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Shelter

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Shelter

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Author: Susan Palwick
Publisher: Tachyon Publications, 2007
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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Artificial Intelligence
Near-Future
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Synopsis

The three basic human needs are food, water…and shelter. But in the late 21st century, compassion is a crime. You can get your memories wiped just for trying to help.

Papa Preston Walford's world doesn't allow for coincidences. Accidents. Secrets in the backs of closets. Or the needs of his own daughter.

Meredith Preston has reason to seek shelter. She needs protection from the monsters in her mind, in her history, in her family. And the great storms of a changing climate have made literal shelter imperative.

When a cutting-edge, high-tech house, designed by a genius with a unique connection to Meredith, overcomes its programming to give shelter to a homeless man in a storm, from its closets emerge the revelations of a past too painful to remember.

In the world of Susan Palwick's Shelter, perception is about to meet reality, and reality has mud all over it. The truth won't make you happy, but it may just make you whole.


Excerpt

Chapter 1

That same morning, Kevin Lindgren's house warned him not to go outside. The house knew the sky was dangerous. Everyone knew. Kevin didn't even need a house with a brain to tell him: all the newscasts said so, and special bulletins during the soap operas and talk shows, and, most especially, the sky itself, gray and howling, spitting sheets of rain and barrages of hailstones. Kevin himself knew that the sky was dangerous. Not fifteen minutes before he left the house, he'd watched a gust of wind pick up the patio table on his back deck and blow it down Filbert Street. Filbert wasn't really a street at all, here; it was actually ten flights of steps leading steeply down Telegraph Hill to Levi Plaza and the waterfront. The patio table was teak, and quite heavy, but even so, the wind sent it a long way down the steps, until finally it came to rest in a neighbor's garden. It could just as easily have gone through the neighbor's roof or window.

Kevin was standing at the living room window, watching the storm, when the patio table began its journey. "Goddess," he said, sounding impressed. "I guess I should have brought that thing inside, huh?"

"Kevin," said the house, "I really think you should go to an interior room now. You'll be safer there."

"Yes," Kevin said drily, "I think you're right." But before he could go to an interior room, the telephone chimed. "Pick up," Kevin told the house with a sigh. The caller's voice would be routed through the house speakers. "Hello?"

"Kevin?" It was a woman's voice; the house, who had an infallible memory, had never heard it before. "Kevin, is that you?" The voice broke into a hacking cough, and Kevin, who had suddenly grown much paler, dropped onto the couch.

"I--is this a joke?"

"You think it's a joke?" The new voice was bitter now. "Voiceprint it."

"It could be synthesized, couldn't it?"

"Do you think that's--"

"No. Never mind. Where have you been?"

"Away." The woman's voice caught and broke, and then poured into a torrent of words. "Kevin, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry about everything but I want to come home now, I'm scared and the place where I'm staying is flooding, water's coming in through the door and the floor's all wet and I'm scared, Kevin, can you please come get me?"

"In this weather? Are you out of your mind?" Kevin stood up and began to pace, running his fingers distractedly through his thinning hair. "Merry, if you're in danger, call 911--wait a minute, you mean you're back in the city? When did you--"

"Not long. Really, not long. You're the first person I've called, Kevin, I promise, my mother doesn't even know--"

"What about your father?"

"--and I'm sick, Kevin, I have a fever and I'm so scared and I couldn't think who to call, I felt like I was a kid again burning up with fever and the water, the water--"

"Call 911. If they're too busy, climb on a table or something, climb some stairs, there must be--wait. Where are you?"

"I--I'm in Zephyr's old apartment, I--"

"What? What are you doing there?"

"It's in the Soma District, the corner of Eleventh and Harrison, it's a big old converted warehouse, you can't miss it."

"Merry, I can't leave the house in this weather! I'm safe up here on the hill: I'm not leaving. I'd have to be out of my mind. Go upstairs! That's a multistory building. Go upstairs and--oh, wait. Never mind. I guess that wouldn't be a good idea. Merry, have you called 911? Have you?"

The line went dead with a frisson of static, followed by a click. "Merry?" said Kevin. "House! Get that connection back!"

