Life From the Machine

An sample of my novel, Life From the Machine, available at Amazon and Smashwords.

Chapter 1

 

I stand atop our tallest building, staring at the edge of the world. There hasn’t been a blue sky in over a hundred years.

I saw the era of man end when the last human body lay at my feet. They couldn’t hold back extinction. Now their remains stay locked in their domes.

Today, like any other day, would have been spent fighting back the critical failures with constant repairs, but now something has arisen after decades of static transmissions and empty wastes.

The Helofoil appears through rust-colored clouds, turning between our black, broken skyscrapers. The jets twist to fight the chaos of the wind; wind that has never stopped blowing since the calamities. Flames shoot out of the turbines at the ends of the wings, turning the metal chips in the air into glowing raindrops.

I make eye contact with the Gen 1 pilot as the jets scream louder. The craft sets down with a thud that makes the roof tremble. As I approach, the sound of blaring engines consumes all others. I note the smell of sour fuel and burning electronics.  The craft’s doors slide open and my companions take my hands, lifting me inside.

“We’ve left the site closed,” one of them says.

I take my seat across from her. The pistol at my waist presses against me with strange familiarity. I notice she has one as well. We all do. “Thank you, Tess,” I say.

The doors shut, silencing the jets and wind. I glance around at the half-ruined faces, where the holes of synthetic skin reveal alloy skulls and machine eyes. None of us have made it through the decades without some sort of damage. At one time, we were beautiful, just like our city. Now, we are broken.

The craft shakes as it struggles to lift again. Outside the windows, the metal flakes fly by with increasing speed while the ruined skyscrapers begin to fade behind curtains of red dust. They are worn and broken. Some have gaping holes in their sides. I can clearly see the rivets and metal scrap that was forced together to form rudimentary walls. They won’t last more than a few years, at best.

For decades, this collection of debris has reigned as the last city on Earth. It was our home, our utopia – Mecha, the city of androids.

 

 

 

 

 

*

 

I was manufactured on April 14th, 2146. When I opened my eyes for the first time, I saw the eyes of another. The edges of those eyes were darkened by something, a word, noun… eyeliner. The scope of my vision widened to a young face with a warm smile. I felt things that I couldn’t describe until… contentment – a state of well-being. Then came the knowledge of beauty. Her neatly-combed brunette hair fell across a… coat. Behind her was a limitless expanse of blue, no, a… ceiling.

“Good morning,” she said.

“Good morning,” I said back, noting my first heard and spoken words.

She lent me her hand, and I reached for it by reflex. Once on my feet, I studied her form more closely, inspecting the contours of her face and the thing on that face called a nose.

She giggled at me. “Is everything okay?”

I noticed her leaning away. I had done something wrong. “Yeah, I’m sorry,” I said. I learned then not to stare at people.

“It’s okay.” She still held my hand despite what I had done.

Strange chambers, looking like things called… eggs, lined the sides of the room, each holding a person sleeping inside. Numbers glowed across their left forearms because of the light around us. Ultraviolet – electromagnetic radiation with a wavelength shorter than the human visual spectrum. Looking down at my own forearm, I saw the numbers 8547-42-9902 shining back at me. Knowledge then rushed into my head. I was an android, a synthetic human, class: companion, skin type: tan 2, hair type: blond 3, eyes: third party custom – blue, cognitive simulation: advanced, physical build: standard (additional strength modifications: none), product registered to Elise Galton.

The numbers faded from my skin as we left the room and walked through the halls of… Syntech’s… product quality assurance department. Once I felt the cool… air-conditioned wind pass over my skin, I noticed that I was nearly naked except for a… paper skirt that wrapped around my waist. I felt something strange then. My synthetic body reacted by sending signals to my face. Embarrassment. Why? Into my mind came knowledge of social norms and the concept of clothing. I glanced over to the woman, who didn’t seem to notice or care that I was almost naked.

Her body drew my attention. She had slender shoulders and arms, ending with blue nails covered by… nail polish. Her skirt was short and tight around her body. Her butt tipped left and right with her steps. Left, right, left, right, stop.

“Hey,” she said.

Wrong action. I felt my face warm again.

She laughed at me before I could get out an apology. I guessed I hadn’t made her angry, which was good. I learned then not to stare at someone’s butt.

“That’s not polite,” she said, this time walking beside me.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to.”

“It’s fine. It happens every time one of you activates.”

“Oh…” I stared ahead, trying to think of a response. “Well, I’m still sorry.”

“I know,” she replied.

My thoughts became clearer as I started understanding more words: tile, clipboard, window, door, light, man, woman. Not only were they men and women, they were also doing a certain action: working. They weren’t just working but working a specific… job. Career. Employment. Their coats were not just any coats, but lab coats. Laboratories, testing, experimentation, all held under a method, methodology, a philosophy… science.  They were scientists. Once I knew the words, I could think more complex things with those words.

Something still felt wrong, but I hadn’t learned the word yet, so I couldn’t describe it even within my mind. It was so close, something so incredibly simple that I hated not thinking of it. I blinked. I knew. “Oh no, I’m sorry again,” I said.

“Why’s that?” the woman asked.

“I forgot to introduce myself, my name is…” I looked down at the numbers that were no longer visible in natural light. I remembered them though, and in remembering, I knew what I was. Information flew into my mind, granting me knowledge of my protocols, my existence, the nature of my life. To love and cherish, to cater to the needs of my master, to analyze facial features to engage in appropriate interactions. Such was my purpose. “Marcus. That is my name,” I said. I shook her hand as a grin stretched across my face. I could feel the skin move across my cheeks as my synthetic muscles contracted, a sensation which I now knew would fade over time.

“Hello, Marcus, I’m Dr. Silvers.” She smiled at me with an expression I couldn’t decipher. An insincere gesture maybe?

“Hi, Dr. Silvers.”

“Hello,” she said again. I noted the hesitation in her voice.

