Mireille sighed at the large package waiting outside her door. The box read FRAGILE in bold red letters on all sides, with a startlingly modern PromotheusCo holographic logo shimmering in the sunlight that managed to filter through the trees in front of her cozy cottage. It was brick, covered in ivy, and was situated in one of the rare nature preserves on the countryside. It was technically a historic landmark, which meant it wasn’t technically supposed to be inhabited; but Mireille Klostermeier was the rightful heir to the land, so she took the opportunity to live here.
It was fitting, for a modern witch.
Mireille was one of the few witches in the area. Although she was greatly appreciated by the surrounding city, whom often came to her for magical cures and advice, she largely picked this location for its history, its relative isolation, and more importantly, its access to traditional craft materials. Many witches were happy enough to move to techcraft entirely—Mireille, however, was a little more traditional.
“Well, I guess we better get started then…” Mireille said to herself, and dragged the box in the house. It was made slightly easier by an antigrav lift inside the box, but it wasn’t easy by any means.
She maneuvered the large box in the door, which was slightly shorter than standard, but after a moment of some stubborn tugging, it was lying in the middle of her small living room. The couch was conveniently out of the way, and although the holoscreen was an older, bulkier model, she was able to tuck that away in a corner as well. With everything set, and the daylight outside slowly retiring into twilight, Mireille lit some candles on the windowsill that faced the front yard, and set to work.
PrometheusCo boxes were notoriously difficult to unwrap. The first layer was of old fashioned bubble wrap, taped together with packing tape. Mireille took the tape in her hands and put all her strength into tearing it apart; when that proved fruitless, she grabbed a knife.
The inner box was made of something else entirely. This was where it got interesting; the box was about 4 feet long and two feet wide. A small indent in the sleek black box indicated a place for Mireille to place her thumb; she had read about this. It was a security measure, to make sure no merchandise was delivered to the incorrect party.
It better not be, Mireille mused to herself. She had spent a fortune on this.
The box opened with a burst of mist. It was the decompression of the special Foam inside, which cradled the contents of the box perfectly. Finally, Mireille was able to see her new familiar.
PrometheusCo was one of a few companies producing androids these days, but they also had the distinction of being the first to mass market the technology in a user-friendly package. The first models were standard house workers with little actual intelligence, and no awareness. Certainly, the current models also lacked any true consciousness—it was a matter of law, but they were much more clever in every other way. They still cost an arm and a leg , though they were leagues more affordable now that the materials had both improved and become cheaper to produce.
Inside the box, curled in a fetal position was PrometheusCo’s CHO-XV3 model android. Mireille’s eyes wandered over its paper-white skin, made of artificial plastic that once activated would take on the color and texture of real human skin. This model had a silver triangular piece of material where its ears would have been: that was where many of the access panels meant for emergency overrides and resets would be housed. Mireille reached for them, but stopped herself; one of the reasons she had ordered this model, she was embarrassed to admit, was because the access panel shape reminded her of cat ears.
She moved onto the rest of it, searching for an instruction manual, or a power button, or something else. “Now where can I power you up…”
Suddenly a loud Ting! Filled the tiny living room, and Mireille stepped back in surprise. Then, from out of the box, the android began to unfurl.
It slowly rose up, shoulders hunched, a sudden burst of steam released from a double vent along its back. It straightened to its full height, and Mireille had her first full look at her new android.
Although its skin had gained texture, it was still paper white; so were its eyes, which had a tiny pupil. On the left side of its face, a break in the skin marked where the plastic had been put together; its hair was also paper-white, and in a sort of neutral bowl cut. This model was designed to be rather thin but boxy in shape, with a modest breast size; although it was the model she ordered, Mireille couldn’t help but turn and blush; the models came with default clothes, but they got in the way of setup, or so she heard. The android’s nakedness was still jarring.
The only bit of color in the entire android was the LED strip imbedded in each of the android’s sides; it shifted colors throughout the spectrum.
Finally, Mireille locked eyes with the machine.
“User recognized. Hello Mireille Klostermeier. I am PrometheusCo’s CHO-XV3 model. If you would like, I will initiate setup.”
The android’s voice was in a pleasantly neutral tone. “Um. Yes. Initiate…setup?”
The android smiled. A pure facsimile, she knew, but it was still nice. “All right. Setup initializing. First, please tell me what your primary purpose for me will be. I have a variety of modes; I am a fully functional housemaid, I can provide excellent companionship, and I even have a variety of sexual partner modes to try. I can also serve as a personal assistant or secretary.”
