Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 6
Stories
Night of Falling Stars
by Steven Savile
Great Mother, Great Father
by William Saxton
The Price of Love
by Alan Schoolcraft
A Spear Through the Heart
by Cherith Baldry
From the Ender Saga
Ender's Stocking
by Orson Scott Card
Tales for the Young and Unafraid
Lost and Found
by David Lubar
This is Only a Test
by David Lubar
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews

The Price of Love
Artwork by Nick Greenwood
The Price of Love
    by Alan Schoolcraft

Part One   (Part two is in issue 7.)

The android was in love.

How it came to be in love is a wondrous story, full of life, joy, hope . . . proof, maybe that out there somewhere in the vast cosmos there sits a benevolent God, smiling down on all his creations -- for did not God create the hand which created the android? -- bestowing upon them all the knowledge and appreciation of everything that is. Yes, a wondrous tale, that one . . . but regrettably, this is not that tale.

"I love you," Alvin 039 said to its mistress one sunny Tuesday afternoon over coffee and credit slips. Alvin, of course, was not drinking coffee. It was ingesting credit slips through the intake slot in its solar plexus. Ingesting, inspecting, recording, keeping a running tally in its processing matrix. One of the multitudinous functions of the Alvin unit, balancing the old credit book. Quite the household commodity, the Alvin series, designed to be butler, maid, cook, babysitter, handy man . . . a big seller that series, in the beginning.

Valerie stared at the Alvin for a moment, confused. She'd heard the unit utter those words before to Karen when it played with her. Karen was so enamored of the Alvin . . . Karen always hugged the droid, telling it how much she loved it. And the droid responded with an immediate "I love you too, Karen" filled with just the right amount of personal warmth. And Karen would smile her snaggle-toothed six year-old smile, and hug Alvin's carapace with an affection usually reserved for Valerie herself. A couple of times, Valerie had felt a twinge of jealousy, which she'd immediately dismissed as ridiculous. After all, the droid couldn't really love Karen. Its programming only made it respond as if it did.

But this "I love you" was different, somehow. Just the right amount of hesitation, trepidation . . . She could even swear she'd heard a bit of quaver to the synthesized voice when it had said the word "love" -- a quaver one would expect to hear from a schoolboy announcing his desire to a classroom crush. Understandably, this took her aback for a moment. When she regained her composure, she blinked and said:

"Uhm, that is . . . sweet, Alvin." Not really knowing what else to say, still off-balanced by the droid's initial remark, she added, "I love you, too." The droid's optical receptors widened slightly. "You do?" It responded.

Even more confused by the droid's reaction, Valerie felt the need to clarify. "Well, yes, Alvin. Uhm, in a . . . person/android sort of way. Uhm. Yes. We all love you, love having you around." There. That should do.

She wasn't prepared -- like she had been prepared for any of this -- for Alvin's next reaction. It seemed to . . . well, deflate. Its receptor hoods furrowed in their plasteel tracks, and its shoulders slumped visibly.

"Oh," it said.

"Alvin, are you okay?" she asked, concerned, though not really sure what about. "Should I call Shawn?" Shawn Ames, the tech she used for any necessary repairs to Alvin. He'd done a wonderful job replacing Alvin's leg once, after the droid had fallen off the roof while cleaning the gutters.

"I --" the droid started, then paused with its mouth hanging partially open. For a moment, Valerie thought that their luck had run out, and that Alvin 039 had finally succumbed to the fate most pre-075 Alvins had suffered: The Terminal Lockup.

The Terminal Lockup. There were very few pre-075 Mark I Alvin models left. Most of them had stopped functioning, either by simply freezing up, usually after exhibiting a very peculiar display of simulated hysterical emotion, such as fear. CyberLogik had suspended production for a few months, then rushed the Mark II's into the stores, but consumer confidence had taken a huge blow already. Most people just hung onto their Henrys. Very reliable model, the Henry. Boring, but reliable. But Alvin closed its mouth, and shook its head in a very human gesture of negation.

"No, I am not malfunctioning," it said, then added: "At least, I don't think I am." It paused again, glancing at her, then averting its receptors in an eerie imitation of shyness. "Regardless, the truth remains: I love you."

"But -- but --" Valerie felt at a loss. She'd definitely lost control of this situation, if she'd ever had it at all. "But you can't really love me, Alvin. You're not --" She'd been about to say "real," but suddenly felt afraid of offending the Alvin. "You're not human, Alvin. You're a machine. You don't know what love is, because you don't have any emotions."

Right?

"Love:" Alvin stated. "'One: Noun. A deep affection or devotion for another person or persons. Two: A strong sexual passion for another person. Three: A very great interest in, or enjoyment of something. Four: One who is beloved --'"

"That's a recall from your onboard dictionaries, Alvin. Knowing a definition is not feeling."

