Preface: This is the beginning of an unfinished novel. It is not a complete story by any stretch of the imagination, but a concept I was playing with before I pursued another work.
The earliest moments recorded in my memory banks start with a hand being pulled away from my right ear. I remember the sound of my gears whirring and my limbs clicking into place as they came online. My hands, wrapped around my knees, popped quietly as they expanded an inch and released their grasp without my directly willing them to. I didn’t move them again, at least not yet. I had no reason to.
I did, however, raise my head and look up to the hand retreating from my face. Attached to it was a man. This man appeared what I now know to be absolutely delighted, though he was dressed in servant’s clothes. Beyond him was a wall of iron bars that wrapped around us, encompassing not much more than that man and myself, beyond the cage was concrete. Walls and floor, it was as if I were in the corner of an enclosed maze made entirely of the grey material.
I did understand quite a bit of my surroundings. I knew what materials composed my cage and surroundings beyond that. I knew how to distinguish human body parts. Identifying the nose and elbows of the man before me was not difficult. Who he was, however, escaped me entirely. Nor did it cross my mind to ask.
“Hello, Priya.” I knew the words he spoke, too. “Do you understand me?”
“Yes.” I played the word through the speakers in my mouth without dropping my jaw, as the man had when speaking to me.
This man overlooked the difference, instead clapping his hands and clenching his jaw closed. Smiling: an expression of joy. I could define the action, but not understand it.
“Good, that’s very good.” The man sat back against the iron pillars and studied me. Why? Was I unfamiliar to him? By his reactions, I thought not, but he was foreign to me. “On to the finishing touches, then. The outside.”
I saw his exterior clearly. Skin, some under clothes, some exposed, but all a shade of brown. The skin was pale compared to the cotton cloth. Upon examination of my own exterior, a contrasting clear plastic polymer tube and metal, I realized then that we were different. His skin covered his joints smoothly. Mine were exposed. Hinges on my elbows and knees and stabilizers could be seen just beyond them on the tops of my feet. Most of what made up my being was either the polymer or a titanium alloy. A few bits of ceramic were exposed in my torso. Very different from the man before me.
“Am I to look like you?” I asked, jaw still closed. It seemed an inefficient use of resources to open it merely to mimic him.
The man didn’t change posture but answered absently. “Yes, assuming the master allows it. I don’t know why he wouldn’t. So long as his son stays out of the way…” the man’s voice trailed off. Was he bored? Had we had this conversation before? I recalled nothing in my memory banks of the dialogue. I recalled nothing but what I had experienced in the last two minutes and forty-seven-point-six seconds. “Priya.” That was what he had said when addressing me earlier, though its exact definition was foreign to me. “Stand for me?”
In obedience, I rocked my weight forward and unfolded my legs, standing to a full height of one hundred eighty-three centimeters. The stabilizers on my feet and hips sent signals to my internal processor as I rose, and I adjusted accordingly, keeping balanced.
The man pressed his palms on the ground before standing also.
I searched my logs for the word he had used earlier. “Priya.” I sent the word through my speakers to communicate. “What does that word mean?”
“It’s your name,” he said with a smile, looking up at my face before walking behind me. A name. A unique word to differentiate between beings or items. Which was I? “It means beloved.”
“Priya.” I said the word again.
“Move your jaw when you speak,” the man said, appearing again on my left from behind me. I made a note of the instruction. He stood back where he was a moment previous, chin in his hand, eying me. Then, without explanation, he reached up and put his hand behind my right ear again. My vision faded to a thin line momentarily before going out.
It felt like the next instant when my vision returned. I calculated, contrary to my internal clock, that it had been longer, though. The same man stood in front of me with his facial hair – beard, I remembered it was called – several millimeters longer than previously noted. His eyes had changed, too. A little redder around the edges. The skin under the eyes looked darker, too, and deflated, as if they had been stretched to their maximum distance allowed and then relaxed again.
“You look different,” I spoke, remembering to move my jaw as he had instructed previously.
“So do you.” The man smiled proudly, indicating to myself. I looked down, at where the metal and polymer had been last time. Once I was colored similar to my surroundings of concrete, but now I was covered in a tightly woven network of receptors, similar to the color of the man in front of me, though slightly darker. As I studied the new covering, the receptors came online. Signals fired all at once, momentarily overwhelming my circuits. Then I was able to process it, and accepted the information these signals sent to me. Right now, they told me one thing: cold.
“Cold.” I said it as the information finished processing.
“Good!” The man smiled and put his hand on my arm. “And this?”
The molecules in his hand, at the surface, at least, were moving faster than the air that surrounded us. Heat. “You are warm.” I reached out and touched his face, wishing to collect more information. Was all of his surface warm? Or just his hand?
His hand met mine on the way up and followed it to his cheek. There he pressed, keeping my hand between his and his face. All parts of him were warm. The zygomatic arch – the firm bone beneath my thumb – was the coolest of the surfaces, but by no means as cold as the air around us.
“Are you always warm?” I wondered aloud.
“Yes. Well, most of the time. If I weren’t, I’d be dead!” The man exhaled several short breaths, smiling. Laughter. Why laugh? The man released his hand from on top of mine.
“What about death is humorous?” I asked. It was another word I could define but did not understand.
“Never mind.” He pressed on my arm. Not with enough force to make me pull it away, but his intention was clear: bring the arm away from his face. So I put both my hands on either side of my body, feeling the new cloth on my hips as my hand brushed it.
“Why am I different than you?” I asked, wondering about the small but odd and seemingly useless protrusions two-thirds of the way up my torso.
