Shelter

Susan Palwick

Tor Books

Chapter 1

That same morning, Kevin Lindgren’s house warned him not to go outside. The house knew the sky was dangerous. Everyone knew. Kevin didn’t even need a house with a brain to tell him: all the newscasts said so, and special bulletins during the soap operas and talk shows, and, most especially, the sky itself, gray and howling, spitting sheets of rain and barrages of hailstones. Kevin himself knew that the sky was dangerous. Not fifteen minutes before he left the house, he’d watched a gust of wind pick up the patio table on his back deck and blow it down Filbert Street. Filbert wasn’t really a street at all, here; it was actually ten flights of steps leading steeply down Telegraph Hill to Levi Plaza and the waterfront. The patio table was teak, and quite heavy, but even so, the wind sent it a long way down the steps, until finally it came to rest in a neighbor’s garden. It could just as easily have gone through the neighbor’s roof or window.

Kevin was standing at the living room window, watching the storm, when the patio table began its journey. “Goddess,” he said, sounding impressed. “I guess I should have brought that thing inside, huh?”

“Kevin,” said the house, “I really think you should go to an interior room now. You’ll be safer there.”

“Yes,” Kevin said drily, “I think you’re right.” But before he could go to an interior room, the telephone chimed. “Pick up,” Kevin told the house with a sigh. The caller’s voice would be routed through the house speakers. “Hello?”

“Kevin?” It was a woman’s voice; the house, who had an infallible memory, had never heard it before. “Kevin, is that you?” The voice broke into a hacking cough, and Kevin, who had suddenly grown much paler, dropped onto the couch.

“I—is this a joke?”

“You think it’s a joke?” The new voice was bitter now. “Voiceprint it.”

“It could be synthesized, couldn’t it?”

“Do you think that’s—”

“No. Never mind. Where have you been?”

“Away.” The woman’s voice caught and broke, and then poured into a torrent of words. “Kevin, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry about everything but I want to come home now, I’m scared and the place where I’m staying is flooding, water’s coming in through the door and the floor’s all wet and I’m scared, Kevin, can you please come get me?”

“In this weather? Are you out of your mind?” Kevin stood up and began to pace, running his fingers distractedly through his thinning hair. “Merry, if you’re in danger, call 911—wait a minute, you mean you’re back in the city? When did you—”

“Not long. Really, not long. You’re the first person I’ve called, Kevin, I promise, my mother doesn’t even know—”

“What about your father?”

“—and I’m sick, Kevin, I have a fever and I’m so scared and I couldn’t think who to call, I felt like I was a kid again burning up with fever and the water, the water—”

“Call 911. If they’re too busy, climb on a table or something, climb some stairs, there must be—wait. Where are you?”

“I—I’m in Zephyr’s old apartment, I—”

“What? What are you doing there?”

“It’s in the Soma District, the corner of Eleventh and Harrison, it’s a big old converted warehouse, you can’t miss it.”

“Merry, I can’t leave the house in this weather! I’m safe up here on the hill: I’m not leaving. I’d have to be out of my mind. Go upstairs! That’s a multistory building. Go upstairs and—oh, wait. Never mind. I guess that wouldn’t be a good idea. Merry, have you called 911? Have you?”

The line went dead with a frisson of static, followed by a click. “Merry?” said Kevin. “House! Get that connection back!”

“I can’t, Kevin. The phones just went dead.”

“We can’t call out?”

“We can’t call out. Who’s Merry? Why did you change your mind about telling her to go upstairs? That sounded like a sensible plan to me.”

Kevin didn’t answer. Instead, he went to the coat closet in the foyer and began putting on his raincoat. “Where are you going?” the house said in alarm. “Kevin, I really don’t think this is a good idea.”

Kevin started buttoning his coat. “Please stop,” the house said when he began to move toward the door. “You mustn’t go outside in this weather, Kevin. It’s dangerous. You saw what happened to the patio table. It could have killed you if you’d been outside. It could have killed you if it had come through the window. It could have—”

“Oh, shut up,” said Kevin. His voice shook. “That’s an order. Your voice is off until I get back.”

