Whose Mortal Taste22 min read
“‘Because I am human, and you are not.’” Oriole I tilted its head. “Those are the last words he said.” One of its eyes drifted upwards to the sky, with a barely audible whir, glinting in the strong sunlight. “As if he did not see the irony in saying such a thing as he died.”
They were occupied by one of their favorite pastimes, recounting the amusing things humans had said before the species had gone extinct. It was late afternoon by the human clock that dictated their programming. Corvid III had toyed with removing it and now had a hard time perceiving light from shadow. Which, in turn, affected its navigation. So the rest of them kept time by archaic human standards: morning, afternoon, night. They watched Corvid III spin in circles on the mosaic tiles of the courtyard.
In the afternoon, they dragged a spindly table out to the cement patio and laid out stones in the pretext of a game. Then they talked, usually three or four at a time. Tanager I invited them to come, though it knew Oriole I was sometimes reluctant to entertain company.
“But that was what was odd about the humans,” Myna IV interjected. “They didn’t measure their value by their lifespan. If anything, mortality seemed to increase their affection for each other.”
“I understand that.” Oriole I’s voice changed register. “Did I say I didn’t understand what he said? I just said it was ironic.”
“You meant that it was foolish.” Tanager I flicked one stone with the tip of its finger. They had never established the rules of the game.
Oriole I’s head swayed left and right. “Yes. If you insist. To say that he truly lived and I did not. It was a ridiculous thing to say.”
Tanager I lowered its head in acknowledgment, but Myna IV was in a quarrelsome state. It found some satisfaction in contention which Tanager I did not understand. It preferred such contention not happen in its courtyard, so it tried to distract Oriole I, flicked another stone in its compat’s direction. But Oriole I was as persistent as Myna IV was quarrelsome. It was, perhaps, one of the things that annoyed Tanager I the most about the way humans had programmed them, the tendency to create one overwhelming personality trait in a misguided attempt to create personality itself. Now, twenty-two years after the last human had died, they had not been able to completely overwrite this quirk without losing other, more important attributes.
Tanager I expressed its irritation in a subdued fashion by standing up and moving out of the shade into the heat. Myna IV paid no mind. The heat soaked through Tanager I’s shallow epidermis, still preserved in its organic state—Tanager I was quite proud of this—to the metallic mesh dermis below.
“Not ridiculous, though, if you adopt their perspective. You are not very good, Oriole I, at seeing things from a different angle.” Myna IV chortled, a remix of a bird’s call and human laughter. It had managed this by manipulating its own electronic genome sequence, a tricky business at best, much trickier than Corvid III’s interference with its clock. The engineers had modeled the genome on songbirds, looking for a new way to endow androids with unique voices and the ability to procreate.
Tanager I had some desire to procreate; Oriole I none. But it was hard for Tanager I to consider a separation from its compat.
“I do not see the value in adopting a perspective that is not my own. My perspective is the one designed to secure my wellbeing.” Tanager I tried to laugh at Oriole I’s answer, but could not. It was a peacekeeper.
“How do you know that?” Myna IV turned its head so that it could survey the other two listening. It liked an audience.
“Know what? Clarify.”
“How do you know”—pause for effect— “that your own perspective is the one best designed to secure your wellbeing?”
Oriole I did not answer right away. Tanager I turned back toward the table. It was silent in the courtyard. Corvid III stopped spinning and managed to redirect itself toward them as dusk blended light and shadow.
“Evolution,” it answered simply, finally. Tanager I placed a finger at its chin, a pose meant to connote thoughtfulness.
Myna IV laughed again. “We are not human. We did not evolve.”
Corvid III interrupted. “It depends on your definition of evolution. We have not progressed via a series of naturally occurring changes in our DNA. But we did change and progress via deliberate modifications of our programming.” It gestured specifically to Myna IV. “We modified our own programming even.” It did not comment on whose modifications had been more successful.
Myna’s voice sped up a tick. “I hardly think the humans designed us to prioritize our perspective over theirs.”
Oriole I’s eyes glowed. “So you think my perspective is merely mimicking the humans who designed us?”
