WHEN THEY LEARN TO SPEAK IN THE VOICES OF OUR DEAD

Submitted into Contest #238 in response to: Start or finish your story with a speaker unable to finish their sentence, perhaps overcome by emotion.... view prompt

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Science Fiction Sad Drama

1

The fingers that lay the tea tray onto the polished, dark wood of the table imitated humanity immaculately except in one particular: the skin was a stately navy blue.  Millicent Braddock avoided touching them as they handed her a bone-white cup of Earl Grey, sweetened and creamed just to her liking, plumes of steam curling off its dark surface like the ghost of a bergamot fruit.  Somehow, her favorite drink with her closest (living) friend did nothing to comfort her; instead, their presence in the flat seemed vulgar.  Spoiled.

“Thank you, Bernard,” she muttered to the butler, distantly and without a single spark of feeling.

Across from her, Eloise Hildebrand fluffed the lavender curls of her hair and made faces at a drone the size of an aphid, which hovered, snapping images as quickly as its mistress could command through her neural link.  Eventually, her face stilled somewhat, though her eyes retained that distant look of one immersed in an enhanced reality UI.  She periodically continued to make faces, but they were primarily expressions of naked disgust.

The robot butler waited patiently for his mistress’ guest to come back to reality, frozen in a posture of polite, servile offering.

Millie peered down at her tea and blew across its surface before taking her first exploratory sip.  Ideal temperature, of course.  Her stomach rolled over, acid coating the back of her throat.  Momentarily, she considered slapping Bernard across the face, justice for the crime of knowing her too well, and continuing to function perfectly when Ignatius was gone, a tragedy of the human flaw of age.  She did not, of course.  Her brown skin, once soft and supple and the color of fine mocha, had grown thin, paper-fragile, and mottled with liver spots.  If she were to strike the android, he would simulate shame while she screamed, relishing the exquisite agony of her hand shattering against his exoskeleton.

As she imagined the scene playing out, it made her reconsider.  She had lifted her hand— with no memory of having done so— to that very purpose when her own UI interjected with a share request from Eloise.  Internally, she sighed and accepted.

A semi-translucent, grotesque image filled her immediate vision, blurring the table, the china, the tea, and the still-waiting automaton.  What replaced these tangible things was an intangible fantasy: Eloise as she might have been, though never had.  The face that swam into existence practically glistened with affected youth.  Not a wrinkle crossed her perfect, creamy complexion.  Her eyes were huge, luminescent puddles of sadness in which the overhead lights reflected, liquid and alive with the grief she had come to share.

“What do you think?  That one?”

Millie dismissed her friend's intrusive, garish doppelganger with a mental gesture that, in her mind, equated to waving away an unwanted course at dinner.  “It’s fine,” she said, filling her mouth with tea before she could say anything else, damaging her most enduring friendship.  Her only remaining friendship, really.

“And you’re comfortable with me posting it?”

She swallowed.  “Fine.”

“Fine?”

Millie set her cup and saucer down hard enough that they rattled.  “Yes, Eloise!  It’s fine!  I’ve said it’s fine, and it’s fine!  What do you want?”

Primly, Eloise crossed her legs, her leggings whispering against one another beneath a short, pleated skirt that matched her hair.  “I want to see that you’re coping.”  She took the saucer from Bernard, who bustled off to the kitchen to see to the cakes and biscuits.  Beyond the vague citrusy smell of the tea, the whole house was fragrant with his baking, the hateful blue creature.

“I fail to see how helping you filter a pic constitutes coping with the death of my husband.”

Eloise shrugged.  “Friends helping friends,” she said.  “It’s something we’ve always done.  I retouch my dreadfully ancient face, and you offer a cuttingly sarcastic critique.”  Delicately, she sipped.  “Oh!  But this is too cold, far too cold!  Oh, robot!  What is it you call him?”

“Bernard,” prompted Millie, for the thousandth time.

“Oh yes.  Oh, Bernard.”

The android, having hidden his smooth-loined nakedness beneath a black apron that had suffered only a minor dusting of cake flour, appeared at the kitchen door.  “Ma’am?”

