Saturday, 9 July 2016

Intergalactic Law Episode 8: Stress

Bing’s lunch consisted of vodka. His afternoon headache was normally manageable, but as it turns out having two robots working for him was an extremely stressful prospect. 
Alpha had returned from retrieving his morning coffee to find that Honda had put her stolen pet chameleon into the paper recycling bin. She had lunged across the desk at Honda and thumped him repeatedly with a stapler. Honda had tossed her across the room with ease, smashing open the door to the stationary cupboard. Alpha had jumped up and ran towards the robot, screaming and brandishing a set of scissors found in the wreckage of the cupboard. The huge robotic arm slammed her to the floor and pinned her there, but Alpha answered by stabbing the scissors ferociously at Honda’s eye lens. Bing, acutely aware of how powerful both these machines were, tried to separate them with a broom handle and some harsh language. He knocked the scissors from Alpha’s hand and pried her out of Honda’s grasp. The robots stared at one another icily. Without breaking the stare-lock, Alpha stepped over to the waste paper bin and gingerly picked up the chameleon, who was perched on the rim, fairly oblivious to what had been going on around him.
“There there little doggy,” she said, stroking the chameleon, “mummy’s here.”
Bing considered the eventuality that none of this was actually happening and he had just gone mad. Before Alpha had come into his life, he had never seen or heard of a robot having such a genuine-appearing connection to a living being like this. He had heard stories about robots struggling with artificial emotions, and he saw it every day in Honda, but there was something very different about her. True to his word, he had contacted the administrator of Alpha Bio Labs to discuss what Alpha had done, and negotiate what was to happen next. Bing intended to ask about Alpha’s programming, why she was the way she was.
He had sent Alpha to retrieve another coffee, since the first cup had been lost in the battle between her and Honda, and assured her that he would keep her ‘doggy’ safe. The rest of Alpha’s tasks had been outwith the office that day too, and Bing’s clients just had to ignore the fact that throughout their meetings with him there was a small green chameleon slowly and carefully walking across the desk. After the last client left at 12 noon on the dot, Bing had hit the vodka.
Bing had no end to his list of reasons to drink today, but the top thing on his list was not his unusually quarrelsome robot employees, it was the enigmatic invitation from his ex-wife.
He had not spoken directly to Dr Laura Mulholland since he walked out of the house. The communication had been through her lawyer William Symington. There was also the occasional, and deeply regrettable, drunken email sent to her. His stomach was in knots. He had dumped, and been dumped, before, but this was his first marriage, and by extension his first failed marriage.
But is it failed? Bing wondered. They had certainly gone through a rough patch, and Laura seemed to have gone for the nuclear option of divorce very quickly. It occurred to Bing that she might be having second thoughts. By his third vodka he was sure of it. I was the one who left, even although the whole mess was her fault. She served divorce papers on me to get a rise out of me, she never intended to go through with it. 
Bing was feeling better as the day progressed. He did very little actual work in the afternoon, he couldn’t even begin to think about it. His mind was focused on the evening ahead of him. He left early and hailed a cab to take him to his old house, the house he had once been very happy in, and after tonight, expected he would be very happy in again. And moreover, he could leave behind his shitty little office in Copernicus and return to his old practice in Galileo.
The whole ride over he played out various scenarios in his head about how this evening would go, and how he would approach it. He initially thought about playing it all aloof; after all, she was the one who had extended the invitation. She’d blinked first, and she would likely be trying very hard to smooth things over this evening. He wondered how far she would have went. Maybe dinner would be waiting for him, to bring back memories of when the house was his home too. Laura’s cooking quality was variable. She had a brilliant mind, and Bing loved the way that it worked, but she had a total inability to concentrate on any one thing for more than a minute or so, which led to many an overcooked dinner. Every time she put down a plate of mush that vaguely resembled the spaghetti it had once been, they both began to eat it and pretended to enjoy it, but before long they would both be crying with laughter.
Then again, he didn’t want to play it too cool. He wasn’t certain, but he was pretty sure that he wanted things to go back the way they were, and he wanted her to know it. 
The cab stopped outside Bing’s former matrimonial home. He opened the door before the automated message from the speaker had finished telling him to have a wonderful evening. The creak of the wooden gate at the end of the path brought back memories of the first time they entered the house. They were both exhausted from the days they had spent travelling from Earth to the Isaac Newton by shuttle. They had been dropped off at this house by a cab that night too. The house looked exactly the same. They were so tired that night that their brains weren’t functioning at full speed. They were sure there had been some mistake. The house was a mansion, several times the size of the house they’d had in the suburbs of Glasgow in Scotland where they had lived. They hadn’t even bothered to take a full tour of their new house that night, which was fully furnished for them arriving. The computer which chose and ordered their furniture and decorations had had a profile of them which, judging by the decor they had ended up with, seemed to have painted a picture of a pair of nationalist fanatics. Every piece of upholstery was a different style of tartan. There were pictures of highland cows in every room. Stencilled quotes from Robert Burns adorned several of the walls. And the living room rug was a giant saltire. 

Bing was smiling at the memories of the ridiculously decorated house, which he imagined remained the same as it had always been: there were no furniture stores on the ship, and no-one had been particularly keen to trade a leather couch for one that looked like a reject from a bagpipe factory. He stopped at the front door and re-tucked his shirt into his trousers and checked his breath. Been better, he thought, I’ll use some mouthwash when I go to the bathroom. He rang the doorbell and waited for his wife to answer.

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