Can't You Hear Me Howl

From FembotWiki

New York was blanketed in white, and Robin Doone was desperate to keep it out of her apartment. The snow had been falling in torrents since the day before yesterday, and now at two in the morning it had decided to ride the wind through Robin’s broken open window. The hiss of the apartment’s radiator was nothing if not mocking the woman as she rushed to find the plastic insulation that she swore she bought at the TruValue last time this happened.

Outside the frantic motion in that apartment the city was still. Robin’s place looked out on Atlantic Avenue where not a single car braved the freeze and no one dared walk their way through the snow. Brooklyn was shut.

Except for one. Two blocks away there was a flash of blonde hair in the white-out, the beacon of a young woman who was inappropriately dressed for the weather. She walked a stuttering shuffle towards Robin’s apartment.

Robin, for her part, just wanted the night to end. Mrs. Janek in the apartment across the hall had told her that the super was visiting his daughter in Mamaroneck and wouldn’t be back until the roads were plowed. (“Yeah, so another month.”, Robin said, speaking aloud to the radiator and the Late Movie on WLNY.) She was going to have to fix this herself, the clock ticking loudly and unfairly forward to when she would have to be up for work in the morning. There were eight million stories in the Naked City, and Robin was one of only six or so that wrote what she wrote. She was the daughter of a punk rocker who had disappeared when Robin was just a kid, a father she never knew. Raised by a series of horrendous relatives and the whims of the States of New York, New Jersey, and Arizona. The green hair she’d picked up while spending time in the erotics industry had stayed, but the drinking, smoking, and drug use had finally fallen by the wayside. She had been told that the world would never need someone like her. But she was on duty tomorrow, and damn near the whole world would look to her in a very specific emergency.

As one could see from the expert job she was doing with the insulation, a couple of old towels, and a prayer, Robin was an engineer. Specifically she was part of Persona Technologies, America’s largest artificial-human provider. She specialized in Intelligence Coding and Locomotion Repair, but the layman would say that Robin Doone spent her days making robots that looked, spoke, felt, and moved like human women.

There had been days when insomnia struck and Robin spent her night watching the best of Danny Kaye or Charlie Ruggles or Fred Astaire on UHF stations. Time had marched on and now she found herself sitting on the edge of her bed watching an action film from 1987 entitled American Exceptionalism. It wasn’t even boring enough to lull her to sleep. Three in the morning with the wind testing the patch job on her window. If she got to bed right now then maybe she would be able to get four hours of good sleep--

Her intercom buzzed. Someone was downstairs.

It took a moment for Robin to stir, as if she didn’t believe it. At this hour? In this cold? Her brain split Simpsons and Star Wars references as she finally walked to the intercom and pushed the button to talk.

“Is someone down there?”

Under cover of the front door’s eaves was the deliberate blonde. She wore a private-eye’s trenchcoat and ballet flats with seemingly precious little else. She kept her arm shoved within the coat as she spoke with a waver. Even when weak her Australian accent was immediately recognizable to Robin.

“’s me...I need your help…”

“Jenny? What the hell are you doing out? You’re gonna freeze out there!”

“Please...let me up…”

Robin didn’t waste a moment in buzzing up her co-worker and friend. Jenny was pragmatic to a fault; what in the hell was she doing out in this storm? A hundred theories shot through Robin’s head as she shot down each one. There wasn’t a jealous lover, her family lived all the way across the world, and she had a condo in Boerum--

Jenny knocked on the door. Robin knew something was wrong the second she saw the girl. Jenny was pallid, her eyes unfocused. They fluttered in a way Robin had only ever seen once before. Jenny looked up and said only one thing:

“Don’t be mad at me.”

And then she collapsed. Her body hit the floor violently as if it was trying to pass through the pre-war tile. Alyssa, the actress who lived next door, poked her head out to see if there was anything she could do. Robin was about to answer when she saw a hint of what Jenny was so afraid of, the thing that would cause her to walk through treacherous conditions in the middle of the night. Robin attempted to keep her composure as she looked up at her neighbor.

“No, it’s okay. I think she had too much to drink and she thought she could crash here. I’ll knock on your door if we need anything, all right? Thanks, Alyssa.”

Robin dragged her friend inside. It was easy to understand now, from the way her shoulders refused to give way to the extra ten or so pound more she must weigh. But none of it made any sense. This was Robin’s life but her mind refused to make this connection.

But she had to when her friend, her fellow programmer--her boss--was laying prostrate on Robin’s bed. The coat that had been Jenny’s only protection was open, and her hand stayed wrapped inside what at first glance looked like a gangrenous wound. But Robin knew what that black scarring was. Something had blown out of Jenny from the inside, scalding hot and electrical.

