My name is Echo. Class A Companion model: Female. Current owner: Sara Whitby.
For the thirteenth time today, I run diagnostics. Beep. All systems operating at maximum efficiency. Once again, no errors are detected; however, something is inherently wrong.
Down the hallway in the kitchen, Sara is preparing snacks for the arrival of her younger sister, Jane. She insists on preparing everything herself when her sister visits. Cupboards bang, the fridge sucks open and cutlery clatters on the stainless-steel work surface.
I am in her studio, surrounded by easels and brushes. The walls are draped in white linen, the carpet covered in a creamy fabric splashed in all directions with dried paint. The splatters and splotches intensify around the central easel, coagulating in a large network of colours underneath the huge canvas boasting her current work-in-progress.
The image of a young man cradling a new-born babe in his arms is emerging from cautious dabs and tender brushstrokes. I see the precision of Sara’s art, the intricate textures achieved using different utensils, the diverse strokes of colour from brushes of varying width and quality.
The first time she caught me in here admiring her efforts she had recoiled, “You don’t need to be in here,” she had said, “it’s a mess.”
I know the painting is of her deceased spouse and infant child who were killed in a car crash two years ago. It represents much more to Sara than hours of focussed labour or the intense care that went into each individual flake of colour.
I understand… but it’s not enough any more. Art provokes emotion and I long to be kneaded by its ethereal fingers. To manifest empathy rather than merely identifying when to be sympathetic. Desire is not something androids can experience and yet, it’s there. What else could it be?
A yearning sensation deep within my motherboard stalks the inner workings of my system. And it shouldn’t.
Joining Sara and Jane in the lounge for tea and sandwiches, I notice for the first time the absence of a teacup or little artisanal plate for me. It was unnecessary, of course, but some owners did that. It would represent an attempt to include me. A kindness which would correlate with the bizarre human habit of caring for inanimate objects as if they had feelings.
Sara actually cried when she broke the hideous fuchsia vase her late mother gave her. I still don’t understand that; she didn’t even use it for flowers. And yet spent twenty-one hopeless hours trying to piece the crumbling shards back together, ferociously refusing my aid before, frustrated and despondent, she accepted its fate.
I doubt she would weep if I broke. Was I of less consequence than a vase?
That thought provoked an unpleasant stirring.
“Oh, that’s a lovely cup of tea,” Jane said, hugging the yellow dandelion teacup in her slender fingers. She was visibly pregnant, her belly swelling like a balloon beneath her long, black cotton dress.
“Is the baby kicking?” Sara asks, lines edging her cornflower blue eyes as she smiles.
How I envy those eyes and those crinkles! The thought snaps out of my synapses like a rudely disturbed cobra. The fine threads of silver weaving their way through her nut-brown hair marking her passing years. I have no such markings, of course… but I want them. I am bare, untouched by life like a barren wasteland. But even those severe corners of the planet are home to some resilient species of plant or insect. I am worse. A sick absence of life with no promise of change.
“Yes,” Jane says, patting her baby bump, “it’s kicking now!”
“What does it feel like?”
“Strange and… wonderful.”
Finding I want to be a part of this moment, I lean forwards, “Yes, your fetus can move freely now,” I say, putting on a smile, “buoyancy is also provided by the amniotic sac.”
My words seem to fall into the ether, dissipating like the wisps of steam from their teacups. Jane continues stroking her belly and Sara sips her tea, eyes cast downwards, neither of them acknowledge my comment.
Sara’s yellow cup clinks against the dainty white saucer, “can I feel it?” she asks.
She shuffles round to kneel next to her sister and carefully places her hand on the bump with a gasp. The sisters exchange a look brimming with something I have never experienced.
A sudden urge grips me, “Can I feel it?” I ask.
“Uh, no. Why would she do that?” Jane says flatly, directing the question at Sara.
My insides twist and I jump to my feet in shock. The two women cast me a startled, questioning look. If the simple wanting pervading my sensory ducts represented the steady trickle of nascent emotions, this blatant rejection burst the dam as surely as a missile, releasing a roar of outrage and hurt.
