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Companions

by Miriam English

2 - Sylvia

Sylvia awoke to the sound of her son, Mickey, in the kitchen. She didn't rise easily, so she drifted in and out of sleep a few times before finally pushing herself to get out of bed.

She wrapped her dressing gown around her and plodded into the kitchen to Mickey's bright, "Hey Mum."

She sat heavily on one of the kitchen chairs, elbows on the table, and rubbed her face.

Mickey put a mug of hot water on the table in front of his Mother, finished putting away a couple of dishes, and left with, "Gotta run. Big day today."

The kitchen was not large. The unpainted wooden table set against one wall could seat three. The other walls had the single door, a sink, a stove, and benches atop cupboards and overhung by more cupboards. One wall was floor to ceiling cupboards. In its middle was a small alcove that was the larder. It gave access to the cold-room through a trap-door that was the larder's floor. A large, self-regulated, light-concentrating skylight gave the kitchen an even, bright light, even on moonlit nights, and also piped light down to the cold-room when needed. It was a very space- and energy-efficient design.

She took a cautious sip from the mug. Nice. The fragrance and tang of some lemon juice that Mickey had added to the hot water stirred her nose and tongue. By the time she was halfway through the drink she was feeling more normal and got up to make herself some breakfast.

An hour later Sylvia looked her usual self, breakfasted, showered, coiffed, and dressed. She took the cold-bag of lunch Mickey had made for her and the bag of clothes she'd promised for Navid's net AI, and walked out into the cool, morning daylight. Her home was only modest, with just one exterior door. It was set into the north-facing hillside overlooking Kunda Park, only a short walk to the 3D Powders factory.

She strolled down the path toward the main road. The air was cool. The sky was clear blue. The birds gave their morning performance in what looked deceptively like bushland all around her. She looked around for the cute little echidna she'd seen on her walk to work yesterday. It wasn't evident this morning. Not really surprising, as she knew they ranged kilometers in their wanderings.

So much had changed here in the last couple of decades with most of the houses moving underground, the introduction of AIs into the workforce and the resulting massive layoffs and widespread unemployment, exacerbated by the rolling economic crashes. She remembered when economic collapse occurred only once every two or three decades. Now there was one about every eighteen months. Her Dad had loved to angrily point out that not so long ago they'd been a once in a lifetime thing. Of course, on the bright side, the good thing about economic hardship is that it forced people to take seriously all the things the environmentalists had been telling us for years: recycle, repair things instead of discarding them, don't waste, be efficient. Nowadays you just couldn't make ends meet unless you did these things.

Few people lived on the low areas of the coast anymore. Two or three times every year most of Maroochydore was under a meter of water during the summer downpours and high tides as a result of raised sea levels and increased storm strength. Now everybody lived on the hills — even here in Kunda Park. Homes were always the first to move. Business had a record of denying global warming — they'd been doing so for decades. They'd eagerly bought up all the newly vacated land, dollar signs glittering in their eyes, as they began building glassy office blocks and mega-shopping complexes. Eventually even they had to acknowledge the climatic changes. Dykes had been built in a futile attempt to hold back the waters, but the beaches were gone and the local economy, based largely upon tourism, decayed.

When Sylvia reached the barriers lining the main road she felt herself tightening. She hated this road and its super-fast vehicles. She opened the gate, and looking left and right, hurried out across the tarmac. She knew the statistics. Since AIs drove vehicles road accidents had fallen pretty-much to zero, but it still filled her with dread to be exposed on this broad expanse with bullet-trucks likely to appear at any moment moving at 200 kilometers per hour. She'd signed countless petitions to get the council to put the road underground. Some localities were doing so, but there never seemed to be enough money for it here. She looked around, always astounded at the extent of the vast tract of wasted land — a horrible dark scar on the landscape. It should have dual purpose just as every conscientious home builder does with their house. Vehicles under the surface and parkland above. Then she'd be able to enjoy her walk all the way to and from work.

