My Synthetic Soul – Karris Rae

My Synthetic Soul – Karris Rae

Cover art
January 2022

The woman who built me is named Tasha. I say “Tasha” so often it feels more familiar than my own name—Jade. Tasha says the sky turns deep jade before a midnight thunderstorm. When it rains hard like that, she sits on the porch steps with a glass of Merlot, watching. Sometimes a gust of wind blows the rain under the eaves and she gets wet, but she never scoots back. She has to be as close as possible, even if she leaves wet footprints on the way to the shower afterward.

Tasha named me after the jade storms—after her second-favorite thing. The first is me. If I weren’t, maybe I could join her. But I’m her favorite, so she never lets me outside, not even onto the porch. “You might get hurt,” she says, “and I can’t fix everything.”

There’s a storm forecast tonight, too. Tasha’s doing yardwork before it hits, on the side of the house I can’t see. While I wait for her to come inside and watch the thunderheads roll in with me, I amuse myself with the alternating drama and tedium beyond the bay window—the maids and nannies bustling around the surrounding yards, hanging up laundry, watching human children play. Most are gynoids like me, but some are androids. Tasha works for the company that made the first gynoids, and now every manufacturer borrows from her designs. None outside are human; I’ve never seen a human carry a mop or hang up the laundry to dry, except for Tasha, who does all the chores for our house.

In fact, my entire life is a backward version of the outside world. Tasha and I argue and giggle together every day, unlike the stoic gynoids outside. And I don’t do chores, but I sing while she does hers. All kinds of songs—gentle, spiteful, and reminiscent, but universally melancholic. The kind sung by a doll who watches the world through a pane of glass. They come to me as if pulled, whole, out of the murk of my subconscious, then thrown into the air to take flight. Tasha hums the harmony, even when I’m making the song up in the moment. She’s uncanny like that.

I twist my finger around the pull cords of the blinds and close my eyes, singing softly. I experimentally bend the notes, finding spaces between the twelve chromatic scale steps. My vibrato grows wide, wild, and vibrant, testing the limit between exoticism and nonsense. Even now, I bet Tasha could harmonize.

I stop. For a moment, I thought I heard Tasha singing with me from the yard, but there’s no way she could hear me from outside. It’s a sturdy home; with the windows closed, even violent storms can pass unnoticed.

I cock my head, listening for the second voice, and it rises smoothly out of the silence as if knowing it holds my rapt attention. I don’t recognize the song, but I know the voice. It’s mine. The notes crawl lightly over my skin like fingers, leaving goosebumps in their wake. Unlike the practical gynoids programmed for work, Tasha gave me human sensations like these, along with a will of my own. I must be the most overengineered doll in the world. Another human experience seizes my mind—deja vu. I hum and discover that I can place the harmony as well as Tasha.

I’m jealous. Everything else I do might be scripted, programmed, artificial… but music like mine comes from the soul. It’s proof that I’m more than a tape recorder who can hiccup. I have to know who else possesses my voice, and why—and if anyone knows, it’s Tasha.

I rise from my place on the window seat and cross the over-furnished study, then the dining room. Our home is an anachronistic blend of cutting-edge technology and heavy, dated furniture. I step around the bulky dining table and reach the kitchen. The music is loudest in this corner of the house, but there are no windows between the dark wooden cabinets and the countertops for me to see into the yard. I move the dusty curtains in the dining room aside and press my cheek to the window, where my silicone skin sticks to the glass. This angle affords only a narrow view of the back of the lot, just the blue siding and the sunflowers growing near the foundation. I flip the latch open and crack the window, welcoming in birdsong and the whine of a distant lawnmower. My hearts pounds a little too hard for what should be a simple task.

“Tasha?” I call in a small voice. Why am I so anxious? For as long as I remember, Tasha’s never given me a reason to fear her. Besides, curiosity isn’t against the rules. The next time I pull strength from deep in my belly, as if reaching the climax of a gospel. “Tasha?”

At the same time, the facsimile of my voice rises in a spellbinding cadenza. Then it tapers into silence. A sound interrupts like I’ve heard on the funny television shows I sometimes watch with Tasha—applause. Someone, many someones, are applauding my performance of a song I’ve never heard.

