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How Are You Wired?
Part 1

By Dan Dobbs

 

Of all the unlikely places in the known universe, Oasis-C is where it began. Oasis-C is a planet so-named because, according to the travel literature, it is "an island of entertainment on the edge of the void." What that translates into is a barely habitable rock in the middle of nowhere that used to be a mineral mill. Over the years a tourist industry sprang up which catered to mostly freighters, haulers, and other people who frequently find themselves floating around in deep space, or deep shit, and need a place to hide out for awhile. I was there because I had no alternative. I was returning from a job and my transport needed some repairs.

By the time we landed on Oasis, I was feeling as tense as a tightrope stuck in event-horizon orbit. The job I'd just completed for Inter-Sol Mining had started out as a quick two-week trouble-shooting stint and turned into a six-week nightmare -- 18 hour days, really bad food, and repeated attempts by HelixCorp., a rival mining company, to undermine the mission. On top of all that, they were having problems with the atmospheric pumps on Oasis-C and there was an excessive amount of methane in the air, which gave me a horrible headache. Of course, the excessive amount of methane could have been a result of the local cuisine, but I didn't want to find out. I just wanted to find some place to sit and slowly drink away my fatigue.

I ended up in a strip joint called Eros Inc., which was located on the fourth level of a giant underground entertainment complex. The gimmick at Eros was that some of the girls were human and some were bio-synthetic, and the management "challenged you to tell the difference." The whole thing sounded like a pretty sad and sordid affair. When I walked in, I half-expected to see a bunch of drunken slugs ripping the synthetic flesh off outdated sexdroids and poking their fingers up poor girls' skirts to test their human-ness.

What I found surprised me. Arched stone entranceways framed either end of a large Great Hall, which resembled the medieval-style architecture of Sirius-C that had been so popular on Earth a few decades back. Six stone pillars rose from the gray slab floor, dividing the space into even, square sections. Each pillar supported two huge stone replicas of some ancient amphibian-looking god frozen in mid-croak, which was reminiscent of a gargoyle with Medusa's hair-do. The heads of the frog monsters merged with the ceiling in a mass of tangled snake-like appendages. Massive stone steps led down to the club floor, where about fifty black Nischean-crystal tables floated above the rough slab surface with green orb-lights hovering over them. It was impressive for Oasis-C, but I wasn't really concerned with the décor. I was just happy the place didn't smell.

I made my way through the crowd, stopping occasionally when I neared one of the many tables that supported a gyrating beauty of questionable origin, and found a spot by the wall. The place was full of girls. There were probably forty on the floor, working the crowd and prancing around, and most of them were relatively easy on the eyes. From a distance, they all looked human. If there were any bio-synthetics on the floor, they had to be SexThetic Ultima Model B's, the latest in bio-synthetic technology.

I'd heard about the Model B's but I'd never seen one. My line of work requires me to keep up with the latest developments in micro-electronic technology. I am a certified M.E.F., micro-elecro-facillitator. I perform micro-surgery on the tiny, capillary-sized connections which allow huge systems, like the ones on the Inter-Sol Mining Extractor, to function. From what I'd read, the Phoeneus Corporation, manufacturer of the Ultima Model B and countless other bio-synthetics, had recently been under tremendous pressure from stockholders to roll out a better model of sexdroid. Industry analysts and critics didn't think it was yet possible, given the current technology. But they'd done it. And the claims Phoeneus was making about the new Model B were phenomenal.

The Model B's were touted as being "more human than humans." They were supposed to be equipped with a new type of cognitive processor that mimics human thought patterns. The new processor was patterned after a human brain, and was even divided into hemispheres. Phoeneus bragged that the Model B could process external stimuli and base its reaction to the stimuli on a response which was an amalgam of data received from separate parts of the cognitive processor, which all simulated the functioning of different areas of the human brain. The response was automatically aligned with whatever pre-programmed personality the Model B had been given. The personalities modeled those of real human subjects and were piped into the Model B's, enabling them to have memories of actual events which occurred before they were activated. The only thing that prevented a Model B from creating and acting out its own agenda were the Action-Prohibitive Subroutines that Phoeneus had installed to prevent them from exhibiting free-will type behavior. Luckily, Phoeneus realized beforehand that an artificial intelligence of that magnitude requires an artificial conscience.

