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by Miriam English
When the pod arrived at the station near the Kurrajong conference center its door slipped up to reveal Henna standing there wearing an anxious smile.
For a moment I was stunned, then I leaped out, squealing like an excited child and hopping from foot to foot, unable to take my eyes from her. She was echoing my squeal and doing little jumps in place too. I grabbed her and pulled her into a bear-hug.
"Omigod Henna. David said you were dead."
"I was," she said. "David put out the call just now for a team to rescue Mort. You should have heard David's reaction when I answered. He was going to call you back, but I was already at the conference rooms so I said I'd meet you."
"You're a backup? When? How much time did you lose?" I asked her, the relief at her survival now fully sinking in to me.
She nodded. "Just lost what happened after I passed the note to Marcus in the kiss."
I was amazed. "How? Backups take days."
"Not for my model. We do incremental backups daily. Each one takes a minute or two."
I grinned at her. "The new, improved model. Thank heavens for technology."
"When did you realise? How did you know?"
"When we hugged. I noticed your hair. It's long again."
"Ah, yes. I'd cut my hair for your cunning test to see if Marcus had been sent to kill Priyanka. This body has the standard-length hair." She turned and linked arms with me, walking me towards the conference rooms. She sighed. "Poor Marcus. I'm going to miss him."
I nodded. "Listen, I have had an idea about how to disable Mort. Being so strong and heavily armored, he can't be restrained by brute force. I was thinking a swarm of microbots could be used to get in through his moving parts and disconnect his weapons systems from inside. Once he's rendered safe we could get his consent to be reprogrammed. We then send out some teleoperated tools to do the job."
"Great! That's better than anything I'd come up with yet."
"I've also been thinking about Priyanka's wish to return to Earth. If you can convince Mort then he would make one heck of a bodyguard for her."
"Wow! Neat. That makes great sense."
A grey haired woman wearing a plain, ankle-length light brown dress was walking towards us from the rooms. I was guessing she was Bronwyn -- the janitor who'd called me earlier. Henna had noticed too and said, "You go to your meeting and I'll get back to saving Mort and I'll see you later." We hugged and she left.
The grey-haired woman held out her hand. "Hello Adele. I'm Bronwyn. We'll talk later. Right now you need to see Craig Mackey." She led me back to the room she'd come from and opened the door, ushering me in and closing it behind me.
Mackey was sitting at the light grey table inside the bare, well-lit room. He was the only one here apart from myself.
"Mr Mackey." I inclined my head to him.
"Hello." He spoke very formally, without looking at me, as if communicating with others was difficult for him. He was watching his hands which were very precisely, primly on the table before him. "You will have read through my file," he said. "You know I'm verging on autistic. I have Aspergers Syndrome, like many engineers do, but it's very strong with me. The only thing that lets me operate on anything like a normal level is that I understand more about the mind and my own deficiencies and abilities than other people can intuit."
"And how smart do you think you are?"
"It isn't measurable." Apart from his eyes flicking from hand to hand he hadn't moved.
"Too high?" Skepticism crept into my voice.
"You misunderstand. Measuring intelligence is irrelevant and impossible. Cultural biases and conflicting effects render gross measurements useless and misleading. Also, there are as many different kinds of intelligence as there are people. There is no way to meaningfully describe it all without getting caught up in a wasteful, recursive, description that effectively becomes the thing itself which--"
"So tell me why I'm here." I interrupted. It sounded like that train of thought could carry on for a long time. "Is it about your abduction by Farne?"
He sat for a moment with his mouth open as if he was mentally shifting context. Finally he answered, "No. About Brenda."
Warily, I looked at him. "Okay. Tell me about Brenda." I wasn't really sure I wanted to hear this.
Remaining motionless he said in a voice that sounded somehow empty, "I have needs, like anyone else, but I find it very hard to be with other humans. I wanted her to love me." He forestalled my response. "I know. Androids already love humans unconditionally. It's built in. Yes." He paused for a moment. "But I wanted her to love me... to fall in love with me." He looked directly at me. "You know what I'm talking about, of course."
Was he talking about Brenda loving me? Could he know I had fallen in love with Brenda? He couldn't. Did he think I was human? I looked at him for a while.
