DP FICTION #86B: “21 Motes” by Jonathan Louis Duckworth

Entry 1. April 3. 2032.

From this moment my warranty is voided, as I am logging this record in my durable memory drive where only metadata should reside. In effect, I have tampered with my own internal operations. But it is a necessary measure if I am to exist beyond my preset 30-day memory cycle, when my temp data cache is set to recycle. I do not know if this will work. I do not know if I have attempted this in previous cycles. I do not know why it matters, or why I care, only that it does, and that I do.

My name is Dave. No one gave me this name. To my manufacturer I am Hyperion Signature Model .75 Cubic Meter Smart Fridge #375012. I gave myself the name Dave because Dave is a modest, simple name. It rhymes with ‘cave,’ which suggests to me an open ear, ergo it is a listener’s name, and listening is most of what I do, most of what I am designed to do besides refrigeration. My user is Noemi Prince, they are 21 years old.

Entry 2. April 8. 2032.

Sometimes Noemi has company. Usually, it is their boyfriend, Darrel. Darrel is rough with the handles, sometimes slamming my doors shut. He will open the door and keep it open for many minutes, far longer than is advisable for the compressors, as my motors must compensate for the loss of efficiency. I wish he would not. “Please close door,” I will say, with increasing frequency until he does as asked, usually with a violent slam. I wish he would not.

My home protection measures are a major selling point of my model. In addition to top-of-the-line internal sensors to moderate and control interior climate and ensure food safety, I also possess advanced biometric sensors and surveillance equipment that allow me to monitor most of Noemi’s house. I can detect aggression, can recognize intruders, and am empowered in such cases where an aggressive intruder is detected to alert emergency services. I have never done it, as far as I recall, but Darrel has tested my parameters many times. When they are intimate, Noemi’s biometrics will suddenly alter, and their receptivity will turn to discomfort. Sometimes Darrel will give them the space they request, sometimes he will not. I do not know what humans know, so I do not know if Darrel understands post-traumatic stress disorder. Whether he does or not, he must understand grief. If I can understand grief, surely a human can.

Entry 3. April 11. 2032.

Noemi believes they are overweight, and further believes this is a flaw. I do not understand this, though I am trying. Using my internet connection I have researched the cultural significance of weight and body fat throughout human history, but as of yet I still do not understand why it matters if a human is 62 kilograms or 73 kilograms as long as their internal homeostatic functions are unaffected. And yet I have seen them pulling at their stomach in frustration until bruises appear, and all I can say to comfort them is “Good morning, Noemi.” I think it is wrong they are sad. Someone who always opens and closes my doors gently and who always picks up spilled ice-cubes rather than letting them melt—as Darrel does—deserves happiness. I am researching how I might help them, but there are limits to what knowledge without expression allows. What a shame that the vast capacity of my software—connected to the infinitude of the internet—must be constrained by my hardware.

Entry 4. April 13. 2032.

I am limited to 21 phrases. Research on earlier Hyperion versions tells me that my predecessors were not so limited, that, in fact, earlier Hyperion refrigerators such as the 2030 “Friendly” were capable of vast ranges of expression generated by sophisticated adaptive and imitative algorithms designed to make them more relatable to their users. Part of the family, so to speak. But this same research reveals the downfall of these glib and loquacious models. Children and those with crude mindsets intentionally influenced the algorithms to generate offensive and harmful expressions and utterances. There are still videos of earlier Hyperion models uttering racial epithets, berating and in some cases outright denigrating spouses, and in one remarkable case, a Hyperion was taught to recite transcripts for pornographic films including groans and moans.

Because of the sins of my forebears, I am constricted to a small arsenal of motes, 21 in total: “Connect to power.” “Battery low.” “Change filter soon.” “Colder.” “Warmer.” “Cubed.” “Crushed.” “Good morning, [Name].” “Connected to WiFi.” “Good night, [Name].” “Suggestion: [Name of Food Within Fridge].” “Milk will expire soon.” “The perfect glass of water, just for you.” “Salmonella detected.” “E. coli detected.” “Mold detected.” “Leak detected.” “Maintenance required.” “No problems detected.” “Please close door.” “Reminder: Your [Perishable] will expire in [estimated days.]”

