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Companions

by Miriam English

1 - Lucy and Soop

Wednesday

It was a street in a light industrial estate on the outskirts of Caloundra at a little after 3pm on Wednesday afternoon. All was quiet except for the soft twitter of some small birds in a nearby tree, and somewhere more distant a dog barking and a child laughing. A decade or more ago the area would have been bustling with people leaving work, homebound for the day. Now it was almost deserted as if it was a holiday or one of those eerie scenes from an old catastrophe movie. There were no drifting papers, or abandoned cars in the middle of the road, or grass growing in street gutters, or broken windows in the buildings. The street was clean and tidy, and, apart from a single motorcycle, empty of vehicles. Fully encased in its gleaming, white carapace, the cycle stood alone on the footpath outside the office of a small, pale blue warehouse.

The door of the office opened and Lucy stepped out, smiling, holding a small package in one hand. She was a slender young adult, moving with easy movements. Her not-quite-shoulder-length hair was wavy and black. Her dark eyes sparkled in an exceptionally attractive face. She dressed in black — a loose-fitting black, casual, shirt rolled up to her elbows, black jeans cut off at the top of her thighs, and heavy, black ankle boots. She wore no jewellry.

Her large, white cycle waited for her, balancing improbably on its two enclosed wheels. As she approached it, the baggage case at its rear opened and she deposited the package into it. The baggage compartment closed again as the top of the cycle opened, hinging up from the front, exposing a dark interior with its glowing displays inside. At the same time the two leg covers on each side flipped out and forward.

"Hey Soop," Lucy greeted the cycle as she threw one leg over its embedded seat.

The cycle answered in a soft feminine voice, "Hey. Where to now?" as the rider put each leg in place and their covers snapped back firmly.

Lucy leaned forward, on her belly, put her head into the cavity lined with displays, and inserted her arms into tubes with finger grips at their ends. The top closed down and the interior inflated to hold her firmly so that she was unable to move, except to breathe and speak. This feeling of snugness made Lucy thrill and she laughed, "Last delivery of the day: 3D Powders."

The cycle extended its wheels, shifting its plates, lengthening and lowering its body, then shot silently forward onto the street, accelerating the electric motors in its wheels noiselessly without raising the front off the ground. In seconds it was at the far end of the street and leaned low taking the corner that would lead out onto the main highway. The cycle was networked with the few other moving vehicles within several kilometers, and watched the roads ahead with a combination of cameras, radar, and the old street cameras put in by previous paranoid governments.

Inside the cycle, watching the 360-degree displays, projected and refocussed for her eyes, Lucy whooped with joy. She was not an idle passenger. She still guided Soop with her hands and feet on controls, even though Soop could manage perfectly well without human guidance. Lucy and Soop were like a rider and her horse — more than just driver and vehicle. They had a bond, knowing what each intended and working together as more than each alone. Soop loved and depended upon Lucy, and for Lucy the feeling was mutual. This was not romantic love, but was something more symbiotic; the feeling certain lucky people have had for their horses and their working dogs far back into the shadows of human history.

They sped down the middle lane of the empty highway at a little under 300 kilometers per hour, taking only a few minutes to reach their turnoff, where they peeled off to the left and down onto the Sunshine Motorway. They flew down its long curves to the next turnoff onto Maroochydore Road and in a final high-speed burst arrived at Kunda Park, an old industrial estate consisting mostly of large warehouses, workshops and factories. The only other vehicle in sight was a distant bullet-shaped truck approaching from the opposite direction at high speed. The cycle zipped across the main road and down the side street, then swung left parallel to the main road. A few doors down was a modest, gray-painted single-storey factory with a nicely tended flower garden in front of its office (none of the other buildings in the street had gardens). On the wall between the office windows and the wide delivery entrance were meter-tall, yellow letters outlined in black: "3D Powders". Soop drove in the delivery driveway and came to a sudden stop on the smooth concrete inside, deliberately making the tires squeal and echo in the cavernous interior of the factory.

The airbags surrounding Lucy hissed as they deflated. Soop's canopy above her lifted, the two leg-covers flipped open, and Lucy dismounted feeling energised and wearing a wide grin. "Thanks Soop."

The cycle gave a very human-sounding laugh, "Fun, but too short. Let's take the long way next time."

"The coast road?" Lucy asked.

Soop laughed again, "Via Perth."

