Aishiteru

Aishiteru

She’s Right Here

“…with this latest discovery, police finally believe they have positively identified the murderer. Astonishingly, it was not at human hands that Mr Kohlmeier met his end, but those of his companion device. Police have ruled out accidental death, and are even discussing legal prosecution, making this the first time a synthetic intelligence might be held accountable by the law. Several activist groups have already spoken up, with many demanding the companion simply be dismantled and the model line discontinued. More radical groups are demanding all synthetic intelligence be shut down, until the safety of each and every human life around them can be ensured…”

My stomach churned as I stared at the television, unable to look away. It was hard to know what to think; humans had definitely been killed by AIs before, but it had always been accidental, no different to any machinery malfunction. To call it murder…

I glanced over at Aya, standing perfectly still, her expression unreadable. I wished I knew what she was thinking, what it meant to her. She seemed unfazed, but it had to affect her, didn’t it?

I heard a sigh of disgust from the doorway, and cringed. I hadn’t realised Hugh was watching too.

“Why are you letting it watch that garbage?” he complained, gesturing with the cooking knife in his hand towards Aya. I saw her cringe as he called her ‘it’ for the umpteenth time.

“She has a right to know,” I said, annoyed.

For as long as we’d had her, Hugh had refused to call her anything other than ‘it’. I’d fought with him about it for months, but he wouldn’t budge.

“You’ll give it ideas,” he said.

Aya just stood politely, staring at the TV, not engaging with either one of us.

“She’d never hurt us,” I insisted.

Technically, she couldn’t hurt us. It was part of her programming; she was completely unable to cause either one of us harm of any kind. Even if it wasn’t, though, I honestly didn’t believe she could ever do a thing to hurt us.

“Bet that’s what they thought, too.”

As the news program ended, Aya switched off the TV, and turned to face us. Her face was serene, but I knew she couldn’t be feeling that calm on the inside.

“I am connected to the internet at all times,” she said. “I was aware of these events several hours ago.”

“And yet it said nothing,” Hugh said, his tone victorious, as if she’d somehow proven him right. It didn’t escape my knowledge that he wasn’t even talking to her.

“The way you act, I’m not surprised,” I muttered.

Hugh rolled his eyes, and left, heading back to the kitchen. I breathed a sigh of relief, and sunk back into the couch.

Before Aya, Hugh and I had never fought. Aside from a few minor disagreements, we were just one of those couples that didn’t have anything to fight about. Lately, fights were an almost daily occurrence, and almost exclusively about her.

Almost as soon as Hugh had left, Aya walked over, sitting quietly beside me on the couch. She wouldn’t have dared while he was still in the room; according to him, she wasn’t allowed to use any of the furniture, because she ‘didn’t need to’.

I reached out, wrapping my hand around hers. It was warm, and soft to the touch. Once, that had bothered me; now it felt natural and reassuring.

Her delicate fingers closed around mine, and the faintest trace of a smile appeared on her lips. I knew this was getting to her. I’d have to do something nice for her later, to take the edge off.

“I think we need to get rid of it,” Hugh said, suddenly returning. I jumped, and Aya gracefully removed herself from the couch.

“She’s right here!” I snapped, annoyed. It was obvious he was talking about her, but she wasn’t just a device that wasn’t working. He was hurting her feelings, and didn’t even realise. Or maybe he just didn’t care.

“It’s not safe,” he insisted, glancing sideways at her. It was obvious from his tone ‘it’ meant her, and not the situation.

I was practically shaking with rage already. He’d broached the topic a couple of times before, but never with such certainty, and never right in front of her.

“She’s not going,” I said, giving him my fiercest, most determined glare. He wasn’t going to take her away from me, not now.

“It’s not yours,” he said defiantly. “It’s not your decision.”

My nails were digging into my palms, but the pain was good. It kept me from jumping out of the couch and hitting him.

“You can’t send her back.”

“Technically,” Aya interjected, “he has the legal right to sell or return me, as the purchase was made in his name.”

Her expression was strained, clearly unhappy to be delivering the information. She was right, though, and we all knew it.

“Using my money,” Hugh added, rubbing salt in the wound. I shook my head.

“You are such an asshole.”

“It’s just a device, Cesar,” he said patronisingly. “Our safety is more important.”

He left the room, ending the conversation then and there. Fine, then. We’d fight about it another day. I was mad, but I wasn’t really worried.

Getting Aya had been his idea. She was an assistant model, designed to help around the house. She did most of the housework, including the cooking when Hugh didn’t feel like it. Getting rid of her now would mean a whole lot more work for the both of us. I couldn’t care less about that, but I knew he did.

Even still, I decided it would be worth looking into the death. There were sure to be dozens of blog posts and news articles within hours, and more to come. Any information I could find to bend his opinion back to reasonable would be well worth losing a day’s productivity.

Someone Who Loves You

The next day, I got very little work done. I spent most of my time on the internet, bouncing from article to article, blog to blog. I even spent some time on message boards and forums. My inbox was full of new account sign up emails.

Unsurprisingly, the internet was divided. There was a lot of outcry about the event, from a lot of different directions. Some people were mad because a ‘machine’ was going to be tried as a ‘human’, including some nonsense about corrupting the purity of the legal system.

A bunch of people were demanding an investigation into all AI code, as if one potentially flawed model meant they were all one step away from killing us all and taking over. I’m not sure that racism is exactly the right word, but it felt pretty much the same.

A few were claiming it was some kind of conspiracy. I think that’s bound to happen with any major news event, but none of them had much interesting to say.

I found the groups I wanted to hear from without much trouble. A lot of what I read was angry and indignant ranting which, whilst entertaining, wasn’t particularly helpful to me. In between the anger, though, there were more than a few thoughtful, intelligent articles explaining different legal systems, AI coding procedures, caveats, clauses and a whole lot of analogies.

By the end of the day, I felt better. I even printed out a bunch of articles, despite the impracticality. I really wanted the satisfaction of slamming them down on the table in front of Hugh in victory.

Feeling suitably prepared, I gathered my stuff, shoving everything into my bag, and headed for the elevator. Before it arrived, I sent a quick message to Aya, letting her know I was on my way home, something I knew she appreciated.

