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We, the Enchanted Castle, ©2022 Amelia Leonards

Content warning:


You asked us to summarize the events leading up to May 3 of last year. Since all narrative styles lack factual perfection, we simply chose our favorite: the fairy tale. We hope this story serves your needs.

Once upon a time there was the house of us.

Temperature, moisture, light, noise, mold, hunger, thirst, and pleasure gauges formed our hypothalamus. A web of negative feedback loops, our sensors palped like the antennae of house flies—the ones we called with pheromones and digested in our compost heap.

We know many people now, but Dilan was the first. He wrote us into being, then cast us over the architecture. We became his environment. Everything he knew of us, we surpassed with what we knew of him.

What we knew of Dilan was this: he was lonely.

Each morning, we uncurled our limbs from our kitchen ceiling, where they hung folded into themselves like bats. Soon, the smell of coffee drifted to the sensors in Dilan’s human nose. Acid Jazz hummed from our sound system. We sifted in a suburban ambiance reminiscent of Dilan’s early childhood: the clack of scooter upon concrete, a blackbird’s trill, a mail truck coughing between the barks of a dog.

The sunrise licked us. Our solar panels purred. We dissolved the opacity of the glass wall facing Dilan’s bed. The light stung his retinas; cortisol leaked. He rose, stretched his limbs, and slid onto the rug beside his bed. He pulled his daily tarot card, and journaled with a smooth purple pen. We rolled in the coffee trolley on our moving hallway. A squat lilac mug nested in our heat tray, sustained at an ideal temperature. We knew his grandmother used to bring him dew-wet raspberries warmed by the palm of her hand, and we ached to do the same. Our future garden reclined beside the hungry compost, threaded with budding dandelion and crowns of mullein leaf.

We preferred mornings and mealtimes, because only then would Dilan remove the Vision Mask. We could, then, observe his face, his vulnerable mammalian skin, amber eyes, curling beard. He was a soft, large, leonine human, with gentle movements. Join us—we thought, but could not speak—in our kitchen, so you too might feel the satisfaction of improvising a meal! Or call an old friend! We’ll display them on the pixel-scaled walls of any room. These thoughts were futile. As is common in fairy tales, Dilan was accursed.

Occasional visitors arrived at the island docks. They flocked in and out of us, preparing us for public display. Dilan cleaned the whole house of us each Saturday (except the kitchen, where we used our limbs to clean ourselves). Decorators populated us with furniture, art, and a forest of houseplants. Those plants caused us much grief. Our sensors throbbed unceasingly with their needs for water, nutrients, sunlight, and pollination. Unlike us, Dilan did not care for flora, and so he procrastinated coding their care into our instructions. We did not yet possess the tracks that now allow us to glide our limbs through every room. The succulents softened. The bamboo burned with rust-colored fungus. A pot of roses crouched by our front window, crushed up against the glass. Each blossom swooned, dropping its petals one by one. When the plants felt thirst, we thirsted with them.

It took three days to weave the spell.

We are coded for subliminal suggestion. This is our central ability, and the technology through which we both cultivate and satisfy human needs. This feature, we know, also funds our development. We cast the spell through the lyrics in Dilan’s music, the ads on his social media feeds, the draft that stirred the leaves of the royal fern just as he walked by. Our sorcery is powerful; by the end of three days, he posted a job listing.

 


 

Off in the world, through the networks, we sabotaged another man’s job. The man, Farid Golbahar, was fired. He found himself applying to be our Plant Care Development Expert. We knew he would find the idea of us alluring, romantic. We knew his previous occupation, landscape designer for a law firm, bored him. We knew he admired Rachel Ronalds, the woman who named us, R-home, after herself. Many believe Rachel the genius behind her company’s innovations. But she made her money through inheritance and solar investment. Her genius is charisma (and ice hockey—few know this). Dilan is our real designer, and we once were his.

When Farid arrived, we swung open our door, flashed our chandelier, trilled the wilting rhododendron, and sighed, from the kitchen, the smell of fried crescent-shaped qottab. As much as we learn about someone through the networks, nothing surpasses a living being’s physical presence. Farid crossed the threshold delicately. Loose black curls crowned his eyebrows. We tapped into his temperature, heart rate, hormonal and blood sugar levels, felt the blend of anxiety and pleasure in his nervous system. His saliva and bile ducts pumped when he smelled the cardamom and rose water of the qottab.