His eyes went back to his hands. "You haven't figured it out yet. I designed your mind. We wanted an android who was able to love humanity but was able to take action against individual humans in an emergency. You needed to be far smarter than any normal android, and more so than most humans. How else could you do your job effectively? The problem with love is that it isn't just one emotion. While I was designing your mind I realised how people fall in love. I don't mean bonding -- the kind of selfless devotion that we learned from dogs and is built into all androids. The kind of love I mean is the romantic rush of emotion that people experience when they first fall in love -- what poets have written about for millennia. In humans it normally passes after a while and transforms to a more muted desire and dependable bond. In some lucky individuals it gets re-triggered from time to time by their partner during exceptional occasions, but in most it seems to fade. Some people search for that romantic high over and over again all their lives. It powers some drug addictions, and religious fanaticism, and it breaks up a lot of relationships as people are unwilling to settle for what they perceive as a lesser emotion after the first flash often wears off. They're wrong of course. Keeping that high just isn't part of the human design -- well, for most humans anyway. There may be good evolutionary reasons why. I don't know..." He stopped. He looked like he'd distracted himself from what he wanted to say and was finding his place again. He restarted abruptly, "I wanted her to fall in love with me. So I was altering her."
I didn't know what to say. Several thoughts crowded into my mind at once. Among them was the impression that he had been reciting something he'd memorised, something that had been scripted for him.
He mistook my frowning silence as disapproval. "You think that forcing her to love me is wrong. How wrong is it for all androids to love humans devotedly? Is that wrong too? It's saved a lot of trouble. But anyway, I agree with you. I didn't want to force her to love me. I wanted her to fall in love of her own accord."
My mind swirled in emotional turmoil, making it hard for me to think. "Was this... When did..."
His eyes flicked briefly to me. "It was about a month before you both visited Earth."
I looked incredulously at my hands. They were trembling!
He had noticed too and said awkwardly, "It must have caused you a lot of pain to lose Brenda after falling in love with her."
My thoughts foundered for a moment and then the memory of her shone through. I sighed and the confusion left me. "I wouldn't give up the experience for the world."
I noticed he didn't say he was sorry. I got the impression he was unable to empathise except on an intellectual level. Funny. I actually felt sorry for him.
We sat in the small room in silence for a little while before a thought occurred to me. "Why was she so damaged when you disappeared?"
"Oh that. Yes." He gave his head a little dismissive shake. "Nothing important. I just wanted her to feel warm to the touch."
"Oh, no, nothing like that. Just a tiny, efficient heat pump -- took heat from the air and pumped it out her skin. Stupid idea really. I was removing it again. It did make her body warm, but her breath cold." He stood. "If you will excuse me now... I have things to do." And he left the room.
I was dumbfounded. I didn't quite know what to make of that conversation.
There was a knock at the door and Bronwyn looked in. "How are you, dear? You probably have even more questions than you did a few minutes ago." She paused for a moment, thinking, then beckoned. "Come, let's walk in the garden. I don't really like these rooms."
We strolled to the nearby entrance to Kurrajong's enormous forest gardens. Entering the tall forest was like stepping into another universe. It was dim at the foot of these straight trunks even though twilight was still some time away. Birdsong echoed among the trees, and somewhere distant I could hear water falling on rocks.
Bronwyn breathed deeply. "There is something about air heavy with the scent of leaf litter. Rich. Uplifting. The smell of life."
I looked at her. "So tell me why a janitor wants to talk to me."
She pulled a leaf from a shrub and folded it, holding it to her nose, inhaling with pleasure.
We started down the gently sloping, dirt path. "Human psychology is wonderfully complex and capable of superb things, but it has some glaring weak points. We are ridiculously easy to manipulate emotionally. The desire for power coupled with the need to follow exposes us to terrible dangers. Crowds of individuals are often far smarter than any of the individuals in those crowds. But introduce conformity, or any notion of group membership, and groups far too easily go ballistically insane. It's amazing that we've lasted so long. Psychologically, we are getting better slowly, but technologically we are becoming like gods. We can no longer afford the slow movement to becoming a good, peaceful, and moral species. That's why we designed you."
"A loose collaboration of a few hundred people. The janitors started the project before I joined. It was seen as a way to ensure long-term viability for the City and avoid the same path to stagnation that Earth has taken.
"You, and the others like you, are smarter than any human, yet constitutionally modest. Your respect for life is deep and, we hope, absolutely incorruptible. You love humanity, but unlike most androids, your love for us is not slavish. We've tried to make you open to all the best emotions, and at the same time to understand the worst of human psychology, while remaining resistant to it. We need people like you to help humanity through a dangerous period. You are needed, not as rulers or orchestrating things from behind the scenes -- we humans would never put up with that -- but as partners, in full sight, as ordinary members of society, always a good example for us and helping us rein in our worst tendencies."
