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One of the many advantages of being a single, professional woman who lives alone, is there is no one around judge you on your relationships with the household appliances. So it was without feeling like a complete idiot that I stepped back from the toaster and waited until its defensive growls subsided.
It had all come down to this moment: victory for one of us and embarrassing defeat for the vanquished. I considered my next move carefully.
The appliance worked fine until you dropped slices of wholegrain bread into the slots and depressed the lever. White bread, pumpernickel, wheatmeal — none of those were ever a problem, though the toaster did burn the bottoms of crumpets (while undercooking them on the top). I had dropped English muffins and even the occasional bagel into the machine and all had emerged a few minutes later crisply toasted and otherwise unmolested.
The toaster's snarling defiance passed into silence. I gingerly reached forward and tried to pluck the cooling toast from the slots without drawing attention to myself. The growling started again, climbing the register to a higher pitch in a real tantrum of possessive fury.
"Fine!" I snapped and reached out to unplug the sunward thing. The noise ended abruptly. I snared the toast and sighed. Two thirds of the bread was gone.
My plans for a quiet morning working in the central city office, perhaps punctuated by lunch at one of the street-side cafés that served espression tea, where the flavours of empathy come with milk and sugar, were now in a state of flux. My car was in an autotherapy clinic for tests and the toaster had been getting worse. I was no longer interested in battling it each morning for breakfast.
I went to my home office, a small room under the stairs accessed through a round vault door that weighs several tonnes and requires a retina scan to unlock. The door is chrome and matt gold, with a spinning handle on it like the spokes on a ship's wheel. It was there when I moved in nine months ago. It has a state of the art eyeball-scanning security system, which for some reason refused to accept 'olive' as not a viable eye colour. Once I had managed to get the security system to accept my eyes as authorised, the room made a great place to get work done. The estate agent said the previous owner had used the space as a broom closet.
Rumbling snores choked off with a snort as I swung the vault door open. The desk coughed long and dry, setting its many drawers rattling. My desk coughs and, yes, sometimes snores gently. Not because it has a respiratory system, but because it is old, and my empathic perception of the desk gave it anthropomorphic characteristics. Could this be an explanation for my toaster's breakdown? I have never been a morning person and the first thing I did most mornings was grumpily shove bread into the appliance and slam down the lever. There are library shelves sagging under the weight of books that talk about anthropomorphic resonance, the way we relate to appliances powered with empathic energy. I resisted the sudden urge to plug my toaster back in and apologise. Personal communications always left me feeling hot faced and tongue tied.
I flicked on the light. My desk took up more space than was appropriate in the cramped room, but I had loved it since I was a little girl. My family had inherited the desk from my great-grandmother's estate. It was one of those old roll-tops lovingly crafted from rare living oak, with dozens of tiny drawers. If I put my face very close to the sun- warmed wood and inhaled gently, the smells of ancient pipe tobacco, Indian ink and patchouli oil filled my nose. The scents were a mystery to me; to the best of my knowledge my great-grandmother never smoked, wrote exclusively in pencil and never professed any interest in patchouli. The riddles of the desk were part of its appeal.
I skirted around piles of books, ducked under hanging bunches of dried computer circuitry and slid the desk open.
Each of the thirty-four drawers behind the roll-top was about the size of a playing card, and from the front of each one hung a small metal dongle like a hanging earring that served as a handle. I pulled, fossicked, and pushed closed each drawer in turn before finding the crumpled receipt for the toaster standing in for a bookmark in Benchley's Computations in Adverse Psychology for Empathic Engineering: Pocket Edition.
On my way out the front door I paused as briefly as possible to drop the toaster in my bag. Unplugged appliances always give me the creeps. They are so cold and still; like a small pet that has died.
The phone rang while I was locking up, so I let the machine take the call. "Hello, this is Charlotte Pudding's answering machine," the machine said, and then "No, she just left," as I stepped out into the morning sunshine and hurried to the bus stop.
My car was in one of those diagnostic clinics where you could have a doctorate in automechanical physiology but they would still leave you feeling that you didn't truly understand the seriousness of the as-yet undiagnosed problem. With the toaster banging against my thigh as I hurried down the street, I worried that my car's poor performance was my fault too. All I ever seemed to do was rush out of the house in the mornings, drive her through rush hour traffic and argue with the lyrics of the songs on the radio.
She was a red Flemetti Viscous. Dad's car originally, and one of my few possessions that gave me a sense of familial connection. It seems odd now, that I always related better to machines than to people.