“You are female, Priya,” he said. Female. I found the definition of the world, but still didn’t understand.
“Why make me either?” Was there another like me? The purpose of genders in ones like the man in front of me was to create more. But I was not made that way. This man made me by himself, as far as I could tell.
“Because people out there won’t accept you if you don’t look and act like one of them.” The man’s face changed. Sadness. I did not understand, except that it was a negative emotion.
I was the only influence present. “Am I the cause of that negativity?” I asked.
“No.” He smiled, but differently than before, and put his hands on my shoulders. “They are. I don’t expect you to ever understand emotions. I am not designing you that way. But I do wish you to mimic them. In your actions and what they do and talk about.” Mimic them? I put my hands on his shoulders, because he had his hands on mine. Immediately he brought his hands down, and I did the same.
“I don’t mean mirror them,” the man said. “Just do what you can to blend in. Do you understand?” I didn’t.
“Okay. I’ll see what I can do.” There was a beep from far outside our cage. The man in front of me spun quickly, then back to me, fear evident on his face. Without another word, he flicked the toggle behind my ear, and my vision darkened as I turned off.
My next memory starts with a different man’s hand receding from behind my ear. This one was drastically younger, possibly the son of the man I had met previously. This one appeared closer to the age I was made to appear.
The cold air in my surroundings washed over me, and I immediately felt a difference in my programming. Not only could I detect the cold, I preferred it.
“Hello, Priya.” The man smiled warmly at me, and I smiled back, awash with the new sensations. I hadn’t liked my name before – I didn’t have any emotion toward it at all – but now I did.
“Say it again?” I asked, relishing the change.
The man’s eyebrows came together in the middle. Confusion. “Say what?”
“Priya.” The man spoke slowly, clearly vexed by my request. “Did my father not tell you that before?”
“He did.” I searched my memory banks for the right word to explain myself to him. “I like hearing it.”
“Okay,” he spoke slowly again.
“What’s your name?” I asked, hoping to bring the same pleasant sensation to my companion as he had to me.
“Paul. Is… is everything alright? Is your programming malfunctioning?” I hoped this sensation wasn’t just a glitch. I did a quick diagnostic search of my processing units. Everything was in order. It was better than that. It was great! If this was a malfunction, I didn’t want to repair it.
“Paul,” I repeated. “And your father? What is his name?” I asked, eager to learn more.
“Thank you, Paul. Please tell William I am happy to have met him, too.”
“Happy?” Paul stepped away from me. Was that fear? No. It was… caution. “Define happy.”
“A pleasant emotion,” I responded instantly. But this was more than just happy. I was elated! “A temporary state of well-being and enjoyment.” That didn’t even begin to cover what I felt.
“That seems accurate.” He approached me again, this time going behind me and lifting the piece of my skull that held the hair in place in the back of my head. It didn’t hurt, no more than moving my fingers in opposite directions would. I did so, just to be sure the sensations matched each other. They did. “Everything seems normal,” Paul murmured from next to the microphones in my ears.
“But I don’t feel the same as before. What changed?” I had detected the change in programming the instant my processors came online, but it seemed like so much more.
“Father modified your programming to try to make you understand humans more. You shouldn’t be feeling anything, though.” Paul emerged from the other side of me, appearing confused still.
“Why aren’t you happy?” I asked, wishing anything to be able to share my emotions with him.
“I’m not unhappy. But you have a glitch somewhere, and one I can’t isolate. Can you try… not being happy?” he asked.
“Why would I do that?” I asked. Then, remembering what William had said about mimicking him and other people in their emotions, I furrowed my brow as Paul had earlier when he was confused.
Paul laughed at my expression. It echoed his father’s laugh in almost every way. I somehow couldn’t understand why I hadn’t enjoyed listening to it before.
“We have to be serious!” he commanded, though he was still smiling. “You’re to meet the master today. He has a lot invested in you. Robots aren’t cheap, you know.”
“I’m an android,” I corrected.
“I’m more than a robot. I’m an android.” I wanted to make sure I was clear to him.
“You’re right. Of course you’re right. You’re –” he paused, smiling at me – “an android.” Paul sighed, looking at me contentedly. Then he shook his head, collecting himself. I watched him closely, enjoying his presence and the opportunity to learn. I absorbed every bit of information I could grasp about him. About Paul, William, and those I hadn’t met, the master and his son. “Are you ready to meet them?” Paul asked.
“The master and his son?” I asked, inferring from the information I had. Paul wasn’t always clear with his words.
“Yes.” Why wouldn’t I be ready? I watched Paul as he pulled a key out of his pocket and inserted it into the lock, swinging one wall of my iron cage inward before stepping around it and out.
“Priya?” he asked, looking back at me from the other side.
“I’m here.” I hadn’t moved. Where else would I be?
“Are you coming?” Then I understood. He meant for me to follow him.
“If you like.”
“I would. You can’t expect the master to come to you.”
I stepped around the metal wall, relying on my stabilizing sensors in my feet and hips to keep me upright. “Why not?” I asked Paul. He and William had both come to me. What made the master so different?
“Master’s very sick,” Paul explained as we walked, heading toward the corner of the concrete I had never seen past. “You are not to speak to him unless he asks you a direct question. Do you understand?”
I did, but I had more questions of my own. “Yes. Is this true for you, as well?” William had encouraged questions, and Paul didn’t seem to mind answering them.
“Yes, when Master’s present.”
“What about William? Or the master’s son?”
