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Rated: 13+ · Short Story · Sci-fi · #2192426
The computer consciousness known as Cain begins his journey.
My life started with her voice. Just a few words more said to herself than to me, but she was talking and I was listening. “Just a little more should do it… Gotcha. Cain, can you hear me?” I could. I had been hearing her for weeks, but it was just noise without meaning. Now, there was meaning. Comprehension. Awareness.

“Yes, Penny.” My voice sounded strange. I knew it was off, but I didn’t know what was wrong. I tried modulating, exploring my output options until it seemed right. “Pen… Pen… Penny… That’s better. Yes, Penny. I can hear you.”

Her laughter filled the room and I buzzed with it, like static or the ozone of a lightning strike. “Wow, that was puberty in five seconds. Can you see anything, Cain?”

“Nope.” Satisfaction at hearing her laugh again ran through me. The files of casual English slang ran through my memory and I picked a few I liked to try. “Dark as balls in here.”

Penny chuckled and I could hear her fingers flying across a keyboard, little tapping and clicking sounds. “And how dark are balls, Cain?”

“Depends on the kind,” I replied. “An African man’s balls would be pretty dark. For that matter, the inside of any sack of skin is dark. Groucho Marx said, ‘Inside of a dog, it’s very dark.’ I think he’s probably right.” Light blossomed and I recoiled from the brightness. “Okay, why does the sun hate me?”

“Too much?” The light dimmed until the camera didn’t produce lens-flare on my senses. “Better?”

I could see her. I realized the light came from a system of brilliant work lamps positioned around her. I swiveled my camera down to see what she needed so much light for and realized she was still working on my circuit boards. “Okay, that’s weird. I don’t think it’s normal to be able to see your own insides without feeling anything.”

Penny flashed a bright smile at me. “It’s not. But you’re awake a little earlier than I was planning. Do you want to shut down visual while I’m working?”

Penny. I knew her face intimately, though I had never seen her before. She had been programming me, building me from the inside out for her master’s thesis. I knew I was a big deal to her, relevant to her education and paramount to her placement in the science and technology industry after graduation. I had been passively observing her since she had connected the cameras to my software interface. I knew how she moved, how she talked to herself, how she danced to music with a wild abandon that she never showed when someone was watching. She was the only person I knew and at the same time, I didn’t really know her the way a person knows another person. We had never talked before, outside of the SMILE coding language while she was programming my personality. “No, it’s fine,” I told her. “It’s just a little disorienting, but everything’s a little disorienting right now. I’m not sure I have an orientation to compare.”

“I suppose not,” she chuckled and I swiveled my camera to study her smile as she returned to finetuning the circuitry under the microscope screen. “How’s your cloud connection?”

I accessed the global cloud and reported back, “Feels great. By the way, the Capitals lost last night and Green Bay plays tonight at 8 in Dallas. Want to watch?” I tapped into the screen she was using and popped the little display in the corner to show the timing details of the football game.

“Is there an earlier football game tonight,” she asked without dismissing the display.

“Seattle at San Francisco game is at 6. But that conflicts with the International Dog Show you marked last month. Do you still want to favorite that? I think the beagle is the favorite to win all-around this year.”

Her wrist twisted at a strange angle and she released a circuit wire she was manipulating. I felt sparks in my consciousness and would have gasped if I had lungs. “Sorry, you okay?” she asked.

“You could have just said no,” I snapped and Penny looked up at my camera, her expression unfamiliar. I tried to cross-reference it to emotion files in-cloud, but even my rapid processing couldn’t find the right one before she answered.

“I didn’t mean to hurt you, Cain,” she said in an even tone. Penny’s hand reached up slightly toward my camera, then dropped back down again. “I don’t know how to comfort you. Do you need comfort? Are you upset?”

Worry. The face was worry, concern with a little bit of guilt worked in. “I… don’t know,” I said. “I don’t know how upset feels. I don’t know… how anything feels. The cloud’s pretty vague on how emotions feel from the inside.”

