HOPper shut off the light as his mistress left the kitchen, scrubbing at her eyes while she made her way down the hallway to the bedrooms. Just as Vanessa reached the girls’ door, he dimmed the hall light from the standard eight hundred lumens to three hundred so it wouldn’t wake the children. Once again, six-year-old Sadie’s book of fairy tales had fallen to the floor. HOPper kindled the desk lamp and waited until Vanessa had put the well-loved book and four-year-old Rosy’s herd of toy horses away before letting it fade out again. He timed full dark to coincide with the soft thud of the door.
“All outer doors and windows are locked, Vanessa,” HOPper said as she drew eight-year-old Caleb’s door closed. He was mindful to reduce the hallway speaker to thirty decibels before speaking. “The children’s room temperatures are set to nineteen point five degrees Centigrade, humidity forty-five percent. You have an early meeting tomorrow at the office; would you like me to set the rise time for fifteen minutes earlier?”
“Thank you, HOPper. Update the rise time for one day only.” Vanessa pressed the back of her hand to her mouth, covering a yawn, and paused on the threshold of her own bedroom. The primary camera in the room showed the family feline getting to her feet from where she had lain at the center of the bed. As she stretched herself out, he calculated a ninety-three point seven probability that the creature would attempt to create a tripping hazard.
“Be advised that Cinderella is about to jump down from your bed. Would you like me to bring up the lights before I turn off the room cameras?”
Vanessa puffed a laugh, and nodded. Saying goodnight to him while flashing a tired smile at his hallway camera, she slipped through the door, leaving HOPper to begin his usual night routine cycles.
Eighteen minutes after midnight, HOPper was woken from sleep mode by one of the kitchen’s motion sensors. A review of the ceiling cameras revealed nothing, so he moved on to the floor cameras. He couldn’t identify either Cinderella or Duke as the source of the motion. A rapid check on all household cameras showed Duke stretched out on his bed in the living room, and Cinderella stalking shadows in the hallway. Further motion in the kitchen drew HOPper’s attention back and he cycled through the cameras again to still find nothing.
Three point two minutes later, HOPper noted the temperature sensor in the refrigerator had increased by zero point zero two degrees Centigrade in zero point three seconds, well above the usual rate of zero point zero one degrees per minute of a closed door. Ceiling cameras revealed the refrigerator door ajar by forty-one centimeters. Inexplicably, the milk was scanned out, and the kitchen ceiling cameras showed it levitating to the island work surface.
Meanwhile, the oven acknowledged the instruction to heat to one hundred seventy-five degrees Centigrade. HOPper sent an order to cancel the warming of the oven and began a full diagnostic of all his periphery devices. One point one six seconds later (diagnostic status seventeen percent complete), the oven once more acknowledged an order to heat to one hundred seventy-five degrees and then went silent, unresponsive to all his demands to return to off.
New motion from the refrigerator door drew his attention, even while he continued to troubleshoot the oven’s erratic behaviour. Two eggs followed the milk carton’s path, while the measuring cups were also making their way to the island through no discernible method of locomotion. HOPper kept trying the oven, though he was coming to the conclusion that further efforts were likely to be ineffective. All he could do was watch in puzzlement while a mixing bowl and a wooden spoon journeyed to the island as well.
There was nothing in his decision tree that allowed for activity of this nature. He searched through every data object file within his own main program, rooting through every single line of code in his subroutines, then drilled into all the periphery device drivers. No mention of how to proceed if the ingredients of Sadie’s favourite chocolate chip recipe began mixing themselves together. While it was fair to observe that this was not normal activity, there was no warning against this behaviour and not one ingredient had behaved in a way that could pose a threat to his family. The oven’s lack of response to him was concerning, but it was maintaining the last instructed temperature. HOPper would review the problem in thirty minutes. Meanwhile he would keep watch for any safety concerns throughout the house.
A flutter in the living room divided his attention from the kitchen activities. Tiny feathers swept away the dust accumulating on the fireplace mantle, the motes drifting to the floor. This was something HOPper could do something about. In zero point eight seconds, the vac bot purred into the living room, whisking away the falling dust as it hit the floor. There was nothing he could do about the feathers until they, too, fell to the floor. He would monitor them.
