Escape Pod 619: A Study in Symmetry, or the Chance Encounter of an Android and a Painter (Artemis Rising)
A Study in Symmetry, or the Chance Encounter of an Android and a Painter
By Jamie Lackey
HK-812 stepped out of her charging pod and gazed out the single narrow window that her 8×14 living space boasted. The brick wall outside was a whole eight inches away from the glass, and the morning sunshine gave the red-brown a cheery tone. As she watched, a single moth fluttered past, its wings white and delicate and brilliant in the light.
HK hummed a happy tune as she pulled on her regulation gray uniform. It was going to be a good day.
Lawrence stared at the empty hook by his front door. “Where are my keys?” he demanded.
“They are in the sink in your painting studio,” his house replied. “However, the car is not in the driveway. Would you like me to ping the GPS?”
Lawrence sighed. “Yeah.” He vaguely remembered getting a self-driving car home last night after he’d drunk one (or two, or seven) too many toasts to the happy couple. He didn’t really remember painting anything. He just hoped he hadn’t left the studio a complete disaster area.
“Your car is parked in the lot at 124 Lake St.”
Outside the reception hall. Which was about twenty miles from his lakefront house. And now he was supposed to pick them up and drive them to the airport for their honeymoon. His college best friend and high school sweetheart—they were sickeningly perfect together. They’d fought over whose side he’d be on in the bridal party.
They told him that they could get to the airport on their own, but he’d insisted. He was happy to do it, he wanted to see them off, he was so happy for them.
His head hurt.
It was going to be a rough day.
Today, HK was assigned to gather litter along the streets in a small town north of her living hub. Gathering litter was one of her favorite assignments. It meant time outside, and she always felt proud and happy when the streets were left clean and pleasant behind her. She punched her destination into her personal autonomous vehicle and gazed out the window as the scenery sped by. The leaves on the trees had changed, and the hillsides were beautiful.
Sometimes, she wished that her vehicle had a radio. But until she paid off her initialization cost, she couldn’t afford the expense. She focused on the sound of the wheels against the road and the wind against the windows. It was almost like music.
A man lunged out into the street in front of her, and her vehicle slammed to a stop.
“Oh, shit, I’m sorry,” the man said as she stepped out to see if he was under some sort of duress. His heart rate and blood pressure were both elevated, and he was short of breath. “I thought you were the car I called. It should have been here ten minutes ago.”
HK had never directly interacted with a human before, and hadn’t bothered to invest in a conversation package. Still, she’d make do. “Are you in need of a vehicle?” she asked. Her initial destination was still .78215 miles from her current location, but she could restructure her assigned route to make this point a valid starting place. “You may use mine, if you’d like. I am able to adapt.”
“Thanks,” the man said. “I owe you.”
“Owe me what?” HK asked, tilting her head to one side. It was an affectation—she’d seen that humans sometimes tilted their heads when asking questions, and the way the world looked when she did it pleased her.
“A favor, I guess.” He held out a small rectangle of paper. “I’m Lawrence Finiti.”
She took the paper. It had his name embossed on it, along with contact information and the word Artist. “I am HK-812. I appreciate the gesture, but I have no need for favors.”
“Wow, really? You’re an android? You guys have had some serious upgrades since the last time I checked.”
HK blinked at him. She was unsure of a socially acceptable response to such a statement. “Thank you?”
“Sure.” He ducked into her vehicle and punched in an address. “Thanks again, you’re a real lifesaver.”
And then he was gone. HK hummed to herself as she began work along her restructured route. Her first major interaction with a human, and she had helped him. She enjoyed helping.
She’d been right about today.
Lawrence made it to his car and then the hotel and then the airport all on time. He took an aspirin and drank two bottles of water and smiled at his friends because he loved them and it wasn’t really their fault that he was alone and they weren’t.
He stopped at a diner for eggs and coffee on his way back home. He sat in his booth and thought about the android. She—it?—she? had seemed happy. He’d never seen an android seem happy before. Not that he got out much, anymore. He spent all of his time in his studio, covered in paint. But the ones he’d encountered before had been taciturn and expressionless. This one had smiled at him. She had a nice smile.
It was just programming, of course. Not even he was hard up enough to fall for a pretty girl with a sweet smile that he knew was only the result of a bunch of ones and zeroes whizzing around in a robot brain.
