Sparks Between Us

Submitted for Contest #58 in response to: Write a story about someone feeling powerless.... view prompt

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Submitted on 09/12/2020

Categories: Drama Science Fiction

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           She was delivered to Albert fully charged. The deliveryman carried the heavy, human-sized wooden crate off his truck with an old rusty trolley that nearly toppled over in the middle of the suburban street. Spring had barely settled, and the frightening sound chased away a yellow-feathered warbler eating grains in the birdhouse on the front lawn.

           “Careful!” yelled Albert, outraged. “You could have damaged it.”

           “What’s in there anyway?” asked the man, suspicious. He had raised an eyebrow the minute he came across the crate in the manufacturing company’s warehouse, and he wasn’t the only one with questions on his mind: the neighbours’ curious stares were also wandering towards the mysterious product as they got in and out of the surrounding houses.  “That thing looks like a coffin. You ain’t making me carry around a corpse, are ya?”

           “Of course not,” sighed Albert. A shadow seemed to cross his face at the mention of the words coffin and corpse. The deliveryman instantly understood death lexicon was not to be used around him.

           “Anyway, none of my business.” He handed over to Albert the delivery receipt for him to sign. “I’m just here to deliver, I ain’t usually one to ask questions. I’ll come and pick it back up t’morrow at noon sharp, gotta bring it back to the company by three.”

           “Understood,” Albert whispered absent-mindedly as he inked his signature at the bottom of the document. “Would you be kind enough to carry it inside the house?”

           “Inside the house?” mumbled the deliveryman in disbelief. “I only do driveway deliveries. Squeezing heavy stuff inside door frames isn’t my thing.”

           “You wouldn’t let a poor seventy-year-old man transport such a big crate by himself, would you?” questioned Albert with big sad eyes.

Deep down inside, the deliveryman had a soft heart, and the old man managed to win it over with the most surreptitious of powers: pity. He grumpily flexed his enormous biceps and picked up the crate with his great big arms, as Albert would not allow him to use the faulty trolley again. After fifteen minutes of trial and error, his muscles managed to find the right angle to get the object through the entrance of the cottage-like dwelling.

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Now alone, Albert opened the crate inside the living room. Alix immediately activated herself, an eerie blue light flashing in the depths of her pupils. She walked out of her wooden box and handed him an instructions manual.

“Hello Master,” she spoke in a robotic voice. “My name is Alix, and here are my instructions.”

“That’s very kind,” he awkwardly replied. “Please don’t call me Master though. You can go for Mr. Gibson.”

Albert quickly breezed through the instructions. The name of the company was branded on the cover page: Humanoid Rentals. The product description matched the one on the website.

We pride ourselves in offering you a vast selection of top-quality humanoid robots to rent for a period of twenty-four hours at a time. Whether you need help for cleaning duties, require a strong man for construction work, or simply long for company in times of loneliness, our services are simply unbeatable. You will be baffled by our products’ high level of artificial intelligence.

He did notice a surprising condition in bright red at the very bottom of the last page, a note that wasn’t there when he placed his order.

Please note that the humanoid may never fully discharge, as this would trigger a reboot of its system and wipe the consciousness it has been programmed with. Should this happen, additional fees of five hundred dollars are applicable for maintenance.

Albert tossed the instructions manual on his couch and observed Alix from head to toe. She had the appearance of a thirty-something blonde woman with rosy cheeks and wore an apron reminiscent of the early sixties. Just like when he first saw the website picture, the old man was struck by the robot’s uncanny resemblance to a young Diane. He pulled a vintage photograph of his late wife out of his wallet and compared it to the humanoid’s face. It was as close as an imitation of life could get, and Albert would have easily mistaken her for a real woman if it wasn’t for the electrical cord protruding from her right ankle.

“Would you like me to cook dinner for you Mr. Gibson?” she asked with a haunting smile.

“Definitely not,” he replied with a chuckle. “You’re the guest of honor tonight. I cooked already. I just need someone to talk to.”

“What a wonderful coincidence!” she exclaimed. “It just so happens that my top feature is being an excellent listener.”

“That’s what the listing said.”

He nervously glanced at the battery indicator on her wrist. Her charge was already down by five percent. It was better for her to remain connected to an outlet the whole evening, one couldn’t be careful enough with instructions that were so explicit.

“Let’s get you set up at the dining room table,” he insisted, dragging her away from the crate.

Alix sat down at the lovely table on which a golden tablecloth and candlesticks had been spread out. Albert proceeded to pull out the electrical cord from her leg and headed for a power source. Just as he was about to plug it into the socket, the lamps flickered and went out. Every appliance in the house simultaneously stopped working. The orange sunset rays filtering through the curtains were the only source of light left. This was no good omen for Albert.

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Two hours had passed. The blackout was city-wide. Albert and Alix sat across from each other at the dining room table, their faces dimly lit by the candle flames amidst the darkness that surrounded them. The elderly man’s heart skipped a beat every time he saw the humanoid’s battery percentage go down. She remained completely motionless in front of him, yet her charge had gone down at an alarming rate, as if her power was being sucked out by his apparent anxiety.

“Is there something wrong?” she asked, clearly oblivious to the dreadful plight she found herself in. “You seem tense.”

“Tense?” he blurted out between two bites of cold roast beef. “Absolutely not, I’m just disappointed I couldn’t warm up the meal. It’s inconsequential to you, of course. You don’t eat. It’s a shame you have to sit through dinner without being able to enjoy it. I got carried away with these cooking plans because Diane always adored my roast beef.”