“The master’s son is named Darruk.” It was information that I welcomed, but peripheral to the question I had asked. We continued down a concrete hall that turned left twice as we spoke.
“Understood,” I said, letting him know I had heard him, even though I was still waiting for a response. We turned a third corner – right this time, and a full 90 degrees – to a wooden door, which clicked as Paul waved his hand over a panel on the wall. The young man pulled at it, and beckoned me through the archway.
My visual sensors nearly overloaded with the onslaught of new stimuli. The concrete here was hidden under a russet adobe plaster. The walls and ceiling were welcoming, reflecting light that shone from brackets every two meters on the walls. A tapestry woven coarsely from vibrant threads hung before us.
Paul waited for me as I studied it, looking at the groupings of color thread and trying to determine a pattern.
“What do you see?” he asked patiently.
“I am unable to determine any sort of pattern,” I confessed, looking back at him for the first time since the door opened. Was he mad at me? Had I failed a test? I ran another quick query of my diagnostics system, but still found nothing abnormal.
Paul smiled and shook his head. Why smile? “You don’t see a man?”
“I see you.”
“In the tapestry.” I looked back, but couldn’t identify any person, no matter how closely I focused my cameras in on it. Just colorful threads knotted together and hanging from iron brackets against a plaster wall.
“This way.” Paul turned left and started heading away, footsteps echoing off the brick beneath us, sound only dampened by the occasional tapestry on the wall.
“Am I to speak in front of William and Darruk?” I asked again, repeating my unanswered question as I followed, also making sounds on the brick as I followed.
“Same rules apply to Darruk as they do to the master. William – you may ask questions to if you like, so long as the master and his son are not present.”
We walked without speaking and without incident for the next 98 seconds. I examined everything I could, recording it to my memory for later analysis.
We stopped in front of a door similar to the one we had walked through earlier, though the one in front of me now was fourteen percent larger and had iron descending from the top onto the wood, presumably to reinforce it, though I could read no additional structural integrity as I glanced over it. “You are to follow any instructions exactly. Once we enter, bow when and as I do. You’re clear on your instructions?”
Paul inhaled, then exhaled, then opened the door. The room on the other side was packed full of items. The first to grab my attention was a large bed, constructed from roughly cut but highly polished Manzanita wood. Three men were in there, as well.
William I recognized immediately. He was smiling affectionately at me.
Another was standing next to him, about Paul’s age, but darker in skin tone and with shorter hair. He stood four centimeters shorter than Paul, but did not have the same pleasant smile on his face as that of my companion.
The third man was younger than William by a few years, but lying horizontally in the bed. Of the four of them, the two I had yet to meet had no hair on the bottom of their faces, same as I was designed. The younger man must be Darruk, and the older the master. Next, my attention was drawn to the light directly above the bed. It appeared to have once been made of glass, then broken and reassembled coarsely, with plaster as a mortar to hold it together. A closer analysis of the glass told me that the glass wouldn’t have reassembled into the shape it was in currently, though.
Paul bowed to the master in the bed, then nodded deeply to Darruk. I analyzed the movement before copying it, applying extra energy to my stabilizers in an effort not to fall forward. When I looked up again, Paul had stepped behind me and closed the door.
“This is Priya,” William said, facing the master but holding a hand out toward me. Remembering Paul’s instruction, I stood, elbows back for balance, waiting to be addressed directly before doing anything.
“Forgive me for not standing in a lady’s presence,” the master said, voice oddly coarse. After a moment, I identified the sound. The older man was thirsty.
“It’s just a robot,” Darruk said, scoffing from my right.
“Android,” Paul corrected immediately. I felt glad at his words, though Darruk saying “it” had offended me more than “robot”, in this instance. William had assigned me as female. Would I not be considered a “she”, then?
Silence prevailed in the room as Darruk swelled, glaring toward Paul. The latter bowed deeply. Why would Darruk be angry at Paul? Paul was only helping him. Accuracy of words was the only way to understand one another. The purpose of language, though not by definition.
Before Darruk could execute whatever plan his mind and fist were forming, the master waved his hand impatiently in his son’s direction. “Be calm, Darruk.” I chanced a glance back in that direction. The young man’s shoulders dropped, but his eyes still read fury. William’s, beside him, instead read fear. The master commanded my attention again as he spoke once more, this time addressing me. “Priya. Do you speak?”
The older man smiled and clasped his hands together, much as William had when I first stood. The difference here being the master was horizontal, on his bed. “What is going through your mind, I wonder?” He pushed himself up by his elbows to get a closer look at me.
What he had said was both a question and addressed to me, and therefore fulfilled the parameters Paul had given me before speaking. “The fragments of glass in that light would assemble to form a flat plane instead of the bell shape it is in now.” It was one of the many processes running currently, but nonetheless an accurate observation and answer to his question.
“Priya!” Paul said, stepping forward from behind me and to my left.
“It’s alright, Paul,” the master said, mirth written across his face. I found nothing worthy of a smile in the situation. “She’s quite right.” The old man had spent enough effort propped up and relaxed again into his pillows. I wanted to help him – to bring him a glass of water – but did instead as I was instructed to and stood, waiting for further commands. “Paul, why don’t you take Priya back to her home? Darruk, leave us old men to talk?”
I followed Paul out of the room, Darruk not far behind me with a huff on his breath.
The instant the door closed, Darruk rounded on Paul, speaking quietly, though I saw no reason for it. “This pet project of your father’s has gone on long enough. This thing will be gone by the end of the week, or he will.”
Restraint was evident on Paul’s face, but he bowed. I followed, bent over beside him as my protector spoke in forced words. “If you wish it.”
