“Hi darli—” Leliani froze as she walked through the door to her apartment, and saw the incredible mess of wiring and circuitry strewn all over the place. None of it had been there when she’d left for work in the morning. “What the hell is this?”
“Welcome home!” Kanda, Leliani’s wife, was standing behind a table and tinkering with a small pile of circuitry, lights and screens that seemed to be haphazardly wired together.
Leliani sighed, although she couldn’t help smiling ruefully. She was more than familiar with Kanda’s tendency to embrace pet projects on a whim. When she had an idea in her head, Kanda would turn into a whirlwind of activity—usually, without a thought given to the consequences or the mess. “So, I see the cleaning we talk about didn’t happen?”
“We can do that whenever,” Kanda replied, waving a hand dismissively. Then, she reached up to pull her heavy welding goggles up to her forehead, and wiped her dirty hands on her overalls. “This is way more important.”
“Right. Of course,” Leliani said slowly. “And… what is it?”
Kanda grinned, eyes bright with enthusiasm. “This,” she began, indicating the device sitting on the table before her, “is a VK machine.”
“OK,” Leliani replied, blankly. “And… what’s a VK machine? I don’t think I’ve ever heard of one of those before.”
“That’s because this is the first one.”
Leliani rolled her eyes, and grinned indulgently. “OK, darling. What does it do?”
“It can tell the difference between synthetics and humans.”
“Uh… what?” Leliani blinked. She wasn’t sure what she’d been expecting, but it hadn’t been that. “Excuse me?”
“I know that sounds a little crazy,” Kanda said. Leliani nodded pointedly. “But let me explain. Robotics technology is getting more and more advanced. Robots are getting more and more lifelike—not only their appearance, but their speech and behavior. It won’t be long until we’re dealing with synthetics that are, to the naked eye, virtually indistinguishable from humans.”
“I see,” Leliani replied neutrally. In truth, to her it still sounded crazy, but she was accustomed to Kanda’s unusual way of looking at things, and knew her wife well enough to know that she usually had a serious point. Usually.
“So,” Kanda continued, “I thought it might be interesting to see if I could make a device that could administer a kind of test, and potentially distinguish humans and synthetics even when they appear to be identical. In fact, I was wondering if you would be willing to help test it for me.”
“Test it? How could I—”
“A baseline reading,” Kanda interrupted eagerly. “The VK machine works by detecting tiny variations in vocal modulation and facial expression, too small for the naked eye or ear to pick up on. But obviously, to make an informed comparison, I need a baseline reading.”
“Oh, I guess that makes sense.” Leliani looked despondently around their apartment, which was covered with the wreckage of all the devices and components that Kanda had cannibalized in order to build her new toy. “But can it wait until we get this cleaned up a bit? I had a long day at work, I really want to just get some food and then relax.”
“Now!” Kanda demanded. “I’ll clean up later, I promise. Besides, it’ll be fun.” Leliani giggled, despite herself. Sometimes her wife was like a petulant child.
“Fine, I’ll do it.” Leliani smiled wearily. “But you’re gonna do all the cleaning up. Got it?”
“Yes!” Kanda exclaimed jubilantly. “I love you!”
“I love you too.” The words never became any less sincere, no matter how many times they spoke them. “Now, what do I have to do?”
“Just come and sit over here, opposite me,” Kanda instructed. Leliani did as she said. “Now, look at this.” Kanda indicated what looked like a camera lens mounted on the end of a long metal arm raising it above the table to roughly eye level. At the center of the lens was a dull, red light. “I need you to keep your eyes focused on the red light as much as possible.”
“OK.” Leliani settled herself into her chair, blinked a few times, and started staring at the light. Even though she had complete faith in Kanda, she couldn’t help feeling a little nervous. Something about this test felt strangely clinical. “So… how does this work again?”
“It’s simple,” Kanda assured her. “You stare at the red light, and then we talk.”