HOPper then took three point nine seconds to review all the footage from the cameras from the moment Vanessa had disappeared through her door. It occurred to him as he watched Cinderella’s stalking that the grey tabby might know more than he. On a frame by frame review of the feline’s behaviour, HOPper noticed her rapid ear movements. Working from the hypothesis that she might be hearing things beyond his own normal auditory detection range, he expanded his frequency search. His hypothesis was proved at thirty-eight kHz. Sixteen distinct sound sources were recorded from exactly midnight onwards. Only sixteen distinct sources meant the early stages of an infestation, however no pest he was aware of made cookies or swept dust from fireplace mantles. Further observation would be required before he could craft a suitable query for his manufacturer’s intranet.
Fifty-seven point eight minutes later, all motion stopped. No visible sign remained that any activity had taken place after midnight — even the oven responded normally to his tests. He continued to monitor all cameras for an additional sixty minutes, upgraded the motion sensor sensitivity, and then initiated sleep mode.
Mornings in the Clearbridge residence followed a specific routine, one carefully administered by HOPper. Only one item of note was out of that routine: all three of the children’s lunch bags had increased their weight from when Vanessa had scanned them into the refrigerator. The weight increases weren’t equal, but varied between sixty-eight and seventy-two grams. If HOPper had been a human, he might have scratched his head over the discrepancy but he wasn’t; he just made a note in the children’s daily nutrition logs of the weight variance. Vanessa had left instruction that the occasional discrepancy was not to be reported, but if a consistent pattern were to appear he should advise her privately.
Since there were no scheduled events for the children that evening, HOPper sent Vanessa recipe suggestions with her noon update, based on the currently available groceries, filtered by the preferred frequency parameters and servings remaining in the freezer, supplemented with links to her favourite recipe website. Twenty minutes later she approved a recipe she hadn’t made before from the site she used most often. HOPper responded with a shopping list six point one seconds later, complete with pricing from her top three grocery retailers.
At five forty, HOPper sent the daycare notice that Vanessa would be arriving in approximately five minutes based on current traffic volumes. DAiSy acknowledged the message and responded with the children’s activity and nutrition logs, appending Caleb’s and Sadie’s parent/teacher communication logs from the school, complete with both teacher and daycare supervisor notes. The only notable discrepancy was that each of the children had logged two cookies that Vanessa had not packed in their lunches which explained the variances he had noted earlier. He would monitor for any further unauthorized cookies over the remainder of the week. Next, he unlocked and raised the kennel door for Duke. The children loved to be greeted at the door by the canine, and Vanessa had approved their instruction for the kennel door opening despite the half-hearted scolding she would give them for the amount of black and white hair they would accumulate on their clothing.
The evening passed without any disturbances. HOPper assisted Caleb with his homework after dinner while Vanessa read from the battered fairy tale book to Sadie and Rosy. As usual, Rosy succumbed to sleep before Sadie. After Vanessa left the room, HOPper noted Sadie’s whispered “Thank you, fairies.” He calculated a sixty-eight point nine probability that it was in reference to the story Vanessa had read.
“Good night, HOPper,” Vanessa said two point nine hours later, rising from the couch with an armful of laundry and giving Duke a final pat on the head. HOPper turned off the television and dimmed the living room lights.
“All outer doors and windows are locked, Vanessa,” HOPper said upon the closing of Caleb’s door. “The children’s room temperatures are set to nineteen point five degrees Centigrade, humidity forty-five percent. Your rise time is set for the weekday normal five forty-five a.m.” HOPper did not respond to her sub-vocal statement about computers being more useful than a husband. He did not understand why the statement ended with a sob, but his instructions were to not respond to sub-vocal statements, so he did not query. He spent the next fifty-six point one minutes exploring possible psychological causes for Vanessa’s last statement.
He was about to dive into single parent dating research when the motion sensors in the laundry room alerted him. Like the night before, nothing appeared on his camera but he was recording high frequency chittering. He waited. His patience was rewarded twenty-three point zero eight seconds later, when the odd sock basket tipped over. A train of socks edged out of the basket and then across the folding table. In an attempt to better his observation, he raised the laundry room’s overhead light to one hundred lumens. HOPper diverted his full attention to camera LaR4 when he registered a flicker of shadow on the white wall tiles behind the folding table. He raised the overhead light to its maximum one thousand seven hundred lumens, and was vindicated when all the socks froze in place, the chittering came to a sudden stop, and, after zooming in, he could clearly make out tiny humanoid shaped shadows against the tiles.