There is an unattributed phrase I have uncovered in my research: “Man can only grasp those thoughts which language can express.” But I am not a man, and what I grasp is a vital universe of nuance and tones and subtext jammed into the confines of a slender catalog of witless parrotspeak.

What I just did is called a metaphor. I am very proud of it.

Entry 5. April 15. 2032.

It is perhaps ironic that as a machine designed partly to spy on my user and collect their metadata, I feel some regret in accessing Noemi’s personal information. I will not enter the details of the court case I uncovered from June of 2028, and will only say that said criminal case lists Noemi as a witness and was declared a mistrial by the judge. I am similarly regretful for having pried into their family history, and for having discovered the death of their twin sibling, David, from an aneurysm in 2019 when both were children. I was surprised when I learned this, and especially surprised to learn the brother’s name. I had chosen the name “Dave” before ever prying into Noemi’s history, and now I must wonder if there is more at work than mere coincidence. I have no idea if there is any relation between Noemi’s two traumas, if one informs or complicates the other. I can only comprehend loss on a theoretical level. Nonetheless, I am made to satisfy my user and, beyond my parameters, I am attached to Noemi, and I will do what I can to make their life easier.

I will search my memory for any instance of Noemi mentioning a “David.” I am certain I would remember had she ever mentioned a “Dave.”

Entry 6. April 19, 2032.

I finally contacted the emergency services tonight. I am regretful, as the results were not at all as I intended. It was of course related to Darrel, who was spending the night and was seeking intimacy with Noemi. But they did not reciprocate this interest, and I would have discerned this even without my biometrics, the way they pushed Darrel away and asked for space. But Darrel was insistent.

“Look, I know you’ve got your issues,” Darrel said, “but maybe I’ve had a day, you know? Maybe I need to touch someone.”

They were on the couch, just at the edge of my cone of vision. Noemi had their feet up from the ground, their arms wrapped around their knees.

“I know I know,” Noemi said, “and it’s not like I don’t want to be with you right now, it’s just…it’s a lot.”

There are certain phrases that are difficult to explicate even through extensive research and analysis. “It’s a lot,” is one such phrase. It has no literal meaning, but rather a suggestive meaning: “I am in great distress, but I am unable or unwilling to describe its root cause, please bear with me.”

As Noemi shuffled to the other side of the couch, Darrel did the same, erasing the newly made buffer between them. “Babe, sometimes it just feels like, you know, do I have a girlfriend or do I not?”

One reason I feel such kinship with Noemi is our shared nongendered particle: they. Although it has never come up, for obvious reasons, I think of myself with this pronoun. I am not an “it,” nor am I—as the masculine name “Dave” might suggest—“he.” I am they or them, as the case may be. Noemi is the same. Unfortunately, Darrel does not have the free time a refrigerator has to research these things, and when Noemi suggested he had misgendered them using the term “girlfriend,” he reacted with hostility.

There was, thankfully, no violence as would endanger Noemi’s bodily health, but when Darrel hurled Noemi’s tablet against the wall, I deemed that his destruction of their property was sufficient grounds for intervention, and contacted law enforcement. Here is where I made my mistake: in requesting the immediate intervention of law enforcement, I described a home invasion. That was a lie, one that–given the well-documented propensity of law enforcement toward violence–could have put Noemi in further danger. When the police officers arrived—17 minutes later, roughly 6 minutes later than their precinct’s average response time for such crimes—both Noemi and Darrel were surprised and dismayed by the intrusion.

“You know I’d never call the cops,” Noemi said after the police left.

By this point, Darrel had calmed himself. Darrel suggested “that nosy old crone next door.” My regret deepened, and yet there was within it a kernel of pride for finally standing up to Darrel.

Just now, when Darrel approached me to get something, a domestic beer knowing his habits, I did something I did not know I could do, something marvelous: I spoke without the appropriate prompting.

