Content warning: references to self-harm.
Evelin was home, but in another sense she was nowhere at all.
It wasn’t clear how she had ended up back in her apartment, unpacking a large box of baking equipment, but at least in the excitement she’d almost forgotten about her assignment.
There might be inspiration in there. She could submit a virtual recreation of the cold and crooked metal surfaces, alien as she saw them. People could wander around big gleaming silver hills. If they weren’t careful, they might fall into the mixing bowl and discover what it would be like to get caught in the glass-sharp blades and have their body sliced and spun into a thick mixture. No.
The assembly instructions came on a slip of paper tucked into the side of the box’s flaps. Their diagrams were so small and detailed that Evelin’s eyes couldn’t make them out as anything more than a rough pattern of dark blots. In lieu of knowing the right way to do things, she made an effort to fit the pieces together by fumbling around the shapes until they slotted into a place. She kept at this until the box was empty and something stood on her kitchen table.
A wire trailed out of the back of the object like a thick hair. She slotted its heavy plug into the wall and the machine’s front surface lit up with glittering lights.
“Turned on,” a mechanical voice said, “Default setting. Intelligence enabled. For help, press the heart-shaped button to connect to our assistance line.”
Evelin ran her forefinger down the front panel. Most of the rough knobs and cheap plastic ridges passing as buttons were full circles. She was afraid to press or twist too hard in case she activated the machine and it all went up in smoke. There was no reason to trust her improvised assembly.
Then, near the centre, she found a button which had a slight dip in its roundness. It had to be the heart.
She took a sharp breath and pushed it. The button slid an almost unnoticeable distance into the panel and emitted an almost inaudible click.
Three soft tones sounded, a digital birdsong for a sleepless city. Then there was a low hum, muffled reality, and:
“Thanks for connecting to our equipment assistance line. A subscription must be purchased to access our service. Please log on to our website or call us for more information.”
Then it was gone.
Evelin moved fast. A slit on the kitchen counter indicated where the phone was installed. She felt for the etched symbols on its own buttons and first dialled the directory, then the name of the company, before finally being connected to the right address. The phone made some less polite bleeps and an unsuppressed analogue crackle remained in the air after they ended. Then:
“Thanks for connecting to our subscription assistance line. Can we assist with buying, upgrading, or altering any of our company assistance subscriptions?”
Evelin wasn’t sure whether to speak back to it or press more buttons. “I’ve bought an automatic cupcake machine. I want to have a subscription so I can use the heart button.”
The crackling erred on, and she was about to repeat herself when the other voice returned. “Thanks for purchasing our product. To be clear, this is about activating our integrated assistance subscription to use with our assisted baking system.”
“Thanks for the confirmation. On the telereceiver, please enter the serial number of the machine.”
The serial number was on the bottom of the machine and also unintelligible.
“I can’t read it,” Evelin said, “My eyes don’t work. I’m sorry.”
“Thanks for the explanation. We can trace the purchase and activate the integrated assistance subscription based on that. Please insert the credit card to use as payment into the telereceiver and hold on.”
The card was always in the inner pocket of her jacket. She slipped it into the phone and again it bleeped.
It took some time before the voice returned.
“Thanks for purchasing our integrated assistance subscription. It’s now active. Can we assist with anything else relating to buying, upgrading, or altering our company assistance subscriptions?”
“No.” She added, “Sorry,” but the voice and the crackle had already left.
She sat still for a few minutes.
Once she was satisfied enough time had passed for all the right connections to have been made, Evelin returned her touch to the metal box on the counter.
In her absence, it had grown bored and turned itself off. Not wanting to risk activating the wrong circle, she unplugged it, then plugged it back in again. Once again she found her way to the heart button, clicked it, and waited until:
“Thanks for connecting to our equipment assistance line.” This voice was still friendly and dull and had a hum behind it, but it wasn’t exactly the same as the ones that had spoken to her before. “What is your name?”
“Evelin.” The name was metallic in her mouth. “I need some help making cupcakes with one of your machines.”
“Does the issue relate to an assisted baking system, Evelin?”
She nodded, then coughed to herself and said yes.
“Thanks for confirming. The most important part of baking is enthusiasm. Is one of our preautomated ingredient kits available to use, Evelin?”
“Yes. It’s got some kind of fruit and grains in it. I can’t remember.”
“Thanks for purchasing our preautomated ingredient kit. First, the packet must be opened. Find the slit on its head and tear from there. Has that been completed, Evelin?”