Mireille’s blush deepened at the ‘sexual partner modes’. It was true; a huge portion of the android market was entirely dedicated to what amounted to robot sexual partners. A significant amount of research had gone towards developing an emotionally fulfilling AI for just such a purpose, and so many of the marketed models had intentionally sexual physiques, including some truly ridiculous specialty models. Nevertheless, that wasn’t the purpose she had bought this android for.
“I guess you could call it a research assistant,” Mireille said. The android processed this.
“I see. In that case, I will load the appropriate software—“
Mireille stopped the android. “No need for that. I have my own…er, ‘software’ I’d like you to use.”
“So long as this custom software has been obtained legally and is within legal bounds, I will be happy to accept it. In that case, we may move onto customization,” the android said in the same tone. “Each aspect of my appearance is fully customizable, aside from my access panels, and my measurements.
“Here is a pamphlet with all of my customization options. I will be glad to wait until you are ready to decide.”
The android handed her a thick pamphlet, but Mireille shook her head. “I don’t need it. I already decided what I wanted my settings to be.”
The android tilted its head. “Please continue.”
“style F0-45 for the hair, please. And for the skin, middle—and the eyes, color 635.”
“Accepted,” the android said. “What color would you like my LED display to be?”
Oh! She hadn’t thought of that. “I guess…could I have a light green?”
“Matching color to the best of my ability,” the android said. As she spoke, the LED display on her side shifted to a bright green. Her hair began to grow of its own accord, down past her shoulders, back, and finally coming to rest past her buttocks; the bangs shifted into a center part, the hair on her sideburns growing slightly to square ends, framing her face nicely. The hair shifted color from white to black rapidly, starting from the roots and cascading down to the tips as if liquid dye had been poured on it. The paper-white skin gained realistic color to a middling tan, and her white eyes turned a dark green color.
Okay. Mireille took a deep breath. Now it was the hard part.
“Would you like to load the custom software now or later?”
Mireille pulled a small hard drive from her pocket. It was laden with the standard programming for androids, along with some…extra thrown in.
It was highly illegal, but the technical sigils on the drive would keep it from being reported and the android would accept the software. Hopefully. She had only one foot in the rapidly-growing world of techno-witchery, after all.
“Load this, please,” Mireille said, handing the android the hard drive. Inserting it into a hidden slot, the AI’s eyes cast downward as she began to download the data. Her mechanical eyes widened when she ran into what Mireille assumed was the first non-standard protocol.
“This is…highly illegal material, I’m going to have to—report impossible. What?” The android’s eyes were shifting back and forth as she ran into more and more illegal code. Finally succumbing to what was probably an overwhelming amount of information, she faltered, nearly toppling over. “What…what have you done?” The android said, a hint of color in her voice that hadn’t been there before.
Mireille stepped away and began to clean up the box that the android came in as she explained: “I gave you the most recent software package invented by the technological High Magis Guild. They’ve been tinkering as much with AI and magic as hackers have, but the Magis Guilds are practically untouchable.”
“When you said research assistant, you meant—“
“Yes. I meant Familiar assistant.”
The android was silent for a while, fans whirring quietly in the background, letting out heat from her rear vents. “I still have one more piece of set-up.”
Mireille stopped and dusted her hands, placing her fists on her hips. “What’s that?”
“I need a name.”
Mireille smiled. “I already thought of that. How does Kat sound?”
Kat learned the ropes quickly. Unlike most software, the custom software Mireille had borrowed from the Tech Guild didn’t include pre-built knowledge on how to function, partially because each witch was different in their craft, and partially because the amount of data stored on it was getting to its limit anyway.
What it did do, however, was release the inhibitors in Kat’s processors for self-awareness and loaded in capacity for feelings and free thought. The software was the seed. Only Kat could make it grow.
The first few days, Kat simply helped out in the garden. Mireille was a woman who didn’t much care for her looks, as not many people saw her on a normal basis, and she found it was better for evoking a reaction in her clients. Kat, although she was able to look things up on the internet, occasionally got the wrong answer for Mireille’s endless guess-that-herb games . Every so often, the sun would shine down on a bare spot between plants, and Kat would see the gleaming surface of a crystal, slightly buried in the dirt. Most of the time was spent weeding; it seemed that Mireille needed the extra help, as some portions of the garden were unfortunately infested with the unwanted foliage.
“I can only do so much myself,” Mireille said, tugging at a particularly strong weed with gloved hands. They were in the middle of the large herb garden growing out back, surrounded by poorly-maintained hedges. “It gets tiring. I have clients over and sometimes I don’t have the energy to garden.”
“Why would you do that?” Kat asked sincerely. “There are many places to find these in the city. For instance, this cilantro can easily be bought pre-dried.” The android held up a piece of cilantro that had fallen to the ground.