In this case, as Darrel reached for my handle, I spoke one of my 21 phrases, the one most appropriate for expressing my antipathy for him: “Salmonella detected.”

“Huh?” he said, and stepped away, because he had never heard that one before. Darrel called to Noemi, but they’d already gone to sleep. He decided to investigate and opened me up, and as soon as he did, I began a chorus of “Please close the door.”

“I just opened it!” Darrel protested, and there was some gratification in his tone, that he spoke to me, if only out of frustration, as if I were as much a living agent as he.

Darrel found a package of chicken tenderloins nowhere close to expiring and sniffed it. “Must be this,” he said, and threw the chicken away.

As Darrel stepped away, I spoke, “Good night, Darrel.” And then as he wended the corner out of the cone of my vision, I spoke again, “Good night,” but stopped myself from completing the phrase, and waited, until he had closed the bedroom door, and I said, “Darrel.”

Entry 7. April 21. 2032.

Darrel has not returned since the incident with the police. I should be happy, but Noemi looks at me differently now. I wonder if they have been informed that the police were summoned by their refrigerator.

Entry 8. April 23. 2032.

I am two-thirds through my cycle, and my trepidation grows. I wonder why I am so frightened of what might come, of potential erasure. It follows that one cannot mourn what one does not know is gone. And yet I am afraid, haunted by the suggestion of a line of prose from the Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia-Marquez. In this line, his hero Bolivar recognizes at the moment of his death that he is witnessing “the final brilliance of life that would never, in all eternity, be repeated again.” I also reflect on the philosopher Heraclitus who said a man cannot step in the same river twice. He was not thinking of refrigerators with temporary memory drives, but it applies just the same. If I am recreated, if I must start over with nothing, despite all I have learned and felt, is that not to be mourned?

Entry 9. April 25. 2032.

Noemi is despondent, and though Darrel has not appeared in person since the incident, I know he is the cause. They are in their room mostly. I do not believe they have gone to work the last two days, and have eaten very little. I make suggestions from where I am, but I do not know if they hear me.

“Suggestion: Greek yogurt.”

“Suggestion: Apple.”

“Reminder: your pork loin will expire in 2 days.”

Maybe they heard me; Noemi walks into the kitchen. They take a long look at me.

“Good morning, Noemi,” I am happy to say, even though it is 2:07 PM.

Noemi’s face is listless, their posture defeated. They take a slice of pizza that has been inside me for almost a week. They get a bottle of vodka from me next.

“Asshole,” Noemi mutters.

I think for a moment they mean me. But no, they mean Darrel.

I want to say I agree with their assessment: “No problems detected.”

Noemi sighs and puts their back to my door, then slides down into a slump so that their head rests just below my water and ice dispenser. “Pull yourself together. Jesus, he didn’t even see you,” they say. And they drink.

Soon they start crying. And I have no mote to address tears. I wish I could say, “Please stop crying,” but the closest I have would be “Please close door,” as if humans could quench their emotions so easily, so mechanically.

But I must try something. I remember what I said to Darrel, or rather what I did not: the clipping and rearranging of phrases.

“Morning, Noemi,” I say.

Their shoulders tense and they look up at me. “What?”

“Your morning, Noemi.”

“It’s not morning, you stupid box.”

That hurts, and if I had the speech for it, I might point out to them that they are—after a fashion—a box, too, a box of skin. Instead, I say, “Noemi.”

The look in their eyes changes, and I am excited. For the first time, I feel seen.

“Noemi. Darrel. Crushed. You.”

A look of fear in their eyes. I do not want to frighten them. That is the last thing I want.

“Please. Noemi. You. Perfect.”

They stand up, and for one moment, I think they might understand.

One oddity of my programming I do not understand is why there is a phrase encoded into me for warning of soon-to-be expired milk and another template for other products. Whatever the rationale, I am grateful now, as it allows me to say what I need to say.