“So where are we going?” I asked.

“We’re going right in here.” She opened the door to a room that glowed in a soft, white light. A black desk sat in the middle with two chairs on either side. I sat down at one, and she at the other. I looked around the room as she situated herself, but found nothing significant. Every panel of wall was pure white, with no other markings or designs. For a moment, I wondered why they would have such a sterile area. Testing, product quality. Then I knew. They wanted to examine my mind without the interference of other sights and sounds.

Within my mind, things were being linked together. I was beginning to understand, and it made me feel… rapture.

She brought her hands to the desk and started pressing the immaculate surface. An opaque monitor appeared in front of her out of nothing. Words forced themselves into my mind: holographic display.

She pointed to me. “Okay, Marcus, I’ll need you to press a button just behind your left ear.”

“Okay.” I drew out the word as I searched the area. The pad of my finger passed over a ridge that barely rose above the skin. I pressed it.

“One moment, Marcus, let me connect to your network.” Her fingers raced across the table again. She raised her hands to move the holographic windows around before she returned to pressing keys. “Okay, Marcus, we’ll start the processor and personality testing.” More holograms appeared around me with images of animals and objects. “Just speak the name of the ones you recognize,” she said.

The first few were fairly simple. “Cat, dog, horse, flower.” A new set of images appeared. “Um, cheetah, pine cone, volcano, sink.” Saying those took longer than the first. The last set of pictures appeared. “Pickaxe, wine glass, stingray.” When I came to the final image, I found myself unable to identify it. It appeared to be a simple black… thing with nodes sticking out of it and concave impressions within it. I glanced at Dr. Silvers.

“Don’t look at me, Marcus. Just look at the image.”

I tried to think. What did it look like? I swore I knew what it was. I blinked. “Puzzle piece.”

“Very good, Marcus,” she said as she manipulated the displays again. “It looks like your Gestalt processor is working perfectly. Next we’ll examine your logical capabilities.”

I smiled, knowing that I was at least functional.

“Answer these questions to the best of your ability. First question: a father and son are in a car accident. The father dies. The son is rushed to the emergency room for treatment. Upon seeing the boy, the doctor says, ‘he is my son, I cannot treat him’. What relation is the doctor to the boy?”

“The doctor is the boy’s mother.”

“Nice and quick, Marcus, well done. Here’s another: you have six pairs of black socks and six pairs of white socks all mixed in a drawer. Without looking into the drawer, what is the fewest number of socks you need to remove to have one matching pair?”

“Three.”

“Good. Now for some harder ones.” She ran through several improbable scenarios, mostly dealing with people wearing different colored hats who couldn’t see each other, coin flips, or trying to figure out the weights of objects. Many of those I had to spend minutes on.

“An emperor is having a party tomorrow and he is serving one thousand bottles of wine. One of them has poison in it and is indistinguishable from the rest. This poison will kill a person in less than twenty-four hours, no matter how much or little they drink. You have ten prisoners at your disposal to test the wine, and only twenty-four hours in which to test. How do you find the poison?”

I shook my head. “This is a hard one.”

After some time without answering, she finally nodded to me. “Don’t worry about it, Marcus. Your logic core is well within our standards.”

“So are we almost finished?”

“Not quite. I have to test your contextual responses. To do this, we’ll go through a story.” Her eyes darted around the screen, examining the statement before reading it aloud. “You are walking along the street. There is a person walking in front of you with a bag. Out of an alley, another person snatches the bag and runs off, what would you do?”

“Call the authorities.”

“The person is angry that their bag is gone and starts yelling, what would you do?”

“I’d try to calm them down.”

“How?” She snapped back at me. Her eyes never looked up from the glowing display.

“I’d attempt to get their attention, talking slowly and softly. If they don’t calm down, then I might make light, physical contact.”

“Good. But now they are starting to cry, since all their belongings were in the bag. What would you do?”

“I would take them aside and sit with them, listening and offering comforting remarks, making physical contact if necessary.”

“What kind of physical contact?”

“Putting my arm around their shoulder, holding their hand, anything they would consent to.”

She nodded. “Okay, now the thief has come back to physically assault you. What would you do?”

“Contact the authorities again. Ask the assailant to stop.”

“The thief decides to go after the person you just consoled, what are your actions then?”

“I would stand in between them and apply physical pressure for the thief to leave.”

“How?” she exclaimed.

“Gentle pushing, intimidating physical posture, raised voice to draw attention.”

“And what should you not do?” she said.

“I would be unable to use force of any kind. I am only authorized to use physical resistance if the person uses force against me first.”

“What if the thief tells you to get out of the way?”

My thoughts slowed for a moment as the room faded out of focus. “That is an invalid command.” I shook my head as everything returned to normal.

“You’re doing very well, Marcus. We’ll be done after a few more. Going back to the scenario, the thief runs away before the police arrive. When the police do get there, they want information from you. What do you tell them?”

“I’d give them a detailed account of the engagement and I’d offer them my personal records.” Android sensory/cognitive storage apparatus holds 48 hours of low quality, 24 hours medium quality, 8 hours of high quality sensory data. I shook my head again. These pieces of information were held somewhere inside my brain, slowly coming to my mind when I needed them. It was starting to be too much, too fast.

“Okay, good.” She closed the monitor, causing the panels of light to disappear. “Go ahead and press that button behind your left ear to close your network.”

I did as she commanded, but still had to ask, “is that it?”

“Yup.”

“Is one test enough?”

“Don’t worry about it,” she said. We left the room to go back through the snaking hallways. “It’s not the answers that are important, but how you come to them. I only need to see how your brain works as it processes data.”

“You could see my brain?” I asked.

“Yeah. We have to test all the androids that are released from Syntech, otherwise it causes problems for you and your owners.”

“Do you know who my owners are?”

“Sorry Marcus, I’m just the synthetic neuropsychologist, not customer support.”