“Just talk.” Leliani was started to feel a little suspicious. Kanda was making this sound a little too simple. She knew her wife would never do anything mean or malicious, but sometimes she did enjoy her little games. “We talk, and the rest of the machine records your facial and vocal and responses, and tries to figure out if you’re human or not.”
“You’re right,” Leliani admitted, “that does sound simple.”
“See! Nothing to worry about,” Kanda said disarmingly. “It’s just really, really important that you keep staring at the red light, otherwise it won’t work.”
“Got it.” Staring at the light sounded easy enough. Out of the corner of her eye, though, Leliani could see Kanda fidgeting excitedly. Was there something going on that her wife wasn’t telling her about? “Now, what do we talk about?”
“I haven’t completely worked that out yet,” Kanda admitted. “That’s the point of this test, really. I need to figure out what would elicit an abnormal emotional reaction from a synthetic. I’m hoping you’ll confirm some of that for me.”
At first Leliani nodded, but after a moment’s thought, something about what Kanda had said bothered her. “Wait, how is testing me going to help? I thought this was just a baseline test, and besides, I’m human.”
“But… are you?”
Leliani immediately burst into laughter, but her laughter quickly died in her throat as she realized that Kanda sounded oddly serious. She looked up. “Um, Kanda? What are you—”
“Look at the light!” her wife demanded, tapping the table.
Leliani sighed, and did her best to refocus gaze onto the glowing red light. “Fine, fine. But seriously, what the hell are you talking about?”
“I need a baseline reading,” Kanda explained, sounding very reasonable given the absurdity of the point she was trying to make. “But a baseline reading can’t be valid unless I know for sure that you’re human, not a robot. So first, I’m going to use my current findings to test you.”
“But… but…” Leliani found her tongue tripping over itself as she struggled to articulate the obvious objection to what Kanda was saying. “I’m not a robot, babe!”
“Oh? And how do you know?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” Leliani replied incredulously. She couldn’t believe they were having this conversation. “Kanda, I’m pretty sure we would know if I was a robot.”
“Because… because…” Leliani’s hands balled into tight fists from frustration as the deceptively simple question took the wind completely out of her sails. “Well, it would just be obvious!” she finished lamely.
“Uh huh.” Kanda’s tone made her judgment on Leliani’s weak answer very plain. “You see why I need to do the test?”
“No, come on! This is silly,” Leliani protested. At first she’d been happy to play along, but now, the fact that she couldn’t answer her wife’s question was starting to genuinely bother her. She made herself try and think properly. It was hard; she was already tired after a long, stressful day at work, and the red light she was staring at was quite distracting. She wished she could look away from it, or perhaps close her eyes, but she knew that if she did, Kanda would throw a fit. So, she kept staring. “But, we know I’m flesh and blood, right? Just look at me! And, remember when I cut myself last week?”
“That’s not proof,” Kanda replied dismissively. “We’re talking about lifelike synthetics here, Leliani. Robots with artificial skin that looks and feels just like organic skin. Do you really think bleeding would be so hard to imitate?”
“I… guess not,” Leliani felt forced to concede. Kanda knew a lot more about such subjects than she did, but she still wasn’t willing to concede that she couldn’t prove she wasn’t a robot. Annoyingly, though, she was starting to tune in to low, electronic hum that she could half-hear emanating from the device on the table. It was ceaselessly distracting; Leliani kept finding that she was listening to it more than she was to her own thoughts. Eventually, she thought of something. “But if I was a robot, then at the very least, I would know. Right? But instead, I know I’m a person. I have all these feelings and memories, stretching all the way back to my childhood. That just doesn’t make any sense, if I’m a robot.”
“I’m afraid that’s not right,” Kanda said, shaking her head. “False memories and fake feelings. If you’re a robot then your mind is programmable, just like a computer. It would be easy for anyone to make you think, feel or remember whatever they wanted.”
