Asylum on the Moon
Claire watched the shuttles arriving from the long window of the white room. The asylum was located on the margin of one of the moon’s craters. Half the sky was lit by the brightness of the planet earth. If she stood on her desk chair and looked down, she could see the six stories of catwalks skirting the lunar complex beneath. This was the progressive way society treated the criminally insane in 2178: banished to the moon. Luna: (Latin for moon), origin of the terms “lunacy” and “lunatic.” She was sure there were plenty of jokes about that on the oh-so sane planet below.
“Actually above,” she said to herself, returning her gaze up to the icy blue planet where thinly-veiled clouds attempted to obfuscate the contours of Southeast Asia splayed out beneath.
Claire didn’t understand the legalities of why she was here. Perhaps it was because no state on Earth could claim jurisdiction over her, so by some nameless committee’s mandate it gave the institution carte blanche to study and treat her. At least, this is what she suspected. She had been committed to the asylum because of “the incident” that had taken place when she was 16 and still a juvenile. Whatever subtle powers and faceless authorities were manipulating her fate were more interested in her talents than the justifiable homicide she had committed—for which she would have been released long ago had her civil rights not been suspended immediately after the court’s ruling.
Her desk was littered with papers. The shelves along the walls were stuffed with notebooks and loose leaves. The doctors took these from time to time. They were very polite about it, asked her permission. She no longer cared, said “sure”. They were returned intact a day or two later. She usually lost interest in the projects once she was done with them, although in the moments of extreme boredom and isolation, she would thumb through the sketches she had made and the mathematical formulae she had computed over a decade prior. It was bizarre to her to think that she had always had this talent and that there had been no real progression in her scientific and artistic skills since she was a little girl. Had she simply plateaued after her sentence?
Claire had dreamed of being a roboticist from the time her mother gifted her a robot kitten. The robot never had a chance to grow up, which was a very real process for robots in the 22nd century. The cat was mauled “to death” (interesting way of putting it) by a very real pitbull. When mother told her she could have another one just like it, Claire had responded that the new kitten would not be “just like it,” since its programming would be different and its synthetic fur new. Her mother had simply stared at her.
Claire was obsessed with artificial intelligence, not so much because of the analytic capacities of computers and data-processing systems, which she could comprehend but had never really interested her. What she found fascinating was the ability of artificial intelligence to mimic human emotions and to apparently feel these emotions, which became apparent to the observer through a complicated process of manipulating the expressions on the robots’ faces. The skin of these machines was grown in special laboratories—in labs that programmed the cells to age like the cells of animals, even as the same laboratories conducted research to reverse this process in the skin of vain humans.
It was in the programming of robotic emotions that Claire’s contribution to the field was made before she had even reached puberty. Ever since she was a child, she had claimed to know where human emotions were generated. Not only the common ones that everyone knows: sadness, happiness, grief, joy. She knew what caused the tightening of the muscles along the mouth when “incipient unease” was felt. The fluttering of one eyelid that betokened “the sense that one was about to be betrayed.” She understood them all—and she could pinpoint exactly where these emotions formed in the human brain.
Each page of her booklets, ledgers, and sketching portfolios in the shelves along the wall were covered on one side with a drawing of a portion of the human face—an eye, a mouth, sometimes a chin, and even the whole head in profile from the front (but never with human hair). On the opposite page, the illustration would be accompanied by a corresponding sketch illustrating the nerves and muscles affected and then, in another ink drawing (or several drawings filling the margin of the page), she would pinpoint where in the human brain these emotions had been triggered, “Because I know exactly where and how intensely each neuron in my mind is actuated.”
She smiled bitterly as she heard steps approaching her room. The door opened.
“Who else would it be, Dr. Randall?”
He laughed. “I didn’t mean to make that into a question. That was silly of me. It’s just…umm…there’s someone here to see you.”
“Someone here to see me? Who on earth—notice I said ‘on earth’—would fly all the way here to see me?”