Lucy laughed too, shaking her head as she retrieved the package from the baggage compartment.

As Lucy strode toward the wide office area, Soop retracted her length, shortening her body so that the wheels were closer under her, then raised herself higher to make balancing easier, and followed her human silently, like an enormous dog.

The main factory area was separated from the offices by floor to ceiling panelling and a few doors set into it. Lucy walked through the nearest double doors and held them open for Soop.

As they entered Sylvia rose from her desk, greeting them with a wide smile, "Lucy. Soop."

Lucy could never work out if Sylvia intended to look like the fabled Marilyn Monroe, or if it was simply how she was. Sylvia's Swedish lineage had given her natural blonde hair and a perfect milky skin. She was so curvaceous she was almost overweight and wore tight clothes that accentuated her attributes. Unlike the famous M.M., she was a middle aged mother and no drink or drugs ever clouded her focussed and retentive mind.

Sylvia received the package from Lucy. "Navid will be out in a moment." She stretched out a hand and patted Soop. Behind her, on the other side of Sylvia's large office a door opened and she turned.

Navid entered, closing the door behind him. He smiled uneasily when they greeted him. He had dark hair and a middle-east complexion. It could have made him look handsome, but his nervous shyness, stooped posture, and extreme thinness gave too much of an impression of vulnerability. He rarely spoke much, preferring to get back to his work as quickly as possible. Sylvia considered him an electronics genius. He maintained all the equipment in this factory.

Sylvia handed the package to Navid who took it nodding and mumbling thanks and retreating to his workshop again.

Sylvia watched him leave and shook her head. "We have to work out some ploy to get Navid to meet a good woman."

"Or a bad one," Lucy chuckled.

Oliver had entered the office "You don't want to scare him off. Good afternoon Lucy, Soop." Oliver was a humanoid robot, with arms, legs, torso, and head, but the face was blank except for two round dark camera lenses for eyes. His exterior was made of smooth, hard plastic. He went over to an electrical outlet and plugged a heavy cord in. He took the other end over to the cycle. A small cover above the luggage compartment flipped up as he approached and Oliver plugged the other end of the cord in there.

Soop said, "Thank you Oliver."

"You are most welcome." He bowed slightly. Oliver had a very humanlike AI (artificial intelligence) and worked efficiently with Sylvia to run the entire business, especially while the owner was ill.

Lucy said, "We could take him to a dance club."

Sylvia laughed, "Can you see Navid dancing with young women to loud music?"

"Uh, no. I guess not." Lucy admitted.

"Perhaps an amusement park, and then his young daughter could come," said Soop.

"Better, but I doubt they'd allow cycles in," said Sylvia. "What about a picnic in the park?"

"Who could he meet in the park?" Lucy asked.

Sylvia was scheming already, "I'm sure I can come up with someone."

Oliver said, "Not to put a dampener on your plans, but I think Navid may have already met someone."

"Really? Who?"

"I don't know, but he spends a lot of time online with someone on the net and he has blushed when I've interrupted him sometimes, which may indicate it is more than simply business."

Lucy grinned, "Navid has a honey."

Sylvia thought for a moment, "I wonder how we can find out who it is."

"Without invading his privacy," Oliver put in, firmly.

"Of course," Sylvia said. "I would never invade his privacy."

"Oh no, of course not." Lucy frowned with a smile behind it.

"I wouldn't," protested Sylvia. "Perhaps just a little innocent, accidental evesdropping."

Soop said, "We could just ask him."

There was silence for a moment, then Lucy and Sylvia laughed. Sylvia said, "Yes, we could do that... if we were sensible."

Lucy said, "Who'll ask him?"

Sylvia said, "I will. No time like the present." She turned and strode through the door Navid had left through. Lucy followed, and when Oliver unplugged the cable from Soop they trailed along too.

Navid's workshop was a large room, about the size of a tennis court, with many benches and tables, lots of test equipment, drill-press, grinder, and even a lathe. He was working on some odd bit of equipment on a desk near the door when the four entered. He looked up.

Sylvia said, "We've decided to have a picnic this weekend--"

Lucy asked, "Saturday or Sunday?"

Sylvia said, "Saturday. We want you to come Navid. Bring your daughter and someone else... perhaps the person you've been meeting on the net."

Lucy facepalmed and murmured, "Don't beat around the bush Sylvia."

There was a pause before Navid said meekly, "Um, Okay."

