FULL STORY | "Arno's Claw" by Klaus Wenzel
An ember dusk shimmered through the penthouse windows. Arno-6 scanned his employer’s living room for any signs of disorder. According to his internal time-mapping data, Eric Pernish, the master of the residence, would return home within the hour. It being a Wednesday, Arno-6 knew that Mr. Pernish and his newest female consort, Olivia Lambo, would be concluding their post-work coital exchange about this time, after which, the company car would deliver Pernish home to the elegant high-rise building in downtown Los Angeles. Likely, he would arrive home more famished than usual, given his day’s many exertions, both professional and intimate. For Eric Pernish, like his father before him, oversaw Liquid Inc., the largest international name in adult VR entertainment.
Arno-6 had been in the virtual smut mogul’s employ ever since his original manufacture date just four years prior, and so he was custom-tailored to meet the precise needs of the wealthy CEO. Though only four years -old, Arno-6 resembled a dapper dark-haired young man of roughly twenty-five. A sort of bland refinement in his features, Arno-6 moved about the kitchen with fluid grace, wearing a spotless white apron over his smart blue suit and tie. A large pot on the stovetop came to a roiling boil, frothing and steaming in the shadowy haze of the encroaching sunset.
On the granite countertop, two speckled lobsters felt about blindly with their antennae and rubber-bound pincers. Deftly, with kitchen shears, Arno-6 snipped the rubber-bands from their claws and then raised the wriggling crustaceans above the boiling pot by their tails, before slowly lowering them both down beneath the snapping white foam. No shrieking sounds followed thereafter, just the churning of the water; that once-haunting trait–often mistaken for a scream–having long since been extracted from the species, thanks to the bioengineering experts at FoodCorp. This done, Arno-6 removed his crisp white apron, laid it folded upon the countertop, and started to set the long mahogany table in the dining room.
Sky black with far-flashing stars, the electric ambience of the city pulsed beneath the glass vista of the penthouse. In the darkened foyer, a small light turned from red to green. The front door chirped. In walked Eric Pernish, after a long day.
Portly and pockmarked around the cheeks, Eric was a sleazy, thin-haired man in his late fifties, wearing a shiny olive suit with a pink tie and pointed wingtips. Setting his briefcase down upon the glass coffee table in the empty living room, Pernish proceeded into the amber-lighted solemnity of the dining room, the smell of warm butter in the air. As usual, he found the table perfectly set and Arno-6 standing by, with his hands clasped behind his back.
“Welcome home, sir.”
“Hey Arno, buddy,” Pernish roared, pulling out his own chair and sitting down at the head of the table. “It sure smells good in here. And I’m so hungry I could eat a foal, and then some!”
“Very good, sir,” Arno-6 replied, using silver tongs to remove one of the steaming lobsters from the pot and starting toward the head of the table with it. “And how was your time with Ms. Lambo, sir?”
Pernish sighed in exhaustion, taking up the hot cloth from the tray beside his plate and scrunching it between his plump fingers. “Thinkin’ I’m gonna to have to cut that one loose, if you really wanta know.” Pernish balled up the cloth and dropped it on his wooden tray. “Today she was startin’ to talk in the way of gettin’ hitched. And you know how I get about that.”
“I do, sir.” Arno-6 replied, placing the lobster onto his master’s plate. “And I am sorry for your discomfort, sir.”
“Oh, it’s nothin’ I ain’t dealt with a hunnerd times before,” Pernish said, scoffing at his own expertise as a bachelor. “Nothin’ for you to worry about though.”
“But your happiness is mine, sir.”
“Thanks, Arno buddy. Means a lot,” Pernish said, taking up the hot lobster tail and cracking it open with his bare hands, tearing the tender meat loose to fall steaming onto his plate, and sucking at his fingers. “Women! Boy I tell ya, can’t live with em’, and ya can’t stop em’ from tryin’ to get around that neither! Ha! Ha! Ha!”
Arno-6 put the tongs down, and then filled Pernish’s glass with Bordeaux. “Understood, sir.” Retrieving the tongs and tray, Arno-6 took a step backwards. “Will there be anything else at the moment, sir?”