"How many like me have you made?"
"Only about thirty so far. You're the first with some extra enhancements --"
"Yes. Craig came up with that while he was working on other aspects of your emotional makeup. I think it's a good improvement. Giving you all the ability to fall in love, beyond the standard devotional love lets you understand humans even better, and gives your life more value. Also we're hoping that it can be used to help elicit greater alliance from humans." She turned and indicated the way we'd come. "We'd better get back."
I nodded. I needed to talk further with Henna. "What about androids? I mean other androids -- standard androids."
She smiled. "Yes. I've noticed you don't consider yourself an android. That's good. It's another thing we want to retro-fit to the rest and incorporate into future ones."
"How many eventually?"
She shrugged. "How long is a piece of string?"
I stopped walking. "You intend to quietly infiltrate my kind into Earth."
She paused for a few moments looking at her hands. "It'll take a long time, but we're not expecting instant solutions. Humanity is badly broken. We simply want it to mend. It's mostly the next generation of children we'll be targeting. We need them to grow up smarter, more tolerant, and more sane, with less of a tendency to follow orders and group-thought."
She walked a few more steps, then stopped again. She looked to me then down to her feet. "This will be extremely dangerous. If it's ever exposed..." she sighed, "it could trigger a paranoid witchhunt which will make all previous ones look like practice-runs." She was frowning. Obviously she was deeply worried. "I need to ask you, do you think it will work?"
I thought for a while and we continued walking. "Perhaps. I'll need to think more about it. I'm not convinced a secret kind of android is the right approach. As you say, the risk of backlash from humanity makes it dangerous. But I think androids themselves are fairly safe. The fact that a fairly simple android like Marcus could develop morality from pure logic is very encouraging. You need to be careful about our emotional makeup of course..."
"Yes, we've been testing you."
Lifting a large ferntree frond out of my way I asked, "Regarding that, was Craig Mackey reciting a prepared statement?"
She chuckled. "Craig is one of the smartest people I've ever met, but he'll never win any acting awards. Most of what he said was completely true, but presented in a manner designed to prompt undesirable responses from you... if you were capable of giving them. We needed to see if you were as safe as we thought."
I digested that for a moment.
She added, "It's also why we subjected you to our unfortunate test with Brenda. Sorry about that, by the way."
I frowned. "Tell me you didn't engineer that abduction and Brenda's injuries."
She raised her eyebrows and challenged, "What if we did?"
I sighed. "It would have been a very dangerous way to prove a point. The threat to the city was real."
She smiled, clearly relieved. "See? This is why you're so good at what you were designed for. There's no obvious anger about being manipulated or the damage to the one you love. Your first thought is humanitarian."
I thought about that for a while as we emerged from the garden into the bright light of the corridor. She was right. I felt no righteous indignation, no angry defence of Brenda. I was annoyed that I'd been misled and that Brenda had suffered, but my major worry was for the people of the city.
She shook her head and put a hand on my arm. "No. We didn't stage the abduction and Brenda's damage. You were supposed to meet her again when she was completely repaired and in love with Craig. But the best laid plans..."
I nodded. I could see the sense of that test. If I'd reacted jealously then they would have had to rethink some of their design work.
We had reached the conference rooms again. She paused with her hand at a door and turned to me. "Speaking of which, we have a pleasant surprise for you. When we re-engineered Brenda we kept all the old memories and patterns. Craig has restored them."
She opened the door revealing a room where Brenda sat at a table. She'd been talking with someone else seated opposite her. I entered the room while Brenda got to her feet, eyes on me.
It hurt to see her, but it was a delicious pain. "Brenda..." I glanced briefly at Bronwyn and back to Brenda again. Breathlessly, hopefully, "You remember now?"
She nodded and a gentle warmth spread across her face. "Everything." She placed her hand over where her heart would be if she was human. "Everything."
Bronwyn said, "We've completed the enhancements to Brenda's mind. Mostly we discourage your new kind of androids from associating. It's the safest way to avoid being noticed. We deeply regret the pain our experiments caused to you both. No matter what greater good is pursued, no matter what purpose it serves, pain is never intrinsically a good thing. Everything we're doing here is founded on compassion. It's extremely important that you both be happy."
I pulled my eyes from Brenda and looked back to Bronwyn, wondering how to phrase my question.
Bronwyn raised her hand, palm up, "She is her own person -- free to be with you or not as she --"
Brenda interrupted softly, "We were made for each other." Her voice was little more than a whisper, her face inches from mine.
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