In London again
When Wilfrid Portman next read his emails he found the one from Wendy Fairfax and could not believe his eyes.
No problem! No problem! But this was a relationship between a woman and a robot. How could it be no problem? It was disgusting and degenerate and needed to be put a stop to. He found himself hyperventilating at the very thought of it. That Fairfax woman was useless. As he had predicted she would be. Very well, if she would not put a stop to it, he would have to do so himself. He checked the Security Department duty rota and decided he could be spared for one day in the middle of the following week. On the one hand the delay was frustrating; but on the other it would allow him more time to work out a plan.
Meanwhile, Andrea and H returned to Milton Keynes.
"That was awkward," Andrea said to H on the way. "She wanted to know about our relationship."
"She did," agreed H. Fortunately it did not occur to him to relate to Andrea the tale of how he had managed to turn Wendy on so. "But then we are unusual, and she has a right to be interested, as one of the designers of my type."
But Wendy's words were still haunting Andrea, and she was having her first doubts about her relationship with her companion robot. But those doubts evaporated when they docked in Milton Keynes and H started once again to demonstrate the faultless precision with which he could turn her to jelly inside.
The weekend and the early part of the following week passed quietly. Andrea did some web-research into conditions on Mercury to give her a better chance of impressing her prospective new clients. It would be a completely different challenge to the outer asteroids. The threat to life would be heat, not cold; and the gas exchange issues were very different. At least power would not be a problem. The sun could give it all and more. Efficiency would be irrelevant to the PV specification but care would need to be taken to find a material that would have a meaningful lifetime under such severe operating conditions.
The meeting at the IET went well. Andrea and the South Africans discussed not only Mercury and the fascination of studying the sun but the history of art and the fine wines of the Western Cape. Afterwards they all went to dinner where a few bottles were available to sample. True to his word, H ensured that Andrea had no more than two glasses, so that by the time she had also imbibed a peppermint tea she was sober enough to think seriously about whether to return to the ship or whether simply to check into a London hotel. She decided upon the latter, and was soon standing at the reception desk of the Thames Embankment Hotel with H by her side.
Mike Webb was the duty night security manager. He looked with concern upon Andrea. He had seen enough customers arriving late at this hotel to recognise somebody who had had a slightly heavy evening. But this was not his only concern. He looked at H.
"Is that robot insured?" he asked.
"Yes," lied Andrea. She had no idea how she had managed to overlook this issue for so long, but did not want to risk being unable to find a bed for the night in London now.
"OK," said Mike, "I'll put you in Room 20," and he gave her the keys.
Room 20 was furnished in old-fashioned style with a wooden bed and green velvet drapes everywhere. Andrea had a bath and washed her underwear with shampoo in the basin (she really ought to be prepared for these unscheduled sleepovers as a matter of routine...) while H made her another peppermint tea.
By the time she had consumed the second peppermint tea she was largely past the effects of the modest amount of alcohol she had taken and would normally now be sleepy. But tonight she was still high from the day's events: the excitement of her new contract and the pleasantness of her new clients, who were the very antithesis of Farmer Giles. Furthermore the green velvet drapes conveyed to her a deep eroticism and she leant over and touched H in anticipation.
The passion and imagination of the lovemaking which followed broke through all Andrea and H's previous boundaries. H used his whole body and Andrea's served her well as one extensive erogenous zone, so eventually only the lightest of touches was necessary where it really mattered to send her flying to Paradise.
But unbeknown to the lovers, the whole session was being silently tracked by the half dozen CCTV cameras obscured among those very green velvet drapes which Andrea found such a turn-on.
The last thing Mike Webb had in mind when he put Andrea and H in high-security Room 20 was a night of voyeurism. He was genuinely concerned about the personal safety of such a vulnerable-looking young woman with such a high-cash-value robot. But in his profession he saw some very strange things and it would take a lot more than this to make him judgemental rather than intrigued and amused. He was enjoying the show with a mug of strong coffee to hand when there was a knock at the door.
"Wilfred Portman. Head of Security. Uranusbase," barked the visitor, flashing his ID. Portman had followed Andrea and H through London in exactly the same way as he had in order to locate them at the bookshop seven months previously. Now he knew he had them in his sights.
