Countdown - Ayame Whitfield (2014)



My identification is available in my primary databanks, under the file self-ID. There are also words etched into the small of my back, visible if I twist my neck around and turn towards the light.


ID# 23-ER-4568. Type 4 Housebot. Standard capabilities – Delta level. © International Automated Ar-

tificial Supply Co., August 2090.


Lot no. 453 • Expiration 12-July-2150.


In the thin white strip below, scribbled with a black marker––


Currently leased to Mr. Sadir Karim of Springfield, IL.


(And smaller print, a fine line of silver against smooth steel. Advancement capabilities: none.) ii.

The door slams open, and the thin metal walls of my home tremble. “What’s in that box?”

A thrum of footsteps, coming closer. They pause a few feet away. The sound of tapping fingers

echoes in the darkness. “Looks heavy, whatever it is.”

Another voice, from the next room. “That’s your birthday present. I thought you might want to open it after dinner?”




The footsteps retreat.




My first memory is one of noise. The clatter of steel on steel, the soft whir of machines, the       dis- tant sparking of electricity––these were my mother’s heartbeat, the ocean-sound of my womb.


I do not have a heart. I have an atom-powered clock in my cranium, winding down the seconds left to me. I have crackling electricity that serves for synapses, and motor oil that serves for blood. If I close my eyes and cover my ears with plastic-palmed hands, the only noise is a faint hum barely distinguishable from the silence.


I have millions of years of history embedded in neural networks, records of human societal inter- actions reckoned in trillions on trillions of bytes. I have standard access to the network that con- nects all demi-intelligences such as I and to what the humans call the internet. My gear-powered joints require only a drop or two of lubricant to function smoothly. My infrared eyesight will never dim. I will never, in other words, experience what the humans call aging.


I do not have a heartbeat.




“You’re a strange present.”


The girl perches on a kitchen stool, both elbows on the marble countertop. A cup of tea steams qui- etly in front of her. I stand at attention a few feet away.


“In what way have I proven myself insufficient?”


She snorts, settling back on the stool and reaching for a plastic bottle of honey shaped like a bear. “Nothing. You haven’t––look, that’s not what I meant.”


According to the whirling algorithm tugging away at silver wires, this statement does not require a response. Outside the window, an arrowhead formation of jet planes scratch their way silently across the sliver of glass-enclosed sky. The blackout curtains tremble in a passing breeze.


The girl upends the bottle of honey over her steaming cup, the golden stream disappearing into the tea. Ropy strands of translucent light sift down through the light brown liquid, settling at the bottom like a layer of river mud. She sets it back down and leans in to blow on the tea.


“It’s just... well, I haven’t needed a babysitter for years, even if everyone’s worried about––you know.” She seems to slide past the word war, hurrying on to the next part: “And I can take care of myself. No need to spend whatever-thousands of dollars on a pile of circuitry to do the same––the


same job.” Her eyes cut away and she adds, “No offense.”


“I was not created to take offense, ma’am.”


The corners of her lips tug upwards. “Huh. Yeah, I guess you wouldn’t have been, would you?”




Today is October 4th, 2090.


I have sixty years, nine months, and eight days until the power unit embedded in me as an analog to a brain stem fizzles out. Until my identity as an individual computing unit is erased from the system. If I was a human, they would use the word dead, say passed away.


I am not human. The word is deactivated, the word is expired, like a puff of breath over tired lips.

The word is finished, because there is always a countdown running. It is a singular privilege to know precisely when one will cease to be.

(...eight days and fifteen hours and nine minutes and forty-nine seconds––and forty-eight seconds––and

forty-seven seconds––vi.

“Did they give you a name?” the girl asks, toying with the bracelet around her wrist. In the cor- ner, the radio drones on, dropping news of army movements and distant battle into the still air. Her father is away more often these days, the military development complex working overtime as the enemy draws near.


Self-identification file. Subsection verbal ID. “My identification number is 23-ER––”


“No,” she snaps, glancing up at me. Her eyebrows draw together, two dark slashes like the

wings of a bird.”A name. Like I’m Raina, and you’re––”


I stare at her for a long second, then: “I do not understand the nature of your question, ma’am.”


She sighs. Leans into the couch, the cushions molding to her shape and exhaling a cloud of dust that catches the sunlight. “Fine. They didn’t. That’s––fine.” She does not speak again. I wait in the settling dust as the sky darkens to evening, only the intermittent rumble of passing army aircraft breaking the silence.


Humans like to name things. I claim this city, this animal, this land, and I control it because I named it,

they say, and drive a flag into foreign soil and draw lines on a map to spell out mine and yours.


I am an owned thing. My name was never mine to have. (Why name a disposable thing?)




“Do you know when Papa’s coming home?” The girl runs her fingers up the edge of her book, tracing the sewn edge. Her usage of the familiar form alerts my human nature pathways that she is nervous, that she is trying to be brave. Her father has not been home for a full day.


“I do not. My orders were to guard you until he returned. No additional instructions were pro- vided.”


The ground shakes, a momentary tremor that sets the crystals in the chandelier above shivering. She hisses an unfamiliar word under her breath that I choose not to translate. “Does that sound like it’s getting closer?”




She narrows her eyes, setting the book down sharply. “Of course. Of course it is.”


The curtains light up orange as a house a few streets over goes up in flames. She flinches away.


“I suggest that you remove yourself to the underground shelter, ma’am,” I say. She doesn’t move. Perhaps she did not hear me over the falling bombs. “Ma’am?”


“Coming,” she sighs, and sets the book down.


And the world shatters.




The radio snarls a protest, swallowing the last words forced from the speakers, a tinny voice bark- ing out a warning as fire falls from the heavens.


All citizens are asked t––ind shelte––all citiz––




I wake to silence amid the ashes of a house.




There is no wind. My feet stir up clouds of soot as I move, a dark haze settling in my wake. My joints creak, what was once wood and paper and (inevitably) flesh working its way into the spidery cracks in my casing. I reach out a hand and discover that even my skin is blackened, the plastic covering melted and frozen in streams of liquid silicone.


Something crunches under my feet. I do not look down. My last order was to guard the girl. Where is she?




Ash begins to fall, grey snow from a sky clogged with smoke. I let it settle on me, weighing down my limbs, sifting into the gears that propel me. It softens the edges of the ruined world, mounding behind broken bricks and shattered concrete.


I do not call again.




I find a shard of soot-smeared bone, cradle it in my melted hands. Somewhere, in a corner of cir- cuitry, a countdown runs.


(Sixty years, three months, and thirteen days...) I will wait.

(...thirteen days and three hours and twenty-two minutes and eighteen seconds––and seventeen seconds––

and sixteen seconds––)