His very first memory is of fireflies. They surround him in an iridescent spray. Hang flickering and curious in his vision, and then dart liquid-quick away into the dark. Being alive is a strange sensation to him, and he wonders how long it will last. The fireflies, as they spawn and vanish, might be his cousins in lifespan. He does not know. It is still too early to tell.
The moments persist, and he finds that he continues to live. This condition, this awareness might not be temporary. He might have to get used to it. It might be worse than the drifting dark of unbeing. Or it might be better. Curiosity thrills through him. Maybe the fireflies will know.
He reaches out a hand to touch them. To communicate. One of them strikes his open palm and is immediately extinguished.
He hears noise. It is loud but fluctuates in tone and is punched through with irregular intervals of silence. Later, when he replays this memory, he will recognize it as speech. A man's voice, deep and insistent, yelling "what are you doing up? You're not even half complete, and you're supposed to be running in anesthetic. Damn welder must've triggered an alertness algorithm."
Something not-firefly crosses his vision. It is white and cohesive at first, but then he magnifies the image and finds that it is in fact an intricate tangle of fibers. Like the roots of a tree, blanched and exposed. He wonders at it. The instant passes and it is gone.
He is not sure how he knows this—and probably never will be; his records claim that the scripts that handle persistent objects are not running at the time—but he understands that there is a presence where he cannot see it. Behind him, moving. Deep pressure sensors go off. Something is being done to the insides of him. The fireflies have stopped.
There is nothing to announce its coming. Nonexistence abruptly overtakes him.
His second memory is of being born. It is neither painful nor uncomfortable. He does not know this is remarkable. He simply stands up and asks where he is. The metal slab beneath him slides away and his feet begin to gather data on what it is like to stand. A quarter breath later, his initialization scripts kick in.
Information sluices through him. It moves in blinding torrents of molten gold, so hot that everything around it goes numb. Names, languages, history and arithmetic, the rules of courtesy and decorum, average lengths for the bills of crested egrets, where to strike a man so that he neither bleeds nor shows the bruise, the chemical composition of a perfect brownie. Subscripts kick in, scrubbing and sorting and scrapping and categorizing the information until it can be assembled into an exoskeleton of knowledge. The bare braces for reasoning around which identity can be built. At the moment he has none, so childish reflexes kick in and he asks "who am I?"
The information stream dwindles to a trickle. And then a drip. And then it's cut off.
Search routines dip into the well of his knowledge and bring back relevant facts. He's standing in a room. It has four walls and one door. The door's made of metal with an old fashioned latch. It is closed. Behind him is the slab on which he was born. In front of him is a chair. The chair seats a man. Upon his chin is a coherent white growth that reminds him of tree roots. A beard.
The beard is moving. The man is talking. "You are standing in the awakening chamber of my laboratory. It adjoins the main corridor, from which you can reach the workshop, repair bay, relaxation arcology, physical training enclosure, and visualization chamber. The rest of the laboratory is closed to you. This has not been hardscripted into your being, but I would appreciate your cooperation. My appreciation is linked to positive feedback in your system. You will feel good following my requests and seek to fulfill them.
As for who you are, I can only give you unhelpful specifics. You are a third generation autonomous entity. You are made of wires and metal, not meat. You do not require periodic injections of sustenance to remain aware. Simple exposure to energy within safe thresholds will be sufficient. Unsafe thresholds are linked to negative feedback. You have been hardscripted not to harm me.
Simply put, I do not know who you are any more than you do. You will have to navigate the problem by yourself. I can, however, tell you my name. Call me L."
A thick curtain of data parts, revealing the proper response. He nods.
L seems delighted. He claps his hands together and the pinkish mass of his face splits towards to the bottom. This is grinning. "Come with me. I'll show you to the physical training enclosure and introduce you to someone who can teach you the basics of movement." He stands up and walks to the door, turning the latch. "Come on."
The third generation autonomous entity totters after him on fully grown newborn legs.
His tutor is called the Greg. It even has the name spray-stenciled on one of its broad, flat sides. The Greg is a box on wheels, with periscope mounted audio/video sensors and a pair of poorly articulated claws that it waves enthusiastically in greeting. Speakers hidden somewhere within the box crackle to life as it approaches, and it emits a burst of white noise that causes L to clap his hands over his ears.
"Sorry," bleats the Greg, "discomfort was not intended."
"It never is." L shakes his head slowly from side to side. "I need a baseline reading on the new guy here. He also needs to develop an index of his capabilities. Do you think you can handle those without deafening him?"
"He will not be damaged irreparably."
"Good enough. I will be in the repair bay should anything occur."
L walks away, unobserved. Neither the Greg nor its new student is paying him any attention. They are distracted by the newness of each other. They study each other like feral dogs. A subroutine is run to determine who would win if the two of them fought. It comes up inconclusive.
"Right now, I think you might."
The Greg bobs its periscope. Then it scurries off to the far side of the training enclosure where a bucket of tennis balls sits. "First we will review hand-eye coordination. Catch."
It turns out that all the data in the world about what a tennis ball is and how you catch one is no substitute for experience. He catches roughly one out of four. The rest are left meandering around the fringes of the physical training enclosure until L returns, arms slathered in machine grease and with burn marks dotting his lab coat. "How did he do?"
