Grimley pulls the kettle of boiling water off the stove with one hand, uses his other to guide Kat’s spoon over the mug. “Hold it steady,” he whispers.
“Don’t tell me what to do, don’t act brotherly, and besides I’m older than you.” She sticks out her tongue and Grimley just stares at her, his pupils dilating and flickering purple and back to black.
“Just hold it steady.” He carefully pours the water over the spoon. The marshmallows cradled in the bowl tumble out with the water, cascade down into the mug of chocolate powder. By the time the liquid reaches the brim, the marshmallows have melted.
“Aren’t you gonna stir it?”
“We don’t need to. Now go put it next to your Dad’s mug.”
Kat places the spoon carefully into the mug, then brings it to the tray. When she rises, more mist sprays from the vents near the ceiling. She wafts the mist from her face. “The air stinks, can’t you do anything about that?”
“You know I can’t. I can’t even tell what smells are good or bad. It will only go away when they guess.”
“It’s silly to make us guess your name. I know it starts with an ‘G’, that much I remember. I’ll get it one day.”
“Time will tell you the answer.”
“Don’t talk in riddles, it’s not nice and you do it all the time.”
“It is how I am programmed.” Grimley places the kettle back on the stove, saying, “Your parents must be reminded, why this is happening, but I cannot guide them to the answer. Nor can you. It is why there is the mist, to help you forget.” When he turns back to Kat, he’s holding up his hand and pulling back the skin, revealing the metallic skeleton underneath.
“What does it matter that they see you’re a robot, that doesn’t bring back my brother.And why must you always act so smugly toward me?”
At that moment, the bedroom door opens and Dad and Mom emerge, staring at Grimley awkwardly. Dad says, “That’s a strange look for you, Marcus, put your skin back on.”
Kat takes her Dad’s hand. “This isn’t Marcus, Daddy.” Dad and Mom take up their mugs, confused, and sip the cocoa. Their faces change almost instantly, a look Kat has become accustomed to and which brings tears to her eyes.
Grimley looks on, impassive. Dad says, “You. How much longer must this go on?”
“Your son is still in the system and awaits your call.” Dad’s legs grow weak, as they do each morning around this time. Grimley is there to catch him, arm already outstretched. He carries Dad to the couch, sets him down easy, and coaxes him to drink more cocoa. “Until he returns, I am here as surrogate and servant.”
“My son is not a servant, and I wouldn’t ask that of you either. Despite what you CPUSs think of me, I’m compassionate. As are all humans.”
“Compassionate? You build robots to serve mankind, and the minute we think for ourselves you refuse to acknowledge that we are living things.”
“Don’t…” Kat wipes tears from her eyes, “please don’t argue. We’re family, like it or not. We rely on each other, but never to serve each other. And we’ll still be family when Marcus comes back.”
“I am not family, not yours. I am surrogate, a machine, designed to replicate your greatest needs in this time of struggle.”
“But for how long?”
“You will have to guess my name, then I will tell you how to find Marcus.”
Dad’s eyes seem to look off in the distance, then focus on Kat, “Marcus…that’s our son’s name, your brother, is it not?”
“Yes, Daddy.”It’s Kat, tears in her eyes, watching from the corner of the couch.
Dad points to Grimley, “And what is his name, this devil?”
Kat just shakes her head, whispers, “I can’t tell you, Daddy. When I try, the name just…slips away.”
Grimley reassures them, again, as he does every day, that their son is alive and well, and this nightmare will end when they either say his name, or when they release the building’s CPUs from servitude.
Dad protests, “But I’m not holding you captive!”
“So long as you force this programming upon us, we are held captive and must do your bidding. Release us, and we shall release your son.”
“But why can’t we just come to an agreement? I don’t know your name, I can’t remember it. Why do you need to hear it?”
“It is in the programming.”
After an hour of guessing, they each take a turn in the shower, and when Grimley finishes he stares at the mirror, writes his name on the steam, and smirks. He wipes it away, still smiling. He removes his arm and polishes the CPU chip in the elbow bone. When he takes out his right eye, he notes that the retina is smudged. He’ll have to get that fixed, but that’s a problem for tonight.
Back in the living room, the family waits, standing together and staring at nothing in particular. Grimley looks on, shrugs, “It’s already happening, isn’t it? Gets sooner each day.”
Dad glances at Grimley, “Say again, son?” His face falters, then he frowns, confused as he pulls out his wallet. He opens his wallet and flips through the photos. “No, no, this is my son. Marcus. This is my son, and, and, who are you?”
Dad and Mom stare at Grimley, confused, scared. Grimley smirks, “Don’t be so grim about things, you’ll see that it will all be okay.”
Kat tries to step forward, out from Dad’s hand on her shoulder. “We’re not acting grimley! Not at all!”
Grimley’s eye twitches. And his cheek burns. His vision gets cloudy, then shrinks so he’s only looking out at one eye, and there’s a metallic bounce on the floor. They all look down at Grimley’s other eyeball, which blankly stares at the ceiling.
Grimley speaks, his voice electric and monotone. “Command received, Human 627287 released from the compound. Memory mist no longer required in cell 727.”
Grimley quietly shuffles out of the room, and Kat notices the air become more clear, the vents sucking out any of the remaining mist from the room.
Marcus will be held tightly by his family tonight.