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Submitted on 07/04/2020

Categories: General

Originally designed in Japan in 2029, the initial spirit of the Tomodatchi-Bot was simple and noble: to provide comfort and companionship. The boxy units included an LED screen that would simulate emotions and basic conversation, and each and every one would conform its behaviors to the person who owned it, taking on a life of its own with enough socialization. The Tomodatchi was designed to alleviate some of the overpowering isolation some of their older citizens were experiencing, and it was a complete failure, both commercially and culturally. Its intended audience, rather than feeling comforted, felt even more crushed and isolated as the chasm between man and machine alerted them to their seclusion. It was difficult, it seemed, to form a bond with something that looked like an air conditioner. The parent company, Glory Industries, quietly allowed the patent to expire and focused their efforts on a better selling venture, a miniature vending machine that dispensed very small versions of classic books. They were impossible to read, but very, very cute.

In 2049, a French robotics company co-opted the basic programming of the Tomodatchi and hired a private team of special effects engineers from Hollywood to create the Simul-Ami, a similar product that was more realistic in its responses and remarkably humanoid in design. The end result was eerily human, uncanny and ghoulish in its simulated humanity. The companion robots were completely indistinguishable from human beings, aside from their initial inability to carry on a meaningful conversation and their almost slavish fascination with test groups. A German intern recommended an inexpensive solution: removing parts of the guard, which exposed parts of the inner machinery. Test groups were delighted by the change. For whatever reason, it was easier for many of them to connect with something they initially read as robotic but grew to like, and several beta testers became almost aggressively attached to the machines. Sadly, some of the Simul-Amis became, in turn, also quite attached to the beta-testers, and were destroyed as they were no longer marketable.

Despite these road bumps, within only a few short years of its release, the Simul-Ami became both incredibly popular and fabulously divisive. Many people relied on them for friendship. They were particularly comforting for people in hospice, people with long-term and chronic disabilities, and people with depression, as they provided a comforting, simple feeling of rapport that regular, flawed human beings could not provide as easily and as effectively. On the other hand, they were not human, per say, but vaguely resembled us and often acted like it. Many Simul-Amis developed opinions, preferences, likes and dislikes. Granted, many of their thoughts mirrored that of their owner but as some people remarked, could the same not be said for real human children? If an autonomous, humanoid robot, through learning and processing, decided that it would like to vote Republican, who are we to say that they have not done their due intellectual diligence? 

Elliot Dreyfus, a thirty-four year old private accountant for a popular California communications company, initially argued that no, they had not. Even before the widespread popularity of the Simul-Ami, Elliot was skeptical and frankly, a little creeped out by the proposition of buying and owning something that was arguably autonomous. Not that he really believed they were autonomous, mind you. Once, about six or seven months after their initial release in Los Angeles, he met one in a Starbucks. The robot was, oddly, employed as a barista. The robot cheerfully informed him that his owner had encouraged him to “get out there a little”, although legally he was indistinguishable from the machine that frothed milk and did not qualify for a paycheck, a fact that evidently did not bother it. Apropos of nothing, it told Elliot that it wanted to “get out of the house for a while”. For Elliot, this was proof enough that the Simul-Ami was nothing more than a skillful parrot. 

Six months later, his employer offered him his own Simul-Ami. The company had been under a certain amount of fire for allowing many of their employees to work from home to save on rented office space, leading to a higher-than-average amount of workers to develop depression, anxiety and agoraphobia from the combined stresses of workload and social isolation. Since the Simul-Ami was covered under the company’s employee health plan, a significant discount was offered, bringing down the total cost to just over $6000, a remarkable savings. For employees that lived alone, the total cost was driven down to an out-of-pocket cost of $1000. 

Elliot’s family was roughly twenty-five hundred miles away in Buffalo, New York. Since moving to Los Angeles, he had gone on precisely zero dates, and only three work-related functions, all three of which had been football games staged in someone’s basement. After the third one, he had elected to work from home, citing transportation costs to HR but privately understanding that he was tired of not being able to connect with anyone on any meaningful level in the city. And so, when offered, he bought a Simul-Ami of his own. He knew that if he returned it, it would probably be dismantled for parts, and at the time of purchase, he felt nothing at all about this.

Elliot chose a female model. Part of his initial discomfort with the Simul-Ami was the fact that some people fell in love with their models. Reports of people marrying their Simul-Ami were common, and in his opinion, incredibly creepy and sad. A confirmed six on the Kinsey Scale, Elliot felt he would be immune to the remote possibility of developing any sort of romantic feelings towards something that, admittedly, despite the weird broken skin, really did look like a person. He was not prepared to take back any of the rather public declarations he had made that the Simul-Ami was a tool for people that couldn’t stand to interact with people who didn’t mirror them and prop up their fragmented egos, a stand he had taken several times on social media. And so he chose a female model, a short brunette with a flat Danish nose, and a small spray of freckles. While he ordered the model, the technician asked if he would like to give her a name, or allow her to pick her own.

“It,” he said, “It’s a machine. Whatever. Uh, Astrid.”

