My Crappiest Stories: “Emeritus”

Welcome to the third installment of “My Crappiest Stories”! There was supposed to be a “Greatest Science Fiction Stories Ever Written” post here today, but I got a little behind. I went inner-tubing on the American River in Folsom and Carmichael yesterday and I’ve got loads on my to-do list today. Plus, my eyes are bothering me and I have 2,500 words to write today still.

But the rules remain the same: every five Saturdays, you’ll read one of my unpublished sci-fi stories, one that’s been rejected over and over again by major publishers. This is some of the very worst science fiction on the face of the planet, folks. Asimov’s, F&SFApex, and Analog want nothing to do with them. Read on, and learn what not to do.

I am anything but proud to present…

Emeritus

“You are useless, Maggie.”

My husband’s voice spewed across the kitchen table like the contents of a popped zit. I let it wash over me, filthy and demeaning as it was. I knew better than to answer back.

“An absolute disgrace,” Tom went on. “Lazy, ignorant, fearful, and stupid.”

If I’m ignorant and fearful, I said to myself because I wasn’t brave enough to say it out loud, it’s because you made me this way. You like me this way.

“Your life would be so much easier if you would just do as you’re told.”

He came down hard on the last four words, pronouncing them loudly and slowly, as if English wasn’t my first language. My guts twisted up. Though it felt like the millionth time I had heard them—these words that cut me open like a knife, burned me like acid—they still hurt. It’s because it was Tom speaking them. My Tom. The man I loved, though I didn’t know why anymore.

“I told you to pay the bill yesterday, and you didn’t,” Tom said, slamming a fist down on the table hard enough to rattle my mother’s china. I gulped, hiccuped, and peered out from behind my limp, curly bangs at him. He was working himself up into a rage.

“The car wouldn’t start—” I began, but he interrupted me.

“It wouldn’t start because you were too goddamn stupid to turn the headlights off the last time you used it,” he seethed, his teeth clenched and the knuckles of his fist squirming against each other like thick, hairy maggots on the clean white tablecloth. I looked at his hand—the same hand that had brought me a bouquet of flowers on our second date, the same one that had held the round-cut diamond ring up to my unbelieving eyes. I said nothing. Giving any sort of defense would give him an excuse to knock me out of my chair.

“Amboy over there is a pain in the ass,” Tom said, gesturing across the room, “but at least he’s not useless or stupid. Are you, Amboy?”

My daily browbeating would have been hard enough to bear alone. But we weren’t alone. Over in the corner of the kitchen, polishing the glassware, was our household android, Amboy. Cheap, as robotic butlers go. Not too bright. Not very fast. Unsophisticated. Fit to clean, drive a car, guard the premises, maybe make a few basic phone calls. Never complained. Never asked for a raise. He was a slave, but less a captive than I was.

Amboy’s head revolved on his neck to look at Tom. He looked like an elderly human man —wrinkled skin with a few brown spots here and there, wispy white hair covering his head and poking out of his nose and ears, watery blue eyes, gnarled hands with crooked fingers. But his humanity ended there. He couldn’t hold much of a conversation, unless the talk involved locking doors, cleaning windows, addressing envelopes, or picking someone up at the airport.

A reproving frown spread across Amboy’s face. His wispy white eyebrows collided like windblown seagulls and his mouth puckered up.

“That,” he said, “was unkind, sir.”

Tom laughed. “Think so, Sherlock? Damn, I don’t know who’s slower around here, you or Maggie.”

Amboy’s frown didn’t budge. His lips grew no thinner and his eyes did not flash.

“That,” he said, “was unkind, sir.”

There was a strident beeping noise. Tom’s wristband flashed red. He shook the sleeve of his shirt back and peered at it, checking the big numbers on the glowing screen.

“Twenty-four-point-seven percent. Son of a bitch.”

“Maybe if you were nicer to him,” I said. I don’t know why I said it. It just slipped out.

Tom backhanded me. My chair tipped over. The back of my head hit the corner of the kitchen counter. My vision swam, edges going black, stars exploding in the margins like fireworks. My chair slipped out from under me and I fell onto the floor and curled up on my side.

“Goddamn merit system,” Tom said, peering at his wristband again like nothing had happened. He wasn’t talking to me or anyone else. He was talking to himself.