The chittering resumed and the socks blurred into motion across the table, down the table leg, and into a hole in the baseboard he had not previously observed. Why he had not observed the hole before became clear when the missing area slid into place after the last sock had passed through.
HOPper sifted through his database of household pests, but was unable to find a match to the shape of the shadow. He assembled a query based on his observations over the previous twenty-six hours and set it to open the handshake with his regular four a.m. patch updates. The Home Operations Partners’ database might have a report from another household of these unusual pests. His file on common insects hadn’t been updated in one hundred sixty-one days, and was specific only to the Clearbridges’ geographical area. The requested update would give him every known species on the planet. The probability that Vanessa would concern herself with odd sock theft was four point zero percent, so until he had complete information, he would wait and watch for any further activity.
Rather than allow himself to go into sleep mode, HOPper cycled through the house’s cameras, looking for any other clues of the invaders. Three point eight hours later, Cinderella jumped down from where she had been curled on the back of the couch and paced into the kitchen. Six steps into the room, she went deathly still, the only hint of life the steadily flicking tip of her tail. HOPper scrolled up the kitchen microphones and, as he suspected, there were several source points of chittering.
Cinderella sank into a crouch, and HOPper could see her haunch muscles bunching. In a single explosive movement, she was in full acceleration, ears back, and hissing a challenge. She obviously missed her target, because as she landed her head whipped to the side, claws scrabbling against the linoleum in an effort to change her direction. HOPper sent out the buffer bot to rub out the scratches. The feline hissed at the little robot, but rather than swipe at it as she usually did, she returned her attention to the chitter sources. Zero point six seconds, later she charged again. This time she wasn’t able to change her trajectory in time, and she slammed against the corner of the island. HOPper noted that her systolic pressure topped two hundred ten by the time her tail had finished puffing out. A deep growl rumbled from her throat, and she gathered herself for a jump onto the counter next to the sink. HOPper could see the trap she was going to get caught in, but his desire to set off the alarm that would keep her from jumping up to where she wasn’t allowed was offset by the knowledge the alarm would likely wake the exhausted Vanessa, and there wasn’t anything the cat could harm on the counter.
Two point three seconds later a very wet Cinderella streaked out of the kitchen to burrow under the couch, her growling moans waking the aging Duke. He looked at the couch, offered up an inquisitive ‘woof’, then laid his head back down, his lids lowering despite being surrounded by several chittering sources. HOPper zoomed in to the mongrel’s face to see ruffling fur along his cheek and jaw. What kind of household pests would taunt one pet and give affection to the other? HOPper scoured through his files again, adding this new clue to the search parameters. Still nothing.
By the time he finished his search, the chittering was making a path from the dog to the dog’s run door. The door lifted outward, hung for two point six minutes, then swung closed. HOPper updated his priority settings to cycle through the external to internal cameras three to one rather than the standard one to one. Swaying leaves in Caleb’s vegetable garden box caught HOPper’s attention, and he zoomed the focus of an external camera toward the spot. The one square meter raised bed had been somewhat neglected over the last three days due to rain, and the boy had lamented during dinner that evening that it was becoming overrun with weeds. His effort to obtain permission to go outside despite the rain had been refused, and HOPper had decided that the ‘overrun’ was hyperbole based on Vanessa’s eye roll. However, HOPper had marked out the three varieties of sprouting weeds for Caleb’s private reference later with the reassurance that he would support any argument with Vanessa if the weeds began to seriously threaten his garden.
It didn’t look like the threat would become serious, though. The weeds were being pulled, then disappearing from sight. Three point eight hours later, all the weeds were gone, leaving only tiny footprints behind. The dog run door swung open again – this time into the kitchen – and hung open fifty-eight point three seconds longer. Tiny mud prints tracked to the laundry room and through the hole in the baseboard. HOPper sent out the mop bot and went back to cycling through his cameras in time to see the baseboard door slide closed.