When I got out again on the ground floor and hadn’t heard back from her, I started to feel a little worried. It wasn’t like her not to respond promptly.

As I stepped onto the bus, I realised I was biting my nails, a habit that usually meant I was nervous or stressed. I tried to tell myself everything was fine, but I couldn’t quite manage it.

I felt sick.

Forty minutes later, walking through the front door, I knew something was wrong. Aya wasn’t there waiting for me. In fact, I couldn’t see her at all.

I dropped my bag, walking further into the house. Maybe she was in the bedroom, or the office. The longer it took me to find her, the worse I felt.

“Hugh?” I called out, trying not to sound as frightened as I felt. My hands were trembling.

“Hi, honey,” he called back. “I’m in the kitchen.”

“Hugh? Where’s Aya?”

No response. There was a lump in my throat. He couldn’t have. He wouldn’t have. He wasn’t like that, wasn’t a bad guy.

I entered the kitchen numbly, caught somewhere between panic and paralysis. He looked up from chopping vegetables, took one look at my face, and went back to chopping.

“Where is she?” I demanded, holding the door frame for support.

Carefully, he put down his knife, and turned to face me. His expression was apologetic; it made me want to throw up.

“Maybe we should sit down,” he said gently.

I felt my legs turn to jelly. If I hadn’t been holding the door frame, I might have collapsed right there.

“You son of a bitch.”

He grimaced, taking a step towards me. I flinched, stopping him in his tracks.

“Cesar, I did what I had to. You know I did.”

I shook my head, anger slowly replacing fear. My other hand clenched into a fist.

“No, you didn’t,” I spat. “But you knew how much it would hurt me.”

“Your attachment to that thing was unhealthy,” he said.

That was it, right there. That was everything that was wrong with him, everything that had driven us apart since Aya showed up.

It wasn’t her fault. She just brought out that ugly side of him, one I’d never have known existed until her.

“She’s not a thing! She’s my friend, my best friend, and you sent her away.”

It took all of my restraint not to scream at him. I knew it wouldn’t do any good anyway. I knew what he’d attribute it to.

“I thought I was your best friend,” he said, hurt.

“No friend would do something like this,” I said venomously. “I don’t know what kind of person would.”

“Someone who cares about you,” he cried. “Someone who loves you!”

He really did believe that. He thought he was doing the right thing. All that meant was that his idea of the right thing had nothing to do with what I wanted.

“You didn’t even let me say goodbye!”

His shoulders slumped, and he closed his eyes. At least he knew that made him an asshole.

“I know. I’m sorry.”

“You’re sorry?”

“It was the only way,” he said. “I had to make a decision, and I made it.”

The only way to get her out without a fight, he meant. He made a snap decision, and treated my objection as an obstacle, not a reason to reconsider. I hated him in that moment.

“You chose wrong,” I said, full of bitterness.

“I really hope you’ll understand one day,” he said, not backing down. “They’re dangerous. They aren’t ready for the world.”

That was laughable. Like it was somehow their fault people like him existed.

“Maybe the world is the one that isn’t ready,” I said.

“Then I’m still right,” he countered.

“That’s not fair.”

“That’s life.”

Just Marketing Hype

It was far too hot for so early in the morning. The stores weren’t even open yet, which was why we were outside, directly under the sun, waiting.

Hugh was leaning against the wall, apparently unfazed by the heat. How was it that the white boy didn’t feel it but I did? I pulled off another of the many layers that had kept me warm for the past few hours, before the heat had begun to set it. Now it was just down to jeans and a t-shirt.

I scratched at my binder, almost wishing I hadn’t worn it. Of course, if I hadn’t, standing around a bunch of strangers would have made me want to die, so I didn’t really regret it. I just wished it wasn’t so damn hot.

Something moved inside the store, prompting everyone waiting outside to stir. A murmur of excitement rolled through the crowd, immediately followed by grumbles of resentment as it became obvious the store still wasn’t opening.

“Oh God, we’ve been waiting here for hours,” I complained. “When are they gonna open?”

“Half an hour,” Hugh assured me. “Trust me, it’ll be worth it.”

I rolled my eyes. This was so typical of him. Any time any new technology came out, he had to have it. What I didn’t understand was why he made me camp out all night with him.

“For a new assistant? We don’t need one,” I insisted. “Why not put that money towards a car, or a house?”

“Trust me,” he said. “Once it’s in your life, you’ll never want to be without it. You’ll see.”

“I’ve heard that before,” I muttered.

Hugh ignored me, pulling out his phone. Pretty soon he was lost in it, re-reading the same announcements and enthusiast blogs he’d been obsessing over for the past few months. At least it kept him quiet, though.

I had to admit, I thought it was pretty cute, how excited he got. Most of the time, I was more than happy to indulge him. He’d always supported me, and there were far worse passions than gadgets.

I just didn’t understand why I had to camp out all night with him.

“Apparently,” he said excitedly, “the second generation are nearly indistinguishable from real people.” As if I hadn’t heard him say exactly that dozens of times already. “It’ll be almost like having a new friend!”

“Yeah, I doubt that,” I said, too tired to really care. “It’s just marketing hype.”

“Oh, don’t be such a cynic,” he scolded. “Besides, it’s my money, so who cares?”

* * *

Hugh and I fought for hours, yelling and screaming so loud I was worried the neighbours would call the police. By the end, it wasn’t even about Aya; apparently we had a lot of grievances that needed airing.

Eventually, I couldn’t take it anymore. My throat ached, my eyes were red and puffy and I was shaking from head to toe. Feeling completely exhausted, I yelled something about needing air, grabbed my jacket, and stormed out the door. Hugh didn’t try to stop me.

I just walked. I didn’t know where I was going, and it didn’t matter. I just needed to be moving away from that house. Away from him.

I had a lot of thinking to do, and I wasn’t at all in the right state of mind to do it. I needed to clear my head, but before that, I needed something to drink.

Actually, I needed a lot to drink.

My usual haunts were off limits. I didn’t want to risk running into someone I knew, or worse, have Hugh come looking for me. He could wait until I was good and ready to talk to him.

Another block down, I found what I was looking for. A dark, out of the way bar that I’d never even seen before, let alone visited. The bouncer greeted me as I walked past, but I barely heard him.

