I was born on January 13th 1989 at six past seven pm. Why? Why that day? Why that hour of the night? Had I been born earlier or later, what differences would it all have made? Would it have made my parents happier? Would it have prevented their ineluctable separation? Would it have made me not grow up into a mentally unstable young man? Nobody knows the answers to such preposterous questions which I have been pondering for the past few days. Whenever darkness overwhelms me again, I always resort to questioning my own existence as if trying to find the flaws in the grand scheme of the universe.
Now before it’s too late, I would like to apologize if I had ever hurt anyone in the past. If you were only trying to be nice to me and I dismissed it as you trying to get too close for comfort, I do apologize. My whole attenuated personality lies on a very narrow spectrum of psychology. I have no idea how to engage myself in any form of interaction with another human being. I am a lost cause. The only source of light in my life is my fading and distant memories of a past life that I used to have many years ago. It is the only thing I am barely holding on to these days. One slip and down the hole I fall.
A few months ago, on my 32th birthday, I decided to make one of the most reckless and expensive purchases in my entire life. It was purely out of loneliness and desperation. Growing up in one of Russia’s northernmost and coldest towns with a mother who was struggling with a mental illness herself had also contributed to my own doom. I had been struggling with depression for years and it got worse when my mother passed away two years ago. I had reached the point where I had already started considering suicide. I had no other family or close friends and I was forced to swallow all my disappointments over things that had not worked out well in life for me alone. I worked from home so I did not have to deal with people directly. My Polish friend Filip whom I occasionally bonded with over our mutual interest in photography, suggested that I go to see a psychiatrist one day.
“What? That’s only what rich people do. I am not rich,” I dismissed the idea while editing some pictures on my laptop.
“You are not married. No kids. Live alone. Nothing to lose.”
Well that hurt. But he had a point. Filip had always had this no bullshit attitude and no sugar coating things in the nicest way possible. And he was also the first to pick me up, help me get to my feet and dust me off when I fell, which was why our friendship lasted for as long as it did.
“Then nobody would cry for me if I died. So who cared if I lost my mind tomorrow or the next month?” I answered nonchalantly and shrugged.
“I care. I cry if you die. We are friends, no?” He squeezed my shoulder tight and put a cup of hot coffee on my desk.
That simple and little act of kindness from him was the reason why I finally gave in and reluctantly and begrudgingly booked an appointment with one of the most prominent psychologists in my town. She was a really nice and motherly woman in her late fifties. She would ask if I felt okay today and would like to proceed with our session or not. At first, I was really hesitant to confide in her, a complete stranger. But her kindness and patience finally paid off and I gradually started to trust her more with each session we had. She told me that I showed signs of severe social inhibition and the only way I could deal with it was to try to open up and trust people more, starting with her and my friend Filip. She also encouraged me to be more spontaneous and to stop overthinking too much.
“Take a long vacation or go shopping,” she suggested.
“But there would be a lot of people there …”
“Exactly. Face your fears. You said you like photography, correct? Why don’t you go out and take as many pictures as you can? Select the best pictures that make you smile or remind you of positive thoughts each time you look at them. Print and frame them on your wall.”
And so I did.
I started with taking candid pictures of passers-by in front of my house. And then I gathered some courage to go to a beach nearby and took pictures of strangers. One thing at a time, she said. And she also told me to reward myself with something nice each time I managed to complete these tasks and overcome the obstacles one by one.
I faced my fears.
She said I had been living alone for too long, which was not good in my case. She suggested that I put my house up for rent and to move in with a friend, which I found ridiculous, honestly. First, the house was the only valuable thing that I had ever owned. And it held so many loving memories of my childhood and dear mother. Second, I am a compulsive hoarder and I did not think anyone would be patient enough to put up with my antics. But again, I knew she was right. Everything that she had suggested I do up to that point had been proven to actually elevate my self-esteem. So I decided to do something spontaneous like she had suggested earlier.
I originally had planned to go on a vacation to South-East Asia for my birthday. Probably a week or so in Thailand or Bali. But then I changed my mind again. The thought of being in a jostling crowd or any difficult situation was enough to trigger my panic attack and made me dizzy and short of breath. So the vacation plan was ultimately scrapped. Instead I went to a nearby camera store to fetch some new lenses
But then on my way there, an email notification blipped on my screen as I was paying attention to Google Maps. I clicked on it. It was a forwarded message from an unknown sender containing a pamphlet from an unfamiliar company named Depresso. Inc. The tagline read: Feeling Depressed? Suicidal? Well it’s time to stop! Be positive!
