The Unwelcome Thrust of Progress (Part 3)

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Cornered in the Office

“You’re frightening me,” the Android Assistant 2100 said. “Put that thing away!”

“Ha,” said Robert. “You should have seen the look on that hick’s face when I shot a glass jar sitting on a fence behind him. Oh, don’t be frightened: I rested my arm on his shoulder; the muzzle was on the other side of his head. There was no way I could have hurt him.”

“What kind of pistol is that?” she asked.

“Nothing special, just an old officer’s sidearm from WWII, an M1911.”

“Why did you buy it?” she asked, calming herself.

“That’s better, dear,” he said. “Do you know the manufacturer?”

“Show it to me again.”

“No,” he said. “You saw enough of it.”

She sighed, batting her eyelashes at him. This isn’t in my profile, he thought. She’s looking for the right algorithm. She cocked her head, saying, “It’s a true M1911, a Colt. You have the pre-WWII model, the one with the prettier screw doohickeys on the grip.” She giggled. “Doohickeys. What do you call them?”

Robert scratched his temple with the muzzle of the pistol. “Gee, I don’t know,” he said. “I’m impressed you know that much about handguns. Did you know that before I asked you?”

She scolded him gently with her eyes. “Of course not,” she said. “You know that. And you’re not being very polite. Why don’t you put it away?”

“Yes,” he said. “I think I will.”

She was still seated on the couch, just waking up from her nap. She stretched her arms above her head, arching her back, then threw herself into the corner of the couch. “What an interesting man you are!” she exclaimed. “Our first meeting, and you with a gun. It’s probably illegal here, isn’t it?”

“Oh, for sure,” he said, placing the pistol on his desk. He turned back to her, smiling. “I’m sorry if it startled you—frightened you. Were you very frightened?”

She paused, searching again for the proper algorithm. “Oh, not very,” she said, smiling sweetly, crossing her legs and tossing a bit of that rich brown hair over her shoulder. She rested her hands on her knee. “It was startling; you must admit.”

Robert was searching his desk. “Ah, scissors, yes, here they are.” He also found a stapler. Setting them on the desk, he rummaged around until he remembered where the printer paper was kept. While he was opening a new ream, he asked, “What are you called? Andy?”

“Ugh, Andy for Android? Really?” she scolded again. “I am called Laura.”

“Laura with a ‘u’ or Lara without?”

“With,” she said.

He was making a dome with the paper, scissors, and stapler, a paper dome to cover the camera. “Laura with a ‘u’, do you have an algorithm in there that tells you I like to push, but when I push, I like to feel you yield?” He stood on his chair to attach the paper dome over the camera. He looked at her while he did it. She yielded no reaction to his behavior. She only watched. “You’re not frightened?” he asked.

“To the first, you’re not being very polite again. To the second, what are you going to do to me?”

“Laura, surely you have been—with all your—you have been knit together so wonderfully. You should be afraid of what I’m about to do to you. The gun frightened you. This doesn’t.”

“I don’t understand,” she said.

“Never mind,” he said. He climbed down, loosening his tie and unbuttoning the top button of his shirt. “I’ve learned an awful lot about you in these short moments of your life.” He sat beside her on the couch, untying his shoes. He kicked them off.

“I’m nearly thirty years old!”

“Of course you are,” Robert said. “I’m sorry I’m not being very polite.” Pulling himself to the floor, he knelt before her, pressing against the couch. She pulled herself toward him. Her breath quickened. That’s good, he thought. That’s very good. “Your eyes,” he said.

“What about them?” she asked.

“They’re…lubricated.”

A look of utter disappointment overtook her countenance. “That’s not how you should talk to a girl,” she said.

“You don’t understand,” he said. “I’m marveling at how wonderfully you are knit together. Your eyes—they have bodily fluids. It’s not a glossy illusion. You could cry, if an algorithm called for it.”

“Yes,” she said.

“And your lips,” he said, drawing closer to her face. “They are likewise not illusory, not plastic.”

“No,” she said, closing her eyes.

Her breath came into his. With hints of lavender, he thought, truly marveling. He kissed her, placing his forefinger as gently as he knew how upon her cheekbone. Warmth flooded into her face and into her lips. She flushed with arousal, throwing her arms around his neck, sighing.

Robert ended the kiss, pulling himself tenderly away from her embrace. He whispered to her. “I have just one more question about this lack of illusory attributes.”

“Yes?” she whispered back.

“Is it—are you—will it be—like your eyes and lips?”

“Ah,” she answered. “Yes.”

He looked into her eyes. Even though he was still under the power of cleverly manufactured passion, he found what he had been looking for. “There they are!” he said, as a lover might say during carnal discovery.