“This tea is far too cold,” Eloise chirped.  “Prepare me a fresh cup.”  She held the porcelain out to him and immediately washed her attention of his presence.  “Are you?”  She regarded Millie with open suspicion.  “Coping, I mean.”

Millicent gestured at her outfit, her makeup, her general self.  “As you see,” she said.  A smile curled the corners of her mouth but stopped short of squinting her eyes.  Counterfeit as it was, she hoped it would pass inspection.

Eloise peered at her for a long, concerned moment before nodding her satisfaction and draining the cup Bernard brought to her.  Her throat worked as she drank, and when she was through, she passed the empty cup and saucer back to the butler without exerting the effort required to watch him take it.  “Is it lonely?”

“What kind of stupid question is that?  Is it lonely?  Of course, it’s lonely.”

Eloise, seeing she had done real damage, began to backpedal.  “Well, I just thought…”  Her voice trailed off as she abandoned the inquiry.

“Thought?  Go on.  Thought what?”

Millie watched her friend's soft face harden as she steeled herself to push through.  “I thought… well, seeing as you have the robot… what was his name again?”

“Bernard.”

“Right!  Bernard, right…”  Reluctance overcame her scant courage, and her voice failed her.

“He doesn’t speak except when spoken to, mostly,” said Millicent.  “I’ve heard you can adjust their settings so they talk more, but I couldn’t be bothered.”

“You don’t think it might liven up the place?”  The freshly made tea cakes arrived, delicately oozing raspberry jam.  Alongside, chocolate digestives from a package arrayed themselves in mute, diligent formation.  Eloise helped herself to one of each.

“I suppose,” said Millie.  Taking one of the digestives, she nibbled it absently and imagined trying to converse with a simulated human intelligence.

“And you haven’t ever been tempted to… you know…”  Eloise gestured but did nothing else to clarify her meaning.

Squarely— almost defiantly— Millie returned her friend’s gaze.  There was something there, simmering behind her eyes, that she didn’t care for.  “I do wish you would speak plainly, Eloise,” she said finally.  “This dance that you do, circling meaning without ever getting down to it?  It’s beyond me.”  She heard herself drawling, the northerner in her coming out in moments of stress.

Her friend set down her biscuit, folded her hands, and took a deep breath as though expressing herself were the most arduous labor.  “Simulating him.”

The words washed over her consciousness, but her mind seemed oily and resisted of making any meaning out of them.  “Him?”

“Ignatius.”

When the idea— what her friend was suggesting— finally broke through, the initial glimmer of desire was drowned by a great flood of horror.  “You can’t be serious!”  Images of it flashed across her mind.  “Oh, that’s macabre!”

“Not so much as you might think.  Lots of us do, you know.”

“I can’t—”  Her mind battened onto the word, slamming closed against it like the jaws of a crocodile she had once watched in an immersive VR documentary.  What channel had it been?  “Us?  Did you say us?”

Eloise bobbed her head in the affirmative.  “After Robert passed, I had a hard go of it.”  Her eyes found her feet, and she studied them for a long time.  “It feels so strange to say.  Did you know, I thought I wouldn’t miss him at all?  That I would feel little more than relief.  Then, when he had gone…”  Again, her voice failed her.

Millie watched her friend choke on the words, saying nothing.

When Eloise finally pressed on, she spoke in spasms and coughing staccato as though she were vomiting up the admission.  “The AI can synthesize a believable version of anyone it has listened to for long enough.  Very believable.  Almost… almost to the life.”  Her face came up, and Millicent saw threads of red crossing the green irises of her eyes.  Her face was hollow, almost haunted.  “I’d heard my next-door neighbor, Mister Findlay, speaking to his maid through an open window two summers ago.  Him, I don’t know well, but her?  Her I knew quite well.”  She nodded, her lavender curls bouncing with the cadence of her grief.  “Quite well.  It was her voice.  There was no mistaking it.  When the robot spoke, it was in her voice, and I realized I could…”  She tried to finish.  Couldn’t.  Tears gathered at the corners of her eyes, which she swiped away with a hand that, so much like Millie’s own, had grown thin and brittle with the passing of years.

