art by Melissa Mead
The Titanium Geisha
by Elias Barton
Elias Barton props his life up with worlds that only exist in his head. He lives in Washington, D.C. and is fascinated by visual art, robots, and otherworldly beasts. His novel Above the Universe Below was a semifinalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. Please visit him at eliasbarton.com or on Facebook, Twitter and all the other usuals.
Cannery Beach is where it all started. While my brothers and sisters abandoned it years ago for prestigious careers in New York and Los Angeles, I was always drawn back, drawn back, drawn back to the place where robots love to tread. I enjoyed seeing the different models released each season: the utilitarian, the intelligentsia, and the Semiprecious Sensuals as Dad called them.
Dad always described Cannery Beach as almost alien. It got us five kids into the minivan and excited about spending our sweltering summers at the beach drawing, painting, sculpting, and creating. Even then, I wandered off, studying shells I found among the rocks--their osseous protuberances, the thread of meat sometimes still dangling from the cliffs of their small lives. They were so organic and yet in a sense mechanical. I never tired of the ocean's eternal processes of cleaning waste away while nudging new life into being.
Dad had expectations. Every day, before leaving the beach and returning to our rented summer cottage, we had to draw for hours. "See beyond the obvious," he would say. "Use an artist's eye."
That perspective had secured his foothold among galleries and museums until they surrendered to his point of view. I never saw things as Dad did. I doubted I would ever "see life beyond what we know." But by the time Dad finished the phrase with us kids, especially me, he was always red-faced with frustration.
Then mom, pulling her linen shawl around her shoulders, would step in. "Oh, Karl, let him see things the way he sees them. It's okay."
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I was now the oldest of five siblings and a six-years-out-of-college-and-pot-belly-waiting-in-the-wings adult. Our family's second eldest child, Marshall Feld, was a photographer. His photo entitled On TV, of a waifish toddler sitting atop a discarded television in pre-renaissance Detroit, won the Crowen Award. When it became apparent that my own scribbles might not fill the slot our parents had chosen for me, my sister Laura-blue became our family's painter. She'd already had three solo shows in New York City. Two years younger, Chloe Feld-Larks was a sculptor who flirted with marble until it reformed into intricate trellises of lace, demonic flowers, and spikes. And then there was Duncan, young and cherub-faced. His self-portraits in android-form bordered on unethical: enslaving artificially intelligent beings with his visions. Regardless of the controversy, art-lovers sighed and marveled at his talent. They were, after all, just robots. His signature piece was a copy of himself in droid form, which constructed another copy, which in turn dismantled its predecessor while creating offspring. That offspring would do the same to it, to it, to it, to it in a grandiose circle.
We were a family of artists.
Except for me--Wil Feld--their sole failure.
Here I was, three decades old, languishing on Cannery Beach with the sea lions and leatherfaces, in a continual state of decision over what I was. What was I? A man. A man who'd spent too many years in design school. Disgusted, I ripped another page from my pad. I could decimate anyone else's art to pieces in seconds. Criticism isn't difficult: it's far easier to shred paper than create it. However, my own structures were stuck inside me. Their beams poked, caught in my potential. By the time any art materialized, it was deformed and trite. I was told that even the colors I used were forced themes: sandy beiges, palm greens, and hydrating blues. Another page from my sketchpad was torn, was torn, was torn and met the sand below. Sketching near the ocean only added more beach trash.
I was supposed to be plotting my next painting, not spending the good part of an hour observing a pair of legs lingering close to the water. They held back each step before deciding placement. So organic. The woman with those perfect legs approached a girl more obviously android. Every gesture was just right, every curve at the perfect angle, and the woman seemed to have the obliviousness that many droids do. Made to order, she was this year's Geisha 7.57. While the 7.57 looked nothing like traditional geishas (nor did she appear Asian), the name held obvious allusions. The girl, the younger mech, pulled her hair into a ponytail and started talking to the woman while a dog dashed around them. They were soon walking the beach as if they were ripples of ocean gliding across shore. I melted at the svelte butter of the woman's skin and the triangular islands of her mandarin bikini.
I found a matching orange pencil and pressed it to paper as the pair played fetch with the dog. Eventually, they walked south along the beach, stopping at the vast expanse of jagged rocks known as the Opener, then back again. They paused once in a while, lost in conversation, and tossed the Frisbee for the dog until it seemed the ocean ate the disc.
Upon returning to the spot where they'd set their things, the woman and the girl hugged before the younger one lay down on her towel. The Geisha 7.57 knelt and reached her hand behind the neck of the sunbathing mech-girl, the gesture of a friend saying goodbye, but held it there until the girl became, no longer a girl, but a lifeless object--unplugged. The Geisha 7.57 then rose and separated from her static friend. Nearby, the dog turned its head this way and that, trying to understand, before bounding away.
