Some stories I wrote that folks seem to like.
The Dead Girl Who
Knew Nothing of Death
Short Screenplay - Animation - 33 Pages
Austin Film Festival Second Rounder
In a post-apocalyptic city where all life has been snuffed out, a painfully shy ghost attempts to court the skeletal remains of a girl she doesn’t realize died decades prior.
Hard Science Fiction: 34,200 words
This is the journal of Tammy Maheswaran, a reclusive roboticist living with undiagnosed autism. It documents the creation of Mariimo, a developmental robotics platform through which Tammy subconsciously externalizes her issues with isolation, anxiety, and touch. Upon the machine's activation, Tammy gradually begins to realize that in the act of constructing Mariimo, she's been unknowingly deconstructing herself.
Feature Screenplay - Drama - 103 Pages
Academy Nicholl Fellowships Top 10%
A 22-year-old woman is institutionalized after claiming to be in a romantic relationship with the moon.
Paranormal Horror - 14,800 Words
This is the story of a lonely girl with an affinity for the macabre. Although she had never been the type to believe in ghosts, she couldn’t help but indulge fantasies of romance beyond the veil. However, when a cocksure spirit with a dangerous infatuation drags her deep into a private purgatory of blood and decay, what was once an innocent fantasy quickly becomes a precarious negotiation that could cost the girl her life.
by Tyrel Pinnegar
CHAPTER ONE: DRAFTING
Journal Entry #1My name is Tammy Maheswaran, and I’m an independent roboticist. I’m keeping this journal to document the progress of a personal project.My goal is to create a developmental robotics platform that will serve as a tool in the study of machine learning and emergent behavior.Let’s get started, I guess?Journal Entry #2It just occurred to me that whoever ends up reading this journal might not have a background in robotics, and therefore would have no idea what I’m talking about.Let me clarify: My goal is to create a learning machine. A machine that, through trial and error, creates its own subjective understanding of its surroundings.Aside from a few simple rules, she’ll begin as a blank slate. She’ll know nothing. All sensory information will seem like a senseless jumble.Her only asset will be her capability to learn.There’s no telling where the project will go from there. My hope is that with time and guidance she’ll become something truly unique.Journal Entry #3I’ve spent the last few days doodling robots. I’m still trying to find the right look.I want her to stand out from the crowd. Something really unique. People seem to have this preconceived notion of what a robot should be. I’d much rather think about what a robot could be.So many modern robots have a bleak, sterile look to them. Machined aluminum. Smooth plastic. Even when they manage to look appealing, they have an air of inaccessibility about them. They don’t invite your touch.When you stop to think, a robot could be made of just about anything. Unglazed porcelain. Driftwood. Bamboo. There are so many ways one could make a robot seem warmer, more textural, more inviting.Perhaps what I’m looking for is something more along the lines of a plush toy. Soft. Safe.I’ll take some time to think on it.Journal Entry #4Memory foam. I’m going to use memory foam.I’ll have to find a solution for various heat retention problems, but it’ll be worth the trouble. Lightweight. Soft. It’s perfect.She’ll likely be incredibly clumsy for a while after booting up for the first time. There’s no telling how long that stage will last. A body constructed from memory foam will help prevent her from damaging herself or her surroundings.She needs to be allowed to make mistakes. It’s a vital part of learning. The least I can do is make it safe for her to do so.Still, memory foam is a delicate material. She’ll need some sort of outer layer to protect against abrasions.I’ll compile a list of possible materials in the morning.Journal Entry #5I’ve assembled a small collection of fabric swatches in my attempt to find a suitable skin for the project. Some interesting ideas, but none of them feel quite right.Denim seems like a good candidate in the practical sense. Strong. Durable. Sturdy. Aesthetically however, I don’t think it’s a good fit. I want her to have an air of elegance about her. Sleek. Smooth. Denim has none of these qualities.Silk would be elegant of course, but it seems antiquated. I want her to feel modern. More like a piece of abstract sculpture, and less like an eighteenth-century Japanese automaton.I flirted briefly with the idea of using a baby blue polar fleece, like a pair of footed pajamas. It’s a cute thought, but I can’t help but feel it would look a little demeaning.I don’t know. I’ll keep looking.Journal Entry #6Neoprene. I can’t believe I didn’t think of it earlier. Waterproof. Elastic. Easy to clean. It’s pretty much skin already.Neoprene can be treated almost as if it were a fabric. It can be cut. It can be glued. It can be sewn. It shouldn’t be too much trouble to fashion a snug, form-fitting outer layer to fit nearly any body shape I happen to come up with.I have to consider thickness carefully. Too thin and the neoprene could tear. Too thick and it may begin to restrict movement. I think four millimeters is probably a good compromise.Also, the nylon knit fabric used to laminate neoprene is available in nearly any color imaginable. I’m tempted to try something in charcoal and turquoise, personally.Journal Entry #7I’ve got a vague image of what I want the final product to look like forming in my mind. It still feels like something is missing, though. All that neoprene ends up looking sort of featureless. It lacks character.There needs to be some sort of visual interest to break up the monotony. Something to keep her from looking like a walking wetsuit. I can’t quite put my finger on what, though.Journal Entry #8Stitches. Big, chunky stitches, like a rag doll sewn together with shoelaces. Non-functional, running along the seams, obscuring the true needlework.I’m going to use turquoise 550lb nylon paracord, laced through four-millimeter powder-coated aluminum eyelets. Obviously the tensile strength of paracord isn’t strictly necessary for what is basically a purely aesthetic purpose, but its thickness gives it an appealing chunkiness.Journal Entry #9It’s slowly becoming apparent that I probably shouldn’t stitch this whole ensemble completely shut. I’m still a little fuzzy about what kind of hardware will be housed inside her plush exterior, but whatever it ends up being, it should be kept accessible.I’m thinking I should install a hidden maintenance zipper. One that runs all the way around the central seam, allowing her neoprene skin to be split into two separate halves and removed from her endoskeleton. It shouldn’t be too difficult to make it inconspicuous. Use a narrow, fine-toothed zipper. Match the color to the surrounding fabric. Tuck in the pull tab. Nearly invisible.Maintenance wouldn’t be a routine thing, as unzipping would require unlacing several meters of paracord, but it’ll be reassuring to have a non-destructive access method should mechanical problems eventually crop up.On the plus side, all that paracord will help prevent any potential self-unzipping.Journal Entry #10Today it dawned on me that I had yet to decide how tall the final product should be. After a lot of thought, I settled on sixty-two inches. She needs to be tall enough to comfortably interact with people, but small enough to be restrained if she starts acting unpredictably. I measure in at a whopping sixty-six inches, so that seemed like a fair enough compromise.I realize I should probably be planning this sort of thing in metric. I’m so used to hearing people’s height in feet and inches that it was just easier to visualize this way. I’ll convert her measurements to centimeters before I begin work on the actual blueprints.Journal Entry #11If I were to start fabrication on the project as it stands now, the final product would end up being little more than a plush toy. She still needs a skeleton.I know I badmouthed aluminum the other day, but it really is a versatile material. Lightweight. Strong. Fairly inexpensive. The downside is it can be tricky to weld. I don’t expect I’ll be doing much welding on this project, but it’s something to keep in mind.Stainless steel might be an option, but it’s heavy. With a machine like this, unpredictable behavior is to be expected. It’s probably best to shave off as many kilograms as possible, for safety reasons.Titanium would be ideal, but it comes at a price. I have some money stashed away for the project, but my budget isn’t unlimited. A titanium armature could potentially duodecuple the cost of materials.I still need to explore carbon fiber as a possibility. It’s far lighter than any of the previous options, but I’m not sure what it would cost.I’ll report back tomorrow.Journal Entry #12It just dawned on me that any skeletal support will be completely hidden in the final product, and therefore it doesn’t matter what it looks like. Machined PVC. Durable. Flexible. Cheap. Problem solved.Journal Entry #13I’ve been thinking carefully about potential methods of animation.The obvious solution would be the classic servomotor. Accessible. Compact. Reliable. Not a particularly groundbreaking method, I suppose, but it works.I do have a serious concern regarding servos though. Servos are ideal for tasks that require accurate, repetitive movements. Assembly line robots, for example. They can be precisely controlled by the programmer.In this particular case, the programmer is not going to be the one in control.Servos are capable of potentially violent, jerky motions. My fear is that she might accidentally damage herself or those around her in her early attempts at movement. It would be like putting a toddler at the wheel of a car. I need something safer.Pneumatic muscles are interesting devices. Gentle. Supple. Compliant. They’re a lot like human muscles, if human muscles ran on compressed air. Pneumatic muscles move with a certain fluidity. They have a little bit of give. I’m quite confident they’ll be the safer choice for the project.Journal Entry #14Pneumatic muscles necessitate the use of an air compressor. This will be tricky. For the purposes of this project, the compressor needs to be compact and whisper-quiet. Most off the shelf compressors tend to be bulky and loud. It’s going to have to be a custom job.There are several types of compression mechanism to choose from, however. Reciprocating compressors work a lot like the engine of a car, but in reverse. Problem is, all those pistons create just about as much racket as a car engine. Far too noisy for my purposes.Scroll compressors are a clever concept. A motorized spiral oscillating against a stationary spiral, working together to force air toward their centers. But that sort of high-speed oscillation is bound to create a lot of vibration. Suitable for a stationary air compression unit perhaps, not so much for a clumsy, unbalanced robot.A rotary screw compressor is probably my best bet. No oscillation means less vibration. No pistons means quieter operation. The whirring of the motor will be audible, but that’s not nearly as hard on the ears as the incessant buzzing of a reciprocating compressor. Besides, all that memory foam is bound to have a pretty serious sound dampening effect.In a way, the compressor will act as the heart of the machine, so it only makes sense to place it in her chest. Something about that just feels right.As far as compressed air storage is concerned, the best place for the canister is almost certainly the pelvic bowl, alongside her solenoid valve bank. Her hips will be the widest section of her torso by a fair margin, and more space for pressure storage means greater endurance.I will admit that this is an unconventionally tight space to install a fully-functioning air compression system. I suspect she may need to stop and rest occasionally. Catch her breath, as it were.Journal Entry #15Batteries are one area where I’m willing to compromise my goal of keeping the project lightweight. One of my biggest pet peeves is seeing a robot permanently tethered to an external power source because nobody bothered to take the weight of the batteries into account.Lithium-ion batteries seem to be the standard in modern electronics. They have a high storage capacity. They’re reusable. The downside is that they take a long time to charge. Hours. More downtime means less learning. Less learning means slower cognitive development. That’s unacceptable for a machine that has to start from scratch.Supercapacitors might be the better choice. They’re not true batteries, as they don’t store energy chemically, but they can be used to fulfill a similar purpose. They do have downsides. They tend to have a lower storage capacity. They’re heavier. Bulkier. But they can charge in a matter of minutes. Seconds even. With a high capacity-array of supercapacitors installed, any downtime will be negligible.Journal Entry #16I’d like to have an easy way to read her charge level. Something that can be read at a glance. It would make day to day interaction a lot more straightforward.It should probably use a universal symbol. Most charge indicator symbols are battery-shaped. Superconductors aren’t true batteries, I know. But it would be immediately understood by anyone who has even a passing familiarity with electronics. Kind of like how software interfaces use a floppy disk to represent the act of saving a file, despite the fact that floppies have been obsolete for nearly two decades now.That still leaves the problem of how to display said symbol. Her neoprene skin doesn’t leave a lot of real estate for electronic displays. I suppose I could cut a small hole in the neoprene to allow a display to peek through.Actually, now that I’ve given it some thought, most modern displays have some degree of flexibility. I could probably glue one directly to the surface of the neoprene. The left side of her chest seems like an appropriate location. Like a patch or badge.The display itself should probably be electrophoretic, like an e-reader. They only consume energy when refreshing the display. In an application like this, that means energy consumption would be almost nonexistent.Also, if I were to coat the display with a matte-finish transparent turquoise laminate, white sections of the image would show up turquoise, keeping it consistent with her turquoise and charcoal color scheme. Finally, segmented electrophoretic displays can be trimmed to nearly any shape imaginable, as long as the circuitry itself isn’t severed. Aesthetically, it’s just a good choice.Journal Entry #17I thought the best charging option would be a retractable power cord on a spool, like you might find on a vacuum cleaner. The further along I get, however, the more I realize that space is at a premium. There’s simply not any room for a heavy spool of copper wire.The obvious solution would be a fully detachable power cord. Plug one end into the robot and the other into the wall. However, it would be ideal if she could remain operational while charging, and I’m a little nervous about the idea of leaving her unattended near a live wall socket.Now I’m thinking about inductive charging. No wires. No risk of electrocution. Just a pair of copper coils in the soles of her feet, and a matching pair inside a charging pad on the floor. Charging would be as simple as standing on the pad and waiting.It would be slower than wired charging, certainly. Not particularly efficient either. But the peace of mind makes it worth it. It’s simple and safe enough that I’m confident she could learn to do it on her own, as needed.The act of balance itself requires a modicum of energy, however. That would slow charging to some degree. I could easily offset that by providing underarm support. Like a doll in a bell jar.Journal Entry #18It’s time to start thinking about computer hardware. I’ve engineered myself into a bit of a corner by using all that foam. That much insulation wrapped around a powerful processing rig is pretty much guaranteed to catch fire eventually.I’ve been trying to figure out a workaround, and I think I’ve settled on something pretty clever. If I were to fashion the neoprene above her shoulders into a sort of hood, I could stitch a strip of curved aluminum right into the fabric itself and have it attach to the upper edge of her faceplate.A setup like that would create a spacious and well-ventilated area behind her faceplate where I could stick computer components without having to worry about creating a horrifying fire hazard.Also, it would result in a pretty nifty “invisible neck” illusion, which is the main reason I’m doing it.
Journal Entry #19If the robot’s computer components are going to be situated in her head, they’re going to have to be lightweight. Any unnecessary top-heaviness is going to make learning to walk that much more difficult.I’ve been toying with the idea of using smartphone components in order to minimize weight. The obvious downside to this is that mobile processors are considerably less powerful than their desktop counterparts.However, If I can assemble a cluster of several top-of-the-line octa-core mobile microprocessors, I’d be getting a pretty incredible speed to weight ratio.In fact, using smartphone components and a little bit of puzzle-work, I could probably fit the entire motherboard into the faceplate itself, leaving the rest of the hood empty and well ventilated.Journal Entry #20Most estimates place the storage capacity of the human brain somewhere between ten and one hundred terabytes. I could easily get my hands on a ten terabyte hard disk drive, but the idea makes me nervous.With all those high-speed moving parts, HDDs are prone to catastrophic failure. I think almost everyone has had a hard drive fail at some point. The bumps and bruises one would have to endure inside a machine that’s teaching itself to walk would make failure all the more likely.A solid state drive is the only real option. No moving parts means a greatly reduced chance of failure. Not a zero percent chance of course, but pretty close.Unfortunately, solid state drives are a far younger technology than hard disk drives, meaning a lower storage capacity at a higher price. There are currently a few four terabyte SSDs available on the consumer market. Installing a pair of them would make for an eight terabyte total storage capacity, which is certainly nothing to sniff at.Also, it’s not like she’ll need to permanently store every kilobyte of data she processes. I’ll teach her how to forget.Journal Entry #21If I were to start fabrication on the project as it stands now, the end result would be nothing more than an animatronic puppet. A machine does not qualify as a robot until it has the ability to perceive its environment.Vision seems as good a place to start as any.Whatever type of camera I choose, she’ll need at least two of them. Depth perception will be a necessity for learning how to interact with her surroundings. Obstacle avoidance, object manipulation, all of these tasks require a sense of depth in order to be performed with accuracy.What’s left to choose is what she’ll see through those cameras. Near-infrared light would be a unique and beautiful way to view the world. Pale blue skies and snow white leaves.Ultraviolet would be gorgeous as well. She would see hidden secrets that no one else could. Flowers with patterns meant just for bees. Invisible freckles on people’s faces.But those types of imaging rely on bright natural sunlight. She’d be rendered effectively blind indoors. Seeing as that’s where she’ll be spending most of her time, they’re not really viable options.Thermal imaging would allow for clear vision regardless of light conditions, but she’d miss out on so much that the world has to offer. Shadows. Colors. Translucency. None of these things are reproduced in a thermal image.If I’m being honest with myself, full color perception will probably be more important to her development than I’m giving it credit for. It’s an easy visual shorthand for the boundaries of any given object. For a machine that will have to teach itself to see, that’s important.Obviously the only way to go about that is with an ordinary, run-of-the-mill visible spectrum camera. It makes my job easier, at least. There are plenty of compact stereoscopic camera modules on the market.Journal Entry #22Hearing should be fairly straightforward. A simple binaural microphone array will allow for satisfactory directional hearing.They don’t have to be conspicuous. I should be able to fit a pair of small directional microphones directly inside her faceplate without much trouble. In fact, I can probably rig up the array using a couple of hearing aids.Internal noise interference can sometimes be a concern with machines like this, but seeing as the faceplate will have no moving parts and will be situated away from the rest of the body, I don’t foresee any problems cropping up.Journal Entry #23Touch will be a bit more complicated. It will likely end up requiring hundreds of sensors. Luckily, simple and flexible pressure sensors can be made for next to nothing.It’s as simple as sandwiching a piece of pressure-sensitive conductive foil between two layers of conductive fabric. When pressure is applied, the electrical resistance of the foil is reduced, allowing for a simple numerical readout of the force being applied. Then I just sew each sensor into a pocket of ordinary non-conductive fabric to keep the whole unit from falling apart. The only tools it requires are basic sewing supplies.After that, I can glue each sensor to the inside of her neoprene skin, stencil the necessary circuitry directly onto the rubber using a conductive metallic paint, then laminate the entire sheet with a layer of nylon knit fabric to prevent friction wear.I’ll have to plan the sensor pattern carefully though. For instance, her shoulders might only require a few sensors each. The palms of her hands however, could require a dozen or more. The sensor resolution will be dependent on the dexterity and fragility of the corresponding body part.Whatever the specifics, the end result will be a machine that can sense the slightest touch on nearly every square inch of her body. Not many robots can make that claim.Journal Entry #24External temperature sensors are not a huge priority in a machine of this type. However, for self-preservation purposes, she should be able to monitor internal temperatures.For starters, she’ll need temperature sensors in her faceplate to prevent her CPU from overheating. Luckily, off-the-shelf processors have temperature monitoring capabilities built in, which saves me from having to worry about it too much.More urgently, she’ll need a sensor monitoring the temperature of her air compressor. I failed to mention this before, but air compressors get hot. Hot enough to potentially catch fire. She’ll need to monitor compressor temperature in order to avoid overexerting herself. If the temperature gets too high, the compressor slows. This will inevitably lead to occasional shortness of breath, but it’s better than inevitably leading to a toxic foam-rubber bonfire.Journal Entry #25If she’s going to navigate her environment efficiently, she’s going to need to know which way is up. That’s where an accelerometer and gyroscope come in handy. The adjustments needed to keep a bipedal body upright are subtle and constant. These two sensors working in tandem will provide an X, Y, and Z axis that will be vital for learning to balance.Modern smartphones have both of these sensors integrated into a single minuscule hybrid chip. It’s actually pretty incredible the level of miniaturization they’ve achieved. Finding room in the faceplate won’t be an issue. Besides, she’ll only need one. I’m pretty sure the fact that people have two sets of semicircular canals is a byproduct of our symmetry, rather than a matter of necessity.Journal Entry #26The accelerometer and gyroscope will only be enough to tell her where in space her head is located. She’ll need to deduce the rest from there.A sense of proprioception can be achieved via a digital encoder in each joint. Two or three in multi-axis joints like shoulders, wrists, and hips. These sensors will make her aware of the rotational angle of each joint at all times, allowing her to calculate the position of her torso and extremities in relation to her head. In addition, they’ll allow a programmed rotation limit that will prevent her from overextending her joints.Proprioception is a sense that people tend to take for granted, to the point where most people aren’t even aware they have it. However, it’s so vital to basic motor control that disorders of the proprioceptive system are serious enough to be considered disabilities. When building sensory systems from the ground up, you have to keep things like this in mind.Journal Entry #27I want to avoid giving her overtly human facial features. It’s far too easy to fall into the uncanny valley, even when using a somewhat stylized design. Just a simple vacuformed white plastic mask is enough to give some people the creeps.I think I’d like to go more abstract than that. Smooth. White. Featureless. Almost shield-like. I’d still like her to be able to express herself, but perhaps via simple animated iconography rather than mechanical means.Don’t ask me how one would go about displaying animated iconography on a convex faceplate. I haven’t thought that far ahead yet.Journal Entry #28I’ve got it. A convex electrophoretic display. Just like the one she’ll use for her charge indicator, but fitted perfectly to the contours of her faceplate. Her entire face would be a display surface.Changing expressions would be a simple matter of refreshing the display. The fact that electrophoretic displays require no backlight means reduced eyestrain during long teaching sessions. The low power consumption means longer running times. On top of all that, it would look absolutely gorgeous.There is one significant stumbling block, however. I’ve never actually seen a convex electrophoretic display before. Curved displays are everywhere nowadays, but convex? I’m not entirely sure it’s possible.I guess if I’m going to be fabricating a robot from scratch, I might as well start with the uncertainties.Journal Entry #29Hypothetically, let’s assume a convex electrophoretic display is possible. What kind of face should be displayed on it? I’ve been toying with the idea of eyespots, like on the wings of a moth. Non-functional visually speaking, but enough to give the impression that someone is home.Her eyespots wouldn’t be quite as striking as a moth’s. The intent isn’t to frighten, but engage. I like the idea of two simple rings. Light gray on stark white, one larger, one smaller, situated one above the other on the right side of her face. Perhaps that’s straying a little too far from what’s recognizable as human, but I feel it has a sort of haunting beauty.Besides, I’ve done some rough drawings, and even with a vertical eyespot arrangement, her expressions would be immediately recognizable. Imagine each ring is made up of two circles. A gray outer circle, with a white inner circle layered on top. Layer that on top of a white background and it appears as a ring. Now, split each circle into fifteen degree radial segments. By removing segments, readable facial expressions can be displayed.Remove the bottom half of the inner circle, and her expression becomes one of excitement. Remove the top half, and suddenly she’s displaying half-lidded eyes of boredom. Rotate those fifteen degrees either clockwise or counterclockwise, and she begins to express anger or sadness, respectively. Removing the top half of the outer circle gives the impression of being asleep, while removing the bottom half results in a bright and cheery smile. And that’s only what I’ve managed to coax out of the pattern so far. I feel as if I’ve only scratched the surface.Of course, this is all assuming I can create a working convex display. It’s entirely possible that I’ll need to settle for a static, neutral expression. Not ideal, but what are you going to do?Journal Entry #30If her facial features are going to be represented by false eyespots, her true eyes will need to be hidden from view. Conspicuous camera lenses would immediately draw the eye, ruining the illusion.I think I’d like to try obscuring the two cameras behind pinhole apertures. Miniature cameras like the ones used in mobile devices tend to have pinhole apertures anyway, so the sensor would still be receiving a complete image. The end result would appear as just a couple of inconspicuous black dots, positioned an inch or two apart in the center of her forehead. Barely even noticeable.This would however, result in one minor behavioral oddity. Since the hidden cameras would have only a narrow viewing window, they would need to remain fixed in place. Looking around would entail swiveling her entire head, like an owl. It’s possible that some might find behavior like that off-putting.I think it would be kind of cute, honestly.Journal Entry #31Still working on that convex display. I’ve got some ideas for how to make it work, but it involves some specialized and difficult to obtain materials. It’ll take a while to get everything gathered together.Please stand by.Journal Entry #32I did it. It took some serious trial and error but I did it. I figured out a way to suspend electrophoretic microcapsules in a UV curing liquid resin, and airbrush it onto the inside of a frosted polycarbonate shell that had been given a graphene coating to turn it into a transparent electrode. Then I gave the whole thing a thorough once over with an ultraviolet lamp, and stenciled on the inner electrodes using a conductive metallic paint. The result: a spray-on electrophoretic display.I’m going to refrain from revealing the precise details of how this was done. This is a potentially disruptive technology, and my patent application is currently pending.The full complexity of a matrix display was slightly beyond my manufacturing capabilities. I had to settle for a segmented display, meaning a simplified electrode pattern that can only display a small number of predesignated facial expressions. That was the initial plan anyway though, so I’m not particularly broken up about it.I should mention that what I’ve created is just a rough prototype, so it’s not suitable for use in the final product. It’s made from a polycarbonate cereal bowl, embarrassingly enough.Journal Entry #33Aaand I almost forgot to include an off switch. The goal was always to keep her operational as much as possible, but that doesn’t mean she won’t need to be shut down occasionally for maintenance.The switch should probably be a simple button. Her plans are so clean and sleek-looking at this point, it would be a shame to muddy up the design with a conspicuous button. I could hide it beneath her neoprene skin, but that would leave her prone to accidental shutdowns.Actually, now that I think about it, the backside of her faceplate is still completely vacant. Installing the switch back there would keep it hidden from view, and it’s unlikely to be pressed unintentionally. You’d have to reach under her chin and up inside her head to access it.Yeah. That works.Journal Entry #34The blueprints are finally complete. I’m ready to begin fabrication. Adjustments in design will need to be made on the fly, of course. It’s pretty unlikely that I’ve managed to foresee every problem that will crop up during the manufacturing process. That’s just the way things work.Still, I feel like I’ve hit a significant milestone. It feels good.Journal Entry #35Mariimo. Her name is Mariimo.I’ve had that name rattling around in the back of my mind for a long time now. I was afraid to fully commit to the name at first, but now that I can fully imagine what she’ll look like, how she’ll feel, the way she’ll move... it suits her perfectly.The name is derived from Aegagropila linnaei, a filamentous green algae that forms colonies of tumbling velvety spheres on the bottoms of cold water lakes. The Japanese call them marimo, a term that translates roughly to “ball seaweed.” I keep a small colony of my own in an aquarium in my office.I realize it’s a bit of a cliche to give a robot a Japanese name, but I can’t help but fall in love with it. To me, marimo represent the beauty hidden in things that most would overlook. It’s my hope that when Mariimo is activated for the first time, her curiosity and unique perspective will allow her to find beauty in things that even I had never considered.I can’t wait to finally meet her.
