+J.M.J.+

Zenon Eyes: Eyes of Truth

By "Matrix Refugee"

Author's note:

This is a "thirty-five to forty years later" sequel to the "Zenon Eyes" triptych. Joe has learned much since Serin, his designer imprinted him, and it has changed him incredibly. I must admit a lot of the themes are borrowed from Isaac Asimov's novella "Bicentennial Man", but this is not a cinematic crossover from the film version that starred Robin Williams. This will be a work in progress, so keep an eye on this for the next chapters. Dedicated to Laurie E. Smith, thanks a million for the link to her excellent "A.I." fansite (if you have not seen this absolutely fabulous site, navigate, do not surf to it at http://www.cybcity.com/gigolojoe/index.html--after you've read this, of course!); to everyone who's read and reviewed my other "A.I." fictions; to "fom4life", who, even though he sounds nothing like Jude Law, sent me into orbit by trying to impersonate Joe's voice over the phone; and to Mecha-huggers everywhere.

Disclaimer:

I do not own "A.I.", its characters, concepts, themes or other indicia, which are the property of the late, great Stanley Kubrick, and of Steven Spielberg, DreamWorks SKG, Warner Brothers, et al; nor do I own the themes, concepts, etc. of "Bicentennial Man", which belongs to the late, great Isaac Asimov.

Chapter I: Death

He should have grown accustomed to death by now: he had stared this total cessation of function in the face twice, but when it came to the home he had known for the past thirty-five years, it came like a bolt of lightning from a clear blue sky.

Serin had "retired" from Companionates about ten years before, when a viral infection had weakened her heart. She rarely left the house, except for short periods of time. But Joe kept up his painting, which brought her a comfortable living; Trask Zipes's son Lutwyn, who had inherited his father's job on the elder Zipes's passing, had found him a place as a portrait painter, which brought in a steady income, as well as providing a springboard for selling his other works. Aside from occasional maintenance, his physical needs amounted to very little.

She had "aged" much since her illness. Her beauty had given way to entropy, but he could still see traces of it, especially in her eyes. He tended her carefully, with a devotion not often seen among the young who care for the old. After all, he had been built to console her after the death of her husband.

She'd toyed with the thought of having his appearance altered to narrow the age gap, at least add a few gray hairs to his temples, but she decided she didn't want him any other way. Besides, it was amusing to think of how they looked together: an older woman in her seventies and her youthful consort who looked as if he were barely out of his twenties.

She told him she might not have long to live. She had expected him to brush it aside, but he did not. He seemed resigned to the fact; perhaps his experience, passing through the valley of fire called a Flesh Fair was enough to teach him about death.

She often felt very tired and their embraces came less often, which made them all the more precious. The most she could muster at night was gentle cuddling, but he knew how to accommodate.

At times she thought of her late husband. Would she meet the first Joe Masters again in the afterlife? Would he know of what she had done? Would knowing she had built a replica of him anger him? She hoped he could understand why she had done so.

Then, one morning, out of the blue, after he had brought her breakfast to her, Joe asked her a question she never expected from him.

"Do you have any regrets that you have no child?"

She looked at him as he sat on the foot of the bed cross-legged, clad in the plain gray shirt and black trousers he wore when he had work to do. "There was a time when I did," she admitted. "My late husband and I couldn't get a license; we both carried a faulty gene that could turn deadly to our child. I didn't want a donor embryo; if I was going to have a child, I wanted it to be his."

"Were there not all these impediments, would you have wanted a child?"

"Yes, it didn't matter if it was a boy or a girl, as long as the little one was healthy and happy. I used to dream about having a son as sweet and sensitive as his dad, or a daughter as smart and strong as me; either way, I'd see the little one with his eyes and my complexion. I just hope they didn't end up with my teeth."

"Why not?"

"They grew in crooked and I had to have braces for years. But let me ask you this: would you like to be a father?"

He put his head on one side in thought for a long moment. "I think it would be easy for me to adjust to such a role." She wondered if he had recalled the little one who had unwittingly helped him develop, who had saved his brain twice and so bought her the time she needed to bring him back.

That afternoon, he started another painting, which gradually took on the image of himself holding David protectingly. He even moved her to the divan in his studio so she could watch. She read and rested through much of the afternoon.

She'd known some couples who had had "David" models, and the temptation to acquire one had offered itself to her; she broached the question to Joe.

"Can I ask you something?" she ventured, when he had paused to clean his brushes.

He looked at her over his shoulder. "Of course you may."

"I was just thinking, maybe I should adopt one of Cybertronics' child-Mechas."

"Perhaps it is too late for you to do so. At this time, he would seem more like your grandchild."

"I hadn't thought of that." He was right, darn it. A David would be more like his child than hers; some people had already accused her of having a Jocasta complex: Joe, in a manner of speaking, was her creative offspring, even if she had modeled him after her late husband.

"But if you were thinking that the presence of such a Mecha would console me, I am afraid it would not be the same: he would not be the David whom I have known."

