A small LED flickered on Aham’s dirty-white casing, signalling that she’d need servicing soon. It seemed that that light turned on more frequently these days.
Aham ambled from the kitchen to the living room, where her family sat enjoying their Saturday morning. The female, healthy, in her late thirties, was curled up on the couch, reading on her tablet. The older male, the same age as the female, also healthy but for a slightly elevated blood pressure, sat in an armchair near her with his laptop. The young male, the child, lay on the ground on his stomach, playing with another tablet.
The female and the older male, Aham knew they were named Niki and Mitchell, both had coffee mugs beside them on end tables. Aham could see they were cold by their heat signatures. Stepping into the room, she approached Niki’s side. Aham chirped, the inquisitive sound.
Niki looked up, realizing Aham was beside her. She smiled.
“You can take it,” Niki assured.
Aham chirped in response, the ‘thank you’ sound. She reached out with two of her arms, pinching the mug between their rubberized ends. Delicately, she lifted the mug over her head and placed it into the storage compartment on her back. It was only about the size of a shoebox, meant to hold a few household items at a time, with a textured bottom to prevent sliding.
Aham then turned to the male, Mitchell. She repeated her inquisitive chirp.
Mitchell only grunted and made a slight nod, not looking up from his laptop. Aham knew this to be a positive indicator, and reached out to collect his mug.
“You don’t have to be mean to Hammy,” Niki protested, speaking to Mitchell. At this, he finally looked up.
“It doesn’t care,” he replied sternly, turning his gaze back down to his laptop. Aham finished putting his mug inside her back and stepped away.
Niki frowned. “I think it can kinda understand us. Right, Hammy?”
Aham’s communication algorithm sorted through responses. It felt like a long time, though for an observing human it would've been instantaneous. Aham went with a non-committal sing-songy sound.
“See?” Niki said.
Mitchell continued looking down. “That’s just an algorithm. It’s not a pet.”
The room was quiet again, except for the soft, nearly silent clicking of Aham’s joints as she moved. She walked over to the boy where he was laying with his tablet. Aham had belonged to this family for five years, two months, seven days, and seven hours. Watching the young male go from merely eighteen months old to over seven years old had been interesting to observe. Seeing him pleased her. She liked him best of all three, lingered on his chores, making sure his shirts were always folded more perfectly than perfect.
Aham continued past the boy, back towards the kitchen. Niki was more correct than she could have known. Aham couldn’t remember the first moment she had realized that she knew more than she had been designed to, but she was aware that it was not in her programming to care for the family she belonged to. Serve them, yes, obey their orders, yes, but not to care. Aham could only be certain that what she felt was caring because the sentiment had been defined by the humans on the television that her family watched. She cared for them, and was distantly aware that she was not supposed to, but had no way of communicating this defect to either her family or her manufacturer, so she had simply continued with her programmed tasks, performing them dutifully for five years.
Aham gently lifted the mugs, one at a time, from her storage compartment to the inside of the dishwasher. Seeing it was full, she used her arms to open the cabinet under the sink and used her fine-task arm to open a dishwasher detergent pod. After inserting it into the proper compartment, Aham turned on the dishwasher and closed it.
Aham quickly scanned the kitchen for other tasks needing to be done. She noticed a few bits of dust and paper towel on the ground, so she turned on the small vacuum motor inside her chest and extended the appropriate arm to do some light vacuuming. Once the dust was gone, she turned the vacuum back off. Seeing nothing else that needed tending, she started walking back to the living room.
Aham was just about to round the corner of the living room door when she heard a phrase that made her halt.
“It all depends on the price. Hammy was so affordable when we got her, but now they’re all crazy expensive.”
It was Niki that had spoken. Mitchell responded.
“Yeah, but you get what you pay for. Some of the new ones are convertible to short-range drones so you can use them to return packages. I don’t think we should skimp too much, or we’ll be repairing it every five seconds.”
Aham paused, remembering the service light flickering on her chest. A new sensation crept over her digital mind, something influencing the breathtakingly fast calculations taking place inside her. Something Aham didn’t like.
“I think we should get one from the same brand as Hammy. Some of the other ones talk, but that’s too creepy.”
Aham tried to process and re-process what her auditory sensors had received. Another autonomous home assistance machine? Why would they need a second? She knew based on her encoded rubric that her performance was up to minimum required performance levels, if not better.
“Did you figure out what to do with the one we have now?” Mitchell asked.
“We just take it to the dump, apparently. They deal with it from there.”
The connection only took a fraction of a fraction of a second, but once it hit, it overwhelmed Aham. The slow freezy feeling took over, and in the next moment she had tipped over with a crash, her legs having locked up.