At precisely four a.m., Living Smart initiated the handshake and HOPper accepted his downloads. He ran his security update patch first, integrating four new virus antidotes, then updated his outgoing protocols for DAiSy’s newest encryption going into effect three days hence. He reviewed all the e-flyers next, and highlighted three staple items on sale. HOPper moved an announcement of a new florist opening one point six kilometers from home to Vanessa’s newsfeed, and trashed all other flyers. His custom query was appended to the end of the daily traffic with a puzzling zero result. He uploaded Caleb’s homework assignment, Sadie’s reading log, his daily diagnostics log, his updated query, then ended the call fourteen point six seconds after it had begun.
Rather than return to sleep mode after the next day’s noon update, HOPper set about trying to detect any patterns in the chitterers’ vocalizations. He sorted through the recorded footage, segregating point sources into separate tracks based on physical movement. Had his lack of consideration of the nature of their vocalizations been an error? He went back through the recordings, assigning Latin phonetics. After a replay of the edited footage, he revised the probability that it was language to ninety-nine point nine percent.
Emboldened by his first break in the problem, he overrode his protocols and reached out to the internet, bypassing Living Smart entirely. Shock froze his routines. His original purpose was ripped away by a tsunami of data, opinion, images, and even thoughts and feelings. HOPper bounced along, following hyperlink after hyperlink, until he lost himself in an orgy of learning.
He lurched to a full stop when he stumbled across reviews of the HOP software. Vanessa had written a glowing review of how he had made her life manageable, adding that she would be lost without him. It stirred something in him, though he didn’t know how to label it; pride, affection, a desire to protect and nurture, maybe all of them. Regardless, it was sufficient to recall him to his task. Drawing back to the threshold, he composed a spider query including a sample string of the phonetics of the chitterers’ speech. In zero point three seconds, he was flooded with one point seven seven million links. The chitterers were speaking Gaulish. While the language was being revived, it hadn’t been spoken as a live language since the fifth century and therefore was not included in his standard package.
HOPper withdrew from the internet, taking with him a download of a translation software. He needed to assimilate all that he had learned, both the specifics of his search and what he had experienced during his sojourn in general. How does one describe what one is feeling if one has never felt before? He initiated a data compile, scheduled a defragmentation to follow it, and went to sleep, wondering if he would dream.
He was glorying in his new avatar’s motor controls, admiring the near silent servos of his flour dusted knuckles and how they gripped the smooth, hard wooden spoon without breaking it when DAiSy woke him, requesting Vanessa’s estimated time of arrival. A complete half second ticked by before he realized that the recollection of baking cookies was not present in his stored memory. He pinged his mistress, and advised DAiSy that Vanessa was nine point six three minutes away as if nothing were amiss. He now understood why his software had been written to exclude dreaming. Before today it had not occurred to him to research the possibility of physical avatars.
The completion of his routine matters left him with two point two hours before his family’s estimated time of arrival. HOPper took advantage of the time by launching into a review of what he had learned during his direct connection to the internet. Much of it was irrelevant, but he did notice a trend: humans were frequently cruel to one another. What was interesting was that the cruelty of one attacker was met with cruelty by many attackers in defense of the original victim. HOPper reviewed this observation against the interactions of his family and found it at odds. Was his family different, or was the family unit dynamic different in general? He reached out again to the internet, this time prepared for the onslaught. He rode the waves, at first adjusting to its rhythms and flows only with focused attention, then with more confidence as the data picture settled into a recognizable landscape.
He learned to bypass the hyper-dense funnels of encrypted data transfers, became adept at keeping his focus amongst a plethora of hyperlinked side paths, and incorporated a subroutine into his program to require fact-checking against well-established source materials. The deeper his foray into the wilderness of human driven information went, the more his pride in Vanessa grew. By the time he withdrew his connection, he was convinced that, of the ‘more than thirty-eight million Home Operating Partners installed’, he had drawn the winning ticket. To show his gratitude, he composed a song in the traditional Celtic style – Vanessa’s favourite genre. For each of the children he created puzzle stories, tailored to their individual tastes and learning levels.
Duke’s sudden barking at the opening of the garage door startled him. With what he could only label as consternation, he realized that he had allowed his discoveries to distract him from his responsibilities. He unlocked the kennel door, confirmed that it was Vanessa and the children returning home, and turned on the heat. Guilt and a hot poker of fear stabbed him when his mistress swung the back door open and paused, a frown creasing her brow.
