A bit of background for this. Ages ago, when I was shooting for art instead of writing, I encountered a drawing challenge which presented 100 themes for which to do art for. While I never actually had the confidence to do it myself, the concept rolled around in my head ever since. So more recently, when telling stories became my focus, I looked up those themes to see if I couldn’t put them to use. This is the first of those stories, starting from one simple word, “Introduction”.
Alone, I stood on the platform. My only company was the sliver of light which managed to pass below the thick curtain and the barely audible voices of the audience. I knew this moment wouldn’t last forever. Before long that curtain would rise, starting the main event.
Then, I would be sold off by the woman I loved.
I stood perfectly still as instructed, and waited for my cue. Today’s event relied on my flawless performance. The audience, wealthy patrons and their guests, had spent a great deal for the opportunity to see me. They expected perfection for their money. I expected to go home with one of them in the end, never to see my beloved Ursula again.
I already resigned myself to my fate. This was planned from the start so I was left with no illusions. In order to please the strangers who sat waiting, I steeled myself to play my role perfectly. My heart may break, but I would not betray her trust.
The audience hushed as the stage lights came on, the sliver at my feet growing more intense. The show began. Once more I affirmed my resolve to perform just as Ursula had trained me. This would be my final chance to make her proud.
“Ladies and gentlemen, kind investors and friends,” Ursula began. “All of us here have long awaited this day.” The sound of her voice, even muffled by the curtain, reassured me. I hadn’t even realized until then I was nervous.
Her preamble continued, but I wasn’t really listening. I’d heard it so many times in rehearsals that I could have easily recited it myself. Instead, I concentrated on the sound of her voice; until my cue I planned to enjoy it as much as possible. The time to indulge myself didn’t last long.
“Allow me to introduce the star of our show. Our latest offering, Alice!”
With that the curtain rose, leaving me momentarily dazzled by the spotlights. As my vision adjusted, I did my best to remain still while the potential buyers got a good look at my body. From the sound of it, they liked what they saw. Ursula would be pleased.
I descended from the platform to the main stage and began my routine, showing off my capabilities and training. Much like Ursula’s speech, endless practice went into making the execution perfect. Every motion displayed confidence and grace, to the delight of the audience. Despite the need to keep my personal feelings hidden, the improvement in my skills felt gratifying.
For the finale, Ursula herself brought out a transparent platform with stairs leading up to it so my legs would be in full view from below. Early in my training, the task had given me trouble; now I ascended smoothly without a trace of hesitation. I felt flush with pleasure at the accomplishment, all the more knowing that she was watching.
As I took my final pose, high above the audience, Ursula came to her triumphant conclusion.
“As you can see, we have quite literally overcome a great many hurdles in the past year. Thanks to your generous help, our research has now reached this final stage. And so I am proud to officially declare Project Alice, our all-purpose household robot, ready for mass production and sale!”
The applause was thunderous, shareholders and media rising to their feet in recognition of the research staff’s achievement. As for me, I waved to the crowd and blinked the display mounted on the upper part of my chassis to show my appreciation. For Ursula this was truly her crowning achievement. I refused to allow my own sadness interfere with that.
“Drinks and hors d’oeuvres will be served in the reception area. Members of the research and marketing staff will be available to answer all of your questions. Alice herself will also be there and is fully capable of handling all inquiries. Thank you for coming, and we will be seeing you very soon.”
When I first met Ursula, falling in love didn’t even come up. The day I was “born” into my physical body, she greeted me as if I were simply another human colleague.
“Good morning Alice,” she said when my audio receptors came on line. “I hope you enjoy your time with us.”
Of all the staff, she was the one who most readily treated me as an equal, even taking me seriously when I chose to use female pronouns. Possibly she didn’t see it as significant, simply what one does for their colleagues. To me it mattered, and love began to take root.
I smiled at the memory as omni-directional wheels took me to the reception area. It was a metaphorical smile, of course, having no mouth. The only face I possessed was made up of two large oval lights set behind a hardened glass panel. Humans saw it as face enough, and somewhat appealing as well.