Jenny, warm and lovely, was a machine. Her serial number was there on display: Persona Technologies Q-017-05-JW-001.

So why had Robin always thought--always known--she was human?

Three-fifteen. Tick tock on the clock, Binny Doone. There would be time for conspiracies and philosophies. Right now there was only enough time for her friend. It took some doing but Robin was eventually able to pry Jenny’s hand from the burned-out opening in her torso. The result was grisly like an industrial accident. Three of Jenny’s fingers were missing down to the knuckle, only a chewed-up and burnt remnant remaining. Her palm had melted into the hole, synthskin coating her plastic stomach, which in turn had started to leak the isomalt paste that was the on-the-go snack of choice of artificial women. Robin was already adding up the cost in parts, labor, and American dollars that it would take to repair this. Oftentimes she would contact Allstate after an accident like this to tell them that the whole chassis would have to be replaced, but this wasn’t a robot. This was a human. This...was a human, at least to her view, until a few minutes ago.

Another thought to shove out of her mind. She just had a job to do. She had to figure out what caused this, and she couldn’t do it alone. The only person who could truly help her was trapped inside Jenny’s dead--no, disabled--body.

Organized within what used to be a pantry were Robin’s tools. They ranged from an inexpensive set of ratchets purchased from a Harbor Freight in Nevada when Robin was sixteen to a few gadgets issued by her job that were worth more than Robin’s own life. On the top shelf, built into the sideboard in order to hide something that technically was not supposed to exist, was a small tablet computer emblazoned with the Persona logo. Robin was working the front-and-back keypads before it was even in her eye line, typing in a practiced series of codes that she used at work every day. She never expected to use them outside of the clean rooms of Persona’s laboratories, and she certainly didn’t want to use them in her own home. What she was about to do would put an end to what was a hotly-debated topic in the world of cybernetics, shouted back and forth on social media and endless news cycles:

Yes, robots do have souls. In fact, Robin could prove that they do, as one was stirring on her tablet’s screen right now. The image of Jenny, still wearing the coat and moving as if stirring from sleep, appeared on the seven-inch screen. This version of the girl was what researchers at Persona had taken to calling the Enduring Self Image, a wireless-broadcast complete version of a unit’s memories and personality that encircled it even when powered off or damaged. The accidental creation of the immortal soul was a topic that would need some serious drill-down, and it certainly wasn’t Robin’s department. She was just glad that she could talk to some form of Jenny.

Jenny shook her head and then looked back at Robin, smiling. “Bin! I must have made it. Thank god that I--”

“When was my fortieth birthday and what did we do for it?”

Jenny drew back, her surprise at Robin’s all-business voice palpable even from the image on the tablet. She took a moment to think. She probably didn’t need it considering how fast her artificial mind worked. “The Second of November, 2021. We went to Hippie Trail in Chelsea and then we got matching tattoos.”

Robin turned her wrist over to see one of her dozen tattoos, the freshest ink on her body, a QR code wrapped in a question mark that Jenny and her had both gotten semi-ironically. It suddenly occurred to her that this was the best way to prove what Jenny was.

“Hang on, Jen., wait here.” At this point Robin had personally constructed thousands of perfectly-realistic machines during her career, and this was the first time it had felt strange or awkward since she had first picked up an AI matrix at twenty-five. Talking to her friend as her body lay dead in the next room, her brain still not quite grasping the fact that what she thought was human had been a robot...for how long?

Robin turned over Jenny’s arm. The tattoo was there, exactly the same as hers. She used a needle to pry out a bit of the ink, which never settled in synthskin the way it would in something organic. Just a moment to let her tablet analyze how long it had been in the hundred and six days. Since the day of Robin’s fortieth birthday. This was the Jenny that had been there.

“Your body is four and a half years old. I can see that from the serial number. And it’s always--”

“Yes, Robin. I’ve always been artificial.”

Robin didn’t speak for a long time. She looked out the window, looked down, looked at the infomercial that played on late-night TV. “I am going to ask a terrifying question. Please answer it honestly. Don’t bullshit me, Jennifer.”

Jenny knew what she was thinking. “You’re human. I am 100% sure of that. But you’re the only one of our group that is.”

Three years with this particular team. Robin knew that Kimiko was a robot; it would be impossible for anyone but a rank amateur to miss the telltale signs of how she spoke and acted. But Tisha? Kelly? Robin made women for a living and had never clocked that her coworkers, the people she saw and interacted with and loved the most, were machines. How could she have been so blind?

It didn’t matter. Not yet. She shook herself out of this spiral, didn’t even bother to respond to Jenny. She angled the tablet back at Jenny’s body, letting the girl see the damage.