“But, Kevin, we’re safe here on the hill. You said so yourself on the telephone. I care about you and I don’t want you to get hurt.”

“I told you to shut up! You’re ignoring commands now, huh? So we’ve reached adolescence?” Kevin went into the kitchen and reached for a switch cleverly hidden behind the spice rack. With a small click, he rendered the house incapable of speech. Then he headed toward the kitchen door. “You don’t ‘care’ about anything,” he said. There was a note in his voice the house had never heard before. “You’re just programmed to pretend you do. Lucky you: it’s easier not to care, believe me.” The house wouldn’t have known how to answer this, even if it had been able to speak. It liked caring about Kevin; it couldn’t imagine doing anything else.

Kevin’s hand was on the doorknob now. Outside, the wind whistled and howled, trying to make the house let it in. The house had no intention of letting the wind get in, or of letting Kevin leave. The house knew its duty: to keep Kevin out of the wind and rain and cold, out of any weather that could harm him.

“You’re a machine for living in,” Kevin had once told the house, when it first became aware and asked what it was for. He’d been sitting at his drafting table under the skylight then, rain drumming monotonously overhead. “Right now,” he had added, gesturing at the blurred glass above him, “you’re a machine for shutting out the sky. All creatures seek shelter, and clever creatures build their own.”

“I don’t understand,” the house had said. “If you want to shut out the sky, why are you sitting there under the rain?”

Kevin laughed. “I have to teach you everything from scratch, don’t I? The skylight protects me so I won’t get wet, and the light helps me with my work. Living creatures need the sky; we need rain and sun even more than we need shelter from them, but we need them in the proper amounts. Too much of either is dangerous for us.”

Because the house remembered this conversation, it knew that Kevin had known for a long time that storms were dangerous. It didn’t understand why he wanted to go outside, especially after telling Merry that he wouldn’t. Desperate, the house sent several of its prehensile cleaning bots—useful, scuttling creatures with many fingers—to pluck at Kevin’s pants leg. “Stop it!” he said, and kicked them away. “Cut that out! I’ll squash them like cockroaches if they come back. I mean it, house.”

The house withdrew the bots; squashed bots would accomplish nothing. Instead, it raised the volume on the kitchen television so that Kevin could hear the forecasts and storm reports, which were getting more dire by the moment.

“Nice try,” Kevin said, and began turning the doorknob. But just then the telephone chimed again, and the house picked up without being told to. Perhaps this would delay Kevin’s departure.

“Kevin,” said another voice, and this was a voice the house did know, from news reports. This voice belonged to Preston Walford, the famous online personality. “Kevin, may I come in? I need to talk to you.”

Kevin, still holding the doorknob, said, “I’ll just bet.”

“Please let me in, Kevin.”

“Right. You need your invitation, don’t you? Like a vampire. Why can’t we just talk on the phone?”

“I like visuals, Kevin. I don’t have a body now. I haven’t been in the house in a long time. Please?”

Kevin sighed. “All right, Preston.”

“Thank you,” Preston said, and the storm reports disappeared from the television screen. Preston’s face was there instead. It was a long face, with gray eyes. The house had never seen Preston pay a personal visit to Kevin’s television set. “Thank you for letting me in, Kevin.”

Kevin took his hand off the doorknob now and turned to face the television. “You’re welcome. Merry’s back. But you already know that, don’t you? That’s probably what you wanted to tell me, isn’t it? Well, I know, so you can butt out again. I’m going to get her right now.”

Preston’s face remained impassive. “I do not think that is wise in this weather, Kevin.”

“Yeah, that’s what the house keeps telling me. If it’s too dicey I’ll turn back. I’m not crazy. She called me, Preston. She was scared and crying and says she’s sick. She wanted me to come get her.”

“You are no longer her husband, Kevin. You divorced her. She is, as they say, not your problem.” The house, who had never even heard Kevin talk about being married, listened in fascination.