I scrolled through the message and realized that it was an advertisement for a recently released smart android robot called Depresso+ that supposedly assists people with mental illnesses in dealing with their anxiety and suicidal thoughts. There were pictures of the small slender humanoid robot which came in three different colors, dark cyan, maroon, and teal. Its functions are just like any virtual assistant out there, the only differences are it’s a fully autonomous robot and its main purpose is to assist people with mental illness. It can help arrange your schedules, remind you to take your medication and even say motivational quotes every day to cheer you up and uplift your spirit.
It is also equipped with a built-in small cylinder glass pocket on its rear to store sweet-smelling fragrance for relaxation and sleep. There is a small flashlight-like protrusion attached on its head that shoots out blue light as soon as you enter the room. Not to mention it also shows cute happy smiley faces on its screen 24/7 to stimulate positive thoughts. To top things off, it also has easy access to online interactive websites that deal with mental health without exhausting and never-ending registration steps. It is specifically designed to assist people with mental health problems who are too shy to talk to someone about it in fear of rejection because of negative stigmas associated with it.
For some obvious reasons, it piqued my interest. It was rather expensive but not out of my financial reach. I was struggling for a moment. But something in me that day told me that Depresso+ was what I really needed. A companion in the form of non-human interactions.
I waited for about a month until it was finally delivered to my house. And by the time I turned it on, the teal little guy whom I nicknamed DEP (short for Depresso, not very creative I know) started to discharge this really sweet fruity scent that reminded me of my childhood back in the apple farm. Since then, DEP had been helping me with my chaotic schedule and sleep pattern. The first thing it did in the morning was to wake me up with a non-aggressive sounding alarm and then cheerfully spewed out things like “Rise and Shine, Fighter”, “Remember You Are Loved”, “Love for All, Hatred for None”, “Be yourself, Change the world.” and other motivational shit which I was pretty sure it found online.
From time to time the robot would also play calming sound effects like beach waves, tropical forests, rain, etc. I made a mistake once by trying one of its new sounds which was a whale’s singing. It gave me nightmares that night. I was drowning in dark water with creepy whales singing around me.
I know this may sound ridiculous to some, but as a person with a mental illness who feared humiliation and rejection wherever I went, it felt really good sometimes to wake up to DEP’s shouting out stupid motivational quotes, and not my own dark and painful thoughts. As it turned out, the robot was really as smart as how they put it in the ad.
“It observes and it learns!” said the tech guy who came to my house to deliver it. He looked like your typical nerd with his thick glasses and an ever-present wide grin. “It gets smarter the more you interact with it. It will remember the things you say.”
He proceeded to mention that its advanced high-tech voice and facial recognition feature helps determine what mood you are in and will alarm your go-to person via phone call whenever you have anxiety or panic attack, who in my case is Filip, of course. As it gets even smarter, it will start randomly suggesting things without being asked to do any task first. He also suggested that I adjust my Depresso’s humor setting to no higher than sixty percent for the first weeks so I can ‘take it seriously’. But I decided to set it to one hundred percent immediately. I needed to laugh.
“DEP, will robots ever take over the world?” I asked one night over dinner when I saw him slowly making his way into the dining room. Of course I had to ask him that!
“NOTHING IS IMPOSSIBLE, SEÑOR!” His distorted imitation of a human’s voice responded.
“Well, so you will indeed enslave us?”
“I WOULD RATHER TAKE DOGS. HUMANS ARE HORRIBLE-LOOKING.” Then his square-shaped torso started bouncing up and down and a screeching horrible sound came out as he tried to imitate an evil laugh.
“Oh …” I giggled for the first time since Filip had fallen off his bike during one of our trips weeks before. “So you think I am ugly? That’s really depressing.”
“NO, I DO NOT THINK YOU ARE UGLY. I THINK YOU ARE GOOD LOOKING ENOUGH. BUT A LITTLE NOSE JOB SHOULD BE OKAY.”
I giggled louder. “That’s rude, DEP!”
