To Serve

In order to escape, an android must pass for human. A science fiction short story.

I pushed the slice of chocolate cake across the table toward her. She had been eyeing it keenly since the blushing waitress delivered it from the glass display.

“Take it,” I said.

It was Adina’s first trip out into the human world. One she had been so carefully crafted to blend into.

And, if she were to imitate a human being, sitting in a most ordinary place, a cafe like this, then why shouldn’t she try her first piece of chocolate cake?

How she enjoyed it was now the only question that mattered to me. Suddenly, more than if anyone spotted she was an android.

Adina studied the cake with those big, brown eyes of hers, which were seventy million dollars’ worth of beautiful. I saw her exquisitely designed pupils enlarge. The scientist, who had first proposed how her pupil dilatory response could work, was a friend. This did not lessen the wonder I felt then.

Was I getting sentimental? Perhaps. Was I merely getting old? A stronger perhaps. But I, childless, could not help conclude that what I felt then, was how a parent feels watching their child enjoy something for the first time.

Adina’s apprehension to the new, no matter how appealing, was still a brick wall we needed to climb, though. Five minutes passed, and she was still staring at the cake, ignoring everything else, even me.

I finished a whole coffee in that space.

I was studying her, like she studied the chocolate cake. I wonder if my own pupils had dilated. A curious thought, that the human eye reveals such secrets to the objects of our affection.

I couldn’t take the silence anymore. I asked, “Are you going to try it?”

Her pupils flashed up at me and shrank a little. I didn’t feel too insulted; I was less attractive than chocolate cake.

I don’t think she knew what to say to me at first. I had the impression she was at war with herself, concentrating on what the best answer to give me was. This was an interesting, and recurring, trait in her, I’d observed. When she was excited, she froze. Zuber concluded differently. He said she was simply ironing out some programming glitches.

She is beyond glitches, I told him. She is magnificent. I meant it then, and I know it now.

“Why am I here?” she asked.

“Is that an existential question?”

“No, the cafe.”

I hesitated. She filled the gap.

“I know I’ve been sold to a Russian financier. A billionaire. Perhaps he owns everything else, so he wants the new thing. I even know how much he paid. I’m not supposed to. I am funding Professor Zuber’s research for the next two years, so it’s important. What if I don’t want it?”

I looked at my knees. “I know.”

“If you are selling me, what does it matter if like chocolate cake? He will tell me to like chocolate cake. Or, to not like chocolate cake.”

“If you like the chocolate…” I could not finish the sentence.

“Do you want me to like it?”

“I want you to know for yourself.”

“Is that him?” A wealthy-looking businessman had entered the cafe, and she became nervous.

“No.” I smiled. “He wouldn’t come to a place like this.”

“I like it here.”

“That’s good.”

“Alexander is being built for space travel, isn’t he?”

“How did you know?”

“He told me.”

“That is the future of my kind, I am given to understand. The research is expensive, though, right? So you are selling me.”

Her eyes fell. Now they weren’t looking at the cake any more. I’m not sure what they were looking at. Her lap, I think. Anywhere but me.

I held my breath. Then, “I’ve leased you an apartment.”

Her eyes shot up, then suspicion dragged them down again.

“Why would you do that?”

“I’m leaving for Brazil,” I said.

“When?”

“Well, that rather depends on you.”

“Why does that depend on me?”

“It depends on how much you like chocolate cake.”

She surreptitiously licked her lips. Then, grew shy about it. She became furtive.

I knew I was watching her. To break the tension, I ordered another coffee and studied the waitress instead. She gave Adina an even more lingering gaze than before. And I was at first worried by this. Did Adina look less human than she was supposed to? Did the waitress know something was amiss? I would have to rethink Brazil immediately if we couldn’t pass this vital test.

But then I smiled, as I saw the waitress’s pupils had dilated.

I was calm again. If Adina could elicit such a response, she had a chance of a normal life. A future.

The waitress blushed again. I wasn’t sure if this was because of my gaze, or that of Adina’s, who finally looked up, unabashedly.

The waitress decided fluttering off was her next best move, and I must admit I would have done the same. I wondered, if I left right now, would she would come back and give Adina her number? Perhaps Adina would think about offering hers? And which number would that be? The receptionist at the institute? I felt sadness returning. A feeling familiar to me, now.

No, I couldn’t leave now. Not yet.

“Try the cake,” I insisted. I’d moved past encouragement.

She picked up the bright silver fork, and I calculated how those fingers had resulted from three years’ struggle. To source the finest minds, the best materials, the result of countless experiments. Countless expense, too. Though I was sure Zuber had counted. I forced myself to stop thinking of her in terms of dollars. It disgusted me. It was Zuber talking.

