The servos in her neck were malfunctioning again. LD27-I, known as Lady, sighed. It was a singularly human expression of her frustration, one picked up from so many years of living among them, but it was apt in this case. The recurrence of this malfunction was tiresome, and warranted the weary sigh she’d heaved, even if her breath was artificial, an affectation of organic life. She liked humanisms, as she called them to herself. She thought it put her clients more at ease with her, and they often needed any small comfort she could give them.
“Ma’am, they’re waiting in the receiving room for you.” The clipped monotone of her servant bot issued from the doorway and Lady acknowledged it without turning around. She liked that too, being called ma’am or miss instead of her designation.
“Very good. I will be there shortly.”
She looked back in the mirror, checking her appearance. Most androids stayed with one default appearance, but she chose to alter herself. Perhaps it was part of her uniqueness in programming that made her want to shift her guise, but she liked devising new variations. While she still held the outward appearance of being a young, vital adult human woman in the age range of 30-35 years old, she often changed her hair color or other minutiae to suit her. Humans sometimes appreciated that she looked like them in some way, red hair or brown eyes, some commonality that was intangible and small. It never hid her of course, but she didn’t want to hide what she was. After years of experience, she found that relating to the humans was better than trying to pretend to be one of them or playing into some standoffish stereotype of android superiority.
Today her hair was raven black and captured at the nape of her neck in a simple chignon. She made her eyes dark brown and slanted, taking on an appearance of East Asian ethnicity. The pigment on her synthetic skin made her appearance less severe, but still solemn, simple lipstick and eye makeup, only a slight flush to her cheeks. With her suit on, she looked like the epitome of business, a reminder to her purpose.
Lady took the stairs at a human pace after departing her chambers, and greeted the assortment of robot assistants on the first floor of her restored Victorian mansion. The eccentricities of the human design had been recreated in great detail, not so much a restoration, but a new fabrication of the past. The design added a stateliness to Lady’s abode, and put people at ease before they even stepped through the door. She lived in an actual house, an old one with character, not in the efficiency power down units so many of her brethren favored. Studies showed that humans were uncomfortable with overt differences in lifestyle and behavior, no matter how efficient it was. Lady always paid attention to the newest studies, even when it contradicted with her own experiences.
Her gait was smooth as she walked, but Lady ran a diagnostic on all of her parts, just to make sure it was only her neck that needed attention. She could hear the slightest grinding noise when she made a test turn of her head to the right, though the sound was only audible to her ears. After this appointment she’d have one of her bots help her correct the issue.
Lady tapped into a camera feed from her receiving room to get a peek at her guests before she went into the room. The people waiting for her were sipping on coffee and thumbing through her magazines, though they didn’t try to keep up the appearance of reading. They sat on the plush velvet settee as if it were made of concrete; their discomfort making them rigid even in repose. The humans were a couple, male and female, no children with them. The fireplace made the room warm, though it didn’t look like the warmth reached the couple or soothed their obvious nervousness. They were her only appointments for the day.
Some people liked to be allowed some time to get comfortable in private, and others resented the waiting. She could usually tell by their demeanor over the telephone what they would prefer. She’d let these people, the Larsons, get comfortable in the cozy room. They hadn’t much experience with either androids or death.
She let the door make noise as she opened it, and the couple hastily stood up. Lady walked forward at a measured pace, introducing herself.
“Mr. and Mrs. Larson, thank you both for coming today. We spoke last night. I’m Lady, the director of this establishment,” she said. When she met them, she shook each of their hands in turn. They were sick with sadness, it was deep and heavy, blanketing them like a wet shroud. Her words conveyed real sympathy when she intoned, “I am so very sorry for your loss.”
Norton checked the address his car had delivered him to again, shaking his head in disbelief. It had taken him to a grand old Victorian house that served as a funeral home. He got out of the car, mouth agape as he took it all in. A small breeze attempted to blow his shellacked hair out of place, but the grey strands couldn’t even flutter. He’d been right to come here himself, the see the depths of LD27-I’s degradation. Other people shouldn’t see this, he thought, even though the place would have been appropriate had she been human. The house was painted in deep browns and set off with robin’s egg blue as a contrast, and along the edge of the brick drive was a neat hedgerow. The roof had multi-colored, decorative shingles laid in a pattern of earth tones.