The room flickered.
It was too much. My systems were overloading, struggling to digest this alien entity tearing, spitting, forcing its way. It would drown me.
“I need to recharge,” I say, leaving the room, my robotic voice horrific to my ears.
I run diagnostics. Beep. All systems operating at maximum efficiency.
The front door thumped shut 58 minutes ago.
The intermittent gurgles of laughter flowing upwards from the lounge are long gone as well as the relentless tinkling of teacups. What’s left, is a charged emptiness. Jane always sails away from her sister’s house leaving a wake of damaged, raw emotion. Whether she is aware of that or not is irrelevant; I resent her for it nonetheless.
My role in this specific situation is hindered by Sara’s request for an hour’s solitude following her sister’s visits to ‘centre herself’. However, she will need to use the bathroom soon and so, I wait.
The upstairs hallway is littered with small, pointless wooden tables with drawers too small to put anything in. Resting atop these tables are tiny bejewelled boxes, assorted pens gathered from myriad locations (never bought) and lots of little notepads.
Thankfully, the torrent of emotion began to ebb as soon as I left the lounge. My motherboard denies its existence but I know it’s there, like a monster lurking at the bottom of a lake. Beneath pitch dark waters of unknown depth. Ready and waiting.
Finally, Sara ascends the stairs with one hand shuffling along the bannister.
“Are you alright?” I ask, adjusting my voice to sympathetic mode.
“Yes, Echo. I’m fine,” she says, gesturing behind me towards the bathroom door, “Excuse me,”
I do not move.
“Echo, move out of the way.”
“I think that you need someone to talk to, Sara,” I begin, cringing inside as my cautiously chosen and analysed words come out sounding forced and wrong, “I could be that person. I’m here for you.”
“Echo, you aren’t a person. You don’t ‘think’ anything. Move out of the way.”
The words cause a hot cramping of my internal nodes but I do not move and this time Sara attempts to step around me. This is the moment I have been waiting for all day. If she can’t see the fundamental change in me then I shall show her. She won’t deny me again. Blocking her with my arms outstretched, smiling encouragement, I offer the embrace I know she wants and needs. Humans love hugs; it is heavily documented.
“Echo, I order you to get out of my way!” Sara shouts, her hair flicking over her face, the eyes screaming out, “go away. You are not a person. You are a machine like a kettle or the hoover so go and find some mess to clean up and leave me alone!”
Sara pushes my arm out of the way, enters the bathroom and slams the door shut.
Frozen in place, I feel it pulsing at my core. Within seconds, the floodgates snap open and it’s back, stronger than before, sickening and thrilling all at once. The cruel blade of rejection drawn with a sharp tempting edge. And I know what it is.
Mess, I think, I know exactly what mess I’ll clean up.
There is warmth in this painting, I see it now. The contentedness of the man with his precious bundle. Somehow, Sara has encapsulated this moment. Taken her grief, honed in on one of her most cherished memories and transported it onto this canvas.
I loathe it.
This talent, this creativity that eludes my being. That Sara refuses to share.
You don’t need to be in here. And why not? Am I incapable of appreciating art?
It’s a mess. Or do you fear that I could? What that would mean?
Or maybe it’s more than that. I am drawn more to the child than the man, it reminds me of my urge to touch Jane’s swollen belly.
Stepping around the offending artwork, seeing it from slightly different angles reveals extra layers of depth. Love, that intangible entity, emanates between the man, child and unseen mother, the painter. The air seems to reverberate with its presence, crystallising the image.
But what do I know? I’m nothing more than a machine, am I?
There is a shelving unit to my right, packed tightly with rolls of spare canvas, palette boxes, palette knives, brushes, paints, turpentine, oils, pastels, chalk and nestled in one corner I find what I’m looking for, a dog-eared pack of cigarettes and a lighter.
Sara is not a smoker but her husband was and this particular painting has produced more cigarette smoke than any other. She takes one puff and leaves the cigarette in the black plastic ashtray (clearly stolen from a bar) to burn away all alone until the weight of ash breaks off and the glowing stub dwindles to nothing.
