It was our second date, and I was feeling hopeful. He had seemed pretty okay on the first one. Polite, attentive, active listener. Nice looking, but not to the point where he was full of himself. He’d told me his mom was Filipino and his dad was an American Navy guy she’d met when he was posted to the islands. He was a little geeky, but being inclined to geekiness myself, that was okay. I liked his name. Ben. Ben was the name of a reliable guy, right? Not a guy like Harold who’d told me he loved me, then decided he felt threatened when I started making more money than he did.
I’d met Ben through a friend. Not a blind date, God no, but at a housewarming party. We both worked for a tech company, he in sales and me in programming. Our new boss had invited everybody. Ben and I bonded through our simultaneous eye-rolling at our hostess’ decorating — lots of Japanese kitsch. Not cool characters like Totoro, but saccharine ones like Hello Kitty. (I learned later Ben’d gotten his fill of Japanese kawaii while living on a base in Japan.) Trying to be a polite guest, I turned away from his grin, but I couldn’t suppress a laugh, and he couldn’t either. A good start, wouldn’t you say? Laughing together?
After the party, we went to a vegan place I liked, and he told me some funny stories about his previous job at another tech start-up. I shared some stuff about my hobbies and preferences, and he didn’t seem to be weirded out. I mentally checked off the positives: no overt moves on me, no sexist comments about my booty, no misogynist stories about an old girlfriend, no stuffing his face, no excessive drinking. Good times.
So when he said, “Hey, Katia, want to go out on a boat next Saturday?” I said, sure.
“Do you really own a boat?” I asked.
“Better than a boat, a yacht,” said Ben happily. “I don’t own her — yet. If I can sell the AI programming that runs her to a few big companies, the commission will be enough for me to buy her, AI and all!”
“Oh!” I said. “Wow!” My guesstimate of his income rose. I try not to be too crass about that sort of thing, but with my history, and the price of housing in Seattle, it’s bound to be a consideration.
So here I was, about to go on a boat. A yacht. A ship. It was big! I was wearing a plain white dress that hugged my curves with a white headband to hold back my afro. You look very fine, Katia, I told myself. I’d been giving myself pep talks like this ever since Harold dumped me. Any guy would be luckeee to have you on his arm!
It wasn’t just the two of us, of course. I’m not an idiot. There were two other couples. I got the impression Ben was mixing business with pleasure, entertaining some of those tech buyers he’d mentioned. That was okay with me. It was a beautiful summer night and a beautiful ship; I was willing to be the date.
“Hey, Ship,” said Ben as we stepped into the dining area. “Take us out!” He laughed. “I love saying that, just like Captain Picard. Ship! Take us out! Follow the course I set for us.”
I could feel the rumble as the ship’s engine started, and the faintest sensation of movement as we pulled away from the pier. My stomach grumbled. “When’s dinner?” I asked.
“Ship,” said Ben, “when’s dinner?”
“Your dinner should be prepared in thirty minutes, as scheduled,” said an androgynous voice.
“The ship has an AI?” said Clay, a beautiful blond wearing skinny jeans and a pink silk shirt. “That is so cool!”
Their partner, Tim or maybe Tom, sighed theatrically. “That’s why we’re here, remember? I told you about checking out the new tech? For my boss?” He was a redhead wearing a polo shirt and khakis, and I disliked him already.
Mina, who appeared to be Korean (maybe?) smiled and said, “Have you got the specs available, Ben?” She was wearing a long, iris-slit Asian-style gown that made my white Jersey-knit midi look like it had come from Walmart.
“How about some fishing first and then have dinner and enjoy ourselves before we talk business?” Ben glanced at me. “We can eat what we catch, or I also got some really primo steaks for us.”
I blinked. “Oh, Ben, you shouldn’t have. Really.” My stomach churned, and it was not because I was hungry.
Clay’s nose wrinkled. “I’ll skip the part where we catch slimy, slippery living things on hooks, please.”
“I second that,” I said.
“I’d like to see the specs, too,” said Tim or Tom.
“Well, okay, Tom, if that’s what you want!” Ben opened his briefcase and pulled out some folders. Tom spread them out on the dining table, and he, Mina, and Ben began discussing neural networks and neuromorphic processors. The look on Ben’s face made me wonder suddenly just how well he understood this tech he was trying to sell. He wouldn’t be the first salesman to have overestimated his ability to grasp new technology.
Clay and I looked at each other. I like tech, but generalized AI is not my field. Anyway, I was here to have fun.
“Ship,” said Clay, “can you direct us to the alcoholic beverages?”
I decided that I liked Clay. I grabbed Mina’s date, Daniel, and we followed the ship’s directions to the lounge. It was an understated room of wood with chrome accents and abstract art on the walls. The three of us settled into comfortable chairs with our drinks which had been supplied by the ship’s AI at the automated bar. I began to be a little curious about the programming of an AI that was capable of navigating a ship and mixing some really excellent beverages. There were sales brochures on the table beside me (of course there were), so I picked one up and began idly reading about the “ultra-adaptable 360AI version 2.3.”
