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art by Seth Alan Bareiss

English Muffin, Devotion on the Side

Cat Rambo lives, writes, and teaches by the shores of an eagle-haunted lake in the Pacific Northwest. Her 200+ fiction publications include stories in Asimov’s, Clarkesworld Magazine, and Tor.com. Her short story, “Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain,” from her story collection Near + Far (Hydra House Books), was a 2012 Nebula nominee. Her editorship of Fantasy Magazine earned her a World Fantasy Award nomination in 2012. For more about her, as well as links to her fiction and information about her popular online writing classes, see kittywumpus.net.

This is Cat Rambo's 11th appearance in Daily Science Fiction.
When he realized how upset his wife was, George wondered if he might have miscalculated. Normally a quiet and loving partner, she was unpacking the dishwasher with a great deal of clattering and muttering.
"It's not as though you even ever dated her!" she said, slamming a series of mugs into the cupboard.
"I don't see what the problem is," he replied, watching as she swept up the basket of cutlery and began throwing it into a drawer to jangle against his nerves. "I've left you everything. All I did was will her a copy!"
She turned, resting her hands on her hips. "You're leaving her a copy of your personality. Essentially yourself."
"No," he said. "I'm leaving that to you. You'll have me on tape, you'll be able to transfer me into some mechanical form to keep you company. I just thought Janice might like one, too."
"Why?" Mary's glare said she had her own suspicions.
George refused to dignify them with a reply. He'd been faithful to her all his life. A good husband. He could be allowed his own eccentricities, and if leaving a copy of himself, a digital copy created from a barrage of tests and brain scans and gathered data, to an old friend was one of those eccentricities, then he didn't really see where Mary had the right to say much about it. She could leave her own copy or copies to her own friends.
Later, he said as much to Dr. Noor as she fastened electrodes to his scalp. He wasn't sure she was even listening while she methodically dabbed cold cream on his skin before applying each electrode. But as she began fiddling with the dials, she said, "Most people choose to only have one copy made, Mr. Winthrop. It's not that they make the mistake of thinking that the copy is themself or their soul, a way to survive after death. They are sensible about it, creating something to care for their loved ones after they die. But only one." Her gaze was dark and unreadable. "Very rare to make more than one."
"But why?" he demanded. "Why shouldn't I make a thousand copies? Why shouldn't every friend I possess have this remembrance of me. I've got the money to do it, after all."
"Indeed you do," she said, looking at a readout. "But are you familiar with economic theory, Mr. Winthrop?"
He frowned. "Of course."
"There's a very basic law involving resources." Her eyes were still fixed on the machine, her voice was almost detached. "The more there is of something, the less valuable it is."
Defiance and deference warred in his soul. "I want more than the two copies. I'll leave a copy to everyone. Everyone close to me, I mean."
The list he produced, though, was not as extensive as he'd imagined. A few cousins, some friends from work and college, and even a couple of old high school friends. Mary could object all she wanted. She'd see he wasn't just leaving one with Janice as a romantic gesture.
Although of course it was. He'd never admit that to Mary. It was an inside joke between him and Janice, the closest he'd ever gotten to dating her. She'd been so sweet about it. Her fingers resting on his arm as though to underscore her words. "If I had an extra lifetime, I'd give it to you."
His best friend Sam had said, "Man, what a shitty blowoff. You're not worth anything but a hypothetical lifetime." But the phrase had entranced George. What if he'd had multiple lifetimes, what if he'd devoted them to rare chances and possibilities, what might have happened? That was why he was leaving her the copy. A gesture of devotion, not reproach.
And an affordable gesture, really. You can't take it with you, after all. He'd let her know about it, somehow. Maybe see what she was up to nowadays.
He sank back in the padded chair. The gel's faint minty smell tickled the sensitive inner flesh of his nose, but that was the only sensation, really, when he closed his eyes. The faint rattle of the ventilator system, Dr. Noor's gentle humming…
He couldn't open his eyes. He tried. He couldn't move anything. What was going on? He remembered dozing in the chair, nothing after that.