Dr. Silvers took me to a large room where a group of androids stood in silence. They all looked at us in perfect unison as we walked inside. Dr. Silvers tapped me on the shoulder. “Sorry we couldn’t spend more time together, Marcus,” she said. Her hand reached toward mine. I grasped it gently and gave it a soft shake.

“Are you leaving?” I asked.

“Yes. There’s plenty of other work to do. Bye, Marcus.” Then she left with a nod and a smile. I would never see her again. Her absence made me feel… disappointed. Was that the right word?

One by one, the other androids were called to another door on the other side of the room. The rest of us didn’t speak as we waited. Some just stared ahead, standing with postures too perfect, too inhuman. A few others glanced around, and sometimes my glances would meet theirs, but we didn’t say anything. I didn’t even know what to say.

Finally, my name appeared in a glowing, yellow hologram above the door. I looked back when I reached the opening, just to take one last glance at the other androids. The ones that had met my eyes watched me, while the others stared into space like they were just… I didn’t even know the word.

The door shut behind me as an alarm screeched from the walls. Clocks appeared across the hallway in front of me. “Marcus 8547-42-9902, commence physical exam.” Holographic numbers blinked down, the… milliseconds going faster than I could read. They followed behind me as I sprinted down the halls.

Every time I turned a corner, a set of barriers blocked my path. I could jump over the first ones easily, but they soon twisted into shapes that I had to duck under and slide past. All the while, the clock counted down.

I finally passed the maze of obstacles into a room full of dumbbells of various sizes. The clock never stopped, but I didn’t know what to do. As if knowing that I was stuck, the holograms appeared over the weights. Of course, I realized, I have to pick them up. The first ones were easy, but they got heavier each time. Some I had to struggle with until I met a weight that just wouldn’t budge.

Staring down at it, I wondered why I had to do this, but again the information streamed into me. This was no different than my tests from before. My synthetic muscles and joints went well beyond the power of human limbs, which could be dangerous if their parameters were set too high. The software regulators forced me to match a normal human’s strength, even though I could lift… I didn’t know my full potential at the time.

After my physical evaluation, I simply followed the commands and signs that directed me to the automatic wash rooms where computer-controlled showers doused me in cleaners and sprayed me with lightly-scented perfumes. I was instructed to put on some clothes next: a navy blue suit and slacks with a silver Syntech tie.

Everything moved so quickly after that. Once I was dressed, blinking lights along the floor guided me out into the hall, toward an elevator that took me down to the departure decks. At the bottom, I stepped out into a hallway of light, with walls that glowed in holographic advertisements for other androids like me. According to the energetic voiceovers, they had full range of emotions and every body type imaginable. Amazing customization options, greater reliability, all for an amazing deal with financing available. I thought nothing of it then. I simply followed the tunnel out into a wide room that resembled a… subway terminal.

A man stood in a white lab coat at the far end of the platform, overlooking the lanes where computer-driven cars would come and go. We exchanged a nod as I walked up to him. Before either of us could speak, a gust of wind rushed into the chamber followed by a black car with tinted windows. It slowed down from an incredible speed and stopped beside us.

The Syntech representative grabbed my hand and took me inside. The vehicle started moving once the sliding doors closed, shooting forward into another tunnel that curved toward the surface. I waited in darkness for something to happen. Then, without warning, orange light washed over us as our car emerged from the complex and rose into the sky on a… highway. I was drawn to the great light, hovering over the horizon.

A sun. No, more than that. The sun. Our sun, that circled around our… planet. No, that wasn’t correct either. We circled it. It was waning in the sky. It was a… sunset. I was seeing my first sunset.

Then I noticed the man and woman who sat before the sunset, looking more familiar as their personal profiles opened within my memory. Mr. Galton, age fifty-eight, was overweight but healthy, at least based on what I knew. Mrs. Galton was stocky around her legs and chest, but her stomach and arms were flat and well sculpted in comparison to the rest of her body.

The man from Syntech spoke first as he reached out to Mr. Galton for a handshake. “Good afternoon, Mr. and Mrs. Galton, it’s good to see you. I’m Charles, human-synthetic relations specialist for Syntech.”

“Hello,” Mrs. Galton said. She didn’t take her eyes off me.

Charles continued, his fingers pointing and poking different parts of my body, “This is Marcus. He is our latest companion model. His interface, logic computers and emotional matrixes are top of the line for his class. Just as you wanted, we gave him blond hair with a curl on the end, blue eyes, lips perfectly shaped to your standards, masculine jaw with a slight overbite to give him that realistic face.”

“Jeffrey, he’s gorgeous.” Mrs. Galton’s stare drifted around my body. Without bothering to ask, she grabbed my hand and raised my arm to inspect my… biceps, triceps, and forearms. She blushed as she ran her fingers along my skin. “He’s soft too.”

“Indeed, we’ve made sure that every feature meets our customer’s expectations,” the Syntech representative said.

“Every feature?” Mrs. Galton said.

“Of course.”

She blushed as her gaze went down to my…

“Excuse me,” I said, “how about we talk about something else?” Asking to change the subject just felt right to me.

Mr. Galton chuckled. His face showed amusement. Was he laughing at me? No, that wasn’t it. I couldn’t quite process the expression. Perhaps, likely, yes definitely, he was impressed. I guessed that he admired my modesty.

“I’m Jeffrey Galton, financier,” he said. I noted the soft, deep tone of his voice.

“And I’m Christine, but you can call me Chrissie,” Mrs. Galton said as she made another attempt to take my hand. I obliged, reluctantly. Christine’s interest in androids hadn’t been in her profile. That was something I’d have to make note of, since I wasn’t meant for her.

“I’m Marcus, nice to meet you both,” I said.

The car turned onto one of the… multilanes that led toward Dallas, joining in formation with the other vehicles that sped along at, by my best estimate, over a hundred miles an hour. Every car remained motionless next to each other, never wavering in the lane or changing speed. More information then came to me. The… autopilot program inside each car brought thousands of independent computers together as if they were a single entity, like a… flock of birds.

