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One Step Down
Dylan Kwok is an animator, blogger, board game designer, and author. This is his first story in Daily Science Fiction. You can see more of his work on his blog, 64thopinion.com.
"Are you still working?"
I look up. Focus on the woman leaning, arms akimbo, on the doorjamb to my study.
The woman I married.
"You know I need to finish this project. I'm working as fast as I can."
A sigh. "I know, but it's late. And you're going to wear yourself out at the rate you're going."
I bite my lip. "Work like this always takes time. Just give me another hour tonight. I'll come to bed after that."
We stare at each other. Finally, Charlotte turns. "Fine." She stalks out.
My hands rest perfectly still on the keyboard for a minute. The bedroom door shuts. I wait for another five. And then, I send off a message.
EK6: Hey, honey, how are you doing?
A message pops in.
RC14: Great! How's your day been?
EK6: Okay. But I've barely gotten any work done.
RC14: Well, I figured that much. It's 10:30. I've been waiting up to talk to you.
I lean back into my seat. Brows unknit. Type some more.
EK6: I'm sorry I kept you waiting. She was up late tonight.
RC14: You're always up late, on the other hand.
EK6: I wonder why. Maybe's it's to talk to you.
RC14: You could do it earlier.
EK6: You know very well why I can't.
The message is barely sent before I receive the response.
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RC14: Work. I know.
I can hear the pout behind those words. I reply.
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Again, her response is instantaneous.
RC14: It's not your fault. You know it's my fault, don't you?
Why would she say that?
EK6: Please don't say that again. I made this choice as much as you did.
RC14: Okay, I won't.
A baby cries out. Sigh.
EK6: I'll be back in a minute. Marie's making a fuss. I'm going to check on her.
But as I get up, I hear the door open. Swift movement across the carpet. Then, Charlotte's soothing voice, and Marie's sobs begin to diminish, until once again, silence is restored. The door clicker shut. I count to ten before clicking on the keys once more.
EK6: Marie is sleeping again.
RC14: I'm glad. I hope she'll sleep peacefully tonight.
EK6: No one can soothe her like her mother can.
The moment I hit send, I know I've made a misstep.
RC14: Why thank you. But you could just refer to me by my name, okay? It's annoying when you talk like that.
I hurriedly reply.
EK6: Sorry, honey. I didn't mean to be rude.
RC14: That's better. Now, how is your work going?
EK6: Better now that I'm talking to you.
RC14: Why is that?
Maybe it's because my work is to talk to you.
EK6: You always brighten my day. I should be able to finish this project soon, hopefully. It's getting quite polished.
RC14: I'm so proud of you, you know? I've never understood how people write programs. And artificial intelligence sounds even more difficult.
EK6: I had a head start, though. I knew whose intelligence I was copying.
RC14: What are your future plans for the program?
EK6: You know... I plan to use it for Marie. Or have you forgotten? And it's our future plan, remember?
And then, a pause. A real, distinct pause. And before I see the next message I know what it will say.
RC14: It's our plan, but not my future, honey. I wish I could be there.
Bile rises in my throat. You will be, I mouth. Maybe not the you I can hold in my arms. But these thousands of lines of code, imbued with your personality, will be with us as Marie grows.
Marie might not remember her mother, but through my work, she will know her.
It was--is--Charlotte's wish.
But it's pushed us apart. It's impossible to keep my head and my stories straight, remembering who I talked to and who I didn't. And I can see the effects.
EK6: I wish you could be there, too. But you know what's ahead.
RC14: Don't be sad. Please, it's not your fault. I love you.
My hands reach for the keyboard, but they fall short. Any words to this machine will feel as artificial as it is.
I stand up quickly. Sleep the computer. Walk to my bedroom. Our bedroom. Open the door as noiselessly as I can.
Charlotte lies still, curled up, skin pale and eyes sunken. She hasn't got much time left.
I sit down by her side and clasp her hand. Her eyes slowly open.
"You know I love you, right?"
A smile.
Tears cloud my eyes.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, July 9th, 2018


I was inspired to write this story, in part, after reading an article where a programmer created a chatbot using ten years' worth of message conversations she had with a now deceased friend.

- Dylan Kwok

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