My arrival caused some excitement, with several of the shareholders eager for a closer look. To them, I was no equal. They saw me as nothing more than a product, despite being as capable of thought and emotion as any of them. Their attitude came as no surprise, given that I didn’t look anything like a human. Standing only a little over half their height, my body took the shape of an inverted teardrop. My skin, slightly pliable and a little warmer than room temperature, with a pale blue tint. I was also the only one in the room who wasn’t a biped, three arms and legs each arranged evenly around my circumference.
One of the great failings of humans, as a rule, is their inability to recognize creatures dissimilar to them as intelligent. Ursula was one of the rare few who could accept a being like me right from the start.
Raising myself higher, using a demonstration of my extensible limbs as an excuse, I found her in the crowd. She looked happy, surrounded by investors offering their congratulations. As well she should on the day of her great achievement. For a moment I was happy as well. But my heart fell as I spotted the other, inescapable reason my love had no chance from the start.
By Ursula’s side stood her wife and fellow researcher, Marienne.
Knowing they were married was troublesome. Not due to simple jealousy, at least that I could rationalize. Instead, I liked her a great deal, recognizing the two of them as a wonderful match. Marienne and I spent considerable time together, as she specialized in the interaction between my AI and body. I knew first hand that she was an attractive, intelligent woman who accepted me as a person much as her wife had. We were friends and I respected her, making jealousy almost unthinkable. And the thought of taking Ursula from her equally hard to imagine.
Fortunately the investors provided a distraction, peppering me with questions. Most were simplistic, as expected. Explaining the details of my development to non-technical people proved challenging, however. It required my full attention. They also examined my body closely, no surprise given my status as commodity.
One shareholder commented how well I would do on the market, sparking a lively discussion. Several expressed keen interest in having me themselves, stating they’d love to take me home right then. Doubtless they meant it as a compliment, and I was glad for having no visible expression. My voice remained well modulated, my inner turmoil undetectable. Even so, unseen and unheard as I continued to field their questions, I could feel myself falling into despair.
“If I may interrupt,” said a familiar voice next to me. “We really should be moving on. There remains a great deal to do before the public release. You understand how it is.”
There were murmurs of disappointment; nevertheless the crowd was polite and praised Ursula for her diligence. For my part I was confused, there was nothing but this reception scheduled for the day. But she and Marienne were already busy extracting me from the group. I felt grateful for their timing, even if it was a coincidence.
The three of us left together, the rest of the team remaining behind to continue the event. Neither Ursula nor her wife spoke as they loaded me into a company van, and we traveled for a time in silence. I didn’t mind at first, given my mental state, but soon became concerned. Neither woman was normally the quiet type; it was strange not to discuss such a major event. Something had to be wrong.
Eventually Ursula was the one to speak, although she did not look back. “Alice,” she said, “ I hope you know we’re upset with you.”
I looked to her in shock. Everything seemed to have gone perfectly. She should have been proud, so what had gone wrong?
“I don’t understand.”
This time she glanced back, wearing an expression I couldn’t read before returning her eyes to the road. “You were obviously suffering back there. I felt like you didn’t trust us enough to ask for help.”
If I thought I was shocked before, I was doubly so now. They knew? How? I have no expressions and my voice was perfect, so how was it possible for them to know?
Marienne turned to face me. “I doubt anyone else noticed,” she said, her voice a bit more gentle than her wife’s. “You can’t hide that sort of thing from either of us. We know you too well.”
“You should trust us more,” added Ursula. “That’s what people do when they care about each other.”
Normally her words would have made me happy, but knowing that we would soon part made them hard to bear. To me, the two of them were irreplaceable. I was not, and before long a new project would take my place.
If my eyes were made for tears I would have wept. Instead, a tremor found its way into my voice which I could not seem to control. “You’re cruel,” I said in that uneven cadence. “To say something like that when I’ll be gone soon.”
The van swerved slightly before Ursula was able to recover. Marienne leaned toward me, her face filled with concern. “Why are you leaving, Alice? Tell me what you’re thinking of.”
“I’ll never see you again, even though I love…” I stopped short. I had promised myself I would never say that aloud. Particularly not in her presence.
By now Ursula had stopped the van and both of them moved to the rear with me. During the moment of silence I realized I had been making an arrhythmic humming sound, which I assumed was my equivalent for tears. Both of them put their arms around me, such a human gesture.
“Why are you being so nice? Aren’t you selling me?”
