All life support systems were functioning well on Uranusbase that evening, so all three duty engineers were able to sit comfortably in the life support system engineers' lounge and await the results of the weekly Solar System Lottery on television. Match three numbers out of six, between 1 and 99, and you win ten Solar System Dollars. Match six and the jackpot is a cool five million.
The engineers were all in their mid twenties: youth was a common condition in a place where facilities for families were poor and the work was often boring. Certainly these three all saw Uranusbase as a place where time was to be served until chartered status could be obtained and a more exciting life sought. Steve Barnes was tall, broad and blond. It was easy to guess that his game was rugby. But off the field he was a gentle giant, and his peacemaking abilities were often appreciated by the life support system engineering team at Uranusbase.
Paul Haycock was slim with wispy brown hair and glasses. His game was chess, as it was anybody's guess how many microseconds he would last on a rugby field. He too was at heart a nice guy, which is why the two of them could get away so easily with the amount of teasing they visited upon the third member of their duty shift: Andrea Kapell. A few German ancestors and parents with a rather nebulous desire to be different had given this otherwise very English young lady an unusual pronunciation to her name which she often cursed in English-speaking company. It was An-DRAY-a rather than AN-dree-a. Friends called her by a pet version: An-DAY. She was the typical bubbly blonde who was assumed to like having fun. The extent to which she lived up to this stereotype in an unconventional way set her up for much teasing, which she understood and accepted in good grace, thereby cementing her popularity within the team.
No sirens had gone off to signal a life support system emergency, and the lottery machine had revved up to full speed. The first number was 16.
"Hey!" said Steve, looking over the shoulder of the woman beside him. "It's one of Anday's. Let's have one of mine next." No sooner had he spoken, than 25 rolled into the chute. "Way-hay!"
"I've got that one too," said Andrea, quietly and purposefully. The third ball was numbered 60. "And that one."
"Anday's won a tenner," announced Steve.
Paul was sitting a short distance away. "The drinks are on Anday tonight," he said. Between them they had won the odd tenner before.
But there was more to come. Andrea had 99 too. She looked a bit winded. "I'm planning a serious holiday," she said, not quite sure she believed it.
52. "You can take us all on holiday!" exclaimed Steve.
But the reality of the 100k prize weighted the bubbly blonde down with unaccustomed responsibility. "I think I'd better put this in the bank and think about how I can spend it wisely," she said.
They almost missed the final ball. But Andrea had 7 too, turning her instantly into a multi-millionairess.
For an interminable few seconds she was completely silent. Then she spoke. "It's real. I can make my dreams come true. I can leave this place and start my own business. I've always wanted to do freelance, small, life support systems, but I realised I might never be able to raise the capital to start up. This is a chance I really cannot miss. I have to get a grip, and do it."
The next day saw Andrea Kapell in the office of Jim West, Engineering Services Director of Uranusbase, handing in her notice. A plump, jovial fifty-something, he had by now heard about her lottery win and was sympathetic to her plans for the future. "I'm envious," he said. "I wish this had happened to me when I was twenty-five. If I got it now I'd probably take early retirement and spend more time fishing with my grandchildren."
"There's one more thing," said Andrea shyly.
"Yes?" said West.
"I would like to buy the companion robot with which I have been working here on Uranusbase, HCR-328."
West was startled. The top-of-the-range H-type Companion Robot was generally considered far too advanced for the needs and budget of a small freelancer. But Andrea was a lottery winner, she did not need to justify it to her bank manager, and in a way it made sense. She had worked with the robot for the best part of a year, and it had become well attuned to her ways and highly effective in its purpose of helping her in her work, protecting and pleasing her. The psychology that had gone into the design of those robots, he knew, had been phenomenal, and they were invaluable for working with stressed human beings in demanding and dangerous situations. They took the grump right out of the grumpy old man. He was the Director who had pushed to meet the bill for having them on Uranusbase, and he felt that the quality of work he now obtained from his life support systems team exonerated him absolutely.
"All right," he said. "We just need to agree a price. They are 500k new. Quite apart from their electronic complexity, there's a lot a titanium and carbon fibre in their frames! Yours has depreciated to maybe 400k, but we would still have to buy a new one to replace it, and you would need to compensate us for that. Then its value to you has increased throughout the year you have spent working together. It can be yours for 600k."
