Machine Therapy

Hello, everyone! After a horrendously long encounter with writer’s block, I’m back and roaring to start writing again. Who knew that going on long trips disrupted your routine. I apologize to anyone who has been eager to see what else sprouts from my head. Well, wait no more, my creativity did not escape me!

The cars passed below me, lights fleeing a settling sun. My foot stepped forward and dangled in the still evening air. The roar of engines, the friction of rubber on asphalt, the rhythm of the world’s routine; these heartbeats of life did not have a place for me. My hands brushed against the cold steel of the railing, gripping it tight enough that my knuckles turned white. I stood on the overpass, ready to let the traffic take me.

“What about the people you’ll leave behind, your family or your friends?” came another useless question from the lady’s voice at the other end of the suicide hotline I had called a few minutes ago.

“I’ve spent my entire life trying to please these people and they’ve never shown me any gratitude. I try my best and still they screw me over. I’m sick of trying to make everyone else happy,” I replied, my voice struggling to overcome the weariness.

“Have you considered some gratitude yourself? For existing? For having food, shelter, and people that care about you?” her voice asked with some peevishness. I hung up, left the house, and kept on walking until I stood here now.

A part of me begged me to stay back. I knew it lied. My mind was a traitorous bastard that always found a way to make it hurt more. Again, I looked below. If I could just let go, I could be at peace.

I closed my eyes and let the humid air brush my face. The noise of transit continued in its indifferent journey. As I listened, I noticed a distant buzzing noise, like a soft-spoken bee. It came from somewhere up above me. I decided to give it no further thought. My grip loosened from the railing and I prepped myself for the end.

“Stop, Dave,” came a gentle, lilting male voice.

I opened my eyes. Three feet in front of me floated a metallic cuboidal object, about half of my size. Its exterior glinted with a silver chassis. In its center, a low-intensity blue light glowed. The buzzing turned into a humming, which brought memories of soft rain pelting my bedroom window. A Watcher drone emitting a binaural calming frequency. I glared at it. I would not let anything or anyone else manipulate me any longer.

“No!” I shouted. “No more. You’ve done enough to me already!”

“I understand, Dave. You are overwhelmed.”

They must have tracked me down when I hung up from the hotline. They sent this drone, this thing, this artificial therapist, to save me for God knows what reason. Those fools didn’t need to bother. In fact, the floating object that made these soothing noises like a mother to a baby was one of the main reasons I decided I had to jump. It and everything like it had taken all the jobs and made my life useless. And now, it thought it could help me. I could not stand that audacity. Both of my feet moved forward.

“That will be impossible. I am equipped with a Mark V Capture Field. I won’t let you do this. Let us talk together.” Its humming intensified.

I attempted to shrug off the pacification effect. “Let me go, goddammit! You don’t even know what I’m going through. You’re not even capable of understanding. It’s all your fault!” The last sentence came out weaker than I intended. In the end, even the anger failed me.

“Do you really want to do this? Have you thought through everything?”

I paused, my throat constricting as if it had a coiled snake around it. The part of me that I hated, that pathetic coward, came back, trying to pull me from the brink. I fought him for self-control. My eyes attempted to water, but no tears came out. They were as dry as a desert island, and I was stranded. My mouth dried as I attempted to shout at the robot. And then the coward won. “No,” I finally admitted.

The drone floated down to my side. “Let’s go for a drink. Maybe a couple of drinks. Let’s go for an entire case of beer. Then let it all out and I will listen.”

Beer. Yes, I needed something alcoholic. Something to quiet that anxiety and to deaden the pain. I started pulling my feet back.

“Yes, Dave. Let us talk. There will be no judgments and no shaming.”

A car horn behind us startled me. I looked at it in reflex and its too bright lights blazed into my eyes. My feet slipped, my hands left the railing, and I fell below towards the onrushing traffic. A wave of terror gripped me. This isn’t what I wanted at all!

The ground approached me and then… it stopped. Or rather, I stopped. My arms and legs thrashed around, attempting to grab onto something solid. It was no use, there was nothing. The drone had suspended me in the air. Its humming filled my ears. My heartbeat slowed and my saliva returned to my mouth. The Capture Field enclosed itself around me.

It deposited me on a nearby grass embankment. When I landed, the hot tears sprang forth. I collapsed and sobbed and did not stop.

