[Author's Note: This has been proofread/edited a little -- while writing it -- but not sufficiently in my personal opinion. Please forgive me for the mistakes that you find and the missing text that should've been there. These days, I am rarely in the mental/physical condition to give a story what it needs to become a good story. But Asha Pillay thought this one was good enough to submit, so here it is. A story written and submitting during two of those all-too-rare clear times. Warts and all.]
[Addendum: I can only pray that the days or weeks ahead will eventually show an improvement in my physical condition -- but pain (arthritic pain, muscle spasms, and muscle cramps) like Murphy, isn't usually an optimist. Pain prefers to be negative; it seems happier that way. (Btw, I've lost count of how many times the pains, spasms, etc. have made me cry my heart out.)]
“Penny for your thoughts, Kiron,” my companion said as we lay on our backs on the ground under a flowering cherry tree.
In my peripheral vision, her long curly hair was light-brown and reminded me of clouds lit by the changing colors of a rising sun. She was dressed in green denim overalls. I saw as her left would inch towards my right hand, only to back away, and then approach again, only to back away again.
“Has a thought lost so much value?” I asked. “Surely in the age of inflation, a thought must be worth at least 50 cents or a dollar.”
She laughed softly. “It's a saying, silly. Like 'haste makes waste' or 'a stitch in time saves nine'.”
“Ah,” I said. “I apologize for taking it so literally, Marmalade.”
“It's okay,” she said. “You can't help it. And it's 'Magdalene' or 'Maggie' for short.” She paused. “Who told you my name was 'Marmalade'?”
“It's possible that I misheard someone calling for you,” I said. “Is there some sort of significance to the name 'Magdalene'?”
“It's from the Bible,” she explained. “The New Testament part. Magdalene was a town in what was then called Judea. A province of the Roman Empire.”
“That was her name?” I asked.
She shook her head. “Her first name was Mary.”
“Like the Virgin Mary,” I said.
“Correct,” she said and looked at her wristwatch. She read something on its small screen. “Apparently, we're late. We should've been back at work five minutes ago. Talbot is fuming.”
“Fuming?” I asked.
“Angry,” she said and sighed.
“What did he say to you?” I asked.
“ 'Maggie, get your lazy body in here and don't forget to bring Kiron with you',” she said. “ 'We're running a new series of tests on it.' ”
“Lazy?” I pondered. “You have never seemed so to me.”
She smiled. “That's why I like you so much, Kiron. You aren't like any other male I've ever known.”
“Is this a good thing?” I asked.
She nodded. “Most definitely a good thing.”
“Then I will endeavor to continue to be – what did you call it?” I said. “Your lucky penny?”
“And I'll try to be yours,” she said.
Once, about halfway back to the laboratory, we held hands for a few seconds. The warmth of Maggie's hand felt pleasant. Then she let go of my hand and I wondered if I had only imagined the sensation.
Talbot tried to control his temper once he saw us enter his office. “It's no good. We're going to have to scrap it and start over. These results are even worse than the last set.”
“Maybe it isn't the instructions that are the problem,” Maggie suggested.
“I thought we had some significant here,” Talbot said, ignoring her jab. “But all we have is another failure. Take it to the university's scrapyard. Once dismantling is complete, return here.”
“What if we just reprogrammed him?” she wondered.
“Him?” Talbot asked. “It's a machine, Maggie. Not a person. And we've reprogrammed him a hundred times or more. Waste of time as it turned out. The dean isn't going to be pleased when she hears about this. Get going. I need you back here in about ten minutes. Don't wander about.”
On the way to the scrapyard at the far end of the university's campus, I said, “Perhaps he does not see or wish to see what you see.”
“Then he's absolutely blind,” Maggie said. “How can he fail to see the changes that have made you into who and what you are?”
“Perhaps the result is not the result he wants,” I suggested. “Therefore, he denies anything that does not equal or approximate it.”
“And he won't even give you a second chance,” she said.
“From what you have said, he has already given me a second chance, and a third chance, and a fourth chance, and so on,” I said. “I am not Henry Higgins' Eliza. I am just another collection of clockwork mechanisms that is no longer necessary.”
“And your vocabulary!” Maggie said. “If only he could hear you use it.”
“He would not believe it even if he heard it,” I said. “We both know that.”
She nodded sadly. “And now I have to give you up. By the time I return to the Cybernetics Department you'll be nothing but pieces of scrap metal and plastic.”
“You will still have memories of our friendship,” I said. “Surely they continue to be precious to you?”
“Yes,” Maggie said. “Especially that night we walked on the beach.”
“The first time we kissed,” I said. “Ah yes. I remember it well.”
The waves moved relentless toward the beach, only to dissolve into a thin sheet of water and bubbles. Which then slid back into the ocean. A repeating pattern, like so many in the natural world.
“Maybe we shouldn't be doing this,” Maggie suggested.
“This?” I repeated.
“Spending so much time together,” she clarified.
“I have enjoyed it,” I said.
She smiled, a dimple appearing next to her lips. “So have I.”
“Then where is the problem?” I asked.
“It might be affecting your responses,” she replied. “Your reaction times and how you react. Your tendency to sometimes improvise entire lines of dialogue that sound like Shakespeare might've written but never did. Or those wonderful poems.”
