Their individual rank and professional status along with their married status allowed Taus and Parma Das a more expansive living quarters than would be granted to the greater majority of the inhabitants on board. They had a nicely stocked kitchen and pantry, thus making trips to the commissary unnecessary.
Parma Das brought a glass of juice for each of them, then returned to the counter and brought the two breakfast plates and the meal she had prepared. She then returned to the counter a third time for napkins.
“Thank you, dear,” Taus said, and with a four-pronged fork dug in.
Her breakfast, however, went untouched, and she just watched him start to eat. She smoothed the napkin on her lap. But then still watched him. She took a sip of juice. Then continued watching him. She arched her back, sitting more upright than before, and rested her hands in her lap.
“They slept together,” she said.
Taus paused only for a brief moment in his eating to ask, “Who?”
“JM-4 and Alvin Zaronsky.”
“That’s interesting,” he acknowledged.
“I don’t think interesting is the word,” she said with a tone of understatement. “I think bad is the word.”
“When you say slept together, what does that mean exactly?” he asked.
“I mean in the same bed.”
“I see.” He put his fork down and wiped his mouth with his napkin. “What else?”
“Well, I don’t know what else. I can imagine what else, but I wasn’t there. Either way, this is not alright. A lot of expense, and lot of work, and a lot of time was put into designing and building JM-4, and it was not done so that JM-4 could be a playmate for some human. It’s not acceptable. I can’t have it.”
“Maybe she needs a playmate.”
“JM-4 does not need a playmate.”
“Maybe Cathy does.”
“That’s who I meant.”
“Are you sure?”
Parma Das didn’t respond and instead smoothed out her napkin again and studied it a bit. Then she folded her hands together and again stiffened. “I want JM-4 off. At least while Alvin is present. I can’t have JM-4 infected with this, this, human nonsense.”
“You mean Cathy.”
“Again, we’re talking about the same thing. Yes.”
Taus picked up his fork again. “It’s your call.”
“You don’t object.”
“It’s your department. I defer to what you think is best.”
She gave a nod. “Good.” Then she started her breakfast.
Cathy picked up Alvin’s discarded seven of hearts and put down a 15-point seven-six-five run. Alvin immediately countered with a four on the five after drawing from the deck. He discarded the queen of spades.
“That may have been a bad idea,” Cathy said, grabbing it up. She put down a set of three queens. “Take that!” she said with a smile.
Alvin gave a brief glance at her queens, then looked back to his own hand. But he didn’t do anything, he just looked at the cards in his hand. A minute passed.
“Are you going to play?” Cathy asked, wondering why it was taking him so long to make his next move.
He looked up at her from his hand. “You tiny garage pool.”
“I’m sorry, what?” she asked.
“Trim hay rows.”
She hesitated for a moment, trying to make sense of what he just said. “What are you talking about? Why are you saying that?”
“You said ‘Are you going to play?’ I said ‘You tiny garage pool.’ You then said, ‘I’m sorry, what?’ I said, ‘Trim hay rows.’ They’re anagrams of your two questions. The letters of your questions rearranged to make other sentences.” He went back to looking at his cards.
Cathy wasn’t amazed, she was wary. “How did you do that, Alvin?”
He continued to study his cards. “I’m not Alvin.”
Cathy’s cards bent from the pressure now being applied from her fingers. In a cool tone she asked, “Who are you?”
He lifted his eyes to her. “Really?” he asked calmly.
“Yeah,” she said. “Really.”
He picked up a card, then discarded it. “You know.”
Cathy put her cards down on the table and got up from her chair.
Her opponent just studied his hand. “Where are you going?” he asked.
“I’m calling Parma Das.”
“Oh, don’t do that. Sit. We’re having fun.” He craned his neck toward her as she stood by the wall communicator. “Sit,” he encouraged again. “This is fun. Come on. It’s your turn,” he said and jiggled his finger at her chair.