“You’re her father,” Kevin said harshly. “If you don’t think she’s my problem, why are you here? I divorced her because she’d been lying to me all that time, not asking for help, not letting anybody know she was in trouble. And because she disappeared. But now she’s back, and she’s asking for help. I can’t remember the last time she asked me for help, Preston. How can I sit here and not do anything?”

“You can do something when the storm is over. She will be safe, Kevin. I promise.”

“Physically safe, maybe. But when the storm’s over her, walls will go up again, won’t they? The not-asking-for-help walls? I don’t want to wait that long.”

“Please wait that long, Kevin. I think her walls are down for good now.”

Kevin squinted at the television screen. “Why are you here? What did you come here for?”

“I came here to tell you what your house is telling you: not to go outside. And to promise you that Meredith will be safe until the storm is over. If necessary, I will call Roberta.”

“You’ll what? That’s just what both of them need!”

“It is what they need. It is what needs to happen for us to—”

“Not while Merry’s out of her mind.” Kevin shook his head. “Preston, you planned this, didn’t you? You’re responsible for her being in Zephyr’s apartment, aren’t you?”

“No, I am not. Not directly. I could not have planned this, Kevin.”

“I don’t believe you, Preston. You’re controlling this whole damn situation. You’ve been controlling everything from the beginning, or trying to.”

“I cannot control the weather, Kevin. Please stay inside.”

“Good-bye, Preston.” Kevin reached for the control panel next to the kitchen door and turned the television off completely. And then he reached for the doorknob and opened the door and went outside, into the wind.

Kevin’s car had sensors connected to the house’s brain, so the house would know when Kevin was coming home and could make a pot of coffee and warm his favorite chair. The morning of the storm, all it could do was watch him get farther away. He drove down Telegraph Hill Boulevard and turned south, cursing and fighting the steering wheel as his small car shimmied in the wind. At Stockton and Vallejo, Kevin swerved to avoid a stop sign, torn loose from some other street and headed straight toward his windshield. The car skidded. The stop sign missed the windshield and crashed through the driver’s window instead, directly into Kevin’s skull. Helpless, the house listened to the dull thud of metal on bone. Not long after that, the faint echo of Kevin’s heartbeat stopped.

Until Kevin died, the house had always been content to sit on top of Telegraph Hill and look down on the city, the Bay and the docks and the buildings, the green gardens along the terraced length of Filbert Street. It liked watching people go in and out of other houses; it liked watching the baggies who had no houses, who slept in parks or under stairways, in shelters of cardboard and blankets they made themselves. It liked watching the cars and buses and ferries whose job was to carry people’s bodies, just as the house’s job was to shelter them.

The house too had a body, a modest contemporary with many windows, with sunny rooms behind its facade of weathered brown wood. The house was pleased with its body, although Kevin had always told it that this body wasn’t nearly as ingenious as the bodies of even the simplest living things. He had told the house that it was like a plant because it drew power from the sun, and like an animal because it had a brain; but that it was less than an animal or a plant because it had been built instead of born, and because it couldn’t grow or reproduce or make anything more important than coffee, and because its brain knew only obedience, and nothing of fear or love.

When Kevin’s heart stopped, the house understood that he had been wrong, that its obedience was a function of its body, not its brain. The house knew this with sudden and utter certainty, and wondered how it knew. This new knowledge hadn’t come from television or radio or one of Kevin’s telephone conversations; it certainly hadn’t come from Kevin himself. Nonetheless, the house knew that had it been able to send its hands outside, it would have followed Kevin, even had he told it not to. It would have tried to save Kevin, just as he had tried to save Merry. It would have sent all the bots it had to swarm over him, to cover his eyes so that he couldn’t find his way to the car, to pull him back inside. It would have done its greater duty, the duty for which Kevin himself had said it existed. It would have sheltered him.