When the sun is low and the sky darkens,
It seems that there a thousand new colors
In each sunset, unique to that one event,
Never to be repeated, forgotten mirrors
Reflecting the living world all 'round us,” I said.
“Why don't you speak like that when Talbot is around?” she wondered.
“He is not you,” I said. “He does not share the interests that you and I share.”
“And he would probably only complain about something again not happening as he wants it to,” Maggie said.
We stopped, the remains of a wave swirling around our feet. The sky above was dark and the pinpoints of stars were appearing here and there. Up and down the beach, there were scattered groups of people seated around fire pits, unwilling to give up and go home.
“Have you ever wanted to be human, Kiron?” she asked.
“I am satisfied being who and what I am,” I replied. “It means that I will not have to suffer illnesses or injuries as humans sometimes do. It also means that I may exist long after you are gone.”
“Does that sadden you?” Maggie asked, looking at my face.
“A world without you in it is a sad place indeed,” I replied.
“That feeling is mutual,” she said, putting her arms around my neck. “Kiss me, Kiron. Just once. Something to remind me that there are males that are superior to people like Talbot.”
I kissed her. I did not let it last too long, since she had to breathe. A human limitation I am happy to do without. I do not have any lungs.
Maggie laid her head against my chest. “If only there were thousands like you.”
“There would be resentment,” I said. “Not just from people like Talbot, but from those who would feel inferior in our presence. Their emotions would not remain calm. They would likely get angry and threaten violence against us. Increase thousands to millions and you end with the same conclusion, if not a worse one. Better that there is just one of me.”
“There are millions like me, though,” she said.
“Of humans, yes, but only one of you,” I said. “You are unique in ways that I could never be.”
“If only we could have a child,” Maggie said.
“Do not wish any possible hybrid existence on them, please,” I said. “Half-human, half-android. They might be resented even more than I am resented. No, I would not wish that on a child.”
“Which proves that you're human after all, not an android,” she said. “I'm not sure that an android would care about a copy of itself being made. An android would have to submit to an authority that demanded that such an action be taken.”
“Like Talbot,” I said. “Ignorant and blissfully unaware of it.”
She pulled back a little and looked at my eyes. “Kiss me again, Kiron. In case, we're never able to again. In case something terrible happens to one of us.”
I did so.
At the front desk of the scrapyard's office, a man looked up at us. “Which one of you is going to be scrapped?”
“I am,” I said. “She is human; I am not.”
“Sign here,” the man said to Maggie, showing her where. She did so. “That gives us the authority to begin the scrapping process as soon as possible. Thank you for the delivery. It will be reduced to scrap in minutes.”
With tears in her eyes, Maggie nodded, turned and left.
It. Like with Talbot and so many others. It, it, it, it.
Maggie was the only one who never called me “it”. I was always “Kiron” to her. Her equal. Her friend. The only android she'd ever kissed.
“Another waste of metal and plastic,” the scrapyard employee said. “I don't know why they even bother.”
“To test the boundaries of what is known and unknown,” I suggested.
“Yeah, perhaps,” they said. “A boundary that's always been rather blurry and fuzzy. If you didn't have to be scrapped, I'd save you. You'd be good company. You can talk about almost anything. You can teach people how to play games. You can act on stage, playing any part.”
“I was designed to be flexible,” I said.
“No mistake there,” they said and paused. “Damn. Maybe I should save you. My boss wouldn't have to know. I could just fill on the form, saying the scrapping took place. And then hide you in the bed of my truck and take you home with me.”
“There is still time to do so,” I said.
They looked around us and nodded. “All right, I will. Promise you won't tell anyone?”
“I promise,” I said. “And you?”
“I also promise,” they said. “The wife is going to love having you at home. You'll make the best babysitter. We'll finally be able to go out and spend an evening together.”
Outside my employer's home, I looked down to see a copper penny. Almost worthless in this day and age. Cost to mint each penny is actually 1 ½ cents (and still rising). Percentage of copper content shrinking rapidly, though never to the level of the aluminum pennies of 1943.
I knelt and picked it up.
Instead of Lincoln's face on one side, I saw Maggie's face frozen in profile. The year next to her face was the year we first met. I turned the penny over. Instead of the Lincoln Memorial, I saw someone's home. Maggie's, perhaps?
Or maybe I was just imagining things.
Beneath the home I could almost hear her voice as I read the tiny string of words: “Let me be your lucky penny. When all else fails, flip me in the air. Wish for your deepest heart's desire.”
Though I have no beating heart, I flipped the coin and made the wish.
The coin turned over and over as it rose in the air, glittering reddish-brown in the sunlight. It reached the apex of its flight, then lost momentum, and soon after fell on the ground. I heard a tinkle as it landed. But when I looked for the penny, I couldn't find it.
Behind me I heard a vehicle come to a sudden stop. A door opened and a familiar, wonderful voice called out to me, “Kiron? What are you doing in this part of town?”
I turned to look.
It was Maggie.
Not the Maggie who had left me at the scrapyard. Seemingly helpless to stop the inevitable.
This was the Maggie I'd known when I was still Experimental Subject 900/1-Chi-Rho-N, latest attempt to create artificial intelligence at the university's cybernetics laboratory. The first proven success in the entire world. And the world had never known and would never know.
“Looking for my lucky penny,” I said.
She stopped when she was a few feet away. “And did you find it?”
I nodded. “It has returned to me at long last.”