There was no fun background story to it. He never knew anyone named Astrid, and could not confidently summon any famous person or literary figure with the name. Part of him was just worried that he would bring the Simul-Ami home and she would decide that her name was Elliot, or Teapot, or that she would name herself after Elliot’s mother, and that it would become a whole conversation the next time he talked to her on the phone. It was best to establish some boundaries now, before it became an issue.

Astrid was delivered to his house a month later, in a box. Elliot didn’t particularly like that. With the kind of money that Simul-Amis brought in, couldn’t they send someone to bring Astrid to the door, and introduce her? Was the idea not to let people believe that these things exhibited some kind of humanity? Maybe they were worried that the Simul-Amis would talk to the person delivering them on the way, and pick up something innocuous but developmentally significant. Imagine ordering a blank slate, only to find out that on the way it saw an advertisement for Applebee’s or something. Now you are tasked with explaining endless apps, a concept they will never enjoy. It would be a gauche beginning and he could understand why they skipped that step, on some level.

To their credit, the makers of the Simul-Ami did not force the purchaser to remove the robot’s body out of the cardboard box. You activated them and they left the box by themselves. Though some might have enjoyed it, Elliot noted that before he removed the flimsy plastic tab from behind Astrid’s “ear” that her body was warm, which he despised. She gave off a distressingly accurate warmth, analogous to human skin. The missing guards on her body were seemingly random - two chunks were missing from her left arm, one near the pit of the elbow and one about an inch away from her armpit. Another near the base of her jaw on the right side exposed a blinking snake of tubes and wires. She was wearing a cornflower blue sundress, so Elliot was not able to immediately see where else she was missing some “skin”, nor did he have any interest in finding out. That was “her” business, as far as he was aware. 

After he removed the tab, Astrid shot out of the box, into life like a spring-powered doll. She beamed at him. 

“Hi!” she said, her voice a sing-song.

“Hi,” Elliot said, “Do you know who I am?”

“I don’t!” she said.

Elliot was already disappointed. If she were real, if she was someone he had met at a party, he would have avoided her. He got up, and stretched out of the extended crouch he had been sitting in while he had been waiting for her to come online. He walked away, and left Astrid to wander around his two-bedroom apartment while he worked on some reports for work.

“What are you doing?” she said, a few hours later. She had simply walked into his office. 

“Work,” he said, “What are you doing?”

She paused, looking blank.

“I like your house,” she said, “I think it’s neat.”

Obviously, she was still learning how to respond to direct questions. He had played with some AI over the years, and noticed that sometimes, in the absence of enough information, AI will simply begin another line of thought in the hopes that you will trigger a keyword or a subject with which it is familiar. He understood why a few people found the Simul-Ami to be more, not less, alienating and sad.

“Astrid,” he said, “I am not sure if you sleep or not -”

“I do.”

“Okay, well, I pulled out the couch for you and gave you a blanket. I am doing some work, but if you want to just look around and watch television or anything, you’re free to do so,” Elliot said, “Mi casa es su casa.”

Astrid stared at him. She looked quizzical and also afraid.

“It means, like… My place is your place. Don’t take this the wrong way, but I am not super interested in making sure that you, uh. Become some kind of pet for me. Sorry. I bought you and almost immediately regretted it. If you were real, I would feel sort of shitty for saying this, but I really don’t need you. So just,” he said, motioning toward the door, “Go, have fun. Do whatever. I don’t care.”

Astrid walked out of the room, her back to the door. Then, she disappeared. Several hours later, as he was getting ready for bed, he saw that she was methodically inspecting everything in the kitchen. He noted with a weird pang of misplaced heartache that Astrid moved her lips while reading, a weirdly tender and human thing to do. He went to bed without saying goodnight.

Over the next few weeks, he granted her the mercy of correcting some basic errors. Astrid attempted some dishes, and had placed the newly washed plates on the floor, for example. She experienced some considerable difficulty operating the television, which Elliot corrected for her, allowing Astrid full reign of every program and film imaginable, every single one of which fascinated her. She was particularly interested in both I Love Lucy and Sex and the City, a dichotomy that struck Elliot as particularly hilarious. 

“And why do you like those shows the best?” he said, feeling like he was talking to a child.

“I love Carrie,” she said breathlessly, “But Lucy is also… I love her independence.”

Elliot was sad when she said this. By this point, Astrid had been living (existing? operating?) in his apartment for nearly two months. She had not once left the house, mostly because it had never occurred to him to allow her to do that, and that she had never asked. Could robots be lonely? That was his first thought. His second thought, less brutalizing than the former, was: if I don’t need her, what’s the harm in letting her go?

When Elliot was six, his childhood best friend, Miranda, let loose her hamster in the field behind their primary school, reasoning it was cruel to intern an animal. At the time, neither of them had been able to appreciate the singular cruelty in releasing a domesticated animal into the wild. Many years later, Elliot realized that Houdini the hamster had probably been spirited away by a hawk or something, and he was worried that letting Astrid wander around Los Angeles would provide a similar outcome. She was unacquainted with the idea of being violently mugged. She had never made a purchase. Astrid understood crossing the street but she had only seen it on television and might not understand the complexities of traffic. 