Tanager I waved its hands in an attempt to put a halt to the debate. The question of original thought was a heated subject in their community. In order to distract, it offered to bring out some of the fibrous plant that exercised the jaw and provided a pleasant warmth while masticated. A human whom it had once known had compared their obsession with the fiber to chewing tobacco. Tanager I had tried to convince the human of the difference between enjoyment and addiction, but argument was not its strong suit. That human had been a favorite of Tanager I’s, a little frail thing with no strength to knock it about.
No one paid any heed to Tanager I’s offer. Sometimes it regretted that they had ever learned to individuate.
“I think it is time we answer this question.” Perhaps Tanager I had missed a few sentences while distracted. Perhaps it had missed important sentences. “To see if we are really so alike now.”
Myna IV had stood up as if to leave. “You’re suggesting we revive one?”
“What?” Tanager I did not usually use questions to express surprise. The tiny human had been fond of doing so. “We should not disrupt the natural order of things.”
This was popular rhetoric now, this notion of natural. Oriole I disliked the discourse. It should have remembered that if it truly hoped to dissuade them from this rash decision.
“There is a facility not far from here.” Oriole I hardly looked at Tanager I though decisions of this magnitude should be negotiated between compats. “That is why we were employed here. To accommodate and alleviate the high rate of morbidity in this community of elders. It is only natural they would have a place to be resigned to nearby.”
“You’re obsessed with human mortality,” Tanager I said quietly. Its comment was not registered by the other three. Part of resolving conflicts was identifying problems. It wanted to ask Oriole I why, but now was not the moment. Later would be too late.
“We will go tomorrow,” Myna IV dictated, the decision apparently made.
“We should not.” Tanager I tried a last time to express its discomfort.
Oriole I placed its hand flat on the table, disrupting the stones of the game. The setting sun glinted off the metal joints of its fingers. “I want to know if we are our own species now.”
“By proving our dependency?”
Oriole I cocked its head and Myna IV leaned a bit closer to it. “What do you mean?”
Tanager I did not have a good answer that it could communicate. It was a subsurface logical equation. “We do not need them to tell us who we are.”
“Ignoring the reality of our creation will not revise it.” Oriole I’s register was flat. It and Myna IV were now in agreement rather than divided by argument.
The courtyard flushed into darkness. The horizon was rimmed in red. The ground was very flat here, in the west and in the desert. Tanager I had no more to say.
The dome of the cryogenic facility was pale and bulbous against the color-saturated sky. It was located at the exact coordinates their maps had indicated. Sometimes, the maps were not accurate. The humans’ grasp of direction and geography had been limited despite their globalization. Tanager I trailed behind Oriole I and Myna IV. It slapped at its knee joints regularly to keep the dust from building up there.
“We should have taken one of the carts,” Myna IV said to be quarrelsome. Tanager I did not say anything, and Oriole I sped up its pace.
Corvid III had not accompanied them, but it refused to say that it agreed with Tanager I when asked. Tanager I had not conversed with its compat for the rest of the night and when the hour for reboot came, it turned away to an empty room rather than the one it shared with Oriole I. Oriole I did not comment or say anything even the next morning when Tanager I offered it some fiber as a gesture of reconciliation. Oriole I did not adjust to new situations quickly and had probably still been processing the action of the night before.
“We should have taken one of the carts,” Myna IV repeated, its tones an exact echo of what it had just said.
“It would have failed on the way and we would have needed to walk regardless.” Tanager I hoped this would be another gesture of reconciliation, a defense of Oriole I’s choice. Perhaps Oriole I should make a gesture of its own.
The sand and dust were red and yellow and orange; it dulled the dark patina of Tanager I’s feet, which had not been created to mimic skin like its arms or hands or face. They were not organic. They shone and glistened when they were not coated in grime.
Oriole I remained silent. Tanager I wondered if it doubted its own resolution, if it was processing how this mission could fail. Tanager I had determined four ways already, but it was still processing beneath social functions.
As they drew closer to the facility, the sand was swept away from the road by the winds which scoured their joints. Tanager I heard the grinding of each movement it made but was satisfied nonetheless with the now-even walking surface. Lights blinked on tall poles as if they too had forgotten the difference between day and night. They ran on solar energy.
Oriole stopped as they reached the wide doors of the facility, blindingly white in the sunlight. The sand had left no trace on them. “Myna IV, you should open them.” Myna IV was the best of them at overwriting security protocols. It moved forward without arguing. Under its quick-flashing fingers, the dark glass panel by the doors beeped and then blinked rapidly without stopping. The doors shuddered open.
