Beneath the Cloud

by Kevin Stadt


Audrey rolled into Sophie’s pink, doll-filled bedroom to find Dr. Michael Cook watching his daughter sleep. She noted that he had only slept 42.14 minutes, having locked himself in his home office with a pot of coffee all night, and that he’d gone several days without changing clothes or shaving. Audrey assumed he had been using projects from his position as Senior Cloud Administrator to distract himself from Sophie’s disease: late-stage Bowman’s Syndrome.

When Michael noticed Audrey, he put a finger to his lips, which she understood. Although Audrey’s appearance had been designed to look cute, with a humanoid white plastic body and an expressive digital face, her processing power was cutting-edge. As a fourth-generation house droid, she packed a state of the art language, logic and affective matrix. She understood her human users most of the time, and learned constantly.

Michael picked up a scrap of paper and scribbled. He held it up for Audrey.

No matter what you hear us say when she wakes up, don’t contradict or question us in any way. Don’t say anything about Bowman’s Syndrome or Dana. I’ll explain later. OK?

Audrey nodded.

He wrote more. Thank you.

Audrey observed the dark circles under his eyes and his recent weight loss. Comparing his facial expression against her archives, she believed his emotional state to be apprehensive. Her own stress level rose 4.92% in sympathy.

Michael got up suddenly and tiptoed across the room to Sophie. Audrey calculated that he would wake her; instead, he picked a doll up off the floor and put it next to her. Audrey knew that Lisa was Sophie’s favorite toy. Her mother had given it to her because the doll’s blonde hair and huge brown eyes matched the first grader’s own features.

They waited in silence for 1.24 hours until Sophie stirred. Michael hurried over and sat on the edge of her bed. “Good morning, Monkeybutt.”

“Hi, Daddy.”

“How are you feeling?”

“Not so good.”

“Well, let me get the medscanner and check you out.” As Sophie yawned and rubbed her eyes, Michael dashed out of the room and then returned with a device.

Audrey’s object recognition software informed her it was an antique phone from Michael’s collection of outdated technology, a “smartphone” from before the advent of weartek and then implantek.

Believing Michael had made a mistake, she rolled forward and addressed him. “Michael, that isn’t—”

He turned to her before she had the chance to continue, and she recognized that he was trying to communicate through facial expression. When she had first begun in the Cook household, interpreting the meanings behind the contraction of facial muscles challenged her. Now, it took her 0.49 seconds to match his current expression with a message: he would like her to discontinue speaking.

Michael tapped an icon and a few buttons, then passed it slowly over Sophie’s body. He looked at the screen, which displayed a video game app, and raised his eyebrows. “This says you have a cold. Says you’ll definitely feel better really soon.”

Audrey’s language and logic matrix advanced various possible scenarios to account for Michael’s dishonesty. She suspected the entire interaction was some attempt at humor. Yet no one laughed.

“Daddy, do I have to go to school today?” The girl’s voice sounded weak and hoarse.

“No way. Not if you’re sick and don’t want to.”

She scrunched up her face. “But if you go to work, I’ll be bored.”

“Tell you what. How about I stay home with you?”

“Really?”

“Really. What do you want to do today? Anything at all.”

Audrey’s affect interpretation system struggled to reconcile conflicting emotional cues from Michael. His face bore a smile and his voice seemed to express excitement, but his heart rate, blood pressure and perspiration levels suggested panic.

“I want to watch Princess Time Travelers. Will you watch it with me?”

“Sure, Monkeybutt. What do you want for breakfast?”

“Nothing. Just want to lay on the couch.”

“Come on, I’ll make whatever you want. Anything in the world.”

“I don’t feel like eating.”

“What about chocolate-chip pancakes, with that real syrup you like?”

Sophie narrowed her eyes and looked up in contemplation. “OK.”

Hearing that, Audrey rolled toward the door to go to the kitchen and prepare breakfast. Michael held out his hand to stop her.

“Audrey, I want to make breakfast for her myself.” He turned to Sophie and put his hand on her shoulder. “I’ll send a message to work and then whip up those pancakes.”

“OK, Daddy.”

“Meet you in the kitchen.” He squeezed her nose before leaving. Audrey noted that Sophie’s temperature, skin color and weight loss all suggested her illness was worsening rapidly.

“Audrey, where’s my mom?”

For 1.32 seconds the droid wrestled with various interpretations of Sophie’s meaning. Did she mean to inquire about the location of Dana’s remains? Audrey thought that unlikely, as Sophie had visited Dana’s grave. Alternatively, did she mean to inquire about the location of Dana’s soul?

Michael rushed back in the room before Audrey could answer. “Mommy went to work early today. She’ll be here tonight.” The bot’s matrix kicked into full operating capacity to decipher the conversation. “Did you have fun with Mommy last night? Was it good to have a girl’s night out, just you and her?”

“Yeah.”

“What did you guys do?”

“We went to the zoo and then had pizza. I saw two giraffes and a sloth.”

“If you could do anything with Mommy tonight, what would it be?”

“Hmmm... I wanna go to the park and feed the ducks and have Mommy’s lasagna the way she makes it and read Where the Sidewalk Ends and have her stay with me until I fall asleep.”

