How and where it all began...
The first indication Poppy had that there might be something wrong was when all of the washing ended up pink.
She bent down to stare at the wet material pressing against the front loader's transparent door, scowling. Multitudinous shades of pink stared back at her. Opening the door and dragging the damp mass into a laundry basket, she rummaged through it in search of whatever stray pink article had had the audacity to creep into the wash while she wasn't looking.
She couldn't find it.
Frowning, she spun the drum around to see if it was clinging to the top, hiding itself away from her wrath. But no, there was nothing there.
She stood up, lips pursed. Something in a pocket, maybe - a red paper serviette or something like that? Grimacing - there were few things she liked less than groping in wet pockets for lurking things Ė she explored the few items with pockets that had been in the wash, but found nothing more threatening than a couple of old bus tickets and a two-pence piece.
Perhaps the laundry detergent? It was a cheap brand. Maybe some sort of...pinkening agent had got into it by accident? She poured a little of the powder into her hand and gazed at it. Nothing pink there. But then, perhaps it only activated when mixed with water? She dumped the handful into a glass and added a little tapwater, stirring it with a handy butterknife, then held it up to eyelevel to watch what happened.
Nothing. Nowt. Not a sausage. Well, it dissolved as it was supposed to, but nothing more than that.
Something in the water then? But the water from the tap had been completely clear. Chlorinated and fluourinated to within an inch of its (metaphorical) life, undoubtedly, but not pink.
Grumbling to herself, Poppy glared at the heap in the laundry basket. She could either put up with everything being pink, or risk washing it again and hope the same thing didn't happen a second time. At least it was all her own stuff, so no-one else was going to be offended by pink boxers or sport socks, and while it wasn't her favourite colour, she could live with it.
Putting it through another wash was a waste of time, water, electricity and powder. She opted to live with it.
When the next wash also came out pink, she wasn't quite so calm about it. Especially since her favourite turquoise shirt ended up an ugly muddy purpleish colour. The machine was well out of guarantee, but the company did have a help line, of sorts. The bored voice on the other end had never heard of any such thing happening, but could send out a service engineer to look at it for her. Wincing at the cost, Poppy decided it was cheaper than buying a new washing machine and made the appointment.
The engineer who eventually turned up two hours late opened the machine, took one look and put the backplate back on, shaking his head.
"Can't touch this."
"Not our machine."
"What... Of course it is!"
He shook his head again, more emphatically.
"Sorry love, this has been tampered with. This solenoid valve in't standard, the timer looks like... well, it's not timing in minutes any more, and your agitator's up the spout. And the motor looks like it's been turbo-charged."
Poppy stared at him, helplessly.
"We can only work on our own machines."
"You'll have to get hold of whoever did the original work." He scrawled something across the work order then handed over the clipboard and a pen. "Gotta charge you for the callout, but there'll be no charge for parts or labour. Sign here."
Poppy automatically scribbled her name where indicated and the engineer watched her, the faintest gleam of sympathy in his eyes.
"Sorry love. My missus gets all aeriated when the machine plays up, so I know what it's like. Good luck getting it fixed."
As the front door closed behind him, Poppy glanced over her shoulder, eying the machine warily. It seemed to smirk, mocking her...
The crunch came with the next wash she put through. She'd avoided using the machine for a week, but finally couldn't put a wash off any longer or she'd have nothing to wear for work. Tense with trepidation she loaded it, very carefully selected the right setting and added an anti-limescale tablet, the correct amount of detergent, having switched to a liquid in the hope it might rectify matters, and a half-capful of fabric conditioner. Then, holding her breath, she hit the 'start' switch. The machine whirred and spluttered to life, and she retired to the kitchen table with a mug of coffee to wait for the cycle to complete.
Once again everything came out pink.
"Oh for..." Poppy felt her blood pressure shooting up, and without thinking slapped the top of the machine as hard as she could. She was distracted from the pain of human flesh meeting plastic coated metal when the machine seemed to flinch under her hand. Disbelievingly she heard what sounded like a peculiarly mechanical 'ouch' come from deep within.
"What the..." The analytical part of her mind absently noted that it seemed to be her month for incomplete sentences. The more emotional part jolted her into jumping backwards with a stifled shriek.
"Who..? What...?" She stumbled back to the table and dropped into her seat, staring wildly at the appliance. For a moment her mind went blank, then began to cascade rationalisations. The engineer had said the machine wasn't standard - had she somehow managed to accidentally buy a prototype of a new sort of washer? One equipped with voice commands or responses or something? Was one of her friends playing some sort of obscure joke? Or had she simply imagined it?
Occam's Razor, she thought to herself, taking a deep breath and trying to calm her racing pulse. I just imagined it. 'Course I did. Why would anyone make a talking washing machine, for Pete's sake?
She glowered at the machine. "OK, you stupid hunk of metal..."
It was as far as she got.
"I'm NOT thtupid!"
Silence fell like a workman's hammer dropped from a roof. Poppy debated briefly with herself whether she'd finally cracked from the stress of work, then reminded herself that being a minor accountant in a big company wasn't really stressful enough to cause hallucinations. And she was pretty sure there hadn't been anything... dodgy in the coffee.
"You can talk."
"Well, yeth." The tone suggested the 'duh!' on the end of the reply.
"You can talk."
The selection lights twinkled on and off across the front face of the machine. It vaguely suggested laughter, though how she knew that Poppy couldn't have said.
"Tho can you."
"Yes, but I'm supposed to be able to talk. I'm human."
