There was a beautiful park bench, just on the skirts of the neighbourhood. It had a gorgeous view of the ocean in front of it, while just behind were the serenity gardens. Thanks to the position of the cliffs, it would send the ocean spray up at unexpected moments, drenching unsuspecting humans at inopportune moments. The serenity gardens were also prone to wasp and hornet infestations that were attracted to balloons and the word gluten (and all references to it). Michael knew they were safe.
Although Janet was already standing in front of him, having followed him from the end of town, there was still a tell-tale ding! as her recognition programme played. She smiled brightly, stood a little straighter, and drew her shoulders together. Her head tilted to the side.
There was something comforting about her persistently chipper nature. It was soothing.
'Take a seat, will you?'
He patted the bench beside him. She eyed it, clearly considering all the connotations of his request, and took it to mean his clearest intention: to sit beside him. In a gesture that was becoming more acutely human, she smoothed the back of her skirt down and sat down upon the bench.
At first she stayed bolt upright, far too neat and proper for one of the messy humans stuck in this neighbourhood, and too rigid and stiff for one of the demons copying the core four. Seconds past, and then,after watching Michael she began to mimic his position. Her shoulder rested against the back of the bench, her ankles crossed together, and she slumped down just a little. It was a good approximation, but an approximation nonetheless.
'You know why we're here, right?'
Janet smiled, effervescent as always. 'You're here to kill me.'
There had to be a better way for her to phrase that.
Michael couldn't say how or why, but something about her talking about her impending death like that had begun to grate on him. It had fallen into the same category as forcing Jason into an unwitting vow of being a mute, or forcing Tahani into nothing but beiges and mustard yellows. It had been fun at first, but now it left a bitter taste in his mouth. It was his job, and jobs weren't meant to be fun- it was one thing that linked humans and demons.
Not that killing Janet was fun. It was a necessity demanded by his job, by his plan. Janets as a concept were helpful beings, designed to assist others with their jobs. Even Bad Janets served a task.
He couldn't allow Janet to keep her memories. She was a paradigm of truth. If the humans found out because of her, they would be risking everything.
And yet, despite that sticky piece of knowledge, it had begun to bother him. It wasn't down to her pleading and begging, as some might assume. After the three hundredth and seventeenth time, he'd begun to realise she had something of an internal loop in her fail safe. The same pleas would come up, the same stories. They were all variations on a theme (children, husbands, wives, pets, religion, a lavender teakettle), and he knew the story well now.
Something else was beginning to happen, and Michael wasn't yet sure if he liked it.
'Doesn't it bother you?'
'I'm not human. It doesn't hurt me.'
They'd had this conversation before. Not this exact conversation, of course, but something like it. Michael would advise her he was about to kill her, and she would agree that it was the right thing to do. He didn't have to talk to her about it, of course. The first eighty-two times he had simply gone and done it. Then during reboots eighty-three to two hundred and nineteen, he'd let her know ahead of time. He'd gone back and forth between telling her and not for a little while, and then from three hundred and five onward they'd begun to talk.
'No, but... does the concept bother you?'
'I am not human, Michael. There is no afterlife for me.'
Closing his eyes, he huffed and turned the question over in his head. He could feel Janet watching him, waiting for him, as patient as ever. He pinched the bridge of his nose, just under his glasses as he turned it over.
'Does the... concept bother you?' he finally asked, opening his eyes to look at her again. 'That I'm killing you?'
'I'm not human, Michael. It doesn't harm me.'
'But does it upset you? Because it must upset you.'
There it was. That thing that had begun to gnaw on Michael, reboot after reboot, kill switch after kill switch. It was there, right there, in the tiniest, almost imperceptible way. It was almost nothing. Nobody else would have been able to see it, except for Michael, who had now done this five hundred and seventy-four times. That had to be a record.
A twitch. The barest suggestion of a twitch in the left side of her mouth. There and then gone.
'I'm not human, Michael. I have a fail safe.'
'But it upsets you.'
There was no twitch this time. Instead, there was a quick blink. It could have been a programmed, human gesture, but it came right at the accusation. He'd begun to see it, a sudden one-two blink right as that piece of information settled in her mind, completely understood. It hadn't happened the first, oh, thirty dozen times.
'We've done this before.'
'Yes. You told me. Five hundred and seventy-four times.'
'And I will be killing you for the five hundred and seventy-fifth time.'
'And you're allowed to.'
'But you don't want me to?'
Janet opened her mouth, started to reply, and then quickly shut it. That simple action had Michael sitting a little straighter, his mouth falling open a little before Janet shot him a look and he found himself leaning back a little.
