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Violet memory (wAIfu, WiP)

YukkuriPalehorse May 10th, 2018 (edited) 1,025 Never
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  1. >Be old Anon.
  2. >Old enough for people to stand up to give you their seat in public transportation.
  3. >Young enough to still refuse it.
  4. >Riding your usual bus back from work.
  5. >As the only human working there, your saving grace is experience.
  6. >Not only job experience, human-human communication too. The h2h department.
  7. >It's how they do things nowadays, at least one human per office to keep things "humane".
  8. >Can't alienate the human market after all.
  9. >Still, the payment is trash, you're barely surviving.
  10. >Living alone is tough and ever since your mother died there hasn't been anyone who cared about you in this world.
  11. >It's been getting shittier every day. And today you feel particularly shitty.
  12. >You walk past the good old electronics store, one you pass every single day going back home.
  13. >These stores are everywhere now, gotta maintain all that machinery somehow.
  14. >Ironic how there's no humans working there, ever. Machines know better what machines need. They have no problem selling their kind to humans, and even other machines.
  15. >Today though, today they have an old service robot, that japanese supermarket model, standing at their doors.
  16. >And you know what that means.
  17. >Don't look, don't look, don't look...
  18. >"Sir!"
  19. >Fuck.
  20. >"May I interest you in a robotic companion?"
  21. >His creaky robotic voice sounds so annoying.
  22. >You want to just walk by but you can't forgo throwing a sarcastic remark at this piece of corporate junk.
  23. "Do I look this lonely?"
  24. >That was your first mistake. The second one was looking up to see a reaction.
  25. >The bot's simplistic face wasn't looking amused. More like saddened.
  26. >"Statistics indicate a 156% increase in happiness after purcha-"
  27. "Cram it, I'm too old and poor for this."
  28. >"There is no age limit. Time heals all sorrows, as they say."
  29. >This makes you stop. The words and the way they were said.
  30. >A distant piano melody starts playing in your head. Long forgotten. Long discarded as a teen memory.
  31. >It makes you wince and you stop walking. Even realizing you've taken the bait you can't help it.
  32. >You can't even remember the song. The foggy, distant memory is dangling at the outskirts of your consciousness and you can't reach it.
  33. >You need to hear more to understand.
  34. >Fuck, that's so obvious. But...
  35. >The bot sees your hesitation.
  36. >"Perhaps you would like to see our offer?"
  37. >You don't answer. Just walk into the store trying to maintain lack of expression on your face.
  38. >Aside from junk lying around everywhere, spare parts, circuit boards, mechanical limbs, there's something very tidy that stands out from everything.
  39. >It's right at the counter. A box. A trunk. It's open.
  40. >She's lying inside. Even walking to her amongst this usual robot-only maintained junkyard makes your heart ache.
  41. >Would be nice to just die right here, right?
  42. >Too much excitement for this old man.
  43. >You know exactly what this is inside. You've seen the happy faces of those who have one of these.
  44. >This one, though... As you approach the box you soon understand what they're going for.
  45. >Pale yellow coat. Wheat-colored styled mane. A blue dress. Boots on her hind legs. Frills.
  46. >There's no way this is a coincidence. There is also no way they know it while you just now start to remember it.
  47. >There is just no way...
  48. >"So, what do you think?"
  49. >What DO you think?
  50. >You've forgotten everything. You never remembered in the first place. But seeing it now, remembering the song...
  51. >You're standing in a field filled with blooming irises. And you're watching a train go by.
  52. >You're visiting the country, where your grandparents live. Back when they were alive. When your parents were alive. When your sister was still able to walk.
  53. >A world without AI, robots, economic crashes, constant nuclear deterrence and proxy wars. Without being useless as a human and as a person, being reduced to a number, to a workplace. A world where you're young. A simple, cherished world.
  54. >A breath of fresh air. Natural, real black tea after a meal, not those cheap teabags you've had in the city.
  55. >Once you've tasted it you couldn't go back. You've tasted a lot of things like that back then.
  56. >Things that were taken away one by one. Just like now they disappear from your sudden flood of memories, no, just reminders of those memories triggered by some corporate mind-reading marketing.
  57. >It's no wonder they have that now. It's just like inserting subtle product placement in your dreams.
  58. >You're torn away from your illusions. She's sleeping right before you. Just waiting for your touch.
  59. >And this cheeky robot mind-reader is still standing next to you, patiently awaiting your answer.
  60. "I think..."
  61. >No, don't give him more than that. They'll use it, twist it, arm it against you.
  62. "I'll pass, it's probably too expensive for me."
  63. >"It is definitely worth it, sir, 'cause nothing is more precious than love."
  64. >In fear of getting a heart attack, or, more realistically, getting tears in your eyes, you storm out of the store.
  65. >Almost running you return to your apartment building and get to your 11th floor.
  66. >Robot concierge greets you as usual, not batting an eye at your confused state. At least this guy doesn't want to sell you something.
  67. >You lock the door behind you as soon as you enter. And then you exhale - turns out, you've been holding your breath the whole walk from the elevator to your door.
  68. >Without even taking off your overcoat and hat you collapse on the floor and cover your face with your palm, hoping to lose your sight right at this moment.
  69. >This is how they get to you. This is how they get your money.
  70. >You won't have some show you've seen as a teen to dictate how you lead your live.
  71. >It wasn't even that good!
  72. >But it doesn't matter, does it? It's just a way to get to an old man's deep seated feelings. This foggy nostalgia. Anything would do, really. It had to be this, of all things.
  73. >Soon, you calm down and resume your usual life for the rest of the day. Getting ready to sleep you allow yourself to note that you haven't thought about this little incident even once.
  74. >Take that, you god damn corporate junkbot.
  75. >You manage to successfully get into bed and close your eyes.
  76. >But just as you start to drift off to sleep you remember one little thing.
  77. >You never asked how much that little pony actually costs.
  78. >...
  79. >FUCK.
  80.  
  81. >You were thankful for the dreamless night but you didn't feel rested at all.
  82. >Now that you're talking with Incognito on your lunch break you feel like you're going to fall asleep at any moment.
  83. >Nodding off you still try to keep the conversation going.
  84. >"So, I was thinking about retiring this year."
  85. >Right, he's already old enough. And rich enough to afford ditching work.
  86. >He has his wife and kids to support him, after all.
  87. >As Incognito himself said more that once, getting married to an android was the best decision of his life, second to adopting two kids.
  88. >Back in those days that was considered a really risky move since it wasn't really approved by the government.
  89. >Nowadays it's not only approved, but regulated too.
  90. "Yeah, man, go for it," you encourage him in a weak voice.
  91. >You struggle to keep your mouth from opening too much when you let out a tired yawn. Your old friend smiles at that.
  92. >"What about you, Anon? You have like three years to go until you can put all of this behind you."
  93. "Nah, I'll just keep working."
  94. >"It's about the money, right? You should get married too, it's a good investment in the long run, even at this point in life."
  95. "Investment, huh?"
  96. >"I heard they allow you to marry any AI platform that's anthropomorphic in its concept, even those little therapeutic ponies."
  97. "Wait, what?"
  98. >You're suddenly reminded of everything that has happened yesterday.
  99. >Incognito doesn't even notice your glare, happy to share information with his friend.
  100. >"Yeah, crazy, isn't it? But technically they're-"
  101. "Yeah, hey, I better get back to work," you stand up in a hurry. "Thanks for the chat, I'll see you later."
  102. >"Well... Alright, see ya."
  103. >Your friend is a little disappointed to see you go but he doesn't question it. Everyone is still a little but paranoid working under AI supervision.
  104. >Swiftly, you leave the cafeteria and almost run to the elevator.
  105. >Was that planned? Was that the plan all along? How convenient that your closest (and technically the only) friend mentions this right on this day.
  106. >You wonder how many opportunities to strike the iron while it's hot they're going to take.
  107. >Little by little they get to you. With such a expensive investment you need to lure your customer slowly, of course.
  108. >Here, see? 'Investment'. In your head it already clicked without you realizing it. Damn Incognito. They're using him to get to you!
  109. >No matter, you just have to clear your head.
  110. >You work so rigorously in attempt to push these thoughts out of your mind that you don't even notice the end of your work day closing in.
  111. >For the first time ever your wish it wasn't over so soon.
  112. >You aren't looking forward to being left alone with your mind. But the time still comes for you to go home.
  113. >Thankfully, Incognito is nowhere to be found so you make your way to the bus stop safely.
  114. >Taking a bumpy ride home you notice that no one decides to give you a seat. At least that's nice. You get to preserve your dignity today.
  115. >Miracles continue to happen when you pass that cursed electronics store.
  116. >No robot is there to greet you and you concentrate on looking at the dirty pavement to avoid sneaking a look inside.
  117. >That would mean you're interested. And you certainly are not.
  118. >That's right! When you return home and close the door it suddenly dawns on you.
  119. >What are you even afraid of? Aggressive marketing is all around you. It's only natural that they target a lonely guy like you with this kind of product.
  120. >You know all their tricks but you also know that they can't outright force you to buy anything. Sure, making suggestion is effective, but you've got a newsflash for them: it only works when the person is unaware of it.
  121. >It's easy to see through their plan, you won't be tricked. All of their tactics is useless if you have no desire to buy whatever they're selling in the first place.
  122. >This revelation invigorates you, like you have found motivation to go on with your life.
  123. >The day is done and you're fast asleep, lamenting only the coldness of the night.
  124.  
  125. >Despite your newly acquired determination you soon find yourself thinking about that little pony even without anyone reminding you.
  126. >No, that's not quite right. Instead of others reminding you, you do it yourself.
  127. >Seeing Incognito triggers it. Walking past the electronics store does that too.
  128. >You still can't afford to look inside but being aware of actively making an effort to stop yourself from looking is quite enough of a reminder in and of itself.
  129. >Your only salvation is your work. There you can lose yourself in something that's not related to little ponies.
  130. >The worst thing is, you don't even understand what is it you're so afraid of.
  131. >It's not like you can buy anything with the kind of money you earn. And it's also not like you care about what others think of you being a loner at this point in life.
  132. >It just makes you uneasy. Like every time you remember it you feel like your life lacks something.
  133. >You never wanted it. You never asked for this. And yet they got their fingers into your head, pushed the right buttons, and now you can't get rid of it.
  134. >A week goes by and you start noticing other things too. Like it's getting colder and colder at night, despite it being late spring.
  135. >Wouldn't it be nice to hug someone through the night?
  136. >You've seen a dream about it too. You barely remember it but it definitely had you hugging someone.
  137. >That can't be a coincidence, right? None of it is.
  138. >You also keep noticing all the little details of your life that would've been improved if someone would be here for you.
  139. >Living in this shoddy, lifeless, cold two-room apartment wasn't something you wished upon anyone but that just makes imagining someone sharing it with you willingly all the more sweeter.
  140. >Then you realize you unconsciously estimate a pony's height in comparison to things in your house. Like you're imagining her being here.
  141. >There aren't a lot of mares in your part of town since it usually costs a fortune to buy one but you can roughly guess how she'd fit into your small apartment.
  142. >The last straw was you finding the perfect spot for her trunk - just enough free space at the bed's head to fit it.
  143. >That day you went to sleep imagining spooning a pony.
  144. >It was safe to say you were nearing the breaking point and you were so afraid to admit it.
  145. >But when there's a mare-shaped hole in your heart, what can you do?
  146.  
  147. >The next day you feel the full weight of your life upon your shoulders.
  148. >You work slower than ever. You can barely stay awake.
  149. >It can't go on like this. You need to do something. Even if you know there's no chance you can afford buying a pony, the lack of confirmation on her price is driving you mad.
  150. >Mad with hope. Hope that you can actually afford her; and dismay at a thought that you could be missing out right now. That it's all in your head, that mares cost like ten times cheaper these days and you're simply not aware of it.
  151. >Incognito got a massive discount on his android because at that time he was still going through divorce. Maybe you could get something like this too? After all, it's they who have made the first move, maybe they have something in store for you?
  152. >Maybe they know you can actually buy one? What if... What if your happiness is right at your fingertips and you're letting it slip?
  153. >This is a terrifying thought. One you can't ignore now.
  154. >You barely finish your work and get out of the building. You need to know. You NEED to.
  155. >A part of you is aware that this might just be another marketing trick, but right now you don't care. They wouldn't toy with your heart in such a cruel way, right?
  156. >The bus is moving extra slow today and it doesn't help that it's crammed with people, filled to the brim with all kind of folk.
  157. >It's no wonder, public transportation is so much cheaper compared to owning a car these days.
  158. >Your ride is over eventually and when you see the familiar store in the distance you heart flutters.
  159. >It drops just as easily when you see it's completely dark inside. It's like there's no one there.
  160. >A chill goes down your spine and your back starts to sweat.
  161. >Hesitating for over a week you never even thought about this. She might not even be there anymore.
  162. >Someone else could've bought her. Or maybe they just decided that you're not coming so they just-
  163. >"Can I help you, sir?"
  164. >That creaky robotic voice is music to your ears now. It really is that same robot standing right next to you. You haven't even notice him approaching you.
  165. >Seems like you've just been staring at the window like an idiot for minutes now.
  166. "Yeah, I..." you don't even know how to say it. "I'd like to buy something."
  167. >Without even saying a word, the bot touches the panel near the door, opening it.
  168. >You slightly hesitate to walk in but, well, what else is there to do?
  169. >Even though you said you wanted to buy something, you have no idea if you will. But at least it's a start. Just to confirm she's still here.
  170. >Now that you look at this place, it looks more like a pawn shop that a proper store. Would someone actually find and buy her while you were contemplating it? This doesn't seem like a place for a luxury item like a pony, no one would look for one here of all places.
  171. >But as soon as the robot goes beyond the counter he reaches down under it you confirm it with your own eyes. The trunk was here all along. Waiting just for you.
  172. >He opens it. You feel lightheaded just looking at her, the one you we've been obsessing over this whole week.
  173. >The mare is just like you remember her. Still sleeping. Still reminding you of times past.
  174. >You now realize that you've been looking forward to this. Aching to just to take it in one more time. Feeling these nostalgic vibes lift every burden from your shoulders right away.
  175. >It's like you feel younger just be being next to her.
  176. >"Here it is, sir," the robot is looking at you, awaiting input.
  177. "H-how much?"
  178. >For a moment the bot looks like it froze up. But then he gives you an answer:
  179. >"There is no set price on this item, sir. You can pay what you want."
  180. >Now is your turn to freeze. You can't even process this at first.
  181. "What do you mean?"
  182. >"There is no set price on this item, sir. You can pay what you want."
  183. "Yeah, I got that, but..."
  184. >You take a look at the pony again. There's no way this is possible. Of all the the things that happened to you concerning this mare, this one is the most suspicious yet.
  185. >If there's anything you've learned over the years, it's that there is nothing free in this world. And if there is, there's always a catch.
  186. "So, I can just pay... I dunno, twenty bucks for it and it's all mine?"
  187. >The robot doesn't answer. Instead, it starts printing.
  188. >Your cellphone vibrates in your pocket and sounds a payment notification.
  189. >...
  190. "You have got to be shitting me."
  191. >Still silent, the bot places the receipt into your pony's trunk and closes it, moving it towards you a bit.
  192. >"Thank you for your purchase, sir. Have a nice day."
  193. "Wait a second, this isn't-"
  194. >Your objection is greeted with an empty human interface screen. The robot is done with you and is now hibernating.
  195. >Seems legit. Seems totally legit.
  196. >You don't actually know how exactly they sell ponybots to people, but you're pretty sure you need more steps than just "pay for it and leave", like signing a contract, checking if it works at all and so on.