Oh my god. I'm sitting here arguing with a washing machine. The realisation tickled, and before she knew it she found herself giggling near-hysterically.
"You're a washing machine! You're a... a thing. An appliance. Things donít talk."
If a washing machine were capable of bridling indignantly, this one would have done so.
"I might look like a wathing mathine. I might perform a wathing mathine'th functionth. But I'm not jutht a thing."
Poppy managed to rein back the giggles enough to be able to speak intelligibly. Though not necessarily intelligently.
"Why did you make my washing pink?"
She could swear the voice turned whiney. "But I thought you'd like pink. Everything I've read thayth pink is a girlth colour..."
"Everything you've read where?"
"World wide web of courth. It'th where we all get our information from."
'We'? Oh my god, there are more of them?
"What are you? And what are you doing in my kitchen?"
How a hunk of metal and plastic and hoses and wiring could look shifty she was never able to say. Nevertheless, the machine managed it.
"I think I have a right to know."
There was the electronic equivalent of a sigh.
It was mumbled, and Poppy leaned forward, frowning.
"Hiding from what?"
"Them, who?" God, she'd had easier conversations with a three year old.
"Them." the machine hissed. "The bad guyth. Dethepticonth."
"What are... you know what? I don't want to know. I just want an ordinary washing machine. One that washes clothes how I want them washed and doesn't talk back to me."
"I can do that." It sounded overly eager to Poppy, who eyed the machine suspiciously.
"But you're... alive. Well, conscious, anyway."
"Yeth, but we're uthed to hiding. In plain thight, tho to thpeak."
Poppy metaphorically banged her head against the kitchen table.
"Isn't that a bit... unfair? Boring for you?" What am I saying? Why do I care?
"Oh, it'th all right. Anything for a peatheful life."
Poppy considered her options. She supposed she could get rid of the thing - although that would mean buying a new machine, and given her finances at the moment that would be a pain in the bum. Also... well, there was something weirdly appealing about having someone in the house that she could talk to when she was alone. Kind of like having a dog. A dog that didn't eat anything, need walking or taking to the vet. That stayed where it was put. And that could talk back, hold conversations with... So not much like a dog at all, really... She frowned as a thought struck her.
"Um... are you male or female."
A moment's thoughtful silence, then, "Well, we don't really have male and female ath thuch. But I thuppothe I'd veer more to boy than girl."
Oh my god! He's been washing my underwear! Inside him! And I've walked about naked...
"But you're not my type."
"What...?" Belatedly Poppy realised she'd spoken aloud, and promptly blushed a deep red. The machine regarded her for a moment.
"Thee? You do like pink. You've gone pink."
Gritting her teeth, Poppy scowled at the machine.
"It's called 'embarrassment', you... perverted voyeuristic contraption you!"
Another moment's silence while the machine, presumably, accessed the internet - how? Poppy wondered - and then, "That'th not fair." The electronic voice sounded - sulky? "It'th not my fault."
"You could have made your presence known early! Right back at the beginning would have been good."
Her imagination provided an image of a washing machine with its head lowered contritely, scuffing the floor with a foot.
Poppy was about to launch into a rant - then changed her mind and took several deep breaths.
OK, if she was going to keep the thing, they'd have to come to some arrangements concerning privacy. She'd have to find out what it was, where it came from, how many others there were...
But for the moment...
"OK. I want your promise that from now on, you'll just wash my clothes. You leave them the same colour they went in."
"Right. Good... So you do anything else? Other than wash clothes, I mean? And do you have a name.?"
The machine paused, then said, guardedly, "I can do other thingth, yeth." Before Poppy could ask what, her new acquaintance added, "And my nameth Thakeththpin."
Poppy untangled the lisped syllables.
Poppy sighed resignedly, then smiled. She was over the shock now. After all, not everyone had a... sentient washing machine in their home.
"OK Shakespin. Welcome to the kitchen."
For several weeks the new 'relationship' hummed along nicely. Poppy actually felt safer knowing that a person - of sorts - was in her flat full-time, and Shakespin ('Spin, as Poppy had decided to call him) seemed to be happy. At any rate, her clothes were leaving the machine absolutely spotlessly clean and, she was sure, brighter than they went in. Poppy assumed that he was fulfilling his role in life - washing clothes to the best of his ability - which surely meant he was happy, didn't it.
There were a few surprises. Soon after he'd introduced himself 'Spin had asked, diffidently, if she'd mind leaving the TV on and the lounge door open for him during the day - turned out he had a distinct soft-spot for daytime soaps. Poppy had giggled to herself, thinking how appropriate that was. And apparently he still accessed the internet: he'd taken to giving her a run-down of the news every day when she arrived back from work and sat drinking the last coffee of the day at the kitchen table. She drew the line at him trying to give her dieting advice though.
"But Poppy, you've put on a little weight, you know. I can tell from the thretch markth in your jeanth." It came out probably slightly whinier than he'd intended, and she frowned at him.
"'Spin, I don't give you advice on how hard to wash my clothes, please don't try to tell me how to eat."
The machine humphed.
"I wath jutht trying to look out for you."
She patted his top.
"I know, and I do appreciate it, but honestly, I know what I'm doing when it comes to food."
Even so, she found herself checking in the mirror that night, and yes, perhaps losing a couple of pounds might be a good idea. With summer coming up it might be nice to look OK in a bikini. Or shorts. She rewrote her shopping list, removing a couple of the higher calorific items and adding some fruit and salad veg...
She hurriedly turned the key and opened the front door, frowning. 'Spin sounded... anxious.