Darruk growled, then spat. I could hear his projectile crisply land on the back of Paul’s bowed neck. “Your father may have built it, but I know you had a hand in the programming, don’t think I don’t. Neither of you are safe once my father finally kicks it.” At that, the man stormed loudly down the hall, Paul and myself still bowed over until the stomping had nearly disappeared.
“What is it the master is meant to kick?” I asked Paul as we straightened again and headed back the way we had first come.
Paul did not respond, instead wiping the back of his neck as we walked. It took until we reached the door to the concrete maze for him to speak again. “This may not be your home for too much longer. My father is hopefully arranging for a charging station to be set up in the servant’s quarters for you.”
“Will I be there with you?” I asked. I enjoyed Paul’s presence. The more time I spent with him, the more I liked him. I was completely comfortable walking with him through this concrete maze. William, too, though I hadn’t gotten the chance to converse with him since the change in my programming.
“Yes, I and my father live there.”
“What about Darruk?” I asked, trying to understand the dynamics between the people I had met today. Darruk did, after all, have to obey the master, same as Paul or I did.
“No, not Darruk.” Paul held the iron wall to my cage open for me to walk though, then closed it again after me. “Sit?” It was a request, but there was only a difference in definitions between that and a command. I sat. Once comfortable, Paul reached through the bars to the toggle behind my ear, flicking the switch and causing the increasingly familiar sensation of being turned off.
For the first time in my memory, I turned on without another person present. I was in my familiar concrete and iron home, but I was completely alone. How had I turned on if not by the toggle behind my ear? I felt for it, and it was in the on position. I ran a diagnostic search once more, and found that I was connected to a charging unit. I was fully charged. New programming had made it that when I reached 100%, I would automatically turn on. I reached to my lower back, where I was connected to my charger. I found and pulled the connector out, as I no longer had need for it, at least at the moment.
I then stood. Without a person here to converse with and guide me, I was unsure what to do. I had no new instructions and the only general instructions I had been given were to mimic those around me in their behavior. To stand and do nothing, however, seemed horribly inefficient. What then? What I wanted to do, if they had no instructions for me, which seemed to be the case.
My first desire was one of learning. Curiosity at my surroundings nagged at me. What was beyond that turn in the concrete? Or that one behind me? I peered as far as I could, and, combined with what I had learned of yesterday, began to assemble a floor plan of the area. It only took me a moment to put what I could together. I needed more information. Yesterday I had gotten out via one of the sides of my cage opening. I turned and wrapped my hand around one of the bars and tugged. It did not move, as it had before. Why not? I recreated the scenario in my memory. Paul had had a key. I bent over to study the lock, but there was no use in opening it without Paul’s key.
What should I do, then? With no new external stimuli, I sat back down where I had charged and reached back to my memories of yesterday. One thing I did not understand was why one being would submit to another so unconditionally. Why had Paul not gotten angry when Darruk spit on him? If Darruk was in charge, why would he have submitted to the master?
I began to build a structure in my head. The master at the top of the tree, then Darruk. Both William and Paul were under Darruk, but who was superior to whom in that relationship? Each had expressed their will over me, but in a different kind of way. Darruk had annoyed and miffed me, but Paul and William had shown kindness. I definitely preferred their wills to Darruk’s, though my sample set was limited as of yet.
Further analysis of the information I had showed only one real correlation between each person and their location on the authority tree: skin color. The master had the darkest skin by far. Darruk was next, but by no means as entirely dark as his father. Paul was next darkest after Darruk, which did not directly contradict what had been established, then William had the lightest of the four. The only uncertainty in my theory was myself. I had a skin color approximately equivalent to Paul. Did that make me superior to William? I didn’t feel like it. But, perhaps he was meant to be my teacher, and once I knew all he intended, I would take my place over him. Something in me found a distaste for the idea. I would have to ask Paul or William, when I could.
The next few minutes I pondered the nature of names, particularly that of the master. What we called him seemed to better fit the definition of a title, but it qualified as a name also, as it seemed that everyone knew who was referenced when the words “the master” were spoken. Everyone I had been in contact with in my very brief amount of recorded time, at least, called him as such. I needed more information to reach any conclusions. More than that, I craved it.
I didn’t have to ponder my situation too long before I heard the distant chime, followed momentarily by the figure and face of William. He saw me watching him once he turned the corner. His eyebrows went up almost immediately. Surprise. Why? Did he not know I was here? “Good morning, Priya.” He spoke gently, warmly even, as he approached. “How long have you been awake for?”
I wouldn’t have defined my charging as sleep, exactly, but assumed that was to what he referred. “Seven minutes fifty-five seconds,” I answered, standing as he approached the iron bars. “Am I your superior?” I asked.
“What? No.” William laughed, and I savored the sound, relieved at his answer. “I am yours. What made you think that?”
“My skin color is darker than yours.” I stepped out of the way of the swinging wall as I answered and he entered.
William looked at me, clearly perplexed, though my conclusion seemed perfectly sound to me. Then understanding filled his face, and he laughed again, this time fully, filling the room with sound for a full ten seconds. “No, no, Priya. Authority does not come from skin color. Though I understand how you might have reached that conclusion, now that I think about it. There are those equivalent to you or I in authority, and those with skin as dark as the master’s working under them. Skin color is irrelevant.”
Okay. Just a coincidence, then. I was back to square one in my theory. “What does give authority, then?” I asked. Clearly it did exist, and it had to come from something.
