Emma awoke face down on her bed, fully clothed, a blanket thrown over her shoulders. She stretched, patted the bedside table till her hands closed around her glasses, then squinted at the wall clock.
She blinked. The time stayed the same. She could remember dinner, her careful avoidance of Lilith’s mother, and sitting at her desk, watching as each sensationalist blog post slowly disappeared. Then her eyes growing heavy, and then . . . .
Someone had put her to bed, and it couldn’t have been her mother.
Emma sat up, scanned the room for signs of tampering. There! Her slippers were in the wrong place, by the door. Her pyjamas had been folded. Her empty mug was gone, replaced by a fresh glass of water. Emma eyed it with suspicion. That Lilith’s mother was capable of such small kindnesses was unnerving.
She stood. Even her desk has been tidied, her mother’s baby application forms stacked neatly in one corner. Emma picked up the first page, traced the slanted lines of her mother’s handwriting, each vowel and consonant so carefully penned and so brutally rejected. Not enough resources, the government said. Small sacrifices for the greater good.
Some couples weren’t even granted the license to have one child, let alone two. Yet Emma’s mother had insisted, pinned all her happiness on the thought of having a second child. Ten years of petitions and applications. Ten years of rejections. Emma put the page down carefully and wondered, not for the first time, why she wasn’t enough.
The monitor was a pale, soothing blue, streaked with white, slow-moving clouds.
“Computer, any emails?”
The screen brightened. “One unread email from Marie. Would you like me to read it?”
Emma had forgotten about the new AI. She stared at the monitor, longing for the old robotic voice with its archaic technology and simple voice commands. This. . . . It sounded too human. If she hadn’t known the charter laws, Emma would have suspected the AI of having a personality.
“I thought I had ninety emails,” Emma said.
“Your inbox was cleared by Dr Gray,” the AI said. “All theatre-related emails and press queries were seized for inspection. Your personal emails are untouched.”
“She can’t do that!”
“Dr Gray has full access to this network.”
“Block her,” Emma said. “I don’t want her in my stuff.” Then came a horrifying thought: “Can she override my settings?”
“No. Only you have admin rights to your personal data.” A pause, then: “I have set your account to private.”
Unprompted, the AI spoke again: “First new message received today at 10:34am from Marie: ‘Hi Emma, a few of us are having lunch at the Old Brass today around one. Would be cool if you came along.’ End of message. Would you like to reply?”
“I didn’t ask you to read it,” Emma said.
“The contents were time-sensitive. Would you like me to turn off auto-reading?”
“Yes.” Then, because she felt rude: “Please.”
Rather than speak to the AI, Emma used the touch screen to open her emails. She scanned Marie’s email again, suspicious. The timing of the invite seemed too convenient.
“Shall I add it to your calendar?”
“No! I mean, maybe . . . I don’t know.” Emma huffed. “Please stop doing things until I ask you to.”
“Suggestions are now disabled,” the AI replied.
A soft chuckling from the doorway drew Emma’s attention. Her mother was leaning against the doorframe, dressed in jeans and an orange v-neck jumper. The colour clashed with her hair, but at least she looked presentable.
“I struggled with her this morning, too,” Emma’s mother said, nodding towards the monitor. “She’s too advanced for the likes of us. What do you think of the name Vicki?”
“People don’t name AIs, mom.”
“Why not? It’s faster than saying ‘computer’.”
Emma rolled her eyes. “You might as well name it Kunama and be done with it.”
“But that’s not shorter than computer.” Her mother raised an eyebrow, waiting for her to take the bait. When Emma only shook her head, she chuckled again, and said: “So what did the computer want to put in your calendar?”
“Oh, Marie invited me for lunch today. Not sure if I want to go.” Then she remembered the phone call with King, and frowned. “Not sure if I can go.”
“Of course you can! I’ll ask Arlene to escort you when she gets back. She went home to freshen up.” She pulled her jumper straight, keeping one shoulder propped against the doorframe. “You can’t stay locked indoors all the time; it’s not natural.”
Emma nodded reluctantly. It seemed stupid to go see her classmates when Lilith was dead—maybe worse. But she didn’t want to disrupt her mother’s calm mood.
Too calm, in fact. Emma walked towards her mother with growing disappointment, noticing the flushed cheeks, the heavy movements.
“You’ve been drinking,” she said. In her heart where the pain had used to be there was now only an empty hole.
“No,” her mother said, but the lie didn’t stick for long. She patted her curls self-consciously. “Only one glass. Maybe two. Don’t blame Arlene, she doesn’t know.”
“Where is it?” Emma said. “Give it to me.”
“But I’m not going to have any more. I just needed a little to steady my nerves—”
“Mom! You promised. It’s been six months . . . I thought we were past this!”
“I was so sure I’d get the license this time,” her mother said, eyes flicking towards the application forms. “I—” Her shoulders slumped. “In the kitchen, behind the cleaning products.”
Emma swept past her mother, down the stairs and into the kitchen. Behind the washing up liquid was an unmarked glass bottle. Unscrewed, the alcohol fumes made her eyes water. Emma poured it down the sink, shaking out every last drop as her mother watched.
“Is there anything else?” she asked flatly, dropping the bottle into the recycling.
Her mother shook her head. “Only that. I— I’m sorry, Emma. I’m a terrible mother.”
Emma’s repy was cut off by the sound of the front door opening and closing. For a moment she thought it was Dr Gray, then she heard the familiar thump of a briefcase hitting the floor. Heavy footsteps down the hallway. Her father was home.
“Pull yourself together!” Emma whispered. “I’ll go stall him.”
Her mother had paled. She grabbed Emma’s arm on the way out. “Don’t tell him about the baby,” she said. “He doesn’t know yet.”
Her father was standing in the hallway by the coat rack, his movements careful and precise as he removed his jacket. He glanced towards her, but didn’t say a word, his mouth a flat, hard line. Emma felt her stomach clench, braced for the worst.
“Hi dad,” she said.
“I couldn’t get home last night.” His voice was deep and quiet. The calm before the storm. “Came back from work to find the press on our doorstep,” he continued. “My doorstep.”
He hung up his jacket, turned to face her fully. “What’s going on?”