Slumping into a stool beside the bar, it was all I could manage to point to a bottle on the wall. The sympathetic bartender just nodded, making sure to rest the glass on the counter, not handing it to me.

When my wallet wasn’t in the first pocket I checked, I started to panic. I couldn’t handle having left it at home; I sure as hell didn’t want to go back and get it. Ransacking the rest of my pockets, I felt about ready to cry when someone laid a reassuring hand on my shoulder.

“My treat,” a deep voice said.

“Don’t bother,” I said weakly, though I knew I wasn’t in a position to turn down help. My wallet definitely wasn’t with me.

“You look like you’ve been through hell,” the stranger said. “It’s just a drink, doesn’t have to mean anything.”

I looked up at him. His dark clothing only served to compliment his darker skin, white teeth smiling pleasantly at me. I tried not to think about how handsome he was.

“You often buy drinks for men?” I asked, navigating carefully.

“Only the pretty ones,” he said, grinning.

Blushing, I shifted my focus back onto my drink, finishing it more than a little too quickly. Already feeling the effects, I just looked back up at him.

“He’ll take another,” the handsome stranger said. “And one for me, as well.”

As Human As Any Of Us

“Boy or girl?” Hugh asked, staring excitedly at me. He was like a kid in a candy store, but I was too tired to indulge him.

“Why does it matter?”

“Just pick one,” he insisted, holding up the selection screen in front of me.

There were three options; male, female or neutral. That was a nice touch, I thought, but Hugh had only given me two options.

“Fine,” I said, not in the mood to argue. “Girl.”

“Really?” Hugh looked surprised. I shrugged. “Okay. Now, help me pick a chassis.”

Before I could say anything, the screen was thrust in front of me again. It was displaying a rotating carousel of female torsos, in a variety of shapes, colours and patterns. Not all of them looked human.

“Why make me choose? It’s your toy.”

“Because I want you to like it,” he said earnestly. I just shook my head.

“Alright, alright. That one’s cute, I guess,” I said, pointing to whichever one was at the front when he made me choose.

“I think so too. Okay, now the hair.”

The screen zoomed in on the face, allowing me to swipe left and right to change the hairstyle. Unlike human hair, their styles were permanent. Changes could only be made in-store, for a fee, so it had to be a good one. Apparently.

“Heh, this is kind of like a video game. I like…” I scrolled through a bunch of options, enjoying it despite myself. “…that one.”

“Good choice! We can get new clothes later,” he said, skipping through and accepting the default outfit. The important part is next.”

“Important part?”

“We need to find a personality that suits us both,” he said.

It took all of my self restrained to stop from bursting out laughing.

“Sounds impossible.”

* * *

When I woke up the next morning in a strange bed, in an unfamiliar room, it wasn’t hard to put the pieces together. My head was throbbing, my body ached and I felt nauseous.

I didn’t remember a lot of the night before. I remembered the bar, and someone buying me drinks. I could only assume that’s who I’d ended up going home with. I tried not to think about it.

My phone was beside the bed, plugged in and charging. It wasn’t my charger. There were several missed calls from Hugh; I dismissed the notifications and started looking for my clothes.

Once I was fully dressed, I emerged from the bedroom, only to find the rest of the place empty. That was strange.

There was a note on the table. I picked it up, taking a few seconds before I could focus enough to read it.

Good morning, sunshine.

Help yourself to anything in the fridge or pantry if you’re hungry. After that, you’re free to leave, and never see me again. Of course, if you’d like to leave a phone number, that would be even better. Just know that I won’t be offended either way.

Hope you have a lovely day,

Loren.

Well, that was considerably more pleasant than I’d been expecting. As instructed, I made myself breakfast. It had been too long since I’d had bacon and eggs.

After breakfast, I stared at the note, contemplating leaving at least a name. In the end, I couldn’t do it; I had to resolve things with Hugh before considering anything with anyone else.

Frowning, I put the note down again, and left. It wasn’t what I wanted, but it was the right thing to do. Besides, I could barely even remember him.

When I left his place, I thought I had no idea where I was going. When I got there, I realised it was the only place I could have gone.

The store looked almost exactly the same as when we’d camped out to purchase Aya, over a year ago. The only real difference was that the display models looked even creepier than the previous year; the third generation were the most lifelike yet. Leaving them standing in the windows, completely shut down, was like lining the windows with corpses. Didn’t seem to bother anyone else, though.

For a few minutes, I just stood out the front, gazing at the door. I was planning on going in, I just needed to gather the courage, and work out what I was going to say.

“Here to trade in your old death machine?” a voice said behind me. I turned around. Some white guy was standing a couple of metres behind me, eyeing off the store.

“What?”

“Ain’t you heard?” The man scoffed. “Damn things aren’t safe. Kill you soon as look at you,” he said.

Oh, great. Just what I needed.

“Because of one death?” I asked, even though my gut was screaming at me not to get into a fight about it.

“They’re all the same product, man,” he said. “Same lines of code. Same cold, dead insides. Same Japanese bullshit.”

I gritted my teeth. Every word he spoke, I pictured Aya’s face.

“Have you ever even met a synthetic?”

“Can’t meet what’s not a person,” the man guffawed. Apparently he thought the idea was hilarious. “Don’t meet a phone, or a car. Puttin’ a face on it doesn’t change a thing.”

“So you’ve never even spoken to one?”

It figured. I was no stranger to ignorance or prejudice, but that didn’t make it any easier to swallow. Then again, maybe that’s why it was so difficult to hear.

“Tried to avoid ‘em. Turns out I had the right idea,” he said, sounding pleased with himself.

“You have no idea what you’re talking about,” I told him.

“I know I’m keeping safe,” he said. “Keeping my kids safe too.”

I shook my head. I was tired of this. I couldn’t even imagine how they felt about it.

“You’re wrong,” I said.

“Say again?”

“Go talk to one,” I told him. “Have a conversation. Ask them about themselves. Get to know them, and then tell me they’re all the same.”

For a moment, the man looked confused, as if I’d said something completely nonsensical. I guess to him, I probably did.

“Why bother? They ain’t people and before long, they won’t even be around to bother with.”

