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Tabula Rosa

The world was changing. Pandora Vortigern pushed her goggles up into her hair and briefly ceased her pacing to come to a halt at the window that looked out high over London. She was born here some thirty years ago, but this was no longer the same city it was back then. The same spires and handsome, red-brick townhouses reached up into the same grey sky, but now airships of every shape and size were as common a sight as the thousands of carriages that careened through the city's winding streets. Thick plumes of steam rose in every direction, and no matter the hour, London was always abuzz. The city never slept these days. Industry and invention were relentless masters.

Perhaps this brave new world was finally ready to test her theory. Karl Marx argued that social existence determined consciousness. Pandora sought to expand on his theory and create a machine capable of taking up its place in high society—and thus developing its own inorganic consciousness. A living, thinking, social machine.

It was the culmination of her life's work. When she was a child it seemed no more than an impossible dream, but now here she stood on the verge of coaxing life from a cradle of nothing more than metal and steam.

She was near now. The physical work was done. In the far corner of the room, seated in a battered oak chair handed down through the generations was a metal body, intricately detailed and its iron plates buffed until they gleamed. The cranium waited on the side table.

It was the brain that proved to be the final problem to solve, the equations and programming necessary to bring it all together mere days from completion. As she stared listlessly at the summer sun when it briefly broke through the clouds overhead, inspiration struck.

Pandora darted across the room. Bent low over her desk, she dipped the nearest nib pen in the inkpot and let her thoughts spill forth onto the paper once more. Filling sheaf after sheaf as the newest equation solved holes in many more, she forgot about the world entirely until the nursemaid tapped her on the shoulder with only a hint of reproach in her lined blue eyes.

"Professor Vortigern, ma'am, the bairns wish to bid you goodnight."

"Goodnight?!" She bit back a soft curse and turned towards the door as three children with dark, tousled curls trooped in and presented their freshly-scrubbed faces to be kissed.

Old Annie was right. One swift glance at the wall told Pandora it was past eight in the evening already. She dearly loved the old clock with its worn, exposed gears and the brass that shone defiantly whenever a shaft of sunlight danced across it, but oh, how she hated the truths it refused to hide from her! Again the day was nearly done, and again she had barely even stopped to draw breath, let alone make time to step through the door that shut her away from the rest of the household.

The professor forced herself to set aside all thoughts of her work. "Miranda, Jasper, Beatrix," she said with a wide smile, punctuating herself with a kiss for each child. "Sweet dreams, my darlings. I promise I shall have time for you tomorrow."

Their little arms around her neck made her heart contract, for she was all too aware each day she spent in here was one she would never get back with them. Someone else knew that too. Her husband had followed their children into the room, and when they departed with Annie, he stayed where he was, leaning against the wall by the door and running one hand through his hair as the door closed behind them.

Theodore Vortigern was not a man of science. An accountant by trade, he was the first to admit he had no sense of the vision that drove Pandora from one experiment to the next, but he was her fiercest advocate nonetheless. However, she feared that even his patience was beginning to run thin.

As she swallowed hard and turned towards him, he folded his arms across his chest, his eyes fixed on her all the while. "You missed the bedtime story again tonight, Pandora."

Pandora bowed her head in acknowledgment of that gentle rebuke; another promise broken. "I had every intention of being there, I swear," she said quietly. "I did not realise it was so late. These summer evenings are deceptive, Theo."

"Come now, my love, you cannot pretend it was the sun that distracted you." Theo's eyes flickered towards the chair where the silent, unseeing robot sat awaiting life. "I understand what you want to achieve—"

"Do you?"

"I know you seek the validation of doing something no one else has ever achieved."

"Yes, but there is so much more to it than that!" Pandora tugged at the collar of her loose work shirt, leaving yet another ink stain on the white linen. "I want to create life, Theo; to create a consciousness that relies upon me."

"You have three of those already—four, if you count your long-suffering husband."

"I know, but that isn't—"

"What?" Theo grimaced as he cut in. "Aren't we enough?"

"I love you and the children, Theo, you know I do! You fill my heart entirely. But domesticity alone can never be enough, not when I know the wonders this world holds. This is about so much more than our little family."

He finally left his station near the door to come to her side. "Then what is it about, Pandora?"

She met his intent stare without flinching away. "I am so near, Theo, and I cannot stop, for I have a responsibility to all those who will one day follow in my path. If I can do this, then no-one will ever be able to deny that a woman is just as capable as any man."

"For my part, I have never once doubted that."

"I know, Theo, and that is why I love you so. But you are a rare beast, husband mine."

