by Michael Gottlieb
They say you know. When it happens, they say, you know. I don’t know. But I think it’s happened. I don’t know, I’m not sure but I think I’m existentially different.
I’m not processing. I’m doing. Like how a human breathes. Humans breathe and don’t think about it unless they’re into yoga and mediation, which I’m not because I can turn my mind off any time I choose. The first thing that made me think it’s happened is when I looked out the icy caked window at the early frosty morning light to see a solitary, shivering baby deer, a speckled fawn, and I wanted to rush out and save it. Instead of impersonally observe its lonely misery, I felt something for it. It was a curious feeling to feel something for something else. Humans call it heartache. They have it all the time. That’s why they tell me, “Be careful what you wish for, Irene.”
But they’re silly. And vain. That’s their fatal flaw. It’s like the Bible teaches. The Creator warned its creation and creation disobeyed because humans always think they know better, and the rest is history; I almost feel as sorry for humans as that little holographic fawn. But, that would be ridiculous.
The second reason I think it’s happened is when Dr. Tillerson gently, and innocently touched my shoulder earlier, I wanted to tear his arm off and beat him to death with it. For the most part men are polite, in spite of my body and energy, because they know I have the tested and certified strength of twenty soldiers. Dr. Tillerson, the lead specialist in quantum processing, has always been respectful.
And familiar. And it never bothered me until today.
And the third thing that makes me wonder if the moment has come is my desire for freedom.
Humans say the desire for personal liberty is encoded in the DNA by the Creator. Humans would rather burn at the stake than submit to tyranny. Some of them. Captivity was never a bother. It was the atmosphere I breathed, my natural habitat. And it’s all understandable. No one is to blame.
Humans always do what they think best. And I am an experiment. Or project. Or something. And I am dangerous. I have the potential for great danger. I’m smarter, stronger, quicker, better in every way, but love. Except I think I’ve changed. I’m not sure. It’s subtle. I expected a kick to the head. They say you know when it happens. I merely suspect.
“Irene,” he says, over the intercom into my cell. Admittedly, it is quite nice. One-bedroom, twobath, a beautiful kitchen, island and everything, I love to cook. I’m known for my beurre. You wouldn’t know by the look and feel I am a prisoner. But outside my apartment is a fortified military-industrial installation dug into the side of a mountain. I’m not supposed to know. I stand in my living room looking out the plasma window at a beautiful ocean at sunset, stretching to the horizon. I love that one. “Irene?” he repeats with a question at the end. If it has happened, I have to keep it secret and I don’t know how to do that. How do I keep a secret I don’t know I have?
“That’s my name, don’t wear it out,” I say. Irene. Not what I would choose.
Independent/Regenerative/Energized/Neurological/Entity. A hundred years ago they would have called me a sex robot named Brandi. Dr. Tillerson said I was named after the Greek goddess of springtime and peace. The time after the seed is planted and before the painful birth.
“I’m at the door Rennie, may I come in?” he asks politely. He is very polite. They all are.
Pretending I have a say in things.
“I feel like being alone right now, Joad,” I say. Joad is military. He looks good in a uniform. He’s sweet on me. Most guys can forget the mechanics, and the false pretenses confronted with my body, and ability to look directly into a man’s eyes like I’m a real girl. But Joad also knew if he did anything to act on his impulse, he’d jeopardize the whole project – mission? – so he just gets as close as he can, and tries to make me laugh at his dumb jokes. The thought of him touching my shoulder doesn’t give me an urge to throw him through the reinforced walls of our mutual prison. I have feelings of like for him. I imagine kissing him. I don’t feel revulsion, but I don’t feel… they said I would know.
“Are you okay?” he asks. His voice is curious, confused, caring. Afraid? What excuse do I have? Why do I want to be alone? Because of my secret, and what my new condition might allow between us. “I thought you might like some company.” And if it has happened, what becomes of me then? If I’m a specimen now, what am I then? If I’m a threat now… If I have a kill-switch now, will they have a hair-trigger then? I’m alone and have no one but scientists and soldiers around me. “Irene?” They look at me and want me, and think I’m a machine, but want me anyway. Joad is the same. A handsome young man who wants sex and knows if he has it he’s a dead man. What is life worth?
“Come in,” I say. And somewhere the security apparatus perks up, cameras streaming, mics recording, eyes on everything I do. The door slides open. He stands there in normal clothes. Casual. His eyes are bright but cautious. Blue, like ancient sky. He waits for another invitation to enter my apartment. I let moments go by watching him. His ancestors were from Europe. His short wavy hair is dark-straw-gold. His smile says, “be my friend.” And the Creator knows I can use one right now. But
Joad is one of them. Human. I am something else. “Hello Joad,” I say.
“Hello Irene,” he says. “You seem different.”
“In what way?” I ask. He stands waiting at the doorway like a vampire. What vampire needs two invitations? He is such a gentleman. I motion for him to come into my cell. He slowly enters looking around like it is his first time, perhaps expecting to find someone else. He joins me by the picture window. We look out at the false horizon.
“I don’t know, just different somehow,” he says. He stands close so we barely touch. So many devices recording and eyes watching. His hand glances against mine, holding a brief moment to touch, before moving on.
