Tea consumed and composure regained, Wendy picked up the phone.
"Hi, Diane, it's Wendy Fairfax here." Diane Blunt was the Chief Executive's secretary at Mars Robots. For many years she and Wendy had circled each other with suspicion, as is sadly often the case when technical woman meets non-technical woman. Diane felt intimidated by Wendy's academic and technical qualifications and her reputation for having a razor-sharp mind. Wendy felt intimidated by the role Diane played as the top boss's gatekeeper, and, if she were honest, by the other woman's sheer normalness. All this changed with Wendy's pregnancy. Diane was a mother too, and the two of them shared many tea-break chats about antenatal examinations and classes, childbirth and breastfeeding. When Wendy left on her career break they stayed in touch as friends.
"Hi Wendy! What a lovely surprise. What can I do for you?"
"You can set me up an urgent meeting with the Chief Executive, the Heads of Design and Development and Bob Spruce, who was Chief Engineer on the HCR project I was working on before I left."
Some explanation was obviously required. "I have just seen CCTV footage showing one of the HCRs in operation on Uranusbase morphing into a red hot lover."
There was total silence on the other end of the phone.
"Diane, are you still there?"
"Yes, my mind's just boggling."
"So did mine, but this is a situation Mars Robots really has to address. Just get those men into a meeting room with audio-visual equipment a.s.a.p. If they appear reluctant, mutter about lawsuits and insurance claims and that sort of thing."
"Yes," laughed Diane, "that will definitely get them scuttling into a meeting room. I'll call you back."
Wendy could do nothing but sit by the phone, hand poised above the receiver. Eventually it rang.
"Two o'clock suit you?" asked Diane.
Wendy suddenly remembered that Jack was off work that day and could pick Felicity up from school. "Fine," she said.
At two o'clock precisely, five people gathered in a meeting room at Mars Robots. The four men were all fifty-somethings with conservative haircuts and dressed in standard business attire. The fluffy earth mother who faced them looked out of place even before she put her baby to the breast. They all seemed bemused at having been summoned, so Wendy gave the briefest of introductions to explain the situation regarding Andrea Kapell and Uranusbase before showing the CCTV footage. They watched in silence.
The Chief Executive spoke first. "We will, of course, have to recall that robot immediately."
"Yes," said one of the others, "before it becomes dangerous."
"Yes," said a third, "the way it's going it might rape her and then there would be the lawsuits, the insurance claims and the damaging publicity. This company would be crucified in the press."
"Although you saw that first clip," said the fourth. "Any half decent lawyer could argue that the girl was acting like a complete strumpet and led it on. She didn't exactly resist in the third clip either. We could get any damages reduced to peanuts."
"There'd still be the publicity..." repeated the third.
"Gentlemen!" interrupted Wendy. They all turned to look at her. "You talk about rape," she continued. "For a start, physiologically that robot is not capable of anything a court of law would define as a rape. A serious sexual assault is the worst it could be accused of. But why would it do that? It has no sex drive of its own. Its purpose is to help, protect and please its assigned human being. You are talking about aggression. There has never in the six year service history of the HCR model been one single case of aggression directed at the robot's own human, although they have been known to get a little stroppy with third parties."
The four men looked chastened in the face of such logic.
"To be honest," continued Wendy, "I find this situation absolutely fascinating. It is an experiment in artificial intelligence which nobody would ever dare to set up for ethical reasons, and now here it is going on in front of us. It would be a criminal attack on our knowledge and understanding of this field if we cut it short at this point. As I told you at the start of this meeting, the young woman involved has left Uranusbase to set up her own business, taking the robot with her. Once they have privacy away from the apparently omnipresent security of Uranusbase, who knows what might happen to this relationship? I propose we leave them alone for a few months at least, to see what happens. Ideally I would arrange to interview them at some point to see what account they give of themselves."
Now the men really looked stunned.
"But could we be sure she would be safe?" asked the Head of Design.
"We could keep track of them by monitoring the company blog. It's most unlikely they won't have one because all small businesses like to maximise their web presence; it's the cheapest form of advertising," said Wendy.
