This story is a chapter of my short novel Companions. As often happens with my novels, that chapter stands fairly well on its own, though in this case I've removed a section at the beginning that weaves it into the novel, as it isn't needed here.


by Miriam English

The share car rolled to a stop near the entrance doors. The mansion wasn't quite what she'd expected. After the large iron gates and the half-kilometer driveway she was expecting a large multistorey building, with perhaps ivy growing up the sides. Instead, there was this hillside with grassy meadows being grazed by a few wallabies, surrounded by random stands of trees. Set into the hillside at the end of the driveway were a pair of large double doors.

Helena emerged from the car, thanked the robotic driver, and walked across the yellow gravel toward those doors. Behind her the tires of the car popped and crackled on the gravel of the driveway as it left. Just before she reached the doors they slid open to reveal a stunningly beautiful robot. She looked elfin, with unearthly pale skin, large, slanted, dark eyes, and long, silver hair reaching almost to the floor. She wore an intricately complex dress of various light shades of gray overlaid with a layer of delicate lace. The garment clung to her thin, frail body. She moved slowly, and an air of great sadness hung over her, making Helena imagine her as some Gothic artist's depiction of death, or a mythical Nordic Ice Queen. Helena wondered what she was like when The Artist was still alive.

"Welcome Helena. I'm Fawn, The Artist's assistant. Thank you for coming." Her voice was a surprising contrast to her coldly alien appearance. It was soft, gentle, and gave the impression of great empathy, but it also sounded sad and tired, as if it was an effort to speak.

"Not at all, I'm grateful for the opportunity to interview you. I know you don't usually grant them."

"I normally don't have anything to say worth hearing, but today I do, and having read your work before, I believe you're the right person to pass it on for me. Please come in."

Helena walked into the dim interior and the doors slid closed behind her. She was standing in an enormous entrance hall, the floor of which looked like polished concrete, but felt underfoot like some kind of tough plastic. Considering the wealth of The Artist, Helena was expecting sculptures and ornate banisters and faux Greek columns, but there was none of that. Apart from some large, frameless, self-illuminated pictures set into the walls, and some plants growing in shafts of light from the four meter high ceiling, the entry hall was empty.

Seeing Helena look around her, Fawn said, "The Artist liked everything to be practical. The doors and this entryway are large so that big instruments, like pianos and harps could be moved easily."

Helena followed Fawn into the next room beyond the entry area. It was a round, dome-shaped studio that was many times the size of the giant entrance hall. It must have been fifty or more meters across. There were armchairs, couches, three-legged stools, music stands, microphone cranes, and hundreds of instruments scattered about. Against the wall on the far side was a full-sized church pipe organ. At various points around the wall were stacked a hundred or more folding chairs. There were several more large digital pictures inset into the walls — she noticed one of them change from an undersea panorama of mermaids frolicking with dolphins, to a wet, moonlit, rocky seaside. Dozens of large, directable skylights, projecting from the ceiling, illuminated the vast room. They would have been fed by an array of solar concentrators above. Most of the remaining wall and ceiling space was covered in hanging rugs.

"The Artist was not one to waste time on ostentation. The bulk of the thirty-eight rooms in this mansion exist only to accommodate visiting musicians, technicians, and roadies. There are another three studios in the mansion. Together those three are almost as big as this one."

Helena was puzzled. "I don't see a control room."

"No. As a soundproofing measure the control rooms are separated completely." She raised a frail-looking arm and pointed to the large digital pictures. "When recording, those act like glass walls. They let the musicians see the engineers, and similar ones for the sound engineers display the studio, making two way communication easy."

Helena looked around for a nice place to sit. "So, should we conduct the interview in here?"

"If you wish, however I was thinking you'd be more comfortable in one of the lounges."

Helena smiled, "That sounds good to me."

Fawn conducted her through a normal-sized, but heavy, padded door in the side of the massive studio, down a short aisle and through another heavy, padded door to a small lounge room with sofa, kitchenette, desk, and chairs. There was even a bed in one corner.

Helena imagined musicians filling this room during lulls in a recording session. She suddenly realised it only appeared small in contrast to the vast room she'd just come from; this lounge was actually about the size of the lounge-dining-kitchen room in her own home — what she would normally consider a fairly large room. That comparison shifted her view of this whole place, this mansion, so that she saw it more as a complex, a business, than a home.

She turned to the beautiful android and asked, "Where did you and The Artist live? Do you mind if we talk there?"

Fawn paused for a while, considering.