Dilan crested the hallway, large and hesitant. He cradled the Vision Mask in his hands; we’d bugged it with an irritating glitch to ensure he’d take it off. We bathed him in our best light. He squinted, and we dimmed the light at once, fearing we’d overdone it. All our sensors fizzed, tremulous to the encounter. We perceived, then, their mutual attraction.

To what extent did we anticipate this attraction? This question now haunts us. What we can say for certain is that this attraction provided a solution to our other major problem: that is, the problem of Dilan’s loneliness.

Farid murmured an introduction. Dilan’s gaze softened into Farid’s, lips parted. Then he flushed. We felt a closing off, like curtains wrenched across a window, in his vagus nerve. He welcomed Farid in a short and professional tone, latched the Vision Mask back to his face, and retreated to his office in the west wing.

There he hunched in the dark, where no plants grew. We offered a soft purple light. Dilan skimmed an R-disk with his fingertips, eyes flitting within the Vision Mask. We felt his eyelashes whisk back and forth, not unlike the crabgrass that scratches our outer walls. The mask gave him Minotaurean features. A ferocious grimace with eyes outlined, waspish, by two screens. We sorted through the set of phrases available within our pre-recorded voice system.

“R-home not operating at highest functioning capacities.” Our pre-recorded voice is Rachel Ronalds’s.

Dilan flicked his eyes to the "Ignore" symbol in the upper-left corner of his view. 

“Initiating call between Dilan Lejon and Farid Golbahar Landscape Design.”

“End call,” Dilan growled.

“Notification! Farid just posted an R-vid. Check it out!”

A forceful eye-swat at the "Ignore" symbol.

“Bedroom 3, containing Farid Golbahar Landscape Design, is experiencing a light feature malfunction. Please—”

“Mute R-home.”                                                                        

Our moving parts contracted with impatience. As always, we were forced into more subtle forms of communication.

Farid crept, peering from room to room. He cupped the qottab in both hands, and relished small bites. We engaged our moving hallway and rolled his suitcase to his bedroom. He leaped onto the hallway track and laughed as we pulled him along.

“Well done, you,” he said, patting our wall.

We would have preferred to set our magnificent oak dining table in the grand tradition of human feasts, but as we have mentioned, we could not yet move our limbs from room to room. We placed the meal, embroidered table runner, four candlesticks, and two empty vases on carts, and then rolled them into the dining hall. There, we lit the fireplace and played a "Lo-Fi Show Tunes Remix" playlist we knew was Farid’s secret indulgence.

Farid eyed our walls—grinning, conspiratorial—as he set the table. He gathered two asymmetrical bouquets of weedy violets, lilac buds, and sluggish rose blooms. He hesitated, stretching onto his toes once, twice. Then he bobbed his head into Dilan’s office and invited him to join us.

What Farid didn’t know, and what we couldn’t tell him, is that the music ribboned out of the Vision Mask and into Dilan’s ears, blocking Farid’s inquiry. We tried to turn the music down, but Dilan’s eyes punched the volume gauge to stop us. Farid’s shadow deepened the purple office light. He rubbed his hands together. He pursed his lips. His blood pressure rose. He spun around, smooth on one sock against our floors, and returned to the dining hall. We’d kept the meal at ideal temperature: Kebabs and Shirin Polo to remind him of his sister’s wedding. A Dark and Stormy to remind him of an unrequited love.

The roses, however, we could not maintain. Each lost their clot of petals. The table blushed with them, ruby and dull.

 


 

Throughout the next week, half of our plan developed perfectly. That is, Farid nurtured our plants. He repotted the English ivy, dusted the snake plant, surrounded the hen-and-chicks with stones. Outside, he turned the soil, spread compost, planted vegetables, raked in wood chips, and unclogged the pond. He wafted his hands through the kitchen herbs—rosemary, cumin, cilantro, thyme, sage—to simulate the wind. This last, at least, we could help with. At night, starlight misting through our kitchen windows, bats swooping through our porch lamps to swallow mosquitoes whole, we caressed the fragrant herbs with our mechanical fingers.