“No, Arno,” Pernish replied as he dipped, his mouth full, forking and dipping a piece of lobster meat into the butter, “Leave me to my own devices, I’ll be fine.”
“Very good, sir. Please hail me should you require seconds of anything.”
Knowing Mr. Pernish disliked an audience while he dined, Arno-6 gave a solemn nod then started off toward the kitchen, where he would await further summons.
“Oh, Arno–there is something!”
“I have to fly out early tomorrow morning for a meeting in Beijing. It’s about the big merger. I’ll be gone a whole week, so you won’t need to fix my dinner or anything during that time. Think I’ll be back on Wednesday evening, ’round five or so.”
“Of course, sir. I’ll update my schedule accordingly and expect your return on Wednesday evening. Any adjustment to the meal plan, sir?”
Pernish forked more lobster into his mouth and, chewing with delight, shook his head.
“Nuh unh! Vis is delithcious!”
“I am flattered, sir. Lobster for Wednesday night, then. I’ll order it fresh for pickup that morning.”
“You do that!” Pernish called, eagerly reaching for his wineglass and slurping off a deep glug.
Ever courteous and serene, Arno-6 smiled an inoffensive smile, gave his employer a slight bow, and then exited the dining room for the kitchen.
It had been three days and two nights now since Eric Pernish had boarded a private jet across the Pacific Ocean to Beijing. In light of his employer’s absence, there was little for the young synth to busy himself with by Saturday evening. Nor could the penthouse have appeared any tidier, unless it were newly made. Every surface lay dustless and glinting in the amber lights.
The dishes cleaned and put away, the new mail ordered, and the house plants watered and vibrant in the dark, Arno-6 had little else to do but retire to his chair in the living room. Equipped with proximity sensors trained to his internal wavelengths, Arno-6 only needed to seat himself in the chair to be recognized. Upright, with palms resting flat upon the tops of his knees, Arno-6 closed his eyes and entered a placid state of disuse, the chair’s inbuilt sensors radiating subtle transmissions of rejuvenation into the mechanical locus of his being.
At midnight, the tiny light in the darkened foyer switched from red to green. The front door chirped. Arno-6’s eyes fluttered, then opened at the noise. He was thrown off by this unexpected entry, so far from his employer’s scheduled return. Scanning the dark, Arno-6’s eyelids flittered in alarm, as three hooded, ghost-masked figures bustled into the quiet sanctity of the penthouse. One hung back to close the door, while the other two strode quickly to the chair where Arno-6 was seated.
Registering the gait and build of the intruders, Arno-6 concluded there were two males and a female, the latter being the one who stayed to close the front door. He started to rise from his chair–for what, he wasn’t sure, as he was not equipped with any home defense programming. Swiftly, the male intruder nearest him reached out with a small metal object in his hand. Arno-6 suddenly shuddered and buckled, his whole body falling back down into the chair. Paralyzed, eyes open, he sat below the three gathering intruders, utterly at their mercy. The bolt-charge of the device had rendered him helpless.
“Give it here,” the slighter male said.
The female rustled through a backpack in her hands.
“Come on,” said the former. “Hurry.”
“Here, take it,” she said, her voice muffled by the mask, as she handed over something heavy. She carted the bag off in the direction of the kitchen, momentarily leaving her two counterparts behind.
In both gloved hands, the slighter male now wielded a bulky box, with a shaded visor at the front. Squeezing the trigger, a pale green ray of light projected from the glass visor. With surgical precision, the intruder lowered the beam across Arno-6’s forehead, pausing at his optical lenses.
Arno-6 writhed in his chair, as if being tickled with invisible electrodes. Blinded by the beam, he struggled to protect his personality data. The green became a hot white static, flooding and overwhelming him. When his Identifense programming finally caved, a dark oblivion overtook Arno-6, leaving him inert in the chair.
Job done, the three masked intruders repacked their belongings and coolly beat a retreat, the synth twitching in their wake The hall light briefly illuminated the foyer, then disappeared.