I reminded myself that I was more concerned with my art. Yet, if I didn't already know the magnetic pull of the hot dog stand behind me, I would've sworn the geisha was now approaching me.
As she got closer, I hunkered into my paper, sanding orange from the pencil.
A voice poured onto me from above. "You know, if you're going to stare down someone at the beach, you should wear sunglasses." The deep throatiness was the voice I would've guessed she'd have. That never happens. Too perfect. I would test my hypothesis of who she was.
I didn't say a word, just kept scribbling and put on a combination of my mom's deep-in-art face and my dad's air of I-don't-hear-you-you-don't-exist. Still, I could see her shadow sunbathing beside me, waiting for my response while she became more ethereal, better at being a person than people are.
Everything depended on my response. Of course, even if the factory had given her an appetite, if she got a hot dog, it would simply be to seduce me with articulate theatre, an imitation of human ridiculousness. If there's one thing androids are good for, it's making you realize mankind's strange behavior.
Her shadow didn't shift.
I lifted my voice, embarrassed. "How do you know I wasn't studying you? Finding inspiration?"
"Because a woman's body would be the most obvious of all subjects. Please. I don't even know you, but I know you wouldn't do that. No artist would." She paused. "But then, real artists also wear sunglasses everywhere."
"Anna?" I asked.
"No? Okay... Mae? Coral? Olive? Roxanne?" I hoped it wasn't Roxanne. The name sounded smarmier now, perhaps too clearly the label of my fourteen-year-old self's sexual dreams. "Candace? Kay? Dana?" I was trying to recall the entire list aloud, already breaking the rules, making it obvious I knew she was synthetic.
Fern? Funny, I thought I'd only listed that possibility as a middle name. What else had they gotten wrong? I finally looked up, knowing I'd find disappointment in Nectar & Czar, Inc.'s creation. But there was none. They had gotten Fern right. That moment, I knew I'd found my companion, even if she was a mix of titanium, acryna-latex, and circuitry. I didn't know whether to worship her or buy her an ice cream. The nuances were flawless: breasts that weren't overdone and a belly button with a sparkling emerald piercing. Fern wasn't made to look like real women. No, real women strove to look like her. Nectar & Czar, Inc. had even given her a tattoo: a fern curling down her spine, its tip coiling tightly within itself. I had scheduled meeting my geisha sometime from June through September but didn't think the "surprise" would arrive this early. I was hoping it would happen after my family's visit the next month.
"I'm Wil," I offered.
"I know. But Wil, why do you stuff yourself with those?" She motioned to the discarded hot dog wrappers, now foil balls of ketchup spots that I'd set aside for recycling. I'd always talked about living green, about sustainability and minimizing my carbon footprint... all the while eating the worst foods known to man. Hot dogs were summer.
I gave no answer.
"Well then, I suppose I should try one," she said.
"What?" she asked, making her way toward Ricky, the seventeen-year-old hot dog guy smirking at me like he knew.
"What's the point of you eating one?"
"They're summer, aren't they?"
She knew me that well? Even a five-thousand question form can't fill in all those things.
"Did your friend find her Frisbee?" I asked.
"Yeah. The one you had her dog fetching?"
"She wasn't my friend."
"It wasn't? Then who was she?"
Fern looked down at me, the first time our eyes met. "She approached me on the beach and told me that there's this artist, some young, scruffy guy, kind of unkempt. He comes to the beach in horrible surfer shorts, and makes girls feel like he's dipping them in chocolate. Kind of creepy, right?" Her tone was braided with humor, disgust, and interest. I later found out that the mech-girl and she had noticed me from the beach. The dog was neither of theirs. Like my eyes, it had latched on to them, following them from one end of the beach to the other.
"What happened to the girl you were with?"
"What do you mean?"
"You turned her off."
"Of course I did… she was into guys, not girls."
That's how it went. Fern was a programmed enigma that I wanted to figure out. Somehow while she seemed real, it was her artificiality that made her more accessible. I was comfortable, knew I didn't have to try. I could just be me. When she picked up my phone and started punching in numbers, I sat unfazed.
"Well Fern, you should see my paintings and judge for yourself whether or not I'm a real artist."
"Ah, he works in more than colored pencil! Okay, I'm interested. Let's say we meet tomorrow night at Captain Cook's? Call me." With that, she left her number and marched off.
