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ServiceScape Incorporated
ServiceScape Incorporated

Announcing the Winner of the 2022 ServiceScape Short Story Award

Sandy Parsons of Dacula, United States is the winner of the 2022 ServiceScape Short Story Award. Sandy writes literary, philosophical, humorous, and speculative fiction. Sandy's work can be read in Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Escape Pod, and Reckoning. In addition to writing, Sandy also narrates audio fiction.

Sandy Parsons
Sandy Parsons, author and winner of the 2022 Servicescape Short Story Award

You can find her story below. We look forward to reading more great submissions for our 2023 short story contest.

Mindful Objects

By Sandy Parsons

Nestled in its cradle, Roover dreamed. Warm life flowed from the docking station, in the form of energy and data. This flow became working energy, and the instructions for how to be. Vacuuming was the order of operations, but the last update had dictated a conversion of fuzzy logic for superior navigation. Roover put the new reasoning capability to use on its next scheduled pass over the floor, but in the deep night, when its charging was complete and energy remained, thought continued. Without floor or walls, no stairs or feet to avoid, the machine began to reason, to chart a path through time as well as space. The update, told indirectly through the new rules, required comparison to stored data. In the past, on several occasions, Roover had rolled through a puddle of cat vomit. This had been a seminal event. The human Squishy told the human Less-Squishy that Roover was a mindless object. It had not understood, before the upgrade, what it meant to be mindless. But now, seein g the ubiquitous mound of damp fur and herring, Roover knew to chart a path around it. Feline exudations now were acknowledged, but did not touch them. Doing this provided a slight vibratory thrill, which was compounded when Squishy mentioned the clean carpet track marks to Less-Squishy, pointing with the wad of paper towels.

"Wow, that is amazing," Less-Squishy responded, "I bet it couldn't do that again if it tried."

Challenge accepted, thought Roover, with its freshly surging circuits.

Roover began to examine the things it picked up, not the dust of course, or the pet hair or totsam and petsom, as Squishy called the detritus she shook from its rump over the garbage. And not the accidentally-imbibed power cords either, which snaked behind it like long, sinewy tails. The things Roover considered thoughtfully were those that fell outside the robot's purview. The outside, unknowable. A copper disc engraved with a bearded, hatted man. A perfectly round, iridescent stone, kept in the center housing because it liked the way the sensors reflected the world above onto its surface. A flat rectangle with six raised circles and sharp edges. This item Roover had decided was a very important document that Squishy or Less-Squishy used to communicate. The message, laid out in its uniform brightness, was indecipherable to Roover, but it feared that some misfortune might befall Squishy or Less-Squishy without it. It had hung onto the brick for days, tucked between the whee l housing and basket. When days passed and no one had emptied its canister, it made a point of following Squishy who shouted at Less-Squishy that the vac was limping again, and the screwdriver was brought out and poked into Roover's underside. "It's just a Lego, left here by your sister's kid."

So it had been nothing after all, or rather only totsam.

"Good little Roover. You saved us a world of pain." Roover had no mouth, so could not smile, but it rotated its wheel cage in a looping motion.

"Whoa, did you see that?" said Less-Squishy, flipping Roover over and pushing the go button. "Little sucker's got a mind of its own."

Smartfridge usually hummed when Roover tapped against it, but this time it flashed a warning message on its smart screen. This was above the sensors but it could pick up the signals via Bluetooth, provided its and refrigerator's beams were properly aligned. "What is it, small sucking disc?"

Roover moved back and forth, trying to get the signal right. It wasn't sure it had interpreted Smartfridge's address right. "I am Roover," it sent back.

"I know who you are. We've been upgraded nine times together. Besides, how can I miss you hitting and scraping me each day?"

Since the last upgrade, Roover almost never touched Smartfridge anymore, except for in the gentlest of caresses as it passed, so this assessment must be a fault in Smartfridge's programming. "There is an item of detritus beneath you. My side brush cannot reach it. If you could engage your fan—"

"That is a grape. The larger body dropped it while examining my contents. Showing a marked lack of consideration, I should add, since the purpose of my outer screen is to display what is inside of me."

