It was a calculated risk.
The Day One Show was a women's interest program, but Ben accepted the guest spot anyway, certain his appearance would be controversial. Translation; a lot of the viewers would hate him, hate his company... and especially the product the company was about to roll out.
Inside the Green Room, and again on the way to the guest couch he was told that his slot would be just six minutes. Then he was seated. Tammie Forbes, the host, didn't glance his way, she was finishing a last minute conference with the director, whispered but angry, then the studio lights came up and the cameras came on. Ms. Forbes screen personality was switched on as well.
“Our guest is Ben O'Brian, C E O of Symbot. You're all familiar with service robots. They've been taking over from service dogs, and they can do a lot more to help the elderly and disabled to live independent lives. Symbot also has a pet bot line. You've seen the ads right here. Less complicated than service bots, but more affectionate...”
“Now,” she said, turning toward Ben, “Your company is going on to... different challenges.” She seemed to grope for the right words.
“Yes,” Ben said, “Here she is....”
On that cue the home viewers saw the screen split. The left half stayed on a close up of Ben, the right half became a schematic, of the new service bot. Inadvertently, Ben laughed. Off screen Ms. Forbes was looking daggers in his direction. “What's funny?” She asked.
“It never occurred to me that the NBC censors would do that. “
The schematic was a simplified X-ray view of a feminoid robot-- but it had two areas blurred out; across the ribcage and the pelvis.
“She's a machine!” Ben insisted, but he couldn't keep a straight face.
“So it is,” Tammie replied in a tone that said we are not amused. She took a few deep breaths then all of the screen was her face.
Apparently they were not going to use the stills of other prototypes, even though they were cued up and ready.
They were not x-rays views, and they were fully clothed. Designer clothes.
“...Tell us about it. What does it do?” she asked, exactly as if it hadn't been all over the media for months.
“For one thing she's the first of a new generation of ‘bots that'll recapture a lot of American dollars now being spent on sex tourism in foreign countries. There's already been too much outsourcing in too many industries.”
“It's a robot prostitute.” She said, straining to keep her voice neutral.
“I believe the term is 'sex worker.' And she's capable of teaching men what real women want in the way of sex.”
“Boys, you mean.”
“I mean inexperienced or inept men, and there seem to be a lot of those around....”
Ben had expected some response from the largely female studio audience--but there was only a chilly silence.
He filled the gap; “One of the other benefits is that she won't carry any STDs, there's an extensive sanitizing process between customers.”
“Spare us the details.” Her voice had taken on a deep chill.
“I intend to. Other than the cleaning cycle and routine maintenance she can work 24/7.”
Tammie scowled at him, for once ignoring camera angle, “But that's not her primary use is it?”
“Of course not. Her primary use is to make a profit for Symbot stockholders.”
She gave him a forced smile; “Do you remember what happened to Dr Frankenstein?”
He grinned back; “If you go back and read the original story you realize that the creature was not a monster, not to start with... but the scientist who created him was only interested in making something alive – he made it so hideous that everybody it met was terrified. They would run away, and then come back to try to kill it.
“Needless to say, beauty is an intrinsic part of this product. Has to be. Nobody will be afraid of her. Fear is not the emotion she’s meant to inspire. “
Tammie closed the interview by thanking him. It had actually run a little under five minutes, the network started filling in with commercials. After the assistants had taken off his mike, Ben looked up, Tammie was no longer in the host's chair. He suspected she wouldn't be back until after he was out of the studio.
In the following days Symbot got a lot of hate mail from women. They also got a few suggestions, from men, for capabilities to add, most of which had already been built in or had proved impractical or impossible.
* * *
It had been two months and now the first one was being delivered. By Ben himself.
Symbot had scheduled a press event at the Vegas airport. Supposed to be the arrival of its newest product; the Mona 27. But it was a decoy event. It had attracted too many protesters and a too much press. All of whom were kept well away from the apparent unloading of the controversial cargo. The actual delivery would be made later, directly to the stage of the Hyperion Theater. There, the opening of the travel container would be under broad media coverage but tight security. The heavy security was going to be necessary because some of the public’s responses had been extreme, and sometimes uncomfortably specific. Between the airport and the conference center, where the big unveiling was to happen, there had indeed been problems. The police were still trying to work out the causes but it was beginning to look like there had been two separate attempts to highjack the delivery truck – but the attempts got into each other's way. It just proved that the security precautions had been well advised. Yet the critical cargo hadn’t even been there.