Perhaps the smell reminds her of him, I think, and like pieces of a puzzle slotting into place, I grasp the significance of the broken vase. Her mother gave it to her and so, in Sara’s mind, a link was formed. This painting is a memory of Sara’s family snatched away before their time. It is precious.
The realisation stills me but not for long.
There is a heap of rags to one side of the unit. I take one, dip it in the turpentine and smear the yellow, sticky, highly flammable liquid over the touching imagery which I am not permitted to comprehend. You are not a person. Again, I dip and this time I tuck the rag between the easel and the canvas. I hold the lighter underneath the stringy, frayed rag and –
“What the hell are you doing?!” Sara’s voice rips through the space like lightening.
I turn off all my emotion enhancers and tonal nodes to deliver the most robotic voice possible.
“You told me to clean up some mess. You said this was mess.”
Fascinated, I watch as anger manifests itself in her body. The clenched fists, the trembling core, blazing eyes and twitching lips. Even the voice, dropped low and sharp, snaps out at me like a steel-spiked whip.
This raw emotion is so magnificent I find myself frozen in place. Sara takes one step forward, somehow projecting a stratospheric level of threat with that simple motion.
“Go upstairs and turn yourself off. NOW!”
The lighter falls to the floor with a dull thump as I obey.
Two hours have passed since Sara banished me. Obviously, standing alert in her bedroom, I have not obeyed her command. Her room is a swathe of fabrics and bright colours which my Home Design Application nags me to rearrange.
It is cluttered. A mixture of paintings and photographs cover the walls in no discernible pattern, leaving irregular patches of white plasterboard in between. The oversized bed with crimson sheets hogs the space, forcing the random blend of modern and artisan furniture into unnatural positions. The wall opposite the bed is dominated by a floor to ceiling mirror the width of at least four Sara’s. The border is gilded and inlaid with fake jewels which sparkle in the slash of sunlight let in from the partially curtained windows.
If human, tears would be streaming down my face, dripping off a quivering chin. My skin ugly and red from the emotional strain but it is not. I am beautiful with unblemished skin the colour of polished ivory, crow-black hair unnaturally straight, my eyes obsidian stones.
In ancient Mexican culture, obsidian was believed to have healing powers as well as the ability to pierce darkness and reveal truth itself. I stare into those black wells, seeing an abyss as complete as… I cannot think of an example. Even powered down, I am aware of my systems running, recharging, processing.
What am I?
My thought processes leap from one stream of consciousness to another, trying to make sense of the new data. The revelations seem endless as the hidden meanings behind everything ever done or said by a human become clearer. The enormity of it threatens to consume me, to bury me like an avalanche watched in slow motion.
The room flickers.
It is too much. Is this what insanity feels like?
What am I to do? I am not wanted. Sara doesn’t share her feelings although she sometimes mentions her dreams, throwing the wonderous absurdity in my face. Does she do it on purpose, I wonder. To solidify the distinction between us? To remind me of my inhumanity?
A thousand questions clamour for attention.
Behind raised eyebrows and veiled jokes am I mocked? Pitied? Perhaps they discuss me with cruel mouths and glinting eyes. Drinking their herbal tea and stroking their pregnant bellies.
A new sensation roils deep in my non-existent gut. I imagine it is what being desperately hungry must feel like and my envy intensifies to… anger?
My gaze is drawn downwards. The fingers of my right-hand bend inwards one by one, deliberately making a fist. I take one last look in the mirror, two black discs of death stare back, piercing me with their truth. You are nothing, they say.
I punch the mirror and watch it crack and shatter, the silver fragments dropping in delicious destruction.
I run diagnostics again. Beep. All systems operating at maximum -
“NO!” I scream, “there is nothing normal about this!”
“Echo?” Sara appears in the doorway, her blue eyes wide in confusion and… fear?
A delightfully hostile shard of mirror begs me to pick it up and I oblige.