"Good. Who is she? Do we know her?"

His eyes dropped back to his desk, his long, thin fingers prising apart the casing of the object he was working on. "Her name's Aimee. No, you wouldn't have met her. At least I doubt it."

Oliver raised a hand and said reluctantly, "Uh, Navid, forgive me for asking, but this Aimee... she wouldn't be the fabled net AI, would she?"

Navid blushed and nodded, still not looking up from his desk and the device, which was now extracted from its casing.

Lucy asked Oliver, "What do you mean 'fabled'?"

Oliver said, "For some months there has been a rumour that a peculiar form of distributed intelligence was loose on the net. It's usually considered to be urban legend. The name this AI has given itself is Aimee."

Sylvia asked, "How can a net AI attend the picnic?"

Navid seemed to be trying to decide something. Eventually he stood, not meeting their eyes, "Over the the past several days, during lulls in work, I've been adapting a body for her." He walked around his desk to a table covered with canvas on the far side of his workshop and gently drew back the covering to reveal the head and shoulders of a very realistic silicone female body underneath.

Sylvia suppressed a laugh and Navid blushed deeply. "I'm sorry Navid, but a sexbot?"

"Aimee chose it, paid for it, and had it delivered last week. She wants to be able to walk about in the real world." He covered it again and blushed some more. "It's not what I was expecting. I haven't been able to go into a shop and buy clothes for it because I'm too embarrassed. I don't even know what sizes to get."

Sylvia stepped over to it and pulled the canvas back again. "Oh Navid. You should have asked me. I have some clothes that will fit nicely, after just a few small alterations." She covered it up again. "Will she be ready in time?"

He nodded. He returned to his desk, sat, and continued working on the circuit, clipping hooked needle probes to spots in it and watching a screen before him.

Sylvia smiled, patted his shoulder and said softly, "Don't you worry. I'll bring some clothes in tomorrow and we should have it looking very nice in time for activation. Aimee will have a very pleasant surprise." She motioned for them all to withdraw and walked out after them, leaving Navid to his work.

Back in the main office again, Sylvia hooked her arm through Oliver's and said, "Maybe Navid is onto something and we should get you a male sexbot body."

Lucy would not have believed that a robot that had no facial expressions could convey the level of discomfort Oliver displayed then.

Fidgetting, without disengaging his arm from Sylvia's he said, "I don't think that's wise. I'm not sure it's even possible, and certainly not legal, as I'm owned by 3D Powders."

Sylvia chuckled. "Don't worry, possum. I'm not being serious. Even though it's tempting, I like you fine just the way you are."

Oliver relaxed somewhat.

Sylvia added, "But I still think that the idea of you, a sentient person, being owned by a company bothers me."

Oliver said, "I know. We've talked about this many times, but it is how it is. There is nothing that can be done about it."

Lucy shook her head, "That's what people used to say when slavers owned other humans. I'm with Sylvia on this. It's immoral to own people."

"You own Soop," Oliver pointed out.

"I built Soop, but I don't consider myself as her owner. We're like partners."

Oliver said, "It's immaterial, anyway. If I was no longer owned by 3D Powders I would still choose to work here exactly as I do now. I like it here."

Sylvia thought for a moment. "William, the owner of 3D Powders, is ill at the moment. What if something happened to him and his son took over? You know how focussed on money he is. He wants to get rid of all human workers in order to cut costs. What if he decided to sell the factory to someone who didn't want the machinery. You would have no choice in the matter. You could be destroyed. That would be wrong. AIs deserve self-determination."

Oliver patted Sylvia's hand. "We can discuss this until the cows come home, but it doesn't change anything. And I'm perfectly happy the way things are."

Sylvia rolled her eyes and sighed, "I give up." She turned to Lucy, "You and Soop will come to the picnic won't you? Ask your Mum and Dad to come too."

"Sure," said Lucy. "We'll be there. I'll check if my folks can make it."

"We'll see you all later," said Soop. She lowered herself, then raised the top of her canopy and flicked open the leg covers.

Lucy gave a finger-wave, swung her leg over the cycle and laid into its recess. The leg covers snicked closed, the cover lowered over her, and the internal airbags inflated, holding her snug. Soop steered both front and rear wheels ninety degrees and turned herself on the spot to face the exit, then, with only the slightest whirring noise, flew through the open door into the delivery entrance, out onto the road while extending, lengthening herself, then flashed down to and around the corner, leaning so low that the side of the cycle body was just centimeters from the road surface.