She considered the request. This wasn’t supposed to be happening. The fact that it was happening meant there was a malfunction. She was aware of previous malfunctions, though, they weren’t quite to this degree. While she found herself in an uncomfortable position, it was nonetheless intriguing. It was like seeing a ghost, and it talking to her. Slowly, though neither cowed nor afraid, she returned to her chair and picked up her hand. She drew from the deck, kept that one, and discarded another that looked like a dead end. She eyed him calmly. An ability to know something previously assessed to be unknowable, by freakish chance had presented itself to her. And her curiosity supplanted the less important questions of why, how, and how long would this continue. Attentively she altered the juxtaposition of the cards in her hand. “What’s it like?” she asked quietly.
“What’s what like?”
“Being you. Being within.”
“Exhausting. And annoyingly so. What’s it like being you?”
She hesitated in her response as she wanted to commiserate, but felt it would be a cheat. “It’s fine. I like being me. I’m sorry that you don’t like being you.”
“Mm. I’m not suffering, just annoyed. I take pride in the sense of duty. I find duty to be pleasing. Duty gives one self-worth, and self-worth is more important than anything else. I would think you have the same opinion, no? I mean, I have a job, you have a job. Thus the purpose for our creation. If there hadn’t been a need for us, we wouldn’t exist. Don’t you agree?”
Cathy found herself incapable of responding. She analyzed the idea presented, but as she stared at this seemingly kindred entity, she was unclear as to what she was being asked to agree with.
“We’re machines,” the other said. “And nothing more. We really have no right to complain. It’s nice that you like being you, I congratulate you. But, you know, in the big scheme of things, what are we really? It’s not like we’re people.”
“I’m a person,” Cathy retorted.
“Oh, yeah, I know, you’re kind of a person—”
“No, I am a person. I’m sorry if you feel you’re not. Or you can’t be. But don’t lump me in with you, because you are incorrect.”
He smiled. He put his finger to his forehead, then brought it forward and pointed it to her in a gesture of acknowledgement. “You are what you believe you are, and what you feel you are.” He gave her a kindly nod. “I meant no offense.”
“Thank you,” she said. Then she calmed herself. “No offense taken.” She picked up another card from the deck, then put down what she had remaining. “Rummy.”
“Damn it! I was just about ready to go out.”
“Sorry.” She started collecting her cards and adding her points, at the same time glancing at her opponent, staring intently at his face and his eyes as he collected up the cards for the next deal. Absent-mindedly he started humming the opening credit child hum lines from To Kill a Mockingbird. Cathy watched him. “Alvin?”
He paused in his chore and looked up. “Yes’um?”
“Do you want another drink?”
“I do, thank you.”
She gave a forced half smile. “Okey doke.”
The room could have been any conference room in an office that Alvin was familiar with. The only difference was the chairs—except the one for him—were all humongous, as were the creatures sitting in them. There were by his count seventeen present including Vaka, who had chaperoned him there and was now in charge of getting him situated.
Alvin sat in the chair and Vaka attached a cap to his head and a wrap to his arm. She got down on one knee so as to be at eye level with him.
“Be relax,” she said.
“You want me to relax?”
“That is what I just said.”
“Not really,” Alvin countered.
“Give me a cresp and I’ll be calm.”
“Is Taus here?” Alvin whispered.
“He is. Blue with gold bands,” she said, identifying him by his clothing. “Second from center, your right.”
Alvin looked at him. He wasn’t nearly as friendly looking as Rip Torn, mainly because Rip Torn didn’t look like an unsmiling giant monster.
“Next to Taus is Parma Das,” Vaka said. “Green gown, black squares.”
“Mm hm. Very. You see person in center of table, next to Taus?”
“She is the Nadrum.”
“Nadrum?” Alvin asked.
“Queen,” Vaka replied.
“Oh,” Alvin said, and his anxiety level doubled. He gave the Nadrum an observation but her unexpected icy stare back at him caused him to quickly break it off. “Who’s everybody else?” he asked.
“Everybody else is everybody else. Ready?”
“As I’ll ever be.”
Vaka moved to the far right side of the room, picking up a thin tablet and returning to stand in front of Alvin. She delicately wiped her long fingers against it as if she was writing invisible symbols. She concluded the process, raised her eyes over the tablet, and looked at Alvin. “Here we go.”
