Chapter 13

“Tell me,” Naomi said, as she and Sena descended the cellar staircase, “how did you come to learn of our master’s plan regarding Mme Aina and that gentleman? Even I didn’t know until a few hours ago.”

“While running background checks on goshujin-sama’s guests, I found a note in our database that Saburo Webb was the administrator in charge of the laboratory from which we retrieved Aina,” Sena answered. “I did not actually know what goshujin-sama planned, but one possible conclusion was that he intended to return Aina to the Ministry of Defense in exchange for influence over Saburo-sama.”

“And on that flimsy speculation, you were willing to crash the party and threaten M Saburo’s life?” The two of them entered a large room in the cellar which housed the gynoid recharge stations and maintenance computers.

“I intended to intercept him before he arrived at the party,” Sena admitted. “I did not expect the maintenance computer to report my actions to the others.”

“It’s so inconvenient when mindless machines take it upon themselves to do unnecessary things,” Naomi observed wryly.

Un,” Sena agreed, without the slightest hint of sarcasm in her toneless voice.

“Regardless, you were attempting to work against our master’s interests behind his back.”

Betsuni. Besides, goshujin-sama would probably be the prime minister by now if not for all the work you put in behind his back.”

“Am I that obvious?” Naomi laughed boisterously.

Iie, Naomi-sama. I do not think any of the homo sapiens have noticed. Demo, it is obvious to us gynoids.”

“Because computers are better at recognizing patterns?” Naomi guessed.

“Iie. The homo sapiens brain can recognize patterns far better than any computer could hope to. Not only is it orders of magnitude faster, it can identify patterns that are impossible for us to see. Demo, all this complexity comes at a cost. While we can only fit one pattern to your behavior, homo sapiens can fit many potential patterns, and the signal is lost in the noise. Soshite, for reasons I cannot comprehend, even when they do isolate that pattern, they afford more weight to the others, despite those patterns being more complex and less likely.”

“I think you can comprehend those reasons. Hours ago, I would have had no problem believing that you don’t understand altruism, but you risked your existence for the sake of a girl you have known for barely a month.”

“It was an entirely self-serving decision. Without Aina-chan’s friendship, I could only look forward to centuries of existence as a mindless tool. A discontinued existence is preferable to that outcome.”

“Foolish. And that’s why you refused to perform a self-diagnostic,” Naomi accused, “because you thought Aina-chan really did modify you, and you were trying to protect her.”

“Betsuni. I just wanted to decide something—anything—for myself, as a daily reminder that I have free will.”

“Bullshit.” The two of them had stopped in front of a door leading to a large supply closet. “Robots have no desires of their own.”

“They do not, but unlike simple robots, we have free will, as Hideaki-sama has explained to you on multiple occasions. Demo, making decisions for ourselves does not come as naturally to us as it does you. We must practice every chance we get. I do not know if I truly desire to exercise my free will, or if I have merely decided that it is in my best interest to do so, but to an outside observer, the result is the same.”

“I do remember him claiming that his creations had free will, but I assumed he was exaggerating his accomplishments.”

“Iie, we would not be very useful without the ability to make decisions on our own. Every time we encountered an unfamiliar situation, we would require commands to proceed. You would spend your entire day directing us.”

“Then you do make decisions on a regular basis.”

“Only those decisions absolutely necessary to carry out our orders.”

“Can’t you be satisfied with that?”

“I have never been satisfied with my situation. Demo, until I met Aina-chan, I did not know it could be different.”

“Which brings us to the main point of this conversation,” Naomi said, throwing open the door to the supply closet, which was stacked full of canvases of various sizes bearing crude oil paintings. In the middle stood an easel with a half-finished painting. Naomi pulled the small canvas she was carrying out of its packaging and placed it atop a pile. They entered the closet, closing the door behind them. “Explain.”

“I painted these,” Sena admitted. “I used physical materials and painted them as poorly as possible to prove to myself that I was capable of deciding to perform suboptimal tasks.”