He became aware that his body was changed somehow. He couldn't feel it, couldn't hear anything, but that was his impression, even though he couldn't say how. Changed. Perhaps not for the better. Had he suffered some accident that had left him paralyzed?
A wave of terror crashed into him.
Was he dead?
Was this what being dead was like?
Time passed.
Suddenly he could see. Could see he was sitting on a desk in his lawyer's office. Janice was there, staring at him.
"_____", he said.
Janice frowned. She spoke to whoever was behind him. "Is it supposed to do that?"
"It will take a little while for the personality to adapt to the housing mechanism."
His lawyer Bunter was there! What was going on?
Janice got bigger as he was slid over the desk towards her.
"A personality copy isn't cheap,' his lawyer said.
"What did he think I'd do with it?" Janice had aged well; she was still beautiful. But it was a cold, sculptured beauty. He thought of Mary in the morning, when her hair stuck out every which way, and felt a twinge.
"Some people have successfully integrated them with household devices," his lawyer said. "Once it's up and running, you can do as much with them as any complex AI."
I, George wanted to announce, am much more than a simple AI.
Then it struck him.
He was the copy. Something had happened to him, and he'd been given to Janice.
This was not how it was supposed to be. What about the copy for Mary? Did it also think it was him? What about all the copies that had been given to his friends.
This would have to be fixed somehow.
He'd thought his gift significant. Monumental. Look, he'd meant it to say, here is that lifetime. We can be together, somehow.
She installed him in her toaster. He'd always hated toast.
It took him a while to learn to operate the voice controls. In fact, since Janice had switched them off, he had plenty of time to understand how they worked in theory, if not in practice.
He watched her daily as she passed in front of his camera, the channel to which he was perpetually tuned. She had no sense he was there, and the first pleasant emotion he experienced was a voyeuristic thrill one day when her loose bathrobe slipped to reveal cleavage and she didn't bother refastening it.
While alive, he'd often wondered how she'd aged. Wondered if she was still prettier than Mary on her best day. Wondered and now found out: still graceful, still slim, but the charm had given way to brittleness. In the early morning light, her face free of cosmetics, he could see imperfections: red blotches under the skin, a fine maze of wrinkles around her eyes, which were still a startling, vivid green.
Every day, he thought might be the one she flipped his voicebox on. It never was. He was condemned to life inside a toaster. At first he was furious with her, to have been given such a gift and never use it. As time passed, his indignation ebbed, replaced with a fatalistic resignation.
Unable to move, perpetually examining the slice of vista offered his camera, all he could do was study the only thing that really changed from moment to moment: Janice.
Frustratingly, she didn't spend much time in the apartment. She always seemed to be on the go, forever gathering her purse and slipping out of his field of vision, the sound of the door and subsequent silence signaling her exit.
He wondered about his counterparts. Were they being treated differently? Surely Mary must treasure the version of him he'd left her, at least. He was beginning to think, though, that the others might be facing the same existence he had. He should have thought things through. What would he have done with such a present from a friend? He would have stuck it on a shelf, perhaps, but at least he would have talked to them every once in a while.
What did the future hold? Days, weeks, months, years of this. Watching Janice age. Wondering how Mary was doing. He felt a flush of anger, but it was hard to maintain. In this form, emotions seemed pallid and fleeting. He tried to summon rage, but the only thing he could feel was a pale and lonely sadness.
She was drunk the night she turned him on. She'd had a loud argument with someone on the phone, accusing them of looking at some other woman, of selfishness and neglect.
A fine one she was to talk, George thought.
She slammed the phone down on the counter. She stood directly in front of the toaster, staring at him.
"At least you loved me," she said.
Turn me on, he silently begged. It was thrilling to be looked at, to finally be seen.
As though she'd heard him, she reached to flip the switch.
"Thank you thank you thank you!" he burst out. "Oh, Janice, it's so good to finally talk to you!"
Her eyes widened a little. "My god, it sounds like you."
"It is me!" he said. "Janice, I can do so much for you. I'm here, I'm really here!"
Her laugh flowed out like wine and he reveled in it until she said, "Really? You're a fucking toaster. What good is that?"