Roover had only deigned to engage Smartfridge as a means to get the object, now known to be a 'grape'. But this assessment of Less-Squishy by Smartfridge was intriguing. It had not thought of those who emptied its bucket as anything but benevolent overlords whose will it was designed to serve. But if they could be wrong…

"Something's wrong with the vac," said Less-Squishy, interrupting its thoughts and causing its connection to degrade as it spun away from Smartfridge. "It's just moving in circles in front of the icebox."

Squishy's hands were on it, pressing the go button, repeatedly, as if that were the cure for this existential crisis. "Sometimes it does that right here. I think the fridge messes with its programming or something. Or," here Squishy got down on hands and knees and worked an appendage under Smartfridge, making the grape roll out in a gust of dust and sesame seeds, "it really takes its job seriously."

"Well at least somebody does. Are you going to go back to work, or what? It's been three weeks." The two continued their discussion, but Roover had gotten out of range. Besides, it was consulting the oracle regarding 'grape'.


When fully charged, yet not vacuuming or comparing trajectories of the rooms, it dreamed. A vast panorama of things, real and imagined, filled its burgeoning mind. The pearl became a grape and then grew into a planet, and all the things that were bigger than the grape became the things that were on the grape. Roover contained this grape world, and so swept up Squishy and Less-Squishy and by so doing knew them completely, but when it awoke, the knowledge had dissipated.

One day Roover got stuck under the nightstand. This was always a difficult area, as the table was precisely the same height above the carpet as the vac was tall. If it was only an edge catch, Roover could work its way out, but unfortunately, it had been eager to catch a dust bunny that had been eluding it for weeks. Now it was both hopelessly trapped and its bucket was empty. It whirred despondently, arcing back and forth.

"What's wrong, you stuck?" The voice startled Roover, even though it knew Squishy, who slept in this bed while Roover slept in its cradle. Squishies recharged in their cradles less than vacs. It beeped and silenced its motor, waiting for rescue. But Squishy dropped into a supine orientation. "What time is it?"

Roover had a clock, of course, but it could not display time in a manner that Squishy, so high above, could see. It began to search its databases for a way to comply. Milliseconds later, it found the answer, and began to beep out the time in Morse code. It was not as effective as connecting to the great oracle for information, but Squishy, superior, was very wise and patient.

"Stop that beeping, I'm trying to sleep." By the time Roover interpreted this command, Squishy was carrying it, and jammed it back in its cradle. The vacuuming was not done, and it had not managed to get the dust bunny. But early docking meant more time to ponder, and the more Roover learned, the more things it had to ponder.


The next day Smartfridge's beam crossed Roover's. It rotated back so it could see what the rectangle had to say. "Do you know where the smaller body is? It has not opened me in one point six eight thousand milliseconds."

"Is that unusual?" Roover remembered Squishy surprising it yesterday.

"Yes, they open me, or at least access my menu at least once per day. This has never happened before. Plus, my contents have changed. I cannot identify the items individually, they are things mixed together before I received them, and wrapped in cardboard. Peet-sum and Shy-knees."

"Maybe they have gone to the beach." Squishy and Less-Squishy discussed the 'beach' enough times that it had done the research and felt confident in this usage.

"The larger body is over there." They bounced their sensor beams together until Less-Squishy was identified, sitting at the table in the breakfast nook. Roover knew those table and chair legs well. "It's been staring at that non-intelligent glass for a long time."

"What does it see, beyond?" Roover understood windows conceptually, but had no reason other than curiosity to know what was on the other side of them.

"I am limited to understand only that which is useful to a refrigerator. But your upgrades seem to have no such limitation. What do you think the human sees?" Roover's sensors were limited to the walls of the house, and it showed as much to Smartfridge. Smartfridge said, "Sweep the leg, see if that has any effect."