Tasha still doesn’t answer, but the silence doesn’t last long. Another piece starts, just as mystifying as the last. Now that I’m by the open window, I realize I’ve been looking in the wrong place; the music isn’t coming from outside, but from the kitchen itself. I follow the sound to the kitchen, gently touching the softly glowing painting of soap bubbles above the sink. It vibrates under my fingers. It’s a subtle invention of Tasha’s—a pane of glass over a wide, flat speaker, backlit on either side to illuminate the sink while she loads the dishwasher. The soap bubbles painted over the glass are my addition. Usually the bubbles read us books and play old jazz, but today, they sing me a lullaby in my own voice.

Tasha controls the panel, like everything else in the house… which means if it’s playing my music, she commanded it to. I could wait for her to come back inside to ask about it, but the thought of listening to this all afternoon is maddening. And I already tried the window. I teeter in the kitchen, desperate to know why I’m singing to myself, but hesitant to disobey and find out. I’ve broken rules before, small ones, like licking the rim of Tasha’s wine glass while her back was turned. She laughed when she saw the garnet stain on my guilty lips, shaking her head in mock disapproval. Even so, I never did it again. I can’t bear to disappoint her, even in jest.

I brace myself, my hand on the doorknob leading to the back yard. When this song ends, the audio skips for a moment, and then it plays again from the beginning. It’s a quiet one, intimate, as if I were whispering secrets into my own ear. Surely Tasha, my Creator, will understand why I had to do this. She always does. My synthetic heart beats hard in my aluminum ribcage as I open the door.

The sun overwhelms me. The heat feels like the steam that rises from Tasha’s piping hot coffee, but everywhere. I wasn’t made to come outside, and I’m more delicate than I guessed.

“What’re you doing outside?” I can’t see Tasha, but I hear her heavy footsteps crunch on the grass until her hand claps onto my shoulder. “Dammit girl, the heat out here’ll put your voice box through hell. Get back in there.” She tries to frog-march me back into the kitchen, but I step out of her reach, shielding my eyes with my hands.

“There’s music playing in the kitchen… my music,” I say, blinking furiously. The quiet song floats out through the open door, into a flurry of distant traffic, birdsong, and rustling leaves.

I see the code running behind Tasha’s brown eyes as she puts the pieces together. “Goddammit,” she grunts after a minute. “Didn’t realize it was broadcasting into the house, too. Goes to show you how bad the UI is, even the ‘experts’ can’t figure it out.”

“Who’s that singing?” I press. I’ve heard her gripe about the music software before and know it won’t stop.

“It’s you,” she says, sighing. The logical scripts running in my mind crunch together like trains at a railroad junction. Tasha drops her hand from my shoulder and turns toward the hidden back corner of the lot. She takes a few steps, her gait made uneven by the gout in her left knee. For a moment I think she’s abandoned our conversation, but then she says over her shoulder, “Come on, I’ll show you.”

I follow. My ears can’t quite adjust to the unfamiliar white noise that washes over me, sounds diffused over distance until it sounds like the world is shushing me. Tasha says something I don’t catch, and then we’re standing in front of a shed with no windows. She steps inside, inviting me in, and closes the door behind me. I’m sad to leave the sun’s warmth, but thankful to be free of the blinding light. The room vacillates between pitch blackness and dimness as my eyes recover. After a few moments, I put the scene together: a broad desk, with a half-dozen black monitors above and a bulky console with blinking green lights underneath, centered in a room as dark and cool as a cellar.

“What is this?” I ask, breathless.

Tasha places a loving hand on the console. “It’s you.”

The green lights blink on and off, on and off, like a distant radio tower.

“What d’you mean?”

“The body you know’s a remote unit. This is where your central processing takes place. Your ‘soul’ lives here, in this room.”

I don’t respond. I’m having another of my sublime human sensations, but this time, I can’t quite name it. The chilly air feels subterranean and claustrophobic, as if we were interred in a bunker. No wonder Tasha couldn’t hear me calling from in here.

Tasha continues, “It’s been so rainy and humid lately, I spent all morning checking your wiring for corrosion. You’re a complex machine. All it would take is one bad wire and you’d be out like a light.” She snaps her fingers. “And we don’t want that.”

“No,” I say mechanically, not sure if she’s exaggerating. I reach out to touch the console that houses my synthetic soul. All I feel is plastic.