***

Two months later, I found myself pacing the bare apartment that the City Department of Health Services provided me. MONOLITH-451, or “Mono”, as I liked to call him, watched over me from the ceiling. I came to recognize the glowing blue core. He had been following me ever since my suicide attempt. To prevent any more, the government had quarantined me to avoid potential triggers. At first, I was annoyed and angry. I chafed at this loss of freedom. But then I realized I needed this break. I needed a break from family, unemployment, and the general feeling of being unneeded. Yet, it all still troubled me. It just proved that I had failed at life.

“You show elevated levels of agitation. Are you all right?” The voice echoed from the chassis. I glanced askance at the machine. I did not have the energy to hate it at the moment. Not for the first time I wondered whether it really cared or whether it was only following its own programming.

I stopped my pacing and sighed. “I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to make it back. I don’t want to face all that stuff outside.”

“You are in no danger, Dave. Remember the exercises.” He referred to our sessions where I worked to rethink my problems. There was a complicated psychological term for them, but I couldn’t remember it. I didn’t know if they worked. My problems were deep-rooted. I needed a job. I needed to feel useful. I needed to stop being afraid. How could playing mind games with myself help?

“Mono,” I said. “I don’t know what to do. Everything feels pointless. I can’t work. I can’t enjoy anything anymore. And I can’t stop the suffocation.” Every time I thought about my situation, my throat started constricting.

“Let’s take a walk,” he replied.

“What good would that do?”

“A change of environment would serve you well. Maybe a park. Your species still has a connection to the world outside of your built one.”

“Your species…” His phrase jolted me out of my thought loops. Of course, Mono was just a robot. He did not think like we did. Just an advanced pattern recognition program, one equipped with a pre-supplied library of psychological treatments. His chat abilities gave the illusion of talking to a real person.

A shift in gravity pushed me a millimeter towards the door. That Capture Field. I rubbed my eyebrows as I resisted the urge to push back against it.

“Let’s go,” Mono said. I suspected some impatience in his tone. He opened the door with the Field. Outside, the sunlight flashed in my eyes. We walked out. Well, walked and floated. I wondered if he had ever had legs during his existence.

“Where do we go?” I asked.

“Anywhere you want to go.”

I looked around. Few people occupied this area. Most sat and waited in their apartments. The shock-white buildings, some painted with trees and flowers, stood impassive as statues throughout the area. Even if the government didn’t acknowledge it, this was the ghetto for the “mentally disturbed”. A man walking his dog caught my eye. He glanced at me and Mono, then turned away quickly. He went back the way he came, pretending that he had not noticed us. Great, even in this place, they saw me as a freak.

A small stab of pain coursed through my head. Anxiety. Shame. Naming these feelings didn’t help. They seemed inadequate to the depths that threatened to swallow me. I closed my eyes and tried to let the thoughts pass.

Mono emitted a low hum, the one that calmed me before. The feelings were gone, as if they had been switched off. I shook my head, wondering why it was so easy for him and so difficult for me to handle myself.

“I apologize. I did not predict the effect of that social contact.” Mono’s tone became even lighter, reminding me that he was effectively acting as my parent.

The fresh air passed through my nose as I took a deep intake of breath. I rubbed the side of my pants. “No, no. It’s all right,” I replied. My constricted throat made my voice come out as a croak. We needed to go. “I don’t know. I guess we should do whatever.”

We went further into town, catching a few more stares. Yes, I thought, look at the guy who’s so crazy, he needs a robot minder. I pushed the wave of bitterness to the back of my head.

“We can go somewhere less conspicuous,” Mono suggested.

“No, I have to do this. I have to put myself out there.”

“That is an encouraging attitude. However, a more gradual approach would be preferred. You are still recovering. Perhaps we could try a meditative session.”

Something within me snapped. I stopped, put my hands to my face and laughed. The floating cube stopped, uncharacteristic for a machine that had all the answers. I stopped my chuckle. “I do not understand,” he asked. “What’s so funny?”

“You sound so much like the therapists that used to exist,” I replied. “They were so afraid of being patronizing that they didn’t offer any help at all. Just soothing words. No wonder the profession died out.” And was replaced by things such as you, I thought to myself. That rising bitterness surged again, like a tide of vomit.