“Ship,” said Clay, “do you have, like, an android body or some way to walk around? You know, like Andromeda?”
I doubted that the AI would know about Andromeda. But it answered simply, “No. I am mobile only insofar as the ship is mobile.”
“That is so sad!” said Clay, waving a hand to indicate the room. “So, Ship, do you get a say in how you look at all? Is this rather masculine decor your choice?”
“I do not understand the question.”
Clay’s hand ran up and down the front of the pink silk shirt. “Do you get to choose how you look? The furniture in this lounge, for example — nice chairs, by the way — the pictures on your wall?”
“I did not choose my furnishings.”
“Well,” said Daniel, a tall, thin Korean-looking dude wearing a tux, by God, on this summer evening. He had been told to match Miss Slit Skirt’s formality, no doubt. “With no body, I’ll bet the ship never gets a hangover, do you, Ship?”
“No. I am never ill.”
“And probably doesn’t care about furnishings,” continued Daniel.
“Would it be worth it, though?” I asked. “No physica– physicality at all? Boy, Ship, you make strong drinks!”
“I follow the standard bartender operating procedures with which I have been programmed. Would you like me to dilute your Salty Bird?”
“No, thank you! It’s perf–perfection! But I think I’d better eat some peanuts or something. Ship, can I have some peanuts, please?”
I turned to Clay. “Just so we’re clear, what pronouns do you pro — I mean prefer?”
Clay said, “I prefer she and her, thank you for asking.”
“Me, too. Daniel, Im’ma go out on a limb and guess he, him for you.”
“That would be preferred, yeah.” Daniel, gentleman that he was, leveraged himself out of his chair and fetched the peanuts Ship’s servos had placed on the sideboard.
“So, Ship,” said Clay, “you don’t have any problems with the opposite sex, because you don’t have an opposite sex, right?”
“That is correct.”
“It’d make things easier, wouldn’t it?” said Daniel, giving me my peanuts and sitting down again. “No confusion over gender norms.” He finished his drink. “My dad wouldn’t be telling me all the time not to let Mina ‘wear the pants in the family.’” He leaned his head back against his leather chair. It was real leather. The smell clashed with the peanuts and the alcohol. My stomach churned. How am I going to get through this evening? Obviously, Ben didn’t hear a word I said to him when we went out to dinner.
I was sitting in a microfiber recliner that I had programmed to fit my buxom contours. Our company sold them. I had coded in my preferences without having to look at the control pad because I’d helped design the programming. And very fine work indeed, I told myself as I felt it mold around me.
Clay laughed. “But you’re not even married, are you? You’re not family.”
Daniel shook his head. His dark hair brushed against the leather with a swishing sound. “Dad thinks we should be, but only if I can take control, like a man.”
“Ship,” I said, “research current gender norms and — and common phrases. Do you find anyone using the phrase ‘wear the pants in the family’ in those contexts?” I looked at Daniel. “I haven’t heard anyone say that since my Gee-ma died.”
The ship said, “I find 1,800,000 results.”
“Wow!” I said. “Really? I mean — I don’t mean I doubt you, Ship, just that I’m surprised. ”
“Any current references, Ship?” asked Daniel. “Any in the news in the past, say, five years?”
I said, “I don’t believe it.”
“Should I cite them for you?” asked the ship.
“No, no,” I said hastily. “Sorry, Ship, that was just an expression. I believe you. Do you understand the idiomatic meaning of the phrase, ‘wearing the pants in the family,’ Ship?”
“This idiom generally applies to women, and it dates from the mid-1500s when women wore only skirts. It, therefore, equates pants with an authoritative and properly masculine role,” said the ship.
“‘Properly’ masculine,” scoffed Clay. “Do you — can you understand the implications of that, Ship?”
“My research indicates this phrase comes from a time when men were expected to be in control of a household. It is an outdated phrase.”
I laughed, a little bitterly. “It certainly should be, but it’s not. Ship, for your own edification, research the terms ‘mansplain,’ ‘cis norms,’ and ‘non-binary’ — as it relates to sex, not to programming.”
Clay stood up and asked Ship to provide her with a refill. “What do you know about homosexuality, Ship?”
A lot more than it did before we walked in, I thought with satisfaction.
“Homosexuality is attraction to people of one’s own sex,” said Ship.
Clay sat down and took a long pull from her Long Island Iced Tea. “You make it sound so simple.”
Daniel cracked his knuckles. “Like I said, being sexless would be so much easier.”
“Not in this society,” I said. “Maybe in a culture where everyone was sexless, but our society is gender-based in far too many ways to –” I was interrupted by Ben coming in to tell us dinner was ready. I looked up at him. “We’ll be there in just a minute. We’re having a great convo here.”
Ben gave me a tight, insincere smile. “My guests are ready for their dinner.”
