Hal Point Nine
Text ©2003 Roger E. Moore (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Daria and associated characters are ©2003 MTV Networks
Feedback (good, bad, indifferent, just want to bother me, whatever) is appreciated. Please write to: email@example.com
Synopsis: A story about a girl and her . . . unusual pet.
Author’s Notes: The introductory quote appears in The Language of the Night: Essays of Fantasy and Science Fiction, by Ursula K. LeGuin (page 215). This story is not, however, science fiction. We seem to have passed well into the territory SF once claimed as its own. We live the adventure now, for better or worse. For the story’s inspiration, see http://www.roombavac.com/ (iRobot’s “intelligent floorvac”).
Acknowledgements: My thanks go out to PPMB denizens Wouter, Dennis, and Brandon League, who began an online contest to write “Daria” fanfic about pets. This story was one of the contest entries.
The heart has its reasons which reason doesn’t know. . . .
—Ursula K. LeGuin
Daria Morgendorffer wanted her actual, on-the-correct-day, not-delayed-until-Thanksgiving-when-she-went-back-to-Lawndale-to-see-her-family nineteenth birthday party to be special, so she put a few restrictions on it. First, she limited it to one guest: her best friend, Jane Lane. Second, she limited it to her rented, second-floor, one-bedroom apartment just off the campus of Raft College in Boston, where she was an English-major freshman. Third, she limited her outfit to an extremely comfortable black sweat suit and white socks, hanging up her usual jacket-and-skirt combination so she could sit on a pillow on the hardwood floor. Beyond that, she had no limits, so she and Jane ordered out for pizza, talked about their week of drudgery at their various educational and occupational pursuits, shared laughs and stories, and then fell to opening presents on that cold Friday afternoon in November.
None of the gifts appeared to be from Daria’s immediate family, as her parents and sister would, as promised, present her with birthday gifts after she and Jane drove back to in Lawndale, less than a week in the future. After opening three boxes of clothing and two booklets of gift certificates (one for books and one for food) from Daria’s aunts and grandmother, the two friends were almost done. Two gifts remained.
“Your Aunt Amy sure has you pegged,” Jane remarked, thumbing through the booklet of free dinner coupons for Pizza Barn, their favorite local restaurant. “Whoa! You even got coupons for cheese fries and onion blooms. We’re going to eat like kings—unless, of course, you’re on a diet and don’t want this. I’ll take it off your hands, no problem.”
“I’m still trying to figure out how she knew that we go there,” Daria said. “I never—” She stopped and shot a look at Jane. “Oh, duh.”
“Yeah, she called about three weeks ago. She said she couldn’t send you weaponry, because you’d enjoy it too much and she’d be blamed, and she didn’t think you were into pink lace undies, so I got her straightened out.”
“I’ll think of you fondly while I’m stuffing myself.”
“With your best friend.”
“Stuffing myself with my best—?”
“No, no, that’s . . . that didn’t come out right. Skip it. Open the next one, and hurry. Inquiring minds want to know all about your secret gifts.”
Daria picked up the second-to-the-last present, still wrapped in brown postal paper. She tore off the packing envelope, read the receipt, and sighed. “This is from Quinn. She had the manufacturer ship it here. Positronic Brains—why does that company sound familiar? I wonder why she didn’t wait to give it to me next week.”
“A loving, thoughtful sister.”
“At least it hasn’t exploded yet. It’s sort of heavy, so I’m guessing it’s going to be—” She raised the package and pressed it to her forehead for a moment “—a sweater and a book about positronic brains.”
Jane reached for the package. She weighed it experimentally in her hands. “I’d say a book, too, only it’s too heavy for that. And we’re talking Quinn here. Beauty equipment, maybe a makeup mirror and something like a positronic hair dryer, especially made for brainy types.” She gave the package back.
Daria tore off the postal wrapping paper, then examined the gift-wrapped box underneath. She opened the little gift card taped to the box’s top and read it.
“Uh-oh,” she said.
“This says, ‘For Daria—A pet to brighten your life. Love always, Quinn.’” She turned the box over in her hands. “A pet? In a box with no air holes?”
“A pet doorstop?” Jane guessed. “A square pet rock? A pet block of solid milk chocolate, I hope?”
A minute later, Daria had the paper off—and she stared open-mouthed at what she held in her hands. Jane moved over and sat beside her on the floor.
“Oh, cool!” Jane said, and she meant it. “I don’t believe she got you this!”
“Is this a real robot?” Daria asked, stunned.
“Yeah! It’s a robot vacuum cleaner! I saw one of these at a mall once. You turn it on, and it runs around and cleans your whole apartment.”
“It looks like a silver horseshoe crab without the tail.”
“Come on, open it! Let’s turn it on!”
“Let’s open the present you gave me first. I want to see what you got me.”