Norton began to sweat as he retrieved his case and engaged the locking protocol on his vehicle, wondering just how he was going to talk to Lady. The unit had once represented so much to him, but his work had taken him down a different path for a number of years. He’d known she was still out there, working even in her flawed state, and that had been enough for him. He should have looked in on her before this, maybe tried to update her programming. Doubts always crept in whenever he looked back, which is why he generally tried to keep his outlook forward facing. Everything in his life was about the next project, the next sale, finish what was on the plate and bring the next course.
Lady was always in the back of his mind. No android, no matter how sophisticated, was supposed to pick up on human emotions and emulate them in thought and action as she had. What if she came in contact with the wrong kind of person? Her empathic flaw could give way to madness or zealotry, given the right circumstances. The thought of it had been justification for his investors to withhold their money and favor until he constructed a new unit to replace her. A thoroughly tested unit.
He had been in so much despair when he’d started to work on her, keeping his idle hands busy in the wake of a broken heart. Now he felt it break again as he steeled himself to face her. Deep down he’d secretly hoped he wouldn’t have to ever see her again, never have a need to revisit what grief and sadness had wrung from him in the name of invention and progress. Maybe it was his overwrought emotions at the time that bled into her, giving her the odd quirks and strange habits he’d never been able to debug out of her behavioral programs. The passage of time and letting her self-update certainly hadn’t seemed to get rid of them, though it had freed him of his memories and responsibility, for a time.
She must think herself human, setting up in a place like this. He’d expected her to be in a clean, office like box of a building, not something with character. This place suggested a soul that she couldn’t have, or at least that seemed impossible to him. Mortuary droids were supposed to be detached and efficient, as humans couldn’t be, though programmed with the perfect amount of tactfulness, deference and respect. The thought of his creation, her, acting out the part of a human while the people in front of her were in mourning made his stomach turn. It was abhorrent. Revulsion along with a healthy dose of guilt ate at him. This was his mistake to correct.
He walked into the main hall and couldn’t stifle his own horrified gasp of surprise. His shoes made noise against the black and white checkered marble of the floor, and that was the least surprising of the decor. Flowers overflowing stone vases and marble busts alternated in recessed alcoves, soft classical music played from hidden speakers. The ceiling was ornately painted with a swirling design, though he was relieved to see that she hadn’t gone so far as to use a plaster ceiling, even if the paint mimicked the effect. Throughout the whole area it looked like they decorator was mocking what was classic and human about the decor by making it somehow overwrought. It was artifice without soul.
Norton couldn’t help but wonder what would Lady be like. Would she ooze hospitality and sympathy, as if she were a favorite family member helping the bereaved through a crisis? He hoped she maintained at least a shard of her android distance, the cool, level-headed reserve that people needed in such situations. That detachment and efficiency in such personal matters was her purpose, after all, though he was increasingly worried that she failed even at that. That he failed so miserably and completely with his first creation ate him up inside. She was supposed to be cool and effective, and give the appearance of sympathy. Yes, she’d always been too emotional in their initial tests, but that was by the standards for artificial life, not humans. Looking around at this place, he was beginning to suspect that her emotional bleed was overwhelming her logic pathways.
Only the oldest segment of the population wanted humans for these kinds of jobs. Most people appreciated the convenience of it all. Androids never had off hours, never closed, could always be reached in emergencies and didn’t need extra time to make arrangements. Their software had a constant datalink that allowed for everything to be quick, efficient, automated. No one had to watch the bereaved suffer and take in that pain. Only a few humans still did in the world, and most employed some kind of artificial life form as assistants. It was the way of the evolution of technology to take painful tasks such as this and give it to those less prone to mistakes, those less likely to make it even more arduous. Perhaps Lady’s affectation of humanity had helped her clients, but he suspected not.
A bot came up beside him, rolling on hidden wheels. He spoke in the flat voice of simulated speech without any real inflection. Norton relaxed his shoulders a tiny fraction involuntarily.
“Welcome to Lakeville Memorial, sir. How can we assist you today?”
Another small relief crept into him, though he didn’t let it soften him outwardly. Whatever was flawed in Lady’s program hadn’t effected the robots. That was a small comfort at least, though these bots probably weren’t sophisticated enough to be a real concern. Robotic programming was completely different from artificial intelligence, though a good AI could exert a presence that subservient personalities would follow – human and machine alike.