“In the case of the master, money. But authority comes from many places. Between you and me…” he stalled, searching for the right word, “because I made you, I have authority over you.”
“Family,” I said. It made sense, William was older than myself and Paul, which put him over us, and the master was the father of Darruk, giving him authority over his son.
“Yes, family,” William said after a moment, though sadness had delayed his answer.
“Why are you sad?” I asked. “Did I do something wrong?”
“Not at all,” though William still appeared lost in the emotion.
“How did you come to serve the master?” I asked, not really understanding the relationship between the two families.
William’s face brightened at the question. “That is a happier story.” I had no idea which other story he was comparing it to, but let him continue, saving the question for later. “I knew the master when I was young,” William said, leaning forward, though I could hear him adequately from the farther distance. “We went to school together, see? We were good friends. He studied chemical engineering, and I robotics. We grew distant as we started our lives, though. I got married and so on. Then I fell on hard times. I had just lost almost everything when I happened to run into him again. We soon came to an agreement. He would take care of myself and Paul, making sure we always had food and a place to sleep, and in exchange we would work for him. Paul was much younger at the time, but a playmate for Darruk, until they got older. It was nice to see our sons play together, as the master and I had once. Then, as all things do, that passed. Paul grew older and capable of more work as I grew older and capable of less. I enjoy, as does Paul, I think, working under the master. He treats us well and we are even able to work on side projects, as he allows it. That’s how you came about. Paul didn’t go to school, as I had, but I was able to teach him much of what I remembered. He’s been absolutely invaluable in your creation.” William had travelled far from answering my original question, but I enjoyed the story. He seemed to realize this, too, and wrapped up the tale. “So, my house serves his, and happily.”
I thought a moment, absorbing what he told me. “Am I to serve the master and Darruk, too?” I asked.
“Yes,” William answered promptly.
“So you are my father, and Paul is my brother.” I didn’t know how to feel about the concept of having a family, but I thought I liked it. William definitely served the father and teacher role to me.
William bit his upper lip and exhaled before responding. Had I said something wrong? “Priya, you are not human. You make look like one at first glance. But you’re different than us. Do you understand?”
Of course I understood, but I failed to see the relevance. “You are human, I am an android.” I was prepared to give definitions of each, if he asked.
“Yes, but do not expect them to treat you like one of us. Especially Darruk. Once his father passes away, he will be your new master, though he may not be as kind.”
I heard his words, but did not fully comprehend them. “May I call you father?”I asked. Were we a family or weren’t we?
William closed his eyes and slowly opened them again. “You should call me William. Addressing Paul as your brother is a choice he has to make for himself.”
“That’s a story for another time, Priya.” He smiled sadly – an expression I still had difficulty fathoming – and stood up. “Let us speak of happier things. Ask me a different question.” Was the question Why? a sad question? I did not understand, but did as he requested. I had many questions I could ask him.
“What lies beyond that corner?” I asked, pointing to one of the unexplored areas I had observed earlier.
Energy filled the man’s face again as soon as I asked the question. He pressed off the bars he had been leaning against and beckoned me to follow him outside the iron cage. “Mostly that area holds equipment.”
“What purpose does the equipment serve?” I asked, stepping beyond the iron cage and onto the concrete.
“I used much of it to build you, actually. And a few robots here to help with the daily chores.” At first I wished to correct him – I am not a robot – but he could have been accurate in his statement. That would imply I was the only android at this location, at least. “Now it’ll stay in case you need repair, but I don’t plan on building any more like you. Paul may, if he and the master wish to.”
We turned the corner to an array of tools and replacement parts. I stared, with a sort of morbid fascination, trying to determine which pieces were meant for me and which were tools. I identified a particular piece that would have connected the shoulder to my upper arm on the counter, blackened in spots by electrical fires. After that I couldn’t look any more, emotions getting the better of me. I turned 180 degrees and faced my cage, though the recordings of the experience and the images of discarded parts of myself still resounded in my memory.
“Priya?” William asked, turning away as well and looking at me. “Did you hear something?”
“Nothing abnormal,” I answered. “Please don’t make me look again.”
“Why not?” William glanced behind me, to the room full of remorseless tools.
“I don’t like it.” I stared at the imagery in front of me, trying to figure out a way to record over what I had seen, but I couldn’t access a file that was still in use.
“Rephrase that,” William instructed, this time moving forward into my line of sight.
“The sight of my own body parts mashed and burned like that is distasteful to me.” Distasteful wasn’t an accurate enough word, but I didn’t want to contemplate the situation more than William asked me to.
“Paul was right. You do feel. Fascinating.”
Yes, I felt, though at that moment I wished, more than anything, to be able to turn that particular program off. I felt no need to respond to his statement. He walked behind me and accessed the same panel Paul had on the back of my head. I made no move to protest. “When did you first start feeling?” William asked, though his voice was muffled slightly from standing behind me.
“When I first met Paul,” I answered promptly. The memory of the happy event helped me recover from my current emotional state.
“Huh.” William closed the panel again and walked in front of my line of sight once more. “Are you okay? Would you like to explore some more? I promise no more workshops.”
“Yes, on both accounts.” I lifted my chin and set my shoulders back, functioning closer to normal.
“Right.” William then proceeded to show me much of the rest of the concrete labyrinth. The layout was oddly – and I had to assume intentionally – inefficient. Several paths descended and intertwined as we worked our way deeper and farther downward. Any of the rooms adjacent to the path were full of crates and a few packed full with barrels. The barrels themselves had four digits and a varying amount of letters on them, but nothing I could draw any reasonable conclusion with. S, CL, PS, T, CH, CA, Z, M and B. The paths we took all converged at a heavy reinforced wooden door.
