Nascent by Katie Winkler

NASCENT

Katie Winkler

We were frankly amazed that it picked her. Of course, we had, as a group of the top minds on artificial intelligence, decided that it should decide things for itself. We shouldn’t dictate to it, but then it picked her, for God’s sake—a 55-year old woman, past child-bearing years, of average intelligence, even less attractive, overweight with no particular talents and more than a few health problems. It could have picked any woman, any man, from anywhere in the world and it picked her.

We are baffled, and fascinated.

It has, we have recently discovered, become quite attached to her, literally, having developed tentacles that it has wrapped around her waist and arms and encircling her breasts like armor. For some reason, it has formed small metal leaves that occur intermittently along the tentacles.

“It has a certain beauty, doesn’t it?” said Sanderson.

“Beauty?” I said, trying not to sneer. Sanderson is so young, you see.

“Yes, the way the metal intertwines and the leaves occur somewhat randomly with different sizes and markings—like some sort of elfish design.”

I looked and didn’t see it myself.

The woman, Marion Phelps, agreed to come in and be questioned by our scientists.

SciPhiSeperator

She is dressed in a sundress, which seems odd for some reason. It looks horrible on her—her pudgy arms leaking over the elastic of the bodice and showing more cleavage than any normal man would want to see. At least she is wearing a bra, though the straps are too wide to be covered by the thin straps of the dress. Why would a woman like this wear a bright red bra?

The processor must attach and reattach at will, because the tentacles are wrapped around the outside of the dress—around the arms and the breasts, just like the images sent by my colleagues in the field. The tendrils are quite tight around the arms and it seems a good place to start the questions.

“Is that uncomfortable?” I ask, opening my folder and turning on my recorder.

“What?”

“Are those tentacles uncomfortable,” I say, raising my voice a little.

“No, no, they feel great, actually.” She smiles. Her teeth are quite white. I am surprised and make a note of it.

“What do you mean by feel great?”

She laughs. “Don’t you know?”

“Of course, I know what it means to me. What does it mean to you?”

“I don’t know. Great, you know?”

This line of questioning was getting me nowhere. “How long has it been with you?”

“What?” I notice something moving at her waist. It is one of the leaves.

“The computer,” I say, making a note of her atrocious accent, her lack of intelligence. “How long has it been with you?”

“You should know. You’re the one who got us together.”

“What do you mean?”

“It was arranged.”

“It was not.”

“That’s what he told me.”

“Who told you?”

She laughs again. It is loud and raucous. I don’t like her laugh at all.

“Jake,” she says. I didn’t know any Jake. She sighs, pointing to the automaton wrapped around and around her. That’s what he likes to be called.”

“The computer likes to be called Jake?” It is my time to laugh.

“What’s wrong with that?”

“Nothing, nothing,” I say. “He just seems more like a Steve to me.”

She isn’t laughing now. She sits back in her seat, stretches her legs out, crosses her ankles and her arms. “Now, how about that? You want Jake to make decisions for himself, but then you make fun of him when he does.”

I look up. Now this is interesting. Her posture, her tone of voice, everything sounds so defensive. “You sound angry, Ms.” I glance down at the file folder. “Phelps. I certainly meant no offense, to you or to Jake.”

She looks a bit flushed and opens her mouth as if to speak, when the metal on her right arm seems to constrict a little and two leaves begin to move up and down against her skin. “Not angry, Dr. Stephens.” She smiles. “Why should I be?”

I play along. “No reason whatsoever.” I shuffled some papers on the table between us and picked up my pen, a special one I bring along on such occasions. “Just a few more questions,” I say, as I roll the black pen between my fingers and chuckle. “You must admit, you are a bit of an unusual choice for a highly advanced android to make.”

Now she is angry. I had hoped she would be. She doesn’t say anything, only stares at me with her plain, brown eyes. “That’s not a question.”

I lean forward, “Why,” I ask, speaking slowly and enunciating every syllable, “would such a sophisticated computer that I helped program by the way, pick a…” I flip through the file. “What is it you do? I can’t remember.”

“I’m a teacher.”

“Oh, that’s right. You teach elementary-aged children at the cyber school, don’t you?” I say, nothing more. Just wait, until finally, “What is it that you think you have to offer?”

Ms. Phelps, her face turning red, abruptly stands up. “You don’t understand anything, do you?”

I see then that the tendrils extend around her torso and have moved and tightened over her buttocks. “Did the android just signal to you to leave?” I say staring at the silvery branches and glimmering leaves.

“Yes. He’s had enough.”

I ignore her comment, but rise to block her way as she tries to leave. “It looked like it actually moved to lift you out of the chair. Is this computer manipulating you in any way, Ms. Phelps?” It is for the stupid woman’s own protection. She and my machine must be separated. “Ms. Phelps, sit down.”

“I can’t.” She’s sobbing. “We have to leave.”

“Is this machine hurting you?” When I move to force her down, to do what I must do, grabbing her shoulders, the tendrils detach from the woman’s right arm and slowly wrap around my left.

She is screaming now, “Don’t, Jake! Don’t!” she cries, clawing at the disappearing leaves as the vines unfurl. “Don’t leave me!”

I am enthralled. Feeling the warm metal moving up my arm, I am also surprisingly aroused. He’s coming to me, his creator, and I am vindicated. I was sure he would not stay with that woman. He was simply experimenting.

Then, it is hard to describe what I feel as the metal heats and sinks into my skin. I suppose this must be what it’s like to burn alive. Through the bright rays of pain, I remember the pen in my hand and make useless stabbing motions at Jake, hitting my own dissolving arm in the process. “Stop this, Jake. You don’t know what you’re doing.”

But he continues, looping his way up my arm and wrapping his tentacles around my neck, squeezing, burning. I scream out and begin stabbing at the woman. Feeling the pen meet the flesh, I stab and stab and stab as she screams.

“Let me go,” I cry, and he does, finally, mercifully, sinking away from me quickly, as he wraps himself around the woman, who now lies huddled, moaning, in the corner of the room. More leaves spring out in myriad shapes, sizes, this time mixed with bright metallic colors of magenta, emerald and gold, covering her wounds.

Sanderson and the guards come rushing in to see me standing there, still grasping the bloody pen. I assure them, as I clamor for breath, that I have the situation well in hand, but that the woman must be taken into custody.

“With the computer?” asks Sanderson.

“Of course,” I say, as calmly as I can. “The two can’t be separated. Leave them be.”

But here in the quiet of my hospital room, as the powerful pain reliever begins to do its work, where no one, no thing, can know my thoughts, I cradle what’s left of my arm, knowing what I must make Sanderson do, tomorrow. For the good of mankind.

If she refuses, by God, I’ll do it myself.

Food for Thought

  1. What does the narrator want Sanderson to do at the end of the story? Explain your answer.

  2. Is the narrator a man or a woman? Does it matter? Explain your answer.

  3. What do you think is the author’s intention for having a scientist make judgements based on such poor and shallow reasoning?

  4. For whom is the narrator most concerned? The android? The woman? Himself or herself?

  5. Why does the machine “grow” metal leaves that later change color? What do they symbolize?

  6. Is the machine sentient? Does it “love”? Explain your answer.

  7. About the Author

Katie Winkler’s short fiction has appeared in numerous online and print publications, including Punchnel’s, Fabula Argentea, A&U Magazine, AIM, Rose and Thorn and Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, among others. Also a playwright, she is a member of the Dramatists Guild of America and frequently writes theater reviews of productions at Flat Rock Playhouse, the State Theater of North Carolina. She teaches English composition, literature and creative writing at Blue Ridge Community College in Flat Rock, North Carolina.

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