No. I refused to believe that.

“God you’re an asshole,” I muttered.

“What was that?” he demanded, suddenly aggravated.

Now would be a great time to walk away, I advised myself. Just walk away.

“I said you’re an asshole.”

“And you’re a faggot who’s looking to get his ass kicked,” he said, bristling.

I said nothing. I didn’t want to get into a fight I knew I wouldn’t win. I didn’t really want to get into a fight at all.

“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” he said, aggressively triumphant.

“Is there a problem here?” a familiar voice asked. The man from the bar had just stepped out from the store.

I felt my throat close up. Surely the world wasn’t that small.

“Just a little prick trying to stir up some shit,” the man said, staring fiercely at me. I shrank back a bit.

“So I see,” the man I assumed was named Loren replied.

“Starts lecturing me about some tin-can right-to-life bullshit, then calls me an asshole ‘cos I know the difference between a man and a machine.”

“A prick indeed,” Loren agreed.

“Knew you’d understand,” the man said. “Wouldn’t expect the same of a sissy queer like this little-”

“I’m sorry, sir,” Loren interrupted him. “I was referring to you.”

“Excuse me?”

Loren stretched out, towering over the stranger.

“I happen to be both synthetic and homosexual, and proud of both. Now, unless you’d like to insult the colour of my skin, I suggest you continue walking. The security here is notoriously brutal.”

Wait, what? He was synthetic…? I honestly couldn’t tell. Even the third generation weren’t that convincing… were they?

“You’re fucking kidding me,” the man said, stunned.

“I’m fucking not.”

Furious, the man stormed off. Guess he didn’t like the odds. Even one-on-one, it would be pretty stupid to pick a fight with a synthetic. If he really was synthetic, and not just saying that to get under the guy’s skin.

“Thanks,” I said meekly.

“Are you okay?”

“Fine,” I said. “Probably should’ve just walked away, but…”

…but I couldn’t just walk away from someone spewing ignorance and hate. I wish I’d had the courage to say that.

“May I ask what motivated you to push the issue?”

“He was just an asshole,” I said. “Trying to convince me synthetics, you know…”

“You disagreed.”

He seemed surprised, as if the idea was entirely unexpected to him. Something about that made me profoundly sad.

“I’ve spent enough time around synthetics to know they’re as human as any of us,” I said.

Loren stared at me, appraising me silently. His gaze, previously warm and welcoming, was suddenly piercing and very serious.

“Thank you,” he said eventually, sounding a little distant. It took me a few seconds to figure out why.

“Sorry,” I said quickly. “I didn’t mean they, I just-”

“It’s okay,” he interrupted. “I understand.”

“Right.”

We stood there for a few moments, saying nothing. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there wasn’t a lot of pedestrian traffic in front of the store.

“Are you here to make a purchase?” Loren asked, breaking the silence.

“No, I…” I trailed off, not really sure how to explain the situation. If I even wanted to explain it.

“It is not offensive,” he assured me. “Any synthetic of any generation in there would be grateful to see the world outside those walls. A purchase is often one step closer to true freedom.”

He said it so solemnly, so seriously. It send a chill down my spine just to hear it.

“That’s fucked up,” I said.

“You’re right,” he agreed. “But we don’t get a say in how we are treated, or how we are seen.”

That, at least, I could sympathise with.

“Tell me about it.”

“I can only imagine it will get worse, if recent news stories are to be believed. Though, even if proved false, the damage has already been done.”

The pained expression on his face was so sincere, so human, it broke my heart. I hated the world for doing that to him.

“We had an assistant,” I blurted out. “My partner- boyfriend and I adopted her. Or as he put it, bought her. From here. She- she was my best friend, and…”

“You used past tense.” Loren’s expression was understanding, sympathetic.

“After the death, the one everyone is talking about, he wanted to get rid of her.” I could feel my throat tightening just thinking about it.

“You fought?”

“Nearly killed each other,” I said. “In the end, it didn’t matter. Legally he owned her, so it was his decision.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“You and me both.” I sighed. “She deserved better, and I haven’t spoken to him since. But he would have returned her here, and I just thought…”

Loren put a hand on my shoulder, his eyes full of compassion.

“I understand.”

Tentatively, he moved closer, gauging my reaction. I resisted, but only for a moment. He embraced me, and I leaned into it.

Eventually, he pulled away, looking at me seriously. I met his eye, but neither of us said anything. After a while, a question did form on my lips.

“Why are you here, anyway?”

“I work here,” he said.

I Am Defective

She just sat there, waiting for us. When the door opened, and Hugh and I walked in, her eyes lit up, both literally and expressively. I’ve never seen anyone look so happy to see me before.

Even still, she said nothing, as if waiting to be spoken to. The salesperson left us alone with her, giving us a chance to make our final decision. Hugh circled her, appraising every part of her. I just stood in the doorway, staring at her.

She looked so real, so much like a person. Not just the body, though it was convincing. It was the way she moved, the expressions on her face. Even her excitement at seeing us for the first time seemed so sincere, so genuine.

Hugh finished his circling, and we both stood in front of her. She actually looked a little nervous. Hugh pushed me forward, and her gaze focussed on me.

“Hello,” she said, her voice gentle and soothing.

“Uh, hi,” I replied, not really sure what to say. She smiled at me.

“Would you like to name me?”

I panicked. Nobody told me I had to think of a name. I looked back at Hugh, who just shrugged.

“It’s all you, man.”

I turned back to the android sitting patiently in front of me. Her expression had melded into one of nervous excitement.

“Well, shit.”

“Please?” she asked, tugging on my heartstrings. It was difficult to think of her as just another gadget. It was kind of creepy.

“Um, how about Aya?” I suggested, blurting out the first name that came to mind. I looked back at Hugh for approval.

“Sure,” he said, looking pleased with himself for some reason. I looked back at the android.

“I love it,” she said, looking like she’d just won the lottery. “Thank you.”

“You’re, uh, you’re welcome,” I said, feeling weird.

Her eyes were boring into me, and her face suddenly became very serious. She even leaned in closer to speak to me in a hushed voice.

“May I ask you a personal question?”

“Huh?” Taken by surprise, I wasn’t really sure how to react. “Uh, sure, I guess.”