“Was Diane your wife?”

“Yes,” he admitted, uneasy. “We probably shouldn’t talk about it.”

“We most definitely should,” she insisted. “Didn’t you rent me so we could talk?”

“Turns out talking is harder than I expected,” he said while putting down his silver fork. He could not stand to take another bite. “Maybe I’m not ready to talk about it after all. Even to a robot.”

“You need to trust me, Mr. Gibson. I have wiped many tears before and picked up the pieces of a thousand broken hearts. If there is anyone worthy of being talked to, it would be me. It’s in my nature to pay close attention when someone tells me a story, no matter how sad it might be.”

This might be the last broken heart you pick up, he thought. Nonetheless, the blue iridescence of her pupils was hypnotic and compelled him to pour out his sorrow.

“She was my wife indeed,” he said. “We were together for over fifty years. Cancer took her away six months ago. I had to watch her slowly fade away, completely unable to help her. I thought having company for an evening would help me move on, but…”

Tears formed in the corner of his eyes and his voice broke. Alix’s features seemed to grow more compassionate in a dangerously human way, perhaps even more so than a real human face could. She extended her hand and grasped his tightly.

“Cry it out.” Her robotic voice now radiated with warmth and kindness. “I’m here for you. We’ll get through this together.”

For an instant, Arthur disconnected from reality. It was as if he was sitting in front of Diane again, and she had simply come back to life through the power of his love with slightly rosier cheeks and a glimmer of blue in her eyes. Never had someone been so kind to him, save for his wife herself. His children never visited, and he could barely remember the last time he had caught a glimpse of his grandchildren. The machine was all he had to curb his unfathomable loneliness, and she was doing a splendid job at lifting the weight of the woes pressing down on his heart. To his dismay, the elation only lasted for so long. The sight of her battery indicator crept up in his peripheral vision as he peered into her pupils. It was now below the fifty percent mark. He became agitated again. Diane had been lost, but Alix had to be saved. He would not let Death take his soulmate twice.

“We must go,” he proclaimed. “I can’t drive anymore but I can call a cab. We’ll drive until we reach another town, one with power”

“Why?” she questioned, her voice robotic again. “I want to stay here with you. We’re not done with our discussion.”

“You don’t understand Alix,” he pleaded. “If you discharge completely, you’ll cease to exist. The manual says so. Your whole system will reboot, it will be as if you never existed. I can’t let that happen.”

He picked up his phone from the kitchen counter, but Alix hurried to take it away from him. The old man was not sturdy enough to fight off the strength of a robot.

“It’s not for us to decide if I get to exist or not,” she said. “There’s a reason why the power went out tonight. I was meant to be there for you in my final hours. There must be something I can do to clear your mind from all these worries. In her last days, what helped Diane through her hardships?”

His heart now filled with sorrow again, Albert took a minute to ponder the question.

“Stargazing.”

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They lay side by side in the moist spring grass of Albert’s backyard, staring up at the glittering heavens. Just like he had done with Diane throughout their marriage every time the weather permitted, the old man would point to a constellation every now and then, explaining the mythical stories behind each of their formations. Alix knew all of this of course, as encyclopedic knowledge of astronomy was embedded by default into her database, but faithful to her nature as an avid listener, she absorbed the torrent of information thrown at her, myth after myth.

“And those are Perseus and Andromeda,” he concluded. “Diane and I believed we would join them in the sky as legendary lovers when we died. We always imagined we’d go through death together. Destiny decided otherwise.”

“I’m sure you’ll be reunited with her someday,” Alix replied.

“Maybe.” A strong sense of certainty suddenly took a hold of him. “Yes. I know I will. It’s my only wish.”

“I’ll make sure you are.”

He remained fixated on the stars as his eyelids grew heavier. Under the peaceful twinkling of Alix’s glimmering blue pupils, Albert fell into a deep slumber, leaving his worries behind.

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“Albert. I feel cold.”

Alix’s voice sounded more robotic than ever. It woke up Albert, who struggled to realize what was happening at first. The memories came back to him in a blinding strike that painfully took away his momentary blissful ignorance. The special delivery. The blackout. The dinner. The stars. He glanced at the robot’s battery life and gasped.

“No,” he repeated in a shaken whisper. “No, not right now. Stay with me, please, I beg you.”

It was happening again. Just like that day in the hospital room, when Diane drew her last breath. When he held her tightly against his body, hoping a spark of life within him could keep her alive. When he saw the light fade away in her eyes. The same thing was about to take place. He would have to watch as the blue glimmer vanished from Alix’s pupils, and there was nothing he could do about it. The relentless tide of existence would wash him upon the same shores of sorrow and force him to relive the same agony. The humanoid’s body quaked by his side, convulsing as her systems went cold.

“It was a beautiful night,” she murmured with a faint smile.

“If only I could do something for you,” he muttered, tears streaming down his face.

“You can’t. Humans were not meant to be saviors. There might be something I can do for you, however.”

A flash of understanding passed between them.

“Let me use what’s left of my strength to bring you and Diane together,” she whispered. “Forever.”

She pressed her right hand against his chest. Sparks flew from her fingertips. The discharge propagated into his heart, and it stopped instantly. Both human and machine collapsed onto the ground, Albert’s arms curled around Alix. Up above in the heavens, below Perseus and Andromeda, two stars shone bright as power came back throughout the city. The lovers were together again, united by a thread of sparks in the midnight sky.

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