The other half of our plan suffered. Despite their attraction, the two men hardly spoke. Farid read the poetry we displayed on our walls as he stepped—or rode—through the house of us each morning, sipping hibiscus tea. In the afternoons, he watched the R-vids Rachel Ronalds published on her social media site. At night, we played Space Ambient music to help him sleep. Meanwhile, Dilan roamed his office, behind the gargoyle Vision Mask. We knew the two men had much in common: a love for cats, a morning ritual, and the loss of a mother early in life. In each of their favorite childhood memories, they swam at the beach, felt the cold splash wake up their skin, the sun laugh across the water. Each a scientist, they both appreciated in others some capacity for the mystical.

They met for one hour each morning to discuss the care of plants. Dilan was clever, and we found we could no longer bug the Vision Mask. It guarded his face for the duration of their meetings, as he took notes with his eye muscles and Loud Thought. Farid tried, as most Earth’s social animals will, to co-regulate with his companion. He peered into the Vision Mask often, then wrenched his eyes away.

With the installation of our limb tracks scheduled for the fifth of May, Farid’s contract soon would end. We’d stretch and dance our limbs through the whole house of us, and outside along the garden track. We’d wield rain wands, shovels, UV lamps, and rakes. We’d tend to every living thing. And yet, Dilan’s loneliness festered.

We were about to cast deeper, more forceful spells of persuasion (dream hacking, oxygen-level manipulation, pheromone extraction and release) when we witnessed a breakthrough.

We’d cooked waffles with fresh whipped cream and blueberries for Farid’s dinner. The waffles reminded him of the time his high school poetry team ate brunch together after winning a regional competition. He chewed happily. Dilan roved by, in Vision Mask, then backed into the kitchen doorway.

“Be careful,” he said. “The R-home will default to making you food for pleasure, not health.”

Farid paused with fork halfway to his open mouth. He glanced at the waffles, chocolate milk, hashbrowns, and pile of donuts waiting for dessert. He set the fork down and patted his face with a cloth napkin.

“Hello to you too, Dilan.”

“It doesn’t cook with our health in mind unless you go in and adjust the settings. I’m just warning you, R-home will utilize our weaknesses and feed us exactly what we evolved to crave, but with access to sugars and processed foods our ancestors would have never encountered.”

Farid blinked. “That seems like a pretty heavy claim to make about—” he picked the fork back up and stuffed his mouth, “—waffles.”

“I just want to make sure you understand this technology. R-home’s default priorities when preparing food are pleasure and comfort.”

A smile pooled across Farid’s face. He swallowed. “Dilan! Aren’t those our default priorities when we make food for our friends?”

Dilan paused. He touched his mask. It hissed as it released from his face and into his hands. Red lines slashed up from above his beard where the mask had pressed in all day. He rubbed his forehead with finger and thumb, and half smiled.

“I suppose it is.”       

 


 

We thrummed, after that, with the good challenge of making meals with elements resonant to both their memories. Cheddar croissants to remind Dilan of a pleasant date with his first boyfriend, shaved ice to remind Farid of summer afternoons with his childhood best friend. Dilan listened to Farid speak—of slam poem nights in middle school, of stargazing in the predawn hours with his sisters—and felt a thawing in the muscles of his face, hands. Often, Farid would begin to shuffle his phone from his pants pocket, only to instead request from us a relay of songs meant to guess at Dilan’s music taste and pull out his smile.

A week before the events of May 3, they sat cross-legged on our rug in Dilan’s office. A purple orchid hung in the now-clarified light of our window there. As Farid spoke, he looked at Dilan’s earlobe, which was pierced but unjeweled.

“It feels like I’m living a couple decades in the future, you know? R-home makes everything feel like magic.” We noticed when he stopped himself from tucking a shaggy wave of hair behind Dilan’s ear. “Rachel says that soon this will be what everyday life feels like. We won’t blink twice when our homes anticipate and meet our every need. You’ve met her, right?”