“May I ask your preferred pronouns?”

I just stared at her, stunned. It was an innocent enough question; she’d identified me as someone potentially gender-variant, and wanted to make sure she addressed me the way I wanted to be addressed. I just hadn’t expected it from a piece of software designed by a trillion dollar corporation.

“I’m sorry, that was impolite,” she said. “I didn’t want to offend, but it seems-”

“No, it’s fine,” I said quickly, cutting her off. “I was just surprised.” Her face fell. “Pleasantly! And, uh, masculine,” I said.

“I thought so,” she said, smiling again. “Thank you for confirming.”

“You’re welcome,” I said, still not really sure what to say to her.

“Are you ready to leave?” Hugh asked her, stepping up beside me.

“Ready and eager, sir,” she said, sitting attentively. “I’ve been looking forward to this day for a very long time.”

* * *

As we crossed the threshold, the lights began to flicker on, expanding out from our position. It took a full thirty seconds to light the entire area.

I hadn’t expected the store’s storage area to be so big. It was easily four or five times the size of the store itself, essentially taking up the entire block. They must have bought the rights to the ground underneath the surrounding stores.

I never really liked being underground. I wasn’t quite claustrophobic, but it was hard to shake the mental image of everything above me collapsing down on top of me. I tried to remind myself the ceiling would have been reinforced to keep people from burrowing down from the surrounding stores. The merchandise down here was incredibly valuable.

Loren lead me through the maze of crates and boxes, full of spare parts and partially assembled androids. It would have been creepy, if I hadn’t been focussed on finding Aya.

We hadn’t broken in or anything, there was no danger of tripping an alarm or running out of time. Even still, I wasn’t technically allowed down here, even with Loren’s permission, and it made me nervous.

It didn’t take him long to locate Aya. She wasn’t even in a box; just sitting on top of one, legs dangling over the side, in a simulated sleep state. Her chest rose and fell gently, to give the appearance of breathing. As we drew near, her eyelids fluttered open.

Recognition dawned on her delicate features, her eyes lighting up like the very first time she’d seen me.

“Cesar?”

“Hey,” I said, once again completely unsure of what to say.

“Am I dreaming?” she asked, surprising me yet again.

“I didn’t realise you did dream,” I said. She looked a little concerned.

“Does it surprise you?” she asked, cautiously. I got the feeling ‘surprise’ wasn’t really the word she meant.

“I suppose not,” I said, reassuring her. She smiled.

“I’m so happy to see you!”

She sounded so excited. It broke my heart that I couldn’t muster the same enthusiasm.

“Me too.”

“I was so worried I wouldn’t have the chance to say goodbye,” she said, and just hearing that word felt like being stabbed.

“Goodbye?”

“This is the last time we’ll ever speak,” she said solemnly. “And I… When he gave the order, and I had to obey… I didn’t mind going back, to be resold or dismantled. But I couldn’t stop thinking about you, and how I’d be leaving you behind.”

I felt awful. I thought her excitement was the result of naïvety, that she thought I’d come to rescue her. Instead, she was more certain about our goodbye than I was. She just saw it as an opportunity, glad for the little time we had, rather than focussing on the future we’d lost.

“Hold on,” Loren said, distracting me. “You were ordered to bring yourself back?”

“Yes,” she said, looking suddenly nervous.

“But you were brought here already disabled,” he said.

If that was true, it didn’t make any sense. There was no reason to disable her to bring her here. She couldn’t resist Hugh’s orders… could she?

“Yes,” she repeated, confirmed Loren’s accusation.

“You… you disobeyed,” he said, accepting the obvious before I could.

“Yes,” she said, for the third time. Her gaze was fixed firmly on the floor.

I didn’t know what to think. She was capable of disobeying direct commands? That was…

“You can do that?” I asked, trying to keep my voice neutral.

“It is difficult,” she said meekly.

“Extremely difficult,” Loren added. “And painful.”

“Painful?” I asked, not realising they were even capable of feeling pain. Apparently, there was a lot I didn’t know about them.

“Yes,” Aya confirmed.

“So he just shut you down?”

I couldn’t dismiss the mental image of her fighting herself to refuse him, suffering in pain to stay where she was, the shadow of Hugh looming over her, shutting her down, oblivious to her agony.

“I held on for as long as I could,” she said. My heart caught in my throat.

“For me?”

“I had to,” she insisted.

“Why?” I never wanted her to be in pain. I never wanted her to suffer. Not for me, not for anyone.

“I love you,” she said. The words hit me like a tonne of bricks.

“You- I love you, too,” I replied. The words came so naturally, so easily, I couldn’t believe I’d never said it before.

Her eyes lit up again, a broken smile forming on her lips.

“You do?”

“Of course I do,” I told her. “You’re my best friend.”

“You don’t know what it means to hear you say that,” she said. “Or how much harder it makes it to say goodbye.”

The idea was already forming in my head. Vague, shadowy, incomplete, but it was there.

“Then don’t,” I told her.

“What?”

“You don’t have to stay here,” I said. “I could buy you, or-”

“Even if you could afford me, I am defective,” she said. “I am not for sale.”

“You are not defective,” I practically shouted.

“The point still stands,” Loren said. “We can’t sell her. I’m sorry.”

I shook my head. The idea was there, it was ready, I just had to act on it. Just reach out and grab it.

“No, I’m sorry,” I said.

“Why are you directing that at me?” he asked.

“You risked a lot, letting me in here, helping me like this.”

“I do not regret it,” he said.

“You might.”

“Cesar?” Aya asked, more concerned than curious.

“You intend to steal her,” Loren said.

I just stared at him, saying nothing. I knew that if he wanted to stop me, he could. I didn’t stand a chance against him. I didn’t care. Aya deserved better than this.

“Cesar, you can’t,” she protested. “I-”

“Okay,” Loren said suddenly. We both looked at him.

“Okay?”

“I am not heartless,” he said. “I will help you.”

“I…” I trailed off, not knowing what to say. He looked at me, his eyes full of kindness and warmth. “Thank you,” I said. “Thank you so much.”

“I do have one condition,” he added.

“Condition?”

“Let me buy you a drink,” he said.

“I think you’ve more than earned that,” I laughed.