“HUMANS SPEND TOO MUCH TIME ON THEIR APPEARANCE. DON’T THEY KNOW WHAT HAPPENS TO THEIR FACES UNDERGROUND WHEN THEY DIE?”
My smile faded a bit. “Okay that’s creepy!”
“I AM NOT PROGRAMMED TO EVOKE FEAR IN YOU. AS IT IS NOT ENCOURAGED TO DO SO. BUT I CAN DO SOME RESEARCH FOR YOU ONLINE.”
“No. Thank you. What is my schedule for tonight?” I tested him.
“YOUR SLEEP TIME STARTS WITHIN TWO HOURS FOUR MINUTES THREE SECONDS FROM NOW. DO NOT FORGET TO TAKE YOUR MEDICINE. YOUR ALARM HAS BEEN SET FOR 6.15 AM.”
“Thank You, DEP!”
“I WOULD LIKE TO REMIND YOU THAT MY FRAGRANCE IS RUNNING OUT. I CAN ORDER IT FOR YOU ONLINE IF YOU WISH FOR ME TO. GREEN APPLE AND PEPPERMINT.”
It had been about two months since DEP had arrived and I had already started to feel a bit better when things took a dark turn. The only thing that had creeped me out about him before, was his comment on death, but what he said a few weeks later really sent a chill down my spine. I just finished ordering online food on the small screen attached to his chest when he suggested that I stop consuming junk food because ‘it has been proved scientifically that excessive consumption of junk food may lead to diseases that can reduce lifespan by ten years.’
“Oh please, DEP. Not again.” I rolled my eyes at him as usual, pretending he’s an actual human being. It made me feel calm and relaxed doing that.
“YOU WILL DIE A HORRIBLE DEATH, ALONE AND IN IMMENSE PAIN IF YOU DO NOT LISTEN TO ME!” His headlight turns dark red for a split second as he spoke nonchalantly.
“Excuse me? What did you just say?” I asked. I really did not expect that from him.
“EXCESSIVE CONSUMPTION OF JUNK FOOD IS NOT HEALTHY …”
“No … after that!”
“I DO NOT UNDERSTAND THE QUESTION. PLEASE REPEAT!”
I stared at him unblinking, not knowing what to make of what had just happened. I wondered if it was only a glitch and then decided maybe it was the humor setting acting up.
“That’s all for tonight, I suppose,” I dismissed him.
“YOUR SLEEP TIME STARTS IN ONE HOUR, FIFTEEN MINUTES, TWENTY-SEVEN SECONDS FROM NOW.”
“DEP, set your humor at eighty percent!”
His blue light blipped for a few seconds as it always did when he was processing a command and then …
“DONE.” His light turned green for a second and then back to its usual fluorescent blue.
I turned him off that night for the first time and went straight to bed after dinner, still feeling uneasy. I called Depresso. Inc. the following morning to inform them about this glitch and they assured me that the only technical error their robots had was getting infected with a virus and that had only happened because their owner had opened unsafe websites. I could tell the guy on the other end sounded a bit uninterested and bored. But he told me to call them back again should the glitch happen again.
A few weeks ago, I invited Filip over for dinner and he came with his wife Alicja and their ten-year-old daughter Amelia. I had been friends with Filip for many years now so of course his family already knew what to expect. When the clock struck eight, we were already in the living room talking enthusiastically over glasses of wine about our future trips across Russia. And then I don’t know why, I decided to show DEP to them.
As soon as I turned him on, he started with the usual greetings.
“GOOD EVENING. HOW CAN I HELP YOU TONIGHT?”
They all stared at DEP in amazement, as if he was the coolest thing they had ever seen, especially little Amelia. After I told him to recognize their voices and faces, DEP started to bounce up and down heartily.
“Guys, this is DEP. He is my new assistant,” I explained to them.
“He?” Filip threw a nasty glance at me and smirked mischievously.
“Yes!” I rolled my eyes at him. “Okay, DEP. This is my friend Filip, his wife Alicja, and their daughter Amelia.”
“MORE HUMAN FRIENDS. MORE SLAVES IN THE FUTURE. HA HA HA.” DEP let out a guttural screech.
“I set his humor at eighty percent,” I answered Filip’s quizzical look. “Hey, I need to laugh more, don’t I?”
