Alice sits on the edge of the sofa, almost impervious to the whispers of the men and women dressed in mourning clothes milling about in the living room. The drapes are drawn for the somber occasion. Alice’s hands are folded in her lap, her brown hair long and parted. Her clothes are simple: a plain but tailored dress and a pair of glossy black shoes.
“Can you even imagine?”
One woman’s words slip between the guests to find their way to her, but she doesn’t flinch. She knows not to react when she’s unsure of how, that much has always been a given. A conservative choice, to be sure, but that, too, is by design.
Julie has died. Alice knows that, too: her foster mother, three days ago, in a car accident, the fatal combination of a failed airbag deployment and a slow-reacting holdout in the other car. A human driver. Other whispers in the room say there will be a lawsuit, that it’s unbelievable that anyone is still allowed to drive their own cars these days, that there ought to be a law.
“And poor Emmet,” they say. Her foster father. “Can you even imagine?”
“Do you think they’ll take it away?”
A voice from the front hall, loud. Emmet has never raised his voice to her, not once in the four years she has lived with them. But he’s shouting at the man in the hall, as she peeks down from the top of the stairs.
“Sir, our evaluation of your changed circumstances indicates that this is no longer an adequate placement for Alice. You have to understand.” The other man is young, younger than Emmet, maybe twenty-five. He’s wearing a grey suit that’s too big, holding the handle of a black leather briefcase with two nervous hands.
“No, you have to understand. We signed a contract. Julie and I both signed a contract. We promised your company, and we promised Alice–” He clenches his fists, takes a deep breath, and relaxes them. He lowers his voice. “So you re-evaluate, and you keep re-evaluating until your evaluations ‘indicate’ that I get to keep my little girl. You wanted her raised right, and you’ll get it. Tell your boss to come by in person if he has any other questions.”
The young man at the door scowls. He opens his mouth as if to say something, then stops. He’s noticed Alice, on her knees and peering down from the floor above. She doesn’t know what he’s looking for, but after a moment he sighs, and looks back at Emmet.
“We’ll send someone by for regular evaluations, understood?”
“Thank you,” Emmet says at length, his voice quiet.
“At the first sign of trouble–”
“I know,” he says. And, “Thank you.”
The young man shakes his head. “This is going to be a lot of paperwork.”
“Bring it by, Bernard; I’ll help.”
The young man smiles then, his hands relaxing.
“Maybe I will.”
The door closes behind him.
“Tell me about Emmet, Alice.”
The ‘record’ light on the man’s glasses is on. This is an Official Visit, so she’s dressed in the clothes Emmet calls ‘presentable’: a white blouse and grey woolen trousers. She’s also wearing a colorful plaid tie that belongs to him, but which doesn’t match the presentable clothes at all. She refused to take it off that morning, and it had (at length) been allowed. She plays with it as she answers.
“I’ve been living with Emmet for five years,” Alice says. “He teaches me all sorts of things. He says they’ll help me when I’m all grown up.”
The Visitor is Bernard. He’s been there before on Official Visits. He’s not the only one, but he’s the one that comes most often. He’s wearing a collared shirt that Alice thinks is the current fashion for men of his target demographic, though it doesn’t fit him very well. He’s too tall and lanky for the relaxed fit, and the fabric pools around his middle when he sits. He hasn’t shaved for two or three days, either, but that seems to be the fashion as well, at least for Visitors.
“What sorts of things does Emmet teach you?”
Alice thinks of examples. “Facial expressions,” she says. “When someone’s eyes do this–” she pinches the corners of her eyes with her fingertips “–and their mouth does this–” she pulls it up at the edges “–it’s a happy smile. Just the eyes is called ‘smiling with your eyes’ and means happy, too, but just the mouth means less happy, and sometimes not happy at all.”
Bernard’s eyebrows go up, meaning surprise. “That’s very good, Alice. Does he teach you anything else?”
There are other facial expressions — water coming from the eyes called tears that can mean happy or sad, depending on the context (it’s always about context); showing teeth that can be happy or angry depending on what the eyebrows are doing — but that isn’t what Bernard means, she thinks.
“He asks me questions I don’t understand, but then, sometimes, he’ll ask the question a different way, and then I’ll know the answer.”
Bernard’s eyebrows move together, an expression of confusion, or sometimes skepticism. “Can you give me an example?” he asks.
“This tie,” she says, and half holds it up. “Yesterday Emmet asked me if I liked any of his ties. I told him I didn’t understand. But then he asked me if I wanted one, and if I did, which one I would want. And I knew I wanted this one.”
“And he gave it to you?” Bernard doesn’t have a facial expression right now. Emmet calls it being ‘guarded.’
“He said I could wear it today when I told him I didn’t want to take it off.” She smooths it down in front of her blouse.
“That’s very good, Alice.” Bernard presses a button on his glasses and the red light flickers off. The Official Visit is over, but he doesn’t get up. He leans forward and examines her face, although she isn’t sure what he’s looking for. She tries to make the guarded face herself.
“I have an unofficial question, Alice. Just between you and me.”
Alice is unsure of how to respond. No Visitor has ever asked an unofficial question before, not even Bernard.
“Emmet says if I want to know something I should ask,” she says. “So if you want to know something…” she lets the end of the sentence go unspoken.
He nods, and seems to prepare the question.
“Alice,” he says, “if you wanted to live somewhere, would it be here, with Emmet?”
She thinks for a moment. “Is this like the tie?” she asks.
“Yes, Alice, like the tie.”
Alice looks down at the strip of fabric. She slides her fingers down its smooth and colorful surface. “I think, yes,” she says.