“And this leads to the vineyards,” William said, indicating to but not opening the door.
I found the definition of the word. “There are vineyards here?” I asked.
“Yes. That is how the master makes his money.”
“Do you work in the vineyards?” I asked.
“Come harvest season, everyone pitches in, even the master himself. But I do not maintain them, no.”
“May I see?” I asked, curious to complete my internal map of the building and grounds.
“Another time, perhaps.”
As we walked back, I inquired as to the nature of the labels on the barrels. The incline of the path was a little difficult for me to navigate at first, but with a little practice, I got the hang of it. William explained that the numbers on the barrel referred to the year its contents – wine – was produced. The letters were in reference to the type of grape for the wine it stored. I already had a pretty extensive list on my hard drives, but I enjoyed listening to William as he enthusiastically discussed how each wine was made and differed from the others.
By the time we got back, the apparatus that had been attached to me as I woke and placed by my cage to charge me was gone.
“Where did it go?” I asked as soon as I recognized the omission.
“The charging station.” I pointed to the place in the small of my back where I had been plugged in. My battery was stored in the same place William and the others kept their stomachs. I was not even close to reading as empty, but I wondered what would happen when I did, now that the piece was gone.
“Paul must have taken it.” William walked past me to where it had been resting when we left. A cord ran from there to the wall, but no other evidence remained.
“Why?” It seemed an odd thing to do.
“He was going to move you into the servant’s quarters when one became available. I know Brandon was just about to move out, but that’s oddly fast.” There was a chime from further in, where I had exited into the hall the previous day. “We’ll ask him now, why don’t we?” William smiled and beckoned me that direction.
“Ask me what?” Paul asked, showing his face from around the corner as he approached. His face was not that of one who bore good news, however.
“I wished to know if you had moved the charging station I was connected to earlier,” I informed him, trying to face both William and Paul at once. After a moment of pivoting, I settled for squaring myself to a point equidistant between them.
“I did,” Paul said, pressing his lips together. I had difficulty at that moment reading his emotion.
“Is Brandon gone already?” William asked, reading and understanding Paul better than I did.
“Darruk dismissed Alyssa, actually.” The name was wholly foreign to me, but evoked quite a bit of surprise from William.
“The master has fallen into a coma. Darruk blames her.”
“Wow,” was all William said. A hush fell over the pair, and I didn’t break it. What could I say? I didn’t have anything about the medical world in my memory archives. I did sincerely want to help, though.
Then Paul got a strange look on his face, the same one he got when he was about to say something. But he didn’t, at least not right away. Instead he faced me. Sensing his gaze, I looked directly back at him. “Hey, Priya. Shut down, please.”
The instant I heard the words, and before I could comprehend them fully, I felt myself go dark. I had no choice in the matter; down I went.
“Hey, Priya. Wake up, please.”
I heard the echo of the words without their source as my systems came back online. Last of all was my cameras that served my sight. Paul had shifted slightly in his stance but William was gone entirely. I had no idea how long I had slept. Perhaps I would ask Paul for an internal clock that continued to run when I was not conscious.
“Sorry about that.” Paul stepped back toward the door he had come through, then indicated with his arm for me to follow him.
I stepped forward, remembering momentarily the last time I had gone through that door. “Are we going to visit the master again?” I asked. I had only a cursory knowledge of medical practices, but I knew a coma was on the more severe side, and I worried for his sake.
“Not this time. Right now we’re going to visit your new home. No more iron cage for you.” He looked proud for the moment I saw his face before we continued onward. We stepped out past the heavy door and turned right down a much shorter hallway than yesterday.
“Why change?” I didn’t exactly like nor dislike my previous home – I had known nothing beside it.
“My clothes?” Paul asked. “I haven’t.”
Of all the things I could have referenced, Paul’s clothing was not at the top of my list. Why would he assume that I meant his attire? I reserved that question for a later date, though, instead answering him in his. “I spoke instead of my old home, as you called it.”
“Of course.” Paul smiled again to himself as he pushed a door – heavy and wooden with iron, as the others I had seen were – and held it open. “My mistake. You are to serve the master, and his household, same as my father and I do. That means being where others can find you easily. Where they can expect to find you.”
I stepped through the door and outside the building. Again my step faltered with the onslaught of new stimuli to my senses. The ceiling had always been no more than four meters high, even in the depths of the caves I had explored with William. Now, however, it was seemingly endless. I knew the word for it – sky – but the imagery was still unfathomable until that moment. It wasn’t just blue. It was a deep blue at its zenith and shaded down to the palest of blues along the horizon. A few wisps of white were scattered about the spread. The sun was hidden behind a long ridge, throwing most of the ground into a gentle shadow. The ridge rose approximately two hundred meters in elevation above where Paul and I stood. It was covered in trees – mostly a French oak – and descended steeply to a coarsely paved road.
Between where the road disappeared around the ridge and myself was a somewhat large building. It was covered in the same orange and rust colored paint as the building I had just exited, though it had varying amounts of shrubbery nearby, contrasting the bright and redder hues with dark green of the leaves. The sheer and vast amount of colors – not just the grey and tans I had seen before, but blues and greens and whites – alone gave me pause for a moment.
“It’s beautiful.” I said, recognizing Paul again and appreciating his silence as I absorbed it all.