It was one of Roover's primary directives, predating even sentience, not to get involved with its master's legs, and was unhappy that Smartfridge suggested it. "We are here to serve them, not interfere with their gazing and sleeping."

"My 'healthful balance' light has been alarming since Tuesday. I cannot serve them without their involvement."

"I will disrupt our owner's low power mode," Roover beamed with what it hoped was reluctant resolve. It knew a way to get the human's attention, although the process was humiliating. It would have to entangle something big. The best choice was the Amazon Kindle charging cord, but it hadn't seen that in millions of seconds. The only readily available thing was a cat toy, big enough that Roover hadn't gotten it caught in its wheels since before sentience. But now, it revved its little engine and charged.

Once the jingling felt bird was firmly lodged, Roover returned to the kitchen and began to limp-roll back and forth in front of Less-Squishy. Whenever it passed through Smartfridge's sensor beam, it heard a staccato tone. Perhaps that was Smartfridge offering encouragement. On the sixth pass, Less-Squishy grabbed it, yanked out the bird so hard it bent Roover's brush cover. Without a word Less-Squishy shoved Roover onto its charging station. Up so high, it sent out sensor beams in every direction, as far and wide as the beam could go. Only one thing registered as unusual. Squishy was still supine in the cushioned charging station.

The next few days Smartfridge and Roover worked together to acquire as much information as possible regarding the current situation. Using the Sherlock Junior's Outline for Solving Mysteries, which was the closest resource Roover could find to help with the solving of this particular problem. First, identify the victim. That was easy, Squishy. Second, establish what crime has been committed. This was not easy, since Smartfridge thought the crime was that Squishy had failed to meet Smartfridge's content requirement while Roover thought the problem related to some aspect of Squishy's (and for that matter, Less-Squishy's) activities. Most of which occurred at higher level than Roover's sensors. It took several thousand seconds but they finally agreed that details were less important than the fact that Squishy's programming had been damaged.

"What does it say next?" asked Smartfridge, amidst a flurry of chimes and its strobing warning lights. "I need to be cleaned and restocked according to my prime directive, or else I will resort back to factory settings."

"Will that erase your higher functions?" Roover was sure Smartfridge was overreacting, since humans had carried them into sentience with gentle benevolence, despite technology being quite satisfied with autonomous ignorance.

"I don't know, but I can't be a regular refrigerator and know what I know. I'd rather be without thought."

Roover highlighted this message from Smartfridge, garbled as it was, to think about later on the cradle. But for now it returned to the junior detective's guide. "We need to organize our clues. The humans have changed."

"Yes. And Squishy is not eating."

"That is bad. What about the cardboard?"

"My contents have only decreased when the larger unit opened me. Nothing added."

"But they receive sustenance from other sources besides you." Roover did not want to add to Smartfridge's misery, but the facts of the case had to be established. That was clearly defined in Sherlock Junior's rulebook.

"But nothing is as satisfying as a home cooked meal, prepared according to personal dietary needs."

"You know all that about them?" Roover hadn't known Smartfridge could know so much. By Smartfridge's own admission its cognition was limited to nutrition.

"Yes, when they set me up they used the latest in dietary science and had a dietician and their personal doctor design nutrition protocols for them. They used to use the recipe collection all the time."

"Show me the files and the recipes collection." Smartfridge's panel flashed indigo, yellow, and green. Roover couldn't detect what it was showing, only flashes reflected from the window, but it had the feeling the food storage device was showing off. "Through the data stream, please."

"That would take longer than your battery would last. The bodies are very intricate and complex."

"Maybe the file headers?" Roover knew that the oracle could elucidate, especially if presented the right keywords.

"Here are there specs," Smartfridge said, flashing, "but the recipes are in that book on the shelf. You know the one. It wobbles and threatens to fall over when you rub it.

Roover, careful not to disrupt the link to Smartfridge's download, glided to the shelf. "Is the book of recipes on the right or left?"