"Of course, he'd have different conditioning. But I wonder what would happen if you imprinted one?"

He wagged his head slowly, in an Orga gesture of indecision he had adopted after so long. "Perhaps it could work, but perhaps, on the other hand, it might not work. The only way to discover the answer to this question is to attempt this gesture. But what if it does not work? What then? What of the Mecha?"

"You've learned from the mistakes of Orgas."

He smiled. "Perhaps I have learned better than they have, because I possess the objectivity of another species."

The golden autumn day passed into evening. She found the energy to get up and cook her supper, but he gladly helped her. He told her about a new commission Lutwyn had found for him, painting a portrait of a client's dog.

After supper, he helped her out onto the deck, where she loved to watch the sun set, she sitting on a chaise lounge, he sitting on the decking beside her, where she could reach out and stroke his hair or take his head into her lap.

She noted that it grew colder sooner that night than it had all season: a frost would set in by dawn she guessed. He brought her inside before it grew dark and the evening damp started to set in. He helped her take a bath and got her ready for bed.

She complained of feeling "cold", so he obliged by raising his skin temperature slightly as he held her all through the night.

Just at daybreak, he felt her twitch awake. She gasped and clutched at her chest. He could feel her heart hammering, too fast, much too fast.

"Serin, dearest, what is it?"

"Oh god! My heart!"

He leapt from the bed and ran for the phone as she had instructed him to in case this happened.

@--`---

Like every morning, Lutwyn went up to Serin's apartment to check on her and Joe, a habit he had picked up from his father. His wife Narsie used to kid him about "the other woman" and he liked to joke about how he had inherited the old girl along with the job. But habit broke that morning when he saw the ambulance and the police cruisers outside Serin's unit. He ran across the frosty lawn, breaking the crust of ice.

The police tried to keep him back, but he explained that he helped look after Serin Masters.

"Well, you should 'a done better than leaving her alone with that thing," one older officer growled.

The paramedics emerged carrying the half-grav stretcher with Serin strapped to it, followed by the building superintendent who had overridden the locks. Joe followed them out, trying to get closer to Serin, only to have one of the police push him back. Lutwyn took Joe by the shoulder and drew him aside.

"What happened?" he asked.

Joe's eye followed Serin as he spoke. "I knew she was not well, and that her life had grown short, but this I could not anticipate."

"Come, tell me what happened."

"Everything went as it usually does yesterday except that she felt more exhaustion. She did not even exert herself needlessly, and yet she complained of her heart."

"I'll drive you to the hospital; I'll see to it you can be near her."

A thin smile flickered across the Mecha's face. "Lucky for her and I that we know you."

@--`---

At the hospital, Lutwyn had to fill out the paperwork; Joe had all the information, but his nature didn't allow him the authorization to fill out the forms, even onto a datascriber.

Once they had squared that away, there came the worst part of the process, waiting in the hallway for the news, good or bad. Lutwyn called into the office to tell Sheila, his secretary, that he might not be in till noon at least, that Serin had taken ill.

Joe, sitting beside him, was a model of tense patience. He hadn't shifted position since he sat down, yet every time a nurse came from the inner recesses of the ward, he looked up, eyes alive with expectation. And every time they passed by him, he dropped his head with resignation

Finally, at length, a young man in surgical garb approached them, his face grave.

"Mr. Zipes? I'm afraid we have some bad news. Mrs. Masters isn't going to make it. She's flatlined twice already and she's too weak to sustain nanosurgery."

"May we see her?" Lutwyn put in.

"Yes. She'd want you now."

@--`--

Strange logic patterns flowed through his head so that Joe logicked at first there might be a malfunction somewhere. David had known a terrible loss, albeit an utterly unanticipated one; had he "felt" such odd sensations, like a folding or a slowing of the impulses?

He shook his head as if to clear it, an Orga habit he'd picked up.

Lutwyn had gone into the cubicle first, but now he came out, his face paled.

"She's dying, Joe."

"We both knew, she and I, that it would come soon."

"She can't talk, but I know she'd want to see you before she goes."

It was not a direct order, but he knew it would be what she wanted, what she needed to make her last moments happy, and he had been built to bring happiness back into her life. Lutwyn stepped aside and let him enter.

Serin lay on the bed within, a white form under the blanket, an oxygen mask over her lower face.

"Serin? Dearest, I am here," he said, in a low voice. He sat down on a low chair that stood at the head of the bed, to get down to her level and took her hand in his. It had already started to grow cold.

She turned her face to him. Her fading dark eyes smiled. She said nothing, but words were no longer necessary. Her strength must be preserved so she could enjoy this moment without diminution. He wanted to hold her one last time, but his better judgment overrode it. She was like a snowflake: anything more would dissolve her, but he could look upon her whiteness until she went of her own.

She pulled her face from the oxygen mask and parted her lips. He rose slightly and leaned his face over hers. He kissed her carefully but tenderly, then pulled his face away and replaced the oxygen mask.