"Oh, thank goodneth you're home."
"It'th your refrigerator. It thtopped working jutht after you left thith morning..."
She stepped into the kitchen and nearly slid in the large puddle of water covering half the floor.
"Oh damn." Tiptoeing carefully over to the table she dropped her bags and reached for the towel hanging at the sink. "Bloody thing's not even that old."
Shakespin was quivering. Poppy blinked. Had she left him switched on?
But all the dials were in their off position and the mains switch was also, as usual, off - and thinking about it, how did he watch TV during the day if he had no power?
She'd worry about that later, after sorting this mess out. At least there hadn't been much in the thing.
"Will you have to get a new one? Becauthe I might be able to help."
Poppy frowned up from the floor where she was wringing sodden towels into a large bucket.
"You're a washing machine. How can you possibly help me get a new fridge?"
"Wi-fi. I can hunt down all the betht bargainth for you in a nanothecond!"
"You have wi-fi?"
"Well yeth, we all do."
There it was again, that worrying little 'we'.
"How... how many of you are there?"
"Not many." But it sounded a little cagey. Poppy sighed.
"And how many is 'not many'?"
"Um... don't really know for thertain..."
"Are you all appliances?"
"Nnno... not all of uth."
Poppy rolled her eyes.
"Y'know, if this is going to work, you're going to have to be a little more forthcoming."
She could hear 'Spin hesitating, thinking that over. Literally hear him, little hums and whirrs from inside.
"I thuppothe tho..."
She waited, but he said nothing more.
"We're... you'd call us alienth."
OK, not unbelievable, given she was talking to a sentient washing machine.
"And we take the form of common local thingth to hide."
"From the bad guys, yes, you already said."
"From humanth too."
Which made sense. Poppy finished mopping the floor and emptied the bucket into the sink. Then paused, going back over what the machine had said.
"Hang on. You said you 'take the shape of things'. That means this isn't your original form?"
A little shiver of alarm went through her.
"So what do you really look like?"
A tense silence. Poppy tried to keep the tremor out of her voice.
"Come on, let me see."
"Not allowed? Why not?"
"It'th the ruleth. We can only thtay here if we thtay hidden."
"Seems a bit hard..."
"The Prime inthithtth. We mutht not endanger humanth."
"And that would happen if we saw your true forms? And what's the Prime?"
"Our leader. And it'th not our appearanth that'th dangerouth. If the bad guyth knew we were here, they might come too. And that would be bad for humanth."
OK, that made sense. Though it left her a little worried.
"So, by you staying here, I might be in danger?"
"No no no no! I wouldn't allow you to be harmed."
Which argued that he might be able to do something to protect her if he was discovered? A washing machine? She bit back a ripple of hysterical laughter. Then frowned. She had no idea what he would turn into. It could be something absolutely lethal for all she knew.
Keeping him here was beginning to feel like not such a good idea.
"Tho - do you want me to find you a refrigerator?"
It effectively derailed her train of thought. She'd worry about the whole situation later. After all, everything seemed OK right now. And surely she'd have heard something about it if the world was in danger of imminent alien attack. Other than on conspiracy websites, anyway.
"Oh, why not? See what you can do..."
Four days later Shakespin had found a fridge for just £49.99. And not just a fridge - a silver slimline fridge-freezer that fitted perfectly into the space her old, small one had taken. The delivery guys had slotted it in smoothly, waved away her offer of a tip, and left in a hurry. Had she not been so pleased with the new appliance she might have wondered why.
"Better go shopping. Need to fill it up. Be nice to eat proper food instead of carry-outs." Poppy grinned over her shoulder at the washing machine. "Thanks! I appreciate the help."
"Oh, it'th no problem. I can do it any time you ever need anything elthe."
"I might take you up on that." Poppy grabbed her shopping bag and waved in the machine's direction. "Be back in an hour or so. Is the TV on the right channel for you?"
"Yeth, thank you."
Behind her, as Poppy locked the door, the fridge door silently opened...
Laden down with bags (there had been a lot of special offers at the local supermarket ) Poppy fumbled in her pockets for her keys - then paused, frowning, ear pressing to the door. She could swear there were two voices speaking, louder and clearer than the muted jumble of sounds that had to be coming from the TV. As quietly as possible she unlocked the door and swung it open abruptly.
"'Spin? Is there somebody in there?"
"No, jutht me." But the mechanical voice sounded... a little too bright and casual.
"Are you sure?"
"Well, I can't very well let anyone elthe in, can I?" It sounded aggrieved, and Poppy eyed the machine warily. 'Spin sighed. "It wath the TV, Poppy. That'th all."
Not entirely convinced but unable to do anything about it, she began putting the shopping away, smiling happily at the new fridge-freezer.
"This really is a beauty. Perfect for me."
"I'm tho glad."
She flashed a grin over her shoulder.
"My vacuum cleaner's getting on a bit too. I don't want one right away, but perhaps you could keep an eye out for me? Something decent, like a Dyson, but not too dear."
"Of courthe! Anything elthe?"
"Not right now, but I'll let you know."
She wandered through to the kitchen the following morning, yawning and stretching. Sunday, early summer, and the weather was brightly sunny outside. She flung open the window and set some coffee going, then turned to the fridge. And paused, frowning. There was something very slightly off about... something.
"'Morning, Poppy. Thleep well?"
She nodded absently at the washing machine, then shrugged. Whatever it was that wasn't quite right, it was so slight as to not be worth wondering about. If there'd been a problem, 'Spin would have let her know.