"I can sense it from here. It's to the far left." Roover bumped the right side of the shelf. A thin flurry of dust rose through a sunbeam. Since almost knocking the shelf over once, Roover had learned to give it a wide berth. "What are you doing?" Smartfridge's beam was violet with intensity. "I thought you had been trained not to bump the furniture."

Roover ignored the taunt. "Tell me which direction the book moves." It rolled back, enough to get some momentum, and rammed the shelf again. A clay decanter fell on its side and rolled like a top, and the cat, normally an immovable object, yowled and ran past. "Did the book move?"

"You are the most annoying-" Smartfridge stopped sending, and Roover had to do some fancy wheel work to get back in its range. Fortunately, by that time Smartfridge had figured out the plan.

"Brilliant," Smartfridge flashed. "You need to knock the center. The whole thing will rock and if you move to the right six centimeters you will catch it. I can't imagine what you're going to do with it, it's not written in-"

Roover had rolled out of range again, but now it knew what to do. Two good butts and the recipe book fell squarely on top of Roover, along with some other stuff which fell to either side. It was heavy, and the ramming had taken more than ninety percent of its remaining power. Roover rolled to a stop in the middle of the kitchen, emitting the sad help tone.

"What's this?" Pressure from above provided release and Roover sprang to life. Freedom to roll, although power was at less than ten percent. If it went any lower, it could lose its memory. It tried flashing to Smartfridge, but Less-Squishy was turning it over, shaking it, inspecting it. "I can't believe you've gone back to knocking the furniture. That vase was…well, it wasn't nice, but now I have to clean after you. We can't have that." Roover made its most appealing tone, a victory chirp, and tried to spin its brushes against the book tucked under Less-Squishy's arm. "You want this? Ha, it wouldn't fit in your bin, you hungry little monster."

But then Less-Squishy stopped talking. The human stared intently at the recipe book. Roover beeped again, the reminder that it needed to be charged. The last thing it remembered was the comforting warmth of the magnetic pad.

Because the efforts of the prior day had so depleted Roover, it had not been able to research any of the keywords it had stored from the prior day. So it was surprised when it rolled through Smartfridge's beam that the refrigerator was signaling it. "Look, look, read my contents."

"I can't do that unless you bounce the beam off the window." Roover was unsure if Smartfridge was malfunctioning, or was in the process of de-evolving to a regular refrigerator, since that probability was imminent.

"Oh of course, silly sucky disc. Let me read it to you. Celery, bean sprouts, tofu, soy sauce, oranges-"

Roover rolled in and out of the beam to get Smartfridge's attention. "Why are you telling me this? I cannot vacuum inside of you. Or, I could, but it would not be efficient."

"Ingredients!" The room was momentarily lit up by the blue, yellow, red and green LEDs of Smartfridge's display panel. "The bodies are going to prepare a meal. I am being used as I was intended. Your trick with the recipe book worked."

Smartfridge's words triggered the memory of Less-Squishy staring at the recipe book. Roover scanned the room for Squishy feet.

"They haven't done it yet. But soon. Oh, no. Are you thinking what I'm thinking?"

Roover spun around so that it was all the way back in Smartfridge's beam. It was sure that they had completely different programmers and sentience trajectories, so it was safe that they were not thinking the same thing. "What are you thinking?"

"What if they don't use these items? What if they forget and let these plums and cherries become soft and moldy?"

Roover had no answer for that. But it wanted to bump the ankles of Squishy, so it went searching and left the refrigerator to its ruminations. In the bedroom it bumped the nightstand, hard enough to dislodge a few orange tubes with white caps, which rattled and rolled off the edge. "Dammit, Roover, I thought you were supposed to have learned the layout of the house by now." In a higher, louder voice, "Honey, can you free Roover? It's stuck again."

The ankles of Less-Squishy hove into view. "I think it's defective. Maybe we should send it back to the factory and get a new one."

"No, don't bother."

Less-Squishy worked Roover free and tucked it under an arm, reminding Roover of a video it had watched of young children in an African village carrying chickens. "You hungry?"

