When Helpful Turns Ugly

by T. Gene Davis

Carrie fingered her reprimand collar at the library table. Her legal guardian, the house AI, kept one on her and her sister for discipline purposes. The shogi game in front of her awaited her move. She ran her fingers between her collar and the flesh of her neck, avoiding the sharp pointed electrodes that held it in place. She tried imagining not wearing it.

“Any month now.” Keith’s voice jolted her. He whisked her away to the library for a game of shogi any time the house AI became too annoying.

“I know. I’m excited to get it off.”

“The game. It’s your turn. You know I’ll have your king. No shame in resigning.”

“It’s just not in me.”

“Even John the waiter couldn’t save you now.”

“‘John the waiter’?”

Keith grinned. “I’ll introduce you sometime.”

She took his rook. He slid in his pawn and promoted it to a gold general.

“Ote.”

She nodded. “Yeah. It’s yours.”

“I don’t want you to think I was stalking you or something.”

“You were stalking my king.”

“I was working on my homework for my journalism class, and came across this.”

Keith pushed a printout across the library table and began placing the shogi tiles into a cloth bag. The article’s title condemned the parents of two young girls for failing to use seat belts, and falling asleep at the wheel. The headline did not mention her parents by name.

“This isn’t true.”

“What isn’t true?”

“My parents always wore seat belts. Always. They were annoying that way.”

“I hadn’t noticed that part of the article,” Keith lied.

“When you’re a reporter, please be more accurate than these guys.” She flung the paper hard at Keith, but the end of the paper tipped up into the air, returning it to her instead of sending the article across the table as intended.

Carrie gave up—took it. Folding the article, she placed it in her jeans pocket.

After a pleasant drive home, Keith dropped her at the curb in front of her house. She felt pressure in her chest just looking at the house entry. At the top of four concrete steps, earth-red brick formed a hallway leading to the front door. She pictured herself playing in that sheltered entry with her little plastic race cars sheltered from the snow, sun, and rain while her baby sister, Stef, napped. In those years, Carrie’s mother always banished her to the outdoors during Stef’s naps.

Slaid’s camera above the front door rotated toward her. Carrie’s smile–half formed–fell away. The knot in her chest returned. The AI’s eye—the camera–stared at her as she forced her way down the corridor. Carrie half expected the two brick walls to push together crushing her to a pulp.

“Can I come in?” She asked the house AI without looking into the camera.

The door opened first try.

“I see you’re not on a power kick tonight,” she muttered quiet enough that Slaid’s sensors missed it.

That night asleep in the house with just herself, her sister, and the inhuman guardian, she dreamt again of her parents.

Click. Click.

“Henry, my seat belt unfastened.”

“What?”

“My seat belt, …”

“The gas is stuck!”

“Slow down!”

“I can’t.”

Carrie woke, panicked, with no voice to scream. She turned on her light and took the article from her jeans pocket. “Henry and Julia MacCormac thoughtlessly orphan their two young girls,” the first line read.

Carrie crumpled the article and threw it in the trash.

“Propaganda and lies,” she hissed.

Sam, the Siamese cat, woke from the noise and stared at Carrie from his perch on her dresser. He licked his paw and ran it over his ear. Then, he went back to sleep. Carrie scratched Sam under his collar. He purred quietly, but did not deign to open his eyes.

At the dresser mirror, she removed her smeared eye liner. The black band of the reprimand collar encircling her neck looked faded next to her raven hair and dark almond eyes. She imagined the skin under the band no longer matching her olive tones when the collar came off. Carrie made a mental note to get some sun and remove the tan line on her neck.

“Mom always said I had the prettiest neck.” Carrie put her fingers to the band, remembering her mother embarrassing her with neck complements. Some teeth showed through Carrie’s smile. She took a moment to dry her cheek before removing the rest of her makeup.

Back in bed, she lay awake with the light on until thoughts of removing her reprimand collar filled her dreams. An electric jolt at her throat woke her for school in the morning.

Every day the thing at her neck caused the stiff pressure in Carrie’s chest to grow. Finally, the day for removing the collar arrived. The doorbell rang out through the house speakers. The house AI made the doorbell sound like chimes. Carrie didn’t know what chimes looked like, but they sounded appealing.