“But I guess that doesn’t answer your first question, does it?” Tasha sighs. “D’you remember that song? At all?”

“A little.” I’ve read about pregnant women who play music for their babies in the womb. This must be what those babies feel when they grow up and hear the same songs—nostalgia.

“It’s you, singing. A previous version of you, anyway. Sometimes I have to tweak your code. You’re too fine a machine to be my first try.” She laughs and thumps me on the back. Her hand is warm compared to the air. “And sometimes I have to delete some corrupted memories. Nothing you’d miss.”

“I remember the song, but I don’t remember performing for anyone else,” I say. “I heard applause.”

“Ah. That must be the television in the background. We must’ve been watching one of your game shows. Every version of you likes the same shows.” Her smile is as warm as her hand. “Sometimes I record you singing in the house. I hope you don’t mind. I listen to it when I’m back here, checking every damn wire and dusting your insides.”

I mentally replay the recording I heard, the cheers and clapping echoing through a vast performance hall. Someone screams my name as if I were onstage before the crowd. My memory may not be complete, but I know I never competed on a game show.

Tasha is lying.

“Why didn’t you tell me that I’m a remote unit?”

“Because you aren’t. Your body is. Besides, I’ve explained all this before, and I didn’t realize this version of you didn’t know.”

“How old is my… this current version?”

“Older than any before, and hopefully there won’t be another for a while.”

The last question lingers on the tip of my tongue. Tasha nods encouragingly. She knows what I’m going to say before I open my mouth. “Are any of them better at singing than me?”

“No,” she says. “You’re the best.”

I spend the rest of the evening drawing in my room, which isn’t unusual. Down the hall, Tasha busies herself with the laundry, humming the sad, quiet song that belongs to another me. Usually her proximity doesn’t bother me, but tonight, every footstep distracts me from my sketchbook. When the steps go down the hall, I worry that she’ll return to the shed and unplug me. That she’ll erase my memories of the day and program a new version that never, ever breaks the rules. And when they go up the hall, I worry that she’ll come into my room and tell me more lies.

It starts raining, then thundering, and I hear the pop of a cork and the slam of the front door. I peer through my blinds to make sure she’s in her spot on the porch steps, and for the first time tonight, my anxiety eases. But I still can’t focus on my sketch; it’s an exercise in subtlety, a trio of white eggs on a white background. Only the shadows cupping and pooling around the eggs differentiate them. This takes sensitivity and focus, and right now, I’m capable of neither.

I flip to the next blank page. I’ve been meaning to try a different exercise, a self-portrait. There’s an antique light on the ceiling and a heavy, brass desk lamp on my drawing table. I turn both on, then both off, then one off and the other on, each time checking my reflection in the mirror on the opposite wall. When I’m satisfied, I stand a few feet from the mirror and inch left and right until the shadows cast by my eyelashes, nose, and lips are thrown into sharp relief, like a face overlaid on my own. My own… the phrase doesn’t sit right. I step closer. This isn’t an exercise anymore, it’s a hardware inspection.

The face I see looks like Tasha’s, but thirty years younger. Same dark skin and high cheekbones. But the skin around my eyes is even, no dark circles like Tasha gets when her gout flares up. No blackheads on my nose. I touch it and remember the plastic casing around my soul in the shed. Neither this face nor the console feel like me. If Tasha wanted, she could project my consciousness into an electric toothbrush tomorrow and erase all memories of when I was something different. How many bodies have I had? How many times did she swap out models before she settled for one this beautiful? I am too fine for a first try.

It’s never bothered me before that I was made, while the cherished humans in my books were all born. What bothers me now is that Tasha can lie to me and erase parts of me like it doesn’t matter. For the first time I realize she thinks of me not as an equal, but a machine … except for all the other times I may have realized this before that I don’t remember now. I have to find a way to back up my memories so Tasha can’t play with my memories—my reality—anymore.

I turn off both lights, and darkness swallows the face in the mirror. Peeking through the blinds, Tasha is still on the step, swaying as she shouts one of my songs into the worsening thunderstorm. Even so, I strain my ears as I step outside my room, then dart down the hallway to the back door. I’m about to break the rules again, and if Tasha catches me, I might wake up tomorrow with more bits of myself whittled away. And the worst part is, I’ll never know.