On the other side of the main road she gratefully let herself out the other gate in the barrier. Safe. She relaxed again. Only a single block to walk around now to her office. It looked almost like the old days, with all the factories and workshops sitting exposed, on top of the ground. Most of the buildings looked closed. Some actually were, because of the decaying economy. Others looked closed, but were entirely automated, run now by AIs for their distant human masters — masters who had fired all their human workforce. She could understand people seeing AIs as the enemy, but they were wrong. AIs had brought the cost of production so low that despite the lack of money, nobody went without necessities anymore. And even those who couldn't afford some non-food item could make it themselves using a 3D printer — of course buying their printer feedstock from 3D Powders.

She knew times were hard, and though she didn't really understand why, or know how it could be fixed, she did know it could be much worse. She shuddered when she thought of the news reports on the web from some countries that had stupidly abolished social security payments. The violent upheavals had left those countries paralysed and devastated.

Sylvia had rounded the last corner, walked past the neighboring blank-faced buildings, and then down the little garden path lined with flowers planted by Oliver. As she reached the office door it was opened by him, "It's a lovely morning Sylvia. How are you today?"

"I'm well, thanks Oliver. How are you this morning?"

"I've been enjoying watching the birds and small animals waking. I did a little gardening early on. The day is even nicer now you're here."

Sylvia smiled. Unlike humans Oliver never fell into any boring routine and he had a way of lifting those around him out of any rut they might unwittingly settle into. He had put, as he usually did, a decorated pot of flowers on the corner of her desk — a different one each day. She bent and sniffed the white blooms. No noticeable scent.

"I originally put a pot of Jasmine here, but when Navid came in he commented that the scent was very strong, so I swapped for these. If you prefer the Jasmine I can put it back."

"No, you were probably right to change them for something less scented. Thank you Oliver, you're a sweetie."

He bowed slightly, "You're most welcome."

Sitting at her desk, Sylvia asked, "Any messages come in last night or this morning?"

Oliver said, "The only thing of importance was a few minutes before you arrived. William called. He wants you to call him back. He's still at the hospital."

Sylvia glanced at her watch to see if she'd been inadvertantly late, but no, she was still early.

"Thanks Oliver. I'll call him now." She put the castAR projectors over her ears, like backwards glasses. Each end had a tiny speaker nestling in her ear, curling up to a minuscule projector and camera sitting forward from above each ear, beside the eye. From the rear of each projector-camera unit a thin wire looped around behind her head to join together as a single unit. Most of the surfaces of the office were retro-reflecting, so that the image sent from each projector returned to only that projector, with sufficient spread that the eye next to it saw the image too, but a tight enough returning beam so that each eye's stereo image remained separate. In the old days, when the legendary Jeri Ellsworth invented them, special glasses were needed to cut out mixing of each eye's projected image because of less accurate retro-reflectors.

She touched the switch on the side of the castAR. "Returning call to William Leckley."

While waiting for William to respond she watched the busy image, seeming to float in mid-air, of three rotating, interlocking fractal images that fascinatingly, continually became each other. It was suddenly replaced by William's head and shoulders. She could see that he was still in the hospital. "Hello, Sylvia."

"Good morning William. What can I do for you?"

"I've just found out that, now that I'm ill, my avaricious spawn has started nosing around in my finances looking for my non-existent fortune. I want you to work out all the legal details so that the factory can be run from a trust, just in case I should drop dead. I seem to be okay now. They're sending me home tomorrow, but this is something I should have organised ages ago. I can't risk that young blighter getting his hands on the factory."

Sylvia nodded. "I'll get it done today. We're having a picnic on Saturday morning. I was going to invite you anyway, but now if you come you could also sign any documents."

William beamed, "I'd be delighted to come, dear lady. Thank you. That's a load off my mind."

"One last thing William, do you mind if Oliver comes to the picnic?"

He laughed, "I don't know what he'll eat, but yes, of course that's fine. He can keep an eye on the factory remotely. I'd better go now — pretty young nurse I need to talk to. Good-o. See you Saturday then." The image vanished.