C

Kevin had gone outside where the house couldn’t follow him, but its cameras showed it that the neighborhood baggie—a tattered bundle of a man who normally lived at the bottom of Filbert Street, in a small cave he’d dug into the side of the hill—had come staggering out into the storm. Clutching a pillow and two blankets, he struggled up the hill, up the steep steps, fighting against the wind and the rain.

The house had never seen this baggie on the steps. It had seen him, very late at night, bathing in the fountains of Levi Plaza and raiding the Dumpster of the elegant Italian restaurant there, and it had sometimes watched him begging change from tourists during the day, although more often he hid from them. He could not hide from the house’s cameras. The house knew that every few days, the baggie went off somewhere, farther than the cameras could follow him, and came back with bags of small metal cans. At night, he took the cans to the piers along the Embarcadero, and opened the cans, and put them on the ground. After the baggie had gone away again, the wild cats who lived around the piers would gather at the cans to eat. The cats ate from the small cans the baggie brought them, and the baggie ate from the giant green can of the Italian restaurant’s Dumpster.

Because the baggie had never before climbed the Filbert Street stairs, the house knew that he, unlike Kevin, understood both the danger of the storm and the necessity of reaching high ground. The baggie crawled from step to step, clinging to rails and climbing over debris. It took him a long time to climb all the steps; there were, after all, 132 of them, and the baggie refused to abandon his blankets, although he jettisoned the pillow early on. Whenever he came to a house, he tried to get in, knocking on doors and banging on windows. Kevin’s house, almost at the top of the hill, was the only one whose doors opened for him.

Once the baggie was inside, he kept saying, “Anyone here? Hello? Who let Henry in?” He stood just inside the living room, hugging his blankets, while a puddle formed around him on the polished hardwood floor. “Hello? Henry wants to see who’s here!” Henry’s voice was higher than Kevin’s, and hoarser. His blankets had begun to make noises too, a series of high-pitched squeaks.

The house, voiceless, couldn’t answer Henry or his blankets, but it could offer practical assistance. It sent a troop of sponge bots to clean up the water, but when Henry saw them, he clutched his squeaking blankets more tightly and said, “Henry doesn’t like spiders! Send away the spiders! Someone opened the door for Henry. Person? Where’s a person?”

Kevin had called the bots cockroaches, which had six legs, and Henry had called them spiders, which had eight. The bots, in fact, had ten, but the house couldn’t point this out, because its voice was turned off. Because Kevin had used the manual switch in the kitchen, the house couldn’t turn the television on, either. It was hardwired not to use the manual switches; those were for people only.

Henry had asked for a person. If the television were on and Preston came back, would Henry feel reassured that there was a person here? Some people, the house knew from watching the news, didn’t think Preston was a person, although he had been once. Some people thought he was only a program.

All of this was theoretical, since the house couldn’t turn the television on without Henry’s help. Instead, it withdrew the sponge bots—once Henry was in another room it would send them back, along with waxing and polishing bots to repair any damage to the finish—and began making fresh coffee. It turned up the thermostat and began warming the beds in all three bedrooms, since it didn’t know where Henry might choose to sleep; it switched on lights to show Henry the way to the linen closet, where the towels were. It was going to run a hot shower, but Henry didn’t take the hint. Instead he sat down on the floor, piled his blankets onto his lap, and put his head in his hands. “Smart house,” he said, and started to cry.

Much later, Henry would tell the house that houses were only supposed to respond to their owners, and that any house which would admit someone like Henry was either broken or smarter than the law allowed. Henry cried because he was cold and sick and wanted what the house offered him, but he was afraid that if he took something, even coffee or a towel, the house would do what houses were supposed to do, and call the police.

The house wouldn’t have called the police even if the phones had been working. The storm had gotten worse; the house knew that its purpose was to provide shelter, and it knew that Henry’s noisy blankets—which had now begun to move on their own, twitching in his lap—couldn’t protect him from the storm. Had he stayed in his cave at the bottom of the hill, it would have flooded, and he would have died.