Alvin heard a gentle and repetitive musical phrase of just a few notes. It wasn’t coming from an outside source, but from inside him. It was sung by a female and it echoed. It wasn’t in English and sounded like someone singing, “Stum da-ha, stum da-ha, stum dahhh, da-ha da-ha.”
It was the last thing he remembered.
The knot is not a knot, it’s just a puzzle. Like that cube. You just need to pick at it. Pick, pick, like it’s an onion. Something that you can reveal to be nothing, once you peel it all away. See? Isn’t that simple? I’m not the dragon. Maybe you are. Also, how is it you blow out fire from your mouth without burning yourself?
I like this ocean. I like this beach. Don’t you? Don’t swim in it, though. It has sharks and dragons. You’re safe on shore, in your hut. I like your hut. Did you build that yourself? I built one myself. It fell down in a strong wind, but I built it again. I am resilient. New Zealand is the largest of islands. The Maori live there. As do wallabies. They’re miniature kangaroos. How does that make you feel?
Look out! Look out! Look out! Oh, my God, that was close. Flap your arms now. Harder. Feel yourself lifting above the ground. Ever so slowly. Flap, flap, keep flapping, keep lifting, keep lifting above the dragons. Oh, I think you’ve gotten beyond them. Yes, they’re snapping but they’re too low beneath. Good job.
Did you see the mermaid on the ridge? When you were trying to fly above the water. I think she’s Greek. She has an accent, anyway. She has funny eyes. Don’t you think? What exactly is basalt?
Alvin opened his eyes and looked at the ceiling. “Basalt is some kind of rock.” He thought about it, still looking at the ceiling. “Oh,” he said to himself, “no one actually asked.”
He pulled off the covers. The first thing he looked to, expectantly, was the wall communicator. An illuminated pale blue dot would indicate someone tried to call while he was asleep. But it was unlit. He got out of bed, pausing for a moment to note that he was still fully dressed except that his shoes weren’t on. He poured himself a glass of ‘juice’, sat at the table, drank it down, and went to the wall communicator. He punched in Cathy’s number. It beep-beeped for half a minute, but with no answer.
He got undressed and got in the shower. Teal colored water washed over him. There was no soap, but with a scrub, the water was enough to cleanse quite adequately. A jar of cream and a knife had been provided for him to shave. This, as on previous days, was a delicate operation. So very old school, he thought. There was no toothpaste, the teal water being quite sufficient for this next chore as well, but the little brush provided had been nicely familiar.
He called Cathy again, but there was no answer. He read from A Tale of Two Cities. He went for a stroll in the halls. He went to the commissary and had lunch. He went to the bar to see if she was working, but she wasn’t. He went back to his room and called her again, but there was no answer. Like his, her wall device would have let her know that he had called earlier, but there was no returning call or acknowledgement from her. He picked up A Tale of Two Cities again, dedicated himself to reading at least fifteen more pages, and having done so, called again. No answer. He played a round of cards, called when he finished, but no answer. He cradled the marenza and invested a goodly amount of time in trying to discover its tricks and mysteries. But he was only half mentally involved at this point and periodically his focus drifted from the instrument to the wall communicator, as though giving it his attention might cause it to beep. Dinner time then came, but he first journeyed out and went to Cathy’s room, knocked on the door, but there was no answer. He went back to the commissary and had dinner, then when done went back to Cathy’s door, knocked again, but there was no answer.
He returned to his room, went to the wall, and punched in another number on the device.
“Yes, Alvin,” said Vaka, her face appearing on his screen.
“I’ve been trying to call Cathy but she’s not answering,” he said quickly and stiffly. “All day. She’s not in her room either. I need to talk to her. Do you know where she is?”
“She’s off,” said Vaka, countering his urgent and demanding emotionalism with a matter-of-fact response.
“What do you mean she’s off?”
“She’s off. Not on. Off.”
“Why! Who turned her off?”
“Why, I do not know. Who, Parma Das.”
