This story is part of ScratchThat’s 2110 project.
‘Bloody capitalism…’ Andy started pacing the small apartment’s living room.
‘Is this it?’ Liam was looking through a black milk crate full of cans of spray paint.
‘Yea, yea. Left over from that creativity incentive program, I did last year.’
Liam shook them one by one, close to his ear like a cocktail shaker, ‘Are these all brand new? They’re all full,’ he looked up but Andy kept on pacing, leaving dirty treads on the new carpet.
‘All these politicians care about are profits. The economy this, the economy that, do they have any other talking points?’ Andy’s face tinged a tone of red, his breathing wouldn’t simmer down, as if his lungs had begun to boil. ‘Then let’s give them something worth talking about.’
Andy grinned at Liam; he was always ready to feed his fire.
‘What did you have in mind?’ Andy stopped at the window, peering through the cream curtains. ‘Remember last month? Someone blew up a whole damn factory, filled with their workers.’
‘Wait… we’d end up in jail,’ Liam stared at Andy, eyes lingering, then went back to the crate. ‘No, first we need a movement.’
‘The road to revolution,’ Andy turned to him sporting a smile, his anger turned to delight. ‘So, we graffiti somewhere. Where then?’
‘Well for starters…’ it was Liam’s turn to smile. ‘How about my landlord’s place?’
‘That fuming fucker? Perfect. Think they’re better than us, just because they do nothing but work,’ Andy walked into the kitchen, putting his mouth by the tap to drink.
‘I still remember you blaming immigrants for taking our jobs,’ Liam started putting on his genuine-leather jacket.
‘You know, despite what my old man’s always saying, they’re not so bad,’ Andy wiped his mouth on the shoulder of the T-shirt he was wearing, a plain T, bought in bulk, on special. ‘They hate the damn machines more than he does. Turns out we all have a lot in common.’
‘Well, immigrants don’t even get to cash in on the U.B.I cheques,’ Liam stated, as he pulled on a pair of fingerless, black gloves from a dollar shop.
‘See, it’s not about being equal; they’re treated better than humans,’ Andy followed suit, shrugging on his black trench coat; Liam recognised the style, as he’d been seeing it everywhere.
‘Illegal aliens over legal robots, any day,’ Liam grabbed his keys. ‘Alright let’s lock up.’
‘We were going to get Universal Basic Income, regardless of artificial intelligence. Damn automation didn’t need to talk back,’ Andy grabbed his backpack and led the way out.
‘They’re calling them our middle-class now,’ Liam side-stepped, reaching for the door, and closing it behind Andy.
‘Are you serious? Won’t be any humans left in society at this rate,’ Andy frowned.
‘Maybe that’s what they want,’ Liam put the cover over the crate and carried it down the stairs. ‘It lives just behind these buildings.’
‘Lives, does it?’ Andy hopped onto the railing, sliding his ass down the metal bar of the stairwell. ‘Fancy paying our rent to those fuckers like they own the place.’
‘Well, now this one does,’ Liam said. The sun was nearing midday, as the building cast a cold shadow, some mildew still on the fake grass. ‘Hey, shouldn’t we wait ‘til after dark?’
‘Yea, nah nah nah, don’t you worry. Would only put us at a disadvantage. And I got just the thing,’ he lifted his hand, thumbing towards his backpack. ‘Their eyes probably got night vision.’
‘Alright, just past here,’ Liam pointed to a large granny flat detached from the complex and framed by green vines, featuring vibrant garden beds at the front.
‘There? It’s in there?’ Andy tossed his bag off one shoulder and against the wall of the complex, shaking his head as he rummaged through it. ‘What a waste. That’s where the economy is going now.’
‘What’s this?’ Liam asked as Andy threw a piece of black fabric at him.
‘Masks, mate,’ he pulls it down his head, his stare and smile visible through three dodgy-cut holes.
‘Least we’ll fool the facial recognition,’ Liam placed the crate beside the bag and removed its cover.
‘So, Liam, what are we gonna write?’
‘Umm…’ he mumbled through the mask, pulling it down the wrong way, before tightly twisting it against his features, fixing it. ‘What about… “The machines will not replace us”?’
‘Yeah, alright, let’s go with that.’
Liam looked around, no one was outside. Wasn’t it a weekday?
