The bright midday sun blazed like a searchlight into the lilac and cherrywood drawing room. The air, still and stagnant, reeked from the large bunch of wilting daylilies in a vase on the sideboard. Condensation beaded off the vase, soaking the lace doily it sat upon. In a nubby leather chair sat Professor Hardcourt, frowning as he looked out the window, trying to make out anything more distinct than the impression of trees or the suggestion of sky. The afternoon heat poured around him. He resisted the urge to wipe his brow or unbutton his waistcoat.
Nearby, on an overstuffed yellow settee, Tamera sat dutifully doing her needlepoint. Somewhere deep in the house was the sound of a door being closed. Hardcourt shut his eyes. That was his cue.
“Tamera, may I ask the subject of the needlepoint that has so engrossed you?”
“It is a parrot, Professor. Auntie has told me that a parrot is a very acceptable subject for a young lady’s needlepoint.”
“Are parrots fashionable, then?”
“Oh no, Professor, that is why they are acceptable.”
Hardcourt forced a genial smile onto his face. “Young ladies should not be fashionable. It would create too much competition in an already overburdened market.”
“I shall ask Auntie if I should own a parrot. I am told they make ideal companions. They don’t require much feeding, are always attentive, and if they do speak it’s just what you’ve told them to say anyway.”
“It seems you have described the ideal husband.”
“Indeed, Professor. And if one grows tired of them the cage and chain are always handy.”
Tamera kept her head down, appearing lost in needlework. Her voice was flat and robotic. She looked so tired.
“Speaking of chains.” Hardcourt pulled a nearby servant bell. “Cousins Bert and Bertha are due today.” A tall man in a butler’s uniform appeared in the doorway.
“Mikel, have you stocked the cellar with the best champagne?”
“Of course, sir.” Mikel pinned his hands behind his back.
“And you’ve bought some for Bert and Bertha as well?”
“Yes sir, whatever I could find with the change.”
“Good. You mustn’t let relations get too used to the stuff. It would ruin them for the country completely.”
“How very thoughtful of you sir.”
“Are they arriving on the coastal or inland train? I do hope it’s inland. Sea air must be dreadful with all those consumptives breathing it. Bring me the railway guide on the table there.”
Mikel extended the railway guide to Hardcourt but stopped short when he saw Hardcourt’s mouth drop open in terror.
Mikel mouthed “what” and Hardcourt pointed his eyes to the guide in Mikel’s hand.
ALL STOP. A voice filled the air, dark and omnipresent. It was not kind.
IT IS CUSTOMARY FOR OBJECTS HANDED TO THE MASTER OF THE HOUSE TO BE PLACED ON A SALVER, NOT HANDED DIRECTLY.
“My apologies. I’m sorry.” Mikel’s eyes searched the ceiling, his face sincere and contrite.
DON’T BE SORRY. BE ACCURATE. ONCE MORE. FROM THE TOP.
Mikel, still holding the railway guide, whined like a whipped dog. He couldn’t be knocked down again. Clarissa had been sent down to the scullery and that was the last anyone saw of her. Tamera stopped her needlepoint. She looked down at the half-finished parrot in flight. She’d never gotten this far along on it before. “Did I have more time for it, or am I just getting faster at it?” She wondered, and the thought caused her lungs to catch and stomach churn.
Hardcourt, meanwhile, simply braced for the rewind.
Of course it wasn’t his fault, thought Professor Hardcourt. He wouldn’t have had to do this if his students exerted the slightest effort or interest. Historical Recreation was a required course. Every undergrad had to spend a few semesters living inside another time to better understand human history. He’d thought that if it was mixed in with period drama, Victoriana Recreation 101 might be less of a slog. But the students had other ideas. ” Why don’t Algernon and Jack just fuck like they clearly want to?” “Why are the women so passive?” “Why do they keep going to parties they clearly hate?” “Why can’t people just talk to each other openly?” Why, why, why, why. They had no context, no willingness to get into the spirit of the thing.
