Ben loves his father but wishes he was more organized, even making breakfast is a struggle for him. Is the arrival of an Ican the answer to all their problems or will it turn out to be the biggest problem of all?
Ben sighed as he stood watching his father, who was rummaging in the fridge. It was Saturday morning, Ben was hungry, and breakfast depended on the results of the search. He would have happily settled for cornflakes, but he got to spend only one weekend in every fortnight with his father, and he didn’t want to complain.
“We have cheese,” his father said, pulling out a yellow lump with green blotches on its surface.
“That looks yucky,” Ben said.
“It’s just mold,” his father said. “Special cheeses are made like that.”
“But you only buy cheddar,” Ben said
“I’ve found a potato,” his father said and beamed at him. “And what’s this?” He reached in and pulled out something round, red and shriveled. “It’s a tomato. We have some eggs as well, and if we toast the bread it won’t taste stale at all.”
The doorbell rang. His father jumped up and dashed off to answer it. Ben closed the fridge door and followed him. A man in a peaked cap and a blue shirt stood on the doorstep with a large cardboard package at his feet. He held out a clipboard and Ben’s father signed for the delivery.
Ben saw the gleam in his father’s eyes as he helped him carry the package into the living room. Breakfast would have to wait. His father tore off the tape securing the package and Ben helped him lift out a large polystyrene box. They raised the lid. Chunky white plastic objects sat in separate compartments. Some were round and others were more like cylinders. Two of them looked liked the thick gloves astronauts wore in space.
“It’s a body,” Ben gasped. He jumped as a round object, the size of a melon, swiveled in its compartment. Instead of white plastic, the side that now faced up had a dark oval screen. A face appeared on the screen consisting of two green blobs for eyes and a thin green line turned up at the ends to form a smiling mouth.
“I wonder where the instruction manual is,” Ben’s father said, peering into the box. “We’re going to have to assemble it.”
The mouth on the screen twitched. “I am Ican. I can assemble myself. I can. I can. I can.” The voice was metallic, high-pitched and brimming over with enthusiasm.
The thick gloves crawled out of their compartments like crabs emerging from holes. Ben and his father stepped back as the gloves scuttled over the box lifting out the other bits and placing them on the carpet.
“I bought it online,” Ben’s father said. “It’s going to help me around the house.”
Ben watched fascinated as screwdriver blades emerged from the index finger of each glove with a whirr, and the gloves began attaching bits of the white plastic body together. In five minutes the job was done and the gloves clipped themselves onto the ends of the arms.
Ican sat up. Its green smile grew longer and curvier. “Hello, my new best friends,” it said. “What fun experiences shall we share today?”
“We were about to have breakfast,” Ben’s father said.
“I can make breakfast. I can. I can. I can.” Ican sprang to its feet. Upright, the top of its head reached to Ben’s chin. It held its gloved hands curled up against its chest and vibrated with enthusiasm.
“I’ll clear up the packaging,” Ben said. If he left it to his father, the packaging would still be on the floor when he next visited in a fortnight’s time. He bent over the polystyrene box. “What’s that?” He pointed to a rectangle of metal, the size of his thumbnail, wrapped in polythene.
Ican bent over beside him. For an instant, its green smile flicked upside down and became a scowl then it flicked back to a smile. “It’s a spare. It’s okay. I didn’t need it.”
“They always give you a few extra bits in self-assembly packs,” Ben’s father said, glancing at the bookshelves he had recently put up, none of which was level. “I’ll show you the kitchen, Ican.” It jogged after him, taking short, bustling steps.
Ben and his father sat at the kitchen table and watched the flurry of activity as the Ican prepared breakfast. A range of knives appeared from its fingers as it chopped up cheese, potato and tomato to make omelets.
“Each of its fingers is like one of those Swiss Army pen knives that have a blade for everything,” Ben said. “I bet it even has one to remove stones from horses’ hooves.”
A short time later, Ican trotted over to the table and placed plates filled with omelet in front of them. “Bon appétit,” it said. “I can speak over one thousand different languages. I can. I can. I can.”
“This is delicious,” Ben said, tucking into his omelet. “This is the best breakfast ever.”
“It is good,” his father said, pausing to gaze at a chunk of omelet on the end of his fork. “I could never cook this well.”
When Ben and his father had scoured the last of the omelet from their plates, Ican cleared the breakfast things away and began washing the dishes in the sink.
“What shall we do now, Ben?” his father said.
Ben grinned. They always worked on his father’s car on the Saturday mornings they spent together, but they both enjoyed this little ritual beforehand. “I’ve brought some school work with me and my box of magic tricks,” he said. “I’ll give you a show this evening, and you can give me some feedback.”
“I was thinking of tinkering with the car, this morning,” his father said.
“That sounds fun,” Ben said. “I’d like to help.”
“Tinkering it is then,” his father said.
“I can help too,” Ican said. “I can. I can. I can.” It vibrated with excitement, sending dishwater splashing out of the sink.