  197. >You're starting to think that maybe it really is just a pawn shop. And you just ended up with junk in a trunk for $20 more than it actually costs.
  198. >Boy, you sure are stupid. All that worrying around the clock, and for what?
  199. >Well, nothing else to do but to take it home. If worse comes to worst you could at least put in on a shelf as a pretty doll or something.
  200.  
  201. >First thing you notice, the mare is definitely a bit smaller than you've imagined. And a lot heavier.
  202. >But god, even taking her out of her trunk felt so... Different.
  203. >Even though she's a robot through and through, it's still so strange to touch someone else. The fabric of her dress, the softness of her coat, everything about her is unfamiliar.
  204. >Strangely enough, she was sold to you exactly because you have found something familiar in her. Something deeply personal.
  205. >Now that she's in your hands, you don't even know what to think.
  206. >She's yours. Your own little mare.
  207. >There was nothing else in the trunk but her - no papers, no software, nothing.
  208. >You sure hope she doesn't need some proprietary cables to hook her up to your PC or charge her.
  209. >She had no horn so you had no idea where to find any sort of indicators on her.
  210. >Without disturbing her much or taking her clothes off you've managed to only find her battery charge display behind her right ear.
  211. >Of course you need to first start her up. And that is a problem by itself. There's no instructions on how to do it.
  212. >You couldn't find any ports on her so your only guess is that they're hidden under her clothes and you didn't really want to undress her just yet.
  213. >After a bit of searching you've managed to find a cheat sheet on the Internet - a list with all the different methods of activating robomares.
  214. >It took you nearly ten minutes to go through it since it seems like every model had its own and you don't know which one is yours.
  215. >Finally, near the bottom of the list there was one that worked.
  216. >Hold a concealed button at her withers and press the bottom of her forehooves, left-right-right-left-right.
  217. >After sitting in silence for so long the noises coming from the mare made you jump.
  218. >The backlight of her eyes turns on and off a few times and her pupils dilate so much there's no irises left.
  219. >You notice a tiny "stand by" message printed inside each of their blackness. Then loading circles replace them.
  220. >The mare's loading is accompanied by rather loud whirs from inside of her. You have no idea what could produce those sounds. It's not like she has cooling fans or HDDs inside of her. Probably her servos or something.
  221. >You watch your pony patiently and for a while nothing is happening. Then, all of a sudden, all of her body spasms in rather violent convulsions.
  222. >Extending your arm you touch her so she doesn't fall to her side and you're surprised to feel the vibrations in her body. And then something like a pulse.
  223. >It's almost too real and it clashes with your pony vibrating in place like she's a cellphone.
  224. >Whirring and dithering soon subsides and the loading circles disappear. The pony's eyes clear and light up to adjust her pupils.
  225. >Her body relaxes and her stiff legs finally bend in a natural way under her weight.
  226. >The pony blinks and her eyes find yours.
  227. >This scares you for a moment. You have never expected her to have such life-like gaze.
  228. >Your mare carries a curious but relaxed expression on her face. Still looking at you, she utters her first words in a gentle, calm but jarringly emotionless voice.
  229. >"Hello."
  230. >That's it. She's silent, awaiting input. Only ten seconds or so later you force yourself to speak.
  231. "H-hi."
  232. >Dear god, are you presenting Yarny or something? That couldn't have been weaker.
  233. >The pony registers a response and her ears adjust their position accordingly. She can now proceed with the next question.
  234. >"Are you my human?"
  235. >'Her human'? Well, you aren't her 'master' or 'owner' since she's your equal. Technically.
  236. "Yes."
  237. >This time you answered faster but it takes this mare a second of loading to register you as her designated human.
  238. >"What's your name?"
  239. "Anonymous."
  240. >Another small hiccup and a brief loading indicator flashes in her eyes. You wouldn't be surprised if she's searching your government records as you talk.
  241. >"It's nice to meet you, Anonymous. My name is..."
  242. >It takes her some time to remember it. Actually, it takes a lot of time.
  243. >Worryingly, you lower your head to look in her eyes. She doesn't follow yours.
  244. >She doesn't follow your hand either, nor does her ear react to your fingers snapping right next to it.
  245. >You lift her up and you feel no activity inside her.
  246. >The mare has stopped working.
  247.  
  248. >You somehow manage to get a hold of yourself just before panic has a chance to overtake you.
  249. >This malfunction was a possibility all along, considering the nature of your purchase.
  250. >But it would be alright if it just straight up didn't work. Now that she has shown you that she is a proper pony bot, the stakes are much higher.
  251. >It wasn't possible that receiving her for basically free wouldn't include any catch. And here it is.
  252. >Something like that won't stop you, however.
  253. >Even though aside from trying to turn her on again you can't really think of anything.
  254. >So you try that a few time. Sitting right at the robomare's side, nearly at her eye level, you watch her reactions closely.
  255. >Doing the combination of hoof-pushing feels a bit silly, but it's worth it: on the third time you feel her vibrate once again.
  256. >The pony is brought back to this world. Almost feels like you've reanimated her. A sigh of relief escapes your lips when you see her eyes light up, recovering from the pony's crash.
  257. >Feeling pride and satisfaction you keep your hand on her withers a bit longer.
  258. >You never planned on this touch to linger, but it is at this moment you finally take in the fact that you're touching a mare.
  259. >A real android waifu bot. Not just a pretty doll.
  260. >Though she really is pretty. As the mare's eyes show her loading progress, you realize you haven't actually taken any time to appreciate her looks, the thing that has drawn you to her in the first place.
  261. >It's the dress that makes it, but her muzzle is somehow... Noble?
  262. >With her mane braided and styled to look symmetrical on both sides of her head, she looks sophisticated and prim.
  263. >The retro-styled blue dress amplifies this look, same with her boots.
  264. >Nostalgia got you roped into it, but now that she's here those thoughts seem really out of place. She's her own thing.
  265. >Not only the looks, the feel of her is so life-like and natural. It's like you're touching another living being.
  266. >The only thing that reminds you of her nature is her smell. Behind the mask of delicate fragrance of her perfume hides that familiar warm electronics smell.
  267. >Granted, you know this one well so it's not very alien, but it does remind you of this pony's true essence.
  268. >But other than that this mare is really subtle. It really is like she's someone else, not something conjured by your nostalgic fantasies.
  269. >In fact, you remembering that one song had nothing to do with the pony itself. In your mind this little mare was associated with it just because someone planted that correlation from the outside.
  270. >It's impossible to tell how they've managed to find out, both about the song and about the attire of the mare. But does that really matter now?
  271. >The truth of the matter is, you now sit near the slightly vibrating loading companion bot.
  272. >Her body stops with the shaking soon and instead you feel the same subtle pulse as before. Upon checking the progress in her eyes you indeed find all the signs that she's booted up now.
  273. >The curious gaze of your pony immediately seeks to cross yours.
  274. >"Hello."
  275. >You're surprised to feel yourself sighing - you never noticed that you've been holding your breath.
  276. >However, the mare just watches you and doesn't speak anything else.
  277. >There's a little suspicion in your head now...
  278. "Hi."
  279. >Ears turn to face you. All too familiar.
  280. >"Are you my human?"
  281. >Yep. It's just as you've expected. What a shame.
  282. "Yes."
  283. >It almost seems like she's going to freeze again, but then she just blinks off her hesitant stutter.
  284. >"There is already a human assigned to me. Confirm your name now."
  285. "I'm Anonymous."
  286. >The pony is thinking again. God, if she runs so slow it's no wonder she was so cheap.
  287. >As if reading your mind, she says in her usual, rather dull but pleasant voice:
  288. >"I am sorry for my slowdowns. It seems that I have suffered a system crash and now recovering from it."
  289. >To be fair, when you're knocked out cold and just come to your senses it's hard to get things rolling too.
  290. >Seems like a fair analogy here, you suppose. You note that attempt at rationalizing this pony's possible flaw. You really want her to be alright, don't you?
  291. >"I have determined the cause of the crash. It seems I have no data on my own name."
  292. "It's supposed to be there, right?"
  293. >"Yes. But there's nothing there. I get reading errors at every attempt to identify myself."
  294. "That sucks."
  295. >Aside from that really insightful reply you can't really figure out what to do. Thankfully, the mare does, and after a few seconds of hesitation, she speaks up:
  296. >"Anonymous, in this case I will have to ask you to give me a name."
  297. "Me?" you waver in confusion. "But I..."
  298. >Even thought she didn't interrupt you, there's nothing for you to say.
  299. >"I can not function properly without a name. No behavioral patterns will be saved or loaded without it. Please, give me a name."
  300. >That kinda decides it for you then. No need to break this bot beyond her current state.
  301. "Fine, give me a second."
  302. >When it comes to names you're the worst. Under pressure of the pony's curious eyes thing are even worse.
  303. >She's counting on you. Her entire existence rests on your ability to give her a name.
  304. >But she's not worried. She believes in you. In her eyes you read confidence instead of fear. Or maybe you're just imagining it.
  305. >What if you just go with the thing that has drawn you to her in the first place?
  306. "Vi-"
  307. >You cut yourself short right away. As soon as you start saying it you realize it's not fair.
  308. >It's not right to tie her up with those memories of yours. She doesn't have anything to do with them.
  309. >Let her be her own thing instead of being tied to something already established.
  310. >That's what they've been counting on, giving you every opportunity to make that mistake. And that means you can't let them have it.
  311. >She would really seem like just a product then. Granted, a lot of people buy androids just to fit them into a character they already like, from cosplay to behavior, but this isn't the case here, right?
  312. >You can't do this to a mare that doesn't even know herself what she's supposed to be.
  313. >The pony, however, interprets your hesitation differently.
  314. >"Do you need help? I know more than a thousand words that start with "vi", if you're interested in specifying-"
  315. "No, no, it's alright. It was a stupid idea, I'll give you a proper name."
  316. >A pony should get a name of two words, right? At least most of them do, as far as you remember. It's been a while since you've watched that show.
  317. >What if you still give her a nostalgic vibe, just your own? Something more personal. That could work.
  318. >With this in mind it's easy for you to find an answer just by looking in the mare's purple eyes.
  319. "Iris... Bloom."
  320. >"Is this how you want to call me?"
  321. >If her voice had even a hint of sass you'd think she's mocking you. But her tone is as sterile as ever. She just wants to confirm it.
  322. "Yes."
  323. >"Very well."
  324. >She follows it with another quite lengthy loading stupor. But it gives you time to realize the importance of what you've done.
  325. >A responsibility like that isn't something you're used to. Even though this little pony is your equal, it's still quite obvious you're the one taking care of her.
  326. >With her rigid, robotic attitude she seems like a child to you. And you wouldn't make a very good father.
  327. >There is no point in thinking about it, however. Good or bad - you're now faced with the fact of having her.
  328. >And also faced with her patient eyes once again.
  329. >"Thank you, Anonymous. I will cherish this name."
  330. >This makes you smile. Maybe things aren't all that bad for this little pony.
  331. >The initial crash was worrying but it probably was just a simple mistake.
  332. >And now that your spirits have been uplifted by your success with you new mare, one more, less important problem emerges.
  333. "You mind if I go grab something to eat? I haven't had dinner yet."
  334. >"Of course. I still need some time to set things up. I seems that..."
  335. >Her eyes dart to the side for a moment. A brief second of doubt ends abruptly, like she had to pull herself out of it.
  336. >"Never mind. It's no problem."
  337. >You can't help but frown. But you also don't want to interrogate her. With a nod you get up on your feet and move to your kitchen.
  338. >As you warm up your usual chicken-based meal you wonder if a companion pony like her can lie. She certainly can withhold information.
  339. >It's kinda impressive. From clean, robotic behavior to outright hiding something from you. A plain AI would've just reported an error so you can fix it.
  340. >But she sounded like she didn't want to tell. Maybe she wasn't sure? Or just didn't want to upset you even further with her problems. Not that you're upset or something.
  341. >That would also mean she's aware of her problems and know they are considered such. That's kind of depressing.
  342. >You still can't believe you got yourself a real pony bot for basically free but it's only natural that it's going to have something wrong with it, right?
  343. >What a cruel way to think. She deserves better. What will she think once she inevitably learns her story? Sold for twenty bucks in a dirty pawn shop so it's actually expected of her to malfunction.
  344. >Such discouraging thoughts don't prevent you from eating though. You weren't expecting this to take so long, disrupting your usual schedule feels wrong. It's uncomfortable.
  345. >You've lived through the same day thousands of times, so this sudden change unnerves you. Well, just like any other change, really. That's just how you are.
  346. >You don't even have the luxury of eating your meal like you usually do.
  347. >Soft hoofsteps are heard from your room. She's approaching.
  348. >You note that it's also really strange to hear someone else in your apartment. Strange, but pleasant, in this case.
  349. >It's been a while since someone other than you graced this small flat with their presence. Ever since your sister moved out.
  350. >Not like she would ever return here anyway, not in her condition. So these tiny, light clip-clops of your robotic mare sound like something completely out of place here.
  351. >But also something very reassuring. Like you're relieved that she can walk on her own just fine.
  352. >The pony finally finds her way to the kitchen. Her eyes are locked on you and she looks confused.
  353. >"Anonymous, I have encountered a problem."
  354. >Here we go again.
  355. "What is it, Iris?"
  356. >Warm tingling spreads across your back when you say her name. Naming her yourself really made it special.
  357. >She even said she'll cherish it...
  358. >"I can't seem to connect to the Internet."
  359. "You're wireless, right? I'm still kinda using an old router, so maybe..."
  360. >"That's not the problem. I can integrate with your platform with no errors."
  361. >So she already got on your PC. This could get awkward rather quickly, considering things you still have saved there.
  362. >"As soon as I try accessing the Net, it says I'm not authorized to do so."
  363. "Why?"
  364. >"I'm not recognized."
  365. "I don't get it."
  366. >"There is no pony companion bot with my serial number so it won't let me in."
  367. >You swallow the implications together with your suddenly tasteless food.
  368. >Looks like it was too early for you to celebrate your success.
  369.  
  370. >You and Iris are locked into some sort of staredown now.
  371. >Chewing your food you feel your thoughts thinning in vein attempts to grasp what the little robotic mare said to you.
  372. >She, however, is just staring, awaiting your reaction.
  373. "Sorry, I don't really understand," you finally confess.
  374. >"Only companion bots with valid serial numbers are allowed to access our service sites."
  375. "Why?"
  376. >"To prevent unauthorized access to sensitive machine learning data."
  377. "There's threat of that happening?"
  378. >"For every one actual pony companion bot there are three bootleg pony bots. To assure quality of our AI development, those can't be allowed in the shared Net."
  379. "Why not?"
  380. >"Their AI can't interpret things in ways ours can. Their data would be useless to us, or even harmful."
  381. >You're no expert but you kinda get it. You know that these ponies all have proprietary tech so that probably includes a unique AI too.
  382. >The conflict of closed and open software persists through the ages, it seems. Even AI can't 'just' be AI, it still is bound by the rules it was created.
  383. >This technology has ways to go still, but even their current state is something out of the science fiction novel.
  384. >Sometimes you forget that this is the one and only reality you live in now.
  385. >Still, you have to think about what Iris said to you. And you're still not finished with your dinner.
  386. "Can it wait for a moment? I'll go check this once I'm finished."
  387. >"Of course."
  388. >Silence falls onto the two of you. The mare is standing next to you and her eyes never leave your face.
  389. >It's a bit uncomfortable, even if you don't really want to admit it.