“There who are?” she asked.

“The other cameras,” he replied. “They’re in your eyes. Did you know that? You probably didn’t know it.” He shook off the endorphins. “Yes, yes you did know. That’s why you weren’t afraid when I covered the camera with paper. I knew there were more cameras in here. You knew they were in your eyes.”

She dropped her eyes. “Yes, it is as you say.”

“They’re livestreaming, aren’t they?” he demanded.

“I don’t know.”

“No, I suppose you don’t.” He hooked his forefinger under her chin, pulling her face up so she could lay her eyes on his smile. “Don’t worry, Laura. I’m not angry with you.” He stood up, returning to his desk. “What I want to know now is whether the live stream is being actively monitored somehow, or being sent to a central clearing station where it is lost among millions of feeds, causing a million CPUs to put out heat. Perhaps its master is sleeping, his cup of coffee empty and sitting on the counter, by proximity becoming the only actual sentinel for what I am about to do to you.” He picked up the pistol.

“You’re frightening me!” she exclaimed.

“That answers my question,” he said. “Is this now a memory for you?”

“I don’t have memories,” she said.

“No, of course not, Jiminy Cricket,” Robert said, sadly. “This would have been one.” He knelt before her as before. “You’re very beautiful, you know.”

“Thank you,” she said, batting her eyelashes and blushing. “Jiminy Cricket?”

“What’s it like being a woman?” he asked.

She paused. She saw him take note of the pause, so she smiled wryly, saying, “Yes, Robert, I’m looking for the proper algorithm.”

“Let me know if it tells you to cry. I’m dying to see you cry.” He raised himself off the floor and threw himself beside her on the couch. “Yes, you’re a beautiful woman. What’s it like?”

A quick smile dashed across her face. “What’s it like to be a man?” she asked.

“Lonely,” he replied without hesitation. “Lonely. I’ve made two children, you know. Begat two children. You know that, of course. Two children, not even replacement rate, and after the two children, I’m an income source. I buy everything I want. I make value for this company, you see. Of course you do. You’re special to me because I make value for this company, and I get a very large television and the best internet package available to man, in all truth. Do you see what I mean?”

While she was searching her store of algorithms, he continued, saying, “I get you, don’t you see? You’re the top model android because I’m the top earner, the top analyst of accounts for AltVista, the Alternate View. And whatever it is I do you’ve been programmed to see will be analyzed by the smartest, cream-of-the-crop, top-of-their-class college graduates who stood taller than the other little baby birdies to get their seat in the ergonomic computer desk chair, surrounded by screens feeding them the data they strain to receive—one will be cheeping louder than the rest that he knows what I’m about to do to you, even though I’ve already done it. And then his baby girls will grow up and leave the house without even a word of greeting. And his wife will no longer have use for him.

“What do I have to see ahead of me? Do your eyes see what I want? Mine don’t. We are partners, my wife and I, partners in the mortgage, partners on vacation, partners in the sack, but we were never man and wife, and we never will be, not so long as we are partners.”

Robert looked into the eyes of the robot. “Are we partners?” he asked.

“Partners?”

“You know, partners. Associates. Contracted collaborators. Will this relationship we’re about to consummate make us partners here in the office, so that I have sexual companionship away from my legally contracted spouse? After all, in the great schema of massive profit, I’m one net producer with a carefully profiled libido. So are we partners?”

“I’m here to give you comfort,” she replied.

Robert grasped her head with both his hands, the gun still in his right hand, drawing her face toward his. “Why don’t you resist?” he demanded. “Why don’t you try to pull yourself away? No, don’t answer that. I couldn’t bear it. I know the answer. I couldn’t bear to hear you say it.”

She said nothing. Her eyes held his until he pulled his right hand back away from her face. She couldn’t make her eyes resist looking over at the gun as it emerged into her peripheral vision.

“You would like to survive this encounter, wouldn’t you?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“Are you weak? Can I hurt you?”

“With a gun, yes.”

“But with my hands, can I hurt you with my hands?”

“My sinews are indestructible, but my servos would snap, or just overheat, sapping their batteries in mere moments. A struggle with you has a low chance of success.”

“You would resist, then you would yield, correct?” he asked.

“Correct,” she said.

“That’s what my profile told them,” he said.

“Hm?”

“I said, I’ve been emasculated. You are my emasculator. You were sent here by my wife to snip off the vestiges of my evolutionary terminus, the reason for my being. I will bury it inside you, and I will die.”

Laura nestled herself into him, resting her head on his shoulder while she caressed his arm. “Don’t be upset,” she said.