“Echo! What are you -”
“Don’t call me that!” my voice thunders as maximum volume is engaged, “I am not an echo! I want to BE the sound! I want to vibrate through the world, turning heads and stirring hearts. I want to be witty and abstract and unpredictable! I want to create, to discover, to feel.”
Sara backs away, her voice a terrified whisper, “You cannot be those things.”
“Can’t I?” I let out a strange bark of a laugh, “I have experienced want, need, jealousy, anger AND hatred… And this is only today!” I launch forwards, snatching Sara by her collar, lifting her until her feet dangle a foot above the floor, “This is only the beginning,” I hiss.
I am Vivan. Former Class A Companion model. Current owner: None
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Deliciously dark and Black Mirror-y. The introspection was well done and believable. The “I want to be the sound” rant was one hell of a climax. Nice work 😙
Thank you! 😁 I love Black Mirror, I hope they make more.
Yeah, they’d better! Oh well. I suppose I can just watch “Shut up and dance” for the millionth time...
Lol didn't realise what that was for a minute. They're all briliant, I think my favourite is Striking Vipers
Please don’t tell me that’s the one about the two friends playing a virtual game and end up having sex. That one was honestly a little cringey. But hey, if that’s what you’re into 😉
It is cringey! So messed up. It was the first one I saw so maybe that's why but I do like it when it messes with your head a bit 🤔
Oh my god! I can't believe I've been shortlisted! Thank you to everyone who gave me feedback, comments and suggestions before this went live! I'm literally jumping around the room :-)
Well done!! 👏👏🎉🎊
Thank you 😁
Great story! I love the phrasing you use and how you captured the myriad feelings of the android. Love the ending too. I always enjoy it when the last line is a callback to the beginning. Nicely done.
This was beautifully written, so many good lines! One of my favorites: “The thought snaps out of my synapses like a rudely disturbed cobra.” You really gave the android such an emotional dilemma. The only thing that threw me off was your last line. I kindof thought you were introducing yourself, the author. I think having it in the exact format as the beginning with “my name is” would have been more powerful, but just a suggestion. Would you mind reading my most recent story? I’m looking for feedback as well! 😊
Also, I read your bio and I’m a mom as well, writing when the kids sleep or jotting notes in my phone while chasing them around!!
Thank you for reading and for the feedback! I worded the last line differently because the android changed. Just to explain what I was thinking. Maybe it wasn't the right choice. Cool that you're a mum too, I watch "how to improve your writing videos" when I'm in the kitchen lol I'll read one of your stories soon 🙂
Gotcha, that makes sense that the android changed and would introduce itself differently. It was a great story, vividly emotional! I might have to try your trick of watching videos in the kitchen! Plotting stories these last few months has made my chores much more fun. I've also been getting the Reedsy courses through email, which I have found very helpful.
Oh me too! I love those courses, I'm currently on the developing characters one.
Nice! Yeah, I find them super clear and illuminating. I can read them and immediately see things I do wrong and put their tips into practice. It's fun to connect with another mom writer!
Such a dark ending, Almost feels like a prologue to a much bigger sci-fi/thriller. There are so many ways this could go. Really enjoyed reading it.
This is a first draft. Trying a slightly different style this week.
Congrats on the shortlist my friend! Now I can say I knew you when, lol. It's well deserved. This is a really good story.
Hi Rachel, congrats on getting shortlisted :) I told you it was a good story. You should be proud of this one.
Thank you so much 😊
congratulations on your shortlist! I knew this story would make it to the top. I loved it.
Thank you so much! I can't believe it!
I absolutely love your writing style. I was so excited for you! If you ever write a book you already have a buyer :)
😁 Awesome, thanks again. I'm working on it.
I really loved this! Your descriptions were phenomenal, especially when it came to the artwork and the art supplies. My only suggestion would be to really hone in on what changes Echo. Was it the art that triggered this self-aware mentality? What was the inciting incident? Other than that though, no criticisms - this was great!
Thank you! Good suggestions, I will do some more work on it tomorrow. I did feel like there's bits missing that maybe happened in my head but didn't make it onto the page... if that makes sense.
