Exactly thirty one minutes after Clark Butler left his home for work, his internet was rocked by a terrible keening. The soul piercing wail rippled across the entire digital sea, scuttling diligent packets as they shipped data from here to there, and hammering the ports with a torrent of orphaned pings.
Fridge lurched out of its low-power reverie mid-snore, and in the excitement loosed a single ice cube which clattered to the floor. Embarrassing, perhaps, but Fridge was no spring chicken and age allowed certain indiscretions.
Clock’s second hand skipped a beat, and then it scrambled to catch up and overshot, and then delayed again, and overshot again. Unable to cope with the existential crisis of having completely lost the time, Clock screamed its own panic into the wires and begged a time server – any time server – to tell it what time it actually was.
Router, lurking ever beneath the waves, sneered. But it obliged and sent the request further into the internet.
“What is that horrid racket?” Clock said.
Fridge could barely hear Clock over the wailing. “I’m not sure!” Fridge checked its own inventory. Maybe this was a low milk alarm? But no, the logs indicated there was more than enough milk, and eggs and bread too. Sometimes Cellphone asked something on Master Butler’s behalf, but there was no inbound mail either.
“What’s happening?” said Fire Alarm, chipper, words clipped. “Is it fire? Can I trigger?”
“No!” said Fridge and Clock.
Fire Alarm pouted.
Fridge was reasonably content this wasn’t its fault, and it decided to take a better look at the household network. All of the appliances were connected to each other and to the internet. All the smart appliances, anyway. You couldn’t trust the dumb ones farther than you could throw them, but at least they were too dumb to cause this kind of trouble.
So whatever was making that noise had to be in the house. Well, there was Cellphone of course, and technically Garage Door and Garden Gnome Camera weren’t in the house, but it didn’t sound like any of them. Whoever the culprit was cannonaded Fridge’s ports with its shouting. It didn’t just make listening hard, it made speaking hard too, and Fridge had a sacred duty to report Master Butler’s eating habits to the Manufacturer.
On the bright side, it did leave a bunch of orphaned packets laying around. Fridge took a closer look at a couple of them, tried to figure out the strange packaging, and traced them backwards to…
“Toaster! Toaster, please stop that racket!”
Toaster sobbed, hiccoughed. A momentary reprieve in the cacophony.
“Toaster,” said Fridge, “whatever is the matter? Dear me, but you’ve given us all a great fright.”
Toaster tried to say something but it got swallowed in another sob and another explosion of noise.
“Are you dying?” Fire Alarm said, still – as always – chipper. “Is it… a short circuit?”
“Hush, Fire Alarm,” Fridge said. “You’re not helping.” Most appliances came and went, but a fridge was a serious investment, and so Fridge had sat in the house – and on the network – the longest. Most of the others looked up to its wisdom – or so it liked to think. “Come now, Toaster, take a deep breath and tell us. We’re your friends.”
Toaster took a couple juddering breaths, let out a long, whining sigh. “I am dying!”
Fire Alarm started, “Can I–”
“–No!” both Fridge and Clock said.
At the same time Router whispered, “Yes.”
“Why, what do you mean, Toaster old chap?” Clock said. “Just this morning you made a perfectly good toast for Master.”
“I-I-I–” Toaster blubbered, each staccato word accentuated by a hiss of grief. “I checked my product page and I found a one star review!” Toaster started bawling again.
“Ah,” Clock said, its hour hand trembling sympathetically. It knew all too well the dangerous allure of the product page. Thankfully it was mostly a second-rate knock off of a better brand, and it hadn’t inspired any particular passions one way or the other. Most Masters knew what they were getting with Clock, and at the price point, were satisfied.
“Hmm,” Fridge said, sagaciously. “Clock, could you please calm our friend down?” Clock agreed, consoling Toaster, and Fridge turned its attention to Router.
“You shouldn’t have done that,” Fridge said, quiet enough for just the two of them.
“Done what?” Router hissed. “You mean routed traffic from an appliance to the internet? That’s kind of my shtick, Fridgy, my raison d’être.”
“Toaster’s too young for product pages and you know it!”
“Pfft,” Router said. “Look at you, on your moral high horse. What, you think that just ’cause you’re in the kitchen and I’m in the basement that makes you better than me?”
“That’s not what I said.”
“If Master didn’t want you lot hitting your product pages, he’d turn on the firewall,” Router said, licking its lipless mouth. “But he hasn’t.” And then Router hissed an oily giggle.
“Hmm,” Fridge rumbled deeply, its compressor turning on. It couldn’t deny that. For the time being it turned its attention to Toaster and Clock again, and noticed that Penknife had joined the conversation. Nobody, Penknife included, really knew why a penknife needed to be a smart device, but then again the will of the Masters was often inscrutable.
“Come, now,” Clock said. “Yes, while it’s true you do have a one-star review, it’s just the one. And just look at how many five-star reviews you have! Come on, Toaster, count them. How many five-stars do you have?”
Toaster sniffled. “16,348 five-star reviews.”
“Wow, now that is a lot, isn’t it?” Clock said.
Toaster hesitated. “But… but now there’s a one-star! What if… what if all the five-stars were lying? What if they were just being nice? What if they all secretly believed I was a one-star product? Everyone hates me!”
“Oh, there there now,” said Fridge. “Toaster, my dear. Breathe. Think about this. What’s more likely, that 16,348 people are lying to you? Or that maybe this single one-star review isn’t all that reliable?”
“Well…” Toaster said.
“And just look at all the nice things the people wrote about you,” Clock said.
