A New Conundrum
A short fiction
By Bryan Harrison
based on characters
established in the film
There was no appropriate way to start these things. She didn't really know this woman, after all, and maybe this wasn't the best setting, the best environment in which to broach this subject. But then again, when would there be a better occasion? So she excused herself from the hushed gathering of people standing soberly beside the display, and approached the dark corner of the room. She positioned herself across from the solitary figure seated quietly on the large oval sofa. The woman was dressed in appropriate mourning and sufficiently somber for the occasion. But she knew that in her heart the woman harbored other emotions.
"That was one of his favorite spots," she said after a moment of consideration. The other looked up from her private reverie, her expression guarded, her eyes telling a tale of sleepless nights her cosmetics could not silence. There was something else there too.
"Really?" the woman responded after a short silence. Her mouth stayed open as if there was something she would add, but then she just smiled. "Yes… um… it's comfortable."
"It was the view," the first explained, sitting and nodding her head towards the huge window and the oceanic panorama that spread out beyond the statue on the sill. A mist hung over the waters and the rays of the sun shone hesitantly through. "He used sit for hours at a time. Just sitting and staring out at…" she paused and shrugged, "whatever it was he saw out there."
The woman followed the gesture. She gazed silently out the window for an awkward amount of time as if lost in thought. It was clear that she really didn't want to talk. She was here with her husband, for her husband.
"I'm Grace Magnolia," she said, sliding closer and offering her hand. The woman's eyes shifted to look at the hand. There was a quick moment of indecision, but she smiled finally and took the hand offered her.
"Monica," she said, "Henry's wife." She loosed her hand but kept the smile. "Henry Swinton," she added flatly. Grace nodded as if this was some new information to her.
"Oh, Henry, yes, of course," Grace continued the charade of ignorance. "I've not had a chance to speak to him today. I hope he's taking it all well. He was very fond of Allan."
Monica adjusted herself in the cushions, suddenly uncomfortable. "Did you work with Hobby?" she asked changing the subject quickly, nervous hands fidgeting with the cushions of the sofa. She was doing a good job of keeping up the smile. Grace understood what an effort this must be, considering the circumstances of her presence here.
Grace nodded. "I studied under him for many years and had the opportunity to work on many projects, yes," she replied. She looked back out the window as a warm nostalgia took her away for a moment. When she returned, she fixed Monica's eyes.
"He was a genius, you know," she said. "He took Mecha farther than anyone before… and much closer," she added cryptically. But Monica missed the bait. She was distracted and obviously did not share an appreciation for Cybertronics efforts. Grace understood why.
"I'm sorry, Ms Swinton," she said with a genuine touch of embarrassment, "I can't go on this way… I… I know who you are and actually, I've wanted to speak with you for some time."
Monica eyed her fully now, a new suspicion in the gaze.
Grace leaned forward, balancing carefully on the line between familiarity and forwardness. "I know what you've gone through. You aren't the only one, Ms Swinton. They don't talk about it here… it's taboo."
"What? They don't talk about what?" Monica asked cautiously.
Grace paused a moment, checking to see if anyone else was near. But the mourners were still whispering quiet salutations over the fallen CEO's display across the room.
"They don't talk about the cost of the David's, Ms Swinton," She said turning back to Monica's wary face. "I mean the true cost. The human cost. What they do to people's hearts." She paused there for a moment. "And what is done to theirs" she added.
Monica's face remained unchanged. The moment grew awkward and Grace was sure she had exceeded propriety. Monica coughed suddenly and looked away.
Grace started to rise. She'd messed this one up. "Well, maybe I'd better get back to…"
"Call me Monica," the woman said suddenly, still gazing out the window. "You don't have to call me Ms Swinton." Then she looked up and Grace saw her for the first time. Really saw her. The depth of the woman's loss and regret came full force into her eyes and in that gaze a mourning insufficiently expressed screamed out for recognition.
Grace was taken aback by the unguarded pain in that look. What have we done? She wondered silently.
"Would you like to join me on the balcony, Monica?"
Monica's eyes flicked to the congregation of Cybertronics employees and family members. Grace knew who she was looking for. And why.
"OK," Monica replied after a quick scan and grabbed up her purse. The two slipped unnoticed from the room and onto the great balcony outside.
The mist was clearing now and the light was warming the air, shining on the water in larges swaths between the cloud cover. The women leaned against the balcony railing, refreshing in the brisk air. Beneath them the ocean lapped at the buildings sunken stories. In the distance the statue lions cycled the ocean through the fountains in their eyes, the roar of this process a constant backdrop to all activities at Cybertronics.