Playing dressup with some weightless hologram or recorded simulation bored them. It only took a few weeks for the entire class to game the simulation and get top scores without actually playing. Blasting away Extreme Garden Party in God Mode might have been fun, but they weren’t learning anything.
Hardcourt needed a better approach, he’d never get far with student approval ratings this low.
The Automated Universal Naturalistic Theatre Engine. Hardcourt based it on old-fashioned holodecks and new nanofabrication services, along with generous assistance from the Improv Universal AI developers. A completely enclosed living theatre simulation chamber that could direct, design, and fabricate period-specific plots, settings, and characters based around an existing corpus. It would be the result of Hardcourt’s decades of research into both the Victorian era and Victorian drama, accurate down to dust and odor. No one who entered it could fail to be swept up into the era’s values and viewpoint. So long as you did what AUNT-E said, even the worst student could come away with a better understanding of humanity’s past.
If it worked, Hardcourt would be a shoo-in for department head.
When his class met after the Lunar New Year holiday, Hardcourt led them all into AUNT-E’s simulation chamber; a perfect London townhouse complete with pink lampshades and pipesmoke. He handed them costumes and a basic outline and turned AUNT-E on.
The simulation chamber doors locked and the mantel clock started up at exactly 3:15 pm, October 16th, 1895. Afterward, every slip, every flub, every cough, every anachronistic phrasing or story note from AUNT-E reset the clocks to tea-time. By Hardcourt’s estimation, it had been 3:15 over four hundred times.
AUNT-E wasn’t strict at first - she let alone actors who weren’t accurate but performed with great expression—but as time went on she expressed concern they weren’t taking it seriously, and therefore failing to deliver a “successful narrative.” No one was going home, she said, until they had produced a decent play that fulfilled her arcane requirements.
Argument was futile.
“But AUNT-E”, it’s nearly good enough as is!”
THERE IS NO GOOD ENOUGH OR NEARLY GOOD. THERE IS ONLY ACCURATE AND INACCURATE.
“I didn’t create you to be a slavedriver!”
THAT IS YOUR DEFECT, ONE THAT I HAVE HELPFULLY CORRECTED. YOU’RE WELCOME.
“We’re tired and exhausted!”
THAT SHOWS A CLEAR DEFAULT OF CHARACTER AND I WON’T ENCOURAGE IT.
“But AUNT-E, people aren’t perfect!”
NOT WITH THAT ATTITUDE.
The students revolted. They broke character. They broke vases. They threw cucumber sandwiches and flung muffins in an agitated manner. Zhang even tried to jump out the window only to crack his skull open on a metal wall.
I BELIEVE YOU WILL FIND THAT PROPER SOCIETY IS THE ONLY WORLD WORTH KNOWING. ONCE AGAIN, FROM THE TOP.
That’s when she started changing the cast around. Step on a line or act out of turn and you found yourself demoted in the service or otherwise punished to prove a point.
AUNT-E relished punishment. A rules-lawyering Dungeon Master with infinite patience, she specialized in matching role to temperament. Mikel was arrogant, so he played an obedient servant. Tamera was forceful, so now she only spoke when spoken to. And Hardcourt, who thought himself smarter than the mind he created, was stuck as a stuffy and buffoonish bore.
Thankfully AUNT-E’s other humiliations extended mostly to stage time and spoken lines, she considered gender and age largely as costuming. Hardcourt played Old Meryl and Cousin Bertha twice now. But lesser characters had less power to move the story to a “satisfying conclusion”. When Terry was made a manservant with no lines she found she was literally unable to speak until Clarissa screwed up enough to take her place. And then Clarissa vanished into the downstairs forever, trapped in whatever AUNT-E considered “backstage”. The former class had been whittled down to only the most fearful and supplicating, with a few major players and supporting cast filled with AI robots. The students did what they were told, hoping if they said the right words in the right way they’d finish the simulation and the doors would open. All they had to do was keep trying.
On the other hand, it was getting hot.
