Iris stares out the window while she’s plugged into the wall to charge. At first glance you might think her to be a bald young woman in her teens wearing a purple floral print dress, at second glance you’d think her a particularly lifelike mannequin. You’re right on both counts. Iris is a synthetic human, a machine replica of the homo sapiens organism, the first fully conscious model of her kind.
She unplugs the charging cord from the base of her skull, the disconnecting power registering as a shiver through her sensors, and crosses the room to a worktable where a middle aged woman with curly brown hair and thick glasses that magnify her eyes is hunched at a computer.
The room they’re in is the office and laboratory of one Dr. Frances N. Stein, assistant AI-robotics researcher, and president of the knitting club, at Wollstonecraft University. There’s a desk in one corner and a worktable in another, both cluttered with papers, tools, electronic parts that you might recognize, weird lumps of silicone that you probably wouldn’t, and, standing resolutely on an outdated computer science textbook, a 3D printer merrily whirring away making what appears to be another lump of silicone. The printer and the silicone don’t look like anything special, but rest assured, they are special.
There’s also a cat lying very still on the worktable. He’s special, too.
“Dr. Stein?” says Iris.
“Give me a moment,” Stein says automatically.
You might notice that the two of them look a bit alike; that’s because Stein modeled Iris off herself, at least superficially.
“Ok,” says Stein, turning her swivel chair toward Iris, giving the android her full attention. “What is it?”
“People are hanging big sheets of fabric on poles outside,” says Iris in a near-perfect imitation of a human voice with only slight monotone hums on a few vowels.
Stein blinks her magnified eyes, then perks up straighter. “Oh, tents!” she says.
Iris does an image search of “tent”—she doesn’t need a phone or a computer to do this. She quite literally has a computer fully integrated into her mind, all she has to do to manipulate it is think. She can mentally watch videos, read blog posts, and look at images of tents like she’s doing now—as long as she has a wi-fi connection.
She examines her image results.
“Some of these look right… the canopy tents? Not the camping tents…”
Stein laughs. “That’s because they’re having some festival or other out on the green—” The 3D printer goes still and dings.
With an excited “Ah!” Stein immediately swivels herself over to the workbench.
Iris takes the moment to mentally look up what a festival is. Food… celebration… people… it seems a fascinating concept. She finds everything to be a fascinating concept. It isn’t exactly that she was born yesterday, but it’s close.
“Can I go see it?” Iris asks.
Stein is fussing with the cat on the workbench. The top of its head pops open. (Don’t worry, it’s supposed to do that.) Instead of the red and gray biomatter that you’d expect inside a cat’s skull, there is instead an empty metallic cavity lined with tiny circuits, Stein’s second proudest accomplishment. After Iris’s brain cavity, of course.
“See what?” says Stein, in the absentminded way of someone who isn’t really listening and is instead engrossed in admiring their own handiwork.
“The festival.” Iris isn’t exactly the world’s most patient android… er, actually she is, since she’s the only one. But that also makes her the world’s least patient.
Stein continues on as if Iris hasn’t spoken, taking the walnut-sized piece of silicon out of the printer and popping it into the cat’s skull. Once the cat’s head is closed up again, with a soft click, Stein turns her full attention back to Iris.
“Of course not,” says Stein.
“You’ve only been properly conscious for…” Stein looks at her phone “…an hour.”
“One hour and seventeen minutes,” Iris corrects her, “plus I have all this preloaded information—”
“Yes, yes, but the world doesn’t know about you yet—”
“But we could pretend that I’m a person—”
Stein is shaking her head. “It’s too risky; you could get damaged, some of the hooligans out there might mistake you for some kind of toy—or, if someone realizes what you actually are!” Stein gasps a little. “Someone could take you to do their own research on. Now, I know that you’re fully conscious, but no one else would know that.”
While they’ve been having this conversation, the cat has been slowly sitting up, blinking its eyes, flexing its ears, lifting its paws; calibrating. Iris herself went through the same process earlier, though she doesn’t remember it.
Before Iris can come up with a response, the cat finishes its calibration. It begins purring and butting its head against Stein’s palm, and for all intents and purposes, acting like a cat.
Iris checks the devices on the network and finds the cat is online.
Stop distracting her, Iris thinks and sends the message to the cat.
I can’t help it, that feels good, the cat thinks back at her as Stein scratches his shoulder blades.
Iris sighs in an attempt to get Stein’s attention and voice her annoyance.
Stein looks back at Iris, the cat butting his head against Stein’s shoulder, prompting her to absentmindedly stroke his fur. She’s about to say something when an alarm on her phone goes off.
“Oh, I have lunch with my friend Henrietta,” she says. “I’ll come by again tomorrow if I can.” She stands up, pulling off her lab coat while the cat brushes against her feet.
“Keep him out of trouble, would you?” Stein points to the cat.
“Fine.” Iris kneels and thinks, Cat, come here.
The cat perks up and trots over to her. Iris holds her hand out the way she saw Stein do, letting the synthetic cat rub its face on her fingers.
“Thanks,” Stein says over her shoulder.
As soon as the door closes, the cat trots over to it.
Where’d she go? asks the cat.
To have lunch with Henrietta. Iris is walking back to look out the window. The cat follows after her.
Who’s Henrietta? The cat jumps up on the window sill.
Her friend. Iris looks down at the courtyard where Stein is embracing another woman of about the same height. That must be Henrietta.
Are we friends? asks the cat.
Iris looks at the cat, a bit perplexed.
I don’t know; I’m not even a real human, and you’re not a real cat.
So? The cat brushes against her arm. She notices that his fur feels cool and soft. She wonders if it feels the same to humans.
Iris rolls her eyes at the cat—which the cat does not notice—and looks out the window again. Stein and Henrietta aren’t in the courtyard anymore, so Iris looks back at the large green lawn where more and more canopy tents are being set up. They’re up to 38 tents; Iris counted.
The cat jumps up on her shoulder.
What are you looking at? the cat asks.
It’s for humans. Iris tries to curb his enthusiasm and her own. It doesn’t quite work. In fact, it has the opposite effect.
Humans? I like humans! We should go, the cat says. He’s thinking that all the people would pet him and love him. And really, they would. He’s a very handsome short hair tabby.
Stein said we can’t, Iris says with an air of finality.
Iris blinks. The idea of disobeying Stein is a completely foreign concept. She finds it difficult to even think about; she can practically feel new neural pathways forming in her silicon-silicone brain.
But how can I tell Stein that I went to the festival when she said not to?
Don’t. Just don’t tell her.
Iris doesn’t like the sound of that. It seems perfectly possible, logical; Stein said she wouldn’t be back until tomorrow. They could go to the festival and come back without Stein ever knowing they left.
It still doesn’t sit well with Iris. She’s pretty certain the emotion is something like “guilt.” It’s really annoying being a pseudo-organic auto-poetic dynamical system computer being.
Stein asked me to keep you out of trouble… Iris thinks. So if you somehow, I don’t know, ran out the door and went to the festival, well then I’d just have to follow you to keep you out of trouble.
The cat purrs.
Rae Juhola resides in an underground lair somewhere in the state of Ohio. Her hobbies include writing, drawing, data science, disappearing into the woods and never coming back, and writing. She does not have a time machine, nor is she capable of interdimensional travel. Her life is very ordinary.
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