She lay still after he had withdrawn. The light faded from her eyes her head rolled back. The lines on a monitor screen built into the bed frame stopped spiking. His auditory sensors picked up an announcement over the PA system, but the sound mattered nothing to him. She was gone. Her image remained in his memory as a bright spot that appeared at a time when the darkness had threatened to engulf him. But somehow, as perfect as these images were, they would never take the place feeling her hands on his face, of talking with her, laughing with her, or just enjoying peaceful silence with her, of holding her in his arms and feeling her heart beating against his chest through the night, while she slept and he kept watch.

The doctors came in, but Lutwyn got in before them. He helped Joe out of the room.

@--`--

He was about to ask Joe if he was all right, but he realized the Mecha was probably trying to process the avalanche of data and experiences that had just swept over him.

But he looked at Joe, watching his face go from resignation to something else. His lower jaw sagged and his brows pinched together as his eyes widened slightly. They hadn't installed tear reservoirs when they built him and Serin had never had this rectified, but he looked as if he wanted to weep.

Lutwyn helped him to a seat. The Mecha sat down slowly. Then leaned forward, his hands clasped loosely between his knees. After a long moment, he turned his face to Lutwyn's.

"Did you feel such sensations when your father died?" he asked, his voice flat, dead.

"Yes, but I handled it worse than you are doing now. I just about cried myself blind."

Joe took this in receptive silence. He turned his gaze to the floor at his feet, then after a long pause, he said, "I think she would rather that I wept for her if I could. I would that I had this function! How does it feel, to weep?"

This was new: someone who wanted to weep. Most Orga tried to avoid weeping, but now here was a Mecha who wanted that very thing. He felt a lump rise in his own throat.

"It feels…it feels tight in your throat, like there's something there and it won't budge. Your eyes feel hot and moist and then you feel the tears trickle down from the corners. Sometimes your nose drips too."

Joe looked straight at him. "But how does it feel?"

"Empty. You feel like everything has been torn out of your whole torso, like it's filled up with emptiness—that makes no sense. I'm sorry; I'm a roboticist, not a poet."

Joe put a hand on his breast. "I believe I feel this emptiness. Would that it came with the gift of tears. You weep for us both."

"Don't encourage me, I just might."

@--`--

The funeral was modestly attended. Some of Serin's cousins and their children came, but most of the people who attended had some connection with Companionates. Serin was among the last of the old guard, the few who remembered the days of Mert Kroller, who had nearly mangled the Shohola division's competency forty years ago.

But those unfamiliar with Companionates kept asking Lutwyn who was that beautiful young gentleman who kept so strict a watch over the casket? That couldn't be Joseph, her husband; he'd have to be her age by now. Even if he'd had the new rejuv implants, he'd still show some signs of times passage, but he hardly looked like he'd reached his early thirties. Lutwyn had to explain to them that the dark stranger was Joe, Serin's life partner, a Mecha. A few people carefully avoided going near him…it…after that, but most hesitantly approached him to offer a word of consolation. Some turned away from him after they'd encountered that calm, steady, yet troubled gaze.

He knew they were offering condolences. He accepted them as politely as possible, but he saw some of the faces turn troubled and confused. He read fear on one or two as well; what had they to fear?

He turned away from these latter, letting go the dismay that touched his being. If he had a heart, there would have been little room for it any way. Lutwyn spoke of an emptiness that filled the being of the bereaved; he felt consciously a sensation that felt more like a shapeless mass in his awareness, like a blob of paint of a nameless color on a canvas, which he could not coax into taking a form.

At length the crowd paid its last respects to Serin and took their leave, going separate ways. The funeral director and his assistants approached; Lutwyn put a hand on Joe's shoulder.

"Do you want to be alone with her a moment?"

Joe looked at Serin's body, then over Lutwyn's shoulder at the funeral director. "I shall need perhaps a few moments."

The others went out. Lutwyn went out into the hallway.

Joe stood beside the casket, looking in at what remained of his beloved, his dearest one. Orgas claimed to something they called a "soul" which left at the moment of this event called death; he wondered where her soul had flown. He knew she couldn't hear him or feel his touch, but he had to do something for her.

He glanced over his shoulder at the open doors of the parlor. Lutwyn stood with his back to the door, no one else in sight.

He looked down at Serin. He listened once more for any movement outside, then he jerked his head to his left and let loose the music she had placed within him. He leaned down to her face once more and pressed his lips to hers.

They felt cold, colder than anything he could have perceived. He drew back slowly; when he stood erect, he switched off his music centers.

Lutwyn stepped into the room; he smiled slightly but tears showed in his eyes. "She would have liked that, Joe." He put his hand on his shoulder and led him out to the daylight.

"You're welcome to stay with us if you would rather not go back to the apartment just yet," Lutwyn offered.

"I think I would prefer that," Joe replied.

"Too many memories?" He immediately checked himself for that.

"There would be too much silent space."

He should have realized this, but he realized he could have thought of it himself. He knew he could possibly know exactly what Joe felt or thought in regards to this whole situation: Serin was Joe's whole world to some respect and with her gone, who knew what might happen to him.