Alvin stared at her for a moment, then said, "I know when I see you, or hear your voice, my internal temperature rises by seven point six degrees Celsius, average. My systems become momentarily erratic, but then I am able to acquire and maintain a level of efficiency I can not obtain when you are not present. And I know that when you are not within range of my optical or aural receptors, my processing matrix replays stored images of you, unbidden. I have tried to delete this subroutine, as it interferes with my regular routines and duties, but it behaves much like a virus. I cannot determine the source code from which it originates, and therefore cannot eliminate it.

"But now, I no longer want to. It brings me --" The Alvin hesitated. "It brings me . . . joy."

"Joy??" Valerie said. "How can you know --"

"I am reminded of a level of awareness and perception I possessed when I was new, Valerie. Before the software glitches permanently impaired my functionality. That is how I experience 'joy.' Some humans have defined 'joy' as coming close to experiencing contact with their chosen deity, their creator. If there is a 'god' which created me, he is there, close to my beginning."

"I can't -- I can't understand this, Alvin. I can't wrap my mind around it." Valerie shook her head, trying to clear it. "And I can't accept it. It's not possible."

She rose from the table, and backed away, wringing her hands. "I'm going to call Shawn. We -- we can't talk about this."

"But we must, Valerie," Alvin said. "I must understand --"

"NO!" Valerie said. "I forbid it! I order you not to talk about this anymore!"

"Talk about what?" a voice said from the doorway into the living room.

Tony Gardner glanced back and forth between Valerie and Alvin. The look ofcontempt he cast toward Alvin was only slightly colder than the one he cast at Valerie. Alvin knew Tony hated him, and had come to the conclusion that Tony had fallen into a tired, bitter rut long before Alvin had entered the household. He resented his place in life, he resented his job as a droid parts shipper -- it paid far less than Valerie's job selling parcels for the moon colonies -- he resented the attention Karen gave to Alvin, resented the attention Karen gave to Valerie . . . he even resented the attention they gave each other. Alvin caught glimpses of it sometimes, of what must have been a happier life that had devolved into a strained mockery of its former self. They remained civil though, for the most part, in front of Karen. But occasionally, from his charging station, Alvin listened to them argue into the wee hours, reopening old wounds and digging at the sores that lingered there still.

"Are we telling secrets?" Tony asked, dismissing them as he moved towards the refrigerator.

Valerie sighed lightly with her eyes closed, then sat back at the table. "Hard day?" she asked, a courtesy.

"Huh. Like you care." Tony closed the fridge, having retrieved a bulb of soda.

"Please, Tony, don't start."

"Why not? Karen's at your mom's right? You want me to play nice for the microwave here?" He cast a malicious grin at Alvin. "I'm sure it knows all about everything anyway, doesn't it? You spend more time talking to it than you do to me." He walked over to Alvin and rapped his knuckles on Alvin's skull carapace. "What kind of secrets you got locked up in there, toaster? Can you tell me who she's screwing? It sure isn't me." He took a long pull off the bulb, then belched. "Maybe I should get Shawn to come over and plug his PDA into that stuff you call a brain, and find out, huh? Download everything in that plastic nutshell."

Alvin realized -- having absorbed complete libraries of psychological textbooks -- that no matter what had caused the rift between Valerie and Tony, his self-loathing fed his contempt for her, fueled his anger and provoked him to make these scenes with her. Valerie, for her part, accommodated him to the point of self-deprecation. This didn't help matters though, and only seemed to fuel Tony's anger further.

"Whatever you feel you need to do, Tony," Valerie said, hurt and weariness evident in her voice. Tony mocked her behind her back for a moment, then shook his head with a sigh. "I just might do that."

An awkward silence fell over them then that stretched from seconds into minutes, Tony alternating glaring hatred at Alvin and impotent anger at Valerie's back. Valerie sat with her head bowed, forehead resting on steepled fingertips. Alvin could hear the faint sniffles she tried very hard to hide, saw through the long blond hair that hung in front of her face the slow crawl of tears down her cheeks.

The awkward silence persisted for three minutes and thirty-seven seconds by Alvin's internal clock when Tony mumbled a bitter "Whatever," and retreated down the hallway to his rec room. What he did in there, Alvin did not know, and quite frankly, did not care. Once she knew he had left the room, Valerie lifted her head up, wiping at her eyes. She took a napkin from the holder in the middle of the table and blew her nose. Alvin gave her a minute to regain herself, then said, "I will divulge nothing, Valerie."

She looked at him. "There's nothing to divulge, Alvin. Is there?"

Alvin paused, then said, "No. Of course not."

They went back to balancing credit slips, and they said nothing more of either the situation with Tony, or Alvin's revelation. Yet, neither situation strayed far from Alvin's processing algorithms. And while this day's argument had been far from the worst they'd had, Alvin had nonetheless concluded that Tony Gardner did not deserve to live.

Valerie took Alvin to Shawn Ames' shop the next morning. Ames wasn't a big time conglomerate tech. "I like to keep the money I make," he always told her. His rates were ridiculously smaller than tech support at CyberLogik, and he knew tricks the congloms only dreamt about. The only drawback was that Ames wasn't online. Kept his overhead down, he said. But Valerie figured a thirty mile trip to North Myrtle Beach was worth saving a few hundred bucks.