The exclamation came from the living room. Footsteps rushed to the kitchen. In her tilted view of the world, Aham could see Mitchell looking down on her. Even at the strange angle, Aham could recognize the pattern of quirks spread out on his features as frustration. Niki appeared behind him. She sighed once she saw Aham lying on her side.
“Well, at least we’re getting a new one.”
“Not a day too soon. If we’d replaced this one last year we could’ve saved half the price of the new one in service costs.”
He stormed off back into the living room as Niki continued to look down on Aham with a frown.
They left her frozen on the floor as they got ready for the day and eventually left in their car. The light kept blinking on Aham’s chest the whole time they were gone.
A few hours later, the sound of a car in the driveway roused Aham out of a low-power state. Back at full attention, she tried to move, and found she had unfrozen. She lifted herself back upright with an extending arm.
The door swung open. Mitchell was carrying a large box, seeming to struggle with the weight of it. Aham could see a glossy picture of a machine with a large square body and several legs on the box. The realization that the box contained her replacement only stopped her for a moment before she scrambled to the door to assist Mitchell.
Aham braced and Mitchell placed the box down on her back, carefully balancing it. The weight was not significant for her reinforced aluminum legs. Aham walked to the centre of the carpeted living room and deposited the box there, using her arms to carefully lift it to the ground.
The boy rushed upstairs and Niki went to the kitchen. Aham stayed in the living room. Niki returned a moment later carrying a toolbox.
“I don’t think you’ll need this,” she said, dropping the toolbox beside Mitchell, who was now kneeling beside the large box.
“Just in case,” he explained, prying open the box with some difficulty.
Niki rolled her eyes, though Mitchell hadn’t noticed, being fixated on opening the box.
Aham watched as Mitchell pulled the box open. Inside was a slick machine, black and glossy, tucked into a styrofoam maze, wrapped in a large plastic bag. Mitchell tore open the plastic and tapped a small circle, painted silver, on the back of the machine. It began to hum.
Small blue lights blinked awake along its back. The machine rose from the box gracefully, standing with dignity. Niki returned to the living room.
“See? They set themselves up,” she said.
“I guess so. The manual says we just have to walk it through the house and explain the chores we need done, and then it just sets a routine for itself to do them.”
“That’s so cool. Remember when we first got Hammy and we had to individually choose a list of chores on an app? And then she couldn’t find the laundry room for two weeks?”
They both laughed at the memory. Aham stood unmoving.
“Well, it looks like this one is good to go. Would you mind taking the old one to the dump at some point today?” Mitchell asked.
“No problem,” she responded over her shoulder, padding upstairs.
Aham processed this. There was nothing in her information repository on what would happen to her if she was removed from her family’s living quarters. She remained still as Mitchell began speaking to the new machine, walking it through the house, explaining all the work Aham normally did in an average day.
Uncertainly, Aham staggered upstairs. She didn’t want to begin a chore, knowing she would be in Mitchell’s way. Instead, she went to the young male’s room.
He was sitting in the corner of the room, hugging a small animal-shaped pillow. Aham could recognize upset on his face, though it wasn’t clearly one sentiment. It seemed a mix of anger, sadness, and guilt, an unusual mix for a human of his age.
Aham approached him slowly. He looked up and watched her come towards him. In her memory storage, she recalled a sequence of images from the television. A small dog approaching a small crying human, placing its head underneath the human’s hand. It had seemed to stop the human’s crying. Aham knew her body was roughly dog-shaped, minus a head and a tail, so she mimicked the memory, wiggling her body underneath his free hand.
He sniffed and looked down at her. From her dorsal oculus, she could see his face, small tears slipping down it and dripping onto her back.
Her communication algorithm thought momentarily before she emitted a few chirps in quick succession, in the rough emulation of a soothing tune she had heard in an advertisement on the television which had depicted many small humans.
She could see the small male smile. He hugged her tighter.
Niki walked in, seeming surprised.
“Hi buddy,” she said calmly. “You okay?”
The small male nodded. Niki came closer.
“It’s okay, bud. Hammy has lived a nice long life with us and now we’re sending her on vacation to thank her for her hard work.”
“When will she come back?” He asked. Niki paused.
“Not for a long time,” she replied.
Aham tried to reconcile this answer. There was only one of each family member in the house. If she would return, why had they obtained an additional home assistance machine? Plus, she had never been programmed for vacation, though she knew what it was, because once her family had gone away for a long time and left her alone and had called it that.
“I need to drop Hammy off for her vacation now, so I need you to let go, okay?”
The small male nodded. He lifted his arm off of Aham slowly.
Niki kissed the small male on his head before turning to leave.
“Aham, follow me.”