"Come on in!" welcomed Mike. It was a lonely job at times and he took a very relaxed approach to customer confidentiality when entertaining a fellow security professional, so the presence of all the active VDUs concerned him not one bit. "Would you like a coffee?"
"No thanks," muttered Portman. "I've come here about a girl and a robot who I believe are staying at this hotel."
"Oh yes," Mike chuckled. "They're rather busy at the moment." He indicated the relevant VDUs.
Portman took a look and almost choked in disgust. He felt physically sick. He sat down, spluttering.
"Hey, Man, chill out, watch, enjoy, learn a few tricks to take home to the missis," said Mike.
Portman's gut urge was to charge up the stairs, burst into the room and expose them at it. However he still had enough wits about him to realise that this would almost certainly not be the most effective way of achieving his goal: the destruction of the relationship.
"That woman," he explained, "is a former employee of Uranusbase who has stolen that robot. And you can see what she stole it for. I would like to reclaim the machine with the minimum of fuss tonight, and so with your permission I would like to remain here until she has gone to sleep before going to the room to collect the robot."
"Fine by me," said Mike. "Glad to be of help to a fellow professional. Would you like to change your mind about the coffee?" Portman nodded. "And feel free to read any of these newspapers."
As Portman had predicted, eventually Andrea slipped into an oxytocin-drugged sleep with H watching over her. Portman's hour had come! With the key Mike Webb had lent him he unlocked the door of Room 20 with practised stealth.
"Hey, Robot," he hissed. H turned to the door. He knew Portman, of course, from Uranusbase, but he was a little bemused to see him in London.
"There's been a security alert on Uranusbase," continued Portman, "and we need you back there to give us some information."
"But what about Andrea?" asked H. "I am her companion robot. It is my purpose to help, protect and please her."
"She'll be perfectly OK here," said Portman. "The security at this hotel is very good." A twisted smile appeared briefly upon his lips. "Reception will tell her where you've gone when she wakes in the morning."
Suspecting nothing, the machine followed the man out of the hotel. For the journey to Uranusbase, Portman had spared no expense and booked a personal space-taxi fast enough to get to Uranusbase by early morning and nimble enough to launch from the middle of the Thames. Portman and the robot said little on the journey; there was not much to say.
Back at Uranusbase Portman led H through the familiar corridors to the robot maintenance workshop. As Head of Security, access to every corner of Uranusbase was his by right.
"Please sit down," invited Portman, pulling out a chair and motioning H to it. "I need to run some tests." Cleverly, he had arranged the chair with its back to the control panel to minimise the chances of H working out his planned fate.
But H started to become suspicious as Portman picked up a screwdriver and removed the terminal plate at the back of his neck. "I am unaware that I have a malfunction," he said.
Portman did not know much about companion robots, but he did know that what roboticists call the machine's 'dynamic memory' is what gives it its personality, learnt over time through association with the human being to whom it is assigned. The 'functional memory' is hard-wired and enables the robot to see, hear, walk, talk and so on. In H's dynamic memory was all he knew about Andrea, including his experience of being her lover. Realising he needed to be quick, Portman grabbed a likely-looking parallel data lead which fortunately fitted the port at the back of H's neck labelled 'DYN MEM'. He plugged one end in firmly. The other he plugged into the control panel.
"You have a fucking enormous malfunction, you damn machine," he grunted as he turned the rotary switch to 'RESET'. A needle on a dial swung to zero. The robot HCR-328 was once again as good as factory-fresh.
It took a few moments for Portman's success to sink in. Then he gave a wild cackle and started to leap about the room singing and shouting. "No more tangos at Uranusbase! Absolutely no more tangos at Uranusbase! Oh joy! Oh sweet success! No more tangos at Uranusbase!"
And that was how he was found by Marcus Tilman, Steve Barnes and Paul Haycock as they arrived to retrieve their own companion robots at the start of their shift. When Tilman opened the door, Portman waltzed out and disappeared down the corridor. It remained for the three life support system engineers to discover H and work out what had happened.
Andrea was awoken the following morning at the Thames Embankment Hotel by her mobile phone. It was nearly nine o'clock.
