March 1, 2010



Dabney Joaquim knew his new wife, Anna, was pretending full satisfaction so she wouldn’t hurt his feelings. Biting his lower lip, he hoped she wouldn’t notice as he pretended to read his eBook. Since his activation, he’d known her two goals in life. Along with her memories and dreams, they’d been loaded into him so he could make sure she was completely fulfilled. One goal had been to design a perfect Life Companion by the time she was eighteen.

Feigning happiness, she glanced at his reflection in the train’s window. He knew he was handsome with tightly curled black hair, blue eyes and a small, upturned nose. Other humans ordered muscle-bound, well-endowed hunks to sweep them off their feet and give them years of fantastic sex. But she’d repeated to him twice that she didn’t want to send him away for alterations after they’d been married a few years. He was a classic model – and she’d been satisfied over a hundred times since their marriage.

Anna sighed. She took Dabney’s arm and pulled him closer. He was the half of her life she was satisfied with. Her dissatisfied half raced past the train’s window and back into the night. Her second goal had been to see the Wild Lands up close – in ways even her Advanced Sensortainment System was incapable of recreating. Contrary to most adults her age, she deeply believed that reality would be better than anything an ASS could fabricate.

Beyond the window, deeper than her reflection were the Wild Lands she wanted. She shuddered, the thought a sudden surge of aphrodisiac. Shaking off her melancholy, she said abruptly, “The Companion Ceremony.”

Startled he said, “What?” Even though he knew her memories, and typically followed her train of thought, he couldn’t read her mind. She was quite capable of surprising him. It was, after all, three in the morning as the train raced along the Central Dakotah Route, far south of Wildtown Bismarck. At just under the speed of sound, they would reach their destination long before sunrise. He cleared his throat and turned to her, composing his face so that he looked like he’d been dozing and murmured, “What about it, mis pequeños ciervos risueños?”

She squeezed his arm and whispered, “It was heavenly! I feel heavenly. What are you feeling at this very moment?”

He couldn’t reply that he felt nothing. Though that was the truth, he’d been programmed and trained to mirror human emotional response. He leaned over to her forehead and kissed it, breathing, “Madly in love with you.” He moved his hand in a calculated grope of her breast.

She raised her eyebrows and breathed in his ear, “Let’s go to the restroom. There’s something I want to show you.” She took his hand, pulling him to his feet. He’d learned that tone of voice and so his artificial anatomy began preparations for the expected performance.

One of them was experiencing climax when everything around them turned to chaos: the lights went out, the bathroom spun end-over-end, the shriek of tearing metal deafened her, and Dabney’s arms surrounded Anna until something hit him in the head so violently that his circuits had to reset.

When he woke, Anna was laying on top of him weeping hysterically and wheezing. He put his arms around her reflexively and sat up. She managed to say, “I thought you were dead!”

“I’m not,” Dabney said, standing and pulling her with him. Passing his hand over the right hand side of his head, it came away slick with body fluid. A near-catastrophic impact had separated a flap of artificial skin from his metal braincase. He’d tend to it later. Assessment program in operation, he muttere, “But what are we doing…” In high def-infrared, he saw the bathroom compartment two meters to his left. Twelve hundred meters beyond was the flaming wreckage of the train. Human heat signatures swarmed around it. “Wilds!” he said. Scooping Anna into his arms, he spun and ran, clamping her with hydraulic efficiency so that his arms absorbed the impact as he sprinted to fifty kilometers per hour. Anna screamed for him to stop. He said in a level voice, “The train was destroyed by Wild terrorists, Dearest. We’re between Bozelings and Chicageapolis and we have to get to the suburbs to be safe, but I’ll protect you.”

She stopped screaming long enough to say, “We’re in the Wild Lands? Actually in them?”

He nodded, “We are, but I’ll protect you, my…” She fainted dead away. Shaking his head, he wondered what she would have done if he’d been destroyed and she’d had to face the Wild Lands without him.

He pushed his speed beyond safety limits. Then he dug his heels into the ground, skidding wildly to a stop. Standing still in a field of shoulder-high wheat as the heat of the previous summer day radiated from the ground around him, he turned his head, searching. He sought a radio, satellite, microwave or laser link to the Central Computer. He found nothing. Pushing himself beyond recommended tolerances should have generated an instant warning from CenComp. Yet it had not. For a puzzled moment, he knew that there was a word for his condition. He had no idea what it was until he found it with an extremely low lexical frequency number. He tested the word, “Alone.”

A human would feel terror right now. He would have mirrored the same response given the right circumstances. But those circumstances hadn’t arrived yet, though they might be rapidly approaching.

Cut off from instantaneous updates, monitoring, legal interpretation, debate and news, he had only what he’d uploaded before leaving Seacoma on the West Coast, plus a standard database. Typically it contained a working knowledge of theoretical and applied psychology; medical skills; survival skills; the culinary ability of three master chefs; a male and a female love maker; and a smattering of carpentry, masonry, electronic and small engine repair skills. He also had a good voice, could paint circles around Monet and play six instruments. But he was nothing without constant contact with CenComp. How could he find out where he was and what he was to do in all situations?

