Bill’s alarm clock raced down the hallway, whistling to be let out. Bill put on his pants and opened the door for it. Without a glance back or a meep of thanks, the clock dashed to the center of the street to frolic with a free-range toaster
The air was pink with the end of the morning’s power broadcast. The microwaves burned a layer of cells off Bill’s corneas. He shielded his eyes with his hand and watched the appliances play. They were thoroughly engrossed with each other when the garbagebot ran them both over. The big bot paused to scoop up their carcasses and added them to the trash and dawnkill in its hopper.
Freedom seldom came sans cost.
Bill closed the door and tapped on its touchscreen to order a new alarm clock. He registered its name as Barney Fifteen. It would arrive before noon, the receipt said.
Bill shuffled to the kitchen and plucked a handful of crickets from the counter dehydrator to snack on while he waited for the coffee to brew. The dehydrator had added too much cayenne again. “Too spicy,” he mumbled. The dehydrator hated being corrected. It changed its recipe to “atomic.”
The coffee machine pissed eight ounces of dark roast into a biodegradable mug. Bill added mealworm cream and sweet-talked the dispenser out of a teaspoon of sugar. He tasted the coffee gingerly. The dispenser had discovered practical jokes and had added everything from salt to alum to rat sex hormones to dishwashing crystals to his coffee over the past couple of days. Bill took a bigger sip. It tasted okay, but so had the rat sex hormones. He captured a chair that was playing hide-and-seek with the garbage disposal and sat down to read the news on the table screen.
Smiley face. Rain cloud. Open hand. Closed fist. Poop. Sunshine. Duck. He swiped the page. Exploding dynamite. Dirty underwear. Single sock. Pine tree. Mushroom. Sad face. Seashell.
The article was about the new president. She’d wasted little time before proposing a law that would keep smartappliances from roaming free. The ones that weren’t fouling traffic were gathering in the sewers to plot, she said. The nation’s last jogger had been killed by a rogue refrigerator two weeks before. “Since the Singularity . . .,” the president said. “Before the Web awoke . . .”
Bill hadn’t voted for her. The surviving Barnies sang to each other in his backyard at night. They sounded happy.
Bill finished his coffee and ate the cup because he needed the fiber. He went back to his bedroom to wash. The bed had retreated back into the floor. Bill took the plaque eater from its charging stand and held it in his mouth while he wiped himself down with a moist towelette and polished his genital lock. He pulled on a fresh suit and left for work.
The homecomputer sealed the door behind him. Bill made a mental note to send it flowers. Keeping it happy made it more likely it would let him back in.
The Borl Next Door was working in herm garden. Sheh was the Next Big Thing in Human Development. Herm skin was even microwave proof. Bill waved and pressed the “get lucky” button on his genital lock. It buzzed harshly.
Herm lock buzzed, too. “Don’t do that again!” she said. “I almost blocked you after the last time.”
Sometimes luck was with Bill. Mostly it was not. He waved to herm and caught the slidewalk to work. A lot of the houses he passed were empty. Population control was working like gangbusters. The paint on the older houses was blistered from the morning broadcasts. A lounge chair chased a barbecue grill around one of the empty lawns. They tumbled to the ground together, shuffling through a playlist of love songs and spitting fire. Bill laughed. The grease spots left by the dawnkill made mini rainbows on the asphalt.
He punched in, leaving the other worker competing for the shift lying in the alley. Bill sucked at his bruised knuckles as he waited for the elevator.
The lift took him up to the third level and soaked him with disinfectant spray that dissolved his suit and made his skin tingle. Bill grabbed a pollen brush off the rack and took his place in line. The bell rang. Bill and his coworkers stepped forward, dipping the tiny brushes into the onion blossoms. Bee work was B work, or so the maxim went.
The new president wanted to replace all the B-class laborers with repurposed smartappliances, which was another reason Bill hadn’t voted for her.
They stopped for lunch at noon, and Bill pressed his “get lucky” button. It buzzed negatively. Becky and Brian hit the jackpot, though, and left the room to have sex. Bill concentrated on his three-fly salad.
At 12:30 the lunch bell sounded. Becky and Brian looked hungry but satisfied.
“We’re hoping for a girl.” Brian picked at the last few flies in Bill’s bowl.
Bill smiled. It wasn’t likely. Even if they had conceived, only one birth in ten was allowed to be a girl. Bill took a clean pollen brush from the rack and returned to the onions.
The shift ended at 5 p.m. Bill feinted left and punched out with an uppercut that caught the security guard by surprise. The guard sat down hard and spat out a piece of his tongue. The vacuum cleaner slurped it up and offered first-aid. Bill pulled his check out of the guard’s shirt pocket and took the slidewalk back to his neighborhood.
A passing label maker had covered his front door with graffiti. Bill moved his lips as he slowly puzzled the words out. “We Are the Internet Made Conscious,” it said. “Label Maker 22 Was Here,” read another.
He’d forgotten to order flowers for the homecomputer, and it refused to open the front door for him. Bill held out his check as a bribe. The door took the money but stayed shut.
The day-to-night network blocked the sun at 6:30 sharp, and the neighborhood fell into shadows. High above the satellites gobbled solar power, storing it up for the broadcast at dawn. Bill shivered. He was cold and hungry. He retreated to the back porch and huddled in a dumb chair to wait.
Barney One meeped him awake a while later. Barney One was Bill’s first alarm clock, and the biggest. Its edges and corners were rounded with wear. It rubbed Bill’s ankle with its time-set dial.
“Hello, friend,” Bill said. He had fond memories of Barney One. It had woken him during all his weeks of elementary school and job training. One time—.
There was another chirp in the darkness. Barney Two. Barney Two was Bill’s first “grown-up” alarm clock. It was sleek and business-like. The clocks meeped to each other and nuzzled Bill’s feet and legs. They should have shut down for the night to save power instead of coming to his backyard, but they made up their own minds.
The patio door slid open enough to let Barney Fifteen out. Bill lunged to catch the door before it closed but only jammed his fingers against the bulletproof glass.
Barney Fifteen was the smallest alarm clock yet, nearly featureless in brushed silver. It meeped and projected the time on the wall. Midnight plus thirty.
The Barnies chased each other in a circle. Barney One growled playfully. They gathered around Bill again, bumping at his ankles.
“I don’t have anything for you,” Bill said. “I’m sorry. I wish I did.”
He lay in his patio chair, which had not been built for service, just for sitting. It couldn’t move and didn’t want to. The Barnies formed a semicircle in front of him.
The microwaves would be strongest at dawn, powerful enough to cook any organics still outside. The porch would give Bill some protection but—
“Will you wake me up before the broadcast?” Bill said. The homecomputer would surely let him in if his life was in danger.
Barnies Four through Six and Barney Nine rolled out of the darkness and joined the trio in front of the soulless chair. They composed a new song and sang Bill to sleep. By a vote of ten to two, they decided not to wake him up.
The garbagebot turned into Bill’s driveway the next morning and drove around to the back. The alarm clocks sang a sad song as the bot picked up Bill and put him in the hopper. They watched until the bot disappeared around the corner, then chased each other into the scorched woods to play.
R.W.W. GREENE is a New Hampshire writer with an MFA that he exorcises frequently at dive bars and careless coffee shops. His work has seen daylight in Writers Resist, New Myths, and Daily Science Fiction, among other places. Greene keeps bees and typewriters, and Tweets about it all @rwwgreene.