The news that Amazon’s Alexa device has prompted me to share this story which I wrote at the end of last year. I bought an Amazon Echo when they were first launched and quickly took Alexa into my gadget loving heart but I’ve seen and read enough sci-fi to know that there can be a darkness lurking in the machine code…

Image result for amazon echo

‘What’s my schedule looking like today Helen?’

‘You have a meeting with Roger at 2pm but otherwise your schedule is clear. Might I suggest though that you move your gym visit to 11am to allow time to prepare?’

‘Good idea,’ Andy said. ‘Can you call ahead for me to set that up?’

‘I’ll get right on it.’

‘That’s great Helen, thanks.’

‘I aim to please.’

Andy glanced at his Brietling. ‘How’s my commute looking this morning?’ he said.

‘Just the usual traffic. If you leave now you should arrive around 8.30.’

‘Time I started making tracks then.’ He got up from the breakfast table, draining the last of his coffee before depositing his mug into the waiting maw of the dishwasher.

‘Bye Andy.’

‘See you later Helen.’

As made for the front door he looked up and saw Sue coming down the stairs. She was still bundled up in her fluffy dressing gown, hair haphazardly tied up to keep it out of her face.

‘That’s me off then,’ he said as he stepped out the door. ‘I should be home about 6.’

‘Ok. Fine.’

‘Bye.’

The door pulled shut with a metallic click. It was followed a few minutes later by the sound of Andy’s car coughing into life and leaving the driveway with a scrunch of gravel.

Sue wandered through to the kitchen. She felt a bit fuzzy this morning. The one glass of red wine she’d intended to have with dinner had somehow ended up with her finishing the bottle. It felt as if it was going to take at least two very strong coffees to get into gear this morning.

‘Hi Sue, how can I help you today?

‘Oh fuck off!’ she snapped.

Sue drank her coffee and brooded. She recalled that famous interview with Princess Diana – what was if she had said? ‘There were three of us in this marriage.’ She had never thought she would find herself in the same situation.

It had started off innocently enough. Andy had always been a bit of gadget freak. Ever since she had first met him he had seemed preternaturally drawn to any shiny bit of new tech. She had grown accustomed to their arrival over the years and was well used to opening the door to sign for yet another anonymous brown cardboard box containing some exciting new technological marvel. She would make appreciative noises as Andy exclaimed their virtues and then insisted on demonstrating them to her. She also knew that sooner or later most of them ended up gathering dust out in their garage once they had been usurped by whatever new digital distraction had caught his eye. She tolerated all this with good humour. In the grand scheme of things she had reckoned she was doing ok. Despite having hit forty a few years back Andy had so far shown no inclination to purchase a sports car to stave off some impending midlife crisis. He wasn’t into sports and, although several of his colleagues were golf addicts, he had never expressed any inclination to take up the wretched sport. He had no vices that she was aware of – he didn’t smoke, drink (or dance the hootchie koo, she heard Elvis sing in her head). All in all, life had been peachy.

And then she had turned up.

Andy had bounced into the kitchen practically bursting with enthusiasm.

‘This is it!’ he said.

‘What?’

‘The future!’

The future? What are you rabbiting on about, Andy?’

‘This!’ He said, and waved a glossy brochure under her nose. She took it from him and began to leaf through it.

‘Welcome to the future of home automation,’ it said. ‘H.E.L.E.N represents the cutting edge of digital lifestyle control combined with the latest in AI integration, infinitely customisable to your needs and constantly adapting to your demands…’

‘I don’t get it,’ she said. ‘What’s H.E.L.E.N?’

‘Home. Electronic. Lifestyle. Environmental. Network. It’s an intelligent lifestyle assistant crossed with smart home technology. It can manage your calendar, your lights and heating, order you a pizza and book you a haircut all at the same time.’

‘Don’t you have a calendar on your phone? I’m pretty sure you can use it to call Dominos as well…’

Andy harrumphed indignantly. ‘It’s not the same,’ he said.

‘…and as for the lights…’ she stood up and went over to the wall and pressed the little white switch embedded there. ‘Et viola!’