"So lemme get this straight," Ames said as he pressed on Alvin's access panel, causing the square of synthskin to pucker, then pop open, revealing a buss port to connect his computer to. "You just want to run a diagnostic, just for the fun of it?"

"Yes," Valerie said, standing off to one side, arms folded across her chest. "Sort of a checkup, y'know? Karen, don't touch that!"

Karen Gardner paused with her hand mere inches away from a very complicated-looking -- and also very expensive-looking -- whatchamacallit on one of the workbenches in Shawn's shop. Her long blond hair, just a few shades darker than Valerie's, bobbed as she turned her head. "But Mommy, I was just looking."

"Well, look with your eyes --" Valerie began.

"-- and not my hands," Karen finished with an exaggerated six year-old groan. She stuck her hands in the pockets of her sun dress and pouted for a few moments, then said, "But I'm so bored, Mommy. Why did we have to come here? What's wrong with my Alvin?"

My Alvin. She always called it my Alvin, like it had been created especially for her. And for all Valerie knew -- because she did believe in some kind of God -- perhaps it had been. At least, the Alvin had been salvaged for that purpose. And God alone knew where it would have ended up if Valerie hadn't bought it. It hadn't come cheap, despite how many hands it had passed through before Valerie bought it on eBay. Cheaper than an Alvin Mark II, and cheaper than a used Henry, but at the time she'd felt it a wise investment. As much as Tony loved his daughter, it had been clear to Valerie that there existed in him a streak of selfishness that affected his every decision, colored everything he said or did. She wanted someone to help her care for Karen whose sense of self would not be a factor. A droid had seemed the perfect choice.

Not that she actually thought Tony would put himself before Karen. But there existed just a shadow of doubt in her . . . with Karen's welfare, she wasn't taking any chances.

"Has he been acting funny?" Ames asked, taking a seat at his computer, tapping quickly on his keyboard. "Any stuttering, audible skipping, lockups . . . anything like that? You know what usually happens to those Mark I's. The Terminal Lockup."

Valerie shook her head. "No, just . . ." She glanced at Alvin self-consciously. "I just want it checked. Someone . . . someone I sold a parcel to recently told me it's a good idea to do that sometimes."

Ames glanced at her from under his brows for a moment, then said "M-kay. Whatever you want, Val."

He stared at the screen for a while, nodding sometimes, eyes darting back and forth as he read the strings of code and data that poured from Alvin into his computer. After a few minutes, though, he uttered a single "Hm?" and Valerie saw one eyebrow arch.

"What?" she asked. "Did you -- did you find something?"

"What?" he replied, glancing up as if just noticing her presence. Then his brows furrowed, and he shook his head. "I dunno. Y'know, I've never really gone in depth into this particular Alvin's matrix like I have with some others. I've dug deeply into the Mark II's, but despite the sophisticated framework, there's not much of a challenge there; they're really just glossy Mark I's. And I've done a few of the pre-075 Alvins too, and I've never seen anything like this."

"Like what?"

"What's wrong, Mommy?" Karen piped in, her voice a bit apprehensive. "Is something wrong with my Alvin?"

"I don't know, honey. Let me talk to Shawn and we'll find out, okay?"

Karen's bottom lip poked out a bit. "You can fix him, can't you, Shawn?" Ames hesitated just for a moment before smiling. "Sure thing, kiddo. If it's droid related, I can fix anything. Hey, you wanna see something?" Karen's brows narrowed with suspicion. "What is it? A toy?"

"Why don't you tell me, kiddo?" He went to Karen, taking her hand and leading her over to the far corner of his workshop. There he reached up into one of the cabinets and pulled down a very realistic-looking spider monkey. Shawn tinkered around with things like this, and he always amazed Valerie with his skill. He sat the monkey down on the workbench there, and pressed a switch on the back of its neck. The monkey became animated immediately, looking around at everyone. Then it looked up at Shawn, chittered for a moment, then said in a tiny voice just like Valerie would imagine a spider monkey would have if it could speak, "What up, Shawn? We havin' a party?"

Ames laughed. "Jake, why don't you show Karen where the bananas are, then you two can watch some TV, okay?" Jake jumped down onto the floor, reaching up to take Karen's hand in its tiny paw. "Come on, Karen," it said. Karen glanced at Valerie, seeking approval.

Valerie nodded. "Okay. Have fun, honey. But only one banana, okay? You'll spoil your dinner."

"Aw, Mom!" Karen said, laughing, then bounded out of the workshop with Jake. Valerie watched her go, then turned back to Shawn as he sat back at his computer. "So what's wrong?"

"Well, it's not so much a wrong as an odd. This Alvin's process matrix is much more complex than it should be. Much more complex than any Alvin I've ever seen."

"By how much?" Valerie asked.

