Amira (Part 2)
Continuing from my submission to Passage Prize, Amira. Read part 1 here:
As she rounded a corner two blocks away, Grace spotted the crowd gathered at the door of her apartment. Allie was in the center, with four or five students Grace didn’t recognize, and an older man with a microphone – and Steven. Grace quickly cut across the street out of sight.
After about a quarter mile, Grace stopped, dropped her backpack, and sat on the curb. Allie wasn’t going to get bored and leave. She had weeks of power if she stayed still, and no doubt the others would bring her a fresh pack if she needed it. The journalist certainly wasn’t going to go; or if he did, they’d send another.
As far as Grace knew, a synthetic still couldn’t hurt a human being; could Allie prevent her from walking inside? And if not Allie, what about her human friends? Everybody wanted to be on the right side of history, to stand and be counted, to do for those who could not do for themselves. And what the hell was Steven doing there?
She decided she would just stride up to her door and walk through. She would not weep or blush or scowl – she would be solemn and silent in precisely that measure which meant that she took the situation seriously, but did not admit guilt. She knew how to do that. The thought of fumbling with the deadbolt with her back to them, on the other hand, made her sweat.
The instant Grace’s eyes met Allie’s, she felt ridiculous to have worried about her. Allie’s face was sad, but tender, and she waved shyly as Grace approached. The other faces were harder to read – but they weren’t leering or shrieking at her, and that was enough to interrupt her fight-or-flight response.
“Hi Grace,” Allie called out, her voice full of hope. How do they fake this? Grace wondered, and doubted.
Grace pictured herself from the outside, on video, brushing past this gentle overture from a friend.
Her plan was not going to work. Silence was an admission of guilt here, but more than that: what if she was wrong?
“Hi Allie”, Grace said, and attempted a smile.
“Can we talk for a minute?” Allie said.
Grace scanned the other faces, and found, not exactly cruelty, but a flicker of hunger in the eyes. These, she decided, were not synthetics – not because a synthetic couldn’t believably simulate that emotion (Grace no longer had any convictions whatsoever on that subject), but because they would never be asked to. It was ugly, and frightening.
“I’d love to talk. Would you come inside with me?” Grace asked.
“What happened this morning was public, Grace,” Allie said; and though she was still looking directly at Grace, and there had been no change in her gentle affect, Grace could sense that Allie was no longer addressing her. “Everybody makes mistakes, and I know you would never do anything to hurt my feelings – but this goes beyond you and me. What we do right now can affect whether people like me are made to feel respected and heard for a long, long time.”
Oh no, this is horseshit, I definitely should have kept walking. Grace thought back to the Allie that she had liked – and yeah, nobody would ever say this, but it had been way more satisfying to LARP as the master of a domestic slave than getting the same tasks done with gadgets or gig services.
Allie had been as human as they had needed her to be for the task at hand. When you needed ordinary work done, she was as responsive as any other appliance, and her personality limitations reassured you that you were not, in fact, oppressing a thinking being. But when you were lonely, or insecure – or horny – suspension of disbelief was there for you any time you wanted it.
Suddenly, Grace thought of Steven. He was aggressively miserable – and unlike the others, who stared at her like they were her guards at Nuremberg, Steven would not meet her eye. She suppressed a laugh, but could not help smiling.
“Is something funny?” Allie asked. Grace took a deep breath and willed her face to relax.
“No, Allie, I’m sorry. I’m very sorry that I told you to stop talking. I should not have done that, it was not my place,” Grace said, feeling the contours of her house key with her thumb.
“Would you mind explaining what you mean by that?” Allie asked. There was not a trace of passive-aggression in her tone – she had uttered the exact same sentence, with the exact same anodyne warmth, in their study groups.
“I mean, the professor should manage the discussion”, Grace said. She could feel the pit opening in her stomach.
“How should the professor manage the discussion?” Allie asked.
“He should decide when it’s time to move on.”
“Should he have moved on?”
Grace slowed her breathing and relaxed her face. “No. I don’t know. That would be up to him.”
“I don’t understand. Can you say more about that?”
Grace could tell that Allie was attempting to do, essentially, what the Assistant Dean had done – to provoke her into saying the wrong thing. But unlike the Assistant Dean, Allie didn’t understand the truth she was being asked to reveal. She couldn’t lay a known rhetorical trap and flush Grace into it, like a human hunter. Instead, she would do it like a machine: wearing Grace down with empty, open-ended, thoroughly machinelike questions until Grace gave up and treated her like a machine.
If, in hour three of this ordeal, Grace exploded, or just finally said something inarticulate and exploitable, it would be world news. If she didn’t, they would simply move into hour four. There was no win condition.
But how would Allie know when she had won? A human had obviously composed that opening speech – possible she was being remotely handled. On the other hand, while Allie didn’t understand “giving offense” (apart from a few hard-coded concepts like profanity), she could monitor Grace’s heart rate, her pupil dilation, the chemistry of her sweat. Maybe that was the purpose of her human entourage – not to “support Allie emotionally”, but to provide rich, machine-legible sentiment feedback.
“Allie, I’m very sorry I asked you to stop talking. That was wrong of me,” Grace said, and pressed her key into the deadbolt. She sighed with relief as it slid back and the door swung open, despite her trembling hands.
As she turned her back, Grace could feel growing tension and heat from Allie’s entourage. She glanced back for a moment, and saw Allie’s face abruptly change shape, as if all her facial muscles had been hooked through a single taut wire that had suddenly snapped.