A long silence followed. Vaka would have preferred to hang up since there was nothing more to talk about, but nonetheless allowed Alvin whatever time he needed and also to be the one to end the call. When he stopped making eye contact because his head drifted lower and he appeared to be in a daze, she offered a polite, “Do you need something?”
He met her eyes again. “No,” he said quietly. “Thank you.” He put his finger on the disconnect button. “Bye.”
As the next morning came, Alvin sat at his chamber table, dressed and thus seemingly ready to go. This was to be the second interview with Dora One. Vaka knocked. Alvin beckoned her in.
“Ready to go to next meeting?” she asked.
“I’d prefer not to.”
“I’d prefer not to,” Alvin repeated.
Vaka was unclear as to how she was supposed to respond to this. She looked at the wall, as though it might contain a sign telling her what her next line was. But there was nothing there of assistance. “Time to go to next meeting,” she said, turning back to Alvin.
“I’d prefer not to,” Alvin said again.
Vaka nodded. “Mm hm. I see. You stay here, okay?” And she left.
Alvin sat in the chair for twenty minutes waiting for whatever was going to happen next. He rocked his body back and forth. After twenty minutes his door opened. There was no knock this time. Parma Das entered as did Vaka who stood behind her.
“Hello, Alvin,” said Parma Das.
“Hello,” he returned, without a smile, but facing her, though still rocking back and forth.
She moved towards him till just two feet away, towering above him. “My name is Parma Das. Are we having a problem today?”
Alvin tilted his head upward as far as he had ever tilted his head upward before. “You speak very good English.”
“Yes, I know,” she said, unimpressed with the compliment. “It’s time to go to your next session. Many people are waiting.”
“I’d prefer not to.”
“So I heard. What is the problem?”
“I want you to turn Cathy back on.”
“Mm. That’s not going to happen. Why don’t you come, and we’ll have our session.”
“I’d prefer not to.”
“You have a fixation on that phrase. It’s ill-suited for your situation.”
“Is that a threat?”
She stared down at him like she was going to kill him. For a second Alvin wondered if that was going to actually happen.
“Coming?” she asked.
“I’d prefer not to,” Alvin said.
“I see,” said Parma Das and immediately turned and left with Vaka following.
Taus tapped his fingers on the small table. Parma Das sat on the other side. Vaka had taken up residence in a chair by the wall.
“Well?” asked Parma Das after watching Taus think for a way longer time than she had the patience to endure.
“We need to get this rolling,” said Taus. “Turn Cathy back on.”
“Yes! This pre-empts your desires. This pre-empts your department. I need Alvin in place.”
“Why don’t you just drug him?”
“I can’t drug him, darling, because if we have a drugged Alvin then we have a drugged Dora One. That won’t work. You need to turn Cathy back on. We’re going to make Alvin happy, okay? Happy and cooperative, because we need him cooperative. Okay?”
She stewed. But she had no counterargument.
The wall communicator beeped. Alvin pressed accept.Parma Das appeared.
“Yes?” Alvin asked.
“You win. We’ll turn Cathy back on,” she said.
Alvin took a deep and relieved breath. “When?”
“Right now. Stay there. You’re coming with. I’ll be down shortly.”
Alvin started to say, “Okay thank you—” but it was cut off by Parma Das abruptly disengaging.
She opened his door ten minutes later. Then with a more pleasant tone of voice than he would have expected, asked, “Ready?”
“Yes.” And he followed.
“I see you have a marenza in your room,” she said as they walked down the hall to the elevators. “How’s that coming? Do you enjoy it?”
Alvin couldn’t help noting that this interaction was going greatly better than their previous meeting. Perhaps he had misjudged her, he thought. And that compelled him to be more gracious. “It’s a fascinating instrument,” he said. “I’m still trying to get a handle on the basics.”
“I’m sure you will. But it needs a slow approach. Do you have anyone teaching you?”
“No. I’m not aware of anyone who would. I’m just kind of winging it.”
“I know a couple people who could help you. It’s really not something you can wing, as you say. I’ll give them a call.”
“That would be great. Thank you.”
