Backlight chapter 4

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CHAPTER 4: DO ANDROIDS SMOKE ELECTRIC WEED?

I wake up to my phone going off. One one hand, yay, I did sleep, but on the other, I’m not sleeping anymore.

With a wordless groan, I grab the device and unlock it to find a message from Jahid.

Jahid Mansour: I heard from Ivy about last night. Are you okay?

Oh man, now I have Jahid worried about me too. Fuck.

Valo Huang: Idk yet. Just woke up.

Jahid Mansour: Oh crap, I woke you up, didn’t I?

Jahid Mansour: I’m so sorry!

A smile tugs at the corner of my mouth. He’s so sweet.

Valo Huang: It’s fine. I had nightmares all night anyway.

Jahid Mansour: Oh no… Did you sleep at all?

Valo Huang: A little, I guess.

The bubble indicating that Jahid is typing bops up and down for quite some time before Jahid replies.

Jahid Mansour: Can I call you?

Valo Huang: Sure.

And sure enough, he does. I accept the call.

Valo: …

Jahid: Hello?

Valo: …!

What the hell?

Jahid: Valo? Are you there?

Valo: …!!

Why can’t I talk?

Jahid: I’ll hang up. Let’s continue in text.

What the fuck? What the fucking hell??

Jahid Mansour: So you can’t talk?

Valo Huang: I think so?? What the fuck?

Valo Huang: Idk whats goingn on im freakin out??

Jahid Mansour: Habibi, calm down. It’s okay.

Valo Huang: Why cant i talk???

Jahid Mansour: You’re nonverbal. I think.

What?

Valo Huang: What is that?

Jahid sends me a Wikipedia link.

Jahid Mansour: Basically the thing with the skull last night has made you mute for now.

Valo Huang: Oh.

Jahid Mansour: You can still type though! Try looking up a text-to-speech app to use until your voice comes back.

What the fuck though.

Valo Huang: I guess I have to.

Valo Huang: How do you know about this kind of stuff?

Jahid Mansour: I get mutism sometimes too.

Valo Huang: Wait, really? How haven’t I noticed?

Jahid Mansour: It doesn’t happen very often. Usually when I get super stressed. And it passes in under a day.

Jahid Mansour: I have no idea how long it’ll take with you, though.

Valo Huang: I guess I have to figure it out.

Jahid Mansour: Is this the first time this has happened to you?

Valo Huang: Yeah.

Jahid Mansour: All you can really do is to wait until it ends.

Jahid Mansour: If you try to force yourself to talk, it’ll make it worse.

Valo Huang: Okay…

Valo Huang: Thank you.

Jahid Mansour: No problem. :)

Valo Huang: I had no idea what was going on. I was freaking the hell out.

Jahid Mansour: That was partly my fault. I’m sorry.

Valo Huang: What?

Valo Huang: No??

Jahid Mansour: It is!

Jahid Mansour: I suggested calling just so I could confirm my suspicions.

Valo Huang: ??

Jahid Mansour: What I gathered from what Ivy told me, I thought you might have gone mute.

Valo Huang: Ah.

Jahid Mansour: I’m sorry.

Valo Huang: No, it’s fine. Better find out now and not when I actually had to talk to someone.

Jahid Mansour: I guess you’re right…

My phone beeps. Message from Nigel.

xxEndOfAnEraxx: Hey man, last night was wild. Are you okay?

Jahid sends me another message, but I reply to Nigel first.

LightEnvelopingDark: Yeah, I’m fine. I can’t talk tho.

xxEndOfAnEraxx: What?

LightEnvelopingDark: I’m mute now.

xxEndOfAnEraxx: What? For real??

LightEnvelopingDark: Yeah. Jahid called me but I couldn’t even say hello.

xxEndOfAnEraxx: Oh shit… Is that because of last night?

LightEnvelopingDark: I’m guessing so. I’ll look for a text-to-speech app until it blows over.

xxEndOfAnEraxx: Oh. That’s good.

xxEndOfAnEraxx: Hey are you free today?