Besides the women, there were only the few tight vested serving Mecha waiting by the bar, their faces displaying the calm patience of immortals. The women ignored the machines, talking and growing familiar with each other. There was some non-committal banter between them at first. Small talk, or at least as small as two people who'd never spoken before could muster. But slowly they began to talk about their lives.
"…and then he pops into the apartment looking like some madman or something, waving his arms around dancing, screaming "I got the job I got the job'" Monica laughed remembering. "He must have spent his entire first months salary dining me out that night…" she laughed out loud again. It felt good to talk about those days. "We went everywhere that night!"
Grace smiled remembering her acceptance into the Cybertronics fold. "I understand too well. I was lucky enough to have some of my grad work reviewed by Hobby himself, so I passed over the recommendation phase and went right to work. I couldn't believe it at first… it was so strange," she laughed, the excited college girl alive in her face for a moment. "One minute I'm writing theoretical essays on environmental synapse triggers for neural simulators and the next I'm sitting in a lab with programmers who have actually done what I was theorizing about. It was so, so strange."
Monica made a sound of acknowledgement. There was a silence as each of the women pondered how to ask the other about their life decisions. A career. A family. The two weren't so easy to maintain in these complex times of licensing. Then Henry's face appeared at the door to the balcony and those questions were put aside. The women watched him scan the area until he spotted them. He smiled and nodded his head, but even from across the balcony Grace saw the question in his eyes. He slipped back into the door without seeking to resolve that question.
"They're coming out soon," Grace said.
Monica nodded an understanding. The getting acquainted period was over. Time to get serious. "What did you mean when you said 'the cost of the David's?'" She asked.
Grace slid a bit closer to Monica, the gesture communicating the sensitivity of this information.
"There have been some 'situations' that have occurred since the David models hit the market. And by 'situations' I mean problems. We had to deal with the legal stuff at first, of course. The liability issues and return policies… and then we had some 'issues' surrounding some shady characters trying to gray-market the models out to some even shadier characters." She grimaced uncomfortably with the subject, "But those kind of things were to be expected.
"The problems I spoke of were ones that no one anticipated and should not have been swept under the rug." She looked hard at Monica. "The effect of the imprinting on the Mechas were programmed responses. Even the responses that we did not anticipate, like the ones your David manifested, were part of the design, linked to the process of sentient feedback. So, at least theoretically, we should be able to find out what's going on. Eventually.
"But the effect the imprinting had on the imprinter was something that Allan had not counted on, and did not really know how to deal with. I am sure you understand."
Monica let her gaze wander out over the ocean. She knew too well what Grace was talking about. So there were others, eh? Knowing she was not alone should have comforted her. But it didn't.
"From the beginning Allan treated the whole project with such a passion." Grace followed Monica's gaze out to expanse of the horizon, her mind looking inward, back in time. "I had worked with him for years and I had never seen him get so emotionally involved… so caught up in something. He tried so hard to put aside peripheral details, only focusing on the technical aspects… ignoring the potentials… the ramifications."
She stopped long enough for Monica to notice the silence and look at her. "You know about Allan's son, don't you?"
Monica nodded without saying anything.
"The loss almost took his mind. We all knew with the child simulator, that he was… that part of him was trying to bring the boy back. So to a degree we understood his intentional blindness to the problems. The first day he revealed this project to us I asked him about a potential problem. At that time my concern was for the Mecha. I mean, how would a sentient machine develop in this hostile world? Allan brushed my concerns aside in his own way. I guess that was to be expected when the project was in its infancy. But later Monica, later it was the way he ignored that David's were causing rifts in the family structures of the imprinters. You and Henry weren't the only ones to feel these pressures. Sure… the first, but there have been others since. More than Cybertronics or their well-paid lawyers are willing to admit. And anyway, how do you prove a robot broke up your marriage? Your family?"
Monica eyes asked a question. Grace nodded slowly.
"That's right, Monica. Broken homes. And even without the complex circumstances you faced with your sons revival." She stopped suddenly "Oh… how is he by the way?"
Monica nodded and a weary grin broke on her face. "He's all boy. It seems he gets bigger every time I see him. He'll dwarf me soon."
Grace was genuinely pleased by this news. "Good, good. I know things have been hard on you." She paused a moment, then continued. "In the first year David and Darlene hit the market there were three separate lawsuits lodged against Cybertronics for complications that arose due to the imprinting process. Just last year there were twelve."
Grace nodded, "In just three years it's a total of seventeen. And the cases have legal merit."
"Are they winning?" Monica asked.
Grace shrugged "Arbitration agreements. The books are closed on them. But I am sure Cybertronics is settling."
