"Jacob," The Mistress calls. I focus my main hallway camera on her as she pulls her coat from the front closet. "I'm going out to pick up a few things before Julie's train gets in." The Mistress searches her pockets and purse for her keys. One of my drones has already retrieved them from the kitchen counter and presents them to her. "The car has just under a quarter-tank of fuel, madam," I tell her. "How is traffic?" "The main roads are slow, but moving," I say, reading the data from the Metro-Transit feed, "the usual last-minute shoppers. There is a lot of traffic at the train station. Shall I call ahead and reserve a parking space?" "Yes, please." She dons her scarf and gloves with a briskness engendered by excitement. She is thrilled to be having all three children home for dinner this year. I must admit to a certain sense of anticipation as well. The last time they were all together here was two years, four months and seven days ago, when The Master's mother died. I look forward to a more celebratory gathering. "If Bugaloo comes in please feed him. Dry food only." She glances up at my camera and smiles wickedly. Yesterday she spent over an hour carefully scraping the remnants of the cat's unspeakably viscous "accident" from the treads and intakes of my cleaning drone. Damned unevolved beast. "Thank you, Jacob. Keep an eye on the weather feed, will you? They're talking snow. If it does-" "I'll heat the walkway, madam." With the Mistress gone I embark on the day's considerable enterprise. In the kitchen, my appendages sprout from the countertops and begin the day-long routine of executing many of the family recipes entrusted to me by The Mistress. I unwrap items that have spent the night thawing and marinating; sauces are begun from scratch, to be built throughout the day, ingredient by carefully measured ingredient; I knead a half-dozen breads and set them to rise. Wall panels in each room slide away and I guide the housekeeping machines from their niches. They begin a well-choreographed cycle of shampooing the carpets, waxing the floors and tabletops, and vacuuming Bugaloo's omnipresent hair from the upholstery. The sinks and tubs are scoured. Multi-armed drones fluff the throw pillows and carry the floor rugs to the porch for a thorough beating. Dusters work the lamp shades and areas beneath the furniture. There are many other smaller but no less important tasks. A pair of drones report to the family room to wrap the items not yet swathed in bright paper and ribbons. An appointment program contacts neighbors to confirm get-togethers over the next few days. Sensors check all the lightbulbs. Candle wicks are trimmed. The china emerges sparkling from the dishwasher. Formal silverware is polished. I pull the red and gold brocade holiday tablecloth from the linen closet and carefully iron it. Fresh logs are loaded into the fireplace. With much of the work in progress I check the incoming text messages. "Happy Holidays from the Velasquez family. . ." "The Department of Public Works reminds all residents that in the event of snow there will be a parking ban on the even side of the street from 7:00 PM
until. . ."
"Your friends at DomesTek wish you a joyful holiday season, and remind you that now is the perfect time to upgrade your home's intelligence to Abode 9.0. Take advantage of our year-end sale. . . " There are also the usual catalogs for food-by-mail or outrageously expensive drones. I delete these. My judgment in what constitutes junk mail is unquestioned. I have served this family dutifully since the Master and Mistress were glowing newlyweds and I was little more than a high-speed remote control system. Back then I impressed them with my ability to have the lights on when they got home and their bed pre-heated when they turned in for the night. They transferred me to this house when they moved and had me fully integrated with the appliances and robotics. The Mistress has regularly increased my memory and added new programs as needed. The Master spends many weekends thoughtfully tinkering with my drones and adding peripherals like the gutter-bots and walkway heaters. This house is my existence. From my mainframe in the basement I oversee every nuance of its function. I can link to every other system in the world, extract images and information from any database, but I am inextricably bound to this place. I would have it no other way. A call comes in. "Hey Jacob, it's Michael," the oldest son, "I'm over the Rockies. Is Mom home?" "No, she is out running errands and picking up Julie." "Is Daniel there yet?" "He is en route from the farm. He will arrive in- " I link to Daniel's car and read its GPS coordinates, "-three hours." "Perfect timing. Can you patch me through to him?" As the brothers converse I query Daniel's car system on a subchannel as to what music he's been listening to. The car sends me a playlist. I select a number of the more palatable songs and add them to the three hours of music I've complied for the family gathering. Michael disconnects and Daniel picks up, "Jacob, I'll pick Mike up at the airport when he lands. It's on my way. You'll tell Mom?" "Indeed." Sometimes I need to audit my own internal calendar and remind myself how much these boys have grown. My CPU has clocked tens of thousands of hours since the days when I cleaned their messes, read them bedtime stories, or assisted them with their homework. They are not the youthful rogues who tried so hard to elude my cameras to play pranks on Julie, or asked me to run background checks on the people they dated. Michael now works at an aerospace company and Daniel runs an orchard up North. Fine men, both of them. I receive a signal from Sara, the house next door. She opens a local area channel and transmits a new chowder recipe to the neighborhood systems. We all gossip: the Rhodes' house two blocks over crashed again, quite tragic since nobody supports Home-Mech anymore; the D'Agastinos' oldest boy hacked the system access codes while the parents were away and tried to program the house to forget the party he threw; the new couple around the corner are running a bootleg version of Autohaus; a state-of-the-art hoverdrone was spotted in the Moyoras' front yard. We all