July 30, 2004

The Council, Installment #3

The bird on Dr. Randall Drayton’s windowsill chirped in alarm and flapped out the open window. Patricia turned to see what had startled it.

The room seemed out of focus. She rubbed her eyes.

There was a man’s head in the middle of air in the kitchen. Patricia opened her mouth to scream but no sound came out. A body followed, as if the man was stepping through a slit in the fabric of the room. Dressed in a long gray tunic and trousers, he was so tall that Patricia had to crane her neck to look up at him. His long, black hair was brushed off his high, golden forehead and tied back. Standing very still, he surveyed the room with large, dark, canted eyes.

Patricia struggled to make sense of him. The fact that he was Oriental tempted her to believe that he was real. She wouldn’t have been inventive enough to conjure him.

Randall gripped Patricia’s hands, staring at the intruder, but his gaze was fixed on the man’s chest and not his face.

Patricia saw it, then. The 3 Score and 10 logo was emblazoned on the front of the gray tunic.

“Dr. Drayton,” the man said in a voice that smoothed the ragged places in Patricia’s nerves, “for Dr. Bedford’s sake, please do not resist.”

Randall released his grip on Patricia’s hands. “You’re taking me?”

The man’s eyes narrowed, but his voice remained gentle. “Under the circumstances, you both require our protection until Dr. Bedford’s hearing.” He turned to Jim. “We’ll need to take your house robot, too.”

Jim blinked and then moved closer to Patricia and Randall.

“All of you, step this way,” the man said.

And Patricia felt a brief, weightless euphoria as the room disappeared.

*** *** ***

At the street level, humans clogged the walkways despite the efforts of civil officers and robots to direct traffic. They jostled and shoved Colter but he managed to make forward progress.

He felt a tug on his shirt and turned to see a female robot.

“Where are you going?” she asked.

Colter tried to answer, but his programming blocked a response to the question. He stared into her large, blue eyes.

“You can’t pass through the Gauntlet,” she said, blocking his path.

Colter had no response. The word was not in his data banks.

“I know who you are,” the robot whispered. “They’re looking for you. I can help.”

“I must keep moving.”

“Yes, of course you must. But you’ll be intercepted.”

“I must--”

“You must beam with me.”

Colter felt her hands on his data port. He blinked as his buffers automatically prepared for the possibility of a power surge, and braced himself for a moment of disorientation. The ragged-scalped, hazel-eyed male robot staring back at him looked vaguely familiar, but he turned and slipped into the crowd before Colter could name him.

The urge to keep moving was strong, but the melee of pedestrians thickened, impeding his progress as he neared the train platform. His body felt light and quick, but his processors seemed sluggish, as if they were laboring through unfamiliar layers of programming. It wasn’t until he reached the train platform that he realized he was using some of his higher order functions.

It wasn’t until he submitted to the first security scan that he remembered what the Gauntlet was.

And it wasn’t until he cleared the scan and boarded the train that he realized his body proportions had changed.

Colter didn’t have time to examine himself; the passengers packed into the train, sweeping him along in a press of human bodies. The seats were all taken so Colter grabbed a hand bar. His unfamiliar body was squeezed between two men who locked eyes with each other and then gawked at Colter’s chest, grinning at him. He felt a weak response in some of his neural pathways, but the signal was confusing and illogical. He looked down.

He was wearing a blue blouse of soft fabric that crisscrossed between ... breasts.

Colter struggled to find a thread of logic and continuity. He didn't remember being female.

The train was moving slowly, well below its normal speed, and the passengers shouted their frustration. After a few minutes, it lurched to a halt.

“What the --” bellowed one of the men standing next to Colter. “This is no damn place to stop!”

The passengers gasped in unison as the interior lights flickered and died. Colter’s vision tracked a boarding troupe of officers and robots. In the murky darkness, the entourage turned their intimidating search beams on the passengers, scanning human retinas and robotic signatures.

Colter stood very still as a robot confronted him with the beam. A sluggish thought made its way to his consciousness. It tripped a flag, and like a train switching tracks, a safer thought popped up in its place. “I am late for an important function,” he said to the naked-faced robot, shifting his weight so that his hip jutted out at an awkward angle.

“Inconsequential,” The androgynous robot replied and then moved on.

The thought wormed its way up to through layers of Colter’s awareness again. “I must get through the Gauntlet,” he acknowledged. The command had no reference, but it was the number one priority at the moment. He queried his reference banks again. They were not in order. Especially disordered were the ones that identified him as Colter. “On the surface, I am Lyra,” he discovered.

Lyra. The female robot. He queried Lyra's function.

As if to answer, Lyra-on-the-surface smiled at the man next to her. The man stopped cursing and muttering, and straightened his clothes, smiling sheepishly back at her.

“I am Colter underneath,” Colter asserted. Deep inside, Colter observed Lyra and wondered if she was just as confused to be in his body.

*** *** ***

Lyra put a stocking cap over her head. It was Colters head, she reminded herself and its scalp was hideous because Colter had ripped the hair off it so he would be less recognizable. Asimov had given Lyra the cap for this purpose. He'd thought of everything, as usual.