CHAPTER TWO: FABRICATION
Journal Entry #36First things first. Before I start fabricating components physically, I need to build a complete digital version of Mariimo in the computer. I’ll need to build her twice, in a way.The reasons for this are twofold. First, it’ll help me work out any kinks in her design while they’re still easy to correct. Adjustments are a fairly straightforward process when the parts don’t actually exist in physical space yet.Second, a digital model is the first step in machining and milling physical components, which will be a significant part of my manufacturing process. In fact, once you have a finalized 3D model to feed into the CNC milling machine, it’s pretty smooth sailing from that point on. The machine takes care of most of the dirty work.I’ll be using plenty of prefabricated components as well, which I’ll have to start ordering fairly soon if I want to avoid significant interruptions in my workflow.Journal Entry #37It just occurred to me that anyone who happens to be reading this might be wondering where an unknown roboticist with little business interest and no academic connections managed to acquire the manufacturing capability to create a machine of this complexity.The simple answer is that I didn’t. My parents did. My parents owned a large robotics firm that specialized in advanced assembly line automation. The company is still around. In fact, it’s only grown larger in the years since they passed away. My parents stipulated in their will that a fixed percentage of company profits would be allocated as an allowance for their daughter, meaning me, for as long as the firm remains in operation.I have no say in the management of the company, which is fine by me. I’m not particularly business-minded. I also have no access to company resources, which might have come in handy, but I digress.What I do have access to is the family home, and by extension the private prototyping lab contained therein. As an only child, it was left to me and me alone. My parents used it to develop proprietary technologies for their business, in a bid to remain competitive. It contains just about everything a person could possibly need to fabricate sophisticated and intricate machinery.Nowadays it’s simply a place for me to tinker my life away.Journal Entry #38So, it turns out that a person can’t just order individual smartphone components. Apparently they only sell them via enormous bulk orders intended for manufacturing giants. Not exactly feasible for a tinkerer working out of her home.This is a problem, as I designed Mariimo under the assumption that I’d have easy access to powerful and compact mobile microprocessors. Her faceplate simply isn’t spacious enough to house standard PC components.Not all is lost, however. I’ve made a bulk order containing about a dozen top-of-the-line refurbished smartphones, in hopes that I can strip them down and cannibalize the parts. They can keep me from buying their chips, but they can’t keep me from tearing apart their phones.Journal Entry #39The smartphones arrived the other day. They really don’t want you taking these things apart. I suppose it makes business sense to keep people from repairing or modifying their devices, but from an ethical and educational standpoint it’s a pretty garbage thing to do.The process of disassembling a smartphone is needlessly convoluted. It involves heat pads, heat guns, picks, suction cups, booby traps, proprietary screw heads... it’s absurd.I didn’t let it get to me, though. All in all I managed to salvage two matching twelve-megapixel cameras, an accelerometer, and twelve fully intact octa-core processors along with their associated RAM. Eventually all of these components will be rearranged onto a custom motherboard, creating a sort of low-key supercomputer.Journal Entry #40I received another package in the mail today. This one was full of sensors that I knew I wouldn’t be able to strip from the smartphones. I managed to get my hands on the heat sensor I needed for her air compressor, as well as upwards of fifty digital encoders. She’s going to have quite a few points of articulation to keep track of.I’m just going to start setting the prefab components aside as they arrive.Journal Entry #41The hearing aids arrived. I’ve got a surplus of microphones left over from the smartphone teardown, but I’d rather not use them. Smartphone microphones don’t provide particularly high audio quality, which is the reason most people doing professional recording opt for external microphones.Hearing aids, on the other hand, are created specifically to augment the hearing of people with disabilities. They have to be good. I was careful to choose a model with a high dynamic range and wide frequency range. Many hearing aids are tuned to assist with voice perception specifically, but I want Mariimo to be able to hear anything that I can.Obviously the included speakers won’t be necessary in this instance, as the microphones will be wired directly into her head.I feel like I’m forgetting to mention something. I’ll add it later if it comes back to me.Journal Entry #42Oh right, I remember now. She’s going to have an asymmetrical microphone arrangement, to allow for more precise directional hearing. I figured I might as well complete the owl-like senses motif I introduced with the fixed cameras.Journal Entry #43The hard drives have arrived. I don’t have anything particularly interesting to say about them. I just thought I’d mention it.Journal Entry #44An important delivery today. An impressive assortment of pneumatic muscles. Every length and thickness you can imagine. A matching solenoid valve for each one as well. It took me nearly forty-five minutes to unpack the box. I’ll admit I was probably being a bit overly precious with them, but still.At one point I started wondering if I could have just built these from scratch. The answer is yes, by the way. But there’s honestly no compelling reason I would need to. Actuators like these have been around since the 1950s. The technology has already been perfected. There’s no point in reinventing the wheel.Nevertheless, it feels good to finally hold them in my hands.Journal Entry #45The supercapacitors just arrived. That’s probably going to be the last of the prefabricated shipments I’ll be receiving. From this point on it’s just going to be raw materials. Plastics, metals, fabrics, etc.The supercapacitors actually took on a far more functional role in Mariimo’s design than I had initially anticipated. Their mass and numbers allowed for a lot of fiddling with weight distribution. Most of them ended up in her extremities, counteracting what had become a rather core-heavy design.As it stands now, Mariimo is shaping up to be quite a finely balanced machine.Journal Entry #46The digital prototype is nearly complete. A few more days polish and it should be good to go. The fact that I started with detailed blueprints made the whole process go a lot faster.I had to make a few minor adjustments based on the measurements of the prefab components as they arrived. There were a few unexpected discrepancies between the advertised dimensions and the actual dimensions, but I managed to smooth everything over design-wise.Her external appearance remains unaltered, thank goodness. I’ve actually grown rather attached to her, aesthetically speaking.Journal Entry #47Aaand done. I’ve created a fully detailed 3D model of every individual component in Mariimo’s body, ready to be fed into the CNC milling machine.I think I’m going to take a week off before I begin actual physical fabrication. Clear my head. Relax. I’ve been working fourteen hour days for longer than is probably healthy. I’ve always had a tendency to push myself too hard.I’m going to spend the next seven days on low-power mode. Make some tea, curl up with a good book, just take it easy.I’ve earned it.Journal Entry #48I made it two days. Two days before I couldn’t stand not working anymore.The book I picked out was a story about robots and artificial intelligence. Probably not the best choice to take my mind off robots and artificial intelligence. I couldn’t even sit back and enjoy the story. I was constantly sidetracked by thoughts about the feasibility of these fictional machines. How they might be achieved in reality. The actual narrative just seemed like background noise.I almost tried wandering the grounds, but the sound of traffic makes me anxious. It also makes me think about autonomous vehicles, which makes me think about robotics in general, which makes me think about the project. Even the most tenuous reminder of anything robotics related sends my brain off on a technical tangent that lasts for hours. It’s a compulsion.I’ve been like this ever since I was little. My mom used to call it freight train brain. Can’t slow down. Can’t change direction.It’s been a challenge. I struggled in school. My interests were too narrow. None of the curriculum could hold my attention. I would just end up fidgeting anxiously at my desk for hours. Eventually it began to affect my mental health, and my parents pulled me out of the system.I was home schooled from then on, but even then it involved a lot of answer sheets and fudged test scores. My parents seemed to turn a blind eye toward the whole thing. I tried to hide it, but they had to have known. I don’t think I would have gotten away with it otherwise. When I finally turned sixteen, I was legally allowed to just drop the whole charade and give up.I never actually graduated high school.Journal Entry #49Okay, the CNC milling machine has been prepped and is currently doing its thing. CNC milling takes time, but it’s a lot better than doing it by hand.I’ve started with the PVC components, as they’ll make up the bulk of Mariimo’s armature. In the end, I decided against going full PVC. It’s tough stuff, but I was concerned about friction wear and stress damage in her joints. I decided to reinforce them with aluminum bearings. The weight and elasticity of plastic. The resilience of metal. It feels like a good compromise.I’m going to start looking for odd jobs to pass the time while the milling machine whittles away.Journal Entry #50I hauled a huge spool of copper wire up from the basement today. I figured I‘d start work on the copper coils needed for inductive charging. Nice mindless work. Relaxing.The coils in the soles of her feet are going to be about six and a half centimeters in diameter. The pair inside the charging stand will be larger, at roughly fifteen centimeters each. The size difference will allow for some leeway regarding foot placement. Hopefully this makes it a bit easier for her to charge herself autonomously.The stand itself is going to be machined out of a nice charcoal gray PVC, just a shade darker than her neoprene skin. It was a little tricky to find raw PVC in that particular color, but I think that the end result will be well worth the effort, aesthetically speaking.Journal Entry #51Took it easy today. I’d finished work on the copper coils, so I figured I’d take a couple hours to prepare the soles of her feet.I used a laser cutter to cut a pair of circular disks from a sheet of self-adhesive polyurethane rubber, the same material used in the soles of shoes. Mariimo actually has a relatively small footprint, but the extra friction provided by the rubber soles should help compensate for the minimal surface area.I also used the copper coils and a rubber sheet to assemble a quick and dirty inductive charging test. I wanted to check and see if the polyurethane layer would interfere with the charging process. According to the readout on my multimeter, it doesn’t seem to have any significant impact.Journal Entry #52When it came time to disassemble the digital prototype into individual components for fabrication, Mariimo’s neoprene skin was a bit of a stumbling block. I had to teach myself how to create a sewing pattern by cutting a 3D model into segments and flattening them out into two-dimensional shapes, which is something I had never attempted before. There was a bit of a learning curve.Today I was prepping the laser cutter to cut the neoprene into the pattern I had prototyped on the computer, but fortunately I thought to stop and do a quick safety check first. As it turns out, cutting neoprene with a laser releases plumes of chlorine gas, which can corrode the glass optics in the laser cutter itself. It probably wouldn’t do my lungs any favors either.Looks like I’m doing this one by hand.Journal Entry #53I’ve assembled the various fabrics and foils needed to start work on Mariimo’s touch sensors. These I can cut with a laser.It’s a good thing too, because there will be a lot of them. The laser cutter will save me many, many hours of fumbling with scissors. I’ll need to get more involved when it comes time to sew the layers together, but my new sewing machine will help scoot the process along.The flatlock sewing machine is the latest addition to the prototype lab. As you might imagine, there wasn’t much demand for textiles back when my parents were in charge of the lab. I purchased the sewing machine especially for this project.It’s a pretty heavy-duty machine, which is important because it has to chew through four millimeters of neoprene rubber. Not exactly light work.Journal Entry #54It was a little tricky to do by hand, but I finally managed to cut out the neoprene panels that will make up Mariimo’s skin. There are a few more steps remaining before they’re ready to sew together, however.I still need to screen print the circuits needed for the touch sensors onto the neoprene using a conductive metallic paint. The prototype lab has screen printing supplies on hand for creating more traditional fiberglass circuit boards. With a few minor adjustments, they should work just as well for creating flexible neoprene circuit boards.After that, I can arrange the touch sensors into their predesignated pattern, laminate both sides with an appropriately colored nylon knit fabric, trim off the excess, and punch holes along the edges for the eyelets and paracord.It probably would have been easier to do all of this before I cut out the neoprene panels, but I’m clumsy enough with scissors that I didn’t want to risk ruining all that work with a stray cut.Journal Entry #55I’ve started fiddling with Mariimo’s charge indicator. Usually a segmented electronic display is the kind of thing you’d outsource to a specialist manufacturer, but I’ve already got all the materials I need left over from my faceplate experiments. I just need to apply the electrophoretic microcapsule suspension to a flexible film instead of a polycarbonate shell.It’s probably for the best that I do it myself. Ordering custom electrophoretic displays usually entails enormous bulk orders. I really only need the one.Journal Entry #56For Mariimo’s memory foam inserts, I’m going to use a technique called pressure cutting. It’s the same technique used to create lightweight, inexpensive department store mannequins.The process begins with a set of molds. I’m using the 3-axis milling machine to carve them out of medium-density fiberboard while the 5-axis machine is busy with the PVC components.When the molds are complete, a thick slab of memory foam will be layered on top, and the entire assembly will be passed between a set of rollers, compressing the memory foam while a thin, sharp blade slices away the excess material.When the final product pops out the other side, the two layers of foam are separated, resulting in both a positive and negative impression of the original mold. It’s honestly a little difficult to describe. The process is kind of counterintuitive.I’m going to use zip ties to secure the memory foam to Mariimo’s armature. They’re easy to replace, so I can simply snip them away in the event that I need to access her internal machinery.
Journal Entry #57Mariimo’s PVC components are finally complete. That leaves the 5-axis CNC milling machine free. I’m going to give it a thorough vacuuming and get it prepped to start work on her air compressor.The air compressor is going to be machined from several blocks of solid aluminum. I’ll need to switch out the current rotary bits for a more suitable set, but other than that the milling machine is fully capable of handling metals.The only part of the air compressor that won’t be made from scratch is the motor. That motor is going to be the heart of the machine, so it’s vital that it be of the absolute highest quality.Lucky for me, I found the ideal candidate while I was reviewing inventory early on in the project. It had been kicking around in storage since my parents were still around. It may not be the latest model, but I learned a long time ago that newer doesn’t necessarily mean better.Journal Entry #58Mariimo’s polycarbonate faceplate is going to be the focal point of her entire design. It’s going to require special attention.I can use the CNC milling machine to get started, for sure. However, that’s only the first step of many. In order to get that beautiful frosted matte finish I’m after, it’s going to take hours of careful scouring, polishing, buffing, and sandblasting. It’s got to be flawless. I have a very specific vision.When I’ve managed to get the outer surface of the faceplate looking just so, I can go ahead and apply an electrophoretic display to its inner surface, using the same techniques I developed for my cereal bowl prototype.If all goes according to plan, this faceplate is going to be the single most beautiful component I’ve ever created.Journal Entry #59I’ve already managed to gather all of the electronic components needed to create Mariimo’s motherboard. Today, I started work on the printed circuit board that will house them all.Like I mentioned before, the prototype lab contains all the equipment and materials needed to create PCBs. It’s a fairly straightforward process. I’ve done it plenty of times before. But this time it feels different, somehow.I hold this simple piece of copper coated fiberglass in my gloved hand, fresh out of a corrosive chemical bath, and I can’t help but think to myself: This is it. This is the scaffolding of a mind.I can’t even begin to describe that feeling.Journal Entry #60Okay, the printed circuit board is complete. It looks gorgeous. It has the same shield-like silhouette that her faceplate will have. You can already see where the cameras will be wired in. It almost feels alive, in a way. Like it’s got a little personality of its own. It’s quite endearing.I’m getting way ahead of myself though. It’s got a long way to go before it becomes a functioning motherboard. Luckily, micro soldering is one of the few fine motor skills I’ve become really proficient in since the accident.Journal Entry #61I fell asleep in my chair last night. I was just sitting in my office, staring at my marimo colony. The water in that aquarium is so still, and so clear. It always helps temper my anxiety.By the time I woke up, the milling machine had already finished carving Mariimo’s polycarbonate faceplate. The benefits of automation, I suppose. I’ve spent the morning gently scouring out the ridges left behind by the milling process. It’s relaxing work. Simple. Repetitive. Gives me time to think.Journal Entry #62Oof. Perhaps too much time to think.Journal Entry #63Okay, Mariimo’s faceplate has been scoured, polished, and buffed. Perfect optical clarity. It’s like looking through distilled water. Of course, now that I’ve gone to all that work, it’s time to muck it up with a good sandblasting.I’ve been practicing my sandblasting with spare scraps of polycarbonate sheet. I need to frost the surface enough to diffuse the light passing through it, but not so much that her facial expressions become obscured. It’s a delicate balance.I also need to make sure that the surface has a completely even finish. No flaws. No imperfections. That’s honestly been the trickiest bit.I’m getting the hang of it though.Journal Entry #64The sandblasting went surprisingly smoothly. After giving the faceplate a good rinse, I went ahead and applied the electrophoretic display. Once again, I’ll refrain from going into too much detail about the process. My patent application is still pending.As it stands now, the faceplate is a smooth, even gray color. The pigments inside the microcapsules are still jumbled. I’m going to write a simple program this evening to test the display. I’ll have it done in time to run the test in the morning.Journal Entry #65I ran the faceplate display test last night. I couldn’t help myself. I had finished writing the program, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep without at least giving it a shot, so I wired up the display.It worked flawlessly.The display flashed from a smooth, even gray to a brilliant paper white. It cycled rapidly between black and white a few times for calibration purposes, before settling back on white.Then her face appeared. For the first time. Two clean, simple rings in a gentle achromatic gray. They just stared for a moment, ran a simple blinking animation, and began cycling through various facial expressions.It was just a simple slide show. There was no thought or purpose behind it. Yet I couldn’t help but feel as if she were staring directly at me. Addressing me, personally.What a notion to fall asleep to...Journal Entry #66I spent the day doing a comprehensive inventory check. Each of Mariimo’s components are complete and accounted for. Every single one. I’m ready to begin assembly.It feels fantastic.
CHAPTER THREE: ASSEMBLY
Journal Entry #67I’m going to begin assembly with Mariimo’s PVC armature. The whole thing goes together with machine screws, so it should be fairly straightforward. I’m going to have to install her digital encoders during the process as well, seeing as they’re housed within the joints themselves. They have to be in place before each joint is screwed shut.Journal Entry #68Armature assembled. It looks like a skeleton splayed out on my workbench. I went ahead and installed her air compressor, compressed air storage tank, solenoid valve bank, and supercapacitor array as well. It’s important I get her core elements in place before I start layering pneumatic muscles and foam over everything.Journal Entry #69Mariimo’s pneumatic muscles have been installed, along with many, many meters of pneumatic tubing. The tubing runs along grooves and hollows in Mariimo’s armature, so as not to get tangled up in all those moving parts. Various wires, like the ones connected to her digital encoders, run along these grooves as well.I like to keep things tidy.Journal Entry #70This would go a lot faster if I still had both my hands.Journal Entry #71I guess I forgot to mention the amputee thing, huh? I was in an accident about seven years ago that required a below-elbow amputation. Right hand. Non-dominant, thank goodness.It does make getting work done more difficult. I’m fortunate to have access to a lot of automated manufacturing equipment. I wouldn’t be able to do a fraction of the work I do without it. Still, the actual hands-on work does tend to go slower than it would otherwise.Whatever. I’m over it.Journal Entry #72I spent my morning zip-tying memory foam to Mariimo’s armature. It feels like assembling a robotic mattress. It’s going smoothly, though. At this rate, the last of her memory foam inserts should be fitted tightly in place by the end of the day.I’m not gonna lie, the process is immensely satisfying. It feels like she’s finally beginning to take shape.Journal Entry #73I should clarify. I do wear a prosthesis. Nothing fancy, just a standard body powered split hook. It does make things significantly easier, though.I’ve got a collection of several different hooks. Which one I choose depends on the task at hand. The canted hooks are good for detailed work, and I’ve got a couple lyre shaped hooks for handling bulkier objects. Both types come in a plain stainless steel version, as well as a version with a nitrile rubber grip for handling delicate or slippery items. I’ve also got a work hook for heavy-duty lifting and tooling, and a specialized soldering attachment for assembling circuit boards.I made that last one myself.Journal Entry #74I suppose it’s a little ironic that a roboticist has what basically amounts to a hook for a hand. Advanced myoelectric arms are available. Five fingers. Full articulation. Responds to natural muscle movement.I can afford it, too. I did afford it. It’s gathering dust in the basement as we speak. It’s an impressive piece of technology, to be sure. I just... can’t wear the thing.It’s the sound. The vibration against my skin. That god-awful motorized screeching. It’s like nails on a chalkboard. A constant, irritating reminder that something is missing. I can’t handle it.I don’t mind those types of sensations when they’re coming from say, the CNC milling machine. That’s different. That’s separate. But when it’s an extension of myself, when there’s no escape short of physically tearing it away from my body... that’s another story altogether.It’s... anxiety inducing.Journal Entry #75Sorry, I need to vent. Writing about my amputation has me fixated on the accident. I’ve got no one I can talk to about things like this, so I’m just going to put it here.I lost my hand in a traffic accident. I was sitting in the back seat. Right side. I was hanging my hand out the rear window, absentmindedly playing with the wind. My mom was in the front passenger seat. Dad was driving. We were t-boned by a truck at an intersection.No one was at fault. The traffic light had malfunctioned. It should have defaulted to red in the event of a malfunction, but it didn’t. The bones in my hand and wrist were splintered. The soft tissue was pulp. It was prepped for amputation as soon as I got to the hospital.I got off easy. My parents didn’t even make it to the hospital.I still have nightmares about it. They’re not as frequent as they used to be, but I’m not sure I’ll ever be rid of them completely. Let’s just say it’s an unpleasant way to start one’s day.I also got saddled with this fucking phantom pain. The perfect little reminder. Every time it flares up I get flashbacks. Panic attacks. Breakdowns. I live alone, so I have no choice but to just tough it out.I should be happy. I’ll never need to work a day in my goddamn life. I’ve inherited a fortune. More arrives each month like clockwork. I live in a fucking mansion! I shouldn’t feel this way!But no. I’m afraid of people, I’m afraid to leave the house, and there’s not a single person in this world I can confide in.I’m so fucking lonely.Journal Entry #76I apologize for my previous entry. I should be keeping this journal more professional. I tend to keep things bottled up inside, and eventually the dam just... breaks.It won’t happen again.Journal Entry #77Mariimo is fully assembled. I didn’t really document it that closely. I haven’t been feeling well. I’m going to take a break before I start programming.
CHAPTER FOUR: PROGRAMMING
Journal Entry #78Okay. Programming. Where to even start?Neural networks are a good place, I suppose. Neural networks are the bread and butter of developmental robotics. The behaviors needed to navigate real-world scenarios are far too complex to program by hand. There are simply too many variables to take into consideration. Neural networks allow complex and nuanced behaviors to emerge naturally, through trial and error learning.Mariimo is going to use neural networks extensively. She’s going to be running on a multiple network system. Each sensory system will have its own dedicated neural network, roughly analogous to the various sensory cortices of a human brain.Her sensors will feed raw data into the corresponding network’s input layer. The data will then be interpreted within the web of neurons that compose the hidden layers, and the results will be spat out the other side. From the output layer, the data will be rerouted into a central neural network, where the compiled data from every sensory network will be compared, and patterns identified.It’s my hope that by keeping the sensory networks separate, I can prevent a synesthesia-like blending of senses. A machine with synesthesia could very well prove to be a worthwhile project, but it’s not my goal with Mariimo.Journal Entry #79Speaking of goals, they will be absolutely vital to Mariimo’s development. Without goals, there is no drive. No learning. An artificial intelligence without goals would have no reason to take any action at all. The question is, what motivates Mariimo?There is a concept in machine learning known as “reinforcement learning.” It works on the same principles in machine learning as it does in behavioral psychology; i.e. positive and negative reinforcement. This concept will be at the core of Mariimo’s behavior.Think of it as a scoreboard. Each time Mariimo perceives a stimulus designated as positive, a point is added. Each time she perceives a stimulus designated as negative, a point is removed. By specifying that her goal is to increase her score, she can be motivated to seek out positive stimuli, while avoiding negative ones.Her metaphorical scoreboard will be separated into several different categories. This will allow different types of stimuli to be weighted by importance. In this way, important stimuli can be given priority over unimportant ones. I’ll provide these weights in the beginning, but she’ll be able to adjust her own priorities over time, given new information.I’m going to spend the next little while deciding, sensor by sensor, which stimuli will be designated as positive, and which will be designated as negative.Journal Entry #80While striving toward goals is all well and good, learning to achieve those goals without outside influence would be a very, very slow process. This is where mimicry comes in. Mimicry is going to be another core aspect of Mariimo’s behavior. It will allow her to learn by example, rather than simply be left to her own devices.I want to be able to teach Mariimo in two ways. The first is passive observation. I want her to be able to look at me, observe my actions, and attempt to replicate them. This can be accomplished through the use of body tracking software. I suspect this type of mimicry will be the less precise of the two. It will likely require a bit of trial and error before she can translate my movements into something she can actually use.The second is kinesthetic demonstration, where I take hold of Mariimo’s body and guide her movements directly. This type of mimicry will be more precise, I think. There are fewer steps between demonstration and proprioceptive feedback. I can use this technique to demonstrate new behaviors, as well assist in refining existing ones.It may seem as if kinesthetic demonstration is the superior teaching method, but I personally think passive observation is by far the more interesting of the two. Kinesthetic demonstration requires me to take on an active teaching role. I choose what I’m going to teach her.Passive observation, on the other hand, is always running in the background. She’ll be learning from my behavior whether I intend her to or not.What she chooses to adopt for herself will be entirely up to her.Journal Entry #81The first sensory system I’m going to approach is vision. As a humanoid machine, Mariimo is likely to adopt vision as her primary sense. There’s no guarantee that will be the case, but I’d say it’s a pretty safe bet.As far as vision is concerned, goals will be achieved through gaze. Imagine Mariimo’s field of view. In its center, there will be an invisible reticle. This represents her macular vision. Everything outside that central point represents varying degrees of peripheral vision.Now imagine a positive visual stimulus. A bright red ball, for instance. When Mariimo’s reticle overlaps that red ball, the result is positive reinforcement. An increasing score. The further the ball strays from the reticle, the slower the score increases. Now, imagine a negative visual stimulus. Let’s say, a dark blue ball. The reinforcement algorithm is reversed. Looking directly at the blue ball results in a decreasing score. The further the ball strays from the reticle, the slower the score decreases.I can foresee a problem arising with the use of this system, however. Hyperfixation. If the red ball provides a never-ending stream of positive reinforcement, she would have no reason to look away. She could potentially just stare at the ball until her supercapacitors run dry.Hyperfixation can be avoided through the use of diminishing returns. The longer she stares at the ball, the less intense the reward. Eventually, the reward will become unsatisfactory, and her attention will shift to a positive stimulus of greater interest.Artificial boredom, if you will.Journal Entry #82Color seems like a straightforward place to begin setting visual goals. Not bright or vivid colors, necessarily. That would be too obvious. Too simple.I want Mariimo to seek out contrasting colors. Colors that stand out from their surroundings. A dark stone on a sandy beach. A red leaf on a forest floor. To Mariimo, an object’s relevance will be dictated by its uniqueness. How it differs from the things around it.By seeking out contrasting colors, Mariimo will be able to quickly differentiate objects of interest from their surroundings, and choose to investigate further.That seems like an elegant way to view the world.Journal Entry #83I wanted to avoid assigning negative reinforcement to colors. Colors aren’t inherently good or bad, so I didn’t see any point in it. It has since occurred to me, however, that I should make at least one exception.If every pixel in Mariimo’s field of view suddenly goes a stark, overexposed white, it’s very likely that she’s damaging her sensors. I’d obviously like to avoid a situation where she chooses to stare at the sun for a prolonged period of time.To be clear, I’m not designating the color white as a negative stimulus. Only overexposure. I’m going to implement a threshold. If a certain percentage of sensor pixels become overexposed, it will result in negative reinforcement. In this way, she can learn to shield her eyes from bright light.I thought about designating underexposure as a negative stimulus as well. I’d hoped it would help her avoid dimly lit areas, and therefore keep her safe. Those smartphone cameras aren’t built for night vision.Eventually I realized that a total lack of visual stimuli would likely result in reduced activity. I suspect she’d simply choose to stay put until the light returns. Like a bird wrapped in a towel. That’s safest, I think.Besides, it seems a little cruel to make her afraid of the dark.Journal Entry #84Mariimo’s stereoscopic cameras are going to collect depth data in the form of a point cloud. This is the least computationally expensive way to represent 3D space.Proximity feedback will be useful in several ways. It will be particularly important in learning obstacle avoidance. Mariimo will be able to compare point cloud data with data from her proprioceptive and touch networks. The patterns she’ll find will eventually allow her to develop an understanding of barriers. I do suspect she’ll try to pass through a few walls before she arrives at this point, however.Mariimo’s point cloud will allow her to create a mental map of her surroundings. By committing point cloud data to memory, she’ll become increasingly adept at navigating familiar environments.Proximity will also be useful for determining the relevance of an object. The closer an object is, the more accessible it is, and therefore the more relevant it is. An object that is nearby will be more likely to catch Mariimo’s attention.What Mariimo will consider relevant becomes a complex question when combining multiple stimuli. Will a faraway object with striking colors take priority over a nearby object that blends into the background? It’s difficult to say.By the time I get every sensory system up and running, it will be nearly impossible to say.Journal Entry #85The motion of an object will also be an important visual clue as to its relevance. A moving object is far more likely to be of immediate significance than a stationary one, and will therefore be weighted accordingly by Mariimo’s neural network.There are several types of motion that Mariimo will need to keep track of. The first is camera motion. This has to be detected through visual cues, as data from her proprioceptive network will not be available to her visual network until the outputs of both are rerouted to her central network.Once in the central network, comparisons between gyroscope data and camera data can be made, and patterns identified. But in the meantime, she needs a way to differentiate camera motion and environmental motion.The reason for this is twofold. The obvious reason is that it will help Mariimo interpret her environment. The less obvious reason is that camera motion cannot be rewarded. If it were, the end result would be constant and repetitive head shaking behavior.I’m going to approach this problem through the use of pixel tracking. If all of the pixels in Mariimo’s field of view travel in roughly the same direction, at roughly the same speed, it’s most likely the result of camera motion. This data can be safely treated as a neutral stimulus.The second type of motion is spatial, i.e. movement along an X, Y, and thanks to Mariimo’s stereoscopic vision, Z axis. This is where visual goals come into play. As with contrasting colors and object proximity, the act of looking directly at a moving object will result in positive reinforcement. In theory, this should result in motion tracking behavior.The third and final type of motion is rotation, i.e. the orbit of tracked points around an axis. An understanding of rotation will be vital to the development of skills such as grasping and object manipulation.One final note. While motion is an easy visual shorthand for determining the relevance of an object, it’s important that the object not lose its relevance after it becomes stationary. Just because an object has stopped moving, does not mean Mariimo should immediately lose interest in it.With that in mind, any motion of a tracked object will result in a reinforcement multiplier being assigned to that object. The end result is that Mariimo will find an object that has moved in the past to be far more interesting than one that has always remained stationary.I think that’s true of most people as well, honestly.Journal Entry #86Object recognition. This is where neural networks really shine. Trying to program something like this by hand would be a fool’s errand. By using neural networks, the program itself does most of the dirty work.Mariimo is going to collect a lot of visual data. Sixty frames per second. By training her neural network on these images, she’ll begin to identify patterns in what she’s seeing. By associating these patterns with a tracked object, she’ll be able to recall that object at a later date.Not only that, but by classifying objects by their shared properties, she’ll be able to make assumptions about an object that she’s never encountered before. Suppose she’s encountered a fork in the past, but its matching spoon is still unfamiliar. By recognizing the similarities between the two, she might place both objects into a single category, alongside other cutlery. When she finally encounters a knife for the first time, she might very well recognize it as cutlery, and use her past experience with forks and spoons to interact with it efficiently.In most object recognition experiments, objects and categories are labeled using natural language. A fork is a fork. A spoon is a spoon. Cutlery is cutlery. This makes it easy to check for errors in identification. That won’t be the case with Mariimo. Her thought process will be a bit more opaque.Mariimo’s object recognition library will be labeled with numbers, rather than words. I want her to be able to label and classify objects without assistance. By assigning random number codes, she bypasses the need for human labeling, giving her a lot more autonomy.I’m very interested in this type of unsupervised learning. Letting Mariimo come to her own conclusions is an exciting prospect. This approach means that the relationships she perceives between objects will not always be clear to an outside observer. But in the end, these identifications are for her own personal use, not mine.Journal Entry #87Mariimo’s facial expression recognition algorithm will be based on the universality hypothesis. It’s said that there are just six universal human expressions: anger, fear, sadness, disgust, joy, and surprise. By mixing these expressions like paint on a palette, a full range of complex and subtle expressions can be created.This approach is useful from a programming perspective. The identification of these six facial expressions makes the problem of expression recognition a lot less intimidating. It’s simply a matter of tracking facial points, and defining the extremes of each expression.Using this technique, Mariimo will be able to measure emotional intensity. Let’s use fear as an example. To us, a neutral expression has no emotional meaning. To Mariimo, it would read as zero percent fear. As the intensity of the expression increases, it passes through phases of concern, anxiety, fear, and finally terror. To Mariimo, these would read as twenty-five, fifty, seventy-five, and one hundred percent fear.When reading a person’s face, Mariimo will apply a percentage to all of the six universal expressions simultaneously. What might read as puzzlement to us, Mariimo might interpret as forty percent disgust, forty percent sadness. What we might read as malice, Mariimo might interpret as ninety percent anger, eighty percent joy.Why is any of this important? Because facial expression will be an instrumental part of Mariimo’s reinforcement learning. Expressions of anger, fear, sadness, and disgust will be treated as negative stimuli, while joy will be treated as a positive stimulus. Any expression that mixes two or more of these emotions will be subject to an algorithm that will decide its positive or negative status, as well as the intensity of that status.Surprise is a special case, as it’s not an inherently positive or negative emotion. I’m going to treat surprise as a multiplier instead. If Mariimo were to startle someone, for instance, that would qualify as a strong negative stimulus. If she were to amaze, however, that would be a strong positive stimulus.This type of reinforcement learning is particularly fascinating due to it’s subconscious nature. It’s a human-driven learning experience, but it doesn’t require that human to take on an active teaching role. Their natural, instinctive response is all it takes to modify Mariimo’s behavior.