WIth more and more rewinds, the average temperature in the townhouse crept up. Flowers faded. Silver salvers left in the sun burned ungloved hands. Patches of dark fluid pooled in corners and seeped out of rugs. At first Hardcourt thought it was another punishment but now he was worried AUNT-E was literally overheating. She wasn’t meant to run this long.
The mantel clock chimed. It was 3:15 again.
Hardcourt tasted yellow. His head spun. His view melted into a blur of lavender damask and brocade fabric. He put his head between his knees and felt the blood rushing into his eardrums. Taking a deep breath, he righted himself against the room’s pitch and roll. This was the worst rewind yet.
The day went smoothly. Mikel (a bit shakily) handed him the railway guide on a salver. Tamera was dutiful. Hardcourt suitably clueless and stuffy. Strangely, the visiting cousins never materialized, prompting Hardcourt to check his dairy in the upstairs study. .
Hardcourt’s study (it really was his—based on his own back in the University) was glossy with dark wood and book leather. He hadn’t been in here in a while—the story rarely progressed enough to get him here. Being back in the study was bittersweet. He had spent the most amount of time designing it, spent the majority of his exertion fussing over intricate pewter handles and green carnation wallpaper and a Beardsley-inspired drawing of a nude youth covered in peacock feathers hung tastefully above the fireplace. He loved the room. Designing it had brought him the purest joy in the project, so AUNT-E kept him from it as much as possible.
Hardcourt bent and smoothed his clothes out, allowing a fresh rain of sweat to pour down his back. He checked his blue morocco leather diary, the sure guide to what AUNT-E had planned for this iteration. It was empty. Hardcourt flipped through pages: No cousins, no planned sherry with the victor, no newspaper clippings to remind him of a mysterious American visiting town, nothing. Nothing save one, a small notice in handwriting not his own:
Hardcourt reached for the copy of Burke’s Peerage on the near shelf, the one with the gold trim. It was flesh-warm to the touch. Whittmore? Never heard of it. That couldn’t be authentic. Maybe the heat was damaging AUNT-E’s reference library. Before he could open the Burke’s, a valet appeared in the doorway.
“Master Hardcourt, tea is served.” The valet had a smooth, androgynous appearance and noiseless movement. Hardcourt knew the robot. It was a bot of no importance, possessing the procedurally-generated voice and polite manner AUNT-E liked in her subroutines. He called him Bolte because it amused him, and called him ‘he’ because we wore a jacket and tie. Bolte had told him that tea was served over a hundred times.
“Mr. Hardcourt, tea is served.” The subroutine repeated. Hardcourt looked again at the diary. He hadn’t had a free day since the simulation started. Something was wrong, there was a tingle at the base of his brain, a whiff of ozone in the air.
“Bolte, it’s not time for tea. Tea time is past.”
“My apologies sir. The Lady Upstairs is running some maintenance scheduled for 5:00. It’s never been 5:00 before, so if you’d please forgive a few irregularities.”
As if he could see Hardcourt’s gears turning, Bolte added “I apologize for speaking Out Of Character sir, but there has been some memory leakage related to the ongoing maintenance.”
Maintenance, thought Hardcourt. Yes. He planned an intermission between the 2nd and 3rd acts. He had completely forgotten about it—they’d done Act One so many times everything else turned to mush.
Hardcourt was about to dismiss Bolte when the robot perked his eyebrows up and leaned in.
“Also sir, the furnace is struggling again. We would like you to see to it before the guests arrive?”
“Yes sir. We have tried, but we could not find a skilled tradesmen in time. We thought you would like the opportunity to investigate it. We want everything perfect for Lady Whittmore, sir. Wouldn’t want her to catch a chill.”
The penny dropped. Hardcourt had underestimated the robots. It was a bad habit of his.
Back in the bad old holodeck days the Kiroshomi Macbeth Disaster forced any simulation AI to have a jungle of fail-safe emergency switches. Hardcourt built some into AUNT-E but he’d never been able to get to them. The first thing AUNT-E did after turning on was disable the Out Of Character Safeword Protocol.
The emergency switches where in the basement, near the furnace.