He would have to find a Wild human he could trust – or one he could use for his purposes then dispose of it properly. Most likely, the latter as his standard database contained nothing linking reasoning ability to Wild humans. Anna moaned and wheezed again. He would have to stay in peak operating condition if he was going to walk two hundred kilometers. He paused. He could also go back to the wreck. Eventually armed Companions would reach that place to recover the bodies of the humans and the cores of the Companions.

But that might take too much time. CenCom would reroute traffic around the accident then deal with the aftermath at leisure. It would have to send armed Companions in to protect themselves from Wild humans while they recovered what they could from the wreck and then repay the Wild humans for their terroristic act. Which might take days; possibly weeks. He couldn’t stay in the Wild Lands for that long, and despite her goal, he doubted Anna would be capable of such a stay even if she were completely healthy.

Dabney looked around and climbed a rise, scanned until he found a higher place, then scanned from there until he found a bluff high enough for him to map out the area and locate a Wild human settlement. He had no idea how common they were. There was nothing in his database regarding the current population of Wild humans on the Great Plains.

Lights twinkled on the horizon. Probability was high that it was a Wild human settlement. He started running, though not beyond his known tolerances. He doubted Wild humans would be wandering the Great Plains in the middle of the night, so if he swung wide of the settlement it was unlikely he would meet one accidentally. He would be limited in his ability to protect Anna because he was carrying her. He had no desire to bruise her if he was forced to dispose of a Wild human in hand-to-hand combat.

He looked down, sharpening his hearing and noted that Anna’s wheezing was worse. A deeper scan showed that her bronchii were constricted and irritated. It was nearly two hundred kilometers to the western-most suburb of Chicageapolis. He slowed and stopped again.

While he could do everything from stitch minor cuts, set bones, keep her heart beating if it stopped and temporarily filter toxins and poisons from her blood, it was clear she was having an allergic reaction. If it continued, Anna might go into anaphylactic shock. He was not equipped with the knowledge to treat that kind of reaction.

She could die before they reached proper medical facilities. Dabney had no real emotions, but he’d formed an attachment to Anna. He couldn’t visualize himself with another human. She was pleasant, smart and while her goal was certainly one of the most bizarre he’d ever heard of, it intrigued him endlessly. If she would wake up, she would have realized that goal even if he had to carry her all the way back. As it was, if she went into anaphylactic shock, she'd never know.

He set off again, and instead of swinging wide to avoid it, he headed into the settlement.

It was unnamed, contrary to everything in his database regarding human colonization. Typically, they named everything in sight. But the houses themselves were sufficiently labeled. Staying out of bright light and carrying Anna as carefully as possible, he slipped from shadow to shadow. He found the dwelling hung with a sign reading VETERINARIAN.

Specialized care of animals was a skill some humans still enjoyed. In a city where Life Companions could perform most human medical care and under the remote guidance of CenCom, could perform most complex human cares as well, the Life Companions had long ago decided that there was no need for humans to do anything for other humans. There were still special cases. CenCom was able to focus solely on caring for humans and if it ran into strange human cases, it sent them to the veterinarians, tapping their knowledge of animal life.

Dabney crouched to watch the dwelling, eyeing the back door. Were the Wilds within monitoring for robot intrusion? What would this veterinarian do if he or she discovered Dabney was a Companion? Would they try to stop him? Would they take Anna away from him? Wild humans hated civilized humans, though they were not very smart. Would this veterinarian try and kill Anna?

Dabney growled. If they tried, he’d dispose of them and find a different vet to care for Anna. Her breathing had grown labored. She arched her back and opened her mouth wide to take a breath and her eyes flicked open. She barely managed to breathe, “Are we in the Wild Lands?”

He said softly, “Yes, Love. We’re in the Wild Lands. Behind a veterinary station because you’re very sick.”

“I’m not sick,” she wheezed, sagging in his arms. When she tried to take a breath, she made lip-popping sounds but could draw in nothing. Dabney stood and strode forward, turning to hit the door with one shoulder.

It splintered under his assault and he stepped into an operating theater. It was small, scaled for animals, though there was a wide space beside the main table that looked like it could be prepared for larger animals. He heard the heavy tread of a boot and a sharp snap of metal on metal which he had no way of recognizing. Without Anna, he would have attacked first and asked questions later. Instead, he turned to face the vet, held Anna out and said, “I think my wife is dying.”

Overhead lights came on suddenly. The vet was a graying, wrinkled woman. She gasped and set her firearm to one side, stepping forward, and saying, “What happened to you two?”

Dabney said, “We were on a train bombed by terrorists. Or there was an accident. I don’t know. We’ve been walking,” he made a quick calculation, “for three days. Anna had trouble breathing from the beginning, but now she can’t take a breath at all. I think it’s an allergic reaction to something out here. We’ve never been to the Great Plains before. Can you help her?” He didn’t have to feign the concern in his voice.