“I suppose so,” Ben’s father said with a frown.
Ben and his father put on their greasy overalls. Ben’s pair had the sleeves and legs turned up as they were too big for him.
“I am self-cleaning,” Ican said. It was only a strip of green light on a screen but Ben thought its smile looked smug.
Ben’s father described his car as a classic car. Ben’s mother had told Ben that the definition of a classic car was one that was over fifty years old, incredibly expensive to find parts for, and never worked. Ben didn’t care. He enjoyed these mornings spent with his father, leaning over the engine, passing him wrenches and spanners. They didn’t talk much but that didn’t matter. They were sharing time together.
As always, his father began the morning ritual with an attempt to start the car. The engine spluttered once then died. He raised the bonnet and he and Ben gazed at the engine, sucking in their lips.
After a minute, his father spoke. “I reckon it’s the carburetor. Pass me the adjustable wrench, Ben.”
“I can fix this,” Ican said. “I can. I can. I can.” Its plastic casing rattled with excitement as it pushed passed them and stared at the engine. “What a primitive machine,” it said.
That high-pitched metallic voice is really grating, Ben thought. He watched as Ican pulled up a box to stand on. It peered at the engine and tools slid out from its fingers: pliers, spanners and wrenches. Ben gaped as the fingers and tools of Ican began to whizz around the engine, moving so fast that they became a blur.
After a minute, Ican gave the nuts on the engine a final tweak. “Please try it now.”
Ben and his father exchanged a glance. Surely, Ican could not have done what they had struggled and failed to do in weeks. His father twisted the key in the ignition and the engine sprang to life, without even a cough or a splutter. It purred. He dabbed the accelerator. The engine growled like a lion warning its rivals how powerful it was. He switched the engine off.
“Ican is the bestie bestest,” Ican sang out and rapped its chest with its gloves.
“Can you switch yourself off, Ican?” Ben’s father said.
“I can. I can. I can.” Ican said. “I have an on-off switch.”
“Use it,” Ben’s father said. “Please.”
“I can’t.”Little red spots appeared on the Ican’s face where the cheeks would have been. “You remember the spare piece of metal that came with my packaging? That’s my on-off switch.”
“You mean, we can’t turn you off,” Ben said.
“After a month of continuous use, my battery will need recharging,” Ican said.
“Can you at least stay quiet?” Ben said.
“I can. I can. I can.” Ican said. “I have a silent mode.”
“Great,” Ben’s father said.
“But …” Ican said and paused.
“Go on.” Ben groaned.
A prim little green smile appeared on Ican’s face. “I am programmed to override my silent mode in order to offer helpful and useful advice to my owners and to provide assistance with all tasks where my knowledge and skill is superior to theirs, which covers almost all actions undertaken by the owner. I am seldom silent and come equipped with an indestructible titanium voice box.”
Ben’s father picked up a heavy wrench. “I wonder if we can reprogram you, Ican.”
“The Ican range was developed for the demands of modern warfare,” Ican said. “Our components have been tested under battle conditions.”
“Why don’t we check online, Dad?” Ben said. “I bet someone has posted a video on how to switch off an Ican.”
“I can help,” Ican said. “I can. I can. I can.”
Ben saw his father’s hand tighten on the wrench. Attacking Ican would be a bad move. It had probably been designed to defend itself from a physical assault. He had to distract Ican and give his father space to do his research online. “I want to be a magician on stage, Ican,” he said. “Can you help me with my magic act?”
Ican rocked forward on its toes and squeezed its gloved hands to its chest. “I can. I can. I can.”
“Come along with me,” Ben said.
“But doing your father’s research for him is my first priority,” Ican said.
“It’s important you go with Ben,” his father said. “He doesn’t like being left alone.”
“Can you stop me feeling lonely, Ican?” Ben said.”
“I can. I can. I can.” Ican said, hopping from foot to foot. “From now on, I’ll make that my number one priority.”
Ben sighed. He’d achieved the result he wanted, but at what cost!
Ben led the way to his bedroom where he kept his box of magic tricks.
Ican trotted behind him. “Why are you lonely, Ben? Don’t you have any friends? I can be your friend. I can. I can. I can. Are you aware that the smell from your sneakers is like rancid cheese? Is that why you don’t have any friends? I can help you with your many personal hygiene issues. I can. I can. I can.”
That high-pitched, metallic and incredibly annoying voice will drive me mad, Ben thought. He lifted onto his bed a battered brown suitcase, scuffed and faded at the corners. He opened it and displayed all the props that he used in his magic tricks, like cups, balls, cards and handkerchiefs. “Do you know what these are, Ican?”
“They are props for creating illusions to amuse gullible people,” Ican said. “I can do magic tricks. I can. I can. I can.” A pair of pincers slid out from the index finger of its right glove and it picked out a set of playing cards from the case. They each had an identical pattern of red and white squares on the back.
“Careful,” Ben said.