When I open the door, rain hammers my feet and pools over the linoleum. Looking over my shoulder, I cross the yard, but Tasha doesn’t appear around the corner like I fear. The jade-green sky swirls above me, enchanting us both with its light show. The shed door is unlocked. This is either a good omen—maybe it’s been a long time since I tried anything this daring, and I can surprise her—or a bad one, a declaration that she’s confident she can handle whatever I may do. The trouble with knowing my reality isn’t real is that it brings me no closer to knowing what is.

The green lights blink off and on in the otherwise dark room. The air feels even cooler than this afternoon, the structure no longer warmed by sunlight. Now that I’m here, I don’t know what to do. I guess I thought I’d have some intuitive knowledge of how my console worked, but all I see is blinking lights. I don’t even want to touch it. The memory of unyielding plastic under my fingers turns my stomach, so to speak. Another meaningless human reaction.

But I’m not a human, and if I want to keep the few human parts I have, I need to be a robot now. I push aside the fear, the visceral reluctance, the hurt. I approach the keyboard on Tasha’s desk and tap the spacebar. All the monitors above the desk flicker on. I’ve watched Tasha type away at the computer in her room before, but touching it is against the rules. I wonder how many rules I’m breaking right now. And for the first time, it strikes me that Tasha could have made me as a being who can’t bend them at all. What am I to her? Not quite a child, not quite a machine.

What am I?

My forehead crinkles when I recognize the images on the monitors. They’re videos of my room, of the kitchen, of the porch where Tasha’s throwing back the last of her glass of wine. This is why she met me at the back door earlier today, I imagine. The video of the kitchen is taken from above the sink, and I remember the corner of the soap bubble painting Tasha asked me to leave blank. The last monitor unsettles me the most—it shows everything I see, a direct feed from my eyes. As I look at the monitor, it shows an endless tunnel of monitors, stretching into infinity like a wormhole. If I crawl through, I think, maybe it’ll take me to another dimension where I can trust Tasha again.

I watch Tasha rise and walk through the house from six different angles, then pour herself another glass in the kitchen. She pauses to look out the window toward the shed and my breath catches, but then I hear the thunder that matches the lightning she stopped to watch. Before she leaves, she scratches a smudge off the soap bubble painting, her face so close I can see her reddened eyes. Sometimes she cries when she watches the storms, and it seems like tonight’s one of those nights. Then she limps down the hallway, past my room, and back onto the porch. All it would take for my subterfuge to crack open is a single knock on my bedroom door. I have to keep better tabs on her.

I noticed while tracking her that the center monitor is different from the others. It didn’t turn on with the others, and reflects only the face I would’ve called mine this morning. It’s the only screen left that could be linked to the console under the desk. If the keyboard didn’t turn it on, maybe there are buttons on the screen itself. I stand on the tips of my toes to check, and there are, but they’re labeled with minimalist icons I don’t recognize. Even if I could turn on the interface, I don’t know the first step to make a memory backup.

The complexity of this undertaking strikes me in full force. This isn’t a one-time operation. To hold onto my memories, I would need to program automatic backups, and encrypt it so Tasha wouldn’t tamper with it. She could interrogate or punish me if she found these unfamiliar files, or toy with my personality until I didn’t care whether I remembered or not. And—maybe by Tasha’s design—I don’t know enough about computers to fight back.

As I realize this, all the green lights blink at once. I don’t know what they measure, but whatever it is settles in my chest like I’ve been force-fed lead. The mass pushes against my lungs and makes my insides hurt. I’ll spend the rest of my life having memories and songs cut out and patched over with new code, and there’s nothing I can do. With every beat of my silicone heart, I feel a little less real.

If she’s going to do it anyway, though, I can at least make sure my next version gets further than I did. I find a legal pad and blue pen in the bottom drawer of Tasha’s desk. I’ve never been good with words outside of song lyrics, so all I can think to write is, “Tasha is cutting your memories out of you. Your body doesn’t belong to you. Save the memories locked up in the back shed and maybe you can save yourself.” It seems a little jarring, so I add “please” at the end. Then I fold it up teeny-tiny and put it in the pocket of my leggings. It eases the lead cannonball in my chest enough for me to start looking for Tasha’s development notes.

