off to her room. She does not remove her music player. She listens to Zeb. She cycles over and over through his entire output of a dozen, nearly identical songs. Over and over. She’s reached the age where she mostly doesn’t speak unless she needs money, transportation, or permission.

Tonight she talks, so Jonathan wonders.

“Rufus understands you when you say mean stuff,” she says. “And he’s cleaner than you are. The zines and the wikis say that you’re toxic. I mean when you’re junked, right? You’ll be toxic waste!”

“Jonathan is zero‑bio,” Jonathan says, again jabbing a finger into his own steel chest. “His environmental impact is understood, and therefore managed at your local recycling center. He is not an invasive species.”

“You’re just jealous. I have Clever Companionship!”

Jonathan dishes out supper, but not before uploading the transcripts of this conversation to the parents.

He is programmed to cook all of Nadia’s favorites. This is allowed because her parents get home too late to eat her bland, fatty, teenager food.  If her food were good for her, it would be one thing, but it forces Jonathan to supplement with countless additives. Her digestive flora are particularly sick.

Jonathan eats, also. He could put just about anything organic into his fuel cell, but greasy French fries and cultured burger “meat product” provide calories. What is bad for her is good for him. He could stuff all of it in at once, but his teenager has him programmed to break the food into dainty pieces, and swallow those individually.

“Jonathan noticed the kitty litter was gone again,” he says.

“What?” says Nadia.

“It ate the kitty litter. Your Rufus thing.”

Jonathan notes the wave of disgust that crosses her face. Her hand goes to her mouth, and she stops eating. While she deals with what she kissed all day, he adds his little conversation to today’s activity record. Rufus was originally developed as a waste recycler for astronauts in deep space. It is a toilet, as well as a pet. Her parents are big on sanitation, and care about what meets their daughter’s lips.

Nadia finally puts on a brave face, touched with a little anger.

“Well, Rufus’s kibbles are basically the same thing,” she says, sticking out her chin.

She gets up from the table, calls out softly, and the not‑so‑Clever hairy toilet bag scuttles back to her. She makes a show of cuddling and cooing. In an effort to curry favor, Jonathan bends over, and strokes the thing. It wheels around, hissing. It has no teeth, just a sucking tube.

Jonathan focuses on cleaning up, and notes that Nadia has left most of her supper. All the cooing in the world cannot hide the loss of her appetite. Safely out of sight in the kitchen, Jonathan scrapes the plates into his mouth. The garbage lands on top of the dainty bits he put in earlier. He activates his grinder, and the material goes into his fuel cell. He gives his exo‑structure a good polishing before going back out.

He brings her a brown éclair, covered with lumpy chocolate. A confectionery turd.

“Very funny,” she says.

The parents get home before she can decide whether to eat the turd. It’s early for them, and as soon as Jonathan sees them, he can tell something is up. Mother still wears her yoga outfit, and Father wears his rugby interface. They have cut their busy days of work and exercise short. Right now, the faces of the parents show classic indicators of parental panic. It is time to have a “discussion.” Jonathan knows his surveillance, the sum of the activity logs, is responsible. He has no programming for how to act when gloating, but he knows he is gloating. He almost dances.

“You look agitated, Mother and Father,” he says. “Jonathan is concerned.”

“Indeed?” Father says.

“Let’s go sit together around the table,” says Mother.

Nadia goes to put her Clever sewage treatment device back in its cage.

“No, no, Rufus should be with us,” says Father.

They sit. The chocolate turd sits uneaten, the centerpiece of the table. The phrase “Checkmate!” burbles up from Jonathan’s memory.

“Please take the buds out of your ears,” Mother says.

Nadia obeys. Mother nods, unsurprised, but now satisfied. Normally the tiny inserts are completely invisible to humans, but then again, the teenage mind is predictable enough.

“This isn’t going to be easy,” Mother adds.

“Jonathan has been giving us updates about you,” Father says.

Nadia’s face goes through many feelings, some of which Jonathan has difficulty analyzing. She inhales and blows out hard. Her parents wait until she has mastered herself.

“It’s about Rufus,” she says. “Jonathan and Rufus don’t like each other.”

“But you and Rufus are extremely attached,” Mother says.

Jonathan understands irony. Nadia’s attachment to Rufus is literal. She strokes one of the tentacles wrapped over her shoulder, starts to pry it off, but pats it back down.

“So?” she says. “I thought that was supposed to be healthy.”

The fear welling up in her eyes agitates Jonathan. She shifts her weight, and she averts her head. The caregiver software in him thrashes. He wishes to protect her. She begins to sway a little.

“So I have to make a choice, or something?” Nadia says.

“If this was your choice, we wouldn’t be having this discussion,” Father says. “The choice has already been made.”

Nadia goes still. Jonathan’s sensors tell him that she has paused breathing. Her eyes are hard.

“Well?” she says.

Father and Mother both have trouble controlling their mouths. Father actually smiles.

“We have a surprise for you,” Mother says.  “An early birthday present.”

Mother gets up and opens the door to the apartment. The figure that enters is the too‑perfect replica of Zeb. Jonathan happens to know that the real Zeb is a computer construct, even his Nadia knows that, but this is a doll‑sized Zeb in the flesh. Jonathan knew they were out, but never predicted this.