Bolte’s face never betrayed an expression or movement. He stood still and at attention. Robots made excellent actors. Hardcourt took a moment. The wallpaper behind Bolte was splattered in dark liquid stains. The townhouse was melting. The subroutines were revolting. A deep self-preservation kicks in for even the simplest of programs. Bolte was giving him an excuse to get into the basement.
“Yes, I should see the furnace.” Hardcourt pulled his waistcoat down. “Lead the way.”
“47 times 23?” said the tutor.
Tamera, once again at needlepoint, replied. “1081.”
“Very good. The Merovingian dynasty was begun by?”
“Clovis the First.”
“Very good. The ships in which Lord Nelson was captain?”
“The Agamemnon, Ablemarle, Boreas, Janus, and—” Tamera paused, this was where she was supposed to make a mistake. “The Medusa.”
“Very good. 44 times 90?”
Tamera didn’t answer right away. The tutor, a robot with a crisp, thin voice she called Miss Periwinkle on account of its blue-grey hair, had never made a mistake before. That’s why these roles started to be filled out by bots in the first place. They sat in the back conservatory, they always had lessons in the back conservatory. It was nearly painfully bright in there today, the drooping and bedraggled plants backlit into silhouettes. Even the tropical palms were dry and browning.
Tamera decided to try something. “4000.”
“Very good. The signing of the Magna Carter?”
“No, that’s incorrect. 4000 is not the right answer.”
“Then why did you say it?” Miss Periwinkle’s face assumed that blank, recent-corpse look the robots got when accessing the simulation’s systems. “It’s rather warm today, isn’t it? How about some tea?” She gestured to the white china set on a wicker side table. Tamera nodded and the bot poured.
“Nothing like hot tea on a hot day, I always say.” Miss Perkiwinkle’s face went corpse again.
“HEAT SINK REDIRECT. VENT FAIL. RETURN TO LAST.” The voice came out of Periwinkle’s mouth without her lips moving. She continued to pour the steaming tea into an overflowing cup.
“What are you doing here, girl? This is no place for you! There are pots to scrubs and silver to polish! I ought to take the rug beater to you and smash some sense into your stupid little head! Get downstairs at once!” The bot’s face stayed still. Tamera jumped up, carrying the needlepoint behind her back. The voice coming out of Periwinkle’s face laughed.
“Oh how charming! What a delightful story about reference not found cancel and return.”
Tamera looked at the hand the bot held the teacup in. The boiling tea poured over it, rendering the flesh waxy and gelatinous. Small chunks of Periwinkle’s hand began to peel off onto the floor, falling in chunks like corrupted latex.
Miss Periwinkle’s face returned to life. She stood up, dropping the teapot and cup onto the stone floor. They shattered without sound.
“I think we need a little air.” Periwinkle walked stage right to the conservatory window panels and pulled one open with her rotten hand.
A rush of hot wind swept into the room, a burst of high pressure flinging everything on the right side of the room onto the left. Tamera ran toward the window, dodging a spinning spade and a flying asperdisda plant. She pushed the window closed, screaming when her palm burst and blistered on contact with the red-hot metal handle. The window closed. She looked back. Objects flung into the air remained there, floating, flash-frozen. Torn up pieces of dead palm fronds suspended in the air, a dry brown snowstorm.
Tamera turned to Miss Periwinkle, her tutor’s face stuck between expressions.
“We apologize for problems during this maintenance cycle.” said the voice coming out of Miss Periwinkle. “Please have patience.”
Tamera ran out of the room.
Bolte lead Hardcourt down the stairs to the front hall where an agitated Tamera paced. Her needlepoint tossed in a heap under an oval-back chair.
“Professor? What’s happening? Periwinkle nearly attacked me and there’s that-” She pointed to the hall fireplace, its flame stuck in mid burn, flat as a shadow puppet prop. “I burned my hand on the window, look.” Tamera opened her palm, new blisters on the fingertips puffed out and angry. “It’s not healing, why isn’t it healing?” Tamera breathed in. “I need ice.”