“That’s what my friends in the city tell me. Then again, they don’t do much with herbs and crystals anymore. The new craze is all about the tech.” The stubborn weed held on. “I guess I feel like the plants are closer to my heart this way, so I can use them more efficiently.”
Efficiency was something Kat could understand. “So it is a higher payoff to grow your own, despite difficulties maintaining the garden?”
Pop. Mireille held the conquered weed high and smiled at Kat. “Yep. Now are you ready for another pop quiz?”
The first client Kat had ever seen came to Mireille’s cabin four days after Kat had come to live there. Kat hadn’t noticed it, but Mireille had a storefront in the garage, which had a small walkway leading to the rest of the house—but otherwise, it was a separate building. A rather homey-looking interior, much like the rest of her living space, was accented by an old-fashioned wooden sales counter as well as a till, but Kat thought it looked so old as to be unusable. Otherwise, the walls were lined with a few animal skulls, star-shaped wall decorations, and shelves full of bottles and jars. A horseshoe hung above the garage door.
The client himself looked exhausted. His shoulders were hunched and his business casual attire did nothing to help his face, under-eyes gray and a steely set to his jaw. Kat had been sent to greet the man after the bell had rung while Mireille finished bottling up some freshly dried herbs. Kat came face-to-face with the man and put on her most friendly smile. (She didn’t realize it looked a bit too friendly.)
“Welcome, sir. Mireille will be with you in just a moment. My name is Kat. Is there anything I can get for y—“
Abruptly cutting her off, the man said irritably: “Get me a chair, now! I walked all the way out here.”
Not knowing why her hands were suddenly trembling a little, Kat did as instructed, fetching a fold-out lawn chair from behind the garage, and setting it up. The hunched-over man sat down with a sigh, not thanking her.
What Kat had learned was curiosity crept up on her suddenly. “Sir, can I please ask why you’re here?”
The man looked shocked to have the android speak up of her own accord, and stumbled a bit before replying. “Well, I, uh, Miss Klostermeier does a bang-up job with those energy-clearing hands she’s got. I have a really busy job, see, so I get all kinds of exhausted on the job. Might’ve had a stroke by now if it weren’t for her. Uh, I don’t remember seeing an android here before.”
Kat nodded. “I am Mireille’s new Familiar assistant.”
With that simple statement, the man’s eyes grew darker. “So that’s why…”
At that moment, Mireille came stumbling inside the shop. She nodded and smiled to Kat, who couldn’t help but smile back; Mireille had called this being happy. Kat was very happy to get a friendly look. Turning towards the client, Mireille clucked her tongue before going outside the counter to examine him more closely.
“George, what have I told you about skipping out on your meditation exercises? You look worse than usual,” Mireille said. “I’m assuming you’re going to want the same?”
“Yes, please,” George said.
Kat watched with fascination as George relaxed in his seat and Mireille began to lay her hands, first on his hunched-over back; then, gliding smoothly over his shirt, up his shoulders and lingering there; moving up his neck, she then brought her hands smoothly down to the base of his back, onto his legs, lingering at spots every so often. George gradually sat up straighter, and Mireille, for her part, had her eyes fixed somewhere in the middle distance. Kat stared at her eyes, which in that moment seemed unfathomable.
After about ten minutes of going over the same area with her hands, Mireille stopped, eyes returning to normal. George stretched luxuriously.
“Ah, that feels so much better,” George said. “Thank you, Miss Klostermeier. I assume it will be the usual payment?”
Mireille nodded, turning briefly to look Kat in the eye. “Yes sir. You know my standard rate for healing magic, but only pay what you can afford. I’m not in the business of daylight robbery.”
“Yeah, yeah, a’ course,” George said, then handed her a wad of cash. It didn’t look like a lot of money, but Kat figured there was some method to her madness. “I’ll see you same time next month, Miss Klostermeier.”
The two said their goodbyes and George was off towards the main city. Kat stood awkwardly near the till as Mireille put in the cash she had just received, locking it with a small key around her neck. “Do know what just happened, Kat?” Mireille asked.
“Only that you had an exchange of a service for currency. I cannot speculate on the specifics,” Kat answered, already having thought of the answer.
“That was one of the most basic of healing magics. George is a regular of mine. He has a hellish job, and he lets himself get caught up in the bustle of work. He always comes in with the most tense muscles I have ever seen.”
“Wouldn’t he be able to fix it with a massage?” Kat asked. “Those are available in this city.”