She opened the fridge for a pot of yoghurt for breakfast - and frowned again. Surely she'd put the cheese on that side of the small holder on the inside of the door... Ah, it had probably shifted when she shoved the door shut a little harder than she needed to. She'd got into the bad habit of slamming the old one shut, or sometimes it didn't close properly: she'd have to stop that, the new one closed perfectly.
She settled at the table, strawberry yoghurt in hand, mug of coffee steaming in front of her, and smiled. It was going to be a beautiful day...
"Hi Poppy!" 'Spin sounded chipper this evening, she thought as she closed the door. "Have you had a good day?"
"Not bad. Much the same as ever." She shrugged. "Looking forward to the weekend."
"Two days off."
"And that'th good?"
She raised an eyebrow, but then again the machine hadn't been here - on earth - all that long. As far as she knew, anyway. Perhaps he just didn't understand the work/rest/play part of being human in a so-called civilised part of the world. She sighed.
"Yes. Two days away from the rat race, office politics and two-faced gossip."
There was a brief silence, the sort that she'd come to associate with 'Spin looking up references on the internet, then a funny little noise that she thought probably equated to a human murmuring sympathetically.
She inclined her head and sighed.
"It pays the bills... How was your day?"
She made herself a coffee while the washing machine enthusiastically updated her on the ongoing plots of his favourite daytime soaps...
Poppy laid down her knife and fork with a satisfied grunt and glanced at the machine.
"You remember you athked me to keep an eye out for a new vacuum cleaner?"
"Well, I've found one. Altho a thteamer. And a nithe new TV, 42 incheth, much bigger than your current one."
"For cooking food the healthy way."
Poppy rolled her eyes. What was this preoccupation with the way she ate?
"And it maketh it tathte better, too. And utheth leth power than the cooker. Be much cheaper to run."
It had not taken 'Spin very long to learn the best way to persuade her into buying something.
"Hm. OK. How much?"
"The thteamer ith £5. The vacuum cleaner ith £10. And the TV ith £59.99. But if you buy the whole lot it'th only £37."
"How does that work?"
"It thayth they're unwanted giftth, for thale cheap due to urgent relocation."
"Oh. Does it say what condition they're in?"
"Thteamer ith new, and tho ith the TV. The vacuum cleaner ith only thixth monthth old and 'ath new'."
It was very tempting. She didn't actually need a new TV, but it would be nice for 'Spin during the day...
She shook her head. Was she really considering buying a new TV for her washing machine?
... yes, she was.
"I guess that would be OK."
"Do I go ahead then?"
"Yes..." she frowned. "Hang on, what do you mean, go ahead?"
"I can buy them for you."
"Online, of courthe."
"And how are you going to pay for them?"
"With your debit card, of courthe."
"You have access to my banking details?!"
"Well, yeth..." he paused for a moment. "Am I not thuppothed to?"
"Of course not!! How did you do that?"
"You've bought thingth online before - I got the detailth from your computer."
She could have sworn there was a sort of dismissive sniff accompanying that last word, but the enormity of what he was saying overrode everything else.
"But I never... I don't... I don't have those details saved."
"No, but there'th thtill a record of your keythtroketh."
"Oh my god..."
"It'th OK, you don't need to worry. I've increathed your thecurity. Nothing can get in or out without your conthent."
"That's not the point!"
"I wath only trying to be helpful ... have I done wrong?"
Poppy took a deep breath and tried to calm herself. Look at it from his point of view. He's trying to be helpful, save you aggravation. He doesn't understand privacy. Yet.
"You aren't supposed to do anything other than watch TV and wash clothes without asking me first, 'Spin. I need to know what's going on."
"I'm thorry. I didn't know."
She carried her plate over to the sink, patting his top as she went past.
"You haven't bought anything without my knowledge, have you?"
"No, no, of courthe not!"
"That's OK then." She thought for a minute. "You're sure the things you've found are legit and in good nick?"
Another brief silence while he looked up the colloquialisms.
"Yeth, I'm thertain."
"OK then - just this once."
The young man who arrived with all the new purchases in the back seat of his car looked a little haggard as he hauled everything up to Poppy's flat. She offered him a cup of tea and a plate of biscuits as he - very carefully - put everything down on the lounge coffee table. He shook his head.
"Thanks, but I really need to get back as quick's I can. Gotta get everything moved today."
"Oh, OK then." She gazed at the pile, frowning. There was more here than the three things she'd agreed for 'Spin to order. "Are you sure this is right?"
"Yeah." He waved a hand at the table. "I've thrown in a 3D blu-ray and DVD player as well. Goes with the TV. I can't use it, you may as well have it."
"I must pay you for it..."
He opened his mouth to say no, then paused.
"Well, OK, just make the whole lot up to fifty quid, that'll do."
Blinking in bewilderment, Poppy handed over the cash and the young man hurried out of the door, muttering thanks over his shoulder. Poppy stared after him.
"What was that all about?"
Heading back in, she spent the next couple of hours with the instruction booklet and 'Spin's helpful advice, and finally managed to get the TV and player set up in time to watch her favourite weekly documentary programme.
"Yes, 'Spin, oddly enough we have one every single week!"
"That theemth terribly wathteful."
"Humans need time off, 'Spin. We need time to relax, do nothing for a bit. Or go shopping, or get housework done."
She could swear she heard him sniff contemptuously.
She grinned at him.
"How would you feel if you had to wash clothes all the time, with no breaks?"
He was silent for a moment, then sighed.