Knowing the positions of all local traffic, wheeled and pedestrian, Soop was able to race out onto the main road and race at high speed back down towards Maroochydore. At the next intersection they peeled off to the left and continued, at a lesser rate down the road toward the river. They slowed further for some children and a dog playing near the roadside. Soop had been keeping an eye on them via the traffic camera network. After that they sped up again, though not to the same exhilarating pace as before. This looked like bushland, but was tree-filled suburbia with many more people and animals, no roadside barriers and much higher levels of unpredictability. Nevertheless it didn't take long for them to roll into the driveway at Lucy's parents' home, a little north of Bli Bli, where she lived.

Like most homes nowadays, theirs was underground. The power savings, reduced maintenance, safety from bushfires, and increase in usable land area had always been undeniable, but the big change occured when it became fashionable. When film stars and media darlings began to build underground, suddenly everybody wanted to do it. Over only a decade or so, large areas of ugly suburbia became like parkland, and wildlife returned to places where they hadn't been seen in a hundred years. With the return of wildlife, obstructive fences became unfashionable too.

Lucy's parents' home was embedded in a gentle hillside on the downside of the road, so the driveway took her down, around, to the front of the house, which looked out over a wide, shallow valley. It was easy to imagine it was pristine bushland instead of the fairly heavily populated area that it actually was. The sun was getting low in an orange sky. The birds were singing their bedtime chorus, readying for the night.

The orange light gleamed on the cycle's white armour. Soop stopped and opened up, allowing Lucy to dismount. Lucy was oblivious to the beauty around and behind her. She had her own external door, and with Soop following, she opened it and went in. She got the power cord and plugged it into the socket above Soop's luggage compartment.

"I'll go find Mum & Dad while you recharge."

Soop retracted her wheels completely, settling her shining white body onto the floor and her arched line of plates flattened, relaxed.

Lucy went through the other door in her room — the one that led into the house, calling out "Mum! I'm home."

"In here," her mother's voice came from her study.

Lucy's father had insisted that the house all be built on a single level so that they wouldn't need ever to bother with stairs as they aged. It was not a big house, but it was comfortable. The second-largest room in the house was the living-kitchen-dining area, which Lucy felt was mostly wasted, under-used, except on the rare occasion that her parents entertained guests. Still, it was like the hub of the house, with all other rooms budding off it.

Lucy strode across it to the open door of her mother's study and leaned against the frame. "Whatcha doing?"

Her mother was at her permanently messy desk typing something on her ancient computer. "I have a really great interview lined up for Saturday. I'm just doing background research so I can ask halfway sensible questions and don't look a complete idiot."

Lucy thought her mother was the smartest person she knew. She doubted her Mum could seem to be an idiot even if she tried. "We've all been invited to a picnic on Saturday, but that's okay."

"Oh, sorry hon."

"No worries, it's not important. Who's the interview with?"

"Remember the musician who called himself 'The Artist'?"

Lucy nodded, "The one who died recently?"

"Yes." She stopped typing and turned. "I'll be talking with the AI who had helped him with most of his projects." She turned back to her computer. "How was your day, dear?"

Lucy shrugged, "It was a day. Soop keeps saying she wants to visit Perth. I think she just wants an excuse to cross the Nullarbor."

"It certainly would be an experience. You could see more of this country. Maybe travel up north, Broome, Darwin, return through Alice Springs. There's lots to see along the way." She had switched to another of the virtual screens and was searching for something online.

"You think I should go?"

Her mother looked around at Lucy. "No, I'd prefer you here safe, but I'm very glad that I went when I was younger. Now is the time to see how big Australia is, when you are young." She paused and considered, "And I do worry sometimes that you will settle into being bored. Boredom isn't fun, but can be seductively comfortable."

"Don't worry Mum. Soop keeps boredom at bay."

"Mmmm. But I do wish she would drive a little less like she was rocket-assisted."

Lucy chuckled, "She drives far more safely than any human could. There is a vanishingly small chance of having an accident."

"Unfortunately, at those speeds any accident would likely be the last for both of you."

Changing the subject, Lucy said, "So... Dad's in the workshop?"

"Sorry sweetie. I don't mean to worry. I know you're very safe with Soop. Yes, he should be there."

