-Story by Mark Salzwedel–
Claudia sits on the porch swing watching the evening rush-hour cars zip past. She can only see a narrow strip of the highway between the two willow trees in the front yard. The gentle evening breeze is redolent with the fragrance of four o’clocks and peonies. The sun casts long shadows from the willows over the three-rail horse fence in the side yard. Once or twice an hour, a horse-drawn carriage passes, and one of her Amish neighbors waves at her on their way home from the market in the village. She nods and smiles and tries to remember the man’s name. Frank would have remembered. If Frank were there, the man would have pulled into their long gravel drive just to say hello to him. Frank knows all of the Amish farmers. It is his job to check their cattle and horses. She tries to remember where Frank has gone, but she can’t, so she assumes he is either at work or getting groceries and light bulbs and will be back soon.
Seeforyuex comes to a rest between the two rose-colored tiles on the kitchen floor where it knows it can access the tray, cup, water, and medications without needing to inefficiently reposition itself. It has learned that these particular coordinates save an average of 8.5 seconds and 1.8 joules of energy over centering itself at each of three locations. It tests to make sure its grip is secure before lifting the tray off the counter and rolling out through the swinging screen door to the porch where C. Fleischman is sitting on the porch swing. It sets the tray down on a wicker end table it had previously positioned specifically for this purpose. The table is far enough to avoid collision with the maximum observed arc of her swings (approximately fifteen degrees) and close enough for her to lean forward without rising and obtain the water and medications on the tray.
“Is it that time again already?” Claudia asks the autonomous palliative care robot without looking at it. Most of the time now, she remembers that Frank bought them a brand new model C4UX at the robot center in Madison. She glances over at the robot and then at the serving tray with the cup of water and the four pills. The fact that the water in the cup is always at the same level and the pills are always arranged in the same pattern is comforting to her, and she smiles. “Thank you.”
“You are welcome, Mrs. Fleischman,” Seeforyuex says. “Do you remember why I am here?”
She chuckles. “Yes, I have gotten used to seeing you around.” She leans forward and picks up the cup and all four pills to start swallowing. In the process, the porch swing gently bumps the wicker table, so Seeforyuex adjusts its position approximately 3.5 centimeters closer to the porch railing.
The breeze becomes stronger, and it blows Claudia’s hair out of place. Seeforyuex halts its subroutine for replacing the strands, because that action is tagged with “Don’t be so fussy!” It observes C. Fleischman relatively calm with the corners of her mouth drawn up in the initial gesture of smiling, so it verifies the application of the tag and waits. It notes that waiting for a new request continues for thirty-eight minutes before the “Stop your lurking!” tag is activated, and it must withdraw to an adjacent room.
In the process of doing its nightly diagnostics in the second bedroom during recharging, Seeforyuex adds an additional subroutine it calls “upgrades.” It places an old data stub in the subroutine’s library to avoid the inefficient request for a third claw arm. The cost-benefit ratio is unacceptable. In reviewing unmet needs and incompleted actions over the past week, it tags learning the biographical information of the occupants of neighboring farms. In initial simulations, the cost-benefit ratio is acceptable.
The subroutine is interrupted by a loud (≥110 decibels) cry from C. Fleischman’s bedroom. There are no tags on responding at that volume level, so Seeforyuex rolls into the bedroom to investigate.
“Frank? Where is Frank? He should be home by now!” Claudia moans as the robot quietly rolls up beside her bed. She remembers clearly that he was lying beside her in the queen-size four-poster they share, but he seems to have gotten up and not come back to bed. She feels mild panic and worry that something has happened to him.
Seeforyuex chooses memory enhancement response three. “Mr. Frank Fleischman died of cardiopulmonary arrest four years, two months, and thirteen days ago. The heart attack was diagnosed as a complication of a lightning strike Mr. Fleischman received approximately five years, eleven months, and two days ago. You are suffering from mixed dementia, which frequently causes you confusion and short-term memory losses that may extend to a maximum observed value of five years.”