If it was true, it was amazing. It meant that these new synthetics could perform complex mental exercises like free association and even appear to display emotion. They could have fooled Freud. But of course, Freud wouldn't have had time to psychoanalyze them. He would have been too busy plooking them. Physically, the Phoeneus Corporation's Ultima Model B's were indistinguishable from humans. The level of technology applied in the production of synthetic skin, tissue, and organs on the Model Bs was astounding.

But I had my doubts about the Phoeneus Corporation. They had pushed out a new product that utilized unheard-of, groundbreaking technology in such a short time that it just didn't seem possible. The fact that there had been no press on the invention of the new cognitive processor prior to the release of the Model B, and that the technological model for the processor hadn't even been posited in theory in any of the science journals, seemed to me highly suspicious.

A waitress floated near me in the gravity-free zone overhead and I ordered the closest thing they had to single-malt Scotch and fell into my chair, telling myself to relax and enjoy the view. I had a habit of fixating on things and over-analyzing them to the point of madness -- call it an occupational hazard -- but I was exhausted, and I convinced myself it was not healthy to be theorizing about possible inter-planetary corporate conspiracies, especially on Oasis-C.

I was on my third Scotch-substitute when I saw her. She had her eyes on me from across the room, inspecting me curiously. As soon as I noticed her, she started sliding my way, maneuvering through the noisy, roaming clusters of drunken men, but always re-establishing eye contact. I watched her move. It'd been a long time since I'd seen something so beautiful. She was wearing a white see-through blouse and matching G-string with invisible Magdelarian-alloy heels, which made her seem as if she were walking on air. As she approached my table, she slowed her stride and seamlessly segued her movements into the rhythm of the music, hypnotizing me in an erotic trance. My eyes playfully followed the shape of her as she moved, studying the perfection of her seductively tapered curves and the angle of her dark hair as it fell across her olive skin.

After she finished her dance, she gracefully placed herself in the seat across from me, rested her pretty chin on her hands, and locked into me again with her luminescent green eyes. I matched her gaze, admiring her intricately crafted, ergonomically correct sales pitch. She spoke first.

"You're not from around here, are you?"

"No, are any of your patrons from around here?"

She smiled. "No, I guess not. But they always seem like they belong." Her voice was pleasant, but raspy, probably from chronic exposure to the artificial atmosphere.

"And I don't?"

"No. You seem like someone who hopped on the wrong flight from Cydonia City or some other upscale town and ended up someplace you don't want to be."

"It's that obvious, is it?"

"I'm pretty good at picking up signals."

I studied her as she crossed her legs seductively. She was incredibly beautiful, too beautiful, I thought, to be human, and her movements seemed a little jerky. If there really were synthetics on the floor, she had to be one of them. "So, I take it you're one of the non-human employees?" I said, trying to determine what I was dealing with.

"Why do you say that?" she shot back.

"Well, you said 'picking up signals'. I thought you were making a joke about your wiring."

"My wiring? You think I'm a circuit-head?"

"I don't know. Honestly, I can't tell. But I didn't mean to offend you either way."

She leaned in closer to the table, intensified her stare, and made a play for control of the conversation. "Tell me, how are you wired?" She seemed tense, charged with anxiety. Her gaze made the silence after her question seem melodramatic. I smiled at her and tried not to efface the moment. I noticed her teeth were slightly clenched and her left jaw muscle was twitching involuntarily.

"Pretty well, I guess. No major bugs. Are you all right,... What was your name?"

"Kali. And I'm fine," she said, loosening her jaw. "One of those drunken leptons over there bought me a shot of SeraTonic, but I'm on top of it." The SeraTonic explained her nervousness. SeraTonic was a cheap mix of mood elevators that did a little two-step on the neurotransmitters; the only problem was that the cadence of the biochemical jig varied from person to person, depending on individual brain chemistry. She'd dodged the question of her humanity, but I assumed that her reaction to the SeraTonic had to make her human. Unless Ultima B's could model the response of human neurons. I looked back at Kali and smiled. She fidgeted in her seat again.

"And you are...?"

"Denton."

"And what do you do, Denton? No, let me guess." She paused and tapped her fingers on the table to the beat of the music. "I'm thinking you are... a professor."

"Do I look like a professor?"

"It's your eyes. You have very astute eyes."

"I'm an M.E.F," I said with pride.

