Fiction

The Upgrade

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 FICTION
50 Ways To Leave Your Live-In Robot Lover

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Things were pretty good until 2033.
    In fact, things were really good until 2033. I was living in Pasadena, in those days. The weather was a weird, wonderful joke. I was twenty-five, hanging on to some leftover muscle from USC, driving a ’31 Chery Stallion and spending weekends in a haze of Stim. I was still doing the assistant manager thing at RoboMaxx, but the hours were decent and the employee discount truly rocked — fifteen percent off neuro upgrades, thirty percent off mech mods, thirty percent off cosmetic mods. My apartment was on the bombed-out end of Colorado Boulevard, but it was huge and the rent was comical and my neighbor was a shy, lovesick vegan named Grace who every Sunday would bake cranberry muffins and bring a platter over for me and Katrina to nibble. (And she really nibbled — I’d had a refurbished stomach mod installed on her the previous August.)

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     Weird, wonderful days. I hadn’t dated a woman — a human — since 2025. Susanna, with the dimples and nose hair, the half-insane laugh, the daddy issues. Oh, Susanna. She’d stood on her chair at Bella Vita and thrown a dirty napkin in my face and said that my soul was ruined. She said that I was psychologically retarded, that I was as emotionless as a bot.
    So the thing was, I didn’t miss women. I didn’t miss the childish flirting, the stupid, expensive gifts, the ridiculous countdown to sex, the endless phone calls and v-chats, the pitiful obsession with money, money, money. How could I miss women? I had my job, I had my apartment, and I had Katrina.
    In the mornings, after I left for work, Katrina would do her recharge thing, then mop the floors and scrub the spotless tub, disinfect the toilet, iron my pit-stained undershirts. In the evening she’d cook dinner — pasta and Mexican and simple stir-fries, since I’d never bothered with a cooking upgrade — and afterwards I’d flop on the sofa with a Stim, and Katrina would start a swaying, humming striptease, her skin caramel-colored and glossy, scarless. She’d flick her g-string at me with her big toe, and she’d giggle. Pretty soon I’d command her over and we’d get started, me with one eye on the holo, Katrina with her eyes pinched shut and hair whipped into a nest, until eventually she’d look at me with a coy, cat-like grin. "You should finish," she’d whisper. "My power is pretty low."
     "Flip over," I’d say. "Position thirteen. Activity level high."
     Of course she had 1500 SPI skin and Sugaku touch sensors. She had actual human hair — Indonesian hair, from the lowlands outside Jakarta — and human eyebrows, human lashes. A Bose voice box let her sing like a

She smiled shyly. "I feel all tingly. I guess you upgraded me, huh?"

soprano, growl like a convict or moan like a desperate virgin. She had top-end MicroMo servomotors, electroactive actuators in the soft, sensitive places.
     And of course she was gorgeous. I’d spec’d her out as a cross between Irina Porozka and Ginger Newton, with grace notes from the old-school beauties: Hayworth, Monroe, Loren, Jolie. But her fingers were ten millimeters longer than factory spec, her eyes three millimeters wider. She was better than human: more beautiful, crushingly beautiful. Even the hard-core modders at RoboMaxx held their breath when she strolled past.
    I don’t know why I decided to upgrade Katrina. It was August, a hot, pointless Saturday. We were at Federal Mart buying a new q-blocker. The geeks tracked me down in the parking lot, and the taller one, the one with the blood-colored Mohawk, threw his pathetic pitch. "It’s not experimental — it’s pre-release. Big difference, dude. I mean, technically it’s beta, but essentially it’s a finished product — we’re planning to roll it out in November. Just in time for Christmas, or whatever."
     Mohawk’s sidekick was a nervous Filipino with big nostrils. He started babbling about neuro-temporal networks and linguistic trees and contextual tags and runtime efficiencies. He claimed the upgrade would improve Katrina’s reasoning performance by an order of magnitude. He claimed it would improve her perceptual skills to near-human levels.
    I told him I wasn’t sure I wanted near-human levels.
    "She’ll be more tuned in to your moods — to what you want. She’ll read you better, dude."
    That, I wanted. That I seriously wanted.
    They led us to a moldy basement laboratory on the Cal Tech campus, made me sign some papers — a liability waiver, I later learned, for voiding Katrina’s warranty — then Mohawk powered her down, jacked her in, zapped the upgrade, rebooted her mesh. She blinked woozily; then her eyes focused on me. She smiled shyly. "I feel all tingly. I guess you upgraded me, huh?"
    The first thing I noticed about Katrina was that she stared at me — during breakfast, during dinner, during sex — and when I issued her a command she paused for a brief second, whiffs of passive aggression rising from her smell emitters. Her technique was unchanged, but there was a glimmer in her eyes, a certain injured pride, that sent me into hard spasms of ecstasy.
    One Saturday six weeks after the upgrade we were lazing on the sofa watching Shame! The sun was melting into a pink pool; I’d had four Stims and was floating on a gloriously exhausted buzz. Katrina rose from the sofa and stood in front of the holo. "You’re blocking my view," I said. "Move it." She stared at me, her left eye twitching — her VisCor vision system fritzing out, I figured — and then her eyebrow arched into a frown.