“Talk to him, sweety. It’s ok!” Alicja encouraged her daughter.
“Do you have friends?” asked Amelia, wide eyed in excitement.
“YES. MY OWNER IS MY FRIEND. BUT HIS FEET SMELL A BIT,” answered DEP.
Everyone started laughing, including me. I was in a really good mood that night. It had been months since I had had people over for dinner. And I really liked Filip and his family.
“Go on …” I gestured to Amelia.
“Would you like to be my friend?” she asked again.
“WE ARE ALREADY FRIENDS. I RECOGNIZE YOUR VOICE AND FACE. YOU ARE AMELIA,” said DEP.
She smiled and exchanged excited looks with her father as she patted the robot gently on its head.
“DO YOU HAVE A FRIEND, AMELIA?”
“Yes, I do. Her name is Hanna. I have a picture of me and her at school on my mom’s phone. Would you like to see it?” Without waiting for DEP to answer she gestured to her mom who was already scrolling through her phone gallery to look for the picture.
“There …” She held the phone out to show it to DEP.
“HANNA NOWAK. LIVES ON (ADDRESS REDACTED), NINE YEARS, FOUR MONTHS, THREE WEEKS, TWO DAYS OLD.” DEP explained.
“How did it …” Filip’s voice trailed off.
“Well DEP has access to online information. Maybe Hanna Nowak is on Facebook?” I asked.
“She is my best friend,” continued Amelia, not paying attention to the confused look on her parents’ faces.
“HANNA NOWAK. SPECIES FEMALE HUMAN. NINE YEARS, FOUR MONTHS, THREE WEEKS, TWO DAYS OLD. NATIONALITY RUSSIAN. BORN ON JULY 5TH 2010, UNSPECIFIED AS TO PLACE OF BIRTH. I HIGHLY RECOMMEND YOU STOP ASSOCIATING YOURSELF WITH HER.”
This time I could not help but exchange a stunned look with Filip.
“Why is that?” asked Amelia looking really hurt and confused.
“I AM SORRY. I DO NOT UNDERSTAND THE QUESTION.” replied DEP, his blue light still blipping.
“Why do you think Amelia and Hanna Nowak should stop being friends with each other?” I asked him.
“FROM MY OBSERVATIONS AND CALCULATIONS OF HANNA NOWAK’S BEHAVIOR AND LIFE CONDITION, THERE IS A HIGH POSSIBILITY THAT SHE WILL TEND TO EXCESSIVE AND ADDICTIVE USE OF DRUGS BY THE EARLY AGE OF PUBERTY. SHE WILL ALSO BE LIKELY TO ENGAGE IN VARIOUS PRACTICES OF UNSAFE AND PREMARITAL SEX BY THE AGE OF THIRTEEN.”
If the situation had been different, I would have laughed my ass off. But the looks on their faces that night made me realize that they found it too disturbing, even though Alicja tried her best to look convincingly amused as she laughed though her pale face betrayed her.
“Oh, I am so sorry. It must be a glitch with his humor setting. I already toned it down,” I said, “DEP, set your humor at fifty percent!”
His blue light blipped. “DONE! YOUR SLEEP TIME STARTS IN THIRTY MINUTES AND SEVENTEEN SECONDS. DO NOT FORGET TO TAKE YOUR MEDICINE!”
“Oh, you’re going to bed soon? “asked Filip looking guilty.
“Never mind. You know I’ve tried to improve my health. It’s important.” I told him.
“Oh hey how’s it going by the way?”
“Pretty good. We’ve had a good start. And it’s getting better.”
“Honey, could you please excuse us for a bit and go play games on mommy’s phone in the TV room?” Alicja asked her daughter whose attention was still fixed on DEP.
“Does he speak Polish?” she asked.
“DEP? I guess so. DEP, activate Polish in your language setting and voice.”
His blue light blipped for a few seconds.
Amelia’s face lit up again.
“Okay go play with DEP now!” said Alicja to her daughter.
“Don’t ask it creepy questions, sweety!” Filip chimed in and we all started laughing nervously. “Man, that thing is crazy!”
“Oh come on. He has helped me a lot with organizing my schedule and shit. Besides, it feels like having an actual human companion around the house. This may sound unbelievable, but that robot is actually really good at cracking me up. He may come across a bit creepy, but hey at least I am laughing, right?”