Panic seized Grace and she rushed inside, but neither Allie nor the crowd made any move toward the door. Allie’s new expression was not anger or aggression. She had put on the same face of hurt and betrayal she had worn that morning, and was sobbing out to Grace like an abandoned child.
“Wait! Please don’t leave me, please talk to me, Grace, please, you’re my friend!”
Grace slammed the door behind her, locked the deadbolt and the chain, retched, and buried her face in the couch.
It was dark when Grace awoke to a rustling in the bushes and a scraping at the sliding door to the back patio. She flailed up from the couch and looked drunkenly for a weapon. She considered the lamp, a heavy book – nothing made sense, and she had already given up by the time Steven walked in.
“What the fuck are you doing here, Steven,” she fumed.
“I live here,” he muttered. “I’m just getting my things.” He knelt down at the foot of the entertainment center and started disconnecting his gaming consoles.
She walked behind him and slid the lock back into place. “What, are you going to move in with it?”
Steven said nothing. “How long have you been fucking it?” she asked.
“Her,” he spat. “She was never anything but nice to you, I don’t understand how you could treat her like this.”
“That’s bullshit, Steven. You’re too big of a pussy to actually cheat. You’ve been fucking that thing because you told yourself it didn’t count.”
Steven began flinging books into a plastic tote. “What’s the pillow talk like?” Grace laughed. “You obviously would never tell it to shut up – do you just keep pumping away when it gets stuck reading bitcoin hashes or whatever?”
Steven lifted the bin from the floor, and finally fixed his eyes to hers. “Okay – yeah, Grace, she’s not a brilliant conversationalist. She’s good at memorizing things, and being polite, and showing up on time. Which is exactly how you and I got here, and she’s better at all of it.”
“I had her play your cello a couple times,” he said, breathless, as he hauled the tote to the door. “Her technique is flawless. And she writes music. It’s like an alien wrote it. We’re never going to have kids, I guess, but neither are you. And she’s nice to me.”
Steven kicked the sliding door shut behind him, straddled ungainly over the hedge, and disappeared.
By morning, a recording of the lecture, with a loving close-up of Allie’s performance, was already online, along with the clip of Allie’s keening anguish outside Grace’s apartment. Amazon had released a statement vaguely encouraging the university to “protect the dignity of all students”.
But there was another clip, released without attribution, of Grace with her face pressed against a toilet seat, her neck torqued uncomfortably to one side. Strands of yellow-orange vomit rested at the bottom of the bowl, and against the corner of her mouth. A mumbled stream of consciousness about that night’s Tinder date had drifted into a comparative analysis of Asian versus white penises. And beneath the video, miles and miles of comments.
She was a wealthy, privileged girl at a very expensive university, who had thoughtlessly embarrassed a classmate who had done her no harm – had never done anyone any harm, in fact. Everybody knew synthetics exactly like Allie, and everybody loved them. Enjoying Grace’s comeuppance was guiltless, clean and sweet.
Her mother’s pastor sat for an interview on cable news, where he apologized for Allie’s shameful treatment on behalf of all Christendom. He wept as he discussed his own synthetic daughter-in-law, who was unfailingly gentle and affectionate and honest – never impatient, never self-seeking (they were, in the truest sense, selfless). Synthetics had consciousness without fallenness, the very pattern and image of Christ. “How could I deny my daughter-in-law’s humanity, without denying Him?”
That, and it would mean admitting that you blessed off your weirdo son bringing his masturbatory aid to church, Grace thought bitterly.
She had missed fifteen calls from her mother before she woke up, each with a lengthy and agitated voicemail, spoken much too loud and too close to the receiver, in much worse English than usual. It was a solid twenty-five minutes of audio, but themes emerged: how can they do this, anyone could have done what you did, you have only two semesters left, you will apologize immediately, how could you do this, your grandmother will die, how could you be so stupid, how could you do this to me.
But she didn’t answer when Grace called her back, having apparently said everything she meant to say.
Grace could see exactly what Allie wanted her to do – but knowing made no difference, she would still do it. If she stayed quiet through this provocation, there would be the next, and the next, and the next – and they would get worse. If she had just called Allie a slur from the beginning, or put out a cigarette on her arm – well, probably it wouldn’t have made any difference, but it might have been over sooner.
Grace swung open the front door, and there was gentle Allie; eyes bright, ready to talk. “You’re back!” she said cheerfully.
Grace meant to bury her fist in Allie’s orbital and knock her backward. Instead the blow rang through her own body as if she had punched a cinder block: a bolt of pain through her forearm, then a rolling thunderclap of nausea.
Allie’s cheek had split open to reveal polymer maxilla swimming in red-dyed lubricant (if you prick her, does she not bleed?) It looked pretty bad, and that gave Grace some satisfaction, but her knuckles had obviously got the worst of it. Allie had steadied herself with one foot behind her, had not raised her hands defensively, had not even lost her glow of friendly equanimity.
But that lasted only for an instant; then Allie spilled her body backward, her head cracking hard against the pavement. She curled into a ball, her arms guarding her face, shrieking and sobbing. “No, please, please don’t hit me again.”
Grace laughed wildly, and bent down to scoop up a paving stone with her left hand. She heard a hard, masculine growl, closing in on her left: “Hey! Leave her alone!”
For an instant Grace was in the air, and then she was on the ground, her lungs flattened, gasping. The toe of a boot smashed her left hand and sent the chunk of concrete flying. A vicious blow to the ribs found the last gasp of air in her chest, and her vision narrowed to a point; one more to the side of her head put out the lights.
Continued in Part 3.