In Los Angeles Times Book Prize nominee Ariel S. Winter’s Barren Cove, humans are nearly extinct and robots are now the dominant life-form on Earth.
The aged robot Sapien is the recent victim of a debilitating accident. The socially acceptable thing to do in robot culture is deactivate, but Sapien is not ready to end his life. Instead he orders spare parts for himself and rents a remote beach house in order to repair and ponder why he wants to go on. While there, he becomes obsessed with his landlords, the peculiar robot family living on the rambling estate perched at the top of the cliff. He is convinced that the elusive and enigmatic Beachstone, the head of the family, holds the answers to his existential quandary. Invoking the works of the great supernatural and science fiction writers Mary Shelley, Isaac Asimov, and Philip K. Dick, Barren Cove is a gothic tale in an unusual future.
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Ariel S. Winter was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the Shamus Award, and the Macavity Award for his novel The Twenty-Year Death. He is also the author of the children’s picture book One of a Kind, illustrated by David Hitch, and the blog We Too Were Children, Mr. Barrie. He lives in Baltimore.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
MY SPARE PARTS from Lifetime Mechanics Co., Ltd., didn’t arrive in time for my departure, so I left instructions for them to be forwarded to me at the beach house at Barren Cove. Beach house was a generous term. It was more accurately a cabana: a large front room with sliding accordion doors that opened directly onto the sand, and a small changing room with a human bathroom complete with shower and running water. The cabana was nestled along the base of a steep cliff, cast in shadow from one in the afternoon on. The setup could have been seen as solitary, but since I had left the city to leave behind the pitying looks of my friends and family, and the growing sensation that strangers thought it selfish of me to not be gracefully deactivated, I was satisfied with the rented accommodations.
The main house was at the top of the cliff. When I went to the water’s edge and looked up, I could just make out its silhouette against the glare of the sun. It was an enormous Victorian mansion, all Vs and cones and railings, said to be several hundred years old, human built. I had a strange fascination with human culture—also not looked well upon in the city—and the house pleased me. I was curious about my as yet unmet landlords and hoped for an invitation to the top of the cliff. The cabana computer appeared to be hooked into the main house by a wireless connection. Perhaps I would invite myself for a visit.
But first, I did what I had come to do—I watched the ocean from a chair just inside the cabana door. The waves were dark, the water almost gray. It seemed to say, “Rush,” and then, “Hush,” and I found myself both stirred and calmed.
I wished that the accident hadn’t rendered my waterproofing useless. I looked at the bundle of red and green wires that hung from the remains of my left upper arm. There, from the frayed and blackened simul-flesh, hung the lifeless steel rod of my armature. The ends of the wires were exposed, copper and gold. I tried to move the arm but my system safeguards prevented me from running the program. Instead, I opened and closed the two-pronged metal clamp that had replaced my right hand. It was an antique spare and it functioned, but I hated it. I looked back at the churning water of the ocean and thought about testing my waterproofing anyway. Wouldn’t that be the noble thing to do? I stood up and walked toward the water. The sun, already behind the cliff edge, must have dipped behind the house at that moment, or perhaps it was a cloud, but the water went black. Wasn’t this why I had really come, because I wondered if the strangers in the city were right? Many younger than me had deactivated. I tried to move my ghost arm again, pushing against the system error. I was an old robot.
Two seagulls cawed overhead. I looked up and saw them approaching the cliff. Their wings opened, catching the wind; they flapped once to reposition, and then they grabbed the cliff face. They cawed again—shrill at first and then a tremolo, like their own echo. It had been too long since I came to the beach. So few cared for things like birds and water these days.
I looked down the shoreline. The cliff continued for twenty miles in a gradual decline, at the end of which was the town. I zoomed in and could just make out the outlines of buildings, too far away to see any detail. I started toward them, past the stairwell that was cut into the side of the cliff and led to the main house. When I reached a section of the cliff that formed a natural ramp only about ten feet high, I decided to climb. If I had been well, I could have scaled the cliff at any point. With my disadvantage, the incline proved difficult. I used my crude clamp for balance more than once. Coming up onto the plateau was like opening shades at dawn. Where dusk had fallen down below, the sun was still high up above, broad daylight. There was a road that curved off in either direction. In the distance, a figure rode a bicycle toward me. I turned to look at the ocean from the higher vantage point, unable to get enough of its massive, unchanging flatness. Even with the waves, it was unchanging.
I turned in time to see a girl on a bicycle shoot by me. I was enamored. Her hair was short and pink, her exposed arms a perfect white; she wore a white blouse with a pattern embroidered in red, flowers and serifs. I zoomed in so that she stayed in focus even as she moved away from me. I had been wrong at first. She wasn’t a girl on a bicycle, but rather a girl who had bicycle wheels in place of legs, one of the popular modifications these days along with wildly colored hair, anything to distance oneself from the image of the original creators. The thinking was, Why should we be limited to their biological limitations, especially when their biology had proved to be so fragile?