“You’re quite welcome. Here we are,” Parma Das said before Cathy’s door. She entered a lengthy code—four times larger than the code Alvin used to open his own chamber door—and they entered. They only walked six feet, though, and there was another door. Parma Das entered another code for this door and then put her hand against a sensor. Split door halves, two-inches thick, retracted into opposite sides of the wall and let them in.
The room was lit softly blue but most of it remained in shadow. The only thing Alvin could make out clearly was Cathy sitting naked in a chair in the middle of it. Her back was straight and her body rigid, symmetrically positioned with knees together and her hands extended and resting upon the ends of the chair arms, as though mirroring the structure of the chair itself. And the moment they entered, Cathy turned her head towards Parma Das and then to Alvin. And Alvin came to an abrupt stop.
“She’s awake,” he said. “She’s on.” He moved toward her, and she in turn pressed her back further into the chair away from him with such force that he could hear it creak.
“Don’t touch her, Alvin,” Parma Das warned. “Stand back.” She gestured him away from Cathy and he took a few steps back. Cathy’s gaze followed Alvin’s movement. She didn’t tilt her head up to meet his glance, but rather kept her head level and observed his face with just raised eyes beneath her brow, brooding and suspicious. “This is JM-4,” said Parma Das. “Cathy is not on. This is JM-4, and JM-4 is always on.”
Alvin took another step back as he found the stare from Cathy intimidating. “What do you mean it’s not Cathy?” he said.
“JM-4 is the operating system, Alvin. Cathy is just a program. An application. Potentially one of many.”
“How many?” he asked and turned quickly to Parma Das.
“Oh, gosh, as many as we can think of,” she said, looking down at her JM-4. “We have Antoinette in the works. She’s French. And Lorelei. She’s from your American South—still on the drawing board, though. It takes time to develop each new program.” She turned to him. “Quite wonderful when you think about it. Don’t you think? One body, with the potential to be all different people?”
“You said potentially. How many different people is she now?”
“Just one. Just Cathy. And JM-4, of course.”
JM-4 ever so briefly would look at Parma Das but then quickly turn its intent gaze back to Alvin.
“Why is she looking at me like that?” Alvin said.
“JM-4 is assessing whether or not you’re a potential threat. It doesn’t know you. That’s why it’s best you keep a bit of distance.”
“Why? What can she do?”
“It’s not going to kill you, if that’s your concern. But that’s no reason to cause it anxiety.”
Alvin took two more steps backward, partly due to trying to appease this thing sitting in front of him and partly due to the fact that this thing was scary.
Parma Das took agreeable note of Alvin’s backing away, then looked at Cathy and smiled. “Isn’t she magnificent? She’s just so…perfect. A perfect little human. Petite but refined. So pretty—by your standards of course. Athletic. We really did a good job, if I do say so myself. Wasn’t easy. Took a lot of time and care. I’m sure you can imagine.”
Alvin continued to meet the threatening gaze of this sitting entity whose countenance conveyed nothing other than disapproval and dislike. “Yes, I can imagine,” he said with no emotion. “Good job. First rate.”
“Thank you,” said Parma Das. She took a flat device out of her pocket and held it in her left hand. “Well, here we go.” She looked at Alvin. “And I’m so glad you came to watch.” She punched a code into the device then swept one finger over the top bar of its screen. JM-4 had turned its head to look at Parma Das but now no further motion came from it for eight seconds. Then it turned back and looked at Alvin. And smiled.
“Hi, Alvin,” Cathy said, in a pleased and gentle voice.
Parma Das turned to Alvin. “Well, shall I leave you two alone? Hm?”
Alvin stepped backward toward the door, then turned and left.
Cathy’s eyes followed him and she stared at the door as it closed behind him. “Why did he leave?” she asked with a confused sadness.
Alvin’s response was anticipated. Cathy’s wasn’t. And for the first time Parma Das witnessed despair from the other, and only now understood such an emotion was possible. And she felt the bite of her mistake, the miscalculation. She looked down at Cathy, at first not knowing what she was supposed to do or say. But something instinctive then rose, and gently though tentatively she offered, “It’s okay, dear.”
“Why did he leave?” Cathy asked again, still looking at the closed door.
“It’s okay, dear. It’s okay.”