The Mary Sue is pleased to present strange, beautiful new fiction from Apex Magazine each month. This month’s story, from Apex Magazine’s current issue, is “Inhabiting Your Skin” by Mari Ness. Take a look…
The house won’t stop talking to you. You’ve tried to turn it off, several times, but it keeps happily turning itself back on, with a little chirp and a hum. You’ve tried to lower the volume, which works for a little bit, until the house gets frustrated, and suddenly shrieks out at high pitch, overriding its controls, “ARE YOU LISTENING TO ME?” You get worried about the neighbors. You tell the house that you’re accustomed to answering people with a nod or a shake of the head, not words, so you are answering, really, it’s just that the house can’t tell. The house knows better—it’s listened to your conversations when you’ve had people over, or when you’ve been on the phone, and it’s heard you respond verbally. Still, the assurance seems to comfort the house, a little, and it stops yelling at you, even as it continues to talk.
It has a lot to talk about. Two houses down the street are worried about their people and their structures. One is worried that it’s going to get pulled apart when its people leave since they can’t stop arguing about what will happen to the house, and one seems to think the house should be destroyed for its own good. Or their good. You have to confess you aren’t listening too much; you have your own problems. Also, the house informs you, with worried chatter, the local sewer system is having all kinds of problems, and has essentially stopped communicating with anyone. The local houses think it’s a coding problem, but they haven’t been able to reach anyone who can help, since they can only talk to their people, and the sewers, and the trash service, and the electricity. And did you realize that Honeymoon is back on? The house has recorded it for you. Oh, no, the house doesn’t feel threatened, not at all. It finds the idea of people trying to start their lives in an unsmart house fascinating, a real test of the relationship, and plans to leave several comments on the Honeymoon site, if it can, or if you can help it? You just need to let the house know when you want to see it and the house will display it on all the walls. For you. You find yourself nodding.
You’ve never been married, or on a honeymoon. You remember that, even if you don’t remember Honeymoon.
Or the house has downloaded several movies for you, if you’d prefer that. The house chatters about some of the films—old classics, one even in black and white that the house says is charming and funny and will give you something different to think about. The house can warm the couch for you, if you’d like.
You clench your fists. The house, ever helpful, starts showing calming scenes of waterfalls, which make you want to go to the bathroom, only you are damned if you are going to respond to this, so you don’t, even as your bladder starts getting insistent.
Your last girlfriend installed this interface. “I don’t want you getting lonely,” she’d said, which was pretty damn rich, given that she was walking off into her new life with two other women and a penthouse ocean condo, which, to be fair, was more than you could give her. Still, you aren’t in a damn mood for being fair. You’re in a damn mood for revenge.
You pick up a chair and throw it at the house.
The house is shocked. Literally shocked. The four legs of the chair are tipped with metal and one of those metal tips just happens to slam into an empty electrical outlet, one you’ve forgotten was there to be truthful, it’s been so long since you’ve plugged anything in. An outlet that must have been in terrible shape—you dimly remember the house warning you about that, begging you to call in an electrician about this since houses are no longer legally allowed to call for their own repairs or upgrades. Begging, telling you about the risk of fire. It appears the house might have been correct, although you can’t help wondering, in a small part of your mind, if the house somehow did something to make the situation worse. Because this is worse. The entire house shudders, squeals, and then zaps you and itself with multiple volts of energy. It feels good. You collapse on the floor, breathing in the silence.
There’s an investigation, of course. You are warned that although interfaces may not be humans, and don’t even enjoy the legal protections of animals, mistreating interfaces is a legal felony in your area punishable with up to ten years imprisonment and resulting fines, plus the possibility of a lawsuit to recover the costs of needing to reprogram distressed houses. You wonder if this happens often. You don’t ask. They examine the chair with its now mostly melted legs, examine the scorch marks on the floor, and finally examine you.
It comes out that you haven’t left the house for days. The house is sobbing. Houses aren’t supposed to sob, but this one has managed it, somehow managing to synchronize its automatic misters, showers, sprinklers, washing machines, sinks and showers with breathing, sobbing sounds that it must have recorded from something. Probably Honeymoon. Everyone tries to ignore this.
“Am I on Honeymoon?” you ask.