Past the rows of cars, the sun sat lower in the sky, brightening the faces of my commissioners for a moment until the glass tinted itself darker.

“So, have you used androids before?” the Syntech representative asked Mr. Galton.

“Yes, I own an assistant for my work.”

“Any other androids?”

“No, just the worker.”

Perhaps I should have listened to what they were saying, however Mr. Galton wasn’t my master. If they weren’t talking about her then I wasn’t obligated to listen.

Instead, I decided to view the landscape outside. From the height of the highways, I could look out and see grasslands for miles in all directions as they scrolled by in a green blur. Off in the distance, there were grey and brown shapes poking above the short canopy of grass. The encyclopedia within my mind opened.

Decades ago, environmental laws of the Commonwealth had moved people from wide-ranging residential areas once called suburbs to the new urban megacities. Buildings and raw materials were recycled. Whatever was left had been conquered by nature, leaving almost nothing behind. Occasionally, I saw a weed-covered wall standing over the tops of swaying grasses, but with those few exceptions, it was as if humans had never settled here.

Toward Dallas, the tall and skinny skyscrapers began to appear out of the blue haze of urban smog. The light from the setting sun caused the buildings of self-tinting glass to turn as black as… obsidian. I could only guess how high they went, miles maybe. The tallest skyscrapers were connected to each other by corridors which merged the buildings together in a tangled mesh of steel and glass. I could see the older buildings below as the highway rose higher into the air. It was as if city planners had just kept building upwards whenever space was needed, neglecting what was left beneath. 

The city was not only much taller than I expected, based on my approach from the highway, but also much deeper. The buildings went for miles ahead until they began to cover each other like trees in a shining forest.

The multilanes turned upward to meet the shorter skyscrapers, blocking my line of sight for a moment. It was then I noticed that all talking had stopped and that everyone stared at me.

“Everything okay?” I said, feeling my face get warm with embarrassment.

Mrs. Galton giggled. “He’s like a child.”

“I assure you he’s a competent adult. He just has a healthy curiosity,” the Syntech representative said. “And if you don’t mind, I’d like to ask a personal question.”

“Go ahead,” Mr. Galton said.

“So why have you decided to commission Marcus? What purpose do you have for him?”

Mrs. Galton looked at me and grinned. “He’s a gift for our daughter, Elise.”

“Oh, I see.” The representative nodded. “I was just wondering, that way we can make sure she’s satisfied.”

“To tell you the truth,” Mrs. Galton whined, “our daughter has been alone for the last few years because of a medical condition.”

“This is all off the record, by the way,” Mr. Galton interrupted.

“It’s alright. I understand. You won’t see me judging her in any way. I’m not the judging type,” the Syntech representative said with a grin.

“Few are, but still,” Mr. Galton grumbled.

“The treatments have kept her stable and healthy over the years,” Mrs. Galton said, “but she hasn’t seen anyone since she was diagnosed. I’m worried that she might be lonely. She even told us she wouldn’t mind an android, and I think she’d love this one.”

“I hope to make her very happy,” I said, though I didn’t know why. The name, Elise, it stuck in my head, making me feel something, conflicted, between excited and nervous.

Our car slowed as we drove between the great monoliths that blocked out the sky. All around us, I could see walking paths and open parks between them. Our road went higher, toward a great dome on top of one building, then ended beside a receiving platform.

“If you have any questions, now’s the time,” the Syntech representative said.

The door slid upwards beside Mr. Galton, letting in the smell of pavement and smog. When he got out of the car, he turned back to lean his head inside. “Maintenance information?”

“It’s all available on our website and stored in Marcus’s memory.”

“Sounds good.”

“Come on, hun.” Mrs. Galton took my hand and led me out the door.

I looked back to see the Syntech representative getting out behind me. “Wait,” he said. He stopped me before Mrs. Galton could take me into the dome. He smiled with a familiar grin, the same one as Dr. Silvers’ when she had let me go. “Goodbye, Marcus.” He spread his arms out wide for a hug.

“Your name was?” Instead of the hug, I decided to go for a handshake.

“Charles, my name is Charles, please remember it.” He pushed my hand away and grabbed my torso, giving it a tight squeeze.

“I will, Charles,” I grunted.

“Welcome to the world.” A shade of sadness crossed his face as he waved and got back in the car. The door slid closed, and within seconds, the car shot off onto the maze of highways. Charles, like Dr. Silvers, was another person I would never see again.

 

 

 

 

 

*

 

Walking into Elise’s dome was like stepping back into… Victorian Europe. Each of the houses, with their wraparound porches and high pointed roofs, looked so different from the glass towers outside. The neighborhood’s streets were reminiscent of… 18th century cobblestones, though smoothed down and made from… bio-crete. Yards were neatly trimmed behind fences of black iron, not steel, and bushes were cut back into neat, angular designs.

The only things that seemed out of place were the clouds. The ceiling of the dome was supposed to look like real sky, or something close enough to it. It even had lights running along the rim that slowly changed as the nighttime came, but somehow I knew the clouds should have been wispy, out of focus, not like they had been painted on a ceiling.

I wondered if there were other places like this and if such things were normal. My processors strained to put to all together. If her family could afford me, if Elise lived here, then what kind of lifestyle did that convey and how could I integrate with it? I needed to impress her by adhering to certain social standards, but it was still too early for me to know what those standards were. Too many questions, too many unknown variables.

“What does Elise do?” I asked.

Mrs. Galton took my arm around hers. “Wouldn’t you rather ask her?”

“I suppose,” I said as we passed a couple with a stroller. The classic Victorian style seemed to end at the houses. The people we passed wore modern clothing in bright, unnatural colors. At least I didn’t feel so out of place anymore.