I watched her until she disappeared into town. Who was she? Where had she come from? I was embarrassed by my suicidal thoughts of earlier, embarrassed by my deformed arm, cursed Lifetime Mechanics Co., Ltd., for their incompetence. “Sucker!” What had I been thinking as she went past? I hadn’t even been prepared to answer her. I could have said something that would have stopped her, impressed her; I could still have been talking to her just then. I tried to think of things to say, and still couldn’t think of anything, even though the moment had passed. Not nothing that was impressive, but actually nothing. Even in my fantasy, as I saw her going by, “Sucker,” I said nothing. She had such nonchalance. I knew then that my planned solitary exile was ruined, that I would be cursed with thoughts of this girl, always wondering if I would see her zip past on her bicycle wheels again, always hoping I would.
I returned to the cabana—I refused to call it a beach house—to find the red light on the intercom flashing. So the computer was connected with the main house. I went to the console in order to retrieve the message. I had no sooner started the message, a woman’s voice that said, “Welcome, Mr. Sapien—” when the intercom buzzed, and I depressed the answer button. It left an open channel. “Mr. Sapien?” It was the same woman’s voice.
“Yes?” I said.
“Dean let me know you had arrived. I was calling to be sure everything was to your liking.”
“The house computer,” she said.
“Everything’s fine,” I said, my mind making this woman the girl on the bicycle, even though I knew that was impossible.
“I wanted to invite you up to the house to give you a proper welcome,” she said.
“Yes, invite him up,” a man’s voice interrupted, close. I was startled by its malice; it was frightening.
“Or perhaps it’s too late,” the woman said, unsure of herself now.
I was torn between my earlier curiosity and the new fear that my solitary vacation was at jeopardy.
“Hello?” the woman called.
“Leave him be,” the man yelled, his voice distant now.
“Perhaps it is too late,” I said. It was dark outside. This would establish my independence but leave future visits open. “Perhaps tomorrow, Mrs. Beachstone,” I ventured, the voice having not identified itself, and my only knowledge of my landlord the odd name Beachstone.
“Oh, no,” the woman said. “No. Asimov 3000. Mary.”
A good old robot name. “Well, Miss Asimov 3000, tomorrow. Thank you.”
There might have been something else said in the room. Then Mary said, “Good night,” and the intercom went dead.
I played back her message from earlier, but it said nothing new and I deleted it in the middle. I closed the accordion doors, charmingly manual, found that they dampened the sound of the ocean considerably, almost opened them again, and then left them closed. I surveyed the small room. I started to ask Dean about Mary Asimov 3000 and Mr. Beachstone—the other voice on the intercom?—but decided to allow them the courtesy of meeting them in person first. “Lights off,” I said, plunging the room into darkness. I sat in one of the chairs and began to reboot, allowing my systems to run nightly diagnostics.
· · ·
I took the stairs midmorning the next day. I was concerned at first about my appearance, but then decided if my landlord was put off by the sight of exposed wires and armatures then perhaps I could fulfill my curiosity while maintaining my solitude. The stairs led to a path at the back of the house that wound its way through some bushes into a well-tended garden. The buzz of an edger started and stopped ahead, and as I rounded the corner of the house I found a robot even more aged than I trimming the bushes. He predated simul-skin, his casing a white plastic shell, and I caught myself staring when he looked up and saw me. He didn’t acknowledge me in any way, and I wondered if he was even an order-four robot—if he was capable of doing more than keeping a garden for other robots unable to appreciate it.
I knocked on the door and waited. There was no answer. I knocked again. The house up close was most striking for its painted wood. The windows all had drawn lace curtains, allowing no view of the inside. Since there were no neighbors other than myself for many miles, I wondered why the curtains were drawn, and decided that robots this out of touch with civilization probably didn’t realize that night vision during the day was a serious faux pas, even in one’s own home. Or perhaps, as rare robots exposed to nature, they were spoiled with an overabundance of sunlight and didn’t need to rush it into their house at the start of the day. But as the door remained unanswered, I began to think that nobody was home.
“No one’s gonna answer,” a voice said behind me. I spun to see that the gardener robot had made his way to one side of the porch steps. The edger hummed in his hands, its motor running down.
“I’m Mr. Sapien,” I said, surprised to find that the gardener could talk. “I’m renting the cabana.” I gestured. “On the beach.”
“No one’s gonna answer,” the robot said again. He started the edger and trimmed the bushes in front of him. They were perfect.
