Contemporary short fiction, poetry and more

‘The Companion’: chapter 7

My full name is Doctor Kelvin Philip Alexander Stark, PhD.  I am a failing academic at one of the UK’s largest universities.  I work in the School of Chemistry, where I am liked by some of the students and despised by most of the other staff, some of whom I also despise.  I am not good at getting five academic papers out of a project which only merits one.  I am very good at cracking abstruse scientific problems, but not good at turning the findings into funding.  I believe it is worthwhile to spend time on teaching students, including those of other departments who only take Chemistry as a subsidiary subject.  This is heresy which the university cannot tolerate for much longer.  I am twenty-seven years old, and my academic career is nearing its end.

I feel very fortunate to have been born into an era which includes the possibility of interstellar travel, and in a way that I myself can take part in.  I love my home, and I am bitterly reluctant to leave it, but a chance like this never comes more than once in a lifetime, if it appears at all.  I am not running away from anything (certainly nothing of greater importance than my failing career).  I recently began, and then had to end, a relationship with a very attractive and warm-hearted woman called Lieutenant Rose Thorne.  I will never forget Rose, but we both knew that our love was always going to be overtaken by events. 

Apart from my home, the thing I am most sorry to be leaving behind is my companion android, Violet.  You would not think it to look at me, but I have spent an enormous amount of money on her.  She is probably the most advanced non-military android in Europe – possibly in the world.  To me, she is human.  I know how many people find that impossible to accept, but such people are ignorant and prejudiced.  Just because she is made of synthetic materials, and includes electronic and mechanical components in most of her systems, it does not mean that she is lacking in humanity.  She has an independent intellect.  She is capable of the full range of human emotions, including love and hate.  She feels empathy and antipathy just as we do.  Her brain, like ours, is extremely complicated.  Hers includes both electronic parts (which are algorithmic) and neural networks with biological constituents, which are non-algorithmic.  She is highly intelligent and learns very quickly.  She can speak and write several languages fluently.  She is a superb cook.  She could fight a world heavyweight boxing champion and win easily.  I often get the feeling that she is capable of feats that neither of us have yet considered. 

I must admit to having felt a certain embarrassment and moral compunction about starting the affair with Rose.  The reason for this is that a very active part of my relationship with Violet is sex.  That is the part that is most difficult to explain.  Violet is absolutely not a sophisticated version of one of those ridiculous inflatable dolls.  Her humanity includes sexual desire and the most complex of responses.  When I have sex with her, I try to have regard for her needs as well as my own.  I abstained from sex with Violet while I was in a relationship with Rose.  This was out of regard for the fact that sex with Violet is real and hence would have been adulterous while I was with Rose.  I regret the fact that I could not bring myself to discuss any of this with Violet.  In effect, I simply kicked her out of bed, which was cold and unfair.  It compounded the fact that I had had to tell Violet that we are going our separate ways, about which I also feel bad (though at least I was up-front and honest about that, which is a relief). 

My affair with Rose is the only explanation I can think of for Violet’s increasingly strange behaviour.  I get the impression that she is trying to punish me.  She has been spending inordinate amounts of time away from home, with no credible explanation.  I have not challenged her about this, because I have also been spending a lot of time away, mainly in attempts to procure equipment for the Alpha Project.  Violet is deeply resentful of the fact that she has no legal rights and is not, under English Law, a “natural person”.  I give her an allowance and she has her own bank account, set up, in the eyes of the law, under deception.  There are times, I must admit, when she seems to transfer some of her anger about her oppressed social position onto me.  I do not feel that I deserve this.  I believe in her humanity, and I challenge anybody to point out an example of when I have treated her as a slave. 

Violet has done a number of very strange things recently, but two of them stand out as inexplicable.  The first is to do with something she did (or did not do), and the second is something I found, which I assume is hers.

I happened to mention the impending departure (which – damn and blast – has been delayed because of some stupid virus in the space lab central computing cluster).  I phrased it in a way that implied that Violet would be coming to see me off.  She told me very sternly that she would not be coming, and would in fact say her last goodbye to me a few days before I set off.  I thought about this for a while, and decided that I did not want it to be like that.  I did not want what should be our last few days and hours together to be taken away by petulance.  I ordered her to come with me to see me off.  She told me she would not do it.  I ordered her again.  Again, she told me she would not.  I ordered her in what then amounted to the fourth time.  She still said no.  This is supposed to be impossible.  Part of Violet’s software configuration is a control mechanism required by the Control of Complex Mobile Electronic and Biomechanical Assemblies Act which sets the number of times she can contradict her legal owner’s instructions.  I have put this setting at a value of 3.  My tentative hypothesis is that Violet has learnt so much, and absorbed so many behavioural data, that it has outstripped her capacity to maintain a consistent structure, free of contradictions.  To this extent, she seems to be suffering from the android equivalent of insanity.  I must admit that I have no idea what I might do about this, even if I had the time.  A software and data restore would be brutal and unthinkable.

Amid the discomfort and confusion created by this disagreement, I was in the flat on my own recently, and was quickly trying to pack fresh clothes and towels for yet another equipment-hunting expedition.  I found that our combined absence had put us behind with the laundry, and we seemed to be very short of face-cloths.  I was searching at the back of the bathroom airing cupboard, among the pile of dusty textiles that we hardly ever use.  It seemed easiest to take everything out and sort through it.  Wrapped inside an old, threadbare towel, I found the last thing on Earth I would have expected to see.  It was clearly new; it had been opened, and its contents had apparently been used.  The object surprised me so much that I had to sit on the edge of the bath for a few minutes to consider what it might mean.  It was a box of tampons. 

Neglecting for a moment the sheer, biological impossibility of Violet’s needing to use tampons, what I cannot comprehend is why she felt the need to hide them.  Whatever she thought she needed them for, she could surely have told me about it.


One response to “‘The Companion’: chapter 7

  1. wthirskgaskill January 16, 2012 at 12:28 am

    This item has been spammed with things about US chapter 7 bankruptcy. I wonder if a similar thing will happen when we get to chapter 11.

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