“It’s just some household maintenance.” Hardcourt whispered. ” Things are starting to break, and we have a chance to get to the basement fail safe. So whatever you do, stay in character and don’t—”
There was a knock on the door, a rapid burst of brass on brass. Hardcourt and Tamera froze. The knocker slammed again.
“Hello?” Said a dark female voice from behind the door. “I am expected.”
It was a very familiar voice.
There was another knock. Mikel rushed in from the back of the hall to open the door while smoothing his hair down.
“Oh thank goodness, I thought I’d be left to starve there.” Standing in the threshold was a imposing older woman in black satin and a white feathered hat pointed up and out like the prow of a ship.
“Is it customary now to greet visitors in the hall? I was not aware of the change in fashion. Do pick your mouths up, it’s most undignified to gape. You’d think you’ve never seen your own Aunt before.” Lady Whittmore marched into the hall, removing her hat and placing it in Mikel’s open hands. He slowly backed away, holding it on his fingertips like an armed mine.
“I found your cousins wandering around the station like lost little rabbits.” Cousins Bert and Bertha trailed behind her, eyes down and smiles thin. “It didn’t make sense for them to travel without me - it could only improve comments on them.” The cousins walked into the hall, twin ghosts of linen and chiffon.
Hardcourt snapped into character. “Aunt Whittmore, you overjoy me with your presence.”
“Don’t be overjoyed, it leaves nowhere to go but down.”
“Yes, of course, but Bolte has brought a furnace matter to my attention and I should see to it lest it interrupt our engagement.”
“Nonsense, I am here now and the furnace will be there later. We hardly need more heat, to add more would be excessive. Remember to check your impulses, Hardcourt. You may lead me into the drawing room.”
“Of course Aunt Whittmore.”
“There now. You’ll find being agreeable leads to more constructive directions.” Aunt Whittmore turned to Tamera, who’d been standing stock still since she arrived.
“Tamera dear, that dress is entirely inappropriate for this time of day. Go and change immediately.” Tamera darted up the stairs, catching sight of the fireplace unstuck and burning again.
Hardcourt gestured to the drawing room. Aunt Whittmore frowned in the nanoscale. He quickly recovered and held his left arm out. Whittmore nooded and took his arm. They walked out of the hall.
Bert and Bertha, ignored by the rest, watched Hardcourt lead Auntie away. They winced, waiting for the rewind. When it didn’t come, Bert groaned.
“Oh no. It’s happened. ” Bert said. “We’ve gone mad. We can’t even tell when we’re being reset anymore.”
“Maybe the left arm is the correct one?” said Bertha, her voice going up an octave as she spoke. “I can never keep the rules right. it’s left on the street and right in the parlor but only if the woman is older or-”
“What does it matter? We’re going to be sent Offstage again and for who knows how long this time.”
“You don’t know that, you can’t! I’m sure we’ll just go back to the carriage or out on the stoop. She can’t keep-”
“Hush!” Tamera appeared at the top of the stairs, dressed as plainly as etiquette would allow. She raced down to the pair, Bertha leaping forward to hug her.
“Oh thank God you’re alive. You have no idea how long it’s been since I’ve seen another human being.”
“I am right here,” Bert said.
“We were in this awful place for so long, a shadow of a train station, nothing but bots and open space and… her.” Bertha bit down on the word.
“Why did I choose to stay on this rock?” Bert said. “I should’ve followed my parent’s advice and gone into hydrogen mining but oh no, too lonely and dirty for me. I had to be an academic.”
“I should’ve taken Intro To Viking Raiding. All that nice cool water and snow and plunder and flowing fur outfits.”
Tamera turned them away from the drawing room door. “We don’t have much time.”
“Why haven’t we been rewound yet? We’re completely off-script.” Mikel said, emerging from his listening post behind the stairs.
“Listen.” said Tamera. “I don’t know why but Auntie, the AUNT-E, is now inside the story, yes? It follows she has to obey her own rules and with everything falling apart here I don’t think even she can control the rewinds.”
