The black taxi came to an abrupt stop, barely pulling in from the congested road. The scruffy driver spun round in his seat and faced Katrina. Through stained teeth he explained something in a language she couldn’t comprehend. With a blank expression, she shrugged her shoulders in response. The driver nodded and walked his fingers across his palm, indicating that she was walking from here.
A broad grin broke across her freckled face and curling a loose lock of auburn hair behind her ear, she dug around in her bag for the fare. Climbing out of the taxi, the full sensory onslaught of Kyoto smothered her. A cacophony of car horns, chatter and sirens assaulted her ears. Undecipherable patterns covered street signs and shop windows. Vehicles clogged the roads and commuters cluttered the wide pavements. She felt as though she had been shrunk down and dropped into an ants’ nest.
She began walking down the alley that the taxi driver had pointed to, and it only took a few steps before the change of scenery made it feel as if she had travelled back in time. The buildings morphed from concrete skyscrapers to narrow, two storey refuges. Each one of the ancient, wooden buildings had a balcony that overlooked the paved road that she now walked. The rushing city folk turned to meandering tourists, and red, bulbous lanterns replaced neon lamp posts.
“This must be Gion," she said to herself, and dug out a map in an attempt to make sense of the cryptic street signs that littered the ancient district.
The technology magazine Katrina worked for had received an invite to preview an exciting new product from Sy-Tech - a controversial robotics and AI developer that had been rumoured to implement somewhat unethical practices when it came to R&D. Usually, the young journalist would have passed – she’d seen enough clunky and dull mechanoids masquerading as humans in her short career. But the company’s reputation offered the prospect of breaking a story that could propel her into the journalistic big leagues.
She checked her watch for the hundredth time as she negotiated the labyrinth of alleyways lined with pink cherry blossoms and stores selling Japanese trinkets. With only a few minutes to spare, she arrived at her destination. The ageing building looked the same as the hundreds she had passed, save a sign on the front that read ‘SY-TECH’ in bold white letters. She frowned, expecting something a little more grandiose for a world leading tech firm. Looking up and down the street and seeing no better options, she shrugged and pushed the weighty entrance door open.
The simple, well-lit room was bare - as if the owners had sold all of their possessions to pay the electricity bill - save for a single figure stood in the centre, staring at the chipped slats that made up the floor. The person wore a blue robe adorned with floral patterns that climbed up from the hem to the collar and then spread down the arms. A thick head of black hair, darker than night itself, was tied into bunches.
The mysterious figure looked up, revealing a smooth, porcelain-white face. Only the bare minimum of features were visible. Thin black lines hinted at where the eyes, nostrils and eyebrows were, with a small triangle of bright red lipstick the only clue that the figure was female and had a mouth. The figure blinked several times, acknowledging Katrina’s presence.
“Er, hello,” Katrina attempted. “Kon’nichiwa.”
The woman tilted her head to the side. “Katrina, welcome.” Her voice was monotone, lacking any familiarity. “This way, please.” She gestured towards a set of wooden doors that promptly slid apart to reveal an elevator.
Katrina hesitated, considering the strange woman for a moment. She glanced at the elevator, and then back at the mysterious receptionist. Raising her hand to say something, she caught herself and instead approached the elevator and stepped in.
The doors closed just as Katrina turned around, allowing only a brief glimpse of the ghostly woman who continued to stare at her with cold eyes. A shiver rippled down her spine as the elevator began its descent.
The doors parted and Katrina’s jaw dropped at the sight of an almost futuristic world. Glass walls and marble floors created a grand entrance lobby that extended high above her. A large screen on the wall played what appeared to be a promotional video, showing clips of scientists in labs and robotic arms building machinery and microchips.
A formally dressed man in a dark suit greeted a stunned Katrina with a broad smile. His dark hair was shiny and combed tightly into a side parting. He had a fine complexion as if he had applied a thick layer of make-up.
“Good morning, Katrina,” the man said with an American accent. “I’m Simon, pleased to meet you.”
Katrina relaxed and stepped forward with her arm extended, inviting a handshake.
The man’s posture stiffened. He dropped his hands to his side and bowed. Katrina mentally cursed herself, retracting her open palm in the process. She imitated the same bowing gesture, still struggling to adjust to this foreign land and its cultures.
They both straightened and faced each other. The welcoming smile remained on the man’s flawless face. "You managed to find us then."
“Yes, just about.”
"We like to keep a low profile around here." Simon turned and began leading Katrina to one of the rooms. "You're just in time; the presentation is about to begin."
“Is that your receptionist upstairs?”
“Ah, yes. I hope she was on her best behaviour. We’ve had some… issues with that one.”
Katrina frowned. “Issues?”
Simon ignored the question. “Here we are.”
They stepped into a meeting room full of journalists chatting amongst themselves. They faced a small stage at the far end of the room that was covered by a thick, red curtain.
“Please take a seat,” Simon instructed. He left Katrina and joined two other men waiting on the stage. She studied the three of them, intrigued as to how similar they all looked with identical hairstyles, posture and suits. Shaking the xenophobic observation away, she pulled out her Dictaphone and notepad.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” one of the other men began, addressing the crowd in the same American accent. “My name is Stuart. Thank you all for coming. As you are all aware, Sy-Tech has an exciting new development that we are pleased to unveil to you today. So without further ado, please put your hands together for our new line of Geishas.”
