The Cybernetic Tea Shop
Clara Gutierrez is a highly-skilled technician specializing in the popular 'Raise' AI companions. Her childhood in a migrant worker family has left her uncomfortable with lingering in any one place, so she sticks around just long enough to replenish her funds before she moves on, her only constant companion Joanie, a fierce, energetic Raise hummingbird.
Sal is a fully autonomous robot, the creation of which was declared illegal ages earlier due to ethical concerns. She is older than the law, however, at best out of place in society and at worst hated. Her old master is long dead, but she continues to run the tea shop her master had owned, lost in memories of the past, slowly breaking down, and aiming to fulfill her master's dream for the shop.
When Clara stops by Sal's shop for lunch, she doesn't expect to find a real robot there, let alone one who might need her help. But as they begin to spend time together and learn more about each other, they both start to wrestle with the concept of moving on...
Clara woke to the rapid puffs of air and noisy chatter that meant that she’d slept in. She’d ignored Joanie’s first few complaints, which meant that the hummingbird had gone from dutifully waking her to chiding and flapping around her face.
“Honestly! You tell me to get you up at seven-thirty, but you don’t even start to open your eyes until eight? Don’t pretend to sleep now! I saw you shifting! I saw you turn your face away!” Joanie was huffing wildly, her throat puffed out in offense, wings a blur through Clara’s slitted eyes. Clara tried to turn her head away as Joanie jabbed her tiny beak against her nose. “I can’t believe you make me do this. If you wanted a Raise that could wake you up every morning, you… you should have gotten a woodpecker!”
It was Joanie’s usual type of complaint. Clara let out a sleepy, fond laugh, finally opening her eyes all the way and reaching up to try to catch her. Joanie dodged as usual, a rapid batting of her thin wings brushing the edge of Clara’s hand. “I don’t want a woodpecker,” Clara said, indulgent.
“Hmph.” Joanie hovered overhead, all buzzing wings and glittering synthetic feathers and disapproving judgment. “Well, you’re awake now, anyway.”
“I’m awake,” Clara agreed. Joking about wanting to go back to bed would probably make Joanie screech at her—not bad when she needed that level of morning alarm, but not really necessary now. She shook her head to herself as she forced herself upright and swung her legs out of bed. It wasn’t like it was the weekend; delaying too long would make her late for work.
As soon as her legs were out from the covers, the cold air seemed to rush over her. She shivered, letting out a loud whine of complaint through gritted teeth. “I’m awake, I’m awake,” she muttered again, the chill having more or less guaranteed she wasn’t going back to sleep even if she’d wanted to. “Jeez…”
“Quit complaining,” Joanie said, high-pitched voice firm. “Go make breakfast, or you’ll go to work hungry.”
“I’m on it,” Clara said, beginning to sort through her clothes on the floor. She’d worn her jeans and bra four times that week already, but they could probably go another day as long as her underwear and shirt were clean. Her shirt—not so much. A sniff test had her tossing it in the laundry bin, and she rooted around in her apartment’s dresser for a new shirt. They all looked pretty much the same, colors aside; long-sleeved coarse shirts, protective and seamless. They were practical and kept sparks and scrapes from reaching her skin, but somehow always picked up oil stains despite her best efforts.
She grabbed her hairbrush and pulled the tie off the handle onto her wrist as she headed into the kitchenette of her studio apartment, dragging the brush through her thick black hair. “Get the toast on, Joanie?”
“Sure, give me the easy job,” Joanie said, exasperated, and wrestled with the plastic bread packaging. As usual, Clara had forgotten to set things up the night before, or she would have had breakfast with the push of a button.
Clara finished braiding her hair back neatly and cracked an egg into the pan. Behind her, Joanie somehow managed to get the bread into the grill slot of the oven. She was always pleased when Joanie agreed to do things like that despite them being monumental tasks for a bird, artificial or not. Joanie was a Raise; it stood in for the rather unwieldy term, ‘Robotic Artificially Intelligent Synthetic Entity’. Ultimately, it had become more or less the generic term for mechanical personal assistants so people could reserve ‘robot’ for those human-shaped automatons that had been the object of so much ethical debate. Robots had wills of their own, after all. In order to avoid similar debates, Raises were given emotional types and personalities to interact with, but but had no developmental AI built in, no real will. Without it, they didn’t grow or change or become more ‘human’ over time. As such, they were considered sentient, but not sapient, not like some of the older robots were.
But that was the reason that Raises were still being produced and robots weren’t.
In Clara’s opinion, Joanie showed more than enough personality even without the ability to gain true emotional understanding. Although there was no changing Joanie’s base programming, Clara had tinkered a little inside Joanie’s systems and broken her emotional lock. In order to mass-produce Raises efficiently, they all had the same AIs, but their coding just commented out whatever sections weren’t to be used for that personality profile. A ‘put-upon’ hummingbird like Joanie, when purchased, still had all the code for helpful, affectionate and so on inside, just flagged as inaccessible.
Clara had removed those flags and added lines to call to reactions in various situations, and it resulted in a Raise with a lot more emotional range and a greater ability to make its own decisions than most of them had. Joanie still wasn’t a person, of course, and that was probably for the best—there were absolutely huge ethical issues with creating actual sapient people who were registered internally as belonging to others. But Joanie was considerably more enjoyable a personality to hang around with than most Raises, and was able to refuse requests, disagree, and give her own opinions—although she lacked impulse, which a true developmental AI would have.
And she was more than opinionated enough as a result.
“Hey, are you cooking that egg or watching it?” Joanie complained, landing on her braid and nesting where it began at the base of Clara’s skull. “Your toast’s gonna pop out any minute.”
“I’ve got it,” Clara huffed back. “Jeez.”