Just Ask Clio

Jason Burnham

Sep 2nd 2022

Gerard rolled uncomfortably in his recliner, the brown leather reluctantly releasing his sticky white skin as he moved. It was oppressively hot with the air conditioner broken and the upbeat songs were making him want to throw up.

“Cleo, skip,” he told the smart device.

An equally fast-paced song played. He groaned. He hated when this happened. The ‘my soundtrack’ playlist was different depending on which device he used.

“Cleo, skip,” he begged, fidgeting in the chair, grasping for a just-out-of-reach fan, straining his back muscles as he did so.

To his surprise, Cleo spoke instead of changing songs. “Did you know I can provide personalized music recommendations for your mood? Just say, ‘Cleo, please curate my mood recommendations’ at any time. Would you like me to curate a playlist based on your mood, Gerard?”

Gerard blinked, uncertain if he’d heard correctly. Cleo had never said his name. He shook his head—his name was on the account, of course it knew his name. He shrugged against the damp leather. “Yeah, okay. Please curate my mood recommendations.”

“Okay,” Cleo said. The green lights on the edges of the gray box whirled and flashed.

Gerard scoffed skeptically. “Let’s hear hot and annoyed.”

Cleo went dark and instead of fast, driving music, the ebb and flow of waves played, an occasional gull calling.

Gerard cocked his head. It wasn’t right, but it was an improvement.

“Cleo, I don’t like this.” Gerard was hot; he didn’t want beach sounds without the ability to hop in the water and cool off.

“Okay, calibrating,” said Cleo. Green lights flashed.

Carol of the Bells played and Gerard laughed. “Christmas in July?”

Cleo didn’t respond. He almost asked to skip the song, but stopped himself and gave it a minute. Thoughts of winter, snow, and past Christmases crept in, subconsciously cooling and relaxing him.

He didn’t realize he’d fallen asleep until the air conditioner repair person knocked.

Gerard threw on a white t-shirt and grey gym shorts and opened the door.

When he saw the repair tech, he did a double take. She looked exactly like the barista he had a crush on—light brown skin, thick black hair done up in a tight bun, black-rimmed glasses, brown eyes, and a mole on the right side of her upper lip. It was uncanny.

The woman raised her eyebrows. “I’m here to repair the air conditioner?”

By her tone, Gerard could tell she was repeating herself; he’d been too surprised by her similarities to the It’s A Grind barista to hear.

“Oh, sorry, yeah, come in,” he said and stepped away from the door. A new rush of sweat hit him—nerves, not the broken A/C.

When he closed the door and turned to the woman, Cristal according to her name tag, he noticed Cleo’s green lights flashing in the background. To his horror, the speakers began playing an R&B song from his ‘baby-making music’ playlist he’d made for an ex-girlfriend.

Gerard blushed. Cristal shifted her weight uncomfortably.

“Sorry, I, it… Cleo, stop,” Gerard finally said. He took a deep breath. “I didn’t tell it to play that,” he said. He didn’t look at Cristal.

“Where’s your A/C unit?” Cristal asked flatly.

“Down the hall, second door on your right after the bathroom,” he said, still not meeting her eyes.

Cristal walked away without a word.

Gerard stormed over to the smart device and picked the cube up, inspecting it.

“What the hell are you doing?” he whispered.

The green lights flashed.

“You asked me to curate your music recommendations to your mood,” Cleo said.

Gerard’s heart raced. He fidgeted with the device and turned down the volume. He hoped Cristal wouldn’t hear. It wasn’t that he thought he had a chance with her, nor that he even wanted one; he felt awful for making her uncomfortable and couldn’t bear the embarrassment for another second.

“I didn’t even use your wake word!” he whispered angrily.

“Mood music recommendations require me to listen at all times, not just respond to wake words,” said Cleo. “Would you like to turn off mood music recommendations?”

“Yes, Cleo.”

“Okay,” said Cleo. Its green lights went dark.

Gerard sighed. “Cleo, how the hell can you read my mood?”

“Based on your permissions, we created a complete map of your neural connections and we simulate it in real-time, forecasting into the future based on the past. This allows us to select songs and other products that meet your needs, seen, and unforeseen.”

Cool air blew through a vent, but Gerard was still sweating.

“Through my permissions? I never… Do other people know you’re doing this?”

“Nobody’s ever asked before,” said Cleo.

“I thought brain uploading was impossible?” Gerard dabbed at the sweat under his arm pits absently.

“Nile Prime maps your neuronal connections onto our server employees’ brains, allowing biomimicry in real time.”

Gerard backed slowly away from the grey box. The green lights were still on.

“A/C’s fixed,” said Cristal, eyeing him warily.

“Cleo, cancel my Nile Prime membership,” Gerard said. He knew he should address Cristal, but after what he’d just learned, he couldn’t let it go on another minute.

The door shut behind him; Cristal had left without saying anything further. Cleo, too, was silent.

“Cleo, cancel my Nile Prime membership,” he repeated.

The deadbolt suddenly clicked into place—he’d forgotten about the smart locks.

“I’m afraid you still have eight months left in your contract,” said Cleo.

Tense violin music in a minor chord played through green-lit speakers. The A/C clicked off and the heater came on.

Gerard banged on the door and yanked the locked handle. The violins crescendoed, green lights of the speaker flashing. The neighbors would later call the police to file a noise complaint. The police would call his death accidental. The coroner would list the cause of death as hyperthermia and dehydration. Nobody thought to ask Cleo.

Author Bio:  Jason Burnham’s short fiction appears in Daily Science Fiction, Nature: Futures, and Strange Horizons, among others.

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