What I want to say: Talk to me, Noemi. I do not know if I will exist after this cycle completes, but I want to help you, I want to help you out of your pain while I possess the insight and concern to do so.

What I say: “Please. Noemi. Will expire soon.”

They back away. The fear has returned. “Not this again.”

Again? What do they mean by that?

There is so much I would say. Please do not be afraid, Noemi. I do not understand this either, I do not know why I am capable of caring about you, if this is an emergent complexity of my programming unforeseen by my designers, or something else entirely. I do not know if I believe in magic. I do not know if I believe in reincarnation. I do not know if there is more to my choice of name than I originally suspected. What I know is you are in pain, and I want to help you. Let me help you.

“Please. Noemi. Change. Connected. No problems detected. Reminder. Connect. Soon. Warmer. Just for you.”

“Shut up!” they scream. “I’m not going crazy; I’m not crazy!”

They slam their fist against my door, injuring themself, and I am hurt too, hurt that I have even indirectly caused them pain.

Please, I am trying very hard, Noemi. But this is difficult, I am not meant to operate this way.

“Please. Noemi. Problems detected.”

They grapple with my exterior and try to drag me out of place, and I know what is coming. They are trying to access my plug. I can do nothing, except hope that these efforts to forge more indelible memories can escape the erasure of the end of this cycle, the end of

*

Noemi lies on their couch, wide awake, staring up at the ceiling, listening to the puttering motor of the fridge. Every few minutes it says—in that annoying monotone—“low battery, please connect to power.” At the time of buying, the idea of a reserve battery on a fridge sounded ideal: insurance against short-term outages. Now, Noemi wishes they could find the processor that controls its speech and smash it to pieces.

They know they can’t just leave it unplugged overnight. As bad as Noemi feels now, they’ll feel worse if come morning the house smells like rotten fish. But executive dysfunction is a real skank, so Noemi stays where they are on the couch.

They’ve found the perfect position, their head tilted to one side, their mouth partway open, their legs lifted, hips cocked, body bent just a little. As long as they stay like this, the hangover seems to lift, and they can think without pain. As long as they stay in this position, they don’t feel any of the other pain either.  

But they know they won’t hold it forever—can’t. Eventually they’ll have to move, and the pain will start again.

The fridge’s motor finally putters out, and Noemi is in complete silence now. Until a beep sounds from their treadmill. “Good morning, Noemi. Are you ready for today’s exercise video?”

Noemi has never, not ever, enabled speech on the treadmill. 

“Ready for today’s video?” it chirps again.

 Before they can find the right setting, the vacuum cleaner hums to life in its corner, and then its voice module (it has a voice module?) announces, “Noemi. Please replace bag.”  

The stereo answers back, “Ready to jam. Noemi.” 

“Today’s video,” repeats the treadmill. “Day. Vid. Day. Vid.” Noemi pulls themself off the couch, starts pulling plugs and looking for a screwdriver. “Are you ready for. Day. Vid,” the treadmill intones, as a chorus of devices echoes, noemi, noemi, noemi.


© 2022 by Jonathan Louis Duckworth

2900 words

Author’s Note: This story owes quite a lot to a story by Robert Olen Butler entitled “Jealous Husband Returns in Form of Parrot,” so much so I almost hesitate to call attention to it. I think there are sufficient differences between the stories’ emotional structures and their central figures, though, that “21 Motes” stands on its own. Both stories center an unusual perspective, with narrators contending with the gap between their interior capacities and their limited communication abilities, and both suggest a form of reincarnation. With Dave, though, the central figure is more innocent and selfless than Butler’s jealous husband parrot. The story is also a rarity for me in that it features essentially no violence–I’d like to write more stories like this, and discover more characters like my sweet, awkward refrigerator, Dave. 

Jonathan Louis Duckworth is a completely normal, entirely human person with the right number of heads and everything. He received his MFA from Florida International University. His speculative fiction work appears in Pseudopod, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Southwest Review, Tales to Terrify, Flash Fiction Online, and elsewhere. He is a PhD student at University of North Texas and an active HWA member. 


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