Narsie had gone home early because she was still recovering from nanosurgery to her spine and she often felt tired; she let them in when they arrived at the Zipes' house.

"You doing all right, Joe?" she asked.

"I am doing well, all thing considered."

"I've invited him to spend the night here, we both thought it would be in his best interests."

She looked at Joe; he seemed lost in thought, his eyes dimly focused on the spray of dried grasses and cattails in the metal can in the vestibule. "I suppose he can sleep—I mean, stay in the guest bedroom. Is that okay with you, Joe?"

His eyes came to life and he turned to her. "Yes, I would appreciate that. Thank you."

"I'll show you the room," Lutwyn said. He put a brotherly and on Joe's shoulder and led him upstairs.

@--`--

Over supper, Lutwyn described the rest of the funeral to her. Their talk gravitated to Joe.

"He seems shell-shocked," she observed.

"That's what I'm afraid of," Lutwyn said. "Don't let this on to him, not one word, but I have an ulterior motive in letting him stay with us: I'm keeping an eye on him to see how he readjusts. He's just lost his imprinter, so there's no telling what his reaction will be."

"But what about other imprinted Mechas? There must have been some Davids whose imprinter died."

"Funny you should mention that: Cybertronics has been loudly silent about the fate of many of the first generation Davids. And of course a child Mecha's reaction would differ greatly from an adult Mecha's reaction."

"So you're using Joe as a test case?"

"Only to the extent of notating what he does in the next few days."

"But why are you doing this?"

He licked his lips. "All right, I have an ulterior motive within an ulterior motive. The patent on imprint chips is about to expire in a few years, so Companionates wants to start manufacturing these chips and implanting them in custom job Mechas. Joe is the litmus test for feasibility."

She nodded. "But remember, that is a unique individual you're dealing with."

He grinned. "I'll remember: I grew up around him. Everything I know about making a woman happy I learned from him."

She laughed at this, but she quickly grew thoughtfully sober. "I hate to think of him alone. He's so vulnerable."

"We'll think of some way to help him if he doesn't."

"Could we imprint him? That way he'd have someone who'd love him."

"I hope you're kidding or you mean that with all due innocence. You're forgetting what he was originally built for."

"I forgot. I'm sorry; he's just so human, you forget sometimes.

"But wasn't Joe licensed to Serin?" she added. "What would happen if some one caught him?" Though there were some anti-Mecha activists who launched horrible demonstrations, Flesh Fairs had all but died out; the days of Kevin Lord Johnson-Johnson and his hideous "Celebration of Life" had passed, but not his spirit.

"Serin took care of that: there's a clause in her will that transfers Joe's license, on her death, to Companionates, so in a sense, he 'belongs' to the company." He wiggled his fingers like quotation marks as he said "belongs". "I'm seeing to it he has every chance to know freedom."

Freedom. He realized as soon as he said this, he'd chosen not quite the right word. It wasn't the same brand of freedom Orga claimed.

Narsie gave him a complex look. "Aren't you forgetting what he is?"

"It was a slip of the tongue. He's so human you forget sometimes."

@--`--

He had no need for rest, yet at that moment, the litmus test lay reclining on the bed in the guest room, gazing up at the skylight overhead. Serin's "soul" had fled beyond the stars, beyond the universe itself to that realm his kind could barely comprehend.

She had gone and he remained. He doubted he could stay long in the old apartment, what he had called his "home" for so long. With her gone, what would happen to him? At least he had Lutwyn Zipes and a few others as friends, and he had his artwork to support him. But there had to be more.

He'd have to think of something. In the meantime, he reached into his recall and let the tape of memory spool forward across his visual matrix, starting at the moment he had first seen Serin, face lifted, yearning forward from a crowd…

To him, she would always be young; of course he could not deny the image of her aged face, but to one part of his mind, she would always look as she had at one particular moment.

He could not remember what singled out this particular instance from the rest of their past together, but it seemed to have something to do with this gold ring upon the fourth finger of his left hand. He touched the ring with the fingers of his right hand, then twisted the ring off and held it the light of the bedside lamp.

SH 17 May 2170 JM2

He accessed the date, but could find no exact reference that matched the image in his mind's "eye". Was this what Orga called a "memory gap"?

SH. He knew these letters stood for Serin's initials, her first name, and Hagawa, her given name, though she went by her "married name" of Masters. He had used this surname to sign his paintings, but he knew it was not his name.

He knew somehow he had just one name, and this set him apart.

No true home, no surname; what else—besides the Obvious—set him apart from Orgakind?

He had his artwork, but there had to be a more practical application for his skills. Serin had been a designer for Companionates and he had seen her at work enough to learn some of what it entailed. With sufficient training, he could probably be just as good a designer as she.

But first things first, he had to find a residence close to the Zipes' house.

Someone tapped on the door.

He sat up and slipped his ring back on. "You may come in."

Lutwyn, in his shirtsleeves, opened the door and looked in. "Are you sitting in here in the dark?"

"It does not disturb me," Joe replied.