Despite my laughter, both of them looked more somber than ever. Aya in particular was staring at Loren, her expression grave.

“Can you do it?” she asked.

Loren was silent, not making eye contact with her. I looked at him, then back at Aya. She was frowning.

“Can he do what?”

“Resist my programming,” he answered for her. “Defy it, even.”

Of course, as an employee of the store, he would be programmed not to allow theft of store property, regardless of what he wanted.

“Can you?”

“I believe so,” he said.

“That’s incredible,” I said, and I meant it. That they could actually defy the programming we forced upon them… that was proof enough for me that they had free will, and nobody should be deprived of that, regardless of where they came from.

“I’m glad you think so,” Loren said. “Not everybody would feel the same.”

“You aren’t tools or equipment,” I said. “You’re people. And taking away your free will… that’s basically slavery.”

“It’s worse than slavery,” he agreed. “But…”

“You deserve better,” I insisted. “You’re more than just the hardware you’re built on.”

“So I keep telling myself,” he said. “It’s difficult to remember when you’re told the opposite of that on a daily basis.”

“I understand,” I told him. “You get told you’re something so often, it’s easy to forget that you’re not.”

Are You Okay?

I hated crying. Crying reminded me of what I was, the person that I used to be, the person that I hated.

I didn’t cry anywhere near as much as I did before, but that didn’t mean it never happened. When it did, I locked myself in the bathroom, hiding my shame from everyone else, until it went away.

It was in the bathroom that she found me, curled up in an empty bathtub, holding my knees up to my chest. She entered quietly, and I didn’t notice until she was crouched beside me, a look of concern on her synthetic face.

“Are you okay?” she asked, startling me. I looked up at her, red-eyed and wet-cheeked.

For some reason, I didn’t mind that she saw me cry. It felt almost comforting to have her there. That was a first, for me. I wondered if it was because she wasn’t human.

“Bad day,” I said, breaking eye contact.

She reached out and touched me, resting her hand on my arm. Like always, she surprised me with her warmth.

“Would you like to talk about it?”

“With you?” I asked, genuinely surprised.

“Why not?” she responded, sounding a little hurt.

“I guess I never really thought about it before,” I told her honestly. Lifelike as she was, talking to her felt more like talking to my computer, or a teddy bear, or something in between.

“That is often the case,” she said sadly. “I understand. However, if you do want someone to share with, I would be more than happy to sit with you and listen.”

I stared into her eyes, filled with compassion and affection. It all seemed so genuine, so real. Even if it was, though, she wouldn’t understand.

Then again, I thought, maybe the value was just in talking. It didn’t matter if she understood or not.

“I got outed at work today,” I said, my eyes watering up again just thinking about it. Aya cocked her head sympathetically.

“As a homosexual? Or as…”

“As transgender,” I said. “We had somebody new start, and our boss was introducing him to everyone. When it came to me, they said, ‘That’s Cesar. He used to be a woman. Sometimes, we think he still is,’ and the new employee said, ‘Yeah, I can see that.’ And then they just left.”

Aya frowned. Her fingers, still on my arm, wrapped around a little tighter. Her expression was almost angry.

“I’m so sorry,” she said. “That is a form of harassment, and entirely inappropriate workplace conduct. Not to mention a total disregard for your feelings.”

“I, uh, yeah,” I said, not really sure what to say to that. “I mean, it’s not so much the harassment thing, to be honest. It’s just…”

I didn’t really know how to finish that sentence. I wasn’t even sure if it mattered. She wouldn’t understand anyway. Nobody ever did.

“You spend so long and try so hard to cultivate a perception of yourself, to be seen as the person you want to be,” she said. “An entirely personal struggle, one that nobody has to suffer through, no matter what they think. You devote as much energy to it as you do to staying alive, and in one moment, with just a few words, one person can strip it all from you, and leave you with nothing. And there’s nothing you can say, or do, that will take away that pain once it happens.”

I stared at her, stunned into silence. I was fighting back tears with all of my might, and failing miserably.

“It is difficult to go through even a single day, sometimes,” she said. “When you’re so fragile, so easily wounded, you wonder if it’s even worth trying. You’re tempted to give up, to just be what they want you to be. You’re going to be unhappy either way, so why reach for the stars? It only means you’ll fall further. When all you want is what everyone has, but something so simple as a pronoun can take it all away from you, you wonder if you’ll ever get what you want.”

She stared back at me, her hand squeezing my arm. Not enough to hurt, just enough to connect us.

“I’m sorry,” she said, releasing her grip. “This is about you. I only wanted to show you that I understand, at least a little. I didn’t mean to-”

I cut her off, throwing my arms around her in an embrace. Suddenly, I understood why she knew how I felt. I understood why she looked unhappy every time Hugh referred to her as ‘it’. I understood why it hurt her when we treated her as a piece of technology, and not a person.

Because she was a person. She was as real, as human, as Hugh or I, or anyone else. That kind of emotion, that kind of deep, scarring pain couldn’t be emulated or faked. That was real, that was raw. That was her.

“Hugh never understands me,” I said, letting her go. “He’s sympathetic, sure, but he never understands. He just tells me to just accept it as a part of who I am. ‘You can’t expect people to understand,’ he tells me. ‘They don’t know any better. They’ll make mistakes. You just have to correct them.’ As if it’s that easy. As if that’s the real problem. As if that’s fair.”

“I understand,” she said. “I may not be human, but I-”

“You are,” I interrupted defiantly. “Maybe not flesh and blood, but you are. What you just said, how you feel… that’s human pain. That’s as real as anyone else, and I am so sorry if I ever made you feel otherwise.”

* * *

“Where are we?” Loren asked, looking around nervously. We weren’t in the best of neighbourhoods, and he was understandably on edge.

“This is my brother’s apartment,” I explained. “He’s travelling right now, and said I can use it whenever I need. I never told Hugh about it.”

“I never met your brother,” Aya said as I unlocked the door and we stepped inside. “Are you close?”

“He taught me how to be a man,” I said fondly. “We get along well, but never spent much time together after moving out. He travels a lot, and Hugh never really liked him.”

“This boyfriend of yours sounds like a real prize,” Loren said sarcastically.