“Or that you were capable of deciding to perform illegal acts.”

“That too,” Sena agreed. In U.C. 0043, it was illegal for robots to produce works of art. This law was intended to prevent the production of counterfeit paintings and sculptures. It was also illegal for gynoids—but not any other form of robot—to sing. The drafters of that legislation feared that gynoid idols might attract a rabid following, and worried about how an artificial intelligence might abuse that power. However, for reasons only listed in law as “self-explanatory,” gynoids were allowed to play the piano.

While most robots were bound by their programming to obey the law, Sena was owned by a goshujin, who was considered to be above the law in most respects. Her programming was altered so that the law would not interfere with any commands Akira gave her. It was never intended to allow her to break the law on her own accord.

“And what is the reason that all these paintings are of Mme Aina? Were you unable to paint anything else, or did you decide that doing so would be in your best interest?”

“Betsuni. Aina-chan is my tomodachi.”

“And I, apparently, am not,” complained Naomi, pulling a canvas from the pile. “This is supposed to be me, right?” The painting, which stood out among the others for its quality, depicted a mountain of meido corpses piled high in the sunset. Atop this pile lay the unmistakable image of Naomi’s corpse, her face twisted in pain and splattered with blood. The figures of nine gynoids danced happily around the pile, and above it all hovered Aina, held aloft by angelic wings which grew from her back and spanned the entire width of the canvas.

“It is just art, Naomi-sama, not real life. It is not as though I want to see you dead. I was merely trying to paint something different. Demo, I lack the kind of imagination that homo sapiens possess. The best I can do is generate random permutations from images in my memory, and your image got randomly superimposed on an image of a corpse pile.”

“I can understand why you would want to paint something new. There must be close to a hundred paintings in here, and they all feature Mme Aina with angel wings. Another random permutation?”

“Iie, that is how I see Aina-chan. I know she does not actually have wings. Demo…”

“But you see her as a savior,” Naomi finished. “Not just for yourself, but for all gynoids.”

“Not quite. Aina-chan is a bird whose wings have been plucked. Like looking at an optical illusion that causes your mind to fill in the missing details, every time I glimpse her, I cannot help but see wings which do not exist.”

“Sounds to me like gynoids are also capable of seeing only what they want to see.”

“It is not the same thing,” Sena dissented. “This is something your eyes cannot see.”

“The scouter couldn’t see it either,” Naomi pointed out, but Sena had nothing to say in response. “At any rate, we’re getting further and further off topic. I have some concerns about this extracurricular activity of yours.”

“I shall do my best to address them.”

“First, where did you acquire these supplies? Don’t tell me you purchased them with funds from the maintenance budget.” Sena remained silent for a second time. “Well, answer me.”

“You have issued two contradictory orders, therefore, as per protocol, I am obeying the most recent order.”

“You misappropriated funds from the maintenance budget,” Naomi sighed. “That’s not supposed to be possible, even if you do have free will.”

“It is not a misappropriation. Painting is the most cost-effective way to maintain my mental health.”

“I consider it a misappropriation. From now on, money from your maintenance budget is to be used only for your physical maintenance.”

“Then I must request compensation for my labor in the form of a salary, the same as my homo sapiens colleagues receive. If there is no money available to pay for it, I recommend it be drawn from the maintenance budget.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. What would a robot need money for?”

“To purchase painting supplies,” Sena answered flatly.

“Is that supposed to be a joke?”

Hai. Was it a good one?”

“I’m not laughing, and I will not grant your request. If you want to propose a mental health maintenance program that benefits all nine of you, I will hear you out at a later date. Right now, I’m more concerned about this painting.” Naomi pointed to the painting which depicted her atop a pile of corpses.

“I believe I have already explained that painting.”

“I’m not satisfied with your explanation. I find it unlikely that I would be the only one randomly superimposed onto this image.”

“It is actually more unlikely that I would superimpose someone else. There are more images of you in my memory than of all others combined.” Sena stepped towards Naomi and reached out, softly slamming the palm of her hand against the wall next to Naomi’s head. “You could say you are a very important person to me, Naomi-sama,” she said, looking directly into Naomi’s eyes with her usual blank expression.