“No, that can wait. Do this one! This rocks!”
Daria looked at Jane in confusion. “You want to open a gift from Quinn before we open your gift to me?”
“I painted a self-portrait for you,” Jane said. “Now, open this!”
“Hey! Don’t spoil it!”
“Oh, come on, Daria. This is way too cool.”
Despite the pressure to do otherwise, Daria opened Jane’s present before anything else was done, and she hung Jane’s self-portrait on the living room wall with quiet joy before going back to the robot. An hour of assembly later, Daria aimed the little infrared remote at the foot-wide, three-inch-high dome on the floor and pushed a button. The silver-gray dome beeped softly, red lights around its lower rim came on, and a motor whirred to life inside it. It moved twenty-four inches toward Daria’s stocking feet—and then stopped. Its lights went off. The motor died.
“I didn’t do anything to it, I swear!” Jane exclaimed. “It was the one-armed man!”
“It must have been something it ate,” Daria said. The unit appeared undamaged, so they examined the robot’s instruction book and discovered that the power pack needed to be recharged for one day before the little robot could be fully used. With a collective groan, they plugged in the power pack and went on with the party.
Three days later, Jane climbed the outdoor stairs to Daria’s apartment again and rapped her knuckles on the door. “Police, open up,” she called sweetly.
“Come on in!” came Daria’s muffled response. Jane used the spare key Daria had given her to unlock the door and get inside, out of the cold wind—only to find Daria’s legs sticking out from under her bed.
“Too ashamed to go out because you got a big zit on your nose?” Jane asked, looking down at Daria’s brown slippers. “Or are you studying the sex lives of dust bunnies again?”
“Hal’s stuck,” Daria said from under the bed. She coughed. “He ate a long thick thread that came off the mattress, and I can’t get him loose. Damn it.”
Five minutes later, with Jane’s help, Hal was free. “I’ll have to cut off the thread that’s wound around the whatzit,” Daria said, looking intently at the robot’s underside.
Daria’s face colored a bit.
“You named him after HAL 2000 in that movie, ‘Space Odyssey’?”
“That was HAL 9000.”
“And this one is just Hal?”
Daria mumbled something.
“Louder,” Jane prompted.
Daria sighed. “Hal Point Nine,” she said flatly, not looking at Jane. “He’s just a little Hal. One ten-thousandth of a big HAL.”
Jane looked at Daria for a long moment. “Okay,” she said. “A little Hal. So, Hal is a he?”
“Hal is a he? Can you sex a robot vacuum by looking at its bottom?”
Daria gave Jane a disgusted look, then went back to repairing her robot. It took Daria two minutes of using her Swiss Army knife to clear up the problem. She then put Hal on the floor and let him run free again.
“This isn’t the first time,” said Daria, folding up her knife and dropping it in her pocket. “I have to pick up all the big chunks of debris before I turn him loose in the morning. He choked on a chicken thighbone last night, and on a wad of paper a few days before that. Positronic brains, my ass.”
“Shhh, he might hear you!” whispered Jane. “I saw a movie once where—”
“Oh, stop it,” said Daria. “It’s just a stupid robot.”
Jane looked at Daria with a wide grin. “Just a stupid robot? You’ve named it, you’ve given it a gender, you’re worrying because it might choke on a chicken bone, and it’s just a stupid robot?”
Daria glared at Jane. “It’s a lot smarter than some people I know.”
“Hmmm,” said Jane, trying not to laugh aloud. She looked down at Hal as the silver dome rolled across the hardwood floor. Crumbs and dust bunnies vanished as it rolled over them, humming softly. “At least he’s neat. Better than a boyfriend—almost. No problems with housebreaking him?”
“It. It’s an it.”
“You said it was a he.”
“I’m still reading the book that came with it,” said Daria, ignoring Jane. “It has its own website and newsgroup, even. There are all sorts of cool accessories you can get for it through the Positronic Brains online store.”
“Headlights, roll bars, chrome bumpers, little evergreen air fresheners, stuff like that?”
“Not headlights, really,” said Daria, missing the joke. “But you can add little lights that respond to external noise and music, sort of like at a light show. If I have the stereo up, he’ll—it’ll blink along with the music. You can even get a voice-recognition chip and parts, but that’s pretty expensive, and I sorta like just using the remote.”
Jane shook her head slowly, seeing how animated Daria was when she talked about Hal. She could really use a boyfriend, she thought, but a pet robot is probably better. Living alone isn’t good for her. She felt a twinge of regret that they’d decided not to share an apartment. Daria wanted a reasonably neat, quiet place to study, and Jane liked noise, making messy art, and privacy for dating. Maybe, Jane thought, when her classes finally began at the Boston Fine Arts College in January, she could talk Daria into moving in together.