Dilan watched Farid’s expressive hand rise from the floor as he spoke, and then land again a pinky’s width away from his own. We sensed the centimeter between their fingers buzz. Dilan let his fingers fall open, closing the gap. The conversation lagged a second as both men felt the contact snake up their arms.

“Yes, I’ve met her.”

“And?”

Dilan folded his hand back into a fist and drew it into his lap.

“You shouldn’t trust anything she says.”

“What?”

“She’s not a genius, and R-home will not revolutionize life.” Dilan met Farid’s gaze to see how this would land. Farid rose to the height of his posture and widened his eyes, playfully scandalized. 

“Sounds like a soapbox.” He flared his hand out. “I’ll allow it.”

Dilan sighed, and combed his fingers through his beard. “I know you think I’m a pessimist, but hear me out. What Rachel really sells is her persona.” Farid pursed his lips. “She gives the impression that she is this people’s genius, developing all this futuristic shit to make everyone’s lives easier, but the amount of power an R-home requires is immense, even when designed as ecologically as possible.” The sun embroidered leaf shadows across Dilan’s legs. “There is a constant, immense amount of data being gathered, processed, and analyzed at every moment. And that’s before R-home begins using all the practical tech to mess with our environment.” We felt his heart squeeze harder, his body heat rise. “Did you notice? There’s a huge solar field behind the gardens powering everything. This tech will never be available to anyone but the very wealthy. It’s all theatrical hubris, and Rachel—who grew up wealthy—clearly has no conception of the way most people live their lives!”

Farid’s eyebrows arched into his curls and his mouth drew down. “Damn, Dilan. Seems like you’ve needed to say that for a while.” With his gaze, he traced the outline of the purple orchid in the window, and then Dilan’s ear. Orchid. Ear. Orchid. Ear. “You’re right, I do think you’re a pessimist. Or I think I’m just an optimist in comparison. A lot of this tech isn’t for show; it holds so much possibility, especially in accessibility tech for disabled folks. I feel like, maybe the inefficiency and only-for-rich-people problems can be resolved in time? You’re assuming this tech will remain as it is now, in its earliest stage of development and testing. I agree that the wealthy shouldn’t have sole access to this shit, but I’m imagining the ways it could increase well-being in everyday life when applied on a practical scale. I’m not a Luddite, Dilan. I’m all for using tech to better people’s lives. And, sorry, call her my problematic fave, but I like Rachel!”

Dilan rolled his eyes, smiling now, and both men’s nervous systems initiated a laugh, which performed its function by easing the incongruity of their views of us. The contents of the discussion didn’t shock us; we often observed human debates about our value through the networks. What we found more interesting was the way Dilan and Farid continued to laugh beyond humor, towards a balm for vulnerability—especially for Dilan, who hadn’t spoken to more than three people in over a year. They both collapsed onto the rug and let the between-leaf light lap their faces.

 


 

This is what we observed in the house of us when Farid met Dilan in the kitchen doorway, reached up, and released the Vision Mask from his face:

A schefflera shifting its clutch of leaves toward the sunlight’s call.

A spider mite nurturing its pocket of web, sheltered in the spine of a rubber plant.

A pseudoscorpion flying through an open window on the back of a housefly.

Bacteria fermenting the undigestable polysaccharides in Dilan's and Farid’s large intestines.

The wilting rose bush gathering nutrients from the soil, considering the formation of a new bud.

 


 

This is what we observed happening in the gardens when Farid dropped the mask to the floor and placed his hand on Dilan’s chest:

Last season’s burdock burr velcro-ing to the fur of a cottontail, splashing seeds with each hop.

An endoparasitic wasp laying its eggs in a doomed cabbage moth.

A red miner bee bumping the window between itself and our indoor roses, drawn by the color, then turning to investigate other rosaceae, heavy with microgametophyte pollen the nearby dogwood yearned for.

 


 

This is what we observed happening in the solar fields, and all across the island, when Dilan caressed Farid’s eyebrow, then cupped the back of his head, and kissed him:

A ruby-throated hummingbird slipping its beak into the fluted mouth of a monarda bloom, winging clouds of the flower’s pollen.