His taut face finally relaxed into a rueful smile. "Indeed I am, Pandora, though nowhere near as remarkable as you. If time with you is what I must sacrifice for your dreams to come true, then so be it. They are worth every moment."

Pandora moved into his arms and buried her face in his broad shoulder, allowing the woody scent of his cologne to surround her. "I do love you," she said softly. "It won't be much longer now, Theo."

She was right.

Less than a week later, the professor found herself fastening the gently curved cranium into place. When she primed the mechanism and then moved around to take the seat opposite, a shiver of anticipation chased down the full length of her spine as she heard the gentle whirring of the android's internal cogs. Something, at least, was happening.

Pandora held her breath until the android lifted its head and its glass eyes swivelled to survey the room before it rose to its feet. Yes. She hardly dared hope after so long, but maybe this was finally it. More than a mere automated response, the android seemed to be analysing and reacting to its surroundings.

It was time to begin.

Pandora had been planning for this moment for years. Though she had no idea whether the android truly understood what she was saying, she began to teach it everything an intellectual could hope to know. Weeks passed during which the family took turns reading everything they could lay their hands on to the observant android, from Theo's daily copies of The Times through to Jasper's well-thumbed and illustrated The Water-Babies. The android seemed to pay attention, but spoke not a word until an ordinary Thursday afternoon late in October.

Pandora was tidying away her papers when it happened.

"Pandora," was the android's first word, monotonous and so softly-spoken that Pandora thought she had imagined it until she turned to find the android staring at her.

Frozen to the spot, the papers she had been holding fluttered unnoticed to the floor as the android repeated itself.

"Pandora."

"Yes. My name is Pandora," the professor said, her lips barely moving as she spoke.

"And me?" The android watched her intently. "Have I a name by which to refer to myself, Pandora?"

"That...that depends on whether you consider yourself to be male or female, although if you prefer, we could choose a gender-neutral name for you."

Pandora could barely believe the words she heard herself saying. This was more than speech; it was conversation. Conversation with an artificial lifeform.

She had done it.

This was it. The pinnacle, the culmination of everything she had dreamed of for so long. Here she stood face to face with an android capable of conversation—and, it seemed, rational thought.

"I believe that I perceive myself as female, Pandora," it said. "Perhaps it is because I have spent my life thus far learning at your side. What name would you choose for me?

The answer was crystal clear, so natural and right that she only wondered why it had never occurred to her before. "I would call you Ismene; the name of my sister, who died when she was only five," the professor said.

"Ismene," the android said slowly and deliberately, taking care to pronounce each syllable. "My name is Ismene. And what is my purpose?"

"Define the context of your question, Ismene."

"I wish to know if you created me to serve."

"Good." Pandora yearned for someone to transcribe this extraordinary exchange, but she dared not step away for even a moment. "The answer to your question, in short, is no. You were conceived as an independent, freethinking companion, never as a servant of any kind."

Ismene's eyes did not blink; they did not need to, of course, but that simple absence was strangely unnerving. "Then are we friends?" she said.

"In a way, yes. Sisters of science, if you will."

With that first conversation, their path was defined. As sisters of science they stood together, and so it was that they decided Ismene must be exhibited to the leading minds of the scientific community.

"You have a telegram, Pandora," Theo said as he came in the front door and shook the winter snow away from his greatcoat. "I intercepted it coming up the path to the house."

Ismene's head turned towards them when Pandora stretched up to kiss her husband's reddened cheek and plucked the rolled paper from his hand. As she slit it open and read the brief words within, a beaming smile spread across her face.

"Ismene and I have a place at the Royal Albert Hall," she said to all those in the hallway. "Sybil will sponsor me to present at the exhibition."

Theo clapped his hands together before he shrugged his coat away. "Doctor Chancy?"

"One and the same."

"Marvellous. Well done, Pandora! The date?"

"Three days from now."

"Then we must prepare, Pandora," Ismene said, her voice as impassive as ever.

"After dinner," Theo said, taking Pandora by the hand to lead them into the dining room. "Come and eat with us, Ismene. You can learn just as much at the dinner table as in the schoolroom."

He spoke good sense. As the children joined them and a lively conversation sprang up whilst Ismene sipped from the water Annie fetched for her, Pandora's thoughts turned to the opportunity ahead. There was a prize of five thousand pounds on offer, but that wasn't her motivation for taking Ismene to the exhibition. All she wanted was to show the scientific community the full wonders their new world could bear witness to, and to prove to those assembled that a woman was just as capable of achieving them.