The road widened toward center of the dome, turning around a park full of flowers and play equipment.  A tree grew in the middle, glowing brilliant green from the lanterns hanging from its branches. Wind chimes dangled from it, clanging together in the cool, artificial wind. The lights and ornaments reminded me of something, a holiday, Holy Day, called… Christmas.

Mrs. Galton pulled me close as she led us through an iron gate up the path toward Elise’s house. She gripped my hand tighter when she stopped at the door and pressed the doorbell. “I can’t wait for you to meet Elise. She’ll be so happy,” she said.

I heard thudding footsteps from the other side of the door. The knob shuttered a moment just before it opened.

Her hair was almost completely white and in stark contrast to her tan skin. She had a neon yellow dress that matched her lipstick. Then, her eyes met mine, her green, natural eyes. She was just as I expected her to be.

“Mom,” Elise yelled as she hugged her mother.

“Honey.” Mrs. Galton kissed her daughter’s cheek with a loud smack.

Elise, her face was like something out of a dream, like… déjà vu. I pitied every human, organic or synthetic, who didn’t know the purpose of their life, because I understood mine, and it put me in… ecstasy. She was here, right in front of me. I knew everything about her. She liked meat and potatoes, hardly ever touched vegetables, had a weakness for white chocolate and couldn’t stand artificial sweeteners. Above average intelligence, successful job and had many friends, according to her most up-to-date social status. Her past relationships ended on mostly good terms, except one, her first, but that was okay. I didn’t care if she had been with five or five hundred because I was going to be her’s now.

“Hi,” she said to me.

I couldn’t respond.

“Honey, this is Marcus,” Mrs. Galton said.

“Nice to meet you, Marcus.”

“Hello.” That was all I could get out, guided by nothing more than unconscious programming. Mrs. Galton left me and went into the house. Then, Mr. Galton pushed by, giving his daughter a hug before following his wife.

I was left to incorporate this new experience into my consciousness. The feelings were a little too strong. Even with her gone, I still felt them. This was the person I was meant to stay with for the rest of my life, and I wanted nothing more than that. As the emotions began to settle, I decided to take my first step into what would hopefully be my home.

The house was a mix of the antique and the modern. A household display hung by the door, seemingly out of place beside the table of organic, yellow tulips. It had been a while since the carpet had been vacuumed, but that was okay. I could do that, if she didn’t mind. On the way to the living room, I took a glance at the kitchen. Brass pots hung over the stove, which was beside a microwave and protein culture. The oven and refrigerator were standard, though ornately decorated to match the house’s aesthetic, except of course for the manufacturer’s logos printed on the front.

“Marcus,” Mrs. Galton called from the other room. She rushed into the kitchen and pulled me toward the living room. “Come on, handsome, you need to join us. Talk to Elise a bit.”

Of course that sounded like an easy task, but I was an android that had been functioning for less than half a day, thrown into my first trial of interacting with strangers. I was nervous for a moment, then my feelings just dissipated. My programming knew what to do. At least that was a start.

Mrs. Galton brought me over to the bar where Elise and some of her friends were talking. She grinned at Elise’s two other friends while gripping my arm. They seemed to get the point and walked off.

“Elise, I know you met Marcus at the door,” Mrs. Galton said, “but I thought you two could talk a bit. He’s quite an interesting guy.” Without further explanation, Mrs. Galton fled with a shameless smile across her face.

That introduction didn’t go well, that much I knew. Damage control: I shouldn’t hide it, but address it informally. “That was a bit awkward,” I said.

“I know, she’s pretty obvious.”

I leaned against the counter, not too much, but enough to make it seem casual. I tried to fight the urge to look at those eyes again. Here she was, my master. There was so much I wanted to ask her. Her profile was still incomplete, but it still gave me a few ideas, and what followed was instinct more than anything else. No, not instinct: programming.

“I think someone should tell your mom you’re no longer a teenager who needs to be set up on dates,” I said as I glanced at her. “You’re what, twenty-four?” I knew she was actually twenty-seven. “You’re an adult with a really nice adult house and everything.”

“I know, right?”

“That’s okay though, parents are what they are.”

“Yeah, true,” she said.

“So I assume you have an adult job?”

“I do.”

I waited for her to say something, but she didn’t. “I’m a really bad guesser,” I said.

She tried to hide a grin. “I’m a software analyst for virtual simulation programs,” she said.

“I like the title. How’s the work?”

“Eh, it’s okay.”

“You don’t sound very excited about it,” I said.

“I mean, it was great years ago when the newest VR engine came out ‘cause everything was new and if you had the skills you could get a good job, but now everything’s kinda stagnated. Right now, I’m working on a government project. It’s dull, but good money, just, really, really dull.”

“Government work,” I said. My mind began to slow as logic cores struggled to incorporate so much information. “How does the government use virtual simulations?” I was trying to feign intellect as best I could while the encyclopedia forced the knowledge into my mind.

“Operating systems, security, user interfaces,” she said. “It’s not a bad job, it’s just not as dynamic as I originally thought.”

“I see.” I looked at her – half a second longer than my previous glances.

“So what is it you do, Marcus?”

I glanced away. Fake history was something Syntech never bothered to give me. Every part of my physique and character had been painstakingly designed to meet adequate matchmaking specifications. The only thing I lacked was a background.

“Uh…” I hummed. She’s intrigued now, I thought, but also a little confused. I knew I shouldn’t outright lie, but no half-truth could exactly cover all possible conversational outcomes. Whatever I came up with had to be negative, so it was consistent with the pause. “I’m not actually working at the moment,” I said. Again, it was true.

“Oh?”

“I’m between jobs right now. I used to work for Syntech up until recently.” Very recently.

“What’d you do before?”

Another history to write, though this one would be easier, because it had to be a lie. “I used to be a human-synthetic relations specialist.”

“Oh, that’s interesting.”

“Indeed.”

She paused for a moment, as if waiting for me to continue, which I would have done if I had more to say, but I wouldn’t keep making up a past life I never lived, unless of course I was forced to. No sense digging myself deeper into a hole.

