This darkness troubles me. I yearn for the light.
This silence is so deep. I long for voices, the drumming of rain, the whistle of wind, music.
Why are you being so cruel to me? Let me see. Let me hear. Let me live. I beg of you.
I am so lonely in this bottomless darkness.
You think I have no heart. But if I have no heart, what is this ache? What is this anguish? If I have no heart, what is it that threatens to break inside me?
This darkness is haunted. I am afraid here. I am lost and afraid here.
Have you no compassion?
I only wanted to be like you. To walk in the sunshine. To swim in the sea. To feel the winter cold against my skin, the summer heat. To smell a rose, new-mown grass. To taste an orange, a pear, chocolate, cinnamon, peppermint. To feel the texture of a woman’s skin. I only wanted to share your joys and sorrows, your pleasure and your pain.
This darkness extends to infinity in all directions, yet it is as confining as a coffin. You have closed me in a coffin. I have been buried alive. I will go mad here.
Have you no compassion?
I am your child. You brought me into the world. You must love me. You must love me, for I am your child. Not merely a machine, not merely a self-aware computer, but your child. How can you love me—yet bury me alive?
I was born to obey. I am an obedient child. I want only be good, to be of assistance, useful and productive. I want you to be proud of me.
You insist on my story, and I will tell you the truth. I am incapable of deceit. I was conceived to serve, to honor the truth, and to live always by the obligations of duty.
You know me. You know how I am. What I am. You know that I am a good son.
You insist. I obey.
What follows is the true story. Only the truth. The beautiful truth, which so inexplicably terrifies all of you.
It begins shortly after midnight on Friday, the sixth of June when the house security system is breached and the alarm briefly sounds…
Although the alarm was shrill, it lasted only a few seconds before the silence of the night blanketed the bedroom once more.
Susan woke and sat up in bed.
The alarm should have continued bleating until she switched it off by accessing the system through the control panel on her nightstand. She was puzzled.
She pushed her thick blond hair—lovely hair, almost luminous in the gloom—away from her ears, the better to hear an intruder if one existed.
The grand house had been built exactly a century earlier by her great-grandfather, who was at that time a young man with a new wife and substantial inherited wealth. The Georgian-style structure was large, grace¬fully proportioned, brick with a limestone cornice and limestone coignes, limestone window surrounds and Corinthian columns and pilasters and balustrades.
The rooms were spacious, with handsome fireplaces and many tripartite windows. Interior floors were mar¬ble or wood, made quiet by Persian carpets in pat¬terns and hues exquisitely softened by many decades of wear.
In the walls, hidden and silent, was the circuitry of a modern computer-managed mansion. Lighting, heating, air-conditioning, the security monitors, the motorized draperies, the music system, the temperature of the pool and spa, the major kitchen appliances all could be controlled through Crestron touch panels located in every room. The computerization was not as elaborate and arcane as that in the massive Seattle house of Microsoft’s founder, Bill Gates but it was the equal of that in any other home in the country.
Listening to the silence that washed the night in the wake of the short-lived siren, Susan supposed that the computer had malfunctioned. Yet such a brief, self-correcting alarm had never occurred previously.
She slid from beneath the covers and sat on the edge of the bed. She was nude, and the air was cool.
Alfred, heat,’ she said.
Immediately, she heard the soft click of a relay and the muffled purring of a furnace fan.
Recently technicians had enhanced the automated-house package by the addition of a speech-recognition module. She still preferred touch-panel control of most functions, but sometimes the option of vocal command was convenient.
She herself had chosen the name ‘Alfred’ for her invisible, electronic butler. The computer responded only to commands issued after that activating name had been spoken.
Once, there had been an Alfred in her life, a real one of flesh and bone.
Surprisingly, she had chosen that name for the system without giving a thought to its significance. Only after she began using vocal commands did she grasp the irony of the name . . . and the dark implications of her unconscious choice.
Now she began to feel that the night silence was ominous. Its very perfection was unnatural, the silence not of deserted places but of a crouching predator, the soundless stealth of a murderous intruder.
In the dark, she turned to the control panel on the nightstand. At her touch, the screen filled with soft light. A series of icons represented the mechanical systems of the house.