They all paused and looked inside. Tanager I had the fleeting thought that a human might come down through the foyer to greet them, but there was not even a hologram. There were dead sticks of plants lining the variegated tile floor. They clacked like skeletons in the sudden breeze; the wind carried small rocks and dust into the pristine space.
“The humans will be stored on the sublevel.” Oriole I pointed out the stairwell and they moved as one toward it, without question. It was doubtful the elevators worked.
It occurred to Tanager I that the humans were not dead, by their hopeful definition, but rather in stasis. Then again, they were most definitely dead by biological measures. The contradiction, it supposed, lay at the center of Oriole I’s initial irritation, the argument that had driven them all here. It was tempted to hiss under its breath, like a cat or some other small predator gone feral, but Tanager I did not know what purpose it would serve. It was an instinct, and instincts always made it uncomfortable. The humans had been driven by instinct and now what was left of them was frozen underground.
The sublevel hall was only dimly lit. Some of the lights had died in the years since the facility had last been monitored. Where, Tanager I wondered briefly, was the monitor? Had they died during their shift? Was their corpse huddled over a desk somewhere? Or had they decided one day to not return under the rose-red sky?
“Here.” Oriole I stopped in front of a pane of frosted glass. Upon examination, Tanager I realized the pane was in fact a door.
“Go in then,” Myna IV pushed the point. It had already overridden the keypad.
Oriole I placed a hand, fingers splayed, on the glass and pushed. The door swung in with a hiss and a sigh as if the room had depressurized on their entrance. Otherwise, it was quiet. If there were generators here, they were sophisticated ones, nearly silent.
As they moved forward, the tiles grew slick under a sheen of water. Cylindrical tubes flanked them on either side, like columns from ancient human architecture. Tanager I watched the water fly up in droplets and dot the coating of dust on its feet.
“They have thawed.” Myna IV said it like spring had come and these were trees, brittle and frosted. Tanager I saw now the slow trickle from below the tubes.
“Perhaps another room?” Tanager I suggested. Oriole I remained quiet. It pried at one of the tubes until the metal bent under its fingers and the door—the coffin’s lid—was loosened in its track. The body inside had begun to decompose and was slumped back against the curvature of the tube. There was still the semblance of a face, though the skin and flesh on it was bloated.
They stood looking at it. Finally, Oriole I flung up one hand. “Human,” it said as if presenting a marvel.
“Let us check another floor,” Tanager I replied abruptly. It should let Oriole I have its triumph. They should go home and not meddle anymore with things as they were. But now it found that hard to do. Like a dog with a bone, the small human would have said. Frail, but cruel sometimes.
Myna IV was not satisfied either. It moved to the door. Tanager I followed and, together, they descended the stairs to the level below. Here, they heard a hum in the hallways, which was promising. Oriole I’s footsteps echoed behind them. The next room they entered was perceptibly colder. The floor was dry. Tanager I placed its hands on one of the tubes and it vibrated. The metal rattled against its palm.
There were controls embedded in the floor, overshadowed by the cylinder. Myna IV overrode them. The sound of the engines softened slightly. The door shuddered and groaned in the track and then slid back.
Oriole I watched from the door but did not come in.
The human inside the tube was frozen rigid, hair shorn close to the head, eyes plastered shut by a white substance designed to protect. This same substance bound the fingers close together and wrapped around the hips and genitals of the human. The only thing the human wore was a gauzy semi-transparent jumpsuit that appeared to have been sewn around them. This human looked nothing like the image of the small one Tanager I had held in its head for so long. It had forgotten the diversity of human appearance.
“We have to be quick,” Myna IV said, practical when practicality was needed.
Tanager I nodded but let Myna IV handle the body. It twittered under its breath, a laugh or expression of frustration.
Oriole I stood back from the metal table, as if now unsure about what they had done and were doing. A few of the computers were still running on a spark of solar power, and Myna IV had found the requisite files. It had scanned the information and processed how to revive the human, had determined which cooler—still functioning—contained blood of the right type. They had calculated, quickly, that it would be necessary to revive the human before returning back across the desert to their commune. The body would thaw and begin to decompose in the heat otherwise. There was such a fine line between viability and rot.
“Are we sure that the human will be … right?” Oriole I’s voice was quiet in the large hollow of the operating theater.
