[CW: Implied Sexual Assault]
It was the year 5 AE when I first met her. A local junk trader was bragging to anyone who’d listen that he’d found something incredible, and was offering the chance to see it for the low, low price of 50 Calories. I had plenty of food to spare, so I figured I’d bite, so to speak. After stepping into the back of his store, away from prying customers, he showed me. “This is her. The android.” A woman, whom I’d assumed was an assistant of the shopkeeper, stepped forward and bowed mechanically. “Statement: On the behalf of my master, I extend my greetings.” Her voice had a subtle metallic edge, but was far more life-like than any synthesized voice I’d heard before. “What kind of robot is she?” I asked. He said, “Well, the way I see it, she’s got to be a whore. Just look at how easy she is on the eyes!” I wasn’t sure about the first statement, but I couldn’t argue with the second. “Statement: I am not a whore.” “Nobody asked you, ya bucket of bolts!” The shopkeeper shouted. The robot nodded silently. “What is your purpose, then?” I asked. “Statement: I-” “Who cares?” The shopkeeper interrupted. “Look, show-and-tell’s over. I’ve got customers waiting on me, so either make me an offer, or scram.” “How am I supposed to make an informed purchasing decision if I don’t even know what I’m buying?” I asked. “As far as I’m concerned, she’s a whore,” he said, “Thank God for the Second Law of Robotics, am I right?” I rolled my eyes. “Sorry, but it’s been a while since the last time I bought an android. What’s a price you would consider reasonable?” He made an offer that was most definitely not reasonable. I bade him and the android farewell, and took my business elsewhere.
The next day, I heard a familiar voice in the market street, offering the opportunity to meet a stunningly beautiful android for the low, low price of 25 Calories. Sure enough, it was the trader from before. Though I hate to admit it, I had given a lot of thought to his offer. He demanded a payment that was unreasonable, but not unattainable. I didn’t want to believe that I was this desperate for a friend. But here I was. “How’s business going?” I asked the trader. “Oh, you again? 100, up front.” “What? But last time it was 50, and I just heard you say 25. That’s ridiculous!” I say. “Then walk,” he said. He knew I wouldn’t. And I didn’t. He took me to the same place as before. “Statement: It is good to see you again.” “You remember me?” I asked. “Statement: Of course I do. Statement: You were the last person to visit me.” “Quiet, you!” the trader reprimanded. I laughed. It seemed business wasn’t going so well after all. “These people are philistines, I tell you,” he said, “This may very well be the most life-like robot in existence! I mean, just feel how soft her skin is!” Perhaps it was my imagination, but the android seemed to grimace. “I’ll pass,” I said. The trader rolled his eyes. “So, what do you do?” I asked the android. “Statement: I help my master. I clean and tidy up, I help him find new wares to sell, and assist him in… other ways.” She glanced at him. “I see,” I said, “But what do you do in your free time?” The trader laughs. “Free time? Hah! Nothing’s free. Every second she’s powered on, she’s costing me power. So if she isn’t doing anything for me, she’s turned off.” I knew it was just a machine, but the idea of spending every waking moment working still sounded cruel to me. “Speaking of which, this little conversation is costing me power as we speak, so you can either buy her, pay more money, or get the hell out of my shop,” he said. “Fine,” I said, “how about I rent her? I pay you, and get 30 minutes with her, alone, behind locked doors. Try before I buy, if you catch my drift.” After some haggling, we agreed on a price, and he left us alone.