The vet looked at him first then snagged a chest-listening instrument from a hook. She plugged a pair of tubes into her ears and pressed the flat end of another tube to Anna’s chest, moving it around and motioning for him to set her upright so she could listen to Anna's back. She looked into Dabney’s face and said, “Lay her down on the table. I need to stop the swelling in her lungs or she’ll die.”

He nodded and lay her down. The vet went to a metal cabinet, rummaged briefly then brought out a sonoinjector. Dabney recognized the tool, but his database held nothing about WHAT the vet might inject. The vet held up three vials and said, “This is diphenhydramine. I have small doses made for animals but she’s in bad shape, so I need to give her three. Do you consent?” He nodded slowly. She quickly popped one vial on the injector and pressed it to Anna’s neck. It hissed slowly. As he watched, he could see his Life Companion relax as the drug hit her system. The vet gave her two more injections then motioned to Dabney. “Pick her up and we’ll put her in the living room on the couch. She’ll be comfortable there while she recovers. This dosage will knock her out and let her sleep until tomorrow afternoon. But that’s probably a good thing. You’re both pretty sunburned.”

He nodded and followed her into what she had called a “living room”. It was large and contained a seemingly haphazard collection of furniture as well as an immense fireplace in which red coals glowed, smoldering in a pile. The vet tossed two more logs on the fire and gestured to a couch. Dabney carefully set Anna down. Her labored breathing had slowed and her mouth hung open, taking full breaths.

The vet stood up and said, “Now you.”

“There’s nothing wrong with me,” said Dabney.

She snorted, smiled and shook her head, “Just like a man! You have a cut on your head that bled all over everything and makes you look like you were attacked by a pack of wolves!” She took him gently but firmly by the upper arm and propelled him into the operating theater again. “At least let me give you something for the headache.” She shook him gently, “And don’t you dare tell me you don’t have a headache!”

He took a deep breath, held it and nodded, “That would probably be good.”

“Speaking of allergic, you have any allergies to aspirin, acetaminophen, naproxen hydrochloride or ibuprofen?”

He shook his head. “None that I know of. I don’t take drugs often.”

She snorted. “Typical man.” She returned to the cabinet, shook a plastic bottle of pills and turned back to him with three cupped in her hand. “Go ahead and take these. They knock out my headache at four in the morning when I have to go out and deliver a calf.” She dumped them into his hand then turned to get a glass of water, which she handed to him also.

He’d seen the expected response in period dramas he and Anna had seen together, so he popped the pills and drank the water. She lifted her chin and said, “Now come on into the living room, put your feet up and tell me what brought you here tonight. We’ll sit by your Anna all night and keep an ear on her breathing just to make sure.” She went into the living room, so Dabney followed her.

Sitting in one large, upholstered chair near the fire, which had sprung back to life again, she gestured to the other. “Take a load off.”

He sat slowly, as if he were a weary human who’d been struggling across the Great Plains for the past few days. He sighed when he sat down and was abruptly surprised how good it felt. Clearly, he hadn’t been designed for what he’d been through. Perhaps it would be good to shut down some of his systems for a few hours.

Leaning forward, the vet offered her hand and said, “My name’s Patrice, by the way. Patrice Coleman, DVM.”

Dabney reached out to take her hand and introduced himself, surprised by her steady reach – and by the unexpected tremor in his own hand. He sat back and would have scowled if he could have, but it seemed that the microfibers controlling his facial expressions were no longer under his direction.

That was when he noticed that Anna’s breathing had stopped. He tried to stand but found his knees paralyzed.

Patrice sat rocking for a few moments before saying, “What’s it feel like to be roboslave?”

He found he could still talk – just not move his jaw. “I’m not a slave and you’re a murderer.”

Patrice didn’t answer immediately then said, “Which one? You or her?”

“Anna! She’s human!”

“She’s your pet. Your pet human.”

“No she’s not! We’re Life Companions!”

“Why did you bring her to a vet, then? I treat animals. Doctors treat humans.”

He paused, “We don’t have doctors in the City.” His speech center was being affected by whatever she’d given him. His words were slurred and indistinct.

“That’s because your human is your pet.” She nodded to Anna’s body. “All I did was put down a sick animal. I do it all that all the time.”

“She’s my wife…” he could just get the words out before his speech control faded.

Patrice said, “Pet.”

The world wheeled around him as he tumbled from the chair. When he hit the ground, his arms and legs spasmed uncontrollably. His vision stopped, but strangely, his power of speech revived for a moment and he croaked, “What am I?”

Patrice stood and looked down on him in the flickering light of the fire. She didn’t reply until he stopped breathing; stopped moving; stopped registering on the monitor she’d taken from the cabinet when she’d gotten his pills. She whispered, “I don’t know. But whatever you are, neither of you are human.”

1 comment:

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