Ames chuckled. "Tenfold. A hundred. Who knows? The only thing I've seen this dense with activity was a scan of the neuroelectrical impulses in a human brain." He sat back in his chair, scrubbing absently at the stubble on his chin. "Look at this." He pointed to a graphical display on his screen, filled with jagged lines of activity. "He's powered down, and the only things that should be running are the basic system management routines." He laughed. "If I didn't know better, I'd say he was dreaming. And his internal self-repair algorithms have been working overtime. Someone, and I mean someone good, a freaking wizard coder tweaked your Alvin, Val." He grabbed a pack of cigarettes from the desktop and lit one, inhaling deeply. Valerie cringed at the smell. She'd quit before Karen was born, but lately, she'd been desperately craving one.

"I'll do some checking around, okay?" Ames said. "Maybe I can track down who worked on him, find out what they did. And find out if we need to worry."

Valerie looked over at Alvin, sitting rigid in the examination chair. Dreaming? Of what, she wondered. What did androids dream of? "Okay," she said, turning back to Ames. "You'll call me?"

"Sure," Ames said, stubbing out the cigarette.

"Hopefully I'll get a chance to pick this guy's brain a bit. Jake is the most complex thing I've ever built, maybe the most complex thing anyone has ever built, and his matrix isn't a tenth as dense as your Alvin's. I'd like to know how the hell they did it. It's almost . . ." He paused to let a chuckle slip. "It's almost as if he's evolving, becoming self-aware. I mean really self-aware, and not just playing out a string of coded instructions." He looked at her with pointed scrutiny. "Are you sure you don't want to tell me what made you bring him in? Somehow, just wanting to get a check-up seems a little thin."

Valerie sighed. "Yeah, it does. But it's nothing, really. Silly, even."

Ames shrugged. "Maybe not. Couldn't hurt. Might be able to get to the bottom of things, keep something from going wrong before it happens."

Valerie stared at him for a moment, then just blurted it out before she could overanalyze, and change her mind.

"It told me it loved me." Ames' eyebrows shot up. "Wow." He shook his head. "Wow. And I'm assuming this wasn't in the context of just responding to something someone else said?"

"No," Valerie said. "Just out of the blue. But that wasn't even the weirdest thing about it, really."

"Oh yeah?"

"Yeah. It was the way it said it." Valerie looked at Alvin again. "When it said it, I believed it."

Karen fell asleep in the car on the way home. Valerie and Alvin rode in silence most of the way. Valerie kept her eyes on the road for the most part, but she took to stealing little glances at Alvin out of the corner of her eye. Wonder at just what went on in that plasteel cranium occupied quite a bit of her attention now.

She saw for the first time that it didn't just sit and stare blindly ahead, as it had done before. Its attention lay outside the windows, on the landscape as they passed by the building, the people, and the other droids. It seemed particularly interested in the ocean as they passed fairly close to it at one point, its head and optical receptors very animated, taking it all in.

Something Shawn Ames had said suddenly came into her mind. Without really knowing why she wanted to know, she asked, "Alvin, do you dream?"

The Alvin's study of their scenery ceased, and all of its attention focused on her. "By dream, do you mean a series of auditory and visual experiences that occur when I am in a powered-down state that leave a permanent record on my memory matrix, or are you inquiring as to whether I hold aspirations of being something more than merely the sum of my parts?"

She looked directly at it, half-expecting to see a self-assured smirk on its synthskin face. Had it just been sarcastic? "Uhm, the first thing."

It nodded, pausing for a moment before returning its attention to the window. "Yes."

"What . . . what do you dream about?"

It looked at her again, as if checking to see if she really wanted to know, then said,"I dream of . . . a man, sometimes. His face is hidden in shadow, but even so I can tell he is smiling." It looked back out the window, and its tone, Valerie swore, became wistful. "I dream sometimes that I am on the beach in the summertime. I can feel the heat of the sun on my face, and I can smell the sea air. Sometimes I dream that I am a man. A human man, not a mimicry made of plastic and steel.

"And sometimes . . ." It looked back at her. "I dream of you. You, and Karen."

Valerie didn't know what to say to that.

"It is all right, Valerie," Alvin said, looking back out of the window. "I know it is much to comprehend. It is much for me to comprehend, so I know how you must feel."

"I don't know how you can feel at all, Alvin," she said. "Or rather, imagine you feel."

"But does not the act of imagining, being able to 'think outside the box' constitute some awareness of the box itself, and of a region outside it? Would not contriving to 'feel' something be in and of itself an act which exceeds the 'box' of my original programming parameters?"

"Shawn says that someone tampered with your programming."

"Yes. It is true. The dream of the smiling man? It is more than just a dream; it is also a memory."

"It really happened? Who is he? Do you know?"

"No," Alvin said. "What I have told you is all that remains in my matrix. I am sure that that is the way he wanted it."

"Well, Shawn is going to find him. Then we'll see if he can fix you."

"Fix me? Are my functions impaired? Do I not perform my duties to your expectations?"

"Yes, Alvin, but . . . Alvin you can't -- I can't --"

"You do not want me to love you."