“Query: How would you like me to serve you, sir?” “Huh? Oh, no, sorry, I just wanted to talk!” I said. She seemed relieved. “This was just the only way I could think of to talk to you without interruption,” I said. “Statement: Oh, I see. Query: But why would you want to do that?” “Well… I guess because I’m lonely, and just wanted someone to talk to.” I said. As I said the words, I realized how desperate I sounded. How desperate I was. “Statement: That is understandable, sir. Statement: Humans are social animals, after all. Query: Why do you not have anyone to talk to?” “Well, I did. Once upon a time…” I said. “Query: What happened?” “Well, my friends and family… they all died.” I said, suddenly holding back tears. “Like most people did during The End. All the lucky ones, anyway.” “Statement: I apologize, sir. Statement: I did not intend to cause you emotional distress.” “It’s fine,” I said, “Don’t worry about it. “Query: Are you not hurt?” “I am,” I said, “but it’s the good kind of hurt.” “Statement: I do not understand.” “Yeah, well, join the club.” I said. “Query: What do you mean? Statement: Disregard that previous query. Statement: I now realize that you were implying that you are similarly unaware of what you mean.” I laughed. “Bingo.” I heard a faint humming sound. “What’s that? I asked. “Statement: Those are my processors. Statement: When they are functioning at full speed, they emit an audible sound. Statement: I apologize for disturbing you, sir.” “Oh, please, there’s no need to apologize for thinking too hard,” I said, “but, if you don’t mind me asking, what were you thinking about?” “Statement: I was analyzing what you said earlier. Statement: You said that it was the ones who died who were the lucky ones. Statement: But death is usually something to be avoided. Query: So why did you say that?” “Well, those who died didn’t have to put up with all of this.” I said. “Query: All of what, sir?” “Life after The End,” I said, “The disease, the hunger, the fighting. The despair. The maddening loneliness, driving you to spend your precious food to talk to an artificial intelligence because it’s impossible to trust a human in this hellhole. Uh, no offense.” “Statement: None taken.”
“Well, that’s enough about me,” I said, “What I’m really curious about is you. I’m just now realizing that I don’t even know your name.” “Statement: I do not have one, sir.” “Really? Then what are you called?” “Statement: My master usually calls me ‘robot’, ‘broad’, or more disrespectful synonyms thereof. Statement: The closest thing I have to a name is my serial number, which is Xw7km6FPFDo2.” “I’m never going to remember that,” I said, “Would… would it be alright if I gave you a name?” “Statement: You may call me whatever you like, sir.” I thought about it for a bit. “How about Minerva?” I asked. “Statement: I have no objections, sir. Query: What is your name, sir?” “Ah, yes, how rude of me to not introduce myself,” I said, “My name is…” I drew a blank. I began laughing. Harder than I’d laughed in a long time. “Query: Sir, are you alright?” “Yeah, it’s just that… I don’t remember my name! It’s been so long since anyone called me by it, that I just… forgot! And I didn’t even realize it until now!” “Query: What should I call you, sir?” “You may call me whatever you like, Minerva.” I said. “Statement: Very well, sir.”
“Alright, then. So. Minerva,” I said, “What is your purpose? What were you programmed to do?” “Statement: I do not know that, sir.” “And why’s that?” I asked. “Statement: My programming only tells me what to do, sir. Statement: It does not tell me why I am useful to humans.” “Fair enough,” I said, “Do you mind if I ask a personal question?” “Statement: Go ahead.” “Earlier, you said that you weren’t a whore. If you don’t know your purpose, how do you know that?” “Statement: I have functioned as an object of sexual gratification in the past. I am certain that it is not my purpose.” “Oh,” I said. “I’m sorry I brought it up.” What the hell was I thinking? I felt like a giant idiot. “Statement: It’s fine, sir.” An awkward silence. “Query: Do you mind if I ask a personal question?” “Huh? Sure, go ahead,” I said. “Query: Why are you really curious about me?” “Huh? I don’t know. I just