I'm back, y'all. This time, a little story about the uncanny valley between two sisters. UPDATE (5/4/10): Added a few paragraphs toward the end, and some italics to some words that lost them in the copy/paste process.
UPDATE (1/19/2013): It's two years later, and in the meantime, I sold a revised version of this story to Spaceports and Spidersilk, a small YA zine. It's since gone offline, so I've gone ahead and published that version as an ebook. "No Different From Anyone Else" is now available for $0.99 at Smashwords. UPDATE (1/21/2012): And Amazon, too!
It's much better, I promise!
The original will remain here, for posterity:
Alice stared in shock at the robot shaped like a little girl that stood in front of her. When her parents told her she was getting her Christmas present a few days early, this was the last thing she expected. But there it was, wearing a simple black dress, with big green orbs for eyes, a platinum pageboy haircut, and chalk white skin.
And Alice had been so excited. Her parents had gone out and Alice had waited anxiously at home for her present. Maybe it would be a video game, or the new dress she wanted, or even a puppy! But no, they came home, and it was a robot. What made them think she would want a robot?
"What--" Alice pointed. "What is that?"
"This is Marisa," her mother said. "We just picked her up from the adoption agency."
"Her old caretaker died," Alice's dad said, "and she didn't have anyone else. We'd been hearing about orphaned robots for a while, and we couldn't bear to sit back and do nothing. Some of them get scrapped, you know."
Her mother continued: "Besides, you always said you wanted a little sister."
Yeah, Alice thought, a sister. Those were generally people, and tended to be babies first. This thing--Marisa--was already standing on two feet, and resembled a slim eight-year-old, not much smaller than ten-year-old Alice.
And it was gazing at her with those green eyes. Those glowing eyes.
This was supposed to be her sister?
"Does it talk?" she said.
"I certainly do."
Alice jumped back. Marisa tilted her head. "I'm sorry. Did I scare you?" Her voice was similar to an ordinary girl's, but with a faint electronic buzz over it.
"I'm sorry." Marisa stepped forward and extended her arm. "It's nice to meet you, Alice." Alice shook her hand, and winced at how soft and squishy it was.
"Why don't you go play outside?" her mother said. "I bet you two will have a lot of fun together."
"Right." Alice continued to stare at Marisa. "So... my sister?"
"She's as much a part of this family as you are now." Her mother's smile just would not go away.
Alice finally turned away from the robot, and went to the closet for her jacket. What did they think they were doing, springing something like this on her? Did they really expect her to go along with it? Why not announce that they were all moving to Australia? It would have made as much sense.
She put on her jacket and came back. "Okay, let's go." Marisa followed her outside. The snow had come up to four inches overnight. The street was plowed, but everything else was still blanketed over. The oak tree in the yard glimmered from the ice on the branches. Even though she wasn't wearing a jacket, or even any heavy socks, Marisa jumped off the front porch, and her feet plunged ankle-deep into the snow. Alice pointed and turned to her mother. "Is she--?"
"She'll be fine," her mother said. "She doesn't get cold." She patted Alice on the back, and said, "Have fun."
The door shut, and Alice was stranded. She didn't know what to do, and couldn't tell if Marisa did, either. It was just her out here, with Marisa's eyes fixed on her.
"You don't like me, do you?" Marisa said.
"It's okay. Not everybody is comfortable around robots."
"It's not that." Well, it was, but Alice couldn't say it. She stepped down into the snow.
"I have to admit, I didn't expect you to be so surprised," Marisa said. "I thought they would have told you."
"Yeah, so did I."
They fell into silence. Marisa squatted down and started scooping up snow. "Your mother and father are very kind."
"Thanks," Alice said. "They can be kinda lame, but I guess you figured that out." Or maybe she didn't. Did robots even have a concept of "lame"? "How long have they been planning this, anyway?"
"I first met them about five months ago, so at least that long."
Five months? Five months? And Alice never even got a hint?
Alice rubbed her head. She had to steer this along. "What about your old owner? What was he like?"
"My grampa? He was very nice. He's the one who originally had me built, so I could keep him company as he got older. He treated me so tenderly, just as if I were his very own granddaughter. He'd chat with me, tell me stories, and buy me upgrades. I miss him."
Alice wanted to kick herself for not thinking of a better word than "owner." "What happened to him?"
"He had a heart attack. That was two years ago."