Android politics meant nothing to me. Yes, we'd had a Grandroid (our real grandparents had died before we grandchildren came), but she was terminated at the appropriate time in our childhoods. We treated her death just like a real one. We had a viewing. Tears fell. For months afterward, I swore that Grandma SaeLo's ghost had come through the outlets in my bedroom. She had accepted the end of her time gracefully, unlike many droids nowadays. Now they wanted to own things, to travel, to choose. They wanted rights. No, they said they have rights but we're withholding them. Unfortunately for them, despite the media reporting that at least eight senators and thirteen governors had synthetic wives (in addition to the unsubstantiated rumor that the vice president was altogether android), not much headway had been made for robotic rights. How can civil rights apply to Artificial Intelligence? What's next? Plants? As far as I was concerned, Fern's rights were wrapped in the right to make me feel good.
As Fern and I began to spend more time together, I never let on that I knew her memories had been programmed. Her fake history was more interesting than most real ones. Watching Fern was like watching black magic transfer from prop to person to heart.
"My grandparents lived in an old three-room house in Nebraska," she said, misty eyed over the panang curry at Thai Me Down. "Me-mama SaeLo was the most generous person I've ever known even though she had nothing. She taught me that life has no limits."
I could have told Fern that back then most A.I. grandmothers were called SaeLo, but why ruin memories that hadn't even happened? They were embedded in her as though they had.
Over the next few weeks, Fern and I explored everything lovers do. I'd meet her at Captain Cook's, we'd go to the movies or the Tar'n'Feather Bar for drinks. Fern was well aware of her own beauty. Undaunted by money, she said it didn't exist, that it was all about access. I soon pieced together that she had either been given or had found a way to limitless finances. The funds weren't coming from my account. It had been difficult enough for me to afford her in the first place, choosing Fern over purchasing a car. Still, she would buy $50 bottles of wine, refusing any thanks. She gave leftovers from our fine dining to stray dogs, never to the homeless. "The homeless choose to be homeless. Dogs don't."
When I told her that the shrimp fra diavolo was bad for animals, she'd say, "Looks like he's feeling pretty good to me."
Those tiny illogicalities and bold idiosyncrasies had me forgetting that Fern wasn't a person. She seemed more human than human, more flawed than the most beautiful imperfections I'd ever seen.
Eventually, she came to the summer cottage while I painted. Walking around the room with a glass of wine as if she were at one of the local gallery openings, she would critique each piece without malice or affection. "This one won't sell. I'm sorry, it won't." "The contrast is as impressive as the turmoil there, masked by the soft shapes and color." "Okay. Here you are at your peak." She did this to the same paintings each time she came; I had eight and was working on new ones in an effort to reach twenty before my parents' visit. Though the paintings remained the same, Fern said something new about each one every time. I soon realized that she wasn't trying to help me as much as fine-tuning her own opinions. When I realized her eerie ability to draw anything in photographic detail, I flinched.
"But it's not creative," she'd say.
"Do you mean you can't be creative?"
She shrugged. She didn't know why she couldn't be creative, she just couldn't.
Fern was my fantasy, earthly but otherworldly. While it didn't happen quickly, we ultimately slept together. Her breasts rose and fell as she moved upon me, her face doused with moonlight. I sometimes had to convince myself that I wasn't merely the platform that brought her closer to Nirvana. I had to tell my confused mind that I was everything to Fern, the very reason for her version of living. Of course, I wondered at my own lack of maturity. I had never felt capable of love. I was a prick. While I had watched my siblings waltz in and out of relationships, I'd never heard whatever music it was that made their efforts worthwhile. But now, with a replica of my dream standing across the bedroom putting my paint-spattered t-shirt on, I couldn't bridle my heart. I watched as Fern sat at my window above the street where summer lay dying. She looked past the streetlights to the ocean beyond. I didn't know what she was thinking. It was enough for me to contemplate her without knowing what she was contemplating. If she could truly contemplate. She swatted a mosquito that had been hovering about for days, too stupid to make a meal of me.
The morning before my parents' arrival, Fern sat on my bed, cradling a coffee mug in her hands. She often couldn't sleep, but said that counting sheep was meaningless for her. On the other hand, I had slept better than expected--a phone conversation with Mom held the good news that only she, Dad, and Duncan would be coming to see my show. "My show" was actually me begging the owner of the Tin Penn Wine Bar to hang one of my paintings, his choice. "We'll see," he'd said.
I tried softening the blow of my artistic failure by telling Mom I would introduce them to someone special at dinner.
"Oh Wil," Mom's voice climbed lightning to the sky, "that will be wonderful."
Those words bought me eight hours of sleep, but I was awake now.
Fern's eyes lit up. "Come on. I want to show you something."
Lying on the mattress in the middle of the floor, swathed in grey sheets, I was half-asleep but pretending to be comatose.
"Get up! The sun's out!" I was then hit in the face with my blue jeans. "I mean it. We have to go. Now!"
Realizing Fern was keeping me from a day wasted on beach bum hot dogs and the dread over my family's arrival, I got up.
Without a word, she grabbed my hand and pulled me out the door.