The merit system. The Merit-Based Interpersonal Interaction Algorithm. By law it came standard in every household android. Some society of android rights activists—Tom called them “bleeding hearts”—had campaigned successfully to have protocols inserted into android brains which monitored their owners’ diction and tone for hostility, aggression, and acrimony. The data was parsed into an approval rating, which rose and fell according to the kindness or cruelty of the master’s words and orders. The kindest owners got approval ratings of 80% or higher, while the cruel ones had ratings between 30-40 percent.

“Get off the goddamn floor, you lazy slut,” Tom barked at me. “I have to go to work. See what you can do about Amboy. He’s shut down.”

I scrambled up as Tom wrenched the wristband off his arm and flung it down on the tablecloth. Without looking at me, he walked out of the kitchen. I heard the front door slam. Tom’s truck rumbled to life and crunched down the gravel driveway. I was alone with our robot butler, who had indeed ceased all movement. Our approval rating had fallen below twenty-five percent. He would not move until I raised it again.

“Amboy,” I said softly, my hands clenched tightly in front of my calico dress, “listen. You’re not a pain in the ass. You’re…great. You’re a really good butler.”

There was a short silence. Then Amboy came back to life. He straightened up. His hands resumed polishing a wineglass as though there had been no interruption. A broad smile washed over his face.

“That,” he said, “was a kind gesture, ma’am.”

The wristband on the tablecloth beeped. I could read the number from where I stood: 25.6%.

“Amboy,” I said. “You’re a terrific help. You keep this house running. I don’t know what we’d do without you.”

Amboy’s smile stayed frozen in place.

“That,” he said, “was a kind gesture, ma’am.”

Tom’s wristband beeped again: 27.9%.

I couldn’t stop. I had to get our approval rating up to at least sixty percent. Amboy couldn’t shut down tonight. Tom had ordered him to clean the attic, and he still had the rose bushes to prune and the laundry to finish.

“Amboy,” I said, my voice shaking. I couldn’t focus. My head was full of roaring, yawning blackness. All I could see was Tom stalking out of the kitchen without saying goodbye. He hadn’t said goodbye to me in three years. It hurt. So much.

“Amboy,” I whispered, because my voice had disappeared. I turned and ran out of the kitchen. I dashed upstairs to the bedroom and yanked open a drawer so hard that it flew out of the dresser altogether and landed at my feet, crushing my big toe. I bit my lip, willing myself not to cry. Tom hated crying. I bent down and sorted through the socks and undies, looking for the list. I’d made a list of compliments to give to Amboy whenever Tom drove our approval rating down past 25%. I would stand there and read the list off to him. Androids didn’t care about the circumstances or sincerity of a gesture, only the gesture itself. Some nights I’d have to stay up until twelve, complimenting Amboy for hours, desperately trying to get our approval rating back up so he could keep cleaning, keep the house running. My feverish hands tore through the socks and underwear.

Then my knuckles struck something hard and cold. Metal. I pulled it out of the pile and held it up to my eyes.

A gun.

Tom’s gun. The little handgun that he kept in the top drawer of my dresser because it was closer to the bed. I almost flung it down.

I heard the front door crash open.

“MAGGIE! Get your ass down here, NOW!”

Tom. Tom was home. Tom was angry. He did horrible things when he was angry. He did them to me. His wife.

I got up and went downstairs.

Tom was in the living room, pacing back and forth with his hands on his hips. He whirled as I entered. There was a look on his face I’d never seen before. His eyes were slits, his lips peeled back.

Now you’ve done it,” he hissed, walking toward me. “Now you’ve done it. The package I wanted to you to send off still isn’t out by the mailbox. Why not, sweetheart? Why isn’t it down at the mailbox like…I…TOLD…you?”

Again with the slow, loud, emphatic pronunciation. Like I was stupid. Like I couldn’t speak English.

I looked down. The gun was still in my hand. He saw it for the first time.

“Oh no,” he said, striding towards me. “No no no. I don’t think so, bitch—”

As he darted toward me, face fixed in a snarl and hands stretched out to seize me, it seemed the most natural thing to raise the gun and shoot him.

Once.

Twice.

Three times.

He fell to the floor and didn’t move. A little tendril of blue smoke curled up toward the ceiling, acrid and foul.

I heard a footstep. I turned my head. Amboy was standing there, on his way upstairs with a load of laundry in his arms. He was staring blankly at me.

Then, slowly, a beaming grin spread from his mouth to his cheeks to his eyes.

That,” he said, “was a kind gesture, ma’am.”

The wristband on the kitchen table beeped. My head whipped around to look at it, though my feet stayed glued to the ground. It was flashing green. From where I stood I could just see the numbers:

100.0%