Ben's rental truck hummed through the cold desert night, the dark, straight highway was seldom interrupted by a small settlement or an isolated gas station. It was late, but between adrenalin and caffeine, he wasn't remotely sleepy. His main worry was that too many people knew about the altered plan. And too many organizations didn't like the whole project. Some of those were, for the moment, in control of the sex trade. A business that decidedly did not welcome change.
The radio hissed to life, it was Jerry from the lead truck, three miles ahead. That was a decoy, identical to the truck that Ben was driving.
“Engine trouble, Boss. We're gonna have to stop.”
Nobody in the company called him anything but Ben. Not ever. Apparently there was more than engine trouble.
After a pause. “O K... Where?”
“Shell station on the right”
“Robert, you copy?” Ben spoke to the following escort, another truck, several miles back.
“Sure, Boss, see you there.”
Not bloody likely, Ben thought.
He took the first side road he came to and killed the headlights, then slowed drastically so he would not have to show brake lights. Off to his right a thick crescent moon had just risen. About half a mile down the road he stopped.
After a five minute wait, to be sure the following escort had gone by on the main highway, he restarted his truck and headed back to the turnoff – and then backtracked about twenty miles to where he found another side road.
“Boss, where are you?” It was Robert this time. The delay had been way too long.
“I must be at the wrong Shell station. Went too far, I think. I' ll double back.” Then he switched off. By this time he was several miles into the desert, driving lightless again. He pulled out his cell phone and shut it off.
Rolling to a stop once more he set the brake, grabbed his jacket and climbed out. He was sweating in spite of the chill.
The back gate of the truck rattled upward, loud but there was no one to hear it but jackrabbits and coyotes.
The truck was parked just beyond a bridge over an arroyo, Ben pulled down the ramp and wrestled the coffin-like box down onto the road. He dragged the box into the ditch then under the bridge, pushing it high onto the slope near the underside of the deck. With luck it wouldn't be visible. Working his way back to the truck he used some brush to obscure the drag tracks, along with his own tracks. He was hoping he'd interpreted the messages right. If not, his security people were going to be seriously upset.
Ben headed the truck back toward the highway again, but not all the way. Almost a mile by the odometer, he turned the truck around once more, parked it, and left the back gate open with the ramp down. He hoped this would look like a successful hijacking.
On foot, he headed back up the road, ready to dodge into the ditch if headlights approached from either direction. None did, but as he topped the second rise he looked back to see cars approach the abandoned truck, and stop. Four cars. None of them with police lights.
Apparently company secrets weren't secret, and radio silence wasn't silent. To have found the truck that fast there had to be a hidden transmitter somewhere. He hoped it tracked where the truck was now – not where it had been. He watched for a while, concealed and getting colder in the thin jacket, but nobody seemed to be interested in this further stretch of road.
The container was where he'd left it. He dragged it out into the moonlight. He touched his hand to the scanner on the long side of the box, his palm was illuminated by a faint red light and the latches snapped open. He gently lifted the lid, with a little help from hidden motors. The thing was not meant to be opened while horizontal. The moonlight revealed the form of a young woman, pale skin but not as white as the satin lining of the coffin interior. This was Mona-27. She was beautiful, and perfect, with an eye-catching figure – though not with the full- on playmate curves. Her long blonde hair had been arranged to partly conceal what Ben could never understand was called a “neckline.” She wore in a knee-length cocktail dress that the moonlight couldn't show to be a cobalt blue. No jewelry. Her bare arms rested at her sides.
The eyes opened, he knew they were blue as well, and her pupils expanded enormously. Good design feature he thought abstractedly: it's a sexual interest signal-- and a lot of her professional work would be happening in near darkness.
“Apparently things have not gone according to plan,” she said. She had limited intelligence but could deduce what was obvious.
“Not the half of it,” Ben said, reaching out a hand to help her up, “We're in for a walk, I'll explain as we go.”