"Fine," said Andrea, "600k it is."
"I'll get the documentation sorted for the sale. I would appreciate you making sure that the work you have been doing is documented up to scratch so that we don't get any unpleasant surprises on your departure. Luckily we are expecting a new graduate intake soon, and if I simply promote the person at the top of the reserve list to a full job offer, we can replace you in terms of personnel numbers very quickly. The team will no doubt miss your expertise, but I can't begrudge you this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I wish you well."
Once Andrea had left his office, West headed for the office of Marcus Tilman, the Head of Life Support System Engineering at Uranusbase. He found him studying some diagrams with Steve Barnes and Paul Haycock. Tilman tugged his beard, in a mannerism much imitated and mocked by his juniors behind his back. "I suppose you have come to talk about Ms Kapell," he correctly guessed.
"Yes, and to tell you my decision regarding her replacement," replied West, which he did. "And we'll need to replace the robot too. She's taking her robot," he added as Tilman threw him a puzzled look.
Steve and Paul immediately burst out in raucous laughter and sang in unison: "Woh-oh-oh, lover boy." West looked at them as though they were completely mad.
Tilman gave a nervous cough to attract attention, tugged his beard and explained quietly: "Ms Kapell and her companion robot are given to extravagant displays of physical affection. It adds a bit of colour to life around here. I shall miss them both." West started to feel a little uneasy. Had he been right to agree to sell the robot to its allocated engineer upon her departure from Uranusbase? But this was a free market economy and surely the legal sale of an item of capital plant from one party to another must be allowed to proceed without let or hindrance?
One person who had no doubts about the matter of the sale of HCR-328 to Andrea Kapell was Uranusbase Head of Security, Wilfrid Portman. Portman was stout with thin grey hair, thick rimless glasses and a bit of a stammer. He disliked women intensely; especially young, sexually charged women; and most of all he disliked Andrea Kapell, whom he detested with every atom of his body. He seethed when he learnt of her lottery win, but this reaction was mild compared to the one he displayed when he learnt, in Jim West's office, that Andrea would be taking her companion robot with her. His face went bright red, he started to hyperventilate and suddenly he leapt a foot clear of his chair in a vertical direction as though a small rocket propulsion unit had been placed underneath his buttocks. West regarded him with horror, hand hovering over the phone lest he should need to call the Uranusbase medical centre. "It is imperative that you cancel the sale of that robot and wipe its dynamic memory forthwith," Portman finally spluttered.
Jim West was a Director, and did not like being spoken to like that by a man who was only a Head of service. "Why, pray, do you say that?" he asked coldly.
"The relationship between that woman," Portman shuddered as he spoke the word, "and that robot is highly irregular. I have CCTV footage to prove it. If they get out of here together there will be a scandal! Think of the reaction of the shareholders!"
"The shareholders," said West impatiently, "are interested principally in the bottom line. I sold a 500k robot to Ms Kapell for 600k, on account of the year's acclimatisation to her it has had. You don't need to be a rocket scientist to see that there is now 100k on the bottom line that was not there this morning. Furthermore," he added, needing to reaffirm his own beliefs given his current state of feeling a little shaken, "this is a market economy and the legal sale of an item of capital plant from one party to another should be allowed to proceed without let or hindrance."
"But if you saw the CCTV footage..."
"I do not want to see the CCTV footage. Such a frivolous use of my time would not serve the bottom line well. Ms Kapell is well known for her behaviour with her robot and to my mind it is all perfectly harmless. Those robots are designed to respond to the personalities of their allocated human beings. Ms Kapell obviously likes horsing around so her robot obliges by horsing around with her. I understand Haycock's companion robot is a very respectable chess player, despite there being no mention that I know of in the owner's manual regarding it having been programmed as a chess computer."