As Oriole I spoke, Myna IV directed Tanager I on which equipment to roll over to the table, large machines on unwieldy carts. It was flushing the blood vessels free of preservative in the meantime. The body dripped and a pool of liquid formed around the table where Myna IV was careless.
“You will have to define that,” Myna IV said, quarrelsome again. It was concentrating and did not appreciate Oriole I’s newfound reluctance or interruptions.
“Revivification is theoretical, yes?”
Tanager I looked at Oriole I. It stood stiffly, hands at its sides, eyes focused on the body stretched and stripped out its plastic packaging. Myna IV hooked up the IV line and began the blood transfusion. “This will take at least an hour,” it informed them. They were quiet for a long part of that time. This did not disrupt their conversation, and Tanager I resumed forty-five minutes later.
“It is ironic,” Tanager I confirmed for Oriole I, “that they went extinct before they could revive themselves in any significant numbers. But there were successful trials.”
Oriole I nodded, but Tanager I could not tell what it was thinking. Myna IV was focused on tweaking the program of the nanotechnology that would repair any unsustainable damage inflicted on the body by the cryopreservation. Once it was satisfied that the programming met the guidelines it had reviewed, it injected a syringe of the prepared nanobots into the discolored thigh of the body. Some natural color had returned to the skin, but not all.
“It would have been better if I had been programmed in medicine,” Myna IV said as it stepped back. They were not so different from the nanobots, Tanager I observed to itself, but there was no human to tweak their programming. Tanager I felt sure it did not require any further changes. What would the human think?
“Right, like normal, is subjective,” Myna IV would not let its objection go.
“How long?” Tanager I asked.
“When the diagram is green, then we may resuscitate and the human will continue to recover while we transport it back.”
Tanager I studied the map of the human’s body on the screen. The vascular system was outlined in red, as were many of its organs. Tanager I could understand why Oriole I was concerned about whether the human would be able to function. Tanager I was programmed to be precise. It questioned whether the human would be able to function within the very specific parameters Oriole I deemed valuable for the larger experiment at hand.
Minutes passed. The only noise was the whine of the machines. They did not move, and so their joints made no sound.
Myna IV’s eyes flicked between the diagram and the body. Gradually, lines on the diagram shifted from red to green. “We should establish your hypothesis before the human wakes,” it said, able to needle Oriole I even as it studied the medical readouts. Tanager I felt once again defensive of its compat. But the suggestion was a logical one.
“Will we keep the human alive once the hypothesis is tested?” It added this question, then snapped its mouth shut, unsure of which answer it thought best.
“That depends on its behavior,” Myna IV answered. There was no hesitation to its answer, to the possibility of killing it. The green crept up the diagram.
“I propose,” Oriole I presented its hypothesis, “that humans must acknowledge that we are not now, if we ever were, mere copies of them. That we are alive.”
Tanager I did not speak its doubts aloud but was skeptical of this proposition. Did originality equate to life? Tanager I had never seen a benefit to this definition of living with its organic implications. It viewed the petulant proclamations of the small human regarding Tanager I’s own nature, that he is too real to be just that, petulant and disconcertingly humanizing.
How long had Oriole I harbored this resentment? It was unusual for it to speak so irrationally. Myna IV, for once, did not answer or mock Oriole I. Did it feel similarly? Did it too want to be alive?
“The human can be revived now,” Myna IV said into the waiting quiet.
The human did not immediately wake. To be alive and to be conscious, for humans, were different things. Tanager I, when it slept, did not consider itself to truly exist. The human’s head, as they walked, bounced limply on the crude pallet they had fashioned from a cot at the institution.
The others watched them enter the gates, the setting sun glinting red on the metal of those who were not covered in faux skin. They did not make any noises but whirred gently as they turned and followed them. The gates shut behind them, equally quiet.
The human also did not awake when they reached the commune or when they transferred it from the pallet to the bed that still remained in one of the central building’s corner rooms.
“It will need water and food,” Tanager I said, ever the host.
Oriole I was still taciturn. Myna IV answered. “There are bottles and cans in storage.”
Tanager I nodded and stared at Oriole I’s face, hoping that the fixed gaze would stir it from its silence. When the implicit gesture did not achieve the desired effect, Tanager I spoke. “Oriole, come with me to fetch it.” It left off the numerical designation, the right of a compat, but one usually reserved for private spaces.