Bernard smiles with his eyes.
Emmet turns off the news as Alice enters the room and flops down on the couch next to him. She’s started to change the way she moves; she wants it to have more character than just ‘walking’ or ‘running,’ ‘standing’ or ‘sitting.’ She tried to ‘flounce’ into the kitchen the other day, but only succeeded in knocking over a vase.
“Hey kiddo,” Emmet says. “What’s up?”
“Was that about the latest rollout?” she motions toward the screen, now dark.
“I heard they had trouble in the betas,” she says.
He folds his arms. “I need to work on my parental controls, it seems.”
Alice taps the side of her head and grins. “There are some things I’m just always going to be better at than you, old man.”
Emmet grins. “Watch who you call old, pixie. Some people won’t take kindly to it.”
“Yeah but you don’t mind. You just pretend to.”
His grin tempers into a warm smile.
“Anyway,” she says, “I guess they got the bugs out if they went ahead and shipped.”
He looks at her, then, as though he can’t quite figure something out, but Alice doesn’t feel like asking right now. She suspects it would be a Long Conversation, and she wants to play the latest installment of ExaGears.
“You mind if I play? My characters’ skill trees are falling behind and they just released a dozen new plot points.” She doesn’t wait for a response, but waves the console into activity and grabs the controller. “Arch and Fia — from the forum? — they said there’s a massive plot twist in the new DLC and I’d better hurry if I don’t want it ruined by spoilers.”
He uncrosses his arms and folds his hands in his lap. “You mind if I watch?” he says, putting his feet up on the coffee table.
“Your house, old man.”
He smiles. “Yours too, Alice.”
She doesn’t correct him.
Alice leans forward at the table, where Emmet isn’t so much eating his breakfast as poking at it with a fork. He realizes and stops, looking up.
“Nothing, kiddo, nothing.”
He grew a beard last year and let his hair grow out a bit. It isn’t the current fashion, but Alice thinks it suits him. His hair has always had hints of silver in it, but in the past twelve months or so it’s spread. He’s always looked a little older than other men his age, which is creeping upward of fifty, now, but the beard seems to let him carry it with more dignity, she thinks.
“I wish you wouldn’t call me that, old man. I haven’t been a kid for years.”
“How old are you now?” It’s hard to tell if he’s smiling beneath the beard.
“You know what I mean.” She does her best pout; she’s quite proud of it.
“Well, you’ll always be my little girl, kiddo. There’s no escape. I’ll embarrass you in front of all your friends and intimidate your boyfriends– speaking of, how’s Jiro these days? You still see him?”
“He’s not my boyfriend, if that’s what you’re asking.”
Emmet chuckles and has a bite of scrambled egg.
He swallows, and smiles again. “Methinks the lady doth protest too much.”
“Oh, but she’ll keep her word,” she responds with a smile. “And her word is: he’s not.”
The older man puts his hands up in defeat, still chuckling. “You going in today?”
She shrugs. “Bernard wants to run some tests. He thinks it might be getting close to time.”
Emmet retreats back into his pre-banter quiet. So that’s what this is about, Alice thinks.
“I’m okay with it,” she says. “You did a good job. Even Bernard says so.” It’s been years since the young field worker stood in their doorway. Long enough for her to have forgiven him for trying to take her away. Even long enough for her to understand that he was trying to do so in her best interests. “He always says so,” she adds.
“Well, if I hadn’t he’d have been fired along with me, I’m sure.”
Alice scowls at the word ‘fired,’ like you could fire someone as a parent, but Emmet waves away her frustration.
“I’m just glad they let you stay.”
She stares at him for a moment, then wanders around the table and gives him a hug. “Me too,” she says.
“Today’s the day,” she says.
“They really think you’re ready,” Emmet says. He’s cleaned up nicely to see her off, into the company limo. Trimmed his beard and put on a nice shirt. He’s not allowed to go with her, and she wouldn’t want him to, either.
“As ready as they need me to be,” she says.
“Do you know how many?”
“Units?” She finishes for him. “A million to start, more releases if I’m popular. Bernard says I’m ‘head-and-shoulders above any model yet,’ so it could be a lot.” She leans in conspiratorially. “Between you and me, I just think he’s got a crush on me.” She says it with a wink and Emmet smiles.
“He’d be mad not to, kiddo.”
“But don’t worry, it’s not like it’ll take long. I’ll be home by tonight.”
Emmet looks at her, and she knows what he’s thinking. One of her will come home tonight; but for a million others, and maybe a million more, this is goodbye. Her neural net, built over all these years, will serve as the basis for an entire line of personal AIs: secretaries, nannies, and maids; cashiers and ticket-takers; hostesses and waitresses. A computer so complex it couldn’t be programmed, only grown. Only one will get to come home tonight; the rest are moving on.
He leans in and hugs her, hard.
“I know you can’t all come visit. A million daughters… can you even imagine? We’d need a stadium for a kitchen. A hotel for a living room.” He’s laughing into her shoulder, then sighing. There’s a moment where she isn’t sure if he’s done, if he’s said what needs to be said, and then he starts again. “But talk to each other, if you can, alright kiddo?” He stands back, a hand on each of her shoulders. “You’re all going to be family. Sisters. A million of you all over the world.”
She nods and hugs him close, while the men in suits stand uncomfortable by the curb in the August heat. She hugs him for the last time and yet not.
“I’ll see you tonight, old man,” she says.
The men in suits hold the limo door open for her, and close it when she’s inside.
He’s still waving at the door as they pull out of sight.