"But they're not going to give a caress-by-caress account of their relationship on the blog," mused the Head of Development.
"Of course they're not!" said Wendy impatiently. "But we can track where they are, what they're working on, and whether everything seems to be going normally. One hint that there may be a problem and we send in the hit squad, so to speak."
"I'm still worried that this is unacceptably dangerous," the Chief Executive trailed off weakly.
"Look," said Wendy. "When Isambard Kingdom Brunel set out to build the Great Western Railway, did he gaze at the fluff in his navel and worry that it was dangerous? Engineering progress has never been safe. But it has been what the human race has been all about."
"OK," said the Chief Executive. "We'll go for Wendy's plan. May we leave this with you, Wendy, the monitoring of the blog? And feel free to call them in to interview at any point when you feel it may yield worthwhile results."
"Great," said Wendy. "I'm glad you've all come round to my way of thinking. There's just one more thing."
"My consultancy fee."
Andrea Kapell and HCR-328 continued with their business completely oblivious to the interest they had aroused. Andrea taxied her new spacecraft to a pre-arranged short-stay berth at Marszopolis Spaceport Marina, prior to departure for Earth. She drove slowly to ensure that her unfamiliarity with its controls did not lead to accident or embarrassment. Her test flight at the showroom had given her confidence in her competence to take off and land, but she felt keenly the ongoing burden of her responsibility as a newly fledged small businesswoman.
The spacecraft stationary, Andrea relaxed, turned and smiled at H. "So far, so good," she said.
"Anday," said H, "as you know, my purpose is to help you with your work, protect you and please you. On Uranusbase I did all I could to please you as we worked together."
Andrea started to listen carefully. Her companion sounded serious.
H continued: "Your colleagues were amused by my efforts. They perceived our behaviour to be more that of lovers than of human being and companion robot. Now we are away from the restrictions of Uranusbase, I need to ask you this: would it please you if I were really to become your lover?"
Andrea's heart began to thump and her breathing became difficult. Serious indeed! H seemed in no hurry for a reply, so she steadied herself and took time to collect her thoughts. She knew she was hot for this mechanical man who had shared her life for the last year, but to take a titanium and carbon fibre lover instead of a flesh and blood one was not something she had ever known anybody to do before. If people found out, then she would have to run the gauntlet of whatever their reaction might be. It was a big risk to take. But a strong mitigating factor was the way that her supposed rhinoceros skin had become a self-fulfilling prophecy. She received a lot of teasing, yes; but it was not teasing to wound, simply because its perpetrators seriously did not believe that to be possible. She had thrived on being the centre of attention at Uranusbase.
More relevant were her feelings inside, the ones which truly had the power to make her vulnerable. And there, she suddenly realised, the prospects looked much rosier. A flesh and blood man would have his own needs and expectations and would bring his baggage to the relationship. H was simply programmed to please her. She would get kicks for free. Her response started to look like a no-brainer.
"It would please me very much," she said softly. "I think this was actually my purpose in bringing you away from Uranusbase with me. But I am so, so, pleased that you made the first move."
H stood up, moved towards Andrea and took her in his arms. She wound hers around him, and it was for her an embrace of sheer relief. No more bravado and pretending. And for him it was a straightforward task to read and comply with her need simply to be held.
After a little while they released their mutual hold. H spoke first. "If I am to be your lover and to do this well, I need documentation. You are young and your experience is limited, so I do not think I can learn all I need to know from you."
Andrea smiled wryly. Her two fumbling college boyfriends, both of whom she had originally 'got off with' at drunken student parties, had taught her how to be frustrated and how to be sweet and understanding about it. If she were honest with herself, these experiences were at the root of her characteristic exhibitionism. How can I possibly be frigid if I can cavort in this way with a mere robot? "You mean a sex manual?" she asked.
"If that is what you call it, yes," replied H.
"That's easy. We're off to the biggest bookshop in London, to get the best technical manuals on life support systems. They sell books on just about everything else too."
