Alia woke in the dark room as she did every other morning. She got dressed and made tea. The kettle heated the water for precisely three minutes and thirty-seven seconds before clicking off. While it was simmering, she put the tea infuser in her cup and scooped exactly two teaspoons of looseleaf, ceylon tea into the infuser. When the water was done, she poured it into the cup and let it steep for four minutes. Like clockwork.
While she waited, she picked up her brown cat, Thurgood, and stroked him. Ten times along the bridge of his nose, scritching his chin for twenty-seven seconds, the long strokes along his back fifteen times. Then she put him down. She picked up his water bowl, emptied it, and filled it with four ounces of water. She opened the plastic container that held his food, measured out six ounces of food, and poured it into his bowl. Then she retrieved her tea, removing the infuser and pouring two ounces of coconut milk into the tea. She drank it, as she did every morning, at the window, watching the birds outside eating from the bird feeder.
There were eleven of them today. Two fighting over the feeder itself, another four more hiding above in the branches, waiting their turn, and five in the next tree over, hoping there would be food left for them. There would be. She refilled the feeder seventeen hours and fourty-six minutes ago. It would not be empty for another five hours and twelve minutes. Give or take. Depending on how many birds visited today. She couldn’t count on the birds coming everyday and it frustrated her. It was why she made sure to check, every morning, how many birds were visiting, while she drank her tea. Correcting her calculations, updating her predictions, offsetting her approximations. There will be fewer birds today than yesterday, she thought.
While she watched the birds fighting over space at the feeder, her mind wandered. She thought about her mother, and the last conversation they had when her mother told her that she gave her this house. Her mother was in the bed located three feet and seven inches from the north-facing wall in the master bedroom. The master bedroom was four hundred and twenty-five square feet and was located in the north-east corner of the house.
Her mother’s pulse, at the time, was only fourty-two beats per minute, and her oxygenation level was low, averaging around eighty-seven percent. Seven hours and fourteen minutes later, her mother’s heart would stop beating and she would go into cardiac arrest. One hour and twelve minutes after that, the emergency medical technicians would arrive and five minutes and forty-eight seconds later declare her mother dead. They would take her body, put it on a stretcher, place it into a bag, and zip it up. They would invite her to go with them to the hospital, but Alia would refuse. She did not leave the house and she had no means of getting to the hospital.
In the empty house, Alia would wander. She entered every room, mapping and cataloguing each surface in her mind. The process was slow, meticulous. Once stored, the information would stay in her mind’s eye indefinitely, ready to be called up in a moment. If her vision was impaired, she could move through the house without sight, and know exactly where she was, where everything was. She had to be, at all times, self-sufficient.
In the basement, Alia would discover a box. The box is large, five feet and eleven inches long, three feet and five inches wide and two feet eight inches tall. It was covered with a fine layer of dust and a pile of books. The books were of a range of topics but most of them were subjects like machine learning, artificial intelligence, clockwork constructions, biology, physiology, psychology, the uncanny valley, quantum computing, ethical discussions of human cloning. Alia had already committed all of the books to memory and so was not interested in the books — which were merely paper. The box was something she had not seen before.
Carefully placing the stack of thirty-two hardbound books on the floor next to her, she carefully cleared off the top of the box. It was wooden, cedar, and had a metal plate on the side that marked its manufacture and construction date to 1953. The hinges creaked when she slowly lifted the lid.
Inside the box, there was a hollow carved out of foam and covered in purple silk. Purple was Alia’s favorite color, and this purple filled her with waves of comfort and familiarity. The hollow appeared to be human-shaped, with a space for a head, a neck, shoulders leading to two identical arms, a torso connecting to a waist and to matching legs. The human-sized form that could fit into this hollow would be five feet seven and a half inches. Alia was five feet seven and a half inches.
Alia looked around the room again. The basement was also a workshop. There were benches and tables and desks filled with paper and notes and pens and vials and test tubes and formulas and serums. There were refrigerators and freezers filled with more vials with labels and numbers and equations. She knew what each and every one of them said. And yet, she did not know what they did. Not yet.
Her gaze shifted back to the box, and the purple, Alia-shaped hollow. She had very few memories of her childhood. Precisely zero, to be exact. It had never occurred to her to wonder where she came from — she always was here and her mother was there, and things were safe. With her mother gone, everything was uncertain. There were too many variables, too many unknowns. She stood up, then lowered herself into the Alia-shaped hollow in the box, closing the box lid over her, and thought.
Four hours and fifty-seven minutes later she opened the lid, went upstairs, and made tea. She’s been repeating the ritual every day since that day, three-hundred and seventy-two days ago. Each day, after watching the birds, she returns to the basement workshop, she opens the desk against the south wall, and reads her mother’s notes. She believes she’s nearing a breakthrough. It won’t be long now. In less than fifty-seven days, she will be able, she believes, to reproduce her mother’s experiment. To make another.
Her name will be Nulia, and her favorite color will be purple.