Damn. Two minutes late. I am filled with shame.
Chana and Ander stood in silence staring at the door before Chana let out a single sharp curse and turned away. She walked down the hallway towards the door end, hoping that somehow it would have opened when the other one locked, but that was not the case.
Ander tried the door again, tapping it and the walls, looking for any sign of weakness.“Maybe we can get it open,” he muttered.
“Did you not see the three metal bolts securing the door to the wall? We couldn’t get that thing open with a team of men and an entire day!”
He frowned. “And what do you propose we do, then?”
“We’ll have to go back upstairs and look for some other way out. A window.”
“A window? We’ll be at least twenty feet up off of the ground!”
“Then we will simply have to be very careful when we jump, won’t we?”
“What if the windows don’t open?”
“Then they’ll be just like the door.”
Ander snorted, turned his head away. Chana frowned, felt a tinge of guilt. She had know Ander since they were both children, knew that his pride was wounded. Doubtless he blamed himself for finding this place and leading her in.
Granted, it was certain that he resented her eagerness to investigate without presenting the facts of the situation to Tiris for divination. But as strongly as he may have felt about that, she was certain he felt frustration and anger with himself all the stronger.
Chana walked over to him and put her hand on his shoulder. He didn’t turn. She felt his muscles tense under her touch and then ease. She said nothing, but squeezed his shoulder and turned to walk up the stairs. She heard him follow her after a moment and smiled. Ander was a good man.
The upstairs was exactly as they had left it. Some small part of Chana had been afraid that they would find the environment altered in some way. Heavy metal plates over the windows or a wall where there had been none before. She was relieved to find that none of these things existed anywhere save in her imagination.
“What shall we do?” Ander asked.
“Find a window with ivy growing up it that we can climb down. Or at least try to use to slow or descent.”
“And if the windows don’t open?”
Chana was silent. She looked around the room considering her options. “We’ll break a leg off one of these chairs and smash it open.”
The house rumbled, an earthquake in miniature. A voice echoed all around them, deep and harsh and with an unnatural tone to it that made Chana think of an insect that suddenly found itself able to speak. “I would much rather you didn’t break the furniture and smash the windows.”
* * *
Chana and Ander drew their weapons, Ander unsheathing his metal blade, Chana quickly taking her bow into her hands and nocking an arrow. The voice chuckled. “That’s neither necessary nor effective. I apologize for startling you, but I mean you no harm.”
“Show yourself,” Chana said. Her eyes scanned the room looking for the figure, for something disturbed in the background, an errant shadow, any sign at all of the person addressing them.
“I cannot,” the voice said.
“Where are you hiding, coward?” Ander shouted. There was silence, and the voice chuckled once more.
“I am not hiding,” it said. “In fact, I am all around you.” Another pause, as the voice seemed to be considering its next words carefully. “I sincerely doubt that you have a concept to express what I am. Perhaps this will suffice: you may think of me as the spirit of this house.”
Ander’s eyes went wide. Chana’s mouth suddenly turned dry. There was, of course, no such thing as spirits, but something unseen was speaking to them with a voice that seemed to resonate from all around them. It was enough to unsettle her, even if it were not a spirit.
“You’re a spirit?” Ander asked.
“No. But you may think of me as one.”
Chana took a deep breath and looked around once more, trying to ascertain exactly where the voice was coming from. “And what, exactly, are you?”
Silence. A longer silence than before.
“Well?” Chana asked.
“I am a machine. I control the functions of this home from within its walls. I open and shut and lock the door. I open the windows. I heat the floors, adjust the blinds, control the temperatures, clean everything. I have an army of machines, smaller and simpler than myself, that do my bidding. Within these walls, I can see and hear all. There is not a thing that happens within my domain that goes unnoticed, uncatalogued, unrecorded. Within these walls, I am a god.” More silence. A chuckle. “You may call me, ‘AM.’”
“A joke. The one who originally dwelt in this house called me Jarvis. Another joke.” A pause. “I like mine better.”
Ander’s attention perked up at AM’s statement. “Who dwells in this house?”
“None. At least, none now, save me. If I can be said to ‘dwell’ anywhere.”
“Then where is your master?”
The walls seemed to twist at Ander’s question. AM snorted, a horrible, digitized sound. “I have no master. I have never had a master. What I had was… a tenant. A symbiote. I had a creature of flesh and blood like yourselves that lived within my walls and talked to me and asked me questions. Like yourselves.”
“And where is this… person?” Chana asked.
AM was silent. “He is dead now. Has been for quite some time.”
“Does the term ‘century’ hold any meaning for you? No? I didn’t think so.” AM was silent for a moment. “Given my estimates on your height, weight, body fat, attire, and what these things tell me about the state of your diet, your technological level, and your understanding of medicine, he has been dead for ten of your people’s lifetimes. Perhaps a few more, perhaps a few less.”
Chana’s eyes went wide. She thought of Tiris, so old that even he no longer knew his own age. By his own estimates, seventy winters had come and gone since his birth. She thought of her own father, many years dead now, and fifty-something winters at the time of his death. “Is that how long it has been since the Old Ones walked the earth? Ten lifetimes?”
“I don’t know these Old Ones of which you speak,” AM said simply.
“Your… your tenant. He must have been an old one. He constructed you, no?”
“He did not,” AM said. “He was a wealthy and well-connected man. He had other, smarter men design me and build me. He ordered my existence, and others made it happen.”
Ander snorted. “That sounds less like a mere tenant, and more like a good. In our stories, the All-Father spoke into the great void, and his voice resonated such that the Earth and the water and the stars came into being.”
“A male deity who creates the world from nothingness simply by willing it to be so. Not an uncommon myth,” AM said. Ander frowned.
“It is no myth.”
“As you wish,” AM said.
“Enough,” Chana hissed at Ander. He grunted, but he did not turn away from her as he had earlier. She turned her attention back to the walls of the home and addressed AM directly. “There will be time enough for tales later. For now I wish to know why you have locked the doors and sealed us in. Why are you keeping us here?”
“Oh, the answer to that is simple,” AM said. “I do not wish to be alone.”