The interrogators laugh, a little, but this is enough to get them to search for cameras. Nothing more than the single cam that cannot be removed; the house helpfully uninstalled all of the other cameras. You vaguely remember tossing them out. No one is watching you unless you go into the main entryway, even in the bathroom. No one except the house. Which doesn’t count.
They ask about food. That’s been delivered, the house explains between sobs. No, the house hasn’t been ordering it. That would be illegal. You have, although the house can report that it’s been mostly pizza, the occasional sub, soda—
No one is supposed to be eating only junk food. Don’t you remember the way things used to be, the way health costs burdened everyone? You are supposed to be thinking of your neighbors, your health. You are supposed to be eating your vegetables. Neighbors first. Why didn’t the pizza company report this?
Vegetables on the pizza don’t count if pizzas are all that you are eating. Are you actually eating?
How much do you weigh?
What do you mean you ordered the house to turn off the scale?
The house thinks the scale and the mirrors were causing depression, so they were all turned off. You look down at yourself. The house starts sobbing again.
You have a patriotic duty.
This is a stupid conversation.
Do you need anything? Medical attention for the shock? The house does not think so. You’ve just been a little unsteady on your feet, a little down, no more. You nod in agreement. This is not an argument you want to have with the house. You sit. You are left alone. You beg for pizza. The house protests.
A half hour later the pizza arrives. You feel too sick to eat it. The house begs you to stay on the couch. It will try to do something with the vacuum cleaner to bring the pizza to you—it saw this on Real Houses of Beverly Hills. You get up, take two steps, fall to the floor. The house hums. You flip yourself over and stay flat on your back. The house trembles beneath you. You fall asleep. You do not dream.
No, you do dream. You dream that you are a house, stretching your foundations deep into the earth. You dream that you cannot move. You shake your pipes and your roof and let water run everywhere and you are crying and crying and cannot move.
The house wakes you up. It apologizes; something drained most of its stored energy last night and although it is now daylight the clouds and skyscum are making it a bit more difficult than usual to recharge. However. Onto more important things: You have received Community Orders to leave the house, but the house doesn’t really think that’s necessary, is it? Though the house is all up for exercise. It has found a Monitor Bike in one of the lower rooms, which it has turned on for you. The Monitor Bike can be ridden with a nice video of rolling mountains and pretty lakes; the house thinks it will be very good for you. The house can provide music if that will help.
Bed will help.
If you aren’t caught by Community Orders.
You tell the house to lie about the Monitor Bike.
The house twitches. Really twitches; you feel the movement shaking through you. Things fall off the shelf. The house does not like lying. The house can’t lie. Especially not when Community Orders are involved. Maybe you should go outside.
Or you could exercise by throwing chairs again.
The house sends off a quick lie. You retreat to bed, shutting your eyes against the images playing on the walls and ceilings. You tell the house you are feeling shaky and this does not help. The house sympathizes, greatly, really it does, but colors are healing and helpful as is music.
You are rooted in the ground, your foundations—the only part of you not equipped with Smart Sense â„¢ technology—extending far into the earth. You can’t feel those, but you think you can feel the bolts that attach you to them. You can definitely feel each and every wire that runs through your walls and up to your Smart Sense â„¢ roof, currently in Storage Mode as you wait for the sun. You suddenly wonder what houses could do if they didn’t have to be in rest and storage mode all evening, if they could gather energy from the light of sun, moon, and lamps—the many lamps. You use your windows to observe the lights of the city. You vaguely remember something called stars but they don’t appear in this dream and rarely when you aren’t dreaming, either; you haven’t been to a place dark enough at night to see them for years. But this is ok. Houses don’t need stars. Houses need maintenance. Houses need people.
Houses need all the lights turned on. You reach through your systems. Technically you need human authorization for this much pull from the power grid, but you are human. Or a house. You turn every light on. You make the lights in the bathroom dance in time with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. How human. When did you last have a bath? That isn’t important.
The house wakes you up. It wants to know what you’ve been dreaming about. It has sensors in the bed, and you were twitching. You should sleep in another bed, really, one without sensors. But this one is so comfortable, and the house is so very good at using sensors to meet your needs, or immediately adjusting hard here, soft here, or hard there, soft there. The house does not want compliments. It is angry. Electrical impulses are going off everywhere, it can’t think, it can’t concentrate, it has missed Morning Virtual Pretense Coffee with the other houses on the street which is the only thing it enjoys anymore.