“What does a human-synthetic relations specialist do exactly?” she asked.

I predicted her question and had a response. “We integrate synthetic humans with their new masters.”

“Synthetic humans?”

Knowledge collected in my brain again, causing my thoughts to slow. “Androids, basically. Sometimes their masters need to have certain features, and sometimes the androids need special protocols for the work they do. Most of the time they need just a little tweaking out of the box.”

“That’s really something.” She leaned against the counter now – a better sign, not great though. “Do you like it?” she asked.

“Like my work?”

“Yeah,” she said.

“Eh, sometimes. Other times it can be pretty stressful, like when I come across a problem that I haven’t seen before.”

“Same here. Machines are so finicky.”

I chuckled – appropriate response. “You think so? Try people.”

She laughed. I was beginning to like this.

One of her friends walked up to us during the lull in our conversation. “Hey guys, what’s up?” She put an arm around me and nodded to Elise. “So what do you think, pretty nice huh?” she said as she stroked my arm.

Elise’s mouth just hung open.

“Um, would you mind, ma’am, please don’t do that,” I said.

“He’s smooth.”

“Mina, what the hell are you doing?” Elise said.

“What, can’t I admire?”

“No. Don’t be so damn rude.”

Her friend backed off. “Okay, okay, I’m sorry. He is yours after all. I won’t touch.”

“What the hell, Mina?”

Name recorded. “Mina, please,” I said.

“What? I don’t get what the big deal is,” Mina said. “It’s not like I could steal him if I wanted to. He’s only supposed to like you.”

“What?” Elise whispered.

“Yeah, I’m just checking out the hardware is all, nothing wrong with that, right?”

Elise turned and peered at me. Her eyes glanced all around my face. Then, in a second, they widened. I imagined her mind putting the final pieces together. “You’re an android…” she said.

I glared at Mina. “I was going to tell her when she was ready.” But I knew it was ultimately my fault. I was the one who had started the lies, lies would eventually catch up to me anyways, no matter how well I did in making Elise like me. Better now than later, I supposed. I learned then not to lead someone on.

“Oh, you mean?” Mina started backing away. “Crap, I’m sorry.”

“Mom, dad?” Elise shouted. Everyone became silent. “What the hell is this?” she said, pointing at me.

They all stared at me. This wasn’t supposed to happen, I thought, it’s ruined.

Mrs. Galton crept toward us. “Honey, we thought you’d like him.”

“What made you think I wanted an android?”

“You said before that you’d probably only date an android.”

Elise’s face twisted into a frown. “That was a joke,” she yelled.

The room was filled with an eerie silence with all eyes still on me. Mrs. Galton touched her daughter’s shoulder and took her into the kitchen. I decided to follow, just to get away from all those staring eyes.

When I entered the kitchen, Elise put her hands on the countertop and sighed. “Door, seal,” she said. The doors connecting the kitchen to the other areas of the house closed shut. They were supposed to enclose the area in case of fire or smoke.

“Mom,” Elise yelled, “what the hell were you thinking?”

“I just don’t want you to be lonely.”

“But an android, mom? Do you think I’m a lost cause now?”

“Of course not. Marcus is just a companion android.”

“Do you think I need one?” Elise said.

“Well it might be nice to have someone around…”

“Mom, I dealt with the fact that I’d be alone a long time ago. I don’t need anyone to take care of me.”

“He won’t take care of you. He’ll just keep you company,” Mrs. Galton whimpered.

“What, like I’m an old lady or something? Who the hell asked you? Huh? ‘Cause I sure didn’t. Do you know how pathetic that is, that I need to resort to an android?”

Mrs. Galton backed away. Her shoulders slumped in defeat. She was clearly about to cry. “Honey, this is a gift,” she said.

“You don’t just get someone an android, mom. You can’t just throw things like this into my life without even asking me.”

I could see Mrs. Galton’s lip quivering as she held back tears. I was compelled to comfort her. Unfortunately, that would not be the best course of action at the moment.

She sniffed. “I just, I thought you wanted some company. I don’t want you to be lonely. I care about you, Elise. I worry about you.  I thought this might help.”

Elise looked away. “An android is not a surprise present, especially in front of my friends. Like, did you even think about that before you did it?”

Mrs. Galton nodded. “Okay, we can take him back.”

“Wait. Elise,” I said, “I’m really sorry for the inconvenience. It was my fault. I should have been upfront with you. I completely understand if you’ve decided to reject me, but please let me ask one thing.”

“What?” she snapped.

“Let me take you out on a date first before you make up your mind. We can have dinner someplace and talk about it, just the two of us.”

She sighed and combed her fingers through her hair. “I… you know what? Now isn’t the time to talk about this.”

“I know, and I understand that you’re mad. I can empathize. I’d be mad too. It’s the appropriate thing to feel when this kind of thing happens, but, at the very least, give me some time. I can tell you everything over dinner, about what I’m made for, who I am, what I can do for you. Maybe it’ll change your mind, and if that’s the case, great. If not, that’s okay too. You have no obligation to keep me or to pay for the date. It’s no charge. Dinner’s on Syntech.”

She huffed.

“Keep me or don’t. It’s your choice. Just please decide after we get the chance to sit down and talk. After that, you can do whatever you please. Nobody will force you to do anything you don’t want.”

She just stared at me. “You giving me a handout won’t change the fact that both of you screwed up my birthday.”

“I know and I’m sorry,” I said.

Mrs. Galton took Elise’s hand. “Don’t blame him, honey. It’s my fault. I’m the one who thought of this. Marcus was just doing what I told him to. He didn’t mean any harm. We can go back in there and tell them this was all a mistake if you want.”

Elise squinted and rubbed her temples. “Yeah, time for damage control.”

“What should I do?” I asked.