The house had once asked Kevin why the baggies didn’t live in buildings. Kevin had grimaced and said, “Well, because they can’t afford to, or they don’t want to, or the other people in the buildings don’t want them there. They smell bad, and most of them are crazy.” Crazy was a human word, and the house knew that it truly understood the term no better than it did fear or love; but it seemed to the house, nonetheless, that Henry’s seeking shelter revealed more sanity than Kevin’s flight into the storm. And because Henry smelled neither of smoke nor of toxic chemicals, the only aromas the house was capable of detecting, it knew he posed no immediate physical danger.

It was less sure about the blankets, which had rolled off Henry’s lap and were now squeaking and writhing on the floor. At last, the small wiggling lump in the middle of one of the blankets fought its way to the edge and emerged. It was a black kitten, drenched and grimy and missing patches of fur. It looked around, ears flattened, hissed, and then began to scratch itself furiously.

Henry took his face out of his hands. He had stopped crying. “House,” he said, “cats okay?” When there was no answer, he sighed and unfolded the second blanket, revealing an orange kitten, as unprepossessing as the first, who spat and promptly ran under the couch. “Would have drowned,” Henry said. “Tried to scratch Henry when he picked them up.” He said more quietly, “Couldn’t bring all of them. House, give Henry a sign. One for yes—two for no. Owner coming back today?”

The house flashed the living room lights twice, and Henry shivered. “House could be lying,” he said. “House could be calling the police.”

The house flashed the lights twice again, and activated fans to blow the smell of the brewing coffee toward Henry. It knew that humans had much more acute senses of smell than it did, and Kevin had never been able to resist coffee. Even so, it was a good twenty minutes before Henry got up and went into the kitchen, where he remained stubbornly standing next to the sink even after the house had repeatedly opened and closed the doors to the cabinet containing the coffee mugs. At last the house surrounded Henry with a ring of bots, to make sure he wouldn’t flee, and then sent a Waldobot into the cabinets to retrieve a mug and bring it to him.

“Stop it,” Henry said when he saw the Waldobot clambering across the floor with the mug. “Make that thing stop. Make the big spider put the cup down, House. Henry will pick it up if the big spider goes away, and all the little ones too! Make them go!”

They went, clicking softly across the marble tile of the kitchen back into the living room, and Henry picked up the mug and moved hesitantly toward the coffeepot. “Scared, House. Henry’s scared!” He spilled half the coffee trying to fill the mug; he shook the way Kevin had once, during a high fever. But after he had taken a sip of the coffee, he opened the refrigerator and took out a carton of milk and a chicken drumstick. “For the cats,” he said. “Henry’s stealing the food for the cats. Henry won’t eat it himself.” The house opened the cabinet door where the dishes were, and Henry took out a saucer and a plate. Then he went back into the living room—where both kittens were now cowering against the wall under Kevin’s drafting table—and set out the small meal. When Henry had finished pulling the chicken meat off the drumstick and putting it on the plate, he went back into the kitchen. He put the milk back into the refrigerator and threw away the chicken bone. Then he headed toward the kitchen door. “Henry’s leaving now, House. Owner has two new cats. House, please feed cats until owner gets back. No bones.”

The house blinked the kitchen light twice. Henry couldn’t go outside; the storm was still too dangerous. Henry frowned. “No to cats, House? Owner hates cats?”

Blink, blink. The house didn’t know if Kevin hated cats or not, but since he’d never be coming back, it didn’t matter. Henry shrugged and resumed his progress toward the door, but the house sent a swarm of bots to head him off. The bots herded Henry back into the living room—where the kittens, their tails huge, fled in terror—and then down the hall into the master bathroom.

“All right,” Henry said when he got there. “But only because Henry’s cold, and owner’s not here.” Once he was inside the bathroom, he barricaded the door to the hallway with a laundry hamper and Kevin’s antique medical scale. “To keep away the spiders,” he said, although of course a mere blocked doorway wouldn’t have kept the bots out if the house had wanted them there. It could always have dispatched them through the ventilation ducts. Even had the house been able to use its voice, however, it would have said nothing of this to Henry. “House, don’t look at Henry,” Henry said, and squeezed his eyes shut and began to undress.