The look on Millicent’s face must have been quite horrible.

After a silence that protracted far past awkwardness and into actual physical discomfort, Eloise gathered her things. She excused herself, leaving Millie alone with the butler and the emptiness of the flat.  In the absence of her friend, it ached her.  It throbbed, making itself known in a persistent, quiet agony, like the unhealed socket of a recently drawn tooth.

2

Alone, Millicent sat at the table she had recently shared with her husband of forty-nine years.  She could recall only a few mealtime conversations with the man; he exercised a reticence that could be measured in hours and, occasionally, days.  It had been one of the most comfortable elements of their marriage.  Neither of them had ever acted on any pressure to speak.  What they had shared of themselves had always been voluntary and in its own time.

Yet, now that there was no one with whom to share when the urge came upon her, she felt that absence.  In many ways, her life had not changed when her husband’s heart had seized him in its final, crushing exertions.  Yet, it seemed to have.  She felt it had.

The meal, as usual, was seasoned to perfection: chicken tikka on pilaf— a fusion of English-Indian and Turkish food.  Savoring the mouthfuls as she fed herself, she felt the resentment for its creators, their android butler, churning her guts despite the pleasure of her senses.

What is it that makes you hate him so?

Oddly, the question was spoken into her mind, seemingly independent of her own thoughts and in Ignatius’ voice, a deep, sensual baritone pronounced in slow, deliberate consonants.

Her heart hammered in her ears.  

Fear?  

No.  Something else.

Desire.

Don’t be ridiculous.

Longing?

The idea was naively romantic.  Hopelessly so.  Unfortunately, it also rang true.

Longing, then.

What was she to do with that?  

Eloise didn’t resent Bernard; she merely ignored him.  And why shouldn’t she?  Despite having legs, feet, hands, and digits, Bernard was not a person.  He was an assemblage of tech inside an exoskeleton— every bit beyond her limited understanding— designed to resemble a human only to the degree necessary to facilitate user interface.  In some regards, such as his hairlessness and the changeability and variety of his skin tone, were pointedly inhuman.  And yet, his inhumanity also seemed to highlight Millicent’s distaste.

He performs his function to the letter.  Why dislike him so?

Again, Ignatius spoke.  Love, it’s because he isn’t…

“He isn’t you.”  Her fork hovered near her mouth; she had been holding it there for long enough that a tremor had crept into her grip.  Rice and chicken tikka rained from her fork to the ground like manna.

Instantly, Bernard was there.  Broom and dustpan clutched in his blue hands, he cleaned her mess and silently disappeared into the kitchen to dispose of the evidence.

An hour later, when she had eaten no more of the fine meal he’d prepared, Bernard checked to see if she had finished and offered her dessert, a flan glazed with pear cider syrup.  Millicent did not respond to his query but stood and went to the bedroom.

Dressed but uncovered, she lay on the duvet until the darkness outside was complete.  Sometime after midnight, she called to the automaton with whom she shared the empty flat.  As he always had and always would, he came.

It occurred to Millie, in a moment of horrified fascination, that she had been mistaken.  Eloise was not her most constant friend.  It was this machine.  Since his purchase and installation, he had never faltered in his duties, and his strength had never flagged, even though he was getting on in years.  He would come when she called.  Anytime she called.  Even Ignatius had eventually failed her in that regard.

“How may I serve you, Ma’am?”  His pleasant nothing-voice was as generic as his shape.  Like a silhouette of a person, two-dimensional and without substance.

Am I actually about to do this?

Millie tried to puzzle out her hesitation, the reason for holding back.  Then, the answer came to her, fully formed and terrible  She realized she feared the judgment of an appliance: Bernard himself.  That, or the embarrassment of inconveniencing him to meet the needs of her weakness.  He was more human to her, it seemed, than she was willing to admit to herself.

Human?  What human?  He is a machine!  He is an it!

A machine of such intelligence that it could identify spilled curry by the sound.  It could deduce the proper temperature for tea from facial expressions, small noises of displeasure, and passive-aggressive comments.  It could—

If she only would—

“Bernard,” she heard herself say.  “I wonder…if you would…”

The words soured, clotting in her mind like clabbered milk.  She found herself no more able to finish than Eloise had been.