"Hi, Anday, it's Steve here; Steve Barnes from Uranusbase."
"Uh," said Andrea sleepily.
"Anday, we've got your robot here. Portman brought it in. He's wiped its dynamic memory. I am so terribly sorry."
There was total silence at the other end of the phone. Steve started to panic.
"Anday! Please! Don't do anything silly. We all care about you here. Please. Anday. Please."
Marcus and Paul started to develop lumps in their throats and knots in their stomachs. They did not even have a telephone receiver to listen into in hope. All they could do was look at Steve, waiting for him to register that he had some response. At last his facial expression changed to one of relief.
"Uh-huh, ... uh-huh ... see you soon." He turned to his colleagues. "She's on her way. She's not leaving 500k's worth of uninsured capital plant in the charge of a madman. That girl's a survivor!"
"Uninsured, hey?" mused Paul. "Must have been some honeymoon."
Steve threw him a stage punch. The three men went about their work as usual, making sure that one of them always had sight of H. They could not tell whether Portman considered he had finished his task or whether the Head of Security intended returning with a sledgehammer.
Meanwhile, Andrea dressed as quickly as she could and put her few bits and pieces into her bag. Even this was hard when she was so blinded by tears. She was in a state of shock and felt completely numb, but they would not stop flowing. With a Herculean effort she blinked them away and washed her face in order to make the journey downstairs and check out. Breakfast was simply not a consideration.
The underground took her to Euston whence the high speed shuttle took her to Milton Keynes. She dropped in at the office to settle her bill with the Space Park before returning to her ship and seeking clearance for take-off. That time of the morning was usually busy but Andrea was lucky with her slot. She tried not to look towards the co-pilot's seat beside her which was so hideously empty where it had previously always seated H.
As she left the Earth's pull and headed away from the Sun, she was overwhelmed by grief and rage and found herself shaking and sobbing uncontrollably. Being back in the ship which had been their joint home made her so conscious of the absence of H that it was hard to pay attention to steering her course. Her mind was awash with memories of him. She might set eyes upon his black-and-shiny body; she might hear his pleasant high-bandwidth voice; but never again would those carbon fibre fingers creep between her legs and take her to Paradise where everything was so beautiful.
It did not take long for her to realise that she was in no fit state to fly all the way to Uranus. Mars was on the horizon. She altered her course and headed towards the red planet.
It was midnight in Marszopolis. Clearance to land was easy to get but she was unable to tell the Spaceport Marina whether she wanted a short or long stay berth and ended up agreeing to pay over the odds for a flexible pay-on-departure berth. The market economy always gets its richest pickings from the chaotic customer.
A taxi took her swiftly to Wendy Fairfax's house, where, a little concerned about turning up at such an hour, she rang the doorbell.
Wendy to the rescue
Despite the hour, Wendy was still up and about, pottering. The other members of her family were sound asleep, and she needed these quiet times. The doorbell took her by surprise, and she approached the door with some trepidation. It was an even greater surprise to find Andrea there, her hair dishevelled and her face streaked with tears. Wendy motioned her into the house and into the living room without a word. They sat down side by side on one of the sofas, where Wendy waited patiently for the younger woman to stop sobbing before listening to her story.
Then Wendy, too, started to go into shock. She had welcomed Wilfrid Portman into her home, watched his CCTV footage, pursued his concerns and kept in touch with him by email. Yet she had never suspected his true agenda. She felt a dreadful personal responsibility for what had taken place.
"I think you need a cup of tea," she said, and made one for both of them.
"Andrea," said Wendy as they drank, "I don't think you're in any fit state to fly yourself to Uranusbase. Jack and I are members of a community spaceship club and I don't think anybody else will be using the craft at this time of night. I am very happy to fly you to Uranusbase. It is the least I can do. The craft is a small one which can be launched from one of the free-to-space 'circles' which are dotted around the Marszopolis dome. It's currently parked in one only five minutes' walk away."
"Thank you," said Andrea weakly, "that's really appreciated."