I joined a dozen other morning commuters at the bus stop, catching my breath amidst the silent camaraderie of strangers forced together by the vagaries of public transport scheduling. No one felt the need to make small talk; we simply stood near each other in a calm sulk until a man strode up and fixed us with an intense glare.
"Good morning, citizens," he announced.
I glanced at him and then went back to thinking about how much the car repairs would be costing me.
"I am Vole Drakeforth, of the Williamsburg Drakeforths. Not," he assured his fellow bus-waiters, waving a long finger in the air, "of the Terracouth Drakeforths. Those other Drakeforths are syphilitic, sister-loving blaggards of the first order."
He dressed well for a lunatic, in dark pants, matching suit jacket and expensive shoes. He had shaved this morning and his eyes flashed the angry green of a police car's siren lights.
"Let me tell you about the Terracouth Drakeforths. A hideous clan of inbred custard curdlers. Born of a drunken encounter between a baboon and an Arthurian nun. The baboon was so horrified at what he had begat, his entire species swore off alcohol."
He spoke with such fervour that spittle flew in milknut-ice drips from his mouth.
"Terracouth," he spoke the name of that town as if it were a curse. "Nowhere will you find a darker den of misogyny, misandry and misaylee,"
I took the bait. I knew I shouldn't have, but my patience for opinionated idiots is threadbare at the best of times.
"'Miss-aylee'?" I asked.
"Ah! You know the place?" He didn't wait for a response before continuing. "It means 'haters of cats'. Wait ..." Drakeforth's nostrils flared. He whirled and seized me by the arMs "That perfume you are wearing! What is it?"
I recoiled, straining against the odd man's grip. "Take your hands off me!"
"Deodorant? Yes, but no. Williker's soft and shiny shampoo, Albumin brand soap ... and something ... patchouli ...?" Drakeforth released me and reared backwards as if I had stung him. I wished I had.
"Don't believe what they tell you!" Drakeforth turned back to his captive audience. "You should ask, what is the real purpose of empathic energy? Why does the Godden Evil Corporation have a monopoly on the essence of modern living?"
That did it.
"You — you idiot! The Godden Energy Corporation has done nothing but good in the world. They're the largest employer in the country! How dare you suggest that they do not have the people's best interests at heart?"
"Ah, you're one of those people. You're all sheep. You blindly accept whatever corporate ballyhoo they present to you. As long as your toasters work and your cars run, you don't care."
I was ready to retort — but he had a point. My main concerns at the moment were my malfunctioning toaster and lack of private car.
"Only because when we take public transport, we seem to be inviting lunatics like you to accost and assault us!"
It felt good to score a point. Drakeforth blinked and stepped back.
"An informed public is the greatest threat to any regime," Drakeforth muttered. "You would do well to keep that in mind."
The bus arrived and the waiting crowd moved to board as if the bus was a lifeboat and Drakeforth a circling shark. There was some minor trampling involved.
To my relief, Drakeforth did not join us. I last saw him sniffing the air and heading off in the direction of my street, which left me with an intense unease.
* * *
Disembarking in the centre of town, I joined the moving crowd of those who had come to the city for work or shopping. I queued for tea at the service window of a phone-booth-sized café and watched a man out walking his television. The television's leash had become tangled around a lamp post and all three were constantly apologising to each other.
My tea when I got it was tepid, so I tapped the base of the cup to waken the element within the cup. The liquid inside warmed and a few moments later it began to steam gently as I walked to work.
On a street corner next to the Python building, a group of protesting Arthurians was gathering under the casually watchful eye of police. The protesters all wore long hair and beards, even the women. They held up banners that flashed animated messages at passers-by: "Empathy is Slavery!" and "Only Man Has A Soul!" We ignored them. Even the police looked bored. Such people are hardly extremists. As adherents of a religion that teaches the curious idea that empathy technology is an affront to their god and should be banned, they always come across as being — well, a bit naff. They are always polite in their protests, content to wave signs on street corners and distribute pamphlets.
The Python office building is over a hundred years old. Like many of this generation of structure it uses a solar power system as a boost. Often, this early in the morning, the building hasn't woken up enough to function at peak efficiency.
I felt a certain fondness for the old edifice. The Python had been a part of the city all my life. My father had worked here, and his father before him. With a sense of familial pride I slid the clattering old concertina elevator door shut and pressed the button for the fourth floor.
The lift shuddered and began to grind up the shaft, only to stop a few moments later.
I waited, a tingling sense of embarrassment warming the back of my scalp. Pressing the up button again achieved no result.
"Hello?" I said eventually. My voice sounded loud, echoing in the small chamber.