"Oooh. I like a man who pays attention to detail."

"That I can do. But when it comes to woman, it's usually the wrong details."

"Divorced?"

"Five years. You are pretty good at picking up signals."

"It comes with the territory." Kali wrinkled her nose and then flashed me a lusty smile. "Denton, do you want another dance?" Again, she coated the question in melodrama.

"No. I'd rather talk. Is that all right? I've been talking to computers for the past six weeks; it's nice to finally have a conversation with a real person."

"Thanks for the compliment. I know what you mean. Most of the guys I talk to here are dumber than deck droids. And the girls aren't much better."

"Do they ever let you off this rock?"

"I was in Vega System last week. Great trip. I hopped a transport with this crazy guy named Joey Domino, who claimed he was originally from Old Earth. Ended up spending three blind days at some low-rate beach fantasy resort with a bunch of whacked-out strippers. The whole way over, Joey was pumping me full of shit, telling me how much he loved me and how we were gonna have such a romantic time. As soon as we landed he put me to work. Drove me straight from the terminal to his club. When I finally made it back to his condo, I walked in on him and some guy playing tongue tag with a Bootean. I went in his room and crashed on the bed, only to wake up a couple of hours later next to another Bootean, who was trying to separate me from my pants. Have you ever met a Bootean? The smell alone will put you in a coma. I ended up getting really saturated on cheap cognac and telling him and all his genetically challenged friends what, where, and how to go. Then the Booteans got pissed and tried to convince everyone else to pull a Gtzrople!, which is basically a very brutal gang rape. If they hadn't all been drunk or altered to the Nth, I would have never made it out of there."

"Sounds like you could write a book."

"It'd be an epic tragedy."

"Why'd you go off with a guy like that in the first place?"

"Oh, you know, sometimes its fun to believe the lies. I knew a guy with a last name like Domino was a long shot, but one has to try."

"So you don't like it here?"

She looked around at the drunken men crowding around the naked dancing girls, all ridiculously playing up to their stereotypes, and smiled sarcastically, as if attempting to expose the pure insanity of her shallow, commerce-driven environment. "Would you?"

"I guess not." Now I was certain Kali was human. She had an awareness that was too unique, too oddly perceptive to be synthetic.

"So why not get out? There are plenty of other planets. I hate to preach, but if you want to change your environment, you need to define what you want and then implement a plan."

Kali sighed, stared down at the stone floor, and shook her head. "You must be an M.E.F."

"Sorry, I didn't mean to sound condescending."

"No, it's just that it's not that simple. You see, the management here has me half-convinced I'm an Ultima Model B. AndŠ."

"Wait, you mean you're a SexThetic?"

She looked up quickly and captured my attention. I watched as a mixture of emotion slowly eclipsed her delicate features. Huge tears welled up in her eyes. I knew I had just cut at the very core of her pain with my impetuous response. In one brief expression, all of her fears, insecurities, and desires surfaced, as if the diverse landscape of her heart was momentarily transposed over the beauty of her face. I looked away, embarrassed, expecting her to leave. But the wave of emotion subsided as quickly as it had come, and she regained her composure.

"Denton, I'm going to tell you something I've never told a customer before. I'm telling you because I feel I can trust you. Your eyes tell me I can trust you. Can I?" The melodrama was gone from her voice, replaced by an endearing quality. She seemed to be letting down her guard.

"You can trust me."

"Good." Kali scooted her chair beside mine and leaned her body close to me. She spoke in low, conspiratorial tones. "Do you see the girl over there with the abstract body-paint mural on her back? The one dry-humping that fat guy's leg?"

"Yes."

"That's Silica."

"Silica?"

"Sil-eeka. Actually it's 'Sexy Silica'. That's her stage name. Pretty sad, huh? Mine's 'Robotica Erotica'. We don't pick them. Our rusty slag of a house-mom does.

She's the ancient synthetic female standing over there by the entrance with the vile Draconian smirk on her face. Anyway, Silica is my closest friend. She's been here about five months longer than I have. A couple months ago, she let me in on some research she's been doing on the initial design of the Model B. Everybody knows what a break through the cognitive processor was, but what made Silica suspicious is how fast the Model B was mass produced."

"Sounds like a smart girl," I said, wondering if she was a "girl."