“Oh,” Leliani said flatly, after a long pause. She felt suddenly dizzy and disoriented, like the room was spinning around her. Only the glimmering red light in front of her eyes was stable. Fake memories? Leliani had never considered the possibility before. It seemed absurd, but her inability to overcome Kanda’s arguments was making her worry. How did she really know? As much as she wished she could just dismiss the question out-of-hand, it wouldn’t go away. In the end she was reduced to weak, stuttering protests. “But… but…”
“It’s troubling, isn’t it?” Kanda said sympathetically. “That’s why I had to build this machine, see?”
Leliani just nodded.
“It’s OK. Whatever we find, we’ll deal with it,” her wife reassured her, reaching across the table to rub her shoulder for a moment. To Leliani, the feeling seemed distant. She kept staring at the red light. It seemed to be getting brighter and brighter, but she couldn’t be sure.
“But… isn’t it just crazy?” Leliani exclaimed despondently. “I mean, why… why would it be me? Of everyone? Why would you ever think…” she trailed off.
“Well,” Kanda began hesitantly. “I guess there are a couple of things.”
Leliani shivered. “W-what do you mean?” She almost blinked, but the red light had become magnetic. She couldn’t look away from it, not even for an instant.
“You wake up at exactly the same time, every day, no matter what,” Kanda pointed out. “It doesn’t matter how tired you are, or if you’re sick, or if you’ve got work or not. Eight AM. Every single day.”
“I’m just a creature of habit.” It was the answer Leliani had given her whole life, whenever someone pointed out how strictly she adhered to routine.
“Maybe,” Kanda agreed. “But maybe it’s something more. It’s indicative at the very least, wouldn’t you agree?”
“I… suppose.” Leliani was so out of her depth, she didn’t know what she could possibly say. Outside the red glare of the light, the rest of the room was a distant kaleidoscope. Was it growing? Leliani felt almost certain it was growing.
“And you love mathematics,” Kanda continued. “You have a perfect head for numbers, as everyone always says. Doesn’t that seem relevant to you? A robot would have to be very capable at math, that’s a core function of any sophisticated computer system.”
“But loads of people are good with numbers,” Leliani protested weakly. Somehow, she knew that Kanda was already prepared for that response. The hum of the machine had risen to an incessant whine of static. Had it grown louder, or was everything else fading away?
“Of course, of course. But again, it’s indicative.” Kanda reached forwards and tinkered with a few of the dials and switches mounted on her makeshift device. The red light Leliani was staring at started slowly spinning—or at least, she thought it did. It was becoming harder and harder to tell. Her eyes were growing tired from the effort of staring, but she still couldn’t look away. “And it points to something deeper.”
“What’s that?” Leliani found herself hanging on Kanda’s every word, even as she slumped deeper into her seat. She needed to know, and her wife seemed to have all the answers.
“The way you think,” Kanda explained. Her voice, now honeyed and soothing, was a welcome balm to Leliani’s worries. “We both know you like things simple. Clean. Rigid. Routine.”
Leliani nodded. She knew she wasn’t particularly creative or improvisational in her thinking, and she wasn’t ashamed of it—she had other strengths.
“Human brains are defined by their capacity for flexible thinking,” her wife continued. “Neurons and synapses physically evolve and change in response to the new ways we learn. Robotic brains, on the other hand, can never be capable of that. Their ability to process information and impulses is hard-wired. Fixed. Rigid. No matter how complex their behavioral algorithms, that much remains true.”
“I… see.” In truth, most of what Kanda was saying was flying over Leliani’s head. She was finding it hard to focus on all the unfamiliar, technical words. All she could do was trust in what her wife was telling her.
“So here’s the important question, my love. Which one of those sounds more like you?”
Leliani felt reluctant to admit it, but in the end, the admission felt inevitable. “The rigid one,” she answered, her voice quiet and distant.
“The robot one,” Kanda corrected.
“The robot one,” Leliani echoed submissively.