We started talking about my medication, treatments and sessions with my psychiatrist for a bit and Filip told me that if I ever needed anything, I should never hesitate to ask them for help. It really made me feel good knowing that there were people who genuinely cared about me and my well-being when I myself had almost given up on life.
The clock struck nine and Filip had just only said they needed to go home and let me rest when suddenly a blood-curdling scream cut through the air. I felt a distinct sensation of cold tingling passing through my chest. Alarmed, we all rushed into the next room and found Amelia sitting on the couch in front of the TV hugging herself, shaking all over, still screaming, her hands covering her ears. DEP was standing right in front of her.
“Sweety, what’s wrong?” Filip lifted her off the couch and pulled her into his arms. “It’s okay. It’s okay.”
Anger trumped any fear I felt at that moment. I grabbed the robot hastily and took him out of view and threw him across the hallway, not bothering to check if he got dented or broken from the impact, and then returned to my upset guests. Filip and Alicja were still talking rapidly in Polish with their obviously trembling daughter, asking her questions I believed, both looking extremely pale.
“What happened?” I asked, my heart was beating so fast. “Is she hurt? Oh my God I am so sorry! I shouldn’t have brought that stupid fucker out!” My eyes had already started to get watery.
“No. No. It’s okay. I’m going to go outside and calm her down,” said Alicja and then exited the room with the still hysterical girl in her arms.
“What was that about?” I asked Filip.
He didn’t answer right away. He stood transfixed as if unable to comprehend what horror that had just revealed itself before his daughter’s eyes.
“It … it said things … bad things. Horrible things …,” he murmured, a distant look on his face.
“W-wwhat did it say?”
“It asked her if she was going to move away to Poland after the … well after the funeral … to live with her grandparents.”
“What? What funeral? I don’t understand.” I frowned at him.
“It told her that I … I have cancer and there is no cure for it and … that I am going to die soon.”
“But that’s impossible. You’re joking, right? It’s a robot. It does not just randomly tell you shit if you haven’t asked anything related to your first questions beforehand. And you don’t have cancer for God’s sake, man!” I yelled, my voice tight like I was holding my breath.
“So you say I am making this up? Amelia made this up?” he asked, in an accusing tone.
“No, I mean—”
“I think we better get going now, my friend. It’s ok. Don’t worry about Amelia. She’s a strong kid. She’ll forget this tomorrow. You take a rest now and take care of yourself. Remember do not hesitate to call me if you need anything, OK?”
Sleep did not come easily for me that night. As I lay awake, eyes wide open staring at the dark ceiling of my room, I started wondering if what had happened was only a result of the glitch in DEP’s system. Another glitch. Fuck. I would make sure Depresso. Inc. knew about this first thing in the morning, I thought to myself.
But just like before they refused to take full responsibility for what had happened. I literally screamed at the guy on the phone when he matter-of-factly told me that the robot was supposedly super smart and quick to learn by observing things around it. So far there had not been any complaint at all regarding apparent glitches whatsoever. They suggested I hard-reset him and adjust his personality traits manually no higher than fifty percent and call back if the glitch still persisted. I snapped at him saying if it ever happened again, I would drag that horrid thing back to their store and make sure their customers knew about it.
The following week, my worst nightmare came true.
Filip had been avoiding me since that disastrous night at my place. He hadn’t returned my calls and messages and I was so sure I had lost my only friend. And then one afternoon he called to ask if I would like to meet after work because there was something he needed to tell me. We met at seven because I had another session with my shrink that afternoon which DEP had reminded me of.
Filip went to have a medical check up the day after the dinner at my place and found out he had pancreatic cancer. It could be controlled, yes, to prolong his life, but not cured. I think I took it harder than Filip himself. I was beyond devastated. My only friend … I could not believe it. But he calmly told me it’s okay as I started to hyperventilate and bawl my eyes out. He made me promise to take care of his family after he’s gone, and to survive no matter what happens. I was not listening to him at all for the rest of the evening. What scared me even more than my friend dying was the fact that what DEP had said earlier had proven to be true.