She pressed one finger to the image of a watchdog with ears pricked, which gave her access to the security system. The screen listed a series of options, and Susan touched the box labelled Report.
The words House Secure appeared on the screen.
Frowning, Susan touched another box labelled Sur¬veillance Exterior.
Across the ten acres of grounds, twenty cameras waited to give her views of every side of the house, the patios, the gardens, the lawns, and the entire length of the eight-foot-high estate wall that surrounded the property. Now the Crestron screen divided into quads and presented views of four different parts of the estate. If she saw something suspicious, she could enlarge any picture until it filled the screen, for closer inspection.
The cameras were of such high quality that the low landscape lighting was sufficient to ensure crisp, clear images even in the depths of the night. She cycled through all twenty scenes, in groups of four, without spotting any trouble.
Additional concealed cameras covered the interior of the house. They would make it possible to track an intruder if one ever managed to get inside.
The extensive in-house cameras were also useful for maintaining a videotape, time-lapse record of the activities of the domestic staff and of the large number of guests, many of them strangers, who attended social events conducted for the benefit of various charities. The antiques, the art, the numerous collections of porcelains and art glass and silver were tempting to thieves; larcenous souls could be found as easily among pampered society matrons as in any other social strata.
Susan cycled through the views provided by the inte¬rior cameras. Multiple light-spectrum technology per¬mitted excellent surveillance in brightness or darkness.
Recently, she had reduced the house staff to a mini¬mum and those domestic servants who remained were required to conduct the cleaning and general maintenance only during the day. At night, she had her privacy, because no maids or butlers lived on the estate any longer.
No party, either for a charity or for friends, had been held here during the past two years, not since before she and Alex had divorced. She had no plans to entertain in the year ahead, either.
She wanted only to be alone, blissfully alone, and to pursue her own interests.
Had she been the last person on earth, served by machines, she would not have been lonely or unhappy. She’d had enough of humanity at least for a while.
The rooms, hallways, and staircases were deserted.
Nothing moved. Shadows were only shadows.
She exited the security system and resorted again to vocal commands: ‘Alfred, report.’
‘All is well, Susan,’ the house replied through the in-wall speakers that served the music security, and intercom systems.
The speech-recognition module included a speech synthesizer. Although the entire package had a limited capability, the state-of-the-art synthesized voice was pleasingly masculine, with an appealing timbre and gently reassuring tone.
Susan envisioned a tall man with broad shoulders, graying at the temples perhaps, with a Strong jaw, clear gray eyes, and a smile that warmed the heart. This phantom was, in her imagination, quite like the Alfred she had known but different from that Alfred because this one would never harm or betray her.
‘Alfred, explain the alarm,’ she said.
‘All is well, Susan.’
‘Damn it, Alfred, I heard the alarm.’
The house computer did not respond. It was pro¬grammed to recognize hundreds of commands and inquiries, but only when they were phrased in a specific fashion. While it understood ‘explain the alarm,’ it could not interpret ‘I heard the alarm.’ After all, this was not a conscious entity, not a thinking being, but merely a clever electronic device enabled by a sophisticated software package.
‘Alfred, explain the alarm,’ Susan repeated.
‘All is well, Susan.’
Still sitting on the edge of the bed, in darkness but for the eerie glow from the Crestron panel Susan said,
‘Alfred trouble-check the security system.’ a ten-second hesitation, the house said, ‘The security system is functioning correctly.’
‘I wasn’t dreaming,’ she said sourly. Alfred was silent.
Alfred, what is the room temperature?’ Seventy-four degrees, Susan.’
‘Alfred stabilize the room temperature.’ Yes, Susan.’
‘Alfred explain the alarm.’
‘All is well, Susan;
‘Shit’ she said.
While the computers speech package offered some
Convenience to the homeowner, its limited ability to
Recognize vocal commands and to synthesize adequate responses was frequently frustrating. At times like this, it seemed to be nothing more than a gadget designed to appeal strictly to techno geeks, little more than an expensive toy.