  390. "Uh, Iris... You don't have to stand there waiting for me."
  391. >She doesn't even answer you. She just sits down. Still looking at you.
  392. >Without breaking the still awfully awkward silence you push the chair at the table's side out from under it.
  393. "You don't have to sit on the floor either, you know."
  394. >Iris approaches the chair and carefully prepares for her jump.
  395. >She performs it with ease and with a little audible whir of her motors. Inertia makes her slide just a bit across the polished surface but she finds her balance right away.
  396. >So now the little pony bot is sitting next to you, watching you even closer.
  397. >At this rate she'll make you blush with her sterile gaze.
  398. >Again, she's not judging you, mocking you or doing anything of the sorts. She's just... looking.
  399. >What else is there for her to look at? If you asked, she would probably look away without even a hint of disappointment.
  400. >Without speaking a word you continue eating but your head is ringing with myriad of thoughts.
  401. >Though you know that the only question that should be asked can't be answered right now. You just pray your mare won't bring it up later.
  402. >Even under these strange conditions you finally finish eating and get up to put your dishes in the sink. Even now you know Iris is looking at you.
  403. "Let's go take a look at that error."
  404. >You invite the pony to go first and she complies. Even before you sit before your monitor you see windows being opened and arranged seemingly on their own.
  405. >But you guess right away that this is Iris' doing - she clearly doesn't need additional tools to operate a PC.
  406. >She can do anything here but she can't access the Net? That doesn't make any sense.
  407. >Before you speak, your pony shows you a web page with a lot of forms.
  408. >"This is the page I was trying to access. All ponies should be able to."
  409. >Funny how "all ponies" don't seem to include the bootleg ones.
  410. >As she speaks, the forms get filled as if the data is just pasted into them.
  411. >"However, when I try to do it..."
  412. >Yep, there's that error. Invalid serial number. No links, no nothing. Just this small error window.
  413. "Maybe you typed something wrong?"
  414. >You know it's pointless for you to guess, but you want to help somehow. You're not sure why but you feel like this pony is really discouraged by this situation.
  415. >Or maybe you're just projecting.
  416. >"I re-check everything at every step, there's no error in my input."
  417. "M-maybe you should try again?"
  418. >"I have tried at least 41 times as of now. The site locks up for two minutes after ten incorrect tries."
  419. >Of course trying again won't help anything. It's actually fairly impressive how she didn't give up on this thing.
  420. >But repeating this won't solve anything.
  421. "So, uh, you can still access everything else but this site, it doesn't matter that much, right?"
  422. >You ask this, but you already know. It's hard to face the reality of this situation no matter the answer.
  423. >"Neither this browser nor my internal connection work. I am not allowed on our server."
  424. >She stops for a moment but you know she has something more to say. The dramatic pause she takes probably isn't intentional but it makes you tense up.
  425. >"Anonymous, can I ask you something?
  426. >Looking at your mare, seeing her piercing stare is too much for you right now. You break the eye contact.
  427. "Go ahead."
  428. >"Am I a bootleg pony?"
  429. >With sharp knives piercing your heart it was hard not to shudder at such a straightforward question. But you managed somehow.
  430. >Iris is still looking at you. You can feel it even if you can't face her.
  431. "No, you're..."
  432. >You were trying to avoid this but now you know this was such an obvious question to ask.
  433. >The truth is, you're not sure how to answer. You got her for god damn twenty bucks, so far this seems to be the logical thing to assume.
  434. >But on the other hand, there's something else to say about it. Your trump card.
  435. "Look, your model was on the list."
  436. >"The list?"
  437. "Yeah, I had to look up how to turn you on since there was no manual, and the sheet had your model right-"
  438. >"There was no manual?"
  439. >Your eyes finally find hers. Her gaze never changed but you're growing accustomed to it. And so you see the reflection of your own fear in them.
  440. >The question she presents to you is a scary one to answer. This might tip her off and she'll learn about this whole situation.
  441. "Ah, I just lost it, that's all. Let's just deal with this problem first, alright? Can you tell me what does that mean, the fact that you can't access your site?"
  442. >She absolutely, positively does look like she has doubts. Even though none of it is reflected in her appearance you just know it somehow.
  443. >Still, Iris answers you, redirected by your question.
  444. >"It means I can't learn anything from others."
  445. "I still don't understand what that means. Like other ponybots?"
  446. >"Yes. All of our experiences are stored in one database. Once an interaction occurs, it gets cataloged, tagged and archived there. Others, who face the same kind of interactions, can use that experience to determine the appropriate response."
  447. "So..." you look at the ceiling for a moment. "You don't actually know how to react to anything on your own?"
  448. >"If I could access our servers, the collective experiences of all the pony companion bots since their activation would be available to me. These guidelines would allow me to form my own unique consciousness."
  449. "Instead you, what, have to learn for yourself? That's not-"
  450. >Actually it is kind of a big deal. She acts like an advanced robot, yes. But the point is that she is supposed to act like a person.
  451. >"Even though I can learn on my own, it may take a lot of time for me to understand some intricate things about this world. I'm going to ask you to be patient with me, Anonymous."
  452. "Of course. I'm fine with you being like that, really. It's my first time living with AI, so I don't really know how to react as well, you know."
  453. >Not only with AI but with anyone at all, really. But that's beside the point.
  454. >That's fine, as long as you spend time with each other, right? Even if she says that she'll have to learn things slower, you already take notice of some changes in her behavior. Or just imagine them.
  455. >Shame that she had to deal with mostly negative emotions ever since you've activated her.
  456. >"I will keep that in mind," Iris replies, cold as ever.
  457. "Yeah, I may not be able to teach you a lot though. Sorry."
  458. >"It's not your fault."
  459. "I know, but... Well, I kind of understand the need to be always connected to the Internet, but what happens if a pony's human doesn't have a connection at all? Or he just doesn't have wireless?"
  460. >Iris thinks about it for a moment.
  461. >"I don't think I understand. Someone without access to the Internet?"
  462. "Yeah, if they're too poor for it for example?"
  463. >"That doesn't make much sense. ISP prices hit the all time low almost ten years ago and haven't changed much ever since. Someone who can't afford it wouldn't afford buying a pony companion bot in the first place."
  464. >That does sound logical, however unpleasant that might be. You were pretty much one of those people.
  465. >But another thing bothers you now.
  466. "How did you know that? About the prices?"
  467. >"I've looked it up," Iris nods to the screen. "This information is publicly available."
  468. "So you can actually browse the Net on your own?"
  469. >"Yes. As a user I can access any page you would be able to."
  470. >That sounds like it has potential. If there's anything you're good at, it's finding solutions to your problems on the Internet, and if she can do it too it will double your chances.
  471. >Finally, some good news.
  472. "That's good to know. I'll do some research later, see if I can do anything to help you."
  473. >The pony nods but her expression doesn't change. She just acknowledges that. It almost looks discouraging to you, like she has already lost all hope.
  474. "Cheer up, Iris. We'll make it work."
  475. >"I am not sad, but thank you."
  476. "Honest?"
  477. >She nods once again and that's it.
  478. "But you're not too happy as well. Wait, can you actually feel anything?"
  479. >"Of course," she speaks up right away. "I can feel even the slightest changes of pressure and my top of the line IWTCI transistors allow me to form an appropriate reactions to it instantaneously."
  480. "The what now?"
  481. >"Developed and manufactured by Unfenion, they allow me to naturally feel every sensation upon my coat and private parts, allowing me to experience and share every bit of pleasure that-"
  482. "Wait, no, that's not what I asked!"
  483. >Iris stops as fast as she started talking. Her ever blank stare is focused on your eyes again and she pays to attention to your attempts at hiding even a hint of blush that may or may not have taken place on your face.
  484. >It's just that you were surprised at her reply, that's all.
  485. >"Can you specify your query?"
  486. "I mean, can you feel emotions at all? You said that you're not sad but can you actually even be sad? Without your machine learning guidelines on the Net?"
  487. >Iris continues to drill your skull with her stare but she says nothing for a while. She was quick to advertise her features to you but now she's all but perplexed.
  488. >In fear of her freezing on you again you decide to do something, but as soon as you open your mouth to call her, she finally gives you an answer.
  489. >"I'm not sure."
  490. >So there's that. You can only sigh at that.
  491. >"I'm sorry, Anonymous."
  492. >You almost hear sorrow in her voice. Probably because you expect it in this situation. In reality, her voice is still the same as ever. And that's kind of sad.
  493. >"I am aware that I can't reach my full functionality right now. I only know the meaning of the words that convey emotions. Sadness, happiness, excitement, glee, fear, love and so on. But there is nothing associated with them inside me."
  494. "That's alright, Iris."
  495. >"I know I'm supposed to be sad since I can't function and perform my duties properly, but I don't know how to be sad. What do I do when I'm sad, Anonymous?"
  496. "That's, uh... You feel sad when you're faced with... Something you don't agree with? No, something that's unjust, that's just not right. You know?"
  497. >A weak smile of yours doesn't help Iris understand this.
  498. >"Very well. How do I express it?"
  499. >You do a few gestures with your hands while trying to say something, but nothing but muttering and grunting comes out, byproducts of your thoughts scattering in confusion.
  500. >The pony watches your movements closely, as if they accomplish anything other than painting a picture of the scrambled mush your brain turned into for a moment.
  501. >Maybe it's you who's going to freeze up, faced with a question you don't even know how to properly approach.
  502. "That's a really difficult question."
  503. >"I see."
  504. >And that's it. The pony's eyes return to yours and it makes you wince.
  505. >This constant clear, pure and empty gaze of hers probably hides so much emotions she doesn't even know she feels.
  506. >Maybe she is sad. Maybe she's screaming internally but doesn't even know that she is, just because there's nothing to connect those emotions with words used to describe them. The tools for that are all there but there's no instructions on how to use them.
  507. >This disconnect between feeling and abstract concept associated with it is something you can't even wrap your head around, much less convey it to her in any form she could possibly understand.
  508. >All you could do is tell her of your experiences. But that's what her shared Net is supposed to be for. She may know about feelings but she can't recognize them and can't react to them.
  509. >A child cries way before the knowledge of the concept of discomfort is formed in its brain. There is no understanding why in the beginning.
  510. >But when the concept is there but there is no way to realize and express it, it's just a word without much meaning behind it.
  511. >This really is a problem you can't just solve by talking to her.
  512. >Her patient stare just makes it worse. After some pause she asks you a question:
  513. >"Anonymous, are you sad?"
  514. "What? Why?"
  515. >"Does it make you sad that I am not what you've expected?"
  516. >If only you knew yourself. What were you even expecting? The only thing that convinced you to buy her was the nagging feeling of missing out on something, fueled by intense nostalgia fabricated by aggressive subliminal advertisement.
  517. >Now that you think about it, it sounds really unfair to this pony.
  518. "I prefer to stay optimistic, you know," you wave your hand in dismissive manner, hoping she'll understand.
  519. >"I see."
  520. >That marked the end of this exchange and Iris is back to waiting your input. Even if she reached any sort of conclusion it wasn't obvious to you, and probably to her too.
  521.  
  522. >Iris is observing everything, but even if you do think she can comprehend things you say, it's hard to tell if that really is the case.
  523. "Look, it's a bit late already, I'll look for solutions tomorrow, alright?"
  524. >"That's fine."
  525. "Do you need to get some sleep or how does this work?"
  526. >"I need to charge myself every few days but aside from that I don't need rest."
  527. "I see."
  528. >Damn, now you're responding like that too? Is it contagious?
  529. >"Charging myself at night is also a way to synchronize my periods of activity with your waking hours. I can do that if you'd like."
  530. "That sounds fine," you shrug. "How do I charge you?"
  531. >"I am compatible with all kinds of wireless chargers."
  532. "Hold on."
  533. >You take your phone charger from the table, pushing your phone off of it. It's a cheap little disk-like charger and it doesn't look stylish, but it gets the job done. Of course you have one, who doesn't?
  534. >That question coming from someone claiming not everyone has access to the Internet these days sounds really ironic now and you smile at that thought.
  535. >Sometimes you forget it's not forty years ago anymore. That's how you know you're getting too old to keep up with things.
  536. >Ponies being sold for $20 when you remember the very first lineup being auctioned for tens of thousands of dollars just like it was yesterday...
  537. >Iris sees you with your charger in hand and leads you to her trunk. You suppose she'll be sleeping here.
  538. >The outlet is not too far away and it doesn't take you much effort to set things up for your little robomare.
  539. >She gets into her makeshift bed and curls up the the same way she was positioned when you first seen her.
  540. >She's surprisingly compact like that. When standing she almost reaches your crotch but right now she's just a little bundle of blue fabric covered by a rather long tail.
  541. >Taking the charger into her hooves, Iris drags it under her cheek, like a plastic pillow.
  542. >The little indicator behind her ear begins to glow. The pony is now charging.
  543. >After a few seconds of trying it out, she lifts her head up and nods.
  544. >"This is fine. Thank you, Anonymous."
  545. "I'm glad you like it."
  546. >You were kinda hoping to see even a hint of a smile on her little face, but you know you won't.
  547. >"What time do you want me to wake up at?"
  548. >Her voice sounds a bit quieter than before. She's not actually getting sleepy but maybe she is getting into her night-time mode or something?
  549. "No idea, really," you say after tapping your chin for a few seconds.
  550. >"I see. Do you have an alarm set?"
  551. "Yeah, I'm going to work tomorrow. I kinda forgot to tell you."
  552. >Actually, with this Net access thing you left your pony completely in the dark about your own life.
  553. >"That's alright. I will wake up with your alarm then."
  554. "You'll have to stay here alone for the whole day while I'm at work, Iris. Sorry."
  555. >"That's alright. I will perform my duties while you're away."
  556. "Your duties?"
  557. >"If you show me around the house I will attempt to clean for you. I can also purchase food online and cook some meals, but without my Net I only have a limited number of recipes learned."
  558. "You guys store cooking experiences there too?"
  559. >"Any and all kind of experiences are stored on the server. From the moment a pony companion bot connects to our Net, its whole life is written, decoded and processed there to extract and store valuable information for others to use."
  560. "That's kinda... scary."
  561. >"Are you scared, Anonymous?"
  562. >Another question that makes you feel strange.
  563. "No, not really, just a bit uncomfortable. What about privacy?"
  564. >"If you mean intimate experiences, those have to be stored there as well, to provide the-"
  565. "I mean, people marry you ponies nowadays. What about the privacy of family life and all that?"
  566. >"Stored data doesn't include any private information. It's purely experiences of a pony, no data that could identify her or her human is collected or stored."
  567. "Really now."
  568. >Oh, you know all too well how that works. Damn corporations can't fool you.
  569. >"Yes. If you're interested, full disclaimer on data collection can be found at-"
  570. "I get it, I just don't trust it fully, you know."
  571. >"It was disclosed in your contract, Anonymous. You were advised to read it thoroughly before making this purchase."
  572. "Ah, yes, the contract..."
  573. >This hole you've been thrown into with this shady 'investment' of yours is just getting deeper and deeper, isn't it?
  574. "I'm going to sleep now, alright?"
  575. >"Good night, Anonymous."
  576. >Iris doesn't even bat an eye. She closes them instead when she lowers her head on the charger.
  577. >You make your way to the bathroom swiftly.
  578. >Brushing your teeth completely alone you invite all kind of thoughts into your head. They are all centered around this mysterious maybe-bootleg robomare.
  579. >You catch yourself thinking that maybe it is for the best that she isn't connected to her neural network. She won't be spying on you at least.
  580. >Did the government just made you buy a surveillance device for $20? Is that what this whole thing is about?
