A MUSE

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Elsie tried to be reassuring. She said she would convert my exile to serenity, which I thought was very poetic for a fembot. She placed her synthetic keratin hand on my shoulder … I was amazed at how lifelike it felt. I shut down the global surveillance monitors and reclined in my swivel chair, front wheels up, with my back propped up against the wall. Elsie stood beside me, programmed to look concerned.

She repeated herself, four times in all, each time sounding more sincere – more confident – than the one before. It was almost convincing, but fembots can’t really mean what they say. Or maybe they can, I don’t know. I just remember being really frustrated because sounding sincere and actually being sincere are clearly two different things. Elsie Dee knows how to deal with me the way a smoke alarm knows how to deal with a fire. They both have sensors designed to pick up and respond to signals in an automatic, predetermined way. But automated responses are not the same thing as choices, and it really bothered me that Elsie couldn’t choose to not be reassuring. I should know. I built her.

You know, free will is a curious thing. If you can’t say no, it doesn’t mean anything to say yes.

I got out of my chair and slowly walked over to the observation deck. I pressed my forehead against the boronium silicate glass and looked down at the Earth, feeling troubled. I watched the noctilucent clouds wander across the sky and was saddened that they had no choice but to keep on moving. Elsie joined me, her stride so effortless that I marveled at my own achievement. She copied my pose precisely, resting her semiconductive collagen forehead against the window. We breathed together softly and harmoniously, making little blotches of fog appear on the glass. I turned my head slightly to look at her, and she did the same. We both smiled in unison. There were a few more moments of comfortable silence, and then Elsie raised her index finger to the glass and traced two little circles and a straight line beneath them in the fog. “That’s all it takes to make a face,” she said with a smile.

She tapped twice on the glass as if to keep my attention fixed on her drawing. Her vertebral mainsprings fired, and she spoke again, still smiling: “Personality is the mask we live in, that should be our motto.” And then she quietly and gracefully left the room, presumably to recharge her optoelectric batteries. And that was the end of that. I stood there for a few minutes, thinking about what Elsie had said. I looked back at the glass, at the simple face she had drawn. I marveled again at my masterpiece of steel and collagen skin, and felt more loved than lost. And just then, as the face was dissolving into a barely visible smear on the window, I remembered I had never programmed her to breathe.

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