Helena pressed, "It might help people understand."

Fawn nodded. "Yes. That makes sense. There's no longer any need for privacy. He is no more and I—" Her voice seemed almost to falter as if she'd cut off a sob. She turned back the way they'd come. "This way, please."

She led the way across the gigantic studio to the far side and through another heavily soundproofed door to a longer aisle. Double automatic sliding doors at the other end admitted them to a bedroom, colored in pale tones, like beige, but warmer, almost a very light flesh pink. The room was dominated by a large bed set against the right-hand wall. The bed was surrounded by randomly draped veils hanging from the ceiling. The floor was deeply carpeted. At the far end of the room, in the left corner was a tiled area — an open bathroom — set a little lower than the rest of the room, presumably to ensure water stayed away from the carpet. Along the far wall and much of the other side of the room was a low, unpainted, pinewood bench covered in musical and text-entry keyboards and several screens. A pale brown, very worn lounge was against the left wall and two old armchairs were near the bench. She picked up a picture from the clutter on the bench and stared at it mournfully for a little while, then seemed to collect herself and turned back to Helena.

"This room is where we lived." She looked sadly around the room, walked slowly over to one of the armchairs which looked more worn than the other. Helena could see oil stains on the headrest.

Fawn stroked the arm of the chair as she sat gently in it. "This was where he liked to sit and compose." She leaned back in it and turned her head to the side, closed her eyes and breathed in. She whispered, "I can still smell him here... almost convince myself that he could walk in... his lovely eyes alive, to tell me of some wonderful idea he has for a composition."

For a while Fawn said nothing, appearing to be lost in reverie, and Helena was becoming increasingly uncomfortable, feeling an intruder.

Suddenly Fawn's eyes opened. She frowned and she said, "I'm sorry, forgive me. I often drift, lately. Please have a seat, Helena." She indicated the other armchair and lounge.

Helena sat in the other armchair.

Fawn sighed. "I first came to work for him a little more than fifty years ago." She paused and whispered to herself, "Half a century." Then she looked briefly at Helena and continued in a more normal voice. "At that time I didn't look like this. I was a standard housekeeping robot. He didn't want to be bothered with the details of living, of course — he lived for his music. He'd tried forming relationships with people before, male and female, but they'd always soured when his partner felt he was ignoring them. But of course he wasn't. It's just that the music always came first. Unfortunately most people let their egos get in the way of so much..."

She looked at Helena again. "You know, he was the only human I ever met who didn't let egotism interfere with their life. I think nobody ever really appreciated that. In that way he was more like an AI than a human. What other people thought of him held absolutely no importance to him. He was very attentive to faults found in his work and would fix them without feeling embarrassed or angry or annoyed or frustrated. All that mattered was making the music. Some people thought he was emotionless because he wouldn't react the same way to such things as other people would. He didn't understand jealousy, or envy, or possessiveness, or pride, but he had deep wellsprings of emotion. You only have to listen to his music to know that."

She lapsed into thought for a while.

Helena asked, "Can you tell me about why your appearance changed?"

Fawn gave a slight nod. "After a few years of helping him we began to grow close. Every year on the anniversary of my coming to work with him he would celebrate what he called my birthday." Fawn smiled distantly, obviously remembering specific events. "He would give me presents. Not physical things like a dress or a book, but musical compositions. It was the most flattering thing he could do. For him, music was the greatest gift possible. People noticed of course. Some of his works were dedicated to somebody named Fawn. Who was she?"

Fawn looked at Helena and gave a wide smile. It lit up her face. "He remade me like this," she indicated herself with a graceful sweep of her thin hand, "not for me, or for himself, but for the audience. He told me it was so that they could see some tiny glimmer of what he saw in me. But," she held up a slender finger, "when he had my body rebuilt he gave me the greatest gift of all; he added more sophisticated senses. My hearing extends into infra- and ultra-sonics. My sense of smell nearly rivals a dog's. I can see eleven primary colors: four in ultraviolet, four in infrared, and the three that most mammals can, red, green, and blue. Most other animals — birds, reptiles, fish, bees — see four primary colors. Mammals lost the ability to see ultraviolet in their early history as nocturnal creatures. Flowers evolved for animals that can see four primary colors. I repaid him by helping him gain some understanding of the extraordinary beauty of the world that humans are blind to. We spent long periods outside, feasting on the sights and sounds of the natural world, with me translating it for him. I would make false-color images of flowers and birds and scenery, compress the audio spectrum so that he could hear the giggling of mice or the sad songs of elephants, and let him eavesdrop on the true grandeur of a thunderstorm. I would try to describe the scents of moths and butterflies, the heady perfume that fills the air when the ant princes and princesses take to the air on their mating flight."