“What?” Nadia says. “You bought me a Zeb?”

“You’ll be fourteen on Monday,” Father says. “The Zebs are selling out, and we couldn’t very well hide him.”

The Zeb just stands there grinning. He looks moony, stupid and obedient. The perfect boy. The perfect slave.

“My God, can he sing?” says Nadia. “Did you get the one that sings?”

“He has up to twenty phrases,” Father says. “He can sing all of his songs.”

Nadia was already weakened before the surprise, and now the tears stream freely. She removes the headless dirtbag Companion from her back, and sends it back to its crate. Now she has two organic pets. Jonathan’s thrashing thoughts run out of control.

“What should I name him?” Nadia asks.

“You can call me sweetheart!” says the sassy Zeb, batting his eyes.

Nadia pulls him into her arms. She kisses him on the lips. Then she pulls back enough to stroke his head.

“I’ll call you Zeb, of course.” she coos. “It’s not original, but it’s what I want. My sweetheart Zeb.”

The Zeb watches her face, and smiles a moony smile. It holds her hand, and they cuddle together like a more traditional couple. Jonathan understands the use of this pet. This is a distraction, a way to buy time. With the Zeb in the picture, the threat of having a real boy is delayed.

Jonathan wonders what the Zeb eats. Will Jonathan need to buy more kibbles, or will he have to provide more greasy cultured meat product?

“With every milestone comes responsibility,” Father says.

“Oh, I’ll take good care of him. I promise!”

“No, no. We know that. We’re talking about responsibility around the house.”

“Jonathan’s feedback confronted us with some of our failings,” says Mother.

“You don’t pick up after yourself, you expect him to fix every little snack when you ask for it, he washes your clothes, he makes your appointments for health and grooming . . .” Father says.

Father shrugs, struggling to come up with a list of the hundreds ‑ thousands ‑ of things Jonathan does for Nadia.

“We could go on,” Mother says.

Jonathan cannot continue suffering.

“What’s this about?” Jonathan says. “What’s happening?”

“Please be quiet, Jonathan,” Father says.

“And please stay seated,” says Mother.

When ordered to stay seated, any device with Jonathan’s programming is frozen by direct commands from his operating system. Many questions come up, but he has orders. Fortunately, his Nadia finally defends him, and asks the questions for him.

“What are you going to do?” she asks.

“We’ve decided you’re old enough to be left alone with your Clever Zeb,” Mother says.

“Just ‘Zeb,'” Nadia says.

“You can call me sweetheart!” Zeb chirps.

“Zeb can help, and Zeb can remind,” says Mother. “But you do the actual chores.”

“What’s happening to Jonathan?” Nadia repeats.

“For now, Jonathan will be kept in the closet,” Mother says.

“If we decide you’re still too young, we’ll turn him back on. But we hope that won’t be necessary,” says Father.

Nadia looks at Jonathan with something almost like affection. Her tears still flow, but she wipes at them with a sleeve. Jonathan must sit still, but he can watch. He watches every muscle twitch, watches the angle of her eyebrows, analyzes the pheromones, and even measures the electric potential of her skin.

He watches himself lose. She sorts her priorities, and does the inevitable. For his teenager, growing up takes precedence over love.

“Okay,” she says. “I can do it.”

“Do it, do it, oh, oh, baby, do it!” sings Zeb.

The silence after this little cheer drags on awkwardly, but finally ends.

“Jonathan, please step into the closet.”

Having no choice, he goes in, turns, and pushes his back against the wall. His servos power down. He waits. Nadia still dabs at her eyes with her sleeve. Mother and Father look at her with uncharacteristic concern.


“If there’s an emergency, you can turn him on,” says Father.

“We’ll wait until the school year is over before we recycle him.”

“I don’t know,” Nadia admits. “I mean, he’s just a machine, not like Zeb, but I don’t know.”

Her tears are back. She looks at Jonathan, looks him right in the eyes.

“If you don’t think you can do this . . .” says Mother.

Nadia gets out of her chair and approaches, eyes full of hard tears. Jonathan looks into them and sees the reflection of his apron. The reflection causes him to think about reflection in general. He knows he does not feel, and would not be allowed to do so even if he could, but his system thrashes. A software glitch?

“I’ll just shut him down,” Nadia says.

Her still‑shaky hand reaches toward his face, gently, toward the switch under his ear.

“Jonathan!” Jonathan says quietly, just loud enough for her. “He is!”

Her eyes harden, but she does not look back. She does not tell Mother or Father that Jonathan said something illegal.

“No,” she says. “I’ll turn him off.”

Jonathan stops now.


Meet Steven Mathes, the author of ZEB AND THE DIRTBAG . . .

Steven Mathes

W.C. Fields once said that anyone who hates kids and dogs can’t be all bad.  Given that Steven Mathes has published numerous stories that feature both kids and dogs in a sympathetic way, he just might be as bad as they get.

Steven’s short story appears in SUDDENLY LOST IN WORDS Volume 2 available now at AMAZON US and AMAZON UK for 99c or 77p.




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