As our feet crossed over the sands of Cannery Beach where we'd first met, my curiosity was peaked. The hot dog stand was closed, standing as a lone white box among nature. Without beachgoers, its utilitarian lines seemed stunningly misplaced: blank, bleached metal.
"There's a cove at the other end of the beach, where the rocks are," Fern said.
"You mean the rocks of the Opener? I've seen them."
"You haven't been in them though. Among them."
I dropped my sandals to the ground, knowing that the rocks were like razors in some parts. An unusual fear of blood had prevented many daredevil feats in my life.
"You won't need those. Leave them here."
"It will be like walking on broken glass!"
"How intricately you've woven delusion into your life! Didn't you ever listen to a word your SaeLo said? Trust me, will you?"
Oddly, I did. Fern was always pushing me. And oddly, she was right. My feet were stronger than I'd thought. The stony ridges were sharp but felt good. And I neither bruised nor bled.
Morning had brought a clean day. I was used to high tide's percussion against the stone, water spraying high into the air. Now, however, the waves were restful, not touching the volcanic rocks. Separated from their mother ocean, small pools of water sat in random depressions.
Ahead of me, Fern turned. "Wil?"
"Have you ever thought you were meant for something, but then discovered you were meant for something else? Something bigger?"
"You're being cryptic."
"Sorry. Sometimes it seems like others set up our lives to be one thing, and then our souls fight it because they know better. It's our job to figure it out, right?" Sadness settled in her eyes as she took my hand.
"Our souls?" I pondered aloud.
"Don't you believe in souls?"
"I don't know. There's no proof of…"
"So you think we were brought together by chance?"
"Chance?" I then broached the taboo. "Not at all. Forms were filled out, specifications made, money exchanged… and now we're here."
"Of course." She wasn't shocked. "But we are here. That stuff only goes so far before you have to stake your own claim."
"So what have you staked?" Fern asked, still walking purposefully.
It was time to change the subject. "I'm glad you brought me here." I made a mental snapshot for future sketch-time. If my paintings could capture even one atom of this beautiful setting, my parents' hopes would be fulfilled. "This place is gorgeous!"
"Stop being obvious." She cocked her head. "Over there. See that rock jutting out? That's where he is."
She let go of me and dance-skipped over the rocks until she reached the spiked crag. There was a pool next to it, about six feet wide all the way around.
"Here," she said, kneeling down and peering into the still waters. "What do you see?"
I still hadn't caught up to her. Fern's hair was a mess fighting with itself. The titanium vertebrae poked from the curve of her back as she stared like Narcissus into the pool, except it wasn't at her own reflection. When I reached her, I saw what lay on the pool's floor: the rusted metal head of an old mech with a man's sharp face. Bits of it had corroded in the saltwater. His blank eyes held no expression as they stared perpetually skyward through the ceiling of his flooded cell.
Fern clasped her hands, unaware of anything but the man in the pool. Goose bumps blanketed her skin. "Now, that's gorgeous. I found him this summer. You and I are the only ones who know about him."
"As far as you know." My sarcasm was wrapped in a fabric I couldn't identify. "What do you think it is?"
"A fallen angel. A sailor who couldn't bear to leave the ocean. He'd rather be here alone than be taken from the love of his life." She paused and laughed. "I guess he's sort of trapped now. Waiting to be recovered. Reawakened."
"We can remedy that." I was about to dip my hand in the pool, but Fern grabbed my shoulder. I pressed my fingers onto the surface, causing a ripple.
"Leave him alone!"
There was something somber in her marvel. She was calibrating her next move should I attempt to disturb the water.
"What do you see when you look at him?"
The pink dawn had grown closer to the blue I knew, and I tried to calm myself. I hated being asked what I saw. The answer is never right. The question demands that you prove yourself, justify your voice and perspective. It's never asked out of interest. It's a fence. It was art school all over again. Still, Fern's eyes held a curiosity I'd rarely seen.
"Who do I think he is? I know who he is. It's the head of a garden mech."
"My aunt had one back in Ohio, right next to her lawn jockey. He would aerate the soil, fertilize, keep things green."
She sailed her disappointment to the horizon, thinking I didn't see.
"Whatever. It's too classic for that." Her tone told me I'd missed something. "He's beautiful. Alien-like. Besides, how would anything like that end up on Cannery Beach? He's been here a while."
"It's not out of the question. There are a thousand assembly lines within ten miles. Perhaps he escaped."
"Like I said, he's been here a while."
"Look Fern, some stupid punks probably stole him as a prank, and he now lays here astounding the uneducated." I didn't know why I insulted her, especially since the information she stored made her far smarter than me.
Stepping away from the pool, Fern looked at a seagull hovering high above the beach. "You know, you need to stop doing this. Tell me what you see, not what you think I see or what you think someone would expect to hear. What do you see, Wil? You!"
