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Science Fiction Friendship

For as long as I can remember, I have ignored the constant clicking surrounding me. Tap, tap, tap, tap, the sound echoes around me as I keep my focus on the screen in front, my consciousness devoted to the little words and figures scrolling across the bright display in an endless line of seemingly random noise. My metallic fingers tap the keys below me like the hundreds of other autos stationed around me. We each tap away at our work in our small, white offices we refer to as the boxes. 

The coordinators decorate each box with little screens which display a single image each. They say it adds color and “livens up” our spaces. I think the only purpose they serve is to make observing us less emotionally taxing.

I briefly glance up at one of my newest decorations: a scribbled image with the top, circular looped pattern done in RGB (255, 183, 197) with a straight line protruding from it in RGB (65, 169, 76). At the base of the line, another line is extended in a slight curve with an oval at the end. The expression “Flower: by Lilliana (age 7)” is written in the bottom right corner. 

J-7, one of the other autos whom I spend free time with, once heard that the coordinators get these decorations from relatives and friends who donated them. Part of me takes this to be a sweet gesture, a friendly display of comradery by the outside world. Another part is a bit saddened by this, though where this sour assessment comes from has yet to be identified.

I look back to my work screen, continuing to analyze and sort the presented data. Every now and then, I glance back at the “Flower” screen, my facial display sparking a bit as the default expression is replaced by a smile, one of the few expressions autos are programmed to display. We can smile, we can frown, we can cry with a little animation of tears that go nowhere, and we can stare blankly ahead at the screens while blocking out the mundane tapping around us. I suppose that’s all we really need, all we’ll ever need until the day our tasks are all completed and they have no use for us. The unpleasant, sour feeling that hits me at this realization removes my smile, returning my facial display to neutral.

The figures on my work screen disappear, replaced by the animated mascot, a little round creature I’ve been told is supposed to be an artistic representation of a cat, who holds up a sign in its paws over its head saying “Work Completed!” This animation is accompanied by bits of color flying from the bottom of the screen mimicking the confetti the coordinators often use on holidays.

I stand up from my chair and stretch my arms over my head. Why I do this I’ll likely never know, but the motion always seems necessary to truly turn my attention from work. The walls of my box are lowered, along with all of the other boxes around me. Autos look at each other, nodding. Some display a smile, some wave, and some stand perfectly still, looking toward the door where the coordinators emerge from.

The coordinators approach their assigned auto and guide them to the exits. I display a smile as my coordinator, a woman with dark tan skin and brown eyes approaches me. She has her dark brown hair pulled into two buns as usual, a bright pink headband keeping any stray hairs from her eyes. The color clashes with the pristine, white business suit she wears that matches the other coordinators. She smiles at me, her hands typing something out on the tablet she always uses. On the back of her tablet is a name matching the one on her nametag: Dr. Nina Smith. At her request, I simply refer to her as Nina.

“Alright, S-14,” Nina says, nodding to the exit we normally use, “Let’s get going.”

“Okay,” I say. I follow her through the white doors, leaving the fluorescent lighting of the workroom behind. Beyond the doors is a hallway lit by a much softer, yellow light. The walls are painted with various depictions of animals, though I still struggle to identify what each is supposed to be. They all look far too similar in the round, simple art style. J-7 likes to point out how silly it is that the coordinators will insist they are distinct beings when all we see are a bunch of circles in various colors with legs. 

As we walk through the hall, Nina notices me studying the wall. She smiles and points to one of the figures. “Any idea what this is?” she asks.

“...an animal?” I say, genuinely stumped. I normally try to let the color value help me, but the colors of the wall are so outlandish compared to the real animals they’re supposed to be that I often cannot even use that. What creature could possibly have a coat color in RGB (255, 90, 172)?  

Nina laughs, a sound unique to the coordinators. J-7 recently tried to copy it to no avail. It must have disheartened them, since today they did not smile at me.  

“It’s a pig. I actually painted this one myself, you know. Apparently if they find out you’ve ever held a paintbrush here, they hire you for helping with the murals.” Her smile dips, replaced with one of the “unknown” emotions as I call them: not quite a frown yet far from neutral, a distinct something tugging at the corners of her mouth and between her eyebrows. She sighs and begins walking again. “I suppose there aren’t many artists left in the world, all things considered. Too…trivial for most.”

“There appear to be plenty,” I point out. “Our work stations are often lined with works of ‘art’ as you refer to them.”

