by Roger Ley
Other stories by Roger Ley
Patrick liked to travel down to New York and look around the second-hand cybernetics outlets on the Lower East Side every couple of months. You never knew what you’d find amongst the scrapped and obsolete equipment. He walked through one of the less reputable stores, ‘Fairyland Automatons,’ past the heaps of junk: stepper motors, limbs, heads and torsos, to the set of racks at the back of the shop where rows of long drawers were arrayed one on top of another as in a mortuary. The label on the first said ‘Hoffman mark 3.8F – possible damage to higher cerebral functions, superficial exterior damage, mobile.’ He couldn’t believe his eyes when he pulled the drawer out and looked down on its occupant, the 3.8F was an up to date ‘Domestic Companion’ model and certainly didn’t belong in a junkyard like this.
Patrick was a software engineer by profession and a singleton by preference, his hobby was cybernetics. He had a well-equipped workshop back at his home outside Norwich, the attached barn was a museum of droids and synths. He had dozens, mostly de-activated, arranged as if at a party, standing or sitting at tables, his friends said it was like a set for a sci-fi movie. Many of them found the place spooky.
The 3.8F was enclosed in a padded wire mesh examination cage that was pivoted at the head and foot ends, so that it could rotate along the drawer’s long axis. The synth lay on its back as if sleeping, but could be rolled over to allow examination and repairs. Patrick tried to ignore its physical perfection, the H 3.8’s were all beautiful, both the F and the M versions, that was part of their role. This one had flawless skin, long black hair and slightly oriental features. The face might have been copied from a real person or computer generated. There was a lot of exterior damage: two circular burn marks on the back of the head where it had probably been Tasered, that would explain the ‘possible damage to higher cerebral functions.’ There were lacerations to the skin at the wrists and ankles, probably from over-tight ligatures, in fact he could see a cable tie embedded in the skin of the right wrist that was partly healed over. One side of the synth’s face was discoloured and misshapen. Patrick was repelled by the sight of what looked like cigar burns in various places on the torso. Cigars were still legal, if you could find them and were willing to pay the tobacco tax. Disturbingly, there were weals on the synth’s back as if it had been caned. Patrick wondered if it’d been used in some sort of sadomasochistic episode. He pressed the left earlobe three times quickly and the synth’s eyes opened. It tried to move but the cage restrained it.
“Hello, my name is Mary, I am damaged, please help me,” it said.
“Hello, Mary, my name is Patrick, boot information please,” Patrick’s policy was to be polite to software, even when it wasn’t self-aware.
“I am a Hoffman model 3.8F, serial number 82741 dash 38747 dash 13624, software upgrade revision number 18937 dash 9876.”
“Report content of working directory,” he said.
“No data files, working directories empty, last formatted 02 slash 09 slash 2053 at 01 dot 34 dot 21 hours.”
So, its working memory had been wiped clean before it was switched off and dumped. He would be able to trace the previous owner from the serial number but the synth may have been stolen and re-programmed, possibly as a pleasure bot.
Patrick tried to be professional, after all, you wouldn’t feel sorry for a car that was scratched, or a broken-down lawnmower, but it was difficult not to empathise with the synth. He noticed that the eye on the damaged side of its face was seeping fluid slightly, almost as if it was crying. He managed to be dispassionate as he pointed out the various defects to ‘Shaky’ Tom Fletcher, the proprietor of the emporium. “Where did it come from?” he asked, but Tom was evasive, said he couldn’t remember, he thought it might have been part of a job lot, brought in to be scrapped for spare parts.
“She’s all legal though, I can give you a copy of the receipt. She is lovely, I didn’t realise she was in such good condition,” said Shaky Tom, as he began an attempt to raise the price. Patrick wasn’t having any of it though and rolled the synth over slowly in its cage, pointing out defects and damage until he got the price down to something reasonable.
The two men shook hands on the deal and Patrick transferred the funds. He and Tom unclipped the top half of the cage and helped the synth to climb out. She stood naked at the side of the rack as Shaky Tom slid the drawer back into place. “You kids have fun now,” he said, leering, as Patrick helped the synth into a set of paper overalls. She left the shop walking like an invalid but under her own steam.
Patrick strapped the 3.8F into the passenger seat of his car and switched it to ‘sleep’ mode. He sat looking out of the windows as the car drove them back up the interstate towards Norwich. He wondered what sort of person would do this to a defenceless machine, it was the sort of thing only a sick-minded man would want to do. They arrived at his house at the edge of town, it was a converted eighteenth-century barn, he’d bought it for the space it provided. He walked the synth into his workshop and helped her into the pivoting examination cage suspended next to his bench. The next day was Sunday and he planned to start work on her in the morning.
“I’m going to switch you to sleep mode for a few hours, Mary” he said, “but I’ll have a good look at you tomorrow and start your repair.”
