His Master’s Voice
I came to understand what the Master said when he spoke. The sounds that had only meant angry or happy before became the word of my god. He noticed, smiled, and ruffled my fur. After that he started speaking to us more, me and the cat, during the long evenings when the sea beyond the windows was black as oil and the waves made the whole rig ring like a bell. His voice was dark as a well, deep and gentle. He spoke of an island, his home, an island in the middle of a great sea. I smelled bitterness, and for the first time I understood that there were always words behind words, never spoken.
* * *
The cat catches the updraft perfectly: it floats still for a split second, and then clings to the side of the tower. Its claws put the smart concrete to sleep: code that makes the building think that the cat is a bird or a shard of ice carried by the wind.
The cat hisses and spits. The disassembler nanites from its stomach cling to the wall and start eating a round hole in it. The wait is excruciating. The cat locks the exomuscles of its armor and hangs there patiently. Finally, there is a mouth with jagged edges in the wall, and it slips in. My heart pounds as I switch from the AR view to the cat’s iris cameras. It moves through the ventilation shaft like lightning, like an acrobat, jerky, hyperaccelerated movements, metabolism on overdrive. My tail twitches again. We are coming, master, I think. We are coming.
* * *
I lost my ball the day the wrong master came.
I looked everywhere. I spent an entire day sniffing every corner and even braved the dark corridors of the cat’s realm beneath the deck, but I could not find it. In the end, I got hungry and returned to the cabin. And there were two masters. Four hands stroking my coat. Two gods, true and false.
I barked. I did not know what to do. The cat looked at me with a mixture of pity and disdain and rubbed itself on both of their legs.
“Calm down,” said one of the masters. “Calm down. There are four of us now.”
I learned to tell them apart, eventually: by that time Small Animal had taught me to look beyond smells and appearances. The master I remembered was a middle-aged man with graying hair, stocky-bodied. The new master was young, barely a man, much slimmer and with the face of a mahogany cherub. The master tried to convince me to play with the new master, but I did not want to. His smell was too familiar, everything else too alien. In my mind, I called him the wrong master.
The two masters worked together, walked together and spent a lot of time talking together using words I did not understand. I was jealous. Once I even bit the wrong master. I was left on the deck for the night as a punishment, even though it was stormy and I was afraid of thunder. The cat, on the other hand, seemed to thrive in the wrong master’s company, and I hated it for it.
I remember the first night the masters argued.
“Why did you do it?” asked the wrong master.
“You know,” said the master. “You remember.” His tone was dark. “Because someone has to show them we own ourselves.”
“So, you own me?” said the wrong master. “Is that what you think?”
“Of course not,” said the master. “Why do you say that?”
“Someone could claim that. You took a genetic algorithm and told it to make ten thousand of you, with random variations, pick the ones that would resemble your ideal son, the one you could love. Run until the machine runs out of capacity. Then print. It’s illegal, you know. For a reason.”
“That’s not what the plurals think. Besides, this is my place. The only laws here are mine.”
“You’ve been talking to the plurals too much. They are no longer human.”
“You sound just like VecTech’s PR bots.”
“I sound like you. Your doubts. Are you sure you did the right thing? I’m not a Pinocchio. You are not a Gepetto.”
The master was quiet for a long time.
“What if I am,” he finally said. “Maybe we need Gepettos. Nobody creates anything new anymore, let alone wooden dolls that come to life. When I was young, we all thought something wonderful was on the way. Diamond children in the sky, angels out of machines. Miracles. But we gave up just before the blue fairy came.”
“I am not your miracle.”