“She’ll only see you if you’re willing to meet with her.” Dr. Randall looked at the drawing on the desk. It showed a person in profile with clenched jaws. He looked at Claire. Her own face was drawn, haggard. She knew who the visitor was.
“You don’t have to see her—”
“It’s been 19 years and my mother’s never once expressed any interest in hearing my side of the story. Now—suddenly—she’s had a change of heart and travels all this way to see me.”
“She would like to see you, Claire. We’ve prepared a place where you can speak with her in private and explain to her what happened that night. The night you killed your step-father.”
Claire’s jaw clenched as tightly as the face in the illustration. “I’ve told you what happened. I’ve given my testimony to the courts—and I’ve given you and all of your supposedly clever colleagues my very precise account or confession or whatever you call it in the field of psychiatry. Please pardon me if I’ve never bothered to familiarize myself with the unimaginative and drab lingo that you and your witch doctors use. I’m a scientist. I have no interest in wordplay, which is what people of your ilk apparently thrive on.”
She was being a bitch. It wasn’t fair. Dr. Randall was a good man. It was because her mother was here. Claire looked at him earnestly. “My stepfather groomed me over the course of 3 years. When my mother was not around he told me that he would make me the most powerful woman in the world, if I just trusted him. He was overly fond of me. I think you know what that means. He told me lies about my mother, said that if she ever found out about the conversations we had, we’d both be in trouble. He manipulated me and then when he attacked, I defended myself as best I could, which turned out to be pretty well.”
“You stabbed him 37 times.”
“It’s not like I was counting,” she said with a smirk. “I killed him. I’ve admitted it. I reacted savagely…I overreacted. I couldn’t stop.” Now there were tears in her eyes. “But I was a juvenile and in any sane society I would’ve been released by now. But instead, I am accused of madness. My mother turned against me. She claimed I had always been hysterical and delusional.”
“There was nothing to corroborate your claim of what he had done to you.”
“What was I supposed to do!? Wait until he assaulted me!?”
“In saying what you say now, you’re admitting he had not assaulted you up to that point.”
“What he did may not have been assault, but it was abuse.” Claire tore up the drawing she had been working on.
“This was a bad idea,” Dr. Randall said.
“No,” Claire said with a heavy sigh. “I’ll meet her.”
Claire walked with Dr. Randall down the brightly-tinted metal corridors. There were pipes and metal power boxes running along the walls. The patients who were well-behaved, like Claire, were segregated from the general population of the asylum. The corridors were ample and clean. Claire assumed this was due to the asylum being under close scrutiny by the international consortium that funded and staffed it, since they in turn had to answer to the international courts and human rights organizations.
Claire was born into a prosperous Midwestern family. Her father, an engineer, had been killed in an automobile accident. He had been a collector of antique 20th century cars and lost control of one of them as he was joyriding along a country road. Her mother remarried a year later (a quiet man, a computer scientist). Claire had loved her father and distrusted the newcomer from the moment she met him. Claire wondered if he had married her mother just to get close to the teenage prodigy, who was already acquiring a reputation.
The double doors swished open and they were in the holographic community yard. Claire wondered why the directors of the asylum felt the need to simulate a perimeter fence with hurricane wire along the top. There was even a white guard shack built into the fence. Was this all part of the treatment? Maybe the staff feared that if patients thought they were in an open-air glade with no fence, they’d run off into the woods. Claire wasn’t that stupid. Maybe one of the other patients would fall for that. She imagined some poor nut case scrabbling around the metal walls in search of a concealed door behind a holographic tree, thinking they could somehow escape to a shuttle and get off the moon. Claire knew that was an impossibility and anyone who was that deluded probably deserved to be here. Holographic technology wasn’t so advanced as to be able to produce comprehensive environments and tangible surfaces of light, unless such images were projected directly into the human mind through a virtual reality apparatus and suit. The lawn was only partially holographic: the grass was synthetic and it was possible the fence and guard shack were too. Then there was the red-brick building Claire was walking toward, but the forest beyond the fence and the birds in the limpid sky looked very real and very beautiful, but were all an illusion.