She felt for the plastic pouch, then the slit at the top, and tore it open. It was important that it didn’t spill, no matter how much she wanted to tear it all the way to pieces.
“I’ve done that-” she told the machine, though it must have recognised the sound, or was on a timer, because it continued speaking before she’d finished.
“Thanks for taking the first step towards a finished product. The next step is to pour the contents of the automated ingredient kit into the ingredient intake funnel on the top of the assisted baking system. It might be tricky to align the hole in the packet with the lip of the funnel without making a mess, but once the process has been repeated a few times it should be possible to find a subtle rhythm to it. Who is going to eat the cupcakes once they’re made, Evelin?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know why I’m doing this.” It wasn’t helping her finish her assignment. In fact, it was wasting time she could have been using for that. “It’s for me. I’m going to eat the cupcakes. Um, I’m not sure I should be putting anything into the machine. I don’t know if I put it together right. I’m not sure if I should be eating anything either.”
“Thanks for telling us. There’s nothing to worry about. If the machine was assembled according to the instructions, nothing can go wrong. If there are any concerns about personal food intake, our diet control service can-“
Evelin shivered. “I can’t read the instructions. I just guessed with my hands.”
“Thanks for explaining. We can read out the device assembly instructions.” Buttons were clicked. “Here they are. The first step is to open the framework-“
“Who are you?”
“The first step is to open the framework of what will become-“
Her voice faltered so far it was blending into the static. “Please tell me. I have to know who I’m talking to.”
The narration stopped. Against the hum, she heard the sign: the unmistakable sound of a body drawing breath. The machine was alive after all.
“My name is Yimai,” it said, “I’m working from home in an unheated apartment in northern Curar, the same time zone as you. There is a hungry baby lying next to me on an embroidery mat, wondering when its mother will have finally taken enough calls about cupcakes that aren’t really about cupcakes so that maybe she will be able to go to the department store and buy it a cot. Have you opened the framework of what will become the automatic baking system, Evelin?”
“I had a home in Curar once,” she said, “I used to live like you do. But I was the baby. What I found was there’s a magic to it if you go out exploring at night.”
“That sounds like a great time for someone who isn’t me.” Yimai laughed. “Who are you? I can’t believe there’s anyone out there who would be nostalgic about Curar. Open the framework, Evelin. I want to go to sleep.”
Evelin’s stomach was struck with a sudden pain so strong she feared the machine had come apart and stabbed her with its blades. But that would have been more like relief than regret.
“I think I’m going to hurt myself,” she said.
Yimai didn’t hesitate long. “There are other lines you can talk to about that. Please don’t put this on me, Evelin. Can I assist you with using a machine?”
“I don’t care. I want to talk to you.”
“And I want to know why you’re making cupcakes at three in the fucking morning, but you must know you can’t always get what you want.”
Evelin shut her eyes. Was there anywhere else she could go?
Yimai continued. “I’ve done this night shift for years. I know the rhythms by now. Once I’m past two o’clock, the callers tend to think of me less as a machine that tells them how to pretend to bake and more as a service to help them with anything. They are all lonely and they are all thinking about ways to create pain. Some of them probably find them. It’s sad but it’s not my problem.”
“If I were you, I would never be that cruel,” Evelin wanted to say. Her arms ached from resting them on the side of the counter for so long.
“I’m not your friend, Evelin. You are not going to keep calling me and form a bond with me and come to visit me and solve my problems while I solve yours. Get those images out of your head. You are not special or different or any more or less worthy of life. I am not going to set you free and you are not going to break me. Let me tell you how to build the system you need, Evelin, or go the hell to sleep.”
Before Evelin could try to explain her unique circumstances—how she grew up in a fake world before being thrust into a reality she had never fully understood, how she’d felt the relief that it was all over and then found out her mother was dead, and how she couldn’t go to sleep with her assignment still unfinished—a strange on-and-off warbling echoed from the speaker. It must have been the noise of crying, distorted by the line to make it sound gentle.
“Are you there, Evelin?”
There was nothing she could say.
“I’m going to disconnect now. For any further queries, please press the heart-shaped button when you find it appropriate.”
Then the line—Yimai, the warble, the hum—was gone. Evelin was enveloped in total silence.
“Thank you,” she whispered.
She sat there for around an hour before pushing the button again.