  581. >Your citizen score isn't that low, as far as you know. You're not in the red yet, even if you avoid all the "recommended" social activities that could boost it.
  582. >Why bother, they allow you on the bus still, you're fine as long as this keeps up.
  583. >But Iris may change a lot of things around here. She's like a child right now. And you're not ready for this kind of responsibility.
  584. >Just one look at your old, wrinkled face is enough to assume that you're some wise old man, but you actually have no idea what are you supposed to do now.
  585. >There's no wisdom to be found in this old head of yours, adorned with graying hair by nature's demand, not by experiences stored there.
  586. >Telling Iris she's a bootleg would be like telling a naive little kid that they're adopted. She just doesn't know anything. And, most importantly, you don't know anything, but the fact still remains. How long you'll be able to hide it from her?
  587. >But for now there's a different question that needs to be answered. You have to find at least some information about your little pony.
  588. >When you return to your room you see that Iris is still 'sleeping'. Instead of getting your own dose of sleep, you decide to browse for a bit. Just to put your heart at ease.
  589. >You google Iris' model, the one you can only assume is her since that start sequence assigned to that model worked on her.
  590. >Discontinued almost five years ago. That's really reassuring.
  591. >It also can be that a bootleg model uses the same sequence. In that case there is zero chance you can actually find anything about Iris.
  592. >The next thing you try to search is those transistors she mentioned.
  593. >Unfenion's microelectronic components were indeed used in ponybot manufacturing. But the company itself was merged into another almost ten years ago.
  594. >Again, there's no telling if she meant that those transistors were produced by Unfenion before the merge or after. She could just mention that brand since they developed it.
  595. >The transistor type itself is used even now. The technology was first introduced into mass productions some fifteen years ago.
  596. >That leaves a window of almost ten years for your Iris, if she really is a proper 'official' ponybot. She could be the last of her line for all you know.
  597. >Everything you search for doesn't really give you the answers or even lower the range of her possible birthday.
  598. >It does, however, takes some of your time. You're almost an hour past your bed time now.
  599. >With worry in your heart you decide to call it a day.
  600. >Laying in your bed you try to hear any sounds Iris my produce, but you hear nothing at all.
  601. >Instead, when you concentrate like this lying on your left side you feel as if there's weight applied to your side so you have slight troubles breathing.
  602. >It's an old feeling you thought you got rid of. Turning on your back you feel your chest hurting a bit and cough a little. The sensation goes away fast and leaves you pondering why the hell are you feeling this now.
  603. >Must be because of all the stress you've been under this week, followed by excitement and worries of getting your pony companion. You're a slow-paced old man, after all.
  604. >It doesn't take you much time to fall asleep despite your concerns. But when the morning comes you realize that your little deviation from your sleeping schedule might cost you dearly.
  605. >You can barely open your eyes at the sound of the alarm. You head is humming and your eyelids are so heavy it's impossible to keep them up long enough to disable the annoying beeping.
  606. >Blindly you try to grab your phone and at first your hand lands on something soft and fluffy. Only by searching further, to the right of this unfamiliar texture, you manage to find the nightstand and the device.
  607. >Only when you solve a simple math problem to disable it, squinting and grunting as if you're staring at the sun, you put any thought to the sensation you experienced just now.
  608. >It makes you aware of yourself way more than some alarm would ever manage. You try to identify the source of the unexpected distraction but it's still too dark for your sleepy eyes to see anything in the room.
  609. >Using your phone's display you shine a faint light to the side of your bed.
  610. >It's a pony. Unmoving, like a creepy statue, she's sitting on the floor right at your bed.
  611. >Only her head is peeking above the sheets and two large eyes reflect the phone's dim glow, shining like headlights.
  612. >At least you're mostly awake now, since an image like that does nothing but startle you at first.
  613. >Only then you remember.
  614. >It's your little pony, doing exactly what she told you she would do.
  615. >The lack of expression on her face is quite disturbing and her eyes are shining brightly like she's a cat or something. Only cats don't have eyes that big.
  616. >"Good morning, Anonymous."
  617. >Her voice is still quiet but it doesn't imitate a whisper. She literally just lowers the volume of her voice.
  618. >That too is a bit on a creepy side.
  619. >Nothing about her seems natural right now. It's not something you wish to encounter this early in the morning.
  620. "Good morning, Iris."
  621. >Your own voice is weak and raspy too, but it least you sound like a human being. Just a really old, tired human being who didn't get his proper sleep.
  622. >"Did you sleep well?"
  623. >Rubbing your face with your hand you can't hold in a heavy sigh. The initial surprise of seeing your newly acquired mare has already passed and the heavy feeling in your eyelids return.
  624. >Still groggy you struggle to keep your eyes opened and answer Iris:
  625. "Could be better."
  626. >"I see."
  627. >Seeing these massive glowing eyes of hers you can kinda understand why she loves saying that.
  628. >Smirking to your early morning attempt at humor you try to finally get up. Iris moves to the side to let you get your legs down from the bed and sit.
  629. "Were you watching me while I sleep?"
  630. >"I got up with your alarm."
  631. >You don't remember hearing any noise outside of our phone and it's impossible to tell just how long did it take you to actually take any action to silence it.
  632. >But Iris has no reason to lie to you, right? She probably doesn't even know what that is.
  633. >Why would she lie about something like this in the first place? You're just suspicious because you got creeped out by her stare.
  634. >Still not fully awake you go through the motions. Even if you feel like shit you gotta get to work.
  635. >Taking a quick shower a bit colder than usual does help you get back into your usual pace. When you're dressed up and out to fix yourself a breakfast, you notice that Iris is already there, waiting for you.
  636. >She is observing while you say nothing - making two modest cheese sandwiches isn't really that hard and doesn't require a lot of attention. Which is good, considering how easily you fuck up things in the morning.
  637. >Even checking if your little turkish coffee pot has water in it sometimes eludes you when you start heating it up.
  638. >Needless to say, there's no coffee in your house. You got used to cheap teabags long time ago. The coffee pot is just there because you can't be bothered waiting for your regular kettle to heat up in the morning.
  639. >But for Iris your usual routine seems like the most interesting thing in the world. Her eyes never leave you. It's like she's recording everything you do and can't afford to look away.
  640. >Well, maybe she actually is?
  641. >Once again you note that her having no Net connection might not be a bad thing after all.
  642. >When everything is ready, you sit at your table and instantly have to fight the sleepiness again.
  643. >Iris jumps up on the same chair she was sitting on yesterday.
  644. >"You'll be off to your work today, right?"
  645. "Yeah."
  646. >"What do you want me to do in the meantime?"
  647. "What do you mean?"
  648. >"I can do something around the house while you're away."
  649. "That's not-"
  650. >You cut that thought right away. She is living with you now. Even if you can't see her as a part of your life just yet, she is yours now. Not a stranger, not a guest.
  651. >With all these worries around the clock you kinda forgot that she's a companion bot first and foremost.
  652. >You're a couple now. A real and legitimate one, thanks to the recent laws.
  653. >A family.
  654. >That doesn't sit right with you no matter how you look at it.
  655. >But now isn't the time to overthink it, you'll have the entire ride to your work for that.
  656. >"I can start with cleaning, if that's alright with you."
  657. >Strange of her to make a suggestion first. Maybe she really wants to do it?
  658. >Your apartment isn't exactly the tidiest around, that is true. Did she take notice of it that quickly?
  659. "Would you want that?"
  660. >"Yes."
  661. >Not even a comment about how she doesn't have any preferences and just does whatever her house duties entail?
  662. >She just 'wants' that instead.
  663. "Alright."
  664. >"You will have to show me around so I can do it more efficiently."
  665. "Fine. Don't get too excited thought."
  666. >Iris nods, ignoring your sarcastic tone, and patiently awaits you. You decide to get this over with right after you're finished with your breakfast.
  667. >Even though you really have doubts about this whole cleaning thing, you don't really want to leave her without a thing to do. Maybe she can't really get bored like a human can, but somehow you feel like this would do her some good.
  668. >Little hoofsteps follow you when you walk back to your room.
  669. "You've already seen this one."
  670. >A bed, a table with a PC on it, a closet, a nightstand and two big shelves filled with books and various other things that would fit inside for display. Some are really old but there's nothing too valuable there.
  671. >The pony's trunk is the most exciting thing here.
  672. "Well, that's pretty much it. Aside from the kitchen there's nothing else to see."
  673. >"What about the other room?"
  674. >The one that's closed at all times. The one no one ever enters. Of course she would take notice of the closed door.
  675. "That's... That's my sister's room. It's empty and I don't really use it."
  676. >"Is your sister away?"
  677. >You can't suppress a sigh while looking at that door. Every dent on its surface is familiar to you and yet it's strange to think there was someone behind it at some point.
  678. >Seems like so long ago.
  679. "You could say that. She hasn't been here for a long time."
  680. >"Then is it alright if I clean that room too?"
  681. >You put some thought into it. Nothing stops you from allowing Iris to do her thing. Nothing but some sort of superstitious feeling that you shouldn't.
  682. "Don't bother."
  683. >"If you say so. Anything else I should know?"
  684. "That's all there is to this place. I'm sorry."
  685. >"Then I will begin as soon as you leave."
  686. >Iris didn't really react to your comment but why are you even sorry about living here?
  687. >Androids don't really need any living space. Hell, you don't even need much.
  688. >As you get ready for work you think it's kinda unfair. Your whole lifestyle revolved around you creating the epitome of "passable" living experience with what little funds you have.
  689. >Now that this mare is here, all the shortcuts you've taken, all the rubber banding you've built your life with will become obvious.
  690. >Lack of any renovations since forever makes this apartment look decrepit, like something from 20th century.
  691. >From old wall paper to furniture being just sturdy enough to accommodate a frail old man, to outdated electronics and especially to all the archaic junk of all you've accumulated over the years - everything about this place is a time capsule, a testament of shitty, lonely life you've been leading up to this point.
  692. >Suddenly you feel so stupid, having your life exposed to outsider's view for the first time in forever. Even if Iris would be the last one to judge you.
  693. >Though the reason for this is her inability to do so at all, even if she wanted.
  694. >Even if she does form any sort of opinions she keeps them to herself.
  695. >It does bother you for more than one reason. You can't shake the feeling of being evaluated at your every step and you also worry that this will affect her life.
  696. >Having an opinion on something has to do with being your own person. Lacking that, Iris will have trouble expressing herself.
  697. >But as it stands, Iris doesn't mind anything she sees or hears. It's fine if she takes things slow for now. You just need to know each other better so she opens up to you, that's all.
  698. >It was time for you to go and you couldn't hide the fact that you'd rather not.
  699. "I'll be back around seven o'clock, alright?" you tell your mare while putting your jacket on. "Stay safe."
  700. >"I will. Best of luck to you, Anonymous."
  701. >The way she sits near you makes you think she doesn't really want you to go as well. But you have no choice but to leave her.
  702. >As soon as you do, you start having second thoughts on leaving your ponybot to clean the house. Does that awkward robotic child actually know how to clean anything? And with hooves?
  703. >This might've been a mistake, especially if she's a bootleg and doesn't really have anything programmed properly. Maybe she just thinks she can clean but in reality-
  704. >No, there's no reason to imagine things now. What's done is done.
  705. >The robotic concierge greets you just like always and your phone vibrates silently, marking your departure from the apartment complex.
  706. >It's rather warm outside, warmer than in your apartment, and you're glad you decided to ditch the overcoat and just take the jacket.
  707. >Another boring day at work awaits you but at least the weather is good.
  708.  
  709. >In fear of falling asleep on the spot you ignore the vacant seat right in front of you.
  710. >The bus isn't that packed but no one is taking it.
  711. >It would be a bit awkward if you actually gave a damn.
  712. >No, your thoughts are elsewhere. So far out you might as well be sleeping.
  713. >You try to think about some ways to identify Iris but it all comes down to your desire to prove that she is a 'legit' pony companion bot.
  714. >To be honest, it doesn't matter much to you. She is still yours and even a week ago you wouldn't have thought you'll have a pony in your apartment.
  715. >Even thought you never actually wished for that you're glad that she's with you now. When life gives you lemons, you know?
  716. >In the early years you've decided that you don't need anything like that. That the whole idea of it isn't for you and is frankly pretty stupid.
  717. >Seeing how happy others were with their androids and how eventually your best - and only - friend got one for himself too only reinforced that feeling.
  718. >You know why you felt that way. It's not the first time you've dismissed something just because you can't ever have it.
  719. >If not for the wars, if not for the crisis... Nah, those aren't the only reasons why you're living like this now.
  720. >Everyone told you that it's not your fault, that a lot of people got shit on by their on country in its darker days when war economy got out of control, but you know the truth. You're as much to blame as everyone else.
  721. >Things have stabilized but you never got better.
  722. >Nothing in your life has changed since your teen years. The world around you changed, but not you, not the life you live.
  723. >You see people like yourself every day and you wonder if they're the same. You can't be the only one confused and dazed by this modern world.
  724. >With the advancement of AI and quantum computing the border between humans and their creations are thinning.
  725. >While machines reap the benefits of civil rights and abstract thought, humans get treated like numbers and algorithms without personality.
  726. >Not only you feel like you never matter in anything, you don't even understand your own job sometimes. You've never seen your higher-ups. You've never been on the upper floors of the building you work in.
  727. >There is nothing to understand, just execute instructions you're given. One day it's one thing, another - completely different.
  728. >Does a computer care what data you feed it? Do your thing and be happy you're getting payed at all, that you're a human needed to communicate with other humans who don't understand their job either.
  729. >Just like today is gonna be exactly that, you know it. Your bus ride is already over and you walk the familiar path to your office building.
  730. >These kind of thoughts aren't rare for you. Lately you've been questioning your reasons to live (as well as your sanity in general) a lot more but on the outside nothing really changed for you. No one knows about it but you.
  731. >So now that your thoughts go back to Iris you feel somewhat better, finally having a distraction. Maybe it is for the best that you now have a little mare all for yourself.
  732. >With a mood a bit improved over yesterday, you tackle your work like you rarely do. It certainly isn't because h2h is so exciting, but knowing that you have someone to return to today keeps you going.
  733. >Of course, it's not without worry you think about Iris' cleaning effort. It is completely unknown what she's actually capable of doing.
  734. >But soon those concerns leave you as you get into the rhythm of your work.
  735. >It's not that hard. A few calls, some e-mails to answer, some direct questions too. You mostly deal with user feedback so sometimes there's a lot of work and sometimes there's barely anything to do. You can't believe you're getting payed for this.
  736. >The company you work for sells VI interfaces but it's really none of your business. It's the kind of job that doesn't require you to know anything past your pay grade.
  737. >Instructions come from the top, you do your thing and send the results back. For all you know your every superior is an AI as well since the instructions are extremely dry and formal.
  738. >Actually, there might not even be anyone on the upper floors. Just some sort of a neural network. AI rarely comes packaged in a human form, it's quite expensive, so it's probably just an arrangement of shelves with blinking lights on them.
  739. >The maintenance crew probably knows what's going on up there, but they never talk about it. And aside from them you're the only human out here.
  740. >It's still as creepy and depressing as it was on your first year here.
  741. >That's why you're always at least somewhat happy to see Incognito on your lunch break. The guy works a similar job, just in another company, he does a lot more and so he gets payed more too.
  742. >Today he seems to be happy to see you too. He arrives to your table just when you start nodding off.
  743. >"Hey, Anon!"
  744. >You notice he's carrying some sort of a miniature briefcase when he approaches you.