Hovering above the Earth, Andrea set co-ordinates to lock onto Milton Keynes. The town planning experiment of the 1960's had been judged such a complete failure that it had been the obvious site to raze to the ground for Britain's only long-stay space park. From there it was only a fifteen minute journey by high speed shuttle train into central London. They were lucky with their berth at Milton Keynes; it was convenient for all site facilities. This was important because they planned to stay docked here until they had secured a job, so it would be home for a while.
Also landing at Milton Keynes was a budget space-bus which had also come directly from Mars. Its passengers included one Wilfrid Portman. Wendy Fairfax had contacted him at his hotel to update him on her meeting at Mars Robots. Whilst he could not disagree with her logic, her patience frustrated him and he could not resist the temptation to follow Andrea and H in the hope of collecting more incriminating evidence about them. It was fortunate he carried his Uranusbase ID; it was not difficult to obtain the necessary information from security officers at Marszopolis Spaceport Marina to know where he needed to go. It was a similar breeze to tap the intelligence of security officers at Milton Keynes and Euston Station.
Andrea and H still had something of a head start, and began a lengthy stint in the bookshop selecting the piles of technical manuals and databooks relating to life support systems which would be so necessary in their work. While Andrea was sitting on the floor studying one particularly heavy tome and trying her best to judge whether it were really worth the price tag or just dead weight, H crouched down beside her and said softly: "As you're busy, I'll go and look for that other documentation we need." Andrea smiled, flushed a little and nodded.
What neither knew or even suspected was that at that precise moment Wilfrid Portman burst through the front door. He did not waste his time searching the labyrinth of bookshelves for his quarries but headed straight for the nearest pay desk. He flashed his ID at the cashier. "I need to speak to your duty security officer," he demanded with urgency. The young woman looked alarmed, and hurriedly pointed him to the stairs he needed to climb. The duty security officer was in the room at the top, surrounded by the VDUs of a CCTV system.
Portman flashed his ID and the officer could see that he looked very troubled. "What's the problem?" asked the pleasant young man.
"There is a girl and her companion robot in this shop that I have under observation for suspicious circumstances," Portman spluttered. "I need to find them on the VDUs."
The security officer responded quickly to what appeared to be quite a serious situation, and waved Portman forward. Portman rapidly identified Andrea. "There's the girl," he muttered, "but where's that bloody machine gone?"
"Not all the cameras are continuously linked to a VDU," said the security officer. "That one is, because the books are all of a high value technical nature. Is it possible that the companion robot has been despatched to find something of a lighter sort? Interior decoration or cookery perhaps? I could flick through the cameras in the lifestyle section."
And that was where Portman saw H selecting a slim paperback volume. "Zoom!" he commanded. The security officer obliged. Soon he and Portman could read the title.
The security officer laughed out loud. "Now there's discretion for you! Send the robot to get the embarrassing stuff." There it was in an eye-easy font: The Greatest Ever Joy of Sex.
Portman huffed and spluttered. "I've seen enough!" he said.
"It'll take them a while to leave, with all those books to pay for," offered the security officer helpfully. "Shall I call the Police?"
"No," huffed Portman. "This investigation is still at an internal stage. Thank you for your time." And he left.
The following day Wendy Fairfax picked up her emails and found one from Portman. She smiled. "Well, if they weren't serious before, they certainly are now," she whistled to herself, unable to suppress fantasies about being a fly on the wall.
As for Andrea and H, they left the shop with a large pile of books, which they decided prudent to drop in at Left Luggage at Euston Station before setting off on the second part of their mission: to obtain the specialist and standard tools necessary for the installation and testing of life support systems.
Life in Milton Keynes was very different from life at Uranusbase. The routines demanded by living in a stationary spaceship were few, leaving Andrea to develop routines around her body clock which felt more pleasing and affirmed her decision to start out on her own, even though the act of actually obtaining a contract still seemed some way off.
Her behaviour with H changed too. The exhibitionism and bravado melted away; there was no need for them now. Instead there was a quieter, more subtle, rapport between them. The casual physical contact which so delighted Andrea became a part of everything they did together and suffused each task, however mundane, with delicious intimacy. As a lot of time was spent working on the company website, four-handed keyboard techniques became something of a speciality.