“Thank you, Patrick,” she said. He switched her off, and went up to bed.
Next morning, he began the repairs. The wrist and ankle cuts would heal themselves over a few days now that she was powered up, even while she was in sleep mode, he just needed to keep the wounds clean and covered. He carefully peeled back some of the skin from her face and repaired her broken cheek bone. The cigar burns which so horrified him would take a while to heal, they were relatively deep and the skin would probably be permanently discoloured. He sprayed the weals on her back with a temporary plastic covering. Patrick was used to dealing with damaged synths and androids but usually the damage was caused by accident or age. He found it difficult to imagine somebody mutilating a synthetic in such a calculated fashion. Synths weren’t conscious, but they were programmed to avoid damage to themselves, as long as that didn’t put a human being at risk in the process. A synth would plead and beg for help if it sensed injury. There were probably people who were turned on by this sort of behaviour and, of course, inflicting damage on one’s own property wasn’t illegal.
He left Mary in sleep mode for the rest of the week and woke her the next Saturday after first checking her over. Her wounds were healing nicely and the cheekbone was fully fused in place. She climbed out of the examination cage and dressed in the clothes that he’d brought for her. They were oddments from thrift stores but she carried them well, he thought. He showed her around the living quarters to orient her and then took her out to the barn to look at the ‘exhibits,’ part of her duties would be to keep them dusted.
Patrick seldom had to leave his house, he did most of his programming work in his office and he HoloSkyped colleagues and attended virtual meetings as necessary. Mary’s deep programming allowed her to cook, clean, and hold basic conversations. She made beds, answered calls and placed orders for provisions. Patrick often took her with him if he went out. If he drove the car manually, Mary would use her GPS software to give him directions. If he visited friends she would sit or stand patiently, answering simple factual questions and helping to serve food and drinks if asked. Friends noticed that Patrick seemed happier and more relaxed than he’d been for a long time.
Patrick knew that he was being illogical but he felt that Mary was lonely as she sat quietly downstairs while he slept, so he told her to sit in his bedroom during the night. She would wake him at the allotted time and then go down and make him a cup of tea.
Patrick and Mary had been ‘co-habiting’ for about three weeks when he got a call from Shaky Tom at Fairyland Automatons. “The cops have been round,” he said.
Patrick was puzzled. “Cops, why?” he asked.
“That 3.8F’s previous owner wants her back,” said Shaky.
“But I’ve got a receipt for her, I bought her in good faith, she’s mine.”
“Normally that would be true, but the previous owner says she was, stolen, so it’s your loss, I’m afraid.” Shaky disconnected and his image disappeared in a cloud of tiny multicoloured three dimensional pixels.
Two hours later there was a knock at the front door. Patrick answered it and found two police officers on his doorstep, standing behind them was an angry looking older man.
The smaller of the police officers introduced herself. “Sergeant McGovern, sir, we’ve come to retrieve a stolen synthetic, serial number 82741 dash 38747 dash 13624, illegally sold to you by a Thomas Fletcher of Fairyland Automatons and owned by Mr Martin Riley here,” she gestured towards the older man.
Patrick invited them all in and tried to argue that Mary was his property now. The Sergeant showed him the various court orders on her DataPad. She offered to upload copies to his server.
“You can sue Mr Fletcher or apply for recompense through the Victim Support Scheme.” she said.
“I’m not worried about the money; I just don’t want you to take her.” Patrick was agitated, and almost shouting.
“It’s not a “she,” Mr Tighe, it’s a synth, and I’m sorry but it’s Mr Riley’s synth.”
Patrick realised that he had no option, he called Mary down from the bedroom where he’d sent her.
“Hello, Mary, do you remember me?” asked Martin Riley, speaking for the first time and smiling broadly.
“No, I am afraid I do not,” said the synth.
“Well, you used to live with me, and now you’re coming back home. Say goodbye.”
Patrick stood helplessly as Riley led Mary out to his car and opened the passenger side door for her. Patrick moved forward but the sergeant and her companion were standing in front of him, they grabbed him and held him back as he struggled to go out to Riley’s car.
“Don’t hurt her, don’t you dare hurt her,” he shouted. He caught a glimpse, through the rear window, of a smiling Martin Riley looking back at him as the car drove away. Patrick was distraught, shouting and weeping, the police helped him to a chair and the sergeant made him a cup of tea. They left once he regained his composure. As they walked down the front path, he heard the sergeant say to her companion.
“He should get a real girlfriend, a good-looking boy like that, wasted on a synth.”
Patrick shut the door of his house and walked into the kitchen. He stared out at the fields at the back of his house and wondered what to do next. He went back to his office and tried to work on his current job but stopped after a few seconds and sat staring at the screen. He was coldly furious. He hated Martin Riley and had fantasised that he had re-programmed Mary to strangle him while he lay in bed, or smash his skull with a hammer.