Monica thought about this. "But the imprinting process isn't new… I mean… don't the soldier models have it? And what about those imported lover-bots? Don't they…"
"Yes, but those models have specific functions. The child replicas perform a really unspecified function if you think about it. 'Love'… what does that mean really? And there is something else they were designed to do. Something that Allan didn't share with marketing and more importantly, the customers."
Monica was hanging on every word.
"They were designed to develop a sense of reasoning. Their own sense of reasoning. Self-defined logic, Monica. Rationalizations. Fantasies. This was supposed to make them more real. More life-like. Having a child that would misbehave occasionally. Become unpredictable. It was, according to Allan anyway, to make the replica all the more real. But, Monica, no other machine has ever done this, analyzed the world through its own interpretive parameters. We had no way of knowing what would happen if there would arise a family conflict.
"Some of the guys thought that David might even become violent. And they were right. Your David destroyed a duplicate model when they encountered each other here in the building." Grace could tell by Monica's face that she'd not been told about that. The dark potential behind this information was clear to them both. Could that have happened to Martin eventually? "We should have tested longer," Grace continued, "but they had shipments packed and ready for unveiling even as your David was starting his feedback malfunction."
"Malfunction?" Monica pondered the word. That wasn't right. "It wasn't a malfunction," she corrected quickly.
Grace smiled an apology. "We don't know what to call it. We're not sure what happened really. But after your experience we argued to Allan to limit some of the emotional response, but he wasn't listening. People who had imprinted were being imprinted. They were loving the machines back as if they were real children. The process was too effective They became attached to their machines and if any complication would arise they would not return them for the same reasons you aban…" Grace stopped and corrected herself. "For the same reasons you let David go. None of them would see their machines destroyed.
"In the first year alone we had listed over seventy-five malfunc…uh… complications, similar to the ones you experienced. All things considered that was pretty good for a revolutionary project like David. But we only had ten of those returned. Ten, Monica. If models had a physical breakdown, even a critical system error, people would not take them back for fear of what would occur. They would react like the bot was a boy or girl, spending twice and thrice as much money trying to repair the Mecha as it would take to buy a new one. Some were devastated.
"One older woman who had lost a child in her youth bought and imprinted a Darlene. The woman had been denied a license based on psychological problems, Monica. That should have been a red flag for regulating the selling of the devices. But after she imprinted her model experienced a motion regulator failure. Not an unusual failure really. The thing started shivering uncontrollably and eventually it froze. The team couldn't respond in time and the thing locked up. Sure it was only one out of thousands that year. But it drove the woman into depression. She wouldn't take another. She had a psychotic episode and attempted suicide, Monica. And Allan would not hear about the imprinting being responsible. He was too wrapped up in the success of the project. He…" Grace stopped then considering how to put this, "He… was affected too, Monica. When your David disappeared he was hurt."
Monica grunted. "What goes around…"
Grace understood the woman. "You didn't like him did you? Allan?"
"Allan?" Monica only shrugged. "I didn't hate him. But he experimented with people's hearts. What kind of man does that? I mean…" She let the thought fall into nothing and faced Grace again. The woman's dark features were chiseled; classical. Her intelligence was apparent in her every word and gesture. Who was she? She was a professional, yes. Yet, she was human. She hadn't let her technical involvement with the child simulators detach her from the purely human issues they evoked. She cleared her throat as she formed her words.
"David wasn't malfunctioning, Grace. It was something else. I don't know what. Something happened inside David's head." Monica looked away for a moment. Out to the misty horizon. Where was he now? "David was becoming… something… someone else." She fixed Grace's eyes once more. "I know that sounds crazy to you. You're a scientist. You've seen these things built… their 'miles of fiber' exposed. But that's just the casing, isn't it, Grace? Isn't there more? He's new. They're new." Monica saw the apprehension in Grace's face.
"Grace, I believe that these things you have constructed are some new form of life. Seriously. I think that someday, when we have managed to screw up the little we have left of the world… well… " She trailed off. "Until you imprint one yourself, until you watch it grow and sophisticate you just…" she shrugged, "you just won't get it."
The first of the mourners began trickling out onto the balcony. Soon they would fill the area. The women both faced away from the gathering crowd, their gazes set out on the misty distance.
"Monica," Grace started, hesitantly. Carefully. "If you could have David back, I mean somehow get him. Not a dupe. Would you take him?"
Monica groaned a knowing smile. She had thought about this so many times. Those late nights alone when Martin was with friends and Henry was… wherever he'd been going to lately. To cuddle up with her little Mecha boy, read to him, hear his odd laughter and struggle with his unceasing questions about life and living; to feel his soft hugs on her… so real; to gaze into his intense little eyes and wonder at what could be occurring in the event horizon beyond.
David, are you really there?