I knocked on the door again, but I couldn’t even hear the knock over the sound of the edger. I was insulted. Yes, I wanted to be alone, but I’d been invited after all. It was only proper to meet my landlord; a considerable amount of money had already been removed from my account. I banged without pause with my clamp and yelled, “Let me in.” At that the door opened of its own volition. It must have been voice activated. I looked back, but the gardener was intent on his work.
It was considerably cooler inside. A small robotic dog yapped in a sitting room off to one side, jerking forward two steps and then flipping over backward, only to jerk forward two steps again. He performed for an empty room.
I sent a message through the house computer to anyone within. Dean responded: “Miss Mary is with Mr. Beachstone; she’ll be down in a moment. Please make yourself at home in the sitting room.”
“Thank you, Dean,” I said, and went into the room with the yapping dog. I found myself contemplating how long his batteries could last or if he could be turned off.
“Quaint little bitch, isn’t she? But I love her.”
I looked up to see the fattest robot I had ever seen in my life. His simul-skin hung in folds from his chin, and his chest and stomach ballooned the purple kimono he wore. I found myself wondering if he weren’t in fact human—we had been originally designed in their image, but always in their best image—and he appeared too young, in human terms, to be biological. “I bought her off eBay. She’s twentieth century, would you believe it?”
“I thought it was male,” I said.
The man brought his hand to his chest and said, “Oh, my.” Then he shrugged and sat in a chair opposite me. “Oh well. I’m Kent, by the way. I would have offered to shake, but I noticed your . . .” And he gestured to indicate my ruined arms. The dog flipped on the floor. “How are you finding the ‘beach house’?” He managed to communicate no little disdain.
“It keeps the sand out of my systems.”
“How practical,” he said. “But I guess this place is sooo old-fashioned, isn’t it? You met Kapec?”
I was confused. Where was Mary? Who was this man? I found it hard to believe that he had been the angry voice in the background the night before.
“The gardener? He’s twenty-first century, can you believe it? I just hope he doesn’t break down again; I’m not sure there are any more parts for him. Oh.” He held up his hand in front of his pursed lips. “I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t be,” I said. I almost said that I had parts for me on the way; I had wanted to let them know at the main house in case they were delivered there instead of to me on the beach, but I couldn’t help but feel that Kent was not the person to tell this to. He might open the package when it came just to take a peek before passing it along. “Mary invited me last night?” I said.
“I know,” he said, standing, masking any thoughts he might have had about that. “I have to show you my latest toy,” he said. He went to the mantel, where there was an assortment of odds and ends, most of them period, possibly original to the house: an ornate antique clock with mechanical soldiers waiting to strike the hour, porcelain vases, a crystal figurine of an angel resting on a crescent moon. Kent, however, reached for a ten-inch painted maquette of a cartoonish, almost insulting, figure of a robot. The blue-gray paint was meant to appear metallic; the robot was female, her head and torso boxes, her legs ending in wheels. “She’s called Rosie, early twenty-first century, although by then she was already a high-priced retro collectible of a character from a twentieth-century cartoon. Isn’t her outfit too much?”
The robot wore a black-and-white apron in the classic style of a French maid. “I find it insulting,” I said.
“Yes, well,” Kent said, replacing Rosie with care. He pulled at the folds of skin at his chin. “Where’s your robot pride, man?” he said. He looked down at his own form, ran his hands over his torso, and said, “Where’s mine?”
“Oh, you’ve met Kent,” a voice said from the door. A woman came in, and I was compelled to stand. If she was Mary, she didn’t resemble an Asimov 3000 unit by any means. She was dazzling, perfectly human, perhaps based on an old movie star that we knew nothing of, like Kent’s Rosie. It was a new development, robots passing down their names to their offspring, so that the name hardly meant anything anymore. Asimov 3000 was no longer a model but a family name. But for all of Mary’s beauty, she seemed quite unaware of it. She was wringing her hands at her waist.
“Now, Mary, be nice. I have,” Kent said. And with that he walked straight toward her and out of the room, ducking past her at the last possible moment.
“Was he?” Mary said, looking at her hands.
“Nice,” she said. And then she looked up. “I’m sorry; I’m Mary,” she said, stepping forward, her hand outstretched, and then she noticed I didn’t have a hand to reciprocate with and she looked down again, gripping her hands together. “I’m sorry,” she said again.
“I wondered why nobody came to the door,” I said. “The gardener said—”
“Yes, he said no one would. Answer, I mean.”
“I’m sorry,” she said again. She hadn’t looked at me since offering me her hand. I wondered if I should sit to put her at ease. I wondered if I should invite her to sit. She rushed forward to the mechanical dog on the ground. For a...
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