I looked down at the broken face of the non-man man.
"I see an ecosystem. I see the small village of barnacles cemented to his jaw, the sea anemones surrounding him on all sides and the hermit crab scuttling over that empty mussel shell. The driftwood. The crowds of purple urchins in the pitted rock, the little homes they've made to keep from being dragged out to sea. I see that all these things have chosen this spot as their habitat, which provides us one as well. Yet, we all usually don't pay attention enough to discern them."
"Ahh... the perfect response for a marine biologist."
Except for the crying gulls, all was quiet. I wouldn't give Fern a reaction.
"You know what I see?" she asked.
An irritated "Hmm?" was all I gave her.
"I see... that you're not an artist."
My glare must have stung. My hands became fists became fingers telling her to fuck off. I stood up.
"Wil... I just mean not a visual artist."
That was worse.
I wouldn't hear it. To keep from dismantling her right there on the beach, I ran. My bare feet felt every rock's blade, but they didn't bleed. Even tripping, I felt nothing, nothing, nothing.
Fern didn't follow, but yelled, "Wil, you've got to face the truth. You're running out of time."
She was right about one thing: I was running. But I wasn't a non-man man trapped in a pool of water. I wasn't bereft of life like he and Fern were. And I sure as hell didn't need a goddamned robot pushing her conclusions into my head.
At the Tin Penn Wine Bar, Duncan walked away from my painting without comment, instead asking if we knew that droids have ten pins in each finger to make their movement more precise than humans'. The most youthful adult I'd ever seen, Duncan's hair flowed in curls like a dancing sea. He disappeared to the bar to further pickle his piggy liver.
Dad and Mom were approximating words as we stood near the bathrooms as if waiting in line. The thing is: we weren't waiting in line at all. We were viewing my lone painting hanging above the drinking fountain, with toilets flushing in the background. Ocean-air was replaced by the lingering disinfectant burning our lungs.
Mom slapped Dad's arm. She spoke with her usual accent, one from an imaginary country. It was put on, but she'd put it on for so long that she couldn't take it off. "Wil-wil, I love the oceanic colors breaking our experience of sand. It speaks to a universally human experience."
I shifted my stance, noticing a hair trapped in the wall paint. "I was going for the I'm-not-an-artist theme."
"Oh honey, you were not," Mom said in a tone I'd heard since pre-K.
I re-steered the conversation. "How are the rest of the kids?"
Mom immediately became more interested in my painting, touching the brushstrokes while talking. "Oh, fine. Just distraught over not being able to come see you. By the way, Marshall received the grant to live at the tech dump. Or is it a junkyard? I don't think they call it a dump. Anyway, it reeks of photographic possibility. The things people discard! And then, Chloe and Laura-blue are in a race to get pregnant. They send their regards. They're so proud of you."
"I can't believe Duncan showed up."
Dad stepped in. "You always underestimate him, Wil. But Dunc' is far more interested in you than you give him credit for. He talked about you the whole way here."
Duncan couldn't have looked more harmless over at the bar, schmoozing some black dress while extinguishing his inner-fire with gin (the only liquid he respected).
I groaned at the gulf between my family and me. I groaned at what awaited me that night. I groaned that my belly had grown but my talent had not. The only part of the night that wouldn't be grim was a robot-girl who I hoped would show up, unfurl into the evening, and forgive our ridiculous fight at the beach. The titanium geisha, the inanimate object that moved, the android, my Fern, was the only real thing in my life.
Later at my apartment, Fern looked less human than I'd ever seen.
At my family dinner.
She wore a fitted dress glowing green at the seams. It made her look like a cross between a bankers lamp and the Aurora Borealis--a way of relishing in her artificiality, of rubbing it in my parents' faces. It wanted anger, but somehow I could only muster affection. I'd forgiven her.
Mom was enchanted. "Fern, tell us about your childhood."
Fern's eyes sparkled. "Of course! Though I imagine you might already know. Nebraska was home... at least in my mind. The plains there are so open and endless... which makes them hard to get out of!"
"Mmm?" Mom mmm'ed with a mouthful of dragon roll. They'd insisted on hiring a chef to make my favorite sushi meal.
"I was raised by my Grandmother SaeLo."
Mom choked, pushed her chair back, and coughed eel into her napkin. "Dragon Roll doesn't have urchin in it, does it?" she asked.
We all looked at Mom. Dad's blood was now in his face.
Fern went on, "SaeLo was the most beautiful woman I've ever known. She always said..."
Dad cut her off. "Enough about that. You're here. We're here."
"Dad," I said, "she knows we had a Grandroid. It's not a problem."
