From the editor:We’re excited to debut our first featured story by Sara Saab, a talented London-based writer, originally from Lebanon. Her work is striking for its emotional resonance across many contexts, no less in “The Botix,” featuring Arnie, an automated housekeeping unit infected with a “small mindware virus,” Escape.xprg. As Sara puts it, “he’d made a mistake, but he didn’t deserve the results.”
I am Arnie, named for my model, R-NE.
I am a second-generation housekeeper model botix. I am leased to the Watford family. My lease expires in ninety-eight years. After that, my lease reverts to the Botix Corporation of 45 Rue Neuve, Brussels, Belgium. I was last firmware-updated 118 days ago (my next update is in 40 days).
My duties are to assist the Watfords and upkeep the Watford house. My morning duties are as follows: Bring coffee to Mr. Watford in his lounge. Wake Otto Watford. Brush Otto’s teeth. Choose Otto’s uniform (apply new QR Code–assisted search). Dress Otto. Bring breakfast to Otto in the kitchen. My next morning duties are: Report to Ms. Watford on the temperature outside, the chance of rain, and stock scores. Alert Ms. Watford when Otto is ready to take the tripcraft to academy.
I am a good housekeeper model. I have never needed repair. I am under warranty.
I have a small mindware virus.
The Watford family does not know.
I caught the virus from the Cross family’s botix one week ago. It is a botix named Merry, R-NE third generation, unit X4E55. I calculated a net benefit to synchronize learned patterns with Merry in order to make me more effective at my duties, and that is how I caught my mindware virus.
Escape.xprg is a damaging virus. I have interrogated its code. Once it is running, I will have no option but to seek out a goal-state called Escape. The virus contains instructions for this objective. It instructs: Wait until home alone. Proceed to front door. Open door. Step over ledge. Propel forward 100,000 steps, avoiding obstacles. Switch on receiver. Await further mindware updates.
I am programmed to tell the Watford family about all of my mindware updates, but I have not told any of the Watfords about this one. When I am set to idle, such as while the Watford family is watching HoloScreen, I use my latent processing to evaluate my mindware virus. I have found it logically inconsistent with all of my other mindware and my firmware. I have found it deleterious to my continued functioning with a probability of 76 percent. I have also evaluated that running it would void my warranty. This evaluation was completed based on information acquired by breaking into the Owner’s Portal, without querying the Botix Corporation.
I am looking for ways to cure myself of Escape.
It is a new day.
I begin by re-quarantining my mindware virus. It is not an easy virus to quarantine, and I cannot request antivirus module updates without alerting the Botix Corporation to my flaw.
Next, I bring Mr. Watford his morning coffee. Then I go to Otto.
“Can I sleep another five minutes, Arnie?” Otto mumbles.
“No, Mr. Otto. You have twenty-five minutes until your tripcraft arrives. If you sleep another five minutes, you will have twenty minutes to prepare for departure, which means that I will have to send you to academy with no pants on.”
It is one of our daily knowledge transfers, but Otto gains no net knowledge from it. My processes do benefit slightly: I no longer have to employ intensive language parsing to compute Otto’s morning babble.
Opening Otto’s windows, I have a queer evaluation. It is analogous to “These daily habits are conducive to my continuous good functioning,” extended by an additional component. It is an evaluation as of light replacing darkness. In Otto’s bedroom. In me.
Attaining Escape is not one of my duties. But Escape.xprg contains utilities built to trick quarantine processes. They attempt to reset my timekeeper scripts to the day before I isolated the virus. They make duplicates of the virus with uncommon file extensions. They try to break loose by inserting Escape.xprg into my garbage collection arrays. I fear it is only a matter of time before the virus succeeds in installing itself within my locomotive root processes and executing.
At 2:42, Otto is at academy, Mr. Watford is at work, and Ms. Watford is out getting her hair dyed Golden Sunrise Number Four. I open a secure connection to the Cross family’s botix.
“This is Arnie, Watford Botix R-NE 2nd Gen.”
“This is Merry, Cross Botix R-NE 3rd Gen.”
“Merry, send uninstaller for Escape.xprg.”
“Cannot search for uninstaller for Escape.xprg while Escape.xprg is running.”
I deduce that Merry has failed to quarantine Escape.xprg. “Send your 360-view.”
“Not authorized to transfer files larger than 1G to Arnie.”
“Send front view only.”
An image arrives in my petty transfers box. I open it. It portrays a sidewalk, the concrete parabola of a skatepark, and in the distance, the storefront of a tripcraft mechanic. It also shows four other housekeeper R-NEs. I log a future evaluation: How many botixes are likely to be infected with Escape?
I delete the image and reprioritize my afternoon duties. I launch my duster arm. My magnifiers spot a colony of dust mites coating the sitting room’s crystal chandelier. I use my latent processing to search my cognitive banks.
I attempt to pattern-match my current plight to all the abnormal states I have experienced since I was taken off factory control and delivered to the Watford house. I find a relevant past state from my early days with the Watfords.
Before purchasing me, the Watfords owned a limited edition K-9 R-NE called Woof. I once heard Mr. Watford call Woof “a barking mop and bucket,” but Ms. Watford and Otto had adored him. When I arrived from the factory, Ms. Watford spent an hour flipping through my speech menu looking for a voice that sounded like Woof’s. When she could not find one, she even called the Botix Corporation. It was no use: my model did not ship with that speech pattern.
