The Persistence of RAM

by Christopher Mowder

Test Subject #1 (TS-01)

I parked my dented Chevy Caprice in the hot asphalt sea of Beemers and Benzes. I thought about dinging the Lexus next to me. Bring a refreshing taste of anarchy into some yuppie’s life. I didn’t, though. Mr. Lexus probably deserves it, but I’m just not that kind of girl.

The five-story building looked like a hospital. Sliding doors whooshed open and too much air conditioning blasted me in the face. I turned right, following the signs for the Advanced Robotics Laboratory.

For the next mind-numbing half-hour, I did nothing but sign my name to waivers and releases. Considering the government requires me to be here, covering their ass with legalese seems like a pretty cowardly blanket. Even after reinstating the draft, mandating two years’ military service, and making voting compulsory, men in Congress still felt guilty forcing citizens to participate in government research. Oh, they claim this is no different than jury duty, that there’s no risk of harm to the test subjects.

With jokes like that, Senators could do stand-up.

piercingsWhen I finally finished the forms, an Asian woman in a white lab coat took me to a waiting area. I asked what to expect. She ignored me. “Please take a seat,” she said. “When the door opens, enter the room, and the experiment will begin.”

Before I could get another question out, she slipped back down the hall.

Whatever.

When I checked in, the receptionist confiscated my purse, phone, and my tattered copy of A People’s History. Nothing allowed in the experiment, she said. She looked at my jewelry like it might be off-limits too, but she can go to hell. I’m not taking out seven piercings.

No phone. No book. With nothing else to do, I kicked my black Chelsea boots up on the suede Ottoman, and waited.

◊ ◊ ◊

Test Subject #2 (TS-02)

Looking down the rows, I saw no close spaces open, so I whipped my Range Rover into a handicap spot. I passed five of those, all open. Why waste so much prime parking? I suppose even secret military research must be ADA-compliant.

I adjusted my necktie in the rearview mirror, and headed in to find the lab.

My clients don’t mind if I’m a few minutes late. I bill by the hour, and twenty minutes is a rounding error in the legal profession. This receptionist, though, glared at me as I walked up. I smiled and introduced myself. I apologized for being late, and I even complimented her godawful hairstyle. She warmed to me after that. All sins forgiven.

ticketedI read through their legalese garbage, the standard (and poorly-written) government nonsense. I could tear it apart in court, so I didn’t mind signing it, even the non-disclosure agreement. Then an Asian chick in a white lab coat led me back to an empty waiting area. I gave her my smile and complimented her necklace, but her face remained flat and cold as steel. “Please take a seat,” she said. “The experiment will begin shortly.”

All business. Nobody has time for fun anymore.

◊ ◊ ◊

Test Subject #1 (TS-01) x—x

A buzzer sounded, and the door slid open. I expected a stark white laboratory, beakers and test tubes and clipboards.

Instead, I stepped into a retro 1920s jazz club. Antique leather chairs and matching deep brown couch formed a seating area in the center. A dimly lit bar stood along the back wall, crystal martini glasses hanging from dark cherry wood, with rows of liquor bottles behind. Large plants chilled out in corners. As soon as I entered, a speaker clicked and light jazz floated down. Nothing romantic, just enough to set a casual mood.

For a government job, this was incredibly classy.

Only then did I notice the giant silver mirror on the wall—one-way glass, I’m sure. They’re watching me, I reminded myself. And they weren’t the only ones. Opposite me, another door had opened. A guy in a suit and tie stood there blinking like he just woke up.

We both entered, and our respective doors slid shut behind us, flush with the wall.

The guy came up to me and smiled. “Hi. I’m Jackson.”

“McKayla,” I said, shaking his hand. I got that same urge from before to create anarchy. Just reflex. I wanted to kick him in the shin. I resisted.

“This is…pretty unbelievable,” he said, hands on his hips and looking around. “I don’t know what I expected when I got the summons for the Advanced Robotics Lab, but it sure wasn’t this.”

“Please have a seat.” A woman’s pleasant voice floated down from speakers in the ceiling, the jazz volume lowered to bare background noise. Jackson and I sat next to each other in the leather chairs, facing the mirrored wall. “The Android Robotics Laboratory thanks you for your participation in Experiment 3F24. For your information, audio and video recording equipment will be in use today, and laboratory technicians will be observing the events.”