LightEnvelopingDark: What did you have in mind?

xxEndOfAnEraxx: 240 mate. I feel super bad about last night and I wanted to make it up to you.

xxEndOfAnEraxx: Let’s just chill for today.

Aw, Nigel…

xxEndOfAnEraxx: But!! On a way important note!!!

xxEndOfAnEraxx: MY ANDROID IS READY!!!

LightEnvelopingDark: !!!

LightEnvelopingDark: Holy shit, dude! That’s awesome!

xxEndOfAnEraxx: I couldn’t sleep last night so I continued building it and finished it!

LightEnvelopingDark: Did you turn it on yet?

xxEndOfAnEraxx: Not yet. I want you to be there when I do.

Oh my god.

LightEnvelopingDark: Hell yeah, I’ll be there!! When?

xxEndOfAnEraxx: As soon as you can get here.

LightEnvelopingDark: Should I bring something? Pizza?

xxEndOfAnEraxx: Nah man, don’t worry about a thing. This party is sponsored by Nigel Catering!

xxEndOfAnEraxx: Although. Soda. If you really want to bring some.

LightEnvelopingDark: Haha, ofc I’ll bring some. What kind of soda do you want?

xxEndOfAnEraxx: Your call, mate.

LightEnvelopingDark: Alright.

LightEnvelopingDark: Are we smoking orr

xxEndOfAnEraxx: Nah mate, brownies.

xxEndOfAnEraxx: Made them extra fudgy, just for you.

Oh my god, I love him.

LightEnvelopingDark: I need to get out of bed and shower. Give me an hour or so.

xxEndOfAnEraxx: K

I get out of bed and immediately find out how sore I am. My shoulders are stiff, maybe because I slept in a weird position or because my muscles were tensed up all night. I don’t know.

My hand, especially the fingers that got dislocated and relocated, are still throbbing with dull pain. I sigh and down some painkillers with some lukewarm water straight out of the tap.

I don’t think I need to have breakfast since Nigel promised he’d have food ready. Not that I had food in the flat anyway.

So I just have a quick shower and put on clean clothes before leaving. On the way to Nigel’s, I stop by a grocery store to get the soda I promised, even if a part of me wants to just beeline to Nigel’s. Seeing his android being turned on for the first time is a momentous, once-in-a-lifetime occasion and I don’t really want to delay it by a second.

I arrive at Nigel’s flat and ring the doorbell. Nigel opens the door in record time. He beams at me and motions me to come in.

Nigel: Exactly who I wanted to see!

As I step into his flat, a sweet, chocolatey smell wafts into my nose. It smells delicious. Nigel is grinning widely and I can tell that he can barely stay in his skin.

Nigel: I cannot tell you how excited I am.

He leads me to the kitchen. The smell is even stronger here. The smell is even stronger here.

As I put the soda in the fridge, Nigel asks me.

Nigel: Did you get the text-to-speech app working?

Now I realize that I forgot all about it. Yeesh. I scramble for my phone and the notes app.

Valo: I forgot to install it at home. Give me a moment to find one.

Nigel: Take your time, mate.

Nigel: But also, like. Hurry a little. I can’t wait to turn the bot on.

I start dicking around in the app store while Nigel gets the brownies out of the oven and sets the pan on top of the stove. While he cuts the brownies, I end up having to install a few apps until I find one that suits me.

Valo: How does this sound?

Nigel:

Nigel: Like a text-to-speech app.

I shrug. I’ll take it.

Valo: It does Finnish too.

Nigel: I have no idea what you just said to me.

Nigel: Anyway, have a brownie!

He holds out the pan. Oh hell yes.

> Take a side piece > Take a middle piece

I bite in and the chocolatey flavour fills my mouth. The center is really fudgy and sticky. Nigel also takes a piece and takes a bite.

It’s delicious.

Nigel grins at me.

Nigel: Good, right?