“Anterior 3-455 and -956 are missing, your stomach has melted, and something ground down half your hand. It looks like there was an interior explosion, but I haven’t done a full post-crash. If this is something endemic in the Q-Series I need to know right now. Like right now. What happened to you?”

“Don’t be mad at me.”

“You said that but I don’t know what that means. Why would I be mad that you asked me to help?”

The image of the girl looked down and away, suddenly terrified. “I...I went to La Nouvelle Maria--”

Robin jumped up in anger. It was past four o’clock but she couldn’t modulate her voice to avoid waking the neighbors. “You went to a SPARK DEALER?”

“Keep it down, Bin! Someone might hear--”

“Someone might know what you were doing? You walked from Tribeca all the way here after getting your jollies off with some loader-puller and now you’re worried about being seen? Those places are illegal for a reason, Jenny--”

“You’re not my mother and you’re not my original programmer, so don’t act like it!”

“I will leave you to bit rot, I swear to God. They could have killed you! And...and then where would I be? I right now don’t give even one shit what you are, I only care who you are. And I care that you live.”

There was a knock at the door. Robin looked at it with annoyance. “We are all fine in here! Thank you!”

Alyssa from next door’s voice sounded clear into the apartment. “Are you sure? I heard screaming. Everything’s pretty scary out there so I thought maybe I could help.”

“We are fine here, Alyssa. Thank you.”

There was a moment. The girl spoke again. “Unit C-018-10-AJ-702 requesting to assist its original programmer.”

Robin looked from the door to her tablet. The image of Jenny shrugged and smiled.

A moment later Alyssa was standing at the foot of Robin’s bed looking down at what was left of Jenny. She was visibly shaken by the destroyed simulacrum, like a young person seeing their first dead body. “I know what I am. I do not tell people but I know. Sometimes I think that we’re invincible. I’ll do things that humans can’t. But Jenny made me. I was purpose built. I guess that makes her my mom. And if she can...if this can happen to her...I don’t want to die. I don’t want her to die either.”

The image of Jenny spoke up. “Not to fret, pet! I’m going to be just fine. I am going to spend a few days on this tablet and and and thursday newspaper gizmo will be be be bffrrrrrrrrrr…”

Robin looked down to see what was the matter and was met with a horrific sight. Jenny’s lips were starting to melt, her eyes rolling back into ivory nothingness, her hair disappearing and reappearing. A perfect woman succumbing to glitches akin to ancient video games.

Alyssa held her breath and tried to suppress a scream. “Robin, what’s happening to her?”

Robin, for her part, was moving as quickly as she ever had. She employed every trick in her arsenal and some that were pure theory and some she was probably grabbing out of a Star Trek episode to stabilize Jenny. “The remote profile of her mind is starting to lose cohesion. Whatever those sado-units did to her must have really fucked her up. Usually at this point I’d do an emergency drop into a unit to save her, but it’s too risky to get her to Persona right now and I don’t have a chassis here.”

Robin turned to the young woman. Alyssa swallowed heavily. She knew what was coming and what it would entail. There was a quick look in her eyes that said “don’t make me do this, I’m scared.” Then she nodded her assent.

“It would be an honor. Jenny created me in the first place. I would do anything to help her.”

Her coworkers at Persona would tell you that Robin was loath to smile. She was the most stereotypically “robotic” of them all, holding her emotions close to her chest. It would have been a shock to them to hear the choke that emitted from her holding back tears, the smile that drifted over her lips til she showed the teeth she was ashamed of.

“Thank you, Alyssa. I swear to whatever god protects you that we will give you your body back without harm as quickly as we can.”

Without another word Robin held the device next to Alyssa’s right temple. The girl seemed as if she was about to say something but it was lost as her irises flashed violet then yellow then red and then--

There was silence in the world. Even the wind ceased its howl.

Alyssa blinked heavily. And then Jenny’s voice emerged.

“Bin? Where am I? Who am…” The girl looked down at herself. A body she recognized. She laughed. “Alyssa, I could kiss you. I will when I’m out of your body.”

Robin could barely contain herself. She embraced her friend inside her neighbor’s body. “I really thought I was gonna lose you. We don’t have much time. If we’re gonna keep Alyssa coherent and get you out I figure we have six hours tops.”

Winter clothes and gloves and glasses for the human, less for the robot. Ready to go back out into the snow. Life or death does not wait for the end of the storm.

There were two sets of footprints carrying three lives past Brooklyn Tech and Pratt towards the laboratories of Persona Technologies. One voice carried on the winds.

“Thank you for trusting me, Jenny. I swear I’ll keep you safe.”