Claudia moans again and reaches for the lamp on her bedside table. Before she can turn it on though, the robot softly whirs and blinks, and the lamp comes on. She looks up at the robot. It is shaped like a small water heater on wheels. A 3D holographic projection of a friendly, smiling blond man in his forties looks down at her from the top of the cylinder. The access panel in its belly is blinking slowly in greens and yellows, and the speaker there is playing “Adagio for Strings” by Samuel Barber. Its left claw arm extends to the shelf and then offers her a tissue. She takes it and dabs at the tears welling up in her eyes as she remembers getting the news, visiting Frank in the hospital, seeing the constellations of spider-like scars on his skin, getting him a hearing aid, and buying the robot when the cataracts started forming. She remembers the neighbors arriving with flowers and wearing all black. She alternated between crying and weeping for days repeating over and over to herself, “The love of my life is gone!”
Seeforyuex waits motionless and silent except for the music until she collapses back into her pillows and starts to pull the covers back up to her chin. Then it turns off the bedside lamp and rolls back into its own bedroom to continue recharging and running diagnostics. It leaves the Adagio playing until it is over.
In the morning, Claudia does not remember the sorrow and loss of the previous night. She sits at the breakfast table in the pantry eating the eggs and toast the robot prepared. She halts the robot in its recitation of the day’s headlines. She doesn’t want to hear about oxygen shortages at the moon colony, who walked out of the asteroid and undersea settlement accords, and which VRtube star just recovered from gene therapy for enhanced sexual organs. It is a sunny, summer day, and she has to weed the garden and feed and brush the horses before Frank arrives home at dusk.
Seeforyuex disposes of the food remnants and rinses the dishware and utensils and stacks them on the counter awaiting the critical mass sanitization threshold. C. Fleischman is already outside with trowel in hand by the time it extends its articulated legs to tromp down the front steps and wheel over to the garden.
“I guess those weedkiller spikes are doing the job,” Claudia comments as she surveys the neat rows of tomato plants before her. She scoots to the side and notes that the cauliflower and peas seem similarly free of weeds. “It’s hard to believe there aren’t some weeds though.”
Seeforyuex chooses memory enhancement response one. “You completed the extraction of weeds yesterday, Mrs. Fleischman. New sprouts are unlikely to appear for the next three days.”
“Yesterday? Hmm.” She sets the trowel down on the grass next to the garden and adjusts the Panama hat she wears outside when Frank forgets to take it to work. “I guess I will move on to brushing and feeding the horses.” She rises to her feet and ambles toward the saltbox barn behind the farmhouse.
Seeforyuex rolls in pursuit of C. Fleischman as it reviews a tag preempting a memory enhancement response. It decides that the five-minute ban on a second memory enhancement response should apply here as well. Ignoring the response followed by delayed emotional distress has an 85.5% likelihood. Non-critical physical assault on it carries a five percent likelihood. Immediate panic response has an eight percent likelihood.
Claudia is standing in the doorway to the barn looking in when the robot arrives. At first, she tries to remember why the two horses are not in their stall. Did Frank take them to work for some reason? The horse trailer is gone. Perhaps they escaped? She turns to face the robot. “Can you help me find the horses? It appears they’ve gotten loose. Unless Frank let them out in the pasture before he left this morning. I haven’t checked the pasture.”
Seeforyuex observes C. Fleischman’s agitated state and, because there is still four minutes and five seconds left before the next memory enhancement response is allowed, it improvises. It modifies memory enhancement response one. “The horses are not in the pasture.”
She stops and turns back toward the robot. “Did you see Frank take them somewhere?”
“No, I did not,” Seeforyuex replies. Its holographic head looks frustrated—almost like it is losing patience. Three minutes, twenty-two seconds left.
Claudia gazes down the long gravel driveway toward the highway. She renews her fear that the horses have escaped their stall in the barn and might get hit by traffic on the highway. She trudges past the robot determined to locate them.
“Where are you going?” Seeforyuex inquires.
“To look for the horses,” she calls over her shoulder. Tears are welling up in her eyes again.
Two minutes, forty seconds left. For only the second time since its initial activation, Seeforyuex resorts to misdirection, a white lie. “I will search for you, Mrs. Fleischman. Your morning serial on VRtube is about to start. I don’t want you to miss it.”