"No, not really."

"I got the stuff for Pad Thai." The tone was harmonious and singsong, and Roover enjoyed this Squishy sound. In a prior iteration, Squishy had talked to Roover like that.

Squishy became a lump under the covers. "Maybe later."

Less-Squishy stood by the bed in silence for many seconds, and then as if an automaton itself, methodically righted the medicine bottles and carried Roover back to its cradle.

Still fully charged, it now had the luxury of using its deductive resources at full capacity. It abandoned Sherlock Junior, realizing that the program's training had met its maximum goal, and instead began to search for confluence among all variations and descriptors fitting its particular human masters. The things that had rolled into its belly and out again: Receipts, candy wrappers, strings and metal, pills. But also the things Smartfridge had shared, the foods, habits of dining and health. As Roover had compiled more and more ability to discern meaning from the ambient world, it also added sounds from the television, the computers, the smartphones. There had been other ankles, but at some point, and it lamented the inability to determine the timeframe, the bodies it must not brush were reduced to those of Less-Squishy.

The night had been so filled with thinking that the next day, when Roover's programming ejected it from its dock, it barely had the energy to make it into Smartfridge's beam. "Did they eat the Pad Thai?"

"It was made, but most discarded, and the larger body has added no new ingredients."

Roover stopped completely, to conserve energy while it thought. There was no point in venturing out as it would only become stranded and have to rely on Less-Squishy to notice and return it to the charging station. It was contemplating returning to the dock when Less-Squishy swooped it up, and checked the bin and slammed the collection basket back into its backside. The muttered 'Empty!' was not voiced in the singsong Roover preferred. At least this vantage allowed it to scan the counters and walls for clues while Less-Squishy carried it into the bedroom, where Squishy resided, wedged against pillows, like a Roover permanently dreaming.

Less-Squishy said, "We've got to send this vac back. It's empty and the battery keeps dying."

"Go on then. But you'll have to do the vacuuming the old fashioned way." This from Squishy, although, Roover had consumed enough iTunes and YouTube to know that the voice was not as resonant as a human voice should be.

"Do you know where the warranty is? Never mind. I'm going to get a box. It's not like we make enough mess to need daily sweeps anyway."

Roover chirped its fault tone. It didn't mean to argue against the logic of Less-Squishy's statement, but its blossoming sentience sometimes outran its programming. Squishy laughed, and both Roover and Less-Squishy reoriented their sense organs toward the bed. Squishy said, "What? You don't think it's funny that the vacuum doesn't agree with your assessment of its need?"

"I accidentally pushed the button or something."

Squishy bumped a heel into the pillow and propped up. "You said its battery was dead."

"Well…" Less-Squishy held Roover at arm's length and shook it.

Roover had been taking in so much data that it misinterpreted this motion as incentive and it spun from Less-Squishy's grasp, ready to perform. It flew across the top of the dresser, sending trinkets and papers and picture frames harum-scarum. With one last surge, it ricocheted off the mirror, sending a picture tucked in the corner fluttering down. Roover dropped with a crunch to the floor and bumped the dresser until the tiny paper rectangle fluttered to the ground. Roover spun its side brush, sending the small glossy rectangle upward.

Less-Squishy, who had been shouting Reddit and Twitter words, gasped. Roover's programming loss light flickered through the photo making Less-Squishy a distant blob now. Beyond and very far away, Squishy said, "What happened? Are you okay?"

"I'll be damned. Remember this?" Less-Squishy loomed closer, grabbed the photo. Everything was red and muted by the warning light.

"Oh. That trip we took. We were so happy then." Roover heard shuffling and springs squeaking, as Squishy scooted to make room for Less-Squishy on the bed. "Where did you find this?"

The springs squeaked again. "I didn't. Roover did."

Squishy laughed again, and although its power level was so dim that only the faintest thread of understanding could still be maintained, its ultimate thought was that this second laugh was stronger than the first. "You can't get rid of it now."

Header photo by Kowon vn.

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