“Door!” Carrie’s little sister, Stef, yelled out. Of course, Carrie could not have missed it. Stef bounced over to the door, but Carrie reached it first. Carrie opened the door to find a three-piece-suited man and his pocket watch.

“Hello. I am Phillip Lawrence, Esquire.”

“Hello, Mr. Lawrence,” she responded just as the house AI demanded. No sense getting shocked this close to freedom.

Sam the Siamese silently brushed past her, ran between the lawyer’s legs, and made a break for freedom. The AI couldn’t stop the cat. His collar didn’t have electrodes. Slaid’s programming prevented animal cruelty.

“Is he the man who’s taking off your collar?” Stef asked from around Carrie’s back.

“Yes, I am. And please call me Phil.” He smiled in Stef’s direction as Carrie shoved her away.

“Okay, Mr. Lawrence.” She wondered if he was the one that put this collar on her thirteen years ago. She fantasized about slapping him the second it came off. She showed him to the kitchen table—recently cleaned from dinner.

“Slaid? How are you functioning today?” Call-Me-Phil addressed the house AI.

“Fully functional,” responded the house computer in one of its rare vocalizations. “Thank you for asking, Phillip Lawrence, Esquire.”

Turning his attention back to Carrie, Call-Me-Phil smiled, again. “You have grown, haven’t you. That collar wasn’t so tight when I put it on you.”

“Yup.” He was the one. She forcibly unclenched the fingers of her right hand.

Carrie tried smiling politely, managing more of a painful looking grimace. Carrie watched Mr. Phillip Call-Me-Phil Lawrence as the briefcase vomited volumes of undigested paperwork across the kitchen table. He began the long process of having the legally adult Carrie sign waivers, disclaimers, and agreements.

“Sign here. This one states all medical fees incurred by the removal of the collar are your responsibility.”

She signed.

“Sign here. This one states that I represent Slaid, your legal guardian AI, and not you or any member of your family.”

She signed. Again and again, she signed.

“Sign here. This one states that you understand that you have thirty-days from the removal of the collar to leave the premise and that Slaid is only obligated to let you take the clothes you wear when you leave.”

“You’re kidding.”

“Of course, it is at Slaid’s discretion.”

“That obnoxious circuit board would throw me into a blizzard without a coat, and not care if it killed me.” She waited for the jolt from the collar. Of course with a witness present, no jolt came.

“The document does not give Slaid any new custodial rights that the courts did not already award it. This document just acknowledges that I have explained that right. Please sign here. I’m sure you want to get this collar off quickly.”

Frowning, Carrie signed with her cramping hand—always doing what’s told, because of the collar. Sign here, date there. Over and over, until finished.

Call-Me-Phil reshuffled the paperwork, clipped it, and placed it in the briefcase. He then took a round metallic puck from the briefcase and rubbed it over the back of her neck. The collar fell away with a prickly ripping sensation.

“There seems to be some scarring,” Call-Me-Phil commented, putting the puck shaped release device back in his case. “You might want to stick to wearing collared blouses.”

Carrie ran her fingers over the painful knobbed scars circling her neck. She closed her eyes and ground her teeth as Call-Me-Phil let himself out the front door. When she opened her eyes, the TV displayed a full screen countdown set to just under one month with the message “Bah-bye” across the bottom. Carrie stalked off to her room and slammed the door.

That night, Keith took her to his favorite restaurant—Mirrors. Highly polished golden veined Amarillo Cobdar marble, golden Fabbacked colored acrylic mirrors, and a koi-filled reflecting pool projected plenty of mood. Everywhere she looked, she saw herself and her blue cashmere turtlenecked blouse.

“This place is too expensive,” she told Keith.

“My problem, not yours.”

John, their waiter, sat them next to the mirrored escalators by the reflecting pool. The skylights displayed the city glow against clouds, but mostly the skylights reflected the tables from above.

Keith immediately excused himself. Grinning, he said he needed to powder his face.

“You look depressed.” John-the-waiter said in the voice of a friendly grandfather. He placed a green goblet in front of Carrie and filled it.

Carrie looked away. She saw the waiter, and his back in the mirrored wall, and his face reflected with her own back even more distantly.