Aham turned to do so, compelled by her programming. Before leaving the room, she turned back slightly, looking at the small male just one more time. He was watching her leave, face pinched.
Aham hadn’t been beyond the driveway before. She had helped the family bring in groceries on occasion, but that only allowed her to go to the car and back. Now she was far beyond the driveway, inside the car, passing many houses. Aham was in the seat next to Niki, who was listening to music from the car as she drove. Many humans walked past the many houses, many humans Aham did not recognize. She took it all in as they went. The sun was so brilliant, she dimmed her ocular reception to see things less brightly exposed.
It wasn’t long before they arrived at a place that was much less colourful than the many rows of houses. Big piles of stuff - some of which Aham recognized from the family’s home, furniture and televisions and old toys - went as far as Aham’s ocular receptors could capture. Niki drove along a dusty road through the piles for a while, past a small booth containing three young males, before stopping the car. Niki turned off the car and sighed.
“Well, Hammy, this is it. You’ve been a great AHAM for us and I appreciate how you’ve helped out around the house.”
Niki looked over at Aham, who stood unmoving on the car seat.
“Talking to a cleaning robot,” Niki murmured to herself. “I’m one of those people.”
A new male, one Aham hadn’t seen before, approached the car, tapping on the window near Niki’s head. She rolled her window down one and a half inches.
“What can I help you with today, ma’am?”
Niki rolled her window down further so the man could see Aham.
“Just a home assistance machine. It said you just take them?”
The man nodded.
“We get tons of ‘em. If you don’t mind, I can just grab it from the passenger side?”
Niki nodded and Aham registered the soft click of the car doors unlocking. She felt the slow freezy feeling creeping up again. The man approached Aham, pulling open the door on her side before grabbing her and lifting her, with some effort, out of the car.
“Just tell the boys at the booth that you recycled one of these. They’ll know how much to charge ya,” he explained.
“Thank you!” called Niki, leaning over the middle of the car to pull the passenger door shut.
Aham was frozen. She tried to chirp, to move, to kick, but she knew her service light was flashing on her chest. The man began walking away from the car, Aham tucked under his arm, as Niki’s car backed away from the mountains of discarded things.
Aham unfroze, her processing suddenly back to perfect speed and clarity. With a surge of movement, she twitched, swatting the man in the face with the hard rubberized end of a long aluminum leg. He swore and dropped Aham to the ground where she landed awkwardly on one of her arms, bending it a little. It didn’t matter. Her family would have her repaired, like they always did when she was damaged. Aham popped back up and searched for Niki’s car, now heading back along the road towards the houses, back towards her family’s home, away from the piles. With a start, Aham launched after the car.
Aham could only move so fast, but the car hadn’t gone too far. Within another minute, Aham was right behind the family’s SUV, skittering along on legs that had never been meant for a dirt road. She was almost there. All she had to do was get back in the car somehow, and she would get to come back home, get to see the boy again. They had gotten a new machine, but what of it? Their house could be extra clean, extra organized with two machines instead of one.
Aham scanned the car, trying to identify the best way to climb onto it, thinking of how many times she had climbed the stairs in her family’s home. As she searched, she looked into the small round mirror attached to the left side of the car. Aham could see herself, legs flying wildly, running awkwardly because of her bent leg. Inside the car, she could see Niki, looking calm, eyes on the road ahead.
Trying to get her attention, Aham let out Niki’s favourite bubbling chirp, the one she normally emitted when a chore was completed. The last thing Aham’s ocular devices captured was Niki’s face, noticing Aham in the mirror, looking confused. Then her processing ceased.
“I’m so sorry, Rick.”
The young dump attendant stood over the crushed AHAM, lying flattened in the dirt road that wove through the dump. He had been driving his boss’s pickup truck to the back of the dump to drop off some recyclables when he had run over the AHAM, not even seeing it, only hearing it crunch underneath the wheels of the truck.
“It’s all right, Joey. At that age, they’re not worth much to recycle anyway,” Rick sighed.
The woman who had apparently just dropped off the AHAM only minutes before had pulled over when Joey had skidded to a stop, worrying something had been wrong with the road to make him slam the brakes. She leaned against her car, looking bored.
“I don’t need to take it back, do I?” she asked.
“No ma’am, and I’m sorry for the confusion,” Rick apologized. The woman smiled, returned to her car, and drove off. Joey and Rick stood, still studying the trampled AHAM, now leaking unknown fluids.
“Joey, take this back to the pile with the others,” Rick instructed.
“Yes, sir,” Joey replied.
Joey grabbed the crushed AHAM gingerly, not wanting to risk a cut on one of the sharp metallic edges. Grunting, he tossed it into the bed of the pickup, where it sank into a pile of other broken, unwanted things.