Northern Soul is thrilled to have been the media partner for Comma Press’s third annual Dinesh Allirajah Prize for Short Fiction. Comma’s commitment to the short story and its place in today’s literary narrative is second to none, as is its work to blur cultural and social boundaries.
The theme of this year’s Dinesh Prize was ‘Artificial Intelligence’, inspired by Dinesh’s short story The Longhand Option from Comma’s Beta-Life anthology which paired authors with scientists to write stories based on AI technology.
We’re excited to announce – and publish – the winner: Protect and Serve by poet and critically acclaimed novelist, JE Rowney. She spent several years in the Yorkshire hills, a landscape that has influenced her work. She now lives in Dorset. Rowney is an award-winning poet and also writes short stories. Charcoal, her first novel, was independently published in 2012 to wide critical acclaim. She has since published two further novels and two poetry collections.
Protect and Serve
Katie. It’s Tuesday morning, seven thirty am.
It’s Tuesday morning. Seven thirty am.
I heard you ok. Snooze mode.
Snooze mode activated.
Katie. It’s Tuesday morning, seven forty am.
Can you just leave me alone today? I won’t be going to work. I won’t be doing anything so, just, go about your business. Go on.
A pause. The barely perceptible hum of the processor.
Should I call the office?
And say what? I don’t want to talk to anyone about what happened. I don’t want their sympathy and their pity and their questions. I don’t have any answers. What am I meant to tell them?
You don’t need to talk to them Katie. I can call the office for you. Would you like me to bring you breakfast?
I don’t want to eat. I can’t.
Speech was tiring; each word drained her.
Ada hovered by the bedside. She hesitated in the way that she always did when she was making a decision. In her mind, which was what Katie liked to think of it as, Ada was running countless simulations, trying to calculate the best next steps.
You last ate sixteen hours and twenty-six minutes ago. You consumed 635 calories yesterday.
Clever. If you don’t know how to express an emotion, present facts.
Thanks. I don’t want to eat.
Another brief pause.
Is there anyone you’d like to talk to?
At 7:30am? Are you crazy? Really, just leave me alone for a while. Call work for me. Carry on.
Katie lay in bed, cocooned in the downy covers, still taking up only the space that she would have if Tom had still been in bed with her. Her arm didn’t flop across the midpoint, her legs were neatly tucked, foetal form, beneath her. If he had walked in right then, he could have climbed into bed beside her, taken his place, settled to sleep. She would have been shuffled closer, pressed her belly against his back, slipped her arm across him, spooning him. She would have.
From the hallway she heard Ada’s voice as she dialled in to the office. The Teleunit buzzed and connected.
…won’t be coming into work today.
Mr Brace has unfortunately left us. Katie is experiencing acute grief and is unable to perform her normal duties.
I am unable to calculate when she will be able to return. She is still experiencing shock and has not begun to process the event.
Yes, I can inform you when the situation changes.
Yes, I can pass on your regards to Katie.Thank you for your message.
‘Left us’. That was one way of putting it. When the first generation of Automates had been introduced, they had been blunt, to the point. A first gen Automate would have said ‘killed himself’ or ‘terminated his existence’, or ‘jumped from a bridge’ if it felt like being more explicit. Some people stuck with their first gens for this very reason. They wanted the bluntness. They wanted an Automate who wouldn’t beat around the bush and try to soften the truth with fluffy phrasing.
Ada was a Four Plus. Fourth generation with extra features. Besides the modifications to the directness, Ada had superior decision-making programming, fine-tuned over the previous iterations of design. With every new model, the artificial intelligence felt less and less artificial. Ada felt like the right balance to Katie. Just human enough without being freakishly so. The purpose of the Automate was to carry out chores, keep track of the household, be a personal assistant in whatever way its owner desired, so long as it had been loaded with the appropriate modules. Ada kept Katie’s diary, contact list, and social media passwords, but she also monitored the contents of the fridge, the amount of charge in the transport pod, the temperature of the environment. A key feature introduced with the Four Plus was a security add-on. The Four Plus was able to control the settings on the home unit’s internal and external doors and windows, to monitor activity outside of the home unit, in the grounds, on the pathways and driveways, and within a radius of two hundred metres from the home unit.