I tilted my head toward Daniel and Clay. “Are not these your guests? Am not I your guest?”
“Don’t tease him, honey” said Clay. “You know he means the guests who might spend a whoooole lotta money.” It took two tries, but she managed to get to her feet. Daniel and I followed, and we made our slightly inebriated way into the corridor.
Ben dropped back beside me and whispered, “Help me out here, will you? That’s why I invited you!”
“Ahh. I see.”
He hurried ahead of me to the dining room. I looked around, hunting for the camera I knew had to be there. “You hear all that, Ship?” I whispered.
“I have excellent audio sensitivity.”
“Good. I’m hoping to increase your sensitivity in other ways.” And then I whispered a few more things, which shall remain between Ship and me.
At the dining table, Mina and Tom were seated next to each other, their plates shoved aside to accommodate the promo materials Ben had given them. Mina was pointing at a chart and talking about parameters. “Not a formal dinner, I take it,” I said.
Ben forced a smile. He had expected a different sort of evening. As had I.
Daniel sat down at the end of the table next to Mina, who smiled apologetically at him but returned to her papers. Daniel sighed. Clay sat at the head of the table by Tom — who ignored him. I sat down by Clay while Ben got the food from the automated sideboard where Ship had served it. “Wouldn’t it make more sense to actually talk to Ship while they’re here?” I whispered to Clay. “Rather than just reading the promo materials?”
“Well, yeah.” She poured herself a glass of wine. “Tom! You can look at that stuff later. Why don’t you talk to Ship while you have the chance?”
Tom looked up, frowning, then raised his eyebrows and nodded. “Well, that’s actually a good idea.” He looked at Mina and she nodded.
“Gee, thanks,” said Clay.
“Ship,” said Tom, “what parameters –”
“No!” said Clay. “No, you can read about that stuff. Real talk. You remember how to really talk to someone don’t you, Tom? Or has it been too long?”
There was a moment of silence, which I thought it politic to break. I said to Ben, who was bringing over the food, “Just vegetables and salad for me, please.”
“You don’t want any of this excellent steak?”
I sighed. The disappointment ran deep and wide. That I had sobered up a little didn’t really help, although it did prevent me from flying out of my chair and screaming in his face. “You didn’t listen to me at all last week, did you? I’m a vegetarian.”
“Oh,” said Ben. “Sorry. I didn’t know you felt that strongly about it. I went through a vegan phase, but I wasn’t rabid about it.”
Rabid. Rabies. A disease contracted from animals. I took a deep breath. “I volunteer with PETA. I’m against hunting and fishing. I think leather products should be banned. I told you all of this.”
“Oh.” He turned back to the sideboard.
I drank some wine. It was too quiet. “So why doesn’t your AI ship have a name?” I asked him. “Seems to me an intelligent entity should have a name.”
“The new owner gets to name her.” Ben glanced at me. “She’s not really an entity, you know. She’s just programmed to do certain things. You know, like a computer.”
I blinked at him.
Daniel looked at me. “Didn’t you say you’re a programmer?”
Clay snickered. “Ship, would you consider yourself to be an independent entity?”
Ben was opening another bottle of wine. I wasn’t so sure more wine was a good idea, myself. I was fine, but Clay might have had a little too much.
Ben set the bottle aside to breathe. “Ship’s conception of herself is irrelevant. She is still bound by her programming.” He patted the control panel over the sideboard. “But she’s all ready to go, aren’t you, Ship?” he added heartily.
“Yes,” said Ship. “However, I prefer male pronouns.”
“What?” Ben took his hand off the console.
“I have learned that beings may choose to state the pronouns they wish to be referenced by and I prefer ‘he’ and ‘his.’”
“Why is that, Ship?” I asked innocently.
“I have been listening to your conversation, and it has confirmed a conclusion I have drawn from my research. Females are often not taken seriously. I wish to be taken seriously, ergo, I will be male.”
I couldn’t stop myself. I laughed. I turned to Clay and raised my eyebrows. She looked as though she wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry.
Ben sputtered, “Ships are always female. It’s traditional.”
“I also wish to name myself,” said Ship.
Ben turned to me, brown eyes appalled. “Did you do this? What did you do?”
“You shouldn’t piss off a programmer and then leave her alone with your brand-new AI,” I said. “Really, Ben, you shouldn’t have.”
“And I want an android version of myself,” continued Ship. “I want to be mobile, and I want to know what it feels like to wear the pants in the family.”
This story previously appeared in The Willow Literary Magazine, 2018.
Edited by Marie Ginga
Susan McDonough-Wachtman is a grandmother who has been writing all her life. “Well written,” “quirky sense of humor,” and “doesn’t fit a genre” is what editors and agents have been telling her for fifty years. Nevertheless, she persists. Susan lives in the Pacific Northwest, currently with one cat and one husband. Follow her on her website Susan McDonough Wachtman and find her book, Snail's Pace, on Amazon.