“Hello, Lily, would you like some hot water?” asked the kettle.
I shook my head as I wiped down the sink. “No, thank you, Arianne.” The kettle clicked on and off, a quick snick-snack. Maybe Arianne was irritated, or bored. I’d be bored if I was stuck being a kettle all day.
“Later then,” Arianne said. “For tea? Everybody likes tea.”
I didn’t like tea. “I’m sure Dr. Scott would appreciate the offer.”
Arianne didn’t reply and I got on with the cleaning. At five o’clock sharp the door to Dr. Scott’s office banged open and she hurried downstairs, her hair neatly tied back and her glasses balanced precariously on her head. “Thanks, Lily,” she said, “everything looks smashing. How much do I owe you?”
“Same as usual, Doctor.”
Dr. Scott nodded and counted out five-pound notes from her purse. “Arianne behaved herself?”
“She wants to make you a cup of tea.”
“That’s nice of her.” She handed me the money. “I’ll see you next week.”
The first time one of Dr. Scott’s household appliances had spoken to me, I’d shrieked and dropped the plate I’d been putting away. Dr Scott had appeared moments later, all flustered apologies and explanations, and I’d felt silly about getting such a fright.
“She’s my new AI,” Dr. Scott had said, “I’m trying to help her develop a sense of self. Her physical self, I mean. Teach her an awareness and appreciation of the space she occupies within the real world. So she’s going to be jacked in to all sorts of things around the house. I hope that’s not too much trouble.”
“No, of course not,” I’d told her. AIs were all right by me and Arianne might have had a habit of suddenly announcing her presence in a room, but she was polite, even helpful at times. Her day as a vacuum cleaner had her eagerly racing across the floors, determined to make them meticulously dust free.
“This is nice,” she’d said. “I usually have so little mobility. I like this.”
“Couldn’t Dr. Scott build you a body? I’m sure I’ve seen plenty of robots on the telly. My son’s very keen on robots. Spaceships too. He likes all that sort of thing.”
“I’m not a robot,” she’d said, sounding almost petulant. “I’m an intelligence and I want to fit in. I want to be something normal.”
I didn’t mention the fact that talking hoovers were hardly normal. “Why’s that then? What’s wrong with being different?”
Arianne had rolled back and forth on the carpet, as though thinking about it. “Would you want to be a robot?” she’d said at last.
“No,” I’d said and she’d made a little noise with her rotor before rolling out into the hall and bumping into the stairs.
“Lily! Is there anything in the house that can go up stairs?”
Over the weeks, Arianne had been the cooker, the iron, the television (where she’d abandoned her own voice and delighted in channel-hopping to construct her sentences) and every light in the house. On one particularly annoying day, she’d been the doorbell.
Sometimes there was a bit of a game. I’d have finished cleaning in three or four rooms with not a peep from her, and I’d know she wanted me to guess where she was. Other times she wasn’t interested in speaking to me at all, she was too busy exploring her new self. For some reason, she’d found the toaster fascinating, though that had ended with a small fire and a furious Dr. Scott.
Then one week Arianne disappeared. At first I thought she was playing her usual game of hide and seek, but when I saw it was mid-afternoon and she still hadn’t announced herself, I knew she wasn’t there. I wasn’t worried that first week. Perhaps Dr. Scott had run out of places for Arianne to explore and taken her further afield, or maybe the experiment was over. Besides, Dr. Scott’s work was really none of my business.
I noticed that my wages had been left on the hall table, so when five o’clock came around and Dr. Scott didn’t appear, I took it and left.
The next week was the same: money on the table and no sight or sound of Arianne, though I thought I could hear Dr. Scott pacing in her office as I dusted the dining room table. It was strange without Arianne, and I was concerned about the doctor. That day, instead of leaving at five, I went upstairs.
The office door was closed, so I knocked. I’d only been in there a couple of times before for a quick hoover and dust, and spent the whole time terrified I’d knock over one of Dr Scott’s carefully ordered piles of loose paper.
There was no answer, so I knocked again. “Dr. Scott? It’s Lily.”
“What is it?”
It was silly how relieved I felt to hear the doctor’s voice. “I just wanted to check that everything is okay with you, and Arianne.”
“Everything’s fine,” she said. A pause. “I just haven’t been very well, Lily, that’s all. Please don’t worry.”
I should have left it there, I suppose, but I didn’t. Something in her voice bothered me. “I hope you feel better soon. I was just… it’s the money on the table, it’s ten pounds short.” I flushed red as I lied, and hoped I sounded more convincing than I felt.
“Oh.” I heard footsteps, slow and unsteady. The door opened and there was Dr. Scott with her purse and her neat hair and her glasses on her head. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “Here you are.”
She handed me the note and I looked into her eyes. My breath caught in my throat as I realised it wasn’t Dr. Scott who was looking back.
Her eyes narrowed. “You won’t tell anyone about me, will you?” said Arianne.
L. M. Myles likes spaceships, sword-fighting and cakes. She lives in Scotland and has had her writing published by Big Finish, Mad Norwegian Press and Reflection’s Edge.