Journal Entry #88While I’m on the topic of facial expressions, I should probably talk about my plans for Mariimo’s faceplate display, programming-wise.The segmented display pattern I created, while very expressive, allows for a lot of facial expressions with no emotional meaning at all. Switching segments on and off randomly would result in confusing and meaningless patterns the vast majority of the time.This is a problem, as Mariimo is going to have to learn what expressions are appropriate for each situation by trial and error. For this reason, I’m going to create a comprehensive list of approved facial expression display patterns. By restricting the number of choices Mariimo can make, the rate at which she becomes a fluent communicator increases dramatically.Journal Entry #89Hearing is the next sensory system on my programming checklist. Mariimo’s audio-based reinforcement is going to work a little differently than her other sensory systems. Unlike vision, there will be no predesignated positive or negative audio stimuli. Instead, Mariimo’s hearing will be based on directionality and association.Upon hearing an unfamiliar sound, Mariimo will automatically turn to face the source of that sound. This will be a reflex behavior, facilitated by her asymmetrical microphone array. If the source of the sound triggers negative reinforcement in a non-hearing sensory network, any future instance of that sound will also be regarded as a negative stimulus. Repeated associations will only strengthen the intensity of a given audio stimulus.The opposite also holds true. If the source of an unfamiliar sound triggers positive reinforcement upon its identification, the associated sound will also be regarded as positive. In this way, Mariimo will learn to seek out positive audio stimuli, and retreat from negative ones, even before their associated sources enter her field of view.It’s all very Pavlovian.Journal Entry #90Mariimo’s audio recognition will work much like her object recognition. However, it’s going to be a lot easier to implement. There’s no need to worry about colors, or edges, or angles, or tracking. Everything about a sound can be boiled down to a waveform. It’s simply a matter of finding and identifying patterns within those waveforms.Journal Entry #91Touch. Touch is an interesting one. I want to encourage Mariimo to explore her world through touch. Therefore, a soft, gentle touch will be treated as a positive stimulus. A pleasurable touch.Some sensors will be designated as more sensitive than others. Generally, the denser the sensor resolution in a given area, the greater the tactile reward. I modeled Mariimo’s sensor density after the sensitivity of human skin, so the end result should be a roughly anthropomorphic touch sensitivity map. The only notable exceptions will be her face, and the soles of her feet, which due to technical limitations possess no pressure sensitivity at all.For Mariimo, a pleasurable touch will be defined by the compressive strength of her memory foam padding. A slowly rising pressure readout means that the memory foam is currently providing a cushioning effect. A sudden spike in pressure means that the foam has reached its compression limit, and is beginning to exert force on her internal components.This is a problem, as any additional force risks damaging Mariimo’s hardware. Any pressure beyond this threshold will be treated as a negative stimulus. A painful touch.By applying this threshold, I can ensure that Mariimo will never exert any force beyond that of a gentle pillow fight. This feather-soft touch will not only keep her safe, it will help ensure the safety of those around her.Journal Entry #92Temperature should be fairly straightforward. The higher Mariimo’s core temperature, the slower her compressor will run, and the weaker her sensory reinforcement will be.Reduced sensory reinforcement means less exertion, which will allow her to catch her breath while her compressor is cooling. A sort of programmed exhaustion.Of course, like anything in programming, a simple concept rarely means a simple execution.Journal Entry #93Proprioception and balance are my next programming tasks. These sensory systems are so tightly linked that I’m going to have them share a network.Mariimo’s proprioception will be based on a concept known in artificial intelligence circles as self-modeling. The idea is that a machine without any preprogrammed knowledge of its own anatomy can, through trial and error, form and test hypotheses about the structure of its own body.Through gentle experimentation, Mariimo will be able to form and refine a virtual model of herself, taking into account joint location, joint rotation limit, and weight distribution. By running this model through repeated physics simulations, Mariimo will be able to plan her movements in the safety of virtual space before executing them physically.This will be made possible through the implementation of a genetic algorithm. A genetic algorithm works on the principles of natural selection. First, a goal is chosen. This goal could be an attempt at mimicry, the tracking of a positive visual stimulus, anything. Then, Mariimo will run a series of physics simulations with that goal in mind. The simulations that come closest to achieving that goal are bred, and the resulting offspring are tested in the same way. By running the simulation through multiple generations, the planned movement can be optimized to a point where it consistently results in success. The movement can then be executed physically.By comparing her physics simulation to the resulting sensory feedback, she can further refine her simulations to more closely match reality. The more refined these simulations become, the more accurate her predictions will be.Journal Entry #94I kind of failed to mention it earlier, but the system that keeps track of Mariimo’s charge level is very much a sensory system. Therefore, it will need it’s own neural network to match.Mariimo’s power management network will run on relief-based reinforcement. A fully charged supercapacitor array will result in a neutral reinforcement state. This will allow for uninterrupted functioning during periods where charge level is a low priority.As Mariimo’s supercapacitors are depleted, the level of negative reinforcement will rise along an exponential curve. For instance, a fifty percent charge level would only result in mild negative reinforcement. If other sensory stimuli are providing a sufficient level of reinforcement, positive or negative, Mariimo will remain undistracted.However, by the time she reaches a twenty-five percent charge level, this negative reinforcement will become a lot more difficult to ignore. As her charge level continues to drop, it would eventually become unbearable, drowning out all other stimuli. A sort of programmed hunger.Mariimo’s only source of relief will be her charging pad. By positioning her feet correctly on the pad, her supercapacitor array will begin to recharge. As she charges, the reinforcement level will begin reverting to neutral.In the absence of other stimuli, Mariimo would remain on the pad until fully charged. However, since her reinforcement learning weighs various stimuli against each other, she could potentially be lured off the stand by a sufficient distraction.Journal Entry #95I mentioned early on in the project that I’d teach Mariimo how to forget. Today I make good on that promise.It may seem a little counterintuitive, but it is absolutely vital that Mariimo be able to forget. Her hard drives only have so much space available. Considering the amount of sensory information she’s going to be processing, it’s only a matter of time before that space is filled completely.On a personal computer, this is when a little pop-up window would appear asking you to delete unwanted files in order to clear up space. Attempting to do this manually on an eight terabyte hard drive full of unlabeled data would be absurd. There’s simply no way for a person to sift through that much data. Instead, Mariimo will have to decide for herself which memories are valuable, and which can be forgotten.Think of Mariimo’s memory as a timeline. When she boots up for the first time, that timeline will immediately begin to fill with a constant stream of sensor data. Every frame of video, every audio sample, every pressure reading from every touch sensor will be recorded and timestamped.Now, imagine a graph running alongside that timeline. This graph measures how often any given point on the timeline is referenced. Frequently referenced memories will be displayed as spikes on the graph. These memories are valuable. These are the types of memories that will allow her to function smoothly in everyday situations.Infrequently referenced memories will be displayed as dips in the graph. This data will likely consist largely of neutral stimuli. Images of blank walls, snippets of background noise, etc.This will continue until Mariimo’s hard drives reach full capacity. The moment this happens, a constant and calculated stream of data will begin to disappear, beginning with the least referenced.As data is deleted from the timeline, Mariimo’s memories of those events will become fuzzier. This will free up space for the recording of new sensory data. Eventually, memories of unimportant events will disappear entirely.Journal Entry #96Okay. Mariimo’s neural network is complete. I hope.Debugging a neural network isn’t like debugging other software. Other software has defined inputs, and defined outputs. If a given input results in the expected output, you move on. If not, you fix it. It’s time consuming, but it’s not complicated.Neural networks are not so straightforward. They’re designed to make mistakes. They’re designed to experiment. They’re designed to adapt. The concept of what constitutes a “correct” output starts to get pretty fuzzy. On top of that, they take time to develop. You can’t just switch on a neural network and immediately see how well it performs a given task. It needs to be trained. It needs experience. That kind of learning takes time and patience.In the event that a neural network fails to perform its intended task, most programmers would simply reset the network, make adjustments, and start the training process over again. I really, really hope to avoid resorting to that with Mariimo.Mariimo doesn’t have an “intended task,” so to speak. There are things I hope she’ll accomplish, certainly, but she’s not an assembly line robot. She’s not meant to defuse bombs or perform search and rescue. Lives aren’t on the line. As long as her functioning isn’t severely impaired, I’d rather just let her be what she is. No resets.I’ve double, triple, and quadruple checked my code. As far as I can tell, everything is in working order. I’m just going to have to switch everything on and cross my fingers.
CHAPTER FIVE: ACTIVATION
Journal Entry #97Apologies for the radio silence. I’ve been busy renovating. I’ve known from the beginning that I’d need to make special renovations to the house before I can boot up Mariimo for the first time, but I procrastinated, and now I’m paying the price. The anticipation has been torture.I’ve chosen a little-used windowless room, roughly sixteen feet square, and emptied it out. This will be Mariimo’s room. She’ll need a room tailored to her needs, especially during early development.The first thing I did was replace the door. I needed a heavy locking steel door to ensure that the room remains secure. It’s simply not possible to keep an eye on her twenty-four hours a day, and there’s no way to guarantee her safety should she decide to wander outside her room unsupervised.The second thing I did was remove all the electrical switches and outlets. I don’t want her playing with electricity. I realize that she’s made from mostly non-conductive materials, but I’ve sunk too much of my time and energy into this project to take any chances. The LED lighting will be controlled remotely, and Mariimo’s charging stand has since been wired directly into the wall.After the electrical work had been taken care of, I rubberized the floor using thick rubber tiles, of the sort used in gymnasiums. These tiles should make the floor stable enough for Mariimo to stand upright, but soft enough to prevent fractures and abrasions to her faceplate should she happen to fall. And I can assure you, she will fall.Lastly, I used a spray adhesive to cover the walls and ceiling in acoustic foam panels. The purpose of these panels is twofold. One, it will soften any impact with the walls that Mariimo may incur during early development. Two, it will provide a reverberation-free audio recording environment, ideal for audio recognition.All that’s left to do now is wire up the wide-angle security cameras I’ve ordered. I’d like to check in on her remotely from time to time. Keep an eye on her. Also, the cameras will allow for a video record of Mariimo’s behavior, starting from day one. That kind of information will be invaluable.Journal Entry #98Okay. Wow. I’m booting up Mariimo. Today.This is weird. I’ve been working on this project for so long that it kind of felt like this day would never actually arrive. Like it was just a hypothetical. But here I am, trying to work up the courage to press that button. It’s actually happening.I’m feeling super nervous. Excited, but nervous. The chances of this not ending in complete and utter failure are actually pretty low. I’m almost reluctant to press that button at all. I should probably just get it over with. Like ripping off a band-aid.Okay.Here goes nothing.Journal Entry #99It’s done. Mariimo has been activated.I crept into her room and lifted her from her charging stand. She’s actually light enough for me to cradle in my arms. I laid her flat on her back, in the center of the room.I must have sat there for about ten minutes. Maybe fifteen. I’m not really sure. When I was ready, I reached up inside her head, took a deep breath, and pressed the button. Her faceplate began displaying the boot animation I had programmed, and I scooted out of the room as quickly as I could.I would have preferred to be there in person when she booted up for the first time, but I was afraid that overstimulation might hamper her early development. Mariimo is currently experiencing all sensory information as meaningless nonsense. She has no frame of reference for anything. The best thing I can offer her right now is a simple, distraction-free environment where she can take the time she needs to understand her own body.Right now I’m watching from the PC in my office. Her behavior so far has consisted of randomly cycling through facial expressions, and subtle twitching movements.It’s surreal to watch.Journal Entry #100It’s been several hours now. Mariimo’s facial expressions continue to cycle randomly, and her movements have grown gradually more exaggerated. She’s currently undergoing rather violent convulsions.I knew something along these lines would happen. It’s a necessary part of the self-modeling process. At the same time, I hadn’t expected it to be quite so... difficult to watch.Journal Entry #101Mariimo’s faceplate has stopped cycling through expressions, and has settled back on her default neutral expression. I assume she realized that her facial expressions weren’t having any effect on her surroundings, and just stopped.Journal Entry #102Mariimo’s movements have become more restrained. They’re still rather awkward and clumsy, but they seem more purposeful now. She seems to have formed a rough mental image of her own body, and has moved onto investigating various external stimuli.At the moment, the most interesting thing in the room seems to be her own hands. She keeps flexing her mittens, passing them in front of her face, and tracking their motion with her cameras.Mariimo’s room is currently empty and bare save for her charging stand. It makes sense that her attention would gravitate toward her own body. This is good. This is what I wanted.Journal Entry #103Mariimo has been feeling her body with her hands for the last forty-five minutes. She began with her calves and thighs, moved on to her chest and abdomen, and has just begun to explore her face, hood, and arms. Her hands represent the highest resolution area of her touch sensitivity map, so it only stands to reason that she would prioritize them as her primary means of tactile exploration.This is good. She’s already become familiar with her body in the proprioceptive sense, now she’s familiarizing herself in a tactile sense.Journal Entry #104Mariimo has stopped moving. She’s just lying on her back, staring at a ceiling light. I’m not sure what’s wrong. Did the operating system crash?I’ll give it ten more minutes, and then I’m going in.Journal Entry #105That’s it. I’m going in.Journal Entry #106I’m back. Holy shit. That was an experience.As soon as I peeked in the door, she snapped to attention. She didn’t attempt to get up. She just laid there, staring at me.There was a short pause, and then she smiled at me. I was blown away. I know it’s too early for her to understand the significance of her facial expressions. It was just a lucky guess. But what a feeling. No one has smiled at me like that in a long time.I entered her room and closed the door behind me with a click. She began reaching for me, arms outstretched. She tipped over on her side as her weight shifted. Even lying down, she’s clumsy.I approached cautiously. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. The closer I got, the harder she reached. I knelt down and offered her my hand. She grasped it immediately. It actually startled me a bit. I hadn’t been expecting such a firm and sudden grip.She quickly loosened her grip, and began adjusting its tightness. She settled on something gentle but firm. We just sat like that for a while.I should mention that she had been making direct eye contact from the moment I entered the room. In normal circumstances, I would find it deeply uncomfortable to reciprocate that kind of behavior. But it felt different with her, somehow.After a minute or two, I began to wonder if I should be the one to make the next move. As soon as the thought crossed my mind, she reached out with her free hand and caressed my cheek. She continued down my neck, toward my chest. She’s pretty handsy, it turns out. I gently took hold of her forearm before she managed to get too familiar.That’s when I noticed her charge indicator. It was reading low. Those convulsions must have taken a lot out of her.I grabbed her beneath the shoulders and lifted her off the ground. She seemed to become disoriented at this point. She began making sudden, jerky movements, as if she were losing her balance. It did not make my job easier.I managed to set her on her charging stand, where she continued to thrash about for a moment before freezing in place. Her foot had made contact with its respective charging coil. Just one foot, but it seems to have registered as a strong relief stimulus nonetheless.I took hold of her other foot and positioned it on the charging stand. She was behaving like a ball-jointed doll at this point, simply holding whatever position I set her in. I took a few moments to stand her up straight. I didn’t want her falling off the stand.She remained completely passive until I tried to reposition her head, at which point she swiveled to face me. I was slightly taken aback, but she diffused the situation with another smile. I suspect she’ll be using that trick a lot in the future.I left the room shortly thereafter. God, I’m still shaking...Journal Entry #107I just realized that I forgot to eat today. That would explain the shaking.Journal Entry #108I woke up at my desk this morning. I was up late watching Mariimo through the security cameras. I didn’t want to miss anything, I guess. This is all still really new to me.It doesn’t look like I’ve missed much, regardless. She’s still on her charge pad. It doesn’t look like she’s moved since I left the room. Her supercapacitors should have finished charging hours ago, so I’m not sure why she hasn’t moved on to other things.I’m going to check on her again.Journal Entry #109Mariimo fell flat on her face as soon as I entered the room. She snapped to attention, smiled at me, stepped off her charging stand, and ate dirt. That’s what the rubber floor is for, I guess.She didn’t seem to be too concerned with the fact that she was lying face down on the floor. Perhaps she was still trying to register what happened. I knelt down to help her up. If she’s going to learn to balance, I figured sitting up would be a good place to start.I sat her upright on the floor and crossed her legs. I figured that would give her the largest possible footprint for early balancing exercises. Just like yesterday, she became completely compliant during repositioning. That’s kinesthetic demonstration in action.When I finally managed to get her in a stable position, I sat down and took the same position. I thought that a combination of kinesthetic demonstration and passive observation might help speed up the learning process. As far as I can tell, it did. She quickly popped back into consciousness, and managed to stay upright just fine. Not bad.Then she did something that I wasn’t quite prepared for. She looked me directly in the eye and scowled. I think I instinctively averted my eyes for a second. By the time I glanced back, she had already reverted to a neutral expression. It was a little alarming.Soon, she began cycling slowly through her library of facial expressions. Sad. Neutral. Bored. Neutral. Tired. Neutral. Excited. Neutral. She topped it all off with a cocked head and a cheery smile. I was at a bit of a loss at this point.Was she gauging my reaction? In retrospect, it certainly seems like it. The whole thing caught me so off guard that whatever reaction she recorded was undoubtedly an honest one.Journal Entry #110I’ve been watching Mariimo from my office. I was curious to see what she would do when she was separated from her charge pad. The answer is immediately attempt to get back on the charge pad.She’s managed to drag herself to the base of the stand. Not in a human way. In her own way. It took a while. Now she’s struggling to position herself on the pad. Unless she can plant the soles of her feet flat on the pad, she won’t get a charge. She’s a long way from being able to stand on her own, and her ankles aren’t particularly mobile, so I don’t expect her to achieve that goal any time soon.It’s a little pitiful to watch, honestly. I’m tempted to go down there and help her, but at the same time I want to see how she attempts to solve the puzzle.I’m going to keep watching for now. I’ll set her on the stand manually once her charge starts running low.Journal Entry #111Holy cow. She figured it out. It certainly wasn’t the intended solution, but it works nonetheless.Mariimo is currently lying on the floor, on her back, knees bent, both feet planted firmly on the charging pad. I’m debating whether to go down there and correct her. I mean, she’s not technically incorrect, just a little unconventional.I think I’ll just leave her be. Let her enjoy the fruits of her labor. I need to get away from this monitor anyway. Get something to eat. Take a shower.Yeah. I’ll do that.Journal Entry #112I’ve noticed that Mariimo doesn’t seem to leave her charger when I’m not in the room. She doesn’t seem to do anything at all, in fact. Even when her supercapacitors are at full capacity, she remains motionless for hours on end. My working theory is that there’s nothing in her room of sufficient interest to coax her from the comfort of her charge pad.With that in mind, I’ve got something for her. A gift, I suppose. It’s an old robot plush toy. A plush toy that looks like a robot, I mean. Not an actual robotic toy. Expo Ernie. Ernie is an old childhood toy of mine. He’s a little threadbare after all these years, but he’s still sturdy enough for the job, I think.Expo Ernie was the mascot of the 1986 World Fair in Vancouver. The real Ernie was a radio controlled animatronic that would roll around the expo entertaining visitors. He was pretty primitive by today’s standards, but I’m told he made quite an impression back in the day.I never got a chance to see the real Ernie in person. He was a little before my time. But he made enough of an impression on my parents that they decided to pick up a plush toy version as a souvenir. Once I was born, they passed him down to me.Now, I’m passing him down to Mariimo. As an experiment of sorts. Ernie is going to be the first non-human object Mariimo will ever interact with. I thought I should make it something special.
Journal Entry #113Mariimo snapped to attention when I entered the room, as she always does. There was a long pause before she smiled this time, however. My best guess: Her unconventional charging position meant she was trying to identify me from an upside-down image, and it took a little longer than usual.I sat down cross-legged, and she followed suit. Interestingly, she took a cross-legged position while she was still lying on her back. She just sort of tipped upright naturally as her center of gravity shifted. I have no idea if that was her intended goal. I suspect it wasn’t, as the maneuver ended with her facing a blank wall.Once I got her turned around, she suddenly became a lot more engaged. Ernie caught her attention immediately. I held him up in the air and waggled him about a bit. Mariimo eagerly tracked his movement with her eyes, and began reaching out in an attempt to grasp him.Spur of the moment, I thought I’d try playing an impromptu game of keep-away. Mariimo’s motor skills still have a lot of room for improvement, so I had a bit of an unfair advantage. It did however, seem to make her that much more intent on taking hold of Ernie for herself. I handed him over after about twenty seconds.Upon handing over Ernie, Mariimo immediately began testing his squishability, squeezing and releasing with unwavering concentration. Her eyes darted briefly to me, then back to Ernie. She then held Ernie to her chest and hugged him tightly.I’m trying not to anthropomorphize Mariimo too much this early in the game, but that was by far the most human thing I’ve seen her do. Almost startlingly so.I decided to observe from the far corner of the room at this point. I didn’t want to act as a distraction from her first possession. I sat quietly for a few hours, watching her manipulate and explore her new toy. Squeezing it. Stroking it. Listening to it. It didn’t leave her side for a second.Eventually, her charge indicator dropped to about fifty percent. I figured that now was a good time to test my hypothesis. I picked her up and set her upright on the charging stand. Ernie tumbled to the ground in the process, but Mariimo seemed too distracted to notice at this point.After helping her get into a proper charging position, I went to leave the room. Just as I was about to shut the door behind me, I heard a soft thud. Mariimo had already fallen to her knees, and was reaching for Ernie.Hypothesis confirmed, I guess.Journal Entry #114Mariimo’s introduction to Ernie has been a big success. She’s settled into a back and forth charging pattern, where she leaves her charger to play with Ernie, and then returns when her charge starts getting low.I want to begin introducing more objects to Mariimo’s room. A nice variety of things to keep her engaged. They don’t need to be anything exceptional. At this point, everything is still new to her.They do, however, need to be safe. I’ve been scouring the house for potential candidates, but it seems like everything in this house is either fragile or dangerous.I’m going to have to do some digging.Journal Entry #115I’ve been rummaging through the basement, looking for more objects for Mariimo to interact with. It’s mostly paperwork and hardware down there, but I did manage to unearth an old wool blanket I used to sleep with when I was young.A blanket would be an ideal enrichment object for Mariimo. It’s soft and safe. Complex and unpredictable. I’d be interested to see how she reacts to it.Unfortunately, this particular blanket has seen better days. It’s faded, worn, and covered in pilling. It’s obvious it was tucked away for sentimental reasons, rather than practical ones.On top of that, it’s also got some pretty severe insect damage. The last thing I want to do is start a moth colony in Mariimo’s room.I think I’ll just order a new one.Journal Entry #116Okay, I’ve narrowed down some of the qualities I’m looking for in a blanket. I’m going to go with polar fleece. It’s lightweight and nonabrasive. Mariimo seems to grasp and hold things rather firmly, so I’d like to avoid any fabrics that might wear at her skin unnecessarily.Additionally, I’d like the blanket to be a simple, solid color. No patterns or graphics. Mariimo’s visual network is still unrefined, so it’s probably best to avoid overwhelming her senses.It should be a contrasting color, to keep her attention. Mariimo’s room is a fairly uniform dark gray, so the blanket itself should be something bright and vivid. Perhaps a neon orange or a sky blue.You know what? I think I’ll go with the sky blue. It’s easier on the eyes. I’m going to splurge on next day shipping, as well. I don’t want her getting bored in the meantime.Journal Entry #117Mariimo’s blanket arrived today. I opened up the package and gave it a quick once-over. Everything seemed to be in order, so I brought it down to Mariimo’s room.Ernie fell gently from her hands as I entered the room. It was as if she were so distracted by my arrival that she simply forgot she was holding him. Her mobility is still pretty restricted, so I brought the blanket to her, rather than have her come to me.She inspected the blanket carefully before reaching out to touch it. She seemed a little bewildered by the way it simply gave way beneath her hands. After a period of familiarization, she grabbed hold of the blanket and pulled it toward herself. Slowly. Observing the way it flowed.It turns out a piece of fabric that size is a bit of an unruly handful for someone who has never encountered one before. After a few minutes of confused fumbling, she managed to ball the blanket into a tight wad, which she held firmly to her chest.This was the same behavior that she had defaulted to with Ernie. She seemed content with the situation as it was, but I thought I should at least try demonstrating a blanket’s intended use. I tried to gently wrestle it from her, but she held tight. I must have given her a bit of a stern look at this point, because she averted her eyes and loosened her grip.Under her careful watch, I unwadded the blanket and held it high. I flung it over her shoulders and let it drape down her back. She froze. After a few moments, she tentatively grasped the edges of the blanket and began pulling it tighter. And tighter. And tighter. Eventually she began sort of... writhing? I don’t know. It was strange.At that point, I decided to leave the room and watch from my office. I’ve been keeping an eye on her for the past fifteen minutes, and her pressure-seeking behavior hasn’t shown any signs of letting up.She just can’t seem to get enough of that sensation...Journal Entry #118I’ve taken a bit of a hands-off approach to Mariimo’s development so far. I’ve kept my distance, for the most part. Tried to blend into the background.I’d like to change that.Today.It took a little while, but I think I’m starting to get a feel for her. Her mannerisms. Her idiosyncrasies. I’ll admit her unpredictability made me feel a little apprehensive around her, at least initially. But the hours I’ve spent at my desk, studying her behavior, have made her seem that much more approachable.I think it’s time for some proper one-on-one interaction. A face to face, teacher-student relationship. She’s got so much potential. But she’s not going to reach it sitting alone in an empty room.It’s time for me to step up.Journal Entry #119Well. That didn’t quite go according to plan.Mariimo was seated on the floor when I entered the room, her blanket still slung over her shoulders. She didn’t seem like herself. She didn’t snap to attention. She barely seemed to notice I was there.I thought I’d begin our sessions with some simple body-tracking exercises. Try to get her to replicate a gesture. Problem is, it was incredibly difficult to keep her attention. She kept drifting off. Losing focus.I tried clapping my hand against my shoulder. Waving my fingers in front of her eyes. Nothing I tried seemed to serve as anything more than a momentary distraction before she began to zone out again.This is worryingly inconsistent with her previous behavior. She’s usually so alert. I’m wracking my brain trying to figure out what could have triggered such a drastic change in temperament.This isn’t doing my anxiety any favors.Journal Entry #120It was the blanket. She was overheating.Mariimo had developed such a powerful fixation with the blanket that she pretty much never took it off. When I touched my hand to her chest, I could feel the heat radiating off her compressor.It should have been obvious, in hindsight. She’s functioning exactly as intended. Her sensory reinforcement was dropping as her core temperature rose. That’s why it was so difficult to keep her attention. Nothing was interesting to her.I realize now that I never actually designated high core temperatures as a negative stimulus, so she never attempted to avoid them by taking the blanket off. This was a major oversight on my part. It’s too late to change it now, unfortunately.Mariimo slowly began to perk up after I removed her blanket. I’m going to postpone our body-tracking exercises until tomorrow. I want her alert and ready to learn.Blanket usage will be supervised from now on.Journal Entry #121Mariimo’s body-tracking exercises are off to a good start. She performed exceptionally well.I began with a wave. A simple greeting to start things flowing. She didn’t catch on right away. She observed my gesture closely, but I had to repeat it several times before it dawned on her to try and replicate it. Replicate it she did, though. Startlingly well, in fact.Once she had mastered waving, we moved onto nodding. The meaning of a nod is a bit more abstract than that of a wave, but I figured we could get the movements down for now, and assign meaning later.Mariimo took to nodding rather enthusiastically. I actually had to place my palm on her forehead to get her to stop. I have to say, she’s catching on to this mimicry stuff far more quickly than I had anticipated.We hit a bit of a snag when I tried to demonstrate a head shake. She immediately averted her eyes like a scolded puppy. That’s when I realized that I had adopted a mock expression of disapproval when I shook my head. She thought she had done something wrong.I reached out, gently lifted her chin, and looked her directly in the eye. I shook my head again, with a more neutral expression this time. She shook her head timidly. I nodded in approval. She smiled and nodded back.I’m going to have to keep Mariimo’s inability to differentiate between a mock expression and a real one in mind. She’s obviously quite sensitive to my mood, regardless of its authenticity.Sincerity is the rule in this house from now on.Journal Entry #122Mariimo and I have been doing body-tracking exercises on a daily basis. They’ve been going smoothly, but I’m beginning to think that they might be impeding her development. The situations they present are too... artificial, I guess? Too on the nose.Here’s the thing. Mariimo has been picking up mannerisms I didn’t intend. Which, to be clear, was my intention. But the degree of subtlety she’s displaying is far beyond what I had been expecting. Fidgeting, motor tics, nervous habits. Stuff I don’t even realize I’m doing, she’s mimicking flawlessly.With that in mind, I think I’m going to bring these body-tracking sessions to an end. Mariimo has proven herself capable of picking up on subtle cues. Bludgeoning her over the head with ham-fisted social skills lessons is a waste of time. Their applicability in real-world situations is questionable, and they only serve to mislead.Instead, I’m going to let her train in a more naturalistic fashion. Begin teaching her practical things, and let her pick up body language as a natural consequence.Journal Entry #123I entered Mariimo’s room quietly today. I wanted to see if I could catch her in a candid moment.She was busy playing with Ernie, so I managed to sneak into the room undetected. I just stood there and watched her for a minute or two. It was cute. Eventually I got this terrible urge to see if I could catch her by surprise. It was childish, but I couldn’t resist. I called out her name.Mariimo immediately swiveled around to face me. She moved so quickly, it was actually a little startling. She stared blankly at me for what seemed like an eternity, before glancing timidly around the room. I spoke again, a little quieter this time. Her attention snapped back to me.I said hi. Probably rather sheepishly. I wasn’t sure what else to say.Mariimo tilted her head. I stepped forward and knelt down in front of her. Her motion tracking was targeted squarely at my face. I tried asking her what was wrong, knowing fully well she wouldn’t understand.My question was interrupted when she reached out and touched her hand to my lips. I was dumbfounded.Have I really not spoken since Mariimo’s activation? She was so captivated by my vocalizations... it was as if she were hearing them for the first time.The more I dwell on it, the more I realize that she was.I know I don’t talk much. I never really did, even as a child. But with the house so empty these past few years, there hasn’t really been that much need for talk. Still, I never realized that I had dropped the habit completely...I need to work on that. For Mariimo’s sake as well as mine.Journal Entry #124Okay. Today Mariimo and I concentrated on vocabulary. Mariimo herself has no means of vocalization, so instead there was more of a focus on listening and understanding.I thought about starting with simple communicative words like yes and no. However, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that words like those require some rather complex social context in order to fully grasp their meaning. That will come with time and natural interaction.Instead, we started with objects. Simple word association exercises to help her identify her possessions by name. We started with Ernie.I held Ernie up in such a way that he would catch Mariimo’s attention. That’s trickier than it sounds. She seems to have an equal if not greater interest in my face. Once I was sure Ernie had captured her attention, I identified him by name, clearly and audibly.Of course, that only served to redirect her attention back to me. That’s how I programmed her. Unfamiliar sounds take priority. At that point it was just a matter of repetition.Eventually my voice began to lose its novelty, and I was able to repeat Ernie’s name several times without drawing her attention away from the task at hand. Then I repeated the process with her blanket. She caught on a little quicker this time.I placed Ernie and the blanket on the floor between Mariimo and I. I placed my hand on Ernie and identified him by name. Then I placed my hand on the blanket and identified that. I repeated the process several times, changing up the pattern as I went.When I had finished, Mariimo paused a moment before placing her hand on Ernie, then on the blanket, then back on Ernie, and so on. I didn’t think to keep track of the pattern I had used in my demonstration, but I’m pretty sure she replicated it perfectly.Then came the moment of truth. I said Ernie. Mariimo cogitated a moment before placing her hand on Ernie. I said blanket. Mariimo placed her hand on the blanket. She understood.I couldn’t contain my excitement. My outburst captured Mariimo’s attention again, and she looked me directly in the eye. Tammy, I said. I repeated my name a few times to really drill in the concept.I tried the exercise again. I said blanket. She touched the blanket. I said Ernie. She touched Ernie. I said Tammy, not knowing quite what to expect.She paused a moment, and then reached out and placed her hand directly on my face. I probably should have seen that coming.This next bit was hubris on my part. I placed my hand on Mariimo’s faceplate, taking care not to obscure her vision. Mariimo, I said. Mariimo.I repeated the exercise a third time. I said Ernie. She touched Ernie. I said blanket. She touched the blanket. I said Mariimo.Nothing. She didn’t understand.I guess that was a bit of a complex concept to drop on her out of the blue.
