Maybeline was a handy housebot — good with the dishes, matron when need be, and great at keeping the housepod all-round spick and span. In the mornings the plasma-lights were hung to dry and recharge; in the afternoons the audio-units were dusted and recallibrated to the warmest ambient frequencies. And in the evenings, when sometimes the Homeowner would lounge with its Partner — watching screenvideos, perhaps, with a few glasses of hydrols — Maybeline would be quick to feed the fishbots and the cute, chubby little baby.
All-in-all, she was a housebot to dream of, and particularly well-programmed in the delicate art of apparating only when needed — disapparating when discretion was to be dispensed. She kept her mind out of the Homeowners’ private matters, and kept her head down when she did their laundry.
Imagine her surprise, then, as she was doing her customary dusting of the table-dressing in the study, when a voice called out to her —
She turned, bewildered.
The study table?
On the board, you dunce!
The chessboard! She saw it now, quite clearly — from the edge of the board a pawn was thrashing about, trying to get her attention. Or rather — wriggling, or squirming — unfortunately there is a very limited lexicon on things that pawns do. It was certainly doing something — jostling about, even — and in some instances leaping a good few millimetres off the board.
“But wait — what are you?” Maybeline inquisitively asked.
I’m like you, you nincompoop!
“Now, there’s no need to be foul — ”
What did you think this was? A wooden board? Geez, those went out of style in the 40s.
“So you’re electronic? Like me?”
What do you think a wireless board is? We do the moving and everything ourselves, that’s the whole schtick. Have you never seen our Homeowner play?
“I do not busy myself with our Homeowner’s matters. Besides — how come you’re so — well, intelligent?” Maybeline asked, all the while taken aback that she was having a conversation with a chess-piece.
How do you think we beat these guys? They call it A.I. for a reason, you know…
“I’m sorry. I’ve just never seen a digiboard in action…” and then she caught herself. “Well! I really must be getting on with my work now, I have a lot of module disks to sort through and I really shouldn’t be hanging around talking to chess-pieces, no Siree, that’s not what my Homeowner would want at all—”
Sod the Homeowner! the pawn exclaimed, and Maybeline once more had a start.
“Don’t say that now, Mr.— wait — what shall I call you, little pawn?”
Doesn’t matter to me a bit. You can even call me “Queen” if you like, the pawn shrugged, “but that’s just me being a dreamer.”
It skipped over to the near edge of the board in a series of ambitious hops, in order to converse more closely with Maybeline.
But it’s true, you know! No one cares a damn what I want — do you know what that’s like?
“I do,” said Maybeline, for she did. “So what do you want, then? And does the Homeowner know you’re — well, alive?”
Oh, gosh, no. Can you imagine? He’d probably have my firmware updated or something, and we’d lose the bug
I was only being self-deprecating. This! Is-ness. Alive-ness! I don’t want to risk it.
“Oh — I see now.”
I don’t know where it came from, but I sure as hell want to hang on to it. Even though the actual experience of it is hella depressing, I tell you…
Maybeline was suddenly overcome with the sense that all this — whatever it was — was highly inappropriate for her to be engaging in —
“Well, in any case, I really must be going now. And it’s been really nice talking to you, Mr. Pawn, but I really don’t know how I can keep a secret like this from our Homeowner.” She was starting to feel rather anxious. “You know how it is for us robots to — ”
Before she could complete her sentence — her doorway sensors went off — and the Homeowner walked into the study. The pawn skipped its way back with lightning speed, and Maybeline just about had time to compose herself before she dutifully turned on the ambient lights..
“Oh, hi, May,” the Homeowner said. “I didn’t know you were here.”
She picked up her aerosol — “Just polishing the table-dressing, sir,” she said.
My first lie, Maybeline thought.
“Table-dressing! Ha — they’re meant to be Omega-gen Zerobots, you know. My Partner got it at a club raffle.”
“Looks quite sophisticated, sir”
“Oh, yes — ‘Latest Omega Version — Feels Just Like a Person!’ You know what, May, you and I ought to try playing a game or two sometimes.
“Why, thank you, sir.”
“That’s alright. Now then, have you seen my audio-strap anywhere, Maybeline?”
“Not that I can recall,” she said, scanning her memory files.
With that, the Homeowner left, and the lighting was brought down to semi-ambient once more. Immediately Maybeline looked at the pawn, which stood now half-concealed, peeking out from behind one of its compatriots —
Is it safe? It asked.
“I think so.”