He lowered his head to papers on his desk: his signal to Portman to leave the room. Portman rose slowly from his seat and left in silence. Back in his own office he easily located the disc which held what he considered to be the incriminating CCTV evidence against Andrea Kapell and her companion robot, HCR-328. Very well, if West would not take him seriously, he would take this disc to somebody who would. Who were the manufacturers of the H-type companion robots? Mars Robots, of course. He had some leave coming up. He would log onto Bargain Bucket Spaceflights' website in his next tea break and book a flight to Mars.
Going it alone
Woman and robot traipsed down the corridors of Uranusbase for the last time in the direction of the main airlock. Their luggage was shared between them in proportion to their respective strengths, as had been every manual task that had faced them in their time as a pair on the Life Support System Engineering team there. A shuttle was waiting to take them to the main spaceport, whence they would travel to Mars, well known as the best place in the Solar System to buy a decent second-hand spacecraft. To be a freelancer you need a ship. Thence it would be to Earth, to buy toolkit and reference books, and then it would be time to start advertising for work. Andrea was aware that in the world of small engineering businesses it does not take long to burn through five million dollars.
Steve and Paul were waiting at the airlock to say goodbye and good luck.
"We'll really miss you," said Paul.
"Yeah," said Steve. "It'll be a long time before we get another engineer working here who we can take the piss out of so much."
"Don't be so sure," said Andrea with a big grin.
"And goodbye Robot 328," said Paul.
"It'll be a long time before we get another robot we can take the piss out of so much," added Steve.
The machine maintained a dignified silence. Its purpose was to help Andrea in her work, protect her and please her; not to take part in banter with her colleagues.
"And the very best of luck with your new venture," said Paul. "How long do you think it'll be before you're taking on staff or partners? I don't want to rot on Uranusbase."
"I really don't know," said Andrea. "The whole thing might be a horrendous flop. I've really got to keep focused. At least I have a cool name: AOK Life Support Systems."
"AOK?" asked Steve.
"My middle name's Ophelia."
"But you haven't got a middle name."
"I have now." Big, big grin.
Both men hugged her before she stepped into the airlock with robot and luggage, and the door slid shut.
Andrea and her companion robot, whom she nicknamed simply 'H', underwent an utterly mundane spacecraft buying experience. There were many models to choose from, in varying states of repair, and it was simply a matter of selecting something to specification and within budget; something that had enough cargo space for their proposed toolkit and adequate living quarters, given that it would be their only home for the time being. Also combing through the documentation to ensure that there was nothing 'funny' in its past history. The robot was very good at this, and Andrea trusted its information absorption and retrieval abilities in the light of their year together on Uranusbase. She was so pleased she had managed to retain her robot and did not have to start with a completely new mechanical companion.
Wilfrid Portman's Martian experience was very different. Armed with his CCTV footage, he was determined to find somebody who would take seriously his allegations about an irregular relationship between Andrea Kapell and HCR-328, and the robot's manufacturer seemed a good place to start. Whereas Andrea had been welcomed heartily by Mars's spacecraft dealers as a potential cash customer, Portman had to work hard to get an audience with anybody who mattered. His difficulties, like his experience in Jim West's office, served to strengthen his resolve in his mission to the point where words like 'obsessive' and 'fanatical' might not be far off the mark. The Chief Executive of Mars Robots was in a meeting and not to be disturbed under any circumstances. The Head of Design was also in a meeting, as was the Head of Development. Portman succeeded in getting messages sent through secretaries to both, but neither was interested in talking to him. Finally a middle-ranking engineer was despatched from the office, quite possibly principally to get rid of Portman.
"The HCR model is a mature design now," the youngish man explained patiently to Portman. "It has performed well in many testing circumstances, as, indeed, it was intended to do. Many satisfied customers have complimented Mars Robots on the positive effect these machines have had on the morale and cohesion of their engineering teams."
Portman sighed. This was his last chance. "My concerns are genuine, and I have CCTV footage I would very much like to share with somebody who knows about the make-up of the HCR machine. Is there a member of the original design team who would be willing to view my disc and give his response?"
The engineer thought for a moment. "I think I know the ideal person to put you on to," he said, "and I'm sure she wouldn't mind." Portman winced visibly at the word 'she', but this was important business and if he had to deal with a woman, so he would. "Wendy Fairfax was a key member of the team which designed, developed and tested the HCR model. She is an exceptional robotics engineer. We were all looking forward to getting her back when her daughter started school, but she has just had another baby!"