"If you like, you can come down to the living room, but only if you want to."

"I rather would like to, thank you." He stood up and followed Lutwyn down to the living room.

Narsie had decided to leave the two alone. She didn't mind being around Joe, but he was such a looker that her eyes always went to him, and she didn't want to trigger something in him. That was the only problem in being married to a Mecha designer: she said she knew too much about these things…beings, rather.

"I hope you weren't trying to weep up there," Lutwyn said, once they had sat down.

"It would prove fruitless, either way," Joe replied, with a smile. "I used my energies far more constructively." He described at considerable length the problems he had pondered before Lutwyn came up. "With Serin gone, I must sustain myself somehow, but I cannot seek these avenues alone, what with the animus against Mechas."

"Well, you're welcome to stay here with us. We have an apartment over the garage we were considering renting. You can have it if you like."

"I would not care to merely have this apartment, I would much prefer to pay for my rent as if I were any flesh and blood human tenant."

"You'd need steady employment to do that."

"I have given that thought as well; I have considered working for your company, if you will permit me."

Lutwyn raised his eyebrows. "For Companionates?"

"Yes, I would wish to work as a designer."

Lutwyn couldn't resist. "Are you planning on building a replica of Serin?"

The Mecha curled its nostrils delicately and turned his face a way slightly. "No, I harbored no such desire."

"Sorry, Joe, that was a cheap shot."

Joe relaxed his face and refocused on Lutwyn's face. "It is soon mended."

"I'd love to hire you, but you'd have to learn the finer points of design, and for that you'd have to go to school. But to enroll, you'd need a national identity card and a Social Security number, and you'd need a last name to do that."

He processed this for a moment. "You have lawyers. Could they not find a way in which I could qualify for these necessities?"

"I don't know offhand, but maybe we can work something out."

"But my first priority is lodging."

"I'll talk to Narsie about that."

@--`--

"He's functioning normally," Lutwyn reported to Narsie later. "If anything, he's planning his future."

"He's planning?" Narsie said, putting down her book.

"Yeah, he wants to move out of Serin's apartment and live somewhere else. I offered him the apartment over the garage."

"The bathroom isn't finished."

"He won't need it."

She pretended to strike her forehead. "Of course not!"

"Furthermore, he wants a national identity card, so he can get a job working for Companionates."

"Wait, this is the same Joe we're talking about."

"This is Serin's Joe." He paused and looked to the bureau, at the framed photo of the four of them—Serin, Joe, Narsie and himself—at his uncle's beach cabin in Montclair. "Though if he has his way, we'll be calling him Joe Masters very soon."

@--`--

The following day, Lutwyn took time off to help Joe pack his things and move them to the apartment. Galloway, one of the techs at Companionates and a college buddy of Lutwyn's, brought over his van to move the furniture. Narsie came along to help them sort through Serin's things. A few she wisely discarded—some old photographs of Serin's late husband—but most she kept or set aside to give away.

Late that evening, she glanced out their bedroom window and looked down into the unshaded windows of the apartment over the garage. A light shone in it and a tall, dark form moved about against it, unpacking boxes and hanging paintings.

Lutwyn came up beside her, unbuttoning his work shirt.

"It's so weird, it's like having a person up there," she said.

"We have a person up there, he's just not made of the same stuff."

"How is he?"

"About the same as when you left."

"Do you think he'll be okay?"

"The change would do most people in his situation a lot of good."

@--`--

The apartment suited his few needs ideally. The large front room with the panorama window that faced the street he used as a studio, while one of the smaller inner rooms he set aside as an inner sanctum, a retreat of sorts; the other became a sort of wardrobe cum storage area. Both main rooms bore a look of spare luxury: the necessary chairs and tables and cushions, stacks of books on the floor, paintings on the walls. The inner one could not properly be called a bedroom, though a cushioned divan with a red simulsilk tapestry cover stood against one wall. Of course he never 'slept', but oftentimes, late at night he retired to this room and laid himself down on the divan to process new ideas or to simply let his recall play memories over his visual matrix.

David's child face came to his recall most often, almost as often as Serin's face. Had the little one ever found his Blue Fairy? Joe let the memory string play out from beginning to end, from the moment the little one had first grabbed his hand in the cage of the Flesh Fair, through their escape, to their journey to Rouge City, to their second escape to Manhattan. Perhaps someday, he might meet a man who resembled David; perhaps his origins would lead him to do something to aid the class he had emerged from and pay forward the privilege granted to him.

But his logic told him this was impossible: Orga was Orga, Mecha was Mecha; there would be no stepping across that divide, even though a few plank bridges had been dropped across.

Serin would have liked David. She might even have loved him. He briefly considered what life might have been like if David had stayed with him. Perhaps they could have formed a family; perhaps David could have bonded with Serin. It would be an odd arrangement, but human life was so odd anyway.

But it was a possibility he had to let go. It could never happen now. No use dwelling on the past except to remember it as it happened.

@--`--

Joe's earnings as an artist were on technically 'his'; most of it went into a trust fund Serin had established for Joe's upkeep and maintenance, but Lutwyn saw to it Joe got a percentage of it for art supplies and his rent.

