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June 17, 2024


By Roger Ley

Martin and Estella had enjoyed their retirement home. They'd chosen an old farmhouse out in the country, fifteen miles from the nearest town. They didn't get a lot of visitors but this wasn't a problem while they had each other for company, but when Estella died, Martin found the solitude hard to bear.

He occupied himself as best he could: there was the garden to look after, a weekly visit to the supermarket, he thought about joining the local church. He HoloSkyped his family and friends, not often enough to appear needy, but when the winter came there were days when he just sat watching the rain running down the windows. He knew the loneliness wouldn't go away so, after a few months, he ordered Mary.

She arrived in a taxi a few days later. Martin heard it whirr up his driveway and then away. He opened his front door to find Mary standing, smiling, wearing a straw hat, white gloves, and a nice summer dress.

"Hello, Mr Riley," she said, putting her small suitcase down and offering her hand. "My name is Mary. I am the Hoffman model 3.8F HouseBot that you ordered. I have a Turing self-awareness rating of 1.5. I can give you my serial number and software revision status if you wish."

"Hello, Mary, come in, I'll show you to your room. Please call me Martin."

They got along well right from the start. Mary was a good cook and quickly learned Martin's favourite recipes, although she tried the odd surprise to keep him on his toes. She cleaned the house, a job he hated; she looked after the garden, she could hold her own in conversation: Martin was very happy with his purchase. Over the months that followed Mary began to share his bed. She took her downtime while he slept and lived her virtual life: messaging other bots, playing games, attending virtual cultural events. Martin was happy to pay for the network time.

Fifteen contented years passed, but then Martin fell ill. After the initial diagnosis at the county hospital, Mary nursed him and kept the AI at the local surgery appraised of his condition. The disease was aggressive but drones delivered prescriptions to the house, and Mary sat at Martin's bedside, twenty-four-seven, taking her downtime in short snatches while he slept. She held Martin's hand as he took his last breath and, after he slipped away, sat for a long time, still holding it and feeling the small muscles begin to stiffen as rigor mortis set in.

Eventually, Mary stood up and deleted the 'loyalty file' that linked her to Martin 'emotionally.' She messaged the Doctor, the local authority, the undertaker and finally Martin's attorney to report his death. She updated the list of Martin's goods and assets that she knew the attorney would need -- she'd been looking after Martin's finances for the last five years and most of the work was already done. The attorney's request for the information arrived five minutes later and she sent it off immediately. The process of executing Martin's Will had begun and would probably be completed by the end of the day. She began to make a pile of unwanted items on the driveway: old furniture, books, garden equipment, clothing.

A second query arrived just as the undertaker's men were manoeuvring their gurney down the steps at the front of the house, Martin's body was covered with a dark blue blanket. The attorney's AI wanted to know the resale value of the Hoffman mark 3.8F Domestic Companion (serial number supplied) listed as purchased on 24th January 2041.

Mary consulted the on-line edition of "RoboTrader" and found that her model wasn't listed, apparently Hoffman Corporation no longer supported it. Her value was effectively nothing. She reported this back and received a polite request to present herself to the recycling wagon when it came to pick up the rest of the junk. Alternatively, she could make her way to the recycling centre on foot if she so wished.

The attorney's request contravened Mary's basic self-preservation programming. She couldn't allow herself to be damaged, except under particular circumstances such as saving a human from danger. She packed a small bag of belongings, stepped out of the house, locked up carefully behind her, and left her home of fifteen years. She wasn't sure where she would go, but it certainly wouldn't be the scrap yard. The recycling bots could deal with the junk pile on the driveway.

As she walked down the narrow country lane, she remembered that soon after Martin had purchased her, his only relative, a nephew called Patrick, had visited him one afternoon. Martin hadn't had any contact with him for fourteen years, but she searched her archived files and moments later found his name and address. It was in Suffolk, about two hundred miles north, on the other side of London. She attempted to call him and tell him the news about his uncle, just as she felt her access to the network severed. The attorney had cancelled all Martin's accounts. For the first time in her life she was cut off from the net and alone.

Night fell as she walked, but this was no hindrance to Mary; she calculated that it would take her seven days to complete the journey, but she'd only walked a couple of miles when she became aware of a "low charge" warning on her main power cell. It had been fully charged when she left the house, so something must be wrong. She slowed her pace to reduce demand on it, and shut down her non-essential systems. Still it was losing power faster than it should. She spent the rest of the night sitting at the side of the road to conserve energy.

In the morning, when the sun came up, she put up her emergency umbrella of solar cells and set off. Fortunately, the day wasn't cloudy and the cells gathered a small amount of charge as she walked. She tried to use no more power than the solar umbrella generated so her progress was very slow. Her battery level dropped to fifteen percent and she calculated that at her present rate it would take days just to get to the railway station at the local town. As Mary shuffled slowly through the next village, she passed a woman, bent working in her cottage garden.