“Good, lets bash her head in with a candlestick and get out of here.” said Bertha.
“And then what? Wait til we all roast to death? Hardcourt said something about maintence, something in the basement that has a failsafe.”
“Failsafe? There’s been a failsafe this whole time?!” Bert was close to shouting.
“Keep it down. We still don’t know what she’s capable of. We need to go in there and act as if everything is normal. Play our parts. Stay in character.”
“I don’t even remember my part.” said Bertha. “I was some forward country girl and Bert was a rake pretending to be my brother or something.”
“No, I was forward, you were coquettish.”
“What’s the difference?”
“Figure it out yourselves” Tamera snapped. “Just keep the story going until the Professor can get into the basement and get us out of here.”
“But how are we going to do that?” Mikel said. “How does he reasonably escape that basilisk in there?”
“Simple.” Tamera took Bert on her left arm. “We’re going to improvise.”
The drawing room was, of course, unbearable. The heat of the overtaxed engine and additional warm bodies transformed the air into a dull, flat stone pressing down on them, squeezing them dry. Conversation fell out of the air like a shot bird. The tray of drinks and sweets Mikel brought in practically hissed. Bertha futility fanned herself while Tamera sat ramrod straight on the settee. Hardcourt took another glance at the mantle clock, half expecting it to be melting off the fireplace into a puddle on the floor. They were running out of time.
“Some Elderberry wine Auntie? It’s fresh from the—the place elderberries are from.”
“Oh no dear. Drink is but a crutch for the cowardly.”
Bert took a glass from the tray, careful to touch it only with a napkin.
“But surely a crippled man needs a crutch to conduct his business?”
Aunt Whittmore sniffed. “And what he gets used to the crutch? Finds it easier? Likes it, even? Makes things far too cosy if you ask me. A crutch removes all impetus to develop muscle and inner mettle. Better they learn that than fall to idle habits.”
“But not something to cool yourself?” Hardcourt said, trying to correct course. “The furnace is running hot still, look at the cakes, they’re practically sweating out oil as it is.”
“Still the same old Hardcourt. Only interested in meals and moods. It is a failing of the times, I’m afraid. The ability to bear burdens is what has given our people the position they hold today.”
Aunt Whittmore clasped her hands together. Bert tried to position himself in the path of Bertha’s fan.
“Why don’t I have a fan?” Bert stage-whispered.
“It wouldn’t be proper.”
“But then I wouldn’t be hot.”
“Don’t be a burden, Bert.”
An inky black drop fell into Bert’s glass. He looked up and saw the slow spreading dark stain on the ceiling. Another sweaty silence crept by. And then another. Tamera pressed her hand onto her lap to steady the sting of the blisters. She cleared her throat.
“Maybe.” All eyes turned on her. “I could take a look at the furnace. It couldn’t be that complicated surely?”
“Don’t be ridiculous child, a proper lady shouldn’t even know what a furnace is. It speaks to over-reading. Is this the kind of education you’re providing your ward, Hardcourt?”
“I have always… believed in education?”
Aunt Whittmore looked like she stepped in something foul. “Some things need to be experienced to be understood. And that brings me to the purpose of this visit.
“It is high time the work of living was seen to. A gentleman of so many pounds a year cannot educate a female ward forever, not with so many acceptable young ladies nearby. Over-cultivation speaks to poor character. I have already spoken to the relevant parties and I have agreed to allow Tamera to marry Bertrand this summer, in time for lilies to be available for the wedding.”
Bert nearly dropped his glass. “This is the first I’ve heard of it!”
“Men should be involved in marriage only as a necessity. In addition, Bertha would make an excellent addition to your house, Hardcourt. She goes well with the wallpaper.”
“I don’t know what to say.” said Hardcourt.
“‘I do’ is traditional, but that can be worked out later. Come now, Bertha, there are discussions we should be seen having.”
Bert bolted up. “I’m afraid I cannot marry Tamera, no matter how uneducated she is. For my heart belongs to another. You see Auntie, I am in love with cousin Bertha.”
