by Rachael Haring

I glanced at Daniel over the rim of my coffee cup.

"How are you feeling?" I asked him.

"I feel content," he replied, then gave a small smile, just as I had expected. "Everything seems to be working well, and my thoughts are clear."

"No pain?" I asked, and he shook his head once.

"None at all, Zoe. I am well."

I sipped at my mug, then glanced up at the wide, black sky above us. The living room dome was in its translucent mode, revealing the night's canopy in all its glory; the light tubes rimming the dome were set at their minimum phosphorescence, letting us stargaze without intrusion or glare.

"It's a beautiful night," I commented, leaning back in my chair until it creaked with the motion. "Don't you think so?"

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see him glance upwards. "Yes. It is very clear, and the stars are bright."

"But do you find it beautiful, Daniel?"

He considered for a moment, and when he answered, his voice was oddly nuanced, as if he were surprised by his own answer.

"Yes, I do. I find it beautiful, Zoe."

I couldn't help but smile at his reply. He was coming along very nicely, I thought - better and better every day. But I still needed to test one reaction...

"You know, Daniel," I said, endeavoring to sound as casual as possible, "I heard that they've actually built a restaurant up on the moon."

"Truly, Zoe?"

I met his gaze. "Yes. They say that the food is good, but the place lacks atmosphere."

Daniel paused for a second, and then he laughed. It was not a great and resounding guffaw - more like a tiny, whispery chuckle - but it was laughter all the same, and my heart leapt upwards at the sound of it.

"Do you know what you just did?" I squealed, plunking my coffee cup on the table and jumping to my feet.

Daniel blinked, his smile still evident. "I...laughed."

"Yes! You laughed, Daniel! You really, truly laughed!"

"I found your words funny," he explained, and I giggled, rushing over to his side of the table and gifting him with a very enthusiastic hug.

"Hooray for Daniel!" I cheered, then kissed his cheek. "How does it feel to be the first robot with a sense of humor?"

"You do not know for certain that I am the first," he answered, and I released him from my jostling embrace.

"Of course you are," I told him with perfect confidence. "You're the most advanced robot on this planet, Daniel. I should know: I've seen what the high-and-mighty University churns out. They're just a bunch of empty machines. They're nothing like you."

I reached out and touched a lock of his dark hair, one of the more recent "humanizations" I had given him. He turned his face to me, and I let my eyes roam over his features, assessing and thinking. Even with all of my work on his mind and his appearance, there were still several little clues which gave away his true nature: his eyes were a bit too bright, his movements subtly mechanical, his skin just a shade too pale and glossy.

But those faults didn't matter. In the last ten years, Daniel had come so far. When I had first built him, he had been little more than a metallic skeleton, scratchy-voiced and primitive, incapable of emotion. I never dreamed that someday, he'd become almost human.

"We should update your chart," I told him, then moved to the long, cluttered workbench at the other side of the living space. Once there, I dug through the tool kits, magnifying devices, chip collections, and various half-finished robot extremities until I found what I was looking for.

I pulled my notepad from the mountain of detritus and flipped its screen open. Immediately, it awoke, glowing with endless lists and files; after a few quick taps at its keys, I accessed Daniel's accomplishment chart and scrolled through its various columns.

"All right, Daniel," I muttered, "let's mark all of your emotional discoveries for the week. I believe you felt your first instance of fear a few days ago."

"Followed soon after by distrust and sadness," he commented, and I glanced over the screen's top, watching his darkening expression.

"Look, Daniel, I already apologized for scaring you like that. It was only an experiment. You know that, don't you?"

"I understand," he admitted.

"Good," I said, then gave him an encouraging grin. "Then can I add 'forgiveness' to your long list of emotional responses?"

A smile returned to his lips. "You may, Zoe."

"Wonderful," I murmured happily, then snapped the notepad closed and tossed it back on the heap of scraps and tools. "All right, little robot. Now that I've finished messing around with your brain, is there anything in your body that's giving you trouble? You were complaining about one of your fingers, I believe."

Daniel nodded. "Yes. My right hand has been unresponsive lately."

I crouched by his chair and grasped hold of his wrist with both hands. My fingers found the correct point of pressure, and I twisted gently; with a soft click, Daniel's right hand detached from his arm, twitching slightly before relaxing.

I stood and walked to my workbench, inspecting the fingers one by one.

"I'll have it fixed in a moment," I said, once again sorting through the mess. A pile of anatomy texts slid to the floor with a solid thump, and I sighed. "Honestly, for the love of..."

Suddenly, the front door chimed, and I jumped, nearly spilling another case of connectors to the ceramic tiles.

Want to read more? Buy Listen to the Future, a sci-fi anthology released by A Different Drum.

© 2004 Rachael M. Haring