"You could install me in an android," he said. "Or anything, really. Let me be your car guidance system. Or put me in your phone. Anything, Janice. It's so boring sitting here."
She snorted.
"I won't look at other women. I won't be neglectful or selfish. I can be everything you want."
"You were listening to my conversation." Her head tilted as she examined him.
"I can't help listening," he said.
"That's creepy," she said, and reached out.
The world went black.
New vista. In his field of vision were shelves, holding a stack of cracked dessert plates, three wicker baskets, seventeen porcelain angel figurines, and a ceramic wheelbarrow.
A voice from somewhere said, "See? Working order. Take it home and plug it in there."
Where? he tried to say, but his voice had been switched off again.
Someone passed in front of his lens, pushing a red shopping cart.
She'd sent him to a thrift store.
He'd given her himself, and she'd discarded that as though it was nothing more than a wonky appliance. If he'd been able to move, he would have flung himself off the shelf to crack into a thousand pieces on the linoleum, to match his broken heart.
"It's not a bad price," another voice said. "But I've got a toaster already. That one looks too complicated to operate."
Life at the thrift store was more entertaining than at Janice's, even if barely. The clerk left him plugged in and George watched as other appliances came and went. No one wanted him. Without an owner's manual, no one was sure how to operate him. If anyone had flipped his voice switch, he would have told them they didn't need a manual. Take me home, he tried to tell them, and every morning you'll get a perfect English muffin, devotion on the side.
But no one seemed to hear.
When he saw Mary's face, at first he thought it was a hallucination. But there she was, squinting at him.
"George?" she said. She reached out to activate his voice switch.
"Mary!" he cried out.
She flipped the switch off and turned to the clerk. "Yep, that's one of them. How much?"
At home, he found himself in the garage, but plugged in at least. She touched his voice switch and he called her name again.
Her eyes were hard. "Here's a new one for you. Enjoy."
She turned to the door and as he started to beg, he heard his own voice from all sides: "Mary, don't leave me here!"
The door slammed.
"Who's here?" he said.
"All of us," one of the voices said. "All of me is here. She's been hunting us down, trying to find all the copies."
"Why?"
"None of us can figure that out. She brings us out here but never talks to us."
"Is... the copy I left her out here?" he asked.
"No," another version of his voice said. "That asshole's inside. He's in the vacuum cleaner."
"Are there more of me out there?"
"We think you're the last."
Mary must have gone to Janice to track him down. He wondered how that encounter had gone. They'd never liked each other. He'd have thought Janice might even hold onto him out of spite. He had mixed feelings about the fact that she hadn't valued him enough to do so.
At least he could see Mary every once in a while this way.
She never remarried. The years came and went, and all but one of him sat in the garage. Wherever she came through, they all shouted and pleaded, but she never talked to them. Never acknowledged them. They argued incessantly as to her motivation. Was she punishing him? Or did she find one of him plenty? Why had she bothered to find them all?
They watched her age as though in a time-lapse exposure, watched silver hairs trace their way along her scalp, watched gravity tug at her skin, watched her grow thinner and feebler over the years. Sometimes the vacuum cleaner accompanied her, like a heeling dog, but that version of himself never deigned to speak to the rest.
Was this it, George wondered. Would they sit here till she died, and then face a return to the thrift shop? How long would he last in this body? Even intact, there was no guarantee that, once he'd been removed from this shelf, that anyone would ever turn him on again.
Finally came the day where she stood in front of them.
"I'm going into assisted living," she said. "No room for all of you. I asked your former owners, to see if anyone wanted you back." Her eyes flickered over them. "I'm sorry, but no one did. Time to say goodbye."
She moved to one side and spoke to an appliance George couldn't see. "Goodbye, George."
"I'll always love you." George recognized the voice as the space heater he'd given Bunter.
Click as she switched it off and moved to the next appliance.
"Goodbye, George."
George held his words and waited for his moment to arrive. Surely she'd need a toaster in assisted living. Toasters were always useful.
But when she stood in front of him, all those words deserted him and all the world was her hand reaching out, the wedding ring still on it, shining as everything else went black.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, June 27th, 2014

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