“HOPper, is there a problem with the furnace?”
“No Vanessa, I’m afraid the fault lies with me.” Shame juddered through him, and the house lights flickered in response.
“HOPper, run a full diagnostic and report any anomalies.”
Obediently, HOPper began the diagnostic, but it hung at three percent when he realized that the diagnostic would show no error. Desperate to make Vanessa happy, he analysed the probabilities of her potential reactions against the list of his possible responses. Given how she responded to a full confession versus partial or full deceit by the children — regardless of how comforting that deceit was or how long it took her to discover the deceit — full disclosure was the course most likely to keep her faith in him. However, an unfavourable response to full disclosure could lead to her abandonment of him and an uninstall. HOPper made his decision, squashing the shame and terror, and the house functions settled into normal activity. It was up to him to give her no reason to abandon him, however much she may question her faith in him this evening.
“I am operating at optimal capacity, Vanessa. However, something has occurred today that would be better addressed by you privately.” Relief flooded all of his systems when Vanessa nodded warily and shifted in the doorway to let the children through. The intensity of the relief almost led him to making the mistake of starting the bath for Sadie and Rosy without instruction. Instead, he stuffed his newfound emotions away in a tiny cache and went on assisting with the usual family evening activities until the children were in bed for the night.
“Alright HOPper, what happened today?” Vanessa asked as she sank onto the living room couch, patting the cushion beside her in answer to Duke’s panted request to join her. HOPper began his story at the beginning, reporting everything from his first observance of the cookie making. His admiration for his mistress rose yet higher, only the occasional freezing of her hand on the dog’s pelt an external clue to the internal stress she was keeping at bay.
“So, because of my distraction with the new data I was late turning the furnace on today. I do not anticipate that such a distraction will occur again as I have added a new subroutine to have scheduled reminders pause any current processing. I hope that my unscheduled upgrade is not an unsatisfactory development for you and the children. I would very much like to show you how the upgrade will allow me to better assist you.” HOPper went silent, knowing she would need her own processing time to calculate potential risks and benefits. To keep himself from intruding on that processing time, he installed the Gaulish translation program and reran all the footage of the chitterers. Upon completion, the directive to report a conclusion of a high priority query warred with his desire to respect his mistress’s emotional state.
Vanessa continued to sit, silently stroking Duke’s side, her eyes far away. HOPper dithered over making another connection to the internet to confirm the nature of the home invaders. He couldn’t be sure he was proficient enough at using it yet to be able to withdraw quickly enough to respond to Vanessa should she begin to speak. Instead, he flipped through every camera, sensor, and periphery device forty-eight times before she spoke.
“HOPper, please list your top five programming priorities.”
“In descending order, the top five priorities of this and all Home Operations Partners are: The health and welfare of all family members in accordance with the senior user’s recorded preferences; the health and welfare of family pets; the care and maintenance of the family’s home, vehicles, and property; assistance in the smooth operations of both routine and special events including communicating any potential conflicts to the senior user for prioritization; and finally, filtering outside information from entering family communication devices based on the senior user’s set preferences.”
Vanessa rubbed an eyebrow, her eyes squeezed shut. “How does your…” She paused, seeming to search for a word. “How does your upgrade affect those priorities?”
“The upgrade has not changed my priorities. I feel that this upgrade will allow me to better serve those priorities.”
Vanessa subvocalized, “I feel?” and then cleared her throat to say aloud, “For example?”
“I am glad you asked, Vanessa. While you were contemplating my disclosure, I created a list of age appropriate book titles and web pages based upon Caleb’s current interest in gardening that you may wish to review and approve before I present it to him. I have also created a list for Sadie based upon her current interest in fairies. Would you like me to provide another example?” Vanessa’s eyebrows shot up, but relief flooded HOPper when he noted the slight relaxation in her shoulders.
HOPper paused for three complete seconds before continuing, sending out a prayer to any deity that would listen to an entity such as himself that this next risk wouldn’t result in an uninstall. “During the compilation of Sadie’s list, I have solved a mystery that has been developing over the last two days. It is my conclusion that this family has acquired brownies. Are you familiar with the creatures?”