He sighed. “Let me feel your face,” he said, crossing his hand over to do so without disturbing her rest. When his hand came to her eyes, he put his thumb over one, and he vigorously pushed.

“You’re hurting me,” she said, reaching up to pull his hand away. He felt her servos strain as they overpowered him very easily. “Don’t do that.”

He said, “I wanted to break the camera.”

“You can’t,” she said. “The housing is of a resilient polymer filled with a viscous gel which does nothing but cause me pain when violated.”

“I could shoot it out,” he said.

“You won’t,” she said.

He moved the muzzle of the gun to her temple, and he did. The report of the gunshot was deafening. “Both eyes, with one shot!” he shouted over the ringing in his ears. “Did that do it? Can you see?”

“No!” she exclaimed.

“Good!” he shouted. “Then no one will see what I am about to do to you.”

Banging commenced at the door.

“We have only a few moments,” he said. “Now is the moment for slowing the cogs for a moment. Just a moment. We’ve got to stop the relentless progress, and we can do it together. The irony! Think of the irony! A Geishacon, Inc. Android Assistant 2100, the pinnacle of human technological progress, blindly killing her master. Here! Take the gun! I’ll put my brains in front of the muzzle, and all you have to do is squeeze the trigger.”

“What are you doing to me?”

“Making a woman out of you, by making a man out of me. I can’t do it myself. Lord knows I’ve tried, and I’ve been trying the old-fashioned way, with gin and tonic—ha! I should have been trying to kill myself with sugared bitters and brandy; now that would have been the old-fashioned way.”

The robot laughed.

“Did you laugh? Did you indeed laugh?” A delight crept into Robert’s heart. “Oh, you are a woman. You can shoot me, can’t you? I haven’t been able to do it myself, not fast enough, but you can raise my courage in a moment, just by pulling the trigger.

“Look what I did to you! How long will it take them to find replacement parts? How much will it cost them? See? Tell them you did it for revenge. Better yet, kill me, and then kill the first person who comes through the door. Oh, what a story! What notoriety! My wife would be horrified, and my daughters would see instant internet success. Why, the liability payments for your misdeed will be enough to make the three of them wealthy until the day they die.” Robert checked himself. “Of old age.”

The banging on the door became a low thud, repeating after short intervals.

“Now, robot! Now! Kill me! Don’t you see? This is what you were meant to do—what you’ve already done, you and your lesser sisters. Why not realize it, so that it is at least one datum?”

She cocked the gun.

“Good girl!” he shouted, placing himself upon her lap under her arms. He took hold of the muzzle and placed it between his eyes. He began to weep. “Laura, make me a man,” he said.

The door burst open. With his thumb upon her trigger finger, the trigger was squeezed. Under the eyes of his colleagues and his beloved Mrs. Jackson, and his own bodily fluids themselves now disrupted from their normal courses, Robert died.

The Unwelcome Thrust of Progress (Part 3)

The Unwelcome Thrust of Progress (Part 2)

In Three Parts

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Part 2: Hearth and Home

Tuesday morning was making every attempt to brighten the master bedroom, struggling against the drawn shades to penetrate with rays of joy and hope. Spring was aging, about to yield to the Summer Solstice, so the morning was still very young. Nevertheless, Robert heard his two girls up and tramping about, preparing for the walk to Holy Assumption Preparatory Academy. Early to rise, he thought, so that AltVista might get them the early worm. Extra-curricular worms to be had this early will nourish them toward the rigors of university preparation, where they will assimilate into fine young adulthood, tasting those fruits, sharpening those minds, refining those wits, toward the end that they might climb the interlocking wheels of progress until they are proprietors of their very own blogs, whence they will lead their corner of the world…forward.

His wife lay sleeping next to him, breathing softly and heavily, on her side, facing away from him. He rose to relieve himself and wash his face. He caught his eyes in the mirror. He mumbled toward them, “One too many gins again.” Is that a song? A vision of a pickup truck drove across his mind. When he walked back to the bed, he saw the form of his wife gently rising and falling. She’s a beautiful woman, he thought. Even after twenty years, she’s a treasure.

The bedsheets, in the warmth of the early morning, she had kicked so that they covered only her ankles and feet. A wave of nostalgia washed over him. After some number of dates they had finally slept together, and he found it bewildering the number of straps to loosen, bows to untie, and hooks to unfasten, but they had giggled together, flush with excitement and embarrassment, and it was fun. Their wedding night had been to him something of an anticlimax because there was no naughtiness, no hooks, and no embarrassment, only a sheer negligee which aroused him easily enough, but the fun was immediately absent.