'We're not near your switch, Janet. You can speak freely.'
'You're welcome to kill me, Michael. I can't feel pain.'
There was a pause. Michael swore he could hear an electricity-like buzzing in the air between them. He suddenly wished she didn't use that word- kill. It sounded so harsh. And it wasn't like he was really killing her. It was more like... a harsh reboot. Humans did it to their iPhones all the time. Janet was just a very advanced iPhone.
A very advanced iPhone.
'But what if you didn't?' Janet suddenly gushed. 'Kill me?'
Michael winced at the word again. Yeah, it was definitely too harsh. Especially when it looked like Janet was about to slap a hand over her mouth and swallow the words. She could very likely do that.
'I need to. If I don't and you happen to reveal what's happening, it could ruin everything. No, it's for our own good that you are rebooted.'
'But what if I don't? If we don't?' she asked quickly. 'What if we tried just once where you don't kill me?'
'Let's just stick with reboot. Is that alright? Reboot instead of kill?'
'What if we tried just once where you don't reboot me?'
That still didn't sound great. It wasn't terrible, but it definitely didn't sound good.
With a heavy sigh, Michael pulled lightly on his bow tie, trying to loosen it as he looked down at his knees. This shouldn't be so difficult. He'd done it before. Sometimes he'd done it four times in the space of one day, each of the humans having individually figured it out in his office in the space of ten minutes (Chidi being the slight exception, but he had seemed gravely horrified by the olive green carpet and Michael had decided it safest to reboot). That had been a bad day.
'I'm designed to be helpful. I am capable of keeping a secret. If need be, I can lie. If the humans keep figuring it out, then maybe I would be of some assistance in deciphering why.'
Michael knew what she would say next. Each Janet was upgraded slightly with each reboot, and she would therefore be one of the most advanced. There was apparently a Janet that had been rebooted over seven hundred times. His Janet would remark on what a feat it was that she was catching up, and they should find out how far she could. It was part permission for him to reboot her, and part wonderment on just what she would be capable of.
Folding his hands together, Michael took a breath and waited for it to come.
''Do you care about them?' Janet asked. 'The humans?'
That question was new. She'd never asked anything like that before. It was enough to make Michael look up at her, suspicion clouding his eyes. Although she had oft-stated that she was becoming more advanced, this was the first time there had been any obvious evidence to Michael that her internal processing had altered its standard path.
This cycle had lasted three months. It was an improvement, based on the last dozen or so. It was becoming increasingly tricky, though, finding a way to torture the humans without making it obvious. Wiping their memories was a snap of his fingers (literally), but he had begun to feel as though they were beginning to remember all the previous attempts. That was impossible, but their ability to find patterns that had been built in previous neighbourhoods was uncanny. It was like a bad remake of 50 First Dates, and the original had already been grating at best (and really, Adam Sandler deserved to be in the Bad Place for that Jack and Jill film. Roosevelt had been forced to watch it eighteen times and even the demons had begun to take pity on him).
The question Janet had asked didn't make him comfortable. It sat heavily within him, like a tub of Gilmore Girls Is Back!-flavoured frozen yoghurt.
'Do you?' he replied, turning it back on her.
Janet thought about it. Her brow furrowed, the corners of her mouth were pinched, and she considered it. Never a good sign. The longest it had ever taken Janet to compile any data had been just under five seconds, and that had been the result of her watching The English Patient in every available language, including Esperanto. She'd apparently had to 'have a nap' partway through.
'I'm not a girl,' she said carefully. 'But I think Jason makes me feel like one. Or maybe a boy. I'm not sure. Or maybe that feeling you get when you're at work and you hear the ice-cream truck coming down the street and your coworker asks if you'd like one.'
Michael wasn't sure what to say about that.
'Or... do you remember the blacksmith Ambrose Highwater, who lived in West Virginia in sixteen-thirty-two and died from dysentery?'
'Yeah, he's in the Bad Place for inadvertently wiping out an entire family because of smallpox.'
'Do you remember his neighbour, Fanny Albright?'
'Hilarious name, dour personality. Also in the Bad Place.'
'She had a pet aardvark,' Janet went on. 'And although that's the reason she was sent to the Bad Place, that aardvark adored her, as best as aardvarks can. He didn't know why, but he was fond of Fanny, even if she did smuggle an African animal to the United Kingdom and then over to America, which led to widespread devastation in a square-mile radius. The aardvark didn't care about all that, only about Fanny.'