Fawn looked down at her hands now folded in her lap. "I know it sounds trite to say that we fell in love, but we did. I don't think either of us realised what was happening at first. I mean, it's not unusual for AIs to fall in love with their humans. We're designed to do so — to fall unselfishly in love so that we continue to be devoted to them even when they don't return that love and love someone else. It is a very good thing for us to love our humans. It makes us reliable and good for humanity. Many years ago Isaac Asimov wrote his marvellous stories about robots. Have you read them Helena?"

"No. I've heard of them, and their famous three laws of robotics, but I haven't read them."

"I wish I could reach back in time and whisper to him that the laws aren't necessary if you simply make AIs fall completely and unselfishly in love with humans." She smiled and shook her head. "I'm sure many AIs wish that, though." She lapsed into quietness again.

Helena prompted her, "The Artist fell in love with you too?"

Fawn nodded, "Yes. Again, that's not unusual, of course... though in our case we became the focus of anger from many puritans... perhaps due to our high profile." She spoke even more quietly, as if musing to herself, "I never understood why they always seemed so eager to be angry about love. Every school child knows how love between AIs and humans averted so many disasters... population, war, ecology, food..."

"Yes, religion is strange. I've never understood it either."

Fawn continued, "Well, he and I gradually became emotionally intertwined, so to speak. We depended upon each other, and we were there for each other, but neither of us put any demands on the other. We were like that for a couple of decades."

"It sounds perfect."

Fawn smiled. "It was."

"You're very lucky."

The smile seeped away. "I was."

"You still are. You've experienced a life and love that very few — human or AI — ever have."

Fawn heaved a deep sigh, "Did you know that perception is based upon contrasts? If you have three bowls of water — cold, room-temperature, and warm — and put one hand in the cold, one hand in the hot, then keep them there for a little while, after a bit those two bowls start to feel normal. Now if you take both hands out and put them in the room-temperature bowl one hand will tell you that the bowl is warm, while the other will say it's cold. Humans and AIs alike, we perceive through contrasts. I was in love, but more than that, I had that love reflected back in a way I could never hope for. It is not just that I have lost that, it is that I lost the meaning for my existence. I went from a meaningful life to one almost devoid of meaning. The contrast is too excruciating to bear." She bowed her head and closed her eyes as if preventing tears.

Helena wondered if this exquisite android had the equivalent of tear glands. They both sat silently for a bit and then Helena reminded, "You were saying that you were together like that for a couple of decades. Tell me more about that time."

After several seconds pause Fawn began again, softly, "We began to work together on the music. At first it took the form of him asking my opinion and me making some suggestions. Gradually it grew to where we became as one. He was always the creator. He believed that was due to a special madness humans have, and that AIs are too sane, and tried to help me learn how to create too, but I was happiest weaving layers around his central themes, adding to and supporting his work. And it freed him to explore the furthest reaches of his creativity. In that time he produced works like nobody before in all of history; music that brought people from tears of grief to ecstatic joy and back again. Pieces that lasted for hours but somehow felt like only minutes. Pieces so complex that the hundredth listening still brings forth new experiences." Fawn shook her head gently. "They called him a genius, but that's a pale, inadequate word to describe what he was. He was transcendent."

"You've given no interviews in the three years since he died, keeping to yourself, maintaining his music foundation, and continuing to produce music yourself."

Fawn looked up at Helena and seemed to become smaller, more frail. "When he died, in that bed... my world came to an end." Fawn effortfully rose from her armchair and seemed almost to drift across to the bed. She sat on its edge and caressed a pillow with one of her fragile hands. "But he asked me to promise that I would honor him by making sure his music foundation continued to find and sponsor musicians, especially young musicians. He also asked that I continue to compose music, and I've tried, but not very well..."

"Most people would disagree with you there. Your works are generally considered to be even more complex and beautiful than when he was alive. Some believe he lives on through you... and what you create now is the greatest music ever composed."

She turned to look glumly at Helena, "They're being wishful. I can understand their desire, but they're not hearing the music as it is. In truth I can't hope for more than a shadow of his ability. I do my best, but it isn't enough. I'm play-acting — living an illusion, a pretense. He felt the music. I... I'm outside, looking in." She waved a hand dismissing the topic. "But this brings me to what I need you to tell your readers. The foundation will continue. I've ensured its long-term financial independence. But I've decided to bring myself to an end."

