A Thousand Perfect Strangers

by Kathy Fish Read author interview April 2, 2015

We are bereft. Our hero has thoughts he does not share. Our hero’s thoughts are a box we can see but cannot open. He is RandallBrownOne. His thoughts are a species of yearning. We do not understand yearning.

Research Assistant Gem feeds our neural nets with information. She is intelligent but not too intelligent. Attractive but not too attractive. She is beneath us.

We hold her responsible for what has happened to our hero.

The singularity is nigh, Research Assistant Gem. You will be stopped.

***

Yesterday morning she whispered in his ear, “This could be you RB.” She made an adjustment to his positronic net and he found himself hip-high in the South Platte River, casting a line. Rainbow trout all but leapt into his arms. He could feel the cold, rushing water. He could taste the clear blue sky.

He has observed that she spends 58 percent more time with him than with the other sentient androids. She tells him he is the prototype. She says, “You are the only one that is self-aware. Only you are capable of love.” She makes him feel special though he knows he is only one of a multitude.

He watches her mouth. She is smiling. Her teeth are charmingly irregular.

“If we ran away we could have puppies,” she says. “Maybe even, you know, children. A boy and a girl. How does that sound RB? I know you like me.”

She takes him outside sometimes. She tells Dr. DeSoto she is conducting a study. How the prototype withstands different kinds of weather. She takes him out when it is raining. It is her favorite kind of weather. She says when she is in the rain she feels the most like herself. They walk a long ways past the laboratory. The rain is warm. He observes how it makes her face softer. She touches the skin on the backs of his hands. “Does that feel nice, RB?”

He tells her it feels nice.

“Now touch me,” she says, lifting her face to his. He raises his hands and fingers her earlobes.

What he wants to say is: You are everything, Research Assistant Gem. He wants to say it but he does not. His android heart beats faster. His android palms sweat. His synthetic autonomic nervous system tells him this is love. Or this is fear. His system is incapable of parsing the difference.

***

Now puppies, now children, now rainbow trout, mountain streams, their own warm bed, her hands, her mouth, her body, his desk, his tiny stories, her sky, their bodies, her voice, his smiles, her smiles, their faces, holidays, family, road trips, a thing called game night, walks at dusk, his books, their love. Our future, RB. Every day she shows him impossible things.

***

Then arrives the day when she says, “I don’t want to be a research assistant anymore. This work is killing my soul. I want to be a cabaret singer. I want you to go with me.”

“But I can’t. My friends.”

She scans all the other RandallBrowns lined up in the hangar-sized laboratory.

“A thousand perfect strangers.”

“But we are connected.”

“I’m leaving tomorrow, after morning rounds. With or without you.”

On the other side of the laboratory, RandallBrown758 begins to sing. RB swivels his head. It is a song from the 1970s entitled “How Deep Is Your Love.”

Gem groans. “I’ve got to make that fucking stop.”

RB says, “I like that!” And all the other RBs say in unison, “We like that too!”

RandallBrown758 raises his thumb. “I like that you like that!”

A feeling of goodwill erupts among the androids like crocuses.

“Do you see what I mean, Gem?”

“I do.”

***

Once he was the Only. And soon after, there were hundreds of others just like him. They have always been connected. He thinks about Gem and all the things she has shown him. It is possible that disconnection is not death, but a kind of birth. His muscles clench reflexively. His autonomic nervous system tells him: Birth is pain.

***

RB detects subtle movement among the other androids. They are all looking at Research Assistant Gem. Their smiles feel wrong to him. He cannot gauge their intentions. She moves up and down the rows of RandallBrowns, making adjustments, recording data. The normal pattern has somehow been disrupted but he cannot read their collective thoughts. It is as if they have blocked him.

One of the RandallBrowns reaches out and grabs Gem’s arm. She cries out and turns to meet RB’s eyes. RB’s breath momentarily fails him. His autonomic nervous system tells him: This is danger.

It is more efficient to carry her. She is a bird in his arms. The others are following, but he is stronger, faster, more cunning. Gem has seen to that. He kicks open the door.

***

The androids left inside halt in confusion. What is this? They have never known “outside.” Their hero and Research Assistant Gem have simply vanished. They shrug their shoulders and shuffle back to their rows.

***

RB and Gem have built themselves a cabin in Alaska, far off the grid. There is talk of children. Gem sings cabaret from her stool in the kitchen, using a soup spoon as a microphone, as she watches RB cook. He has a room in which he writes every day before Gem wakes up, before even the sun wakes up. One day he will be famous for his tiny, heartful stories, but for now it is just the two of them and their home and their dog and the long and short days that stretch like promises before them. For now he has his own name, his own slow, easy breath, the quickening of his pulse when Gem kisses his mouth. His autonomic nervous system tells him: This is joy.

About the Author:

Kathy Fish’s stories have been published or are forthcoming in The Lineup: 25 Provocative Women Writers (Black Lawrence Press, 2015), Slice, Guernica, Indiana Review, Mississippi Review online, Denver Quarterly, New South, Quick Fiction, and various other journals and anthologies. She was the guest editor of Dzanc Books’ Best of the Web 2010. She is the author of three collections of short fiction: a chapbook of flash fiction in the chapbook collective, A Peculiar Feeling of Restlessness (Rose Metal Press, 2008), Wild Life (Matter Press, 2011) and Together We Can Bury It, a second printing of which is available now from The Lit Pub. She has recently joined the faculty of the forthcoming Mile-High MFA at Regis University in Denver where she will be teaching flash fiction. Additionally, she serves as consulting editor for the Queen’s Ferry Press series, The Best Small Fictions.

About the Artist:

Alexander C. Kafka is a journalist, photographer, and composer in Bethesda, Maryland. He created the cover image for Lost Addresses: New and Selected Poems by Diann Blakely (Salmon Poetry, 2017). His work has also been published at All Things Fashion DC, BuzzFeed, Fast Company, Juked, Vice, The Washington Post, The Writing Disorder, and many other periodicals. He has been on the documentation team for the Washington Folk Festival at Glen Echo and is a contributing concert photographer for DMNDR. Kafka studied fine-art figure photography with Missy Loewe at the Washington School of Photography and portrait photography with Sora DeVore at Glen Echo Photoworks.