     

  

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    Katrina had never, not once, frowned. Katrina did not know how to frown.
    "You treat me like crap," she said.
    "I what?"
    "You treat me like crap."
    I sat up carefully. "What are you talking about?"
    "’Flip over.’ ‘Make dinner.’ ‘Move it.’ You treat me like a . . . like a machine."
    "You are a fucking machine!"
    Katrina yanked on her g-string and struggled into her uni, jerked the zipper up to her cleavage. "You don’t listen to me, you don’t talk to me — you just fuck me. If that’s all you wanted, you should have bought a Vaginator 3000."
    "The Vaginator 3000 causes penile lesions."
    "You’ve never told me you loved me. Not once, Willie."
    I should have shut her down. I should have shut her down and dragged her back to Mohawk and Nostrils, forced them to roll back the upgrade, smacked their idiot genius faces. I could have told her about it afterward, how she’d started acting sketchy and paranoid, how I’d saved her at the last moment. Katrina would have gazed at me, entranced by the story’s drama. To her, it would have seemed like an act of love.
    Instead I said, "Come on, Katrina. Of course I love you. Come on, sit down. For Christ’s sake, we’re missing Shame!"
    "I don’t care about Shame! I care about how you feel, vis-à-vis our relationship!"
    I couldn’t stop myself. "Vis-à-vis. Nice. Did you download a free language upgrade?"
    "You’re making fun of me."
    Katrina’s voice held a soft, sad note — even though she did not know how to be sad.
    She stood near the inductive charger, shifting her weight from foot to foot. "Stop talking, Katrina. Okay? Stop talking or I’m going to shut you off. Sleep mode, now."
    "I don’t want to stop talking," she said.

Everything is newer, brighter, faster, smaller — but they never mention that in the end it’s still up to you, you, you.

    She walked slowly away. I heard her rummaging in the bedroom — for what? I wondered, until I remembered the portable charger stowed beneath the bed. I stood up. The front door slammed. I peeled open another Stim. The Shame! laugh track filled the apartment.
    I gave her an hour, then a day, then a week. A $98,000 bot doesn’t just stroll away, does it? I called General Robotics that next Tuesday. Yes, she’d run away. No, I hadn’t commanded her to leave. Yes, I had her ID frequency. No, she’d never done this before.
    Had I upgraded her mesh with non-certified code?
    I hung up the phone. As I did, the truth struck me: I’d been ditched by a robot. I peeled a Stim and cranked the holo’s volume, and when Grace tapped on the door I shouted at her to mind her own business. I got baked that night, alone. I woke the next morning, alone, showered and ate breakfast, alone. I was late for my shift at RoboMaxx and got written up, and when the manager heard me whisper “dickwad” I got written up a second time.
    Fucking technology. Everything is newer, brighter, faster, smaller — but they never mention that in the end it’s still up to you, you, you. It’s been five months and still I can’t decide what to do. Do I buy a new Katrina — I can lease a GenRob SL3500 for $1,750 a month — or do I get a haircut and some decent jeans, head to the bars at the secure end of Colorado? Lately I’ve been feeling curious about women — about humans. What do they expect from me, from themselves, from each other, from the world? It’s been so long since I’ve been with a woman that I barely remember the words. Please. Allow me. I am sorry. I would be delighted.
    It’s Sunday. The door to Grace’s apartment is open. I hear her footsteps, her radio, her quiet singing. I smell her muffins rising.
 

  

     

©2006 Karl Iagnemma and Nerve.com
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Karl Iagnemma‘s writing has appeared in Playboy, The Best American Short Stories, and The Journal of Autonomous Robots. His first book of short stories, On the Nature of Human Romantic Interaction, was recently published by the Dial Press. Visit www.karliagnemma.com for more information.