Thanksgiving vacation started only a couple of days later. Jane stuffed her clothes into her Navy duffle bag and drove her heap over to pick up Daria for the long trip back to Lawndale. As Jane got to the top of the stairs outside Daria’s apartment, she paused, hearing voices. One voice, actually. She leaned close to the door and listened.
Daria was talking to herself.
No, that wasn’t quite right. What was actually happening, Jane realized, was that Daria was talking to Hal.
It was hard to make out much through the door, but Daria was naming all the things she was taking on the trip to Lawndale, asking Hal if she had forgotten anything, thinking up topics to talk to Jane about in the car on the way, and complaining about her test schedule for her finals, only two weeks away.
Jane remembered with a sharp pang of guilt when Daria’s mother had offhandedly told her about the last few times Daria had begun talking to herself. It had always been when Jane was too busy dating to see Daria. She’s lonelier than I had guessed, she thought, ashamed she hadn’t dropped by more often. She was working full time for a professor at BFAC, picking up a few dollars before her spring-semester classes started.
Grimacing, Jane rapped hard on the door.
“Jane’s here,” Daria said—to Hal—and boot steps approached. The door opened, and Daria waved Jane in. “Hey!” she called, still oddly animated. “I’m almost ready.”
“Are you okay?” Jane asked, looking around the apartment with concern. The floor was perfectly clean, though books and papers (and articles of dirty clothing) littered every higher surface.
“I’m fine,” said Daria, hefting a single suitcase. “Oh, wait!” She put her suitcase down and picked up Hal, carefully storing the little robot in a closet with his battery charger and other equipment.
“Making sure he doesn’t escape?”
“Making sure he doesn’t get stolen in a break-in,” Daria replied. She piled dirty laundry over the robot, shut the closet door, and they left.
Thanksgiving was quite tolerable, all things considered. Jane had to stay with the Morgendorffers, as her brother Trent was away with his band, Mystik Spiral. He’d had all the locks changed on the Lane house without leaving a key for Jane. Typical.
“Did you like your new pet?” Quinn asked the moment she saw Daria. In response, Daria said, “Thank you,” and unexpectedly hugged Quinn for a long moment. Quinn’s surprised gaze went to Jane. Jane silently mouthed, She liked it, and Quinn mouthed, Oh, though the look of surprise never left her face.
On the day after Thanksgiving, however, Jane noticed Daria seemed a little withdrawn and pensive. Her mood darkened somewhat through the rest of the holiday, lightening only rarely. It was on Sunday, on the road back to Boston, when Daria looked out the passenger window, sighed, and whispered, “I hope Hal’s still there.”
“You hope what?” Jane was looking for the Interstate exit to Boston. She hated driving in the dark.
“Nothing.” Five minutes later, Daria said, “I hope no one stole Hal.”
“He’ll be fine,” Jane said softly. She sensed that this was a bad time to poke fun. “Don’t worry.”
“I should’ve taken him with me,” Daria said. “There was room.”
“He’ll be fine.”
Jane walked up to Daria’s apartment when they got in. Everything was secure. Hal was rescued from under the mound of dirty laundry, Daria plugged in his recharged battery, and the little robot was off again. A look of infinite relief spread over Daria’s tired face.
Jane watched, but she kept her thoughts to herself.
Things progressed. Jane worked up the courage to play a few practical jokes, such as taping a vibrator to the top of Hal Point Nine’s dome, or leaving fake rubber dog poop next to its battery recharger. Daria took it well, but as finals week approached, Daria’s apparent attachment to Hal deepened, and her conversation about upgrades she’d ordered for him began to dominate pizza time. Jane bore it as best she could. She wondered if she had sounded this way to Daria, back when Jane was dating in high school at the expense of their enduring friendship. Jane was still dating at college, but she upped her time with Daria to two or three times a week instead of once a week, as before Thanksgiving. Priorities had to be observed.
Daria, however, was not dating at all. She became anxious and edgy, though this was to be expected of someone carrying as heavy a credit-hour load as Daria was and facing seven finals and five term papers due in the same week in mid-December.
“You need to get out more,” Jane said over a pepperoni, hamburger, onion, mushroom, and six-cheese Pizza Barn Hayloft Special. “Any cute guys in your Shakespeare class?”
“Oh, that reminds me,” said Daria quickly, putting down her Ultra Cola. She was as overcaffeinated as an undergraduate could get, almost bouncing in her seat. “You have to see something at my place. You won’t believe it.”
“Hal cleans toilets now?”
“No, this is even better. It’s really something. You have to see it.”
At the apartment, Daria had Jane wait next to the battery recharger while Daria walked over to Hal, sitting on the far side of the room. “I turned Hal off when we left,” Daria said, “and his battery is pretty low. See this yellow light? He’s at one-tenth or one-fifteen power, about five minutes left on his charge. Okay, now . . . watch.”