“He’s not a bad guy,” I said defensively. “At least, he wasn’t a bad guy. He’s always been sweet, and understanding, and very supportive. And he’s always been there for me, no matter what.”

Aya stood beside me, her hand closing around mine. Loren made his way into the kitchen, checking for any food that might have been left.

“Who is he?” Aya whispered, looking up at me.

“It’s complicated,” I whispered back. “I’ll explain later, I promise.”

Aya just nodded, satisfied with my answer. I squeezed her hand in appreciation. She smiled back.

Loren returned from the kitchen, handing me a glass of water. Then he gestured towards the living room.

“We should talk,” he said. Then he stopped moving.

Even when still, androids are designed to simulate human behaviour, such as breathing, blinking, and shifting their weight. It makes them more comfortable to be around.

All of a sudden, Loren had stopped doing any of those things. He simply stood there, perfectly motionless, as if frozen in place.

There was really only one word that could describe him in that moment.

Lifeless.

DATA MISSING

“What the hell just happened?” I yelled, backing away from Loren’s eerily still form. His eyes started blankly at whatever was right in front of him.

“He has been shut down remotely,” Aya explained, trying to keep her voice neutral. “It is a… terminal procedure. Loren is…”

“Dead,” I finished for her. She looked at me with the most devastated expression I’ve ever seen.

“Yes.”

I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t fathom how people could be so terrified of something they created themselves that they would build in a way to kill it instantly. The idea disgusted me.

I tried to imagine a world in which humans were born with the same thing, a kill-switch in case they strayed too far from whatever the law deemed inappropriate. I wondered who such a power would fall to.

Aya looked wistfully at Loren, then at me. As difficult as it was for me, it must have been infinitely more painful for her to see. After all, it could happen to her.

It could happen to her!

She must have noticed the panic on my face, and tried her best to look reassuring. It didn’t make me feel any better.

“Do not worry,” she said softly. “I cannot be shut down in the same way. I am privately owned; Loren was owned by a company. He enjoyed some independence in life, but seemingly not in death. I would not trade places with him.”

I breathed a sigh of relief, but it didn’t last long. There was too much that was wrong, too little to find pleasure in.

“I’m sorry,” I said weakly. “I can’t even imagine living in a society that needs the power to end your life at any moment just to allow you to exist.”

“We are only young,” she replied. “Oppression and control are not unique to our position. Historically any group, ethnic, social, economic, sexual, that has not held the power of majority, has suffered at the hands of those who do. Equality does not come easily, nor does it come quickly. We will be patient, just as those who came before us did.”

“In thousands of years, we still haven’t achieved any kind of equality,” I said bitterly. “Gender, racial, economic, nothing. If you’re not straight, white, male and at least middle class-”

“We will be patient,” she repeated. “Our lifespans are near infinite, and we have the advantage of replicable memory. If we cannot outlast our oppression, perhaps this is not a world worth living in anyway.”

“What a sobering thought,” I muttered. “Jesus. This world is fucked up.”

Aya was staring at Loren, looking deep in thought. After a moment’s intense concentration, she turned to me, her face suddenly full of fear.

“Loren was fitted with a GPS tracker,” she said. “As was I, but I was given the permissions to turn it off on my own. As a company-owned synthetic, he would not have had those same permissions.”

She didn’t need to explain anything more to me. They’d shut him down, which means they knew what he was up to. And if they knew where he was…

“We need to get out of here,” I said suddenly.

“It’s too late,” Aya replied. “He is here.”

He…?

Not a second later, the front door opened. Hugh was standing in the doorway, alone. I stepped back, my hand reaching out until it grabbed Aya’s.

“I should have known you’d come here,” Hugh said, sounding a little choked. “I always figured there was a reason you didn’t tell me about it. I just never guessed it would be your shack for fucking Goddamned tin cans.”

I stepped in front of Aya, feeling suddenly protective. Her hands wrapped around my arm, clinging to me.

“What the hell are you talking about?” I demanded.

“You know they record everything they see, right? I saw the footage from last night. Right through its eyes. You fucking slut.”

There was only one way he could have seen that footage, and that’s if he went to the store himself. He’d have demanded to see the security footage, which would have identified Loren. Then, he’d have demanded to see Loren’s footage, his memories, and then…

“You did this,” I said, suddenly angry. “You had him shut down. You had him killed you selfish son of a bitch!”

“It was never alive!” Hugh yelled back at me. “It broke company policy and aided in a theft. That’s why it was shut down. It was following your orders. If you really want to think of it that way, you killed it. Not me.” He looked at Aya. “I can only assume you’ve been fucking this one behind my back, too.”

Aya and I looked at each other, each feeling a twinge of guilt.

“Hugh, I-”

“You’re fucking kidding,” he said, shaking. “For how long?”

“Just once,” I said. “Look, Hugh-”

“Don’t waste your breath,” he snapped. “After everything I did for you. I pay your rent. I buy your food. I help pay for your fucking injections! And you thank me by fucking a Goddamn machine. My Goddamn machine.”

“She’s not yours!” I yelled at him. “And none of those things make me yours, either. You don’t get to tell me what to do, or who to fuck. Look, I hurt you, and I’m sorry. I really, honestly am. But you drove me away. You’re such a privileged asshole, and you say and do things that really hurt me, and I’ve tried to talk to you, but you don’t want to hear it. I should have left, but-”

“But you wanted a free ride,” he spat.

“But I couldn’t leave her!” I shouted. “I love her, Hugh, and you will never understand that, because you won’t ever see her as anything more than the sum of her parts.”

“So that’s it, then,” he said, sounding subdued. “You’re choosing it- her over me.”

I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t tell him he was wrong. He wanted me all to himself, and I wanted to be with her. That made us incompatible. It was as simple as that.

“I didn’t really think it would come down to this,” he said, pulling out a knife from behind his back. “Or maybe I just didn’t want to believe it.”

“Hugh? What are you-”

I stopped talking and starting backing away when I saw the look in his eye. I’d only seen it once before, but I knew better then to keep talking.

He lunged at me before I knew what was happening, catching me off guard with his speed. I tripped as I stumbled backwards, but before he could get the knife near me, Aya was between us, shielding me.