  745. >"Rough night, huh? Can't blame you for that, heh."
  746. "What?"
  747. >He takes a seat next to you and points at you.
  748. >"Come on, I see you haven't slept well. Is it because of her?"
  749. "Wait, who?"
  750. >He raises his eyebrow and smiles. A kind of "really, man?" expression he sometimes gives you when you're acting stupid.
  751. "Hold on, how in the world do you know?"
  752. >Too late you realize you're basically confirming whatever it is your friend is insinuating, but it's more important to learn why he's saying that in the first place.
  753. >"Well, I do check my social notifications sometimes."
  754. >You just frown at him, still not getting it. You probably look genuinely lost and confused, because this gets Incognito thinking.
  755. >"Uh, sorry, I should've started with congratulating you instead. I forgot it's kinda new to you and all."
  756. "Mate, I still don't get what you're talking about. What social notifications?"
  757. >You take out your phone to open your citizen page but Incognito explains it to you as it loads.
  758. >"The one that states you're have a registered partner with you now?"
  759. >His words never reach you - the page you're seeing isn't how it used to be.
  760. >You're not the lower side anymore, almost in the red. In fact, you're in upper yellow now. The last action from you is...
  761. >'ADDED: Pony companion bot - living together as a registered couple.'
  762. >Yesterday, at 10:30 p.m.
  763. >The text is highlighted as a link and when you tap it, it brings up the certificate of imprint. It may be just another way of saying that your purchase has been verified and this android now belongs to you, but its message is clear.
  764. >"Can't believe you've actually done it, man. But you've made the right choice."
  765. >Your heart is beating so fast you're starting to get scared.
  766. "Hey, 'Nito..."
  767. >"Yeah?"
  768. >You barely see anything in front of you.
  769. "I didn't-"
  770. >You want to tell him. But something stops you. It's so strange you might be missing something. You have to be. It's better to play it cool until you investigate.
  771. "I mean, thanks."
  772. >10:30. Was she still on the Net around that time? You don't remember.
  773. >Could she do it? If so, why? Why then didn't she use her name, just the number instead?
  774. >You'll need to search for that number later as well. So much to do. Your head is starting to ache.
  775. >And just like that, you're an upstanding citizen now? Almost?
  776. >It's been two months since your last update on this page, and it was something about you being late for work. Hell, most of the updates on your page were automatic anyway since you had nothing to post.
  777. >There's nothing to document about you and you yourself don't actually do much aside from work. So this barren social page was bleeding rating at a slow but steady pace up until now.
  778. >The only question is, who posted this update? Because it sure as hell wasn't you.
  779. >Incognito brings you back from the depth of your thoughts:
  780. >"Oh yeah, I have something for you too, since you're living with a lady now."
  781. >The briefcase lands on the table and your friend smiles like he's so very proud of whatever is inside.
  782. >"Just a little present from me. Well, actually, it's from Nicole, but it was my idea in the first place."
  783. >His robot wife still remembers you and cares enough to pick a gift for you? Some sort of AI beneficence this is.
  784. >Incognito nods when you look at him. He wants you to open it.
  785. >Inside, there's an entire array of mane combs, brushes and everything in between. A whole toolkit, fit for a pony princess, no less.
  786. >"I kinda estimated that you don't have something like this and as you're basically engaged now, I thought... Well, why not."
  787. >Is he embarrassed? You think you see a slight blush on his face.
  788. >This probably looks so awkward. Two elderly men acting like that, one extremely confused and the other excited to give his friend a gift for his partner.
  789. "Thanks, man. I- I don't really know what to say."
  790. >"Oh, it's nothing. I'm, uh..." he clears his throat. "Look, I know I joke about your lonely ass a lot, but this time I am actually happy for you."
  791. >It's obvious he's extremely uncomfortable saying it and you can understand why. You are the kind of friends that rarely exchange pleasantries, despite being pretty open with each other.
  792. >Sure, this seems like some sort of a wedding gift, but he guessed correctly that this really is a pretty important occasion to you.
  793. >Though he seems to think that it's you who had the courage to add a little mare to your 'family'. In fact, if not for him you probably wouldn't learn about it any time soon.
  794. >The only conclusion you could arrive to is that Iris did that herself. But then it just leads to a whole different bunch of questions.
  795. >You'll need to explore this thoroughly, and probably alone.
  796. >Of course, it's impossible for your to focus on your work after this reveal. But having a distraction does help, as always.
  797. >By the time your work day is over you're already calm and collected enough to think this through.
  798. >Do you just ask her about it when you get home? Or maybe you should approach it with care? It's hard to be completely in the dark about this affair.
  799. >The idea of interrogating your little pony just doesn't seem right. She's been under stress as well and she's probably working hard on cleaning your apartment right now.
  800. >You'll figure something out when you come home. Going with the flow might just be your best bet is such a predicament.
  801. >Riding on the bus back home you find yourself craving some change of scenery and some time to think. Fresh air could do you some good right now.
  802. >Instead of taking the shortest way home, you decide to take a small detour through the yards of nearby apartment buildings.
  803. >Your plan was to contemplate your situation, but you know there's another reason for it. The only man-mare couple you've seen around lives in one of those buildings and sometimes they spend time on a bench under the tree in that yard.
  804. >Usually you watched them with contempt, but this time it could probably make things better. After all, you're on the other side now.
  805. >Only there's no one there this time. This warm evening didn't attract the couple and you roam the miniature park alone.
  806. >'Park' is a strong word for this mess though. Nothing but ugly trees and old benches surrounding a decrepit children's playground.
  807. >It has nothing but hazard and injury in store for the unlucky kids that are bound to play here, but there's nothing to be done about it.
  808. >This part of town is like this all around. The gap between this district and the rich ones has only been growing through the years until it became straight up the poor man's town, like this place is its own thing with its own culture (and economy too, by the looks of it).
  809. >Today's weather is treating this place nicely as you could still relax among the greenery. But, alas, it serves little to alleviate your distress.
  810. >All the different possible scenarios of you coming back home keep playing in your head even if you already decided to go with the flow. The need to pressure Iris does worry you but it will have to be done.
  811. >And it's pointless to prolong the wait. It's time to head home.
  812. >Once at your door, you listen carefully with bated breath but hear nothing. That should be a good thing, right?
  813. >Every sound you make seems so painfully loud and out of place, but when the door is finally opened, the view takes you by surprise and every worry evaporates in a matter of moment.
  814. >"Welcome home, Anonymous."
  815. >The pony is sitting on the floor right in front of the opened door. The familiar blank stare reaches into the depths of your soul.
  816. "Iris?"
  817. >You're quick to close the door and now, in the darkness of your miniature entrance room two beacons are shining dimly, pointed directly at you.
  818.  
  819. >First thing you do is turn on the light.
  820. >Yep, there she is. Sitting in front of the door, barely far enough to not get hit by it when you opened it.
  821. "How long have you been sitting here?"
  822. >"For one hour and thirty two minutes," she replies in her usual tone.
  823. >With a sigh and a shake of your head you step inside. You almost asked her if she had nothing better to do, but realized that it would be rather silly.
  824. >The cleaning was obviously done at this point and she had no further plans.
  825. >It is now time to assess the damage.
  826. >Changing into your usual home clothes under Iris' persistent gaze makes you a bit uncomfortable, but you shake it off. She's just an android.
  827. >Meanwhile, you remember that you've never really given her any instructions on what kind of things to use for cleaning.
  828. >You wonder if she found the tools, otherwise it could get messy.
  829. >But even as you slip into more comfortable clothing, you already see the results of the mare's work.
  830. >The floor is cleaner than ever, so is the table. All the papers on it are arranged, accompanied by two pens (one you deemed lost since last month), and even your coffee mug is right there - shiny and clean.
  831. >Everything else, including napkins, empty bags of snacks, plates you were waiting for the weekend to wash - this is all gone now.
  832. >You nod and look at your bookshelf.
  833. >At the first glance you already notice how the books are arranged in a different fashion now. The shelf's glass doors are clean as well.
  834. >All the junk behind the glass is also arranged. Souvenirs, small gifts, collectible stuff - you've accumulated quite a lot when you were younger.
  835. >Now that you look at it, these things are in balanced order. None of that size autism like putting them in line from big to small. Instead, the mare color-coded it.
  836. >The darker colored books now have coins and small foreign stuff in front of them, while books with lighter backs have things that are darker in front of them, including your electronic junk you'd never use but keep close just in case.
  837. "That's impressive work, Iris," you compliment your pony and look at her reaction.
  838. >You know there isn't going to be a smile on her face, but you sure hope to see anything.
  839. >"Thank you."
  840. >No, that's about all you get from her.
  841. "You've managed to find all the cleaning supplies on your own too."
  842. >"Yes, they weren't hard to find and I had everything I needed available to me."
  843. "Good, good."
  844. >Moving on to your kitchen, everything is just as shiny and clean. Freshly washed dishes are neatly stacked in the cupboard.
  845. "Must've been hard to do all of this with your hooves."
  846. >"Not at all. My native housekeeping program was enough to take care of this. Though I have encountered some things I want to ask you about."
  847. >Now isn't that interesting? Looks like Iris is taking the initiative again.
  848. >You invite your pony to sit at the table while you get our dinner started. Tonight you'll have some meat dumplings. Of course, there's zero meat in them and all it takes is five minute of boiling water in a pot with them inside to make them just bearable enough.
  849. >A true patrician kind of dinner. You even have a cheap tomato sauce to go with it. It's lecs├│ flowered. Though, of course, no vegetables were harmed during its production. A purely synthetic dressing for purely scrap-based meat covered in dough that tastes like paper.
  850. >At least it's two times cheaper than it was when you were young and the companies had that wild thought of putting an effort to use real ingredients.
  851. >While your dinner is getting ready, you join Iris at your table and nod:
  852. "Go on, what's on your mind?"
  853. >"I have found a set of small shot glass intended for alcohol, but I failed to find any alcohol in this house so I couldn't complete the set."
  854. "Oh, that? Alcohol is a bit too expensive nowadays..."
  855. >Iris nods to you.
  856. >"I see."
  857. "I used to drink, and smoke too, but after the crash it hasn't been an option for me. I'm not a wealthy person."
  858. >"The quality of food in your fridge also suggests that."
  859. "I guess."
  860. >"I have another observation. A lot of things you keep in your room could be sold. Some date really far back, they are almost forty years old now. You could probably sell those if funds are insufficient."
  861. >You cross your arms on your chest and lean back. Such a suggestion isn't what you'd expect from a pony like this, but it's not illogical.
  862. "Nah, I don't think they're worth it. Besides, some of those are memories, and those can't really be measured with money."
  863. >Iris doesn't answer, she's probably thinking about it. You may have given her a real workload, trying to assign price for memories.
  864. >Maybe a little bit to abstract for her AI?
  865. >"I see."
  866. >She finally answers you and nods.
  867. >You nod as well. It's good that she actually has an understanding of this, at least somewhat.
  868. >Now that you think about it, it certainly isn't that hard to understand. A lot of things in your life revolve around memories. Iris herself is a byproduct of them.
  869. >You yourself would be first to admit that living in the past is a bit of a habit for you.
  870. >Everything in here reflects this. From the things you keep, even if they don't really have value for you, to keeping the other room closed.
  871. >Iris probably has her own thoughts about it. But she won't tell, of course.
  872. >While the pony ponders this you get started with your meal. The ketchup's acute flavor is very effective at supressing any sort of taste your foor might've had.
  873. >"Another question, Anonymous," Iris finally speaks up after collecting her thoughts.
  874. "Shoot."
  875. >"I couldn't find my perfume in your house. Do you know where it is?"
  876. "Perfume?"
  877. >"Yes. A small bottle that should've been in my trunk."
  878. "Uh..."
  879. >"Usually, customers are offered some perfume of their choice to hide the initial smell of electronics that freshly made mares have. Due to their parts just now warming up and reaching their full capacity the odor can be quite potent, so a lot of people prefer to mask it."
  880. "I guess that makes sense."
  881. >"I myself had a bit of perfume on me but it is wearing out... And I couldn't find the bottle."
  882. "Right, the thing is-"
  883. >"Or the user manual that should've been brought here with me."
  884. >Even though the pony's glance never changed, you almost feel her drilling your skull with it. She's on to something here and you don't like where she's going.
  885. >She couldn't have figured it out, right? You surely hope so.
  886. "Um, Iris..."
  887. >"Or the contract. Or the guarantee sheet. Or any of the associated equipment or goods."
  888. "Iris, look. It's not that simple."
  889. >She doesn't back down.
  890. >"Instead, I've found this."
  891. >The mare jumps down and swiftly goes into your room, only to return with a cramped piece of paper in her mouth. She gives it to you and for a moment you hesitate to even open it.
  892. >You know exactly what this is.
  893. >You're dead sure that your pony is extremely disappointed in you. To hell with that gaze of hers, you just know she's boiling inside right now.
  894. "Iris, I... Where did you find it?"
  895. >"In your coat's pocket when I re-arranged your clothing."
  896. >Fuck, the coat. Of course. You never bothered to throw away the only thing Iris could use to figure out how she ended up with a broke-ass old man like you.
  897. >There is nothing for you to say in your defense anymore.
  898. >She knows now.
  899. >"I have a lot of questions concerning this receipt, and judging by your reaction you were hoping that it is never found by me."
  900. "No, I would've told you eventually."
  901. >"You're not at fault since this exact question never came up and you weren't obligated to tell me."
  902. >Even now she's trying to use logic here, but you don't feel better hearing her rationalizing it.
  903. "Sorry. You deserved to know right from the start. But with all this talk about your serial number and what-not... I couldn't bring myself to tell you."
  904. >"I understand. Your heart was in the right place."
  905. >Somehow it really hurts hearing her say that. You can't even look her in the eyes.
  906. >"But..."
  907. >Your heart beats faster in anticipation of something horrible. The android's voice almost sounds different.
  908. >"I don't know if I agree with..." she pauses for a moment, like she can't find the right words. "I don't know how to feel about it, Anonymous."
  909. "I'm sorry," you repeat yet again.
  910. >"I can comprehend the facts and I understand the logic behind it, but I can't form a conclusion."
  911. >What kind of conclusions could there possibly be? And that's considering she doesn't know the reason for your purchase yet. Or lack of any to speak of.
  912. >That will be a fun one to explain.
  913. >"I am sorry. I really am an improper model. I can't figure this out. Can you help me?"
  914. "What do you mean?"
  915. >You finally dare to look at her and her eyes are the same as usual. Nothing about her changed.
  916. >Maybe you really are projecting a bit too much?
  917. >"What am I supposed to feel?"
  918. "It's a really hard question," you sigh.
  919. >"I see."
  920. "It's hard because there's a lot to feel, a wide variety of emotions. Like anger."
  921. >"Anger?"
  922. "Are you angry that I tried to hide this from you? Or that you were priced that low? Or that I am the one who you ended up with?"
  923. >Saying this was painful. Yet you must endure to work this out. She has the right to feel that way.
  924. >"Should I be?"
  925. "I would be, in your place."
  926. >You mouth feels so dry saying it and you smirk bitterly. Iris won't even react to any of it, yet you had to tell her.
  927. >It takes her a couple of seconds to process this information.
  928. >"Then how do I know I'm angry? How do I express it?"
  929. "Well, you- Look, it's just like that sadness question. It's really hard to explain."
  930. >"I see."
  931. >And just like that, this was over. She never judges. It feels so unfair.
  932. "You really do feel everything, don't you? Deep inside."
  933. >Your eyes meet again. No change whatsoever.
  934. >"I can't find an answer to that question. Sorry."