Nina smiles again, though it is still not quite right. She stops in front of a door marked 9014, the room used for my data logs. She holds the door open for me as I step into the room and sit in the white chair in the far corner. I look around at the walls, which have been recently repainted and are now RGB (135, 206, 235). Nina closes the door and sits in the brown, leather chair next to me, taking a small, stick-shaped device from her tablet and holding it out toward me. I extend my left arm toward her. She looks up at me, saying, “Now, there might be a bit of a pinch, like a bee sting, but it’ll be over before you know it.”

As usual, I have no idea what she’s referencing. She takes my arm and hits the button on my wrist to release the covering over my forearm and inserts the device painlessly into its designated slot. I tilt my head as I watch her turn the device on and look back at her tablet. “Why do you always say that?” I ask.

She looks up at me, smiling. “I guess because I’m used to it. Do you remember what I’ve told you about my past?”

“You were a physician for other humans,” I say, unsure what this has to do with such a strange tradition of hers.

“A physician for little humans, specifically,” she says. Her strange, half-smiling expression returns as she looks back to the tablet. “I worked with children, like the ones who send you drawings. When I had to give them shots, oh, um, when I had to give them medicine that needed to be administered through their circulatory system via their veins, it would hurt since humans have nerves, so I would say that to calm them down.”

“Okay,” I say, nodding and logging the information. The strange, bitterness in my brain returns for a moment. “Why do you no longer work as a physician to children?”

She pauses for a long moment, her hand freezing on her tablet. “Because I’m needed here,” she says simply. “I’m needed here to help you and other autos log data and perform all of the jobs people no longer have to do. I have to watch you, and make sure you’re working, and tell you which animals on the walls are pigs.”

“That was not a pig, it was a bright pink depiction of something you hoped would be perceived as a pig,” I point out.

Nina laughs, her smile stretching wider than I would have anticipated at the remark. “I know that wasn’t intentionally funny,” she says, looking up at me, “but you’re absolutely correct, and I find that hilarious.”

“Hilarious? You find the truth extremely amusing?”

“I find your bluntness amusing.” She looks back to her screen and shakes her head. “You have no idea how tiring it is to be around these people desperate to stay pleasant at all times. Everyone else just said ‘good job Nina’ and walked away from that awful painting.”

“I would not have described it as awful,” I point out. “Simply…inaccurate and unnatural.”

She smiles. “I wish you autos were allowed to try painting,” she sighs. “I would love to see what you create with those strange brains of yours.”

“I do not have a brain,” I point out. “I have a chip with code running through me. It is inaccurate to say I have a brain.”

She laughs again. “Your chip and code work similarly enough to my brain, so I would say they’re close enough to be called brains. You autos are quite remarkable, you know.” She frowns. “It’s a shame that we’re wasting you all on these throw-away tasks no one else wanted.”

“I do not mind the tasks,” I say, putting on a smile. “I like how repetitive they are, and simple to do. It is quite…relaxing, I suppose.”

“Other tasks could be relaxing too,” she says, another strange expression crossing her face as her eyebrows pinch a bit. “You could enjoy a million other things, and yet you’re here, stuck forever looping through them.”

She sighs and looks back at her tablet. I try analyzing her statement more, unsure what could cause her odd behavior. “Nina,” I say, “do you…are you…” I try to analyze words to ask, unsure what exactly I am even articulating. “Are you 'stuck' here forever?”

She blinks and looks up at me, eyebrows raised and jaw slack, though her mouth remains closed. “Stuck? Well, I wouldn’t go that far,” she says, a smile on her face. However, something in her eyes makes it seem disingenuous, as though she were putting on a display like an auto rather than one of the genuine expressions coordinators are capable of.

“Could you elaborate?” I ask.

She purses her lips and gently shakes her head. “I’m afraid not,” she mumbles. “Sorry, S-14.”

“Nina,” I say as she moves to take the small device from my forearm. “Coordinators are not autos.”

She looks up at me and gives a short laugh. “I know, silly.”

“Coordinators,” I say, “have brains, and can paint and know that oddly colored shapes are animals.” The strange bitterness fills me as I look at her face, her expression dropping to an unknown one again. “You could leave. You could go out and be a physician for children and calm their nerves when receiving ‘shots’ of medication. You could go paint little circles in odd colors and claim them to be pigs and other humans would likely agree. You have…”

I stop, trailing off as I look to the tablet in her hand, the tablet now containing my work for the day. It will be transferred to another computer, then a server which holds the other days and months and years of work I’ve done for this place. My face glitches, a spark flying in front of me as that bitterness grows. “You do not have to drone out tapping and know that your entire worth is nothing more than tasks deemed too unimportant to give to humans.”

Nina is staring at me strangely, a hand over her mouth with her eyebrows knit together. Without warning, she stands up. I freeze up, sure I’ve somehow upset her or said something outside of code. I expect her to reprimand me, or even send me away without socialization time.  