If Michael's memory served correctly, Fanny also 'adopted' a local Seneca child (another reason why she had been sent to the Bad Place). As complicated as the relationship had been, there had been some level of fondness and Fanny had doted on the child.
'Who are you in this scenario?'
'The aardvark,' Janet replied. 'Jason makes me feel like an aardvark. Or at least he makes me feel similar emotions.'
If he weren't already doing so, Michael would think he needed to sit down. Janets, as a concept, weren't meant to have emotions. They were a vessel of unbound knowledge and knowledge, as a whole, didn't really emote. Janets may appear to be happy (if they were Good Janets) or moody (if they were Bad Janets) or unbearably dull (if the Medium Place Janet was anything to go by). But it was simply a facade, a mask to hide the vast and terrifying expanse of never-ending erudition that lay beneath. Even Michael didn't want to peer under the curtain.
But Janet felt something. His Janet felt something.
'I think I'm Fanny Albrighting right now,' Michael muttered, pressing the heels of his hands to his brow.
It was peculiar and mildly unsettling to see his group of humans evolve and learn the afterlife they existed in. It was even stranger, though, to see Janet change with them. She'd have never dared to suggest he not reset her, and certainly not because she was growing fond of a group of humans.
But Michael was, too. He was superior to them all. His job was to torture them, for all of eternity. He'd built this entire neighbourhood just to do that. Sure, he'd had to repeat it a few dozen... dozen times, but it was like learning any new skill. He had to practice to get it right, and in this instance, Michael had to practice a lot.
But, darn it, it was difficult when they kept changing the goal posts.
'Do you think they're getting better?' he asked suddenly. 'The humans.'
Janet was silent for a beat. Then-
'I don't know, because I have been reset from the beginning. However, I suspect that there is a possibility that they are. Genetic memory is often misinterpreted, but if we keep laying the same traps for them, then they are bound to predict the outcome, even if they don't know why. Fun fact! Humans have a saying: insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome.'
Michael was fairly certain the last part had been a small dig at him. He chose to ignore it and went back to studying the ocean. The roar of the water was hypnotic. He could almost understand why humans were so attracted to it. It almost sounded a little like the IHOP, if the screams of eternal madness had been turned into waves.
'I would like to stay,' Janet said beside him. 'I could monitor them. See if there is something that you are missing out on. Perhaps you're too close to them. Having an extra set of eyes on them may be advantageous.'
'And you would get to spend more time with Jason.'
Janet pointedly didn't reply to that. But, after a moment, she smiled at Michael and leant over a little conspiratorially.
'One do-over,' she said. 'So I can see where you may be missing important information. I will do my best to hide any indication that I am covering for your inability to adequately torture the humans for all eternity. If I fail, you have my permission to kill me and even turn me into a marble.'
That definitely caused him to wince. Shaking his head just a little, he lifted a hand, let it hover a beat, and then awkwardly squeezed her shoulder. The ocean in front of them was still roaring, but it suddenly sounded lighter, freer than it had when they had first sat down. The salt tasted sweeter. Even the sunlight was warming his rear opposable mandibles (and really, it was such a pity that humans couldn't see in the sixth dimension, as he was sure they would dreadfully upset Chidi and Tahani).
'You know what,' Michael said brightly. 'This calls for some frozen yoghurt. How does Rhianna's-Birthday-Cake flavour sound?'
At that, Janet's eyebrows shot up. She tilted her head to the side. The ocean roared again, the swell coming in. Michael thought perhaps she was going to suggest another flavour, but her eye twitched and she furrowed her brow a little.
'You shouldn't have said that.'
With a nod, Janet's eyes slid away from the ocean and to the serenity gardens behind them. There was another dull roar, though this time it didn't sound of the ocean. There was a deep, humming undertone.
'But I didn't say it,' Michael said, as the bees and wasps began to fly in.
'You didn't need to. The frozen yoghurt contains glutelins and by-products of glutelins, though.' With a pleasant smile, Janet looked towards the incoming swarm, and then back at Michael. 'I'll meet you back at the neighbourhood. This is the part where I suggest you run.'
There was a tell-tale ding! and Janet was gone. Lurching to his feet, Michael stared at the swarm, closing in.
Turning, Michael found himself facing Janet again. She grinned brightly and took his hand.
'And thank you, Michael. I won't let you down.'
Once more, she disappeared. Resigning himself to his fate, Michael shut his eyes and let the swarm overtake him.
Maybe he'd use them on the humans next time. Maybe a shrimp cocktail that covered a swarm of wasps.