To the sound of applause, the curtain was raised to reveal five women all identical to the receptionist that had greeted Katrina upstairs. They stood motionless, staring into the distance.
“Geishas, please say hello.”
The five Geishas blinked in unison, and then each raised a hand, waving and smiling to the crowd. Their movements were even and natural, without any hint of the motors and gears that lay within.
Stuart continued with his presentation. “As you can see, we have made many developments in the world of robotics and AI. Based on the traditional female entertainers, each Geisha is programmed to meet all of your home entertainment needs. Whether it’s cooking, cleaning, dancing or even light conversation.”
A murmur spread through the room as the crowd scribbled down notes and took photos.
“Observe. Geisha, fan dance,” Stuart requested.
In unison, the Geisha pulled out fans from within their robes and began to bob and move around the stage in a perfectly choreographed sequence. Their movements were exact, as if they were a reflection of a single lead performer.
When the dance came to an end, Stuart continued. “But of course, any robot can dance. But how many can cook?" A table full of utensils and ingredients was rolled onto the stage. “Who would like some sushi?”
From within the audience, a hand shot up into the air.
Stuart beamed, revealing a mouth of perfectly square teeth. “Excellent. Some tempura anyone?”
Several more eager journalists raised their hands.
“Geisha, please prepare some sushi and tempura for our guests.”
The Geisha blinked into life and set to work. They operated as a team of chefs, moving between each other and selecting and preparing various ingredients.
Katrina watched from the front row, her interest piqued. These robots were decades ahead of anything she had ever witnessed. Their actions were so real and convincing. She scrutinised the Geisha on the far end of the line up as she cut into a chunk of bright red tuna. The knife sliced through the flesh with ease. The Geisha suddenly winced, causing creases to spread across her pale, empty face. A trickle of red began to seep from her finger.
Stuart saw it too and quickly spoke up, his voice louder and more authoritative than before. “As you can see, we have gone to great lengths to create the most realistic androids possible.” He turned to face the mechanoids. “Thank you, Geisha.”
The robots froze at this command, left to gaze into the distance as if their power cords had been yanked from the socket.
Stuart turned back to the audience. “Unfortunately, there are still a few bugs in the system. We may have to reset that one.” Katrina was certain she saw eyes of the wounded Geisha widen at the comment. “Now on with the tour.”
Stuart led the group out of the presentation room and back into the entrance lobby. The promotional video was still playing, appearing to show a Geisha in a suburban home. A smiling husband, wife and son were all sat around a dining table as the robotic servant cooked dinner. The tour group passed through a set of large double doors and walked down a glass-walled corridor, allowing them to observe a busy workshop in action. Mechanical arms swung left and right. Sparks danced into the air and drill bits spun as a procession of contraptions were ferried along the production line. At each consecutive station, the collection of robotic parts became more and more human-like.
Katrina trailed along at the back, barely hearing Stuart’s spiel over the sound of the workshop. They entered a large room full of Perspex boxes containing enlarged electrical boards and microchips. As the reporters gathered around one of the displays, captivated with its contents, Katrina noticed a door with ‘Restricted Access’ written in bold letters across it. She surveyed the room - this could be the opportunity she needed to make her story stand out from the crowd. After all, it's easier to get forgiveness than permission.
Holding a sharp inhale, she slipped through the door into a darkened room. She fumbled around for a light switch but found none. With a sigh, she went to leave when a murmur caught her attention. It sounded like a muffled gag. Her eyes began to adjust to the lack of light, allowing shapes within the room to become more defined. Soon a row of white faces began to emerge like summoned apparitions.
Lines of Geisha stood before her, all emitting stifled cries. With a ruffled brow, she moved in closer and placed her ear against the chest of one of the Geisha. She felt it rise and fall, and could hear the faint sound of a rhythmical thudding within. Then somewhere in the distance, as if trapped down a deep well, she thought she heard someone cry, “Help me.”
Surgical white light filled the room as lamps along the ceiling burst into life. Katrina squinted, holding up her hand up to shield her eyes.
“I see you’ve found our collection of Geishas.” One of the men from the presentation – she couldn’t tell which one – was stood behind her, his hands clasped at his waist. His eyes were fixated on her, his mouth showing the smallest of grins.
“Simon. I mean, Stuart,” Katrina stammered, trying to regain some composure. “Where did you – doesn’t matter. What are these… things?”
“Why, these are our new line of Geisha.”
Katrina waved a shaking hand at the rows of androids lined up like Terracotta Warriors. "I heard a call for help… and… and a heartbeat."
The man shook his head like a disappointed parent. “Oh, that is a shame.”
“What?” Katrina took a step back. “What have you done?” Her voice was trembling as the pieces started to fall into place.
“Did you not hear during the presentation?” The man’s pupils began to glow red; his face started to resemble an old ventriloquist dummy. “We’ve made many advancements in the world of robotics and AI.”
He moved towards her, his mouth now a gaping, sick smile that revealed a set of whirring gears and cogs within.