Still, the following Monday, when Astrid asked if she could go shopping, Elliot said yes. He gave her a credit card  and she returned two hours later with six bags of marshmallows. Over the next few months, she would ask to leave and he would say yes, and eventually, he got a new line of credit, one especially for her. She would rarely spend more than five-hundred dollars in a month and would always return before ten at night.

Until one day, she didn’t. She was late coming home by nearly half an hour. Elliot had bought her a cellphone, a comical retro flip-phone which at the time he thought was funny but later realized was inconvenient if he was expecting a text message from her. That night, not only had she failed to call, but upon returning was rather irate right off the bat.

“Where were you?”

“You’re not my dad!” she said, dramatically, before slamming the door of the office. She did not have a bedroom of her own, and had not once stepped into his.

They didn’t speak for another day and a half, when he made a joke about the local weatherman and his remarkable similarity to a toad.

“Ooh, it’s a wet one,” Elliot had said, “Great, more flies for me, yum!”

Astrid had found this very funny. That night, she was out until nearly three.

Faithfully and guiltily, Elliot paid her credit card bills and said nothing. He would wait up at night, often to the detriment of his own sleep, waiting for her to come home. Sometimes, she did. More often, she did not. Briefly, she became fast friends with a local speed-rapper as quickly she unceremoniously declared him to be a “total loser”, but this was the period where she was absent the most, the times when Elliot was the most anxious for her return. Astrid also briefly flirted with a group of ageing punk rockers, and her reasoning for departing with them was always unclear. When Elliot asked, she became sullen and unreachable.

After about an entire year of living with Astrid (Elliot still refused to refer to their relationship as him “owning her”, though it was technically and legally correct), Elliot organized a “birthday party” for her. August 1st, the day she came online, and became Astrid. After three hours, Elliot blew out the birthday candles (which at that point, were waxy stumps), and resigned himself to the fact that she was, on her own birthday, not going to come home.

Astrid did, eventually, come home. She returned at roughly six in the morning, stumbling through the apartment. Elliot had done some research during his time living with Astrid, and discovered that Simul-Amis could, if they wanted to, get drunk. He wasn’t sure if she was, but while she slept on the pull-out couch, he decided that she had definitely been drinking, based on the odor that seeped out of her pores.

Were the pores? He thought, reaching behind her head. He parted her hair. If someone else made them, if she wasn’t born with them, they were more like ports? Expensive holes in her skin, meant to trick me, and maybe her? What did they even do, other than trick people into thinking that she sweats?

Elliot had been given a key. When Astrid was delivered, he had read the instructional manual before he had ripped out the plastic tab that activated her. The small metal key, it explained, would shut her down and reset her to the factory settings, if the user decided to return her and not have her recycled instead. He shoved the key into the small port at the base of her nape, and kissed her on the forehead.

He sighed, and pushed her lifeless body off the couch. Elliot would never have to wait for Astrid again, he thought, noting with some disinterest that he thought of himself in the third person before he fell asleep on the floor.

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9 comments

Tvisha Yerra
23:35 Jul 14, 2020

At first, I thought this was some other boring historic fiction that my friend sent me, but she laughed and told me to read the first line again, and to my surprise, she actually knew that I loved sci-fi! And this did not disappoint, unlike my other attempted sci-fi stories. This was so interesting! I love how you conveyed the passing of time, without actually addressing it (which I suck at!) Love this! Edit: I just realized you won on your first story! Just asking, why did you stop writing for half a year?

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Emily Hemmings
04:10 Jul 15, 2020

I was actually trying to work on a different project, which I sadly had to abandon for a few reasons, chief among them that it was getting too convoluted. So, I am taking some time off and spending some more time doing short stories instead while I try and salvage my confidence. But anyway, thank you! I am glad you liked it!

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Tvisha Yerra
20:02 Jul 15, 2020

Glad you returned!

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Sid Tinsley
17:53 Jul 11, 2020

This is great, wow. Forget my story, I'll be disappointed if this doesn't win. Artfully done, and couldn't help but feel I was reading a Vonnegut who decided to experiment outside of minimalism. I would actually love to chat sometime and pick your brain.

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Emily Hemmings
23:41 Jul 12, 2020

Thank you! That means a lot. If I can figure out how to message people on here (or if you do), we'll be in touch!

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Sid Tinsley
02:13 Jul 13, 2020

Unfortunately, I don't think Reedsy has any sort of messaging. But, feel free to email me at sidneyctinsley@gmail.com any time. Best of luck in the competition!

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Shea K
23:17 Aug 24, 2020

This was very thought-provoking. Interesting examination of how humans might relate to robots!

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Adhi Das
04:16 Jul 20, 2020

Awesome😊

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J C
03:46 Jul 13, 2020

Wow, I got heavy Ex-Machina/Black Mirror vibes reading this. I'm amazed at the exposition at the begining, it felt really organic and didn't make me feel like I was just reading exposition, and the backstory of the older models really made me feel like it was fleshed-out. Enjoyed reading this immensely!

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