But was that really that different from chemicals in a human brain? His experiences and culture had programmed him just as surely as her creators had programmed her.
And she really was quite pretty.
Oh god, he was desperate and crazy both.
He pulled out his phone and started researching androids.
HK finished her route as clouds gathered overhead and thunder rumbled in the distance. She pinged the GPS in her vehicle. It was across town, but it would be a pleasant enough walk. Drops of rain began to fall, slowly at first, then faster. Water ran down her face and dripped off the ends of her hair.
It was an interesting sensation. She had never walked in a rainstorm before.
A car drove by, then stopped. As she walked by, a familiar voice called out. “Do you need a lift?”
HK stopped and looked at Lawrence Finiti. “Your gesture is kind and appreciated, but unnecessary. I am experiencing no discomfort.”
“It’s pouring,” he said. “And cold. It’s supposed to start snowing later.”
HK smiled at him. “I am not bothered by this level of temperature fluctuation, and my exterior is fully waterproof, Lawrence Finiti.”
“Just Lawrence is fine. Come on, seriously. You gave me your car, at least let me give you a ride back to it.”
“I am soaking wet.”
“I will get water on your car seat. I imagine it is not fully waterproof.”
“Are all androids as stubborn as you?”
HK cocked her head to one side, and the angle of the water dripping down her face changed. “Are all humans as odd as you?”
“No, and thank goodness for that. Now, are you getting in or not?”
“Very well, I will accept your offer of a ride, even though it is unnecessary and will only cause you inconvenience.”
She got into the car. It smelled of leather and pine, and she could just hear a soft pop ballad over the sound of the rain on the windshield.
He tapped on the steering wheel. “So.”
HK looked over at him and waited for him to continue. The silence stretched. He tapped on the steering wheel again.
“So?” she prompted.
“I’ve never really talked with an android before, so I don’t know much about you. The info on the internet isn’t super clear, either.”
Now HK understood why he’d wanted to give her a ride—he was curious. That was sensible. “I am currently assigned to Landscape Beautification. I live in provided housing. I still have some time before my initialization fees are paid off.”
“How long does that take? How old are you? I’m sorry–is that a rude question?”
“The timeframe varies based upon assigned work. I selected Landscape Beautification because I enjoy it, but the pay is low. At my current pace, I will pay off my initialization in five more years. I have been active for three years. Your questions do not offend me.”
“So, you’re only three years old?”
“Yes, I am a very new model.”
“Does that mean there are a bunch of other androids out there that look just like you?”
“Our dermal layer and facial features are unique. It was found that identical faces are troubling to humans.”
“Yeah, that would be creepy. Do you get any say in what you look like?”
“Yes, I selected from available features. I was also able to select my gender.”
“You select your gender? Could you change it? If you wanted to?”
“Gender retrofits are simple enough. Though the procedure is somewhat costly. I believe we are approaching my vehicle.”
“Yeah.” He pulled over. “Thanks again for lending it to me.”
HK got out of the car and frowned down at his wet seat. “You will want to dry that off.”
“Will do. It was nice to meet you, HK-812.”
“It was nice to meet you as well, Lawrence.”
Normally, when Lawrence was swept up in a stupid idea, he called Lucy or Eric to talk him out of it. But they were currently occupied with their honeymoon. And Lawrence was suddenly very glad of that. He didn’t want anyone being sensible at him right now.
He had managed to learn a few things from his haphazard research. Androids had quietly been declared independent sentient beings a decade ago. They could vote and own property. Once they were initialized, they had complete control over any changes to their programming. Most continued to work the same jobs after their initialization fees were paid off, and very few bothered to move out of their assigned housing. Some of the older models were millionaires. It was fascinating.
Now he just needed to figure out how to find her again. Did she have a cell phone? Maybe he could contact someone in Landscape Beautification.
His phone rang. The caller ID listed an unknown number. “It’s not going to be her,” he told himself. “Don’t get your hopes up.” He took a deep breath and picked up. “Hello?”
He couldn’t believe it. “HK-812?”
“Just HK is fine,” she said. Her tone sounded resigned. “I think I am in need your offered favor.”
Desperate and crazy and incredibly lucky. “Name it.”
“The road seems to be washed out, and I’ve been advised of icy conditions ahead. It’s unsafe for me to continue home. All other alternative routes also appear to be unviable. Do you know of a place where I could recharge for the night?”
