by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in Daily Science Fiction, July 2019
Engleine paced nervously, her hooved hind feet echoing on the metal floor. Usually, the sound soothed her — it made her feel light and cosmic, reminding her that she lived on Crossroads Station and no longer a backwards dirtball of a world. There were stars beneath the metal under her hooves. And there were stars above the metal over her pointed ears. There were stars all around, and when she danced here, she was dancing in the cosmos.
But those thoughts couldn’t soothe her now, not while her dance partner, Hansel 2000, was being tested for sentience.
Engleine knew in her heart that the robotic equine dance partner she’d commissioned for herself must be sentient. He was so much more than the robotic mirror she’d expected him to be — sure, he danced like her, keeping up with her every twisting, twirling step, but he also listened to her when she was scared, afraid that the pressure to choreograph new and innovative dances would be too much, afraid that she was still just a primitive equine alien from a backwards dirtball who didn’t deserve to be dancing to sold-out asteroid amphitheaters. They talked all night sometimes. They planned together. He understood her. He was more than a pre-sentient automaton.
The door in the back of the waiting room opened and the humanoid robot, Gerangelo, looked out. He was the one who’d taken Hansel 2000 back for his sentience tests.
“You’re the one who came in with Hansel?” Gerangelo asked.
“Is he done? Did he pass?” Engleine whickered.
“Come on back,” Gerangelo said. “I think we need to talk.”
Gerangelo led Engleine into a room lined with windows looking into other rooms where robots of various forms were playing chess, fixing broken computers, painting, and in one case gesturing wildly. When they came to the room with Hansel 2000, the equine robot was simply sitting quietly, legs folded on the floor.
“What’s he doing?” Engleine asked.
“Waiting,” Gerangelo answered.
“Is that part of the test?” Engleine wrapped her keratinous forehand in the silky strands of her mane, a nervous habit she’d never broken.
“Well, sort of,” Gerangelo said. “He could still pass the test by losing his patience and ranting at us about how we don’t have the right to judge him like this. Or he could get bored and insist that if we’re going to keep him waiting this long, we could at least give him a computer feed or something to do. Or he could start dancing — he’s a dancing robot, right? — you know, just to entertain himself.”
The more options Gerangelo listed, the more Engleine’s heart sank.
“Or he could plead with us to let him pass the tests, because he’s so afraid of breaking your heart. There’s a lot of ways to pass the sentience tests — beyond enough basic short term memory and intelligence to function, all we’re looking for is a spark of independence. But Hansel hasn’t shown any.”
“I don’t understand,” Enleine said. “He wanted to do this.” It hurt to see her beloved dance partner sitting still like a statue, being judged and not realizing he was failing. “Can I go in there? If I could just talk to him…”
Gerangelo cut her off: “Then you could tell him what to do. That’s not sentience.”
Engleine was deeply offended. “I don’t tell him what to do!”
“No,” Gerangelo said. “I’m sure you don’t think that you do. But when you’re around, he can pick up on what you want — what would make you happy. He was designed by Maradia, wasn’t he?”
“What does that have to do with anything?” Engleine snorted.
“She designed me,” Gerangelo said. “She does really good work.” The humanoid robot looked admiringly through the window at Hansel 2000. “Really good work.” He looked back at Engleine and said, “You know, I’ve seen you two dance. You’re amazing together. Tell you what…” He pulled a card out of his pocket that read Robots 4 Robots and held it out to her. “I could give him an upgrade to full sentience really easily. He’s clearly already close to it. A minor upgrade to his processors would almost certainly push him over. Just come by my shop. Or take him back to Maradia. I don’t think you’d regret it.”
Engleine took the card with her keratinous hoofhand, and a sick feeling filled her stomach. If Hansel 2000 wasn’t sentient… She’d been talking to herself all that time. He wasn’t only her mirror when they were dancing; he’d been mirroring her own words back to her, and she hadn’t even noticed.
“The test is over,” Gerangelo said. “You can take him home now, but I hope I’ll see him here again.”
Gerangelo showed Engleine into Hansel 2000’s testing room and politely disappeared to give her some privacy. As soon as the equine robot saw his dance partner, his long mechanical face lit up.
“Did I pass?” Hansel 2000 asked.
“No…” Engleine said uncertainly. She was halfway tempted to lie to him rather than disappoint him. But then she realized that it wasn’t a question of disappointing him, only herself.
“I’m so sorry,” Hansel 2000 said so earnestly that it twisted like a knife for Engleine to know it was only her own feelings being reflected back at her. “I’ll study and practice. I’m sure I can do better next time.”
“I’m not sure there will be a next time,” Engleine said, still turning the Robots 4 Robots card over in her keratinous hand, running her rough fingertips along its paper edge. She hated the hollow feeling of knowing Hansel 2000 was only telling her what she wanted to hear, but she was also afraid to lose him. What if the upgrade changed him? What if he didn’t like her anymore?
What if she didn’t like him?
Had that already happened? Engleine felt like she’d lost her best friend.
Then Hansel 2000 said the words that changed her mind, “There has to be a next time.” Maybe he only said them because they were what she wanted to hear — and maybe that wasn’t sentience — but in her mind, it was pre-sentience. And she would do anything she could to support Hansel 2000’s desire for sentience.
“Okay,” Engleine said, reaching a hoofhand out to help her partner up. Sentient or not, he was still her best friend. “Then we need to make an appointment for you.”
“Anything,” Hansel 2000 said, taking her hoofhand and swinging her around into a playful do-si-do. The two equines danced together, organic and mechanical, in a waltz that made them each into more than they were alone.