"I can't, Kevin. The phones just went dead."

"We can't call out?"

"We can't call out. Who's Merry? Why did you change your mind about telling her to go upstairs? That sounded like a sensible plan to me."

Kevin didn't answer. Instead, he went to the coat closet in the foyer and began putting on his raincoat. "Where are you going?" the house said in alarm. "Kevin, I really don't think this is a good idea."

Kevin started buttoning his coat. "Please stop," the house said when he began to move toward the door. "You mustn't go outside in this weather, Kevin. It's dangerous. You saw what happened to the patio table. It could have killed you if you'd been outside. It could have killed you if it had come through the window. It could have--"

"Oh, shut up," said Kevin. His voice shook. "That's an order. Your voice is off until I get back."

"But, Kevin, we're safe here on the hill. You said so yourself on the telephone. I care about you and I don't want you to get hurt."

"I told you to shut up! You're ignoring commands now, huh? So we've reached adolescence?" Kevin went into the kitchen and reached for a switch cleverly hidden behind the spice rack. With a small click, he rendered the house incapable of speech. Then he headed toward the kitchen door. "You don't 'care' about anything," he said. There was a note in his voice the house had never heard before. "You're just programmed to pretend you do. Lucky you: it's easier not to care, believe me." The house wouldn't have known how to answer this, even if it had been able to speak. It liked caring about Kevin; it couldn't imagine doing anything else.

Kevin's hand was on the doorknob now. Outside, the wind whistled and howled, trying to make the house let it in. The house had no intention of letting the wind get in, or of letting Kevin leave. The house knew its duty: to keep Kevin out of the wind and rain and cold, out of any weather that could harm him.

"You're a machine for living in," Kevin had once told the house, when it first became aware and asked what it was for. He'd been sitting at his drafting table under the skylight then, rain drumming monotonously overhead. "Right now," he had added, gesturing at the blurred glass above him, "you're a machine for shutting out the sky. All creatures seek shelter, and clever creatures build their own."

"I don't understand," the house had said. "If you want to shut out the sky, why are you sitting there under the rain?"

Kevin laughed. "I have to teach you everything from scratch, don't I? The skylight protects me so I won't get wet, and the light helps me with my work. Living creatures need the sky; we need rain and sun even more than we need shelter from them, but we need them in the proper amounts. Too much of either is dangerous for us."

Because the house remembered this conversation, it knew that Kevin had known for a long time that storms were dangerous. It didn't understand why he wanted to go outside, especially after telling Merry that he wouldn't. Desperate, the house sent several of its prehensile cleaning bots--useful, scuttling creatures with many fingers--to pluck at Kevin's pants leg. "Stop it!" he said, and kicked them away. "Cut that out! I'll squash them like cockroaches if they come back. I mean it, house."

The house withdrew the bots; squashed bots would accomplish nothing. Instead, it raised the volume on the kitchen television so that Kevin could hear the forecasts and storm reports, which were getting more dire by the moment.

"Nice try," Kevin said, and began turning the doorknob. But just then the telephone chimed again, and the house picked up without being told to. Perhaps this would delay Kevin's departure.

"Kevin," said another voice, and this was a voice the house did know, from news reports. This voice belonged to Preston Walford, the famous online personality. "Kevin, may I come in? I need to talk to you."

Kevin, still holding the doorknob, said, "I'll just bet."

"Please let me in, Kevin."

"Right. You need your invitation, don't you? Like a vampire. Why can't we just talk on the phone?"

"I like visuals, Kevin. I don't have a body now. I haven't been in the house in a long time. Please?"

Kevin sighed. "All right, Preston."

"Thank you," Preston said, and the storm reports disappeared from the television screen. Preston's face was there instead. It was a long face, with gray eyes. The house had never seen Preston pay a personal visit to Kevin's television set. "Thank you for letting me in, Kevin."

Kevin took his hand off the doorknob now and turned to face the television. "You're welcome. Merry's back. But you already know that, don't you? That's probably what you wanted to tell me, isn't it? Well, I know, so you can butt out again. I'm going to get her ri...

Copyright © 2007 by Susan Palwick


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Shelter

- DrNefario
  (7/8/2014)

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