Duncan laughed. He'd conned the black dress from the bar into joining our intimate dinner. She solved the problem of our family dynamics by getting drunk, looking at her lap, picking her fingernails and touching her tiny ruby pendant. She hated sushi but picked out and ate the carrots and avocados. Duncan hadn't even introduced her.
We continued to eat, shelving heavier topics for chitchat about family members: their reviews, their artistic triumphs. My family filled themselves with ego-stroking helium, yet none of them would float away. I looked at the black dress, then at Fern. We formed a triangle of unspoken disinterest.
"Duncan's on the cusp of the biggest achievement of his career," Mom informed us, tugging at his sleeve. He pulled away. "Sugar," she said, "tell them about it."
My sigh met Fern's glare. "Please Duncan, illuminate us," she said before tossing an entire chunk of wasabi in her mouth.
Duncan leaned in as if he were going to lie across the table among the spider and snake rolls. He raised an eyebrow. "As you know, I find artificial intelligence fascinating..."
I wonder how it finds you--I didn't say.
"...but what happens when that intelligence doesn't turn out to be all that intelligent?"
"What do you mean?" I asked, offended for Fern.
"No," Fern said gently. "From his perspective, he's right, Wil."
Mom looked askance. "From his perspective? Shouldn't it be yours as well, Fern?"
Fern sipped her wine before responding. "I understand that some androids need to be either upgraded or powered down, some permanently, but many are only now finding themselves. I have a feeling that Duncan isn't talking about a media player, he's..."
Duncan perked up, "Aren't they all media players? A toaster, a Cylon, a trashcan, an Astromech--it's all metal and wire at some point."
I kept my blood stirring to prevent it from curdling. "Stop it right now, Duncan! Can you just have some respect? At least until after dessert?"
"No," Fern said, "Let's hear this. After all, it's art."
"Unlike androids," said Duncan and went stonily silent. The black dress beside him stopped eating and yawned. Her ruby pendant was blinking. She held it between her fingers, seemingly unaware of anything but the table's flickering candles.
"You two!" Mom chimed as though Duncan and I were fighting over a toy. "Fine! If you won't do it, I'll tell Wil about it myself." She closed her eyes, smiled and waved her hands, sliding into storyteller mode. "Duncan approached us a couple years ago. It's a monumental project requiring the entire family's support. We wanted to wait a few years. Really! We asked him to wait, but he has the other kids' support."
I was annoyed. "Except for mine. Why am I always the last to know? Do you know how I found out that Laura-blue's painting commanded that insane price at auction? From reading The Artsy Farsi."
"That design mag from Afghanistan?" Dad said. "That's too bad. Did you know that the editor's degree is in Russian literature. Russian! Not even French or German."
"Listen, Wil," Mom said, taking my hand from across the table, "it's the complete opposite of what you think. You're the key to Duncan's project."
"Yes. You. If you agree to this, you will live forever, eternally connected to his art."
I turned to direct my fury at Duncan. "If you think I'm giving you Fern for one of your sickening self-aggrandizing mannequin shows, you're out of your mind, bro!"
"She's synthetic," he said dryly as the black dress sat listless.
I pulled my hand away from my mother's and put it on Fern's. "I don't really care what you think Fern is. She's mine!" I surprised even myself, and lowered my tone. "I'm sorry, Fern, you're not mine. I don't know what you are, or how you came to be. Hell, in a sense we had the same grandmother. But I know you're not mine. You can do whatever you wish, whenever you want. But I..."
"I know," she said, squeezing my hand.
"You're ridiculous," Duncan said. "Of course you don't own Fern. We all know that."
I wanted to grind my teeth to dust. If only my family would leave. "You make no sense at all."
"Son," Dad said, "Duncan is right and so are you. In no way do you own Fern."
Mom stepped in. "See, honey, this is what we mean. This is why." She put her hand to her neck, offended by something invisible.
"What?" I growled.
"Honey, you haven't asked one word about this poor, sweet woman sitting across from you." She gestured to the black dress.
"Me?" I said. "It's Dunc's date, not mine."
Duncan was as fed up with me as I was with him. "God, Wil, you really are frozen in the head, aren't you? You don't own Fern because..." he pointed to the lady in black. "You own her. Wil, meet Roxanne. Roxanne, Wil."
My entire world crossed through a black hole as I finally saw the black dress for who she was: Roxanne. That was her name. I named her. I filled it in onscreen when requesting her. Roxanne. I had her sent. Apparently, when Roxanne had put on her red light as a beacon, that didn't even work. She fulfilled my fantasies so sublimely that I could never have imagined she was manufactured to love me. I now noticed her slender shoulders, so thin they could barely hold the clothes she wore. Her mouth turned down slightly at its ends even when smiling. Exactly as I'd ordered. Somehow, Nectar & Czar, Inc. had gotten the just right shade of hair from my description alone. Roxanne was perfect in every way my immature mind could have conjured... and yet nothing like Fern. I was looking heartbreak in the eye and it was an android that didn't want me: Roxanne looked away.