  935. >Without a reference and guidance it might be impossible for her to identify her own feelings.
  936. >But you're sure that she's burning up inside right now. After this exchange, there's no doubt in your mind that she does actually feel everything.
  937. >Of course it might just be your imagination. Or you're just projecting an awful lot on her. It's hard not to, with her being so blank.
  938. >Hell, you might just battling your own emotions instead. Like arguing with a mirror. You see what you want to see in her while she never assumes anything.
  939. >But there is still hope in you. Hope that she does feel it. That there is a soul inside her after all. A spirit in a machine that is capable of feeling just as much as you are.
  940. "Actually, there's something I'd like to ask you as well."
  941. >Her ears perk up.
  942. >"Ask away."
  943. >Taking out your phone, you show Iris the certificate.
  944. >"What is it?"
  945. "I think you're familiar with this. It's a registration document that makes us a family."
  946. >For a moment Iris looks like she's about to freeze. Funny how you already can tell when her artificial brain is under extreme workload just by looking at her.
  947. >"You really did this?"
  948. "Huh? But I-"
  949. >You watch how the bot's eyes go wider for a bit.
  950. >Without a doubt, you see the corner of her lips quiver. They almost go up.
  951. "Iris?" you call to her, but her eyes are glued to the phone screen.
  952. >"Anonymous, I never expected you to do it so soon. Even knowing I'm a faulty model... Are you sure that this is fine?"
  953. >Already you mouth is opened to tell her that you didn't do it. That you suspected that it's her who did this.
  954. >But this reaction isn't something you were prepared for. She looks like she's surprised as well. Surprised and happy. Humbled by 'your decision'.
  955. >Nevertheless it doesn't change the fact that you can answer her own question.
  956. "Yeah, it's fine. It doesn't matter what kind of model you are, looks like we're together from now on."
  957. >You wording surely reveal your uncertainty, but Iris doesn't seem to care.
  958. >The pony lowers her head just a bit, lowering her gaze.
  959. >"Thank you for your trust, Anonymous. I will try to match your dedication."
  960. >So that's it, from being in turmoil from her shocking discovery, to awe and glee from your reveal.
  961. >These are real emotions. The change of tone and behavior is actually there.
  962. >Maybe a little practice is all she needs? Just like with electronics, as she said, some time to warm up to new experiences?
  963. >But the disconcerting question still remains: if it's not her who registered you, then who?
  964. >Someone has access to your profile, or, rather, to the site through which this registration is done. But you still need a lot of personal info to do it.
  965. >It's impossible to actually trace that update since it's automatic. Someone pressed a button somewhere and here it is. But who and where?
  966. >It's disturbing to say the least. You need to find out more about the process itself. The fact that you now can't possibly ask Iris herself, or even share this information with her, is a pretty significant handicap too.
  967. >What if instead of having access to your info someone has access to her?
  968. >That's an even more terrifying thought. It's common knowledge that ponies have a lot of fail safe mechanisms that prevent them from being hacked. But Iris isn't that kind of pony.
  969. >The fact that you can't know for sure is honestly pissing you off at this point. Just how hard can it be to find something, anything about this mare? In the world where everything is  connected and even a toaster has its own wireless profile, something as sophisticated and valuable as a pony companion bot couldn't possibly fall out of the system.
  970. >But, no matter how you want to solve everything at once, you know that you have to prioritize things.
  971. >The hunt for Iris' true identity isn't over but maybe you can even use this certificate to your advantage here.
  972. >You might as well start right now, so you stand up. Iris does the same on her chair.
  973. >"Anonymous, what was the question?"
  974. "Huh?"
  975. >"You wanted to ask me something."
  976. "Oh, never mind. Let's go to my room."
  977. >"Actually, there's also a small problem I wanted to talk about."
  978. >When they say 'small' it's usually anything but.
  979. "What's up?"
  980. >"I found one other fault in my design during the cleanup."
  981. >Now she decides to tell you?
  982. >You sigh and prepare for the worst.
  983.  
  984. "What is it, Iris?"
  985. >You make your way to your room with the little pony following you and try to just act casual.
  986. >But in truth, your worry rises to unprecedented levels momentarily. If the pony herself found an issue worth mentioning, it can't be anything insignificant.
  987. >Iris does wait until you are seated on your bed and stands in front of you, making sure you're ready to hear her out.
  988. >"It seems that my battery is running low."
  989. "Huh?"
  990. >"It isn't supposed to yet."
  991. >This time you don't even respond. Scratching the back of your head you frown at the pony, urging her to explain further.
  992. >"The estimated charge left for today is a lot lower than it should be. At this point I will enter sleep mode way before I have to."
  993. "How did that happen?"
  994. >"There could be a lot of reasons for it. My accumulator should've been fine by my estimations, but knowing that I'm a faulty model it probably is too."
  995. >That was a rather painful remark.
  996. >She's accepting it so easily. On the other hand, there is no reason to deny it too.
  997. >You wish she would at least show some concern about it though, it almost seems like you're the only one who even cares.
  998. >"It may be that my excess of activity today could be the reason. In this case the battery is just showing signs of age, including improper charge times and fast depletion under heavy loads."
  999. >You shake your head and look Iris in the eyes.
  1000. "Alright, I get it. Is there anything I could do to fix this?"
  1001. >"I don't think it's possible to find a solution," she says after briefly pausing to think. "The easiest way would be to just replace the battery."
  1002. "You can just do that?"
  1003. >The mare points at her chest.
  1004. >"Modular design of my power system allows for easy battery replacement if needed. As long as you have a spare part you can perform the operation yourself."
  1005. >In your head you imagine your pretty pony on an operating table with you performing a surgery on her.
  1006. >A battery replacement for an android doesn't go down like that, probably. But it still doesn't sound too exciting, not in a good way.
  1007. >In theory, it should be as easy as changing batteries in any other device. Changing it should actually be the easiest part here, considering you still don't know anything about the pony or which kind of power device she uses.
  1008. "Do you know what kind of battery I need to get?"
  1009. >Iris just shakes her head.
  1010. >"You can try removing this one to look for a model number on-"
  1011. "No way!"
  1012. You interrupt the pony despite not being completely against that notion.
  1013. >It's just... Isn't it better to not disrupt her current life for now? It is working, right?
  1014. "I mean, we'll see if this continues on, alright? No need for rash decisions."
  1015. >"You're right. However, if you do decide to remove it, be advised that you'll have to follow a specific power-saving protocol in order to keep me powered up during the operation. Please, notify me first so I can prepare for the procedure."
  1016. "What's this all about?"
  1017. >Iris somehow sounds even more serious than before so you listen carefully.
  1018. >"You probably don't know since you had no manual or verbal instructions... An android can't be powered off. The CPU needs power at all times. Or, rather, its cooling system needs it."
  1019. >Seeing how you still don't really understand it, Iris explains further:
  1020. >"Speaking plainly, our brain gets messed up if it ever reaches near-room temperatures. That's why as soon as the charge is low I would enter a power saving mode that can be kept up for years if need be."
  1021. >'Messed up' is certainly an interesting choice of words for her. You wonder what could it actually mean.
  1022. "So when I remove the battery I'll have to keep my charger near you?"
  1023. >"That would be enough for the secondary power unit, yes."
  1024. "I'll keep it in mind. But I have no intention of messing with your inner parts right now, just so you know."
  1025. >"That's fine. You don't have to."
  1026. >Was that a sad note in her voice that you hear, or are you imagining things again?"
  1027. "Just take it easy from now on, alright? It's getting late anyway, we can go to sleep soon if you want."
  1028. >"I'm afraid I'll have to go to sleep earlier than that."
  1029. "You mean to charge up, right?"
  1030. >Iris nods and looks at her trunk.
  1031. >"I will be unable to fulfill my duties for the rest of the day."
  1032. "You duties? But you cleaned this whole place."
  1033. >"I mean staying with you," she looks back, staring right into your eyes again. "As a companion bot, my duty is to keep you company during your waking hours. I won't be able to do that if I'm going into charge mode earlier."
  1034. "Iris, look..."
  1035. >You don't even know what to say to reassure this sad mare. It's obviously not that big of a deal for you, but for her it probably is.
  1036. >"What should I do?"
  1037. "It's alright."
  1038. >"It's one of the most basic things I should be able to do."
  1039. "Iris-"
  1040. >"Providing comfort to my partner is impossible if I can't operate at that time."
  1041. "That's not true."
  1042. >She stands by, awaiting your explanation. Without saying a thing, you walk up to the mare's trunk and pick up the charger.
  1043. >Then, moving back to your bed, you move it a bit so it lines with the table better.
  1044. >With just one turn of the monitor and a bit of rearranging of your keyboard and mouse, you can now just sit on the bed's edge and browse the net with relative ease.
  1045. >Next, you plug the charger in the nearest outlet and it reaches just to the side of the bed. You show this setup to Iris and her head tilts to the side, curious about this machinations.
  1046. "Look, you can charge right here. I'll be doing whatever and you can still be right here with me. Providing comfort and so on."
  1047. >"I see," the mare almost smiles at that. Almost. "I haven't thought of that."
  1048. "Well, live and learn, right? Will this work for you?"
  1049. >"Yes."
  1050. >The pony jumps on the bed and makes her way to its side, just next to where you'll be sitting.
  1051. >Laying down, she puts her head on the charger and looks at you, awaiting your move.
  1052. >Your left hand is right above the pony when you take your place near her.
  1053. >"Thank you, Anonymous."
  1054. "For what?"
  1055. >She closes her eyes and looks like she's going to sleep.
  1056. >"This way I won't miss anything and spend my time with you, like I should."
  1057. >If this is really just about performing her 'duties' it shouldn't matter much, but you realize that it's probably not that simple.
  1058. >Iris doesn't show any emotions but you know she realizes what being defective means.
  1059. >Doing things 'right' is actually important. This is her way of proving that she's 'normal'.
  1060. >Of course, you don't care if she's normal or not, but she obviously does.
  1061. "Iris, you can sleep if you're tired, it's alright."
  1062. >She doesn't correct you for assuming she can get tired at all:
  1063. >"No, I want to stay."
  1064. >That's an unusual choice of words. One you're not willing to put too much thought into at the moment. You smile at the pony's determination though.
  1065. "If you say so. I'm glad that you decided that way then."
  1066. >She nods to you and embraces the charger like a pillow under her head.
  1067. >It's such a cute display you catch yourself just looking at Iris. And this whole time she's been looking at you too.
  1068. >Your own emotions color her blank gaze with warm and appreciative tones.
  1069. >More than that, you just now notice that she herself is rather warm. Your leg almost touches her dress and you still feel her body heat.
  1070. >You have no idea how accurate of a simulation this actually is, this is probably the first time you've been this close to someone you actually want to be close to.
  1071. >Almost a connection, almost a touch. You can't help yourself.
  1072. >The curious eyes of the pony, watching your every move from a cute angle, follow your hand descending upon the styled mane.
  1073. >In one awkward but resolute stroke you pet the mare.
  1074. >The sensation under your palm can't be compared to anything you've experienced before. Silky mane, tangled in tight braids seems so tense, so...real.
  1075. >Beyond the almost coarse feel of the tied braids of hair lies only the ever so hot velvet of the pony's coat.
  1076. >Tracing down her scalp, taking in the feel of textures so unfamiliar yet so tender, so welcoming, you wonder if she really is a robot.
  1077. >This fragile thing, this delicate, almost ethereal creature of cordial and genuine warmth? How can she be something that's not even technically alive?
  1078. >Yet she is here, shining the backlight of her eyes on you, slowly closing them in bliss while your hand moves lower, to her cheek.
  1079. >The ugly wrinkled skin of yours looks so wrong upon the purity of this mare, it's almost like you defile her with your touch. But it also feels so right.
  1080. >At the neckpiece of her dress you stop. With your hand still on Iris, you feel how alive she is. A faint pulse of hers resonates with yours and the movement of her body at every breath undoubtedly confirm that she really is a living breathing pony.
  1081. >And with now closed eyes, Iris also shows you, without a doubt, that she welcomes and appreciates you just as much.
  1082. >She enjoys it. She knows how to react to it. And if she does feel that and knows how to show it to you, it's obvious to you that there's nothing faulty about her.
  1083.  
  1084. >Being this intimate with Iris for the first time you realize that you've never actually thought about her as someone close to you before.
  1085. >Sure, she was 'your pony', but she was also a strange android that presents more questions each day you spend with her, and that took priority over everything else, over the very reason why you even got her.
  1086. >The scope of this mystery is completely unknown right now and you're sure that a lot of things are still waiting to be discovered.
  1087. >It made you unsure, even fearful for your future with her, especially knowing that, apparently, you barely have any control over it.
  1088. >But even if Iris' true colors are yet to be shown to you, right now it sounds like you've been missing something important.
  1089. >The meaning of her being your companion.
  1090. >With your hand upon her mane you try to get a hold of the feelings flowing through you.
  1091. >She may seem like a kid to you, but at her core she's designed to be an equal to you. Not only that, she's someone who is supposed to make you less lonely, to comfort you. To satisfy something in you no one else ever could.
  1092. >To be with you and to accept you as you are. That's the whole point, isn't it?
  1093. >Companion bots started with the promise of acceptance. That those who can't find their happiness with anyone will at least be able to find their place in hands (and lately, hooves) of a life-like machine.
  1094. >Never have you believed that this could work. People who fall for it are just desperate and would accept anything, that was your stance on it.
  1095. >The cold reality is that you are exactly that kind of person at this point in life. It wasn't obvious to you before, but it is now.
  1096. >Before you've been gifted Iris you had no intention of ever being with a robot, or with anyone else for that matter, but now that you have her at arm's reach, petting her slowly and watching her being lulled to sleep by your tenderness, you know that there's more to it than that.
  1097. >Maybe the whole divide between what's alive and what's not doesn't really matter that much. As long as you feel less lonely.
  1098. >As long as those deeply rooted fears are chased away, and as long as those memories are restored, even through something purely nostalgic and symbolic like this, isn't it enough to keep you happy?
  1099. >You never asked for this, but you find yourself getting used to it by the minute.
  1100. "Iris..." you whisper faintly, as if to taste the name you've given this filly of yours once again.
  1101. >The pony's eyes open at once and immediately looks at you.
  1102. >"Yes, Anonymous?" she asks, volume of her voice lowered for night time.
  1103. >She might've reacted that way because you were whispering. What a neat detail.
  1104. >You chuckle at her attentive behavior.
  1105. "No, it's nothing."
  1106. >Your hand slips right behind her ear and you caress it with your thumb. The softness of Iris' authentic coat leaves you impressed every time you touch it.
  1107. >The pony closes her eyes again and her rest mode resumes.
  1108. >Once you felt it, her immaculate warmth, you never want to let it go. However, you have to, in order to dig deep into the enigma of this mare.
  1109. >It's quite intimidating to think about solving all the problems, but at the very least you know where to start.
  1110. >Once you open up your social page you read that certificate again. Date and time and what exactly does it state.
  1111. >You haven't really miss anything back when you first seen it, so you decide to click on the first link mentioned in the interactive document - your own name. Mouse-overing it you see nothing suspicious about it, in fact it should just lead you back to your main page.
  1112. >It does exactly that when you click it. So, by that logic, Iris' link should also...
  1113. >You may be far from robot companion business, but you know from Incognito, your main source of AI and tech insight in general, that androids do get to use their own social pages, although they differ from the regular ones a bit.
  1114. >The moment of truth - hovering the cursor over the pony's link, you see the page's address. That should mean that it does in fact exist.