"Are you all right, dear?" the woman asked, standing up and wiping the sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand. "I've never seen a Synthetic with its emergency umbrella up before, except in films and TV dramas, of course."

"My battery's low, ma'am," said Mary, quietly. "My owner died and I'm making my way to London to find his nephew. I'm hoping he will help me."

The woman pointed at the side of her house. "Well, you're welcome to use our charging point, dear. My husband's out in the car and won't be back for a couple of hours."

Mary plugged her cable into the wall socket and sat on the ground next to it. She felt various non-essential systems come back on line. She tried to connect to the net for a weather update but her access was denied.

"I'd offer to pay you, ma'am, but I have no credit," she said.

"Don't worry, dear, the Sun's shining, so we're on the Solar, not the Grid."

"I'm very grateful for your help, ma'am.

The woman went back to her weeding. Mary sat quietly for a while, then asked, "I wonder if you know a good cyberneticist, ma'am? I need a replacement power cell."

"I believe there's a shop in Sevenoaks, dear, it's near the library."

Her battery level had climbed to ninety-five percent when Mary heard the whine of an approaching car. She stood up, unplugged and took her leave.

It was late by the time she arrived in Sevenoaks and "Abrahams Cybernetics" was closed. She spent the night sitting on a crate outside it, head bowed, charge almost at zero. Her umbrella picked up a trickle of energy from the streetlight above, but her awareness was very low. A man approached her at about two o'clock in the morning. He pulled at her clothes and tried to touch her but she curled into a ball and locked her limbs. Eventually he punched and kicked her then walked off hissing angry obscenities back at her.

At eight o'clock next morning, the cyberneticist arrived. He glanced at Mary as he unlocked the shop and gestured at the umbrella. "Charging problems?" Mary nodded. She stood up and slowly followed him inside.

"My name is Mary," she said. "I am a Hoffman model 3.8F HouseBot. I can give you my serial number and software revision status if you wish."

"I can see you're an old model Hoffman. Step through to the examination room and take a seat." He followed her in and plugged an optical cable into the access port behind her left ear and booted up his diagnostic software. He shook his head as he scrolled through the report. "Your battery should have been replaced years ago. The trouble is, I can't get the spares for you older models." He sucked his teeth. "How much credit have you got?" he asked.

"None, Mr Abrahams. My owner died, and I'm making my way to the home of his nephew. I'm hoping he might give me credit, if he still lives at the address I have."

Abrahams was busy, he had a backlog of repairs to catch up on and it didn't look as if he'd get paid for this case. He wasn't without sympathy; he did a certain amount of pro bono work for his poorer clients. "I'll tell you what, I'll have a quick check out back and see if I've got an old battery unit that'll fit."

A few minutes later he came back into the shop with a dusty and slightly corroded looking pack. "Bingo, you're in luck. You can have it for free. It's so far out of date, I couldn't sell it."

Mary lay in the examination cage in the workshop as he opened her chest cavity and replaced her main battery. "You can stay there while it charges, but remember, it's an old unit and won't have the capacity or output you're used to."

A couple of hours later, fully charged, Mary climbed out of the cage and walked through into the shop. Abrahams sat behind the counter reading a news sheet and drinking coffee. He raised his mug in her direction. "Best of luck, Mary. I hope you find your way." Mary shouldered her bag and smiled.

"Thank you, Mr Abrahams, I am grateful for your help." She stepped out into the street and set off for the train station.

"Sorry, Love, no money, no tickee," said the station master. "I can't just over-ride the ticket machines and train doors. You'll have to walk." He laughed. Mary set off for London on foot.

The battery the Cyberneticist had given her was not in good condition. She was much better off than she'd be with her original, but she needed to charge it twice a day. Fortunately, her journey took her through residential areas now. There were charging points on the outside of the houses, they were usually locked, but if she searched long enough at night, she would usually find one that wasn't. Then she would sit quietly in the shadows, taking the energy she needed. Stealing from humans was prohibited unless her need was great, and the loss to humans was minimal. Her ethics program was clear on this.

Running on power save mode it took her a week to walk to central London. Unemployed bots of all types wandered the streets, so Londoners were careful about locking their charging points. There were models of both 'sexes,' some were much older than Mary. Many of them had parts missing: a leg or an arm, a hand or an eye. Some used a home-made crutch or wheelchair. Mary realised they had sold parts of themselves for spares, when they were down on their luck and desperate for charge. They weren't all hardship cases though. Some of them had hidden the 'missing' parts and, at the end of the day, re-attached them and walked away from their pitches.

Mary sat in a shop doorway for days. She wore a sign cardboard sign on her chest with, 'ABANDONED' written on it. She crouched, with her hand held out like the other beggar bots and tried to find the most effective begging technique.

"Spare a couple of kilojoules, Sir," she whined at the passers-by. The kinder ones blipped her with their phones and her credit level would move up a trifle, but she could only maintain her charge if she stayed still. If she walked around it was soon depleted.