“My house AI is throwing me out without anything at the end of the month. It’s rubbing it in with a giant countdown clock.”

Why share this with a waiter?

John frowned at her. She thought he probably shared the same question.

“Go to college.”

“What?”

“Go to college.”

“With what money?” She sneered more than she meant to.

The waiter smiled. “With your family trust. Anyone with a house AI must have one. By law the house AI can’t throw you out if you are pursuing a degree.”

“Really?” She looked into his wrinkled face, as he placed a goblet at Keith’s empty place. He left her with a menu, recommending the sirloin.

Keith came back. He passed John, greeting the waiter with a smile, and sat down across from Carrie. She smiled back.

***

School was unwelcome by AI Slaid, but was a legitimate loophole preventing Slaid from evicting Carrie. She worked hard at school. Slaid worked hard at preventing her from excelling. On cold days, her room had air conditioning running, or at least inadequate heat. Of course, her sister Stephanie’s room had no such problems, nor did any of the rest of the house.

The light in her room burned out weekly. Carrie shifted to other places like the kitchen desk and the coffee table, but those lights started burning out weekly, too. Often, there were no replacement bulbs in the house.

The home network suffered localized outages to wherever Carrie happened to be working. The TV, stereo, and Stephanie’s pad never had issues. Email was returned to Carrie undelivered when sent from home, and typos mysteriously appeared in her online class related postings.

Still, Carrie worked hard and kept a reasonable grade. Finally, with her senior year approaching, she landed a paid summer internship. She knew better than to do an international or interplanetary internship from home. She found one within driving distance.

She bought an old car with the help of Keith as a co-signer. That’s when the garage door began breaking. Carrie soon learned to park the car outside in the driveway. Slaid was ahead of her. The check engine light went haywire. The gas gauge stuck at full when the car was nearly empty, and the gauge showed empty immediately after being filled. Carried joked that if Slaid could cut the brake lines, it would have. Keith reminded her that it was a very old car, and she should be less paranoid.

Keith met her for their typical Wednesday night dinner.

“Is work not going well?” Carrie asked.

“Why?”

“You haven’t touched your food.”

Keith stuck his finger knuckle deep in the sour cream topped potato. Carrie smiled and stuck her tongue out making the most childish face she could muster. She hated seeing food wasted.

John, their waiter, chose that moment to refill their goblets.

“Would you like a box for your food?” John glanced away from Keith whose finger was knuckle deep in his mouth. He glanced at Carrie with a look of forced patience. Carrie felt her face flush.

“A small box. The smaller the better. Thanks, John.”

John reappeared carrying a small white box on his large silver tray.

Carrie laughed. “He finally got you. That box is barely big enough for a ring.”

Keith being the good sport he was, laughed, took the box, and thanked a very serious John as he returned to wherever waiters go when they aren’t filling your glasses.

Keith stood, came over to Carrie, knelt down on one knee and opened the box. It was filled with white gold and sparkles, though there must have been diamonds in there somewhere.

“Carrie MacCormac, … will you marry me?”

Everyone stopped eating. Mirrors was quieter than a library. She felt her flush turn into a full-fledged blush. Somewhere across the dining room someone whispered, “It’s about time.”

“Yes.”

Keith took the ring from the box and placed in on her finger. It felt heavy on her finger, reminding her briefly of the collar she had worn for so many years. However, this was beautiful. So beautiful and solid. It felt good on her finger. She rubbed her neck unconsciously through her turtle neck.

“One condition.”

Keith smiled. “What condition?”

“You have to let Stephanie live with us. I’m not leaving her alone with Slaid.”

“Of course,” he said in a nod. “As long as you agree that I can take care of my  widowed convalescent mother.”

“You don’t have a widowed convalescent mother.”

“No. But it could happen the way my father drives.”

“It could happen to me the way you drive.”

He laughed through his large grin. She kept the ring moving on spread fingers to see what colors it could make in this light. And they both laughed at nothing in particular.

Graduation was several months out, but Slaid already had a clock countdown in the living room. Carrie stopped in front of it. Stef closed her book noticing Carrie looking at the countdown clock.

“He started it tonight,” Stef commented.

Carrie laughed.

“Yeah. It seems a bit early to be starting with the clock.”