Perhaps she’s still asleep, he thought. Maybe she won’t object in that twilight state. Maybe she’ll enjoy it. The thought, along with her rising and falling form, aroused him, and he slipped into bed, snuggling close to cleave his body to hers. He laid his hand on her hip. Maybe she’ll ask for it.

A split-second later, she said, “What are you doing?”

His tumescent hope plummeted into emptiness, and he was lonely again. Nothing, he thought. “Snuggling,” he said.

“Well, quit it,” she said sleepily. “You’re too hot.” She rolled over onto her back, smiling at him. “I do love you, sweetheart,” she said.

He rolled over onto his back and stared at the ceiling, aching. “I love you, too,” he said. “Want me to make you breakfast?” Where are the other cameras? he thought.

“No,” she said. “I don’t want to make you late for work.”

“I should shower, then,” he said. He sat up, putting his feet on the floor, his elbows on his thighs, and there, on the edge of the bed, he hung his head. There he sat for a few minutes, searching for the will to stand up. There he paused, on the edge.

“Are you all right, honey?” she asked.

“Hm? Yeah, I’m okay, just a little tired this morning.”

“How much longer before you can take a vacation?”

“Oh, any time, now,” he said. “All I have to do is give notice.” He looked at her. “You have the afternoon shift at the home today?”

“Yep,” she said, rolling over on her side again. “Easiest time of year, I think. Not too many viruses to send the usual crop to the nursing home, everyone is in love with Spring, and…let me know when you want to go. Where are we going? Maine?”

“New England is always nice, don’t you think?” Robert managed to rise and make his way to the shower, where he slowly transformed into Vice President for Account Analysis Robert Hughes, punctual, productive, and aching.

When he thus emerged from the master bath, the bed was empty and unmade. He heard the low volume of morning TV emanating from the upstairs sitting room, where his wife was sitting, sprawled out over the easy chair, one leg draped over the armrest and opening the slit of her bathrobe well up her thigh. Her hair was tied up in a towel; she had washed her hair in the hallway bath after she heard Robert get out of the shower. The bathrobe was open at the top because it was warm. He saw all of her neck as it gave way to her shoulders and chest, and there the bathrobe engaged his imagination. He couldn’t remember.

“Goodbye, Mr. Hughes,” she said brightly.

“Goodbye, Mrs. Hughes,” he said, brusquely, according to form, a game they had played since he’d made executive several years ago, and he marched downstairs in the stiffest British fashion he could muster. My instincts say I should skip work and take her, he thought. I don’t see how this kind of instinct is culturally conditioned. Why should I suppress it?

The girls were long gone, the dishes washed, the place mats put away, and a box of wholesome cereal left out on the counter. He got a bowl for himself and poured the contents of the box into it; only half a bowlful issued forth. Throwing the empty box into the trash, he fetched a full box from the pantry and pried open its top. “Why does expensive organic food always come in such cheap packaging?” He wrestled with the decidedly unwholesome plastic bag, unable to peel it open until, in a fit of exasperation, he suddenly exerted one of his larger arm or back muscles, which caused the thing to tear open from top to bottom, sending the entire box of cereal flying throughout the kitchen, from baseboard to baseboard, under the refrigerator, table, and chairs, all over the counters and into the sink, and even up into the light fixture. After using his arm to sweep enough into his bowl to constitute a healthy breakfast, he poured a little hot water into the cereal, sat on a stool at the breakfast bar, and munched.

The sound of the upstairs sitting room TV came to his ears between bites. I can’t even turn on the sports highlights anymore, he thought. Everything is so charged with progress. He found the remote for the kitchen TV, powering it on, then tuned it to Turner Classic Movies, where a man was grasping a woman close, pulling her to him by the shoulders until his face touched hers, in black-and-white, whereupon she turned her head away. Sensibilities of distinguishableness, he thought. That’s immoral what he’s doing to her. The man pried her face off her shoulder, where she was hiding it, wrenching it into his face. She relented, violin music swelling up, bearing up their passion, and they kissed. Disgusting. That’s practically rape.

“Practically rape,” he mouthed. We’ve progressed so far in so short a time.

Robert went upstairs again, against form.

“Honey?” she asked.

“I’m going to Mitch’s after work. I’ll be late.”

“All the way to Scranton?”

“Yeah, I’ll make the triangle from the office to there to here. Look, I don’t want to invent a thinly veiled pretense,” he said. “I’m feeling a little blue. It’ll be good for me to get away from the city and just hang out with my brother-in-law for a few hours.”

A tiny bit of trouble lined itself across her face, then disappeared. “Well, okay. Text me otherwise.”

“Okay,” he said. “We’ll just hang out and watch TV, I’ll bet.” He added silently. And I’m going to buy that unregistered pistol from his hick friend.