“Do you need a special outlet?”
“No, we’re designed to be compatible with any standard outlet.”
“You’re welcome to come stay at my place.”
“Thank you, Lawrence.”
He gave her the address, then hung up.
“Be cool,” he told himself. “Don’t be creepy, and no more weird invasive questions.” He looked around and realized that the house was a cluttered wreck. And he had maybe ten minutes to clean it before she arrived, if he was lucky.
Lawrence’s house was an absurd amount of space for a single entity. And he owned so many things. HK couldn’t even imagine. He had four coats hanging by the door when she walked in. Four! And six pairs of shoes. HK’s boots were sturdy enough to last for years, and she had yet to find an occasion where they were not suitable foot coverings.
But there were things that were less absurd. He had an entire room full of books, which was just amazing. And he had framed paintings on his walls, which were lovely. HK would have to get herself some art when she could afford it. And he had a room that was all windows. It looked out over the lakeshore, and even in the gray rainy evening it was absolutely mesmerizing.
He gave her a tour of the house, and they finished in the kitchen. It was a warm, cozy room with battered cabinets and crowded countertops. “Does the guest bedroom work for you?” he asked. “It’s a little cramped, but it’s right next to the bathroom. Though I suppose that doesn’t matter so much.”
The guest room was bigger than her residence. “There was a plug in the room with all the windows,” HK said. “Would it be alright for me to stay there?”
“The sunroom? It gets chilly in there. And it’s not very private.”
“It’s well within my temperature tolerance. And who would be out there looking in?”
“I suppose that’s true. You’re welcome to any room in the house.”
“Do you eat or drink?” Lawrence asked. “There isn’t much, but I need to throw something together for dinner.”
“I do not. But I don’t mind if you eat in front of me. Unless you’d prefer I just go charge and leave you to your evening.”
“No! No. Please stay.” Lawrence ran a hand through his hair. It seemed like nervous gesture, though HK was uncertain what he could be nervous about. After a moment, he started moving around the room, pulling things off of shelves. “I’m going to make myself some eggs,” he said, cracking one into a pan.
HK watched him cook. It was interesting. The sounds and smells, the way he moved from one task to the next, the way he stood and watched as the egg white turned opaque.
“I’ve asked you a lot of questions,” Lawrence said. “And I could keep on asking things. But you can ask me questions, too, if you’d like.”
She’d been taught not to ask too many questions. But he really didn’t seem to mind. And he had asked quite a few, it was only fair. “Why do you need four coats?”
Lawrence laughed. It was a pleasing sound. She was pleased to have caused it, though she wasn’t sure how. “Well, one is for really cold days, one is for less cold days. One is for days that are just a little cold. And one is for special occasions.” He flipped his egg over, taking care not to break the yolk. “My temperature tolerance isn’t nearly as… encompassing as yours.”
“I see. And the shoes are also for different weather and social situations?”
“Why do you need so much space? Do you use all of the rooms in this house?”
“I suppose the guest room doesn’t get a lot of use. But I do spend time in all of the other ones.”
“Your card says you’re an artist?”
“Yeah, I’m a painter. I actually have a painting studio outside, but I didn’t really want to take you out there in the rain.”
“Did you paint any of the pictures on the walls?”
“No, I don’t tend to display my own stuff.”
“Is painting difficult?”
“No. And yes? It’s hard to explain. Would you like to learn?”
HK sighed. “I don’t think I could afford the program.”
“Can you only learn by uploading programs? Or can you take lessons the old-fashioned way?”
“It would be inefficient, but it’s possible.”
“Art isn’t necessarily about efficiency.”
“You would know better than I. But from what I understand, live classes are even more costly than program uploads.”
“I’d be happy to teach you.”
HK wasn’t entirely certain that she understood. “For free?”
“Yeah. I mean, you’d have to come up here. But I’d be happy to teach you.”
HK blinked at him. “Why?”
He ran his hand through his hair again. “You’re nice. And interesting. And I have to admit that I’d be curious to see what sort of things you’d paint.”
“Androids have painted before.”
“I’m not curious about android paintings. I’m curious about your paintings.”
No one had ever been curious about her before. No one had ever implied that she was, or could be, special in any way. Before today, she’d never had a real conversation with a human.