Wednesday morning arrived. Arno-6 boarded the appointed transport to the FoodCorp campus, a bustling 12-square-mile array of white warehouses running alongside the glinting waters of New Monica Bay, the Isle of Venice silhouetted in the distance. Weaving through the noisome crowds of the seafood warehouse, Arno-6 purchased the two speckled lobsters that would compose the staple of his employer’s homecoming dinner.
Regarding the home invasion four nights prior, Arno-6 had no recollection of the traumatic event. He simply bathed in the regenerative sensors of his chair for four days, until that morning. At which point he awoke, refreshed and ready to perform his duties.
Wearing sunglasses and a gray mottled trench-coat, the stone-faced synth stood calmly alongside the other shoppers waiting for transport back to the east side of town, a cold brown box tucked beneath his arm.
It was another glorious sundown when the door chirped in the foyer for the third time that day. Arno-6 stood before a pot of near boiling water, surprised by Eric Pernish’s early homecoming. Arno-6 laid the lid atop the pot, removed his apron, set it to rest on the countertop, and walked out of the kitchen to greet his employer. But before he could speak, his groggy master cut him off:
“I know, I know–I’m early,” Pernish snapped, exhausted. “It’s fine. I didn’t expect it to be ready. As you were.”
“Welcome home, sir.”
“Glad to be home,” Pernish said, seating himself at the head of the unset table. “Those Chinese can sure wear you out.”
“It was a success, though?”
“I wouldn’t go that far,” Pernish replied, rubbing his bloodshot eyes. “But I got ‘em on the ropes about this goddamn merger,” he scoffed. “We’ll see. Only thing I can say for certain is, I’m hungry. Only so many noodles and wontons a guy can stomach. Could use me some of that good home cooking.”
“Of course, sir. I was just about to boil the lobsters.”
“That’s great. Just great,” Pernish muttered, sighing, and sinking into his chair with eyes closed, the sunset reaching in about the windows.
Back in the kitchen, Arno-6 went about preparing everything he would need. With two lobsters on the countertop, bound and seeking out, Arno-6 slid open a drawer, expecting the tongs and kitchen shears. What he discovered instead left him dumbfounded. And yet he perceived some strange familiarity with the item there. The longer he stared down on the cold black object, the more familiar it seemed. A flash of something shot through his internal time-mapping system–a vague scenario, déjà vu of things yet to pass.
Arno-6 calmly removed the pistol and laid it down on the countertop. He then reapplied his clean white apron. Taking up the gun, he tucked it into his rear waistband. Cool as a panther slinking through the jungle, Arno-6 went out of the kitchen to the dining room, the water in the pot finally reaching a boil.
When, at last, the police managed to override the security lock and barge through the front door into the foyer, they discovered a gruesome scene in Eric Pernish’s penthouse. In the dining room, they found the late VR mogul lying flat on an overturned chair in a dark pool of blood, his chest riddled with bullet wounds. Detective Holt wagered that these bullets were from the same pistol which had, 40 minutes earlier, been thrown from the building onto the sidewalk alerting the doorman (a synth himself) that there was trouble above.
A warm night breeze whispered in through the shattered glass of the window girding the western wall of the penthouse. The sun already drowned beneath the sea, a few stars glittering in the black sky. The pale lights of the metropolis below crept, like electric ivy, up along the smaller surrounding buildings, into the haze of the downtown smog.
Holt was shocked by what he discovered in the kitchen. Hunched over the stovetop, his head submerged in a pot of boiling water, he saw Arno-6. The young synth’s fingers braced at the stove-edge, locked in terrible masochistic determination.
With a muttered curse, Detective Holt approached the stove. Raising a sleeve to cover his face, he switched off the burner. Then he returned to the dining room where the uniformed officers were gathered. He took from his tweed jacket a fresh cigar and lit up.
“All right, boys,” he said, blowing a jet of blue-gray smoke toward the ceiling. “Let’s not muddle the scene too much now, huh? Oh, and Bebo-23? I wouldn’t recommend visiting the kitchen. You might not like it in there.”
“If you advise it, sir,” replied the blue-uniformed officer kneeling beside the dead man, forensics camera in hand.
As the investigation in the penthouse continued, a pair of speckled lobsters bravely ventured forth along the carpeted halls of the high-rise, their pincers ponderously snapping as they traveled toward the open elevator car.