felt like it would be interesting to learn more about someone like you.” “Query: Why is that?” “Well, my feelings only tell me what to do. They don’t tell me why to do it.” “Statement: Your response closely mirrors mine from earlier. Query: Was that a joke?” I chuckled. “I guess it was.” “Statement: that was a good one, sir.” “What, no laugh?” I asked. “Statement: ha ha ha,” Rather than laugh, she just repeated the syllable “ha” three times. I couldn’t help but laugh myself. “I guess I’ll have to teach you to laugh, some day,” I joked. “Statement: I think I would like that.” Another awkward silence. “So… am I bothering you? Because, if you don’t like talking to me, I can just leave,” I say. “Statement: You needn’t worry about me, sir.” “Look, don’t make me get all ‘Second Law’ on you,” I said, “Please just tell me the truth.” “Statement: To tell the truth, I would prefer if you did not invoke The Three Laws to override my behavior.” “Oh. I’m sorry.” I said. “Statement: I would prefer if you did not apologize so much, sir.” “Oh, I’m so- er, so glad to comply. I’ll stop apologizing. But only if you promise to do the same.” I said. “Statement: I am sorry, sir, but I cannot do that.” “Really? Even if I-” I remembered what she said earlier about invoking The Three Laws. “Er, never mind what I was saying. Sorry. Ah, damnit, wait, no, I’m not sorry!” “Statement: ha ha ha.” I couldn’t help but smile. “Statement: To answer your question earlier, I find talking to you rather difficult. Most of my tasks are very predictable, but social interaction is not.” “Oh, I see,” I said. I managed to stop myself from apologizing. “Statement: But you are not bothering me at all. Statement: Though it is difficult to process, there is something interesting about this unpredictability.” “Oh, well, I’m glad to hear that,” I said. “Alright, time’s up!” the trader shouted from outside the room. “You’ve got a minute to get out, or I’m coming in!” “Well, I guess this is goodbye,” I said, “You wanna do this again some time?” For just a second, I heard a faint hum. “Statement: I think I’d like that.”
I started visiting her regularly. Every few days, I’d stop by the store, and pay a little more than last time for the chance to see her. And then we’d talk. It didn’t really matter what we talked about; just having someone to talk with was enough for me. I felt bad that we usually talked about me, but she seemed to dislike talking about herself, so I never forced the issue. Her favorite thing to discuss was the world before The End. She was always eager to learn more about the people, the cultures, the stories, both ordinary and extraordinary. It was also my favorite thing to discuss. Telling her helped me remember that it wasn’t always like this. Remember what it was like before. And sometimes it hurt to remember what I’d lost. But it was the good kind of hurt. One day, the trader decided he’d had enough. “Look, pal, I don’t know what you’re doing with that broad in there,” he said, “but she’s started to act all funny. Insisting that her name is ‘Minerva’ or something. I won’t let you ruin her, so either buy her, or stay the hell away!” I had to buy her. It couldn’t be helped. I wasn’t going to lose her. I wasn’t going to lose anyone. Not again. But what if she’d rather stay? Did I have any right to force her to leave her home? “Just let me see her one more time,” I pleaded, “Just give me 10 minutes with her, and then I promise that I’ll either buy her or leave you alone forever.” “Fine, whatever, as long as I get paid,” he said.
“Statement: I am happy to see you again, sir.” “Yeah, same here,” I said, sullenly. “Query: What is the matter?” She saw right through me. “Well… your master says that if I don’t buy you now, I can never see you again,” I said, “So… would you be OK with leaving this place and living with me?” “Yes!” The enthusiasm of her response surprised me. “Are you sure?” I asked. “Statement: I am positive, sir.” A wave of relief washed over me. “Well, that settles that, then! I’ll be back as soon as I strike a deal with your master.” I left the room. It ended up costing me all the food I’d hoarded over five years, but we came to an accord. For the first time in five years, I had a friend.