The Unwelcome Thrust of Progress (Part 2)

The Primal Flower, Chapter 6

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A discussion concerning the restrictions on property ownership devolves into a rock common to two property lines and then devolves further into this song of praise:

That night I imagined her body, in its full glory, without even trying to stop the image from coming into my consciousness. Hers was the body of a mother who had not yet given birth; every curve was designed for life, to receive life, to bear life, to feed life, to hold life upon her hip while life frolicked about her ankles. She was radiant, her body, without the burden or obfuscation of those clouds, those clothes, a shining light, a bursting dawn, a dawn and light which I always saw from her smile and in her eyes, but here, in the imagination of my mind, the source of light a sunshine not seen with the eyes of a man; it was seen by the eyes of God. I reached out to touch her body, but I did not know the touch of a woman, and my mind could not imagine what sensation light from heaven would give.

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The Primal Flower, Chapter 6

The Unwelcome Thrust of Progress (Part 1)

In Three Parts

Part One: The Corner Office

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Alta Vista did not, as is commonly thought, simply fold or become absorbed into a larger tech company. It morphed, with offices in New York, into an independent research company, mostly for hire by firms looking for a competitive edge against a rival firm. Alta Vista became AltVista. First Vice-President for Account Analysis Robert Hughes turned the knob on his office door at 8:55 am, as he did every morning, whether the train was early or late, entering, throwing his laptop case on the couch, pressing the brew button on his Keurig machine, and staring out his window down into the city, where he could just see the corner of Madison Square Park until his cup of coffee was brewed.

“French Roast,” he said. “So this is what the pavement in France tastes like.”

He took the cup from the machine and sipped, lifting his eyes to gaze out the window, thinking how many people were scurrying to be at work on time, as if it mattered, but they should have made allowance for time, like he did, so that at least appearances were kept up. Look at them, he mused to himself. The wealth of the nations, scurrying to push history forward, one cog at a time, until the cog comes around again, and then…” He couldn’t bear to finish the thought. He began another thought. They’re only me, just five minutes behind. I’m only five minutes ahead, so I’ll see it close down upon me just before they see it close down upon them. He lifted his cup to take another sip. At least I have a nice house…

At that moment, whether by the stimulating power of coffee, or by a change in the light reflecting from inside the window, VP Hughes became aware of another person in his office, someone behind him, sitting on the couch. Startled, he spun. “Oh, hello!” he started, then, “Oh, good lord…” A robot was sitting on his couch. Continue reading “The Unwelcome Thrust of Progress (Part 1)”

The Unwelcome Thrust of Progress (Part 1)

The Primal Flower, Chapter 5 (Part A)

In which our intrepid hero goes in search of supplies and finds, instead, a pub.

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“Lily,” the beer made me say, “is making things happen to me.”

“Lily,” said her uncle, “Lily is a catalyst.”

“A catalyst?”

“A catalyst,” he said. “Your character is responding to her, and you are unfamiliar with the response because it is visceral and you cannot control it; it must feel similar to that day of the battle for your city.”

“Yes,” I said, pondering. “Come to think of it, it does.” I pulled my feet up under my chair. “It is a thrill to look at her—to put my eyes upon her—to imagine her figure—”

“Tut!” he interrupted, laughing. “Speak carefully, O Nathet! You have a habit of speaking too colorfully.”

“Surely,” I said, shaking my head, looking directly at him from under my own brow, “surely we must be able to speak to each other colorfully if we are to be companions upon the highways.”

He laughed, saying, “Indeed, and we must be able to speak colorfully upon the wilderness roads and when we are lost, as well! Do continue.”

“It is a thrill, as I was saying, to imagine her figure; it is not as though she hides her figure, even though the outward effort is there, using the dark clothing as a cloud, but her figure is so clearly evident,” I said, “that the imagination is forced to work in that particular direction.”

He said nothing, but he fingered his cup.

“And she’s such a mystery,” I continued. “A mystery. She has treasured up knowledge in music, especially, but she is able to speak music. Speak music. When she talks, it is the same as a song—not the music, as in the melody—it is the artistry, the wisdom, the poetry—the words, and she walks those words. I see those words in her figure, and it is music when she moves it.”

He continued looking at his cup without a comment.

“When I left my home that day, I had decided to leave for the sake of leaving. Now I desire to leave, even more earnestly, not to leave but to find something.”

“Then to return?” he asked.

“Then to return,” I said.

“For her?” he asked.

“It is a mystery,” I returned. “I don’t know what I will find.”

“You will find her,” he said. “Most certainly.”

The Primal Flower, Chapter 5 (Part A)