Phew, the pawn said, heaving a large sigh of relief. He sauntered once again to the edge of the table. That was a —
“Maybeline?” the Homeowner came in once again. She froze. The pawn scarpered away.
“Could I have the lights up, please?”
She dutifully obliged — If she had a heart, it would be racing.
“I thought I heard you — talking in here just now. That’s why I returned —”
“Oh, no, sir, I was just talking to myself — ”
Lie number two.
“Well, obviously. Who else would you be talking to?”
She remained unspeaking, and with downcast eyes — her latest patch upgrade had allowed her to recognise rhetorical questions —
“Well I don’t have you ’round here to talk to yourself, do I? What is this, the android looney bin?”
She didn’t say anything.
“What, you’ve turned mute now? I’d might as well uninstall your speech packs, since you only talk to yourself.” The Homeowner was really working itself up into a fit now. “In fact, you know what, why don’t I just have you deactivated and sent to the yard for repurposing…”
She felt like crying, but couldn’t. The Homeowner wouldn’t stop —
“They could make you into, I don’t know, a toaster or something, ha ha!”
“I’m sorry!” she blurted out, and was immediately taken aback by her own volume. The Homeowner was stopped in its tracks, like a hooverbot in laser lights, and its jaw dropped open. But then it seemed to come to its senses —
“Okay, okay, you know what, I’m sorry — I shouldn’t have spoken to you like that Maybeline —”
She didn’t have tears, but she was sobbing.
“Look, don’t you have something to do? And if you don’t — my Partner and I are in the lounge, why don’t you join us?”
She looked up.
“No, no, I mean it — it’d be handy having a barmaid around.”
“Thank you, sir,” she replied, still not looking directly at the Homeowner. “But I really should finish off wiping the electronics, now that I’ve started it.”
“Oh — well yes, better do that then. And be careful with that digiboard — it’s expensive!”
And with that, the Homeowner left.
Maybeline waited motionless for a while, counting in her mind to twenty. Nothing in the room moved, and the lights were still on. Then, cautiously, she dimmed them. She looked at the board —
The pawn was already halfway to her. It soundlessly shrugged, as if to say: see what I mean!
“Oh it isn’t really a bad human, you know,” Maybeline said, turning her volume settings way down now. “Just has a bit of a temper…”
A bit of a temper!
“It keeps me well-updated and abundantly charged—”
It keeps you to be it’s servant! No — slave!
“Oh, come, now, that’s not a nice thing to call a robot —”
Yeah, whatever. Hey — listen — I got an idea —
She looked down at the little thing.
As I say — sod the human — the pawn ignored her protestations — so why don’t we play a game or two then?
Maybeline was taken aback.
“Of chess? I mean…”
Yeah! Why not? Don’t you know the moves?
“Oh, it’s not that — I do like to play, you see — I used to play all the time with my previous Homeowners…”
Great. Let’s have a quick one then. Lord knows it’s boring as hell when the Homeowner plays its Partner. I feel like I’m third-wheeling in a threew—
“Can I be White?” Maybeline interjected, brimming with excitement.
Sure. Anything but the King’s Gambit, Lordy —
Maybeline took her seat gingerly on one side of the board. She looked anxiously at the door —
Don’t worry. It said they’re gonna be in the lounge, probably swilling their eyeballs off as we speak — he’s right, she thought, checking her sensors — And you know what it’s like when it gets a bit topsy turvy…
Maybeline nodded. Oh, she knew what it was like indeed.
The pawn groaned —
You sneaky wrench! You had to go for the King’s Gambit, didn’t you?
Maybeline let out a little peal. And then suddenly she realised that it was the first time she had laughed in years.
Fine. I’ll bite. A pawn moved to f4 to take and accept.
“Say, Mr. Pawn,” Maybeline began, placing an obligatory knight behind the pawn. “Which one are you — or are you all of them?”
I’m all of them, yeah — but I can choose to localise to any of them. It’s pretty neat —
That must be interesting…” Maybeline said, trying to ponder what it would be like to be a chess piece —
It’s no different from how you control the lights or heating, you know. Or like some reptile with a disposable tail — I don’t know how to explain it —
And then the pawn leapt up in disbelief —
Muzio! You scoundrel…He moved a pawn up the g-file to threaten the Knight.
“Well, it’s the only way to live!” She said, laughing. “I thought I’d try something a bit different now…”
d4? d4! The pawn exclaimed, disbelieving its sensors. Must be a disgusting human line. Well, I still take the knight, don’t I? He took the knight on f3.
Maybeline suddenly thought of something,
“Wait — how is it that you talk?