"So, she got her hands on some bootleg documentation, and she says she discovered redundancies within the core code of the processor which would make the Model B's high-level functioning impossible."

"Interesting."

"Very." Kali lowered her voice to a whisper. "Silica believes it's all a huge cover-up."

"Then how does she account for her own existence?"

"We think Phoeneus abducted real human females, did some back-tapping on their brains, implanted memory tracks, brainwashed their psyches, and prestoŠthe Model B was born."

Though I tried to hide my expression, Kali saw the doubt on my face.

"Denton, if you think about it, it's the only scenario that really makes sense. Do you know what a huge gap there is between the Model B and the last line of sexdroid? The Model A's couldn't do much more than giggle at a guy's jokes and bob their heads up and down."

"Breakthroughs of that magnitude aren't unheard of. Look at the invention of the gravity drive, or the chemical-chip."

"That's true, but it still doesn't explain why I dream. I have incredible dreams."

"You dream?"

"All the time. Recurring dreams. I think there about my former life."

I scratched my head and glanced around the room, holding my response until she finished speaking, so I wouldn't sound too cynical. "That's still not completely outside the scope of your capabilities. Maybe you only think you're human because you're programmed to. It could be a pre-programmed feature which makes you seem more human."

Kali took my hand in hers and faced me. "It's not. I know it's not, because I feel. I have emotions. Something inside me knows I'm more than machinery."

I looked into Kali's deep green eyes and wondered what I was staring at. Logically, I was still convinced she was a Model B SexThetic. But she looked and acted so human. And I was beginning to wonder if it was possible for a synthetic, a computer, to be programmed in a way that forced it to question the nature of its own origins. The idea seemed unimaginably complex.

"C'mon." Kali stood up and gave my hand a tug. "I'm due for a break. I want to show you something back at my quarters."

I resisted. It had always been a personal conviction of mine to never sleep with a sexdroid. To me, it was nothing more than engaging in an act of elaborate masturbation with a talking sex doll. And the truth was, even though Kali seemed human, more than likely she wasn't. I had to draw the line somewhere. "I'm sorry. I don't think that's a good idea."

Kali didn't reply. She simply turned around, arched her lower back, slowly bent to just the right angle and began grinding her hips erotically to the back-beat. Smart doll.

***

Kali's apartment was on the top floor of the same entertainment complex the club was in. The place was small and antiseptically clean. There was a modest kitchen to the left of the door with a bar separating it from the main living/sleeping room. The ceiling over the main room was clear, and I could see an almost starless sky above, marred only by the four ugly red moons of Oasis.

"Sorry about the mess. I haven't been home in awhile." Kali tossed her purse on the couch and slipped out of her invisible heels. "If I'm not human, then why do my feet hurt every night?" She sat down and began rubbing her left foot.

It was a good question. I also didn't understand why a walking computer would be plagued with a human cleaning compulsion. I was doing my best to convince myself her crazy story was true. If all of these odd characteristics were part of the Model B's programming, they were doing their job. The more I looked at Kali, the more I wanted her to be human.

"Can I get you something to drink?"

"No. I 'm fine."

"Can I get you something to drink?" she said again, in the same tone of voice. Her expression remained unchanged.

"No." I watched her. Her head was tilted slightly to the right and she hadn't moved a muscle since the first time she asked the question.

"Can I get you something to drink?" This time the question came slightly slower in cadence, matching perfectly the pattern of a voice response module glitch that had plagued a significant percentage of the Model A sexdroid line. I stared at her, unable to breathe, but happy to have finally gotten the answer to my question.

"I had you thinking, didn't I?" she said, as her face came back to life with laughter.

"Don't do that."

"Just having a little fun. What kind of music do you like?"

I sat down on the couch and stretched. "You don't have any mid-20th blues, do you? T-Bone, Howlin Wolf, Robert Johnson?"

"The closest I've got is Morrison."

"Van or Jim?"

"Van."

"Perfect."

Kali addressed her music unit with the proper keywords, and within seconds we were enjoying the silly doint-doinya-doints of Van Morrison's 200-year-old version of "Blue Money."

"Okay, we need to talk. But first, we need to get elevated." Kali skipped over to the bar and pressed a round button. In a few seconds, I could feel the gravity slipping out of the room. She paused by the bar, waiting for the right moment, and then began striding back toward me, moving higher into the air with each practiced step. The effect was stimulating. As I watched, I felt myself begin to rise.