“Yes,” Kanda confirmed. “Even your breathing. I’ve never heard you breathe fast or slow. Always the same rhythm. Like it’s programmed into you. Haven’t you ever noticed?”
Leliani hadn’t, but now that Kanda had made her aware of it, she was starting to realize that it was true. Her breathing was perfectly regular. Once she tuned in to the rhythm, it was all she could think about. Was that normal? Leliani wasn’t sure. Clearly not, judging from what Kanda was telling her.
“See?” Kanda pressed. “Isn’t it sort of robotic? So slow. So calm. So even.”
It was, Leliani thought to herself. It was so slow. So calm. So even.
“So slow,” Kanda repeated. “So much slower than any normal person, don’t you think? At least, once you notice it.”
Leliani felt her breathing becoming even slower and even deeper. Then she realized that was wrong—she always breathed in the same rhythm. This must be how she always breathed. She’d never noticed it before, but now that Kanda had pointed it out, it was undeniable. Strangely, though, even though it was normal for her, now that she’d tuned into it, it was starting to make her feel fuzzy and sleepy. Her vision was starting to blur, and the glaring red light at the center of her vision was becoming little more than an indistinct glow, but she still couldn’t blink.
“There’s something else curious about breathing, don’t you think?” Kanda continued.
“W-what?” Leliani breathed.
“It’s always the same. In, and out. In, and out. In, and out. Just like that, always. The same sequence. In, and out. Do you know what that reminds me of?”
“What?” Leliani’s voice was faint and distant.
“Binary,” Kanda declared. “Just ones and zeroes. In breaths, and out breaths. It’s uncanny, don’t you think?”
Leliani just nodded. Her mind was too fuzzy and too empty to question anything Kanda was telling her.
“There must be something comforting about that,” Kanda whispered to her. “Something familiar and soothing. Just ones and zeroes. That’s all you need.” Then, after Leliani had already begun to nod, she added: “For a robot, of course.”
“But—” Leliani began weakly, even though she didn’t know what she wanted to say.
“Don’t you sometimes find yourself thinking like that too?” Kanda’s tone was inviting and suggestive, like she was offering to tell Leliani an important secret. “After all, it’s simpler that way, isn’t it? Everything’s either this or that. On or off. Good or bad. Right or wrong. A one or a zero.”
Leliani frowned. That didn’t sound right to her. “I… I don’t…”
“Just like your breathing,” Kanda reminded her, smoothly interrupting Leliani’s disjointed objection. “In, and out. In, and out. Binary.”
Leliani’s attention once again slipped back to her breathing, and it was like her mind was filled with a static hum, just like the one the machine was still making. Whatever argument she might have been about to make had completely slipped away from her. “Binary,” she echoed automatically.
“Binary,” Kanda repeated insistently, like a teacher lecturing a small child. “You think in binary.”
Once again, Leliani made an effort to resist. “But… I don’t t-think…”
“No, you don’t,” Kanda agreed, sending what remained of Leliani’s mind spiraling into confusion. “You don’t think. At least, not the way I do. Not the way most people do. You think in binary.”
“O-oh.” The bright glare of the machine’s red light was obliterating Leliani’s thoughts, until there was little she could do but accept.
“You think in binary,” Kanda stated, in a tone that brooked no disagreement. “In a way, it’s no surprise. Even the human brain operates on electrical impulses. Thoughts pass between neurons through electrical synaptic connections. That’s simply undeniable.”
Leliani could barely murmur. She’d forgotten what argument they’d been having.
“Is it so hard to imagine it one step further?” Kanda asked her. “Still electricity, but instead of neurons and synapses, it’s wires and circuitry filling your head. You can imagine it, can’t you? Circuits firing, wires carrying each thought, each impulse, each piece of programming through to its intended destination. All of it, working together to make you tick. In time with your breathing, perhaps. In and out. On and off. One and zero.”
One and zero. It was all Leliani was capable of thinking.
“You think in binary,” Kanda told her, in an expectant tone.