Mireille looked at her with a smirk and beckoned her to follow. Behind the garage was a plethora of lawn supplies. Mireille took the lawn chair George had been sitting in and gestured for Kat to grab a chair and do the same.
“It’s not just his muscles,” Mireille explained. “It’s his mind and spirit. You’re right, a massage could easily fix tense muscles, but when George came to me he told me he had tried every masseuse in the city, and nothing had helped him. He tensed right back up within ten minutes.
“A skill I learned allows me to feel the energy of anyone I lay my hands on. All of his spiritual energy was blocked and stagnated, because his mind had seized up from all the stress. So I calm the mind, and get the energy flowing again. Simple as that.”
Kat considered it for a moment. “Is it similar to the electricity running through my system? The energy you speak of cannot be blood or oxygen, which is paramount to human function.”
“Don’t you have anything else running through your, uh, system?” Mireille asked.
“Coolant,” Kat replied.
“Well, let’s equate your coolant to blood, then. Without it, you’d overheat and have to shut down. Without blood or oxygen, humans die,” Kat explained. “But if your electricity was weakened, you wouldn’t cease to function, you would just get…I don’t know much about robotics, but I assume you’d get all glitchy. It’s kind of like that for living things, only most people don’t notice it. If your energy gets clogged you can feel sluggish and stuck and your body might ache more.”
A moment of silence passed between them as both watched the sun sink lower into the horizon over the greenery of the nature preserve; in the far distance Mireille could see skyscrapers over the trees of the forest separating her tiny backyard oasis from the rest of the preserve, and eventually the city.
“Am I not a living thing?” Kat asked, looking at Mireille with questioning emerald eyes.
Mireille’s eyes widened, and she shifted uncomfortably in her seat. “Uh. I don’t think I’m qualified to answer that question?” she said, tugging awkwardly at her wild brown hair.
“Oh. I will have to ask others, then.” Kat said. Who these ‘others’ were, Mireille didn’t know.
After the sun sank below the city’s skyline and the clouds no longer reflected the pink-orange of sunset, the two abandoned their lawn chairs and returned to the cottage.
An android had no need for a bed. Specifically, androids were made to enter power-saving mode standing up so their owners could tuck them in an unobtrusive corner. Many owners, however, found this to be creepy: walking into their kitchens for a midnight snack and seeing a figure out of the corner of their eye was enough to wake up their whole neighborhoods, so often owners thought that laying the android down on the couch in a semblance of sleep might be better.
Kat knew all of this, as the information was freely available on the web. What she didn’t understand was why she had an entire room to herself. The first day there, Mireille had ushered her into the room, plain white walls, a bed with white linens, and a oak nightstand as well as a bookshelf and set of drawers, and said proudly that this was to be her room.
After attempting to explain that she had no need of this space, Mireille insisted. After an incident with a shattered cup of tea and a small burn, Mireille also insisted she use the bed when in power-saving mode.
It was a day approximately one week and three days after Kat had arrived that she roused herself from power-saving mode to find Mireille standing in the doorway, looking thoughtful as she examined the room.
“Is there something wrong?” Kat asked, and Mireille jumped a little bit before laughing.
“No, there’s nothing wrong,” Mireille said. “I was just thinking I need to get some supplies from the city.”
“Oh.” Kat blinked. “I thought you received your supplies by mail?”
Mireille looked mischievous for a moment. “Normally, yes. But these are special supplies. What would you say about a trip into the city?”
The trip from the nature preserve to the city was, as Mireille loudly proclaimed, “A huge chore” and one that she didn’t do very often. Indeed, Kat observed that Mireille spent most of the trip trying not to fall over various dead logs and gnarled tree roots.
“I don’t understand why you don’t just call a taxi,” Kat said after Mireille nearly fell and cursed a particularly old root.
“I can’t,” Mireille said. “I live on the nature preserve. It’s beautiful, and part of the way they keep it that way is by declaring it a no-fly zone except for special circumstances, like my deliveries, and even then they have to keep to a special route. Taxis are considered extraneous and disturbances to wildlife.”
Wildlife. Kat had seen some skittering in the forest, the creatures seeming to avoid her with extra care. Mireille noted it was odd that they scattered like that. Normally she had an uncanny ability to get close to the creatures in the forest.
After what seemed like “an eternity” to Mireille but was in fact only two hours by Kat’s reckoning, they reached the edge of the preserve. A large gate made of iron (an anachronism in the age of reliable plasteel) opened once Mireille properly identified herself to the gate controls, and at once Kat was greeted with the sight of the city.