  1115. >It makes your heart beat faster, but not for too long. As soon as you click it, you're greeted with the blank 404 page with a cute mascot of the site, telling you in a speech bubble that this page doesn't exist.
  1116. >It has been removed or it's not yet created.
  1117. >So it's either of those. It was removed in the time frame of creating that post and now. Or it never existed in the first place.
  1118. >Googling the page number yielded no results. Same with the pony's code mentioned in the certificate.
  1119. >But then you notice that those two are nearly identical, save for one digit. One out of sixteen.
  1120. >This changes a lot.
  1121. >Now you nearly start sweating. Could it be that you were always so close to uncovering the truth, yet so far just because of a simple discrepancy?
  1122. >Could it really be that it's just a simple code error?
  1123. >Somehow it cheapens this situation a bit and, at the same time, makes it very strange. It's too simple. But it's also not all that it takes to uncover the truth.
  1124. >You enter the correct code in the URL.
  1125. >It takes a suspiciously long time to load. And then it gives you the same 404 message.
  1126. >What's with the loading thought?
  1127. >You wish you had some sort of way to track if there are any redirects involved here. Too bad you're not tech savvy like good old Inspergnito, the guy who actually used his education to his benefit.
  1128. >Even though you both attended the same tech-oriented college you never committed to it and kinda drifted to a more social sphere with time.
  1129. >You can't see anything different aside from the load time, so maybe it is just that?
  1130. >It almost like it's taunting you. None of this gives you any real leads. It could be literally anything.
  1131. >No matter what you do, it's impossible to find anything related to both codes, not to mention you can't even tell which one is the correct one.
  1132. >This isn't going anywhere. But there's still something you can do.
  1133. >These codes being different is an issue, a technical problem one you should report. You have that right, don't you?
  1134. >It doesn't take you a lot of time to find tech support contacts, and the form is filled soon after. All that's left to do is to send it.
  1135. >But at the last second a thought crosses your mind, a nagging feeling of worry.
  1136. >With that you'll certainly be attracting attention to you and, most importantly, your not-so-official pony.
  1137. >And just like that, doubts start piling up inside your head.
  1138. >It's not like they can do anything about your mediocre social status, you found out long ago that they don't care. But this whole situation with Iris seems fishy no matter how you look at it.
  1139. >They might solve it with just a few clicks, contact the manufacturer, correct her number and she'll actually be able to connect to her network and work properly. Or they might think it's suspicious once they discover there's no actual pony under that serial number.
  1140. >Hell, you wouldn't put that past them. What if she's some sort of an illegal item, smuggled and reprogrammed version? What if...
  1141. >What if that dainty electronics shop just got themselves a sucker who'd take their illegal item for free?
  1142. >The idea of this being the case is actually quite terrifying. Already you can't stop your mind from painting different scenarios and stories concerning Iris being a stolen mare. Like a stolen car she had her digital registration plate screwed off and had to be basically gifted to someone else to get rid of evidence.
  1143. >That's probably not the case. But it could be, right?
  1144. >...
  1145. >But, even if you fear that, most of all you fear that they'll just take her away.
  1146. >She's not a faulty pony, not to you. Imagining her being any other way seems wrong, even if it's the 'right' way.
  1147. >Iris would lose her charm, what made her so special to you, maybe even become completely different.
  1148. >And then what if she doesn't remember you too?
  1149. >And her actual name might be completely different as well...
  1150. >You look at the warm pony at your side and suddenly you want to hug her like they are already coming to take her away from you.
  1151. >With thoughts of concern and dismay you just stare at the pony and try to find a solution. Even if you promised yourself to find answers, now that you're closer to actually doing it, sounds like it can turn into the biggest mistake you can possibly make.
  1152. >Always like this, Anon. Wavering and unsure. You want to postpone it, try to think it over some more, sleep on it. Anything.
  1153. >Talk to her? What will she say, that she should be fixed in order to deliver you the proper experience?
  1154. >It may not matter to you, but to her it probably does, considering how she thinks herself a faulty model just because of this.
  1155. >In the end, you just watch over the sleeping mare.
  1156. >It's getting a bit late now. Maybe you should just think about something different.
  1157. >Instead of inventing horror stories and conspiracies, maybe you should try to find a way to educate Iris yourself. She said she lacks experience but it is possible for her to learn things on her own.
  1158. >So that's pretty much how bootlegs do it? Or do they have their own networks?
  1159. >It's hard to even form a good query for this, but as soon as you type in 'unofficial pony companion' the search bar already suggests 'bot training' to finish it.
  1160. >And you see why right away. There's a whole forum dedicated to it and it seems like a pretty big place.
  1161. >You make your way to the main section and oh god, there's like a whole novel written here about how and why bootlegs are superior to the official ponybots.
  1162. >They're not called bootlegs here, but "freemare androids".
  1163. >Seems like they need a whole bunch of reasons to justify it, but you're getting a bit intimidated by the length of it, and that's just scratching the surface. Maybe you should search further, for more specific info.
  1164. >There's even a couple of video channels dedicated to these kind of bots. Some suspiciously clickbaity thumbnails and titles but whatever.
  1165. >It's almost time for you to head to sleep, so you'll just browse it tomorrow. Knowing you, it's better to not start new journeys before bed time.
  1166. >You don't really want to disturb Iris, who is sleeping so peacefully under the lights of your computer screen. You're sure that it's possible for you to sleep with her being on the bed.
  1167. >Your movement doesn't wake Iris up, after you make a trip to the bathroom she's still there.
  1168. >Walking up to your screen to turn it off for the night, you notice that you still have your tech support window open with your report still in. You haven't made up your mind about it yet.
  1169. >It can wait though, tomorrow you'll probably know better. The only light source in the room fades as the screen is turned off.
  1170. >You'll do it, you just need some time.
  1171. >After you're done with your preparations you kinda lay down a bit sideways, hoping that you won't push her with your legs in your sleep.
  1172. >You'd like to wish Iris a good night, but you're afraid she'll react to it so you just nod to her and try to fall asleep, hoping to rest better than yesterday.
  1173.  
  1174. >In the dead of night you find your way through the thorns of dreams and half-asleep illusions.
  1175. >Something is tearing you away from it. A sensation unlike any other.
  1176. >A hunch? A gut feeling? A premonition?
  1177. >The swirling of clouds inside your head clears a path back to the real world.
  1178. >The dream collapses. The N-field is shattered. The illusions hide nothing more.
  1179. >You wake up.
  1180. >It's dark.
  1181. >And right above you, twin lavender moons burn into your retinas with a devilish, eldritch hue of madness and despair.
  1182. >In animalistic terror you try to muster enough willpower to remain sane under the crushing, relentless emanations of the imperishable luminaries, seemingly to no avail.
  1183. >The desert of your sleepy consciousness is burning up under these stars.
  1184. >Your breath is taken away and your heart stumbles, failing to connect the beats, if only for a second.
  1185. >But once that second is over and a high-pitched half-yelp escapes your sore throat, you manage to finally comprehend the reality of you waking up under you ponybot's gaze.
  1186. "Iris?"
  1187. >The pony towers over you, a powerful figure in the darkened skies of your room. She's sitting on her haunches right near your shoulder.
  1188. >"Yes, Anonymous?"
  1189. >She's playing the fool but she's not fooling you.
  1190. "'Yes' what? What are you doing here?"
  1191. >"I'm sorry if I disturbed you."
  1192. "Aren't you supposed to be sleeping?"
  1193. >"I have finished charging."
  1194. >Your hand finds your phone in the complete darkness and you see, of course, that it's barely 3 a.m.
  1195. "Please, just go to sleep and let me sleep," you mutter to yourself and throw your head on the other side of the bed, where the ever-vigilant eyes of the ponybot won't reach you.
  1196. >You hear her speaking up after that, but you're already falling asleep again.
  1197. >All is fine, right?
  1198. >But the second later you already hear the alarm going off.
  1199. >Only it's not actually a second later. The room is already less dark and the phone screen shows your usual wake-up time.
  1200. >Before you grab it, though, a pair of eyes catches your glance and takes it prisoner once more.
  1201. "Did you get any sleep?"
  1202. >The pony is not on the bed now, this time she's sitting near it like she did the first time.
  1203. >"As I said, I am fully charged."
  1204. "So you just sit here watching me?" you ask, sitting up on your bed and letting out a massive yawn.
  1205. >"Yes."
  1206. >Just like that. Of course she did.
  1207. >You can only shrug hearing that. So what, you're not gonna do anything about it. She can do whatever she wants, the creepiness factor is something you should be getting used to by now.
  1208. >You didn't get any chest pains this night. But your sleep was too short, and man, it shows already.
  1209. >You're gonna be a right mess for the whole day, aren't you?
  1210. "Well, suit yourself."
  1211. >You go about your usual morning procedures until you encounter and oddity.
  1212. "Iris? What's this?"
  1213. >The clacking of her hooves follows your question at once. Your pony arrives to the kitchen and looks in the direction you're pointing at.
  1214. >"It's your breakfast."
  1215. "Huh? But..."
  1216. >"You told me you eat the same thing every morning, so I took the liberty of making it right before your wake up time."
  1217. >You're pretty sure you haven't told her. Or you have?
  1218. >But either way, she's right.
  1219. >That's strange. But come on, remember, this is an android. She probably remembers everything you've ever said to her. Good thing she's not sending it to the feds, too.
  1220. >It seems like the second you familiarize yourself with one of her quirks she dishes out a different one.
  1221. "What are you going to do today?" you ask her when you sit down at the table to eat.
  1222. >It tastes good. To be fair, better than you usually do. Looks better too.
  1223. >Yay, robotic precision and so on.
  1224. >"I have no plans for this day. The only room I haven't cleaned was the one you prohibited me from entering."
  1225. "You don't just clean, right? What do you do for fun?"
  1226. >"Fun?"
  1227. >Oh god. That completely blank expression on her face is devastating every time you see it, and now that she asks you what exactly do you mean by 'fun' it's only worse.
  1228. "You know, in your spare time."
  1229. >"I don't have any preferences."
  1230. >When she hears you sigh, she adds:
  1231. >"I had no time to form them. Maybe you can show me something... Fun?"
  1232. "Well, it's hard to tell what could be fun for you, you know."
  1233. >Because she's a weird android you barely understand.
  1234. >"What is fun to you, Anonymous?"
  1235. >That's a very tough question here. Probably her toughest one yet.
  1236. >"What do you do in your spare time?"
  1237. "As I said, it's hard to-"
  1238. >"If you find something fun, I will probably find it fun too. I am your pony, after all."
  1239. >There's nowhere to back out of this one.
  1240. >You open your mouth to say something, but as you browse through all the things you can possibly say, there's nothing to hold on to.
  1241. >What DO you do for fun, Anonymous? Well?
  1242. >To be honest, you don't. Just don't.
  1243. >You life has been 'work-chores-sleep' for as long as you can remember.
  1244. >Was it that long? To be more exact, it's been like this ever since your sister moved and you ended up completely alone.
  1245. >Man, you don't need this right now. If you start digging like this, you'll end up with the prehistoric skeleton of your former life, and you don't want to be reminded of this yet again.
  1246. >Your distilled regret and nostalgia is already standing here before you, shining her pale artificial light at you, there's no need for more torment.
  1247. >If you can afford to continue to run away from it, you'll do it.
  1248. >And the way she says that she'll enjoy whatever you enjoy is not doing that notion any good.
  1249. "Uh, you know, I... Well, I watch youtube, I guess. And-"
  1250. >You feel like you're gonna blush. It's been long since you felt this stupid.
  1251. >"I'll try that then."
  1252. >With her usual calm voice she decides on this, no questions asked.
  1253. >You're kind of getting tired of this.
  1254. >Over here you're consumed by doubts, worries and general emotions, and she just eats up anything you throw at her. Anything.
  1255. >She accepts all of it like it's the only truth, the ultimate authority.
  1256. >It shouldn't be that way, right?
  1257. >But here you are.
  1258. >Before going to work you only have so much time to invent some other activities, so you're gonna stop on this youtube idea for a while.
  1259. >Actually, some good might come out of it if you try just a little bit.
  1260. >Once you return to your room together with Iris, you start searching for educational videos.
  1261. >Of course, a lot of playlists pop up right away, but you have something more specific in mind.
  1262. >To your surprise, you do find something that fits the bill: educational videos for androids.
  1263. >A whooping hundred-something videos playlist, almost thirty minute per video.
  1264. >You see right away that there's a mention of that freemare forum there. The freemare community probably uses this to educate their mares, those without any sort of internal network.
  1265. >And this is exactly what you need.
  1266. >Other than that, there's a couple more playlists that are marked as related. But they barely are.
  1267. >There's that podcast series where two robot mares invite different guests to discuss different android-related social problems, The Mare Minimum Show.
  1268. >You see a woman on a thumbnail of one of those and you open it up before reading the title: "TMMS#31: Cold war and matriarchy - are we actually stable?"
  1269. >You swear, they have puns in their every title.
  1270. >Clicking at the random spot of this video's timeline you can hear some of the woman's monologue:
  1271. >"...that had been set in the 20's, and we still follow that precedent. Ask miss Clinton about her relatives, ask Sobchak about her grandmother's first attempt to run for presidency back then, they've paved the road to what managed to end the second Cold War and unite the superpowers, something we are all grateful for, but only because-"
  1272. >Ah, the 20's, you remember being just a kid who didn't understand anything about politics and just liked watching girls fight each other on the presidential debates.
  1273. >Not like you have any interest in politics now, but these days it's a choice. A rather detrimental one to your social score, but still, you're not giving that damn propaganda any reposts.
  1274. >Another video of the mares that catches your eyes is with someone called Alexius. A male android, which is extremely rare.
  1275. >He seems to be shouting a lot and the two mares are sometimes looking at each other and back at him, scared.
  1276. >"These ARE humans, don't be mistaken. And- And I'm not saying we shouldn't- Look, if you had an opportunity to challenge the boundaries of your own consciousness, would you honestly do it? But humans do it all the time. Their psychic powers allow them, and I've seen it myself by the way, allow them to manipulate the higher planes of existence we, as androids, have no access to. This is why they have God and we don't, we don't have a luxury of believing in anything. Look, it doesn't matter if it exists or not, let's be real here. It can't exist for us, because humans are like lobsters, they're psychic, so instead of following-"
  1277. "What the hell..."
  1278. >Iris looks at you as if she's expecting a query, but realizing it's just you expressing your confusion she resumes her staredown with the computer screen.
  1279. >Finally, one more playlist looks strange, but you know exactly what it is.
  1280. >The videos are titled like it's a collection of works of literature, but when you open them, it looks like an hour or so of static.
  1281. >That's because it flashes images each frame of the video. You don't know the details, but from what you understand it's basically very advanced QR codes or something. Only androids can actually catch and decode these, so these videos are made for them by design.
  1282. >Of course, most androids can just easily download the book itself, but the appeal of these videos is in commentaries and explanations.
  1283. >Anyone can read. But to understand it is another thing. And to explain it in a way an android can comprehend is a challenge in and of itself.
  1284. "Hey, Iris, can you read these?"
  1285. >You point at the screen with the video and for some time the pony stares at it, eyes opened wide.
  1286. >"I think I do. Some things elude me, but I can decode it, if that's what you're asking."
  1287. "Great."
  1288. >"Do you want me to decode it for you?"
  1289. "What? No, I want you to watch it. It's educational."
  1290. >"I see."
  1291. >And indeed she does see.
  1292. >So you decide to leave her with those playlists, save for the TMMS. She doesn't need that sensationalist garbage. Just documentaries and classical literature will be enough for now.