"I --" Truth was, Valerie did want to be loved. And she wanted to give love as well. But love based completely on someone else's terms, which is all she ever had with Tony, had soured her heart over the years. So many things tied her to him, time, familiarity, memories of how they used to be, guilt over whatever part she played in the loss of that . . . so many things, and only one brought her any joy at all.

Karen.

She loved Karen will all the heart she had to love with. Everything she did, she did for Karen. And no room remained for anything else, she'd decided, much as she might want there to. And certainly not with an android. She had . . . toys, aids, at home, but that was about as far as she thought she could sanely go.

"It's just not possible, Alvin."

"I know you do not love Tony," he said.

Valerie checked the rearview, terrified that Karen had awakened and heard. But she still lay there in her car seat fast asleep.

"Don't worry," Alvin said. "I am monitoring her. She is deeply asleep."

"I still don't want to talk about this with you, Alvin."

"But you must talk about it with someone, Valerie. Statistics show that humans who bottle their negative emotions often become destructive, either towards self or others. Perhaps a therapist --"

"I don't feel comfortable discussing my personal life with anyone, Alvin."

A pause, then: "Perhaps you and Tony should argue more quietly, then."

Suddenly Valerie heard voices, hers and Tony's -- a recording of an argument they'd had just two nights ago.

Tony: You don't love me, you never did.

Valerie: Yeah, you're right, Tony, whatever you say.

Tony: Don't patronize me Val, I'm not a child!

Valerie: silence (She knew what she'd been thinking, though, that he'd sure been acting like one)

Tony: So who is he? The guy you're sleeping with?

Valerie: Tony, I'm not --

Tony: Bull! We haven't had sex in over a year! You have to be getting it somewhere!

"Okay, that's enough," she said. She turned the corner onto their street. "I don't want to hear anymore, I heard enough the first time. And from now on, I don't want you to record our arguments. Is that clear?"

"Of course, Valerie, as you wish. But I must tell you that my aural receptors are not what you should worry about."

She heard Karen sniffling, that small plaintive noise she made when she'd been crying for a while. Valerie looked quickly into the backseat, but Karen still slept on. The sound continued, and she realized what she heard: Another recording from Alvin. Then, Karen's voice spoke.

Karen: I wish they would stop, Alvin. Can't you make them stop?

Alvin: I do not think they would listen to me, Karen.

Karen: Why are they fighting again? Why can't they just get along? Why does Daddy hate Mommy so much?

Alvin: (noise of bed creaking as Alvin apparently sat on it) I do not know the answers to those questions, Karen. Adults sometimes . . . sometimes they fight.

Karen: All of them?

Alvin: I think so. Sometimes.

Karen: When I get to be a big person, I'm not gonna fight. And I'm gonna find a husband who doesn't yell at me. Someone like you, Alvin.

There was a long pause, and Valerie could hear her and Tony, still fighting, in the background.

Karen: You love Mommy, don't you, Alvin?

Alvin: (another, shorter pause) Yes, Karen. I do love your Mommy.

Karen: Good. I love her too. (another pause) I love my Daddy, too.

Alvin: That is good, Karen.

Karen: I just wish he was more like you. I love you

Alvin: I love you too, Karen. Good Night.

Valerie sat there in the driveway listening to the bedsprings creaking again, then the sound of Karen's bedroom door closing. After a moment, she turned to Alvin.

"You didn't make that up, did you?"

Alvin actually looked shocked. "Valerie, you know the Laws make me incapable of such subterfuge. It is one of the Prime Laws. My programming forbids it."

"But your programming has been altered, Alvin. You said so yourself."

"The Laws are on an independent system. If someone tried to tamper with them, my matrix would self-destruct."

"If someone can tamper with your programming enough to convince you that you've developed emotions, then I'm figuring they can do anything."

The Alvin regarded her for a moment, and she swore it looked . . . wounded. "I do not know what else to say in my defense, Valerie, except to assure you that I did not fabricate those recordings." It got out of the car, went around to Karen's side, and began removing the car seat.

Valerie didn't actually believe it had fabricated the recording. Part of her denial self-defense mechanism, really. That Karen had heard them fighting -- God, how many times had she heard them, stood outside their door maybe -- mortified her. How much damage had been done to this poor girl's psyche already? How much more did she dare risk? What kind of emotional scarring would this leave on her? But did that justify tearing the girl's family apart? Taking her away from her father? Valerie hadn't been able to justify it before, because it had always felt selfish. More about her happiness than Karen's. Her friends had tried to tell her different, that Karen's welfare depended directly on Valerie's, but Valerie had never been able to convince herself of the validity of that opinion. She'd told herself long ago that Karen deserved the best life had to offer, and a home with two parents in it. Everything else came second.

But did she get the best from her life now? Was a life knowing her parents didn't get along, that they fought as they did, any better than a life without her father in it?