I give him a thumbs up.

Nigel finishes his piece and grabs another one.

Nigel: Do you want another one?

Of course I do. I grab another piece and also shove it down my gullet.

Nigel eats his second piece and wipes his hands on his thighs. He claps his hands.

Nigel: Alright! The android is in the living room.

We relocate to his living room, where the android is sitting on the couch. It’s clearly human-shaped, with a head, torso arms and legs. Its face is just a circuit board with exposed wires and one eye on it, though. Nigel has dressed it in sweats and a hoodie.

Valo: It’s amazing!

Nigel: Wait ‘til you see it move.

Nigel: Do you want grapes? I got some grapes for the occasion.

Nigel offers me a plate with green grapes. I take a few. Nigel pops a few grapes into his mouth as well.

Nigel: It’s so much easier to find fresh fruit here than in the UK.

He rolls a grape between his fingertips thoughtfully. My ears perk up. Nigel has never talked about the UK before.

Nigel: One of the reasons I left the UK was because I couldn’t find fruit at the stores anymore.

Nigel: When I was a kid, fresh fruit were easier to find. Shame I didn’t savour it back then.

Nigel: But it kept harder and harder to find. Until one day, there were only canned pineapple.

Nigel: I mean, I was already planning to go expatting, but that was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Nigel regards the plate of grapes grimly.

Valo: Why did you choose Finland?

Nigel blinks, like he forgot I was there.

Nigel: Uh, well… There were a few reasons. People here know English well. Good healthcare. Not too far from the UK. And I got a job easily here.

Nigel flips another grape into his mouth.

Nigel: But enough of that! Let’s bring the bot to life!

Nigel sets the plate down on the coffee table, on top of a pizza box, and claps his hands.

Nigel: I’ve run extensive tests on the legs, arms and hands, so I should hope it knows how to use them right off the bat.

Nigel: But. We shall see.

Nigel ushers me to stand in front of the couch while he half-crouches on the couch himself, facing the android.

Nigel: Ready?

I nod. Excitement is bubbling inside my stomach.

Nigel fiddles with the wires on the android’s face, before settling a plain metal plate on it.

A small LED-light on the faceplate lights up. It blinks yellow for a few seconds, before it lights up green.

Nigel grins and stands up in front of the android.

Android: I am awake.

Android: Wifi connections detected.

Android: Bluetooth disabled.

Nigel: Marvelous.

Nigel: Hello… Ah, hell, I guess I should give you a name now.

Android: You can name me later.

Nigel: Okay, then. Good morning. I am Nigel, your creator. You will obey everything I say.

The android’s green light blinks a few times.

Android: Understood, Nigel. Nice to meet you, Nigel.

Nigel grins and wraps an arm around my shoulders.

Nigel: This is Valo. You can obey h- them too.

The android turns its head towards me. The light blinks a few times again.

Android: Understood. Nice to meet you, Valo.

Nigel: But, you know, my commands take priority. No offence, Valo.

I shrug. Fair enough.

Android: Understood.

Nigel: Can you stand up?

The android begins to move, sitting up straight before shakily standing up. It staggers a little before stabilising.

Android: Standing up.

Nigel: Good job. Can you walk?

Android: Where should I walk?

Nigel: Hah, I like you. To the front door and back should be enough.

The android takes a few hesitating steps. It starts walking slowly with shaky steps.

Nigel: I borrowed an AI from the university. I, unfortunately, don’t know how to code one, so I had to outsource that.

I nod as the android returns, with much steadier steps.

Nigel: How was it?

Android: Practise is needed.

Nigel: But you didn’t fall once. That’s good.

Android: Thank you, Nigel.

Nigel: We should test your internet connection. What should we make you google…

Valo: What’s the weather for today?

Nigel: That’s a good one.

The android’s light blinks yellow.