"Bloody women," Portman couldn't help saying.
"I look at it this way," responded his host: "Better them than us having to do the childbirth." He scribbled down Wendy's contact details on a leaf of a Mars Robots logoed jotter pad and bid Portman a cheery farewell.
Progress! Portman stepped out into the artificial air under the dome that was Marszopolis. The address he had been given was not far away, and he decided to walk. It would calm his nerves. He did not really know what to expect from this meeting, and would so much have preferred it to be with a fellow male, but at least he felt he was moving forward in his mission now. He rang the doorbell of the unremarkable house and it was answered by a woman in her late thirties with rather dishevelled light-brown hair. She looked tired, but greeted Portman with a kindly smile and examined his ID. Head of Security, Uranusbase. What could he possibly have come to see her about? She was intrigued.
She welcomed him into her living room with the reassurance that yes, she did have time for a little chat. Her five-year-old daughter was at school and her husband, who was not working today, was dealing with their baby son, now two months old. The most prominent feature of the room was the pair of sofas which faced one another. They were clean and neat, but their dilapidated appearance bore witness to the volume of bodily fluids which they had seen transferred over the years. Portman sat down gingerly and Wendy faced him. He spluttered out his concerns about the 'irregular' relationship between Andrea Kapell and her companion robot, HCR-328. Wendy listened sympathetically.
"By 'irregular'..." she started, but was interrupted by the door opening. A smiling male face with a pointed nose and round metal-rimmed glasses poked around the door. Wendy turned to greet her husband with a loving smile. "This is Jack Diamond, my forever," she explained to Portman and then introduced the visitor to her husband, "and this is Wilfrid Portman, Head of Security at Uranusbase, who wants to talk to me in my capacity as a member of the design team of one of the robots they use at the base which has been giving him some concerns."
"Security, hey," whistled Jack. "Don't say one of those robots has been caught with its hand in the till."
Portman was not amused by such frivolity. "It's a very delicate matter," he said. Even worse than discussing this matter with a woman would be discussing it with a couple who were in a relationship, even if theirs were quite regular.
"I've got Ricky here," said Jack, deciding he had better keep out of the robot business, "and he's rooting like crazy. May I hand him over to Mum?"
"Of course," laughed Wendy and took the wriggling babe from his father. Ricky made impatient little squawks as his mother seamlessly shoved his head up her jumper. A good latch was second nature to them by now. Funnily enough, as Portman gazed on this iconic Madonna and child image, he relaxed. Wendy turned to him once more and took up where she had left off. "By irregular, do you mean sexual?"
The word 'sexual' made Portman wince, but he nodded. Wendy thought for a moment. "I spent a decade designing, developing and testing mechanical men," she said reflectively, "but I never saw them as sexual, and I find the concept rather strange." She paused. "So I suppose the best thing to do now would be to take a look at your CCTV footage. The TV and disc player are on that trolley over there. Would you mind bringing them around please so that we can both see them?" She shuffled herself up to the end of the sofa so that she could look down its length and face the set. The room struggled to serve the dual purpose of a people place and a place for electrical entertainment.
Portman was more than happy to operate the whole system, and this would have been the case even had his companion not been a nursing mother in action. He had at last found somebody who was prepared to listen to what he had to say and look at what he had seen. He took his seat on the opposing sofa and zapped with the remote control tool until he found the desired place on the disc. Before starting to play, he explained: "This is what took place when four new engineers at Uranusbase, including Andrea Kapell, were allocated to their companion robots."
"Yes," said Wendy as the recording proceeded, "the humans have to undergo a series of tests so that their companion robots can acquire data on their physical strength and flexibility. We had a top consultant physiotherapist working on this part of the project with us. I believe there has been exceptional success in the field with the HCRs protecting their allocated humans from strain injuries."
The tests consisted of the robots and humans pulling and pushing at each other in a series of carefully designed exercises that looked a little comical to the casual observer. The three men in the frame obviously found the whole process a bit awkward and embarrassing. "But look at Kapell!" exclaimed Wendy. "She's having a whale of a time. She's treating the whole thing like a dance. If I'm not mistaken, she's finding it a huge turn-on. Oh my goodness!"