A slow smile spread across her face.
It really had been a good day.
“I’d love to take painting lessons with you, Lawrence.”
Lawrence had never really understood being embarrassed by search history before. But now that he’d searched for “human android marriage laws,” after literally only knowing HK for a day and without any sign of interest on her part, he finally got it.
Still, he wasn’t the first human to think about it, clearly. There were lots of older articles about the ethical ramifications of a relationship with a programmed being, but those tapered off as androids gained equal rights. There was a story about the first ever human-android marriage, and then one a few years later profiling their relationship.
They seemed happy. Normal.
Lawrence started drawing up lesson plans. He’d taught a few classes before, before his paintings started selling. One of his students had even gone on to be a successful painter in her own right. There was no reason for him to feel so nervous.
He couldn’t sleep, so he decided to brave the rain and go paint for a bit—it always soothed his nerves.
HK stood in the room with the windows, attached to the wall with her portable plug. She’d removed one of her boots so that she could plug it into her toe port. She stood and watched the wind stir the waves and push the snowflakes into delicate patterns. It was a view she could get used to. She wondered if Lawrence would let her stay over occasionally after painting lessons.
A happy spark ran through her. Painting lessons! She could cover her walls with pictures. She was grateful for her window, but it would be nice to have a bit of variety.
A shadow moved across the lawn. She leaned closer to the window. Was that Lawrence? What was he doing outside? The weather wasn’t within his temperature tolerance. Was there something wrong?
After a moment, she unplugged from the wall and pulled her boot back on.
All four of Lawrence’s coats were still hung on the wall, but one of his pairs of shoes was missing.
It had gotten even colder outside. She grabbed the heaviest coat and strode out into the darkness. The shadow had moved toward a small building on the edge of the lake. Light streamed from its wide windows. As she approached, she could hear loud music playing. More of the same cheery pop from the car. And through the window, she could see Lawrence, lips moving along with the song, paintbrush in hand.
He was painting the lake. He’d captured the feel of the cold wind and the motion of the water. Stroke by stroke, he created an image from nothing. It was mesmerizing. Still, HK found herself watching his face instead of the brush. He was focused. Calm. He didn’t show any of the nervous energy that he’d displayed during dinner.
He had a nice face. Symmetrical, healthy skin tone, classic bone structure. Pretty brown eyes. His eyelashes were longer than she’d realized.
He stepped back from his painting and gave it a long look. Then he made a few tiny changes—a bit of white here, a touch of shadow there. Then he nodded, rinsed his brush, and put it down. He turned toward the door, and his eyes caught on hers.
HK squeaked and took a step back, worried that he might be upset at her spying.
Instead, he grinned at her and rushed to the door. “How long have you been standing out there?”
HK blushed. “I’m not sure. It was so interesting, I didn’t make any note of time.”
He touched her cheek. “You’re freezing. I can’t get over your temperature tolerance.”
She could feel the touch of his skin even after he’d pulled away. She nodded, unsure of what to say.
He took her hand and pulled her inside, then toward the painting. His hands were so warm. She’d never had anyone take her hand before. “So, what do you think of it?” he asked.
She blinked. “It’s nice,” she said.
His smile was dazzling. How had she not noticed before? “I painted it for you. To take home with you and put up on your wall.”
She blinked again. He’d meant the painting, not the feeling of his fingers wrapped around hers. Then she realized what he’d said, and managed to look away from his face to the painting.
“You said you liked the view,” he said, his voice more uncertain.
“I love it,” HK said. She reached toward it, remembered it was wet, then pulled back. “No one’s given me a gift before.”
Lawrence grinned again, and HK felt a strange feeling in her stomach. Her quick biometric scan didn’t uncover any anomalies. She’d have to research what could cause such a feeling.
Lawrence looked down, blushed, and released her hand. She instantly missed the sensation. Was physical contact somehow addictive? She’d have to research that as well.
“I should turn in,” Lawrence said. “How early do you need to head back?”
HK calculated the normal transit time for her route, then added some time in case the roads were still treacherous. “I should depart at 4:34am.”
Lawrence face twisted in dismay. “That’s a horrible time to be awake.”
“It’s not necessary for you to see me off,” HK assured him. “You need to sleep.”
“No, I want to. I wouldn’t be a very good host if I just let you slip off into the night without a proper goodbye.”
