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art by Justine McGreevy

Clem

Cassandra Rose Clarke is a writer and teacher living in Houston, Texas. Her work has previously appeared in Strange Horizons and Zahir, and she is a graduate of the 2010 Clarion West Writers Workshop. Her first novel, The Assassin's Curse, will be released by Strange Chemistry in November 2012. You can find out more about her work at cassandraroseclarke.com.
When Clem died, I took to eating my lunch in the office with the computer. No one ever went down there except Clem. I couldn't stand the thought of the break room, all the conversation stopping when I appeared in the doorway.
The first day, I pulled a broken-down ergonomic desk chair out of a closet and balanced my soggy tuna sandwich on my knees. I set my Diet Coke on the floor beside me. The computer didn't say anything, just rippled a row of green lights in a pattern that reminded me of the ocean.
The second and third days were the same. I ate my lunch in silence, listening to the fans whirring constantly in the background. The computer's lights rose and fell.
Then on the fourth day, the computer said, "Hello," in a voice like snow falling across an electrical fence. I dropped my sandwich in surprise, tuna smearing across my skirt: after three days, I had begun to assume that the computer wouldn't speak to me at all.
"Hello," I said. The lights stopped blinking.
"Do you know Clem?" the computer asked.
At the sound of her name I stood up. The chair rolled away from me. The sandwich fell to the floor. Even though the room was enormous, with high ceilings and two bright windows, I couldn't breathe.
"Yes," I said. "I know her." I didn't bother to correct myself. I walked towards the door, heels clicking on the tile.
"Are you Alicia?" said the computer. I stopped, turned around. The green lights began to ripple again. "She talks about you often."
The present tense bothered me. It was my mistake to make, not a machine's. "No," I said. "She doesn't. She's gone. Dead. Do you know what that means?"
Clem had explained to me once, as we walked away with greasy paper-wrapped meals from the taco truck, that the computer didn't always understand abstractions about us. But the computer said, "I know. Mr. Allendez told me."
"Then why do you talk about her like she's still here?"
The computer didn't answer. The lights blinked off. For a long time I stood in the middle of the room, in my stained skirt and wobbling heels, but the computer didn't speak again.
I waited a week before going back to the computer. I ate lunch at my desk, and the other secretaries flitted by, putting their hands on my shoulder and asking me how I was holding up. "Fine," I said, over and over again. "I'm fine."
But I was sick of their false sincerity, which was why I decided to see the computer again, because I thought maybe it understood.
When I opened the door to the room all the overhead lights switched on. I leaned against the frame. I felt shy, like the first time I knocked on Clem's office door, when I decided I wanted to meet her.
"Hello, Alicia," the computer said.
"Hey."
"I apologize for my rudeness the other day," said the computer. "I'm not used to the concept of death."
"Neither am I." For a moment I lost my voice. "Especially hers."
The computer didn't respond. I stepped into the room and pulled the chair up close to the computer.
"I've forgotten the way she smells," I said. "I haven't washed my sheets since it happened but they all just smell like me now."
"She created me," said the computer.
"I know," I said. "She told me about it. We'd go on dates, like to the park, or to get ice cream, and all she talked about was you."
"She told me a story about you every day," said the computer. "She said they would help make me better."
"Better how?" I said. There was a heaviness behind my eyes.
"Just better," said the computer. "More like you."
After that I saw the computer every day. I rode the light rail in early, before even the overworked engineers showed up, and the entire building was empty except for me and the computer and the wan fluorescent shadows. We talked about Clem, of course. I told the computer about our apartment, the way she hung bits of stained glass in front of the windows so the colored light spilled across the clean white sheets of our bed. The computer told me about the day it woke up, how the first thing it ever saw was Clem's face. How Clem was the first concept it ever understood: Clem as a biological creature, as a human, as a woman, as a person.
"You were the second," it said to me one evening. I sat in my chair with a carton of noodles from the vendor on the corner. "But you're different somehow. I understand you differently. I can not explain it."
For some reason, I blushed.
Eventually we stopped talking about Clem. The constant ache in my chest began to diminish. The computer asked questions about me, about my childhood in the Rio Grande Valley, and so I described the scent of oranges in December, the long baking heat of summer. Once I asked the computer to tell me what it did all day. "Think," it said. "About many things at once."
"Do you think about me?" I asked
"Of course," it said, and its green lights shimmered. I smiled. For the first time in nearly three months, I smiled.
And that was when I knew.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, May 2nd, 2012


I wrote this story as an exercise during my first week at Clarion West: the assignment was to come up with a science fiction love story that was no longer than a thousand words. However, Iíd actually been batting around the core idea--a human character and a created intelligence grieving together--for a while. I love stories about artificial intelligences, and one of the things I love most about them is the way they explore the differences in how a machine might react to a given situation versus a human. For this story, I knew I didnít want wildly different reactions, but rather ones that were so similar, with differences so subtle, that the characters hardly understood what was happening.

- Cassandra Rose Clarke

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