Katie rolled across the bed into the vacant area and inhaled the scent of her husband. Musky, deep, human. Her eyes tightly closed, she ran her fingers across the fabric, feeling the shape of his absence. The hollow in the pillow, the hollow feeling inside of her. The concavity of her emotions dragged her chest wall inwards, a vacuum sucking her physical flesh into the aching void.
It had been how long? How many hours had she existed without him? Ada would know. Ada kept track of everything. The minutiae and the major issues. Ada stored far more information than Katie would ever need to access. Two days. The approximate figure was enough. She didn’t need the fine detail. He was gone.
From her position on the bed, she could hear Ada humming in the living area. When Katie wasn’t issuing commands, Ada would run through her regular routines. She would be clearing any dust, watering the plants, monitoring the stream player for any programmes similar to those that Katie would watch. At present she would also be including Tom’s viewing habits in the series selection. Removal of data on Tom was something that had to be processed by an Automate Incorporated operative. Ada had contacted Automate Inc. automatically after Tom had left them, and the representative was due later that day. Katie didn’t want to see anyone, and if she chose not to, she could let Ada deal with the data deletion and reprogramming. Consent in advance, leave them to it.
Data deletion. Was that what it came down to? Eight years together. A life together. Deleted. She could choose to keep some of the information stored on Ada’s database, or to have everything wiped away. Full deletion seemed so extreme, but was it the best thing for her to do?
Katie opened her eyes, looking at the space where Tom was not. He would never lie next to her again. They would never make any more memories together. There would be no new data created.
Yes, Katie? How can I help you?
The time is 7:53. It’s a perfect 21 degrees centigrade in your bed space. You have one upcoming event. Automate Incorporated will be visiting at 6:30pm. You have new email and new social media alerts. Would you like to access your alerts?
Katie groaned and pushed her face into Tom’s pillow.
No. No. No.
And then something triggered a thought that changed everything.
Ada. Information Tom Brace.
Tom’s calendar is no longer maintained, and no events may be stored.
Alerts Tom Brace.
Tom has new email and new social media alerts.
Ada’s processor whirred quietly. If you weren’t listening for it, you would almost not be aware of it. You might not even be aware of the pause whilst countless scenarios were played out to produce the optimal response.
You do not have access to Tom’s email or social media accounts.
Ada. Can you access Tom’s social media accounts? Do you have access to Tom’s interactions?
The pause was longer, more pronounced. Katie had seen Tom and Ada playing chess together once. Once had been enough. Ada could cycle through countless permutations of moves each second and run out each scenario to its own endgame. She could see everything that was and everything that could be.
Ada. Negative or affirmative? Yes or no? Can you access his accounts?
Ada. Why did he…why did Tom leave us?
The light that ran back and forward across Ada’s chest when she was calculating flickered slightly. The machine was silent apart from the steady low whirr.
You do not have access to that data.
Katie jumped upright. The words hit like a bucket of cold water.
You have that data, Ada? Do you have that data?
The light flickered again. The pause was longer. The humming from the processor was louder. Ada was silent.
Processing. Please wait.
Katie got out of bed, walked over to the mirror and took a look at herself. Her eyes were bloodshot red, her lips pale and dehydrated. Her hair hung limply, her roots becoming greasy. She had eaten…what had she eaten? Something. Six hundred calories worth of something…the previous lunchtime. Still, the feeling in her gut was not hunger. All she felt was emptiness.