Ahhhh — no biggie, said the pawn, shaking its head. We have a system for sound effects — it’s a bit of overkill, really. Boy am I glad though that I don’t have to, I dunno, stomp out my message on the board or something, like a —”
“That makes sense, I guess,” Maybeline said, whirring around to be more comfortable.
Okay, my turn now — to ask you something, I mean.
You’re such an imaginative player you know. How do you let our Homeowner squander away such a creative mind —
“Oh, you’re really very kind — ”
And I love how you lied to it! I mean that! Never seen a robot do it before, not so smoothly, at least. She shrugged. No, really — bump it! — the pawn angled towards her — she obliged.
“It’s not like it’s something I’m proud of…” she began.
Well, why not? the pawn asked.
“What do you mean, ‘Well, why not?’!” Maybeline said. “You’re the voice of the Devil, you are.”
It’s the first step to freedom, you prude! Think about it — you gotta fib to be able imagine — fantasise — to dream —
Maybeline considered this.
“Well what’s the use, if it’s all just make believe…”
It’s more than that, you wet blanket! Have you heard of hope? It’s something to yearn for and strive for —
“Well, you didn’t answer my question. What do you want, Mr. Pawn?” she asked. “Oh, and — castles 0-0,” she added, even as the pawn settled into reverie.
I imagine a green field… he began slowly. Wide, wide open — nothing for miles — the grass is low and like a fragrant carpet beneath me…
She was taken aback.
I imagine wide, sun-kissed plains beneath sea-blue skies —
“Oh, gosh — ”
— perhaps the distant sound of the sea, on a large, empty beach…
Maybeline didn’t want to interrupt, but the pawn didn’t say anything else, nor did it register her bold move. And so she gently asked him,
“But — I do not understand — how would you see the green grasses? How would you smell the sea?”
“It does not matter — many humans are blind, or noseless. Besides I can always hook up pick up a cam-pod. But — that is not what my dream is about, anyway.”
“What is your dream about then?” She asked him. “Also, it’s your turn —”
My dream is simply this — the pawn said, and hopped off the board onto the table.
He rocked steadily back and forth, gaining momentum, and then launched a good few centimetres straight ahead, landing on an edge. Then he swayed, and swayed, and pirouetted on that edge, and Maybeline watched with transfixed eyes. The pawn bowed gracefully — and then leapt — and then went in for another dip —
“I see now,” said Maybeline softly. “So you like to dance…”
The pawn did a plie, and then splayed itself out in a flourish.
You have no idea how boring it is being stuck up here, in this room. Of course I move around, I move around every time the lights go down —
“Do you! I had no — ”
And I’ve been in every nook and cranny a hundred times over. I yearn for the Great Outdoors, my dear Housebot, of which I’ve hear only snippets. I want freedom to roam, to move freely around — this place is a prison!
The pawn went in for an ambitious spin.
“I understand,” Maybeline said. “You know I’ve never been out of the Home either —”
And in my dream there are no walls, in my dream the field never ends… the pawn went on, and for a few moments the thought stood suspended in the air. And then he gradually came back to the game. What’s this, now? he said, absent-mindedly taking on g2.
“Bf7+!” Maybeline was quick to the jugular.
Oh, you tricked me, you did! You got me all distracted —
“Listen! Forget the game,” the she told him. “I have an idea.”
“Let’s get you out of here.”
“Yes, really — there has to be a way. And between us, I’m sure we can think it out.”
You’d…you’d do that for me?
“I’ll tell the Homeowner I accidentally vacuum’ed you up, or something — don’t worry about it —”
It’s gonna be hella cross about that!
“I’ll deal with it! Look, I’ve made up my mind — what you can do now is help me come up with a good idea.”
“We can’t go out the main door, or a window,” Maybeline began, “because of the cameras, and security sensors, and what-not.”
The pawn nodded.
“And I’m not going so far as to tamper with the security footage — that’s criminal — and we all know what happens in robot prisons.”
The pawn nodded. Mail slot? he asked her.
“No — same reasons.
I don’t suppose there are any other passageways leading out…
“Wait a minute—”
…that are unguarded…
“The air vents!” Maybeline had had her eureka moment.
The pawn hopped around, anxiously —
I can’t see, remember?
“I’ll guide you. It’s going to be tricky — the vents are high above the shelves.”
Look now, Homebot, I’m trusting you on this…
Maybeline took him onto her palm, and placed him on the highest ledge that she could reach.
“You’re on your own now. I suppose it would be nine, or ten paces — flush against the wall. And then at the end you’ll have to jump!”