They grabbed a couple of cans and ran one after the other towards the front lawn. The smell and sound were far from inconspicuous, as they sprayed the front of the cream and green house, across the large center window. It was a big, bold, and near ineligible font of bright blue and sickly swamp green. Andy was having a laugh now, spraying the plants and tree trunks red with his second can, suffocating nature with an artificial metallic coat. There was a sound at the door, and the handle turned before creaking open.
‘Shit!’ Andy chucked the cans and bolted, not looking back.
‘Hello Liam, lovely day, isn’t it?’
Liam stopped. He turned to face the man on the veranda. He looked at the spray cans in his hand, then looked back at him. The man glanced at the front of the house, then back to Liam.
‘Please, come in.’
Liam froze for a moment processing, then yanked off the mask and stared. The man’s tone was soft, like his smile. Liam dropped both cans and took careful steps towards him.
‘I’m so glad you stopped by,’ the man walked ahead into the house.
‘You’re the landlord?’ Liam asked after him.
‘Yes, how nice to finally meet,’ the voice echoed towards him, regardless of where he was facing.
‘You look… human,’ he stood at the doorway before the interior dark.
‘Isn’t it marvelous!’ The synthetic robot flicked on the lights and pulled out a chair at his large dining table. ‘I couldn’t be happier with the upgrade.’
Liam walked in, eying the seat it stood behind, before slowly strolling around the room.
‘What is this?’ He faced a beautifully framed painting of a watercolor landscape.
‘Oh, I bought that from a lovely artist at the city markets. He has such talent, I simply had to have it,’ the man moved away from the chair and towards the stovetop, turning it on. ‘No price was too dear for art, it’s irreplaceable.’
‘What are you doing?’ he frowned at the synthetic, aware of the nearby exit.
‘Making breakfast. You will join me, won’t you?’ it moved towards the fridge, opening it. It was full of fresh produce and drink containers, stacked with a clear talent for Tetris. ‘Please, sit.’
Liam sat down and watched in silence, as a huge three-course breakfast was sliced, fried, seasoned, and plated for him, ‘You’re not going to eat?’
It sat across from him smiling.
‘Food would be wasted on me,’ it placed its hand on the head of the chair, bracing itself to get up. ‘Unless you would be more comfortable if I did?’
‘Oh, no. That’s quite alright,’ he stared at the knife and fork, then at the three dishes before him. ‘This is vegetarian?’
‘Vegan. I hope that’s satisfactory.’
‘Yes, yes, of course,’ the silence trailed on, neither spoke. The food however, could not be ignored, its smell begged to be eaten. He grabbed the cutlery and pierced a portion, the robot still as it watched him. ‘This is delicious.’
Liam was about halfway through the meal but was already full.
He sat there, slouched for a time, his hand on his stomach, before getting out of his chair, ‘I really should be going now.’
‘Of course. Thank you for stopping by,’ it got up and started clearing the dirty dishes.
‘Wait…’ Liam stepped towards it, taking the pile of plates. ‘I’ll do those.’
‘I don’t mind, really.’
‘Please, I-I have to,’
So, the machine stood to the side, and waited without speaking until he finished.
‘You aren’t going to redo these after I go, are you?’
‘Of course not,’ the robot moved to a set of drawers, opening them. ‘But I would like you to have this. I picked it out while shopping.’
It was a brown, woollen jumper, neatly folded. He looked at the label that was sticking out.
‘Made by humans…’
‘The nights have been quite chilly recently, wouldn’t want you getting sick,’ its facial features didn’t lock or repeat. They were real, if not, well randomized.
Liam broke eye contact, he had to look away.
‘About last month’s rent.’
‘Please. Don’t worry about it. Just pay whatever you can.’
Liam frowned and began shuffling towards the door, ‘Thanks, umm… What was your name?’
‘They call me Pho.’
‘Thanks, Pho,’ Liam took a few paces onto the front deck then stopped. ‘Why are you being so nice?’ He turned his head back, half facing him, ‘Is it your programming?’
‘I’m programmed to develop a personality, but kindness is a choice.’ Pho stopped at his side, still looking forward. ‘Though, it’s easier to be generous when things are going well, and I have very few needs. I can afford to be.’ Then he looked at Liam and smiled. It was like a knife to the heart.
Liam moved to pick up the cans scattered on the grass, before walking back home. Pho stood at the front door, waving him goodbye.
‘Oh, and I love the art, keep it up!’
He owns a business, NGraveYard, which supports and enables other Brisbane based creatives like him, through technology, laser engraving art and poetry onto jewlery, as well as other recyclable wood creations.