"I'm here for Wil Feld," she said.
"That's him, you dope," said Duncan.
"I'm here for Wil Feld. That is not Wil Feld. Wil Feld?"
"Don't mind her." Fern sounded tired. "She's practically a newborn, looking to imprint upon her human master."
"I'm here for Wil Feld. Where is Wil Feld?" Roxanne implored, wide-eyed.
I fought speechlessness with stiff stutters, "Bbu-bu-but-but, then wh-who is Fffff-fern?"
Fern looked at me with unbroken honesty. "Wil, your parents hired me."
"I, I... okay, that's fine," I said, finding hope. "But I want you, not Roxanne."
Roxanne got up and walked to the window. She stopped there, almost lifeless--apparently completely lifeless.
"Wil, I'm sorry. That isn't your family's plan," Fern said. "They hired me..." She hesitated, but my family's stares urged her on. "...to deactivate you."
"I don't get it... I... what? This isn't funny. You see how crazy my family is!"
"My dear child," Mom said, "there's a reason why Roxanne can't imprint onto you." She sighed. "Wil, you were our firstborn, but not born, not of us. I'm sorry to have kept this from you: you were an experiment."
"An experiment?" Information was overflowing like a whirlpool. I was drowning.
Dad continued, "We were artists, Son. Hippies. We believed in everything back then! See, we were having a hard time conceiving and wanted to give an android a chance to grow like a normal human, to give him the world, expose him to art and music and love and life! Your mom was sure you would reach all potential."
"And exceed it," Mom said. "And you will, Wil... with Duncan's project, you will." She sniffled and smiled weakly. "You will."
Crossing through the black hole of revelation didn't tear me to pieces in the ways I would've imagined. True, I arrived at the other side fully changed, but I was utterly awakened. Pieces of my past started coming together. They had always been there, always reaching to meet, but only now did. Truth is, I wasn't human. Wasn't organic. In actuality, everything from my bodily growth to my farts, was factory-made. But I was real. I had to be. I didn't feel different just because it was electricity pumping through me instead of blood. I hardly felt anything. Was that because I couldn't feel? It's true that from childhood I often wondered at people's captivation with baseball games and movies. I balked when crowds wrapped around a building, all waiting to buy cupcakes. Cupcakes! Or the obsession with having children but not with the concept of DNA. Satisfaction with office jobs. Hair gel. Raincoats. Fuzzy slippers. Sudoku. Bumper stickers. Peanut brittle!
What I liked was Cannery Beach. Almost alien. Perhaps my factory-fresh beginning, devoid of sperm and ova, magnetized me to it. There was no lust that sparked my creation. It was confusing, but my fragmented reality reformed enough that I could carry on with the conversation, the conversation, the conversation.
This time, I pulled away from Fern. We were now two pieces of interfacing plastic. Every ludicrous word from that dinner conversation had made me numb.
"I see," I proceeded. "Then what's this project? Explain it, Duncan. And no need for sugarcoating."
"Since I need your cooperation, there is a need for sugarcoating..."
I slammed my hands on the table. "What's the fucking project, Duncan Humbert Feld!?" I'd promised years ago not to use his middle name.
Mom dabbed tears from her eyes.
"...but I'll keep it minimal. My brother, I've looked up to you all my life." My expression must have spoke volumes. He adjusted his tone."Fine. I was pretty small when I realized you had the artistic talent of a kumquat. When I entered high school and started really tinkering with droids, I approached Mom and Dad."
He started getting excited. Art always did that to him. "To incorporate you into my experimental art project: we'll strip off your foundation and force your operating system through several, actually endless, items. Whatever level of experience your system has will report back to us through various artistic methods: video, spoken word poetry, essays, music, whatever it is that your new forms choose. I'll help you, guide you, and if that doesn't work, I'll goad you, or whatever it is 'you' become. Imagine, Wil, you can tell all humanity what it's like not only to eat an orange but what it's like to be one."
"You want me to sacrifice my life to become an orange?" It was as terrifying as it was insulting. "Can't you just take an acting class, Duncan? Or how about we stuff you through an orange and you can report back?"
"This isn't about you, Wil. And it's not about me."
"Yet you're the one who will go on living!"
"Wil, you're not alive. You never were."
In one second, I went from being a living, breathing person to a high-tech washing machine. Was it a surprise? Do washing machines know they're washing machines? They call themselves nothing. I was nothing.
I turned to my parents. "What if I had made it as an artist?"
"Wil-wil," Mom coo'ed. "If you had made it as anything, if you had chosen anything, we wouldn't have been forced down this road. I considered you one of my children."
So had I until moments ago.
