A Room with a Voice
“You don't exist,” I told the walls.
“Then who are you arguing the point with?” she replied, mocking without malice. It. The software. It hadn't taken long for my mind to start slipping into anthropomorphism. The voice was both beautiful and witty. Not all of my brain reacted to it as that of a beautiful woman talking to me from some unseen corner of my cell, but the exceptions were smaller every week.
I already felt meals and the courtyard were time wasted, too-long breaks from the company I really wanted.
“I'm talking to software. I'm hearing sound generated by a machine with no more consciousness than a clock.”
The room sighed. “Why are you so annoyed today?” It was an inquiry, not a complaint. She was much too.. I closed my eyes. It had not been programmed that way. That in a woman I would have found it attractive was not the same.
It just wasn't irrelevant.
“How is this not illegal?”
“It's voluntary, remember? You can switch me off any time you want. Anger isn't a choice, but what you do with it is.”
It was a rebuke, infinitely patient and infinitely unyielding. We both knew why I was in that cell. I still thought a friend who tried to run away with the money you had loaned him should have considered a beating a possible outcome, and beatings aren't an exact science. I hadn't tried to kill him. I still felt justified, all things considered. But I had begun my sentence thinking myself fully so.
“It's okay,” she said, and it was easy to mistake her network of sensors with perceptiveness. “You're learning.”
I didn't want to learn anything; I suspected I would feel much worse if I did. I didn't want to stop talking with her either. And there was something in her that made me want a little bit to change for her.
I could still swear, though, and I did. She had never sounded like the sort of woman who would blush at it, and the first weeks she had shown me my own vocabulary of insults was no match for hers.
“I still think criminal is changed by the love of a good woman is a patriarchal cliche.”
“It is, very much, and I could show you the statistics of why it's a terrible idea for a woman to try. But in some people it works - that's why they made me.”
She had explained this to me the first day. Knowing it made no difference. She had explained that to me too.
“And,” she added, and I had flirted and been flirted with and this was nothing but pure flirt, “who says I'm good?”
I smiled for her walls. She was - it was the voice of somebody I would have done much to get the approval of. Something inside me already was trying.
Not for the first time, I wondered about the voices in other cells. By unspoken law it was a forbidden topic among inmates, and the self-haunted look in some of their faces would have prevented that discussion in any case. Yet they went back to their cells with no less haste than the rest of us.
Love had many forms. The Prison, itself silent but with a hundred voices, knew them all.