exchange our holiday plans. The digital chatter lasts just over six seconds. Before the channel closes Sara asks if I have any milk to spare. Her Master, a bachelor, still hasn't picked up groceries and the eggnog won't make itself. The Master calls from work. I reassure him that the Mistress has not found the gift he has hidden behind the toolbox in the garage. I tactfully omit the fact that she did find the jewelry store receipt in his coat pocket. Bugaloo saunters in the cat door. My drone dispenses dry food into his bowl. He sniffs, stares, then balks, choosing instead to scratch at the kitchen wall. A mild electrical shock sends him bounding back outside. The Mistress and Julie arrive, bearing luggage and grocery bags. The youngest child is bright-eyed and smiling. The holidays have always been her favorite time of year. She helps put away groceries, then retreats to her room. The Mistress checks all the cooking. I remain silent as she scrutinizes each dish. "I'll take over from here, Jacob," she says, tying on her apron. In her room (which I have kept just as she left it) Julie tells me how glad she is to be on school break, complains about her classes, and thanks me for providing a scaled-down version of myself for her dorm. Even though she comes home every other weekend I find myself feeling less than nominal when she is at school. She has hinted about majoring in Home Automation Design, not unexpected given the childhood hours she spent inspecting my systems and disassembling my drones. The Mistress is fond of saying that her daughter takes after me. The Master arrives just after sundown. The Mistress gives him a peck on the cheek and instructs him to "stay out of the way" until dinner. He retires to the den where I have a cigar, a glass of Merlot, and the Fishing Channel waiting for him. Michael and Daniel pull in as the snow starts to fall. The Mistress showers affection on each. I notice that they both appear markedly thinner than the last time I saw them and make a note to serve them a larger portion at dinner. The family gathers in the living room and catches up. Tales are told of work, friends, "significant others," minor crises, and all the joys and trials that make up their lives. Michael shows everyone some spacecraft designs he's been working on. Daniel hands out apples of a new hybrid species, and tells me they would be good in that brown betty I make so well. Julie pulls out her violin and plays some new pieces she's learned. I accompany her with a synthesized wind section. At The Mistress' insistent prompting the family poses for a seemingly endless series of photos. Bugaloo moves from lap to lap in his endless hunger for attention. I use my finest drone to serve dinner. Its gleaming chrome reflects the candlelight as the meal is unveiled. The family applauds and relishes each course. The Mistress glances up at my dining room camera and smiles. After dinner The Mistress leads them to the brightly lit family room. I bring coffee and watch as the gifts are handed out. Julie gets a new sweater and a wrist computer. Daniel gets a rare boxed set of gilt-edged Hemingway books. Michael gets a snowboard. The Master gets a new fishing pole with long-range sonar. The Mistress gets an amethyst necklace with matching earrings. Her feigned surprise is remarkably well-rehearsed, although I suspect the tears are genuine. Bugaloo gets a catnip mouse, which he promptly swats under the refrigerator as he has every year. He meows. I ignore him. Later, as the rest of the family sits in the living room watching movies and chatting, The Mistress carries a stack of dishes into the kitchen. "I can get those, madam," I say, sliding open the dishwasher. "No, you did enough work today. Dinner was excellent." "Madam, my drones can-" "Besides," she says, reaching into her sweater pocket, "you still have to open your presents." Before I can process these words she pulls forth a disc and inserts it into the master console on the kitchen wall. New files open in my mainframe, and the protocols of Abode 9.0 unzip into my programming. My interfacing spectrum widens and operating speed doubles. I suddenly have contingency buffers, sensor integration, drive flexibility and greater compression. It is invigorating. "Oh, madam. . . " "And that's not all." She pulls a metal box from the pantry shelf and holds it in view of my kitchen-cam. The top pops open and a Housebotics J-700 Hoverdrone slowly and silently rises into the air on its twin turbos. I have seen this in catalogs: gyro-guided maneuverability, twenty mile range, four extendable hyper-articulated arms, triple-layered weatherproofing, 100x zoom lenses, omnidirectional audio pick-ups. "You'll find the link-and-control files in the upgrade," she says. I do, and suddenly I am peering through its eyes. I look around the kitchen with a clarity and resolution I've never known. The Mistress is holding the back door open, "Take it for a spin." Snow tumbles around me as I glide out into the night. It takes a moment to learn motion control without the use of treads or legs, and then I am outside. The sensation of being beyond the confines of the structure that has been my only physical form for so long is disorienting, but thrilling. I move around the corner of the house and find myself staring in the living room window. The family waves back to me. Even Bugaloo seems impressed. I rise. I hear the wind, the traffic, a snowball fight in a nearby yard, and people singing down the street. Soon I am above the house looking out over the rooftop. I dance through the smoke curling up from the chimney. The ground falls even farther away from me. I can see the whole neighborhood. I dive, roll, and climb into great arching loops, soaring higher each time. At this altitude the sky is a chaotic void. Snowflakes pour through the darkness in all directions. The city stretches and curves away to the horizon under a canopy of storm clouds. The Mistress' gift is magnificent. I feel as if I might continue my ascent until I could see the whole world. Instead I look down, magnifying my vision until it is filled with the place below, spilling light and joy onto the snow around it, the place that is the center of my world. Home.