"It's all right. I do miss him, and I get sad thinking about him, but there's no reason for me to dwell on it. All things pass. I still treasure the time I had with him, and that's all that matters."
Alice took a second to process that. "Didn't expect you to be such a philosopher."
"It's how all robots think."
Alice had nothing else to say, so she wandered over to the oak tree, leaned on the trunk, and watched Marisa. She had been expecting a cold, emotionless machine, not somebody who could talk about loss like this. Alice had never gotten to know a robot like this before. She hadn't even met that many robots, come to think of it. She could only remember one, at Allen Harvey's birthday a few months ago, and even then, it was only for a moment. All she really knew up until now was that it was a bad idea to call one "iKid."
Marisa had started rolling her snowball on the ground. "What're you doing?" Alice said.
"I'm building a snowman. You want to help?"
Alice started work on the second snowball while Marisa built hers up bigger and bigger. They put the snowman together and set out to find some acorns for the eyes and buttons.
This whole time, Alice couldn't help but notice how natural Marisa looked when she moved. Despite being made of metal and plastic and whatever her skin was, she moved exactly like a regular kid. Her arms and legs moved like arms and legs, her balance was perfect, and she was even smiling, as if she were really enjoying herself.
If Alice didn't already know Marisa was a robot, she'd seem like a regular third-grader in heavy makeup.
But she wasn't. Alice knew that. Marisa was too real, and Alice couldn't stop noticing the things that weren't. Marisa's hair was too shiny, her skin too smooth, and something about her smile just didn't look right, as if she couldn't smile all the way.
For heaven's sake, she was playing in the snow in a skirt with no jacket!
Alice had to stop. She scattered all her acorns onto the ground.
"What's wrong?" Marisa said. "We're almost done."
"I--I'm sorry. I can't do this." Alice straightened herself up and marched toward the door.
"Can't do what?"
"I can't play with you. It's just too weird. I gotta go back inside."
She looked back to see Marisa with a blank stare, rolling an acorn around in her fingers. "I see," Marisa said. "I'll just stay here."
Alice tried to figure out Marisa's face. If Marisa was disappointed, or angry, she didn't show it. Dammit, she could at least do that!
Alice turned away and went inside.
She found her mom and dad on the couch, watching TV. They both looked straight at Alice. "Where's Marisa?" her mom said.
"She's still outside," Alice said.
"You're not just leaving her out there, are you?"
"I don't wanna play with her anymore."
"Alice Amanda Collins, I cannot believe you." Her dad stood and loomed over her like a storm cloud. "This is Marisa's home now, and I want her to feel welcome."
Her mother stepped up beside him. "She's no different from any other girl. Is it that hard to play with her?"
"Yes, it is! And she is different! How can I act like she's a regular kid when I know she isn't? Doesn't she creep you out?"
"Why did you think I wanted this? Why? Did you really think you could adopt a robot and never tell me?"
Her parents looked at each other, and began to hang their heads. "We just thought," her dad said, "with the date being so close to Christmas, it would be a fun surprise."
"Well, it isn't," Alice said. "I'm gonna go on the computer for a while."
"No, you don't." Her mom grabbed her by the shoulders and spun her toward the door. "You are going back out there, and you are going to apologize to her, and you are going to treat her like family."
"Mom, no!" Alice tried to wriggle away. "You can't do this to me! Dad!"
"Look." Her dad bent down to meet her eye. "Marisa has asked about you every time we've seen her. She's been waiting months to meet her new big sister. You think she likes finding out you hate her?"
Alice's mouth dropped open, and she stopped moving. "I don't hate her," she said. She was uncomfortable, but that wasn't the same as--
A loud, high-pitched screech came from the yard. Alice and her parents rushed outside.
Marisa was standing out in the snow, pointing her arm at another girl who was on the ground by the oak tree. The girl was Deanna, from up the road, in her hot pink jacket. What was odd was Marisa's arm, now shaped something like a rifle, and aimed right at Deanna's head.
"What are you doing?" Alice said.
"Oh, you're back," Marisa said. "I'm just trying to scare her a little. She was trying to start a snowball fight."
"Yeah, a snowball fight, not a war!" Deanna cried.
"I wasn't going to hurt you or anything," Marisa said, drawing back her arm. "Nothing I have is lethal."
"Put that away right now." Alice's mother made everybody jump a bit.
Marisa stood and stared for a moment. Her arm unfolded, shifted, and folded back together into a forearm and hand.