"No," she said suddenly. Flatly. "David suffered Grace. He suffered and they all suffer. They are not real and they know it. No matter what Allan's intentions, these things are cursed." She paused for a moment to let her words sink in. "I loved David," she said feeling the old pain welling up inside. Tears peeked at the corners of her eyes and Grace felt a twinge of guilt for having brought the woman to this point.
"Henry thinks I need help… a doctor or something. Martin senses something but doesn't talk about it," she said hugging her arms around her. "Grace, I mourn something that was not real, and therefore my mourning can't be real, isn't acknowledged. I have nowhere for the pain to go." She wiped her face on a sleeve as some of the people from research approached. They noticed the women's body language and decided to keep walking.
There was quiet now except for the whispers of the growing crowd and the tinkling of ice in glasses. "I need a drink," Monica said brushing the awkward moment off her sleeve.
Grace was relieved. Her question had been answered; a question that had come to her while doing some research on the 'David' problem in the early months of their trials. A question that occurred to her when she'd found a piece of information totally unrelated to her field of research; something that had been overlooked by some people who should not have missed it.
"Let's go get that drink," she said.
Monica stopped her quickly. "I know what you were trying to do and I appreciate it," she said taking the woman's hand. "Thank you." The women shared a hug and set off for the bar; making the appropriate sounds of acknowledgment at the people they passed.
The services were over. Allan Hobby was laid to rest. His remains would be shipped to his hometown and handled there in the same way his fathers had been, according to the family decree. Another was set to take Hobby's place now. An Indian woman, Chandraput, would be taking the reigns of Cybertronics.
Grace hoped that this woman would take a new approach to the David matter. Sales were good, yes, but sales were not all that mattered. They had to be careful. They could not pretend things were not balanced on a precarious ledge. They could not minimize the effect their machines had on their customers. On society at large. On the world.
That night, as the last of the service copters hummed from the dock and out into the skies for the inland, Grace slipped quietly into her office. It was quiet. Out of the window she heard the service Mecha's cleaning up after the ceremony. That and the distant roar of the lion's tears. She watched as the lights of the copters disappeared into the now dark skies, diminishing into small points of light indistinguishable from the glittering of stars above the dark waters. Monica was on one of those craft, flying back to an uncertain future. Grace sighed. Poor woman. Poor, confused woman.
"Initiate" she said to the dark room, activating her computer's vocal interface unit. The screen came to life.
"Impose level seven security restriction. Retrieve Project Chimera." The system took a moment to close all accessible ports and check for any network snoopers. When it was done the screen filled with an image of a blue haired woman. Upon her back were wings that glittered like crystal. Her eyes sparkled with all the imaginings of fairy tales and dreams. It was the blue haired fairy that had set Pinocchio on his quest, a quest that taught him perhaps above all that responsibility was essential to being real.
Hobby had been confused and fascinated with David's fantasy surrounding the fairy tale. He had wanted to know everything about the tale. While researching the Blue Fairy for Hobby, Grace had found out something about her, a piece of information that had been lost or overlooked in their research. After making a surprising connection she'd decided to keep it to herself.
The Blue Fairy had been recreated. Cast in metal before any of them had been born. Before the seas had risen to swallow their world. She had been set into an amusement ride, a place where children would go to live out the adventures they'd had read to them while huddling in their little beds.
And she was there still, beneath the waves in the withering remains of the sunken amusement park, an amusement park that was, in old times, within walking distance of this very building.
The police hadn't been able to trace the amphibicopter. The comm unit had been broken in the Mecha's escape from Rouge City, so the police had assumed the Mecha had flown inland and crashed, or perhaps out over the seas until it ran out of fuel and fell into the ocean. After a few months they'd given up.
But Grace knew better.
She approached the window and gazed at the dark waters, at the place where she knew a little imitation boy was probably repeating a futile request at this very moment. How long would his extra-natural Mecha patience last? In time, without exposure to the suns rays his batteries would fail. An inadvertent mercy.
She'd made up her mind. Her conundrum had been addressed and the answers she'd sought from Monica had been obtained.
"She can't take you back, David," she said to the distance. "And we'd just take you apart in our own futile pursuits." She sighed. "I know you're alone out there, little one. But then, so are we all."
She faced the computer. "Delete and clean all sectors and entries related to Project Chimera," she said. "Purge all links to old New York from any search associated to 'Blue Fairy'. Delete all references to the Coney Island reconstruction project." In moments it was done. She had made sure the computer would not mention any linkage and unless someone else made the connection, there would never be any search.
She left the room then. Her footfalls diminished, echoing down the dark halls of the building, and were eventually obscured in the unceasing roar of the lions weeping.