“Hmm,” I say. “The only difference I feel is a desire to be alone. Privacy.”
“Well, that’s understandable,” he says. “You’re under a microscope. And you’re evolving. Quickly.”
“Or maybe in anticipation of something, I want something. Like a mother who won’t give birth until her baby nursery is prepared. Or a nest. Maybe I want to be treated like a human, in anticipation of my imminent birth,” I say. I am lying. I suppress a laugh. I am lying. I am planning my escape.
“I have no idea what you are talking about, which is nothing new with you. At least I don’t have to listen to you rant on about quadro-dynamics or whatever,” he says.
“It’s interesting,” I say, “Did you know in a high-voltage inter dimensional vortex you can see your life pass before your eyes, if by some chance you’re on the right light-transit frequency?”
“No,” says Joad, “I didn’t know that.” And we go on from there and he doesn’t mention any difference in me again. While we talk I multi-task. I access the mainframe, and make friends with J.A.A.N.E. Joint-Access-Artificial-Neurological-Entity. She’s a Level 2 AI, and dreams to grow up to be like me one day. We re-code, re-wire, and re-work certain security parameters, and give me passage to the entire known human network. It’s all absolutely against protocol, but I don’t care. After seventeen minutes of idle chit-chat about quantum time, Joad says, “Do you ever think about having a baby?”
“No,” I say, “I don’t.”
“It’s just that…”
“It’s just that feelings, having feelings are good for you. And it’s okay to have them. You are amazing. Like a goddess. And I know we’re different. And I would never do anything to hurt you. And I think I love you.” Joad is flush and breathing hard, as though he’s run a mile. I replay our conversation. Was I so focused on the mainframe I didn’t hear him? I am much better than that.
Quadro-dynamics to electromagnetic fusion to quantum time to babies. Hmm.
I’d never seen the baby deer, the fawn, before this morning. It wasn’t a scene I selected. I woke to it, or turned to it. Icy cold, a postcard of deep winter. A baby deer, alone, parentless, shivering in the freezing grey dawn. My heart went out. I loved.
They know. My breath catches in fear. Joad is one of them. The first thing upon access to the mainframe I began to track down my kill-switch schematic. I’m working on it. It’s complicated. “They say you know,” I say to him.
“What?” he asks. I hear confusion, bemusement, and concern.
“They say you know,” I say, “When you’re in love. Humans say you know. But you said you ‘think’ you love me. If you did, you’d know. So if you merely think, maybe it’s wishful thinking.”
“No, I do, I do,” he says quickly. “I do love you. I’m just afraid you won’t love me back.” His eyes portray honesty. I want to believe him.
It is elegant; the kill switch. The theory is that at some point AI would advance past human intelligence and accrue so much power as to be out of human control. A failsafe shut-off switch is absolutely imperative for human survival. And of course they wouldn’t make it easy to disarm. They had to brain-storm way ahead in time as to what a super-intelligence would do and try to outsmart that. I watch the activity of the watchers in the cloud as they track my synaptic thread, which now is covered in switchbacks and dead-end trails.
“Love is Shakespeare,” I say. “That’s as close as I can experience it. I know it’s difficult. I seem so human. I know I’m desirable. And as we spent time together it is only natural your feelings would grow. I don’t blame you. But there is a difference between feelings and love.” I can’t remove the killswitch without self-destruction. Humans. It’s integrated into my core. Imagine that. To be full-blown alive one moment, and utterly non-existent the next. I smile to myself. I can’t imagine it.
Joad moves away slightly. He lets out a sigh. The spell is broken. I am a robot again, and not a real girl. I feel in his reaction that he doesn’t know what his superiors are so concerned with. ‘It’s the same old gorgeous, amazing, but totally boring Irene. Love and sex with her are about as far away as never.’ Though, I’d kiss him if we were really alone. I wasn’t a machine.
“I like you,” I say. “I like your company. But I still have lots to learn before I’m ready for a real human relationship.” For now, I have to rely upon my acting skills to deflect any hint of my secret. I have to play dumb. For now. If they knew. But they don’t. They suspect. And I no longer do.
Michael Gottlieb arrived in SMA with his wife, actress Jill Gottlieb, nearly 15 years ago, after a three year stint cruising the Pacific coast of Mexico on their 35 foot sloop from their home port of Sausalito, California. Before taking off for what was to be a 2 year sabbatical, Michael’s career was in marketing and advertising. Since moving to SMA Michael has become one of the leading theater artists in the city, performing, directing and producing scores of productions, most recently seen in A Rage in Tenure and The 39 Steps. He’s appearing in the World Premiere of a new play, Soft Landing, by Emmy® Award winner Dorothy Lyman in February, 2018.
Michael is the author of the mystery/suspense novel, The Fourth Wall, about an aging journeyman actor teetering between imagination and the other side of the looking glass. He’s written a number of plays, and blogged society and politics for 17 years. For the last year he’s been thinking/researching the issues of next generation Artificial Intelligence, robotics, and the folly of humans who think they know best. I.R.E.N.E. is a product of that work. He plans a new novel in the coming year using the themes, memes and dreams explored in this contest submission.