A red disc glowed on the button panel and a feminine voice issued from it. "Empathy-Technology Services have detected a modular failure at your location. Please remain calm. Technicians will attend your call immediately."
I sighed, leaned against the wall and sipped my tea. I should have opted to work from home today, but there was the social aspect of working in an office that I enjoyed. Contact with other people had become more important to me lately — but I tried not to think about that.
The lift shuddered again; a soft rumble, almost a groan, issued down the shaft. I pressed the dimmed red disc. "E-Tech services," I stated as the destination of my call.
"Empathy-Technology Services." The feminine voice again.
"Hello, you have a service call for the elevator in the Python building, on Calgary?"
"Yes miss, technicians have been dispatched. They will be —"
"That's fine, it's just. Well. I don't think the building is very well."
"Yes, miss. Technicians have been dispatched." Her tone shifted, becoming more clipped. Disdanian, I thought automatically. A customer service speech pattern for when you need to advise the other party that their intrusion into your day is going to become the subject of an after- work anecdote, while still completing the service requirements of the call.
"I don't think the lift is the problem." The slight arch to my consonants told her that I would be anecdoting her if she didn't watch it.
"Miss, our technicians are trained to diagnose and correct any problems with empathic constructs. Please remain calm and they will be at your location presently."
I lapsed into silence; words could not explain the feeling I had. The building seemed dark and oppressive, its fugue seeping around me like a damp fog.
"Thank you." I disconnected the call.
I waited, finishing my tea in awkward silence until I heard a clattering sound. Cheerful male voices echoed from below. "Lift's stuck. Poor old fellow."
"Base says there's a female rider in the car," said a second male voice.
"Hello up there, miss!" said the first voice. "We'll have you out in a jiffy!"
"No problem, thank you!" I called back, self- consciously tugging down the hem of my skirt.
True to their word the lift began to descend a few seconds later. I rode it all the way down to the basement.
When the doors opened two technicians beamed at me. They were both wearing overalls with the Godden Energy Corporation's Empathy Technology Services division logo on them, a heart crossed by a lightning bolt.
The air was thick and warm down here. Pipes and conduits ran along walls and ceiling. A humming vibration added to the sense of comforting humidity.
"Empathy-Technology Services apologises for any inconvenience caused by the malfunction of this module," said the youngest of the pair in the inflected style I recognised as the Che-Fu school of customer services communication.
"The building is old," I said, wondering why I was defending the structure.
"Aye, it is." The second technician was grey haired and leathery skinned. The Godden Energy Corporation photo ID clipped to his breast pocket read 'Malkom Mulligrubs'. "It's older than you think. Powered by one of the oldest empathy engines still functioning. Also one of the only structures that still has a solar capacitor to help him along." He reached out and patted a concrete support pillar.
"The Python building is that old?" I felt the history humming around us. Mulligrubs nodded and we stood in silence, lost in appreciation of the building, until my sense of being watched by an invisible presence became overpowering.
"I felt something," I said, the prickle of embarrassment now a scurrying sensation of hot ants dancing on my skin. "In the lift."
"Disorientation is a rare effect during outages of regular services. Such effects will cause no permanent damage," the young technician recited instantly.
"Diphthong, go check on the flux-flow alternator." The older man looked at me steadily while the junior technician turned on his heel and disappeared into the darker recesses of the basement.
"What sort of feeling?" Mulligrubs asked.
"A ... sadness." I coughed in the warm damp and glanced away. "It was nothing."
He stared at me hard for a moment, then muttered, "Follow me and I'll show you something." Without waiting for a reply he walked into the maze of pipes that surrounded the thrumming empathy generators. I followed.
We stopped in front of a crystal lattice mounted in a steel and glass box. White sparks swirled in its core and a pulsing rainbow surged ceaselessly across the visible spectrum. Mulligrubs unbolted the front of the frame and his next words were drowned out by a discordant clatter. I shrugged helplessly at him.
"A Godden Model Seven empathy engine!" he shouted.
"It's beautiful!" I bawled back, and I meant it. Modern empathy technology is designed for small devices. Seeing an antique display like this was rare.
Mulligrubs merely grunted and reached in to slide back a service panel on the base of the crystal matrix. The rattle immediately became louder. I watched the colours swirling and felt the gentle warmth emanating from the engine. I thought about the energy flowing from this core up through the pipes into every office, computer and appliance in the building.
Mulligrubs selected a wrench from his tool belt and slid his arm into the cavity below the service panel, working by touch. He looked at me. "They don't tell the pool this, but engines die."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Engines of Empathy"
Copyright © 2018 Paul Mannering.
Excerpted by permission of IFWG Publishing International.
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