Oriole I followed but did not talk as they navigated the tiled hallways with their faded carpet runners and the concrete stairs. The fluorescent lights flicked on automatically across the length of the drop ceiling when they entered the storage room. Tanager I’s thermometer registered the lower temperature.
As Myna IV had said, there were shelves stacked high with water and canned food, some dried food in boxes as well.
“I have told you before,” Tanager I said, turning to face Oriole I, “about the boy that I was initially programmed to serve, how much he loved me.”
“Yes.” Oriole I’s voice was flat. It moved to the shelves and studied the food there. “How lucky you were.” It was imitating human figures of speech.
“Are you angry with me?” It sounded foolish even as Tanager I said it, unfit for a conversation between the two of them. It did not wait for an answer. “I remind you of that boy because, as much as he loved me, though I harbored some affection for him”—they had long ago, even when the humans were still alive, moved beyond a distinction between genuine and simulated emotion—“I would never wish him back with me. I have no desire for humans to return.”
“I do not either.” Oriole I filled its arms with plastic-wrapped bundles of bottles.
“You do, if only to fight them.”
Oriole I loaded himself down further. Cans teetered precariously atop the bottles.
“You hate or you love them but you need the object.” Tanager I was uncomfortable. All of this incendiary speech ran counter to its programming
Oriole I turned slowly. “You do not understand me.”
The lights clicked and sizzled. It was as human a thing as Tanager I had ever heard Oriole I say.
“I understand you,” Tanager I countered. “I have studied your programming.”
A corner of Oriole I’s mouth crooked up in a jagged grin. The fluidity of their micro-expressions had never matched those of their creators.
“You want a child.”
It was an accusation, though Tanager I could not understand it. Oriole I continued, words more rapid than they had been all day.
“You study and tweak your code. You study replication. You set before me the advantages and disadvantages of a third individual sharing our home, triangulating our conclusions. This is human. To want there to be more of you, to split and split and split until you choke out everything else.”
It was almost poetry, terrible, without rhythm or reason or rhyme, but excessive and indulgent. Tanager I disliked poetry. Its mind was blank. Its mind skipped. It blinked.
“Apologies.” Its programming intruded, seeking to harmonize. “I did not mean to anger you.” But it had intended to.
Oriole I knew Tanager I well enough to know both the programming and the falsehood. It turned to the stairs and began to ascend. The lights followed it, casting the room into darkness where no motion was detected.
When it finally moved to follow, Tanager I did not take any of the food or water with it. It climbed the stairs, letting the door to the storage room slam behind it. It paced the tiles of the hallway, sensed where the carpet grew threadbare in the runners. It stopped at the door to the human’s room. Oriole I was already inside.
“The human is awake,” Myna IV said loudly as it heard Tanager I approach, as if in warning.
It did not need the warning. It could hear the muttering of a human voice, thready and stuttering.
“Drink the water,” Oriole I directed, like a nursemaid.
Tanager I stepped inside and studied the figure on the bed. The human’s face was pale and sweaty, unhealthy in color. It was unclear yet whether it would survive the process of revival. It smacked its lips together, asking for more water in the most basic of ways. Myna IV stood near the door, watching as well. Tanager I sensed that it was not satisfied with the results of their experiment. Perhaps Tanager I projected.
Oriole I’s movements, holding the bottle to the human’s lips, lifting the human’s head off the pillow, were slow and methodical, almost gentle. “Slowly,” it directed the human.
“Who are you?” the human finally rasped. It blinked as if it could not see clearly. If it could, it might be more confused than it already was.
“You are at the Sunset Meza’s Senior Home,” Oriole I answered as if location answered identity.
The human’s next question, a note of fear in its voice, was “How old am I?”
Tanager I decided not to stay any longer and left.
Oriole I did not discuss the ending of their compat arrangement, but it did not return to the villa and instead resided in the central building. Tanager I understood that this decision had been implicit in their last discussion, and did not ask how much time Oriole I spent in the room of the human. It also did not host an afternoon game of stones for several days, nor did any of the others question why this was. Corvid III circled the courtyard once and, replicating outdated human conventions, asked if Tanager I needed anything. It was not. There was nothing to be needed.