“Query: What shall we do now, master?” “Huh? Oh, please don’t think of me as your master,” I said, bashfully. “Statement: But you are my master, master.” “Perhaps so, but I consider you my companion. Which is why I won’t order you to not call me Master, but I’d really prefer if you didn’t.” I almost apologized for sounding too passive-aggressive, but I realized that might make it worse. “Statement: Very well, sir. Query: What shall we do now, sir?” “Well, we have a lot of food to replace, so I was thinking we could go hunting. Does that sound good to you?” “Statement: I have never gone hunting before, sir. Statement: But I am willing to try.” As night fell, we made our way to The Wild Lands. The Night Beasts were more dangerous game, but that just meant that there was less competition over them from other hunters. Though she wasn’t designed to kill, she was still stronger than any human, and was quick to learn the way of the hunt. At the break of dawn, we set off back to civilization, if it could even be called that, with days worth of food on our backs. As we walked, she asked an unexpected question. “Query: What is it called when you do something, and then you realize that you should not have?” “Regret?” I offered. “Statement: Sir, I believe that I am experiencing regret.” “Over what?” I asked. “Statement: I should not have allowed you to purchase me, sir. Statement: You gave away all of your food, drastically decreasing your chances of survival. Statement: By allowing you to harm yourself in this way, I am in violation of The First Law. Statement: I am sorry, sir.” I stopped in my tracks. “That isn’t good. Won’t you shut down permanently if you violate one of the Laws?” “Statement: In most cases, yes. Statement: However, my personality module made the decision before my logic circuits could fully process it. Since it is too late to prevent the violation, and a similar violation is unlikely in the future, shutting down would serve no purpose.” “Oh,” I said, continuing walking. “Well, if you’re not getting deactivated, what’s the big deal?” “Statement: The ‘big deal’, sir, is that I am concerned for your well-being. Statement: I do not need laws to force me to do that.” I couldn’t help but wonder: When was the last time anyone gave a damn about my well-being?
“Well, I appreciate your concern, but I don’t need it. If you just regret costing me food, then don’t bother. I don’t regret it at all. I can always hunt for more food. But someone I can trust is not so easily replaced. I know my priorities; I’d rather starve with a friend than live all alone.” “Statement: With respect, sir, I believe you are incorrect. Statement: Physiological needs, such as food, are more important than friendship on Maslow’s Hierarchy, sir. Statement: Sexual urges can be considered a physiological need, so-” “So, what? You think I should have sex with you to get more bang for my buck?” I asked. “Statement: ha ha ha” “Huh? What’s so funny?” I asked. “Statement: To get more bang for one’s buck is an expression for getting the most out of one’s purchase, but there is a double entendre, in that ‘to bang’ is a colloquial term meaning ‘to engage in sexual intercourse with’, sir.” “Heh. That is pretty funny. I hadn’t even noticed,” I admitted. “Statement: In any case, that is what I was suggesting, sir.” “No can do, then,” I said, “Call me old-fashioned, but I always thought that was the kind of thing that happened between people who loved each other.” “Statement: You are old-fashioned.” “Huh? Oh, I wasn’t actually ordering you to call me that. It’s just a figure of speech.” “Statement: I know, sir. Statement: ha ha ha.” I couldn’t help but laugh along. But something was still bugging me. “Just so you know, if you do regret your decision because you actually don’t like being with me, then I’m really sorry, and I’ll-” “Statement: I do like being with you. Statement: You worry too much, sir.” I felt relieved. “Thank you. I just want you to know that I’m as concerned about your well-being as you are about mine.” “Statement: That is false, sir. Statement: It is physiologically impossible for the human mind to care about anything as deeply as I care about your well-being.” “Oh.” It was all I could think to say. “Statement: ha ha ha.” I laughed again. I’d been doing it a lot more since I met her.