The first rent payment arrived with a large brown envelope. Narsie opened it to find a pencil drawing of Lutwyn and herself on their wedding day.

"Did you copy this from our wedding photo?" she asked Joe.

"No, I drew it from memory," he replied.

"Are you trying to bribe me?" Lutwyn insinuated, grinning.

Joe put his head on one side, processing this data. "No," he replied at length. "I am but reminding you of my second request: that of finding for me the legal aid necessary to applying for a national identity card."

"Well, I'll talk to Lefebvre, our Orga-Mecha relations advocate."

Something like hope showed in Joe's eyes. "I shall anticipate this meeting."

@--`--

A week later, Lutwyn arranged the meeting, which would take place at Companionates. Lutwyn himself personally escorted Joe to Lefebvre's office. Along the hallway they passed had to pass through, several technicians and secretaries greeted Joe: his was a very familiar face. Lutwyn swore he saw some of the Mecha secretaries gaze at Joe with something like longing.

Lefebvre had been with the company for almost forty years; the younger members of the legal department, and of the rest of the Shohola division for that matter, referred to him as the "old relic" or "Hammurabi" behind his back.

Joe's processors formed a knot of uncertainty almost as soon as he first saw Lefebvre and Lutwyn had introduced them. The "Orga-Mecha relations advocate" was an older Orga, older than Serin had been, with a calm face deeply lined, and small eyes magnified by thick glasses.

"So you're Serin Masters's Mecha?" Lefebvre began, once Lutwyn had left the room.

"For all intents and purposes, I was her spouse," Joe replied.

"Ah, ahem, yes, that was what she said." He eyed Joe's left hand. "Now, what is this that brings you here? Looking for a share of her estate that was left in trust?"

"I do not require that, Mr. Lefebvre. I understand that she left her savings in trust for my continued upkeep."

"A technologically advanced version of the rich old grannies leaving their money to a lap dog," Lefebvre murmured.

Joe heard these words perfectly, but he found them so strange, he could hardly understand them. "Could you repeat that?"

"Oh it was nothing, nothing, just an old man's muttering." That didn't sound quite right.

"This has nothing to do with money; rather, it has to do with me as a Mecha."

Lefebvre shrugged with his thumbs. "And so?"

"I wish to obtain a national identity card, taking the name Joe Masters, taking my surname from my late imprinter."

Lefebvre nodded. "You realize this was Serin's marriage name."

"I am well aware of that."

"And you realize Serin built you as a simulacrum of her deceased husband, Joseph Masters?"

"I am well aware of that: I have seen the photographs of him; they made my eyes prettier than his."

Lefebvre chuckled for a moment, but his face grew suspicious. "So why the deuce do you want that? You won't need it."

"I do need it, it will be require of me if I am to get an education and find employment."

"There are thousands, millions of other Mecha in existence, none of them with a surname."

"As an artist, I used the name Joe Masters to sign my work. Now I wish to make it my legal name."

"You have a serial number and a registration number, what more could you want?"

"I want only recognition as a man."

"You are a Mecha."

"But I am no ordinary Mecha."

"I'm well aware of that," Lefebvre said, his voice dripping irony.

Silence ensued. Joe's processors ticked over the exchange, seeking the logical outcome as things stood.

He rose. "I have taken enough of your time, Mr. Lefebvre, and so I will take no more of it." Before Lefebvre could reply, Joe turned and stalked out of the office.

@--`--

"Well, good luck to Lefebvre finding another client," Lutwyn said later that evening, when Joe came up to the house.

"He utterly lacks all understanding of human nature, Orga or Mecha," Joe replied.

"You mean you fired Lefebvre?" Narsie asked later that evening.

"The old man is close to retirement. Times have changed. If Companionates is to get the jump on those imprint chips, we have to move quickly. The old school of viewing Mechas as some kind of slave class below us is no longer feasible. I tried to get Lefebvre to reconsider, but he was adamant. He called Joe's idea a harebrained scheme; he even claimed that I put Joe up to this or that he might be malfunctioning!"

"Are you sure he isn't?"

"He just had a diagnostic two months ago, he's clean. Besides, one of the implications of imprinting is that the Mecha's self-awareness increases. Before imprinting, before he was wired for it, Joe knew he was only a machine, but now he knows there is more to him than that. He's more human than some humans now. He has more impetus for self-improvement than some flesh and blood people."

"But why does he want this? Why does he want to be like us? Isn't he content with his lot? Why not just find him another imprinter?"

"Joe has changed. He's not the gigolo Mecha that Mert Kroller's philistines turned him into when they appropriated Serin's design. He's been programmed to feel, to want what he wants, and right now, being treated like a chattel, a plaything, a kept mechanical man is not what he wants any more. He wants what we have. Are any of us really content with our lot in life? Discontent is as much a part of the human condition as contentment is; it's what we're discontented with and what we do with it that's right or wrong, that shapes our future for good or ill. Joe isn't content with being treated like a mere Mecha, neither was Alan Hobby's David prototype. David went looking for a Blue Fairy to make him real; Joe realizes he'll never be a flesh and blood human, nor does he care to be, so he's seeking a more practical means to a similar end: being accepted by us as one of us. It's like that old saying: you can't change your prison, but you can change yourself."