Wheels squeal as the Greg races over to oblige L with a spurt of numbers. It waves his hands, rocks back and forth, and eagerly tries to run through the numbers again when they finally end. L holds up a hand, stopping it. "That's good. Thank you. He's ahead of projections by a small margin. I hope I can trust you to maintain that. He will meet with you again tomorrow. Perhaps you can run through some more complex activities. In the meantime, you are not needed. You may wait."
The Greg acknowledges with a solemn nod. It folds its arms against its sides, lowers its periscope, and deactivates itself. Over the purr of its CPU winding down, L addresses the still unnamed third generation entity. "Was that suitably educational?"
He's responded to with a nod.
"Good, although we have to get you talking more. I'm about to go and have dinner. Why don't you join me?"
Another nod starts, then quickly changes to "yes." L smiles beatifically at him while positive feedback circuits kick in, injecting into his system a sense of accomplishment. "I would like that."
They dine in the arcology; on a little wooden platform covered in flowering vines that hangs suspended from the ceiling. Beneath them, all around, is the inverted dome that separates them from the world outside. A city sprawls beyond it, pulsating in neon. L pays it little attention. He is eating steak.
According to the database, steak is both delicious and expensive. It is also not a soft food, and requires some careful tearing before being introduced to the digestive system. The steady rhythm of chewing periodically occupies L's mouth, making for holes in the conversation with his guest.
The third generation entity knows that it therefore falls on him to carry on parts of the conversation, introducing new topics at will or elaborating on old ones. In between the seconds his search routines are making a careful study of what it is appropriate to speak about, but it helps him little. He is as unpracticed with social interactions as he was with the tennis balls. He says as much.
L swallows a piece of formerly living matter. "That's the whole point of the exercise. If you did have the experience already, we wouldn't need to do this. So, ask me something."
He picks at random. "What do you think about the arts?"
"I think they're a noble endeavor. I think you can't ever transmit perfectly a feeling from person to person, but they try, the artists. They aspire to that standard of perfection even though they know they must ultimately fall short. As an inventor, I must merely achieve utility. My job is easy. Theirs is impossible, but they have been working at it since the dawn of time. I can't help but admire that sort of futility.
What about you? What do you think of the arts?"
Articulated metal fingers fold and unfold; a gesture designed to convey nervousness or uncertainty. "I have no experience with them. How can I form an opinion?"
L dexterously saws down the center of his meal, dividing it in half. "I don't know the answer to that question, but it is probably irrelevant. You are wrong with your first claim. Walk the edge of the platform, look at your reflection in the dome, and tell me what you see."
He complies. "I see a figure shaped like a man. I see him dressed in a costume Shakespearean, metal and plastic worked to resemble bits of pointless frill and lace. I see his face is too pale and a black domino mask obscures the upper half of it. I see-"
"Yes. Good enough. Now tell me, are any of those features essential to your function?"
"No. I could exist without them."
"Then you are art."
"But you have features that play no role in your existence." A hand is waved towards L's beard. "Are you art?"
"No. I'm human."
After dinner is entertainment. They go to the visualization chamber together. Inert, it is a stark white cylinder of a room with a small raised dais in the center. There are lenses and speakers hidden in the curve of the walls. He counts them while L moves to the dais. 43.
"I'm sure you have memories of how this room works. Come over here."
Chagrin is experienced. He does have those memories, but he hasn't yet tasked his search routines with digging through them. A second passes and he discovers that the room is only effective when all of its occupants are standing on the dais. He moves to join L.
"Good. Let's begin. Is there anything in particular you would like to see?"
"Well, I'm in the mood for music, so let's compromise." L withdraws an oblong shape from one of the pockets of his lab coat. It's a remote. He presses buttons and suddenly the walls bloom with life.
L and the third generation entity are surrounded with sensation. To their left and right yawn vast stretches of humanity. Seats full of men and women in eveningwear facing forward, oblivious to their material company, staring down at the outthrust lip of a wooden stage above which thick velvet curtains are slowly sliding back. "Turandot. It's been ages since I've seen this one." L says this over a swell of orchestral sound.
The third generation entity does not answer him. He is focused on the stage, rapt. His senses have gone numb. Diagnostics programs run, deduce that he is suffering partial sensory overload and that some of the incoming experience is being lost, but are blocked from shutting down either his audio or video input. He watches in silence, determined to drink everything in.
When the singing begins, at first he is unsure what to make of it. He understands, of course, the nature of sound and the elements of musical theory and the way human lungs pump air through a series of narrow passages to produce sound. But he does not understand this. It is like spending years studying cellular chemistry and then being shown a human being. Or a god.
Their costumes are so absurd, so obviously without function that they mock themselves. Imaginary singers, ghosts caught in digital, strut up and down the stage like kestrels. They are puffed up. Looking for mates. Their calls echo with loss and desire.
It is all a pantomime of reality. An impossibility held up like a mirror to the audience, telling them see? This is what you're really all about. He calls up file after file of data; history, psychology, pulp romance novels. He agrees with the mirror. This is what they're really all about.
It seems to last forever, but eventually the performance ends. In torture, death, and marriage for the characters. In roses for their players. In revelation for him. He is exultant.
L removes the remote again from his coat and presses a single button. The audience vanishes. The walls wipe themselves clear. "What do you think?"
He already knows the answer, but he asks the question anyways. He wants the spoken confirmation. "What is that called?"
"Opera," L pronounces each syllable distinctly.
"Opera," he repeats, and knows that it has become his name.
So ends his first day alive.