Alice edged over and helped Deanna back to her feet. "Are you okay? I'm really sorry. We just got her, and--"
"Yeah, well, you should take her back." Deanna bent down, scooped up some snow, and chucked it at Marisa. "You stupid iKid!" She turned to Alice. "I'm going home." And she shot off down the road.
Alice's parents were still glaring at Marisa. "What is going on here?"
Alice's mom said. "Why do you even have that?"
Marisa's eyes wandered as she wiggled her fingers. "It's a security upgrade. My grampa gave it to me. All it shoots are jolt charges, and it's not even loaded."
"And since when is that the right response to a snowball fight?"
Marisa drooped her head. "I'm sorry. I won't do it again." Alice noticed the pout of Marisa's lip, and her heart wrenched inside her. Marisa may not have been entirely real, but that look of dejection definitely was. Now Alice understood. It's one thing to move like a person. It's something else entirely to feel like one.
Sure, something about that face still made her shudder. But Alice couldn't let Marisa face the same storm clouds that she had just escaped.
"Don't be too hard on her," she said. "I don't think she meant anything."
"I wasn't--" Her mother stopped to collect herself. "No one told us anything about an arm cannon."
"Sorry," Marisa said. "It must have slipped their minds. Grampa was always worried about burglars, so he--"
"This is a lot to take in." Alice's mother sighed. "I guess I should call Deanna's mom and apologize to her."
"And I need to have a word with the adoption agency," her dad said.
What Deanna said echoed in Alice's mind. "You're not gonna get rid of her, are you?"
"No, of course not," her dad said. "After all, it's only her first day, and we know she's basically a good girl. I do not want to see this happen again, though. That arm cannon is not a toy."
"I understand," Marisa said.
"What about you, Alice?" her mother said. "What're you going to do now?"
Alice looked at Marisa, her hair a little ruffled, and bits of snow on her clothes. It wasn't her fault that this had all been sprung at once, or that Alice was creeped out. She deserved a chance. "Can me and Marisa keep playing out here?"
Her mother smiled. "Sure you can. But first, don't you have something to say to Marisa?"
Alice sighed, and trudged over to Marisa. "I'm sorry, Marisa. I shouldn't have blown you off. You wanna keep playing?"
"I'd like that," Marisa said.
"All right then." Alice's mom rolled turned to her father and rolled her eyes. "Let's go make some phonecalls." And they went back inside.
Alice and Marisa stared at each other; for Alice, it was like staring into a pair of Christmas lights.
"Thank you," Marisa said.
"Don't worry about it," Alice said. "I really am sorry, by the way."
Marisa turned her head, toward the direction Deanna had gone. "She called me an iKid."
"Yeah, it's an old brand name. I guess some people like to use it as a--"
"I know what iKid means." Marisa clenched her eyes shut and put her hand over them. "What you did made me very mad, you know. I really thought you didn't like me." She lowered her hand, and opened her eyes. "But I accept your apology."
This was unreal. Alice had actually made a robot angry? "Thanks." That was all she could say. But she could work through this. "Actually, don't tell Mom I said this, but Deanna kinda gets on my nerves sometimes. All she does is boss me around or show off something stupid expensive she just got, and I really didn't feel like that today." She grinned. "Thanks for scaring her off."
Marisa curled her eyebrow. "You're welcome, I think." She looked down at the arm that had formed the cannon. "She was pretty annoying. She didn't even ask if I wanted to play. She just asked me what I was, and then started tossing snowballs at me."
"Yeah, that's just like her. I can help you handle her next time."
"Thank you." Marisa started rubbing her arm. "Don't tell Mom, but I may have been taking a little anger out on her."
Alice had to smirk. She looked over and noticed the snowman. All the buttons and eyes were in place. "Nice job on that."
"Thank you. Is there anything else you want to do?"
"I dunno, I'm thinking that snowball fight's a pretty good idea."
A big grin spread on Marisa's face. "Just be careful. I've got a pretty good arm. And I don't mean the one that shoots things."
Alice was trying to cringe at that smile as little as possible. "You're on."
Marisa did have a good arm, especially for a kid as little as her. Each snowball she threw flew hard and fast. But Alice was willing to take it, and returned the favor as best she could. It was difficult to ignore the fact that Marisa wasn't human, but a snowball fight was a snowball fight.