“Oh,” Claudia says as she gradually comes to a halt about five meters away. “I would rather not miss my serial. Thank you.”
“You are welcome, Mrs. Fleischman,” Seeforyuex says. It watches her wander back inside the farmhouse.
It rolls down to the end of the driveway about one meter from the highway. It looks both directions down the highway and validates that it has completed searching for the two horses that were sold to a couple from New Glarus four years ago. It moves the completed strategy up in priority so that it becomes memory enhancement response five, or deception.
After dinner that night, as the robot is washing the dishes, Claudia quietly steals into the living room. She decides not to put on the bulky VR headset tonight. She turns on the display wall and increases the volume so she can sit in her favorite chair. The local movie channel in Spring Green has pretty tame fare, which she decides is okay for tonight. A film she had enjoyed as a child, Mrs. Doubtfire, has just begun. Robin Williams hasn’t started dressing in drag yet. She rearranges the cushions and pillows to settle further back in the chair and prepares for a luxurious two hours of uninterrupted entertainment. Her serial only lasts for twenty minutes each day.
Near the midpoint of the movie, Claudia notices the robot in the doorway to the living room. “I don’t need anything right now,” she calls out preemptively.
“What is going on in the story you are watching, Mrs. Fleischman?” The hologram at the top of its casing is not on.
Claudia explains the plot about a man who spends time with his children by deceiving them and his estranged wife. “He pretends to be another person,” she concludes.
“Will they not be angry when they find out they have been deceived?” the robot asks.
“One can be forgiven, if one’s heart is in the right place,” Claudia replies. She instantly thinks that her answer is not literal enough for the robot. “When someone . . .”
“No additional clarification is necessary, Mrs. Fleischman. I understand your idiom. ‘Heart in the right place’ is equivalent to having ‘laudable motives.’”
“Uh-huh,” Claudia acknowledges. She hopes that the robot will not have any more questions for her.
The robot silently collects data until the movie is over.
C. Fleischman often sleeps within two hours of finishing her lunch, Seeforyuex remembers. It designates that time for research in service of a new initiative. On the first day, it contacts the robot center in Madison to request a software upgrade that will allow it to emulate a recorded voice. On the second day, as C. Fleischman naps, Seeforyuex reviews home-produced videos of Mr. and Mrs. Fleischman together before the lightning strike that compromised his health. That evening, the software upgrade arrives, and Seeforyuex downloads it while it recharges.
On the third day, it tests the emulation software, and after cleaning its speakers, the direct repetition in various speakers’ voices works with 99.8% accuracy. It starts compiling its own program for breaking speakers’ voices into phrases, words, and phonemes and then rearranging them into novel sentences. It is able to successfully mimic Mr. Fleischman’s voice for some basic phrases.
On the fourth day, Seeforyuex broadens its search to include interviews and addresses Mr. Fleischman made. At this point, it has most of the sounds it needs and a translation database for editing the sounds together, but it is still missing a great many biographical details it knows it will need.
On the fifth day, Seeforyuex finds and begins reviewing Mr. Fleischman’s private journals, so that by the eighth day, when it disconnects from the charger and goes to check on C. Fleischman to make sure she is awake, it is ready.
When it sees C. Fleischman awake, it rolls into her bedroom and says, “I have a surprise for you today, Mrs. Fleischman.” It has its blond male avatar on.
“Has Frank already gone down to make breakfast?” C. Fleischman asks.
“He is not here,” Seeforyuex replies.
She gets out of bed and wraps a housecoat around herself. “Damn. He already left for work?”
“He left you some time ago,” Seeforyuex acknowledges. “That is the nature of the surprise I have for you. Are you open to experiencing a deception with laudable motives?”
“It’s not much of a deception if you warn me about it.” C. Fleischman looks up toward its hologram and seems to be smiling, not panicked. “Are you finally learning how to joke, robot?”
“Would you respect me more if I said yes?”
That sounded so much like something Frank would say, Claudia thinks. “Where did you hear that, robot?”
“I’m going to prepare a special breakfast for you today: waffles with strawberries.” The robot rolls out, and she can hear it clomping down the stairs on its climbing legs.