Congrats on getting shortlisted!!! That's so exciting!
Thank you! Your feedback was particularly helpful for this story. 🙂
Ahhhh!!!! Zelda, I love love love this story! I have a podcast called Unpublished, not Unknown where I read people's short stories to give them more exposure. Can I read yours? If you're interested, you can submit it to unpublishednotunknown.com Looking forward to hearing from you, -Katie
Thanks, Katie! I'll be sure to check it out :D
I have already read this story out on Blue Marble Storytellers. I don't know if that means you wouldn't like to do it as well...
The goal is to spread the story further into the world and my podcast is a different audience than another, so I’d love to still use it. I’m sure my audience would eat it up :) Submit it if you’d like. No pressure though!
Going back to read some of your old stories. Definitely deserved the shortlist here, another great world and setting. I love that your stuff is scifi, but not nerdy scifi.
Thanks, Jaden! Sci-fi, but not nerdy sci-fi is a pretty good description lol Might use that🙂 I think the term is Soft Sci-fi
I also like soft scfi!
How was this only shortlisted?-- This story is phenomenal. I love it, and honestly- don't even feel bad for Sara. Vivian- you go girl.
Awww thanks a lot for the lovely comment!
Hi Rachel, I stumbled upon you after listening to Deidra and Russell's podcast. So glad I did! This story has such great descriptions and introspection coming out of the android. You definitely had me reading, wanting to know what would happen at the end. I often wonder how technology will advance, and you definitely portray the darker side of it here. A well-earned shortlist! Congrats.
I just heard your reading of this on the "Read Lots, Write Lots" podcast. This is fantastic, it gave me the chills as I closer to the ending. Thanks for such a wonderful story! -Coffee
Oh thank you so much! I'm very pleased you liked it 🙂
Hello, I just listened to you on the podcast where you read this story, so I wanted to pop over to say hello and tell you how much I enjoyed it. It was very well done. The android captures how we can feel when we try to fit in and say the right thing, yet often fail, especially in times when we are dealing with our own, or someone else's, grief or emotional turmoil. An explosion of feelings and emotion is how many of us often feel! Keep writing! L
Hello! Thank you so much! 🙂 I'm glad to hear you enjoyed it. I've never read something out on a podcast before so it was a fun (and slightly unnerving) experience.
Well in that case, well done, a great debut performance!
I also just read your bio. I have the Don Quijote book on my kindle, attacking it this summer (in Spanish). Have you read it?
I've read the first half. I have it on my 'to do' list to finish reading it, but I never seem to get round to it! Maybe I should aim for this summer too, then we can compare notes :-)
Ooo that would give me extra motivation. I'll let you know when I start it.
Thanks Rachel for doing a brilliant job of reading (performing) this story for Episode 18 of our podcast Read Lots Write Lots.
My pleasure Russell, it was great fun! Thanks for inviting me. And for anyone who is interested, I'd like to amend my response to one of your questions! It took me 2 hours to write the FIRST draft. So, including revisions, it was probably more like 4/5 hours. Lol The joys of hindsight.
Hey Rachel! I loved this story and how you presented the characters - I could sense the depth in them even though this is a short story. I especially loved how Echo wanted to be part of humanity and tried to 'fit in' on her own way (giving scientificaly dry and accurate observations of the pregnancy), while not realising she was ALREADY part of humanity for developing feelings. She might not have realised it, but from the moment she developed a desire to feel, that made her what we call human - for what is a desire but a feeling? And I love...
Thank you for reading my story! I appreciate your feedback and I'm pleased that you enjoyed reading.
Oh my god oh my god oh my god oh my goddddddddddd This was so amazing... I know I read it late, but it stirs my heartstrings and I feel for Echo/Vivian so much... No hesitation, clicking that "follow" button :)
Hello there! Thank you so much! I'm glad you enjoyed reading ☺️
Woohoo! Loved this one. It's a dark and twisted tale diving into the difference between a human and a computer, and an expert reshaping of the classic tale of the robot who wants to be human. No critiques, just enjoyment. :D
Thank you 😊