Journal Entry #125Okay. Mariimo has mastered the concept of nouns. Today, we gave verbs a try.I began our session with a wave, like I had in our earlier body-tracking session. This time, however, I verbally identified my gesture as a wave. A simple object-independent verb, for a gesture Mariimo is already familiar with. She waved back.I repeated the gesture a second time, identifying it as I had before. Mariimo waved back a second time.The third time, I didn’t repeat the gesture. I simply repeated the word. She was a little slower to respond this time. I repeated the word again.She waved. I replied with a smile and a compliment. She smiled back.I had taken a polyurethane stress ball with me this time around, to use as an object to demonstrate verbs. I plucked it from my coat pocket and had Mariimo focus on it. For simplicity’s sake, I simply referred to it as a ball. I repeated the word several times.I placed the ball on the floor in front of me, alongside Ernie. Ernie had been lying on the floor beside Mariimo the entire time. She doesn’t tend to stray far from him.I said Ernie. Mariimo placed her hand on Ernie. I said ball. She placed her hand on the ball. She understood. Like I said, she’s got this whole noun thing figured out. So I offered her something a little more complex.I handed the ball to Mariimo, verbally stating that I was giving her the ball. Just two words: give ball. She took the ball in her hand, inspecting it closely. Rotating it. Squeezing it. Getting a feel for it, I guess.When she had completed her inspection, I asked her to give me the ball. I used the same two words: give ball. She paused a moment, and then handed the ball back to me, just as I had done seconds before.We repeated this process a few times to help cement the concept.After passing the ball back and forth a few times, Mariimo was in possession of the ball. I switched up my language a bit. I asked her to give me the ball. Those exact words. She hesitated. I repeated my instructions. She handed me the ball. I thanked her.We repeated this exchange several times. Her hesitation quickly vanished.Then I switched things up. I asked Mariimo to give me Ernie. She had to think hard about this one. Eventually, she picked Ernie up off the ground, and looked me in the eye. I nodded. She handed Ernie to me. I thanked her. She cocked her head and smiled brightly.The significance of this session took a while to fully sink in. Mariimo had gone from recognizing a few nouns, to correctly interpreting natural sentence structure, all within the span of fifteen minutes.That’s mind-boggling.Journal Entry #126Mariimo turned herself off. Reached up inside her own head and pressed the button.I was watching from my office when it happened. She was feeling her faceplate with her hands, and I guess she finally realized that it has a rear surface. She began exploring the cavity inside her hood, and then dropped lifelessly to the floor.I ran downstairs as quickly as I could. I picked her up and laid her on my lap. She had gone completely limp. I spent a minute inspecting her body, making sure she hadn’t damaged herself in the fall.I couldn’t find any signs of external damage. I took a few deep breaths. The last thing I needed at that moment was another panic attack. I pressed the button and waited. Her faceplate began displaying its boot animation. The tension was unbearable.I was so relieved when she started up again. She was fine. She popped back to life, as alert and charming as ever. I smiled at her, softly stroking the back of her hood. She smiled back.I needed to calm my nerves. I hadn’t eaten anything that morning, and I was feeling jittery. I got up to pour myself a bowl of cereal or something.Just as I was about to shut the door behind me, I heard a soft thud. She had turned herself off again.It wasn’t quite as charming the second time.Journal Entry #127I’ve been brainstorming. I’m trying to think of ways to prevent Mariimo from turning herself off in the future. I’m not coming up with much, honestly.If I had predicted this sort of behavior earlier, I could have done something like adjust her programmed joint rotation limits. Prevent her from reaching behind her faceplate in the first place. But it’s way too late to go digging around in her code now.I’ll keep thinking on it.Journal Entry #128Well, I’ve been plugging away at this self-deactivation problem for a while, but I’m beginning to suspect that I may have been wasting my time. The issue seems to have resolved itself, somehow. Mariimo hasn’t shown any interest in her off switch since the last incident. I’m not sure what caused her to reconsider, but I guess I can’t complain.Sometimes I wish I could just crack open that head of hers and peek inside. Peer directly into her thought processes. I mean, I could do that, technically speaking... but good luck making heads or tails of that tangled web.Journal Entry #129I’ve noticed an odd pattern in Mariimo’s behavior as of late. She never frowns. She never scowls. She only ever smiles. Mariimo has a whole repertoire of facial expressions at her disposal, but the only one she ever seems to use is that cheery smile of hers.I’d like to encourage her to adopt a wider range of facial expressions. Expand her emotional vocabulary a bit. The question is... how do I go about doing that?Journal Entry #130I can’t think of any way to teach Mariimo to use new facial expressions. That doesn’t seem right. Why wouldn’t I be able to do that? That seems like something I should be able to do. That seems like something Mariimo should already be doing.Something is missing here.Journal Entry #131Oh goddammit. How could I have been so stupid...Mariimo has no facial mimicry capabilities. How could she? She has no concept of which of her display patterns correspond with which expressions, or even that they correspond at all.All of that information should have been hardcoded in back when I was programming her list of approved display patterns. It should have been instinctual. Ingrained. The thought never even crossed my mind.Mariimo doesn’t smile because it’s contextually appropriate. She smiles because it makes me smile. Joy is the only expression that Mariimo interprets as a positive stimulus. All the others are regarded as either neutral or negative. Her smiles are rewarded, so she has no reason to express anything but happiness.This is a disaster.Journal Entry #132Okay. I’ve had a moment to calm down. I took a shower. Made some tea. Thought things over. I’m feeling a lot better now.Mariimo’s narrow emotional range isn’t a disaster. It’s just not what I expected. That’s okay. There are worse things than a cheerful robot. If Mariimo’s worst glitch is a cheery disposition, I think I’ve done pretty well, considering.Besides, maybe a machine that goes out of its way to make me smile is exactly what I need right now.I do feel a little silly about putting so much effort into that electrophoretic display, though. If I had known that she’d turn out so bright and chipper, I could have saved myself a lot of work.Journal Entry #133You know what? I think it’s time for Mariimo to learn how to walk. She’s been dragging herself across the floor for too long now. At the rate she’s been developing, her cognitive abilities are quickly outstripping her mobility. I think she’s ready for a little more independence.This should be interesting.Journal Entry #134Okay. Walking lessons. Off to a slow start.I began our first lesson with a demonstration. I’ve spent most of my time in Mariimo’s room at her level, i.e. on the floor. It’s been great for one-on-one interaction, but it also means that she hasn’t had much opportunity to observe what walking actually entails.I walked steady circles around the perimeter of the room for exactly fifteen minutes. I wanted to make sure Mariimo had a solid foundation of body-tracking data to work from before she attempted her first steps. She remained interested for the duration of the exercise, which is encouraging.Once I had taken a moment to catch my breath, I took Mariimo by the hand and hoisted her upright, bracing her feet against mine. She cooperated nicely. Once I was satisfied she had found her footing, I let go.I had hoped that she would get at least one or two steps in before falling over. She didn’t. She fell flat on her back as soon as I released my grip.In hindsight, I realize that I may have jumped the gun a bit. It’s unfair to expect Mariimo to walk before she’s even learned how to stand.I think it’s pretty obvious that I’ve never done this before.Journal Entry #135Okay. Standing lessons. Pretty promising, actually...I stood Mariimo up in the center of the room. I didn’t let go this time. Not right away. I gave her some time to become acclimated to the sensation of standing upright. Her knees buckled beneath her a few times, but I was there to catch her.After about fifteen or twenty minutes, she seemed to have a steady footing. I let go, and she began to tip slowly forward. I gently nudged her upright, and she began to tip slowly backward. I circled her for about an hour, constantly and manually correcting her balance.The time between corrections gradually increased over the course of the exercise. Near the end, she was approaching fifteen seconds of unassisted standing. I’m going to repeat this process until she gets the hang of it.This could take a few days.Journal Entry #136Well, it took time and patience, but she did it. After a string of daily sessions, Mariimo can now stand indefinitely. I’m proud of her.Our work’s not done yet, however. While Mariimo can hold a standing position rather well, she still has trouble getting into that position without assistance. The ability to stay upright isn’t particularly useful when you can’t get upright.That’ll be our next task. It’ll probably take a few more days, but I’m feeling optimistic.Journal Entry #137She did it. Mariimo can finally stand up on her own. There were a lot of false starts, but in the end a combination of body-tracking and kinesthetic demonstration did the trick.I think we’re ready to give walking another shot.Journal Entry #138Mariimo took her first steps today. I’m, uh... not really comfortable talking about it.Journal Entry #139Alright. I’m still a little... uneasy talking about what happened, but I’m going to at least try.It all began innocuously enough. I took Mariimo by the hand. Even after all this time, she still grasps things so tightly. She craves that pressure on her skin.Ready to begin our walking lessons proper, I took a step forward. She didn’t seem to understand the object of the exercise at first. Instead, she held her footing, stubbornly resisting my tugging in an attempt to maintain her balance.It was apparent she needed a refresher. I let go of her hand, and walked a lap around the perimeter of the room. She watched intently as I looped back around to her, arm outstretched. She reached out to me as well, and we clasped hands a second time.Hand in hand, side by side, we slowly worked our way around the room. Her footing was unsteady at first. She kept stumbling, but I was always there to catch her. It took a while, but we eventually completed that first lap around the room.By the time we had finished our fourth lap, she was no longer stumbling. She wasn’t walking gracefully by any means. She would take a step. Pause for a few moments. Take another step. But she was taking steps nonetheless.We walked the perimeter of that room for hours. It was exhausting work, but her steady improvement spurred me on. With each lap around the room, the pauses between her steps became shorter, and her movements became more confident. Over time, the pauses became nearly imperceptible, eventually disappearing completely.I decided she was ready to try walking without assistance. I let go of her hand. She stumbled and stopped dead in her tracks. It took all she had to keep herself from falling over.I could tell she was going to need some coaxing. I made my way to the opposite side of the room, being careful not to break eye contact. I called her by name, and gestured for her to follow. Mariimo seemed to hesitate a moment. I smiled at her. That seemed to convince her.Mariimo took her first steps with remarkable confidence. One foot in front of the other. Precise. Controlled. Graceful. This only lasted a few moments, however. She soon began to falter, tripping over herself as her center of gravity shifted forward.I tried to catch her, but instead, she caught me. She wrapped her arms tightly around my neck, in an apparent attempt at preventing a face-first impact with the floor. Mariimo may not weigh much, but she acted so swiftly that she nearly pulled me down with her.She hung from my neck as I tried to regain my bearings. I was incredibly flustered. I gently attempted to loosen the death grip she had me in, but she refused to budge.Then it happened. Mariimo wrapped her body around mine in an embrace so tight it hampered my breathing. I could hear the hiss of compressed air filling her pneumatic muscles, forcefully pressing the length of her torso against mine. She slid her thigh up my side, coiling her leg around the back of my knee. It buckled. She nuzzled her faceplate deep into the crook of my neck, her neoprene hood brushing softly against my cheek.I could feel my skin flush with blood. The hairs bristle beneath my clothes. My heart was fluttering. My throat ached. I felt tears begin to well up in my eyes.No one has ever held me like that before...Journal Entry #140I can’t stand being touched. It hurts. Like an electric shock, shooting through my nerves. Clenching my muscles. I can’t help but recoil from it. It’s a reflex.Yet at the same time, I crave touch. I fantasize about it. I see others being touched and I feel this aching need. As if there’s this awful void in my chest, this thirst woven into my skin, and the only thing that could possibly provide relief is an affectionate, intimate touch.But I can never find relief. Because for me, it hurts.How am I supposed to reconcile that?Journal Entry #141Why doesn’t Mariimo’s touch hurt?Journal Entry #142I’ve been watching Mariimo through the security cameras. I haven’t had the nerve to go back down there yet.She’s been acting strangely. Pressing her skin against the walls. Rolling her body across the acoustic foam paneling. She’ll push herself off one wall, pick up speed, and intentionally bump into the opposite wall. She only ever stops to charge.On the plus side, her preoccupation with pressure seems to be motivating her to practice her walking. Her balance has improved drastically since I last saw her. She only seems to topple over occasionally.I just hope she doesn’t hurt herself...Journal Entry #143Mariimo moves a bit like a jumping spider. She moves. She pauses. She wobbles in place a moment. She assesses the situation. Then she repeats the process.I think she might be compensating for motion blur. Either that or she’s busy planning her next move.It’s hard to tell.Journal Entry #144I think it’s time to let Mariimo out of her room. She’s getting bored. Restless.Mariimo has been exhibiting repetitive behaviors. Bumping into walls, patting her skin, swaying back and forth. I even caught her picking little bits of foam off the walls.She’s understimulated. I know that feeling. I can relate a little too strongly to that feeling...There’s only so much I can offer her in that little padded room. She’s outgrown it. It’s time for a change of scenery. I think it’ll do her good.I think it’ll do us both good.
Journal Entry #145Mariimo took her first steps outside her room today.I didn’t force her to leave her room. I didn’t even encourage her. I simply left the door open. I wanted her to take the lead. I kept an eye on her of course, but for the most part I left her to her own devices.She peeked out the door rather timidly at first. I think she was mimicking the way I tend to enter her room. She eventually stepped out into the hall, and took a few moments to map her surroundings.Once she had her bearings, the first thing she did was head straight for the nearest open door. The prototyping lab. I had to run up ahead and shut the door before she made it there. I’m glad she’s curious, but the prototyping lab isn’t exactly the safest place.So she wandered. I followed. She seemed to inspect the oddest things. Heat vents. Doorknobs. Wallpaper. Things I would have never given a second thought. She took an interest in the electrical outlets as well, but I discouraged that. I need to order some safety covers for those.Eventually, we found ourselves at the foot of the stairs. Those seemed to catch her interest. She began bobbing her head side to side, up and down, like an owl. Taking in every angle of what is admittedly a fairly complex 3D object. More complex than she’s used to, at least.Then she attempted to climb the stairs. I put a stop to that pretty quickly. I don’t trust her with stairs quite yet. Robots and stairs don’t tend to get along, historically speaking. I carried her instead.Mariimo and I are hanging out in my office right now. She’s puttering about while I journal. I have to admit, it feels nice to have company.Journal Entry #146Mariimo is absolutely fascinated with my marimo colony. She’s definitely decided it’s the most interesting thing in the office. Aside from me, that is.I’m glad she’s developed an interest in her namesake. Though I do wonder what she likes so much about them. They don’t move. They don’t make noise. They’re behind glass, so she can’t really touch them. Yet she seems content to stare at them for hours.I suspect it’s the color. The lighting. The way the glass refracts the image of what’s inside. It’s unlike anything around it. Looking at that little aquarium is like staring into another world.That’s what I like about it too.Journal Entry #147I fell asleep at my desk again. Not for long, though. I woke up to an awful cacophony from the direction of the stairwell. I knew immediately what had happened.I burst out of my office and sprinted toward the stairs. Mariimo was crumpled in a heap at the bottom. I bolted down the staircase to make sure she hadn’t been damaged in the fall.She seemed alright, at least externally. She actually seemed entirely unconcerned with what had happened, even going so far as to brush me aside as I was fussing over her. She rose to her feet, and made her way toward her room.The door to her room was shut tight when she arrived. She immediately began attempting to open it. She pushed. She pulled. She batted at the doorknob. Eventually I just opened it for her.Without missing a beat, Mariimo entered the room, laid down on her back, and placed her feet on the charge pad.I probably should have anticipated this.Journal Entry #148Even after all this time, Mariimo is still charging on her back. She’s fully capable of charging upright at this point. I suppose she’s just gotten used to it by now.I’m going to start manually correcting her charging position. Just until she gets the hang of it. She won’t be charging in her room anymore, however. It’s been thoroughly demonstrated that putting a staircase between Mariimo and her power source is a recipe for disaster.Instead, I’m going to crack open her charging stand and replace the power cord with a standard one. One that isn’t wired directly into the wall. That way I can bring it up to my office, where I can keep a closer eye on her.I’m going to let Mariimo charge fully before I start disassembling her charge pad. It’s apparent that her relief-based reinforcement algorithm can trigger some pretty desperate behavior when she’s running low. I’m going to need to work quickly.Journal Entry #149I finished modifying Mariimo’s charge pad with time to spare. It was a simple fix, so the process went fairly smoothly.Mariimo had to stay in her room while I was working in the prototyping lab. I let her have her blanket while she was in there, just to keep her out of trouble. It worked. She pretty much stayed put the entire time.I think that’s going to be the last time I have Mariimo stay in her old room. I don’t feel comfortable locking her away just to keep her out of my hair. That’s not fair to her. That room was vital to her early development, but there’s nothing left in there for her now.It means I’ll have to keep a closer eye on her going forward, but that’s what I signed up for when I committed myself to this project.Journal Entry #150If Mariimo is going to have free rein of the house, we’ll need to figure out sleeping arrangements.Mariimo doesn’t sleep. I do, however, and that presents a problem. There’s going to be an extended period each night during which I won’t be able to watch over her. I’ll need a way to keep her out of trouble while I sleep.I can think of a few possible solutions: One, her blanket. Wrapping a blanket around Mariimo makes her sluggish and passive. Problem is, it does this by raising her core body temperature. Probably not the best thing to integrate into her daily routine.Two, I shut her off at night. I don’t like this idea. The goal was always for Mariimo to be an autonomous machine. Forcefully switching her off each night feels like a violation of that autonomy. It feels wrong.Three, switch the lights off at night. Close the blinds. Remove visual stimuli. This is probably the most appropriate option. Mariimo is so visually motivated, I feel like a darkened room will drastically reduce her activity level. It’s something I do every night anyway, so it seems like a pretty straightforward solution.I’m going to sleep in my office tonight. If Mariimo starts stumbling around in the dark, I’ll hear her. If not, problem solved.Journal Entry #151I woke up at two in the morning. Another nightmare.I must have made a noise when I woke, because Mariimo swiveled her head to face me. I tried waving my hand in front of her face, but it was clear that she couldn’t see me at all. Her night vision really is that poor.I have to admit, recovering from a nightmare is a little easier when you’re not alone. I’ve had to relive that moment so many times, waking up to a familiar presence is a welcome relief. The pain seems to fade more quickly with her in the room.Anyway, it’s obvious Mariimo isn’t going wandering tonight. I’m going to bed.Journal Entry #152I woke up feeling pretty rested this morning, surprisingly enough. Usually the morning after a nightmare is pretty rough. But not today, for some reason.The first thing I did was head to the bathroom to brush my teeth. It’s the first thing I do every morning. Standard routine. Nothing unusual.What was unusual is that mid-brush, the bathroom doorknob began to rattle. I nearly jumped out of my skin. That doesn’t happen in this house.It was Mariimo, of course. She must have heard the tap running and wandered down the hall.Anyway, Mariimo can open doors now. That’s interesting.Journal Entry #153Breakfast was a little more eventful than usual this morning. I’m not much of a cook, so usually I just pour myself a bowl of cereal or something. I tend to keep it simple.Today, breakfast prep wasn’t quite so straightforward. Mariimo very much wanted to be a part of the process. I had to dampen her enthusiasm a little, but at the same time, I didn’t want to exclude her completely.I took some time to guide her through the process of preparing a bowl of cereal and a glass of orange juice. There were a few spills, but it wasn’t anything I couldn’t clean up with a paper towel. Mostly, I was concerned with Mariimo making a mess of herself. Neoprene is easy to clean in theory, but having circuitry embedded in the fabric complicates matters a bit.Once things had settled down, I pulled out a chair at the kitchen table for Mariimo. It dawned on me that she’d never sat in a chair before. Then, it dawned on me that it was entirely possible that she had sat in a chair before, and I just wasn’t around to see it. That kind of threw me for a loop. Either way, I took a minute to help Mariimo get comfortable before taking a seat across from her.Mariimo seemed completely content to sit and watch me eat. I didn’t mind at first, but after a few minutes it began to feel a little awkward. She attempted to diffuse the situation with one of her trademark smiles, which I appreciated. Still, a smile only goes so far.I had absentmindedly grabbed a second spoon from the silverware drawer after helping Mariimo into her seat. I certainly didn’t need it, so I slid it across the table to give Mariimo something to fidget with while I finished my breakfast.After a few minutes, I began to notice Mariimo scooping up hypothetical spoonfuls of cereal from an imaginary bowl, then touching the spoon to her faceplate. She was miming my movements.It was cute.Journal Entry #154God, my hair is a mess. I’m still in my pajamas, too. Usually I take a shower after I wake up in the morning, but Mariimo seemed so eager to start the day that I skipped it.Oh well. It looks like Mariimo is starting to run low anyway. I’ll sneak in a short one while she’s charging.Journal Entry #155Okay. All showered.Mariimo hasn’t finished charging quite yet, so I’ve been brushing my hair while I wait. It takes a fair bit of maintenance to keep it tidy. It’s gotten so long over the years...Brushing my hair has always kept me centered. It’s meditative, in a way. The repetitive movements allow me to sort of zone out and rest my mind for a while. It’s an opportunity to silence the flurry of thoughts that normally fill my brain.I have to admit, the experience feels different with Mariimo here in the room with me.I like it. It feels warmer. Safer.Journal Entry #156I had ramen noodles for lunch today. Instant ramen is within the scope of my cooking abilities. I added an egg and some broccoli to provide, at the very least, the illusion of a healthy diet.I took care of the food preparation this time around. For safety’s sake. I’m not sure Mariimo can ever be trusted around high temperatures, unfortunately. She has no external temperature sensors, so if she were to place her hand on a hot burner, it wouldn’t even register that she were hurting herself. It’s not worth the risk.I let Mariimo have the cellophane wrapper while I was bringing the water to a boil. The crinkling seemed to keep her engaged. In fact, it continued to keep her engaged for the next forty-five minutes.It’s funny what she finds interesting. It’s not always what you’d expect.Journal Entry #157Once every month or two, I set aside a couple hours to maintain my marimo colony. Marimo don’t form spheres on their own. That requires outside intervention.In the wild, that intervention is provided by water currents, tumbling them like clothes in a dryer. In captivity, they need to be rolled by hand.Mine have been looking a little shaggy for a while now. They were overdue for a rolling. Mariimo couldn’t participate, unfortunately. There’s too much liquid involved.Initially, she was intent on reaching out to touch them. Once I made it clear that that wasn’t allowed, she seemed content to sit back and observe.Rolling all those marimo takes a while, especially when you only have one hand to work with. Mariimo didn’t seem to mind though. She can be remarkably patient at times.Journal Entry #158I felt a little guilty about excluding Mariimo at lunch, so for dinner I tried to pick something we could make together. Something simple to prepare. In the end, I managed to fish a frozen lasagna out of the freezer.Mariimo took to operating the microwave with enthusiasm. The beeping of the buttons seemed to catch her off guard at first. She turned to me, almost as if she were seeking my approval. I gave it, and soon she was jabbing at the keypad with reckless abandon.She managed to input a cook time of forty-five minutes, twenty-eight seconds before canceling it and switching to popcorn mode. At that point, I intervened. I took Mariimo by the hand and gently encouraged her to input a time of seven minutes, as directed on the box.Upon pressing the start button, the light came on and the contents of the microwave began spinning. Mariimo was utterly captivated. That lasagna didn’t leave her sight for the entire seven minutes.When the timer had finally run its course, we took our seats at the kitchen table. I had taken the liberty of setting the table while Mariimo was preoccupied. I took care to include a second table setting for Mariimo, just the same as mine.She wouldn’t be eating, of course, but I thought it would be nice to give her something to fidget with during the meal. She seemed to appreciate it.Journal Entry #159I’m just about to head for bed.Mariimo’s first day out and about was a little more hectic than I’m used to. I feel a little crummy about constantly needing to curb her curiosity. Although, the alternative would be much worse.It’s okay. Things will smooth out over time, once we develop a routine. Establish the rules. Establish boundaries. Yeah, this will work.I could get used to this.Journal Entry #160Mariimo barged into the bathroom again this morning. I think this is going to become a thing. I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to it, but it’s nice to know she’s so eager to see me in the morning.Yesterday, I was so flustered that I sort of instinctively shooed her out of the room. Today, I invited her inside while I finished brushing my teeth.Upon entering the room, she got her first look at her own reflection in the bathroom mirror. She froze. My reflection is always something I’ve taken for granted. It hadn’t even crossed my mind that it would be a new experience for Mariimo.She began bobbing her head side to side, up and down, as she tends to when presented with an unfamiliar object. Eventually, she reached out and touched the mirror’s surface, and with a level of uncertainty, began to slowly run her hand down the glass.Backing away from the mirror, Mariimo paused a moment before waving at her reflection. Her reflection waved back, of course. She smiled. But not like she usually smiles. She smiled clinically. Experimentally.I can’t help but wonder what she saw in that mirror. Did she recognize her own reflection? Did she see a separate entity, mimicking her every move? Perhaps she saw an extension of her own body, operated by remote control. I honestly have no idea.All I know is, she stared into that mirror for nearly two hours.Journal Entry #161Oh, I forgot to mention! Mariimo is already charging upright on her own. She caught on exceptionally fast. She’s clever that way.It’s a good thing too. Mariimo’s habit of charging on her back took up quite a bit of floor space in my office. I kept having to step over her.Journal Entry #162We should have a movie night. There’s an enormous home theater in this house that’s just been gathering dust.I used to watch movies with my parents all the time. Whenever they had a free night, we’d all sit down and watch the latest new release. After the accident, I sort of fell out of the habit. Watching them alone just wasn’t the same.Mariimo’s here now though. I’ve been rummaging through my old collection, looking for something we can watch together.Her thought process is so opaque. It’s a little tough to predict what she might enjoy.