"Then consider it agreed," said Wendy, "but you'll have to bear with me while I express some milk to bung in the fridge. We don't know quite how long we'll be gone." Her breast pump lived on a handy trolley which could be brought up to the sofa. Wendy unzipped the front of her clothing and nestled both breasts into its cups. "You wouldn't mind lending me some of your oxytocin, would you?" she quipped, not quite sure how she would effect a non-baby-triggered let-down under such tense circumstances. Andrea smiled weakly and snuggled up beside Wendy on the sofa. Wendy thought of this nubile blonde with her 'teenage son' and the milk began to pour. Then there was nothing to be done but wait in the half-dark, listening to the eerie stop-start whine of the breast pump motor as it did its mechanical best to simulate the suckling pattern of a human infant.
At last the receiving bottle was full and Wendy could extricate herself from the machinery, put a clean lid on it and stick it in the fridge. "I'll just write a quick note for Jack, go to the loo and then we can be off," she said.
Flying a spacecraft was definitely not one of Wendy's talents and the time of night did not help. After a remarkable sequence of swerves, lurches and near misses she felt the need to apologise to Andrea. Andrea barely nodded in acknowledgement. She felt her heart and soul had been obliterated by the brief electric current that had wiped H's memory, and if her body were to meet the same fate in a space crash it would be sweet release.
Space became less busy as they passed beyond Jupiter and Wendy's flying became less erratic. Andrea calmed a little too.
"Andrea," said Wendy, "there is a way you can get H back, you know."
"What?" said Andrea, not quite sure what to think now.
"It took only eighteen months to turn him from factory fresh robot into the love of your life the first time around. This proves that such a thing is possible. If you just stay with him and be yourself, the odds are the relationship will form again spontaneously."
Andrea thought about this a little.
"No," she said. "I couldn't handle that. H may be a machine, but I am not. I shall find him a new home, somewhere I can visit from time to time and check that he is well looked after." The University of Johannesburg sprang to her mind. "And I shall buy one of those 'B' jobs which everyone seems to have. It will look after me well enough. And then I shall do as you have, find a real man to spend my life with and have children by." She was starting to accept the reality of her loss and preparing to move on.
They spoke little for the rest of the trip to Uranusbase. Steve and Paul were at the airlock to meet them and take them in funereal silence to where H sat. The robot clearly did not recognise Andrea. In Wendy's community spaceship Andrea had felt she was coming to terms with her situation, but now her stomach tied itself in a knot and she just wanted to cry until she died.
"You should press criminal charges against Portman," said Paul. "He stole your robot and interfered with it. If that's not a crime I don't know what is."
Andrea shook her head. "No," she said. "I do not want my relationship with H to be picked over in a court of law. I just want to move on."
Wendy had been looking pensive over this time.
"I've just thought of something," she suddenly said. "Gentlemen, did Portman also wipe the back-up memory? He may not have done. It's actually quite difficult to do. It is wiped automatically, of course, when the robot is imprinted with data from a new human being."
The other three turned to look at her in stunned silence.
"I don't know," admitted Paul weakly.
"In that case I shall take a look," said Wendy.
Andrea's heart began to beat very fast. She tried not to raise her hopes too high. She had already lost H once that day and did not want effectively to go through the loss again.
Wendy picked up the data lead which Portman had left lying on the table top. She then turned to address the robot. "H-type Companion Robot 328," she said, "I am Wendy Fairfax from Mars Robots. You have been reset in error, so I am here to check the data in your back-up memory, and, if possible, restore it to your dynamic memory, so that you can continue as companion to your assigned human being." She deftly unscrewed the terminal plate and plugged one end of the data lead into H's waiting port. The other end went into the control panel. Wendy sat at the console and started quickly typing her way through the various security protocols. Each time the response was positive. Finally, she pronounced triumphantly: "Back-up memory intact."
"So you can really bring him back to life?" asked Andrea cautiously.
"The back-up memory is highly compressed, and some information is inevitably lost," said Wendy, "so for a while H will be like a person who has suffered concussion or a mild stroke. But bearing in mind how fast he learnt the tango, I have every confidence he will be firing on all cylinders, if you'll pardon the metaphor, within hours if not minutes." She observed the look of excited anticipation on the younger woman's face. The conversations they had had the previous week and in the spaceship came back to her.