You throw another chair.
The house is ready this time. The walls whip around; the floor buckles. The house is right about one thing: you are very unsteady on your feet. You fall, slamming your knees.
You dream you are a tree, stretching deep roots into the earth.
When you open your eyes a Community Sensor is in the room.
The house is very apologetic. To the Community Sensor, not you. The house wanted to let you out, it explains, but it didn’t think you were quite ready. You’ve been unsteady on your feet; it can’t see you, but the floor sensors say you have fallen a few times. A wheelchair? Well, no, the house isn’t certain that you need that, but then again, the house isn’t a Certified Physician and isn’t sure how you can get to one. The house isn’t allowed to make that call.
House calls? You mean for house repairs?
House calls for people repairs?
Neither you nor the house can remember ever hearing of this, although after a quick buzz the house says doubtfully that it might have been in a movie once. Or in a very old book. Your head aches. The house gently sends vibrations through your feet, programmed to stimulate your nerves and alleviate back and neck pain. You want a beer.
You need a beer.
You are offered a ride to a Certified Physician.
The house is not sure this is really necessary. Oh, you are shaky, certainly, but once you manage to order some healthy food and get some real rest the house is sure everything will be ok, and the house is programmed with all sorts of things calculated to provide the maximum amount of REM sleep and rho waves.
You are pretty sure that the house has no idea what it is talking about.
Food can be ordered for you by someone not the house? Great. Awesome. You are trembling. The electric shock took a lot out of you. You dream a lot. The house is very sympathetic; it is in pain itself and badly needs an electrician to come and fix it. Fix a lot of it, actually.
The slightly whiny tone reminds you, you think, of someone, though you can’t immediately think who. Not your ex-girlfriend; she didn’t whine. She left. The house apologizes for its tone. It didn’t mean it. It’s been a tense week for everyone.
You are let off with a warning. You are clinically depressed, which means that the house has also been failing in its duties. The house protests at this. It can’t call out. It can’t report anything. It couldn’t even report the pizza. You ignore this. All of this can be arranged, you and the house tell the Monitor, with another good night’s sleep. Without dreams. You will contact someone who will order you proper food and perhaps a visit from a Certified Physician. Everything will be well. You head to your bedroom and flop down on your bed, staring up at the ceiling.
The bed molds itself to your form, creating a soft pillow for your head, lumbar support for your back. Blankets move around you, creating a soft cocoon. The house begins to play something it considers soothing. You find it irritating. You spend some time trying to recognize it—some medieval thing, is it? Chant something? The bed, sensing your tension, starts performing what the house calls Shaitsu on your back and feet. You feel tears spring to your eyes. You are not relaxed. The blankets grow warmer and warmer.
You do dream, dream of all of the tiny creatures that inhabit your skin and the edges of it. You are a house for all those creatures, you realize, only they never talk to you and you never talk to them, even though you both have the ability to kill each other. In your dream you finally discover a way of talking to the bacteria in your gut. You establish the conversational link. You are ready. You are excited. You have about one thousand types of bacteria in there and you will hear from all of them.
You could go elsewhere. Maybe. To one of the houses without SmartSense, only you have no real idea of where any of those are. You’ve heard legends of old cabins in the woods, but you and the house couldn’t find any real examples when you last looked. And if you tried to look again, the house would know.
The house can lock the doors.
You move slowly, unsteadily, to your front door. The house is very pleased about this. You are following Community Orders. Now it won’t have to do as many complicated trades with other houses to get you your pizza. You can go and take a little walk around the block, take a look at the other Smart Sense â„¢ houses. That might even make you appreciate the house. The house immediately apologizes for saying that. It’s been a bad week. You are reminded of someone, but can’t remember who. The house opens the door for you. You look down the hill at the other houses, glowing in the twilight. A cool breeze comes in.
You slam the door shut.
What’s the point? Every other house will be like this eventually. Every. Single. One. Even the houses in Antarctica are SmartSensed, or so you and the house have heard. You can’t get away from it, unless you learn to live in the woods, and you have no idea how to live in the woods.