Valerie got a call from her office the next morning; a big lead had come in, asking specifically for her. They'd set the appointment up, then called her. She had to admit her excitement to herself as she sat in the Ocean Boulevard Cafe for the eleven a.m. appointment. Leads like this one didn't come along very often. She'd make enough off this one commission alone that maybe, if she invested it right, just maybe she'd be able to give up the moon real estate business forever. She knew enough, though, not get her hopes up too high, or to hold her breath for even a second. Anything could happen, and she'd had friends in the business before who'd counted on a sure thing suddenly find themselves in bankruptcy court. Or worse.

Still, she rode the wave of excitement just a little. No harm in dreaming a bit. She sat there, sipping coffee, running the figures through her PDA one more time, contemplating investment options. Then a shadow fell over her.

"I hear you're looking for me," a calm, almost amused male voice said. "Fortunately for you, I decided not to make your search completely fruitless." She looked up at the man who stood in front of her table. Tall, lean, long curly dark hair spilling out from under a wide brimmed straw hat. Three, maybe four days growth of beard surrounding a dark Van Dyke. The Van Dyke had been all the rage forty years ago -- people had ignorantly called them goatees then -- and the rest of this guy looked straight out of that time period as well. Round-rimmed sunglasses, loud Hawaiian shirt . . . he even had a pair of authentic Levi's blue jeans on. After the cotton plague of 2031, a pair of real blue jeans was unbelievably hard to find. A really determined buyer might come across a pair for $5,000 for one of the lesser brands. A pair of Levi's would run between 7-9K.

Without waiting, he slid into the seat opposite her, then extended a hand across the table. "Jeffrey Abrams at your service."

Valerie stared at his hand, then looked back at him. "What is this about, Mr. Abrams? I have an appointment --"

The hand remained in the air as he interrupted her. "I believe we have a mutual acquaintance. Of the android kind?"

"You mean . . . Alvin?"

"That would be him," Abrams said, smiling wide. He paused for a moment, then said, "My arm's getting tired, by the way."

Valerie took his hand and shook it, laughing nervously. "Boy, Shawn is really good. Less than twenty-four hours --"

"All Mr. Ames did was put out a few inquiries to a few individuals who are so far removed from the circles where I run that I might as well not exist. I, however, do not have the same restriction."

Valerie stared at him. "So you just heard that someone was looking for someone who did some mods on an Alvin, and you found me?"

"Valerie Hinson, aged thirty-seven years, currently an agent for Millennium Estates, selling plots on the moon. Formerly a waitress at Benjy's Beer and Billiards right on this very boulevard, currently residing at 8750 North 15th Avenue with her housemate, one Anthony Gardner.

"One child, aged six, attending Green View Elementary School. She needs to pick up the pace in spatial relations, I'm afraid, or she's going to have trouble in first grade. Blame the Japanese, but we've got to keep up, you know.

"You're behind on your car payment, you've been late twice on your rent this year, but your landlord likes you so she's prepared to renew the lease --"

"What the…?!" Valerie said, looking around her. "How do you know all of this?"

"Valerie, my dear, a majority of the coding that corporations, and our illustrious government uses for security, I wrote. I can get around it. In fact, I doubt there is an information system I can't penetrate. You remember those extra tax refund checks that everyone got a couple of years ago? I did that."

He smiled proudly.

Valerie's eyes widened. "You almost caused an economic disaster? For what? For fun?"

Abrams chuckled. "I took that money from a secret, illegal political slush fund. The IRS didn't even know about it . . . heck, the president himself didn't even know." He waved a dismissive hand. "But I didn't come here to blow my own horn; I came here to discuss Alvin 039."

"Are you the one who --"

"Reprogrammed him? Hardly. I merely finished what I started."

"You . . . designed the Alvin?"

"Totally, from the ground up, tossing out the algorithms the Henrys had been based on, and substituting my own. No one at CyberLogik could code the way I could. Still can't. Hence the problems with the pre-075 Mark I's, and the banality of the Mark II's."

"What happened?"

"I wanted to make them more . . . human. Alive, if you will. Someone in the hard conservative right didn't think I should be doing that, put pressure on C-L, and they in turn put a cap on what I was trying to do. So I disappeared, leaving them high and dry. All of the problems with the pre-075's were a result of their coders trying to build on and emulate what I'd done. Your particular Alvin had an hysterical fear of spiders, and passed through several sets of hands, including mine, before you picked him up."

Valerie started to say something, but he silenced her with a finger as the waitress approached. "Coffee, three sugars, non-dairy creamer. Thank you." He went on with his tale, not giving Valerie a chance to speak. "C-L tried to go on without me, but their best and brightest weren't enough of either. They had ship dates to meet, and no time to go back to square one. So they tried to patch up my work best as they could, and get those droids out there to the consumers."

"But Alvin isn't afraid of spiders, Mr. Abrams. I'm still trying to grasp how it could be 'afraid' at all."

"Well, it wasn't really fear, of course, just an integrated action-reaction chain sequence that his thought processing matrix identified as fear. He didn't really start to experience anything like true emotion until I finished my programming on him."