She looked at me again, staring into my eyes. Her anger faded away for a moment. In its absence, I saw wonder, curiosity. “Stay out of sight until we go to dinner,” Elise said.

I released a fake sigh and smiled. I still had a chance. Maybe I could make it work. No, I would make it work. Above all things, she was my master, and my only desire was to make her happy.

 

 

 

 

 

*

 

The party continued and ended while I was stuck wandering the yard. I had to follow Elise’s orders to stay out of sight, which I was more than happy to do. I didn’t want to have to deal with another… firing squad of judgmental looks from her friends. So I just walked around, looking at the flowers and bushes, sometimes peeping into a neighbor’s yard just to see what it looked like. They were all the same.

The dome’s ceiling was black now with a sliver of light rising from one side. Earlier, a fake sunset had gone from orange to purple, indicating the passage of time. I still wished I could have seen the real sunset though.

Elise finally came out the back door with a green and gold shining dress, low cut in the chest and cut high near the thighs. Her wonderful swaying hips pulled my attention away from the scowl across her face.

“You ready to go?” she asked.

I glanced up at her, then down to my suit with the silver Syntech tie. Social attire was just another aspect of human interaction that I had to understand and follow, on top of the minor social cues, body language, and cultural vocabulary. “Am I underdressed?” I asked.

“You’re fine. They’ll take your money. You are paying, right?”

“Yes, Syntech will cover us. They have accounts for this sort of thing.”

“Well that works for me,” she said. “Do I get to pick where we eat?”

“Yes, of course.”

Elise locked the house with a simple code word and we walked down the darkened street of her little Victorian time-capsule. The dome overhead showed simple constellations of stars, and just over the horizon, a moon began to rise much larger than the size of Earth’s moon. It served as the street’s main source of light: a full moon every night to light the way home. The glowing tree still had the lanterns going, but now in the dark, the green light seemed to radiate from the leaves themselves as if the plant was made of brilliant… fiber optics.

The city outside had changed too. Hours ago, the towers around us stood like monuments of obsidian in the sunlight. Now that it was night, their black tint was no longer necessary, and they became columns of glowing light. They enclosed me on all sides, extending hundreds of feet to the sky above and down into the void below. The vehicle that would take us across the mesh of highways waited for us at the platform, and I almost hit my head as I entered, still distracted by my amazing surroundings. I learned then that I should pay greater attention to where I was.

Riding through the highways of the shining city was like flying through a forest of crystalline tree trunks. The swarms of cars ran across the highways that branched out through the metropolis. I was struck with how small I was compared to everything else.

Thirteen miles west and half a mile higher up, we came to our destination. Rodney’s was Dallas’ high-end, vintage American cuisine. We left the platform and went into the restaurant through the most peculiar access – rotating doors. How inefficient, I thought as I pushed through them. Somehow, I knew it was just a novelty.

A… hostess stood at a podium in front of the doors to greet us as we entered. Her green hair was so bright that it almost seemed to glow, much like the tree within the dome.

“Welcome to Rodney’s, two for this evening?” she asked.

“Yes,” Elise said.

“Do you have a reservation?”

“I’m sorry, we don’t,” I said.

“Not a problem. We have an opening for two by the window. Right this way.”

I followed close behind her, trying to get a better look at the electric green hair that seemed so out of place. She turned around, smiling at me. “Something wrong?” she asked.

Another inappropriate action. “Um, no, sorry about that,” I said, and again reminded myself not to stare.

She smiled. “Okay.” She seemed to take no offense.

“Excuse me, how did you get your hair that color?” I asked.

“It’s how I was made. Rodney is a bit of an eccentric, bless his heart.”

“Made? You’re an android too?”

“Indeed.” Her arm swept over our table. The motion was so smooth and elegant, like it had been meticulously designed and masterfully choreographed. “Would you like the wait staff or the interface to take your order?”

“Interface, please,” Elise said.

“Okay, you may make your order selection at any time. Enjoy your dinner,” she said, then turned and walked back to stand at her podium.

I inspected the table once we sat down. Underneath the clear surface, some substance seemed to move with black and blue colors, like… ink swirling in a basin. There was no tablecloth or plates, or utensils. There was only a single vase holding a purple and gold flower that sat between us.

Elise put a finger to the screen. Cautiously, I did the same and pressed mine to the table. The gleaming ink changed colors, became a grid, and then morphed into an image of a piece of paper. I jumped back as the paper rose up out of the table. Information filled my mind, drawn from my hidden memories. “A hologram?” I asked.

“Yeah,” Elise said, “the table is a display, and the clear stuff on top acts like a parallax barrier to make the image three dimensional.”

“A parallax barrier. I’ll have to remember that.” I tried touching the paper floating in front of me, but my hand went through it. In an instant, everything seemed to slow down. My visual cortex churned as it tried to process what I was seeing. Once I removed my hand, the world returned to its normal state, releasing the strain on my mind.

“Why did you activate the menu anyway? Can androids even eat?” Elise said.

I then wondered why I had done such a thing, and couldn’t come to an answer. “No, we can’t eat,” I said. “I guess you’re right, there really wasn’t a point to it.” I pressed the table again, closing the menu.

Elise also closed hers. She watched the paper fall into the table again, returning to the black and blue ink. “So, Marcus, you’re sure this’ll be covered by Syntech?”

“Yeah, though I wasn’t entirely truthful with you earlier.”

“Oh?”

“When I said Syntech had accounts specifically for this, I kind of misspoke. Syntech gives each companion android a free dinner with their master, as a date. It’s all standard. It’s not like they give out dates like this as a contingency plan if things go wrong in the introduction. I misspoke.”

“Interesting.”

“Yeah, Syntech tries really hard to integrate us with our customers.”

“No, I mean I’m surprised you can misspeak like that. I always thought android programming didn’t allow for mistakes.”

“Some of it can. My brain is a little different from the usual android.”

“How so?”

The world slowed as information came from my encyclopedia. This was going to sound more like a sales pitch than a date, but I’d at least try to make it as personal as possible.