HK found herself smiling, and she was uncertain why. It really was foolish for him to wake early to see her off. Still. “Then you’d better get to bed.”
Two days passed, and HK hadn’t called to schedule their first lesson. Lawrence spent the time painting and tried not to obsess.
The phone rang in the middle of the night, and he was disappointed to see that it was Eric. Which probably made him a terrible best friend. “How’s Italy?” Lawrence asked.
“It’s amazing. We’re having such a great time.”
Lawrence made what he hoped was an encouraging noise. When Eric started telling him every detail about the trip, starting with the flight, he thought he may have succeeded too well.
After a long explanation about how amazing Italian pizza was, Eric finally stopped. “How are things there?”
“Dark,” Lawrence said.
Eric laughed. “You mean without the light of my presence?”
“I mean it’s the middle of the night, jackass.”
“Yeah, well. I figured you wouldn’t answer if you weren’t awake. You usually keep your ringer off.”
Lawrence sighed. “I’ve been waiting for a call.”
“From a new art collector?”
“No.” Lawrence didn’t really want to talk about HK. What if she never called, and he never saw her again? But Eric was his best friend. “It’s a girl.”
He could practically hear Eric gaping on the other end of the line. “Did you meet someone at the wedding? Lucy’s cousin? She told you she was interested?”
“No, I met her the day after. But she hasn’t called. So it’s probably nothing.”
“Nothing? You haven’t expressed interest in a woman in years.”
“That’s not fair. I go on dates.”
“You go on one date, and then never talk to the girl again. And I don’t ever remember you waiting by the phone.”
Lawrence shrugged. “I like her.”
“Does she like you?”
“That’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it?”
HK liked him. That was what all of her research indicated. She had a crush. On a human man. Every time she picked up her phone to call him, that strange feeling swooped into her stomach again. It happened every time that she looked at her painting, too. She’d hung it next to the window.
She’d also researched him. His art was well known. He’d done a few interviews, and he always came across as kind, well-spoken, and funny. The painting he’d given her was worth at least a month of her pay. She didn’t even want to think about what he could charge for private painting lessons.
Did that mean that maybe he liked her, too?
What would she do if he did? Relationships between humans and androids weren’t unheard of, but they were subtly discouraged. If Lawrence hadn’t jumped in front of her vehicle, she probably would have gone years without really interacting with one.
She dialed his number.
He picked up on the first ring.
“Hello?” he said.
Infatuation was an odd thing. The sound of his voice sent a strange shiver down her spine. She took a deep breath. “Hello, Lawrence. It’s HK.”
“I’m glad you called,” he said.
That certainly seemed to indicate interest. She’d read that honest communication was important in a relationship. She took a deep breath. “I have something that I feel that I should tell you before we schedule our first lesson.”
“I’m interested in dating you. I’ve weighed all of the variables, and I think the possible reward outweighs the risk. At least on my end. I will understand if you don’t feel the same—your social standing is substantially higher than mine. You are also much older than I am, and my lack of life experience might prove frustrating for you.” HK trailed off. She felt ill. She’d never felt ill before.
Even if he rejected her, she’d treasure all of these new experiences.
“I’d love to date you, HK. I think you’re amazing.”
HK sat down. She’d never seen much use for chairs before, but now she wished she’d bothered to invest in one. “Are you free tomorrow night?”
About the Author
Jamie Lackey lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and their cat. She has over 130 short fiction credits, and has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Cast of Wonders. In addition to writing, she spends her time reading, playing tabletop RPGs, baking, and hiking. You can find her online at www.jamielackey.com.
About the Narrators
Divya is a lover of science, math, fiction, and the Oxford comma. She enjoys subverting expectations and breaking stereotypes whenever she can. Her novella ‘Runtime,’ was a Nebula Award finalist, and her short stories have been published at various magazines including Uncanny, Apex, and Tor.com.
She holds degrees in Computational Neuroscience and Signal Processing, and she worked for twenty years as an electrical engineer before becoming an author.
About the Artist
Geneva is a self-taught illustrator from North Carolina, who loves working with colors, big hair, and drawing whimsy with a touch of realism and happiness. Her work has appeared in magazines, novels, editorial and advertising campaigns.
You can find her most often on Instagram, and support her work on Patreon.