A man receives a mailer ordered years before.
|For Thrice Prompted, August 2021
Word count: 2,230
Prompt: It is discovered that telepaths are the only way to send faster than light messages across the universe.
It wasn’t often we had deliveries out here in the backwoods of Amphitrite, itself a minor planet in the furthest reaches of the Leto Expansion. It took long enough for an order from the New Sears Catalogue to reach the nearest depot in Nubia before we even consider the time it would take to get the order packed and sent out. The journey from there to my little shack was measured in years, not months.
So it was no surprise that I had forgotten ever filling an order form when the delivery guy knocked on my door. When I found him standing there with anti-grav trolley to hand and large rectangular box standing on it, I felt sure there must have been a mistake. The Sears logos emblazoned on the box seemed familiar somehow, but I presumed that was thanks to their presence on each page of the catalogue.
“Yes?” I ventured, unwilling to commit myself either way just yet. I mean, if the thing proved valuable, I didn’t want to leave the guy with a wasted journey. If this was some sort of weird windfall, I might as well grab it and let the resultant untangling of misunderstandings and errors work their way through the next several decades.
He tapped the top of the box. “Delivery for Hieronymus Bleeg,” he said.
That surprised me, him knowing my name. Maybe this wasn’t a mistake at all. I admitted my identity. As I signed the forms on the clipboard he presented, I searched my memory for some indication of what the box might contain. Nothing suggested itself.
It was only later, as I was unpacking the box, that everything came flooding back. The Sears box contained another, much shinier and more colourful, announcing that it contained a FastTech Mailer. That I remembered.
The Mailer had been the talk of the planet twenty years ago. The result of a breakthrough in communications technology, these machines took advantage of the discovery that faster than light communication was possible through the use of telepaths. In the excitement of actually being able to talk to places on the other side of the galaxy, I had taken out a mortgage on my shack and ordered one of the miracle machines.
And now here it was, the stuff of dreams two decades ago. It would have to work hard to live up to all the hype and the long wait through lonely years of exile at the end of the universe.
I stripped off its shiny box and revealed a machine totally unexpected in its actual presence. There had been no pictures in those early days of its invention, so I was dumbfounded by its appearance. It looked like a woman.
She stood there in my living room, totally naked and looking nothing like a mailing machine. Oh, don’t get me wrong, there was no mistaking her for a real woman. For a start, her entire body was silver, highly polished and reflective of her surroundings. But already I was referring to her as a female rather than a machine. Even then, when I had yet to switch her on, she had some strange, attractive power over me.
I found the Owner’s Manual buried in the pile of discarded packaging at her feet and sat down to read. It was fascinating stuff, even with the presence of that metallic female hovering nearby. That was the first thing I was going to do - get her some clothes and a bit of dignity to go with them. Couldn’t have her standing at the windows, scaring what few neighbours I had, I reasoned.
It was an excuse, of course. The truth was she unsettled me in her nakedness, unused to any sort of company as I was. And with no experience at all of naked females. They are rare creatures indeed in the farthest reaches of the galaxy.
The first few pages of the manual reassured me that I had the right machine. It had been given its lifelike body mainly for it to be mobile and easily transported from one place to another. With robotics being way ahead of communication technology, even twenty years ago, the machine’s body was capable of any of the normal human movements. As well as a few well beyond human capacity.
I must admit I was gratified to find that she was capable of carrying out household chores as well as the mailing thing. That would easily make up for the price I’d paid, not only in cash but in waiting. And I didn’t have that many phone calls to civilisation to make, after all. It had been a complete impulse to buy her in the first place.
The manual told me her name on the last page. It was written in a little rectangular box so that it seemed that each machine had a distinct and unique name. She was called Rita.
Rita the Robot, I thought, and a rhyme leapt into being in my head, taking its tune from an ancient recording I’d heard somewhere.
Lovely Rita, robot maid…
But it was time to turn her on. The necessary routine included the embarrassing opening of a panel between her breasts but was simple enough. She was soon awake, as evidenced by her wide grey eyes blinking once and her announcement, in a rather mechanical voice, that she was ready to serve. I asked her to clear away the packaging and place it in the recycler and she set to at once.
In the process of starting her, I’d noticed that her power source was low so, when she’d cleared things away, I told her to stand outside the back door and get some sun. While she obliged, I went round to Arnold’s house and begged a dress off his wife.
Rita was still standing outside when I returned. I got her back in the house and presented her with the dress. She put it on as though she’d been dressing herself her entire life.
Over the course of the next few days, I scoured the little settlement for women’s clothes and eventually built her a respectable, if a little bizarre, wardrobe. She accepted it all with good grace and spent her days in making the house a good deal cleaner and tidier than it had ever been before. On occasion, I even used her to have conversations with old friends on other planets in different systems.