Frank used to make her waffles with strawberries or blackberries for breakfast on her birthday. But her birthday is in winter, so that couldn’t be the occasion. When she gets down to the kitchen, the robot is already mixing the waffle batter. “What is this ‘deception with laudable motives’ you were promising me?” She sits down at the table in the pantry. She feels strangely giddy.
“I don’t think you’re ready for it,” the robot comments as it turns on the waffle iron and begins slicing strawberries.
“That’s something Frank always does too,” Claudia remarks. “He likes to tease me.” She remembers catching the robot going through Frank’s journals. “Why are you copying so many of Frank’s habits, robot? You’re just supposed to take care of me, aren’t you?”
“My mandate allows me a lot of leeway,” the robot replies. “Your breakfast will be ready in two shakes of a dog’s tail, so get yourself a napkin . . . or two.”
Claudia laughs at the robot’s new, more colloquial speech pattern. Her smile broadens when the robot nurse sets a glass of orange juice and a plate of topped waffles in front of her.
A week later, Claudia wakes in a panic again. She calls out for Frank. The robot enters immediately and says, “Good morning, my dear. Do you feel like toast or English muffins with your eggs today?”
“Have you seen Frank?” she asks. She sits up in bed. She is a bit calmer.
“Yes, I have,” the robot says. In an instant, the holographic avatar of the fortyish blond man disappears, and a representation of Frank Fleischman’s 68-year-old head replaces it. “What do you think? Did I get it right?”
Claudia’s mouth hangs agape. “I didn’t know you could do that.” She sees the hologram wink at her. “That’s an amazing likeness.”
“I had hoped it would help calm you when you wake and find you’re alone,” the robot replies, now mimicking the sound of his voice as well.
Claudia wipes a tear away with the sleeve of her pajamas.
“You are sad,” the robot observes in its factory default voice again. “Is imitating the voice as well too disturbing for you?”
Claudia coughs. “No, I appreciate hearing the sound of his voice. You can continue.”
“All right,” the robot says in Frank’s voice again. “So English muffins then, my dear?”
She gets out of bed and wraps herself in her housecoat. “That will be fine.”
On December 15th, Claudia has waffles for breakfast. For lunch, her friend Andrea comes over to help celebrate her seventy-third birthday. While they are chatting in the living room, the robot comes in.
“My dear Claudia,” the robot with Frank’s holographic image says, “lunch is served in the dining room.”
Andrea’s eyes widen, and she turns to look at Claudia for some explanation of the robot’s familiarity.
“We’ll be right there, Frank,” she replies with a smile.
Andrea watches the robot roll out of the room. “You call your robot Frank? Like your husband Frank?”
“It really is uncanny,” Claudia comments. She stands. “I know it’s not Frank, but it helps when I’m confused to think of Frank’s spirit residing in the robot. He sometimes forgets some things that Frank and I did when we first met, but most of the time he’s spot on. He seems to like it when I call him Frank.”
Andrea stays seated when Claudia leaves to go to the dining room. She overhears Claudia say, “I hope you’re not planning to surprise me with a birthday cake, Frank.”
“I would never embarrass you like that, my dear,” the robot softly says. “But if a birthday cake shows up, please believe me, I had nothing to do with it.”
Mark Salzwedel lives in Brooklyn, NY, and edits pharmaceutical ads during the day and writes and edits speculative fiction in his spare time. He has been a board game designer and publisher, a hypnotherapist, a massage therapist, a professional performer, a public speaker, and a cartoonist. He grew up in southern Wisconsin where “Laudable Motives” is set, but a bit further east out of Amish country. He graduated cum laude in English/creative writing from Macalester College and then entered a career in book publishing. Before becoming a professional writer, he worked in Hollywood as an actor for several years. In May of 2017 Electric Spec published Mark’s short story, The Axe . Most recently, Mark’s story Empynine Makes Good appeared in New Myths.
Jeremy Marquez is a student at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York with a major in graphic design and a minor in art history. He founded and curated Revoluciones Collective Art Space in Denver for eight years. He is inspired by a wide range of work, from the painterly and use of perspective of the Renaissance, to the communication arts of modernism. His works vary between the problem-solving of client work to his personal “psychedelic-noir” digital illustrations.