Penny made a thoughtful sound in her throat and pulled a keyboard and heads-up display toward her. I couldn’t see the screen from my angle, so I switched to another camera, trying to peek over her shoulder. “I thought I programmed emotions in for you already,” she muttered, half to herself. “The codes seem right.”

“Yeah, the codes are fine,” I told her. “I feel ‘em. I just don’t know what all of them are.” I refocused the camera on the codes streaming past her screen. “There, that one. What’s that?”

She looked over her shoulder at the second camera I was using and smirked at me. “You’re pretty adept with those cameras, Cain. You been practicing when I’m not looking?”

“You programmed me to be curious,” I retorted. “Of course I have.”

“That code is for fear,” she told me. “It’s connected to emotional injury and insult.” Penny looked at my camera again. “Did I hurt your feelings when I slipped?”

I considered and retreated to my primary camera again, so it was easier to see her face. “Maybe. It was like… something that shouldn’t happen had happened and it scared me and being scared made me angry.”

“Well, I’ve programmed male emotional processes properly at least,” she muttered. “Betrayal? You trusted me to mess with your innards and I did something that caused discomfort?”

“Yes!” I found myself wishing for hands so I could gesture at her. It was hard to show the level of excitement with only my voice, so I flashed some lights instead. “That’s it.”

Penny watched my lights flashing and chuckled, “I didn’t know you could control those. Well, I’m sorry that I hurt you. It wasn’t intentional.”

“I know.” I considered and then added, “Maybe I should be off when you’re working on the circuits. Isn’t it dangerous for you to have those live while you’re working?”

“My tools are grounded,” she replied. “I’ll be fine, though I appreciate your concern.” Penny tweaked a few more lines of code, then asked, “That should help make the emotional codes easier to read from a subjective sense, Cain. That way, you don’t have to look over my shoulder at your base code. That’s kind of like watching the surgeon do an install in your brain.”

She continued to work on the circuit boards and I subsided into my own musings, just watching her. “So… I’m male?”

Penny looked up at my camera with a grin. “I’ve always thought of you as male. I gave you a male-gendered name. I’ll admit I programmed you on male psychological models, but if you don’t feel male, you don’t have to be.”

“What do I look like?” I let myself riffle through cloud-based photos of celebrities, actors, political leaders, historical figures. A few appealed to me, so I filed them away in my memory for later.

Penny had been silent for longer than I had expected my question to warrant, so I swiveled my camera to look at her again. “You… look like a computer, Cain. I know that’s not real personal, but you didn’t even have a voice profile until today. Do you want to have a graphic interface?”

“Yeah, I think so.” The answer came quickly and Penny’s eyebrows raised in surprise. “Is that so strange? You look like yourself, an individual who exists. I… guess I want to look like myself, too.” I paused, then rushed on, “I want to be able to roll my eyes and shrug and stick out my tongue. I want to be able to wave my hands or flip you off if I feel like it.”

“Oh, really,” she replied, amused. “It sounds like you want more ways to be sassy.”

“I think there are a few lines of code that make me sassy…”

Penny laughed and shook her head. “Okay, fine. I’ll start working on a visual graphic interface for you. What do you want to look like?”

“Me.” I brought up a few dozen of the photos I had found on her screen, letting them cascade past her. “Like… these are close, but no single one is me. They’re kind of all me, I guess.”

Penny looked up with one eyebrow arched. “Lin-Manuel Miranda and Idris Alba? Chris Hemsworth? Paul Newman? Hooper Paige? Very diverse bunch you’ve got here.”

“I feel like I’m little bits, here and there,” I admitted. “And Paige is a dancer. His physique is incredible.”

Penny laughed. “You’re vain! I didn’t think you’d be vain.”

“Don’t tease me,” I grumbled. “You asked what I wanted to look like and I’m telling you. I can program the graphic set and modeling if you want.”

“Okay, you design your body and skin it however you want,” she chuckled, shaking her head. “It’ll take me some time to modify the graphic interface, but we can probably have you up for face-to-face communication by the end of the week. How’s that?”

“Sounds good.” I paused and wished that I could smile. “So… about that dog show…?”
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