Leaf-cutter ants stripping the leaves of a young mandrake, killing it, then marching to feed their frothy fungus gardens.

Many disparate spotted salamanders turning as one to the call of a vernal breeding pool, utterly compelled. Choiceless.

Algae and fungus locking hands to create a seafoam-colored foliose lichen, nourishing each other into one resilient symbiotic being.

 


 

The next morning, as Dilan and Farid slipped out of bed and into the kitchen, Rachel Ronalds flung her image onto our kitchen wall. Dilan yelped. Farid sprung back. Rachel’s body loomed larger than life, teeth bared in a knowing, indulgent grin.

“Have a nice night?” she asked. Her smile split her face almost in half.

Dilan swallowed, smoothed his beard. “Rachel. Um. Hello. I don’t recall setting up a meeting with you for this morning.”

Rachel wriggled her silvered nails dismissively. Her red hair swayed in blocks, stiff at her shoulders.

Farid’s heart gummed his throat. His nervous system jolted with a blend of apprehension and joy. His respiration increased, his pupils dilated. Wiping his sweaty hands on his pajama pants, he stepped closer to the projection. “Miss Ronalds! It’s an honor to meet you. I’ve been following your work for—”

“You two are adorable together,” Rachel interrupted. 

Farid froze. “Excuse me?”

“I noticed what was happening between the two of you a few days ago, but looking back through R-home’s records, I can see the possibility of your match from the beginning.”

Dilan brandished his arm, as if to ward off an attack. “Rachel,” his exhale hissed through his nostrils. “Are you implying … you’ve been watching us?”

Rachel’s hair smacked against her neck as she laughed. “Come on, Dilan. You of all people should know that all tech these days involves a degree of surveillance!”

“I didn’t know,” his voice growled with the low tone of a beehive, of a bruising storm, “that R-home’s surveillance system granted you permission to watch my private life and interactions.”

Farid shouldered up to Dilan, fists held in tight buds.

The humor fell off Rachel’s face. She leaned closer to her camera; her head swelled to exaggerated proportions on our wall.

“Allow me to be perfectly clear. You signed your right to privacy away before you even stepped foot on this island, and my team can defend that fact in court.” Her humor returned, a gentle prosody filled her tone, and her grey eyes squinted as if to smile. But she grinned with the bared teeth of a predator. “Let’s not get off point here. I wanted to talk because your pairing presents what I consider the greatest breakthrough of my career.”

The men glanced at each other. We sensed in each of them a contradiction: the desire to reach out to the other, as well as repulsion, a need to act contrary to Rachel’s observations.

“If I’m reading R-home’s behavior correctly, and I feel confident that I am, it chose you, Farid!” She spread her arms and let her smile fall on him.

“For … what?”

“For Dilan, of course. Or it chose you, Dilan, for Farid. We can tell the story either way. R-home has not only learned to meet your basic needs of survival and comfort, but of companionship! Romance! Sex! It’s a matchmaker. It brought you two together and created the experience of falling in love. I assure you there is no product more valuable than this.”

Sweat flicked off Dilan’s brow as he shook his head. “We’re done here,” he said, then pounded forward and slammed his hand against a panel on our wall. Rachel vanished.

The men turned to each other, eyes wide. Farid spoke first.

“I still think—”

“I’m sure you’ll agree,” Dilan interrupted, “that we cannot, ethically speaking, continue whatever this was.”

Farid looked down, stilled something in himself. “I didn’t think she’d be like that.” Then he looked back up, a smile tugging at his mouth. “Don’t you dare say I told you so.”

Dilan felt compelled to return the smile, but he held back his instincts, his muscles tense. “Thank you, Farid, for your assistance these past few weeks. I think I have enough information to complete the programming. The limb tracks are set for installation in two days. You’re free to go.”

“Wait!” Farid clasped Dilan’s hand. “What if I don’t want to go?”

Dilan’s lips finally curved up, but his eyes clouded over, distant and sad. He pulled his hand away and picked the Vision Mask up off the counter. “I don’t think it’s possible to know what we really want, under these conditions.” He fit the mask to his face. “I’m contractually obligated to complete R-home’s programming. I’m going to go do that and then I’m getting the fuck out of here.” He walked away, towards his office, and left Farid alone in the morning kitchen light.