Ursula suddenly straightened, grabbing one of my arms. She seemed genuinely upset. “Who’s been telling you this? Why do you think you’re being sold?”
“That’s what I was built for. A household robot, first of a consumer line. I’ll end up in the house of one of those shareholders and I’ll never see either of you again. It’s better this way anyway.”
“But that’s…” Ursula began, before being hushed by her wife. She laid a gentle hand upon one of my shoulders.
“Let’s put aside whether you’re leaving for a moment, dear Alice. Why do you believe it would be better? Is there a problem you haven’t told us about?” Her voice was as gentle as her touch, and difficult to resist.
We sat in silence for several moments, even though I knew I couldn’t avoid her question. She and I had been through many sessions together where the deepest workings of my mind were exposed. I could not keep secrets from her if she were determined to learn them.
“I’m….in love with your wife,” I admitted at last. “Both of you are so very important to me. I know it’s impossible, and wrong. I shouldn’t feel like this at all. I promise I won’t do anything to come between you, I’ll just go and you won’t have to worry any more. I’m so sorry.”
I looked to Marienne’s face, not sure what to expect. Certainly not the smile she wore. “Why do you think it isn’t possible, Alice?”
“Because you’re married, of course,” I said, unable to understand why she would twist the knife this way. “And just look at me! This body isn’t even close to human. It isn’t possible for my love to be returned even if you weren’t together. I’m just a product, not something to have feelings for.”
Ursula moved again to speak, but once more Marienne stopped her. “You aren’t a product to us. Have we ever treated you as anything less than a full person? You are as much a woman as either of us. I should know, I’ve spent enough time inside that brain of yours. I care a lot about you as a woman and a friend. Both of us do.”
“Even if I am a real person, doesn’t that make it worse? You’re married, my feelings aren’t something to be happy about.”
This time Ursula would not be hushed. “I’ll thank you not to tell me how to feel,” she said. “I for one am very happy to hear what you told us. And while I’m at it, I’ll lay another bit of foolishness to rest. You’re not being sold, so stop worrying about it.”
Again I was caught off guard, which had become something of a habit. My mind scrambled to put the pieces together but nothing seemed to connect.
“Why was I there today then, if I wasn’t being sold? The whole performance was to make the shareholders want to buy me, some of them said they did. You even said that sales would be starting soon.”
“They will Alice, but not for you. You’re a prototype, not a production model. Those aren’t meant for sale. Besides, you were given a much more advanced AI than they’ll have since we needed a self-aware subject to give us active feedback. The models for sale are going to be a bit different, although they’ll be able to perform as well as you did.”
“I’m going back to the lab, then?”
Ursula shook her head. “Only for a short time, to wrap things up. Generally, your work there is done. All the data from now on will come from the field.”
It took several moments for the information to sink in. Only one option seemed to remain.
Unexpectedly, Marienne burst out laughing. “Of course not, you silly girl! Alice, you must be truly upset to even think that way. How could we throw a person away like that, even aside from the ethics of the matter? Now calm down and think. You’re not being sold and you’ll only be at the lab a few days more. And you are definitely not being thrown away! So where do you think you might be going?”
Thoughts raced, seemingly faster than my pseudo-neurons could carry them. Many possibilities came to mind, but nothing really felt right given what Marienne had said. None, until I came to the most unlikely scenario.
“I’m going…with you?”
Both women grinned, and Marienne threw her arms around me. “Oh, I knew you were a smart girl! Yes, you’ll be coming to live with the two of us. You were meant to be part of a household, and we’d happily make you part of ours.”
“But what about my feelings for Ursula? Won’t that be a problem?”
This time it was Ursula’s turn to answer. “Personally, I welcome them. We both guessed it already, but I’m glad you finally said it for yourself. However, feeling love only for me isn’t going to be nearly enough.” She gestured to her wife, who gave a little wave. “If you’re going to be part of our family, you’ll need to learn to love her as well. The way we love you, and each other. Do you think you can manage that?”
I didn’t know what to say. Ursula’s words were serious, if delivered lightheartedly. I desperately wanted to believe them. Opposite her, Marienne smiled warmly. “We’d love to welcome you into our home, and our hearts,” she said.
This time there was no need to search for an answer.
“I want to be your family. And I want to learn to love you both.”
With that, they both pulled me close and gave me the sort of kisses I’d never received before.