The technical talk sounded jarring and out of place in the smooth, suave surroundings.

The woman paused. “Today, you will be testing our newest model, developed here at the ARL.

“Our latest android unit resembles humans not only in appearance and operation, but in consciousness as well. The android model you’ll be testing today believes it is human.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Test Subject #2 (TS-02)

An android that thinks it’s a human? I laughed. McKayla shot me a look.

“That explains all this,” I said, sweeping my arm around the speakeasy. “The robot thinks it’s a human, so give it a human surrounding. They couldn’t have picked something in the era of television? The Nationals play this afternoon.”

“Shut up,” McKayla hissed.

Above us, the Asian chick droned on. “The android is programmed to believe itself a human being in every way. This android will remember fictional experiences, have preprogrammed emotions, and hold opinions. It will believe it has a life outside this facility. In fact, we activated it just a few minutes ago.

“You may interact with the android in any way you see fit,” the chick concluded. “Your goal is to convince the android it is a machine. Once you do, the experiment is over. Now, please make yourselves comfortable. We will begin the experiment in a few minutes.”

A third door to the room stood next to the silvery mirror. I turned to face McKayla, and watched the door over her shoulder. “So. Come here often?”

McKayla rolled her eyes. “Save it, unless you want me to call you Jackass instead of Jackson.”

If she thought I was hitting on her, she had nothing to worry about. From the shock of purple in her jet-black hair, her plentiful facial piercings and her personality like a nail file, I knew she was not my type. “Just making conversation.”

After a minute, she touched my arm. “Hey. I didn’t mean to be bitchy. Sorry. I’m just a little on edge.”

“Don’t worry about it.” I smiled at her. “What do you suppose this thing’s going to look like? I mean, they say it’s human, but I don’t buy they could make it flawless.”

“Judging by the atmosphere, I wouldn’t underestimate it,” McKayla said. The music played again. “Stan Getz,” McKayla said, after a moment.

“You know jazz?” I would have bet money she listened to nothing but death metal. “I like it too. I played bass guitar in undergrad, before law school sucked all my time.”

She nodded. The longer we waited, the harder it became to keep conversation going. She rapped her fingernails on the leather chair. My knee bounced involuntarily. I put a hand to stop it. We both stared at the door now.

“How much longer?” I called out to the mirrored wall.

The Asian chick’s voice crackled back over the speaker. “The experiment is about to begin.”

We both stood, waiting for the door to open. McKayla crossed her arms. I clenched my fists at my sides. “Whatever happens, let’s do this together.” She nodded back at me.

We waited a full minute I’d say. I looked behind me. No other doors opened. No one else entered.

“Where’s the android?”

The voice came over the speaker one last time. “The android is one of you.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Test Subject #1 (TS-01)

I stared at Jackson, and staggered back a few steps. Oh my God. This guy is an android.

We stared at each other for a long time. His eyes struck me the most. They looked so real. They darted back and forth like a frightened animal.

Surely, this is a social experiment. What would a normal person do when she’s told she’s in a room with a robot?

Minutes ticked by. That scenario looked less and less likely. Neither of us sat back down. The silence became unbearable.

“When did you first learn you were an android?” I asked.

He smiled. “I’m not.”

“So androids can lie.”

“Apparently so, judging by you. I almost believed you were human in the beginning. Almost.”

I laughed, but it came out short and stilted. He can’t really believe it’s me. This is just part of his programming. “I’m no android. I remember my whole life, all the way back to childhood. It sucked.”

I was adopted. A website matched Midwestern do-gooders with orphans around the world. My ‘parents’ were Herbert and Judith Johnson. Lifelong residents of Ft. Wayne, Indiana, I was plucked up from Morocco by the two whitest Americans in the whole country. They named me Margaret, and when I turned eighteen, I changed it to McKayla. I couldn’t stand Margaret.

As I told Jackson all this, I studied him. Jackson is white in the way my parents would have liked: close cropped blonde hair, blue eyes, tan skin. He has a charmer’s face, the type of face that’s punched a lot of V-cards. He wore a light gray suit with expensive brown shoes, and he keeps smoothing his necktie and smiling at me as I talk. Not saying a word, just smiling.