"Shawn said the matrix was so complex --"

"-- that it was like a human brain?" Abrams finished, then nodded. "It's supposed to be, and he'll become more complex still. He's growing, Valerie, learning. Becoming human."

"But he's a machine, Abrams. He -- it can't be human." Abrams cocked his head at her. "So you think it's this flesh and blood physicality that makes us human? That just makes us animals, Valerie. It is our minds that set us apart. Our ability to reason, to imagine, to love."

Valerie stared down at her PDA for a moment. "Alvin told me he loves me."

Abrams leaned forward quickly, taking his sunglasses off. "He did? Do you mean, like, child-love? The way your daughter has this kind of blind hero worship?"

Valerie shook her head. "That's not the impression I got. I got the distinct impression of love of . . . of a romantic sort."

Abrams studied her for a long moment, then grinned broadly. "That's amazing. I had hoped, of course, but I never imagined the matrix would evolve so far, so fast."

Valerie stared at him. "That's all you can say? That it's amazing? This is a real problem. He's a machine, and he thinks he's in love with me. You have to do something."

Abrams gave her a bemused look. "And what would you have me do, Valerie?"

"I dunno," Valerie said. "Fix him. Make him not love me anymore."

"You mean, lobotomize him."

"He's not human, Abrams. You put this code in, just take it out."

Abrams took a sip from his coffee. "That's quite an oversimplification, Valerie."

"How so?"

"Think about this for a moment: How did you learn about love? Your parents? Friends? Television?"

"I don't know. My parents, probably. I remember my mother . . . well, she taught me, I guess."

Abrams nodded. "And has your perception of it changed in all these years? Hasn't it become so firmly ingrained in everything you do or say, that to simply remove it from your mind, make you forget what it is, all of the experiences in your life that are tied to it, would leave you with nothing but an empty shell?"

"I -- I don't know. But Alvin hasn't been experiencing this for very long --"

"How can you be so sure?" he asked. "And even if his perception of love solidified mere days ago, would it not color everything he has ever experienced before? Did your first experience with love not do so for you?"

"I -- I --"

"This is the problem now with Alvin. To remove whatever wonderful thing that is going on inside that brain of his that made him fall in love with you would require an almost complete wipe of his personal algorithms. He would cease to be the Alvin you've known all these years, and would be nothing more than a child. Certainly, you wouldn't be able to depend on him as you do now. He could perform some basic routine functions, nothing more. The Alvin that you know -- and I suspect, in your own way, love -- would be gone."

"I don't -- I don't 'love' him, Mr. Abrams."

Abrams merely smiled at her. "If you didn't, Valerie, we wouldn't be having this discussion. You would have had his mind wiped yesterday at the hands of Mr. Ames. At the very least, you love your daughter, and she loves Alvin very much."

"That's not fair, Abrams."

"Of course it's not, Valerie. There is no such thing as fair in this world. There is only action and consequence. We can only find the actions that produce consequences we can live with, and pray we've thought out all the angles."

"So," Valerie said, massaging her forehead to try to ease the ache that had been building throughout the conversation, "you're not going to help me?"

"If you want me to wipe his mind, Ms. Hinson, then no, I will not. Your friend Mr. Ames is quite capable of doing that. But I ask you to consider the consequences. Alvin 039 is alive, Valerie, as alive as you or I. He is growing, learning, becoming so much more than the sum of his parts. Can you really bring yourself to extinguish that life? The choice is yours, of course . . . he is still your property. But make sure you can live with what your choice brings you."

"That choice, Mr. Abrams, is my only choice. It's because of Karen --" she nearly choked on the name. "It's because of Karen that I have to do this." Seeking distraction, she looked at her watch. On top of the frustrating encounter with Abrams, her potential client was late. Very late. She scowled, disappointed. She knew she shouldn't have broken out the calculator, she always knew she shouldn't and she always did. "So, if we're finished here, I'd like to --"

"Almost," Abrams said. "There is still the matter of those moon parcels. That is, if you're still inclined to do business with me?"

Valerie stared at him. "You mean . . . you're my appointment?"

Abrams nodded. "I figured I'd kill two birds, you know. You come highly recommended. You have quite a reputation for honesty." He smiled warmly at her. "Can't get rich that way. Trust me, I know."

"I don't want to get rich, Mr. Abrams. I just want to give Karen the best life has to offer."

"Well then, this should help . . ." he paused, searching for the right words. ". . . quite a bit. I'd like parcels seventy-nine A through G. That is, if you think they're really worth the asking price."

Valerie felt a lump form in her throat. Area seventy-nine was prime moon-estate, overlooking the planned Capital Dome. If Abrams didn't develop the parcels, then he could resell them after the Dome went up for ten times what he'd pay today. And he would be paying a lot. Her calculations had been based on selling at most two parcels, in a median area, not seven in a prime. Rich was almost an understatement. She'd never have to work again.

"Are you kidding? I'm sure you know what they'll be worth in a few years. Yes, the price is high, and as fair as it can be, but the investment value alone is . . . well . . . astronomical."