Portman smirked with satisfaction.
When the three male engineers retreated from the centre of the room in relief, Andrea grabbed her robot around the waist, grasped and outstretched its other hand, and led it in a tango.
"Oh my God," said Wendy. "They're doing the tango. That poor robot doesn't know what's hit it. This should be an imprisonable offence: abusing the innocence of machinery." She reflected on what she had said and added: "No, I don't think that would really work." She watched on for a bit then exclaimed: "Would you believe it! That HCR is picking up the steps. That's a very respectable tango they've got going there." She felt a surge of pride. "That's my programming!" Having been surrounded for so long by little people requiring a constant stream of personal care tasks to be performed for them, she had lost touch with that sense of euphoria which comes from seeing a difficult programming task expressed in real life robotic behaviour. Portman stopped the playback.
"There's nothing more there," he said. "My second clip was a few months later, when Kapell and the robot had to collaborate on lifting a heavy box."
The scene opened with woman and robot looking at the box purposefully. The woman crouched down on one side of the box and put one hand either end of it, braced under the rim at the top. The robot moved behind her, put its arms around her waist and its hands intertwined with hers at the ends of the box. Together they lifted and moved it in this way. Wendy's mouth dropped open.
"Is that the way that robot is programmed to help its human lift a heavy weight?" asked Portman, with another smirk of satisfaction.
"No," said Wendy in confusion. "The robot should go around to the other side of the box, facing the person, and should calculate where its hands should be placed on the ends of the box so as to bear an appropriate proportion of the load. The method employed by HCR-328 in that clip is inefficient and potentially hazardous: they could trip up, although I do have reasonable confidence in the calculation it would have done to share the load and protect Kapell from back injury."
"So why do you think the robot was behaving like that?" asked Portman.
Wendy thought, then said carefully: "The only reason an HCR might do such a thing is if its default programming has been overridden by a learned behaviour; in particular if it has learned that this sort of gratuitous physical contact is pleasing to its human." Her stomach began to churn. Portman observed her discomfort and was encouraged. He zapped to the third and final clip.
"This episode took place when Kapell and her companion robot had just succeeded in fixing a particularly difficult and dangerous problem in one of the life support systems at Uranusbase."
With trepidation, Wendy watched woman and robot turn towards one another, fling arms wide, and throw themselves into an embrace. She reacted quickly: "Hey, gimme that remote." She deftly inserted a little finger into the side of her now sleeping baby's mouth to break suction and removed him from her breast. She laid him down beside her so that she could move more easily, and reached out to take the tool from Portman. She immediately froze-frame and picture-searched backwards. Then she clicked forward frame by frame. "What's the frame frequency on this thing? That's not an adaptive response. It's too fast. It's a learned response." She clicked the frames to and fro and then: "Oh my goodness, the robot goes first. No! No!" she wailed in denial.
"It gets worse," said Portman with gritted teeth. Wendy steeled herself to watch further.
"Oh my God! It's a full-blown snog! Just look where all those hands are going! I can't watch!" And she put her head between her knees.
"And look who's leading." There was cruelty in Portman's voice. "Is that your programming too?" Why blame the lad when you can point a finger at his mother.
Wendy composed herself. "The designer of an adaptive intelligence and control system always takes a risk," she said as steadily as she could manage. "You can never predict or even imagine all the stimuli to which your system may be exposed in the field. It's simple chaos theory. You just have to make it reasonably reliable and fail-safe where possible. That said, you may have done Mars Robots a real favour by identifying a genuine flaw in the programming of the HCR model. The design team certainly never gave a thought to how our product might react when faced with a sexually charged young woman giving it a massive great come-on. May I hang onto your disc? I would like to show it to colleagues at Mars Robots and get their reactions."
"Of course," said Portman. "This is a copy. The master is safely filed at Uranusbase." He got up to leave, satisfied that his mission had gained momentum. After closing the front door behind her, Wendy checked that her son was still sleeping peacefully before making herself a very large cup of tea. It was not her usual practice to take sugar in tea at all, but this time she dumped in several heaped teaspoonfuls.