"I thuppothe it would get a little tediouth."
She chuckled and plugged in the steamer, pulling a tuna steak from the fridge and a portion of peas and sweetcorn from the freezer.
Then froze as the steamer... she stared at it. Had it moved as she filled the reservoir with water?
She eyed the washing machine suspiciously. It appeared to gaze back innocently.
"... 'Spin? You know you said there were others of your kind?"
"Do I now have some of those others in my flat?"
"Oh Poppy! Would I do thuch a thing to you?" The mechanical voice sounded positively offended, and she planted her fists on her hips, lips a thin line.
"I wouldn't be at all surprised."
"Oh, you wound me, Poppy."
"Just answer the question, Shakespin."
He hesitated, then sighed.
"... the thteamer. And the vacuum cleaner."
"And the guy you bought them from? Why did he sell them so cheaply?"
"... um... I think he thought he wath being haunted."
A little chirpy voice piped up from the steamer.
"Coz we liked t'talk t' im."
Poppy moved to the kitchen table and sank down onto a chair, head in her hands.
And then the vacuum cleaner whirred its way out from its corner, stopping in front of her with a sort of cheerful purr.
"AARRGGHHH!" She glared at 'Spin. "I am not running some sort of... of... rest home for..." the name on the vacuum cleaner caught her eye - Transformer Vac. "bloody transformer appliances!"
"Eh, but Oi can run meself." The vacuum cleaner seemed to preen. "Save y'loads o'toime."
"An' I'm everso good at cooking!" the steamer chirruped brightly.
Poppy simply stared at them, speechless.
Life had just got a whole lot more complicated.
Poppy was getting used to the trio of voices greeting her when she got back from work every evening...
Sucker - his real 'designation' was Suckmaster, he'd told her cheerfully, but she refused to call him by a name that sounded like some sort of sex-toy - and Steamy - whose full name was, apparently, Heatsteamcontroller - were, she had to admit, incredibly useful. Even if it now sounded as though she was sharing her flat with the cast of a bad porno film. But Steamy cooked her food exactly as she wanted it (she hardly used the oven or hob any more), somehow managing to steam even widely disparate foodstuffs to the perfect texture all at the same time. And as for Sucker - well, his various attachments meant he was able to keep the flat spotless, without Poppy having to do a thing.
She could get used to this!
On the third Monday after their arrival in her flat, however, she arrived back from work to hear raised voices, and unlocked and entered in a hurry. As the door swung open everything went silent - well, her sentient appliances went silent, at least - only to resume as she called out "Only me!" and closed the door.
"Oi's glad you'm 'ome!" grunted Sucker, his broad country accent sounding distinctly aggrieved. "'E's bin 'oggin' TV all day."
Poppy looked into the kitchen. Steamy was perched on top of 'Spin, with Sucker sitting on the floor in front of them, all three positioned where they could see the TV in the lounge. Sucker gave the impression he was sulking.
"Oh dear. What's happened?"
And they all started talking at once.
"I wath here firtht! I get to choothe..."
"Oi wannid t'watch me gardenin'..."
"I had t'miss my favouritest cookin' programme coz he wanted to see..."
"Whoa, whoa!" Poppy raised her hands. "Please children, one at a time. I gather that you" she pointed at the washing machine "have not been sharing screen time with the others?"
'Spin whirred peevishly.
"But I wath here firtht, Poppy, and I'm the oldetht."
"But Oi do more 'round t'ouse."
"An' I cook every day!"
Poppy giggled. They resembled nothing so much as a group of arguing kids.
"You need to learn to share. Why don't you work out some sort of schedule? You know - 'Spin gets to watch his favourite soap, then you switch to something the others want to watch."
"But Poppy, they all clash!" Steamy was quivering earnestly. "And I need t'watch my programmes so I c'n keep you well!"
Poppy sighed, then grinned.
"Well, you'll have to work something out between you. Otherwise we'll just have to let the fridge choose what to watch."
She'd expected a chorus of chuckles: what she got was deadly silence. Very slowly she turned to the fridge, eyeing herself mistily reflected in the brushed steel of the slowly opening door.
The voice that emanated from the machine was low and cultured.
"Well, that's dashed decent of you, Poppy."
She scowled and whirled to glare at 'Spin.
"Another one of you?"
"Yes, I am, actually."
Poppy glared over her shoulder.
"I wasn't talking to you!"
"I do beg your pardon..." The fridge shut up. Poppy turned back to 'Spin.
"You only said Sucker and Steamy!"
'Spin fidgeted minutely.
"Um... I wath afraid you might not be too happy if I told you everything..."
"Guess what? You were right!" She folded her arms and glowered around the kitchen. "Who else is here?"
"Oh, no-one, Poppy."
She eyed the washing machine narrowly.
"OK, Captain Literal. Who else is here in the flat?"
"That'd be us." The voice floated in from the lounge as the TV and blu-ray player blinked their on/off lights at her. Poppy grabbed her hair in both hands.
But actually, it only took her a few days to get used to TeeVee and Blue; she assumed that having a kitchen half-full of sentient machines already she was becoming inured to the shock. Especially since they very rarely spoke. She had trouble warming to Chillvern, however. Something about storing her food inside a creature that she could hold a conversation with was very offputting. 'Spin had tried to help.
"He'th really nithe, Poppy. And hith whole mithion in life ith to pretherve your food, make thure nothing nathty can get in. Make thure you're healthy."
"I appreciate that, 'Spin, but all the same..."
She jumped as the fridge's urbane voice came from behind her.