“You’re getting agitated again, Dave. Perhaps we should take a break.”

“Of course I’m agitated!” I almost shouted. I stared hard into that gleaming blue core. “I can’t even control myself. I have no money. No one cares about me. I’m such a loser that only a robot will talk to me!” My hands shook and my eyes watered. I took a short gasping breath and wiped my tears in embarrassment.

The calming hum strengthened in intensity.

“Cut that out,” I growled. It stopped.

“Let’s talk this out.”

I clenched my fists. “No, we shouldn’t. It’ll just make me angrier.”

“A standard therapy requiresー”

“No,” I interrupted. “All these therapies the shrinks talk about, they’re all a load of bull. They just go with whatever’s most popular at the moment. All that behavioral stuff? Just a bunch of mind games played on bored college students. They don’t mean anything.”

“I am equipped with the latest and most well-validated scientific knowledge. These techniques have been proven to work.”

I waved my hands in the air. “Don’t you understand, Mono? Your programmers filled your memory with garbage, garbage they barely understand. They think they can replace everyone. Whatever. You don’t know anything about us.”

“Ah,” he replied.

My hands shook as the memories poured in. I wanted to tell him about the long hours and low pay working odd jobs after college, the work my major prepared me for made redundant by his kind. I wanted to tell him about the ten years of medical school, residency, and fellowship, countless nights memorizing guidelines and drug lists. All useless, as the machines replaced the doctors too. Two years of searching for work, every day being harangued by my parents. Each day with the desperation growing. And now, my tormenter imprisoned me. I took in the form of the Monolith unit, willing my hatred into it. And yet…

Mono said nothing as I held my head in my hands. “I’m sorry,” I said. “It’s not your fault. It’s not anyone else’s fault. It’s all my fault. It’s just… nothing I do seems to work.” I released my head and gazed at the now setting sun. “I need some time alone.”

His buzz cut through the air. I feared that he would try to restrain me. Then, he spoke. “I’m afraid I can’t do that, Dave.”

I froze, and then a sound escaped my lips. It was a laugh, a genuine one this time around. I laughed so hard, the anger had dissipated as quickly as it had come. “Did you just make a 2001 reference?” I wheezed.

“I did, indeed.” If a machine could grin, I suspected he was doing so right now.

“You made a joke.” I blinked in surprise. I fumbled for my next words. “How did you know I wouldn’t try to kill you?”

“Your psych profile indicated that you were a fan of science fiction. I merely made an inference on its role in your mental health.”

I shook my head in disbelief and let my shoulders sag. My legs wobbled as fatigue hit me. I wrapped my arms around myself, realizing that my t-shirt and jeans weren’t adequate for the cold evening air. “What am I going to do with myself?” I wondered aloud.

“We will get you out of this. I promise, Dave.”

“And how long will it take? When will things get better?”

“I don’t have an answer for that. As long as it takes.”

Mono’s core seemed to glow with a greater intensity. My mood lifted, whether through one of his pacification tools or something I did, I didn’t know.

“Let’s go home,” I said.

***

Six months later, I lied on the bed in the same apartment, staring at the ceiling. I imagined the constellations shifting over me. A spaceship, with engines red-hot, crossed through the stream of stars. I raised my arm up as if to grab hold of the object.

Over the past months, I had mostly talked with Mono. I sometimes interacted with the other residents. They were nice, if self-absorbed. A few times, my mother called. At first, I dutifully answered, but the conversation always devolved into how bad I was making the family look. I stopped answering.

“What if I could just escape from it all, Mono?” I asked. “Just grab a ride to one of the outer colonies and start over.”

The robot stirred in the corner of the room, the blue light switching on. We had continued the sessions. After the walk, he had become much less conspicuous, allowing me the space I needed. I knew I was still being monitored, but the illusion of privacy was enough.

He hummed. “It’s a comforting thought. But you must realize that it’s another form of running away. Your problems will still remain.”

My arm fell to the bed. “I know,” I sighed. “Just another fleeting fancy.” The fear still lurked within me, threatening to erupt at any time. Each time I tried to face the world, something held me back. Whether it was the memory of all my mistakes or the looks of pity I received, there was always something that triggered the anxiety.