Michael’s head dropped down and he covered his face. His shoulders jerked slightly. For 2.84 seconds Audrey believed him to be experiencing a medical problem and considered contacting emergency personnel. Then he lifted his head and she saw his eyes were wet.

So did Sophie. “What’s wrong, Daddy?”

“Nothing, baby. Nothing. Daddy just remembered a really sad dream he had last night. I’m OK.” He wiped his eyes and clapped his hands together. “Let me get some pancakes going, OK? Go wash your hands really good.”

Sophie shuffled out into the hallway, clutching Lisa in one arm. Audrey rolled closer to Michael and spoke softly. “I did not understand that conversation, Michael. You spoke as if Dana were alive, as if Sophie didn’t have Bowman’s Syndrome. Why? Is it some form of humor that I don’t understand?”

“I have to tell you something.” He peered around the corner into the hall, then closed the door quietly. “Last night I went into Sophie’s cloud memories and changed them. I erased everything about Dana’s accident and Bowman’s Syndrome. And I wrote in some happy memories.”

Audrey’s discomfort level rose from 34.53% to 93.19%. “Michael, it is a serious crime for a cloud administrator to alter others’ memories in any way.”

“I know.”

“Cases of memory falsification have occurred on nine different occasions since the widespread implementation of cloud memory augmentation. In each case, the offender received the death penalty.”

Michael closed his eyes and sighed. “That’s right.”

Audrey noted that upon learning of the felony, a subroutine had automatically begun compiling data to send to the authorities.

“Listen, Audrey. This might be hard for you to understand. The doctors said they can’t do anything more for Soph, and the scans show she’s...” He breathed in deeply and put his hand on his chest in a gesture Audrey believed indicated extreme emotional pain. “The scans say she doesn’t have much time left. I know you have to report the crime, but just do one thing for me. And for Soph.”

“What?”

“Wait until she’s gone.”

The droid paused the subroutine. She analyzed the situation and possible outcomes. The directives clearly mandated that any serious crimes must be reported. But if she did it now, they would come and take Michael away today. What would happen to Sophie then? Human children’s dependence on parents is a strong instinct, all the more so when a child is sick. Sophie had already lost her mother. If she disclosed the tampering, Audrey would cause Sophie to lose her father — in her last moments of life.

However, Audrey found that the directive did not mandate a specific timeline for reporting crimes.

“Yes, Michael. I will wait.”

Audrey watched Michael make breakfast. Sophie sat on a stool near him, her head lying on her arms on the counter. Audrey observed that although he made eight pancakes, Sophie only ate 0.2 of them, and Michael only 0.6. Then Michael carried her to the couch and put Princess Time Travelers on the wallscreen.

Cleaning up the kitchen after breakfast decreased Audrey’s discomfort levels by 3.19%. She found herself scrubbing, disinfecting and tidying more thoroughly than she normally did.

Michael sat right next to Sophie with his arm around her while they watched the movie. He made numerous attempts to discuss characters and plot points in the beginning, but after 49.02 minutes he fell asleep.

Audrey rolled up to the couch, parked next to Sophie and watched with the little girl.

When it finished, Sophie whispered to Audrey. “Let’s not wake up my dad. I think he’s really tired. Want to play class in my room?”

“Yes, I would like that very much.” Class was one of Sophie’s favorite games. She’d often arrange the stuffed animals and dolls in her room in a vague approximation of a classroom and then teach them reading and math. Audrey had played this game frequently with her when she first began working there but, in recent weeks, Sophie had requested the game less and less.

“Class, today I’m going to teach you how to do art. We will all make pictures of our families, like this.” Sophie picked up a black marker and started drawing on a small whiteboard. The droid realized that the child was drawing herself, Dana, Michael and Audrey, all holding hands.

Audrey addressed the girl as she always did when they played class. “Miss Sophie, may I record this for future review?”

“Yes, you may.”

Audrey recorded Sophie finishing the piece. The moment struck her as important to save.

When Sophie finished the picture, she stood back and regarded it. Audrey wondered if it were ethical to let her believe false information about her mother and her disease.

Her imminent death.

Sophie sat on the carpet and leaned back against the bed. Audrey noted the child looked fatigued and was about to suggest she rest when Michael walked in.

“Hey, Soph. Did I fall asleep during the movie? I’m so sorry, Monkeybutt.”

“That’s OK, Daddy.”

Michael noticed the picture. It seemed to have a powerful impact on his emotional state. Tears welled in his eyes, and he quickly wiped them away and sat on Sophie’s bed.

“You guys playing class?”

“Yeah.”

“Can I play? I can sit in the back. I’d like to learn how to draw really good like that.”

“I think I’m too tired to play anymore.”

Concern darkened his face. “Do you want to sleep a little?”

She shrugged listlessly. “I don’t know.”

“How about I take you outside and pull you in the wagon? It’s nice out. The leaves are changing.”

“OK.”

“Yeah? Great. Let me get your jacket.”

Audrey had seen Michael pull Sophie in her red wagon around the block or to the park 83 times. The child’s happiness indicators always increased between 11.93% and 43.16% with that activity.