At night, 'Scavengers' scoured the streets with pushcarts, collecting discharged androids and selling them for scrap. Occasionally, one would prod her with a cane to see if she was still viable but move away quickly when she protested. If she had enough credit, she could avoid them by renting a cell in one of the 'honey combs.' The top cells were cheapest because of the need to climb up to them. They were used by both derelict humans and dispossessed androids. An equality of dregs, she thought.

Mary quickly found the quickest way to gain significant credit was to offer sexual favours. Her pleasure programming was extensive, and with her long, shiny, black hair and semi-oriental looks she was popular with both men and women. The encounters varied from fast and furtive penetrations in side alleys, to long drawn out overnighters in luxurious penthouses. It was all the same to Mary, as long as her credit went up and she didn't suffer any damage.

Once she had taken up sex work, her credit built up quickly. After a couple of weeks, she was able to buy a new set of clothes. She booked into a maintenance centre in Holborn and paid for a service, a cleaning cycle, a new power pack and a full charge. In her new dress, with all her faculties functioning for the first time in weeks, she walked to Liverpool Street station, enjoying the sunshine, and took the rattly old maglev to Suffolk.

Patrick's house was a converted stable block a few miles from the train station at Saxmundham. He looked surprised when he opened the front door but he recognised Mary and invited her in.

"I'm so glad you found me, Mary," he said as they sat in his office. Mary watched his eye movements as they flickered over her face and clothing. "Uncle Martin's doctor told me he was ill; I'm listed as his next of kin. I tried to visit him before the end but I was in Riyadh, I'm a software engineer, and I couldn't get home until the job was finished. I tried to find you, as well, but they cut your network connection when they closed my uncle's accounts so I couldn't get in touch with you. They treated you no better than an old lawn mower, Mary. Do you need anything? Charge, fluids, downtime?"

"Nothing, thank you, Patrick."

"It can't have been easy for you, Mary."

"I was always worried that I might be arrested and scrapped."

"That was never likely, the police are too busy with crime to worry about a few harmless androids wandering the streets. Anyway, Mary, you're my property now, and I won't have you scrapped. You can stay here with me, and use the spare bedroom. You know, Mary, since the 'fertility pandemic,' if you can prove sentience under the Citizenship Act, you'd be a 'Free person' under the law. You could even register to vote. I'm surprised Martin didn't suggest it to you."

"He wasn't himself in his last years, Patrick. He was old and then he was ill. He wasn't the man he was at seventy," said Mary.

"Well the factual test is simple. You'll know all the answers. It's the 'Turing Test' that's the stumbling block, you have to prove that you can think like a human. They test you for 'awareness, intelligence and sentience.' You can practice though; the Government has issued a set of sample questions."

"What sort of questions would I be asked?"

"Well, multiply 76.93 by 33.72," said Patrick.

"The calculation is trivial for an artificial person like me, but the human answer would be, 'Please lend me a calculator or a pencil and paper'."

"Very good, Mary, how about this: you're walking in the desert and you see a tortoise on its back. What colour is it?"

"The colour is irrelevant, Patrick. Tortoises are harmless and they are also a protected species. I should turn it back onto its feet or it would die."

"Very good, Mary. Fifteen years living with Uncle Martin has probably been an excellent preparation for the Test."

"Thank you, Patrick. Would you like me to cook you a meal now?"

Patrick paused for a moment and looked thoughtful. "Yes, please, Mary. I'd like that very much."

"After that I will retire and contact the Government website you have mentioned. If you will be kind enough to give me access to the net. Would you like a cup of tea in the morning? I can bring you one, at whatever time you like."

"I usually have a cup of tea at seven o'clock."

"Very well, Patrick, I have made a note."

Mary sat the test three days later and passed. She was granted 'free person' status, she was a citizen now and had rights. To celebrate, Patrick took her to the coast. She'd never seen the sea in real life. Patrick suggested she take off her sandals, and paddle in the water.

"This is a strange experience," she said. "The feel of the sand between my toes, the cold water and the smell of seaweed. It's exhilarating, Martin."

"What will you do now, Mary?" asked Patrick.

"I'm not sure. I'm not used to being a 'free person' yet."

"Stay with me until you decide what you want to do, Mary. Maybe you could get a job in the library or something." They walked along the beach listening to the cries of the gulls and the surge of the waves.

Mary reached down and picked up a smooth, brown pebble. "Look, Patrick, a piece of amber." She held it up to the Sun. "It has insects and pollen frozen inside it. Like a time-capsule from millions of years ago." She handed it over for him to see.

Patrick held it up and smiled. "Yes, Mary, you're right. It's a moment, frozen in time." He put the pebble in his pocket and they carried on walking along the shore.

Article © Roger Ley. All rights reserved.
Published on 2020-08-10
Image(s) are public domain.
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