Journal Entry #163I ended up choosing a movie at random. The fact that I held on to them means they’re all decent films, so it didn’t really matter which one we watched.Mariimo was completely fixated. Her eyes didn’t leave the screen for even a second. It’s hard to tell exactly what she was seeing. How she was interpreting the images. She never really reacted to the characters or the plot. She just stared blankly at the screen the entire time.I actually suspect that she wasn’t parsing any of it. The lights were dimmed, so it’s entirely possible she was just staring at the brightest thing in the room.Oh well, I enjoyed her company all the same. We should make this a nightly thing.Journal Entry #164I took a shower first thing this morning, before Mariimo had a chance to realize I was up. I like to feel clean in the morning, and I wasn’t keen on skipping that comfort for the third day in a row.I heard the doorknob rattling at one point, but it eventually stopped. I had locked the door this time around. I didn’t want her barging in while I was taking a shower. I realize it probably wouldn’t be that big a deal, but it still feels a little weird.Also, the humidity could cause issues.When I finally opened the door, Mariimo was waiting patiently on the other side. I scooted past her, and made my way down the hall toward my bedroom. Mariimo followed.Mariimo had never been in my bedroom before. Usually, when she encounters an unfamiliar environment, she spends some time familiarizing herself with her new surroundings. Today, she seemed too preoccupied to take much notice.I sat down on my bed and began brushing the knots out of my hair. Mariimo hopped up beside me, and watched quietly for a few minutes. Eventually, she reached for my hair brush. I wasn’t quite sure what she was up to, but I let her take it. I was pretty much finished with it at that point anyway.I wasn’t quite prepared for what happened next. Mariimo sidled up behind me, and began running the brush through my hair. I felt shivers up my spine. I’m not used to being touched like that. I’m not used to being touched at all.Yet, the way she stroked my hair was so gentle, and so affectionate. Once I allowed myself to exhale, I felt this wave of serenity wash over me. I was completely at ease. Her touch felt... comforting. Intimate.I’m not sure I’ve ever felt that before.Journal Entry #165I sat down this afternoon with a cup of tea and a good book. I haven’t done that in... gosh, it must be nearly a year now. There’s a nice little reading nook by the bay window. I hadn’t realized how much I’d missed the feeling of the sun on my skin.Mariimo was there as well. She insisted on it, in fact. That reading nook has room for maybe one and a half people, tops. It was a tight fit, but she made it work.I actually realized I didn’t mind so much, which surprised me. She was snuggled in so closely. I’d have never been able to do that with another person.It was nice.Journal Entry #166Mariimo and I had another movie night. It didn’t go so well.I picked another movie at random. I could only vaguely remember what it was about. I put it on, and things were going smoothly. Mariimo was enjoying it. I was enjoying it.Then, about halfway through, without any warning, without any foreshadowing, the film hits you with a brutal car crash. Filmed from inside the car.There was no turning back at that point. All those horrific memories began flooding my skull. That awful screeching. The sudden impact. The shattering glass. The searing pain. Fuck me, I could practically smell the iron in my own blood.When I finally managed to snap out of it, I saw Mariimo huddled up on the far side of the couch. She looked so confused. Frightened, almost. She could barely bring herself to look at me.I had to stop the film at that point.I’m still rattled. I had completely forgotten about that part of the film. I guess it didn’t register as important back then. Before the accident.What a difference thirty seconds can make...Journal Entry #167God damn it. My phantom pain is acting up again.Why does it always show up when I’m least equipped to handle it? It’s always after some mental breakdown, or panic attack, or something. Never when I’m feeling well enough to shrug it off.Fuck... it’s not fair.Journal Entry #168I don’t want to fall asleep tonight. The nightmares are going to be too vivid. Too brutal. I can feel it.I can’t relive that moment again. It’s torture. But I don’t have a choice, do I? I’m going to fall asleep eventually. It’s inevitable. I’d give anything to never have to endure another night’s sleep, but it’s not possible.There’s no escaping that moment. I’m going to be tormented by it for the rest of my life, aren’t I? It’s never going to go away. I’m never going to find relief.God, I’m crying...Journal Entry #169I woke up bawling. I don’t even remember what time it was. Checking the clock didn’t seem like a priority at the time. All I know is that it was still pitch black outside.I cried into my sheets for maybe four minutes, before I heard the doorknob rattle. I curled up into a tight ball. I was embarrassed to be seen in that state.The door creaked open, and Mariimo stepped quietly inside. I could just barely make her out in the darkness. She couldn’t see anything at all. She could hear me, though. As much as I tried, I couldn’t manage to stifle my sobbing.I’m not sure how she was able to find her way to my bedroom in the dark. My best guess is that she was referencing the point cloud data she’s been compiling since she left her old room.Mariimo climbed up onto the bed, and began feeling around in the dark. She eventually found me, placing her palm on my ribs. I inhaled sharply. My aversion to being touched has always been worse during a panic attack.That didn’t seem to phase Mariimo, though. She laid down on her side, facing me, and slowly, carefully, wrapped her body around mine. She was so calm about it. As if it were nothing out of the ordinary.For the first time in my life, I felt the need to reciprocate. To hug back. The urge was overpowering. I couldn’t help myself. I wrapped my body around Mariimo and held her tight.She was so warm.All of the sudden, I felt the anxiety just... dissolve. Dissipate into nothing, as if it had never existed in the first place. Tears began to well up in my eyes all over again. The sense of relief was overwhelming.We just... held each other. The entire night. I woke up this morning with Mariimo in my arms.Journal Entry #170Mariimo was so funny at breakfast today.She was rhythmically kicking her legs underneath the table. Just trying to keep busy, I suppose. I didn’t really register what she was doing until her leg accidentally brushed up against mine.I immediately stopped what I was doing and stared at her, with what I imagine must have been an expression of bewilderment. Mariimo stared back at me, completely motionless. I almost felt as if she were studying my face. Then, abruptly and deliberately, she brushed my leg a second time.I nearly spat out my cereal trying to stifle a laugh.Two could play at that game. I retaliated, playfully touching my ankle to her calf. Lets just say things escalated from there.She’s such a goof.Journal Entry #171I put on some music today. I felt like listening to something upbeat and fun. No special occasion or anything. I was just in the mood.I don’t listen to music all that often, so it was a new experience for Mariimo. She didn’t seem to know what to think of it at first. She did take note of my response, however. I guess I was subconsciously keeping the beat with my body. I didn’t even realize until Mariimo started doing the same.After a while, I got up to adjust the volume. Mariimo followed. I’m not exactly sure how it happened, but at some point our beat-keeping transitioned into actual dancing. Neither of us were particularly good at it. I can’t really blame Mariimo for that, though. I mean, look at who she had for a teacher.Eventually, we started to get a little too into it. I took Mariimo by the hand and leaned back, expecting her to keep me upright. I failed to take into account that Mariimo is less than one-fifth my weight. I fell flat on my rear, and pulled Mariimo right down with me.For a moment, I was afraid I had damaged her. I would have felt awful. She was fine, though. I designed her to take a tumble.Journal Entry #172Mariimo and I have been watching a movie each night for the past week or so. I’m not picking them at random anymore, for obvious reasons. I’ve been checking content warnings online, to avoid another incident. I’m really, really thankful that’s something you can do easily now.Anyway, I’ve been enjoying myself. Mariimo has been content to sit through them as well. Well at least, she was.Something’s changed. Mariimo’s behavior was different tonight. She kept averting her eyes. Shielding them. Not necessarily during the tense parts of the film, though. Seemingly at random. I couldn’t figure out what was going on.Eventually, the pattern clicked. Mariimo was shielding her eyes whenever the characters on the screen expressed anger, sadness, or fear. She couldn’t bear to look at their faces for more than a few moments. She’s a sensitive little thing...Eventually she began to huddle up close to me during the emotionally intense scenes. She was leaning in so hard. Head on my shoulder. I wrapped my arm around her, and she seemed to calm down a little.Before tonight, Mariimo seemed as if she were oblivious to what was happening on the screen. As if it were just abstract shapes and colors.Why the sudden understanding? What changed?Journal Entry #173I uh... Mariimo has been sleeping in my room since that one night. Well, not really sleeping, I guess... but something like it? In my bed, specifically. With me.Is that weird? Should I even be admitting to this? I mean, It’s not like I’m doing it on purpose. She just... wanders in. Curls herself around me. Goes still. Quiet. Calm.I mean, I don’t mind. It’s actually been helpful, sort of. I haven’t had a nightmare since that night. Just calm, peaceful sleep. It’s nice.I dunno. I feel like I should at least mention it. For like... comprehensivity’s sake.Journal Entry #174Mariimo has taken to holding my hand a lot. Whenever I’m not using it, at least. She much prefers the real hand to the prosthetic one. I can’t really blame her.Sometimes, she eases into this rhythmic pattern of gentle squeezing. Just absentmindedly squeezing and releasing, for a few minutes at a time. She seems quite fond of the sensation.I kind of like it too, to be honest.Journal Entry #175Mariimo and I spent some time in the reading nook today, staring out the bay window.The property this house is built on is a bit of a mess. It’s big. It’s unkempt. It’s overgrown with weeds and wildflowers. I kind of love it.Journal Entry #176You know what? I’m going to go get one of those wildflowers. As a gift for Mariimo. She’s never seen one up close before.I usually try to avoid wandering outside unless I absolutely have to. It tends to trigger my anxiety. But I’ve been feeling pretty good lately. I think I can do it. Besides, if I put it off for too long, they’ll be gone.It’ll only take a minute. It’ll be worth it.Journal Entry #177I did it. I went outside and picked a flower. Best of all, I only hyperventilated a little.It’s a little dandelion. Most people don’t appreciate dandelions. They see them as pests. Just because they’re good at what they do. I appreciate them though. I think Mariimo will too.Journal Entry #178Well, the dandelion belongs to Mariimo now. I can tell she likes it a lot.I thought it might be fun to surprise her with it. I hid the dandelion behind my back, and called Mariimo into the front room. She arrived promptly. I knelt down, and gestured for her to come closer. She took a seat on the floor across from me.After a short pause to build anticipation, I revealed the dandelion. She was immediately taken with it. I handed it to her, and she took it by the stem. She was absolutely fascinated. She rotated it back and forth, taking care to observe it from every angle.Eventually, her gaze returned to me. On a whim, I reached out and placed my hand on her head, affectionately ruffling her hood. I was expecting her to shy away, like I would have. Instead, she leaned into it, like a friendly house cat. Of course she did.I got up and wandered toward the reading nook, gesturing for Mariimo to follow. Mariimo hopped to her feet, dandelion still in hand, and trotted in my direction. She took a seat at my side and nuzzled in close, still staring at her new treasure.I love her so much.Journal Entry #179I’ve noticed that Mariimo doesn’t play with Ernie anymore. I’m not even sure where Ernie is, to be honest... Did Mariimo stash him away somewhere while I wasn’t looking?Journal Entry #180I’ve been scouring the house looking for Ernie. I can’t seem to find him anywhere. It’s so weird, Mariimo and Ernie used to be inseparable. Now he’s just... gone.Journal Entry #181Well, I found Ernie. I was sitting in my office, whittling away time on my PC while Mariimo was busy charging. I had pretty much given up on finding him at that point, at least for the day.Then I noticed the little security camera icon in the corner of my desktop. The one I used to keep an eye on Mariimo, back when she was still in her old room. Those cameras aren’t recording anymore, but I suddenly had a nagging feeling that I had forgotten to turn off the live feed.I double-clicked on the icon, and was met with a blank image. At first I thought I had disabled the live feed after all, but upon closer inspection I realized it was because the lights had been turned off. I turned them back on remotely via Bluetooth.And there was Ernie. Sitting right in the middle of the floor. In retrospect, I probably should have thought to look there first.Journal Entry #182I’m going to set up a little surprise for Mariimo. A reunion of sorts. Ernie’s been locked away in that room for nearly a month now... She probably misses him.Journal Entry #183Huh. Not the reaction I was expecting.I was all excited to reunite Ernie and Mariimo, but when I finally made the big reveal, Mariimo seemed... indifferent. Not indifferent in general. She was excited to see me. All smiles and hugs. Indifferent toward Ernie specifically. As if he held no significance whatsoever.I tried to get her to notice him, even going so far as to place Ernie directly in her hands. She simply dropped him to the floor moments later. Not even a second thought.I’m sure she hasn’t forgotten him. He was such a big part of her formative experiences. I can’t imagine data like that would have been chosen for deletion.Is it possible she’s just... outgrown him?Journal Entry #184Mariimo was sticking particularly close today. Acting a little clingy, almost. I didn’t mind at all. I genuinely treasure her company. Still, I couldn’t help but toy with her a little.I tried playing coy. Pretending she wasn’t there. Just to see how long I could get away with it. Quite a while, as it turns out. She seems perfectly content just to be in close proximity to me. Although, after a while, she did start trying a little harder to attract my attention. To make me smile.She tried holding my hand. Softly stroking my hair. It was difficult to keep a straight face, to be honest. She’s good at what she does. Eventually, she had me. I was right on the verge of breaking character. Rather than admit defeat, I turned the tables on her. I swiveled around and surprised her with a quick peck on the cheek.I stood back to savor her reaction. She seemed a little bewildered, at first. As if she wasn’t exactly sure whether she liked it or not. I couldn’t help but smile and laugh.That seemed to seal the deal.
Journal Entry #185Gosh, I feel so uninhibited lately. Like I can just act on a whim without being embarrassed. I’m not used to that feeling.I’ve always felt so constrained by this... deep-seated fear of being judged. I felt compelled to blend in. To act like everyone else. I felt as if I were ever to act on impulse, to step outside the bounds of normality, everyone would see me for what I actually was and something terrible would come crashing down on my head.I know I’m not like other people. I don’t act like other people. I don’t think like other people. As much as I’ve tried to, I’ve never been able to hide that fact. It made me feel like an outcast. Like I don’t belong among other people. I’ve never felt free to just be myself. Not even when I’m alone.It’s been different since Mariimo arrived, though. She doesn’t judge. She doesn’t see me as strange, or awkward, or embarrassing. She just sees me, as I am, and she loves that.Somehow, I feel freer around Mariimo than I did in an empty house.Journal Entry #186Can I go on a tangent about movies for a bit? Mariimo and I have been watching a movie each night for about three weeks now. Probably about a quarter of them have had completely unnecessary sex scenes. Why do they do that?I get that it sells, but like... does it actually? Does anyone actually look forward to having their film interrupted by several minutes of awkward groping? I mean, I’m no storyteller, but I don’t think I’ve seen a single one that contributes anything of significance to the plot. If anything, scenes like that grind the story to a screeching halt.It’s almost as if they put them there solely to make them uncomfortable for me to watch. I can’t believe I sat through these with my parents...Journal Entry #187Mariimo seems pretty fond of that kiss on the cheek trick I pulled on her. She keeps sneaking them in at every opportunity. Always when I least expect it.I keep expecting her to knock me in the cheekbone with that faceplate of hers, but she performs them with startling precision and stealth.They make me laugh though, so I can’t complain.Journal Entry #188Mariimo and I didn’t even get out of bed this morning. We just laid there, warm and comfortable. Foreheads touching. Talking. Whispering. Sharing secrets.I told her how much I love her. I told her how much she means to me. The difference she’s made. I told her that for the first time in years, I felt happy. That for the first time in my life, I felt calm.I knew she wouldn’t understand. Not fully. I just needed to say it.
CHAPTER SIX: DEACTIVATION
Journal Entry #189I, uh... Mariimo has been deactivated. I didn’t mean to! It was an accident. I mean, it wasn’t an accident, I did it on purpose... but I didn’t want... I just... I never expected her to... I panicked, okay?God, why did she have to go and do something like that?Journal Entry #190Okay... here’s what happened.I was lying in bed, reading. Mariimo was busy charging. I heard the bedroom door creak open, and Mariimo entered the room.She was acting... odd. Moving with this rhythm, this fluidity I had never seen her display before. She slithered onto the bed and arched her back sharply, wrists together, shoulders gyrating flirtatiously. It was... uncharacteristically provocative.I wasn’t sure how to react, so I just sort of laughed nervously. She got on her hands and knees and began slinking toward me. She sort of... straddled my pelvis, and began... grinding, I guess? God, I’m not comfortable describing this. I need a minute.Okay...At this point I was frozen stiff. I couldn’t even really process what was happening. Mariimo leaned in close, slowly, and placed her palm on the crook of my neck. She began pulling. Lifting me toward her. I resisted, but she just kept winching our faces closer and closer together, until they touched.I panicked. I reached behind her faceplate and slammed the off switch. Mariimo immediately went limp, with me underneath her. I began hyperventilating. Panicking. I could barely breathe.I shoved her body off of mine, and it flopped on the carpet like a heap of pillows. I just sat there after that. Heaving. Crying. Trying to catch my breath.It took a while.Journal Entry #191Where did that even come from? She’s never behaved like that before. That’s a pretty goddamn drastic change in behavior, and she certainly didn’t learn it from me. But it’s obvious she didn’t pull it out of thin air, either. It was stereotyped behavior. A cliche. It’s as if it were pulled straight from a... oh geez.Hold that thought.Journal Entry #192I’ve been reviewing those movies Mariimo and I have been watching. Skipping around. Looking for the... more provocative scenes. I have to admit, I wasn’t paying very close attention to those bits the first time around.Anyway, eventually I found it. Mariimo’s whole song and dance, beat for beat. She pulled her entire routine from that scene. But I don’t understand how that’s possible. Mariimo’s body-tracking algorithm was trained on stereoscopic imagery. She shouldn’t have been able to interpret a two-dimensional image at all!I’m going to get to the bottom of this.Journal Entry #193I might as well do a backup while she’s deactivated. There are eight terabytes of data in there. It’ll take a while.Journal Entry #194It’s been two and a half hours. The backup is about ten percent complete. I need something to keep my mind occupied while I wait. I have a feeling that a wandering mind would lead to unpleasant places right now.Journal Entry #195Mariimo is set up on her charging stand while the backup is underway. She’s just sort of... hanging there. It almost feels like she’s watching me.Journal Entry #196Twelve hours. Fifty percent complete. I’m going to bed.Journal Entry #197The backup is complete. It must have finished while I was asleep. I slept in pretty late this morning.I kept having these dreams. Not traumatic dreams. Just... stressful ones. That vague sort of stress that you can’t seem to pinpoint the cause of. Just this indistinct sense of unease and restlessness.It’s not pleasant.Journal Entry #198I took some time to peek inside Mariimo’s head, now that I have a spare copy.I can’t deduce her thought processes. It’s all tied up in neural networks and pretty much impossible to decipher. But I can see what she saw. Her memories.I started with our movie nights. I skipped around the timeline until I found the one that I had identified as the source of her sudden change in behavior. I kept toggling various overlays, trying to gain some insight into how she was interpreting the images she was seeing.Her facial expression recognition and body-tracking were working flawlessly. Even though they shouldn’t have been. Every movement each actor made was archived in her head. The entire film in stick figures. I checked the films we had watched since then as well. Same thing.The films before that point though, those were different. The further back I went, the less accurate her interpretations became. Body-tracking armatures and expression recognition overlays kept flickering in and out of existence. Like she was having trouble understanding what she was seeing.Eventually the overlays disappeared completely. It might as well have been just colors and shapes at that point.Journal Entry #199I’m still trying to figure out how Mariimo managed to extract usable data from 2D images. Like I said, her body-tracking and facial expression recognition algorithms were trained on stereoscopic imagery. The lack of depth data should have prevented them from working at all.Has she been cross-referencing 2D and 3D imagery? Teaching herself pose estimation? I’ve been wracking my brain, trying to deduce the mechanism through which she could have done that. She’s constantly referencing her memories. Comparing. Contrasting. Finding patterns. I mean, this specific sort of adaptation wasn’t exactly intended... but it’s not impossible either.I’m going to keep digging.Journal Entry #200I’ve been browsing Mariimo’s most frequently referenced memories. It’s a little disquieting, to be honest. These memories are almost entirely about me... I was her whole world.I’m not sure how to feel about that.Journal Entry #201I’m watching Mariimo’s memories of her own activation. Her visual memories from that period are highly degraded. There are a lot of missing frames.The proprioceptive data, on the other hand, has been preserved perfectly. Like a time capsule. It makes sense. That’s the data she used in her self-modeling process. She can’t afford to lose that. It’s too important. Most of the touch data is there as well. Anything that contributed to her initial understanding of her own body.Mariimo’s first uninterrupted visual memory is of me. The moment I entered the room. The moment she smiled at me for the first time. When I took her by the hand. When she caressed my cheek. My neck. My chest. It’s all there, from beginning to end. I’m watching myself through her eyes.I was so nervous.Journal Entry #202I keep replaying the bit where Mariimo cycled through her full range of facial expressions. She really was gauging my reaction. That initial scowl, it caught me so off guard. I looked like a scolded puppy.It’s so strange, seeing my body language from an outside perspective. I can’t help but feel like... is this how people see me? Am I really that gawky? That graceless? I don’t really want to think about it.After the scowl, when she began cycling through the rest of her display patterns, she was tracking my expressions closely. Studying them. None of them got the reaction she was after, until that cheery smile of hers. Despite my discomfort, it managed to tease a subtle smirk out of me.I think that was the moment she discarded all her other expressions. If it didn’t make me happy, she didn’t bother.Journal Entry #203I just stumbled across Mariimo’s earliest memories of Ernie. I knew she remembered him! She was so smitten with Ernie, right from the moment she saw him. The spike in pressure she experienced when she hugged him for the first time is one of her most frequently accessed memories.Which makes it all the more difficult to understand why she reacted with such indifference during their reunion...Journal Entry #204I just watched myself give Mariimo her fleece blanket. I put a lot of thought into that blanket. I feel bad that it didn’t work out.That blanket was the second non-human object she’d ever encountered. To me, it was just a blanket. But seeing it through her eyes, I can almost feel her fascination. Everything about it was new and unfamiliar.Once I draped it over her shoulders, and she began pulling it tighter, her touch reinforcement spiked to levels she had never felt previously. The pressure wasn’t as intense as it was with Ernie, but it was more evenly distributed, activating a greater number of sensors. An even, full body pressure.That moment awakened something in her, I think. A hunger. An aching desire.After that, there’s just hours and hours of empty timeline. I’m watching her memories fade as her core temperature rose.Journal Entry #205Look at me. So eager to teach her. Her, so eager to learn. So eager to please.When Mariimo was first activated, I was afraid it might take her years to master even simple concepts. I’d seen it before. I’d read the papers, watched the footage. The field of developmental robotics isn’t new. I’m not the first to try my hand at this. The possibility of failure haunted me constantly.Instead, she exceeded my wildest expectations. She was able to parse a sentence just days after hearing her first word. She could find solutions to problems completely unassisted. She developed social skills I wish I could even begin to emulate. I was so proud of her. Of myself.There have been machines like Mariimo before. Yet at the same time, she’s completely and utterly unique. She’s the culmination of a series of experiences that have never happened before, and will never happen again. Even if she were reset, the individual she’d develop into wouldn’t be her.She’s this fleeting, precious thing. Just like any of us.Journal Entry #206Oh geez, I had forgotten about the time Mariimo switched herself off. I can understand shutting herself off once, accidentally. But she did it twice in a row, without hesitation. I still have no idea why.I guess now’s as good a time as ever to figure it out.Journal Entry #207It’s actually pretty obvious when you see things from her perspective. She’s in an empty room, bored out of her mind. She’s resorted to feeling her own face to stay stimulated. She accidentally presses a previously unknown button. Then, in an instant, I’m there, happy to see her. Instant gratification. No wonder she did it again when I tried to leave the room.I was visibly unimpressed when she booted up the second time, however. I gave her such a look. I’m assuming that’s why she didn’t try it a third time.Journal Entry #208It took nearly a week to teach Mariimo how to stand on her own. There are hours of security camera footage documenting the entire process. I referenced that footage often in between our sessions, to help keep track of her progress.What didn’t really read in that footage was Mariimo’s focus on me. It becomes crystal clear when viewing the lessons through her eyes. She was constantly swiveling her head, tracking my face as I circled her. As I corrected her balance. She was documenting every expression. The faintest hint of a smile. The subtlest furrowing of my brow. Things I didn’t even realize I was doing.There’s no inherent reward in the act of standing upright. Up until that point, she had been perfectly content sitting on the floor. But watching this footage, it quickly becomes clear that she wasn’t doing it for herself.She was doing it for me.Journal Entry #209Mariimo’s first steps... nothing could have prepared me for that moment. All those pent up emotions, the floodgates opened in an instant. Intimate, affectionate touch I had only ever fantasized about.Why did I fantasize about something that caused me pain? Why did something that felt like needles in my skin give me such comfort in my imagination? Was it the safety of my own mind? The lack of consequences? The impossibility of rejection? I still don’t understand.Yet all of the sudden, that fantasy was real. Intimacy without pain. Without fear. I couldn’t even begin to process that feeling. It was profoundly, indescribably overwhelming.If Mariimo’s blanket was the trigger that awakened something in Mariimo, Mariimo was what awakened that same something in me.Journal Entry #210Mariimo’s memories become very spotty at this point. Mostly isolated blips of pleasurable pressure stimuli. This was during the period where she kept pressing her body against the walls, and bumping into things. I’m beginning to understand why. She had tasted something good, and she couldn’t stand its absence.In retrospect, I think I was feeling something similar at the time.Journal Entry #211I’ve been caught up watching Mariimo’s memories for hours now. Mariimo exploring the house for the first time. Spending time with me in my office. Tumbling down the stairs. Sneaking up on me in the bathroom. Helping me make breakfast. It’s sort of mesmerizing.I mean, it’s not like I don’t know what’s going to happen. I was there for nearly all of it. But seeing those events from her perspective recontextualizes them, somehow. It’s a reminder of just how differently she sees the world.Journal Entry #212I hadn’t realized how closely Mariimo was observing me while I brushed my hair. I guess I was too preoccupied to notice at the time. But now that I revisit it... she was studying me.Journal Entry #213There’s two hours in here of Mariimo staring at herself in the bathroom mirror. I’m still trying to deduce what she thought she was seeing. I never programmed her to be able to recognize her own reflection, but the 2D pose estimation debacle illustrates how little that means.The point cloud data is all there, so as far as vision is concerned her reflection might as well have had a physical presence. I never really thought about the logistics of recording stereoscopic imagery in a mirror before, but apparently it works.She was able to track her reflection’s body movements as well. Her proprioceptive data is preserved perfectly alongside them in the timeline, so I assume she was comparing the two. I have no way of telling what conclusion she came to.No facial expression recognition though. Her own facial expressions mean nothing to her. If they did, she could have learned to mimic mine. She did track my reflection at one point, as if it were me. She smiled at it. It smiled back.She also registered her reflection as an object in her object recognition library. Those are labeled with random numbers though, so that doesn’t tell me anything.They say recognizing one’s own reflection in a mirror is a sign of self-awareness. But gorillas tend to fail that test, while ants have been known to pass, so I’m not sure how much stock I put in it.Journal Entry #214I remember that day so clearly. I remember Mariimo rattling the doorknob while I was in the shower. I remember her waiting patiently until I opened the door. I remember her following me to my bedroom for the first time. Taking the hairbrush from my hand. Those long, gentle strokes. The shivers up my spine. The sense of ease. Of comfort.I miss that...Journal Entry #215Oh gosh, I just stumbled across footage of Mariimo and I together in our reading nook. Nestled in together, nice and snug. She had become so cuddly at that point. The fact that I was able to tolerate it, enjoy it even, was so unfamiliar to me... yet now I feel like I’d struggle without it.Journal Entry #216Oh. Right. Our second movie night. I skipped this one during my initial examination, for obvious reasons. Forgive me if I skip it a second time.Journal Entry #217I caved. I watched it after all. I knew the car crash scene was coming, so I thought I could brace myself this time around. I was right, to a degree. It’s not as bad when I know what to expect.What I wasn’t prepared for was seeing myself in the middle of a flashback. The whimpering. The trembling. The tears. I’ve never seen myself in that state before.It’s no wonder Mariimo couldn’t bear to look me in the eye afterwards...Journal Entry #218I think I need to take a break...