“My movements have been calibrated to be ten thousand times more delicate than the average human,” Ican said. It flicked its wrist and the cards spread out in a fan. It examined for a second the front of the cards then turned them over and examined their backs. “Please shuffle the cards.” It handed the pack to Ben and he shuffled them.
“Spread them out, upside down on the lid of the suitcase,” Ican said. Ben did as he was told. Ican gave him its smug little green smile and pointed to one of the cards. “This one is the seven of diamonds.”
Ben turned the card over. The seven of diamonds stared back at him.
“Eight of clubs, queen of spades, ace of hearts, four of diamonds,” Ican called out, pointing out four more cards.
Ben flipped them over. Ican was correct each time.
“Do you have x-ray vision?” Ben said.
Ican shook its head and its smile grew smugger. “When I fanned out the cards, I examined the back and front of each card. My vision is ten thousand times superior to a human with perfect sight. I noticed differences of one thousandth of a millimeter in the printing on the back of individual cards. Using my modest data storage capacity of ten million times more than the average human brain, I linked the appearance of the back of each card with the number and suit on the front. Ican is a superior magician to a semi-trained human by an estimated factor of five million.”
Ben smiled. An idea was forming in his head. Ican didn’t understand how to perform magic tricks. Instead, it relied on its superior technology. Real magic was about appearing to do amazing things rather than actually doing them. Ican was vulnerable.
“You think you’re really smart don’t you?” Ben said.
“I’m designed to be much smarter than you,” Ican said. “That is all.”
“Fair enough,” Ben said. “But I bet you can’t win a simple guessing game.”
“I can. I can. I can,” Ican said.
Ben took a coin from his box of magic tricks. He held out his hand with the coin balanced on his thumbnail, showing the side with the head on. “I’m going to toss the coin and, while it is still in the air, you have to guess which side will be facing upwards when it lands, heads or tails.”
Ican’s green eyes sparked. “This is too easy.”
“Ready,” Ben said. He flicked his thumb and the coin spiraled up into the air, light flashing from its spinning edges.
“Heads,” Ican called, as the coin reached the top of its flight and began to fall.
The coin landed on the carpet. Ben and Ican bent down. The coin had landed with the head facing upwards.
“I am correct. I win.” Ican said. “I analyzed the speed of rotation, the air resistance and the maximum height reached above the floor in order to calculate the side it would land on.”
“Best of three,” Ben said.
“Splendid,” Ican said. “I like games. I always win.”
Once more, Ben balanced the coin, head up, on his thumbnail and flicked it up into the air.
“Tails,” Ican called at the exact moment the coin reached the top of its flight.
The coin landed on the carpet. Ben and Ican bent down. “It’s heads,” Ben said.
Ican’s green eyes narrowed and its smile flipped over into a scowl. “That’s impossible. I did the calculations.”
“Relax, Ican,” Ben said. “I’m always getting sums wrong, ask my teacher.”
“I do not make mistakes,” Ican said. “I can’t. I can’t. I can’t.”
“This is fun,” Ben said. “We’ve each won once so everything depends on the last toss.” He patted its arm. The white plastic vibrated beneath his fingers and it was hot to the touch.
“I may have underestimated air viscosity because the air is stale in here,” Ican mumbled as they stood up. “And the carpet is a cheap nylon material so it is possible that electrostatic forces have come into play. I can win this. I can. I can. I can.”
“Are you ready, Ican?” Ben said, balancing the coin, head up, on his thumbnail. He stared hard into Ican’s face and the little green eyes blinked.
“Ready,” Ican squeaked. Ben flicked the coin up into the air. Ican hesitated. “Tails,” it called just before the coin landed.
Ben and Ican dropped to their knees. “Its heads,” Ben shouted. “I win.”
“Impossible,” Ican shuddered and raised its gloved hands to its head. “I can’t be wrong. I can’t. I can’t. I can’t.” Its mouth sagged down then vanished. Its green eyes bounced around its face, blazed brightly then blinked off. It slumped over and lay still. Ican had shut down.
Ben grinned and picked up the coin. It had a head on both sides. No matter how many times he tossed it, it would always come up heads and never tails. Ican had assumed it was a normal coin, one side heads and one side tails. It might have been a million times more intelligent than the human brain, but the human brain was a million times more cunning.
His father burst into the bedroom. “Are you alright? I heard something fall over.”
“It’s okay Dad,” Ben said. “That was just Ican shutting down.”
His father’s face lit up with relief. “The internet is full of stories about these Icans driving their owners insane.”
Ben carefully put the two-headed coin back in its spot in the case. “What shall we do with the rest of the day, Dad?”
“Do you want to do your magic show?” his father said.
“Maybe this evening,” Ben said. “Since the car is working, let’s go for a drive to the beach.”
“Great idea,” his father said, grinning from ear to ear.
Ben gazed down at the fallen Ican. “And maybe we can stop by the recycling depot on the way and drop off a few things.”
Copyright © 2015 by Aldred Chase
All rights reserved.
Image by Xavier Caballe via Flickr. Licensed through Creative Commons.