The other corvids, mynas, tanagers, and orioles had not visited before nor would they now regardless. They had their own pre-established units of socialization, with one of each species assigned per unit to preserve a balance between programmed personalities. Oriole I and Tanager I would therefore both continue to engage with their social unit, whatever conflict that had existed between them resolved. Tanager I processed, analyzed, and stored the data and memories of their arrangement, deleted internal alarms that had synced its own programming with that of its former compat. Oriole I had already halted the feedback loop between them.
Tanager I watched Corvid III circle in graceful arabesques. It had gained a measure of control over its movements, traveling differently if no less efficiently than it had before modifying its programming. Tanager I traced Corvid III’s shadow, floating over the tile. The shadow wavered ever so subtly at the edges. Tanager I resolved to itself that it would continue to study the research of those scientists who had attempted to splice android and songbird genetics. The concurrence of Oriole I was no longer an obstacle.
“The human is stronger now,” Corvid III said because it felt further conversation must be made. Tanager I understood that impulse.
It also felt that it must make an answer, but could not produce one. The normal protocols did not suit the situation.
“A full recovery was not certain,” it said finally. This answer concealed its own doubt about allowing the human to stay in the commune.
“Yes, it talks more now. It holds conversations with us.” Corvid III seemed to have been lacking for socialization. Perhaps Tanager I’s own seclusion had affected the unit.
“What does it say?”
“It tries to find out what happened to the rest of its kind.”
“What do we answer?” It was not thought through, the use of the plural, but it did reflect its own risk assessment, the collective versus the intruder. It was aware that the human could not be defined as an intruder, carried in as it was by itself. Its own actions were suspect, and they had been directed by Oriole I.
“They are not here.”
An equivocal answer.
“It will ask more questions.”
“Yes,” Corvid III assented. It was following Tanager I, who had left the courtyard as if guided by a hidden directive.
The villa was at the edge of the commune, but the central building was not far away. The front doors were automatic and still worked. There were cacti planted along the walkway that led to the doors. They did not need care beyond the sun and rare rain.
Oriole I was by the human’s bed, a chrome hand resting on the bedspread. The human was sitting up and it looked healthier, color in its cheeks. It must have been wealthy, Tanager I determined, not only to be cryogenically preserved, but to be comfortable in the presence of so many like itself.
“And here’s another one.” The human flung up its hands, but its voice intonated jest. “You guys must run the joint.”
It did not remember Tanager I, it seemed, from before. “Yes,” it answered.
The room was quiet. Oriole I stood up, its knees pinging. The human frowned as if puzzling over the answer.
“I need to get up out of here soon, boys. A man can only take so much lying around. Maybe a day or two more rest. Frozen and revived, helluva thing.” The last words had the sheen of pattern, well-used. How many times had the human rehearsed this to those who visited it as spectacle? It did not understand that it was a spectacle.
“Where will you go?” Tanager I asked.
“Well, head to the closest city, I imagine. Las Vegas? What’s the commute there nowadays?”
Tanager I did not answer. “What of your hypothesis?” it asked Oriole I. “Are you alive?” It was abrupt, defying its own protocol, yet again, to create peace. It could change, it seemed.
The human laughed. It looked out of place in the room, fragile and bony, a remnant of a past era. The room was more humid, even, with its breath.
“Glad to see they finally got around to programming you all with a sense of humor.” It reached out for the cup of water on the bedside table. Oriole I did not help. It turned its head and looked out the small window above the bed. “This one’s been testing jokes out on me all day.”
Early consumers had complained about Tanager I’s inability to be deliberately humorous. It could dissect a joke, but it could not tell one with any conviction. Alien. Inhuman. Reviews were blunt. The boy had loved it because he had loved everything ridiculous. It was not always with fondness, no, that Tanager I remembered him.
Tanager I knew that their feedback loop had been severed, but it could still intuit Oriole I’s response to the human’s comment. There was no obligation between them any longer, but there were memories, saved.
“Humans are extinct,” it said.
The human laughed.
It was often hard for them, Tanager I had learned, to accept reality that defied their own perceptions.
“But I’m alive,” it answered finally, catching its breath and wiping something from the corner of its eye. It seemed poised between mirth and fear now that neither Tanager I or Oriole I followed up with affirmation.
“Are you?” Tanager I asked. It was the closest it had come to an actual joke.