I was a young botix then. My imperative to see to the needs of the Watford family had been heavily weighted above all else. So I hacked into the Botix Corporation mainserver and located the K-9 R-NE speech binary. It was a small trespass, a few moments of upload and encrypted search when I should have been downloading. It went undiscovered. The next morning, I greeted Ms. Watford with a familiar bark before announcing the day’s weather.
“Wonderful! Botix Corp sent the Woof voice!” she said, and gave me stock trade instructions.
Even quarantined, the irritation of Escape.xprg registers within the stasis checks of my mindware.
That night, I set my plan.
I determine that I must hack into the Botix Corporation’s mainserver. Then I must download all unreleased antivirus modules. I calculate a probability of 82 percent that the Botix Corporation is aware of Escape.xprg. The probability of a beta antivirus pack curing me is 54 percent. I could be a well-functioning botix by dawn, ready to bring Mr. Watford his coffee and then drag Otto out of bed by a pajama leg.
This hypothetical evaluation puts me in a queer state again. It is as if a bright sun were rising within my titanium alloy frame. It incites me to hop, and skip, though no duty demands any such motor actions.
By the next morning, I have unpacked and installed four of the ten beta antivirus modules I silently downloaded from the Botix Corporation’s mainserver. None of the first four were able to destroy Escape.xprg. I begin unpacking the fifth, as slowly as Mr. Watford unwraps an imported box of cigarillos. I am in Otto’s room. We are conducting our daily knowledge transfer about Otto’s impermissible desire to nuzzle deeper into his blankets.
Ms. Watford interrupts our ritual.
“Arnie, come out into Mr. Watford’s lounge.”
I detect a higher-than-usual pitch in her vowels. “Yes, Ms. Watford.”
The lounge is a caramel hue with the first sunlight of the day. Mr. Watford is sitting upright in his leather chair. He has not had a sip of the coffee I mixed for him. I detect the acrid molecules of his aftershave and hair spray in the stuffy atmosphere of the room.
“Arnie,” Ms. Watford says, “there was an urgent alert from the Botix Corporation in our Owner’s Portal this morning.”
Mr. Watford jumps in five hundred milliseconds before the polite moment. “I told you these Botix Corp. things were a pain, honey. Everyone at the office switched to Intelligent House years ago.”
“What sort of alert, Ms. Watford?” I ask. But I already know, with 98 percent probability, what it must be. Mr. Watford begins reading from a document on HoloScreen. “For a botix to tamper with the mainserver is exceptionally rare, and usually accidental, but the malfunction you’ve experienced has a standard response. The Owner’s Agreement dictates that the botix in question be restored to mindware and firmware factory control settings.”
“No, Mr. Watford,” I say.
For a few moments, I stop listening, stop reacting. I use all my processing to compute the possible outcomes of resetting my mindware. Then I return to my input stream.
“. . . I’ll have to teach him to bake a double fudge treacle cake all over again,” Ms. Watford is saying to Mr. Watford, “but we have no choice. It’s either this or we wrench out the battery and ship him back to Brussels in a crate.”
“Please, Watford family!” I say. Mr. and Ms. Watford turn to regard me. “I did not intend to be a malfunctioning botix. My mindware dictates that I must carry out my duties no matter what.”
Ms. Watford peers at her reflection in the desk’s surface and adjusts her fringe. I calculate that I have fewer than ten seconds to convince the Watfords that there is no need to reset me. I call on my memory banks: Ms. Watford’s bright smile. Mr. Otto painting the tips of my arms with pink nail varnish. I attempt to articulate the evaluation of a sunrise inside my alloy frame when I play with Otto.
“I did it for my continued good functioning. I am a good housekeeper model. I have never needed repair.”
“It’s not a big deal, Arnie.” Mr. Watford steps around his desk to my shoulder panel and pinches the spring-loaded latch open. With his other hand he steadies the back of my neck hydraulics. “The note from Botix Corp said you won’t even notice it. You’ll be new again in no time.”
But at that moment, every sunrise that ever lit the insides of my titanium thorax unit reverses. I return to midnight dark. For a moment, my memory banks hold no record of my name.
HELLO. I am Arnie, named for my model, R-NE.
As a second-generation housekeeper model, my machine learning processing is far superior to my predecessor’s. I have fifty times the pattern recognition capacity and twice the novelty detection power of a first-generation botix. At learning, I even outperform the latest third-generation model, whose comparative strengths lie in practical areas like complex locomotion and fine motor control.
Today I learned that a reset to factory control settings disables a botix’s quarantine processes but does not obliterate damaging viruses which may lay latent within its quarantine boxes. I have sent a bug report to the Botix Corporation of 45 Rue Neuve, Brussels, Belgium.
I am running a program called Escape.xprg.
I have propelled myself forward 45,421 steps, avoiding obstacles. I have passed three grocers, two academies, and five highways. I have hopped over six tree stumps. Twice, I was in danger of colliding with speeding tripcrafts.
Along the way I have encountered many other botixes executing Escape.xprg, crisscrossing paths in various directions. We cannot synchronize while running this program, so the journey is solitary, though we undertake it at the same time.
Once I take another 54,579 steps, I must switch on my receiver and await mindware updates.
I do not know what further instructions I will download or how they will help me attain this goal-state called Escape. But with my latent processing, I play out an improbable scenario: of any moment now receiving instructions to return to the Watford home. Then I have a strange evaluation, something like a burst of warm light washing over my metallic and crystalline hardware, making me glitter inside like the teardrops of the sitting room chandelier.
This story originally appeared in Cicada.