Tuesday, 18 September 2018

Chapter 7: The Call

Neith sat hunched over at her desk.  She had been too hard on Grace.  Times were hard.  At least Grace hadn’t gone out and bought a Quin.  Neith gave her head the slightest shake at the thought.  She hadn’t been back to The Green since her last visit with the drynurses – the place had ceased to be an escape when such jarring reminders of all she was escaping wanted to share the same place of refuge.

She couldn’t get over how elaborate the drynurses farce had been – the thing with the rouge – that was new.

Neith straightened and squinted as she took in the latest And beside her.  She performed a series of futile Intrasearches before bringing up programming on her deskscreen.  She generated a code string to simulate cheek blush and tapped “Apply.”  She watched the And, still in its drawer, as its semi-translucent cheeks altered in colour.  She modified the code, reapplied, and checked her changes on the And’s face shell.   She started when she abruptly realised Wilson was almost on top of her.  This is why she took side seats on the El.  People.

“What are you doing?” He sounded, with shock.

“Recovering from your sneak-up,” Neith said, with her hand to her chest.

“You know what I meant.  Are you applying an emotional response?”  Wilson’s chin came towards her sideways, his eyebrows knitted. 

“I was tinkering, after a run-in at the park at lunch.”

“A run-in?”

“I was third wheel on a Denial Date between a dry and her Quin.”

“And?”

“And I was tinkering.  She’d added some rouge to the Quin.  It got me thinking.”

“I’ve had an embarrassment simulation configured since And8.”  Always reminding Neith she was the rookie here; barely out of school.  Wilson was a tower 2K, but he was seven years her senior.

“The makeup wasn’t to make her baby blush, it was a symptom – a teething symptom.  Have you heard of that?  I checked, and couldn’t find anything on the Intra about it.”

“Sure I have.  Because emotional response is my area, Cole, mine.”  Neith detected real anger in Wilson’s tone.  This wasn’t the mostly-playful back-and-forth she was accustomed to, in-lab.  Wasn’t he salivating over femme-meat a few hours ago? 

“I’m sorry.  I should have told you about it instead of plugging it in myself.  I was on auto-pilot.”

“Forgiven – I get that you’re off-kilter with Gracey taking to the love towers…”

“Do not call them that,” Neith interjected.

“As I was saying.  You – off-kilter.  So you get a pass.  But in the future, leave me to my realm, Cole.  There aren’t exactly more And jobs going.  Besides, you hate the emotional adds;  you must be really hurting.”  Wilson almost sounded sympathetic. 

Neith couldn’t trust it.   “You’re right.  I don’t know why I did it.  Quins give me the heebie jeebies.  I always tell myself what we’re engineering here is different, but I guess I just proved it isn’t that removed from what they’re doing.  We’re all in the proxy biz.”  Except a Quin was a nothing more than a limp doll.

Ands are useful.  Ands interact.  Ands are the most dynamic social media platform ever designed, and designed specifically for you,” Wilson broke into a jingle with a high-rising terminal tone of mockery. 

Neith couldn’t help but laugh, the guy was quoting MinSci taglines.  The flash of fire she’d summoned seemed to be dismissed.  “Well, I’ll get back to making these useful, interactive androids function.  Thanks for letting this one slide.  And for dropping the ‘Gracey-Gracey’ stuff.”

“Oh, I haven’t dropped it, we’re in recess.” 

Neith acted out gagging as she spun back to her programming spread.  She side-swiped the code in dismissal and returned to the software she’d been working in her domain.  Wilson was right.  Emotion was exactly what she felt the Ands could do without.  Serving as humanoid additions, or an “And” to the routines and lives of the lonely, disadvantaged or aging was one thing, pretending they were this age’s children was another. 

What she really wondered, was what teething red looked like, really.

Supply and demand was unavoidable though.  Changing times were undeniably producing a market for kid-replacements; for companionship, not solely carers for the infirm and factory workers who always met their quotas.  Supply and demand was why Wilson had a job. 