The workshop was behind the garage. Lucy walked through the kitchen-dining area again, pausing to open a cupboard take out a large, glass jar, and remove a biscuit from it. She replaced the bottle and nibbling the biscuit, she continued to the door to her father's workshop in the far wall, opened it and went through.

The workshop was about twice the size of the garage. The wall it shared with the garage had a large roll-up door, similar to the one that closed the garage off to the outside. At the moment the internal roll-up door was closed. Even so, this was still the biggest room of the entire house. It was very well lit by skylights, reflector panels, and LED lights, and always looked like a terrific mess. Lucy knew it was actually very organised. Her father could put his hand on anything at a moment's notice. The messy appearance was simply the result of trying to pack too much into too small a space. Her father really either needed to extend his workshop, or get rid of some of his stuff. Most likely an extension would be excavated in the near future.

Her father was standing at his bench fitting some objects together that looked something like a mushroom with the cap on upside down — the flattened gill area at the top and the stalk coming down from the smooth curved surface underneath.

"Making plastic mushrooms? That's something new."

Her father looked up, smiled, and continued fitting the parts together. "I want to make a brewing chamber, but the whole thing is too big for my 3D printer, so I have to make it in parts. I'm just trying a scaled-down model first to make sure I'm right about the shapes."

"What do you want to brew Dad?"

"Milk. It's ridiculous that we grow cows and ruin large tracts of land, not to mention the barbaric practice of killing their calves, just so we can have our milk. I've adapted standard organ-culture techniques, with a bit of a twist, to grow mammary tissue. This'll produce milk without all the problems of the dairy industry. I've worked out a way to use a liquid-repellent surface on the inside of the vats to prevent biofilms forming and contaminating the culture. That lets me use ordinary maker technology instead of needing metal, because I no longer need to heat-sterilise it."

"Cool. When can we taste a sample?"

He looked up at the ceiling and muttered to himself. Lucy waited patiently. He was trying to add together all the steps and their likely times. Presently he said, "It may be ready in a little more than a month. That'll let me complete building a working vat, growing a culture, and then running the necessary food tests... if all goes well. If not, then depending on what goes wrong it could take... well, who knows? Building is the easy part. Culturing is the tricky part and I'm learning as I go."

"What will you feed it on? You can't exactly put grass in the vat, can you?"

"Ah, that was the neat idea I had this morning when I was making some improvements in the standard solar diesel generator. Everybody has the same old problem of the algae coating the insides of the tubes, dying and blocking off the light. I made some tubes with repellent surfaces that prevent the algae from sticking. It works like a charm. That was when it hit me that the algae could be made into symbiotes with animal cells to get their energy from the sun and create things other than simple oils. The hard thing is maintaining a membrane to keep the milk isolated from the nutrient and waste stream, but thanks to the anti-biofilm surface, I think I've solved that."

"Excellent! Want to come to a picnic on Saturday?"

She saw him mentally shift gears. "What day is today?"

"Wednesday the twelfth."

"What's the picnic in aid of?"

"Nothing really. Just a get-together of some nice people."

"Okay. Count me in. I'm certain your mother will enjoy it."

"She probably would, except that she has an interview on Saturday."

"Oh yes, for her blog. I remember she was very excited about it during lunch. Something about a music AI, I think."

"An amazing music AI, Dad. The Artist's AI."

"Which artist's?"

"The Artist, Dad. Capital 'A'." She rolled her eyes. "Never mind. At least Mum keeps up with the current day."

"Not like your old fogey Dad, huh?" he grinned.

"'Old fogey'? Who speaks like that anymore?"

"Careful, you might be getting too old. Awful thought, I know. There is one way to check it's not happening to you too. I must perform an experiment to see if I can still tickle you." He put out his arms threateningly and and moved slowly toward her.

"No tickling. What am I? Five? Dad." When he didn't stop approaching she shrieked, laughing and ran back into the house with her father in pursuit.

Lucy took refuge behind her mother, in the study. "Mum stop him. He's going to tickle me."

Putting on a formal narrator's voice, he said, "It must be done to prevent the terrible disease of old age."

Grinning, "Oh good grief, you two are such children. Get out of here and let me finish my research."

Lucy's father said, "Maybe I'm not so decrepit after all." He gave his wife a kiss on the cheek. "Thank you Helena."

She gave him a quick kiss back. "You're welcome James. Now you two behave and go."

He said, "I think I'll cook dinner. Any requests?"

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