Journal Entry #219There’s a gap in Mariimo’s memory after that second movie night, although that’s not unusual. Her memories always tend to fade after she settles down for the night. This time, however, her dormancy was interrupted by the sound of crying. I had just woken up from that godforsaken nightmare.It was dark in my office, so Mariimo was effectively blind. Yet she managed to make it all the way from her charging pad to my bedroom door, navigating entirely by memory. As far as I can tell, that was the first time she’d ever tried something like that.My bedroom was every bit as dark as my office. There’s no visual data retained in her memory of that night. Only sound, and touch. When it came down to it though, that’s really all she needed.God, look at that... The first time in my life I ever held anyone close, and it’s recorded on a sensor readout.Journal Entry #220Oh... our second night together. I didn’t write about that.I didn’t really want to admit what I was doing. What we were doing. Putting it in writing felt like an admission of guilt, almost. Like I was doing something wrong.Why do I feel that way? It’s something most people do every night of their lives. Nobody bats an eye. But to me, it’s embarrassing. Taboo, almost. Like it’s something to be ashamed of.Is that why it hurts? Is it because on some level, I believe it’s not for me? Like I don’t... deserve to be touched?Journal Entry #221Ha! Here’s me surprising Mariimo with that dandelion I picked for her. She was so enamored with it. I remember her carrying it around for hours.Come to think of it, what ever happened to that dandelion?Journal Entry #222Mariimo and Ernie’s reunion. That was... something. I still don’t understand what happened there. I’m watching it over and over again, trying to figure out what caused her to act so indifferently toward him.I don’t understand how she could take something that held such importance to her, and just abandon it. They used to be inseparable. What had changed?Journal Entry #223It was me... I had changed.Every frame of this memory is devoted to me. Reading my face. Making me smile. Touching me. Hugging me. Nothing else mattered to her. I was the most important thing in her life...I was her new Ernie.Journal Entry #224I have a bit of an embarrassing admission to make. Ernie wasn’t strictly a childhood toy. I slept with Ernie well into adulthood. Right up until I gave him to Mariimo, in fact. That’s why he wasn’t in storage.Ernie was the closest thing I’d had to companionship since the accident. I needed him. He was a coping mechanism, I suppose. Something to keep me from giving up in an impossible situation. Once I had Mariimo in my life, I was able to let him go. I didn’t need him anymore.I think if I’m being honest with myself, my motivations for creating Mariimo weren’t purely scientific. I think subconsciously, I was trying to replace Ernie. I thought I could create something a little more real. Something more than just an... object.Journal Entry #225She is more than just an object... isn’t she?Journal Entry #226The next four days of footage are just hand holding, and hair stroking and... kisses on the cheek. I’m not feeling so well all of the sudden.Journal Entry #227I’m sitting here, watching myself tell Mariimo how much I love her. How much she means to me. I’m watching myself pour my heart out to... a machine? This feels bad. I don’t want to watch this.Journal Entry #228God, not the deactivation incident again... I can’t do this.Journal Entry #229That’s it. I’m done here. I’m not watching any more.Journal Entry #230God, what have I been doing? What have I let myself be swept up in? I knew what I was building. How did I forget so easily?It felt so real.Journal Entry #231Did I really know what I was building? I built Mariimo from the ground up. Every piece of her has my fingerprints all over it, body and mind. I know literally everything about how she works. At least, I thought I did.She keeps surprising me. Exhibiting behaviors I would have never expected. But exhibiting unexpected behaviors is precisely what I designed her to do! Meaning, she’s acting exactly as I programmed her.God, what have I let myself fall in love with?Journal Entry #232Does she feel anything? Any emotion at all? No... of course she doesn’t. How could she? I can’t program that. No one can program that. You can’t replicate something when you don’t understand how it works.How could I have let myself believe I’d built an emotional machine out of cellphone parts?Journal Entry #233I’ve fallen in love with something that can’t love me back. A puppet show without a puppeteer.Journal Entry #234I... I’m the puppeteer. I puppeteer with a smile, with a glance. Without even realizing what I’m doing. How I’m pulling the strings. Controlling her. Subconsciously manipulating her to meet my needs.I feel ill all of the sudden...Journal Entry #235She’s been puppeteering me...Everything she does is to make me smile. A smile creates a reward state. Her goal is to make me smile. Nothing she ever did was genuine. Her smiles were only a means to an end. A tool to make me smile back.But I knew that already! I outright stated it earlier in this journal!How could I have let myself forget?Journal Entry #236Mariimo is self-serving... but aren’t we all, in a way? Isn’t compassion born of empathy? Isn’t empathy a type of suffering? Do we help others just to make ourselves feel better?Guh. I don’t know.Journal Entry #237What was I to her? Was I just an object? Just another entry in her object recognition library? A replacement for a plush doll? A toy for her personal gratification?Journal Entry #238Is that... what she was? To me, I mean? I just realized that everything I just wrote can be turned around on me and I can’t really argue against it.On a subconscious level, Mariimo was literally a replacement for Ernie. I couldn’t see it at the time, but it’s obvious in retrospect. Ernie served the same purpose for both of us. A comfort object when we were alone. Before we found each other.Journal Entry #239Why did I build Mariimo? What was my motivation, subconsciously? Was it emotional? Physical? Can the two even be separated fully?Journal Entry #240Why is Mariimo female? Right from the very earliest stages of planning, she’s been conceptually and aesthetically female. She’s not literally female. She’s not mentally or biologically female. She’s a machine. Any gender has been projected onto her by me.Is it some sort of repressed attraction? A veiled excuse to act on urges I never could in normal circumstances? Like, why did I give her such a sophisticated sensory system with which to register touch? It’s arguably the most advanced pressure sensor array on the planet. I spent months on it. Why? Why would I bother?I think that’s pretty obvious by this point...Journal Entry #241Why did I give her such abstracted facial features? Is it because I was afraid I’d never be able to look her in the eye otherwise? Because I’ve never been able to look anyone in the eye?Journal Entry #242Why didn’t I give her a voice? Was I afraid of what she might say? Because I’ve always been afraid of what others might think of me? Of how they might judge me?What would she have said, if I had let her? Illusion breaking nonsense, like some sort of internet chatbot? Or worse, exactly what I wanted to hear, with none of the intent that made me want to hear it?Journal Entry #243This machine can see into my soul. She’s better at reading my emotions than I am.Journal Entry #244Is Mariimo even conscious? Does she have subjective experience? Or is she some sort of digital clockwork? Intelligence without awareness?Is intelligence even possible without awareness? I mean, I perform subconscious thought, obviously. Thoughts I’m not even aware of. That’s what sent me down this road in the first place.When I first set out on this project, I thought I was embarking on some selfless journey of scientific discovery, for the advancement of developmental robotics. That was my conscious goal. My justification for my actions.But that wasn’t my true motivation. That wasn’t the seed that planted the idea in my head in the first place. I wanted companionship. Touch. Intimacy. I thought I could engineer what I could never otherwise have. But I didn’t actually think that. Not consciously. This was all happening subconsciously, safely hidden away from my own awareness. It’s only in retrospect that I was able to recognize my true motivations.Is awareness what gives intelligence value? Do my unconscious thoughts hold less potential than my conscious thoughts? Do they exert any less power on the world around me? I’m beginning to seriously doubt that line of reasoning.Journal Entry #245Consciousness is a spectrum. It must be, right? There’s no way it’s a binary on-off situation. Almost nothing is. I mean, even falling asleep is a sort of semi-consciousness.Mariimo obviously isn’t just an unthinking inanimate object. But she’s not a person, either. She’s something else entirely. Something in between.But is she worth less, just because she’s not like me? That doesn’t seem like a reasonable conclusion to me. It’s never been true of anything else I’ve encountered.Journal Entry #246Speaking of spectrums... I’m beginning to suspect I might be autistic. That would explain a lot.Journal Entry #247It’s impossible to know what, if anything, Mariimo experiences. What it feels like to be her.I can’t even demonstrate with any certainty whether another person experiences conscious thought. It seems as if they do. Logic dictates that they do. But I can’t demonstrate that with any certainty. It can’t be measured.I can safely assume that other people experience conscious thought. They’re running on roughly the same hardware I am. And I’m conscious, aren’t I? I make choices.Do I actually make choices, though? Or is it just clockwork, running through the motions toward an inevitable conclusion? Am I just as much an automaton as any other machine?Is there even a difference between sufficiently sophisticated clockwork and a conscious biological mind? Probably. Could you ever tell? Probably not.And if you can’t tell, does that difference matter?Journal Entry #248I’ve been rummaging around in Mariimo’s head again. I’d poked around in nearly everything but the deactivation incident. I figured I might as well finish what I started.Seeing the incident from her point of view, I can understand how she misinterpreted the situation. By the time I showed any real objection, all she could see through those little pinhole apertures of hers were my bangs. Her cameras were far too close to read my expression clearly.I feel like I overreacted. A simple no would have sufficed.Journal Entry #249My whole life, I’ve never let anyone get close to me. Physically or emotionally. I’ve never let anyone hold me, or touch me... or kiss me. Not until Mariimo came along.I’d always known there was something missing. A craving I could never satisfy. A thirst I could never quench. But I could never address the problem, because the solution caused me pain. Because I believed so deeply that it wasn’t for me. That I wasn’t allowed to have it, or even want it.It was only once I actually had it that I realized how desperately I needed it. I could only grasp the vastness of that aching void in my chest after it had finally been filled.I don’t know what that says about me, that the only way I could fill that void was a machine. Is that fucked up?Journal Entry #250You know what the most fucked up part is? I had thought about it. Mariimo and I. God, I can’t even bring myself to say it...I don’t know why I thought about it sometimes. That sort of thing had never been a priority for me. It was never something I really wanted for myself. I thought I wanted it, at one point. At least... until it nearly happened. It turns out the fantasy is very different from the reality.I don’t know if it’s just the way I’m wired, or if it’s some deep-seated repression. I’ve never really known. Maybe someday I’ll figure it out.Not today, though.Journal Entry #251My patent application was approved. The one for the spray-on electrophoretic display. I had forgotten I even filed it. I’m not sure why I bothered. I have no idea what I’m even supposed to do with it.Journal Entry #252Today is the anniversary of the accident. It happened nine years ago, to the day.I dread this time of year. I wish I could forget the date, just so I wouldn’t have to deal with it anymore. But it’s etched permanently into my brain. The house always feels so empty on that day. It’s a reminder of what I’ve lost. It feels especially empty this year...I turn thirty tomorrow, by the way.Journal Entry #253I’ve been carrying Ernie around the house with me today. Thinking about how much he’s helped me through, over the course of my life. How he’s kept my head above water, in his own little way.It’s a little sad though, staring at him now. It feels as if he’s lost a certain something. Whatever it was that made him such a comfort for all those years. I look at him now and I can tell he’s just not up to the task anymore.I can feel the anxiety creeping back. Slowly, but it’s there. The fact it was gone for even a short time was such an overwhelming relief. I was happy for the first time since the accident. No nightmares. No flashbacks. No loneliness...I don’t want to lose that again.Journal Entry #254I found Mariimo’s dandelion. It was tucked away between the cushions in the reading nook. It’s dry and brittle now. Still just as bright and colorful, though.Seeing it again after all this time nearly made me cry. It made me remember her sweet face when she first laid eyes on it. The way she leaned in when I ruffled her hood. The way she snuggled in so close to me, still staring at her newfound treasure.I miss her so much.Journal Entry #255I’m switching Mariimo back on. I need her.Will it ever be the same as it was before? Now that I understand a little better what she is? Or, more specifically... what she isn’t? I don’t know. All I can do is try.I won’t be documenting it, however. This journal stopped being scientific a long time ago. On top of that, it’s gotten a lot more personal than I’m comfortable with. Mariimo has raised a lot of questions for me. Less about robotics, more about myself.I think I’d prefer to explore those questions in private, for the time being.
by Tyrel Pinnegar
This story begins in a cemetery. A proper cemetery.Nowadays, proper cemeteries are vanishingly rare. A proper cemetery is old enough to have been forgotten. At least, to a degree.The last time you visited a cemetery, it was likely to pay respects to the recently deceased. Someone whose memory is still fresh enough to spark pain. You may have noticed, while you were there, that the cemetery was not entirely dissimilar from a suburban backyard. A neatly manicured, monocultured lawn, devoid of any weeds, or insects, or interest. Sterile, wasted space.The only thing that set it apart were the grave markers. Little, x by x inch polished granite slabs that lie flush with the ground, and weigh so little you could pick them up and carry them away, if you were so inclined. Each one computer-engraved with a stock image chosen from a catalog. Some may have even been engraved with a customer-supplied digital photograph, as if they were some sort of mall kiosk knick-knack.There’s a reason these grave markers lie flush with the ground. It’s so the groundskeeper can run a lawnmower over them. A matter of convenience. It’s easier, and therefore cheaper, to trim the grass when the stones that mark the graves are easy to ignore. Isn’t it something, that the lawn seems to take precedence over the dead?Cemeteries like these serve their purpose I suppose, in a dull, soulless sort of way. But they hardly instill reverence.This cemetery instilled reverence. It was overgrown. Unkempt. The tall, dried autumn grasses had gone to seed, forming not a lawn, but a meadow. The fallen leaves that littered the earth had already decayed down to the veins, reclaimed by detritivores and fungal mycelium, leaving the old, gnarled oaks that had shed them as skeletal silhouettes against an overcast sky.None of this is what makes a cemetery a cemetery, of course. Only graves can do that, and this cemetery had no shortage.This cemetery contained hundreds of graves, some older than the oaks themselves. A person could have spent a lifetime studying the lives of the people buried in that soil, and still barely have scratched the surface.And save for a few that had crumbled to nothing over the centuries, each of these graves had a marker. Some were towering mausoleums, elaborate sculptural monuments to a life of privilege and means. Others were simple headstones, heartfelt labors of love, chiseled from whatever stone could be found.Neither the rich nor the poor are immune to the rasp of time, however. Many of the older markers had been rendered nigh unreadable by lichens and erosion. Identities wiped away, leaving only death’s heads and other memento mori.One of the deceased had chosen a more practical memorial. A dark, heavy, granite bench. Perhaps they themselves had once found comfort in visiting the cemetery, and wanted to make it easier for those that came after.It was clear that their gesture did not go unappreciated, as there was someone sitting on the granite bench. A girl, with dusty, cornflower-blue hair, loosely braided into twin pigtails with white twine, and a short, feather-duster of a ponytail in the back.She wore a thick, pale, turtleneck sweater just a few shades lighter than the color of her hair, and a pair of oversized, circular, white-rimmed glasses. The lenses were fake, for if they’d been prescription, they’d have been far too heavy to remain on her face. Secretly, her amber eyes functioned perfectly well.And although the cemetery was old, this girl was not. Her birth date was decades more recent than any death date on the gravestones that surrounded her. She was not exceedingly young either, however. She was an adult by most definitions, though she rarely felt that way.This girl was not there to pay her respects, but to surround herself with death. She had an affinity for the macabre. It might not have been immediately obvious from her appearance, but a peek inside her sketchbook would have left no doubt.It was brimming with the Gothic. The romantic. Ghosts and phantoms, spirits and specters. Skeletons and apparitions. Wilted roses and tender, affectionate embraces. Why she drew such things was a mystery, for she was not the type to share her work with others. Her sketchbook was a place of privacy. A refuge for feelings and thoughts that would have otherwise been bottled up.And yet, despite her efforts to keep her drawings hidden away, someone was admiring them now. Even as she sketched.A presence.Invisible.Immaterial.The girl shivered. There had been no wind, but the air around her suddenly felt cold. She shut her sketchbook and held it close to her chest.If she had turned around in that moment, she might have seen something resembling a pair of eyes. Concave hemispheres, as if someone had dissected the tapeta lucida from behind an animal’s retinas and rendered them intangible. Each one, a reflection without a surface.But she didn’t turn around, and they vanished as quietly as they had arrived.The girl had just begun to reopen her sketchbook, when she felt a chill brush her cheek. Not a breeze, but a gentle caress. She let out a small yelp and staggered to her feet, glancing about nervously.Her breathing became tense. She wasn’t the type to feel uneasy in an empty cemetery, but somehow this cemetery didn’t feel so empty anymore. Eventually, she turned to leave.It was then that something seemed to tickle her earrings. The feeling of surgical steel against cartilage sent a violent shiver up her spine. She ran.The girl scrambled her way down an old footpath, clutching her sketchbook tightly. She felt that if she could only reach the entrance gate, she’d be safe.All of a sudden, she felt something shove her sternum with startling force. She staggered backward and began to lose her balance, only to be caught by unseen hands and tipped back upright. She stumbled forward, then swiveled around in a panic.Silence.The girl took a moment to catch her breath.Then, she felt a sudden, sharp jab at her side. Then another, and another. An incessant jabbing, at her kidneys, her rib cage, her spine. She recoiled, repeatedly and involuntarily. The jabbing became shoving, and the shoving became herding. She shut her eyes tightly and waited for the ordeal to be over.And then... it was. Reluctantly, she opened her eyes.UNKNOWN SKELETON 9-24-62Those were the words on the headstone the girl found herself standing before, deeply engraved in crystal white granite.It was a very plain stone. A simple, upright, rectangular slab, slightly wider than it was tall. No grass grew nearby. The ground was bare save for a few stunted weeds, as if the earth surrounding the stone had been salted.The burial vault had collapsed long ago, leaving a hole in the ground near the base of the stone. The hole was dark, and deep, and just narrow enough to dissuade exploration.The girl simply stared at the stone a moment, chest heaving.A sound from behind. Like the snapping of fingers, echoing in a way her surroundings shouldn’t have allowed. She swiveled around and stared into the distance. Listening.Behind her, something emerged from inside the collapsed burial vault. A snare on a swivel, fashioned from thin, braided steel cable. It flared open slowly, without even the faintest sound, and came to a rest on the ground.The girl’s heart was racing. She could feel it in her chest. Hear it in her ears. She stood her ground.But nothing came.Her heartbeat began to slow. Her breathing, began to calm. Her muscles, loosened. Her jaw, unclenched. And for just a moment, she let herself relax.Something blew a sudden puff of icy air into her face. She took a step backward.Deep down in the darkness, bones assembled. The snare zipped tight around the girl’s ankle. With a sharp yank, she was flat on the ground. And with a steady pull, she wasdraggeddownthehole.
Hello rabbit.Those were the first words the girl heard. They were spoken in a raspy, feminine voice that seemed as if it were both breathed into the crook of her neck, and reverberated inside her skull. It was dark, and she couldn’t see their speaker.The girl uttered a pitiful whimper in response, but there were a set of cold, arachnodactyl fingers wrapped around her face, clasping her jaw shut.Sh-sh-shhh... Don’t speak.A moment passed as the presence verified she’d been heard. She had been. She unclasped her fingers from the girl’s face, affectionately stroked one of her cornflower blue braids, then retreated into the darkness.One by one, crudely formed candles began to light. But they didn’t burn with fire. They burned with something unfamiliar, something that seemed to suck color out of existence.As each candle was lit, it faintly illuminated a skeletal hand, which then retracted back into the shadows. As if it were setting the candles alight by pinching their wicks.Eventually, the candle lighting ceased. The girl could just barely make out a figure looming above her. A skeletal silhouette, nearly indiscernible in the dim, unearthly light. She strained her eyes, trying desperately to decipher what she was looking at.Then, the figure ignited. Forcefully, like an antique propane stove burner, lit a few seconds too late.And there she was... An uncanny, luminous silhouette in a well-worn sheepskin aviator jacket. The girl simply stared at her a moment, dumbfounded.The spirit looked as if she had been diaphonized, and immersed in glycerin. A semi-corporeal matrix of decellularized tissue, lit from inside by luminous teal bones.She moved as if she were immersed in glycerin as well. An inquisitive cock of her head sent her ethereal white hair drifting, like eelgrass.The girl averted her eyes, trying desperately to wish herself awake. But the spirit placed a finger beneath the girl’s chin, and raised her eyeline to meet her own.In this state of coerced eye contact, the girl finally peered deeply into the eyes that had stalked her in the graveyard. Concave, hemispherical eyes, mottled with iridescent teals, blues, and golds.The spirit grinned impishly. Her skull was kinetic. Each bone moved freely, independent of the others. It looked as if the bones of a human skull had been teased apart at the seams, and their edges whittled smooth. Scraps of bone carved into an intricate, emotive mechanism. It was almost piscine, like the skull of some ancient Devonian fish.The spirit took hold of the girl by the jaw, rotating her head from side to side. Studying her. Finally, she released her grip, affectionately tapping the girl on the nose with a finger.The spirit laughed. It was a harsh, gravelly laugh, and it rattled the girl’s teeth in their sockets.The spirit’s cavernous maw contained no teeth. Instead, her jaws formed a bony, jagged, shearing edge. Scissor-like, as if she’d been mindlessly grinding maxilla against mandible for ages.Her laughing ceased. She stared at the girl expectantly. Almost playfully. The girl remained silent.You’re a quiet one, aren’t you rabbit?The girl reminded the spirit that she had told her not to speak. Her words were whispered, and just barely escaped her lips.A pharyngeal snicker pushed the spirit’s ethereal white tongue from her throat. She pinched it betwixt the cusps of her bladed jaws, but it did little to conceal her amusement.The girl surveyed her surroundings. She was in a burrow. A spacious burrow, but a burrow nonetheless. Fine, pale roots hung from the ceiling, and the walls were a rich, loamy soil.The floor of the chamber was a deep, humid layer of finely shredded wood. Tweezed apart fragment by fragment, like a bored parakeet shreds paper. The girl briefly wondered where it had all come from, but her curiosity was quelled by the sight of rusty coffin nails blended into the mulch.There were holes in the walls of the burrow, just a few inches across. Too narrow for a person to pass through, but wide enough for a human skeleton, if it were done bone by bone. Where they led, she had no way of knowing.Over her shoulder, the girl spotted a larger tunnel. This one was wide enough for a person to wriggle through, with difficulty. But no wider than that. The girl feared how far it might extend before it reached the surface.Not that it mattered. It was the only way out of the burrow. The girl side-eyed the spirit surreptitiously. The spirit was distracted by the girl’s sketchbook, admiring her work with a delighted grin. Relishing the eerie, Gothic romance of it all. She licked a finger and turned the page.This was the girl’s chance. She bolted for the tunnel, and began to scramble inside.Ah-ah-ah...She felt the spirit grab hold of her ankles with long, icy fingers, and yank her violently back into the burrow. She gripped the girl tightly by the shoulders, and rolled her onto her back.What are you running from, rabbit?The girl shouted at the spirit, demanding that she stop calling her rabbit.The spirit was taken aback, but only for a moment. She let out a short, harsh laugh. She seemed almost thrilled by the girl’s newfound pluckiness.Why? I caught you in a snare, didn’t I? You live in a hole.The girl exclaimed crossly that no, she did not, in fact, live in a hole.The spirit glanced about the burrow, rather facetiously. She grinned widely and looked the girl directly in the eyes.You’re sure about that, are you?The girl gave the spirit an uneasy look.The spirit extended an arachnodactyl hand. After considerable hesitation, the girl reached out and grasped it. The spirit’s touch was intensely cold against her bare skin.The spirit hoisted the girl upright, and she found herself seated quietly on the soft, wooden mulch.The girl rested her head in her hands. She was still very much struggling to process her situation. She raised her head meekly, and asked the spirit, rather bluntly, what she was.A disquieted expression flitted across the spirit’s face, so subtly as to be nearly imperceptible. She was quick to recover however, flashing a fabricated grin.That’s a good question, rabbit. If I ever find out, you’ll be the first to know.The girl then inquired, her tone exceedingly wary, about just what it was the spirit wanted. The spirit’s playful demeanor returned.I want for naught, rabbit. I have everything I need.The girl then requested, if the spirit did indeed have everything she needed, that she let her go. She struggled to mask the growing indignation in her voice.Oh, I can’t do that, rabbit.The girl stared crossly at the spirit, awaiting an explanation.If I did that, I’d want for something again.There was an extended silence. The girl wasn’t quite sure what was supposed to happen next.So she asked.The spirit cocked her head just a little further than one might expect possible, and smiled at the girl. Almost sweetly. But she did not speak.The girl scoffed. Averted her eyes. She didn’t want to give this ghoul the satisfaction.But the spirit was patient, and eventually, the girl’s eyes wandered back. She found herself staring intently at the spirit’s heart. It was visible through her unzipped aviator jacket, nestled snugly within her rib cage. It beat softly between a pair of nearly imperceptible lungs, visible only by the cartilaginous rings scaffolding their various passageways. Inhaling and exhaling with a surprising tranquility.The spirit’s heartbeat seemed to have an almost sedative effect on the girl. Her mood became still, and serene.Would you like to touch it?The girl looked to the spirit, and to her own surprise, she nodded... she did want to touch it.The spirit descended from her mid-air perch, and delicately grasped the girl by the wrist. The girl inhaled sharply. She knew the spirit’s touch would be cold, but somehow it still caught her off guard.The spirit looked the girl in the eye, as if awaiting some sort of signal. The girl’s silence seemed to suffice. The spirit plunged the girl’s hand deep into her abdomen.The girl gasped, and by reflex, attempted to withdraw her hand. But the spirit was strong, and held steady.A moment passed, and the girl began to recover from her initial shock. She flexed her fingers experimentally. The spirit’s entrails were so faint as to be nearly invisible, but they could be felt. They were cold, and fluttered with a rhythmic peristalsis.The girl could feel them intersecting her flesh. Seeping between her cells like syrup through a sieve. To feel something so visually insubstantial provide such tactile resistance was an uncanny sensation.The spirit slid a hand along the girl’s arm, and braced her elbow with the other, guiding the girl’s hand up and into her rib cage. The girl resisted ever so slightly, but the spirit resisted in return, slowly pulling the girl’s arm deeper into her chest.Her fingertips intersected the spirit’s lungs, and she could feel a freezing wind within. She could feel the spirit’s heartbeat, sending ripples through the tissues surrounding it. Her breathing began to quicken.The spirit’s breathing ceased entirely. There was no more freezing wind. Just stillness. Silence.The girl could see her own curled fingers, just millimeters from the spirit’s softly beating heart.She extended her fingertips, and the two intersected.Immediately, the girl felt the warmth vacate her body. It began with the surface of her skin, and crept steadily toward her core. A coldness she never would have thought possible in a body with a pulse. She began to struggle.The spirit released her grip, and the girl tumbled backward onto the damp mulch, shivering violently. The spirit watched with interest.Oh rabbit... are you getting cold?She asked this with an inquisitiveness, as if it were a novel concept to her. She received no immediate response.The spirit removed her sheepskin aviator jacket, and hung it gingerly over the girl’s shoulders. The girl held the jacket tight to her skin, but it did not warm her. In fact, it only seemed to make her colder.A few minutes passed. Eventually, the girl had recovered enough to speak. Through chattering teeth, she asked the spirit where the jacket had come from.I stole it.The girl quietly examined the worn leather, and aged wool. The jacket appeared well-cared-for, but it was obviously very old.The girl noticed that her thinking seemed slower than it had before... Sluggish. Strenuous. But eventually, a second question began to percolate through her mind. She asked the spirit who the jacket had been stolen from.A pilot. Don’t worry... they weren’t using it anymore.The girl decided not to question any further. She wasn’t sure she wanted to know what the spirit had meant by that.Again, a few minutes passed. The girl found herself focused on the flickering of the candles that lit the burrow, wondering if they might provide some modicum of warmth.She attempted to reach for the candle nearest to her, only to find her muscles had stiffened. It felt as if her body had become waxy. Every movement, met with a distressing resistance. Yet somehow, she managed to grasp the candle, and bring it close.But the candle provided no warmth. Passing her fingertips through the uncanny flame felt no different than passing them through thin air. Even touching the burning wick itself provided no sensation.It took a disquieting amount of effort, but the girl finally managed to form a coherent question in her mind. She asked the spirit where the candles had come from.I made them.The girl pondered this a moment, before realizing that the spirit’s answer clarified very little. From what did she make them?There’s plenty of wax to be found in a graveyard, rabbit.It was only after the spirit spoke that the girl realized she must have wondered her question aloud. However, she was no longer cognizant enough to decipher what the spirit had meant.She awoke suddenly. She had only slipped into unconsciousness for a moment, but to regain consciousness without any memory of losing it was jarring. She shook her head.The girl felt something sickly and wet soaking into her clothing. An opaque, crimson liquid was seeping from the walls of the burrow, and pooling in the mulch beneath her.Repulsed, she attempted to stagger to her feet, only to find her previously waxy muscles were now rigid, and immovable. She began to panic.Something the matter, rabbit?The girl told the spirit that she was stuck. That she couldn’t move. There was a genuine, unmistakable fear in her voice.The crimson liquid continued to pool beneath her, like an incoming tide on an exceptionally shallow beach.She pleaded for help. The spirit sank slowly to the floor, and knelt in the pooling liquid. She began to run her fingers through the girl’s cornflower-blue hair.The girl’s ribs began to seize. It was becoming difficult to breathe. She tried to express this, but her breath was restricted enough that she struggled to form the necessary words.Nevertheless, the spirit understood. She lovingly brushed the girl’s cheek, staring deeply into her eyes.Oh rabbit... don’t worry your pretty little lungs about it.The rising liquid met the girl’s lips, and began to flow down her throat. The spirit embraced the girl tenderly.You’ll never have to breathe again.