“Thanks for connecting to our equipment assistance line.” The voice had the same hopeful tone, but there wasn’t a little fleck on the vowels like her friend. “What is your name?”
“Sorry. I made a mistake.”
The line died again. There was only one thing left for Evelin to try. After pressing every button she could find, she left the machine on and went to bed.
Evelin was real, but in another sense she had never existed.
She woke up in bed under a colder morning than ever. Her eyes ached, but she found the strength to wash herself and prepare what was necessary for the day.
As soon as her body was bearable, she gathered everything into the cardboard box, put on her coat, and walked to work. The air outside was bitter and her fingers shrank against the wind, but at least the building wasn’t far from where she lived.
Her boss was waiting for her when she got inside. She appeared to Evelin as a dark-clothed figure short in height but tall in stature.
Evelin did not sit down and did not take off her coat, but Tess started speaking anyway. “You’re early. Good to see you aren’t wasting any time. What have you got for us, Evelin? I couldn’t find your world on the server.”
At this point Evelin was feeling very stupid, but there was nothing she could do except to finish carrying out her plan. She set down the box she’d been carrying on top of Tess’ desk with a clatter and a squelch from inside.
Tess looked down at it and opened the flaps. Its contents were a mixture of blood, dough, and mangled baking equipment. She looked back at Evelin with a blank expression.
“I understand that you find some things difficult, but I’m not sure what I’m meant to make of this. Is there a memory disk with your world on it, Evelin?”
Evelin reached into the box and, scraping her palm slightly on the jagged metal, pulled out some of the mess the machine had made overnight and put it on the desk. Then she began to play with it, forming and remerging new structures out of the unclean mass while Tess looked on with disapproval.
“This is my world,” she said, once she was warm enough to explain, “You want me to operate your machine. But this is what it’s made me.”
“Right.” Tess sighed under a lecturing scowl. “I’ll take it this is your idea of a declaration of resignation. You’d like me to sell you back to yourself.”
“No.” A burst of inspiration struck Evelin’s heart. “I’m declaring that I am not resigned anymore. I thought my life would be easier if I did what you said, but it’s only easier for you. What do you spend your life doing, now that you have so much of our time? It’s not just me, you know.”
Tess raised an eyebrow. “Yeah. Welcome to the real world, Evelin. Nice of you to join us. I run a business that’s been blindingly successful ever since I made the choice to take ownership of a promising technology. Thanks to that, I now have the time to take care of my sick mother without worrying about my own death.”
Evelin froze with her hands still in the dough, but it was too late to let doubt in.
“In the end it’s up to you to decide how to pilot your life, though as one of my best Thinkers I do urge you to stay with us. There have always been great visions in your head, and you won’t be able to find your beloved dream translation tech anywhere else.” Tess smirked and retrieved some paperwork to get along with on an area of the desk that Evelin hadn’t yet ruined.
“I don’t need that anymore.” By now Evelin had built up the halfbaked dough she’d been working with into the shape of a fountain. “There isn’t anyone that I care for. But that doesn’t mean I can’t find people. I’m going to go out there into the actual world and build something real. Even if I can’t see as clearly as in my mind, it has to be better than making lies for someone who doesn’t even eat the finished cupcakes.” She smushed the whole thing down and tore it apart. “Everything here is all just for these companies who only care about buying everyone else’s time! Don’t you hate them? Don’t you care, Tess?”
Tess shrugged. “Okay. Thanks for your service, Evelin. I’ll forward your message to our client and find someone else to handle your assignment.”
She was about to shake her papers into an even stack, but Evelin raised her messy hands, then opened them, letting the sludge fall onto Tess’s work.
“No. You don’t understand. I’m still going to do the assignment. It’s going to take longer, but it’s going to be a world that gives people life instead of taking it away. And you’re not going to take it out of my head and put it into theirs. I’m going to build it for real. You’ll see.”
Her boss stretched out her arms, at a complete loss, probably thinking about calling the janitor.
“I’m going home. There’s a ruin in Tiketha where I used to live. Near Curar. It’s still mine. There is still nature there, still trees and grass and a lake, and I know it’s still beautiful. I’m going to clean it up, tear down the broken walls, and make it a park that’s open to the public. Everyone will be able to know the life I still feel inside me. I will make the real world a better place.”
All Tess could do was force a smile. “Yeah. Good luck to you, kid.” She reached for the phone as Evelin left.
And when I walked outside, still with sticky fingers, I finally knew what it would be like to be alive.