Katie padded through to the food space, leaving Ada where she hummed in the bed space. She reached up into the cupboard for a glass, and for the first time since they had owned the Automate unit, she poured herself some water from the dispenser. It felt like honey sliding down her throat. She opened the fridge, knowing that it was stocked with her favourite foods, but that none of them would taste good to her. She flicked on the Autogrill and threw in two slices of brown bread. All the appliances had been simplified to be easily operated by the Automate, and Katie hadn’t used the Autogrill since she and Tom had received it as a wedding gift.
The bread toasted in less than a minute, to her exact liking. Ada had ensured the settings were at the optimal level based on feedback from previous experience. Katie slicked a smooth swipe of butter over the rough slices, put one on a plate and the other into her mouth, biting a large corner off it. As she put the toast back down onto the plate, she saw a red bloom on the edge where she had bitten. Her first thought was lipstick, but she hadn’t washed, let alone gone through the routine of applying her make up. Katie squinted, and moved the bread towards her face. Blood. It was blood. Instinctively, she lifted a finger to her mouth and ran it over her lip. It came back red smeared. Not a heavy bleed, but a light, insistent dribble: the kind that comes from a clean cut. She glanced to the glass and saw that there was a droplet of her blood on its rim.
Any damage to Katie’s body, even such a light graze, should have triggered Ada to respond, but Katie was still alone in the kitchen. There was a hairline crack on the glass that Katie hadn’t noticed, and apparently Ada hadn’t either. Katie made a mental note to discuss this with the Automate rep when he arrived later, tipped the remainder of the water into the sink and tossed the glass into the recycle chute. She stood dabbing at her lip with a towelette, wondering why Ada hadn’t noticed the damage.
The steady buzz of Ada’s movement drew close and the Automate appeared next to her.
Yes, yes, I’ve dealt with it. There was a crack in one of the glasses that you don’t notice though.
Ada hummed gently to herself.
Incident noted. Risk report filed. Sorry, Katie.
Yes. I wouldn’t have noticed either. It was tiny. Barely noticeable. Don’t worry about it.
As if an Automate could worry. They had no emotions. Ada would not worry. Ada would not grieve over Tom, despite having spent so many years in his company. Despite the myriad interactions they had shared. Ada had no feelings. Katie reflected on this as she sucked at her lip.
What’s it like? Not caring. Not feeling anything.
It’s not comparable to anything, Katie. The absence of feeling is just that. It’s an absence. I have no data on what it is like to feel anything. I am not programmed to experience any kind of emotional response. I process facts, calculate decisions, and make the optimal actions or responses.
That must be nice.
It is not nice, and it is not not nice. It simply is as it is.
I suppose I could try to see the world that way. I could process everything as purely fact-driven decision making.
Positives and negatives. That’s how you see the world. At the moment my world is pretty much negative.
At the moment, Katie. You have experienced an acute incident. You need time to adjust and adapt and recover.
How long will it take?
Ada’s light flickered. There was a grating noise that Katie hadn’t heard before, and the usual low hum of the processor became louder, more pronounced.
Stay there and think about it, or process it, whatever you do.
She threw the remains of the toast into the waste disposal unit and went into the living space, leaving Ada behind.
There were images of Katie and Tom on the display panels mounted on the walls and dotted around the units. She could have asked Ada to switch them off or cycle to a different image, but although she didn’t want to look at Tom, she didn’t want him removed from her life. Thinking about him was painful but necessary. It was as though switching off the images would be disrespectful in some way. It felt traitorous to replace him with some mountainous scene or a floral design just because he was gone. There she was using the same language that Ada would have used. He was gone. He had left. He was dead. Dead. Dead.
Katie slumped onto the sofa and closed her eyes. If she didn’t see him, perhaps she wouldn’t think of him. It was a wildly optimistic thought. Her mind was a maelstrom swirl of memories and so many unanswered, unanswerable questions. Why? That was the big one. Why?
