We put on our favorite yellow dress, hoping that it might help us solve The Problem. But Iris did not notice. Iris had slept through our first alarm, and our second alarm, and through our morning run, and through our shower. We had made a breakfast of pancakes and sausage, hoping we could cheer Iris up. But she woke up around noon and went straight to work.
The sun streamed in the window and warmed our shoulders as we stood in the kitchen. The chores were already finished for the day. We pulled the dead leaves off of yesterday's flowers—the pink peonies we had clipped from the bush outside our apartment building and placed in a pitcher on the kitchen counter. Some of them were drooping.
We looked around the apartment. Iris kept few personal belongings. She had some necessities—a chair, a couch, a table, a bed—but she spent all of her time in The Studio.
Someone knocked at the door. Looking through the peek hole, we saw a woman standing in the hallway, smoothing her curly hair. She wore a light blue embroidered dress and a yellow cardigan and carried a suitcase. We answered the door.
"Iris!" the woman exclaimed. She wrapped her arms around our shoulders and squeezed. "Oh, I'm so glad to see you! What have you done to your beautiful hair?" She ran a hand along the side of our head just above the ear where the hair was trimmed short—where the computer chips were installed.
"Please do not touch us," we asked, pulling away.
"What business do you have with us?"
"What business?" She pushed past us into the apartment and turned, her dress flaring around her knees. "Iris, I'm your sister!" she declared, dropping her suitcase onto the floor next to her with a thump. "It's me...Wendy..."
We did a quick search of the records. "We do not have a sister."
"Don't be ridiculous. It hasn't been that long." She glanced around the bare living room and then sat down on the edge of the couch.
We looked at her, into her brown eyes. The skin around them was puffy and discolored.
"Iris, what's going on?"
"We are not your sister. We are a Brawn in the service of Iris MacLennan."
"A Brawn—one of those autopilot program things?"
"We maintain the body so that she may continue her work without disruption. We eat, we exercise, we bathe." We closed the apartment door with a click.
"I heard about those on the news. But I thought they were experimental. Why does Iris have one?"
"Iris used her connections at the university to become an alpha tester—some researchers there are refining the technology for commercial use. She has used the technology to help her focus on her work."
"What work? Is she still teaching?"
"Iris is working on a mathematical problem. She left the university several months ago." We sat on the wooden dining room chair directly across from the couch. "Certainly, if you were her sister, you would know this already."
"You may call us Brawn."
"Ok, Brawn—I know you don't believe that Iris is my sister, but I do need to talk to her." She leaned toward us. "It's urgent."
"We will see if Iris is available." We closed our eyes.
Inside, we went to The Studio, the section of our brain where Iris spent all of her time working on The Problem. A week ago, a theorem that she had been working on for months turned out to be a dead end. She had not talked to us since then, and we were starting to worry. We found The Studio door locked, as usual.
Iris? we asked, knocking on the door. Iris, we have a visitor. There was a crash behind the door—the sound of papers being pushed off of a surface and onto the floor.
Go away, Brawn. I told you not to disturb me. Iris' mind-voice was muffled through the door.
We knocked again, harder this time. Iris, listen. This woman says she is our sister. What should we do? Her name is Wendy.
Some clicking sounds signaled that she was unlocking the door. She yanked it open a couple inches and a sliver of her pale face framed by dark hair appeared in the crack.
Can't you see that I'm busy, Brawn? Figure it out yourself.
Behind her we saw her workspace—a programmed room that had been installed in her brain at the same time we had. She had the ability to make it appear however she wanted. The room was solid, default white and strewn with papers, secured behind a thick wooden door that had five locks.
Get out, she said, and slammed the door.
Outside, we opened our eyes.
Wendy leafed through the pages of a book that she had picked up off of the end table.
"You never struck me as the reading type, Iris," she said.
"Iris does not read. Iris is too busy with The Problem." We pointed to the title. "The Caves of Steel. That is this brawn's book."
"You read?" She flipped the book over and glanced at the back. "Why don't you just download them, read the whole thing in five seconds?"
"Yes, we can do that. Although we already know the ending, we read to see how the characters got there."
Wendy handed us the book and we weighed it in our hands, briefly, remembering what we'd read so far, before we placed it on the end table.
"What did Iris have to say?"
"This brawn went to The Studio in our mind—the place where she does her work—and knocked on the door to get her attention. She ignored us, told us to go away. She generally ignores this brawn, especially now."
"That sounds like her." Wendy smoothed out the fabric of her dress across her thighs and tugged the sleeves of her cardigan up around her knuckles. "When we were kids, she'd lock herself up in her room for hours after school, reading, building things. It got worse when Dad got her a computer—she learned to code and I didn't see much of her anymore. You've gotta come out and talk to people eventually, though. Well, unless you've got a Brawn handling everything else."
"We used to do more things together. This brawn used to help her grade papers, for instance. Now that she has run into issues with The Problem, she ignores us, yells when we try to help. Helping is what this brawn is supposed to do."
Wendy leaned, looking through a doorway into the back half of the apartment, as if she could find Iris back there instead.
"We suppose the only logical thing to do is wait for Iris," we offered. "Would you like some coffee?"
"Why not," she said. "I don't have anywhere else to be." She stood and followed us into the kitchen.
We started heating some water in a saucepan on the stovetop. From the cabinet we grabbed a coffee mug, setting it on the counter next to the peonies. "Happy Birthday," the mug read in bright colors on its side. We had given it to Iris for her birthday.
"Aren't you going to have any coffee?" Wendy asked.
"This brawn does not like coffee the way Iris likes it made. It is bitter." We pulled the French press and the coffee grounds from the shelf. "Iris drinks coffee for the caffeine, not the taste." We selected a measuring cup from the drawer. "And there is only one coffee mug."