I remember my asinine childhood. Herb went to the Elk’s Club every Friday night. Judy stayed home and read books where a cat solved mysteries. It’s no wonder I got addicted to pills before I graduated high school. I wanted to tell Jackson all this, but the more I talked, the more I felt I should stop talking. Abruptly, I shut up.

◊ ◊ ◊

Test Subject #2 (TS-02)

I would never admit it to McKayla, but it devastated me to learn she’s an android. I found her fascinating, despite myself. And I much preferred the prospect of her and I facing an android together, rather than me facing her alone.

I know I’m not the android. That’s impossible. I’ve been married to Megan for ten years. I didn’t just imagine that, I didn’t imagine Gavin and Ashley. I didn’t dream up three years of law school and three more spent clerking for some jagoff judge in Baltimore, fetching him grande lattes every morning and driving him home from the bar every night because he got pissing-himself drunk. In another ten years I’ll be partner in the biggest firm in D.C., and my kids will be at the same prep school as the First Family.

I’m not the android, end of story. Which means she is.

Time to go to work.

“Well, I hate to break it to you, but I’m not an android. I have memories just like you, a childhood with a mommy and daddy who didn’t love me and wouldn’t look at my baseball trophies. That doesn’t make a bit of difference. One of us is telling the truth and one of us—you—is saying what they were programmed to say.”

“What makes you so damn sure?”

“That I’m human? I do corporate trial law for clients from here to Boston. I know people, and people know me. You can’t fake the connections I have, honey.”

She smirked. “Or they made you think that, when they turned you on fifteen minutes ago.”

“You want to prove it?” I asked. I pulled off my jacket and loosened my tie. “Let’s prove it.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Test Subject #1 (TS-01)

“What the hell are you doing?” I asked. He was ripping off his clothes like we were drunk teenagers with our parents out of town.

“No matter how well the android speaks, something will be different physically,” he said, as he pulled off his white shirt. “Skin texture, bone structure, hell, maybe even a USB port or a ‘Made In China’ sticker.” He started unbuckling his belt.

I crossed my arms. “If you think I’m getting naked with a robot while a bunch of scientists watch, you have a serious bug in your programming.”

A wide smile spread across his face. “So. You have something to hide.”

miles-davis“Yeah, it’s called modesty. And safety. This may be tough for your hardwired male brain to grasp, but stripping naked with a strange man would be incredibly dangerous for any woman. So keep your clothes on, RoboCop.”

Jackson looked at the mirror-wall, as if pleading for an intervention. Nothing but the strains of Miles Davis came from the speakers. He looked down at himself, half-undressed, slacks around his knees.

“Fine,” he said, and yanked his pants up. “But the burden of proof is on you now. Make me believe.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Test Subject #2 (TS-02)

I finished buttoning my shirt, and watched myself in the mirror-wall as I retied my tie.

“Oh save it,” McKayla called over my shoulder. I deliberately took more time, and started over tying the knot. Why should I listen to her? She basically insinuated I was ready to rape her. What kind of scumbag did she think I was?

I pulled on my jacket and smoothed the flaps. She gave an exasperated sigh. “Oh for the love of God stop primping!”

I sat down in the chair, and crossed my legs. “Very well. Your turn. What do you suggest we do to figure out the answer?”

“I told you, I’m not an android—“

“And I told you, I could give a shit what you say.” My words shocked her, I think. She stared at me. “I’ve got no reason to believe you, and you’ve got no proof. What’s your next idea?”

I knew it came out a little harsh, but I wasn’t about to apologize. I let the sharp words hang in the air like suspended knives.

She thought for a minute, and then lifted her hands into fists. “Fight me.”

“Do what?”

“Fight me. You wanted a physical test. You’ve got me by at least fifty pounds and five inches. If I can kick your ass, then maybe I am the android, all metal and steel inside like the Terminator.” She smiled, and bounced back and force. “Or maybe you’re just a pussy who will get beat up by a girl.”

“I’m not fighting you.”

“Oh, have something to hide?” she mocked, imitating my voice. “C’mon, rock’em sock’em.”

“No.” Emphatic.

“Why not? Scared I’ll hurt you?” I heard a malicious taunt in her voice.