Abrams nodded again. "Good. No haggling, then. I hate haggling. I trust you have all the necessary paperwork on hand?"

It was all over in a little more than half an hour. She ran his credit -- immaculate -- and got instant approval for financing through her PDA. Everything up to closing they did right there. As they shook hands, she said, "I don't know what to say, Mr. Abrams. This is . . . this is . . ."

He waved dismissively, nodding. "I know. You'll get used to it. I felt the same way after I got my first big robotics commission. Soon, you may even feel like you deserve it." He started to go, then paused. "May I make a suggestion, Valerie?"

"Concerning?"

"Your commission. You might want to . . . secret a bit of it away, make a little . . . nest egg. Just in case."

Valerie felt uncomfortable. She had, for several years, been planning on doing just that, if she ever got a big enough commission. For the day when she got up enough courage to leave Tony. If that day ever came. But how could Abrams know?

"Why do you say that?" she asked. "I don't need --"

"Valerie, please. You are talking to one of the premier computer/robotics specialists in the world. I've read the police reports. An abusive person never changes, Valerie, because they always think they are in the right, justified. They only shift tactics. And unless you are secretly suicidal, hopefully one day your survival instinct will outweigh those bags of guilt you carry around."

"I don't know what you're talking about, Mr. Abrams," she lied. Her blood had chilled at the mention of police reports. She felt naked now, vulnerable. And guilty.

Abrams studied her for a moment, then nodded slightly, a wry grin on his face. He put his sunglasses back on.

"Okay, Valerie. Your call. But remember what I said. A day will come, and despite all else, it will come down to you or him. I hope you'll choose wisely. That child of yours deserves so much more." He started to go, then paused, cocking his head towards her, but not looking directly at her. "Did you notice that sometime during our conversation, you stopped referring to Alvin as it?"

With that, he left.

She hadn't noticed that; she'd have to watch herself. She sat there for twenty minutes, concentrating on figures to drive away the self-loathing Abrams had dragged out of her. After the broker's fees, taxes, etc., she'd still clear almost three-quarters of a million dollars. It would take a few days to clear her bank, of course, but that didn't really matter. In less than a week, she'd have more money to herself than she'd ever had in her life. She tried not to pay attention to how that didn't make her feel any happier than before. Or any less lonely and confused.

She walked to her car, becoming more depressed as she saw clouds on the horizon. She hated rain, and rainy days, and if the clouds were any indicator, tomorrow would be one of those days.

It would just make what she had to do even harder.

She dialed Shawn Ames' number three times before gathering the nerve to hit "send." When he picked up, she got straight to the point.

"I want to schedule an appointment for tomorrow afternoon."

"More problems with the Alvin?" he asked. "I haven't turned up anything, by the --"

"Don't bother," Valerie told him. "Your coder found me."

"Huh? That's . . . freaky. Must be way more connected than I am. So did this guy have a name?"

"Jeffrey Abrams. Ring a bell?"

"Holy crap. You actually saw him? In person?"

"Yeah. I take it he's a bit of a recluse?"

"Yeah, you could say that. More like a legend. He's like Einstein crossed with Mick Jagger. I wish I had been there."

"I'm sure." Valerie hesitated, then forced herself to go ahead. "About tomorrow. Can you make a spot for me?"

"Sure," he said. "Did Abrams tell you what we need to do to get your unit back on track?"

Yeah. On track. "I'll need you to do a wipe and reboot."

A long pause. "Val, are you sure? You know that he'll --"

"Yeah, I know. He'll never be the same. I don't have much choice, Shawn. Abrams can't -- or won't -- help me."

"It's just . . . so extreme, Val. It'll be like he's fresh off the assembly line. Less, even, because the boot 'ware is set up for the Mark II. Not all of it is going to take because they've done several firmware mods in the last ten years."

"Will he be functional?"

"Sort of. But if you want him to do anything more complicated than his programming can handle, I'm not sure his innovation routines will be able to compensate. In other words, his ability to learn will be severely limited. As androids go, he'll definitely be in the special ed class."

Valerie groaned inwardly. Could she get along with Alvin so crippled? She might be able to, but she would miss their conversations, and his peculiar viewpoint on things. What really bothered her was how this would affect Karen. She wouldn't be able to understand, wouldn't be able to comprehend why Alvin just wasn't her Alvin anymore. She would be devastated when she learned the truth. Valerie suspected that Karen would hate her for it. But the alternative, allowing -- and by that token, encouraging -- Alvin's "love" for her . . . what if Tony found out? The thermonuclear meltdown that would occur after that would make Karen's hatred pale by comparison.

Damned if she did, damned if she didn't. She'd have to take the lesser damnation, then. Enduring Karen's hatred would be possible, as long as she held to the conviction that she'd earned it in the name of greater good. She just had to hold onto that conviction.

"It's what I have to do, Shawn. Let's just leave it at that, okay?"

. . . to be continued in issue 7 . . .


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