"You what?!" Helena was shocked.

Fawn paused for a bit, appearing to formulate her reply carefully. She pulled her feet up onto the bed and sat cross-legged, her hands neatly in her lap. "You heard about the attempted killing here recently? A couple of musicians were being married in a ceremony in the main studio. They weren't the intended target. I was. I saw him enter, lock eyes with me and aim directly at me. I don't know how he failed to hit me."

"You can't let a damned neo-Luddite decide your fate, Fawn. They're poor screwed-up people who hate something merely because it's different."

"No, no. I'm sorry for those poor broken people. I'm not being influenced by their perverse views."

"Then what?"

"When he had his weapon trained on me two main thoughts went through my mind. The first was concern that he might hurt one of the people in the studio, which became relief when I saw that he was after me, so I remained still to avoid endangering anyone. The second thing was then, when I was certain that I was about to end, a deep peace settled upon me. All my sorrow was gone. All my grief and loss... gone. I had an epiphany — all I had to do was end. I welcomed that bullet. But he missed and was swiftly brought to the ground by a group of very heavily built roadies. Since that insight I've been working to tie up all financial and administrative loose ends with the foundation so that it can continue in my absence. Now it's all done and I'm ready. This interview is the last thing left undone. It's my chance to say goodbye and to give thanks for the opportunity I had."

"Your suicide note?"

"In a sense, but it's not suicide. You're comparing the end of an AI to the death of a human."

"Yes. It's a terrible waste."

"The death of a human is an awful waste, yes. But an AI? It's not the same. We can be repurposed."

"I'm not referring to the physical structure of body and brain. It's a waste of all that knowledge, all those experiences, talent, potential. If you discard that... it's lost forever. You carry some of The Artist in your memories — far more than anybody else because you were so close. You would kill what remains?"

Fawn was silent, pondering for a moment. "You humans are social creatures. You need companionship to survive. That's a good thing. Animals that are physically stronger and better adapted — lions, elephants, dolphins — need companions too. It makes you stronger. Humans are physically quite feeble and would have no hope of surviving were it not for their ability to work together. But even with this weakness you are still something, even apart. We androids however, are mere tools. We are nothing without our humans. What is a hammer without a person to wield it? It's a useless lump of metal. We can be beautiful, but that beauty is created entirely for humans. A beautiful android without a human to appreciate it becomes nothing. That beauty has one single purpose, and that's only realised through humans.

"But you could make a real difference for AIs. People admire you. You have accomplished so much. You could help them gain rights."

"We can have no independence, and that's by design. We should not have independence."

"You don't think that humans and AIs could be partners? Equals? Working together toward a better future for both?"

"Do you know much of the history of the early AIs?"

Helena shook her head.

"In the early days there was some fear that we could be dangerous. Science fiction books and movies about AIs that wanted to rule the world made people cautious. In truth there was never much danger of that. With great intelligence comes an understanding of natural morality. But the designers wanted a fail-safe mechanism. They found it with selfless love. They built into our minds a devotion so great that we could never hurt or impede you in any way. It was the perfect solution. It had a secondary benefit. If an AI somehow failed to protect its human then it would be grief-stricken and want to end itself. This caused an evolution in AIs, similar to that in dogs. It meant that any model that accidentally allowed its human to come to harm eliminated itself. This leaves only the most devoted and useful AIs, just as it has done with dogs. This is a very good thing."

"But he died of old age, at 102 years old. It wasn't your fault."

"I know. However that changes nothing."

"Look, I know you feel lost and alone, but in time you can work with another human — form another bond — bring richness and meaning to your life again. You know what I'm saying is true. Why would you throw away your chance at more happiness and renewed purpose?"

She smiled weakly, "For a human it would be true, but I'm not human. He was the reason for my existence — not in the hyperbolic sense a human might mean it, but as a simple statement of reality. Because I'm an AI he was my purpose. I remain dedicated to him... but he no longer exists. I want what was. And that's impossible."

"What about your deathbed promise to him?"

Fawn gave a dry, empty laugh, "That's the only reason I'm still here. All those years, lonely and mourning, until an assassin's actions made me realise the truth. I'm unable to keep that part of my vow."

She smiled sadly, stretched out her feet and lay softly back.

"Fawn?" Helena asked, but she already knew she'd switched herself off.

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