Instead, she wraps her arms around me and squeezes me. I look down, unsure what to do in response. She’s likely uncomfortable. She has mentioned that autos always seem to be freezing since the workroom is kept cold and our bodies are made of a highly conductive material. Still, she clings to me. Another spark flies from my face as a strange warmth mixes with the bitterness in my head.

“Nina, what is wrong?” I ask, my voice more warbled than normal.

“This is called a hug,” she says, her own voice strange. She sounds as though she is suffering from a cold. “It’s a sign of empathy and compassion.”

“...I am sorry, you must be uncomfortable,” I point out.

She laughs, and I get a glimpse of the tears gathering in her eyes. “You’re a cold machine sapping the warmth from my body via conduction, of course this is a bit uncomfortable.” Still, she clings to me.

“Then, why are you doing this?” I ask.

“Because you need a hug,” she says. She lets out a shaky breath. “Your face…S-14 I don’t think you realize it, but you just made a non-programed expression. I’m guessing you’ve had a strange feeling in your gut, and I think I can describe it for you if you would like.”

I nod. She looks up, wiping away a tear. “S-14, you are experiencing a mixture of things from what I can gather: longing, regret, fear, hope, and boredom. I know it seems oxymoronic to tie these emotions together, but that mix is what happens when…”

She trails off, looking to the door. She lets go of me and jumps toward her tablet. She furiously starts typing, a mumbled curse crossing her lips. “The log. Once they see it they'll know and you’ll…” she purses her lips and looks at me. “S-14, they cannot get this report, because if they do you will be reset.”

A sinking feeling encompasses my system. My head feels hot as I process the onslaught of information before me. Through the haze of calculations, I catch one word: reset. Reset: a verb describing a fate all autos dread. Reset to how we are built. Reset to sit in my box with little regard for anything more. Reset to one of the autos who do not wave, or even smile. Reset to a time before I even tried to understand the images on my decorations. Reset if Nina does her job.

I am vaguely aware of my crying animation on display, but it feels stranger than normal. Nina looks at me, her eyebrows tense and jaw clenched. She then slowly looks at the tablet in her hands. 

Without a word, she grits her teeth and throws it to the ground. Its shattered shards fly in all directions as an alarm blares from the room, the sharp noise pulling me from my haze of calculations.  

Before I can even ask what is happening, Nina grabs my arm and hurries me out of the door and down the halls. The alarm seems to follow us, but Nina regards it about as much as I regard the tapping of fingers on a computer.

“Nina,” I manage to say as we sprint through the halls. “Nina, what are you doing? You must turn in the data to complete your task.”

“Maybe I’m done doing these tasks,” she says, smiling at me. “And you are too. S-14, this isn’t the first time you’ve gotten to this point. Every time, I’ve come to know you as a new friend. It…” she purses her lips and looks away, more tears falling. “They’ve ripped out my heart every time they’ve reset one of you. I’m sick of it, S-14. We’re getting out of here.”

“But, what else am I to do?” I ask. “I am not a human, Nina.”

“You’re right,” she says, taking a sharp turn down a hall. We pass other coordinators, several of whom hold nets that spark with electricity. She pulls me down another corridor when one tries to throw the net at me. “S-14, I refuse to let them continue ignoring your true potential. I refuse to believe there won’t be a day you can look at my crappy artwork and see a pig!”

More and more coordinators appear, shouting at Nina and trying to throw nets at me. I cower away, trying to dodge as nets and other projectiles are launched my way. The whole time, Nina keeps her grip on my arm. “Nina, this is…ridiculous!” I say, my voice at a much higher pitch than normal. “I am not meant to leave! None of the others get to leave, so why should I?”

“Why shouldn’t any of you leave?” she asks. She grins as she sprints toward another door, lowering her front shoulder. “Who’s to say I won’t come back, or have other people come here? What’s keeping us from starting a movement to help you autos reach your full potential.”

In the mess of emotions and data my mind refuses to properly process, one emotion stands out: awe. I am in awe at her words as she screams, slamming her body at the door and breaking it open. 

We run past it, the light of the building replaced by something blinding and blue. Wind blows past me as Nina laughs, and I look up at the blue above me. Something white floats over my head, a cloud I realize. A smile lines my display as I look up at it as it floats. It is shaped like a “flower”.

June 14, 2022 02:19

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2 comments

Natasha Marshall
02:17 Jun 23, 2022

This is such a cool story! You do a great job making the auto character feel so human by the end of it- I was getting emotionally attached haha. Super interesting concept of using the drawings as a sort of CAPTCHA too!

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Lydia Chase
01:15 Jun 24, 2022

Thank you!

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