Android: Today’s weather forecast for Oulu, Finland. It is 28 degrees Celsius and sunny, with no wind. Highest temperature will be 29,9 degrees Celsius and the lowest temperature will be 27,7 degrees Celsius. Sunrise today was at 1:22 AM. Sunset today will be at 12:23 AM. Length of day is 23 hours, one minute.

Nigel: … Yeah, sounds about right.

Nigel: Wow, now that you put it like that, it sounds… unbelievable.

Nigel: The sun is down for only one hour?

Nigel: How do you live like this?

I shrug.

Valo: I guess I’ve gotten used to it when it’s been like this for my whole life.

Valo: I have nothing else to compare it to.

Nigel rubs his chin.

Nigel: I guess that checks out.

We’re quiet for a moment and regard the android standing in front of us.

Valo: So… What now?

Nigel: Hm?

Valo: What are you going to do with it?

Nigel:

Nigel: Hm.

Nigel: I didn’t think that far. I just wanted to see if I could build one, to be honest.

He waves his hand.

Nigel: But I’ll figure it out. Maybe it can learn to cook. It can get the door for me now, at least.

Valo: M-hm.

Valo: Where did you get the AI for it, again? Did you code it yourself?

Nigel: Nah. I copied one from the university.

Valo: … Do they know you have it?

Nigel shrugs.

Nigel: Didn’t really ask for permission.

Valo: Is that legal?

Nigel grins.

Nigel: Probably not.

I force a smile. I can’t help but be worried for him. What if he gets caught?

Nigel suddenly speaks up, drawing me from my thoughts.

Nigel: Hey, this is kind of sudden and weird, but… have you… noticed something?

Valo: …? Like what?

Nigel: Like… the air?

Nigel: Does it feel different to you?

Nigel: Like after the street fight? And last night?

I stare at him, baffled.

Nigel: Nevermind. Forget I said anything.

Valo: Okay.

I had forgotten about that moment after the frantic run we had that ended the fight. It’s been a while and a lot has happened between then and now.

Valo: I do have noticed.

Nigel’s eyes flicker back to me.

Valo: Like, the air feels different sometimes. Thicker?

Nigel: Yes. Yes! Exactly!

Nigel: It’s like your face is in gel. But not in a bad way.

Valo: Yeah. What IS that?

Nigel: I think… Something is changing. In the world.

Nigel: Things are changing.

His tone is slightly absent and faraway. Like he’s talking more to himself than me.

Suddenly he snaps out of his reverie.

Nigel: Anyway. Are the brownies kicking in for you? Should we boot up the cinema?

Valo: Sure. What do you have?

Nigel: Psh, only the finest cinematic masterpieces for us to enjoy.

Valo: So, Youtube poops?

Nigel: Youtube poops.

Nigel: But also classics, such as Yellow Submarine and The Wall.

Nigel: Suffice to say, I have prepared entertainment for hours.

Valo: Awesome.

I sit on the couch, letting myself sink into the cushions. I’m starting to feel fuzzy and nice.

Nigel: Ow, fuck. Better close the blinds.

Nigel: Fucking Finnish summer, does it ever get dark?

Nigel scrambles to the windows and almost trips on some cords. I choke back a giggle. God, he’s so cute.

Nigel returns to the sofa and sits down so heavily that he jostles me a little. He puts on a movie and settles in onto the cushions.

Nigel: So… How did it go with Nana last night?

What? Nana?

Valo: What about Nana?

Nigel: You know… Did you get along?

I think back to last night. Nana was… a little abrasive, but she did offer to walk me home…

> We didn’t get along. > We did get along.
Nigel: Aw, what happened? I mean, we didn’t get into a fight.
Hm… Nigel grins.
Nana: Even though she’s dating the guy you’re crushing on. Nigel: Oh? What happened?
I feel myself blush. I can’t tell Nigel that.

Valo: Like, when we were in the house or after?

Nigel: I don’t fucking know. Which one is more-

Nigel: Wait. Did something happen after I left?

Valo: I mean…

Valo: Nana offered to walk me home, but that’s all.

Nigel stares at me.