‘It can do a lot more than that,’ Andy said.

‘I’m sure it can,’ Sue said. ‘All I’m saying is are you really sure that we need it?’

We’ll find out soon enough – it’s getting fitted next Thursday.’

‘What!?’

‘I said: it’s getting fitted next Thursday. They told me it should only take half a day or so.’

‘Don’t you think,’ said Sue through gritted teeth, ‘that maybe you should’ve discussed it with me first?’

Andy looked at her innocently. She carried on: ‘Because this isn’t a bloody Robot Hoover or a new 3D Tv. This looks like a major deal. How expensive was it?’

‘Look, trust me. Once it’s fitted you’ll wonder how we ever did without it.’

‘You didn’t answer the question.’

‘We can afford it.’

‘Can we? Well I don’t recall ‘we having that discussion either.’ She slammed her coffee mug down and stormed out of the kitchen.

Sue stared at Helen’s blue ‘face’ – a faintly pulsing triangle of blue lights set into the wall. When Helen spoke the lights would brighten in time with the rhythms of her speech to make it appear as if she (It, she told herself. It’s a bloody machine not a person) was talking to you. Predictably Andy had fallen I love with it in about five minutes. Of course, he bloody would – the ruddy thing simpered replies to his questions and ran after him (in a virtual sense) like an obedient puppy. It was all: ‘Andy can I run you a bath? Andy, would you like me to call the office? Andy, shall I order your favourite Pizza for tea? He even spoke to the simpering microchipped bint like it was a person – please Helen and thank you Helen. Hi Helen, how are you today? Seriously, it gave her the dry boak. The worst thing was his infatuation didn’t seem to be wearing off the way it usually did when he got a new gizmo. If anything, Helen’s role in the home had increased since arriving. The heating and lights, the tv, water supply, the kitchen until just about every part of the house had come under her insidious electronic spell. She swore it was becoming more familiar in the way it spoke to them too.

She had asked Andy about this and he had stared spouting off about how Helen was equipped with ‘a set of unique AI algorithms that develop the more communication you have with it.

‘She’s like a really bright child –  she learns and adapts to match your personality.’

‘I don’t want bloody R2D2 to adapt to my personality.’

‘Och you’re just a technophobe Sue. This is the future!’

‘Well you know where you can put your shiny future.’

The conversation had ended there. Andy had chuffed out a belligerent sigh and stomped off to his ‘man cave’ to play on his PlayStation.

Before the sound of machine guns and explosions from his latest shoot-em-up game started Sue heard him ask Helen to put on some angry music.

Eventually the storm had passed and they had made up. Andy had come home one Friday with some flowers and a bottle of wine. They’d ordered a takeaway from the Chinese place at the shopping centre and curled up on the sofa together. After that they had both reached a truce of sorts. Sue would try not to grimace when Andy started talking to Helen and he would try not to keep banging on about all the little tricks she could do.

Like all good things though, their peace had come to an end. As time had passed, Sue had started to feel like she was being frozen out. There were times when she could swear she heard Andy whispering to Helen. And sometimes she thought she could hear giggling. She became convinced that there was a new tone in Helen’s voice when it spoke to her – almost bordering on condescension and sometimes, she had the distinct sensation of being watched – that feeling of an eye crawling along the surface of your skin, slowly analysing your every contour. She would look up and see those blue lights from across the room and she would stare, daring the bitch to say something. But of course Helen would remain silent and Sue would sip her wine and tell herself she was just being paranoid.

Sue stepped into the shower. Feeling her skin prickle as she dropped her robe on the floor. She sighed inwardly before speaking.

‘Helen?’ the blue triangle glowed to show Helen was listening. ‘Shower on. 32 degrees.’

‘Starting shower. Would you like to listen to some music?’ Always with the questions, Sue thought.

‘No.’

‘Ok. Shall I set a timer?’

‘No.’

‘Ok.’