Lyra had to move against the flow of pedestrian traffic. It was slow going. Asimov had warned her about response lag due to the layered programming he’d given her, so she was relieved when, once she'd cleared the crowd, her large, boot-clad feet easily obeyed the commands for long strides. Perhaps Asimov, an enhanced human, could not imagine that a machine like Colter could be so marvelous.

She should not be running, now that she was away from the evacuation area. Running would draw attention to Colter’s body. She slowed to a power-walk. The urge to keep moving drove her hard. Coordinates trickled through her brain alerting her that she was nearing her destination, but they told her nothing about what to expect when she arrived.

Lyra appreciated the heavier and stronger male body. It was liberating to be free of the Lyra exterior. Even though Asimov had purchased her from the pawnshop where she’d been discarded by her former owner, and had refurbished her with new functions, some of the old programs haunted her like ghosts in her circuits.

Now those ghosts mingled with the Colter functions left in place to help her coordinate his body. Lyra remembered how Asimov had laughed as he was programming the dual beam protocol for rescuing Colter. “We can’t have you strutting around and batting your eyelashes in Colter’s body. Perhaps this process will clear those old functions permanently. And you’ll have to be able to manage about thirty kilos more than your accustomed to, Lyra.”

Having bonded so closely with Asimov, Lyra queried the possibility that he would reject her in this new body. Perhaps she’d find herself abandoned in a pawnshop again. And as if Asimov had anticipated this query, the answer came to her.

Her primary purpose was to help Colter get through the Gauntlet to safety. Nothing else mattered.

Lyra considered this. Her loyalty to Asimov surged. Asimov had important work to do and he needed Lyra’s help. There were so few enhanced humans and sentient robots on their side. Asimov had tried to make her understand what was at stake. He’d shown her words and images of war between robot factions to establish dominance. Of contract terrorism used by enhanced humans to control and cull the normal population. “This is the world The Council is slowly and effectively building,” Asimov had told her. “It is a world where nothing will exist that does not serve The Council.”

Lyra could not understand it. But it satisfied her need for purpose. She was made to serve, and this work would serve more humans than the work she did before.

And even now, Asimov was risking his place on The Council, and therefore his life, to intercept Patricia Bedford before harm could come to her because of Colter’s actions.

“You help Colter, and I will help Patricia,” Asimov had told her.

Lyra had so many questions. Why was Colter so important? Why was Patricia in danger? Through the confusing layers of her Colter-Lyra consciousness, she deduced that Colter and Patricia must be valuable in Asimov’s work.

But the most perplexing question still looped around her logic circuits unanswered: did Asimov know that Colter was going to blow up his master’s apartment? How else would he have been prepared with the dual-beam program and the rescue plan?

A flag tripped Lyra’s thoughts. In a human, it would have seemed like a flicker of doubt, but in a robot, it was like a low-grade alarm.

If Asimov could be disloyal to the Council, then he could be disloyal to anyone or anything. If Asimov knew about Colter’s plan, he could have prevented Colter from doing an act that would put himself and Patricia in danger.

Whose side was Asimov on? The alarm persisted. What was Lyra’s purpose? To serve Asimov? Or to serve the humans?

As if doing so would clear the alarm, Lyra ran as fast as Colter’s legs could carry her toward the green space where the coordinates were guiding her.

When a tall, black-skinned woman materialized in front of her, Lyra couldn’t stop. Lyra slammed Colter’s body into the stranger’s and then the world disappeared.

Posted by Kathy at July 30, 2004 10:30 AM | TrackBack

Inconsistent spelling, Azimov vs Asimov

Posted by: Doug Jones at August 1, 2004 03:12 PM

Very interesting issues raised here about consciousness and identity in robots. It appears that some part of Lyra is still present in her body, even though what we would think of as her "conscious mind" is now in Colter's body. (And vice-versa). Since the robot's "mind" is apparently just software, couldn't she be in both places at once? Or are the CPUs in their heads only capable of running a single personality at a time?

Also, I wonder how much her fear of rejection is a built-in defense mechanism related to her previous employment. What was she? A cocktail waitress? A fashion model? A hooker? All rely on keeping the attention and approval of the customer in order to maintain economic viability. (And all would presumably be programmed to strut around and bat their eyes.)

The Council members must be crazy to allow a guy named Asimov/Azimov to join them. The name is a dead give-away. Of course he's going to side with the robots!

Posted by: Phil at August 2, 2004 08:44 AM

Interesting assumptions. The robots could hold both programs, but Lyra is trying to protect and preserve Colter's identity in this case. I've asked Stephen to help with the next installment because the Gauntlet is coming up where the Council will "sift" Lyra because they think she is Colter. Feel free to jump in with your ideas.

I'm working under an assumption about AI that even when something seems to be simply a program, the AI is capable of synthesizing information beyond parameters of the program. It would be really hard, for example, for Lyra's experiences in her former function ( which I've left vague on purpose), to be totally expunged.

I welcome all ideas here.

Regarding Asimov, you're assuming that people "join" the Council. Wait and see. You're also assuming that there is only one "side" to the robots. You may be getting a glimpse of how arrogant the Council members are.

Don't you hate reading things in installments? Just kidding.

Posted by: Kathy at August 2, 2004 09:03 AM
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