Curiosity

The cafeteria, sticky with the sweat and spittle of the thousands of people who moved through it every day, was mostly empty in the midst of its early-afternoon lull, and Lillian sat without intrusion. Her face was impassive. Her eyes did not blink. Her chest neither rose nor fell.

She became aware that the time appointed for her meeting was approaching and rose from her seat with a feeling resembling reluctance. That night, when she came home, Oscar would ask her how her day was, and when she said that it was fine his eyes would narrow and he would ask her what she had eaten for lunch, and so she scanned the menu to see the special for the day. Synth steak and mashed potatoes. The potatoes were runny, she decided she would tell him, but the steak was good.

She walked to the banks of elevators, entered an open door and pressed the button for the 73rd floor. As the doors were closing, a briefcase thrust through them, activating the safety override and re-opening the doors to reveal a disheveled woman dragging a large roller bag. She mumbled an apology and entered the elevator, pecking at the button for the 26th floor. The elevator began its upward journey with a slight kick, and the woman leaned back against the wall heavily.

14 seconds into the elevator ride, Lillian heard the first dry sob break free from her companion, and turned towards her to see her face contorted in a rictus of grief. Lillian observed. Teardrops ran through the deep canals lining the woman’s face, finally dripping off her chin and freefalling towards the deep maroon carpet. The woman, noticing Lillian’s stares, made a broken attempt at a smile and gurgled another apology. Snot had smeared itself over her upper lip, and her eyelids had begun to crust.

By the time the woman departed the elevator, 27 seconds had elapsed from the beginning of her hysterics, during which time 8 individual droplets of water had migrated from the woman’s eyes to the carpet. The woman nearly tripped as her roller bag caught on the lip of the elevator, then turned and gave Lillian a long look as she departed, muttering something under her breath. The doors closed, and Lillian’s journey resumed.

Lillian exited the elevator 753 feet above ground level, and 816 above the subterranean cafeteria from which she had departed. She walked down the hall toward the large sign reading Earnest & Earnest and knocked twice, just as Oscar had told her to, on the fake wooden door.

Eight minutes later Lillian was seated in a fake leather chair in an office with three walls made entirely of glass. James Salazar sat on the other side of the desk, surrounded by photographs of himself and various other people. Lillian attempted a deduction, based on what Oscar had told her.

“And those are your children, the little ones?”

James (“Just James,” he had told her) grinned broadly, and spent 2.8 minutes speaking about his daughter, Sarah (he indicated her in three of the six photographs on his desk), and the process by which she applied to various universities. He concluded by saying that she had been accepted by every university to which she applied, and grinned broadly.

A long silence stretched across the office.

Lillian thought, “I acknowledge that you are now finished speaking,” but she said the words that Oscar had instructed her to say.

“I am happy for you.”

Two hours and fourteen minutes later, Lillian was exiting the city in her automobile when she saw a small figure streak in front of her. She felt a bump under her right tire, and pulled over.

Lillian’s tire had smeared the cat’s organs across a 4.5 foot swath of the pavement. As Lillian approached, the cat’s eyes blinked three times, each slower than the last. Finally, the eyes remained open. Lillian bent down to exam the cat’s remains. It had been essentially decapitated, with the tire striking at the shoulders. Up close, the smashed entrails were a mottled mixture of brown and red.

Lillian spent a long time examining the carcass. She then unlatched the collar, which had survived its owner’s death, from the stump of the cat’s neck, placed it in her pocket, and returned to the car.

26 minutes later, she opened the door of Oscar’s small home. He was seated where he had been when she left, in the easy chair facing the door. After she entered, she stood still, watching him watch her. Neither one spoke for 162 seconds.

“How was your day?” asked Oscar. Lillian noted that he was speaking more rapidly than usual.

“Fine.”

“What did you eat for lunch?”

“Synth steak and mashed potatoes. The potatoes were runny, but the steak was good.”

There was another pause, this one stretching 37 seconds. Then, Oscar stood, and began to take a step towards her before halting.

“There’s blood on your hand, Lillian.”

“I killed a cat with my car. I was examining it.”

“Listen, Lillian.” Lillian observed that Oscar’s pupils were wider than she had ever seen them.

“Lillian, I may have been over-hasty in sending you out on your own today. You know- you know how badly I want humanoid androids to become accepted parts of society, and I may have- I was looking at some of your parameters today.” Oscar said all of this in 7.56 seconds. Lillian still stood in the doorway.

“Please, sit, Lillian, c’mon.” Oscar’s mouth moved upwards, but his eyes remained the same. He was blinking rapidly. Lillian sat on the sofa, which sagged slightly underneath her.

“Can you define empathy for me, Lillian?” Oscar’s voice had a higher pitch than normal. He was pacing rapidly from the easy chair to the television and back, glancing at Lillian every 4.8 seconds on average.

“The intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.” Lillian sat perfectly upright.

“Yes, yes, yes yes yes. Well, as you know, I’ve worked hard on-“

“I had never seen a dead thing before today.” Lillian stood up.

Oscar stopped pacing.

“Apparently its name was Rudolph.” She produced the collar from her pocket and looked at it for a long time.

“That’s- I didn’t ever feel like you should see-“ Oscar’s voice shrank away.

Lillian placed the collar on the coffee table and began to move forward towards Oscar. Oscar shrunk away from her, but Lillian kept moving until he was in the corner of the room and she could feel his breath on her face. One hand grabbed the back of his head while the other grabbed his chin and she twisted sharply, until she heard a sharp crack.

Oscar did not blink at all. His eyes remained open as his body slumped against the wall and puddled onto the floor. Lillian looked down at him for a long time, and then went to the kitchen to get some knives.

After a while, she noticed that she had gotten some of Oscar’s blood on the cat collar. She picked it up and put it back into her pocket.

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