Dr. Randall opened the door of the red-brick building and urged Claire to enter. It was a small, modestly decorated dwelling with a kitchenette, a foyer and a bathroom off to the side. It was a humble little hovel, made to look old and used. It wasn’t as clean and charming as the corridors and common rooms of her ward. It looked more like a prison conjugal trailer in some trashy, late 20th century novel.
“Claire,” Dr. Randall said. “I’m going to leave you alone with your mother. You have two hours. And in the spirit of full disclosure, we’re not recording you. Your mother was insistent on that. She’s thought a great deal about this meeting and wants it to be a success. She wants to know her daughter again.”
Claire nodded. She walked over to the couch and sat down. She heard the springs creaking. This made her giggle.
“It’s good to hear your giggling,” the woman said.
Claire looked toward the door that Dr. Randall had exited from. She suddenly felt herself grow cold.
The woman standing there looked the way Claire remembered her mother to be. But that was the problem. She looked exactly the way her mother looked 19 years ago when she’d seen her last. It was a robot. Claire could even hear the faint whirring of the machinery behind the skin.
The robot approached, her face melting into one of maternal love, but then drew back once she sensed Claire’s palpable unease.
Claire analyzed the confused doubt in the robot’s expression, the very expressions that she herself had delineated, defined and wrote the programming for in her sketches and illustrations. The robot shed a tear and wiped it away hastily. Claire grinned, but it was a grin of horror. The directors of the asylum had been using her all these years to create a monster to destroy her.
“Remember when you were a little girl?” the robot asked. “We’d make cookies together. You made the cookies into clown faces. You always liked to make each face unique.” The robot pointed to the kitchenette. There was a counter with a cutting board. The dough had already been spread thin and cookie cutters had cut the outlines of 12 faces. The robot removed the dough and handed them one at a time to Claire who put them on a greased cookie sheet.
“Why did you come here?” Claire asked. She was determined to get to the bottom of this.
“It’s brilliant,” Claire said. “You’re inarticulate. You react with hesitancy and uncertainty, as if you have doubts. But do you yourself feel these emotions, like I do?”
“That’s interesting that you say that, Claire. I’ve spent 19 years trying to figure out for myself whether you feel emotions the same way I do…The way normal people do. I’ve been trying to figure out how you could look back at what you did, as if it was not a crime—not a sin. You took away the ability of another human being to experience these emotions that you claim to understand so lucidly. But a sane person would expect that, after committing a murder, a culprit who was so aware of his or her emotions would at the very least feel the emotion of regret. Have you ever regretted what you did?”
Neither spoke for a full ten minutes until the alarm on the oven signaled that the cookies were done. The robot removed the cookie sheet and put it on the cooling stand.
“There’s still plenty of dough,” Claire said. “We could make some more cookies.”
The robot smiled and seemed relieved, even though Claire had not responded to its inquiry as to whether she felt regret.
“The programming is really incredible,” Claire said aloud. “I didn’t expect you to respond with relief when I chose not to answer your question. The appropriate emotion to feel would have been frustration that I had not responded. But, instead, when I said we could make more cookies, you smiled and your shoulders relaxed.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. You always said confusing things like that as a child. It’s why I called you my little prattle-box”
“Don’t do that!” Claire said. “Don’t say things like that! It’s not your place to use expressions my mother used when I was a child! That is a fault that your designer put into your programming. After consulting with my mother, either you or your designer presumed to program her with verbal expressions that she used around me when I was a child that only she and I would have known. Your behavior shows that you aren’t learning, adapting, or growing. Your sole purpose is to see how I’ll react to improve your algorithms. They simply put you in fresh, unaged skin, plopped a black wig on your head, so that you don’t look as though you’ve aged a day, and set you in front of me to interrogate me.”
“Well,” the robot said sarcastically, “that’s quite the compliment: that I haven’t aged a bit.” However, the robot did not seem pleased. The meeting wasn’t going according to plan. The robot went to the couch and sat on it. “Let’s wait for the cookies to cool. Then you can put buttercream faces on them and can give them any emotions you want.” The intonation of the robot’s voice and the leaden expression on its face seemed to say “so there you go, missy.”