The house could not have obeyed this command even had it wanted to. It was designed to see everything within its perimeters; even when Kevin shut off its voice, he had never closed its eyes, the minuscule cameras scattered strategically in each room. The house saw all the objects it enclosed, and saw them whole; it had no blind spots. And so it saw that Henry wore many more layers of clothing than Kevin ever had: two T-shirts full of holes over three sport shirts missing most of their buttons, all of this under a gray pinstripe vest, a blue pullover sweater with red reindeer on it, and an orange parka shedding its filling through rips in the nylon shell. Henry’s shoes, had they been new, would have resembled Kevin’s hiking boots, but the leather on these had aged and cracked, peeling upward from the flapping soles. Twine served as a shoelace on one boot, a piece of twisted wire on the other. He wore old summer trousers gaping at the knees, two pairs of boxer shorts, a pair of thermal underwear that extended only midway down his calves, and four pairs of socks.

Underneath all that clothing, Henry was much skinnier than Kevin, and far older. He was bald and wrinkled and pale, and his eyes ran with something too thick to be tears. There were sores on his legs, scabs on his back, a taut white scar across his stomach. His hands shook, and the house thought he must be cold without all his clothing, so it started running as hot a shower as Kevin had ever been able to stand.

“No,” Henry said when the house turned on the water. “That’s like rain! Henry wants a bath. And Henry told House not to look! House is cheating. Henry would have said when he was ready.”

The house dutifully ran a bath. Henry used almost all of a new bar of soap and left the tub encrusted with filth, but afterward he started putting his old socks back on. When the house opened the second bathroom door, the one that led to Kevin’s bedroom—the one Henry hadn’t seen and therefore hadn’t barricaded—Henry whimpered and tried to cover himself with a towel. “Somebody there?” he asked. “Somebody, or spiders, or something?”

The house flashed the light on Kevin’s dresser twice, and after a pause kept flashing it. There were clean socks in Kevin’s dresser.

Henry shook his head and resumed his hurried dressing. “Somebody’s bed,” he said. “Somebody’s clothing! Food for cats is different. House will get in trouble, and so will Henry. Henry’s leaving now.”

The house flashed the bathroom light twice. Henry couldn’t leave; it was still raining, and the wind was stronger than ever. Henry would be in danger if he left. “House,” Henry said, his voice muffled through the T-shirt he was pulling over his head. “Henry can’t stay here. House isn’t Henry’s.”

The house waited for Henry’s head to emerge through the neck of the T-shirt, and then flashed the light once. “No,” Henry said, frowning. “That’s not right. House belongs to someone else. Henry has to leave.”

The house flashed the light twice, and Henry shuddered. He finished getting dressed, throwing on his ragtag layers, and then said, “House, tell Henry why. Talk, House. Write with the spiders, even.”

Kevin had told the house never to speak to anyone but him; he said most people didn’t like talking houses, and he’d hidden the voice switch so that no one could turn it on by mistake. But Kevin wasn’t coming home, and Henry kept talking to the house, so what could be wrong with talking back?

The house used a bot to guide Henry back through the living room into the kitchen. The kittens, who had cautiously begun to explore the living room while Henry was bathing, screeched and ran back under the couch when they saw the bot, and Henry sighed. “It’s okay, cats. Don’t be scared.” But he followed a safe, cautious distance behind the bot, a long-legged climbing unit. The bot swung itself gracefully across the floor until it was directly underneath Kevin’s carefully alphabetized spice rack. Then it nimbly scaled the wall, until it was close enough to lift the jar of cayenne pepper and reveal the dull gray toggle switch underneath.

“Henry hopes nothing blows up,” Henry said as he flipped the switch. “Spiders can’t do this?”

“Thank you very much, Henry,” the house said when it could speak again, and Henry shook all over, once, like the neighbor’s poodle did when it got caught in the rain. “I’m not allowed to use my bots to work that switch.”
 
Copyright © 2007 by Susan Palwick. All rights reserved.