You will nod knowingly when I tell you that Rita and I began to have long conversations together. The inevitable result of a recluse at the end of the universe at last being supplied with female companionship, you’ll think. And I’m not saying that you’re wrong. But there was more to it than that.
There were things I wanted to know. Why had they given her such a mechanical voice, for instance. She answered that it was so that her initial appearance and capability was not too shocking to a new owner. Her voice reassured customers that she was, indeed, only a machine. There were other options, however, accessible under Advanced Settings and she talked me through (as well as contributing her own preference) selecting something more suitable.
Then there was the matter of her being a machine. My understanding had been that the initial breakthrough had been in finding that telepaths were capable of sending and receiving messages at faster than light speeds. Yet here she was, clearly a machine and not a person. How had they made the leap by designing a machine with telepathic powers?
On this, she was not quite so helpful. She knew the full history of the experiments with telepaths but, when it came to the matter of transferring that ability to machines, she became hazy and unsure. What made me doubly interested was that I sensed that something was holding her back from telling all that she knew. She would be about to explain something, there’d be a sudden pause, and she’d slip back into the usual vague skating around the point.
I returned to the subject again and again over the next few weeks.
All this time, we were becoming closer, if such a thing is possible between human and machine. Rita assured me that she could mimic human feelings so as to appear natural and unforced in human society, but there was no possibility of her experiencing actual emotions. I went along with it but still pressed her about the information I felt she was hiding.
And then, one day, I found her crying on the steps outside the back door. There were no tears as they’d not supplied her with that ability, but there was no mistaking her hunched over position and the sounds she was making.
I was devastated.
Resistance to my natural inclination to sit down and try to comfort her was impossible. I held her close and spoke soothing words while feeling totally unable to help. It was the first time I’d touched her since turning her on, and I noticed that her skin was not cold as a metal should be. It seemed that her interior processes warmed her to the point of being human even to the touch.
In time her crying ceased and she was able to look up at me.
“I have to tell you now, don’t I, Ronnie?”
I nodded. “You know I can’t stop asking, especially after this. Just what is going on, Rita?”
She explained, in her mechanical way, without sign of the emotions that had so recently left her crying on the doorstep, a history of the construction of the mailer robots. At first, they tried to establish a service galaxy-wide, but it proved impossible with so few telepaths around. It was clear that they would have to transfer the ability to machines or there would never be enough sources to establish a viable service. But that proved impossible since no one knew how the telepaths were able to do their thing.
And then someone found a way to transfer the relevant parts of the telepath’s brain to a machine that could interpret the output. The telepaths became donor creatures and telepath farms were set up to breed more telepaths from the existing ones. It was all secret, of course, and the machines, when finally placed on the market, were constructed with severe restraints against telling what the human part of them knew. That was what had kept Rita from answering my questions for so long.
But now, it seemed my constant questions had broken that part of the program, Rita’s feelings had burst through and it became possible to tell me who she really was. She knew that there was nothing that could be done to help her, that she was trapped forever within a robot body, but the relief at overcoming the secrecy code was tremendous.
I was horrified at the story she told. Every step in the development of the mailer had been riddled with cruelty and greed. I was shocked that, in buying just one example, I had participated in the evil scheme. The thought of how I’d used Rita as a slave, cleaning house and transmitting my silly messages across the universe made me shrink into silence, aghast at my insensitivity. I vowed to release her from all duties toward me.
Yet she was adamant that I provided her life with all that remained of meaning. In serving me, she found a shred of usefulness that justified her continued living. The urge toward life was so strong that even caged within a machine was better than a pathetic surrender to death. If that were even possible. Was suicide an option for the mechanical, programmed human she had become? It didn’t seem an appropriate time to ask that question.
Anyway, my mind was working on escape by that time. There must be a place where we could go, to hide from the civilisation that could perpetuate such monstrosities. No way could I continue to live as even a minor cog in the whole system and my being overflowed with pity for this abused and crushed creature, formed by evil yet still innocent and good. I needed to set her free somehow.
She made me see reason, however. There was no cure for her condition; what had been done was beyond any rectification. And, on Amphitrite, we were already about as remote from the centres of power as it was possible to get. There was no better place to hide.
We settled to a quiet life having very little contact with our neighbours. Rita still keeps the house clean and orderly but there is no more mailing. There is no reason we should allow the company to suspect that Rita still exists and continued messages would be an accusing finger pointing straight back at us. We are fortunate in that, being an early model, Rita was built to last. I’ve heard that later models have built-in obsolescence and require frequent updating. It is quite possible that she will outlive me by several generations but we prefer not to think of that.
I guess that you could say that we’re happy. As much as human and machine can be, at least. There are even times when I think we may represent the future and all people will live like this.