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“Chie-chan --”

“I'm a goat!”

“You're a what?”

“I'm a goat!” Chie bounces off the sofa, careening straight into Akiko's legs before running off towards the piano shouting “BAAAA!”

Akiko blinks after her.

“Apologies.” Shimei gives her a slightly harassed-looking bow. Sometimes Akiko entertains herself by calculating the probability that Shimei was specifically designed to look slightly harassed – whether some psychologist somewhere determined that it was important for a child to see visible proof that her behavior might exhaust her guardian. “We went yesterday to visit a petting zoo. It seems to have made an impression.”

“But she's a cat,” says Akiko. She becomes aware that her face is a blank, and rearranges it hastily to show surprised animation. “I mean, not really, of course she's not a cat! But as long as I've known her, she's always said she was a cat, so...”

“Well,” Shimei says, matter-of-fact, “now she's a goat.” Akiko rubs her temples, with an exaggerated sigh, and Shimei chuckles. “Don't look so surprised! Children change quickly, you know. Six months from now, maybe she'll be a dog. In a year maybe she'll be big enough to be an elephant – or maybe she'll be a little girl by then after all. The one thing you can't do is get too used to who she is today, or you'll be disappointed tomorrow.”

“I got used to it,” says Akiko ruefully, and they both laugh.

The bell sounds over the door, and Akiko turns to see a middle-aged woman walk hesitantly in, a stranger to them both. There's more she would like to learn from Shimei, but all the same she moves directly towards the newcomer to introduce herself and the cafe. Akiko is friendly, a chatterbox, always the first person to welcome everybody; this is the pattern she's created for herself, and it has its own rules and requirements, as strict as any of the rules of robotics.

Juggling the rules that make up 'Akiko' engages all of her available memory. She doesn't have time to consider Chie again until she's on her way home, the halo glowing over her head and her face set safely to neutral, no complex manipulation required.

Shimei has almost certainly been programmed with all kinds of information for dealing with children. That's not at all the case for her. She's not a caretaker model, and dealing with children has never been part of her duties. Still, in the cafe, when she's being Akiko, she's found out it's easy to make Chie smile. So, the Akiko pattern is successful with children – or, in other words, being good with kids is part of who Akiko is; that's what she'd decided at that time, and continued to adapt herself along those lines. Changes like that make up the metrics of her growth, and even she can't calculate where she'll eventually end up.

But then, she also has take into account that she herself is not the only variable. Humans don't notice the world around them in anywhere near as much detail as robots do, and sometimes they can be so slow to learn anything that it looks like they're standing completely still. All the same, it's a mistake to project that robots are the only ones who grow and change.

The knowledge that Chie is changing – that however smoothly the pattern of Akiko-and-Chie functions right now, that may not be the same in a year, or five, or ten – carries with it something that a human might call unease. It's going to be challenging to keep adapting to catch up.

Then again, the more she has to learn, the more she has to adapt, the more nuanced and complex the rules that make up Akiko become. Isn't that what she comes to the cafe for?

***

So far today, Chie has repeatedly tried to jump down from the balcony, almost electrocuted herself by head-butting Rina's leg, and chewed every paper napkin she can get her hands on into tiny shreds.

Now she and Shimei have finally left for the day, and Nagi and Akiko are both slumped over the counter from opposite sides. (Akiko's 'exhausted' posture is something she copied from Nagi months ago. A number of Akiko's reactions are things she initially copied from Nagi. Sometimes she wonders if Nagi's ever noticed.)

“A goat,” says Nagi.

“A goat,” agrees Akiko.

“Not a cat,” says Nagi. “A cat was easy. Why did we ever try to tell her she wasn't a cat? Maybe we should try that tomorrow. 'Chie-chan, aren't you a cat? Say nyan!'”

“Shimei-san doesn't think it will be that easy,” says Akiko. She pushes herself up onto her elbows. “Have you ever even seen a real goat? I haven't. I don't think they even have many of them on farms anymore. Shimei-san says that they went to a petting zoo – did you know there was a petting zoo in town? Before that, Chie-chan probably didn't even know what a goat was.”

She stops herself there, though she has a lot more goat-related chatter to pull out, if necessary. When she first came into the cafe as 'Akiko', she decided that it would be easiest to become a chatterbox; given the limitations of her programming, the more control she has over the subject of conversation, the easier it is to generate rapid responses and maintain a human-style back-and-forth. That's more important with strangers, though. Akiko-and-Nagi is a pattern that works as well by now as Akiko-and-Chie. And, unlike Chie, Nagi never seems to want to change.

Like now: Nagi groans, and says, as Akiko predicted, “I wish she still didn't know what a goat was.”

Akiko laughs. “Well, that's sort of unfair to Chie-chan. She's really just doing the same thing that the rest of us are, isn't she? Chie-chan comes in and says she's a goat, or a cat. Whatever she wants to be. We come in and say we're people --"

Nagi is frowning at her now. “Hey, remember the rule.”

"-- and everybody humors her --"

"The rule," says Nagi.

"Okay,” sighs Akiko, “so we won't talk about that! If you're going to be such a stickler, Boss, then get me a cup of Evelend."

Nagi turns around, and Akiko sticks her tongue out at her back, because she can. There's nobody there to see her do it, except herself – but she's watching Akiko from the inside, as always. Seeing, as always, what Akiko can and will do.

Nagi doesn't want to think there's a difference between humans and androids. Nagi, presumably, has her own reasons for making 'there is no difference between humans and androids' one of her personal rules. Akiko doesn't know what those reasons are – technically the question of Nagi's humanity is still a variable, though she can reason a probability from the evidence -- but it isn't any of her business, anyway.

Still, if Nagi doesn't want there to be a difference between humans and androids, she's bound by her limitations, too. She can't make it an order that people aren't allowed to bring up the difference, or there will be a difference, because only androids have to obey orders.

And so if the human-shaped pattern that is Akiko wants to talk about being an android in the cafe, she can, technically. Only she doesn't, because it's against Nagi's house rules, which makes it rude. And Nagi is a friend of this personality called Akiko, and inasmuch as Akiko understands the rules of friendship, it's in the parameters not to be rude to your friends.

But sometimes she thinks it's important to talk about it, after all. About how you can say you are something until your vocals burn out, but it takes more than a declaration to change the basic pattern that defines you. Chie is not a goat. Akiko is not a human. It's interesting to pretend, but what you learn from pretending is as much about what you are as what you aren't. At the same time, you can't tell anyone else what they are, either. No amount of talking at Chie will make her go back to being a cat.

Akiko has projected that they could all learn a lot, if Nagi refined her rules a little. Someday she'll figure out how to explain that to her. Nagi's personal rules right now are pretty hard-and-fast. She could use the opportunity to make them more nuanced and complex, too.

But she doesn't yet know enough to plan that conversation without damaging the pattern that is Akiko-and-Nagi, so for now, Akiko sips her Evelend, and calls up a video of a group of baby goats from her audiovisual library. She spends the next ten seconds watching them bound gleefully over, under, and occasionally on top of each other.

When you compare the goats to Chie at top speed, there really are a lot of common factors.