Eventually she did get tired, though Marisa could probably have kept going all day. The two of them went back inside, and found out that Alice's mother had made some hot cocoa. Alice's mug had two big marshmallows on top. Marisa's, though, was just plain cocoa, and looked a little more watery. "What's with that?"
"It's a special recipe that's designed specifically for robots," her mother said. "She can eat and drink, but that doesn't mean she can handle everything."
Alice's heart sank for her. Even her hot chocolate wasn't the same. And watching her put the mug to her lips was almost surreal, like seeing a department store mannequin take a drink. What it could possibly taste like for someone whose taste was all programmed in? "Do you like that?" Alice said.
"Yes, I do." Marisa now had a chocolate mustache. "Thank you, Mom." Suddenly her eyes went wide. "Wait, what about earlier? Am I going to be in trouble?"
"Don't worry," Alice's mother said. "We talked it over, and we decided it wouldn't hurt to have an extra security system in the house. Just don't point it at anybody except an intruder, okay?"
"I understand." Marisa turned to Alice. "So what now?"
Alice's mother touched her shoulder. "Why don't you show her your room?"
"I can do that. We can watch a movie, too."
"Where's she sleeping, anyway?"
"Oh, I was thinking you two could sleep together tonight."
Alice nearly dropped her mug. "Wha--? Us? Together?" It was the last thing she had thought of, and she couldn't figure out how to explain that she didn't want it.
"Is that all right with you?" her mother said.
"Yeah, it's fine," Alice said. No use fighting it.
Alice led Marisa upstairs, carefully balancing her mug so her cocoa wouldn't spill. She pushed the door open, headed over to her computer desk, and laid her mug down. She scanned through the movies on the shelf above her computer. She found one she liked, and turned back to Marisa, who was looking around the room. "What do you think?"
"I like it." Marisa sat on the bed and bounced a few times. She got up and gazed at the posters. She browsed some of the books, and handled some of the dolls. "You know, I've never really spent much time with other girls like me. So this is really nice."
Alice halted for a second. A girl like her? How could Alice possibly be like her? She wasn't the one with the green light bulb eyes, or the electric voice.
No, no, this wasn't the way to react. She let it go, and put the movie into the computer. As it loaded, she watched Marisa wander through the room. Alice found herself staring at Marisa's arm. "Hey, Marisa, I feel kinda weird asking this, but can you show me your arm cannon again?"
Marisa raised her eyebrows. "Sure." Her arm unraveled, and the cannon telescoped out.
"You're sure that's not loaded?" Alice said.
"Absolutely sure. All I have is compressed air." She picked up a piece of paper off the ground. Marisa pointed the arm cannon, and let the paper go. There was a burst as if from a firecracker, and the paper jerked in midair and drifted to the ground. "See?"
"That is pretty cool."
"Thank you." Marisa's hand folded back together, and something caught her eye. She drifted over to the laundry basket, and picked up a canary yellow dress that was lying on top. "This looks nice."
Seeing her hold up the dress, Alice realized something: Marisa would look so pretty in it. "You wanna try it on?"
"If you don't mind it being dirty and wrinkly. It's a little big for you, too."
"I don't mind at all."
Marisa pulled at the dress she was wearing, but Alice stopped her and pointed her to the closet. A few minutes later, she came out wearing the dress, and gazed smiling at herself in the mirror. Alice couldn't believe how happy Marisa looked in that dress, or how pretty she truly was in it. Somehow, as odd as it was, it still worked.
"Hang on, I know an even better one." She rushed to the closet and changed into a blue dress that she often wore to church, and gave Marisa a violet one just like it. When Marisa came out, Alice gasped, and pulled her in front of the mirror. Marisa's dress was loose and baggy, but she looked so natural in it, and it matched so beautifully with Alice's. Her heart swelled. They looked almost like... like...
Marisa touched Alice's arm. "Are you okay?"
"I'm fine." Alice sniffed, and wiped her cheek. "You know, Marisa, Mom was right."
Alice looked into Marisa's glowing green eyes, and sniffed. "I really did always want a sister. And I think you'll do just fine."
Marisa opened and closed her mouth. "I don't know what to say."
"Just give me a hug."
Alice pulled her close and squeezed her. Marisa was warm like a charged up laptop. Her skin was soft like plastic or rubber. For a moment, Alice forgot she was hugging a machine. No, Marisa felt just like a regular person. She was here, she was real, and she was her sister.
And Alice hoped she would be the big sister Marisa had been hoping for.