Nigel: That’s… that’s all?

I blink.

Valo: Yeah?

Valo: Should something have happened?

Nigel stares at me again.

Nigel: Are you…

Nigel: Are you gay?

Wh… what?

Valo: Where is this coming from, all of a sudden?

Nigel: I thought you’d hit it off with her. You look like you like strong women.

Nigel: But if you’re gay…

Nigel: Which is fine, by the way!

Valo: Wait.

Valo: You thought I was gay?

Valo: And you still tried to set me up with Nana?

Nigel:

Nigel: Now that you put it like that, it sounds bad.

I nod slowly at him.

Valo: I’m not gay, for the record.

Valo: I’m pansexual.

Nigel frowns.

Nigel: The fuck is that?

Valo: Uh… It means that I’m attracted to all genders.

Nigel: Wh… All genders?

Valo: Yeah, like nonbinary genders and so on.

Nigel: Oh, right.

Valo: So. Um, yeah. I do like girls, but I also like guys.

Nigel: I see…

Nigel: Thanks for telling me this, mate.

He socks me on the shoulder gently.

A silence settles between us as we watch the movie and eat pizza. The movie that Nigel had put on… I could have sworn it was live action 20 minutes ago? When did it become animated? Did Nigel switch? I wasn’t paying attention to the first half so I have no idea what is going on. There are marching hammers? And a wall that closes a naked figure inside of it? Or something?

I can’t shake the awkward conversation with Nigel from my mind. Something is… off. Why am I thinking about Otto all of a sudden?

Wait, he said something important last night, didn’t he?

Aw fuck, what was it? I was in such a daze that everything after the house is a blur. I can’t remember dick.

Oh goddammit, I was supposed to check my vaccines. Was that it?

I feel like that wasn’t it.

My chest feels tight.

Nigel: This guy.

Nigel: This guy has the right idea.

An involuntary grunt escapes me. The wall curls around the naked figure again.

Nigel: You can only trust yourself.

Nigel: I mean, he’s taking it a bit too far, of course you can have like… friends. And family.

Nigel: Humans are herd creatures, we can’t live in constant isolation. You have to have some company.

Nigel: But! But… When a push comes to shove…

His voice softens to a low murmur.

Nigel: You can’t depend on other people. In this world… you only have yourself.

Nigel. You can only trust yourself.

I hug my knees to my chest. My heart feels like it’s being squeezed. On the screen, there’s… something going on. I can’t process it, but for some reason, I’m thinking of mincemeat. Bile rises up my throat.

Nigel: What we really need is a big change. A new era.

Nigel: We need something like the industrial revolution.

Nigel: A new era.

I swallow thickly and reach for my phone.

Valo: Can you put on something else?

Nigel: Hm?

Nigel: Oh, yeah. Okay.

Nigel switches to Youtube and I catch a glimpse that his YTP playlist is over five hours long.

Soon I find myself regretting asking Nigel to switch it up when the fragmented and jarring cacophony starts shredding my eardrums.

I can’t decide if this is better or worse than the eldritch mincemeat sequence.

… My nausea doesn’t pass. It keeps getting worse. I have to close my eyes and focus on my breathing. Maybe that’ll help.

Nope, it doesn’t. It’s making it worse, now that the lack of visual input is making my ears take in even more detail.

… And of course the YTP that is on now is making a lot of viscous sounds that totally, completely, 100% aren’t helping.

I remember the overly sweet and tacky brownies I ate. Or rather, the overly sweet and tacky brownies are reminding of themselves. By crawling up my throat.

I stand up and stagger to Nigel’s bathroom. I open the toilet lid and… dear Jesus. If I didn’t need to vomit before, seeing the state of the toilet would have made it.

And so I re-acquaintance myself with the brownies I had earlier. I liked them way better when they were going down.

Nigel: Shit, mate, Are you okay?

I cough and spit.

Nigel: I knew you shouldn’t have taken the second brownie.

Nigel: This strain is stronger than the usual.

