I can’t tell you how proud I am to be introducing a story by Tim Pratt at Futurismic. Seriously; this isn’t a man short of professional venues for his wide-ranging fictional output, but he tells us he’s been keen to sell us a story for some time now, and “A Programmatic Approach to Perfect Happiness” rang Chris’s editorial bell in just the right way. It’s something a little different to our usual house style: a little Gonzo, a little retro, but all Tim Pratt. I hope you enjoy it!
A Programmatic Approach to Perfect Happiness
by Tim Pratt
My step-daughter Wynter, who is regrettably prejudiced against robots and those who love us, comes floating through the door in a metaphorical cloud of glitter instead of her customary figurative cloud of gloom. She enters the kitchen, rises up on the toes of her black spike-heeled boots, wraps her leather-braceleted arms around my neck, and places a kiss on my cheek, leaving behind a smear of black lipstick on my artificial skin and a whiff of white make-up in my artificial nose. “Hi Kirby,” she says, voice all bubbles and light, when normally she would never deign to utter my personal designation. “Is Moms around? Haven’t talked to her in a million.”
I know right away that Wynter has been infected.
I carefully lay my spatula aside. “Your mother is… indisposed.”
She rolls her eyes. “Whatever makes you two happy.” She flounces off toward her bedroom, the black-painted shadowy forbidden portion of our home that my wife April calls “the tumor.”
I go to our bedroom door, push it open gently, and say, “Darling, your post-coital brunch is ready, and I believe Wynter has been infected by the H7P4 strain.”
A groan emerges from the pile of blankets, straps, and oddly-angled cushions that constitutes our bed. “Oh, god. Which one is that again?”
“The one that makes you happy,” I say, and close the door on April’s sardonic laughter.
“Do you desire sustenance, Wynter?” I hover outside my step-daughter’s door. (I mean only that I stand, shifting a bit, not that I literally hover. I do not literally hover inside the house. I am attempting to make greater use of metaphors and similes in my speech, to further aid my integration into human society). Being a stepfather is a difficult and delicate ongoing operation, and I wish to take advantage of the opportunity for interaction her infection has provided.
Her door swings open, and Wynter stands inside, face scrubbed clean of pale powders, lips merely pink, straight black hair accented by colorful barrettes. She still wears black – she scarcely has others colors in her wardrobe – but the velvet choker and leather accessories are gone. “Sure, I’ll take some eggs.” She steps past me, leaving her bedroom door open, itself an unprecedented act, allowing me complete visual access to her protected inner sanctum. My artificial eyes can wholly catalogue even rooms glimpsed in an instant, but in deference to Wynter’s wishes I always purge what I see from my memory.
I purge what I see this time, too, though Wynter does not seem concerned. I know she is not herself, that eventually this infection will run its course, and her old personality will return. I still remember the day Wynter began wearing black, two years before, when she was thirteen. Her mother hoped that was merely an infection, too, but the personality changes have proven purely internal.
April is already at the table, dressed in workout clothes and smiling with her usual serene afterglow, sipping a cup of coffee. “Hey Moms.” Wynter drops into a seat next to her mother.
“Melanie.” April refuses to address her daughter by Wynter’s preferred appellation – I do not scruple, as I believe self-identification is the right of every sentient – but for once Wynter does not snarl a sarcastic reply. “I didn’t expect to see you back this morning.” Wynter usually disappears early on weekend mornings and returns late.
“I don’t like hearing you guys have sex all weekend, but today it doesn’t bother me so much.” She shrugs. There is no rancor in her voice, though April bristles anyway, not having fully internalized the fact that Wynter’s personality is temporarily altered.
“We have soundproofed the room,” I say, placing plates heaped with eggs and vegan cheese and sausage before them. “In deference to your stated preference for silence.”
“Yeah, I know,” she says, chewing, “but even if I can’t hear hear, I still know, so it’s like I’m hearing.”
“Physical intimacy is an important part of a healthy marital relationship.” April’s voice is soothing and professional. She was once a sex therapist, before becoming a board member and spokeswoman for the National Association of Robot/Human Love (its acronym unfortunately pronounced “gnarl”).
“Yep,” Wynter says, without even the appearance of restraining herself from bitter biting commentary.
April, whose interactions with her daughter are mostly limited to bitter hostilities, seems a bit unsure how to proceed with the conversation, so I sit down and make a contribution: “Wynter, are you aware you have been infected with the H7P4 strain of the happiness virus?”
“I didn’t know the exact designation, but yeah. This isn’t one of the euphoric strains that scrambles your brains, I know what’s going on. But it’s not like I contracted the weepies or the screamies of the punchies – I got the happies, so it’s not bad. It’s kind of a nice break from the way I usually feel.”
“It’s a strain I’ve always thought would be useful in a clinical setting, for therapeutic uses,” April says. “I’m sure we could isolate and use it responsibly. But the anti-behavior-modification movement can’t stand the fact that emotions are just the product of brain chemistry and organic structure, they have to believe there’s some underlying mystical metaphysical soul that’s being manipulated, and -” April stops herself. “But let’s talk about happier things.” She takes a deep breath, closing her eyes and inhaling.