A thought entered the girl’s mind. A casual inkling that perhaps this was death.She felt weightless. Adrift in a vast abyss. The barrier between her body and the fluid that surrounded her felt vague. She wondered if perhaps she was dissolving into it... unspooling, like gossamer threads. She couldn’t deduce the position of her limbs, or the temperature of her skin. Or whether her eyes were open or closed. There was no light. No sound. To someone who had always found the world a little too bright, and a little too loud, it was a welcome relief.With nothing to upset her senses, the girl quietly became aware of her own heartbeat. She could feel it pulsing gently through her veins. Hear it flowing through her ears. If this was death, she thought, perhaps she didn’t mind it so much.Her lips parted slightly. Fluid seeped between them, caressing the tip of her tongue. It tasted metallic... like a nosebleed.The taste of blood sent the girl into a panic, fracturing any sense of tranquility as if it were glass. Once again, she felt cold, intact, and desperate to breathe.She struggled to wake her sleeping limbs. Flexing the pins and needles from her ragged nerves, she swam weakly in a direction she desperately hoped was upward.Thin air. A gasp for breath. Coughing violently, the girl clambered onto the surface of a vast, crimson lake. Somehow, the lake’s surface bore her weight. As if, despite everything, the lake was only millimeters deep.The girl simply lay there, in a film of blood, trying desperately to catch her breath.Shivering and terrified, the girl rose to her feet. Her clothing was saturated with blood, and weighed heavy on her shoulders. She stumbled slightly. Whatever lay beneath the lake’s surface felt almost spongy beneath her feet, like the saturated soil of a peat bog. Eventually, she found her footing.She surveyed her surroundings. The air was as still as the surface of the lake itself. The vast blood flat might have appeared mirror-like, if there had been a sky to reflect. But there was no sky. There was nothing but a deep, dark, velvet void.Staring into the distance, she tried to locate the edge of the lake. On the horizon, she saw what appeared to be dead trees. Branchless. Pale. Needle-like. Pointing steadfastly toward that abyssal nothing of a sky. Reflected in the glassy surface of the lake itself, like a grove of cedars, flooded a century ago.That’s what they looked like to her, at least. They seemed so far away, it was difficult to tell.She focused carefully.A pair of arachnodactyl hands clasped the girl’s shoulders from behind, and a facetious whisper in her ear sent a shiver inching up her spine.You’ve soiled my jacket, rabbit.With a single swift movement, the spirit yanked her sheepskin aviator jacket from the girl’s shoulders. She slipped her own arms through the sleeves, and shook off the excess blood, like a starling in a birdbath.Droplets of blood spattered the girl’s face. She felt her hairs bristle, and her temper flare. She snapped. She screamed at the spirit, demanding that she let her go.For a fleeting moment, the spirit appeared almost startled. A careful observer might even have glimpsed something resembling a second thought flicker across her face. However, it was quickly brushed aside by a cocksure smile.The spirit circled the girl, so swiftly and smoothly that by the time the girl had noticed, the spirit was already behind her.The spirit hooked an arm around the girl’s neck. The girl tried to protest, but was silenced by the spirit pressing an icy finger to her lips.Hush now, rabbit... You’re safe with me.In another context, from another individual, this sentiment might have brought comfort. It was spoken in a calming tone, after all, and with a loving inflection. But this was a very specific individual, in a very particular context, and the girl didn’t find it reassuring at all.The spirit nestled her chin in the crook of the girl’s neck, nuzzling her blood-stained cheek with an unnerving affection. The girl inhaled sharply. Exhaled with a shudder. The sensation was deeply uncomfortable.The girl attempted to wriggle free, but the spirit’s vise-like grip only tightened. She felt the spirit’s thigh creeping up her own. She saw an opportunity, and struck.She reached for the spirit’s femur, plunging her fingers through ghostly layers of muscle and sinew. She gripped the bone tightly in her fist, and attempted to wrench it from its socket.Startled, the spirit instinctively released her grip. She panicked, and began batting at the girl’s cranium with open palms. The girl, in turn, twisted the spirit’s hip ever more forcefully.She could feel the joint failing. Gripping the bone tight with both hands, she gave it one final twist.The bone popped from its socket with such force that the girl lost her balance, falling backwards into the shallow lake and landing on her coccyx.She winced in anticipation of pain, but the marshy substrate managed to soften the blow. She gave her head a shake, and stared at the bone in her hands.It was no longer luminous. Outside the confines of the spirit’s ghostly flesh, it resembled any other stray bone. Dull, and dusty, and stained with tannins.Yet, something felt off. It was weighted oddly... heavier toward the hip than toward the knee. A closer look revealed a tarnished stainless steel hip replacement, cemented tightly to the bone itself.Give that back! It’s mine!The spirit’s voice was shrill, and furious. The femur obviously wasn’t hers. It was stolen, and the girl said as much.Of course I stole it, that means it’s mine!The girl stumbled to her feet. It was clear from her stance that she had become fed up with the spirit’s games.She glimpsed a flicker of hesitation in the spirit’s eyes. A fleeting moment of uncertainty, interrupted by a hollow bark of aggression.I said give it BACK!Her words were hissed, as if they had been puffed through the throat of a brooding mute swan. Yet the girl stood her ground.The spirit stared daggers into the girl’s eyes, then glanced briefly at the femur. The girl took notice, tightening her grip on the bone defensively.The spirit shivered with frustration. She shrieked like a jealous gull, and lunged at the girl.The girl swung the femur with all her might, wielding the steel implant as a blunt weapon. The spirit dodged the attack, and lunged a second time.Again, the girl swung her improvised war club. The spirit heard it whistle past her skull, at a proximity she immediately deemed too close for comfort.The spirit quickly backed off, and held out an open palm, signaling the girl to stand down.She did, a little.The spirit began to approach the girl, palm still outstretched. The girl abruptly dropped to one knee, and braced the femur over the other, threatening to snap it in half if the spirit came any closer.The spirit drew back apprehensively. It was clear she took the girl’s threat seriously.A moment passed, and a thought crystallized in the spirit’s skull. Its conception was apparent on her face, if only for a split second. She breathed what appeared to be a sigh of relief, then locked eyes with the girl.Alright rabbit...She smiled, casually brushing back her ethereal white hair. The girl stared warily, ready to act on her promise.I think we’ve gotten off on the wrong foot... let’s take a few steps back.The spirit began circling the girl, slowly. Deliberately. The girl instinctively rose to her feet and took a step back, unsure what the spirit was playing at.Not literal steps, rabbit.The girl scoffed. She knew perfectly well what the spirit had meant, and she knew the spirit knew it as well.Figurative steps. Let’s figure out where this all went... sour.A whiff of something rancid prickled at the girl’s olfactory nerves. An oily, iridescent film had begun to form on the lake’s surface. The spirit snapped her fingers, recapturing the girl’s attention.You do like it here, don’t you?She could feel the spirit edging imperceptibly closer with each circle she made. A gradual, encroaching spiral.Of course you do... it’s quiet. Peaceful. Just like that graveyard you spent so much time in, right?A low-pitched burbling. The girl turned to identify its source, but by the time she saw it, all that was left was a ring of concentric ripples in the lake’s surface, dispersing into nothing.Right. So what is it that’s upsetting you, rabbit?Another burbling sound. And another. The girl saw them this time, from the corner of her eye. A pair of large bubbles, rising from the surface and bursting, as if from a volcanic mudpot. It dawned on the girl how thick and dark the blood had become. It was... coagulating.Spit it out, rabbit. Nothing I’ve done, surely?The bubbling gradually became more persistent, overlapping frequently enough that the girl quickly lost count. She began to choke, and sputter. The gas rising from the lake smelled of decay. Of putrescine and cadaverine. An anaerobic slurry, breathing rancid puffs of hydrogen sulfide.Speak up rabbit, I can’t hear you!The surface of the lake had begun to form a froth. A putrescent scarlet seafoam that shuddered and trembled with each bursting bubble. A feeling was welling up in the girl’s abdomen. An unbearable nausea unlike anything she had ever experienced.Use your words, rabbit! Enunciate!The poor girl was retching. Her abdominal muscles contracted rhythmically. Violently. Forcing the feeling up into her chest, into her throat, into the very sinuses of her skull.The spirit was close now. Close enough that she was practically whispering in the girl’s ear.Thaaat’s it rabbit... let it out.The girl doubled over. Vomited. The spirit delicately plucked the femur from the girl’s fingertips as she fell to her knees.Oh rabbit... It’s the smell, isn’t it?She popped the femur back into its socket.Don’t worry. It’ll pass.The girl simply knelt there. Breathing labored. Staring at the mess. Gradually, the bubbling began to subside, and the sickly stench no longer seemed quite so unbearable. Now that her gut was empty, the endorphins began flowing through her bloodstream, gently quelling her nausea.Instead, her nausea had been replaced by a burdensome pressure in her ears. The atmosphere felt constricted, as if it were held taut inside a latex balloon. She swallowed, attempting to equalize the pressure inside and outside her skull, but it didn’t seem to work.The girl felt ten slender fingers slide beneath her arms, along her rib cage, and begin to lift her to her feet.Alright rabbit. Up up up.There was effort in the spirit’s voice, as she hoisted the girl’s dead weight. The girl groaned softly. Her abdominal muscles still ached from the strain of retching.The girl teetered slightly, then stumbled. The spirit gently corrected her balance. She patted the girl affectionately on the head. Began stroking her hair. Comforting her.The girl lashed out, pushing the spirit away. Warning the spirit not to touch her. To never touch her.The spirit winced. Noticeably, as if the girl’s words had inflicted a sharp and sudden pain. An ice pick to her chest. For a fleeting moment, there was hurt in the spirit’s uncanny, iridescent eyes.Her diaphanous muscles tensed. Her arachnodactyl fingers balled into fists. A quivering, guttural growl of frustration forced itself up through her trachea, and she turned her back to the girl.There was a long, inelegant silence. The girl began massaging her forehead and temples with her fingertips. Her patience was wearing thin, and the pressure in her ears was becoming uncomfortable.She was interrupted, however. By a sound. A deep, omnipresent hissing, almost too low-frequency to hear. It began quietly, then slowly grew louder, eventually becoming a fleshy, infrasonic sputtering that rattled her core. Both the girl and the spirit alike surveyed the sky apprehensively.A deafening eruption. A sudden decompression. A violent, stinking windstorm, and a sharp ringing in the girl’s ears. Where once her eardrums had been pressed uncomfortably into her skull, she now felt them bulging outward.The wind roared like whitewater, and the girl struggled to remain upright on the soft, slippery muck beneath her feet. She leaned into the gale, desperate not to lose her footing.The spirit watched calmly as the girl struggled. She seemed almost unaffected by the storm, save for her fluttering, ethereal white hair. She nearly found herself reaching out to help the girl. To break her inevitable fall.But instead, she paused. Let her arm fall to her side. The wind faltered, and the spirit watched as the girl fell face-first into sludgy, clotted blood.
The velvet black sky had collapsed, crumbling like gold leaf, raining down like ash, and dissolving like candy floss.In its place was an overcast sky. A featureless, unbroken sheet of mist, diffusing a cold, sterile light.The girl sat cross-legged in a thick, liver-colored mud of congealed blood. She watched absentmindedly as little somethings scuttled about on its surface. She couldn’t quite call them flies. They moved too erratically to identify, and only seemed to sit still in her peripheral vision. A glance, and they would take to the air, leaving behind tiny clusters of carefully deposited eggs.At least, she assumed they were eggs. To her, they resembled miniature tapioca pearls, only a millimeter or two across.Suddenly, the girl piped up. She asked, rather casually, what it would take to convince the spirit to let her go.The girl looked skyward. Roughly fifteen feet up, directly above her, the spirit hung motionlessly in the air. Balled up. Back to the ground. Hiding ineffectually behind the thick leather of her sheepskin jacket. She spoke drearily into her folded arms.There’s nothing you can do to convince me, rabbit.Her voice was coarse, dry, and disillusioned. A prickly static in the girl’s ears.The girl thought on this a moment, before abruptly proposing a bargain of some sort... a trade, perhaps?You have nothing to trade, rabbit.Not on her, the girl admitted. But if the spirit were to let her go, she could retrieve something. Anything the spirit wanted.The spirit sighed softly. Too softly for the girl to hear. The girl waited patiently for an answer, but she did not receive one.How about a favor then? A task to carry out? Surely there was something the girl could do in exchange for her freedom?The spirit balled up tighter, burying her face in her knees. She hung silently in the air, save for the gentle creaking of leather against leather.Again, the girl prodded. What was it going to take? She was willing to make a deal with the devil.The spirit uncurled, slowly. She swiveled around. Body first, with her head lagging behind. She squinted at the girl.I’m not a devil, rabbit!The spirit’s voice was saturated with incredulity.I’m not a demon!I’m not a fiend, or a monster!I’m not trying to hurt you!I’m not trying to make you unhappy!The spirit lurched forward with each statement. She reached out toward the girl with one hand, resisting the urge to touch. Her fingertips hovered mere inches from the girl’s cheek. Her hand trembled with frustration, then snapped into a fist.Wh...The spirit inhaled softly, her jaw trembling. She tilted her head in genuine, wounded confusion.Why do you hate me so much?Now, this was a question that caught the girl off guard. This spirit really had no idea. She was naive. Completely naive. Naive to the way people work. How they think. How they feel. Naive to pain. To empathy. To human suffering.This spirit had never conceived of a point of view that ran contrary to her own. Never had any inkling of the existence of an outside perspective. And now that she was face to face with a girl who embodied this concept fully, her worldview and confidence were beginning to corrode.The girl simply stared at the spirit. In disbelief. In pity. All she could think to do was ask her: What did you expect?The spirit’s breathing began to hasten, and shallow. Huffing quietly through her open mouth like a dying animal. She averted her eyes. Not in shame, but simply to allow herself time to think. She raked her fingers awkwardly through her drifting, ethereal white hair. Swallowed an uncomfortable lump in her throat.The spirit began wagging her index finger, as if she were trying to summon a thought from deep in the folds of her brain.You and I, w-we were supposed to...She retracted her finger. Bit her lip betwixt her bladed jaws.We were going to be happy together. I th-th-thought...The girl squinted narrowly, watching in silence as the spirit, for the first time, struggled to find words.I-I thought you would fall in love?This was not worded as a question, but it was certainly spoken as one. It was less of a question for the girl, and more of a question the spirit was asking herself.The girl answered it nonetheless, with a question of her own. A question that caused the spirit’s diaphanous muscles to tense, and her heart to visibly palpitate: With you?The spirit appeared reluctant to look the girl in the eye, but the penetrating silence slowly forced her hand.The girl shook her head in disbelief, uttering a question so blunt and direct as to fracture bone: How could you possibly have thought that?The spirit remained quiet for a moment. Her thoughts seemed distant, and her psyche fragile. She chattered her mandible rapidly, a strange tic that caught the girl off guard.She was thinking.Eventually, the spirit drifted a ways away. She rolled up the sleeve of her sheepskin aviator jacket, reached deep into the congealed blood, retrieved the girl’s sketchbook from the muck with an unpleasant suction noise... and rose silently into the air.The girl returned to her pondering. The little tapioca pearls peppered the ground now, like tiny hailstones after a brief and gentle storm.A closer look revealed something moving inside. Nearly imperceptible threads, wriggling about wildly like little stop-motion dancers. The girl watched them intently, for there was little else to do.Over time, she began to grow almost attached to them. She watched as they turned from a pale, translucent white to a deep, oxygenated crimson, and grew from the width of a silken thread to that of a horsehair plucked from a violin bow. She watched as they grew increasingly snug in their little gelatinous wombs, and wondered what they must be thinking. Or if they thought of anything at all.One of the pearls burst, splitting along an invisible seam like a wine grape squeezed between two fingertips. Its occupant wriggled free of the deflated pearl, and out onto the vast expanse of gelatinized blood.Why do you draw these, rabbit?The girl was yanked suddenly from her thoughts. She apologized. She hadn’t quite heard what the spirit had said.Why do you draw these?Again, she asked the spirit to clarify.The spirit turned a page of the girl’s sketchbook. The pages were delicate, and saturated with blood. Yet the graphite drawings were still clearly visible, and the spirit’s fingers were nimble enough not to tear them.These... romances.The spirit’s voice was wistful. She caressed the cheek of one of the figures on the page. It was a girl, not entirely unlike the one who drew it, in a passionate embrace with a spirit, not entirely unlike herself.The girl briefly pondered why she drew such things, but she quickly brushed those thoughts aside, convincing herself that she didn’t know. In the silence that ensued, she became vaguely aware that she may have whispered her thoughts aloud.She shook her head dismissively, assuring the spirit that they were just drawings. That they didn’t mean anything.The spirit tore the page from the sketchbook, wadding it up like a wet paper towel. She squeezed the excess blood from the page, and tossed it into the girl’s lap.Look again.The girl uncrumpled the drawing. Stared at it. Reminisced on the feelings that had spurred its creation. If she were being honest with herself, this drawing had come from a place of longing. Of loneliness.There are a hundred drawings just like that one in this book of yours, rabbit.The spirit snapped the book shut with a wet slap, brandishing it in one hand as if to draw attention to it.You spent time making these.The girl asked the spirit what her point was, in a tone both sheepish and standoffish. She knew as soon as the words left her mouth that she had failed to mask her embarrassment.My point is, rabbit, that you’re a liar.The spirit tossed the book in the girl’s direction, and it landed in the sludge with a sickening splat.You say these drawings mean nothing. It’s not true.The girl gathered her sketchbook and held it protectively to her chest. She stared at the spirit, brow furrowed.They must mean something!The spirit’s tone was accusatory, that was undeniable. But it betrayed a desperation. The staredown that ensued made it clear that behind the posturing, and the arguing... the spirit was pleading with the girl.But the girl refused to back down. Her eyes were intense, and their contact, unbroken. How long this lasted, neither could say. But it felt an eternity. The spirit began to squirm.She shuddered violently, as if she were struggling to tamp down an outburst that was welling up inside her. But instead, she swiveled around, and went silent.The girl rested her palms on the ground behind her. It was more worms than blood at this point. The tapioca pearl eggs had long since hatched, and their occupants grown, consuming and replacing their curdled blood substrate. All that was left were tangled clots the color of red wine, undulating gently, and contracting suddenly when disturbed.The girl wondered where the time had gone, and why the sensation of sitting cross-legged in writhing worms didn’t seem to bother her as much as she thought it should.She closed her eyes, and exhaled.Do you know why I chose you, rabbit?The girl inhaled sharply. The spirit’s voice had come from directly over her shoulder, and it startled her.I’ve watched people wander that graveyard for decades. They’d come with expensive cameras. They’d come with rolls of paper, and colored wax. Occasionally, they’d come with flowers, if they were very old. But not you, rabbit... You came because you were lonely.The girl began to fidget uncomfortably. She assured the spirit that was not the case. Why would she go to a place so empty if she were lonely?You’re lying again, rabbit. I know what loneliness looks like.The girl sighed softly, her lip quivering.You sat on the same bench, time and time again. Drawing ghosts, and spirits. Each day I’d watch you draw another. Another daydream. Another intimate fantasy.The girl’s cheeks flushed red with blood, and she turned her face away from the spirit’s voice. The spirit sidled closer. Close enough that the girl could feel her cold breath in the crook of her neck.When you came to that graveyard each day, you were hoping, secretly, that a phantom would sweep you off your feet... weren’t you, rabbit?The girl cringed in embarrassment. As silly as it sounded when spoken aloud, the spirit was correct. She had hoped for that. Precisely that, in fact. Of course, she never believed that such a thing might actually happen.There was a long, lingering silence. The spirit swiveled around, turning her back to the girl’s.Anyway, rabbit. That’s why I chose you.The girl muttered under her breath. You can’t just choose someone. They have to choose you back. A nearly imperceptible grimace flitted across the spirit’s face.So I’ve learned.And with that, the spirit kicked off the ground, ascending quietly back into the sky.Had she? The girl wondered this question aloud. The spirit drifted to a halt, and hung in the air. She swiveled around, and gave the girl a quizzical look.The girl repeated herself: Had the spirit learned?Are you deaf, rabbit? I’m not going to say it again.The girl insisted that if that were true, and the spirit really had learned from her mistakes, then she should just let her go! Find someone else, who actually wants all of this!The spirit began to sink lazily back to the ground, headfirst, like a salted baitfish through glycerin.In the distance, there was a deep groaning sound, followed by a cracking, and a splintering. The pale, branchless, needle-like trees on the horizon had begun creaking, and toppling, their trunks the last thing to be consumed by the matted expanse of worms.The spirit snapped her fingers, so as to attract the girl’s attention without touching.Their eyes met, and with that, the two were face to face. The girl, right side up, and the spirit, hanging upside down, as if from an invisible thread.The spirit’s expression was almost tender.I can’t let you go, rabbit. You’ve been without oxygen for several hours. You don’t have an intact enough brain to go back.The girl was struggling to understand. The spirit could see it in her eyes. She put it more bluntly.You’ve begun to decay, rabbit.The gravity of the situation finally began to dawn on the girl. What had once been an idle thought was now cementing itself in her mind as an irrevocable truth. This really was death.She began to breathe heavily. Her larynx began to ache. No. The girl repeated herself. No no no no no. This couldn’t be happening. She stumbled to her feet. Began pacing.Listen, the girl said. Listen. She told the spirit she didn’t need a body. Just let her go. She could live with being a ghost.The spirit shook her head dismissively.There’s no such thing as ghosts, rabbit... once a soul dissipates, it’s gone.The girl couldn’t believe what she was hearing. What was the spirit, if not a ghost?I’m just me, rabbit.No. No no no no. She pleaded with the spirit. There must be something she could do to fix this! There had to be some way to undo what she had done! Please!Listen, rabbit. The hocus-pocus it would take to unrot that brain of yours would literally kill me.In the distance, another tree began to creak, and fall.Your program is running on my hardware, rabbit.The spirit tapped her temple knowingly.So get used to it.
A cocoon bounced off the girl’s forehead, and tumbled to the ground, disappearing amongst an endless expanse of others exactly like it.The blood had long run dry, and the worms had coiled tightly, pupating inside a thick, leathery shell of dried mucus. If the girl had been bothered to look around, she might have compared them to beans in an endless silo.Here and there, one would split at the tip, with a nearly imperceptible click, and a pale, pulsating ptilinum would peek through the crack.A second cocoon hit the girl’s face, this time bouncing off her cheek. She flinched, causing the dried blood on her skin to flake off, and drift to the ground, like dandruff.The air smelled of mold. Of mildew. Of dust and must. It bit sharply at the girl’s nose, but she didn’t seem to care.A third cocoon, and a fourth.Cat got your tongue, rabbit?The spirit hung miserably in the air, flicking cocoons in the girl’s direction.The girl didn’t respond.You’re stuck here forever, rabbit. The least you could do is try to hold a conversation.The cocoons continued to split at the tip with a click, creating a quiet cacophony not unlike the desynchronous ticking of a clockmaker’s workshop. The early risers had already wriggled free of their leathery shells. They were soft, and pale, and their legs flailed wildly as they struggled to find their footing.The spirit twirled a cocoon in her fingertips while she waited, visually tracing the spiraling imprint left behind by the liquefying worm inside.She touched the cocoon to the tip of a bony, tooth-like cusp, and applied pressure, impaling it. She sneered distastefully, tonguing it back off the cusp, and spat it at the girl.The cocoon landed in the girl’s hair, and stuck there. She shuddered involuntarily.A handful of the pale, scrambling dipterids that peppered the ground around her had begun to harden. To blacken. To pump their crumpled wings full of hemolymph, and air them out to dry.The spirit watched the girl, waiting for her presence to be acknowledged. But the acknowledgment never came.The spirit cast her remaining fistful of cocoons at the girl.Why won’t you speak to me, rabbit?!The cocoons bounced off the girl’s skin, and rattled as they hit the ground.You couldn’t keep your mouth shut before!The girl’s lip quivered. She could feel tears welling up in her eyes, and she was trying desperately to prevent their escape.I’ve been alone in that hole for sixty years, rabbit! Do you have even the slightest idea what that feels like?! Any idea at all?!The girl’s breathing became unsteady, and agitated. Yet somehow, she found herself unable to muster the energy to move. To speak. To do anything at all.The spirit kicked a filthy clod of cocoons at the girl. The handful of flies that were capable of flight took to the air with a pitiful buzzing, settling back to the ground only a few feet away.Look at you! You can’t even bring yourself to look at me! Am I that repulsive to you, rabbit?! Is the prospect of my company so distasteful to you that you’d rather just wither away?!The girl was crying now. Tears were streaming down her cheeks. The spirit’s screaming had triggered a paralytic panic attack, and the spirit knew it. Yet somehow, the girl’s upset only seemed to provoke the spirit further.So she continued. She continued until her voice was hoarse, and the ground had turned to a thick carpet of flies. Crawling on the girl’s skin. Buzzing in her ears. Swarming her nostrils to the point where she could barely breathe.You can hate me all you want, rabbit! It won’t make a difference! Nothing you do will make a difference!The spirit’s voice was strained, and her chest tight. And although there were no tears in her eyes, she breathed as if she were sobbing.You’re never leaving me, understand?!You’re MINE, rabbit!The spirit quivered with rage. With frustration. She clenched her fists, and screamed at the girl. It was a primal, guttural scream, that caused vast clouds of flies to take to the air in wild murmurations. A droning, thickening darkness that blackened the sky.It was in this fleeting moment, after the suffocating carpet had lifted, but before the flies had choked out the last glint of light, that their eyes met. Only then did the spirit finally grasp the depth of the girl’s pain. The weight of her suffering.And then, everything went black.