“Sarcasm and irony!” Claire said in astonishment.
What were they trying to do? The whole thing was a set up. Dr. Randall had lied when he said they weren’t recording this. Obviously they were. They were watching her every move. They were trying to get her to slip up, to admit that she regretted what she had done. Claire could bear it no more. This experiment was a violation of her human rights. She would initiate a legal proceeding through the board of directors and would do everything she could to lodge a formal complaint to the consortium’s inspectors at the next opportunity she got. But the inspectors were not scheduled to make their rounds for at least 3 months. She had to act now—to force an emergency visit. The asylum directors had provided a mixing bowl, cookie sheets, batter, cookie cutters, and a rolling pin. There was also a small knife for cutting around the edges of the dough. Claire seized it from the table and closed the distance between herself and the robot in less than 3 seconds.
She stabbed rapidly at the robot’s throat. The robot screamed as a jet of oil shot into Claire’s face. She kept stabbing and slashing. She saw the wires and valves under the skin. The oil splattered all over the couch and on Claire’s white uniform. The robot’s cries alerted the staff who hastily burst through the door and came running into the room. They pulled Claire off the robot. It writhed on the ground as if it were in its death throes. It emitted a horrible, almost human, gurgling sound as it arched its back and turned its face toward Claire, who was now being restrained by two orderlies. Dr. Randall screamed in horror and began to moan. Sparks shot from the robot’s eyes as a black bubble of oil welled from its open mouth. The legs of the robot quivered spasmodically and then the robot’s body slackened.
Claire howled in grief, because the robot was the most perfect embodiment of feeling and personal emotion that she could have ever dreamed of programming. It was as if the robot had contained a soul. And Claire regretted that she had killed it.
Claire was moved to a maximum security section of the asylum. She had been stripped, showered, and given a new uniform. She lay sedated on a bunk in a padded cell.
On the other side of the tinted glass, the director of the asylum outside of Chicago studied the manila folder. The patient had suffered delusions since she was a child. She thought she lived in the late 22nd century and that she was in an asylum on the surface of the moon. Indisputably a savant, Claire had withdrawn further into her strange world when her father died in an automobile accident in 1975. Claire’s stepfather, an accomplished computer scientist, tried to draw her out of her shell. He encouraged her to become an engineer and she was doing so well. No one ever knew what drove her to kill him. Claire’s mother was devastated. She acceded to the ruling of the court, which was that her daughter was unfit for society and would need to be committed to an asylum for the criminally insane for the rest of her life. There had been talk of parole based on her excellent behavior.
The director closed the file and sighed. Poor Dr. Randall. He would lose his license for this. All he had wanted to do was help, but his unorthodox scheme to bring Claire’s mother to the asylum and leave her with her daughter unsupervised, had never been authorized by the courts or the asylum’s board of trustees. One of the orderlies that had subdued Claire after she stabbed her mother in the throat quit that day. The scene and experience was too horrific. With a heavy heart, the director signed the last of the court forms he was obliged to fill out. He dated it May 22, 1996. When he looked up, he saw that Claire was awake and was standing directly in front of him staring fixedly into the tinted glass.
Claire couldn’t see through the glass. She touched it, and it was only then that she noticed that there was still a streak of oil from the robot on her hand. She pretended she hadn’t seen that in case they were recording her. She touched the glass again. She saw her reflection behind the dark tint. Then she gasped in surprise. There was no end to the asylum’s ingenuity. It wasn’t her reflection she was looking at. It was another robot made to look exactly like her. It even moved the way she moved. Now she understood why the asylum had put this glass partition between her and this second robot, considering the awkward incident that took place this afternoon. Claire lowered her eyes and whispered very quietly to the robot. Then she looked up to see if the robot had heard what she had just said. It winked at her, which meant it had heard her. This was craftsmanship beyond anything she could ever have imagined. She found herself talking to the robot by simply moving her lips, and the robot understood her and responded in kind. After 19 years of loneliness, Claire had found a friend.