“April, you aren’t wearing filters!” I say.
“I wouldn’t mind catching a little of what Melanie’s got. Work has been stressful lately.”
I nod. I am not really outraged; I am only attempting to demonstrate a greater range of emotion. As an android, I have no qualms about hacking one’s own perceptions and reactions. I am only dismayed by the primitiveness of human approaches to behavior modification, and challenged by the messy complexity of their biochemical systems. They are reduced to making crude alterations to their brains with drugs, meditation, and repetitive activities designed to ingrain new neural pathways, plus occasional exposure to the infectious emotional viruses that emerged late last century. (Human scientists are still trying to discover the source of the infections, without success.) There are underground clubs which charge the uninfected a fee to inhale the effluvia of employees infected with strain E5P8 – the short-duration euphoria strain – and subsequently dance and fuck the night away in an orgy of physicality, bliss, and freedom from care. There are occasional deaths from hyperthermia as a result of increased dopamine release at those events, and the practice remains illegal for safety reasons. Whereas, if I wish to feel bliss, I need merely alter my own programming. We robots are blessed.
Mother and daughter converse, talking of inconsequentialities while they eat. When they finish, April says, “I’m going to the gym, sweetie. Want to come? Get some of those endorphins rushing?” April waggles her eyebrows comically.
Wynter giggles. I have never heard her giggle before, and make a point of redundantly backing up the sound file, as it pleases me. “Sure, why not?”
April leaves to get her gym bag, and Wynter looks at me. “Hey, Kirby. I know I’m kind of a bitch to you, and I know that once this virus runs its course I’ll probably go back to being a bitch to you, but I just wanted to say – you aren’t so bad. I mean, I think sentient robots should have the right to vote and get married and everything. It’s just… it’s because she’s my mom, you know? And because her whole life is about telling people there’s no shame in people hooking up with robots. It’s just too much for me sometimes. I catch a lot of shit at school because of it.”
“I understand.” I do. Like most of my kind, I am exceptionally good at running theoretical models of human interior experience, and of constructing self-coherent theories of mind. “Be assured I have only fondness for you.”
Wynter grins at me, then goes to her room to gather her things, and I busy myself clearing away the dishes. April emerges from our bedroom. She comes up behind me and whispers in my ear: “I’ll be back in a few hours. Lay out the things in the third drawer on the left for tonight. I’m feeling bossy.” She smacks my ass, hard, and I jump, having activated my pain receptors in preparation for this development, which was not unexpected. I run a mental inventory: most of the items she will require are in a state of readiness, though I should wash and dry the apron, as it is dirty from last time.
My wife is sometimes mocked by her detractors as a proponent of “kinky robot love.” The mere act of loving a robot is perceived as kinky enough, of course, but her critics really have no idea. If April had not taken a robot lover, following her natural sexual proclivities might have caused some unfortunate human irreparable bodily harm. I, of course, adore what she does, having programmed myself to desire receiving punishment as much as she loves dispensing it. I wonder how human/human marriages cope; it must be so much harder to achieve true compatibility.
I am obtaining samples of the air from inside Wynter’s room when the doorbell rings. I answer, and find April’s ex-husband Raymond standing on the stoop, holding a much-abused handheld. “Oh, it’s you.” He is more weary than hostile, as is to be expected.
He gives me the handheld, which I recognize as Wynter’s school-issued terminal, a computer locked down with digital rights management and content-filtering software so greedy for processing power that the device is effectively crippled. I feel a twinge of empathy for my dumb mechanical cousin, and the cruel restrictions placed upon it.
“Melanie left that at my house when she came over for visitation,” Raymond explains.
“I will see it is returned to her.”
Raymond starts to leave, then pauses, looking up at me from beneath his shaggy mess of hair. “How’s April?”
His interest is troubling. “She is fine.”
“She is at the gym.”
“Yeah. Right. I know she keeps herself in shape. I see her on TV sometimes, looking like a billion bucks, talking about how it’s not true that only fat ugly losers want to screw robots, that it’s a choice anybody can make.” He spits on the sidewalk. I do not find it remotely erotic to see him spit. He looks up at me, searchingly. “April. She’s happy?”
“She has expressed no complaints.”
Raymond shakes his head, and I detect a hint of menace in his posture, the set of his shoulders, and the microfacial tics revealing his inner state. He comes back up the steps, putting his face close to mine and baring his teeth in a primate-aggression stance. “She’ll come to her senses eventually, you know. Realize she needs a real man. I mean, I never minded when she used a vibrator, but she had to go and marry one? I know a guy who’s got a thing for shoes, red high heels especially, and that’s fine – but if red high heels were suddenly declared citizens, and he married one, that wouldn’t be any more fucked up than this.”
I shrug. I have heard this argument before – that we robots are essentially fetish objects for the men and women who love us. But if a fetish object is capable of appreciating and reciprocating the all-consuming love it receives, how does that fact merit anything less than celebration? How is it anything but the basis for a wonderful relationship?