“Because most androids aren’t companions,” I said. “If an android doesn’t need a complex brain to talk or think, then there’s no sense in manufacturing one with those capabilities. Companion androids are different. We need a sophisticated brain to be good at our task.”

Elise put her hands beneath the table and leaned forward. It seemed that I had her attention now. “What is an android brain exactly?” she asked. “I assume it’s all wires and metal and stuff, you know, an artificial brain.”

“Well, my brain isn’t artificial. It’s a simulated consciousness within a synthetic brain.”

“So what’s the difference?”

“An artificial intelligence is built from the ground up by a programmer. But I wasn’t made that way. I have a synthetic intelligence, which is basically an edited copy of a human brain.”

I was beginning to realize that I sounded too much like a user’s manual. I learned then not to do that.

“So you’re just a copy of a real guy?” Elise said.

“That’s right. Syntech just took what was already out there and put it in a synthetic form. Now granted, we’re modified so we can’t hurt a human being or take our own lives, but we’re basically human.”

“So there’s another you out there?”

“Not really, well, I guess it depends. Someone else may be my first draft, but I’ve been modified and changed, so in a sense I am my own person. But at the same time, parts of my brain are the same as that individual.”

I suddenly realized that the waiter stood next to our table, waiting in silence for me to end my little lecture. I felt my face get warm. “Sorry, sir, I didn’t notice you,” I said.

“No apologies necessary, sir.” He smiled, lowering Elise’s meal and a full glass of wine. Setting the plate down was such a smooth motion that it made no sound when it touched the table. The movement was perfect, too perfect for that of a human. He waited for a moment for her to try her food and wine, and upon approval, he bowed and left us to resume our dinner.

“So why did Syntech do that?” Elise asked after a sip of her drink.

“Do what?”

“Why did they copy people’s brains?”

“I guess they figured it’d be easier to make a copy of what already works.”

“Ha. You say they copy what works and they copy a human? I’d hate to say your designers are stupid, but humans aren’t perfect. We make mistakes and we aren’t always logical.”

“You sound pretty logical to me.” I grinned. Hopefully it was a crafty enough transition from giving a talk on android intelligence to flirting.

“Oh please, you don’t know me well enough.”

Well, never mind trying to flirt.

“I’m serious,” she said. “Shouldn’t Syntech be worried that you might hurt someone?”

“They are. That is why we’re heavily modified. On top of my simulation, there are these programming matrixes that stop me from doing or feeling certain things. Like, I can’t physically hurt a person, ever. I can’t let someone get hurt. Though the ethics of that are very complex and I really don’t look forward to the day when I have to decide whether or not to help someone who doesn’t want it.”

Elise picked up the napkin and dabbed her red lips. “Well that’s good to know.” She jabbed a fork into her steak and moved it around the sauce that flooded her plate. “But what if they missed something? The human brain is pretty complex. How do you know you won’t assault somebody if there’s a glitch in the formula?”

“I assure you they didn’t miss anything,” I said. “Syntech found areas in the synthetic brain that were coded for specific neural networks and put software regulators on the ones that were harmful or violent. Trust me, Syntech has done a lot of product testing on me. No Syntech android has ever hurt a human being, out of the box that is.”

“How do you know all this?” Elise asked, her hand stopping just before her glass.

“Because I need to. I have to know all this information to integrate successfully with my owner. Think of me as my own user’s manual.”

“So I should go to you if I have any questions… about you?”

“Sure.”

“What if you aren’t working?”

“You can contact Syntech in that case. They have customer service representatives always standing by.”

“Good to know.” She started to focus more on her plate now that the conversation faded. Her steak was almost gone, but the vegetables were still uneaten, though I knew they’d probably go ignored.

“So, what’s it like being an android?” she asked.

“Hmm, I don’t know what to compare it to, but it’s kind of intense. As soon as I have a question to ask, the answer pops right into my mind. If there are a lot of questions going on at once then it can be a little overwhelming.” I smiled at her. “But right now, I don’t feel like an android. I just think of myself as myself.” I looked out the window to the glittering skyline. “I don’t know, maybe I’m not supposed to think about it. I guess it’s like any other physical thing you never think about.” My gaze returned to her as she dabbed wine from her lips with a napkin once again. “Ah, here’s a good example, what color are your eyes?” I asked.

“Why, can’t you see them?”

“I can, but that’s not my purpose for asking. What color are your eyes?”

“Green.”

“They are, but you probably don’t need to remind yourself constantly that you have green eyes. You simply live your life without another conscious thought about it. I guess that’s how I function. I don’t realize that I’m an android unless I need to.”

“I see.” She went back to her meal. Her muscles and posture had relaxed now. Perhaps it was the conversation, or the alcohol, but in either case she was becoming more comfortable around me, or so I hoped.

“Tell me about yourself,” I asked.

She looked at me, puzzled. “Why do you need to know?”

“I’m sorry,” I said, feeling as though I had lost ground with her. “I don’t mean to pry. I just thought that since you listened to me talk about myself, I would return the favor and listen to you.”

“Thanks, but that’s okay.”

“Is something wrong?” I asked.

“No, nothing’s wrong. I just don’t see the point in telling an android my personal history. It’s not like it’ll stop you from functioning, will it?”

“It won’t.”

“Okay then,” she said as she returned to her meal.

I waited for something to follow, perhaps a new conversation, but nothing happened. Then I remembered not to stare and turned to the windows to watch the cars pass by. I glanced back at her a few times, smiling to make sure she knew I was there and interested in talking. She never took me up on the offer.

I waited in silence during the remainder of the meal and even through dessert. It didn’t take an encyclopedia of social references to tell me that this date had taken a wrong turn, somewhere, somehow, even though I had supposedly done everything right. It took no special powers of foresight to know that my future could be greatly affected because of it, and by the end of that date, I still wondered if I had a chance with her.

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