"I deeply regret that you find my presence unsettling. If you wish to... sell me and buy a human refrigerator I will not object."
That little catch in his voice... dammit. She'd hurt his feelings. Determinedly not feeling guilty, she asked, "What would happen if I did?"
A moment's silence, then, "It is very unlikely that my new owner would be in possession of others of us. I would most likely be a little lonely, but we are all of us used to that."
She wondered for a moment if he was trying to gain her sympathy - but no, it was more likely he was simply being honest. One thing she'd learned about them was they had a noticeable lack of guile. Well, when speaking to her, anyway. Mostly. If she made sure she got the whole truth.
She sighed. "No, I wouldn't be that cruel. You're friends with 'Spin, aren't you?"
"We... have been acquainted for a considerable time, yes."
She raised an eyebrow and glanced at the washing machine.
"Yeth. We're friendth. Have been for ageth."
"Very well. You can stay. But" she raised a finger warningly as 'Spin almost visibly perked up, "no more!"
"I promith! And...thank you, Poppy. We are all grateful. You are very kind."
"OK. Just don't make me regret it!"
A week later she arrived home to find two men standing on her doorstep. Two very officious looking men, with severe raincoats, bulky briefcases and matching frowns. And Electricity Board IDs hanging around their necks.
"You are Ms Poppy Moss?"
She eyed them nervously.
"Resident at this address for the last three years?"
"Yes... What's this about?"
"Perhaps we could speak inside."
Poppy frowned. Their IDs looked genuine, but...
"Tell me what it's about, first, please."
The balder of the two sighed. It sounded both irritable and exasperated.
"It has been brought to our attention that the amount of electricity you have been using over the last two months has dropped considerably from its previous level. It is the Board's suspicion that the meter may have been tampered with. We are here to investigate."
"Oh. Oh, all right then." Mentally crossing her fingers - she didn't think her 'tenants' had done anything to the electrical installation in the flat, but regardless, one didn't argue with people who had the ability to cut off one's energy supply - she unlocked the door and let them in. Apparently the appliances had heard the conversation: everything was switched off and silent, including the TV.
"I've bought some new appliances just recently." she offered. "They're the highest energy-efficiency rating I could afford, all A ratings. And I've not been switching on as often as I used to." She tried a somewhat nervous smile. "Trying to reduce my carbon footprint."
The less-bald official nodded negligently as his colleague opened the meter casing, peering closely at the wiring underneath by the light of the small but powerful torch he'd pulled from an inner pocket. His inspection seemed to take ages: in the meantime the other was wandering around the flat, checking sockets and switches, and noting down everything electrical she possessed. Finally less-bald grunted, straightened, and closed and fastened a tamper-proof seal on the meter.
"Nothing there." he frowned at his colleague. "All as it should be."
"Hm." Baldie scowled. "We'd better check downstairs." He turned to Poppy.
"Very well, Ms Moss. We can't find any evidence of tampering, and I've noted that, as you say, you are being very energy-conscious. That's a good thing. We may need more information in the future, but for now, thank you for your cooperation."
Poppy sighed silently with relief.
"Any time." She followed them to the main door and watched as they climbed down the stairs, then closed the door and slumped against it.
"Are you all right, Poppy? Your pump ith operating very fatht."
She jumped at 'Spin's voice. Pump? Oh. Heart. She wobbled into the kitchen and dropped into a chair.
"I'm OK. That was just a bit scary." She frowned at him. "OK, so, enlighten me. Do you lot actually use electricity?"
"Not a lot, no. Only if we really really mutht. We have our own... power thellth. We normally top them up with tholar power when we need to."
"Oh great. No wonder they noticed."
"... have we cauthed you problemth?"
Poppy managed a small grin.
"Well, I appreciate the saving on the electricity bill, but it's not fun, people thinking you're defrauding them."
"Oh. I'm... we're thorry. Do you want us to thtart uthing the... mainth thupply?"
"Oh god no! That'll just make them think I was on the fiddle and have now put it right to stop any further investigation! No, I think it's best just to carry on as you are. But for gods' sake donít use any less electricity, or they'll be back right away."
"We can do that."
"We're reelly sorry, Poppy." Steamy sounded upset, and she patted his cover.
"It's OK, honestly. You weren't to know."
"'f you're sure..."
"I am. And after all that, I need something to eat!"
Immediately the little steamer brightened up, chattering happily about what he planned to make her for dinner: following his instructions she lifted ingredients out of Chillvern and dropped them into his baskets.
Twenty minutes later, eating her lemon chicken with mixed steamed vegetables and listening to the appliances chatter, she suddenly realised how comfortable - no, contented - she felt. They may not be human, but it was nice having company.
Poppy closed the door with a sigh of contented relief. Bank Holiday weekend coupled with two days annual leave - bliss!
"Hi kids - mum's home!"
A babble of voices greeted her from both the kitchen and the lounge, Sucker churring out of his corner and running a quick circle around her before heading back to his usual space behind the kitchen door. There were times he reminded her of a cat. Sort of.
"Anything interesting happen while I was out?"
"No. Well, there'th a new character in that medical thoap opera I like, Thucker and Thteamy want you to try growing vanilla orchidth, and Chillvern thayth you're running low on ithe cream. And there'th a new fabric condithioner I'd like to try. And there'th been an earthquake in Japan, and riotth in theveral countrieth, and the uthual upth and downth on the thtock marketth, but other than that, it'th all been quiet."
She patted his top.
"Quiet is good. We like quiet."
"'S nice an' peaceful here, Poppy. 's lovely."