Devoid of words, and absent her husband, she found herself doing the one thing even more unthinkable than begging an android to speak in Ignatius’ voice.  She wept.

Sobs wracked her, and she curled into a ball atop the mattress they had shared across the final years of their intimate— if relatively nonverbal— marriage.

An arm encircled her, and Millie had to choke off a scream.  She looked down, saw the hand as it closed over her own.

It was brown.  Young.  Gentle.

The temporary reprieve from crying broke, and she wept all the harder.  Was it fear?  Horror?  Longing?  She did not know.  Was there any tangible difference between them?

From behind her, she heard his voice.  Rich baritone.  Velvety.  Warm.  It was what had first drawn her to him in that dusky retro lounge all those years ago.  The words were lyrics, the voice a melody.

How did it know—?

She stifled the question, killed it.

It didn’t matter how.

In this moment, all that mattered was the arms that encircled her.  His arms.  Nevermind that it was merely an illusion, a product of an artificial intelligence so sophisticated that it had predicted from an overheard conversation what she would ask, anticipating and answering her need despite her inability to express it.

Millicent Braddock lay back against the android.  The fantasy was broken only a little by the sensation of a hard exoskeleton beneath the soft, synthetic skin and muscle.  She listened to her dead husband sing, feeling his arms around her as his music transported her to a place far into their shared past.  Eventually, she fell asleep that way.

It was dreamless, that sleep.  And when she awoke, alone in her bed, she shed the memory of what had happened from her as easily as her nightgown; all that remained was a sense of satisfaction, that of a need fulfilled.  Already, she suspected she would call Bernard again: a command, repeat performance.  He could not love her with anything but simulated love, and then only while wearing Ignatius' skin and speaking in his voice.  A palliative to her crushing loneliness.

“Will you take tea, Ma’am?”  She looked up to find her android butler in the doorway.  She had not felt him leave her bed, nor could she explain how he had known to do so.  How could the AI understand?

Ignatius’ knew.

Rather than upset her, this idea comforted her somehow, and she smiled.  “That would be perfect,” she said.  “Only—”

Yet, he was gone already, knowing what she would ask before even she, herself, could form the request.

February 19, 2024 20:58

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6 comments

Jack Kimball
05:01 Feb 29, 2024

So here I was thinking I was reading Père Goriot, and... wham! bam! '..made faces at a drone the size of an aphid, which hovered,' Whoa!, I thought. Excellent mood in the descriptions '...brown skin, once soft and supple and the color of fine mocha, had grown thin, paper-fragile, and mottled with liver spots. If she were to strike the android, he would simulate shame while she screamed, relishing the exquisite agony of her hand shattering against his exoskeleton.' and '...it ached her. It throbbed, making itself known in a persistent, ...

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Aaron Bowen
14:22 Feb 29, 2024

Thanks, Jack. This is some of the most validating feedback I've received so far. You're right. This back-and-forth will be fun.

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David Sweet
21:07 Feb 24, 2024

Nice glimpse into the possible future. I especially like the drone cameras snapping and filtering pics for whatever social media will exist. I find the idea of AI intriguing and frightening as I have been a fan of sci-fi my entire reading life. Like the Internet, people will exploit its evils, but there will be many people who will benefit, even if it isn't quite real like Millicent. I also like the title of this piece. Very reminiscent of classic sci-fi. And, like classic sci-fi, I appreciate the subtle allegory.

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Aaron Bowen
14:19 Feb 25, 2024

Thanks for the kind words, David. You're right that I didn't intend for it to be purely horrific. It occurred to me, a few years back, that within a century we have gone from losing the images and voices of our dead forever, to retaining them in the form of media. Then, hearing AI generated covers of music by dead musicians, and the resurrection of their images via hologram, I wondered what the long-term implications might be.

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Unknown User
07:29 Mar 01, 2024

<removed by user>

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Aaron Bowen
13:15 Mar 01, 2024

Thanks, Dustin. I'm grateful for the read and the kind feedback.

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