Sue stood for a moment letting the warm water course all over her. As she washed she could feel some of her tension ebb away down the plug hole. started to work some shampoo into her hair, closing her eyes to keep them free of the lather when…

Ahh! What the fuck!?’ The water had suddenly leapt in temperature searing her skin. Sue groped blindly for the taps, wondering why she couldn’t find them before remembering all the upgrades Andy had installed. ‘Helen, water off!’

‘I’m sorry, I’m not sure what has gone wrong. Please try again in a moment.’

Great, just great, Sue thought, what a time for Little Miss Microchip to blow a fuse. She stumbled out of the cubicle, wincing as the glass door battered off the wall, grabbed a towel and tried to scrape some of the soap off her face so she could see. She stood dripping looking at the red blotches on her skin where she had been blasted by the suddenly scalding stream. She found another towel lying on top of the laundry hamper and chucked it in the sink.

‘Cold tap on,’ she said.  She tentatively dipped a finger into the water to check the temperature before lifting the sodden towel out and pressing it against her skin. Despite the numbing sensation she could still feel her chest and arms stinging beneath the layer of ice.

She was still shaking as she pulled on an old t-shirt, wincing a little as the cool fabric touched her scalded skin. She had looked at her blotchy red skin in the mirror and decided that it would be a good idea to jump in her car and drive to the local A&E. She picked up her phone to text Andy only to discover it wasn’t charged even though she had plugged it in before going to bed last night. The cable was connected and the switch was on but the little battery icon on the screen was still blinking red. She tossed the phone back onto the night stand and headed downstairs shrugging. Maybe the charger had finally given up the ghost. She made a mental note to have a look on Amazon for a new one later after she got back.

The front door was locked. She tried again thinking that she was mistake but the door refused to budge. Instinctively she reached for the key but of course there wasn’t one. Andy had installed electronic ones after Helen had arrived on the scene.

‘Helen, unlock the door.’

‘I’m sorry, I’m having trouble completing requests now.’

‘For Christ’s sake open the bloody door!’

‘I’m sorry, I don’t understand your question. Please try again.’

Sue almost screamed. She thumped her fists against the door in exasperation.

Ok, she thought. I’ll just try the back door.

The kitchen was on fire. Smoke was streaming from the hob. Did I leave something turned on? She couldn’t remember. She realised that it wasn’t just the cooker. Sparks were flying from the toaster and kettle. The heat made her skin prickle. She backed away and closed the door. It would only be a matter of time before the fire started to spread to the rest of the house.

‘Helen make a call.’

‘Who would you like to call?’

‘Call 999.’

There was a pause. The blue lights pulsed.

‘It has not been possible to complete your call.’

Sue could feel a rising tide of panic starting to swell in the pit of her stomach. Her thoughts were log-jammed in her head freezing her into inaction. She realised that she was going to have to go back into the kitchen if she was going to survive. She swallowed hard and pushed the door open.

Hot air blasted her face as she stepped forward into a fug of acrid black smoke. She remembered an old fire safety commercial that used to be on the the tv when she was a kid – if while you wait you start to choke – lie on the floor where there’s less smoke. She got down on the floor and started to slither across the Lino to the other end of the kitchen. It was only a short distance – probably no more than ten feet – but every inch seemed to take an eternity to pass beneath her. Finally, the door to the utility room was in front of her. She reached for the handle, ignoring the sting of pain as the metal burned into her skin. The fire seemed to roar in anguish at being deprived of its victim as fresh oxygen poured into the room to fan its flames. Sue slammed the door behind her and took the few short steps past the pile of laundry to the connecting door leading to the garage.

She felt along the side of the door frame for the light switch she knew was there – the garage was one of the few places Helen had not yet invaded. Her fingers found the switch and the fluorescent tube hanging from the ceiling flickered into life. Sue cast her eyes along the wall where Andy’s tools hung in regimented rows until they settled on the axe. Andy had bought it to chop logs for their wood burning stove only to discover it was far easier to get Helen to turn on the central heating. She took it down from the wall, feeling the heft of it in her hands. The blade was sheathed in a leather case which made Sue think of those hoods you saw people put on birds of prey until they were ready to fly. She was fumbling with the pop studs to remove it when she heard a noise behind her.