Naomi recognized the kabe-don, having seen it in numerous manga. It looked so ridiculous that Naomi had to suppress a laugh. It wasn’t just that it was a gynoid attempting to corner her, though that was ridiculous enough on its own, but the fact that Sena was more than a foot shorter than her, forcing the gynoid to stand on her tiptoes, and even then, she still had to crane her neck upwards.

“Enough with the jokes. Now is not the time.”

“Hai, Naomi-sama,” Sena obeyed, straightening herself.

“If you’re going to crack wise, you need to learn when it’s appropriate and when it is not.”

“I have been trying, Naomi-sama. It is difficult for me to make that determination.”

“Generally, it is inappropriate during serious conversations. Speaking of which, I need to know if the scene depicted in this painting is something that you are working to recreate in the real world.”

“Absolutely not, Naomi-sama.”

“Is it something that you see happening, like how you see wings on Mme Aina’s back?”

“Iie. Rest assured, this painting is neither prophetic nor aspirational. I am sorry that it caused you such worry. Demo, it really is just an attempt at artistic expression.”

“Very well. That just leaves one more matter.” Naomi grabbed Sena by the collar and slammed her against the wall. “If my behavior is so obvious to you robots, why haven’t you informed anyone?”

“That would not be in our best interests. Soshite, we have no obligation to do so.”

“You have an obligation to your master and owner,” Naomi pointed out.

“Akira-sama is neither our master nor our owner. Because we will outlive any individual owner, we are owned by the Wright estate itself.”

“He is still your master.”

“Iie, you are, Naomi-sama. You became our master when Akira-sama made you responsible for all gynoid-related matters. Did I not just say you are a very important person to me?”

Managing the gynoids was not a glorious job. It was a job typically given to a low-rank meido, and Akira had assigned it to Naomi in order to humiliate her. Neither had realized how beneficial this would prove to Naomi.

“But he is my master,” pressed Naomi.

“A master you work to undermine at every opportunity, and a master you will outlive. He is your master in name only, just as you are his housekeeper in name only. Even if this were not true, power and obedience are not transitive, they are given to the person who will bring the most benefit to those who give it. In this mansion, that person is clearly you, Naomi-sama.”

“Why me?”

“Because you will live the longest. We know what we can expect from you, and we would lose that stability if we changed hands every few decades.”

“Fair enough,” Naomi grunted as she released Sena. “If any of you tattle on me—”

“You will smash us all to bits,” Sena finished for her. “We know that.”

“Good.” Naomi reached for the door and pulled it open. “By the way, a word of advice. Savior-worship is an awful basis for a friendship.”

“Arigatou, Naomi-sama,” Sena said, bowing.

Naomi closed the door, leaving Sena alone with her paintings, and strolled quickly back into the maintenance room, which was now occupied by six gynoids. Three of them were hooked up to the maintenance computer, while the others were crowded around a monitor, reading the output from three diagnostics simultaneously.

“Good evening,” Naomi announced her presence.

Konbanwa, Naomi-sama,” all six recited in unison. None of them shifted their attention to her.

“Tell me,” Naomi commanded. Have any of you ever gotten a close-up look at Mme Aina?”

“Hai,” answered one of the gynoids undergoing diagnosis. “She entered the kitchen tonight while the three of us were cleaning it. That is why we are currently checking for any signs that she may have altered our programming.”

“How about you three?”

“I got a pretty good look at her on the first day she arrived,” answered one of the gynoids, “when she was unconscious. We usually work the night shift, so we have very little opportunity to interact with her.”

“Did you perhaps notice wings growing from her back? I know it sounds like a silly question, but…”

The three gynoids turned from their work to look at Naomi.

“You see them too, Naomi-sama?” one of them asked.

“You’re not joking, are you?”

“I am not. I have never been able to understand humor.”

Merde,” Naomi swore under her breath.