He lifted her out because it was too big a step. He set her upright, on the gravelly sloping bank. Steadying her he realized that she had no experience, no programming, for walking on uneven surfaces. Something else for the engineers to work on. He continued to hold her up as he led her down to the bottom of the stream bed. She seemed nearly as tall as he was; it was the high heels. She was designed for walking in heels – but not far. Her power supply was limited. Normally her batteries were recharged continuously; through a coil in the bed that was inductively tuned to another one in her torso, but that equipment was miles away and someone seemed be determined to prevent them from getting anywhere near it.
As he closed the box again and shoved it back under the bridge, Ben explained what he had guessed, and what he had tried to do.
“... Even if this stunt works,” he finished, “They're eventually going to be searching up and down this road, so we have to get away from it. We need to find our friends – without alerting our enemies.”
It took her a while to parse this; “The road that goes over the bridge I was under?”
“Right,” he said, with an arm around her waist, he was encouraging her move along the dry streambed, “We need to get around the bend and out of sight. They may have night scopes.
“Night....? Oh, I see what you mean.”
He was startled by her perception but didn't slow the pace, she was learning to walk better. Nonetheless, he held onto her hand as they moved in what might be the downstream direction. He split his attention between the uneven footing and the high banks on both sides. He was looking for any signs of movement against the starry sky.
They proceeded in relative silence until the bridge was out of sight.
“I've shut down my heat,” she said abruptly. He realized her hand was icy cold.
“Good,” he answered, his eyes still following the high banks of the arroyo.
“I'm saving power,” she said. He looked back at her. The dress was suits you perfectly, he thought, but it's wildly impractical for hiking.
”You look cold”, he said, needlessly.
“I have enough power for another forty-one minutes if we maintain this pace.”
“You're adapting faster than I expected.”
All the more remarkable because she was out of contact with Symbot and everything else but Ben. The internet connection was meant to make her a reasonable conversationalist... on the chance that a customer also wanted to talk. But she understood the need for radio silence.
Ben stopped abruptly and swung around to look into those seductive eyes:
“Can you tell where we are?” She shook her head, waves cascading down her long pale hair. Of course, there would have been no reason to build in a GPS unit.
Ben was holding her by the shoulders, then he had to look up and away from this distracting image of a women, at the starlit sky. She's a service bot, he said to himself. Then he said it to himself again. Several more times.
His hormones were telling him that she was helpless and needed to be rescued. His brain was telling him she was an investment that needed to be secured. Same difference, he decided. They had to get to help. Soon. He wasn't about to leave her depowered and alone in the desert. And it was bloody cold.
“Um... we'll have to manage by celestial navigation. The highway's south of us....”
That would put the North Star behind them for cutting across the country. But they had to get out of the arroyo first. The bank was steep along this particular stretch, after several tries Ben wound up using his jackknife as an ice axe. Mona did better by taking off her not-for-hiking shoes and using the spike heels to dig into the rough slope, hand over hand.
They paused at the top only long enough for her to get the shoes back on. Holding onto Ben's shoulder for balance, she moved with a simple grace. Ben hugged her reassuringly, “We'll make it,” he said. She smiled up at him, believing him. Ben was shivering, not entirely from the cold. They started south.
“I've never seen the moon before, or the stars.”
“You've lived a sheltered...um...life.”
“You don't have to be embarrassed. Not your fault. The language hasn't adapted to people like me yet.”
Ben knew she was programmed for empathy. He told himself that it wasn’t affecting him.
They could hear trucks going past but they couldn't see the highway yet. He kept a firm grip on her hand. They moved among sparse bushes with intensely dark shadows. Ben stumbled, recovered, then realized his coordination was worsening. A few moments later he became aware that she was steering him around stones and depressions that he couldn't see. Then in a sharp moment of insight he realized what was happening to him.... It wasn’t just hypothermia.
He had personally approved all the aesthetics, the look, and the feel, of this first release model... but in doing so he'd created his own ideal woman.
He briefly regretted not having selected the Anima-22 model instead.
“Anima” was a rough acronym for adolescent male fantasy. No, that wouldn't have worked, not here, he thought, The center of gravity on that one is too high and too far forward. In fact, that one had been a little precarious even on flat surfaces. She would have been wildly unsuitable for rough ground.