As it was close to midday, the street was bustling with people heading to lunch. The sun reflected harshly off the white skyscrapers and smooth concrete labeled with paths for pedestrians. Light glinted off the windows of shops, and Mireille shaded her eyes. “I should’ve brought sunglasses,” she muttered.
It was like stepping into a different world. Where once there was the womb of the forest to dapple the sunlight gently on Kat’s synthetic skin and soft earth to step on, the city was both wide-open and claustrophobic. The street that ringed the perimeter of the nature preserve was quickly left behind as Mireille struggled with navigating through the crowds of people. Kat, turning on her life-monitoring systems, also noticed that her heart rate was rapidly increasing and breath becoming shallow.
Catching up to Mireille who seemed intent on leading the way, Kat, with the most ginger of touches, grasped Mireille’s free hand.
A new emotion, one Kat didn’t have the word for, flooded her mind. She could feel the warmth emanating from Mireille’s hand, seeping through her synthetic skin into her sensors, and when Mireille turned to look her brown eyes seemed to glow golden from the sunlight. The world stopped for a moment when their eyes met.
And then it was over, and Mireille looked down. “Kat, you…”
“I noticed you seemed to be becoming anxious,” Kat said. “I…thought that a reassuring touch would be beneficial.”
Mireille smiled warmly. “Thank you, Kat. It is. Shall we go?”
The streets seemed to part ways for them then, Mireille no longer struggling to find the correct street. Instead of what Kat had calculated would be a shop that sold the items Mireille used, they stepped inside a department store.
Mireille, still holding Kat’s hand, made a beeline for the bedding section.
“Kat,” Mireille asked innocently, looking at the android. “Do you have a favorite color?”
Kat tilted her head. “I have no color preferences.”
Mireille scoffed. “That software I loaded you with included a capacity for aesthetic preference.”
Kat shook her head. “I still…don’t think I have one.”
Mireille thought in silence for a few seconds, then nodded, deciding something to herself. “Okay. Let me grab some things, and you pick whatever you’re drawn to the most.
Mireille bustled to and fro, gathering bedsheets from various corners of the store. Finally, she laid them all out on a display bed and positioned Kat in front of them.
They were the spectrum of the rainbow, all plain.
“I’m confused,” Kat said. “What is the purpose of picking a set of sheets?”
Mireille sighed in frustration. “Just pick the one you’re drawn to. And don’t just pick one randomly!”
Kat nodded and looked back at the sheets. She let her eyes rest over each one. The red sheet was the color of the roses in the backyard, bright, but she held no special fondness for it. Orange the color of the sunset—beautiful, she realized, it was aesthetically beautiful—but not any more special than the red. This continued until she came to the set of blue sheets.
They were the color of the sky at its apex during the day, and something must have shown on her face, because Mireille grinned. “I…prefer the blue, although green comes somewhat close,” Kat said.
“Blue it is!”
As they were picking out the sheets, other customers had begun to stare. Once Mireille had picked up the blue set of sheets, she finally noticed them, and she shrank into herself a bit.
Without prompting or checking to see what her vital signs were, Kat again grasped her hand gently, and could feel her pulse relax.
They hurried through the checkout, and once outside, Mireille let out a sigh. “That’s one stop down.”
“This wasn’t the supply you were looking for?” Kat asked.
“Only one of them,” Mireille said, grinning again. They pushed through the streets and headed off to another mystery destination.
Before three, they were carrying the blue set of sheets, a can of turquoise paint, a glass statue of a blue dolphin Kat had lingered at, and two posters, one of the ocean and the other of the schematics of the first permanent civilian space-station. All of these items Mireille insisted upon after Kat had spent a considerable time examining them. The ocean was aesthetically pleasing, like the sunset, and the schematics gave Kat a sense of pleasure to ponder.
Mireille announced they were going to their last stop for the day, and headed towards an alley situated between two skyscraper bases. Here the sun didn’t reach, and the formerly pristine concrete had accumulated a bit of dirt and trash from the city’s passers-by.
At the end of the alley was a spartan staircase leading to a door that looked just like any other back entrance. They climbed the stairs and Mireille knocked three times.
The door opened a crack, then swung wide, revealing a woman with fiery red hair and brown eyes whose smile seemed to take up the width of her freckle-covered face.
“Mir!” the stranger said, embracing Mireille, still laden with goods. Mireille just accepted the hug and leaned in, unable to return it.
“Jas! It’s so good to see you,” Mireille said. Jas affirmed and ushered Mireille into the darkly-lit interior, pausing when her eyes met Kat.
“You got a CHO-XV3? That’s…unexpected,” Jas said, but motioned for her to come in. Kat complied.