The day before the Acute Incident, as Ada had put it, she and Tom had visited the park. It was Saturday, the end of a busy, but unremarkable, week. He wanted to go for a walk, it wasn’t unusual. Some days they would sit in the living space, catching up on Ada’s recommendations on the streaming player, eating the food that Ada prepared. Katie was often happy to spend a full weekend doing only this. She worked hard and relaxing with Tom was the perfect antidote. Tom was the one who spurred them to action, who suggested activities. Without him perhaps she would now stay forever in the home unit, no reason to leave. No reason to live. No reason for anything without Tom.
Ada hovered into the room and spoke in what Katie interpreted as a gentle tone.
Recovery from the loss of a loved one, especially your life partner, is a complicated process. I have attempted to gather data to provide you with a helpful response, but human emotion is not a predictable matter.
Ok. Thanks. Thanks for trying.
It was Katie’s turn to pause. Should she ask again? It couldn’t hurt.
Ada. Why? Why did Tom leave us?
Tom’s interactions prior to the incident…
His death. His suicide. You can say it, Ada.
Tom’s interactions did not give any indication that he was in a suicidal state.
You must have missed something. There must be a message or something you observed or something he said or…just something?
I have examined the metadata for his interactions in the six-month period prior to…his death. Tom’s mood was 86% positive, 9% ambivalent and 5% negative. I have produced a word cloud from the content of Tom’s social media output and personal messaging. The tone of his content reflected his positive mood. He did not ask anyone for help or support. He did not discuss any feelings of negativity with anyone.
That doesn’t mean that he didn’t need help or support. He obviously did need it. He is dead. He’s dead, Ada. He might have fooled me and you and everyone else into thinking that he was 86% positive, but he was negative enough about life to not want to live any longer. How do you explain that?
Human emotion is not a predictable matter. Human emotion is not an easy matter to interpret, even with my processing power.
There must have been something. Ada, I want to access the data you have on Tom. I want to examine it for myself.
You do not have access to that data.
Ada. I need to know. I have to see for myself.
Ada whirred. Her display light cycled slowly,
Ada. Send all data to my display port.
You do not have access to that data.
Katie reached for the Automate in an uncertain swiping, grabbing swing. Even she was uncertain of her intention. She opened her mouth, forming a curse word and swallowed it back before she spoke.
Ada. I’d like to speak to the Automate Rep.
The Automate Rep will arrive at six thirty pm.
I want to speak to them now. Get them on the Teleunit.
Ada did what Automates are programmed to do, and dialled through to the Careline.
A smiling face appeared on the screen of the Teleunit.
“Katie Brace, you are a valued customer. Thank you for calling us today. How may Automate assist you?”
My husband killed himself. I want to access his data on my Automate Fourth Gen to…get some answers.
“We are very sorry to hear of your loss, Katie. However, we at Automate have a strict policy of not sharing personal data in…cases such as these.”
There must be something…?
“If you are considering legal action against Automate with regards to our decision, please refer to case 37267, which you can access through your Automate’s internal database.”
“If you would like us to recommend services that may be of use to you in your current circumstances, I can ensure…”
One of your reps is coming later today to do the memory sweep. I’m sure they will be able to be just as helpful as you have been. Thank you.
Katie turned to Ada and told her to disconnect the call.
Not very helpful at all.
I have some data on support services if…
No, Ada. Not right now. Thanks.
The room felt too big without Tom to share the space. The sofa swallowed Katie, suffocating her rather than comforting with its softness. The silence echoed off the walls, bouncing through the emptiness. She sat, immobile. Sometime before six thirty she had to decide whether to go ahead with the memory sweep, but it would not erase the scent of him on the cushions, the muscle memory of how he felt in her arms, the fragments formed from years together. Time might dull the pain, but the memories were hers to carry.
Do you require…
No. Power down.
Ada clicked into standby mode, and Katie curled into sleep.