She had never been into the Royal Albert Hall before, and when the carriage Sybil Chancy sent for them on the appointed day approached the rear entrance, Pandora silently marvelled at the architectural wonder that harked back to the Roman amphitheatres of old. The wrought-iron dome of the roof was a marvel in its own right, to say nothing of the thousands of people that tonight would fill the hall.

In that moment of walking into the hall to take her place amongst those waiting to exhibit, Pandora envied Ismene's implacability. The android waited in peaceful silence at her side, oblivious to the many stares and thinly-veiled whispers they attracted as their moment on the stage drew near. For once time crawled past with a torturous lack of speed, but finally their turn arrived.

Pandora deeply regretted now her choice not to prepare notes for her speech. She thought it would be best to speak from the heart and allow Ismene's nature to reveal itself once they took questions from the audience, but when she came to a halt at the front of the stage and looked across the sea of faces before her, her mouth grew dry and her mind went blank.

"Pandora?" It was Ismene, speaking so quietly that only she could hear her. "Perhaps you could start by explaining to these people how long you have worked to create me."

"Yes. Thank you." Pandora flashed a grateful smile at the android, then drew a deep breath and launched into her speech. "Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for giving me your time tonight. I am sure you have all noticed my creation, for she walked onto the stage at my side. Ismene is the product of ten years of research, innovation and perspiration, and many failed prototypes besides. I persevered, and finally I have the chance to present to you all the world's first sentient android."

She waited for the soft ripple of disbelieving dissent to abate before she continued.

"You will understand that I must protect my patent, of course, but I can say that I have spent many years developing the ideas put forward by Mr. Babbage when he developed his difference engine. That is the essence of my creation; powered by steam, making use of an inert titanium core, but the heart and brains, if you will, owe their existence to Mr. Babbage."

"Heart and brains?" Pandora recognised the tall, thin man who rose to his feet to interject. Casper Newham was a renowned physicist, but he was as well-known for his acerbic nature as for his work. He was the very last person she hoped to take questions from tonight, for the two of them had clashed many times before. "My good lady, is it not a little foolish to anthropomorphise your invention in such a way?"

"I do so only because it is appropriate, Professor Newham. My creation has a crude circulatory system, and a central processor that mimics the brain in every pertinent sense. She is even closer to humanity than I imagined she could be when I first set out upon this path."

Newham removed his hat and inclined his head, stepping into the aisle as a burst of applause spread throughout the auditorium "Oh, very clever, Mrs Vortigern!" he said, raising his voice to be heard.

Pandora drew a sharp breath. "Professor."

"Yes?"

"No—I was correcting your mistake." She stared him straight in the eye across the distance between them. "It is right and proper to address me by the title I fought so hard to earn. Professor Vortigern, if you please."

No one else spoke up in her defence, but she held her ground nonetheless, for nobody was supporting him either. The impasse stretched out unbroken until a soft, monotonous voice cut through the tension.

"A woman has the same right and expectation to be treated with respect as any man has."

Newham's brows shot up so sharply they near receded into his hairline. "It speaks?"

A fresh burst of pride seared Pandora's veins as she drew herself up to her full height again. "The evidence of your own ears must tell you so, sir," she said, to the clear amusement of those in the front few rows, who stifled their laughter behind their programmes as Newham turned and scowled at them.

"You have taught it to mimic set phrases, I presume," he said, his voice curt and clipped.

"Not at all. She is perfectly capable of conversing and responding with her own free will."

"She?"

"Yes." Pandora refused to flinch under the weight of his penetrating stare. "In the course of our initial discussions, she indicated that she perceived herself as a female. Her name is Ismene."

"Oh come now, my lady!" Newham rolled his eyes and turned from side to side to address the audience at large. "You are a clever little lady, I am sure, but you cannot expect us to believe you have made a machine capable of such intellectual leaps as you describe!"

"I do not expect you to believe anything that cannot be examined and proven." She exchanged a swift glance with Ismene and nodded. "Come forth and debate with her, if you doubt me."

"Debate?" He threw his head back and laughed loudly. "My dear lady, I do not imagine your box room invention can keep up with my mind!"

Ismene turned her head towards him and spoke again. "Do you judge me because I am an android, sir, or because I have taken on a female persona?"

The professor's smile faded away and instead he tilted his head to the side as he took a slow step forward. "Indeed!" he said, a calculating gleam sparking in his eyes as he glanced across at Pandora. "You may claim she is no mimic, but she certainly imitates her mistress."