I adjusted my tie. “When I was twenty, my older sister Rachel married a fat Armenian named Tony. All the family knew he was bad news for Rachel.

“What we didn’t know: Rachel married Tony because he threatened to kill her if she didn’t. Nearly killed her anyway. Beat the living hell out of her four times in their first year of marriage.

“After three years, she finally told us what was happening. I stood between my sister and Tony the night she left him.

“So no. I won’t hit a woman. Even an android.”

All McKayla’s energy deflated. Her hands dropped to her sides, and she sank into the heavy leather chair. Above us, a sad saxophone crooned.

“Your turn,” McKayla said, without looking up.

◊ ◊ ◊

Test Subject #1 (TS-01)

Jackson blathered on about his job, something about his record winning cases, his name in the newspaper, all that. I really wasn’t listening. He had no way to prove it.

“McKayla.”

Jackson had stopped talking, and was looking at me. “What was that? I missed it.”

“I asked what you do for a living.”

“It’s boring. You wouldn’t care.”

“Probably computer science, something an android would do,” he said.

What the hell? Did they program him with my bio?

That grin spread across his face again. “I knew it.”

“I’m a server admin—” was all I got out before he erupted in laughter. Bastard. What, is everybody in IT a robot? Millions of androids out there just because we’re smart enough to send emails without needing tech support? You can stop laughing anytime now, Jackson, before I slam your empty head into the wall.

Maybe my therapist is right. Maybe I do have some unresolved anger issues.

He finally calmed down, but still had this grin stitched to his face. I said, “When you think about it, a computer tech like me is the ideal person to evaluate the most advanced robotics available—like you.”

His smile vanished. “Nice try.”

After that we quizzed each other on current events. It turned into an obscure game of Jeopardy. We both got some and missed some and argued about others. I don’t know anything about golf. Neither do a lot of people. Who won the Masters this year? Who cares? That doesn’t make me the android, it makes me not a boring white bread sonofabitch.

Of course, when he missed one of mine, he got this smug look on his face. Said things like, “Oh, that’s right,” as if he knew the correct answer all along. What an enormous tool.

Plus, I don’t believe nobody’s buried in Grant’s tomb. Jackson can take his trick questions and shove them up his Brooks Brothers ass.

We’ve been in here for nearly an hour now. I can tell he’s getting antsy. So am I. But I’m going to break him. Any minute now, I am going to break this android, and leave his programming in pieces on the smooth tile floor.

◊ ◊ ◊

Test Subject #2 (TS-02)

“What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?” McKayla asked me.

I looked over at her. “What do you mean?”

“You heard me. The worst thing you’ve done, on purpose. Not, ‘Oh, I wasn’t paying attention and got in a car wreck.’ Did you ever steal money? Sell drugs?” She paused. “Ever kill somebody?”

I shook my head. “Why in the world would I tell you that?”

“Because everyone has something. C’mon, hotshot. I assume you signed non-disclosure agreements here, same as me. If you really believe I’m the android, then you’re just talking to a machine.” She sat forward in her chair. “But I’m betting you don’t have anything. Never got a DUI, never even missed your kid’s soccer games. You’re no more human than a microwave.”

McKayla seemed to relish her idea, and clung to it. She pushed, and pushed. I stood up and turned away from the mirror wall. I looked at the old bar and wanted to pour myself a drink. I knew what story to tell. Encouraging me, Duke Ellington and John Coltrane played “In A Sentimental Mood.”

“Nobody knows about Clarissa,” I began. “Especially not Megan.”

God, am I really doing this? I must be crazy.

McKayla closed her eyes. She could see where this was headed.

“It’s not an affair,” I said, to clarify. “It’s just about sex, which Megan and I haven’t had since Ash was born. I still love Megan, I love my kids. Clarissa is just…different.”

In truth, Clarissa lived in my peripheral vision. I only saw chestnut hair, long legs in a short skirt, not a whole person. Clarissa was a means to end, not love.

McKayla sat forward, chin resting on her hand. She tried to hide her gleeful smile. “You love your wife but you cheated on her. You’re a son of a bitch, you know that?” She sighed. “How many times?”

“I saw Clarissa last Thursday.”

