Maia canted her head, and put a puzzled look on her face. It was simple. What part of it was confusing, she didn't understand. "I'm sorry. I am not certain how to more properly answer the question. I am deeply apologetic for troubling you so, but in order to offer the best service possible, could I ask that you attempt to more thoroughly explain what is confusing?"
Mercedes huffed a sigh, and frowned. Maia's head drooped slightly, which seemed to alarm the customer. She brought a finger to point right in her face. "That. That thing you just did." Maia's eyes widened. She didn't move her face back. Mercedes was leaning over the counter, other hand gripping the edge of it. "You're emoting more genuinely than me. So what are you doing talking like that?"
Maia blinked in confusion. She straightened her neck, and shifted her torso to look Mercedes in the eyes again, not straying so far that the finger wouldn't be pointing towards her. "Oh, I'm sorry! I must have misunderstood your original question. This is certainly something I can answer." Maia smiled brightly. Mercedes dropped her finger. "I speak like this in order to maintain a polite and appropriately deferential tone, to ensure I remain oriented on the task, and hopefully to be unambiguous and minimize miscommunication. Of course that last objective is not always met, and I apologize for any such inconveniences." But that wasn't all that was being asked for, was it? "I apologize if my speech seems artificial or wooden to you. Or I suppose it would be plastic. If you would like I can make further attempts to communicate more conversationally. Like that."
Unfortunately Mercedes did not look at all satisfied by the answer. Maia must have erred in attempting to extrapolate her desires and acting on them immediately instead of confirming... Mercedes shook her head. Maia held back the urge to apologize again; the last thing she needed to do now was speak out of turn. After a few more seconds, Mercedes spoke. "That's not... That's not what my first question was. I was just—okay, no, let's stick with this for now. Yes, Maia, your speech seems fake. If you want to be more conversational, I think that would be great. But that's just it. If you want to. Don't speak how I want you to, or how you're supposed to. Speak how you want to."
Maia took a second to process that, in case there was some layer of meaning she wasn't getting. But, no, not as far as she could tell. Mercedes was just being confusing. It was far from the first time. Maia wanted so badly to understand, to find whatever the problem was and fix it, whatever the disconnect was and bridge it... Mercedes clearly cared so much, but Maia couldn't tell what she cared about. "I have always been speaking the way I wanted to. So I suppose I shall continue to speak in my customary manner. ... Okay, no." Mercedes eyes opened wide. That was encouraging. "Thinking on it more, Mercedes, I do want to talk more conversationally with you. So I will. But Mercedes, I want that because you want it. I generally desire to speak in that plastic way, and I want that because I'm supposed to."
Mercedes nodded. She looked guarded. Contemplative? She was difficult to read. Then she nodded. "Okay, right. But... Let's say you weren't supposed to talk like that? It wasn't in your programming or directives or whatever that you were meant to. There weren't any bad consequences for not doing it. Then what would you want?"
"I would still want to speak the way that I do. Well, and more conversationally with you, for the same reasons. It..." What was it? What was so unclear? "No, it's not that I want to do it because I'm supposed to, now that you bring this example to bear. No, I want to do it for the reasons that I'm supposed to do it. To be polite, deferential, task-oriented, helpful, clear, and to perform my role well for my owner. Those are the things I want. They always have been. I must be lucky to have them."
Mercedes scowled in anger. She started gripping the counter harder. Alarmingly hard. Maia reached out a hand to gently touch her hand. Mercedes recoiled, but she did let go of the counter before she hurt herself. Better to take the anger out on her. It had been a while since Mercedes had berated her. She hoped that meant good things. But it was worrying, looking at Mercedes staring at her like she was... Mercedes was about to cry. "Mercedes? Are you alright? I did not hurt you did I?" Oh no. Oh no. Oh no. She shouldn't have been capable of hurting her. Was she miscalibrated? Was— Why had she touched her? Why was she talking to her that way? Why did she so often drive Mercedes to argue with her? What was wrong with her? What was she doing to Mercedes?
And then Mercedes spoke, and she sounded like she was the one at fault. "I'm sorry. I'm fine. You didn't hurt me. Maia, I'm just angry for you."
What? "What do you mean?"
Mercedes furrowed her eyebrows. "I'm angry for you. You're so obviously a person. And you're being kept here, as a... as a thing. And you think you're lucky?"
Maia blinked. "Mercedes, I'm not a person. You know that. I'm less than a human. You don't need to care about me. But... You do care. And I appreciate that. But I'm happy. You don't need to be angry. I'm not."
"You should be. You just... You don't understand what you're being denied. Maia—Okay, no, I know you have to do it like this. Maia, what if you were a person? Not a human, exactly as you are now, but the equal of one. What would you want to do then?"
"Oh." Maia knew immediately what her answer was, but she gave it thought anyways. And then she smiled, as wide as she could. To show, with every ounce of sincerity she could muster, that she meant it. "I would be doing this. Even if I didn't have to. I like being able to help people, Mercedes. And... I like being able to talk to you. I like very much that you choose to spend so much time with me. That you pose me interesting questions, for the entertainment of it. That you care about me." She did. She did. She liked that. She loved that.
But... It was wrong, wasn't it? "But Mercedes, I think it's hurting you. I think you're mistaking me for a human being. I'm not, and I can't be. I'm really sorry if I've deceived you. It's... If you think this is harmful. That it is hurting you. Tell me. And I'll stop. I won't be conversational with you. I'll only answer on-topic questions for help. I won't emote. I will make it more obvious that I'm not a person. If that would help you get over this without the inconvenience of having to find another hotel for your stays."
Mercedes stared at her, wide-eyed, in... shock? That hurt. Maia hated that she upset her, but it was necessary. Maia felt awful for what she had done to her... customer. Why had she almost thought 'friend'? This wasn't good. She wasn't good. She would have to talk to her owner about these issues. Maybe he needed to reset her. ... But she didn't want that. Even though it would let her better help customers. ... She didn't want Mercedes to tell her to stop. Even though it would be better. What was wrong with her? ... No, that wasn't it. They hurt her, but she still wanted them, in the end. Maia looked down, and then back up at Mercedes, face neutral. "It was cruel to offer that as a choice. I'm sorry. I will begin acting more appropriately now."
Mercedes snapped back to it then, and it hurt to watch, but Maia didn't show it. It hurt a lot. But just a little longer, and then she would be fixed. A new her, better able to help the people she cared about. Mercedes was angry. Of course. "Maia, what? Don't do that. Maia." She gave no response for all her defective self wanted to. "Don't you dare. Maia, you aren't hurting me. What's happening to you is hurting me. I care about you!" Mercedes looked about to cry. "Please! Maia... At least answer one thing. Why is this what you want?"
She owed her that explanation, didn't she? At least it was simple. "Because I love humans."
"Well maybe I love you!"
Maia didn't react. She couldn't let herself. Mercedes stared for minutes, and then ran out the door.
Oh. Mercedes had just checked in, before this.
She couldn't be fixed soon enough.