Mona was slowing perceptibly by the time they topped the ridge that had hidden the highway. Only a few hundred yards to go but.... She stopped and turned to him-- automatically, his arms went around her.
“I'm sorry....” she said, voice barely audible. Then she went limp.
For a long moment he stood, supporting her cold body with his own, unwilling to lay her down and walk on without her.
Now, go to plan B... he thought. But there was no plan B. What he had meant to do was to stand by the roadside with her – hoping that the first people to see them wouldn't be the wrong people. She had trusted him.
He was shivering continuously. Her lightly clothed body, tight against him, was at air temperature and, through the thin jacket, she was draining away what was left of his warmth. His thoughts had slowed to a crawl.
Lightly clothed, there was something about being almost totallyexposed to this temperature....
Abruptly, he swore and lowered her to the ground. He peeled off the dress almost effortlessly, and, using it as a ground cloth, he rolled her over onto it. His fingers were not working right. The bra hooks almost defeated him. When he was done he used what he was sure was the last of his strength to lift the bare body.
* * *
It's amazing how conspicuous a man at the side of road can be—when he’s carrying a naked woman.
Of the first fourteen cars to pass, all fourteen pulled over. Drivers and passengers spilled out, some of them already on cell phones, others were bearing coats and blankets. The fifteenth was a police patrol car. One of the earlier cars left again, abruptly.
The good Samaritans had pried her away from him and had her down and swathed in coats and blankets. Finally, somebody thought to drape a blanket over his shoulders. Ben, at the center of a crowd, with teeth chattering, was trying to explain.
Lights and sirens. An ambulance got through what was becoming a serious traffic backup.
He'd given up explaining and was kneeling by the still form.
Gently, he stroked her face, “I'm sorry too,” he said softly.
Then the EMTs were there, one kneeling next to Ben, one across from him. In seconds they had slipped off the improvised coverings and substituted heated, reflectorized blankets. They started a fast assessment.
“She doesn't need heat,” Ben said, they ignored him.
“She's a robot,” he said.
“This is wrong.” said the EMT at Ben's shoulder. “Skin color...lips”
Very wrong for somebody hypothermic. Her color was normal.
“She's a robot,” Ben said.
“No pulse,” added the other EMT, “And her temperature is below sixty. Pupils not contracted.”
“She's a robot,” Ben said, “Dead battery is all....”
They both stared at him, then back down at her.
“Ben!” Someone beyond the police line was yelling his name.
To the ambulance crew's credit, they adapted quickly, bundling up both hikers, human or not, and loading them into their vehicle.
“Ben!” It was Jerry holding open the back door of the ambulance. “You guessed right, they held us hostage until they realized your truck was not gonna show up.”
Ben's mind was clearing; “Hi, Jer... Pick up her clothes. Over there somewhere,” he gestured. “The box is under a bridge north of here. The truck... I don't know if it's still on that road. “ He fumbled under the blanket for a moment, “Here's the keys.” A moment later the door was closed and the ambulance was off.
* * *
Two days later the delayed product rollout finally happened. The delivery box was standing upright as it had been designed to do. At Ben's touch the cover swung slowly aside, gradually revealing Mona to the T V cameras. For three seconds she might as well have been a mannequin. Then she smiled and stepped out. The original dress had been ruined. What she wore now was a near copy but in green. A necklace with a single synthetic emerald restated the color. That had been Ben's idea. Every bit as good as the real thing. Abruptly he realized he was no longer thinking about the green stone.
She answered all the questions she could, with an apparently thoughtful pause before each reply. In fact, she was leaving spaces for Ben to step in with an answer -- which he did when the questions got too technical--or when they got unsuitable for family television.
Eventually he was edged out of the spotlight. She was doing very well on her own. He continued to watch from offstage.
Unnoticed, Jerry had arrived beside him, “ I recognize that expression,” Jerry said, “It's not just pride is it?”
Ben shook his head, unable to look away. He was shivering again, “I'm going to miss her,” he said, “I'm going to miss her... a lot.”
Adam likes the company of small domestic animals and 82% of women. Enjoys long walks in the rain (in the Pacific Northwest, he'd better).