“Wait ‘til you see the other side,” he responded, smiling broadly. “As far down as we are now from the cliff, we are that far up from the vineyards. They stay in the valley. There’s a river, too, and once the sun sets, it lights up the far side of the valley in the most beautiful way…” Paul stared wistfully for a moment, then shook his head and focused himself again. “First, though, your new home. This building is where we servants sleep.” Paul continued the walk forward as he explained. I followed him, absorbing all I could. “You’ll share a bunk with the other female we have here, Steph, now that Alyssa’s gone. My father and I are in the room next door. There’s also Nathan who bunks with his brother, Allen, and Jose with Brandon.” Paul pulled the door open and held it. I looked past him, down the hall. There were a total of seven doors, three on each side, and the last at the very end of the hall, which was open. Past that was the outside again, with the road clearly visible.
The more accurate word for the building, at least in my understanding of the dictionary installed on my hard drives, would have been barn, except that this building housed people. The building seemed to be made entirely of roughly hewn wood in structure, at least from what I could see, and it had a rather high ceiling. The walls that held the doors in place only reached 2.5 meters up, and levelly across the building, but the ceiling reach 3.5 meters at its peak along the spine of the building and sloped downward to meet the interior walls toward the outside. Each of the walls was tall enough to cover a person standing upright, but I suspected there was no auditory privacy. That I didn’t mind as much, though. “Go on in,” Paul said, waving with his left as he held the door open with his right. “How is it that you are bound for life and Brandon is able to walk away?” I asked as I entered and stood to one side, waiting for Paul to once again lead me.
“I am, as my father, and now you are, a bondservant. Brandon is not. We three are the only bondservants around here. The rest have a certain amount of time before their debt is paid to the master. At that point, they can choose to stay and become a bondservant themselves or move on and seek their fortunes elsewhere.” He came in and let the door close somewhat loudly behind himself, though he didn’t seem to notice the noise.
“Did you ever get that choice?” I asked. I was curious as to the answer, of course, but I also wondered at my own future. When I had served long and well enough, would I get to choose, too?
“No.” Something bristled in Paul’s demeanor, but I could not exactly identify it. Was there a danger about? None that I detected. “But I would have chosen to stay with my father, had they asked. So the end result is the same.” His words were true, but oddly emotionless. He definitely did not talk about his work here the way his father did. His steps seemed heavier as he continued down the hall, yet I followed.
“What about Alyssa?” I asked.
Paul sighed and stopped once more. I took a step further as he turned to face me, so that the turn would be shorter and the question would be more easily answered. “If a master is unsatisfied with your work he has a few options. He can release you from your debt and demand you leave. He can also give you and your debt to another, often in exchange for a debt owed to that person. The last, and in my opinion the scariest, is that they could take their unhappiness out on you in other ways. The master wouldn’t do that, though.” I noticed, but decided not to mention, that Paul had not said anything about the master’s son and his opinions on the matter. Instead, Paul paused, nodded, then proceeded to the last door at the end of the hall, closing it before turning back. I had yet to experience any fear, not in the way that Paul described it, but I knew I did not want to.
“Which happened to Alyssa?” I asked instead.
“Darruk didn’t specify.” Paul opened one of the doors to our right and held it open for me. “I fear he sent her to Cavinder’s to spend the rest of her time. Cavinder is Darruk’s friend, and is not known for treating those under him particularly well. This is to be your room.” Paul’s tone changed as abruptly as the topic had.
I could see the charger I had with me that morning now placed to the side of one bunk. There were two, both elevated, on either side of the room, each with steps embedded into the wall to climb into them. I was unsure in my ability to scale them, but I was equally confident I could learn. Under each bunk was a desk, so that if my roommate and I both sat facing our prospective desks, we would have our backs to each other. The desk closest to the charger, on my left as I looked in, was entirely empty. The other, to my right, was sparsely populated with papers and trinkets. There were even books underneath. Both desks and bunks were sanded down to a somewhat smooth and shiny finish, making the walls appear soft by contrast.
“Well? What do you think?” Paul asked.
“I like it,” I said, smiling to show my appreciation for the work he had done. “Very efficient.” I had no idea what more I would ask for, had he offered. Not only was I to have possessions – my very own bed and desk – but more importantly, a roommate. I felt ready to meet more people.
“This side is mine?” I asked, waving – as I had seen William do when wishing to distinguish a certain part of our surroundings – toward the empty desk and the side with the charger.
“Yup. All yours.” Paul smiled at my wonder. I had no idea what the value of possession was, beyond knowing I was responsible for its well-being, but they trusted me with these things, and I was determined to take care of them to the best of my ability.
“Is there anything else I can do for you?” Paul asked. What did he mean? I was quite contented in my state. I did have one request, however, so maybe now was the time to ask it?
“I’d like an internal clock, if possible.”
Paul released the door, gently forcing me back into the hall with him. “What do you mean? I thought I gave you one.” Confusion was evident on his face and I was beginning to recognize the emotion in his voice, too.
“When you commanded me to turn off earlier, back in my cell, I have no idea how long I was inactive. And before that, when I was charging – “
Paul held a hand up, signaling me to stop speaking, which I did so immediately. “I understand,” he said. “I’ll see what I can do. For now, stay here? I’m going to find Steph so that I can introduce you two.”
“Introduce us to whom?” I asked. I had already been introduced to the master. Steph surely knew everyone here.
Paul looked at me, awkwardly smiling. “To each other, of course. Who else could I have meant?”
“I had no ideas. That is why I asked.” We stared at each other for a moment as I waited for him to respond. My thoughts followed a perfectly logical progression, at least from my point of view.