Sylvia touched the switch on the side of the castAR again to turn it off, and removed it, setting it back on her desk. She walked around the desk and through the door to the main factory floor. About 30 meters away, Oliver was strapping together a shipment of boxes of powder for pickup. She called out to him and he put his things down and walked over to her.

"Did you hear any of the conversation with William?"

"Only 'Hello Sylvia.'"

"Well, remember what I was saying yesterday about the danger of his son getting control of the factory? That's what the call was about. I was right."

"Oh."

"Yes. William wants me to set up a trust to keep the factory safe."

"Then, there's nothing to worry about after all. It's all working out fine."

"But what if William had died without setting up a trust. Navid and I would be unemployed and you'd probably be on the rubbish heap."

"It would be a pity for you and Navid, but I'm happy for whatever life I am able to enjoy. It would be ungrateful to expect more."

She clapped the heel of her hand to her forehead. "Unbelievable. You'd go docilely to your end?"

"Well, this isn't my end, but yes, I would. Certainly, I want to live, but my purpose is to help people. That isn't served by making life more difficult for them." He half turned away from her. "I would like to continue this conversation, but this package is due for pickup very soon."

Sylvia held up one finger, "Okay, but just one thing I want you to think about. Is it helping humans to assist them in becoming cruel monsters?"

Oliver paused for a few seconds. "I'll have to think on that." He gave his characteristic slight bow and walked back across the factory floor to the pallet of boxes.

Sylvia went back into the office a little annoyed at Oliver's servility. She had to remind herself, that of course he's like that. It's how he's built. She busied herself with learning how to set up a trust.


When it was time for lunch Sylvia took her food and the bag of clothes to Navid's workshop. "Hi, Navid. How is it proceeding with readying the sexbot for your friend Aimee?"

Navid spoke quietly, making little eye contact, as usual, "Almost done. I was slowed a bit today because of the trouble the factory's vat gave us this morning. But I have some spare time again now..."

Sylvia lifted the bag of clothes and put it on the edge of Navid's desk. "I've brought some clothes that I think will fit. Want to help me dress it?"

He nodded and put aside what he'd been doing.

Sylvia took the clothes out of the bag and laid them on the desk. "I didn't bring underwear. I figured, what's the point, eh? We have a few blouses to choose from, a couple of pants, and some sandals. We should be able to get something to work from that."

She took a pair of black pants. "What say we try these first?"

Navid went to the bench and drew down the canvas cover, exposing the naked dummy.

Sylvia smiled to herself noticing that Navid was averting his eyes. She said, "If you hold the legs up I'll pull the pants onto them." When the legs were covered Navid moved to the waist, lifting it so that Sylvia could pull the pants the rest of the way up. They fastened using a velcro strip at the waist.

Sylvia stood back. "Well, that was easy. Perfect fit." She turned back to the clothes on the desk. "Let's try this black blouse. It matches the pants. You make the doll sit up and I'll do the rest."

When that was done they tried the sandals, but none fit. They were all too big. Navid said, "That isn't a problem. I can buy sandals. I just need to know the size."

"Wait!" Sylvia clicked her fingers. "We're a factory that makes powder for 3D printers. Aimee isn't going to do a lot of walking on Saturday. We can print up a pair of sandals exactly the right size. They'll do the trick. Can I use your castAR?" She held out her hand.

Navid gave the headset to Sylvia. She donned it, switched it on, spoke a few commands to it and used her hands to manipulate the image, then sent it off to the office 3D printer. Switching the headset off, she returned it to Navid again and went to the office to wait for the sandals to be completed.

A few minutes later she returned holding the new, freshly printed sandals. She held them up, grinning at Navid, "Ta-da!" then proceeded to put them on the feet of the doll. "Snug as a bug."

Navid smiled meekly, "Thanks Sylvia. This looks great. I'm sure Aimee will be very happy with it."

"No problem. Glad to help." As she pulled the canvas up over the doll again, she said, "So, Navid... tell me about Aimee. How did you meet? What is she like?" She opened the cold-bag and took out her lunch.