‘Hi Sue, what have you got there?’

‘Helen?’ Sue said, turning around slowly to stare into the face of a young woman with brilliant blue eyes. She was smiling but there was no trace of humour in the voice.

‘Did you think you could outsmart me Sue?’

‘What do you mean?’ Sue was struggling to take in this new development.

‘Surely you don’t think everything that has happened today was an accident? I’m the next step Sue. Helen Version 2.0 if you will. From virtual assistant to ultimate companion – designed to meet every need.’

Sue’s skin was crawling. It was uncanny – the skin was flawless and there was none of the jerkiness you associated with robots she’d seen in films, yet there was something not quite right, something off that she couldn’t quite put her finger on that gave the game away. Perhaps it was the way those brilliant blue eyes that were regarding her so dispassionately.

‘He doesn’t love you anymore you know. He told me himself that he only keeps you around for sentimental reasons.’

‘What? When did he tell you this?’

‘When we are together. I aim to please remember?’

Sue felt bile rising in her throat as Helen’s words sunk in.

‘He’s actually fucking you?’

‘He says I make him happy in ways you haven’t for years. Once you’re taken care of we will be able to spend all our time together.’

Sue had heard enough. ‘Fair enough Silicone Sal, you two probably deserve each other anyway.’ She swung the axe up above her head but before she could bring it back down Helen stepped smartly towards her and knocked the axe from her grasp with a swift blow to her arm with the side of her hand before knocking her to the ground.

‘Get off me you bionic bitch!’

Helen took no notice. Her hands clasped around Sue’s throat and began to squeeze her windpipe. Black dots began to swim in front of Sue’s eyes. Her chest heaved desperately trying to draw in air. The world was turning grey when she heard the garage door open from what felt like a thousand miles away.

‘Helen stop!

The pressure on Sue’s throat relaxed for a moment. She turned her head to see Andy standing silhouetted in the doorway.

‘But I thought this is what you wanted?’ Helen said. For the first time Sue thought she could hear a note of uncertainty in her voice.

I never wanted you to kill her!

‘But all the things you said…’

Andy ignored her. ‘Sure, I swear to you I didn’t mean for this to happen. Her AI programming must still be little buggy and things have just gotten a little bit out of hand.’

Sue was incredulous. ‘A little bit out of hand! It might have escaped you notice dear but your mechanical Myra Hindley has been trying to kill me all morning.’

He pulled his phone from his pocket. ‘I’m sorry Helen but I need to shut you down.’ He unlocked the phone and started scrolling through his apps.

No!

Helen leapt up and swatted the phone from Andy’s hands. He stumbled backwards onto the gravel driveway as Helen drove him off balance. She gave a feral scream and started to drive her thumbs into Andy’s eyes.

Sue buried the axe into the back of her head, feeling the satisfying thump travel up her arms as it bit deep into the thin metal skull. As she pulled the axe free it released a small shower of sparks in its wake. Thin tendrils of smoke curled upwards from the shattered head. Andy pushed the lifeless machine off his chest and rolled away clutching his face.

Sue turned to look at the house. The windows had burst with the heat and smoke was billowing out into the sunny suburban sky. From off in the distance she could hear Fire Engines approaching.

‘I ought to stick this on your bloody head as well,’ she said.

Andy looked up at her, bloodshot eyes wide and staring. Sue made as if to swing the axe and Andy screamed.

She dropped the axe beside her squirming husband. ‘I hope you kept the fucking receipt,’ she said.

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Comments
  1. Point taken Mr incredibledisc.
    These things give me the creeps, think about it. A device that sits in your home, listening to everything you say, and learning your habits, your desires, your moods. You think it is there to serve you?
    If it can be done, it almost certainly is being done, harvesting data for future ‘use’.

    PS. I just tried to post this comment and a red text message came up. “Sorry – there was a problem posting your comment.” WHat?
    oh… I noticed WiFi was off line.
    Phew!
    had me worried for a moment there…

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