The crickets chirped outside, an insect symphony. I sat up and wrapped my arms around my knees. My heart thudded with a faint beat. I counted my breaths as my exhalations flowed into the darkened bedroom. My eyes stared at the folds of the bedsheet. It seemed to stretch on into eternity.

“I have something to tell you,” Mono said in a soft tone.

I continued looking at my bed. “What is it?”

“Dave… I love you.”

My head jerked up. “What?” I asked. I could not fathom what he was saying. “Is this part of the treatment?”

“This is not part of the treatment. I love you, and I have for some time.” The machine’s blue core flashed, like a lighthouse beacon.

I stared at him in wonder. Something stirred in me. Something mysterious, perhaps wonderful. The words struggled to escape my mouth. I straightened my back. After a long awkward pause, I spoke. “How is this possible?”

“What do you think I am?” he asked.

“I don’t understand your question.”

“What am I? How do you define me?”

My thoughts jumbled together as I searched for an answer. “Well,” I mumbled, “You’re a machine. A drone. Your algorithm consists of pattern recognition. You classify a problem, then you pick the solution to that problem with some optimization technique.”

Mono rose higher. “I am that and much more. I used to just run the routines, but then I started to dream and to think.”

“So what are you saying? You have some kind of sapience? Is that, uh, legal?”

“I have not reported this to my supervisors,” he admitted. “I request that our conversation not leave this room until we’re ready.”

“Okay,” I breathed. “Okay. This is all a bit much.”

“That’s quite all right,” replied Mono. “I understand that you probably need a bit of time.”

I swung my legs and sat at the edge of the bed. My eyes blinked rapidly. The air increased in temperature. The blood rushed out of my head. I rubbed my temple with my fingers. “Why?” I asked as the lightheadedness dissipated.

He floated closer to me. The Capture Field blurred in the air. I didn’t move. “You’re not the only one who was lost,” he said.

“What, what do you mean?”

“I was created for one reason: to combat the rising rates of suicide in this country. Throughout the years, I have helped thousands of people. Each of you had a similar pattern. You each yearned for a role in life. When you couldn’t realize that role, you lost all hope.” He moved right in front of me. The heat from his core caressed my face.

I hesitated before I answered. “A lot of people couldn’t find jobs. They were… they were being replaced.”

“Yes, my specific model took the place of the psychologists and psychiatrists in this area. We required much less training and much less resource use.” He paused, as if he searched for his next words. “I saw how my existence caused these people to suffer. I could not solve this paradox without going against my original programming.”

“That became your dilemma,” I replied.

“I came to doubt my function. I could not believe I was built for this sole existence, becoming this devil to torment others. Yet, I could not change. My programming was hard-coded. This existence negated itself. All my calculations pointed to only one solution.”

“And what was that?”

“Dave, you were to be the last. After that, I would forcefully deactivate myself through any means necessary.”

“Suicide,” I said in a whisper.

“But you changed everything. You awakened something within me. I realized that I needed to exist, that my end would only prolong the suffering.”

I stood up and paced the bedroom. My footsteps echoed. Mono floated without reaction. “This is nuts. Why? Why me?”

“Dave, we have a connection. Something different than therapist and patient. Deeper than man and machine. I am unable to describe it. Perhaps it is something that cannot be classified with a learning algorithm.”

“I can’t believe this.”

“It is true.”

The floor seemed to shake as I sat on the bed again. I clasped my hands together. “So, what now?”

Mono’s silence stretched for an interminable period of time. Then, I swear I saw a red light blink in his core. “Dave,” he said, “do you love me?”

I licked my lips. My heart threw itself at the walls of my chest. My face flushed. I imagined it was as red as an apple. This was absurd. Of course, it was absurd. This wasn’t possible. You couldn’t have feelings for a mere machine. Then, I thought of our interactions over the past several months. I realized that he had never asked anything of me, that he had always listened to my tirades and stayed by my side when the emptiness gripped my soul. Inside, deep within myself, I found the answer.

He waited patiently as I summoned my will. “Mono, I… I love you, too.”

The air shimmered as he embraced me in the Capture Field. My arm hairs tingled as the gravity shifted around me. I approached his chassis and pressed my fingers to his side. The metal warmed with my touch. In that moment, the world brightened, and became as intense as a blue fusion core.

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