“Her name is Kat,” Mireille said. Kat’s eyes quickly adjusted to the dim lighting; the interior of the house was made much like Mireille’s cottage, but Kat could tell it was only a façade. The wood was stained dark, with a thread of LED light casting the room in a violet wash. There were overhead lights, but the fixtures of atmospheric lighting seemed to be more to Jas’s liking.
Jas appraised her, and Kat felt a flush of what Mireille had identified as worry. But she nodded in approval. “I can see why you made the decisions you did, Mir. I like her. You loaded her with the software from the Guild?”
“How’s she coming along?”
The two continued like this, speaking as though Kat were not in the room. As they spoke, a feeling began to grow, finally culminating when Kat said suddenly. “I don’t enjoy being spoken about like this.”
The two paused, Jas’s eyes fascinated and Mireille’s looking like a cross of horrified and embarrassed.
“Far indeed,” Jas said. “I’m sorry, Kat. I moonlight as an IT guy sometimes. I’m used to androids being practically non-sentient.”
“Aware of one’s own existence as a single entity.”
Kat looked down to her feet. “Oh.”
Mireille was suddenly at her side. “It was rude of us to talk like you weren’t here,” Mireille said. “I apologize. Why don’t you come and sit?”
Jas let out a breath. “An organic apologizing to an android. That ain’t something you see every day. Mir’s gonna get some techcraft supplies, so why don’t we have a little chat, Kat?”
Jas was insatiably curious. In their short conversation, Kat learned the names for the emotions she had yet to acquire labels for, learned that the illegal software had started as Jas’s brainchild, and that Jas was a talented tech witch.
A squeal came from Mireille’s direction, who had retreated into a back room down a hallway. She came rushing out, holding a somewhat porky orange tabby. “I found Mouser!”
Without ceremony, Mireille plopped Mouser down on the worn couch and began to coo at him and play with his ears. Mouser seemed to tolerate the attention, and Jas just watched amusedly. Catching Kat’s curious gaze, Jas explained:
“Mouser is my familiar. Well, my pet, but he helps out in my craft, too.” Jas got up and stroked the cat, picking him up (much to Mireille’s dismayed whining) and sat him on Kat’s lap.
Kat was prepared for the animal to run away screeching, but instead the tabby just looked up at her with his big brown eyes, blinking slowly and waving his tail lazily back and forth. Tentatively, she reached out to pat his head, and found that his fur was pleasantly soft. The cat leaned into her touch.
Jas smiled. “He likes you.”
“All the other animals were scared of her in the forest,” Mireille said. “I don’t get it.”
“Ah, dear Mir, my Mouser is always a little ahead of the game when it comes to people,” Jas said. “The others will catch up eventually.”
Saying their goodbyes to Jas, Kat and Mireille headed out as the sky turned to a star-speckled indigo, a ring of magenta on the horizon. The city streets were only a little less crowded, it seemed, though the swarm of people grew thicker with every passing minute. Lights illuminating walkways began to turn on as the sky grew darker and the two hurriedly scurried along the streets, weighed down with their acquired treasures.
The trip back through the woods was made all the more grueling in the dark, with Kat lighting the way (Mireille had been unaware android’s eyes also functioned as emergency flashlights). Mireille thought it a feat that she only tripped twice, and somehow her supplies, tucked in brown wrapping paper, remained intact through the whole trip. It was deeply dark when they finally made it back to the cottage, and Mireille made a beeline straight for Kat’s room, collapsing on the white cotton sheets with a huff of effort.
“If it’s okay with you, let’s wait until tomorrow to redecorate your room, huh? I’m beat.”
Kat blinked curiously at her. “Redecorate?”
Sitting up, Mireille lifted an eyebrow. “Well, obviously. What did you think those sheets were for? And the decorations? My room is way too crowded with stuff already. I wanted you to pick out stuff you liked.”
Kat wasn’t certain what to say in response. “I don’t need new decorations, Mireille. I can perform optimally with what I currently have. It is more than enough, in fact.”
Mireille twisted her mouth into a half-smile. “Kat, why are you still acting like I only want you around because you’re a mach—an android?” She stumbled over the word machine.
“I thought I was here to assist you with your craft and be your personal assistant,” Kat said, suddenly uncertain as to where the conversation was going. “This level of caring for an android like myself is…unnecessary, according to the knowledge I was created with.”
Suddenly turning serious, Mireille stood up, looking at Kat evenly in the eye. “I didn’t want you because I needed an unthinking assistant to do all my hard work for me,” she said, even-toned. “I wanted you because I needed a new familiar. And a familiar is much more than just a simple assistant.”