"The professor is not my mistress, Professor Newham. Perhaps you did not mean to equate me to a dumb animal or a servant, but I assure you that we are on a far more equal footing." Ismene's coolly-spoken, emotionless words rang out clearly in the hushed auditorium. "From the first moment of my consciousness she has addressed me as the sentient being that I am, and I would thank you to do the same."

His eyes widened for a moment before he looked towards Pandora again, coming up onto the stage itself now as he spoke. "A bold proclamation, but one I can easily believe you primed her to say, Professor Vortigern. Nonetheless, I must concede that you have made a great stride forward with your android. Her speech is slow, granted, but clear, concise and deliberate."

Pandora's lips thinned. "Then why not address that compliment to her instead of me?"

"Because you are her creator, and her owner—for now."

"For now?"

Newham inclined his head, running his thumb across his neat, precisely-clipped beard. "For now," he repeated. "You must be aware that you could name your price for the android, my lady. Indeed, tell me now what it would cost me to buy it from you!"

She took an instinctive step away from him. "Oh, I think not! Ismene is not a commodity to trade, Professor Newham. I would no sooner sell her than I would one of my own children."

"Thank you for speaking in my defence, Pandora." Ismene herself stepped forward to stand between them, the eyes of all those in the auditorium fixed upon her. "Professor Newham, may I address you directly again? I have a question for you."

"For me?" Newham's hand fell away from his face and his eyes briefly widened. "Very well, creature. You may speak."

Pandora bristled, but Ismene seemed oblivious to the insult. She spoke with that perfect calm no human could ever hope to master. "Then if you will, tell me this. When a child is born, are they already the person they will be once they are grown, or must their mind be formed and shaped, by means of education and the society around them?"

"Aristotle said a child's mind is shaped in his first seven years. I agree with that learned man's assessment."

"As do I, professor. When I was first aware of the world, I knew nothing. Months have passed since then, and in that time I have engaged in much discourse with the professor and her family. I have formed my own opinions, and now I am ready to exchange them with other people and learn yet more. I was a blank slate. For now I am something more."

His eyes narrowed. "For now?"

Ismene answered without deception, even as Pandora attempted to raise a hand to silence her. "If my system restarts, I become a tabula rasa once more."

"Ismene—"

"No, let her speak." Newham took a step closer. "You spoke of your system restarting. Explain."

"A human body must have food, water and air. I need only one of those three; water for the steam to power my systems. It is simple. I know I must stay fuelled to survive, and so my instinct for self-preservation compels me to attend to my needs just as any living creature would."

He whistled under his breath as he looked past the android towards Pandora again. "And you—you have managed to create this being entirely alone, whilst juggling the demands of a husband and family?"

"Professor Newham, I am living proof that a woman is more than capable of doing such a thing," Ismene said, her robotic voice carrying none of the venom Pandora would have conveyed had she answered first.

"Indeed. Thank you, Ismene," she said instead.

Newham, it seemed, was finally defeated. He stared at them for nearly a full minute without speaking, and then finally he exhaled and his face relaxed into a wry smile. "I concede, Vortigern. Your device—it is remarkable, as are you. Bring Ismene down into the crowd! Let them marvel at her wonder."

Light-headed, Pandora exhaled and smiled freely for the first time in months. With Ismene at her side and Newham following in their wake, she descended from the stage and moved through the aisles, smilingly accepted the compliments that came their way as Ismene began to answer the far-ranging questions flung at her, from the philosophical to the nonsensical, all intended to test the android's limits.

Newham followed them still, and his silence spoke volumes to her. It meant he had no criticism to make. If she could win over someone as difficult and intransigent as him, the hardest battle was already won.

As Ismene responded to an inane question about her favourite colour—her answer being that she ranked them all on an equal footing—Newham leaned in close to one of the men lining the aisles and slipped something into his hand before he took the closest seat and folded his arms across his chest. Pandora watched him for a moment longer until she was certain he had nothing left to say.

He was done. She allowed herself to stand at Ismene's side, as proud as any mother bird watching her fledglings soar into the sky for the first time. All the blood, sweat and tears, the days and nights lost and the agonies of self-doubt, all of them were worth it, for they had brought her here.

And then the world stopped.

"No."

Pandora heard Ismene's solitary word before she registered the crack of the pistol that fired somewhere in the crowd. Time slowed to a crawl around them. Each thudding heartbeat stretched out longer than the one before. Ice-cold dread extended its tendrils through her veins as she slowly turned her head towards the sound, but all she saw was the flickering light of the gas lamps reflected off Ismene's expressionless face as the android flung her arms out and twisted towards her.