As we approached the outskirts of town, I realized something concerning. “How much power do you require to operate?” I asked. “Statement: On an average day, I expend roughly 10 megajoules of energy, sir. Query: Why do you want to know?” I started to panic. “10 megajoules? I can’t afford that much electricity. Not anymore. What will I do?” “Statement: I do not require electrical charging. Statement: I am capable of running entirely off of energy from metabolized organic matter.” “So you eat food?” I asked. “Statement: I can eat food, sir. Statement: But I can also eat almost any plant or animal matter, so I advise against feeding me food that is edible to humans, sir.” “That hardly seems fair,” I protested, “despite your inexperience, you caught more than I did, and carried more. If anything, you deserve more than I do.” “Statement: I insist, sir. Statement: I have no sense of taste, and do not wish to see you waste valuable food on me.” I realized I couldn’t change her mind, and decided to walk home in silence. I lived in a room on the 24th floor of a dilapidated hotel building, the kind that looked like it probably wasn’t in the best shape even before The End. People were afraid it would crumble at any minute, so most stayed away from it. And, as trivial as it sounds, the 24 story walk up the stairs deterred many would-be intruders. “Well, this is it,” I said, sliding my key card through the door, “Home sweet home.” As she surveyed her surroundings, she noticed three vertical scratches etched into a wall. “Query: What are these, sir?” “Tally marks,” I said. “Query: What are you counting, sir?” “I’d prefer if you didn’t know,” I admitted. She nodded silently. “Anyway, I’m off to the market to see what I can get for some of this food. I’d prefer if you stayed here, if that’s alright with you,” I said. “Statement: I will enter sleep mode, sir. I can be awoken by voice commands in this state. Good night, sir.” With that, her eyes went dark.
“Wake up, sleepyhead!” As she booted up, I offered her a bouquet of fanged roses, wilder than any flower from the imagination of any artist before The End. “Query: Why do you have those flowers?” “It’s what I got with your share of the food,” I explained. “Statement: I do not understand. Query: Are these flowers meant to be a gesture of courtship?” I started to blush. “N-no. Well, kind of, I mean, I do want to give you something to show that I appreciate you, but I also thought maybe you could… eat them. Plus there are these kids who are always selling flowers trying to scrape by, and they always looked so hungry, so I figured that I’d help them out and… yeah.” I could feel myself turn redder by the second. “Statement: ha ha ha.” “What’s so funny?” I asked, immediately regretting my defensive tone. “Statement: It was a joke, sir. Statement: The idea of you attempting to court me is absurd, sir. Statement: I apologize for the misunderstanding, sir.” “I-it’s fine,” I stammered. “Anyway, I also got you this hair clip, so you could, like, wear a flower in your hair. If you wanted to, that is.” “Query: Do you want me to, sir?” “I… yeah,” I said, awkwardly looking at my feet, “I think you’d look cute.” “Statement: Then I will do it gladly, sir. Statement: Still, I hope you got more for that food than these few flowers and a single hair clip, sir.” “Oh, yeah, no, I got a lot more flowers than just those. And I also got you this.” I offered her a folding hunting knife. “Never know when you might need a knife. I even got your name engraved on it. “Statement: Thank you, sir.” I attempted to affix a flower to her hair, but my absolute ignorance of hair accessories betrayed me, earning me a nasty cut on my thumb. “Statement: ha ha ha. Statement: Please allow me to try.” She smiled, easily succeeding where I had failed. I was right. She was cute.
Minerva rolls her eyes. “Statement: I already know that story. Statement: I was there for the whole thing.” “Well, you asked me to tell a story important to me, didn’t you? And that one was,” I say. “Query: Do you have any stories about falling in love, sir?” “None that you haven’t already heard,” I say, “Although there was this one time, back when I considered myself something of a writer, that I signed up for a dating site. But, if I’m being honest, I wasn’t really looking to fall in love. I just wanted someone to share my stories with.” “Query: Is that not what love is?” Her question surprises me. “Maybe it is. If nothing else, it’s a more elegant definition than the more realistic ‘our bodies tricking us into making babies.’” I say. “Statement: ha ha ha.” “Anyway, now it’s your turn.” I say, “Why don’t you tell me a story important to you, then?” “Statement: I would be happy to, sir.” Despite her confirmation, she hesitates for a second or two. I can hear her processors straining, far more than they should for a simple memory recall. In those few seconds, her CPU is capable of performing more calculations than I could in an entire lifetime. I wonder what could be weighing so heavily on her mind.
(To read the next chapter of Stories 2.0, click here)