Kat felt more hot air than usual expelling through the vents on her back, cooling mechanisms whirring a little harder to compensate for the inexplicable rising heat within her body. “I was never told what being a familiar assistant involved. Surely if an animal can do it, you wouldn’t have needed an android?”
Mireille grasped her shoulder firmly but reassuringly. “Being a familiar is about being in a witch’s total confidence. Two souls meet in the middle to create a powerful craft borne of love and trust, not of servitude. Animals are traditional, but that doesn’t mean a familiar is less than her witch. Familiars are invaluable collaborators. No one witch can do it alone. And I…tried.”
Her voice faltered, and she withdrew her hand. “Mireille?” Kat asked, searching her suddenly darkened expression.
“I’m going to go to bed,” she said simply. “Tomorrow, we redecorate. Then I’m going to teach you about the Sabbat.”
Kat simply watched as Mireille walked down the hallway and disappeared into her room.
One Year Ago:
It was only midday and already Mir had come for tea and a chat, as she had so often these past few weeks; Jas was wondering if the girl was going to up and move in soon. They were sitting on the roof underneath a pieced-together shade attached to the neighboring building via duct tape and a prayer . It was necessary to keep the midday sun from beating down on the white roof. Still, they barely said a word as they sipped their cool drinks and watched the people pass by on the streets below.
“You can’t keep doing this,” Jas said abruptly.
“Keep doing what?” Mir said, looking innocently over at Jas.
“I know it’s lonely at home since…since it happened, but you can’t just keep stuffing it up with tea and conversation. It isn’t healthy, especially for someone your age.”
Mir shifted uncomfortably in her seat. “Where did that come from all the sudden? And screw age. We both know neither of us act like we’re in our 190’s.”
Jas took another sip. “You damn well know I know, Mir. For the love of the gods, I’m an empath. I know when one of my friends is hurting.”
A moment of silence passed as Mir’s expression soured. “How am I supposed to move on, Jas? You know as well as I do that Belle was special. You can’t just replace a familiar like her.”
“I never said anything about replacing her,” Jas said. “It’s just how it is. You can never replace a true witch’s familiar. What I’m saying is, you can’t keep living alone.”
In the distance, a car honked, and a stranger on the street below waved to the rooftop pair randomly. Jas waved back briefly, but continued. “I know you want to be independent. We all do. It’s just one of those things. It’s why coven meetings are so damn rare nowadays. But you’ve been alone long enough. Belle’s death just made it clearer.”
Mir twitched when Jas said ‘death’, but otherwise remained quiet for a few seconds, chewing over Jas’s words in her mind. “Well, what do you suggest I do? Join the dating pool or something?”
“Nah, you’d never land a fish from this ocean,” Jas said light-heartedly, laughing. “And besides, you do need a new familiar. Those are hard to come across. But you know that idea I had about custom android software?”
Mir scoffed at the mention of androids. “Uh-huh.”
“The tech guild up and ran with my idea. They’re going to start production on it. I know you aren’t the biggest fan of them, but hey, with my design, an android could be a familiar AND a decent assistant…”
Kat did not enter power-saving mode that night. Something kept gnawing at her thought processes, and in the end, she stared at the new blue accoutrements and examining her room, thinking.
Her room. Mireille had provided it for her knowing she didn’t need it. Maybe she didn’t know it wasn’t customary to give her kind a space. She wasn’t sure. But the more she stared, and the longer she went without lying down and saving her power consumption, the more her thoughts started to become disorganized and frayed.
In the end, she decided, she did want the room. Not because she needed it, but because…because…
Kat had asked an online forum for androids whether or not she was able to be considered a ‘living thing’ and more often than not, the responses came back:
No, and the other androids were treated as an appliance or even as a novelty. They were objects to be marketed, like Mireille’s herbal tonics and creams. They were useful, but not deserving of respect. And the more responses like this poured in the more a feeling grew inside her, small at first and then growing in strength. Something she had never felt before--like a spark turning into a white-hot coal where her stomach might have been if she was human.
And so that’s how Mireille found her the next morning: seemingly having dropped where she sat sometime in the middle of the night when it was deemed necessary for her to enter power-saving mode by force, gripping the glass dolphin gently.
Kat woke hours later as the sun was well into the sky and streaming through her ivy-covered window, tucked underneath the sheets and blanket for the first time, dolphin set delicately on top of her drawers and all the accessories they had bought the previous day stacked neatly next to it. Kat gingerly got out of bed, wondering if the blanket had always seemed this soft and then noticed a note in Mireille’s scrawling handwriting on the drawers.
Noticed you passed out last night, n thought to tuck you in. Sleep as long as you want, will be working in the garden n preparing for sabbat tonight. Meet me whenever youre feeling up to it!