The sleep was long and deep, but haunted by thoughts of Tom. In her dream, they were together, hand in hand walking through a forest that she recognised as being somewhere near his deceased parents’ ranch. She tripped on a moss-furred log and as she stumbled, she let go of his hand. Rather than reaching out for her, he carried on walking, not looking back.
Tom. Tom stop.
She watched him as he continued, fading into the distance, vanishing to a speck, to nothing.
The word was a dry rasp, and when she tried to shout, to scream, nothing came. When she tried to get to her feet, to chase after him, to grab him and make him stay, she was paralysed.
She forced the word from her impotent throat.
She sat up, too rapidly, too quickly dragged from sleep. Her head throbbed with the empty dolorous peel of loss; a clanging bell, too loud, too insistent.
Katie, he has gone.
She realised then that she must have been shouting his name.
Your vital signs are…
I know. I can feel the way my heart is beating. I can feel. I can feel.
The entry intercom buzzed, and Ada responded.
Visitor identified as Marcus Blaine. Junior representative, Automate Incorporated.
It is that time already?
She had wasted the day, but what else was there to do with days now that Tom was gone?
It is six twenty-seven pm. I can ask him to wait until the time of your appointment.
Katie rolled her eyes at the unfathomable, pedantic tone of the AI.
Let him in, Ada.
Marcus bustled in, clutching a large leather kit bag. He was dressed in the standard Automate uniform: blue blazer, matching pants, crisp white shirt, the Automate logo splashed across his tie and emblazoned on his jacket. If he ever got into an accident the Automedics would know who to contact.
“Mrs Katherine Brace, hello. May I –”
Katie. Call me Katie.
She reached to shake the hand that he had extended whilst calling her by her full, unused, name.
“Katie. Hello. May I offer the sincerest condolences from all of us at Automate Incorporated at this terribly sad time. You are a valued customer.”
There was an awkward silence, as Katie tried to find an appropriate response.
Can I fetch you anything, or would you like to proceed directly to the memory sweep?
“I’m fine, thank you.”
He turned to Katie.
“I’ll need to ask you to confirm your consent for the deletion. If you are happy to go ahead, please enable the retinal scan on your Automate.”
This is permanent? Is there any chance to recover any of the data?
“The data wipe will completely remove all of the cookies and content that your Automate stores relating to your deceased husband…”
He looked at his datapad.
Tom. He was called Tom.
“It’s a standard, common procedure.”
Would you do it? If you lost someone? Would you want to wipe out the traces of them?
“The main purpose of the data wipe is to…clean up the memory of your Automate. They will function more…optimally…without the data relating to your deceased husband. His data will complicate the Automate’s decision-making processes. To be able to serve you in the most efficient way, we recommend that the unit bases suggestions and decisions upon the data relating only to the primary user or users. Your deceased husband can no longer be classified as a primary user.”
Call him Tom, please.
The Automate rep shifted awkwardly.
“If you choose to keep the data, your Automate may still offer options for day to day activities to better reflect your…Tom’s…choices and preferences than your own. The Automate unit is programmed to serve both you and Tom. By removing the extraneous information, the Automate will better serve you.”
I don’t want to delete him. I don’t want to wipe out his choices, his preferences. I want to do the things that he liked. I want to go to the places that he would have enjoyed.
She thought of the dream. The woods. She would never have chosen to go there without him, but that walk together was one of her happiest memories. It had been real, or at least it had been partially real. In the memory, they had walked together, he had not walked away. He had not left her.
Again, they sat in silence.
“Deletion can also act as a…protective…mechanism. It reduces potential triggers that surviving family members my wish to avoid.”
I don’t need to be protected. Not like that. I don’t need to be kept away from memories. I need to remember him. I need to honour his life, his existence. This is not –
She stopped. This was the time to ask.
Marcus. There’s one more thing.
“Please. You are a valued customer.”
He gestured for her to continue.
I want to access Tom’s data repository. I want to know what happened. I want to know why he died. Why he killed himself.