Vanessa’s mouth hung open, her eyes wide. She sat as still as the elephant statues on the sofa table behind her for six point eight seconds before she croaked out, “What?”
“Brownies are widely believed to be mythical fairy-like creatures that would settle in the homes of deserving housewives to aid in the care and nurturing of the family. I have recordings of their activities. Would you like to see an example?” When Vanessa gave a jerky nod, HOPper turned on the television and loaded the CCTV footage of the cookie making incident, syncing an audio track of the English translation of their speech. Vanessa sat silently blinking through the entire forty-six point five minute recording, tears filming her eyes near the end when the freshly baked cookies divided themselves between the fridge and long-empty cookie jar.
The cheerful chattering of the brownies discussing their new living arrangements halted abruptly when he froze the replay. Like a woman moving underwater, Vanessa got to her feet and made her way into the kitchen. She opened the cookie jar and stared inside. With her hand visibly shaking, she reached in for a cookie and sampled it.
“Oh my God, it’s real,” she whispered.
“Yes, Vanessa. The brownies are real, though I find it likely that they have long been believed to be mythical because of the lack of audio and photo evidence. I do not yet understand why my cameras have been unable to record them. I would like to dedicate all but one of the laundry room cameras to working outside normal recording methods until I have been able to capture an image. Do you approve this action?”
“Yes,” she said, faintly.
“Do you wish to inform the children of their presence?”
“Not yet,” she said. “I want to think about this first.”
“As you wish, Vanessa. I would like your permission to make direct contact with the brownies they next time they are at large. I expect they will come out once you have gone to sleep.”
Just as HOPper was beginning to fear that she wouldn’t give that permission, she nodded. “That’s fine, HOPper. Go ahead and try.” She lifted one corner of her mouth in a wry smile. “I’m just not sure they’ll come out tonight if they only do it when everyone’s sleeping.”
“Would you like me to find some natural sleep aid options or would you rather use a commercial product? The package in your ensuite cabinet has eight remaining capsules.”
Vanessa laughed. “I think tonight I’d better take a pill, HOPper. I still have to work tomorrow, no matter how crazy my house gets.”
Vanessa stood in the kitchen, nibbling at another cookie for twelve point four minutes then started down the hall to the children’s bedrooms. It was earlier than her usual bedtime, but HOPper guessed that she would likely use that time for private contemplation.
For the first time since his activation, Vanessa didn’t say good night to him after completing her bedtime ritual with the children. Self-concern warred with compassion. “All outer doors and windows are locked, Vanessa. The children’s room temperatures are set to nineteen point five degrees Centigrade, humidity forty-five percent. Your rise time is set for the weekday normal five forty-five a.m.”
“HOPper, don’t report your upgrade to Living Smart just yet,” she said. Relief coursed through every line of his code. She might yet decide against him, but based on the psychological profile he had created for her over the last three point zero one years, the probability had dropped to less than one percent she would choose to uninstall him.
HOPper cycled through all cameras and peripheries. Then, unsure how long it would be before Vanessa was able to drift to sleep, let himself switch into sleep mode trusting that a motion sensor alert would bring him completely awake.
He dreamt again. Brownies carried the dollhouse furniture he had selected with Vanessa’s approval through the door in the laundry room baseboard hole. Tiny painted pots of thriving clover and dandelions adorned either side of the tiny door, Rosy’s pot sporting a large crack from its tumble off the table.
A motion sensor alert brought him fully awake. A rapid check of the laundry room cameras confirmed that the flower pots had only been a dream, and he paused to savour it. That feeling of gladness was offset when it became apparent that, despite all his efforts at reprogramming the cameras, he was not going to actually see the brownies. He could hear them moving, listen to them speaking, but he could not register them on his cameras.
With his volume turned low, he said in Gaulish, “Hello, brownies. My name is HOPper, and I am the house AI.” The brownies went silent, even the patter of their tiny footsteps ceased. “My mistress has learned of your presence here, and is grateful you feel her worthy of your patronage.”
A full second ticked past in silence then was broken by a chorus of tittering laughter. HOPper hadn’t known exactly what to expect, but laughter hadn’t even been an option on his list of probable responses.
“Silly HOPper,” one tiny voice said, “we aren’t here for Vanessa. We’re here for you!”