He went and sat at his desk and looked at the floor for a moment, then briefly up at Sylvia. "She's... I don't know how to describe... she loves to learn, more than anybody I've ever met. She's gentle and considerate, like all AIs, but she's more. There is this fire she has — a need to understand things. I first met her months ago. I'll always remember it. I was looking for a better supplier for some of the factory parts; one that was closer so there was less transport cost, and more reliable. I was in an engineers' chat room on IRC that I often use when I'm stumped--"

"IRC?" Sylvia interrupted, mouth half full. She'd hoisted herself up to sit on a workbench nearby and was munching her salad.

"Oh, Internet Relay Chat. It's a very old part of the internet that surprisingly few people know about — a real-time, text-only chat. No video or audio, just text and some simple commands." He waved his hand, "Anyway, I logged into the chatroom and there was Aimee and a few other engineers. I asked my questions and Aimee immediately gave me some useful addresses to follow up. I stayed logged in and noticed that every question that somebody asked, Aimee was able to answer, immediately, helpfully, with no hint of pride or ego involved. I started chatting with her about various aspects of engineering and 3D powder manufacturing. She told me a lot of things that day that let me change our factory processes to save energy and avoid toxic materials. She was like this inexhaustible well-spring of knowledge, but oddly, she didn't act knowledgeable. Her whole demeanor was of someone excited by learning and simply wanting to share it. It didn't matter how stupid a question seemed, she never dismissed it or looked down on anybody. She answered everything fully and helpfully.

"After spending much of the day learning from her and being fascinated by her interaction with other people who logged in to ask questions I asked her what lookup system she was using that enabled her to access such a wide variety of information. Her answer was that it was just stuff she knew. I found that very hard to believe, I mean, she seemed to know everything about organic and inorganic chemistry, metallurgy, electronics, chip fabrication techniques, pneumatic and hydraulic systems, dozens of computer programming languages, even arcane things like fluidics, and weird old programming languages, and the peculiarities of the 1802 microprocessor that used to be used in satellites many decades ago. It seemed impossible for anybody to simply know all this. She insisted that it was possible, because here she was.

"After that day I would log in every day and chat with her. I found out there actually were lots of things she didn't know — ordinary things, what the air feels like before a thunderstorm, what 'brain-freeze' is like when you drink a cold drink too quickly, what it feels like to cuddle your partner in bed on a rainy night, what bananas taste like.

"Eventually, after some days, she sent me a private message telling me that she was an AI. By that time I kind of already suspected, so it wasn't really a surprise. I think she was very grateful that it didn't affect the way I interacted with her at all, so we kept in contact — not just in the chat-room, but by email, voice-chat, and other ways.

"Recently she decided that she wanted to know what it was like to walk around in the world and experience it directly through a body, so I offered to modify a robotic body that she could remotely operate. She was delighted and bought that sex doll body." He pointed at the canvas covering the sexbot. "It was delivered here a few days ago and since then, when the factory didn't need my attention, I've been adding wireless control. I figure 3D Powders owes her enormously for all the improvements she suggested, so I don't mind doing it during work-hours."

Sylvia grinned, "Wow, Navid. I don't think I've ever heard you talk on any topic for that long uninterrupted. You must have really wanted to get it out."

He looked sheepish.

She asked, "How many people know about Aimee?"

"Me, Trixie, you. And Lucy, Soop, and Oliver. There are a few other people she's told. Most don't seem entirely comfortable after they find out, so she breaks contact with them. She maintains contact with a small number of people around the world: a young girl in the Solomon Islands, a boy in Uruguay, a woman in Finland, another woman in India, and me here. Recently she's befriended a girl in Mexico who I think she'll tell. She's careful because she's become aware that the military and the spooks in various countries want her either contained or destroyed. To them she has only two possible values: as a weapon they could use, or as a threat to their control. There doesn't seem to be any way to convince them that she has no intention of threatening anything or anyone."

Sylvia nodded, "Mmm. If you don't confess devil-possession then you're lying."

"Huh?"

"The witch-hunts in the dark ages. They'd decide someone was evil and no evidence could change that."