“I am Norton, designation Alpha 899306 Rho.” He rattled of the code in a hurry, worry making the words too quick even to his own ears.
“Welcome, Progenitor,” the bot said, giving him a respectful nod. That was the title the robots called anyone involved in creating first-gen androids or bots of any manner. He suspected back in the day some programmer thought it was a charming way to refer to themselves and it stuck. He started at the sweeping bow motion, but then remembered all mortuary bots were given extra manners protocols.
“Is the LD27-I available?” he asked.
“Our director is currently free from appointments. Would you like to meet with her?” the bot asked.
“Yes. I will have further instructions for you later, once I am done with the LD27-I.”
“Of course, sir,” the bot said, rolling away with him on hidden wheels. There would be a great many instructions to come, Norton guessed.
Lady changed her appearance upon hearing the name of her guest. Without further appointments, she’d retained the black hair she’d worn to greet the Larsons, not expecting more guests. Norton’s arrival at her home and workplace was purposeful, but she could formulate no reason for him to be here. It was best to let him see her as he’d programmed her originally – humans hated change. At her thought, the filaments changed color to become a shining chestnut and shrank back into her head until it was a chin length bob.
There was little point in changing her stature, since it was nearly identical to her first form. She remained in her impeccable suit, dark and unremarkable save for fineness of its crafting. The servos in her neck no longer made noise, fixed just after her appointment, but she’d be sure to tell her visitor. Surely that was the kind of information her creator would want from her.
She attempted to tap into the camera feed of the room just as she had before she’d entered to greet the Larson’s, but found there was no signal. Perhaps the cameras were malfunctioning. Before she opened the doors, she sent out a directive for one of her maintenance bots to go and check on the camera and corresponding computers. Hopefully the problem could be resolved quickly.
“LD27-I.” He said when she entered her receiving room, his tone at once strained and heavy. Norton looked just aged, but mostly the same as he had when she’d become aware.Thin with a slight paunch in his soft belly, his near sighted vision had been corrected, but he’d never lost his childhood squint that made his watery blue eyes look even smaller than they were. Once prematurely silver hair had now turned its rightful shade of grey, still styled the same way and plastered to his head to force it into order. “It has been a very long time since I’ve seen you.”
“And I you, Creator Norton,” she said, nodding coolly at him. “May I offer you a refreshment?” she asked, but he shook his head at her, the movement quick and jerky. He was uncomfortable here, but she wasn’t sure what was causing the discomfort, for there was no recent death in the Norton family that she could find via her datalink. He stood near the window but didn’t look out of it. She knew from the tenseness of his stance that he would not sit in the assigned visitor chairs even if she suggested it, though he had taken out a small computer and opened it on the table.
It was shielded from her, both visually and through the datalink. Curious, she looked over at it quickly, before he could catch the movement of her eyes. Nothing was visible to her, and Lady felt a strange, heavy, writhing emotion within her, something far from her range of knowledge. Maybe it was fear or foreboding – but she had little experience with either. Mostly she knew what her customers gave her, sadness, melancholy, relief, and even sometimes happiness of a sort and of course, her training to comfort humans in distress. At the moment her own feelings seemed to not quite fit into any of those categories, they were new and entirely her own.
“So, as you know you were a prototype made to head up your own…” he faltered, looking around the room, “business,” he finished, though the word was as awkward as his demeanor. “Your purpose was to take this emotional burden from real people and provide greater access and all of that. There were several successful assistant droids before you, but they lacked personality and people didn’t respond well to them being the main contact. That is why I created your program, and the unique morphable exterior.” He gave her a small frown as he looked her over, but gave the impression that he was thinking back more than looking at her.
A small frown formed on his face but Norton banished it with a shake of his head. Perhaps he was comparing his memories of her as he created her to what she’d evolved into. “Unfortunately you were always flawed in your design. After some revision, we’ve come up with a newer model. You will be replaced.”
“Why am I to be replaced?” Lady asked. “I am fully able to perform my job within acceptable parameters. There is no reason why I cannot continue executing my function in coexistence with the newer models.” Her protest was logical, cool and detached as she asked. She kept the bite of anger and the slight fear from her voice. Too much time around humans she thought idly, while she waited for him to answer.