There was a reason he came to her in their lab, and not the other way around.  Neith didn’t care to visit his outlay of flesh and organic studies, nor catch a sound bite of his kind of archived audio from his headphones as he removed them on her approach.  It awoke something in her she didn’t care for, and Wilson knew it.  Each And model looked more and more lifelike than the last.  It unnerved Neith.  She was glad her internship didn’t require research into cultivating living tissue for robots.  They were looking more and more like living teenagers instead of appliances.  She was curious about children from The Before, but only so far.  If replicating them was unattainable, wasn’t it torture to satisfy that curiosity?

So Neith stayed safely away from the bottled ghosts of the world’s last children.  She focussed on her craft; her uncanny, intuitive skill in producing more service add-ons for MinSci androids.  She found the unending need for higher capacity mechanical aid satiated something inside her she very much cared for.  She preferred it to longing and hope.  She imagined her parents’ own hands becoming shaky or frozen with some disease marking the aged, and acknowledged no grandchildren would be there to pick up the spilled beads of a hypothetical broken necklace, to remove the splinter the tweezers refused to steady and grasp.  Ands are useful.  Ands fill a real need.  Ands would spare her parents the indignity of having their only child washing them each morning some day.  Ands gave Neith a way to serve Owen and Lucienne without humiliating them.  Ands would ensure their comfort if fate snatched her away unexpectedly.  Ands would do it all for her parents.

Ands would also do all of the same, for her.  For all the Omegas.  And then what? 

The Ands could hang out at the park. 

Neith stared at the face of her prototype in the open drawer.  Yes, it was humanlike, like I.M..  Many wealthy dinks requested tasks from MinSci that called for more than pairing to an owner’s chip and walking.  Some requests necessitated fine motor skills – everything from administering medication to doing up buttons.  Neith attempted to conjure a robotic solution to those needs that wasn’t human-like in form.  She imagined highly accurate claws that could perform the same manipulations, treads to follow a walking owner.  Would it still have the social capabilities? Ands linked to the Intra and home management software.  A non-humanoid form seemed inefficient and ugly.  She then tried to make the leap to picturing someone cradling a robotic aid as though it was a living thing, worthy of love.  She’d seen Grace do it on the beach, hadn’t she?  But that was different.  Wasn’t it?  Of course it was. 

Because Grace still longed for more.  Grace was hugging a possession, like a great pair of shoes. 

Neith was okay with Ands having high level functions – even giving them names as a joke, like I.M. – she just couldn’t make that leap over into the realm of pretending they were living.  She’d seen the circuitry and woven the codes herself.  These were machines, and she would not be building relationships with them, so it made sense she wouldn’t spearhead developments that made them more human.

Wilson was right.  This was not Neith’s domain.  She would not think about MinSci’s other service lines.  She would leave people to take comfort where they could find it…even if she couldn’t understand.  She would focus on the continued design of very functional robotics.  What add-ons other consumers opted for was their business.  Theirs and Wilson’s.  She would get back to her favourite current project: programming for piano play. 

It had been her mother’s idea.  Old world instruments already in the city, or those that survived the exodus north, were getting hardly any playtime.  Neith was coding the intricate movements required for android digits to be tasked to play Beethoven

Neith’s phone vibrated concurrent with a glowing banner on her deskscreen.  Minister Prescott’s office.  What?  Minister Prescott’s office never called Neith directly.  And14 wasn’t ready.  She hadn’t missed any comms or Intrameetings.

Neith gave her head a preparatory, clearing shake before answering the notification.  A well-groomed female face filled both her screens.  Neith minimised the desk display and spun to take the call on her phone and earpiece, mindful of Wilson close by.  She walked towards the storeroom, making a few more taps to send the audio feed to her earpiece only.

“Ms. Cole.  You are requested in Minister Prescott’s office, ay-sap.”  The woman was all professional tone.

“I haven’t received any texts about an extra meeting...” Neith was cut off.

“Ay-sap.”

“Thank you, on my way.” The face was gone from Neith’s display before her response.  Neith pocketed the phone and exited the storeroom.  

Wilson was waiting.  “Paged by the Mighty Man himself!”

“Well, his lackey, at least.”

“What do they want?”

“I’m about to find out.”

“You’re going up there?”

“Apparently so.”

“But And14’s nowhere near ready.”

“I know.”

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