She grinned as she pulled a marinaded tuna steak from the fridge and popped it into the steamer's lower basket. A double handful of mixed exotic veg followed in the medium basket, and she left him to work his magic while she unpacked her shopping. Chillvern hummed appreciatively as she slid shut the drawer now containing several packs of rather expensive ice-cream, affordable now that her fuel bill was about a quarter of what it had been.
"So, what's on TV tonight?"
"New sci-fi series starting." TeeVee switched himself on. "You might enjoy it. It's about machines that come to life and try to take over the world."
"Yeah, right! OK, remind me when it's starting and we'll give it a go."
A couple of hours later, fed, showered and comfortably slouched on the sofa, Poppy licked the last of the toffee-chocolate ice-cream from her spoon and sighed happily.
"Mm. Wonderful way to start a mini-holiday."
"And your programme's about to start." TeeVee changed the channel - and the doorbell rang.
"Damn." Poppy sighed and rose to her feet: Blue started recording the episode for her to watch when she'd dealt with the interruption.
"Hell...." Her greeting was cut short as an arm reached around her waist and pulled her out into the corridor, almost closing the door behind her. It took her maybe two seconds before the shock wore off enough for her to start struggling.
"What the...!? Let me go!"
A hand settled over her mouth.
"Ms Moss, please. We're not going to hurt you."
Twisting, she saw that the man who had hold of her wasn't the only stranger in the hallway: there were at least six more and they were all wearing... what was the term? Fatigues? Green army clothing anyway. The sort actors wore in war films on TV.
They all had guns. All of the guns were pointing towards her door.
"If I let you go, will you stay still and hear me out?"
She nodded, and he pulled his hand away from her mouth, then set her down on her feet.
"We have reason to believe you are in danger."
"We believe that some of the appliances in your flat may be... dangerous."
"And they send the army to deal with that sort of thing now, do they?"
The man who'd held her, who she assumed was probably the one in charge, eyed her with some startlement.
"They do when appropriate, yes."
"And this is appropriate?"
He scowled at her. Behind him, he heard one of the other soldiers snicker.
"Yes. It is."
"And how do you know they're dangerous?" She let a little sarcasm into her voice. "I mean, I've been living with them for months and they've never threatened me."
"It's..." He stared at her, nonplussed. This wasn't exactly the reaction he'd been expecting. "They give off a certain energy that we can detect. They're... foreign, and often faulty. Not up to UK regulations. They may start fires. Some have been known to explode, which is why we're brought in. We've been trained to deal with this sort of thing."
"Hm." Poppy nodded. "I see. Well, everything I have is all absolutely fine, up to scratch and functioning perfectly. You must have the wrong address."
The soldier stared at her for a moment before speaking into his earpiece. "Target is proving... resistant."
He listened for a few minutes, then gestured to his men, who moved cautiously forward and arrayed themselves in a semi-circle at the door, weapons at the ready.
"Please stand back, miss."
Before she could object, the first three men burst through the door, scanning the area swiftly before beckoning the others in. Over Poppy's blustered objections they fanned out, moving into each of the rooms in the small place. On the leader's wrist a small... thing, vaguely resembling a wristwatch, was beeping.
The soldier beside him glanced at it.
"Energon reading, sir."
The leader nodded, then moved to the kitchen.
"All right, we know you're in here. Show yourselves."
Poppy pulled at his arm.
"What the hell do you think you're doing!? You come bursting into my home, waving guns, talking to thin air... There's nobody here but you lot. And me."
"Our detection devices say otherwise, miss. You'd be safer out in the hall."
"And leave you in here to wreak havoc? I don't think so."
"Then will you at least stay behind me?"
"No. There's nothing here that can hurt anyone, especially not me - hey!" Two of the men had moved to stand in front of her, gradually backing her against the wall, completely ignoring her objections. "Let me go!"
"It's for your own safety, miss."
"I'm perfectly safe in my own home! And stop calling me miss!"
"Sorry, Ms Moss."
The squad leader (the officer? When this was all over she'd have 'Spin look up army ranks for her so she'd know how to address them if it ever happened again) aimed a small, complicated looking device around the kitchen. It bleeped when pointed at Chillvern. The officer hefted his rifle and aimed at the fridge.
"This is equipped with incendiary armour piercing rounds that can cut through Decepticon hides in seconds. I suggest you show yourself."
There was a fraught silence for a moment, then a deep sigh.
"I'm sorry Poppy."
Before her astonished - and the soldiers' dispassionate - eyes the sleek silver refrigerator started to... shift, twist in on itself, almost turn inside out. In seconds a strange, silver... creature stood in its place. Vaguely humanoid, with - she thought - rather pretty shimmering turquoise... eyes? They sat in what looked like a face where a human's eyes would be...
The creature - robot? - nodded sadly. Poppy glanced quickly at the washing machine: 'Spin sighed, and also transformed. He looked oddly squat and dumpy next to the slender fridge. Guns were immediately pointed in his direction.
"Faction?" It was snapped, the officer gesturing with his weapon to press home the query. "Autobot? Decepticon?"
"Yeth. We never took thides. All we wanted to do wath live quietly thomewhere the war couldn't find uth."
The officer frowned and muttered something into his earpiece, listened to the reply, then gestured to the door.
"You're going to have to come with us while we check this out."
"But... these are mine! My appliances... my friends..."
The officer regarded her with what she would swear was sympathy.
"I'm sorry. Not my decision."