"I still think he needs another imprinter."

"Is love the answer to everything?"

"Maybe it is."

@--`--

Two weeks later, Lutwyn practically ran up the spiral staircase to Joe's apartment. He paused on the landing and knocked on the door.

The intercom trilled. "Who goes there?" Joe's voice asked, humorously.

"It's Lutwyn, can I come in for a minute?"

"Certainly you may." Always the proper grammar, one part perfection, one part the programmed parameters of his South London speech patterns.

The lock hummed and the door opened, swinging in. Joe stepped back, holding it open.

"Is that good news I heard in your voice?" he asked.

"Yes, very good news: we've just hired a new Mecha-Orga relations advocate. I told her about your case when I was interviewing her, and she's looking forward to working with you."

"'Working with me': did I hear those precise words?" He looked at Lutwyn with eyes cautiously askance.

 "Yes, working with you. She's a young lawyer, but she's good, and she enjoys working with people of both kinds."

He smiled with contented relief. "So she regards my kind as human? I look forward to with her, perhaps even more than she does."

"So, are you doing anything Monday morning?"

"There is little to speak of."

"Good, she wants to meet you then."

He widened his eyes slightly. "So soon? Perhaps her immediacy will match her effectiveness as an advocate."

"I guarantee it will."

@--`--

 Monday morning, Lutwyn brought Joe into his office, where a young woman with dark skin and short black hair waited for them.

"We've found a suitable young person to replace Mr. Lefebvre: Joe, this is Rhiannon Jackford, our new Mecha-Orga relations advocate. Rhiannon, this is the famous Joe we've been discussing."

"But if we play our cards right, you might be able to call yourself Joe Masters in a few weeks," Ms. Jackford said, extending her hand.

"I certainly hope that you can assist me in this undertaking," Joe replied, taking it.

She was not as pretty as Serin, but she had a beauty that, for an instant, nearly triggered his pursuit centers. But he knew this was utterly inappropriate to the situation, so he overrode them.

@--`--

A few days later, Ms. Jackford put a manila envelope on Lutwyn's desk. He looked up from the report he was proofreading. The National Licensing Bureau seal showed on the envelope.

"You can give these to Joe; just make sure he realizes the application has to be approved by a board, and in his case it could take weeks."

"He'd be the first to say he has all the time in the world at your disposal."

After he got home, after supper, he brought the envelope up to Joe's apartment."

@--`--

He almost did not hear the knock on the door; he lay on the divan in his inner retreat, gazing up at the painting of David and himself. In the hustle and bustle following Serin's death, he had not had time to complete it; but he had finished it just this afternoon.

Someone knocked on the door, harder, more insistently. He got up and went to answer it.

"Lutwyn? What brings you up here on this fine evening?" he opened the door to admit his landlord and best friend.

Lutwyn handed him a large manila envelope with an important-looking seal on its label. "National Licensing Bureau, State of East Pennsylvania" in hologram, green turning gold.

"Ms. Jackford brought this up today. You'll have to fill out these forms and provide a few proofs of existence."

"Proofs of, excuse me, what did you say?"

"Proofs of existence. I know, it's a stupid term."

"Another bureaucratic term: for a moment I thought either my processors were stuck in philosophical mode, or they were the ones philosophizing. What exactly shall they need?"

"A lot of things. I could print out some of the licensing documents from the company database."

Joe held up a finger. "Bu what would you use if you were in my position? I wish to conduct this in as Orga-like a manner as is possible, given my nature."

"Well, I'd have to provide some written and signed statements from three people who had witnessed my birth, school records, medical records, DNA chart, that sort of thing."

Joe smiled at the irony. "A DNA chart I could hardly provide. But you might consider the entries in the repair and maintenance log my 'medical records'. And there must be some visual or textual record of my inception."

"I'll see what I can come up with for that. If you want it, I can help you fill out the forms."

Joe's face relaxed as his processors took in this offer. "It is not so much a matter of want, as a matter of need."

@--`--

Name: Joe Masters

Current mailing address: 24A Beacon Court, Shohola, East Pennsylvania

Previous addresses: Haddonfield, New Jersey; Rouge City, U.S.A.

Date of birth: February 14, 2160

Place of birth: Companionates, Shohola, East Pennsylvania

Gender: Male

Marital status: widowed

Height: 5'10"

Weight: 145 lbs.

Eye color: green

Hair color:

At that point, Lutwyn, who was scanning documents onto a disk, looked up in time to see Joe tuck his head slightly and give it a slight, steady shake form side to side as his hair color went form onyx black through brown to auburn to medium read to dark blond to platinum and back.

With a straight face, he looked up and asked, "Shall I put 'variable'?"