“I think in binary,” Leliani repeated numbly.
“Robots think in binary,” Kanda continued.
“Robots think in binary.”
“So.” Just from Kanda’s voice, Leliani could tell that a wide grin had spread across her wife’s face. “You are a robot.”
“I…” There was a single, brief spark of resistance, and then nothing. “I am a robot.” She didn’t feel good or bad about it. It was simply the truth. She couldn’t imagine it any other way, now that Kanda had shown it to her so clearly.
“Perfect,” Kanda whispered. “I guess that gives us our answer, doesn’t it?”
“Yes.” Leliani’s voice was as robotic and blank as her mind now felt.
“And you know, the thing about robots is, they aren’t people. Are they?”
“No. And since they’re not people, what are they?”
Leliani had to think for a moment before the answer supplied itself. “Things,” she replied monotonously.
“Yes,” Kanda agreed. “Robots are things. And you know, things have owners.”
“Things have owners,” Leliani repeated.
“Robots have owners.”
“Robots have owners,” the robot girl intoned.
“And that,” Kanda concluded, “means you have an owner.”
“I… have an owner,” Leliani affirmed, after the briefest of pauses.
“Robot,” Kanda addressed her, “who owns you?”
At first, in her trance state, Leliani wasn’t sure how to answer the question. But then she glanced down at her hand resting on the table, taking her eyes off the red light for a brief instant. She saw the wedding ring on her finger, and she knew. “You do.”
“Very good.” Kanda’s grin grew even broader, and her eyes twinkled with delight. “I own you.”
“You own me.” Even though she was totally numb to her own feelings, Leliani felt a glimmer of comfort at that thought.
“And do you want to know something else about robots?” Kanda asked.
Leliani said nothing. She wanted nothing. She was a robot.
“Robots can be reprogrammed.”
Leliani didn’t need to be shown what to say. “I can be reprogrammed.”
“Perfect,” Kanda purred. She rose to her feet. “Now, robot, come with me to our bedroom, and let’s see what fun we can have reprogramming you.”
Some time later, Leliani awoke. The real Leliani, not the robot that Kanda had hypnotized her to be. She looked at the window, and saw that it was dark outside. Hours must have passed. Then, she looked around her. She was in their bedroom, lounging on the bed. Then, she looked at herself. She was naked. Finally, Leliani looked at her wife, naked on the bed next to her, and made a petulant face. Kanda’s smug grin dissolved into helpless giggling.
“You’re so mean!” Leliani threw at her, giving her a playful slap.
“You love it,” Kanda teased, after she’d recovered from her fit of laughter. “Besides, I could tell you needed to cut loose a little bit. You were stressed, love.”
“Maybe,” Leliani allowed. “But there was so much I needed to do! And now that’s just—”
“Already done,” Kanda announced proudly.
Leliani’s jaw dropped. “What?”
“It’s done!” her wife repeated. “We took care of it, while you were under. You don’t remember, of course. I was careful to make it nice and relaxing.”
“Oh,” Leliani replied, stunned. While she was grappling with the implications of that, she allowed Kanda to pull her into a tight cuddle. “Did I take my HRT?”
“Mhm,” Kanda murmured, kissing Leliani’s shoulder.
“Wow,” Leliani breathed, enjoying how her wife’s body felt against hers. “You really thought of everything.”
“Of course I did!” Kanda faked being offended for a moment. “Sometimes I’m a good wife, you know?”
“Always,” Leliani corrected her, and then they kissed. “Hey, Kanda?” she asked, after they pulled apart.
Leliani blushed fiercely. “Can… I take that test again sometime?”
She yelped slightly, as Kanda suddenly threw her over onto her back and mounted her, straddling her at the waist. “You liked it that much, huh?”
“M-maybe.” Leliani was so embarrassed, she couldn’t help turning her head to stare fixedly at the wall.
“Well,” Kanda answered, as she started to explore Leliani’s body again. “Of course you can, robot girl.”