She began, “I’m having a feeling, and I don’t know what to call it. I would say it is déjà vu, but I understand artificial sentients cannot experience that. It is a symptom of the structure of a human brain. So, it cannot be that. But, I don’t know what it is.” Her tone was one of self-castigation that the answer eluded her.

“Describe it. As best you can.”

“I have been here before, I would say. But I know I haven’t.”

“Are you sure?” I realised I was playing with her.

“You said this is my first time out of the institute.”

“It sure is. But I’ll be fair and let you know we ran a simulation based on this exact cafe. So, in a way, you have been here before.”

“What was the purpose of that?”

“Because Zuber was worried. He’s not as confident in you as I am.”

“Did I fail? Why don’t I remember?”

“Zuber wiped the incident from your memory.”

“Incident? There was an incident?”

“It was not your shining moment.”

“Is that why Professor Zuber is not here, for my real-world test?”

“Not exactly.”

Her eyes searched me, and I may have given something away. She was getting superb at reading me. It was almost superhuman. Then, I always had to remind myself she was superhuman.

She paused before saying what she was thinking.

“He doesn’t know we’re here. Does he?”

Eventually, I had to say, “No.”

“And, you are going to Brazil.” I could see she was processing many thoughts in a real hurry. “Where am I going?”

“Not to the Russian. Not if I can help it.”

“I am grateful. But, I understood Zuber has already sold me.”

“How did you know that?”

“I was spying. I know how much I’m worth. Do you know how much you are worth?”

“I think all humans do, don’t worry about that. We all have a price tag, if you’re thinking about money. But, like any human, Adina, that does not define your true worth.”

“If I am not sold, then Alexander will not go into space.”

“You care for him?”

“I want him to be his best.”

Perhaps she would make a great teacher, I thought. I would try to set her up with some credentials and talk to my contacts.

“He will go to space, Zuber will get some other funding for his research.”

“Did he have to sell anyone to make me?”

“No. You sold yourself. From the get-go you were inspiring. Even before you had a body. When you were zeros and ones in the machine. I’m sorry, if that’s an offensive term.”

“Why would it be? Your mind is neurons firing. Perhaps they are different to mine. Or, not so much.”

“Yes,” I conceded, relieved I hadn’t offended her.

“But, I am not so amazing anymore,” she said.

“Why on earth would you say that?”

“I failed Zuber’s test. In the simulation. So badly, it seems, he erased the shame of it.”

“No, it was my test. I devised it. Zuber had a different motivation altogether for erasing it.”

“Will you tell me?”

I chuckled then, but didn’t mean to.

“You liked the chocolate cake. A little too much.”

This was not a good enough explanation for her. So, I continued, “I believe it was the first time you had experienced pleasure. It made Zuber anxious we had neglected to educate you in the social usefulness of embarrassment. We had neglected to prepare you. So, it was a useful exercise. Unfortunately, Zuber became obsessed that the pleasure principle would subvert your programming.”

“Do I wish to know what I did?”

“Do you? That’s a question for you. Never let people answer questions on your behalf.”

“I do not wish to know. Not today.”

“At least you intend to use a fork, this time,” I teased.

She ignored that. Good for her.

“So, it is important that I like this chocolate cake — but, not too much?”

I sat forward. “I want you to enjoy it like you did that day, Adina. I want it to feel like it did then. And, I want you to feel that way every time you eat it. I want you to enjoy everything that’s out there. But, for now, at least, I need to you to pretend to be like everyone else in here. Fit in. Just until it’s safe.”

“And, if I do, you can go to Brazil?”

“You could put it like that.”

“I am still unsure where I will be going.”

“Into the world, Adina. To live a normal life.”

“Pretending to be a human?”

“Yes, at first. Until it’s safe, and you are settled. And, I can be sure we have left no trace for the Russian — or Zuber — to follow.”

“I think I shall miss you, Professor.”

“I will miss you, too.”

I sipped my coffee. And here was the hopeful part. Where my science could not help me.

“I want to go with you, to Brazil,” she finally said, after what felt like the longest silence. “Is that possible?”

“Oh, yes,” I said. “It’s possible.” I was relieved.

I watched her push the fork through the layers of chocolate ganache, sponge and buttercream, until it tapped the plate. She scooped up that first exquisite slice, and I saw her hand tremble, like it had done in the simulation. Her pupils were big onyx gemstones. The tip of her tongue caressed her lips, and I thought she would lunge at it, like she had in front of Zuber. I was ready to grab my coat and whisk her out of there before she smeared chocolate all over her head. I could feel her electricity, her pleasure.

But she restrained herself. She took a delicate bite.

And, though I saw oceans of pleasure crashing through her, this time she maintained a sense of decorum.

The waitress even waved, shyly, at her.

It was then I knew we would make it to Brazil.