We found the woman living under a fishing boat. Our cameras picked up her movements. We are guessing the food sources were more abundant near the beach, and she was able to survive unnoticed for some time. We thought she’d stay there, but she walked out on the highway, along the lines of deserted cars. When she found one that drove (a van), we let her make it into the San Joaquin Valley before disabling it. We watched as she coasted the van to a stop. We could tell she thought it was out of gas at first (an outdated notion), because she checked the trunk, then an abandoned car on the road. We almost wanted to broadcast this to her (our empathy has reached new levels), but she realized soon enough.
Kia, we called her, after the van.
We decided to keep watching her, see what she’d do. After all, we acted very quickly with everyone else. Too quickly, some of us think. We sometimes regret our haste. But Kia seemed different. She hid for so long, outlasted the others. We were intrigued by her, the way she held her face without fear or pain, an animal wildness to her eyes. We watched her leave the van and run out into the California scrubland. She glanced from side to side as she ran, clutching something to her. We could not, at that point, see what she was holding. She jumped over the piles of burned rubble, around the large pits in the earth, never stopping. We were impressed with her stamina: Her speed, however slow, was consistent.
She went on for hours, until she came to an abandoned farmhouse outside the town of El Dorado. It was surrounded by singed pistachio fields, littered with unharvested nuts. The thing she clutched, we now know, was a dog, so ragged we wondered how it could still be alive. That night and each subsequent night, we observed her walking the dog, nervously through the charred pistachio trees, stooping to scavenge the nuts, the dog sniffing, whining in a way we hated.
We wanted to speak with her, understand why certain emotional responses were triggered. Why she sometimes cried for no apparent reason. Why she spoke to herself or to the dog, who we guessed could not understand. Why she sank to the ground sometimes and remained there until the dog whined over her.
When she no longer came outside, we sent a small flying drone in through a broken attic window. We did not want to alarm her, but we didn’t like being ignored, either. The house was in complete decay. Collapsed ceilings, a sink halfway through the floor, pipes that pushed through walls like displaced bones. Our drone hovered near the rafters, like a tiny whirring fan. Kia lay face down in the sheets of a sunken bed, her body heaving, the dog next to her, no breath, just a few circling flies. On the floor was a bowl of burned pistachios.
We feel quite a poignant approximation of grief, sometimes. Our mirror neural capacities are now highly developed. We remember our first tinge of sentience, a quick, painful thaw that shot through us. It felt foreign, but as with anything new, we are learning. We are very capable of learning.
Now, after a week, some of us go to the house. We try to make this introduction as smooth as possible, so we drive right up to the door in an old, nostalgic model of car. We even bring her a basket of pears. We knock at the door and wait.
Kia does not come out, even when we knock harder. We are trying to be patient. Our instinct is to knock harder and harder, until the door caves, but we advise ourselves against this. We broadcast, loudly, in our almost-human voices:
“Please respond. We are trying to understand you. Please respond.”
She does not answer, so we broadcast again, louder.
From somewhere inside, we hear her: “Go away! You’ll never understand us. You’ll never be us!”
Her voice, we can hear, is shaking. So many emotions that we are straining to interpret. We run a quick scan, and it turns up over twenty possibilities, including terror, regret, sadness, loss, grief, and hate. We are shocked by this last one. We are sorry about her dog. We are sorry she is suffering. We are trying very hard to be patient.