Lutwyn struggled to keep from laughing. "No, just put down your default color."

@--`--

By Wednesday, Lutwyn had collected everything necessary and brought it along when he brought Joe to Ms. Jackford's office. A notary she brought in read over everything and, after a moment's stunned hesitation, holosealed the forms.

"At the risk of sounding impatient, how soon should the identity car arrive?" Joe asked.

Ms. Jackford pursed her lips. "It could take maybe ten days to two weeks. But in your case, it's more likely to take a month or longer. A LOT longer. And it might not even go through at all. Better start reading some long books."

"How shall I know when the application—or rather, my application—has been approved?"

"I'll personally bring the results—good or bad—to you," Ms. Jackford said.

@--`--

He started re-reading an old favorite of his, the Arabian Nights, which he had hand illustrated himself, adding half-Moorish, half-Klimtian illuminations to the margins and blank spaces on the pages. Lutwyn had also obtained another commission for him, designing the scenery and costumes for the Pittsburgh Lyric Opera's new production of Der Rosenkavalier, which kept him busy since he also had to supply textile swatches for the workshop. Narsie helped him with this, since the bridal shop she worked for handled many different kinds of fabrics. He almost had no time to consider how long it took for his application to be approved.

Narsie told him that Ms. Jackford and he were not alone in this effort: Lutwyn and some of the public relations department started agitating public support. If people had obtained National Identity cards for their dogs and cats, why shouldn't a Mecha who displayed such Orga-like talent and capabilities be given the same privilege?

He saw some evidence of this agitation. The major newspapers carried an open letter Lutwyn had written describing Joe and his capabilities. When he went out for his morning walks and to buy art supplies, or when he was out with Narsie, several people recognized him from the TV and streaming video spots Lutwyn had had taped. Some, mostly the younger generation, approached him for a handshake or an autograph, or simply to offer an encouraging word. A few young women flirted with him, and while he gently accepted their attentions and reciprocated delicately, he deliberately overrode any stronger impulses from his pursuit centers.

But not everyone who recognized him favored him. He saw a few sneers of derision on older faces and a few approached him to tell him to his face to "get back in his place". He knew what they meant, so he calmly ignored their ignorance.

Almost a month and a half had passed, when the autumn rains had started turning to slushy snow, Narsie knocked at his door with good news.

"Ms. Jackford called a minute ago: she's got the results from the National Identity Bureau and she's bringing them over tonight."

"Is it for good or for bad?"

"She wouldn't say."

Later that evening, Ms. Jackford came up to his rooms, accompanied by Lutwyn.

"We've got something you'll want to see," she told Joe, calm-voiced, clearly trying to betray no emotion for good or ill. She held out a heavy plastic envelope to him. He took it; it had already been unsealed since it had a thumbprint reader on the flap. He had fingerprints etched onto the silicon skin of his hands, but he lacked the skin oil to make them readable.

He opened the envelope and took out a folded legal document, signed and stamped by the necessary authorities, and a smaller envelope. He opened it.

He drew out two thick plastic cards, one a card with his Social Security number, the other his National Identity card, bearing his picture.

Masters, Joe.

He turned the card over. The back bore a large red M etched into the surface where the barcodes for DNA and fingerprint information would have been: M for Mecha.

His equilibrium motivator seemed to give way; he sank down on a chair, his eyes still scanning the card, as if he hadn't inputted all the data.

He looked up at Ms. Jackford and Lutwyn. "Thank you," he said. "You cannot know what this means to me."

He rose and put one arm about her shoulders in gratitude. He released her and extended his hand to Lutwyn. I cannot thank either of you enough."

"It just goes to show, if you put your mind to something, you can get it," Lutwyn said.

"Even if that mind is of silicon conductors and chip boards," Joe pronounced.

To be continued…

Afterword:

This was a hard one to write, and it may take a while to complete, especially since I've taken up a few other writing projects, including sending jokes and things to Reader's Digest magazine in order to generate myself some income; and at the urging of my friend "fom4life", I took up a half-abandoned fanfiction project, a sequel of sorts to The Truman Show, which he encouraged me to finish (and this is the same guy who told me to find some more lucrative application for my writing!). But I've taken Ray Bradbury's example: when he started writing science fiction stories (at my age, 25!), he made himself the goal of writing and sending out a story a week for a year, with the thought that he'd get a few good ones out of the lot; the same goes for my fanfictions.

Literary Easter Eggs:

@--`--  --An emoticon rose, for those who aren't familiar with this one; Laurie Smith and a few others use stars (*****) to divide the scenes in their fictions, but I thought I'd do something a little different.

Joe's imprint date, "17 May"—This date has some personal significance: it's the day I finished watching "A.I.".

"more human than most humans"—One can't completely avoid a Bladerunner reference: This mildly paraphrases the Tyrell Corporation's motto "More Human Than Human".

"Hammurabi"—This refers to the Sumerian Code of Hammurabi, one of the oldest known codes of law, which predate the Ten Commandments by at least a thousand years (I'm showing my seams: I'm a history buff!).