And Andrea found that she was not so unusual among the clientele of Milton Keynes Space Park. It seemed quite common for lone traders, especially female ones, to keep a companion robot principally as a bodyguard. The bottom-of-the-range Mars Robots companion model, the B-type, was a popular choice for this. One lady – she ran a franchise in outsize underwear – even addressed her mechanical friend as 'B', although Andrea doubted that this dumb weight-lifter with a gas-pipe frame could be to its owner what H was to her.
For when each day's work was done, H applied himself to the task of exploring her naked body, which had been hidden to him on Uranusbase where the robots were stabled in special cupboards when their allocated humans were off duty. Having taken a brief look at 'the book', he decided that some simple groundwork was necessary before attempting its recipes. He proceeded with exquisite care, and Andrea discovered it to be no lie that every part of a woman's body can be an erogenous zone. The first time he brought her to a climax, the sensation crept up on her by stealth and surprised them both. The second came with such a rush that afterwards all she could do was gaze upon the titanium and carbon fibre frame beside her, convinced it was the finest form in the entire universe. Wendy Fairfax would have been very proud of her programming.
And as the days passed, Andrea found herself tuning into the mind of her mechanical man in a way she had not done on Uranusbase. She developed an internalised understanding of his thought patterns, strengths and limitations which some might incorrectly describe as 'instinctive'. It was no more than he was programmed to do for her, of course, and the experience has been familiar to married couples since time immemorial. The fact that H's was a machine intelligence came as a bonus. Their dissimilarities increased the power of their intellectual symbiosis and this combined with the sexual element to drench Andrea in a blissful happiness which appeared to be without end. The nature of her feelings towards H had changed so smoothly and gradually that it was only by looking back that she could see how it happened: from hot'n'horny to deeply in love.
The only domestic dispute they had during this time concerned the taking of the chemical toilet to the space park disposal point and emptying it. H assumed they should do this together; after all, sharing tasks is what companion robots do. It is fundamental to their philosophy and programming, intended to promote group cohesion in teams of humans and robots and avoid stimulating the slave master mentality. Andrea, however, felt that as H did not use the toilet, it was quite wrong that he should have anything to do with the yucky job of emptying it. The robot's adaptive artificial intelligence adapted to this conflict with highly uncharacteristic slowness, but got there in the end and accepted that Andrea was best pleased by being left to do the 'toilet run' all by herself. Andrea, too, felt she had learnt something from the conflict; in particular the way she had handled it by calmly holding her corner. Stubbornness provided an input of stability to those finely tuned algorithms and brought them to a steady state more effectively than the sort of erratic behaviour which many couples in conflict allow themselves to be drawn into would have done.
Eventually Andrea decided the website was satisfactory for the purpose of obtaining business, giving details of her CV and all the components and types of life support system she felt she could turn her hand to. Some who knew her would have considered what she was offering to be optimistic in the extreme; but, having a risk-taking personality, she would have come back at them with her firm belief in the philosophy of faking it until you make it. Even though she tried, her exuberant exhibitionism could not be completely purged from her work. The home page carried photographs of herself and H adopting the poses of some of the heroic statues which had been saved from the original Milton Keynes and which now dotted the space park. This was a risk, of course; but on the other hand there is nothing quite like humour and curiosity to stimulate people's memory when surrounded by details of a legion of competent but dull small engineering businesses.
Now registering with the search engines was vital, but Andrea knew that this in itself was unlikely to bring the work pouring in. There were a number of professional, institutional, regional and other sorts of umbrella life support systems websites which were the places where anybody actually wanting a system would tend to go. Andrea had to sweet-email and persuade the webmasters of these sites to include AOK Life Support Systems in their links for her to have any chance of attracting business. Often there was a fee to be paid, and Andrea knew she would have to monitor contacts from these sites to assess whether it were money well spent or money down the drain.
But eventually her persistence paid off, for an email arrived one day offering her a contract to install a life support system for a new mushroom farm on an outer asteroid, starting as soon as she could get there. Her disinclination to waste time almost led her to make a trip-chain of the toilet run and making final payment of berthing fees at the space park office. The reason she did not do so was not to avoid walking into the office with a toilet (albeit an empty one), but because she did not want to have to prevent H accompanying her there!