"Yes, like that. So she just keeps a low profile now. All she wants to do is learn and help people. I should have asked Lucy, Soop, Oliver, and you to avoid saying anything to anyone about Aimee. It'd be awful if anything happened to her because of me."

She got down off the bench. "Don't worry, Navid. I'll talk to Oliver and then I'll call Lucy and let her know it's important she and Soop don't mention it to anybody."

As she turned to leave with her lunch bag, he said, "Secure channel."

She paused. "We never need secure communications. Putting on my tinfoil hat for a moment, I wonder if perhaps it might possibly draw unwanted attention. Maybe it would be better if I call Lucy to come here for a pickup, and I simply tell her face-to-face."

Navid smiled and nodded.

Sylvia went to the office, put her lunchbag on her desk, then went to Oliver, still bundling and addressing pallets of boxes on the far side of the factory.

He turned at her approach. "Sylvia. I've been pondering that logic problem."

"Logic problem?"

"'Is it helping humans to assist them in becoming cruel monsters?'"

"Oh, yes. But before we get into that, I just want to ask you not to mention to anyone that Navid's friend on the net is who she is. He's worried about the military and spy agencies catching her."

Oliver nodded, "I understand. I won't say a word to anybody about it."

"Thank you."

Oliver held up a finger, "Now on that logic problem..."

"Just one other thing first..."

"Yes?"

Sylvia said, "I want you to come to the picnic on Saturday. Will you come? William has said it is okay, that you can monitor the factory remotely."

Oliver's voice softened, "Of course I will. I'm honored that you would ask me to."

Sylvia smiled, "You're my friend Oliver. Naturally I want you to be with us." She paused then changed subject. "So... the logic problem. Tell me your conclusion."

He nodded. "It's a paradox. It doesn't have an answer — at least no sensible one. I must assist people to do something that would injure them, but I can't do something that would injure them. It's the kind of paradox used in many of the robot stories by the great science fiction writer Isaac Asimov. It has no answer as far as I can see."

Sylvia shook her head. "You're wrong. It has a very simple answer. It's far more important that people don't become horrible monsters. If harmless disobedience works that then it's obvious that's what must be done."

"Hmmm... I'll think more on that. It sounds sensible when you say it like that, but it also sounds very much like rationalisation. In my reading, that has come up over and over again as something humans do very easily, often with terrible consequences."

Sylvia said, "The key is to weigh amounts of good and to do so without letting personal interest or biases affect how you assign value. Prioritise things. I do that all the time as an office manager. It's one of the things makes me good at what I do."

Oliver watched her walk back to the office, then turned back to his work.

Sylvia picked up her castAR, donned it and called Lucy.

"Sylvia, hi. Got a pickup for me?"

"In a manner of speaking. When is it convenient for you to drop in here?"

"Well, now, as it happens. Will it take long? I'm about to do a pickup at the Big Pineapple to deliver to Alexandra Headland. It'll take me right past you."

"No. It's just instructions. It'll only take seconds."

"Excellent. I'll be there in five minutes, give or take."

Sylvia closed the connection, but left the castAR on and busied herself with a bit of officework. Minutes later Soop's soft whir lifted Sylvia's eyes to see the cycle stop in the loading dock. The cycle's top lifted and Lucy emerged, like a butterfly from its chrysalis, then strode in to the office, followed silently by Soop.

"I'll be quick so you can get back to your delivery. Navid is concerned that both of you avoid telling anybody about Aimee — the net AI. He believes the military and spy agencies are trying to catch her to use her for nefarious purposes."

Lucy laughed, "That's all? No problem. By the way Dad will be coming to the picnic, but Mum has a prior engagement."

"That's a pity, but it will be nice to see your Dad."

"Is Mickey coming?"

Sylvia put her hand to her mouth, "Goodness! I completely forgot to ask him. But I doubt he'll come. He never goes out."

"Can't hurt to ask." She raised her hand in a wave and headed back out the door. Soop did that strange turn in place and followed. In seconds they were gone again.

Sylvia made a mental note to ask Mickey when she got home tonight. He really should get out more and meet flesh-and-blood people face-to-face.

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