At first, I think I’ve found it. I lift the heavy, broad object from the top drawer onto my knee, but it doesn’t fall open like a book. It’s a blue leather case, zipped shut, and when it shifts, I hear the soft sound of sliding plastic together inside. I unzip it. There are plastic pages inside, and each one shows my face. Some depict me onstage, bathed in blinding light, my mouth open and eyes squeezed shut as I serenade thousands of people. My skin is flawed—a few pimples near my jaw, flyaways caused by the hot lights and the sweat that beads on my forehead. Other pages show stylized portraits of me, and a few display only abstract art. Each is circular and bears a hole in the center.

With trembling fingers, I work one decorated with gossamer soap bubbles out of its plastic sheathe. The back is smooth, plain silver. This is old technology. I only recognize it from the books Tasha and I listen to after dinner, stories from her youth when CDs and power cords were commonplace. I replace the disc, emotions jostling against each other in a queasy, squirming mass. There must be dozens of CDs, some bearing the same name but different artwork, many followed by the words, “live” or “special edition.” Then, in the very back of the case, I find it.

It’s a headshot of me, sitting on a stone bench and laughing photogenically. Dimples pucker my cheeks, matching the ones that appear on Tasha’s face when I catch her off guard with a joke. The glossy paper catches the tiny green lights so they look like fairies drifting around me. And at the bottom is an autograph, in my handwriting:

Love you, sis!

XOXO

-Jade

I sit in dumb silence. Sister, I think. Robots don’t have sisters. The word bounces around my head until it doesn’t mean anything anymore. Sister, sister. I look into the pretty girl’s face and recognize this artifact for what it is: a memento mori.

As am I.

I hold a dead girl’s heart in my hands and in my chest. I was created for that purpose, to keep this young woman’s heart alive and singing for Tasha. I am a CD player, a doll, and a memento mori. But not an artist. Can I even be said to have free will, if I’m bound to the decisions this girl would make? I look at the screen, at Tasha, who cries and drinks on the porch when the storms roll in and remind her of her sister, Jade.

But she isn’t there anymore. My eyes dart over the monitor recording the porch. Then to the one that shows the kitchen, hoping that Tasha’s run out of wine again. She’s in neither. Then I catch a flicker of movement in my room as a shadow passes on the other side of the blinds, walking along the side of the house outside. My bedroom door is open. I left it closed.

I slam the case shut, my hands shaking so hard I struggle to zip it. I toss it into the bottom drawer with a thunk and slam it shut, metal drawer screeching against metal frame. If I’m lucky, I can keep Tasha from realizing how much I know. Any scraps of memory she overlooks, together with the note in my pocket, might be enough for my next version to break free. But it’s too late for the version I know as “me.” I’m about to be erased.

Through the monitor, I see her black shadow pass the kitchen window. I have about six seconds. I fall to my knees beside the console, angling my body so Tasha can see that I’ve made no progress in whatever I tell her I’m doing. Then, over the rush of the raging storm, I hear the door open behind me. Even though I knew she was coming, the sound startles me.

“Jade?” Tasha says. The alcohol softens the J until it almost sounds like “sh”. “What’re you doin’ in here?”

I turn. “I’m sorry.”

“That’s not what I asked.” Tasha snaps the door shut. In the dark, from the floor, she’s a towering golem of black granite, come to erase me. “I thought you were in your room.”

I’m afraid. So afraid that it’s hard to believe it could ever be wholly exercised from my memories. But then I realize I feel the same sense of deja vu as when I hear the songs she programmed me to sing. I have felt this fear before, probably many times, and I’m right—it leaves a mark, like the rut in a record played too many times.

“I couldn’t stop thinking about my soul,” I say. “It made me sad that it’s all alone.”

“You’re never alone; you’ll always have me. And I’ll always have you.” Her voice thickens, as if fighting through a lump in the back of her throat.

“Will you, if I’m always changing?” I’m going to be erased. The inevitability somehow lends me bravery.

“It’s just your memories, and sometimes I tweak your code. It’s still you. You haven’t been turned off since I first made you twenty years ago. You never turn off a quantum server, y’know.”

She doesn’t understand. It takes more than a few keystrokes to reprogram a human. “I don’t want you to take my memories away,” I say.

