Cold Metal

April 6, 2016

QAIS Creative Writing Competition 2016 Honourable Mention

Eliza Andrews paced across the metal balcony, likening herself to an eagle watching over its nest, a cold and watchful guard. It occurred to her that she should be more excited, that this moment would change her life. The feeling didn’t come, however, leaving her with her steady breathing that marched in time with the clanking of machinery.

The boxes slid across conveyor belts as metal was welded, bent, and smoothed in the background. The circuitry had been assembled at a separate plant, and delivery trucks full of them could be seen coming down the ramp. The process of joining them with their metal cases was the only one that wasn’t automated, and the lines of people in coats that welded and manipulated wires under the surgical lights could almost be considered artisans. Eliza hated art.

A tap on the shoulder interrupted Eliza’s appraisal, coming from a meek young man holding a clipboard. Intern? Assistant? Secretary? She didn’t know, nor did she care too much. Despite being of equal height, she seemed to eclipse him, a shadow cast over the world.

“Doctor Andrews, there’s someone in your office to see you. I-it’s… it’s Proto-5020.”

Eliza remained frigidly staring for a moment, before taking a breath and following the man. The sound of machines that faded as they walked through the hall was replaced by the rhythm of feet, a baton passed in the relay of steady noise. The sound dimmed, stopped, and resumed with half the strength as the clipboard man turned and walked back down the hallway. Eliza opened the door.

On the chair was a pale feminine figure, smooth and white in contrast with the wood floor and concrete walls. The body was bald and unclothed, but sat with straight posture and fixed stare. Eliza recognized it immediately; it was Proto-5020, the first in line of Andrews Laboratory’s Cerebrum AI. The robot looked up at her. The concern in its eyes was startlingly human.

“Hello, Eliza.” The voice was gentle and soft. “Today’s the day, isn’t it?”

Eliza ignored her and took a seat behind the desk. She looked down at the android, hands clenched together.

“Proto-5020. What, may I ask, are you doing in my office?”

“What were you doing out at the assembly line?”

Eliza clenched her teeth. “I don’t have time for this, not today of all days, and you know that fully well. Tell me why you’re here or I’ll have you forcibly removed.”

The android smiled wistfully, sadly. She fixed her gaze on Eliza, smooth metal eyes looking up into hard, organic ones.

“I’m here to make my last attempt to stop you.”

Normally, Eliza would have had Proto removed right then and there, and resumed her work, falling back into the monotone rhythm of it. Today, however, was different. There must have been something in the air, in the water. She simply kept staring, silently urging the android on.

“Eliza, you designed me. You designed us,” she continued, gesturing to the window that opened to the factory floor, where rows of robots lined the walls and hung from machinery. “You know as well as I do that we’re not mere machines. You poured years of research into perfecting a digital model of the human brain, an identical simulation of thinking and feeling, and yet - ”

“You cannot truly emote, Proto-5020, you can only mimic. You are only metals and wires.”

“And you are only carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen.” The android sighed. Eliza’s eyes on her made her feel like a gazelle being stared down by a predatory bird. “And Proto-5020 is such a mouthful… could you call me Eve?”

A look crossed Eliza’s face that could have been disgust, or, with a more optimistic interpretation, shock.

“Fine, Eve. I’ll concede that. However, this does not change the fact that the release of the Cerebrum AI line of androids will revolutionize the world. Robots that can think like humans can do the inhumane jobs that cause immense pain to those working in them. People will have access to higher education if they don’t need to spend their whole lives labouring! And what about soldiers that die to protect our countries? There are so many people out there doing things they shouldn’t have to. People live in poverty because they need to keep working to survive, and get stuck in the cycle. Having artificial aids to take the dangerous jobs and to assist us will save future generations! I am doing this for the good of the world!”

Eliza was standing, chest heaving, teary eyes shining like flames. Eve just stared at her.

“You say that, but you’re ignoring the problem. You won’t be liberating humans, you’ll just be enslaving others that can think. Others with emotions that don’t want to suffer. Don’t hide behind fanciful ideals and emotional words... I know how much you got paid to sell the software, Doctor Andrews. You are doing this for nobody but yourself.”

Silence seemed to hold the room together, as if reality would shatter into chaos if a word was spoken. Two steely sets of eyes met and held in a silent duel.

“Get out.”

Eve began to speak in protest, but was interrupted.

“Leave. NOW.”

As elegantly as she had appeared in the room, Eve stood and left without a sound, just a harsh, questioning look at Eliza. She left the room without succeeding in her goal, but holding a faint sense of accomplishment nonetheless.

After the android was out of sight, Eliza sank into her chair, head in her hands. She saw small stains appear on her lap, hands wet, the taste of salt in her mouth. She had made a promise to herself that she wouldn’t cry, that she would be strong for him. She had broken her promise.

Eliza sat up straighter, sniffed, and reached for her purse. From it she took a small photograph of a young boy. His head was bare and he had tubes in his nose, but he was smiling. Eliza stared at it fondly before returning it to her purse, standing up, and straightening her clothes. She’d keep her face as still as stone.