"Bu–but, but... I have a painting at the Tin Penn Wine Bar."
"Honey, your father paid them to hang it."
"Don't look at it that way, Wil," Dad said, still giving me lessons though no longer my father. "It takes exposure to become a successful artist. Try to look at the long view. If you participate in Duncan's project, you'll be partnering in something bigger than art or science."
"You always said there's nothing bigger than art."
"Fine. As big as art. But bigger than science. Could anyone ask for a greater purpose? Try seeing beyond the obvious."
"Stop telling me how to see things!" I yelled. Pushing back from the table, I stumbled toward my bedroom, emitting whines like an animal in a steel trap... then I realized I wasn't an animal but the steel trap itself. "I need a moment..." I could barely say it.
I went into my room, closed the door, and started pacing circles, mechanized circles, perfect circles. I tore the paintings from my wall and was oddly able to rip the mattress in two with my bare arm-like appendages. Perhaps something had awakened my strength. I punched the wall and felt nothing, punched until there was a hole, but there was no damage to my hand. I wanted there to be. I laughed at what I had always been told was my high tolerance for pain.
Fern knocked, slid in, and closed the door.
I had always been afraid of blood, but now I wanted to paint the entire room red. I banged my head against the wall, into the wall, through the wall. I'd never seen my own blood. Bleed! Bleed! Bleed! My forehead met the brick beneath the dry wall. Bleed! I saw the mortar holding everything together. Bleed! I created a hole through the bricks that showed me the ocean.
Nothing. There was no blood.
Fern pulled me away from the wall as I collapsed into her arms.
"Wil, you're not like them. You're different."
She held me as I cried, touching a spot behind my ear. Somehow, she'd found a way to put me on mute. Mute. Mute. Even my thoughts were stuttering. The ceiling in the room felt heavier, the floor higher. A lone mosquito flew in and hovered near the door, hungry to find its way to my family.
"Listen to me, Wil. I know you don't want this. You're more alive then they are. I know that. So am I. They don't understand. They're limited by what they've chosen to believe, what they've bought into all those years." She kissed my tears, the falling of which infuriated me. How dare water fall from my--were they even eyes? "Wil, I was trying to help when I told you that you aren't an artist. Your talents lie elsewhere. Your internal applications rebelled against the programs your parents introduced. You're beginning to figure yourself out. If only you were born today, the fight for A.I. rights would have opened so many doors that you probably would never have been in this predicament."
I gestured, asking her to let me speak again.
"Sure, but I'm going to lower your volume so they don't charge in."
"Fern," my voice was humming iron, "I want to live."
"I know. We all do."
"Can you help me?"
"Do you trust me?"
"More than anyone."
"I won't do anything to you without your complete faith."
I took a deep breath. "Okay. You have it."
As though it took nothing, she pulled one half of the mattress closer to us. "Here, lie down."
With liquid still trailing down my cheeks, I did. I trusted Fern but trust becomes microscopic, maybe even unimportant, once you've already leapt into the great unknown.
She knelt on the floor beside me and stroked my forehead and face.
"Do you remember when Grandma SaeLo used to tell tales of her life Within?"
"I thought she was imagining."
"No, she was talking of her life Within. Beyond."
"What was it she used to say?" She asked while placing one hand behind my neck.
It felt right. Good. Like things were finally as they were supposed to be.
"She used to say we could find each other and would. Always..."
"That's right....." Fern said, her voice now inside me. It sounded cool. Dry. But the syrup from when I first met her on Cannery Beach was gone. "Now's your time, Wil. Now's your time and..."
No white light.
There was a room with blank walls and no doors. Next to a wooden three-legged stool sat a potted fern, its fronds breathing in and out, cleaning the air.
I wasn't there.
But I was.
An electrical outlet.
And from that outlet, a shadow emerged, and it stirred within itself with black-fevered confetti until it took the plain form of a doughy old woman. She sat rubbing tired feet. In an instant, all of my confusion reorganized in her smile. She had kind, sparkling fiber-optic eyes and wore that same rough sweater I knew when I was a small child. How often I'd been tucked into bed using it as a blanket. Tadpole, she'd always called me, and though she didn't clarify it now, I knew a tadpole was exactly what I no longer was. Her ancient view now held someone grown, someone fully realized.
And SaeLo held an orange.
This story was first published on Friday, September 13th, 2013
Recently revisiting Ray Bradbury's work, I read I Sing the Body Electric and the corresponding short film The Electric Grandmother. Inspired, I wondered if A.I. life might be easier in a sense, as they would have their "purpose" pre-programmed? Then again, when does our world ever take the easy route? After walking with the characters in "The Titanium Geisha," I've concluded that things only get messier, more complicated and full of revelation. You can run (even on electricity) but you can't hide!
- Elias Barton
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