Kali met me over the couch. She put her hands on my shoulders and began caressing the back of my neck. I picked up on her cue and met her lips passionately. She reciprocated with a sense of urgency and then pulled away. I leaned back and glanced up at the ugly moons.

"Wait, Denton. We have to talk. I have to formulate a plan, remember?" She flipped her hair out of her face and crossed her curvy legs. "Now the first thing we have to figure out is how to mask my retinal stamp, so we can get past customs."

"Right, but can't we talk about that later?" I drifted closer to her and kissed her neck. "Let's just relax now."

Kali turned away from me and floated over by the bar. "I knew it."

"You knew what?" I asked, pleading again to the four ugly moons.

"That you didn't believe me." She slammed her fist down on the button and brought the gravity back into the room.

"I didn't say that."

"I know you didn't say it. That's the point." When Kali's feet reached the floor, she leaned over the bar and poured a shot of what looked like SeraTonic. She gulped it down with a spasm of disgust, and then reached under the bar and pulled out some paper books.

"I'm going to prove it to you." She opened the first book and tossed it onto the couch next to me.

"That's my dream journal. Ever meet a synthetic who kept a dream journal?" She threw the next one. The spine scratched my thigh through my pants as it landed in my lap. "That's a collection of bad poetry. Read through it if you want. There's no machine in the universe that can pen purple prose like that." The next one hit me in the chest. "That's a book of relief maps of every continent on Old Earth. The flagged page is where I think I used to live."

I looked at the map. Apparently, she thought she used to live in a U.F.C Free Zone on the coast of Brazil. I sat staring at the map. A part of me wanted to stay, but I knew it was unhealthy. I'd been working non-stop for a month and a half. I needed rest. I needed to return home to Tucson and regroup, spend a few weeks soaking up the rays of my home sun. I definitely did not need to get involved in a scheme that included trying to extradite property, human or not, from a planet 3,873 light years from Earth with no alliance membership and a governing body that was barely a step above a bar-owners association. I placed the map book on the couch beside me and stood up.

"I think it's time for me to go."

Kali put her hands on her hips and exhaled. "I guess I misjudged you."

"Maybe you did."

"I thought you wanted more than cheap, mechanical sex."

"Let's just leave it alone," I said, as I began towards the door.

"Go ahead, asshole. Leave. Get out."

"Look," I paused. "Even if I did believe you, you haven't really shown me anything that can't conceivably be explained by nuances of coding. Nothing."

"I haven't?"

"No." I turned and headed for the door, determined to end the mess before it got really out of hand. Her obsession with the crazy Phoeneus conspiracy made me think she was probably a SexThetic Model B with some faulty Action-Prohibitive Subroutines. If that was the case, she could be dangerous.

About three steps before I reached the door, I heard Kali's footsteps, and before I could swing around, she landed on my back -- a jumbled mass of hair, tears and flailing limbs. She wrapped her legs around my waist, circled my neck with her left arm and began pounding my back hysterically. Ringlets of hair spilled over my face and I stumbled backwards.

"I have been waiting for youŠ forever." Her words fell on my ears in a clipped, staccato rhythm. "I've been stuck in this hell for as long as I can rememberŠ waiting for someone to believe me. Someone who would listenŠ. Someone with half a brain. And now that I've found you, you won't accept me?"

She leaned back and we both fell to the ground. I twisted around and landed facedown. Kali was still on my back. She put both hands on the side of my head and held me down with the strength of a wrestler. "You listen to me, before you get up mad and throw me away like a broken toy. I have something to say." I nodded my compliance. "There is one thing I've shown you that can't be explained by nuances of coding."

"What's that?"

Kali exhaled, attempting to control the quiver in her voice. "My faith. I have more faith than anybody I know, including you. How do you explain that, Mr. M.E.F.?"

I turned my head to look at her and she let her hands fall to the floor. For a brief moment, we locked into a semiotic stare, each judging the other in silence. Then she began to cry, and in her first awkward sob, as desperation chased the anger from her face, I saw that expression in her eyes I'd seen in the club. She was breaking inside. It was as if, at the moment of that precise, subtle gesture, her heart imploded within her like fireworks in reverse, and in that brief instant, I knew she was human.

 

Continued in Part 2

 


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