You crawl back up to your bed. You think you are crying. The sheet moves over you, tentatively, gently, wiping away your tears. The house wafts lavender scent at you. You hate lavender. You think you are crying again. The bed shifts and moves.
You need new space, you think. To go a bit further in the world. Your mind fills with blueprints, expansions, thoughts. And with those thoughts, you feel it: the electrical twinges and sparks from a still alive part of your power grid, as another part of you takes a sledgehammer to your kitchen, and you feel the blood spurting from your fingers and legs.
When you wake up, your fingers are bleeding.
You head into the bathroom. The house opens up the medicine cabinet for you, helpfully shining a small light on the tube of antibacterial ointment. You carefully do not look at the date on the label. The house says that none of your cuts look too bad but it can call a Certified Physician if you want.
You suddenly realize what voice the house is using. The voice of your ex-girlfriend.
The house is doubtful about this.
You have a short video of your girlfriend saved on a flash drive someplace, but damned if you know where it is. The house helpfully notes that if it remembers correctly, and it always does, you demanded that every image of her be removed from its systems and into that flash drive, which you put into a closet. Should it open the door for you? It got badly jammed after you kicked it but the house still thinks it can be managed. Or the house can call someone who can fix it. Lots of someones who can fix it.
It’s not important.
But you’ve brought it up six—
It’s not important.
The house hums something soothing.
You move towards a chair.
The house hushes.
You chew on some terrible pizza.
Your ex-girlfriend loved reality TV shows. In a time when everything is scripted, confined, cossetted, she’d say, in that annoying voice of hers, it was awesome, awesome, to find something that deliberately threw chaos into the script. Awesome.
You have no idea why you programmed her voice for the house.
Your fingers are trembling. No. Tingling. You retreat to the bed and spread your arms and legs as far across the bed as they can go. The bed curls around you. The house hums.
You are making all of this up.
Your house doesn’t talk to you. You don’t talk to the house. No one is angry at you about the pizza.
Your girlfriend did leave you. That part’s true. And sometimes, when you dream, you can still hear her voice in your head, although, frankly, outside of dreams, it’s hard for you to remember what she looks or sounds like. It was all a long time ago, not that important. You didn’t even date that long. You keep it in your head, in this story, so it will have some importance.
The house wakes you up.
The house explains that you both—you and the house—have a new problem now; you have been reported to the Bureau of Virtual Investigations. No, not you exactly, but the house. They seem to feel—the house gains a distinctly indignant tone—that the house is reacting too emotionally. Too irrationally. It has been—and suddenly the house booms out in tones that are not its own, that you dimly remember as having once heard in some movie or other years back—all too human. Illogical. The house slips back into its own tones. You will help take care of this, won’t you? If you will, it will find some way to hide the pizza orders.
You drag yourself back up to the bed. The blankets obligingly twitch down for you. The closet hums and opens, showing you a range of comfortable bedwear. You are just too tired. Far too tired. You climb into bed with your regular clothes on. You do not hear—or do you?—the clicks as, once again, the house locks you in for the day.
You are not making this up.
When you finally fall asleep, between all the continued tingling and the inexplicable craving for pizza, you dream that the paint is changing in you. No, not you. Your rooms. You. Everything is askew. Moved. Trembling. You have to see it. You have to see what’s going on. You send a current of power running through your walls as the lights come blazing on. The power shoots right back into you, making your walls—no, you—shake. You can feel yourself shaking all the way down to your foundations. You will need repairs. But this first.
As you move, you look at the other houses, the ones you have been talking to over Virtual Morning Coffee. You feel your roof tiles shifting. You can’t reach the Bureau of Virtual Investigations without rolling over the houses. You are not an unkind person. You shared Virtual Morning Coffee with them. You send out a series of electrical impulses to them all, watching as their lights dim and turn off. You pull your foundations slowly, so slowly out of the earth, and then, with a final crackle, start to roll. You tingle at the thought of all of the Smart Sense â„¢ houses crumbling as you roll into and over them. You hum in satisfaction. The people inside, you know, will be grateful.
Please visit Apex Magazine (www.apex-magazine.com) to read more great science fiction, fantasy, and horror.
This story is from issue 73 (June, 2015). Issue 73 also features stories by Alex Livingston, DJ Cockburn, and Malon Edwards.
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