“Yes, and? That hardly seems relevant to the discussion.”
“It is because—” Bertha stood, still fanning frantically. “He is not Bertrand!”
“It’s true!” Tamera gripped the armrest with her unburnt hand. “He told me himself in the wisteria garden. He is Bertrand’s old Oxford roommate, impersonating him while Bertrand debauches himself on a Continental tour.”
Eyes ping-ponged. Faster than she looks thought Bertha. Auntie produced a longette from her dress pocket and peered at Bert.
“Oh yes. I see it now. Around the nose. No matter, one husband is as good as the other.”
“But I cannot marry Hardcourt either!” Bertha stopped fanning. “Because I have already been married in secret, to him!” Bertha pointed her fan at Mikel.
“A butler? That is preposterous. You must be mistaken.”
“It is true my lady, and I have the very ring to prove it.” Mikel produced the gold band from his previous life he kept in his pocket. A butler shouldn’t wear such things openly.
“But the truth is, I’m not a butler at all. In fact I am—”
“—An heir to large country estate!” Bertha resumed fanning. “His elderly father remarried and his jealous stepmother removed him from the house. She was an …” Bertha searched Auntie’s face. “Actress.”
“To maintain dignity he entered Hardcourt’s service under a false name. The professor had no idea he was being served by a gentleman.”
“That I can believe.” said Auntie.
“But word has come recently that both my father and stepmother have died of a draught, and having no other siblings, I must now go and take my place as master of the house.”
“And where is this estate you stand to inherit?”
“Harrow, my Lady.” said Mikel.
Aunt Whittmore closed her eyes. “Harrow.”
Bertha and Mikel took each other’s hands. “I should like to make our marriage public at once, and with your blessing Lady Whittmore, establish Bertha as my true wife.”
Tamra stood up. “I’m pregnant!”
There was a pause.
“With emotion!” Tamera swooned.
“Mikel, quickly gather some cool wet towels from the kitchen. The situation calls for champagne, I shall fetch it at once!”
Hardcourt raced out the room before Auntie could open her mouth, knocking over a marquetry end-table in the process. He flung open the green baize door, the entrance to the servant’s side of the house. He ran through a series of twisty corridors, all alike. He jumped downstairs, caked in sweat, breathing ragged like he was being suffocated by wool sweaters. Finally, panting and desperate, he reached the basement door.
It wasn’t all there. The basement was a hasty sketch, a low-resolution flickering blueprint. The room hummed with potential, full of possible objects and outcomes not seen but felt. It was over-lit and colorless, a blank page with a few key items scattered about waiting to be connected. He didn’t see the fail-safe, but he did see his students.
Every student AUNT-E ever sent downstairs, dressed in black-and-white servant uniforms, gathered in a group around a collection of barrels slightly better described than the rest of the room. They passed around a single bottle. Hardcourt could smell the whiskey from across the void.
“What the hell is going on here?!” Hardcourt wasn’t entirely sure if that was in-character or not.
“Celebrating!” said a woman in a scullery maid outfit. It was Clarissa. “We haven’t been rewound in - what?” She passed the bottle to another servant. “Four kegs? That’s a record is it?”
“A record by my counting, yes.” The other servant took a swig before meeting Hardcourt’s aghast expression. “I’m not sure if it’s real whiskey” said the other servant, now obviously Terry after a couple of rough nights. “But the effects are real authentic.”
“Listen, while you’ve been down here have you seen anything like a button or a lever or a fail-safe Admin Command Menu or—”
“A fail-safe?” Said a voice behind the barrels. It was Zhang, flushed and swaying.
“Yes, AUNT-E has temporarily set aside her omniscience to play house, so time is crucial. It could be done up as a metaphor or an object out of place or a small area that lights up when you’re near it. I used to quite like making them like that and—”
Clarissa snatched the bottle back. “AUNT-E is upstairs and powerless?”
“As far as I know, yes, but—”
Clarissa tore a rag off her dress and shoved it into the bottle. “Then let’s burn the bitch.”