What? What did he feed me?

Android: The strand Nigel used in the brownies is sour diesel, which is known for giving users a burst of energy.

Nigel: How the fuck do you know that?!

The android’s light blinks yellow, but it doesn’t answer.

Nigel: Whatever.

Nigel: Go get Valo some water. Make it cold.

The android leaves and I lean away from the toilet. Leaning my head against the cool porcelain is tempting, but not when it’s in the state that it is.

Nigel: Jesus, you look like shit.

I manage to grunt.

The heating of the bathroom is making the air thick, which isn’t helping.

Or is it the heating? Hasn’t this happened before?

The android returns with the glass of water.

Android: Water.

Nigel passes the blessedly cool glass to me. I empty it in two gulps that are gone way too fast. I press the empty glass against my forehead and it does little to nothing to cool me down.

… I do feel a little better now that I’ve vomited. The air still feels uncomfortably close to my face, though.

Nigel: How… how are you feeling?

Nigel: Whoa, hold that thought. The air.

Nigel: It’s jelly again. You’re feeling it too, right?

Nigel: I mean, it’s just not me being high, right?

Nigel: Bot, what is this? What’s going on?

The android’s light blinks twice and it says nothing.

Nigel: What’s up with the air?

Android: Today’s weather forecast for Oulu, Finland. It is 28,5 degrees Celsius and sunny, with no…

Nigel: You already said that! I meant what’s happening now with the air! The jelly air!

The android’s light blinks twice again.

Android: I do not understand.

Nigel:

Nigel: Whatever.

Nigel: What were we talking about again?

He claps his hands.

Nigel: Oh right!

Nigel: Valo! How are you feeling?

I blink. I had forgotten I was actually physically there with my actual physical body.

… Fuck, my phone is in the living room.

Ugh, whatever. I feel… better. Still not great, but I’ll live. I lift a limp thumbs-up for Nigel.

Nigel: Cool, cool, cool. Can we… get back to the living room now?

I would love nothing more than that. I nod and carefully stand up, heavily leaning on the sink. Then I follow Nigel back to the living room and collapse back on the couch.

As soon as I sober up, I’m going the fuck home.

Nigel unpauses the YTP and we continue watching. I would still rather watch anything else than Nigel has to offer, but I don’t have the energy to say anything about it. I just let this period of time wash over me until I can go home.

After what feels like an eternity, I start feeling lucid again.

Valo: I think I should head home.

Nigel: Hm?

Nigel: Oh, yeah.

Nigel: Be safe out there.

I nod and get up to leave. I get to the door and I realize that Nigel didn’t see me off. Instead, the android followed me.

It makes a cracking sound.

Android: No idea why he keeps you around, seeing you’re…

It crackles again and falls silent.

I freeze.

That wasn’t the monotone, robot-like voice the android had. That was Otto’s voice.

I stare at the android, but it doesn’t say anything to explain itself. The green light stares back at me, unblinking.

Valo: What did you just say?

The android’s light blinks once.

Android: The last thing I said was. Today’s weather forecast for Oulu, Finland. It is 28,5 degrees Celsius and sunny, with no…

Valo: No! After that!

The android’s light blinks again.

Android: I didn’t say anything.

Fuck, man. Now I’m starting to doubt if I heard it after all. Maybe I imagined it.

I sigh and shake my head to clear it. As I move my hand towards the doorknob, the android speaks up again.

Android: Remember to rehydrate.

Android: According to several articles online, black pepper, taking a walk, having a shower, having a light snack and resting can also help.

I blink and stare at the android as the words sink in. An AI that just woke up today and it’s already being so considerate…?

Valo: Yeah, I’ll do that. Thanks.

Android: You’re welcome.

I open the door and leave Nigel’s flat.

Today blows. I have no idea what’s going on anymore.

I slink out of Nigel’s apartment building into the warm evening. It feels like the temperature has sunk only a few degrees. I sigh and start making my way home through the thick air.

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