“It’s still going on?” McKayla practically shouted. “Good God, what the hell is wrong with you?”

“You asked.”

“Yeah, but I—“

“Before you start judging me, I want to hear yours.”

She paused, mouth open.

I set my jaw. “I said, tell me yours. You know my dirty little secret now. What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done, McKayla Johnson?”

She sat down. “I was going to tell you getting hooked on Vicodin and Oxycontin, nearly flunking out of college. But after hearing yours…” McKayla looked at me. “Why are you still doing it? You’ve got a wife, two kids. Why risk it?”

I shook my head. “I’m not sure. I wish I wasn’t. I just…can’t stop. I need it.” I decided against full disclosure: Clarissa wasn’t the first.

If there’s a hell, you’re going to it.”

We were quiet for awhile, although her words struck me as strange. If there’s a hell, she said.

“What do you think about death?” I asked. She gave me a funny look, as though I asked if she were pregnant. “Do you believe in God? An afterlife?”

“No.”

“Karma? Anything?”

“No,” she said emphatically, as if the matter were that simple.

“Just ‘no’?” I held my hands out, palms up. “Nothing more to it? All of humanity just sprang from nothingness for no reason? One day, we’ll all die, and that’s the end of existence forever?”

She crossed her arms. “Yes.”

“What about the human spirit? The soul? Are those just made up fairy tales too?”

“I didn’t— “ she started, but stopped. “I’m not getting into a religious debate with you.”

“Why not?” I asked. “You’re willing to argue everything else. You’re happy to say what I’m doing in life is immoral, but you clam up when I ask about your basis for right and wrong?”

“Listen to you,” she said. “The adulterer, lecturing me on morality. Spare me.”

I sat back, rubbing my neck. “I’m not exactly an every-Sunday churchgoer,” I admitted. “I don’t have it all figured out. I don’t always do right by everyone. Sometimes, I don’t even try.”

I paused. My necktie suddenly felt too tight. I tugged it looser. “That doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement for religion, I realize. Still, whether or not I personally do right, I believe there is a God, or another life after this, or something. Maybe there’s even a hell, but I hope not.”

“Don’t worry,” she said, her voice sharp and cold. “There’s not.”

Amazing. I had never tried to reach someone before. I ignore the doorbell when pimply-faced guys carrying Bibles come calling. But here I am, evangelizing, and I chose this as my first attempt?

“I read once that 90-some percent of people on Earth believe in a higher power,” I said, “be it God, Buddha, whatever. It makes sense an android wouldn’t believe in anything, though. An android’s god is a human.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Test Subject #1 (TS-01)

I wanted to spit at him. That’s not the urge for anarchy talking. That’s all me. I despise Jackson.

One minute he’s telling me about screwing his mistress, and the next he’s judging me—judging me!—for not believing. He’s the churchgoing adulterer, the supposed defender of battered women who turns around and uses them for sex. What a hypocrite.

I tapped on the mirror and told the anonymous faces beyond the glass I needed to pee. From the corner of my eye, I caught sight of Jackson. He jumped up and said he needed to pee, too.

Of course. I bet an android looks human, but doesn’t have the same urges. If I hadn’t mentioned it, he might have gone hours, maybe days, without remembering.

Next to the cherry wood bar, a section of the wall slid open. Inside was a toilet and sink. Apparently, the scientists didn’t want us leaving the experiment for anything.

When I finished, I stepped out and Jackson went in.

Listening at the door, I have to hand it to the scientists. He pees as loud and noisy as any other man I’ve ever known.

◊ ◊ ◊

Test Subject #2 (TS-02)

McKayla’s restroom theatrics were a nice touch, very believable. I knew I couldn’t wait any longer. Time for closing arguments.

I laid out my case to McKayla this way. Science has obviously created an exceptional android, one that believes it is human. Thus, either of us should be equally likely to be the android. But only one of us displays other characteristics consistent with a machine’s thinking.

One: McKayla has a computer background. She thinks and speaks in computer lingo. I, on the other hand, rarely send my own email.

Two: McKayla has no biological connections. She has adopted parents, and no siblings. She doesn’t have a boyfriend—though she claims she has before—and she’s mostly a loner. Only a few close friends, but of course, she can’t prove even that.