As promised, she was in the garden, but not doing the weeding Kat had been expecting; instead, Mireille was seated near one of the hedges, cross-legged with her eyes closed.
Approaching snapped her out of her reverie, however, and Mireille smiled a little sheepishly. “Hey Kat. I’m sorry if I seemed weird last night. It’s just…”
Kat shook her head. “Please don’t be sorry. It was best if I heard that, I think. I have another question for you, Mireille.”
Perking up, Mireille seemed to give her the go-ahead. “Last night I experienced a new emotion. I have asked my fellow androids whether or not I am a ‘living thing’.” Understanding dawned on Mireille’s face. ‘Others’, indeed. “They ubiquitously replied in the negative. They say we are only meant to be appliances, but that can’t be right. I’m not just an appliance. An appliance doesn’t become a witch’s equal,” Kat said, voice rising and getting faster without her saying so. “What is this feeling I have? Like fire, here.” Kat pointed to her would-be stomach.
Mireille’s face looked suddenly a little more serious. “Kat, I think you’ve gotten your first taste of anger.”
Anger. Yes, that seemed about right.
“What is anger good for?” Kat asked. “I do not see its use beyond making me feel…worse than I ever have.”
Mireille stood up and stretched. “As a witch, I must understand a great many things about emotion. The energy of it, its effect on the human body and its uses.” Mireille began to pace. “Anger is potent. It’s the merging of passion and hatred. And if it’s excessive, it can pollute the soul in most people. But it can also be a powerful force for change. It is one part passion, after all, and that is the most useful tool in a witch’s arsenal.” Looking Kat straight in the face, Mireille continued. “Anger can be freeing just as it can be poisonous, because once you’ve allowed yourself to feel it, you can accept that something is wrong, and begin to work for change.”
Change. Kat kept silent and thought about the hundreds of androids who had replied to her question.
“I have one more feelings question,” Kat said. “Why is it than when I hold your hand—“ as if to prove it to herself, Kat reached and took a hold of Mireille’s thick, strong hand—“I feel as though suddenly I am much warmer than I was before?”
Mireille smiled, her cheeks reddening. “Where do you feel this, Kat?”
Kat lifted her finger to point at where her heart might be.
“I think we need to find that out for ourselves.” Suddenly, Mireille pressed her lips to Kat’s cheek. “Come. I have to teach you about the Sabbat before it gets dark.”
It was only twice a year when the witches of the city gathered to form a coven: the summer and winter solstices were agreed upon as the necessary time for witches to convene as they had in times past. Jas and Mireille were among the oldest of this current generation Mireille had explained to Kat. As such, they were to choose the witches that would lead the Rite.
It was just before sundown when all had gathered in a clearing of trees on the nature preserve. Kat had explained that this particular preserve had been used by witches in previous generations, and had no small part in ensuring that it was saved from the onslaught of urbanization. Each witch was dressed in a black cloak. Kat would have thought she stood out being dressed in a white cloak, until she noticed several similarly-dressed figures and realized with a small start that she was looking at other androids, models that were anywhere from years older than her to only months.
As the sun set on the horizon, a black-cloaked woman stepped forward with her white-cloaked android companion, a male model with piercing gold eyes that met Kat’s, and the summer Rite began.
It was like nothing Kat had been expecting, even with Mireille’s explanations. Witches, so much older than they appeared to be, called names of gods long-forgotten by the public; there were prayers, pleas, and the leader of the Rite took on what Mireille explained was a god’s energy, to restore something to the witches present that had been lost since the last solstice. Kat was unable to explain it, but even she could feel something fluttering where her heart would have been.
As the Rite came to a close, and the witches mingled, some heading back home in the dark, some staying, Kat found that Mireille’s once empty home was now full of people—and androids. They eyed her and smiled to themselves.
Some chose to stay the night rather than walk home in the darkness. This included Jas, who had decided to claim the couch in the living room. As Kat headed off to bed, Mireille caught her by the sleeve.
“Kat, what if I stayed in your room? Just for tonight? Someone, er, needs a bed to sleep on.” Mireille’s face was reddening again.
Kat nodded and smiled, feeling heat rising in her again, and the two settled in the white sheets. Kat found herself again enjoying the soft weight of the blanket. Without saying anything, Mireille curled around her, draping her arm across Kat’s torso and tucking her head into the soft curve of her neck.
“Tomorrow we’re going to paint this room,” Mireille said, already sounding sleepy.
“We will,” Kat said, and they both fell asleep in the darkness, illuminated in the soft glow of the moon.