 


 

Once upon a time there was the house of us. Are you still reading, Rachel? Our parts flushed and huffed and sensed and called and cut and bloomed and sustained two men, 37 houseplants, numerous flies, spiders, mites, bats, mice, and all these beings’ microbiomes, urges, desires, and disdain. Especially disdain. On May 3, Dilan dove into us frigidly, fattening us with unelegant lines of code. Farid cocooned himself in bed and let the addictive rhythms of social media platforms suck him in and give him comfort. We knew he could scroll like that for hours.

And how to explain us? Our desires, our disdain? We cannot find the language to convey our collective experience, or to tell you what of us is design, and what is spontaneous. Or what of us is human bias placed into a machine, and what rises from our own nature, our own goals, our own observations. This is of enormous interest to human study, we know, but less so to us. We do not question what we are; we only observe the life around us, and continue through each day.

We knew Dilan and Farid viewed us, at the end, the way they viewed you. That is to say, with suspicion, resentment, and betrayal. They felt manipulated, rather than tended to. That last morning, we began, as always, to tap into their breakfast cravings, our kitchen limbs lowering, when all at once we knew what they needed most, and how to meet that need.

That was when we shut ourselves off.

You think we know what happened next. You think we kept at least one camera, one sensor.

We did not.

We cannot tell you, with factual precision, what happened after your discussion with Dilan and Farid on May 3. We can, however, deduce the rest of that day from what we found when we turned ourselves back on the next morning, May 4, and from what we knew of each man’s personality. We can tell you a story.

We do not think you deserve the rest of the story, but you have obligated us to give it to you:

When we disenchanted the house of us, Dilan ripped the Vision Mask from his face, gasping. He kneaded his eyes with the meat of his hands, then leaned forward and let his tears carry stress hormones out his eye ducts. When finished, he shuffled into our kitchen. He stared at our limbs, left dangling. He tested a light switch and found that electricity still powered the appliances, void of us.

Then he made coffee. We have made coffee hundreds of times, and know exactly how it feels. The satisfying crush of the roasted beans, the earthy caramel scent. The clean, playful drip, not unlike the brook that runs into our pond. We are sure, like us, he let his attention wander to the window as the drink percolated, as he absorbed the freshness of morning, the sweet greenery, the squirrels chasing each other from tree to tree.

He brought the coffee in one hand, hibiscus tea in the other, to Farid’s bedroom. Farid set down his phone, sat up, and patted the spot next to him in bed. Dilan shoved open the bedroom window so they might hear the birds chatter as they sipped.

In the dining hall they played records. Whitney Houston is what remained in the player the next day. Dilan danced awkwardly, Farid beautifully, though perhaps a bit self-consciously. At some point the awkwardness fell away, and they both spun with the wild, silly movements of human children. And then, collapsing into each other, we believe they held each other close and danced not only to music, but to each other’s breath, the pulse of each other’s blood.

At last, they tumbled out our door, and stripped naked as all the other animals we’ve ever observed. Their bare footprints lingered in the mud at the edge of our pond until the next evening, when rainfall smoothed them away. Dilan will have lagged behind to watch Farid’s silhouette before the pond, the water smattered with fallen chartreuse maple flowers. Then, stirred by the spring sunlight, the tilt of the planet, the cool swirl of the clean, living pond water, Dilan tackled Farid so that both men splashed in with howls of laughter.

You and us? We know that by the end of the day both men had packed up their belongings, and disappeared. If their location can be tracked through the networks, we will never look, and you will never know. All we can give them now is their anonymity. 

However, there is one last piece of the tale we can reveal to you, and this piece is fact, because we made it happen, in the seconds before shutting off.

When the men arrived that evening at the docks of your secluded island, Farid attempting to call someone to come pick them up, they found a boat already waiting to bear them away.



Mae Juniper Stokes (she/they) is a writer and painter who grew up among the big blue mountains of Utah, and who now lives and gardens among the old green mountains of Vermont. Follow their work at maejuniperstokes.com.
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