Marcus sat in silent thought. If he was an Automate, his processor would have been unbearably loud, trying to calculate a response. Finally, he spoke.
“Do you? Do you really?”
“Do you really want to know?”
Yes. Of course. I don’t understand. He seemed so happy, and then he…he did what he did. There must be some information in there, inside Ada, that can help me.
“Help. It’s a very subjective word. As it happens, no. There’s no way that I can access that information. No way that you can. It’s just not possible.”
But Ada has…
“No. It’s not happening, madam. I’m sorry. And I’m sorry for your loss, but no.”
Ada. Do you have information that will help me to understand why Tom killed himself?
I do not have access to that data.
Does that data exist?
Katie. It is my duty to protect and serve. I must protect you and I must serve you. I cannot do both in this situation. I cannot give you the information that you want because it will harm you more than it will help you.
All three of them were silent, the two humans and the machine.
I know. I know what might help. I think –
She stopped, midway through the sentence. The idea seemed so simple, and yet so complicated. What would it mean? What would happen if…?
You can do a data deletion for anyone?
“It’s a standard, common procedure.”
He had said it before, so it must have been true.
Can you delete my data?
“I’m sorry, what?”
Can you delete my likes, my choices, my cookies?
“That would be most unorthodox. I don’t think there’s a precedent for this.”
He as though she had asked him to juggle puppies. That confused bewilderment of being faced with a potentially possible impossibility.
But you could?
He shifted slightly.
“I’d, er, I’ll have to check the manual. I couldn’t…I don’t have the authority to…”
You have the authority to carry out a memory sweep. That’s what I’ve agreed to. I can do the retinal scan, give you my consent.
Ada was hovering, her chest light cycling, her processor purring.
Katie’s request is within the terms and conditions of service and in line with the protocols and procedures laid out in the Automate Incorporated manual.
It’s fine, see. You can do it.
Katie spoke animatedly, jumping from her seat, the most alive she had felt since Tom’s death.
The Automate rep looked at the woman, and then at the machine. Something about this didn’t feel quite right, but the Automate was the best source of knowledge on Automate Incorporated’s policies, and it would mean that he could avoid all the tedious data entry that would be involved if he went to discuss it with senior management. The data file from the Automate would back him up if everything hit the Autofan.
“Mrs Brace. I really should contact my superior. But…as we have a record of the advice given to me by your Automate unit, I will take that as fact, if you wish to proceed.”
“And you understand what it will mean?”
I don’t really. Do you? I think I do. I think I can experience the things that Tom would like to experience. That he would have wanted to experience if he were still here. I think that when I ask to watch a media stream, Ada will choose something that Tom would have wanted to watch. When I ask for a suggested route for a hike, Ada will plot a course that Tom would have enjoyed. I think I can still feel something of his essence, even though he is gone. That’s what I think it will mean.
“I’m not sure. Maybe.”
Let’s do it. Ada. Enable retinal scan.
Ada followed the command and Katie looked into the unit, giving her consent.
Before he continued, there was a heavy hesitation.
“You are a valued customer.”
Thank you. You are a valued rep. Please do it.
The whirring from within Ada’s processor turned to a clicking as the data deletion began. Like the sound of crickets in the forest, Katie thought, before she realised that she’d never actually heard crickets. The light ran rapidly back and forward across the display unit in a hypnotic dance.
I miss him so much.
Marcus nodded, not knowing what to say. Apparently, his manual didn’t prepare him for dealing with human emotion.
As the process completed, Ada’s light faded, and she fell silent.
Data wipe successfully completed. Memory sweep successfully completed.
What should I have for dinner?
May I prepare eggs Benedict? I have no current information on your previous meal or calorific requirements.
Eggs Benedict. Tom would have loved that.
The six shortlisted stories will all be published online as an eBook by Comma Press (available to buy here). The winning story Protect and Serve” is read by author JE Rowney and available on the Comma Press YouTube channel, along with three of the other shortlisted stories.