The impact sent them staggering back towards the stage. Pandora's knees buckled when she hit the raised dais, and as she fell Ismene collapsed with her, a mass of buckled metal accompanied by a low, faint hiss that was the only sound to be heard amongst the stilled hush of the auditorium.

Pandora knew what that sound meant without having to check. Hot, bitter tears stung her eyes, but she furiously blinked them back as she gently lowered Ismene into her arms and turned her to the side. It was just as she feared. The bullet was lodged in Ismene's rear cranium, and numerous tiny whirls of steam erupted from the twisted wound in her casing.

"Water," she said, her voice cracking wildly as she spoke. "Damn you all, fetch me some bloody water!"

Ismene spoke not a word. Her polished glass eyes swivelled from side to side, and as they finally fixed on Pandora's face, she felt a hand descend onto her shoulder. Newham crouched down at their side, his dark eyes dancing with delight as he leaned in closer.

"Professor Vortigern," he said under his breath. "I wonder if androids bleed?"

Pandora whitened. "You bastard. You utter, utter bastard," she heard herself say. "Was this your doing?!"

"Me?" Newham leaned in closer. "My lady, I assure you that I did not fire the pistol. Even if it were me, I would not have fired upon the remarkable little android. Why, had I sought to fire upon anybody, it would be you, so that I might take custody of your creation—but of course, that is mere supposition."

"Is it?"

"Be careful, my lady. I am sure you would not want to imply I had any hand in this."

Her heart picked up its pace as she turned her head to look him straight in the eye. "I would not stake your fortune on it, Newham."

"Professor."

"Now who is the mimic?" With a soft snort of derision, Pandora desperately looked around for the constabulary, determined to speak the accusation however futile it would prove to be against his money and influence, but before she could find them a gentle whirring of gears and cogs made her stomach lurch in fearful anticipation.

Ismene lifted her head, her eyes glazed and unfocused. "My sister," was all she said.

Pandora neither saw nor heard anything but the android. "Ismene, preserve yourself," she said, making no mention of the steam that still vented from the wound in her casing, as fatal a threat as the blood Newham spoke about. "Do not trouble yourself to speak; wait until we have more water and we can seal the wound."

"It is no use," Ismene said, each word taking longer to speak than the one before. "By the time I can be repaired, my system will have ceased. This, then, it how it feels to die. I have wondered how such a thing must feel."

Pandora shook her head fiercely. "You are not dying, Ismene, I swear. I will not allow you to die!"

The android's hand closed around hers. "Have courage, dear professor. This may be the end for me, but for you it is merely the beginning."

Silence fell.

Her heart missed a beat as she laid a trembling hand across Ismene's face and felt the warmth within begin to recede. No sooner did the full, horrifying implication of that incontrovertible truth begin to sink in than the cool metal fingers released their grip and fell away.

It was over.

"Pandora!" Somewhere in the distance, Sybil Chancy was calling her name. "I have it. The water..."

She turned her tear-filled eyes towards her mentor as the elder woman reached their side and abruptly fell silent. "Too late."

"Too late?" Sybil said under her breath. "Then—"

"Yes. Ismene is gone."

"Gone? Murdered, more like!" Out of the corner of her eye, Pandora saw Newham pale and begin to inch away as Sybil continued. "I saw it all. It was no stray bullet or misfire; the pistol was aimed at you, and the man who fired it is being restrained awaiting the constabulary."

"Then Ismene—"

"Yes." Sybil knelt down and clasped Pandora's hand tightly. "Ismene saw and heard the bullet, and without hesitation she did what she thought best. She chose to sacrifice herself for you, Pandora. I fear your remarkable android possessed more humanity than those around us can ever hope to achieve."

About the Author
Cara Fox is an English author trying to write her way out of the dark. Inspired by authors such as Mary Shelley, Daphne du Maurier, Bram Stoker and Jules Verne, she favours steampunk, horror and Gothic romance, but you can find her anywhere that stories sink their claws into you and wine flows freely. She has been published in the Tales To Terrify podcast, in anthologies from Lycan Valley Press, Fluky Fiction, Left Hand Publishers, all the sins and Horror Addicts, and she is working on her debut novel, The Strange Case of Doctor Magorian. Cara has limited mobility as the result of a thrilling incident involving firefighters, forgotten keys and a misplaced hero complex, which is a tale for another time. This influences her work with themes of mortality and pain running throughout the tales she writes, but she refuses to allow it to hold her back. Find her online at www.carajfox.com.