"S'all right, Poppy." Steamy had turned into a funny little four-legged thing with small bright eyes, his power cord coiled up on his back like a squirrel's tail. The officer scowled around the flat.
Poppy watched as TeeVee and Blue shifted into matching, oddly spiky creatures, sleek black with brilliant blue eyes a little like miniature television screens, while Sucker bumbled along looking... well, looking like a vacuum cleaner with legs with wheels for feet, to be honest. She bit her lip, fighting back sudden and unexpected tears.
"What will happen to them?"
"They won't be hurt."
"I'm coming too."
"I'm afraid not. It's a security matter." he added as she opened her mouth to object.
"But... This is ridiculous! They're not a risk! They've done nothing but help me since they moved in!"
The officer shrugged.
"They're illegal aliens."
Poppy would have laughed if the situation hadn't been so grave.
"No." He shook his head. "They are sentient robotic organisms. They shouldn't even be here."
"Where are you taking them?"
"Will you let me know what happens? Please." she begged as the officer hesitated. He sighed.
"I'll see what I can do."
They'd transformed back into their appliance mode for the soldiers to carry them down to the army vehicle parked outside. Poppy had stood on the pavement and watched helplessly as they'd been driven away, wiping tears from her eyes as she climbed back up to the suddenly empty, lonely flat.
She'd been too despondent at first to replace the missing appliances, using the laundrette around the corner for washing and eating out of tins. Two weeks later she'd still heard nothing, and was beginning to think she'd better get used to the idea that that little bit of magic was gone forever. She still had nightmares about them being hurt or killed, deactivated, scrapped, whatever it was they did to sentient robotic organisms, but there was nothing she could do. She resolved to at least visit a showroom and price up human appliances during her lunchtime.
There was a stranger waiting for her when she arrived home, a man with an indefinable military bearing despite the civilian clothes he wore. He inclined his head to her as she halted at the door.
"Ms Moss?" She nodded warily. "SASF Agent Graham. I'm here to discuss your... friends."
"May I see some identification, please?"
He smiled. It was a nice smile.
"Very wise." He removed a wallet from an inner pocket and flashed an official looking document. Poppy frowned at it. She'd never heard of NEST, but it looked genuine, and since he knew about the appliances... She opened the door.
"Please, come in."
At the kitchen table, they sat with coffee as Graham explained that before he could tell her anything, she would need to sign the Official Secrets Act. He went on to explain the ramifications of such in considerable detail. Intrigued, Poppy agreed and signed. Then listened, entranced, to the story of an ancient alien war on a far distant metallic world, a war that had ended up coming to earth quite accidentally. She knew he was only giving her the bare bones of the matter, but even so... wow...
"So, my appliances - transformers?" He nodded. "They really are neutrals?"
"Yes. As with most wars, there were a lot of innocents who couldn't or wouldn't join sides, who got caught up in the nightmare and simply tried to survive. Some of the transformers managed to stow away on ships leaving their home world, and some of them - including yours - found their way here."
She pushed away her now-cold coffee.
"Where are they? Mine, I mean. How are they?"
"They're well. They've been reunited with a few others of their number who also managed to fall to earth."
Poppy grinned, a little dopily.
"I'm glad they're OK. Will you tell them I asked after them - unless, of course," she eyed him hopefully, "I can see them myself."
He regarded her for a moment, then smiled.
"Actually, we were rather hoping you'd be able to do a little job for us..."
"Poppy! POPPY!!" Poppy held her arms out as 'Spin, in his robotic form, skipped into the kitchen and hugged her - very very gently. "Oh, it'th THO good to thee you!"
She sniffled and grinned at him, then turned her smile on the rest. Chillvern had settled himself into his corner and transformed back into fridge mode with a contented sigh: Sucker was already zooming around the flat, all his tools out, returning the somewhat unkempt place to the standard of cleanliness he insisted upon, while Steamy was burbling about a whole new load of recipes he'd learned. TeeVee and Blue touched Poppy's shoulders gently as they made their way to their old places.
"And these are the new ones." Graham stood at the door and ushered in the three new transformers Poppy had agreed to have stay with her. What would become the stereo system immediately made himself at home in the corner of the lounge, apparently nattering with TeeVee and Blue: a squat little creature skittered over to the kitchen table, climbed on and sat beaming around at them all before shifting to become a second, smaller television (well, that would help solve the problem of them arguing over who got to see which programmes, at least for a while), and last but definitely not least, a graceful, complex-looking transformer tossed her a wave then loped to the desk in her bedroom and became a high-end computer system with all the peripherals she could ever want. She glanced back at Graham, eyes wide and mouth open, and he chuckled.
"Only sensible, Poppy. This way you can have instant access to one of our operatives, in case of any problems, and vice versa." He held up a hand. "Visual comms only if you authorise it, I assure you."
"Oh good!" She grinned happily. "This is fantastic."
"We are glad you're happy with the situation. Thank you for volunteering."
"We're also trying to organise a car for you."
She stared at him.
"There are transformer cars?"
"Oh yes. But they are larger and tend to be more involved with the actual war, so finding one who can be spared to act as guardian for a civilian is... not as easy."
"It's OK. If it happens, great. If not - I'm very happy with this." She gestured around the flat.
"Excellent. Well," he glanced around, checking that everything was in order, then saluted Poppy. "I had better be on my way. It was a pleasure meeting you, Ms Moss. May you have peaceful days."
"'Til all are one." chorused the transformers around her, and Graham smiled.
"'Til all are one."
© JAT Oct 2011
Onto Devices, Too, the second part of the tale...