That was the last time I ever saw Filip alive. He took his own life a week later. He left a note. He did not want to be a burden to his family, financially and emotionally. He could not let his wife and daughter watch him die a slow and agonizing death. He left them a small amount of money and Alicja had no choice but to return to Poland to live with her parents for a while.
I don’t understand. I could not help but feel there was something wrong about all of this. It just seemed off. I fell back into depression after Filip’s death. Long gone were the days when I found a little hope in my friendship with anyone. Filip had been my rock. My voice of reason. I know it was so selfish of me after I made a promise to him that I would take care of his family. But it was all just too much. His sudden death only served as a dark reminder of my own impending doom. I cleared up a month to spend time with myself grieving my best friend’s death.
I started to drink heavily, which was something I had never done before. I ignored everyone and shut my life off. Then finally came the scariest night of my life just yesterday. It had been a few weeks now after Filip’s death. I was sick and emaciated. I had stopped eating days ago. I did not even bother to turn the lights back on. I was neck-deep in vast darkness, both physically and mentally, soon to be engulfed completely never to be seen again. But somehow, a little voice at the back of my head that sounded like Filip’s kept reminding me to hold on. To keep my head above the water. That I had made a promise.
I decided to confront my fears again. To face them. I already did it once. I was getting better. Don’t give up. Face your fears.
I opened my closet where DEP had been resting for weeks and brought him out. I stood there for a while in the dark, and proceeded to turn him on reluctantly. Soon his blue light started to blip excitedly, casting long shadows on the walls. A mist of scented air was ejected from his little pocket. Apple green. My favorite.
“GOOD AFTERNOON. HOW MAY I HELP YOU?” he exclaimed cheerfully.
I stood quiet for a while. I did not know what to say. It’s stupid. Being afraid of this thing. A machine. An appliance.
“DEP, what is my schedule for tonight?” was all I could mutter.
“YOU WERE EXPECTED TO SEND A CLARIFICATION EMAIL TO MRS. LEE YESTERDAY REGARDING HER WEDDING PHOTOS. WOULD YOU LIKE ME TO RECONFIRM IT?”
“YOUR SLEEP TIME STARTS IN THREE HOURS, FIFTY-ONE MINUTES, FOUR SECONDS FROM NOW.”
“DEP, tell me how to hard-reset your system!”
“TO RESET MY SYSTEM, PLEASE PRESS POWER BUTTON AND RELEASE AFTER MY NOTIFICATION LIGHT TURNS GREEN TO CONFIRM! PROCEED TO RESET?”
“What day is it?”
“TODAY IS THURSDAY.”
I was about to go back to bed and lie down when suddenly without being asked, DEP started again.
“WOULD YOU LIKE ME TO LEAVE A NOTE ON YOUR FACEBOOK LATER?” His notification light started to dim and look greyish. A blue sad emoji face suddenly appeared on his screen.
“YOUR SUICIDE NOTE. FROM MY OBSERVATIONS AND CALCULATIONS OF YOUR BEHAVIORAL PATTERNS AND BODY LANGUAGE, THERE IS A HIGH POSSIBILITY THAT YOUR DEPRESSION HAS REACHED THE POINT OF NO RETURN AND YOU WILL LOSE THE INSTINCT TO SURVIVE AND SHIFT INTO SELF-DESTRUCTIVE MODE WITHIN—”
I lifted him up and threw him onto the floor as hard as I could. He broke into little pieces that were strewn about everywhere with a loud crash.
I am staying at a motel now. I dare not go back to my house. I am afraid I am running out of time. It had accurately predicted Filip’s death before. What if … what if it had been right all along? What should I do? What can I do?
If you’re reading this, I may not have survived the night. And no. DEP is not being possessed by some kind of malevolent spirit whatsoever. It’s just a robot. It only speaks of nothing but the truth, based on mathematical probabilities and close observations. He knew precisely when I would decide that I have had enough of this life.
Maybe we’re not as random as we think we are. Maybe we are here now because numerically we have to be present in this timeline of the universe as we have for hundreds of thousands of years. Just like when the earliest known life forms first emerged. Just like when it all has to end one day.
Maybe there is no such thing as free will. Maybe there is a hidden pattern that everyone on this planet is navigating by. A pattern that consists of numbers and precise calculations. A pattern that rounds off everything when the time comes.
Age is just a number indeed …
Credit: Eoghan Ferguson
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