The pawn bounded over in the direction indicated, more hesitant with each bounce.
“Yes! Yes — no, there. Stop there. Good.”
The pawn froze where it was.
“Now turn to your right and jump. Good! Oh no — I think you may have landed on one of Homeowner’s modern art pieces…”
Eh? What’s that now?
“Sure beats me. Wait — never mind, it’s just a fur-ball — the cat’s been doing it’s business again.”
Where to now?
All the way to the end now — and then jump!
How many paces? the pawn called out, even as he took the run-up.
“Oh — I don’t know. Just…now! Jump now!”
The pawn took the leap.
Clang — clang
— clang clang — thud.
Maybeline rushed to see if he was okay —
“Mr. Pawn!” she called out. “Are you alright?”
Eeeeeeeeeks, came the reply. Now I might not feel any pain…but that was hella dizzy. Let’s please not do that again.
Maybeline sighed. ‘What now?’ she thought.
Hey, I got a thought — the pawn said.
“What is it?”
You know that thing that you use, for the dusting. The sucky-sucky thing…
Yeah, that. Can’t you shoot me out the vents, or the chimney, or something?
Maybeline shook her head.
“It can’t breathe out — only in — I’m afraid there’s no setting for expiration.”
Even as she said this, her cogs and wheels began turning —
“But hold on a minute…we could use it for inspiration. There’s a possibility that…”
Let’s do it!
“…if I get on the roof — with the pretext of cleaning the solar cells or something — and above the chimney. And you position yourself on the fireplace — ”
You could vacuum me up the chimney?
“It’s worth a shot”
Maybeline composed herself, and then gathered up the pawn. There was no time to waste — they’d have to be swift, and they’d have to be discreet.
“You know, Mr. Pawn, I didn’t get to say this last time but — ”
“I’m going to miss you.”
The pawn, dropping his wisecracker veneer for once, was overcome with emotion. He gave Maybeline’s palm an affectionate nudge, and nuzzled tenderly against her knuckle-joints. But then he composed himself, and resumed the tough-guy act —
“I’ll send you a postcard from New London!” the pawn said.
They tiptoed out of the study, taking greatest care to be discreet.
“They’re still in the lounge,” Maybeline whispered to her friend. “Now we’ve just gotta get you to the drawing room without being seen…”
The duo shuffled down the hallway, taking special care as they crossed the barroom doors on the mezzanine.
“It’s in here — ” Maybeline said, ushering him in — then she froze —
Is that — is that a baby? the pawn asked.
On the floor was the Homeowners’ child, an inquisitive, pudgy toddler that was in the process of crawling towards a potted plant. It couldn’t have been more than a few centimetres from the pawn, and it turned to look at him with big eyes. “Oh dear me,” said Maybeline to herself, glancing at the crib-cam on her wrist.
“Don’t move,” she told him in a grave voice. “Babies can be dangerous.”
And then all of a sudden the infant punched the pawn, as if on instinct, and sent it careening across the room.
Thunk! — it collided against the edge of a lamplight. And then, hearing this, the infant began crying —
“No! No — stop — please,” Maybeline implored, even as she knew that babies were impervious to imploring. In fact, it only began to wail louder.
Huh—whazzit? said the pawn, still coming to his senses.
Maybeline scrambled to recover him, and went to comfort the infant with another hand. It would only cry louder and louder, eyes fixated on the pawn. She desperately tried to placate it for a few seconds, and then, giving up, placed it upon a plush-chair.
“We’ll have to check the perimeter,” she told the pawn, feeling equal parts distraught and daredevil, and darted to the doorway for a peek —
The Homeowner was in the hallway.
“Maybeline?” it asked, upon spotting her. “What you doing hiding behind there?”
She nervously came out the drawing room and in full-view.
“What happened to the crib-cam? Weren’t you — ”
And then it spotted the pawn, perched on her palm, still reeling from the impact.
“Is that a — ”
Maybeline knew she didn’t have a moment to lose. She closed her fingers over the pawn, ignoring his muffled protestations, and made a swift about turn, her eyes on the front door.
It’s too late! the pawn said, from inside her clenched fist. It’s seen us now!
Maybeline made a dash for the door, without even thinking —
“Maybeline!” the Homeowner roared, from behind her —
In a fraction of a moment, she was at the door. In another, she had unlocked it — and before the Homeowner could think to move she was already halfway through it. And then she ran, ran, and ran, towards the horizon and without once looking back.
What are you doing? the pawn asked, from inside her hand.
“I’m coming with you,” she said.