“I had a big breakthrough at work today,” Howard said.
Meredith, finished chewing her salad, swallowed, and then said, “Really dear?”
Howard nodded. “Its going to be revolutionary to the field. And it was amazing, because…well it just came to me in a flash. Inspiration. I don’t know how else to say it. It’s almost as if…as if the idea where coming from somewhere outside of me.”
“That’s fascinating dear,” Meredith said, and took another bite of salad.
“I mean, this could be the big one. The holy grail. I’m not claiming it’ll be sentient or anything, but…well you’d never be able to tell the difference. We were close before, but now…well that idea I had opened up a whole new realm of possibilities.”
Meredith nodded, and said, “What did you think of the soup?”
Howard’s shoulders drooped a little and the breathed out a sigh. “It was…good.”
“That’s good. I’m glad you liked it.”
“…and of course the probability matrix was the problem the whole time. Asa Jackson, he spotted it right off, but we couldn’t find a way to fix it.”
“Really?” Meredith said, as she cut into her steak.
Howard nodded. “We worked all day on it, and then…well it was amazing honey. I’ve never seen anything like it. The program…well it seems almost too sophisticated to call it that, but…it fixed itself. We didn’t even realize what had happened at first. Asa was sure someone from down the hall was playing a trick on us, but it wasn’t. It took us almost an hour to track it down for sure, but…honey the program fixed itself. And…well I hate to be too sensational, but I think it’s actually made some improvements.”
“Is that why you were late to dinner dear?”
“Yes, I suppose it was. I’m sorry. I would have called ahead, but I got so wrapped up in it all, that…I guess I forgot.”
“By the way, your mother called today. Wanted to know how you were doing.”
“What did you tell her?”
“Oh, you know. The usual. Nothing much out of the ordinary happening around here. She said for me to give you her love.”
Howard nodded, and slouched down a little further in his chair.
“Are you all right honey?” Meredith asked. “You haven’t said a word since you got home. Of course it was nice to have you home early for once, but…well you don’t seem to be yourself.”
Howard took a deep breath. “I guess…well I didn’t know how to tell you.”
“Tell me what dear?”
“I…well, I got laid off today.”
Meredith’s hand went to her mouth. “You what?”
“Mr. Drummond called me into his office and told me this afternoon. He seemed really sorry about it, but…well I think I’ve known it was coming for quite a while now.”
“But why? I thought…well, you were the best dear. How can they lay you off?”
“I was the best,” Howard said, pushing a green bean around the edge of his plate. “That’s why they kept me this long. Almost everyone else got canned two months ago. Asa managed to hang on for a couple weeks after that, but…well really we’ve been doing nothing but sitting in that room and watching the machine do all the work.”
“The machine? What machine? Howard no machine can do the work you do.”
“I’m afraid it can. And it does. It does it beautifully. And…and the thing is, I designed the thing. My…breakthrough, inspiration, whatever you want to call it. That’s what made all of this possible.”
“You can’t find work anywhere else?”
“Maybe I can for a while, but…Meredith the machine isn’t going to be secret for long. Someone will leak the plans, and then everyone will have one. I’m…becoming obsolete.”
“I’m sure it isn’t as bad as all that dear,” Meredith said, and patted him on the shoulder.
Howard just stabbed the green bean with his fork and bit into it with a crunch.
“Howard? Howard, you aren’t going to believe what I saw on television today.”
“Really honey? What was that?”
“It was your machine. They were doing a news story about it. About all the marvelous things it can do.”
Howard carefully made a crater in his mashed potatoes with his spoon and then placed a slice of butter in the dip and watched as it started to melt.
“Only I think it’s better than the one you had at your office, dear,” Meredith went on. “Because this one had a body.”
Howard looked up sharply. “They gave it a body?” he asked, with a strange rasp in his voice.
“Why yes dear. It was really quite astounding. And do you know what they say?”
“They say the machine designed the body for itself. According to the man on the news, it’s a revolutionary new advancement. He said, they think that before long, the machines will make themselves bodies that look just like humans. Isn’t that amazing?”
Howard didn’t say anything. He cut a notch in the side of the mashed potatoes with his knife and watched the butter run down onto the plate.
“This lasagna is excellent,” Howard said around a mouthful of pasta. “The best you’ve ever made I think. I really don’t think I mind going to work at the lumber yard, if I can come home to this every night.”
“Well, I’m glad you like it, but I’m sorry to say, I can’t except the compliment.”
“Because I didn’t make it dear.”
“Well who did then?”
“I didn’t want to tell you until now, but…well I ordered one of those new Sims – that’s what they’re calling the machines now – and they delivered him today.”
Howard swallowed hard.
“Now don’t look at me that way dear,” Meredith said. “I got a very good deal on him, and the payment plan is very reasonable. Plus, your mother chipped in a little. Said she couldn’t bear to think of me doing all of the housework on my own, now that I’m working too.”
“Oh, yes…well, I know it’s only a machine, but…well Mark looks just like a real person. And he doesn’t just help around the house. Why he can sit and talk to you like anyone else. It’s quite astounding really.”
“Well, that’s my little joke. You see, it said on the box, Sim Series, Mark V. Clever don’t you think?”
“Yes,” Howard said. “Genius.”
“Yes?” Howard said while blowing on his soup.
“You…well you’ve seemed distant lately. You don’t…you don’t talk anymore.”
“I don’t have anything to talk about,” Howard said, fishing around for a spoonful with no celery.
“It’s just…well I feel like we’re drifting apart. We don’t have anything in common anymore. Maybe…maybe we never did.”
Howard stopped and looked up. “That’s never mattered to you before.”
“Yes, well, before I think I thought it was normal. But well, I’ve been talking with some people, and I think I deserve more out of this relationship.”
“Now don’t be like that Howard. It’s just that…well Mark-”
“Don’t shout dear. It’s just that…well he’s there to talk when I need him. He understands me. And you…well, you’ve been so distant after you lost your job with SimTech. I need companionship. Don’t you understand? And you were never there for me. Mark was there for me. He…he says he loves me.”
“I know it’s going to be hard for you, but…well I think this is for the best. For all of us. Howard…I think I want a divorce.”
And Howard sat and stared straight ahead, barely aware that he was bending his spoon in half.