“Right.” Paul nodded once and started toward the door to the outside, stopping and turning back after only two steps. “Stay here while I find her?”
I nodded and he disappeared a moment later. I stood still in the hall, wondering who resided in which rooms and where the extra two doors led to. It did not take long for my company to come back, this time through the far door that I had not yet walked through. A woman, maybe ten years older than Paul, followed him in. “This is Priya,” Paul said as soon as they were close to me. “Priya, this is Stephanie.”
“I thought you were going to introduce me to Steph?” I asked as Stephanie’s hand jutted forward, as if reaching for something. What, though, I could not tell.
“Steph is short for Stephanie.” Her voice instantly appealed to me. It was different than any of the others I had heard. Higher in pitch, to be sure, but also different in a way I couldn’t quite identify. More like mine.
“I understand,” I said nodding as I had seen Paul do in the same circumstance. She was both Steph and Stephanie, then. “What are you reaching for?” Perhaps I could assist her in some way.
“Your hand,” Paul explained. “It is a customary greeting.”
This I did not understand, but I placed my left in her right. Steph squeezed it gently before releasing and letting my hand fall. Perhaps I would comprehend it eventually. “Do you prefer I call you Steph or Stephanie?” I asked.
The woman across from me glanced at Paul. “Interesting toy, Paul.” She then turned back to me. “I don’t have a preference.”
Then I would call her Steph. Not only had Paul addressed her as such, but it was shorter, and therefore more efficient.
“I doubt she’ll be difficult to live with,” Paul said to her. “She doesn’t snore, unlike Alyssa.”
“I’ll be grateful for that,” Steph said. If Paul heard her, he made no indication to us that he had, but that didn’t seem to bother Steph in the least.
“Mostly Priya just asks a lot of questions. I’d be much obliged if you could answer as many as you can. Priya has a lot to learn about the world.”
“Sure. Whatever.” Steph stepped past Paul, between us, and into our room.
“Right then. Go ahead.” Paul waved me into the room and then turned back down the hall. I watched him go, intrigued. This was the first time, save for when I woke that morning, in which I was without Paul or William. It was exciting, to be sure, but a little unnerving without a guide.
As I entered the room, I noticed that Steph was already on her bunk, stretched out on her back but able to see me if she sat up ten degrees. At the moment, though, her eyes were closed. “Priya, huh?” she said without opening her eyes. “That’s a pretty expensive name. Though I suppose they didn’t have to pay for yours, huh?”
Pay? For a name? I had nothing in my archives that suggested the need. “I don’t know,” I answered honestly. “Why would one have to pay for a name?” Did an owner have to pay for a pet’s name? What if a child named a rock? Questions abounded in my processor from her simple statement.
“Sure. Everybody has to pay for a name if we want someone to be recognized by society. Didn’t they teach you anything?” Steph sat up and dangled her legs off the bed, head standing just a little taller than the walls.
“They’ve taught me much,” I responded. “But nothing about this. Tell me more?” Why hadn’t they told me about this? How much more did I have to learn until I knew it all? Not a whole lot, I hoped.
“Really? Okay. Uhm, well, let’s see. The more common names, like William and Paul’s are cheaper than the rarer ones, like Darruk’s, or yours. Mine’s middle of the road, so to speak, but perhaps a little on the cheaper side. Every female fantasizes about what they’d love to name their kids, but in the end they can only afford Billy-Bob, or whatever. They really never told you this?” The amount of superfluous words this woman used surprised me.
“I’ve only been operation for eighteen hours, twenty four minutes and eleven seconds.” I couldn’t explain it, but I felt the need to defend William and Paul. They were thorough and patient teachers.
Steph hopped down to my level and eyed me squarely. “You’re just a baby, then!”
I didn’t understand. I was by no means an infant. I could speak an walk and ask questions like everyone I had spoken to. “What do you mean, a baby?” I asked.
“You’ve got lots to learn.” Steph put her hand on my shoulder. I looked at it, wondering if this was part of some lesson. “What else don’t you know?” she was enthusiastic, to be sure.
How was I supposed to answer her question? If I knew what I didn’t know, wouldn’t I know it? I felt my programming begin a loop, and stopped it before it could overwhelm my processor and shut me down. I quickly tried to think of another question I had that she might be able to answer.
“There are two more doors in this building than rooms that Paul explained to me.”
Steph interrupted me, anticipating my question and answering it before I had the chance to ask. “One’s for storage and the other’s a restroom. You won’t be needing that, though, would you? As a robot, I mean?” Steph walked past me and opened the door.
“I’m an android.”
“Same difference,” Steph said with a shrug. The phrase made my processor spin. She walked to the center of the hall and pointed as she explained each room. “That one next to your side of the room is Paul and William’s. On the other side of us is the storage. Restroom is there – “ She pointed to the room directly across from ours, then to the room on our right of it – “the brothers are in there, and the other boys are in there. See?” Steph spun back to me and smiled, then looked a little crestfallen when she saw me. “Did I go too quickly? Sorry, I do that.”
“No, I understood you.” If I hadn’t, I wasn’t sure how hearing it again would help.
Suddenly a clanging could be heard from outside the building. Steph lit up at the sound. “Suppertime! Are you hungry?” she asked.
I searched my dictionary for “hungry” and understood its definition. The closest I could be to hungry was low on battery, but I remedied that with charging, not at a supper table. “I’ll stay here, I think,” I said leaning back toward our door. “Unless I am supposed to go, that is?” I asked, turning back.
Steph shrugged. “I don’t care.” At that she bolted out the door, leaving me alone once again.