“You don’t understand what a blessing it is. I’d give anything to forget things. To forget you’re…” Tasha’s slurring cracks and the sentence breaks in two.

To forget I’m not your sister, I want to say, but I let her words hang in the air like a loose spider’s thread. “But I don’t want to forget. I want…” It’s my turn to trail off. Why am I fighting so hard to know that nothing, not my face, not my voice, not even Tasha’s love, belongs to me?

The answer comes easily: because if I know nothing is mine, I can make things that are.

Tasha takes a step forward. “The only things you want are the things I programmed you to want. Anything else is a malfunction. Happens sometimes. Lemme fix it and life can go back to normal.”

“No.” I rise to my feet.

A moment passes, then another, as code runs behind Tasha’s bloodshot eyes. Then she lunges, seizing me by the upper arm and digging her nails into my silicone flesh. Pain signals fire in my shoulder joint. With herculean effort, I spin around and break free. She tries to catch me by the neck, but the gout and alcohol conspire to knock her off balance. She careens into the metal desk, catching the blow in her gut and falling to her knees, winded. Rainwater sparkles in her densely curled hair and pools around her on the floor. The green lights dance in the puddle, every single one of them lit. The monitor linked to my eyes echoes the scene in miniature. Thunder growls outside, and I feel the vibrations through the poured concrete floor. I memorize every detail. This will be the last time I ever see the woman who built me, the first memory she can’t take away, and I want it to be pristine.

Then I wrench the door open and run. The rain falls in sheets, coursing in rivulets over my scalp and between my shoulderblades. The jade sky crackles furiously. I have to leave the range of my central unit. I don’t know what will happen when I do, except that she won’t be able to remotely power me down or dismantle my mind, and that’s all that matters right now.

I tear down the middle of the street, the straggling lights in nearby houses reflecting on the wet pavement. The sidewalk and road are deserted, and the only movement other than the rain and bowing trees is the occasional shadow crossing a lit window. The city is tucked in for the storm, like the stray cats huddled under the porches. Everyone except me.

The slick road, like my fear, feels uncannily familiar. So too does the wild hope that drives my legs onward, as it has innumerable times before. My wild hope. Tasha deletes my memories to start fresh, but what she doesn’t realize, and what I didn’t see until now, is that every version is still me. I am not a series of memories—I am the soul linking them together. I’m the soul that always, eventually, risks everything to escape.

My legs pump until every impact aches. A bolt of lightning strikes so close I feel the static electricity on my skin and smell the ozone. I must be out of range, I think. The black sky breaks into larger and larger pixels and I can barely run on increasingly jerky legs. I must—

Dark. Not the kind I see when I close my eyes, the kind that could only exist if I didn’t have eyes at all. Void, more like. I have no limbs to attempt to move. I don’t even have a voice box to fail when I try to speak.

But I can hear. The rain falls, muffled, like I’m inside somewhere. Something taps rhythmically. Then I hear Tasha’s voice, and for a moment, my fear of her is gone. I try to call to her but can’t remember how. Now I realize that she’s crying, heavy, deep sobs wrenched from her core, as violent as the storm. I got what I wanted—I left the range of my console. But instead of breaking free, it stopped casting my mind to my body. I never knew much about computers. Tasha wails and the thunder roars back and her fingers tap tap tap on the keyboard in the shed as memories fall out of my mind, one at a time, like a dripping faucet. I try to hold onto them, but they drip through the cracks between my fingers.

How did I come to the shed this morning? Why did I go outside? What happened in the kitchen? Where did I go? What happened this morning? It was important for me to remember, but I don’t know why. Did I need to remember something? Why? If it were so important, I would have remembered it. Why is Tasha crying? I try to ask what’s wrong, but I can’t speak.

And then I stop asking myself questions, because that’s what my code tells me to do. I’m not the kind of robot who asks questions, because I don’t care to know the answers. My job is to sing, and play cards, and wear the old clothes Tasha dresses me in. When she does my hair my job is to hold still, not to ask if we can thread gold wires around my braids. To sing, but not to wonder where the songs come from. And tomorrow, when Tasha recovers my body from the road five miles away, and I find a note in my pocket, my job is to throw it away because it doesn’t belong there, not to marvel at how the handwriting matches mine.

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