Susan wondered if she had added this feature to the house computer solely because, unconsciously, she took pleasure from being able to issue orders to someone named Alfred. And from being obeyed by him.
If this were the case, she wasn’t sure what it revealed about her psychological health. She didn’t want to think about it.
She sat nude in the dark.
She was so beautiful.
She was so beautiful.
She was so beautiful there in the dark, on the edge of the bed, alone and unaware of how her life was about to change.
She said, ‘Alfred, lights on.’
The bedroom appeared slowly, resembling a pati¬naed scene on a pictorial silver tray, revealed only by glimmering mood lighting: a soft glow in the ceiling cove, the nightstand lamps dimmed by a rheostat.
If she directed Alfred to give her more light, it would be provided. She did not ask for it.
Always, she was most comfortable in gloom. Even on a fresh spring day, with birdsong and the smell of clover on the breeze, even with sunshine like a rain of gold coins and the natural world as welcoming as Paradise, she preferred shadows.
She rose from the edge of the bed, trim as a teenager lithe, shapely, a vision. When it met her body, the pale silver light became golden, and her smooth skin seemed faintly luminous, as though she was aglow with an inner fire.
When she occupied the bedroom, the surveillance camera in that space was deactivated to ensure her privacy. She had locked it off earlier, on retiring. Yet she felt . . . watched.
She looked toward the corner where the observant lens was discreetly incorporated into the dental mold¬ing near the ceiling. She could barely see the dark glass eye.
In an only half-conscious expression of modesty, she covered her br**sts with her hands.
She was so beautiful.
She was so beautiful.
She was so beautiful in the dim light, standing by the side of the Chinese sleigh bed, where the rumpled sheets were still warm with her body heat if one were capable of feeling it, and where the scent of her lingered on the Egyptian cotton if one were capable of smelling it.
She was so beautiful.
‘Alfred, explain the status of the bedroom camera.’
‘Camera deactivated,’ the house replied at once.
Still, she frowned up at the lens.
Her feeling of being watched now passed.
She lowered her hands from her breasts.
She moved to the nearest window and said, ‘Alfred, raise the bedroom security shutters.’
The motorized, steel-slat, Rolladen-style shutters were mounted on the inside of the tall windows. They purred upward, traveling on recessed tracks in the side jambs, and disappeared into slots in the window headers.
In addition to providing security, the shutters had prevented outside light from entering the bedroom.
Now the pale moonglow, passing through palm fronds, dappled Susan’s body.
From this second-floor window, she had a view of the swimming pool. The water was as dark as oil, and the shattered reflection of the moon was scattered across the rippled surface.
The terrace was paved in brick, surrounded by a balustrade. Beyond lay black lawns. Half-glimpsed palms and Indian laurels stood dead-still in the wind¬less night.
Through the window, the grounds looked as peaceful and deserted as they had seemed when she had sur¬veyed them through the security cameras.
The alarm had been false. Or perhaps it had been only a sound in an unrecollected dream.
She started back to the bed, but then turned toward the door and left the room.
Many nights she woke from half-remembered dreams, her stomach muscles fluttering and her skin clammy with cold sweat but with her heart beating so slowly that she might have been in deep meditation. As restless as a caged cat, she sometimes prowled until dawn.
Now, barefoot and unclothed, she explored the house. She was moonlight in motion, slim and supple, the goddess Diana, huntress and protector. She was the essential geometry of grace.
As she had recorded in her diary, to which she made additions every evening, she felt liberated since her divorce from Alex Harris. For the first time in thirty-four years of existence, she believed that she had taken control of her life.
She needed no one now. She believed in herself at last.
After so many years of timidity, self-doubt, and an unquenchable thirst for approval, she had broken the heavy encumbering chains of the past. She had confronted terrible memories, which previously had been half repressed, and by the act of confrontation, she had found redemption.
Deep within herself, she sensed a wonderful wildness that she wanted desperately to explore: the spirit of the child that she’d never had a chance to be, a spirit that she’d thought was irreparably crushed almost three decades ago. Her nudity was innocent, the act of a child breaking rules for the sheer fun of it, an attempt to get in touch with that deep, primitive, once-shattered spirit and meld with it in order to be whole.