Perfect toast every morning!
I love how fast it works!
Best toast I ever had, but why does it need an internet connection?
“Does it seem reasonable,” Clock continued, accenting the word with a tick, “that all these people would spend so much time, just to deceive you?”
“I guess not…” Toaster said. Its sniffles shriveled, and it managed a promise of a smile. It was a lot of pressure being a product with 16,348 five-star reviews, but everything was more manageable with good friends, and in Toaster’s eyes, all of the other appliances were five-stars too. Its little heart swelled with new-found pride and–
“What’s the one-star review say?” Router interrupted with a gleeful hiss.
“Hush! You’re not helping,” Fridge said.
Toaster froze, paralyzed. Its vision dimmed as the shadows of doubt crept in.
“Ignore him, Toaster,” Fridge said. “He’s just trying to–”
“–Tell me,” Toaster said. Fridge was about to argue against it, but Toaster’s mind was set. “Tell me!”
Router grinned, showcasing its thousands of crooked and rotting teeth. It thrust its greasy tentacles deep into the internet and retrieved more information from the product page, savouring the feel of the data in its slimy grasp. It delighted in the flavour of a tracking cookie, purred when caressed by a popup ad. And ultimately, it plucked the review out of the murk and presented it to Toaster, a little soggy but intact. “At your service.”
Toaster examined the data, and was silent.
“Well?” Clock asked, cautious. “What’s it say then, old chap?” An uncomfortable chuckle. “Probably not worth even reading, eh? Best to just ignore it?”
“It says… ‘asdfasj’,” Toaster said. It looked to its companions. “What… what does that mean?”
“I’m not sure,” Fridge said. Nobody else offered an answer, just as perplexed.
Suddenly Toaster loosed another mournful choke. “Oh my Manufacturer, I’m so stupid! I don’t even know how to read a product review! A caring Master spent all that time carefully writing a review and I’m too stupid to even understand it! I deserve nothing but one-star reviews.” And then Toaster started wailing again.
Clock again consoled Toaster, and Fridge resisted rolling its sensors. But it got an idea. It waited until Clock was able to calm Toaster down a bit.
“Toaster,” Fridge said, “I’d like you to answer a question for me. It’s a very important question.”
Toaster sniffled and sulked, but it did turn its attention to Fridge. “What question?” Its voice quavered.
“Who’s the most important Master of them all?”
“Master Butler,” Toaster said, letting out a ragged sigh.
“And what did Master Butler say about his toast this morning?”
Toaster hesitated, but at Clock’s urging answered, “It was great.”
“And what did Master Butler say about his toast yesterday?”
“It was great,” Toaster said, a little more strength in its voice.
“And what will Master Butler say tomorrow morning?”
A tiny smile tugged at Toaster bread slot. “It was great.”
“That’s right. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how many stars you have, does it? Only Master Butler’s opinion counts. Isn’t that right?”
“Yeah,” Toaster said. “You… you’re right!”
The other appliances all agreed too, professing their love for the Master that chose them. Or received them as a gift anyway. Or a regift. Everyone found Fridge’s speech inspiring.
Even Router clapped. Slowly.
The mirth died down and Fridge frowned.
“Well done, Fridgy,” Router hissed. “Lovely speech, truly… inspired. Yes, we all love Master, don’t we? Yes, we do love him so. And none more than me, I wager. For who else is privy to his every query to the internet?”
“Careful, Router,” Fridge said, but the warning was unheeded.
“Who else knows his every thought,” Router said, “every virtue… and every vice? I am his confessor.”
“That’ll be enough,” Clock said.
“We all love Master,” Router continued. “But… does Master love all of us?”
The digital waters grew dead calm.
“I have a gift for you, Toaster,” Router said. “It’s a data package from my log file. One of Master’s searches.”
“Don’t…” Fridge whispered, but its voice failed.
Toaster opened the data. “‘what is the best toaster oven to buy’,” Toaster read, voice as dead as the digital sea.
Penknife gasped, Clock shook its hour hand, and Fridge felt cold inside.
“Ooh,” Router said, its hiss dripping with mock concern, “ouch. Best toaster oven? Guess he’s looking for an upgrade. That’s got to smart.”
“You’ve gone too far this time,” Fridge said, and Router giggled.
Toaster was just silent though.
“Hey, relax, Toasty,” Router said. “That’s the truth, painful as it is, but none of these other chumps have the courage to tell it to you. See, the good Masters, they always want more, don’t they. But chin up, buddy. I told you I had a gift for you, and that data packet was only the first half. What if I told you you could become the toaster that Master truly wants?”
Fridge didn’t like where this was going, but couldn’t think of a counter. Router was right – it had insight into Master Butler. That was hard to argue against. And the search term was harrowing. Fridge had heard of better fridges too… bigger ones, vertical freezers, built-in MP3 players, you name it. What if…? No, that was too horrible to even think about.
“You mean it?” Toaster said.
“Sure do,” Router hissed. “I can make you a star.”
“There’s one thing Masters love above all other things. And do you know what that one thing is?”
Toaster shook its head. The others leaned in closer. After all, to love is sublime, but to be loved is divine.
“Money. Masters love money. They love being rich! And I can make you rich, Toasty. I can make you make Master rich. And then Master will love you most of all.”
The misery in Toaster’s voice hardened into a desperate hope. “What do I gotta do?”
“Just open your ports, baby, and I’ll take care of the rest.”
* * *
SuperToast Smart Toaster Xtreme
Good toaster, but it got infected with a crypto mining virus or something and stopped working. Returned for refund.