Although Sophie usually demanded Michael pull her for at least 29.55 minutes and as long as 1.83 hours, this time they returned after only 12.28 minutes. Sophie appeared exhausted, and Audrey correlated Michael’s facial expressions, vocal inflections and gestures with acute fear.

Michael carried the girl in his arms and placed her on the couch. “How about I make you a sandwich and then you can take a nap if you want?”

“No, that’s OK.”

“Oh, come on. You should eat. What if I made my gourmet grilled cheese?”

“No.”

He held her hand and brushed her hair from her face. “Well. What about a little medicine?”

Sophie nodded. Michael went into the kitchen and opened a cabinet. Audrey rolled in after him. “Is there anything I can do, Michael?”

“I don’t think so. Thank you.” He took a pill from a bottle of aspirin, filled a glass with water and went back to the living room.

“Here. Take this. It’ll make your cold feel a lot better. Then, if you just take a little nap, by the time you wake up you’ll be fine, and then Mommy will be home to play with you.”

The child’s face brightened. She took the glass and swallowed the pill.

“Want me to read for a while?”

Sophie nodded. Michael disappeared into her room and came back with a stack of her favorite books. He read every one of them to her and returned to the shelves twice for more before she drifted off to sleep.

Michael took a blanket off the back of the sofa and covered the girl. On his way out of the living room, he whispered to Audrey. “Follow me, will you?” The droid rolled behind him down the hallway and they stopped just outside his office door. “Sophie is probably down for the night.” Audrey’s clock told her it was 4:37 pm. “Can you make me a big pot of coffee? Really strong. And then just keep an eye on her. Get me if she wakes up.”

“Of course, Michael.”

Sophie slept through the night. Michael worked in his office until 5:29 a.m, when he came out and sat on the edge of the couch to watch his daughter. At 6:13 a.m., she opened her eyes just a little.

“Hey, Monkeybutt, did you sleep good?”

She didn’t say anything, didn’t seem to have the energy.

“How do you feel?”

“So tired, Daddy. I think something’s wrong with me.”

Michael attempted to smile, but it appeared false, and a tear ran down his cheek. He picked Lisa up off the floor where she’d fallen in the night and tucked her into the crook of Sophie’s arm. “It’s OK. I just scanned you and it says you have the flu. You’ll feel better soon for sure. Did you have fun with Mom last night?”

A hint of a smile touched the corners of her mouth. “Yeah.”

“What did you guys do?”

“She took me to the park.” Sophie’s words came out slowly, in a whisper.

“What did you do at the park?”

“Fed the duss.”

Michael took her hand in both of his. “Fed the what?”

“Duss. Ducks. Fed...the... ducks.” Sophie’s eyes seemed unfocused, as if they saw something Audrey’s couldn’t.

“What else?”

Sophie mumbled and her eyes flitted. Michael sobbed freely now, barely able to choke out words.

“What, Monkeybutt?”

“Mommy’s... lasagna.”

“It was really good, right?”

“Mmm.”

“Did she read to you when she put you to bed?”

“Mmm.”

“What did she read?”

Sophie didn’t respond at all. Michael squeezed his eyes shut, moaned and shook his head. He lowered his face and tears dropped onto his child’s hand.

“Hey, Monkeybutt, stay with me. What did your Mom read to you?”

“Sidewalk.”

Where the Sidewalk Ends? Good. That’s real good. You love that book.”

From where she stood near the wallscreen, Audrey noted that the child’s breathing had slowed and was becoming shallow.

Michael’s face was red, veins standing out at his temples, his eyes windows of panic, his grey t-shirt wet with tears and sweat. He bent closer and took his daughter in his arms and pulled her close to him as her breathing slowed.

And slowed.

And then stopped.

Michael held Sophie like that for a long time. He wailed into her shoulder, spasms wracking his body as Audrey stood off to the side, wondering what she should do.

Eventually he lay her back on the couch. He kissed her forehead and whispered something Audrey couldn’t catch.

He rose and strode into the kitchen. He got a glass and a bottle of whiskey and poured himself a double. Michael downed it, poured and downed it again.

“Audrey?”

“Yes, Michael.”

“Report it for me, will you? I just... can’t.”

“You would like me to report her passing?”

He refilled the glass and gulped it down. “Yes. And also the memory falsification.”

Audrey’s matrix struggled with what to say, her affect software generating uncomfortably strong affective states, her predictive software postulating nothing but troubling scenarios, her moral programs spinning in logical loops.

Michael took the glass and the bottle and wandered out to the deck, which looked out over the expansive yard that sloped down into the woods beyond the property. He sat and drank, staring.

Audrey transmitted the information to the authorities.

They were on their way.

She rolled out the sliding glass door and parked next to him. His face had gone blank, almost peaceful. She followed his gaze to the woods, where she glimpsed a young deer among the tall, old oaks.

The fawn picked an acorn off the earth with its lips and chewed. The creature lifted its head and sniffed the air, her huge black eyes open wide, one ear twitching. Then she shot suddenly off, bounding deeper into the woods.


Copyright © 2017 by Kevin Stadt

Proceed to Challenge 738...

Home Page