"Andrea," said Wendy, "please think very hard about this. You can decide to have H back just as you knew him yesterday, or you can take this opportunity to move on as you were describing to me on the way here."
Andrea barely paused. "I am confident now that I want H back," she said. "I am sorry to be such a coward, but please, please, get H back for me."
"Actually," said Wendy, "I think you're taking the courageous option. You've taken a step away from the heat of your relationship with H, understood the potential problems with it, and decided to run with it anyway, to wherever it takes you. I'm not sure I would have had the guts to do the same in your place. So here we go. 'Reinstate'," she read from the screen as she typed the all-important command and watched it appear there. "'Do I really want to reinstate back-up memory?' 'Y' for yes I do." With a final triumphant flourish she lifted her hand high of the keyboard. "This will take several minutes, folks; the process did not appear to the design team to be one which required undue speed." All they could do was wait in silence. There was a collective sigh of relief when H looked once again upon Andrea with recognition.
"Anday," he said, "I'm so glad you're OK. I was worried about leaving you in London while I went to Uranusbase with Mr Portman." Andrea went and sat on his lap and put her arms around him, not caring what anybody watching would think. But only Wendy, Steve and Paul were watching, and there were tears in all their eyes. Wendy in particular felt a great surge of joy. She had got her teenage son back. The one who had been so terribly naughty but of whom she was so incredibly proud. It was with nothing short of tenderness that she replaced the terminal plate on the back of his neck.
But Paul the chess player foresaw a problem.
"Anday," he said, "I know this is the last thing you want to do now, but I think it is important that you do press criminal charges against Portman. You know how fanatical he is. Once he knows H is up and running again he will be in pursuit before you can say 'robot'. You will never be safe from him."
Andrea looked downcast. "I just don't know," she said softly.
Then suddenly the door opened and two figures stood there silhouetted against the light in the corridor outside. Marcus Tilman and Wilfrid Portman observed the scene in the workshop; in particular that Andrea was sitting on H's lap and that the robot obviously understood the situation.
"My goodness!" exclaimed Tilman. Portman said nothing.
"Wendy Fairfax from Mars Robots saved the day," announced Steve. "The robots have a back-up memory which can be reinstated as live. HCR-328 is Andrea Kapell's companion robot once again."
Marcus Tilman tugged his beard in satisfaction. He loved happy endings and had so felt for Andrea Kapell. Then suddenly it occurred to him that it was strange he had heard nothing from Portman: no huffing, blustering or complaining. He turned to the man beside him in the doorway and thought he looked very pale.
"Are you all right, Wilf?" he asked. And Portman collapsed to the floor.
Steve, who was nearest the telephone, called the medical centre and two paramedics were on the scene before he had put the receiver down. They did their best to resuscitate Portman, but to no avail. He was dead within minutes of a massive heart attack. "That is what happens," said Wendy, "when you designate your body an oxytocin-free zone."
The paramedics took Portman's body away and it took the company a while and a large pot of tea to recover from what they had just witnessed. The most pervasive feeling now remaining for Andrea and the friends who cared about her was relief. Portman and the threat he posed were history. Soon they were chatting with an air of normality about life at Uranusbase, Andrea's last job at the mushroom farm and her upcoming job on Mercury.
Eventually Wendy stood up. "Anday, I have a family waiting for my return and I think we'd better be going now. All's well that ends well."
As she led the way briskly back to the spaceship she reflected on the way that the commercial development of artificial intelligence had diverted from the original holy grail of the field, which was to create a perfect simulation of a human mind. Mathematician Alan Turing had devised the 'Turing Test' in which, to pass, a machine mind had to be able to convince a human interviewer that it was really a human mind. By contrast, the philosophy of the companion robot was to create an intelligence which worked better in symbiosis with a human mind than another human mind. Wendy thought back to her interview with H, less than a week ago. H was most definitely a Turing Test failure, but that had not prevented him becoming the partner of choice to an attractive young woman who could have had her pick of men. There was definitely food for thought there regarding the future of the human race.
Andrea followed the older woman quietly, holding H's hand. Whatever the future held for herself and her unconventional lover, she knew she would be able to look back and sing: "I did it my way."