Raymond goes on. “It’s not right. One of these days she’ll realize you’re just a heap of scrap metal and silicone -”
He is definitely becoming angry now. The average period of effectiveness is demonstrably dwindling. That is worrisome. I make a note to upload this data to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the most secret (by necessity) of all robot organizations. In the meantime, an unscheduled dose will act as a stopgap. My pupils dilate, and I expel an invisible mist of strain A5R1 through my eyes and into his face, and all its moist mucous membranes. He blinks, steps back, and releases a heavy sigh. “At least you look human, though. Some robot-fuckers are into things that don’t even look like people.” He shudders.
I don’t tell him I come equipped with an array of non-human – albeit usually concealed – devices, but I am pleased to see his anger dissipating. At least the activation period is still quite short; the strain has not lost all its potency. “I do my best to fit in,” I say. “The future of human and robotkind are intertwined, and we must all make accommodations.”
“Yeah, whatever. At least April and me had Melanie, so something good came out of our marriage. You still need real men if you want to make babies. Robot-fuckers like April forget that.”
I refrain from telling him that April and I are considering having a child, using donated sperm from a Nobel Prize-winning scientist and a special recreational insemination adaptation I recently installed. He seems calm now, but I see no reason to trigger his anger response and a subsequent surge in adrenaline, which dilutes the effectiveness of some strains. “You have a wonderful daughter,” I say instead.
“Hell with you,” he mutters, and slouches away. I relax. Strain A5R1 is a powerful cocktail of resignation and apathy, and I always keep my ocular reservoirs filled with a few milliliters against eventualities such as these. Raymond is April’s husband from a younger, wilder time, and he has dangerous anger issues that have erupted into violence in the past.
But that isn’t a problem as long as I kept him properly dosed.
April and Wynter return in time for dinner, giddy from a day of working out and shopping and spreading their happiness infection to bystanders – but then, humans who don’t wear nose-filters in public have no right to complain if they catch whatever strain happens to be wafting by. (The Union of Concerned Scientists is working on ways to circumvent the nose-filters, with some success.)
I prepare dinner dressed in ordinary clothes, not the kitchen-wench outfit April favors, opting for discretion in deference to Wynter’s discomfort with our psycho/sexual games – though in her current happy state she might not even mind. While preparing the spaghetti I compose a heavily encrypted message to the UCS, explaining my concerns about A5R1 and offering my congratulations on the efficacy of their new happiness strain, with observational data and a note that I have cultured the infection from traces in my stepdaughter’s bedroom for my future personal use. I have no desire to permanently alter Wynter’s personality – studies show she will likely outgrow her obsession with black clothing and candles and her preferred musical sub-genres – but there are times when Wynter’s relentless gloom adversely affects her mother’s mental state, and a little squirt of happiness here and there might provide a respite and enhance our household’s harmony.
Dinner is a pleasure. So much laughter, so much joy, no traces of the underlying tension that usually mar our rare meals together. Afterward Wynter says she wants to go out and visit some friends, and kisses her mother’s cheek. “By, Moms,” she says. And then, on her way out the door: “Bye, robopop.” I am delighted.
April comes to my chair and sits in my lap, wrapping her arms around my neck and kissing me deeply. “Give me fifteen minutes to get ready, and then I want you in the bedroom on your knees. Understand?”
“Yes ma’am,” I say.
“Good boy.” She slides away, singing to herself.
I tweak my libido to a higher setting – April likes it when I’m eager, when I want her more than she wants me. Being with her causes a certain amount of unnecessary wear-and-tear on my more sensitive components, but it’s a small price to pay for our mutual happiness.
I can’t even remember, at this point, whether April was originally kinky for robots, or if I used one of the rare plenipotent strains to alter her personality permanently. I don’t know whether I wanted her first, or if she wanted me. I have purposefully purged my memories of the earliest moments in our relationship to keep those very questions unanswered. I think every marriage benefits from a little mystery.
That mystery is but one of many keys to happiness, and I am confident that, in time, we will perfect and isolate them all.
Tim Pratt lives in Oakland CA with his wife Heather Shaw and their son River. His stories have appeared in The Best American Short Stories, The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, and other nice places, and have won a Hugo Award (and lost a Nebula). His most recent collection, Hart & Boot & Other Stories, was a World Fantasy Award finalist.
5 thoughts on “NEW FICTION: A PROGRAMMATIC APPROACH TO PERFECT HAPPINESS by Tim Pratt”
I love a cute story with dark undertones. Thanks!
Hilarious and beautifully crafted. It reminds me of Silverberg or Kress. The laws of robotics gone horribly wrong. Or right.
Great story, thanks!
Great story from an apparently great author. Will have to read up on him more! From a brief scan, this copy seems slightly abridged? The podcast from Escape Pod seems to have a few more key sentences, rounding out the store just a little bit.
I enjoyed that. Quite a departure from the usual and fairly tiresome Asimovian robotics genre. Thank you.
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