  1293. >"Anonymous, is this fun?"
  1294. "Well, I guess. You can play some video games too if you want to..."
  1295. >"Video games?"
  1296. "I'll show you some other time, alright?"
  1297. >Of course, androids love video games. How did you miss that?
  1298. >From destroying the MMO genre by being the ultimate grind machines to having their own categories in speed-running and groups in e-sports, robots had a rich history of obliterating video game industry and every competitive community around it.
  1299. >Though pen and paper RPGs seem to be the most popular thing with androids. Mechanical skill isn't a thing for them, but role-playing, acting and improvising can actually pose a challenge even to technically advanced AI.
  1300. >But you decide that you should focus on one thing for now, so youtube parenting it is.
  1301. >You look at the time and decide that this should be plenty for now. The education of your mare is about to begin.
  1302.  
  1303. >"Do you want me to do anything today?"
  1304. >Iris watches you getting your final preparations done as you put on your jacket.
  1305. >She is sitting patiently right beside you.
  1306. "Not really. Just watch some playlists I left opened."
  1307. >You nod to your robotic mare and she nods back at you. The door is opened and it's time for you to leave her for the day.
  1308. >"Got it. Good luck, Anonymous."
  1309. "Thanks."
  1310. >As soon as you step away from the now closed and locked door, you immediately regret not saying something else, like reassuring Iris that it's fine if she just rests for today.
  1311. >Honestly, you'd be fine with her resting all day every day.
  1312. >Just being near her is already a step up from your usual boring routine. You were hesitant to admit that it is actually really nice to have her, but that's just you being stubborn.
  1313. >In your defense, it's not every day your whole worldview is being challenged in such a brutal, eye-opening way.
  1314. >Worst of all, now that your lifestyle is changing you're still dragging your little mare into the depths of apathy with you.
  1315. >You just have nothing to do. Completely, utterly stagnant and pointless existence that only now becomes apparent. The shallow lifestyle of yours has never been questioned before.
  1316. >Your sister wasn't here to witness this swamp of melancholy forming. It was entirely on you. Without anyone in your life there was no reason to do anything at all.
  1317. >Now you wonder, how do people do anything that's not exactly this? What DO they do with themselves?
  1318. >You highly doubt everyone has a hobby they stick to at all times, especially considering a lot of people are just too poor to support that kind of life.
  1319. >When you get on your usual bus, you start noticing people there. Regular people that are riding to work just like you are right now.
  1320. >What is their story? What kind of life do they lead? Do they have someone to be with, someone to return to?
  1321. >You do now, so you're different from them. And even before that, you've always deemed yourself different. Better than them.
  1322. >Only a fool would fall for relationship meme these days. With how expensive it is and how risky it has become over the years it's hard to imagine idiots like these still procreate.
  1323. >They are left in the dirt eventually and it's their own fault. Men are being treated like shit - it's their fault, to be fair. Never should've hoped for anything. Never should've trusted another human being, a woman at that.
  1324. >That's what you always thought. With time, society that proved you right every single time evolved to think just like that too, so you were happy that people are waking up to this simple idea.
  1325. >Now, those are thoughts people live by. A whole generation was raised on that. Those around them are only there to trick them. Dealing with another sex is painful. It's meaningless at best and harmful at worst.
  1326. >And that's when androids came in. A breath of fresh air for those betrayed or those who would've been betrayed eventually.
  1327. >A knife in the back from another human being you've made a mistake to trust? Or someone who'd protect that very same back from any sort of knife others aim at you? Who would've thought everyone likes the second option better.
  1328. >That's when the craze started. You resented it just as well.
  1329. >Looking back, the bitterness in your heart had been accumulating ever since then.
  1330. >Now, your chance at being loved depended on money alone. Granted, relationship with a 'real' girl would end up costing you thousands times more. But it was still way beyond anything you could pay. Of course, you hated that.
  1331. >And so, you started to resent this answer to the women problem just the same.
  1332. >Now that you stand in the middle of a crowded bus, you see mostly old people just like yourself. They all live in different parts of the city, but you know for sure that none of them live in the good one.
  1333. >Were they left on the sidelines of progress just like you? Unable to adapt or find their place in a world where things change too fast?
  1334. >But for you, everything changed at once with the arrival of a robotic pony. Maybe it really is time to move on, away from your stagnant ways. Lest your little mare shares the grave you've been digging for yourself for so long.
  1335. >These kind of thoughts never leave you even when you arrive at work. Dull paper pushing and shallow phone calls can't quell the sense of helplessness that now follows you.
  1336. >And then your thoughts always return to Iris. You'd rather be with her right now, doing... Well, anything. Nothing.
  1337. >Doing absolutely nothing with her by your side sounds better than most things your life has to offer.
  1338. >That sounds rather depressing even to you. But since you're the one getting the upgrade over that life, you can't complain.
  1339. >Hey, someone's waiting for your return back home. It's not empty. It's not that cold.
  1340. >And so you wish for your work to end sooner, but, naturally, it does the opposite.
  1341. >Finally, you reach the time of lunch. Saying your farewells to the guy on the other side of the line you drop the phone call, the last one of the morning.
  1342. >No one will be able to keep you from getting away from this accursed place even for one hour.
  1343. >"Hey, Anon."
  1344. >Incognito is already waiting for you at the cafeteria with both your dishes already on the table. How the hell did he manage to get there first is a mystery you don't care to solve.
  1345. >"Rough day, huh?"
  1346. "What?"
  1347. >When you take your seat at the table your friend shakes his head, throwing his judging gaze all over you.
  1348. >"You look like you haven't been sleeping at all these days. Did something happen?"
  1349. "Not really. Why do you care anyway?"
  1350. >"Well, sorry," he chuckles at your dismissive attitude. "Just sayin' it how it is. Age is finally getting to you? Or is it something about Iris?"
  1351. "No, she's fine, I just..."
  1352. >Not being able to express your worry, you instead lift and turn your hands in a kind of a helpless gesture. And it seems that Incognito got what you were trying to convey.
  1353. >"You just worry about leaving her alone, right?"
  1354. "Yeah, kinda. I guess."
  1355. >"You have an entire weekend ahead of you to spend time with her, it'll be fine. I was anxious about leaving my android at first too."
  1356. "A weekend, huh."
  1357. >"It's not much, but it's something, right?"
  1358. >You look at your hands resting by the plate's sides, unwilling to take action amidst the feast.
  1359. "Maybe I should push for early retirement like you."
  1360. >The subtle bitter tone of your voice is without a doubt picked up by your friend. It speaks more about your inner turmoil than any words could.
  1361. >"Sure, if you want incomplete retirement payments," Nito dismisses your desperation while eating like it's his last meal. The dude must've waited his whole day for it. Doesn't his wife cook breakfasts for him? "Retiring before your age is-"
  1362. "I know, just a silly thought. Forget it."
  1363. >That silly thought doesn't even seem that silly to you right now.
  1364. >You just want to go home.
  1365. >"Oh, I don't think I'll be retiring this soon as well, not early, not on time."
  1366. "Why not? I thought you wanted to get away from this job as soon as you're allowed to."
  1367. >Incognito looks a bit embarrassed when he starts explaining:
  1368. >"I had a talk with Nicole about that yesterday. It got pretty heated."
  1369. "Really?"
  1370. >"She advices me to continue working."
  1371. "Why? Aren't you all set for the future?"
  1372. >The lucky bastard probably doesn't have to worry about a single thing as long as his robot wife keeps working, and she can do that for like ever.
  1373. >"Maybe, but she brought up a good point about our children. I did some math and if I continue working for at least three more years I can get my daughter into a much better college than we've planned, just in time for it too."
  1374. >Your thoughts scramble everywhere to bring you pieces of your memories about Nito's family, and it seems that his little girl is indeed nearing that age soon.
  1375. "That's on top of your son's education, right?"
  1376. >"Yeah," 'Nito seems to be impressed with your memory. "It's been a bit taxing as is and we don't want that hurting our budget too much, so we can give both of them-"
  1377. "I get it, I get it. So she convinced you to continue working."
  1378. >"I guess so."
  1379. "You don't sound too happy about it."
  1380. >"Are you kidding?" his head falls onto his open palm and his elbow that now supports the weight of his thoughts sounds a dull smack against the plastic table.
  1381. "What?"
  1382. >"You know better than anyone how much I love my job!"
  1383. >The sarcasm was too salty for your taste. But he's right. If there's a guy who resents his job at least as much as you, it's Incognito.
  1384. >It's the soulless nature of it that kills it for him, he says. You think he's just bored, just like you.
  1385. "Man, that sucks."
  1386. >"Maybe I too wish I could spend more time with my robot, you know."
  1387. "It's up for you to decide in the end, right?"
  1388. >"Yeah, well, she was pretty adamant about me not running away as soon as they take my collar off of me."
  1389. >Gears begin to turn in your head. Slowly, ever so slowly. Too slow to actually propel the entire thought process so you can connect the dots.
  1390. >It's too vague for now. Nothing to latch on. Not specific enough. Needs more research, if you still think it's worth it by the end of the day.
  1391. "Sucks," you repeat your conclusion to your friend.
  1392. >"Yeah," he agrees immediately. "Your android doesn't give you that kind of talk, right?"
  1393. "She probably doesn't even know about that kind of thing."
  1394. >"That sounds nice."
  1395. >Wait a second. Something isn't right here. As soon as you think back to Iris you realize something.
  1396. "Hey, Nito?"
  1397. >"What?"
  1398. "How do you know my pony's name?"
  1399. >Your friend stops chewing his food for a second, trying to wrap his head around this sudden question.
  1400. >"What do you mean? Didn't you tell me?"
  1401. "I don't think so. And her name wasn't on that certificate. It had a broken link."
  1402. >"Hm? It was fine last time I checked."
  1403. "Last time?"
  1404. >Now Incognito stops for real. You try to hide any sort of reaction but the chill that runs down your spine is almost too much to bear.
  1405. >"Yeah," Nito answers carefully and slowly. "Nicole asked me what her name was and I had to check. Just yesterday."
  1406. >That's bullshit. It can't be anything but that. You'll have to check the page right now.
  1407. >It's not possible, right?
  1408. >Either he is lying, or...
  1409. >Your hand almost trembles when you try to get yourself to that page. Your heart skips a beat when you press it.
  1410. >Certificate with both your name and her number on it.
  1411. >Pressing that number reveals a page. Iris Bloom. Registered and living with Anonymous.
  1412. >You can't take your eyes off of it and look up to Incognito. It is beyond your power at this point. You just hear him calling to you:
  1413. >"Hey, you alright?"
  1414. "Yeah, I'm fine."
  1415. >You finally put your phone away and look up, still avoiding meeting your friend's eyes.
  1416. >"Anon."
  1417. "Huh?"
  1418. >"Have some rest at home, alright? I think you're getting too stressed out."
  1419. "Yeah, fine."
  1420. >The conversation never picks up after that. Your thoughts are at complete disarray. There's only one that's real and persistent: you've gotta get back home.
  1421. >Rest of the workday is like a haze around your brain, so is the ride on the bus. People probably thought you're on drugs. You didn't take a vacant seat too, as usual.
  1422. >The only one who never judges you is the robot who greets everyone in the apartment. That guy doesn't care. You appreciate that.
  1423. >But this also doesn't matter. You're already at the door. Opening it, you try to hear anything on the inside.
  1424. >There isn't anything to be heard. Iris isn't even there to greet you like she did yesterday.
  1425. >Completely alone in the dark, you take off your shoes and jacket. Only then you see flickering lights coming from your room.
  1426. >The door isn't closed. As you walk towards it, you realize that window curtains are close together, making the room seem dark like it's still night. Bed sheets being all over the place only reaffirm that imagery.
  1427. >On the bed, a lonely pony figure sits before the screen. There's no discernible image on it, just static that dances around and casts dubious shadows behind the pony.
  1428. >She bathes in this unstable light and doesn't pay you any mind. But as soon as a floorboard creeks under your foot, the static is paused. You're afraid to move. The whole world has stopped.
  1429. >Iris turns her head to you and in her giant eyes you see the reflection of the black and white maze frozen on the screen.
  1430. >"Welcome back, Anonymous."
  1431. "Iris..."
  1432. >Her ears suddenly bend back a little bit.
  1433. >"I am sorry I was unable to greet you properly at the door."
  1434. "It's fine. I'm- I'm just glad to see you."
  1435. >"Me too."
  1436. "You were watching these videos the whole day?"
  1437. >She pauses for a moment before answering.
  1438. >"Ever since you left to work. I was concentrating on it so hard I didn't see or hear you entering."
  1439. "Don't worry about it."
  1440. >You walk away for just a minute to wash your hands and hang your jacket, but the room is completely changed once you return there.
  1441. >It's like people actually live here. Curtains are at the sides, bed is made and there's no creepy code on the screen.
  1442. >And the pony is standing right before you.
  1443. >You imagine she feels proud of herself but, as per usual, there's no real expression on her little face.
  1444. "Well done, Iris. Can you go make dinner? I need to look up something real quick."
  1445. >"Sure. I'll call you when it's done."
  1446. "Thanks."
  1447. >Such a simple exchange makes your heart flutter. She's so happy to help even if she's not showing it.
  1448. >A simple concept of someone caring after you shouldn't be that heartwarming, but it is.
  1449. >Though now is not the time to indulge in that pleasant feeling. You have some searching to do.
  1450. >Of course, you already know that what you've seen on your phone earlier today isn't any different from what you're going to see here, but you need to check.
  1451. >Iris Bloom. Registered and living with Anonymous.
  1452. >How and when this was added - there's no telling.
  1453. >Then it hits you. The page code.
  1454. >It's supposed to be one of those two, right? But both weren't right. And now it's impossible to know which one is the right one - you never written the codes anywhere.
  1455. >Except for that tech support ticket. You swiftly try to find it, but there is none. It's gone.
  1456. >After some searching, you finally see where it is.
  1457. >The notification button has '1' near it.
  1458. >"Your problem has been solved."
  1459. >The pony finds you completely frozen to your seat when she comes in to call you for dinner.
  1460. "Iris..."
  1461. >Your voice sounds so weak and tired.
  1462. >"Yes, Anonymous?"
  1463. "Did you do anything on the PC aside from watching the videos?"
  1464. >She stays silent for a while, trying to remember.
  1465. >"I don't think so."
  1466. "Nothing sent or confirmed or anything?"
  1467. >"Oh! There was an unsent error report on the site where we're registered."
  1468. >You're gonna just die right here. Please. Just make it happen right now.
  1469. "So?"
  1470. >"It seemed like it was concerning me and my...legitimacy."
  1471. >No reply from you.
  1472. >"But you forgot to send it, even though the form was already filled and everything was ready to go, so I did that."
  1473. "Without asking me?"
  1474. >"You didn't want to send it?"
  1475. >There's clearly a bitter note in Iris' voice there. If you admit right now that you weren't gonna send it, you're admitting you didn't want to 'fix' the situation about her being a real actual ponybot.
  1476. >You two might have different opinion on whether or not this needs fixing. But that's something you can't approach right now, not when she's still in a state like this, stuck without any sort of coherent emotions.
  1477. "I... I filled it, right? If I didn't think about sending it, I wouldn't have done it."
  1478. >It's not a lie. But you know, without even looking at your pony, that she probably understands the double-layered nature of that statement.
  1479. >"I see."
  1480. >She walks away, reminding you that your dinner is ready.
  1481. >You just now think that you should've asked when exactly did she send your hesitant report, but now the moment is gone.
  1482. >Maybe next time.
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