Daria pushed a button. Hal’s lights came on. He started forward—then stopped and began to spin slowly in place.
“He’s looking for his supper dish,” Daria said, trying not to grin.
Hal moved experimentally toward the battery charger, then rolled toward it steadily until adjacent to it. Hal then rotated in place and backed up into the charger, twisting a bit until Jane heard a click. Hall stopped. The lights around his sides grew much brighter, though his motor shut down at the same moment.
“He feeds himself now!” Daria exclaimed, her face radiant. “I just got the parts in this morning! He’s recharging all by himself! Now I can leave him on, and he’ll run forever! Or until civilization ends and the power grid goes down.”
Jane’s resolve dissolved. “Daria,” she said gently, “this is wonderful, but . . . isn’t this in a way like that time that you got your belly button pierced for Trent?”
Daria looked at Jane in complete confusion—and a touch of hostility. “What?”
“Aren’t you going a little overboard about this? I mean, this is cool, yeah, but I wonder sometimes if . . . oh, never mind.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Daria, suddenly testy. “You’re not making any sense.” She stared hard down at Hal. “I’d better study,” she said, and Jane knew the evening was over.
Things between them were fine the next day, however, and Jane simply didn’t bring the issue up again. Things went swimmingly, in fact, until the Sunday night before finals began. Jane returned to her car after a particularly pleasant dinner date to find her cell phone had rung six times in the last two hours—all from Daria’s apartment phone number. Jane returned the call, but Daria’s answering machine picked up instead. On impulse, she drove by Daria’s place and saw a light was on. She clumped up the steps to Daria’s door, listened—hearing nothing—and knocked. No one answered. Jane peered through a small window by the landing and spotted Daria sitting at her rickety dining table, her head buried in her arms, motionless. Jane let herself in with her key.
On the dining table was a collection of tools, mostly screwdrivers and pliers, and Hal, turned upside-down and missing some of his internal parts. The air had an unpleasant, stale, burnt odor, like plastic had melted. The robot’s motor casing was in pieces. The motor itself was stained and clearly ruined. Daria’s glasses rested beside the dead motor.
Jane walked to Daria’s side. After a long moment, she put a gentle hand on her best friend’s shoulder. “What happened?”
Daria sniffed. “I spilled some soup,” she said, her voice hoarse. “It got into his motor and burnt it out. That was so stupid. I should’ve turned him off and cleaned it up right then.”
“He ran into the soup and tried to clean it up?”
Daria nodded once. “The book said not to let him near liquids. It corrodes the insides and shorts or rusts everything out. The soup got into the motor.”
“We can wrap him up and send him in to get fixed, right?”
“No,” said Daria dully. “The warranty won’t cover liquid damage. That was so stupid of me. Now he’s . . .” She stopped speaking for a minute, then said, “Just take it away. I don’t want to see it anymore.”
Jane put Daria to bed, setting her alarm to get her up for her first big tests the following day. Finding a flattened box in the closet, Jane reassembled it and put all the parts for Hal Point Nine inside, then took him away.
Finals week came and went. Daria finished the last of her tests Friday morning at eleven, and she staggered half-blind out of the Raft College auditorium and into sunlight. She had not had a shower in two days, her hair was uncombed, and her breath smelled like leftover garlic-laden pizza and bad coffee. She did not know her scores yet, but she guessed she might have pulled off a miracle and made straight As.
It meant nothing. She slung her backpack onto her shoulders and walked back to her empty apartment. She wanted to get in her tub and go to sleep for a century. The trip back to her family for Christmas didn’t even enter into consciousness, but the thought of celebrating Christmas was a lead weight in her chest.
It was just a stupid robot, she told herself. It didn’t help.
She unlocked and pushed open the door to her apartment—and stopped.
The stereo was on, playing one of Daria’s alternative-rock CDs.
“Hi, stranger,” said Jane, sitting at the kitchen table with an Ultra-Cola. She was sketching something.
Daria looked across the room, where Jane kept glancing as she drew.
“Hal,” she said, and unshouldered her backpack and dropped it with a thud. She ran over and knelt down by the little robot.
“The art department at BFAC loved it,” said Jane, penciling in a detail. “Someone had a replacement motor from a kinetic sculpture, and someone else had the colored lights and the whatchamacallit, the thing that makes the lights blink to music, and someone else had the detailing kit for the—”
Wordless, Daria rushed back to Jane.
“Ack!” Jane gasped, but Daria was crying so Jane hugged her back, if not quite so hard as Daria was hugging her.
“I know how it is,” said Jane softly into Daria’s hair. “I had a hamster once.”
Which was, in the end, all that had to be said.
Original: 1/29/03; revised 8/4/03