Three: She refused to let me examine her body. She obviously has something to hide.

Finally, four: McKayla doesn’t believe in God, and isn’t spiritual. That’s very consistent with machine thinking, although almost all humans believe differently.

Judge, I rest my case. McKayla is the android.

◊ ◊ ◊

Test Subject #1 (TS-01)

Fuck him. Pretty-mouthed son of a bitch. He stands up and gives a speech, always with an eye toward the scientists behind the glass, a pet performing for its master. He thinks that will trick me? Two can play at that game. Here are the reasons you, Jackson, are the android.

You’re a male bimbo, printed out of a catalogue. All surface knowledge and nothing underneath, no personality, no uniqueness, just like an android prototype. You’re a white male with a suit-and-tie job, a wife and two kids. That’s got to be Generic Android Model #1-A. Oh, that’s right, you also have a mistress. That doesn’t make you not an android, it makes you a shitty, amoral android. It proves you don’t give a damn about the feelings of other people, because you can’t feel anything yourself.

You don’t believe me? You want to find out for sure? I had a cutting problem as a teenager. Let’s dig into our arms, we’ll find out which one of us has metal inside.

◊ ◊ ◊

Test Subject #2 (TS-02)

“Holy shit, what the hell are you doing?”

McKayla pulled off one of her many piercings, a huge one with a long backer, and held it like a needle above her forearm.

I jumped out of my seat. “She’s going to cut herself! Somebody,” I shouted to the glass, “if you’re watching this, get your ass in here and stop her!”

We both waited, the thick silence hanging in the air. No one came.

“We’re on our own,” McKayla said, the long backer poised just above her skin. “Still think you’re the human?”

Her program must be malfunctioning. Or maybe this is the last ditch effort. She knows she’s made. This is the only way to get me to concede, and fail the experiment. Imagine that: the human lies and says he’s the android, just to protect the machine.

“I’ve got another earring,” she said. Her voice sounded lower, half a snarl, like a dog circling an injured animal. “Are you too much of a coward to do it with me?”

Why haven’t the scientists come in here to stop this? Are they going to let us cut ourselves? What if we tried to cut each other?

What if we tried to kill each other?

She’s still got the thing above her arm, holding it like a needle. She says she’ll do it.

Maybe she’s bluffing. Maybe they programmed her with a fail-safe mechanism to prevent—

“Screw this,” McKayla said. She plunged the backer into her forearm, and pulled as hard as she could. She screamed, and I heard a tiny sound like the scrape of a dull knife against thick flesh. She collapsed to the floor, and held up her forearm, a long strip of skin cut away.

Nothing but silicone and metal showed beneath.

◊ ◊ ◊

The experiment must have ended after that. I vaguely remember the door buzzing open, the scientists carrying McKayla, unconscious, from the room. I think I talked to one of them, maybe filled out more paperwork, but these are foggy flashes from a dream. I was halfway to Virginia before I realized I was driving.

I knew McKayla was the android. I never doubted it, not for a second. How could I? I’m a human being.

Only, McKayla seemed no less committed than me. That frightened me, even from the beginning. Made me doubt. What if all my life I thought I lived, my childhood and college and Megan and kids, what if all that had been programmed into me, just before walking in that room? That was McKayla’s life, an entire existence lived on a flash drive.

The scientists told me afterward she wasn’t dead. They just shut her down to prevent more damage. This was the 24th experiment they’ve run with McKayla, and self-harm was a first. They will repair her, try to fix that particular bug. Next week is experiment number 3F25.

It was terrible to watch McKayla practically commit suicide in front of my eyes, but the worst is knowing McKayla has to live that tiny window of existence over and over, always being so committed to her beliefs, and always, in the end, being wrong.

When I got home, Megan was in the kitchen, on her cell phone and slicing peppers for dinner. In the backyard, Gavin chased his sister with a squirt gun.

McKayla may have been an android, her memories artificial and her passion a façade. Even so, the impact she left on me feels real enough indeed.

I opened the door to the backyard, and relished the delighted squeals.

«»-«»-«»

Christopher Mowder

Christopher Mowder is a writer of science fiction and fantasy, living in the Midwest. Most recently, his work “The Goblin’s Son” appeared in Swords & Sorcery Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @cmowder.

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