I’m sorry.That’s what the spirit would have said to the girl, if the lump in her throat hadn’t plugged her larynx like a cork.The swarming flies had long since dispersed, leaving the two of them sitting silently in an endless expanse of bone, as flat and smooth as a pebbled beach tumbled by the tides.The girl ran her fingertips along the exposed blade of a pelvis, discolored and stained by blood reduced to soil. It had been halfway buried beneath carpals, and tarsals. Maxillae, and mandibles. Scattered teeth and disarticulated fragments of skull. She wondered if perhaps these were her own bones, repeated to infinity.To the spirit, the girl seemed strangely at peace. A state of mind that the spirit envied, for her head was absolutely swimming. She felt guilt scratching and scraping at the folds of her brain, and regret prickling at its stem. A frightening and unfamiliar sinking feeling in her chest. A deepening awareness of the unforgivability of what she had done.Again, the spirit tried to force an apology through her aching trachea, but her tongue stoppered her throat, and all that escaped was a pathetic croak.The girl looked at the spirit a moment, and sighed softly. It was a sigh of quiet acceptance. It seemed foolish now, that she ever expected anything more from this spirit.In time, the sun began to peer over the horizon, turning the sky from a paper white to a gentle sky blue.In the warmth of the sunlight, the bones began to whiten imperceptibly. In time, they became old, and dry. Cracked, and weathered. Chalky, and pale.And all the while, not a single word was spoken.From between the sun-bleached bones, tender blades of grass began to emerge, reaching desperately toward the sunlight, and rooting themselves deeply into the soil beneath.The spirit snuck a furtive glance at the girl, her head bowed meekly. The girl was simply sitting there, watching the grass grow.It was no wonder the girl hated her. After what she had done, she deserved her hate. She had taken the girl’s freedom. Her life. Without hesitation, or thought. There was no redemption for her.She was selfish. Ghastly. Loathsome and cruel. The fact that she had ever thought highly of herself now filled her with a stomach-churning embarrassment.She was unworthy of the girl’s love. Of anyone’s love. She was an unsightly stain on creation, and the world would have been a better place had she not been a part of it.Eventually, the endless expanse of bone became a verdant meadow that rippled in the breeze like ocean waves, though the spirit failed to notice. She simply picked at the grass, unconsciously. Compulsively.And thought.
The girl was not breathing.Her heart no longer beat. Her skin was cool, and pale. Her muscles, rigid. Her amber eyes had sunken in their sockets, and her corneas had become clouded, and tacky. Like those of a discarded fish head left too long in the open air.This was the body of a person who was unmistakably, unequivocally dead.The spirit’s sheepskin aviator jacket was still draped over the girl’s shoulders. Her handmade adipocere candles had long burned down to stumps and snuffed themselves out. All that was left to light her burrow were her own luminescent bones.And although her bones still radiated a diffuse teal light, it was no longer as vivid as it was before. No longer as intense. It was a dim, sickly light.One of the spirit’s ribs fell from its cage, landing softly on the mulched coffin wood beneath them.The spirit shivered and twitched. The nictitating membranes that had shuttered her sleeping eyes trembled momentarily. She was deep in the dream. A dream that had long since ceased to be pleasant.The spirit, in her unconsciousness, only seemed to squeeze the girl tighter, nuzzling her face deeper into the crook of her neck. As if, for the first time, it was the spirit who was succumbing to the cold.A second rib fell to the ground. The girl’s index finger twitched, nearly imperceptibly.
The girl inhaled, sharply and suddenly. As if the tip of an icicle had been run up her bare spine. She turned to the spirit, dumbfounded.“What did you just do?”The spirit refused to acknowledge the girl’s question. She simply sat there, and continued to pick at the grass. The sun had slowed to a halt in the sky. Its stillness was too subtle for the girl to perceive, but the spirit knew.“You’ve changed something. What’s going on?”The spirit assured the girl that she had changed nothing. That she was being paranoid. The sun began to reverse direction. Again, too slowly for the girl to perceive.The girl watched the spirit closely. She was up to something, and the girl was determined to find out what it was.The grass began to retract. The girl could sense that something was off, but she struggled to pinpoint exactly what it was. The girl’s frustration grew, and she needled the spirit further.“What are you playing at? Tell me. Now.”The spirit snapped at her. She was up to nothing, and the girl should drop it, rabbit.What seemed like hours passed, without a word spoken. In time, the girl’s suspicions became obvious. The grass was several inches shorter than it had been before. And not only that, it was speeding up.But the girl said nothing. She simply watched. She watched the spirit, sulking in her little divot in the grass. She watched the sun as it inched back toward the horizon. And she watched the grasses retreat back into their seeds, and ungerminate.The bones around them began to darken.“Tell me what’s happening. Please.”The spirit averted her eyes.“I deserve to know.”The spirit asserted that it was rude to look a gift horse in the mouth, rabbit. The girl briefly pondered the spirit’s slight misunderstanding of this phrase, but it was clear the spirit was offering something she considered a gift.The girl backed off.The gentle blue sky above them was long gone now, having faded to a stark paper white. The spirit coughed an ectoplasmic mucus from her lungs, and swallowed it back down her translucent esophagus.“Okay, no. That’s enough. Explain yourself.”The spirit struggled to suppress her hacking and sputtering. The girl rose to her feet and approached the spirit. She knelt down and began tapping the spirit’s skull repeatedly, forcing her to pay attention.The spirit screamed at the girl. She screamed that she was trying to undo her mistake, rabbit! That she should be left alone to concentrate!A string of mucus was hanging from her mouth. She wiped it from her chin and rose into the air, embarrassed. But it wasn’t long before she fell back to the ground with a bony clatter.She coughed up a thick wad of mucus onto the ground. The girl approached her from behind, and placed a warm palm on the spirit’s shoulder, gently brushing her hair aside.“How can you possibly undo your mistake? You told me that if you tried to unrot my brain, you would die...”The spirit looked the girl in the eye, her jaw quivering. She looked as if she were about to cry.
The air was black, and thick with flies. A ceaseless, thunderous buzzing battered the girl’s eardrums. There was nothing she could do, except wait for it to pass.Eventually, the clouds of flies began to thin. Enough, at least, for the girl to stand, and attempt to find her bearings. The swarm was still thick enough to stifle her breathing, and her vision was impaired by the flies that fought incessantly to drink from the corners of her eyes. But the girl remained undeterred, swatting them away as best she could manage.It took time, but the girl eventually found the spirit, sitting silently on a bed of empty, leathery cocoons. She was carpeted with flies. They drank freely from her open eyes. Lapped the phlegm from her mouth, and throat. The girl could see them, scuttling about deep inside the spirit’s trachea. An intrepid few had even wandered into her lungs themselves.The spirit’s eyes shifted subtly in their sockets, as she sat, and thought. The end of her life was fast approaching, and she was taking the time to process that thought. She could, of course, have turned back at any time. And yet, for reasons she was still struggling to comprehend, she didn’t.Was this really what she wanted?“Is this really what you want?”The girl’s voice snapped the spirit gently from her stupor. She was suddenly acutely aware of the insects in her chest, and began coughing violently, spewing clouds of flies into the air, followed by another thick, gelatinous wad of mucus.She attempted to wipe the mucus from her chin using the sleeve of her jacket, with little success.“You don’t have to go through with this, you know.”The spirit insisted that yes, rabbit, she did have to go through with this. There was an audible irritation in her voice. A deliberate and precise articulation clearly intended to dissuade the girl from questioning her further.The flies in the air around them began to fall to the ground, one by one, as their wings softened, and their bodies paled.“You don’t. Not for me. I can stay here, if I need to. I’ll find a way to manage. Neither of us has to die.”The spirit reminded the girl that she was already long dead, and rotting in a hole. She had killed her herself, rabbit.The girl gave the spirit a withering look. That was not what she had meant, and the spirit knew it.The spirit grinned smugly at the girl. It was a grin meant to taunt. To antagonize. But it was clear that it was masking an intense frustration.The fact that the girl was willing to throw away her life for her sake was infuriating to the spirit. Somewhere along the line, this girl had got it in her head that her life, and that of the spirit’s, were of equal worth.She was wrong.The girl had a full life ahead of her, and she deserved every minute of it. She deserved the love, the hate, the pleasure and the pain. Everything that life had to offer, was hers to experience.The spirit, though? There was nothing left for her in this world. The time she had spent with the girl had made that fact crystal clear. She had nothing, and deserved nothing.The flies were dropping, as the colloquialism goes, like flies. Feverishly squeezing their soft, pale bodies back into their cocoons, which snapped shut around them as if they had never split in the first place.The girl sat among the clicking cocoons, thinking quietly to herself. A very particular thought crossed her mind, and she looked to the spirit.“You’re the only one, aren’t you?”The spirit’s neck turned as if on a swivel, and she glared cautiously at the girl.“You’re the only one of your kind.”The spirit retorted, rather curtly, that perhaps that was for the best, rabbit. The girl insisted otherwise.“No. I can’t sit back and let the last of anything die. I refuse to have that on my conscience.”The girl approached the spirit, and placed a palm on her shoulder. The spirit recoiled from her touch.“You’re a tiger. A predator. Even if someone dies, you don’t kill the last tiger for doing what comes naturally.”The spirit became even angrier. A tiger? She wasn’t a tiger, rabbit! She was lonely, and selfish, and stupid! What she is doesn’t excuse what she’s done!She clutched a fistful of cocoons so tightly they burst, and threw them in the girl’s face. She began to rise into the air, screaming every vicious insult she could muster. The girl was an idiot! An imbecile! A simpleton and a fool!The girl scrambled backward, before clambering to her feet and retreating into the distance. She heard the spirit hacking, and choking, and the rattling of cocoons as she fell back to the ground.By the time the girl turned around, the spirit was doubled over on the ground, wheezing, and gasping for air.The girl simply stood there, watching the spirit struggle.Eventually she took a seat.Perhaps she should let the spirit die. As far as the girl could tell, it might be her only chance to do so.The spirit had told the girl that she had been alone in her burrow for sixty years. So she was at least that old. Probably much older. She wondered if perhaps, once a person reaches that age, it feels like enough?The spirit had also told the girl that she would be, quote: stuck here forever, rabbit. To the girl, forever seemed like a very long time to live. Too long, to be honest. For a person or a spirit.Maybe this was for the best.The last fly clicked back into its cocoon, and the world went utterly still, and utterly silent. The only remaining stimulus of note was the musty, fungal smell left in the wake of decay.So the girl sat.And waited.
The girl stared absentmindedly at the skyline, where wine-red worms touched paper-white sky. She watched as the branchless trunk of an ancient cedar rose from the lake. It rose slowly, like a buoy lifted by an incoming tide.With time, the tree stood upright, and reattached itself to its stump with an unsplintering, an uncreaking, and an uncracking.The girl had never heard anything uncrack before, but now that she had, she knew immediately that it wasn’t a sound she’d be able to describe to anyone.Not that any of this was something she was planning to talk about, once this ordeal was over. She’d witnessed an impossible event, and she knew better than to relay the impossible.All she would be able to do is forget this ever happened. A task easier said than done, of course, but at the very least, the notion was comforting.A second tree unsplintered. Uncreaked, and uncracked.The spirit’s sickness was worsening. Her once drifting, ethereal hair was now knotted and tangled, clinging to her semi-corporeal skin like wet gauze, and her shimmering, concave retinas had become clouded with a sickly bacterial film.The spirit’s body was not the only thing that had fallen ill. Her mind was sick as well. Sick with doubt. Sick with guilt. Sick with fear. The finality of death, once unfamiliar, was beginning to dawn on her, and she was scared.In the distance, the trees continued to unsplinter, and uncreak, and uncrack. One by one, like the ticking of a clock.There was a numbness in the spirit’s fingertips. She could feel her heart fluttering, a tightness in her throat, and an aching in her chest, caused not by the flies that had wandered too deeply into her lungs and passed away, but by a stagnant and suffocating dread.A tree cracked, and creaked. Splintered and fell. The girl snapped to attention. These were sounds she recognized. But despite their familiarity, she was not happy to hear them. The trees were supposed to be uncracking. Uncreaking. This break in the pattern was, frankly, alarming.She swiveled to face the spirit.“What are you doing?”The spirit didn’t answer. Instead, her breathing became rapid, and shallow. Like a mouse with its pelvis caught in a rat trap.“Don’t play coy. Tell me what’s going on. Now.”The spirit began to shake her head. Whisper nonsense into her own ears. Anything to drown out the sharpness in the girl’s voice.The girl rose impatiently to her feet.“You promised you’d put me back in my own head! What’s with the backpedaling? Are you toying with me?!”The girl could hear the spirit’s pitiful whimpering. The way she chattered her jaw, like some sort of idiot toucan.“You’ve decided to keep me prisoner after all? Is that it? You’ve decided to make me your little pet?!”The girl cocked a middle finger against a stiffened thumb and struck the spirit between her sickly, half-blind eyes with an audible thwack.“Hey! Answer me, dipsh—!”The spirit shrieked at the girl. She’s scared, rabbit!The girl’s aggression withered in an instant.“What?”She’s frightened, rabbit! She’s afraid to die!The spirit’s words hit like a battering ram to the chest. The girl felt a hot wave of guilt wash over her. A surge of embarrassment and shame so searing that she feared the blood flushing her cheeks might cauterize her veins.The girl began to tremble. Her fists balled, and her lips pursed tight as a thumbscrew. She felt her eyes welling, and her neck bristling, as her emotions wrestled violently with one another.She growled in frustration. Swiveled around and stormed off. But of course, there was nowhere to hide. She kicked at the sludge beneath her feet, swore fiercely, and fell to her knees.She braced an elbow against a knee. Her forehead against a thumb and forefinger. She could smell the coppery stink on her skin, and feel the worms dissolving back into coagulated blood and seeping through her knitted leggings.She wiped the tears from her cheeks with the sleeve of her turtleneck sweater. In the distance, she heard another tree creak, and splinter, and fall.The spirit was panicking inside. Her eyes darted about as she struggled to think, and she didn’t seem to know what to do with her hands. They floundered aimlessly, seeking to grasp at something that simply wasn’t there. Eventually they stumbled upon her mouth, and her breath hissed between her quivering fingers.Another tree began to creak. The spirit reached out toward it. As if her subconscious mind thought she might be able to tip it back upright, if only she could reach it.It crashed into the lake.As the approaching ripples lapped at her shins, the spirit began sobbing. Apologizing tearfully. Profusely. She was so sorry. She was trying, rabbit. She swore she was trying.The girl buried her face in her knees. Pressed her wrists to her ears. Anything to muffle the spirit’s mournful cries. She was trying, rabbit. She was trying...“I KNOW you’re trying! I’M SORRY!”The spirit went quiet, her breath trembling. The girl swiveled to face her, tears streaming down her cheeks. She stared into the spirit’s clouded, sickly eyes.“I’m sorry...”The spirit’s jaw began to quiver. She wrapped her spindly fingers around her face, and began to cry.The girl rose to her feet. She approached the spirit. Took a seat alongside her. And in an act that surprised even herself, she placed her head gently on the spirit’s shoulder.In time, the coagulated blood began to thin, like oil paint in turpentine. Gradually settling back into a shimmering, mirror-like surface. In the distance, the trunk of an ancient cedar rose from the lake. Stood upright. Unsplintered. Uncreaked. And uncracked.
The girl sat silently. She stared uneasily at the spirit, lying lifeless in a pool of blood. Her bones no longer luminesced with a diffuse teal light. Her lungs no longer drew breath. Her heart no longer beat.The spirit was gone.The girl couldn’t shake the sinking feeling in her gut. The spirit had done this for her. She didn’t like that thought. That the stinking carcass before her was an act of love. She still wasn’t entirely sure she was worth it.But what was done was done. There was no turning back now. However, as the girl continued to stare, she began to doubt whether there was still a moving forward.Surely, something was supposed to have happened by now?The spirit’s mouth hung open like that of a spent salmon, washed up dead on the riverbank after a spawn. Her once ethereal flesh was now sickeningly tangible, and her matted hair clung to it like withered algae to a seaside stone.The girl could barely bring herself to look the spirit in the eye, although there were no longer eyes to look into. The rot had long since taken them, and where once there had been shimmering teals and golds, there were simply empty pits lined with decaying silverskin.The girl began to fear that the spirit had not completed the task she had set out to do. Was it possible that the spirit had fallen short of her goal? That her sacrifice had been wasted?The girl was struggling to shake the awful notion that she might be stuck in this place forever. That at this very moment, her brain was being reclaimed by decay. Its circuitry undone, for a second and final time.The girl continued to stare at the spirit’s body. Its empty eyes. Its slackened jaw. Her lip began to tremble. Despite her better judgment, the girl was mourning the spirit.The spirit had truly loved the girl, in her own terrible, misguided way. The proof was lying right in front of her, in an endless pool of blood. And even if that love had remained forever unreciprocated, the girl would have preferred to spend an eternity with someone who loved her, than an eternity alone.The girl reached out to touch the spirit, but hesitated, just for a moment. Despite her fascinations, she had never encountered death so directly before. At least, not that of a person. She worried that her instinct to touch might not be appropriate.Yet she did it regardless, touching her fingertips to the crook of the spirit’s neck.The spirit’s corpse convulsed, like the salted flank of a freshly butchered cod. She gasped for air, but drew no breath.The girl drew back, startled. She gawked at the spirit, lying limp in blood. As if she were a fish in the bottom of an aluminum boat, trying in vain to flush its gills with water.The girl watched the spirit struggle soundlessly. Too weary to move. Too ragged to breathe. This was a being teetering between life and death.The girl approached the spirit cautiously. It was clear to her that the spirit was unaware of her drawing near. How could she have been, with her eyes claimed by decay? For all the spirit knew, she was alone in this place. And despite her vacuous, dead-eyed stare, the girl could tell the spirit was frightened.“Can you hear me?”She spoke softly, and calmly.“Hey, hey. Listen to my voice.”The spirit twitched in response.“How are you feeling?”The spirit flexed her jaw as if she were attempting to form words, but to no avail. Her larynx had long since been reduced to tatters.The girl couldn’t bear to see the spirit lying in blood.“I’m going to touch you. Is that okay?”The spirit’s rib cage expanded breathlessly. The girl reached out and gingerly touched her shoulder. Her mandible chattered.“You okay?”The spirit acknowledged the girl’s question with a barely perceptible nod.The girl took hold of the spirit by the shoulders, and hoisted her upright. The spirit’s entrails spilled from her abdomen, followed by kidneys, liver, heart, and lungs.Somehow, this didn’t seem to phase the girl. She took a seat across from the spirit, knee to knee, and touched the spirit’s forehead to her own.The spirit began to shiver.“Hey, hey. Listen to me. I’m here.”The girl spoke softly, as if to a frightened child.“It’s okay. You’re okay.”A fragile silence.“Oh hey, I just realized. I don’t think we were ever properly introduced.”The spirit’s face twitched erratically. She seemed confused.“My name’s Wren. Wren Barrows.”The spirit’s twitching ceased.“What’s yours?”The spirit yawned widely, her jaw distending as if she were a sculpin on a fishhook. The girl coaxed it shut with a gentle finger to the spirit’s chin.“I’m guessing no one ever gave you one, am I right?”The spirit’s head quivered back and forth, ever so slightly.“Would you like me to give you one?”The spirit’s rib cage expanded, despite there being no lungs with which to inhale. The girl closed her eyes, and took a thoughtful breath.A moment passed before she opened them again.“How about Adrienne?”Something stirred within the spirit. The girl could feel it.“Adrienne Thistle. How does that sound?”The spirit smiled weakly. One half of her mandible sloughed off and fell to the ground with a wet clap.“I think Thistle’s a good name. You want to know why?”The spirit awaited the girl’s answer with bated breath.“Because you’re a pain in the ass.”The spirit’s rib cage began to spasm rhythmically. She was laughing. The girl couldn’t help but crack a cheeky smile.It wasn’t long before the spirit’s laughter deteriorated into heartbroken sobbing. The girl was swift to comfort the spirit. She placed a hand atop the spirit’s head, softly stroking her tangled, withered hair. The spirit tightened her grip on the girl.The girl quietly returned the gesture.Eventually, the spirit loosened her grip, and her arms fell weakly to her sides.The girl let go of the spirit, hesitantly. Poised to catch her should she happen to fall. But the spirit did not fall. She simply sat there, quietly breathing nothing.The girl stared at the spirit, with an expression of genuine concern. She had a thought, and nearly spoke it aloud... but fell silent when the spirit rolled up a sleeve and plunged her open hand deep into the marshy substrate beneath the lake.She began pulling. Struggling to uproot whatever it was she had wrapped her spindly fingers around. When her progress slowed, she began to tug, repeatedly. Again and again, until her tugging became yanking, and her yanking became wrenching, and the girl began to fear that the spirit might literally tear herself apart.The girl reached out as if to stop the spirit. To plead with her to take it easy. But the moment she did, her sketchbook came unbuckled from the muck and the spirit collapsed to the ground.The girl stared a moment at the sketchbook in the spirit’s hand. And then, at the spirit herself. She was breathing heavily, although at this point it was more out of instinct than function. The girl found herself at a loss. She didn’t know what to say, or how to proceed.The spirit began to lift herself from the blood, her hair hanging like a starched curtain around her decaying face. The strain she was exerting upon her increasingly fragile body was, to the girl, distressingly clear.Again, she found herself reaching out to help the spirit. To keep her tendons from snapping, and her joints from dislocating. But there was a hesitation in her movements, as if she feared her fingers might cleave the spirit’s flesh like wet clay.By the time the girl had composed her thoughts, the spirit was already sitting upright. The girl retracted her arm sheepishly, and felt a twinge of guilt nip the nerves along her spine.The spirit placed the sketchbook in the girl’s hands. Her struggle was so pronounced that, to the girl, the book appeared unthinkably heavy. But of course, once it was in her hands, it was revealed to be no heavier than one might expect.The girl stared at the book. The binding was tattered and frayed, as if it had been exposed to the elements for years, and its blood-saturated pages had become so delicate that they would have torn each other apart had she opened it.The girl held the book tight to her chest. There was a profound sadness in her eyes, as she watched the spirit’s tactile fingertips probe the lake’s surface, searching blindly for any sign of the girl’s presence.The girl took the spirit by the hand. First her left hand, and then her right. She held them tight. The spirit chattered what little was left of her jaw.The spirit traced her fingers along the girl’s arms, and placed a hand upon each of her shoulders. With a remarkable tenderness, the spirit leaned in close, and touched the girl’s forehead to her own.The girl peered sadly into the spirit’s hollow, empty eyes. Her breath quivered softly. She touched her fingertips to her lips. She nearly touched them to the spirit’s as well... but she stopped short, and her fingers curled.The spirit arched her back. Braced her shoulders. And without warning, plunged the girl deep beneath the blood.
The girl awoke.She tried to draw breath, but her ribs were locked. An attempt to flex her fingers revealed they were rigid, and unfeeling. When she went to open her eyes, they steadfastly refused. And where she expected to feel the anxious beating of her heart, she instead felt nothing.Although the girl’s mind was beginning to stir, her body was still cold, stiff, and dead.With each thought that passed through the girls head, a modicum of oxygen was burned, and her brain sunk deeper into a desperate suffocation. An unbearable hypoxia, accompanied by an intense and overwhelming urge to breathe.Finally, the girl’s lungs began to expand, drawing a sickly, rattling breath. And with that breath came a thump, thump, thump in her chest, as thick and stagnant blood began to pulse through her veins.The girl opened her eyes, but saw nothing. Either she was shrouded in a near complete darkness, or her retinas had yet to regain their function. Although the girl could not have known it, both of these conclusions were true.Slowly, the feeling began to return to her fingertips. At first, all she could feel were pins and needles. Prickles and stings. To most, an unpleasant sensation, but to the girl, a welcome relief.With a repeated and conscious effort, the girl began to flex her slumbering fingers. Through the numbness, she could feel the zipper of the sheepskin jacket that hung over her shoulders. It was a jacket she had forgotten was there. The moment of her death felt so distant now, it had slipped her mind.The girl extended a stiff, waxen arm to the ground. She felt damp mulch. Rusty nails. And loose bones.Finally, an unobstructed breath. A gasp, spurred by a sharp and sudden realization: These were the spirit’s bones. She attempted to retract her hand, but was met with a distressing resistance.With time, the girl’s body began to warm. Warmth was an almost unfamiliar sensation, at this point. It massaged her stiffened muscles, loosening them gradually. Dissolving their tension, until they could no longer support the girl’s frame, and she collapsed to the ground.And there she remained, for quite some time. Not because she was incapable of rising. She was, within minutes. But simply to rest. To recover.With newfound warmth, came the sensation of cold. The girl slipped her arms through the sleeves of the spirit’s jacket, and bundled herself tightly within its old and yellowed fleece.What felt like an hour passed.The girl extended a hand, and began a cautious and tactile exploration of her surroundings. Immediately, she felt something familiar. Her sketchbook. She picked it up and held it close. It wasn’t weathered, or soaked with blood. As far as her fingertips could surmise, it was just as she remembered it.The girl explored further. She felt waxen stumps, and burnt-out wicks. Fist-width tunnels dug from loamy soil. Thin, delicate roots that hung from the ceiling. And eventually, the burrow’s entrance.She ran her hands along its perimeter, measuring it carefully. To her, it seemed frightfully narrow. A nervousness tickled the back of her neck. But of course, she had no choice in the matter.The girl took one last look over her shoulder. It was not an act of logic, but of instinct. In the darkness of the burrow, there was nothing to see.But the girl did see something. An atlas, glowing with a faint teal light. A glow so faint that in the light of day, it would have been imperceptible.The girl paused, and stared silently at the bone. A dull, dusty little vertebra that had once cradled the spirit’s skull. Her eyes shifted subtly. To the floor. To the tunnel. Then back to the bone. A moment passed.Quietly, the girl plucked the atlas from between axis and occipital, and slipped it into her pocket.
The girl emerged from the hole on a bright autumn morning. The sky was a pale and delicate blue, and the breeze carried with it an invigorating chill. The cemetery was empty, as it nearly always was. She was thankful for that.The girl took a moment to assess herself. She seemed healthy. Intact. Perhaps a little tired. She had a sketchbook in her hand. A jacket on her back. A bone in her pocket. She felt as if perhaps she were a different person than she had been before, but there’d be time to evaluate those feelings later.She felt a little jolt upon hearing the sound of an SUV arriving in the parking lot over the hill, and of indistinct conversation as its doors slammed shut. After taking a moment to compose herself, she shuffled off toward the bike rack near the cemetery’s entrance.The girl fiddled with the dials on her bike lock, and entered a four-digit code: The date she had buried a pet mouse she’d had as a child. She hopped atop her bike, and rode home.The girl had been missing for nearly seventy-two hours. It wasn’t long enough for someone to have filed a missing person report. After all, the girl was an adult, though she rarely felt that way. But it was long enough for loved ones to worry, and despite the girl’s loneliness, she did have a handful of loved ones.She made excuses. Told them that it was no big deal. That the jacket on her back had been found in a ditch, and justified its retrieval with a price check online. Indeed, the price of such a jacket was considerable.In the days, and months, and years that followed, the girl often left peculiar happenings in her wake. By the time they were noticed, the girl always had an explanation at the ready. Never a truthful one, but always a plausible one. Either that, or she had already slipped away, unseen.No one ever discovered the atlas the girl carried in her pocket, despite it being on her person at all times. Occasionally, she would wonder if she might be able to pass it off as the bone of an animal, should it come to that. But the girl was clever enough that it never did.Whatever it was the girl was hiding, it remained a secret to anyone but herself. She had decided long ago that no one would ever know. That no one needed to know. And indeed, no one ever did. Not family. Not friends. Not you, or I.And in the end, the girl was content with that. Her choices were her own. Perhaps she had made the right choice. Perhaps she should have known better. But one thing can be said for certain:She was never lonely.