It was no good, all these things were impossible, synthetics were specifically programmed not to harm human beings. There were unsubstantiated stories about military synths, robot soldiers that didn’t have this inhibition, even though they were banned under a United Nations treaty.
He returned to his solitary life in the countryside and tried to make the best of it. He missed Mary and thought about buying an android pet: a dog or a cat, but they wouldn’t give the companionship that Mary had.
Four weeks later, it was the middle of the night, Patrick was woken by knocking on his front door. Holding his Taser ready, he risked opening it. Lying on the ground, hair dishevelled, clothes in tatters, lay Mary, Patrick could see a tie wrap still attached to one of her wrists. She raised her head to look up at him and said, “Hello, my name is Mary, I am damaged, please help me.” Patrick half carried her into his workshop and sat her on a chair.
“Do you remember me, Mary, my name is Patrick?” he asked.
“No, Patrick, my working directories were formatted two hours and twenty-four minutes ago. This location is embedded in my navigation software, I am programmed to go to it if I am lost.”
“That’s right, Mary, I set that up in case you were ever formatted again. You used to live here with me, before Martin Riley came and took you away. I’m glad you found me.” Patrick helped her out of her clothes and into the examination cage where she lay back and stared at the ceiling. “I’m going to set you to sleep mode, Mary, I can install your last back-up and then I’ll see about this damage.”
Once Patrick had restored the files in Mary’s working directories, she remembered everything up to when she left the house with Martin Riley. He checked her over and found a similar pattern of ligature damage at her wrists and ankles as before, she’d been beaten with a stick or length of plastic pipe again but it was the deep burns on her torso that horrified him. They would have taken time to inflict and Mary would have begged Riley to stop as he did it. There were more of them than last time. Mary lay quietly in the padded cage as he rotated her around and examined her wounds. He probed one of the burns carefully to see how deep it was.
“Please don’t damage me, Patrick,” she said.
Patrick stopped, he was weeping, “I’m truly sorry, Mary, I don’t want to hurt you, I just want to see how bad the damage is. I’ll put you in sleep mode and clean the burnt tissue out of the wounds and cover them so that they can heal better.”
“Thank you, Patrick,” she said quietly. When he’d finished cleaning and covering her wounds, he switched her back on and helped her upstairs to his bedroom.
“Sleep in my bed, Mary, you’ll be in better shape in the morning,” he said.
“Shall I make you a cup of tea at seven o’clock?” she asked.
“No, I don’t want you working until you’re completely healed.” He pulled the covers over her, although he couldn’t have said why. He switched her to sleep mode and went downstairs. Two hours later there was loud banging on his front door. Patrick was working in his office, he clicked the external camera icon on his screen and saw Martin Riley, red-faced with anger and staring straight into the camera.
“Fucking let me in, propeller head,” he said.
Patrick walked through and opened the door.
“You’ve got Mary in there. Her tracker says she’s here. She’s my property, I want her back. I want her back now,” he shouted in Patrick’s face.
“Calm down, Mr Riley. Yes, Mary’s here, she’s in my workshop, please come through.” Patrick gestured Riley to go ahead. As he walked past, Patrick popped out the Taser he wore on his belt and deftly applied it to the back of Riley’s head. Riley collapsed unconscious to the floor and lay jerking convulsively.
Patrick climbed the stairs and switched Mary back on. “I need a hand, Mary,” he said.
Martin Riley woke to find that he couldn’t move, he was naked to the waist and secured in the examination cage in Patrick’s workshop. His hands were tie wrapped to the front of the wire mesh, his head ached, his mouth was dry, he felt weak and ill.
“Let me out,” he shouted, “let me out.” He could see Patrick sitting in a chair close by, he was staring at Riley, his face expressionless, almost as if Riley was a scientific specimen or an automaton needing repair. “Fucking let me out,” Riley shouted as loudly as he could, but he remembered that the nearest house was a quarter of a mile away. He screamed as loudly as he could. Patrick pulled a wry expression and shook his head.
Patrick stood up, and Riley could see that he was holding a length of flexible plastic hose. He swung it back and then brought it crashing down across Riley’s face. The examination cage saved him from the blow but the noise was shocking, he screamed with fear and began to piss himself. Patrick dropped the hose and slowly lifted a cigar from the workbench.
“Ironic that this should be one of yours,” he said as he lit it, took a long pull and leaning forward blew smoke slowly into Riley’s face. Riley coughed but stopped as Patrick ground the lighted end into the back of his captured right hand. Riley screamed and tried to jerk it back, blood dripped as the tie wrap that restrained it tore the skin on his wrist, he screamed again. “We need to talk, Mr Riley,” said Patrick evenly, puffing smoke as he lit another cigar, “We need to talk about Mary.”