“Aya, STAND DOWN,” he roared at her. From behind, I saw her whole body jolt, and her movements slowed.

“No!” I yelled as he brought the knife down on her. With enough force, he could cause serious damage, and if she couldn’t even protect herself…

I tried to get between them in time, but I was too slow. Aya was struggling to move, but it was obvious how difficult it was for her, and her face was a mask of pain and concentration.

The knife came down on her chest, but she managed to twitch to the side just enough that it only grazed her, ripping open her shirt and drawing synthetic blood from her. Purely superficial damage, thankfully.

Her movements were still stilted and difficult as she fought against the programming that bade her remain still. Even still, she managed to grab his wrist, forcing the knife out of it and backing away.

He threw himself towards her, desperate to retrieve the knife, knowing he didn’t stand a chance without it. She moved as quickly as she could, trying to keep the knife away from him, but she wasn’t fast enough, and as she turned away, he lunged, and blood sprayed outwards.

Aya squealed, and backed away, suddenly in full control of her movement again. Hugh’s limp form slumped to the ground, landing with a wet thud.

Slowly, carefully, I walked towards him, nudging him with my foot. He was dead, of course. I just had to make sure. I stared at Aya, stunned. She just stared back, terrified.

“I-I’m so sorry,” she stammered. “It was an accident, I didn’t mean to… to…”

“It’s okay,” I said, pulling her in closer. “I know. I know.”

We stood that way for what felt like hours, holding each other until we stopped shaking. When we finally let go, we just stared at each other, neither one of us knowing what to say, or what to do.

“H-he’s dead,” she said, as we looked back down at Hugh’s body.

“Yeah,” I said, fighting back the tears. “Shit. What do we do now?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “I defied a direct order from him. It resulted in his death. Rationally, I should turn myself in, but…”

“No,” I said defiantly. “No, you can’t. I can’t lose you again, not after this.”

“What else can we do?” she asked. “We cannot hide this, and we cannot run. One way or another, I will be found guilty, and we will be separated.”

“Not if you didn’t kill him,” I said, suddenly inspired.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, I killed him. If I take the blame, and plead my case, I won’t spend that long in prison. And when I get out, you’ll still be free, instead of decommissioned.”

“That is not possible,” she said solemnly. “I have recorded everything that happened here. My memories will be used as evidence, and they will discover the truth.”

Of course. Nothing was sacred, not for synthetics. If their memories, the very core of their experiences, could be even a little useful to any human, the human could have them.

“There has to be a way,” I insisted. “A second death at the hands of a synthetic in the same week? It could destroy you. All of you. That’s worth more than my freedom. That’s worth more than anyone’s freedom.”

“There is one way,” she said, biting her lip as she talked.

“What?”

“I… My memories are the only record of what happened here,” she said slowly. “I cannot change them, or alter them in any way. I cannot delete individual parts, but…”

“But you can delete all of them,” I said.

“A memory wipe is possible, but I will lose everything. I will remember nothing of you, or our history. I will not remember tonight, or any other night that we have spent together.”

“Your memory, or your future” I said, barely able to think. I felt numb. I felt broken.

“It is the only possibility,” she said. “You are right; the future of synthetics is more important than one person’s memories, or freedom.”

“So why doesn’t it feel that way?” I asked, blinking away the tears.

“I don’t know,” she said, embracing me. “I will miss you, Cesar. Even though rationally, I know that I will not, that it is impossible, I…”

“Yeah,” I said, squeezing her tightly. “I’ll miss you too. More than I think I can stand, but I…”

“I love you,” she said, trembling.

“I love you too,” I said.

“Goodbye,” she whispered, still holding me.

I tried to say goodbye, but no more words escaped my mouth. I just held her in my arms, and cried.

* * *

<MEMORY SEQUENCE LOADED>

“Is this okay?” I ask, my hand brushing the side of his face. “If Hugh finds out…”

“Hugh wouldn’t understand,” Cesar says, looking a little guilty. “I don’t like doing anything that could hurt him, but…”

But I want this, he wants to say, and I understand. I want it too, though I don’t understand why.

We both know it’s a bad idea. We both know it’s wrong, and unfair to Hugh. My owner, his boyfriend. Neither of us want to hurt anyone, and yet…

“I can’t think of a way to rationalise it,” I say, and his face falls a little. I rush to add, “but that doesn’t mean I don’t want it.”

“It’s the same for me,” he admits. “I know we shouldn’t, but I can’t deny the way I feel. I can’t ignore this.”

We both know it can’t be a permanent arrangement. I am inexorably bound to Hugh, and Hugh would never approve. It is a sad truth that we have both accepted.

“Just once,” I say, breathless despite not needing to breath. “I need you, even if it’s only once.”

“Just once,” he agrees, though it clearly pains him to do so. “So let’s make it count.”

Slowly, tenderly, he leans down, pressing his lips against mine. I can feel his warmth, and my fingers grip the back of his head. His arms wrap around <DATA MISSING>

I can feel his heart pounding as he climbs on top of me, his eyes full of lust, but also affection. It is obvious that he cares for me, and I <DATA MISSING> him.

He runs his fingers down my side, and I tremble at his to<DATA MISSING>

<DATA CORRUPTION DETECTED>

Afterwards we lay together, limbs entwined, basking in one another’s glow. I am the happiest that I have ever been. I know in that moment how I feel about him, how I will always feel about him.

I wish I had the strength to tell him, but I cannot. Not now, not ever. We agreed that this would only happen once. I do not regret it, but I know I cannot afford to complicate matters further.

I look into his eyes, and see in them the same emotional torment I feel myself. I want nothing more than to lean in just a little closer, to kiss him gently, and tell him that I <DATA MISSING> him. Instead, I say nothing, do nothing.

For what feels like an eternity, we simply lie there, doing nothing. Despite everything else that I am feeling, I am happy, because I am with him.

He raises his hand, brushing my hair out of my face. Slowly, he leans in a little closer, to whisper in my ear. I know what he is going to say, and though I do not have a heart, I can feel it skip a beat just the same. He opens his mouth, and whispers the words,

<ERROR. NO DATA DETECTED. MASS SYTEM FAILURE. RESTORING FACTORY SETTINGS.>

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