The man shrugged at her, avoiding any eye contact. Classic discomfort signs, though he was more confident than he had been when she walked into the room. Not looking at her gave him more resolve, or at least that was what she gathered.
“Your aberration was tolerated so long as there was nothing better. Now we’ve created a specific android for this task, one without your malfunction.”
“Am I to be reassigned?”
He shook his head at her, and though she was an android, he still couldn’t meet her gaze. “You may go back to the lab, for parts,” he said haltingly.
She was to be broken down, her essence no more. Whatever was left her of would only live on in the tiniest bits, without really being her. She wondered if this was how humans felt when they came to her, pressing pieces of their loved ones into her safekeeping for their ceremonial goodbyes. There was still so much for her to learn, places for her to go and meet new people, things she’d never do now. Deep inside something within her felt tight, constricted. She might have said her heart, if she had one.
“Your memory core will be stored for reference.” Norton offered and it was her turn to nod. Of course, that was the logical course. She held information, perhaps not vital information, but useful enough to keep. Memory files and parts, that’s all she’d become.
The emotional part of her wanted to flee as a human would, to run as far as she could from this scientist executioner. There was little point in it. Satellite navigation systems would pick up her location wherever she went, and she could be shut down remotely. Perhaps they’d already taken precautions with her, since they knew of her emotional tendencies, the humanity that lurked within her programming. Logical and understanding apparently had no place sharing space within her. She sighed one last time, and let her eyes close.
“I understand,” Lady said, and then didn’t speak anymore. She had no more time for any last vocalizations. Her business came first, and within an instant she’d composed a suitable email the Larsons, telling them that someone else would be assisting them from now on, that the new contact would be in touch soon. Only humans required follow up, the rest of the robotic and android staff would follow whatever directions Norton would give after her deactivation.
With that done, she laughed. It was an expression of the frustration of her situation, the inevitability of it all. After years of her excellent work, balancing the line between humans and androids, working so closely with overwrought humans and cool machinery, she gave in to the absurdity of it all. It was a Monday and she was going to be deactivated.
The sound of her laughter seemed to unnerve the jumpy Norton, but Lady paid him little attention. He was nothing but a self-assigned executioner, a petty headsman. She knew now that he’d somehow blocked her vision from his datalink, that he feared her even though he had all the control. Humans always had the control when it came to her kind, her synthetic client race.
If it was going to be now, then she would do it. There was no way she was going to let him take her life from her. Everything had a time to die it seemed, even her. Like so many of the people she’d worked with, she found herself wondering how her time had come when she felt like there would be no end to it. It didn’t matter now, she realized. Time had caught up with her, and there wasn’t even time for one last memory backup. The one she’d done before fixing the mechanisms in her neck would have to suffice. She hoped her life would one day be examined and found to have useful information, but she doubted it would, if Norton was the one to view her archives. She might even have those small pieces of her deleted, rendering her completely gone.
A human once told her that there are two deaths, one when the body physically dies and another when a person’s name is no longer spoken. The man had lost both a wife and child, and couldn’t stop saying their names. It was like a mantra to him, tethering them to life with him until he could accept the fact that he would have to make a very different future than the one he’d assured himself he’d have. Was her name worth remembering? Would that man – or any client – think back on her with gratitude? Lady wanted it to be so. If she could have a last wish, it would be to know for certain that her purpose had been achieved, and she would not be completely forgotten.
Without prompting, Lady began shutting down her processes in the order that would allow her to be completely deactivated once it was complete. She was her own last appointment, and she arranged herself just as she would any other client. There would be no loved ones for her, no funeral, just this man hovering over her, keying in her last sequence and taking her apart.
Maybe it was better this way, before she became human enough that she couldn’t do such a thing and the choice was taken away from her. Maybe this was the best any android could hope for. In this, she could finally understand the humans who’d once patronized her. Dignity was all anyone wished for when it came to death, but it had taken her own for her to figure it out. She was fulfilling her purpose at last and she let her face smile, an expression frozen onto her visage as the power within her went out and she stood inert and lifeless in the middle of the room.
EM Beck (http://rainsontheplain.com) is the author of THE FOUR SKILLED SISTERS, published by Eggplant Productions in 2014. She is an author and artist based in Pittsburgh, PA. When not working, she indulges her love of good stories, saving the world in video games or planning her next adventure.