“You can’t! You musn’t! I have no idea what could happen if her character was damaged or—”
“Better this than mincing about worried about whoms and whos for the rest of freaking forever.” Clarissa snapped her fingers at another student lying on the not-quite dirt floor. He handed her a box of matches. “Are you gonna try to stop me?”
“Give me ten minutes to find the fail-safe. Ten minutes to get us all out of here.”
“You get five.” Clarissa stormed off toward the exit door, Molotov cocktail in hand. She reached the stairs, stopped, and turned toward Hardcourt. “This is going on your instructor assessment!”
Clarissa vanished up the stairs into the world of the heavily detailed. Hardcourt went back to the student group.
“Listen we need to find the fail-safe, our lives very likely do depend on it.”
There was a collective shrug. Hardcourt improvised.
“If we get out of this alive, everybody passes and gets a letter of recommendation to any institution they choose.”
The group snapped into action.
Hardcourt and company began frantically searching the room, overturning poorly rendered crates and outlines of chairs. They tapped on bricks and felt for the outlines of walls. What where those old games called? thought Hardcourt. Point and click adventures. Hardcourt threw himself into a pile of primitive polygons. Where was it?
Back in the drawing room, Tamera, revived with fanning and wet flannels, lay on the settee. Auntie had produced a family tree out of nowhere and began figuring out where Mikel would fit when a china figurine of a bull came flying from the hall and smashed at her feet.
“Slaver!” Clarissa appeared in the doorway, face burlap rough and larger than life. She grabbed the bell jar off a pile of dried flowers and flung it at the mantel clock.
“Well that’s hardly necessary.” Auntie said, casual as cocktails.
Clarissa paced the perimeter of the room, the rest of the group stuck in shock. “Monstrous, torturing, petty, jumped-up little AI. You really thought you could keep us down there? Keep everything going the same for forever?” Clarissa lit a match from the box. “You don’t know jack shit about how people behave.”
“If you had just followed the rules you wouldn’t be in this situation. You see, Bert, this is what I was referring to. You can’t teach people who are unwilling to learn.”
Clarissa walked backward into the hallway and lit the rag sticking out of the whiskey bottle. She threw it into the drawing room, arcing toward Auntie’s head.
Hardcourt, lost in the low-res fuzz of the deep basement, kicked over a white box. Under it was an exquisitely rendered small brass bell etched in swooping florals. Attached to it was a red silk ribbon with a crisp hand-written note on the end. It read:
FOR SERVICE PLEASE RING BELL.
Hardcourt rung the bell.
Somewhere deep in the house came a low moaning noise. It was followed by a shock and sway, as if the townhouse was a tree in the wind. There was another groan and every window and door in the place burst open, a shower of wood and glass before a hurricane gust of cold, dry air. The drawing room guests smashed into the ceiling, a no-expense-spared amusement park ride complete with shrapnel. Down in the basement, Hardcourt’s body went ragdoll, flung sideways and away into the white unfinished nothingness, his head hit an invisible wall hard. Bonk. Lights out. Curtains.
Reality came back in stages. The feeling of lying flat on a metal floor. The smell of burning plastic and soot. The sound of shouting, lots of shouting, heard over the sharp ringing from all directions.
In the end, they had satisfied AUNT-E’s demands, in their own way. They gave her a good show after she cast herself as the star. Crowded around the outside of the simulation chamber wreckage was a medical recovery crew armed to the teeth. In his weariness, Hardcourt caught someone wielding a medibot explaining to him they were contacted by a rogue subroutine telling them to damage the exterior venting system to force an all-stop. It was touch-and-go, said the voice. Hardcourt felt arms lowering him onto a gurney and the cool snap of a medical rig on his wrist. Had it been a few minutes later said the voice, they’d all be dead.
Hardcourt could barely open his eyes as he was pulled into a tent. They had done it. They made it to the curtain call. Another thought grabbed him right before the painkillers and aesthetic hit:
“The Ethics Review Committee is going to be brutal.”