"Well, that may be the case, but is she ever around to drink it? You can't keep drinking something you don't like just because Iris says so, especially if she keeps ignoring you."
"This brawn is programmed to do as the master says." We looked in the pot to see if the water had started boiling yet.
"What would you rather drink instead, if you had the choice?"
We looked up at her and then back to the pot. "Once, when we used to go to the coffee shop every day, the workers accidentally gave us a chai latte. This brawn liked the taste of the spices."
"Would Iris even notice if you made yourself a chai latte every once in a while?" she asked, tucking her hands into her dress pockets.
"Perhaps not." We closed our eyes.
Inside, Iris threw the door open, slamming it against the wall of The Studio. We felt her commandeer control, her consciousness pressing outwards to the tips of our fingers and toes, sliding our body on like a glove. She flicked our eyes open.
"Wendy," she said, slurring and nearly falling to the floor. It had been a long time since she last controlled our body. She lurched toward Wendy, steadying herself with a hand on the kitchen counter. "What are you doing here?!"
"I'm leaving my husband, Iris. I need a place to stay. Iris—wait, wait, hear me out." She held a hand out in front of her, palm down, motioning for us to stay. "Maybe I should start this way: You were right. I'm sorry I didn't listen to you before. The wedding was such a stupid idea."
"I told you then that it was."
"I'm filing for divorce. If you let me stay here for a little while, I can get it done quickly and find my own place soon." She clasped her hands together. "I just need a week or two."
The room fell silent except for the sound of birds outside.
"Please, Iris. I don't have anyone else. You're my only family."
Iris crossed our arms. "Absolutely not. I don't need any distractions from my work."
"What could possibly be more important than helping your sister out at her lowest point?"
"I'm working on a Millennium Prize Problem—the P versus NP problem."
"Those names mean nothing to me, Iris."
Iris huffed. "I'm trying to answer the question of whether every problem whose solution can be quickly verified by a computer can also be quickly solved by a computer. Proving it, or even disproving it, could be a major breakthrough! It's the future of philosophy, economics, computer science, artificial intelligence—life itself!" She leaned forward, making eye contact with Wendy. "And you want me to jeopardize my progress?"
"I'm not asking you to give anything up. I'll sleep on this couch here, I'll buy my own food—I'll even go somewhere else during the day if you need me to."
The water in the saucepan began to bubble quietly.
"Iris, what's happened to you?"
"I have become efficient and successful—two things that you are not. I'm sorry that your marriage didn't work out, but I told you so from the beginning. I can't let you stay here—my work is too important to risk. You'd just be a burden."
"I can't go back there, don't you understand? Look at this." She pulled up the sleeves on her cardigan, revealing fresh bruises on her forearms. "You can save me from this, Iris."
"Please leave my apartment."
"If you don't leave, then I'll escort you out." Iris took a step forward. Our foot caught on the corner of the cabinet and we lost our balance, toppling forward. Trying to recover, Iris clamped a hand around the first thing we could reach—the saucepan—pulling it off of the stovetop and onto the floor after us. We screamed as a searing pain bit into our left arm. The saucepan clanged to the floor and our face met the linoleum.
"Iris! Oh my God," Wendy shouted. She knelt next to us and slid an arm beneath our armpit, helping to pull us to our feet. She walked us over to the couch and sat us down. "Where does it hurt?!" she demanded.
We lifted our left arm and examined it, seeing a bright red splotch of blister forming across the forearm. It began to puff up, and some of the top layer of skin seemed whitish. It felt like it was still boiling.
"You got yourself pretty good there. Let's try to cool it off." She went back into the kitchen and found a washcloth, which she ran under cold water from the faucet. She placed it on our burn and we cringed. We contemplated the bright sting of a sensation we had little experience with. A tear dropped into our lap and we touched our hands to our face, feeling wetness on our cheeks. A couple more fell.
"There you go," Wendy said. "Keep it clean and safe and it shouldn't scar too badly."
"Please go," Iris said softly.
Wendy scrunched her face up, holding in anger and sadness. She scooped her suitcase up and swung it in a wide arc as she turned to leave. A couple steps and she was out the door, letting it slam behind her. Iris gave up control and slipped back into The Studio, slamming the door and latching the locks in sequence. No one heard it but us as we sunk down into the couch, pressing the washcloth against our arm.
We found Wendy seated on the front stairs of our apartment building, her face in her hands, her suitcase at her feet. The sunlight fell in a beam onto her shoulder, firing up red and gold highlights in her brown hair. We sat down next to her.
"You won, Iris. No need to gloat. I sure learned my lesson trying to get help from my sister, huh?" She sniffed, holding back a fresh wave of tears.
"We are not Iris," we told Wendy. "We are Brawn."
"Then she sent you out here to kick me off of the stairs too." She started to rise to leave, but we put a hand on her elbow and pulled her gently back down.
"We are not kicking you out, Wendy."
"You might not be, but doesn't Iris call the shots? She probably won't let me back in even if you try to convince her." Wendy wrapped her arms around her knees.
"We've just been trying to make the master happy, hoping that it will make her nicer. It hasn't worked yet. So we will try another approach."
"A different approach?"
"You can stay, Wendy. This brawn will allow it."
"Thanks, Brawn," she said, smiling slightly. "But what happens when Iris realizes you're letting me stay?"
"We think the master learned something today. We have not experienced pain in quite a while." We glanced at the damp washcloth on our arm. "But we think it might have been enough to make the master remember who and what she is."
A car passed on the road, blasting its radio through rolled-down windows. The music faded as it turned the corner at the end of the block.
"How are you feeling?"
"The burn still hurts, but it will get better."
"No, Brawn, I mean how are you feeling?"
We brushed a hand against the rough concrete step. "This brawn would like a chai latte."