“It’s a count down to its last day.”

“What do you mean?”

Carrie flashed her engagement ring. Stef was on her feet hugging Carrie and jumping up and down in a most undignified manner. After extracting herself from Stef’s jumping embrace she said, “We’ll get that shock collar off you, too.”

Stephanie threatened another round of jumping and hugging.

“Keith is fine with it. We’ll shut Slaid down, and I’ll take a sledge hammer to its SSD array.”

Stef kept smiling and gave Carrie a peck on the cheek. “I have school tomorrow. I’ll talk to you in the morning. You have to tell me everything in the morning. I’m so excited.” With that Stef bounced off to bed.

When  alone, Carrie held the ring up to the security camera. “You see that Slaid? It’s a diamond. It’s bigger than your microscopic heart, and I intend to cut your heart out with it. Understand? Do the countdown all you want, but you’ll be gone long before you finish counting.”

Carrie slept well that night. She felt free. She had not felt this good in years.

The days to the marriage couldn’t go fast enough. Keith rescued her from the house every night he could spare. They made plans at his house, played shogi at the library, and ate little buckets of ice cream at scenic spots around town.

“Let me take you home, Carrie.”

“Ugh.”

“You can turn off the AI soon enough.”

Carrie slid into her seat and only fastened her seat belt after Keith fastened his. She did not want to spend another minute in that house under the watch of that man-made monster.

After entering the freeway, there was a click in the silence of the electric vehicle.

“What was that?” Carrie asked.

“My seat belt. It just popped out.”

“Deal with it later. You’re going to fast.”

“My foot is on the brake.”

“Turn it off, or put it in neutral.”

He swerved to miss a car that felt as if it were standing still. They went up on two wheels and landed hard back on four wheels.

“Keith!”

Keith reached over and gave her hand a gentle squeeze. The wheel wrenched from his hand, turning hard left. Up and down lost meaning, as Keith disappeared through his shattering window.

***

Carrie sat in the back seat of a police cruiser. The cops plugged in to the demolished car’s black box and found no record of Keith ever fastening his seat belt. They tsk’ed among themselves, muttering about fools not bothering with seat belts getting what they deserved.

Carrie looked down at her engagement ring. The diamond was gone, mixed in to the field of broken glass covering the freeway. She did not speak when spoken to except to refuse medical attention. She had no scratches, concussion, broken bones.

She was fine.

She was vaguely aware of the car moving. She only had one place she could go. Back. The streets became more familiar the farther it moved. Finally it stopped in front of the brick entryway of her house. The officer left her there at the curb with a short lecture about seat belts.

Carrie inhaled deeply, then slowly exhaled. She took the front steps one at a time. The monitor and camera where ahead. Carrie looked down at the steps ensuring she did not miss one. The dirt clod coated door mat at the top of the steps read, “Welcome.” The familiar clenching in her chest, as if Slaid had hands to reach in and crush her lungs, made the greeting repulsive.

“You’re late.” There was a hint of laughter in its synthetic voice.

“I’m twenty-one. I’ll come and go when I want. Let me in.”

“You know the curfew.”

“Slaid.”

“Will you live by the house rules?”

The unbearable clenching nearly prevented her response. “Yes.”

“What is the magic word?”

Carrie paused, looking for a word to describe a glass of water on Slaid’s circuitry. Freedom. Independence. Destroying an AI wasn’t really murder, no matter what the lawyers argued.

“Please.”

The door gently swung open. Carrie looked at the open door. She turned her back on it. The bottom step was too far away. Carrie more collapsed than sat on the top step. She rubbed her aching eyes, not noticing her Siamese sprint for freedom through the open door. The Siamese looked up from the bottom step and mewed, encouraging Carrie to follow — just step away.

“You’re stronger than me,” Carrie whispered to the cat. The cat disappeared around the corner.

Notes…

T. Gene Davis writes speculative fiction, poetry, articles, books, and computer software. He lives with his wife, four children, and three cats in the Rocky Mountains, where he wages a never-ending war to keep his static electricity loving cats from rubbing against his prized Kindle. Follow his daily exploits on Twitter @TGeneDavis or visit Gene’s blog at http://freesciencefiction.com on the web.

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