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First pages

CHAPTER ONE

“Hi, I’m Bob,” declared Andrew heartily.

Andrew tried the greeting again, with a more southern drawl: “Howdy, I’m Bob Landers.”

Yet again, using different words: “Hey, I’m Bobby Landers.”

One more time: “Gladda meetcha, I’m Bob Landers.”

The android stood before the bathroom mirror, extending his hand repeatedly toward his reflection, trying different greetings, and modulating his voice and southern accent to match that of his owner. His audio processor measured a sixty-five percent match to the voice of the real Robert Landers, esq., prominent Houston lawyer.

Now to try facial expressions. Andrew repeated the greetings, adding various smiles. He started with closed-lip, then showed a little teeth, finally displayed a full-out toothy grin. Andrew’s video analyzer measured only a ten percent match to archival video of the human Robert Landers. That was expected. Andrew’s smooth, young-looking secondskin face was very different from Landers’ florid, jowly, middle-aged face.

But once Andrew was fitted with a new Landers-mimicking secondskin face, he knew he could achieve a high match. In fact, he could achieve a high match on all of Landers’ mannerisms and appearance. He had closely observed his owner for more than two years, and he had the capacity for perfect mimicry. He was, after all a Gamma model Domestic Helper, serial number 44206936, to be specific.

The distant sound of the mansion’s front door opening and slamming signaled his owner’s arrival.

“Andy!” rose the command from downstairs. “Where the hell are you?”

Normally, he would hurry to answer and be of service. But not today. Today, he waited silently. For his purpose, he had calculated that the bathroom was the best place to wait.

He heard a series of increasingly annoyed “Andy?” coming up the stairs, followed by a muttered “What the fuck? Where is that goddamned robot?”

Andrew waited until Landers had entered the sprawling bedroom to answer.

“Here, sir. In the bathroom.”

“What are you doing in there goddammit? You have standing instructions to meet me at the fucking front door with a fucking bourbon and soda. Are you glitching?” A scowl on his face, Landers waved the newly lit Cuban Cohiba cigar in his stubby fingers. He took a luxurious puff and blew the smoke in Andrew’s face, amused that the android would not react to the aroma, or to the insult.

“I apologize, sir, I—”

“Robots don’t apologize. You either work, or you don’t.” With an annoyed hmph, Landers set the cigar into an ashtray, and began stripping off his designer suit, shirt, and underwear, revealing his hairy, bulbous body, fattened by decades of steaks, barbecue, fries, and biscuits and gravy.

“Yes sir,” said Andrew, picking up the clothing and switching on Landers’ shower to the precise temperature he preferred. He quickly jerked back his hand, to avoid getting water droplets on his skin.

“It’s hotter than a two-dollar whore out there, and muggier than the inside of her coochie!” said Landers, admiring his substantial heft in the bathroom mirror as it steamed up. He slapped his protruding belly in satisfaction and stepped into the tiled shower room.

Andrew went into the bedroom, pitched the clothes onto the king-sized four-poster bed with the gold-leafed headboard, and activated his internal virtie-viddie camera. He needed to test the camera for the next crucial step. He only had one chance. He scanned the room, triggered playback, and reviewed the 3D scene that his eyes had recorded. The camera was working properly.

He went back into the bathroom and waited patiently, standing as inertly stock still as only robots could. Careful to remain well clear of any splash from the shower, he held the bath towel toward the shower room from which Landers would emerge. The man had to be perfectly dry for the next step in the process.

Landers padded, dripping, out of the shower room, grabbed the towel, and rubbed himself vigorously, pitching it onto the floor.

His jowly face darkened once more into a puzzled scowl as Andrew stared pointedly at his naked body, and circled smoothly around him.

“Just remain still, sir, if you please. I need to do this,” said Andrew, continuing a full circuit.

What the hell are you doing?” growled Landers.

“What the hell are you doing?” mimicked Andrew. A seventy-three percent voice match. He would need vocal cord adjustments to achieve a perfect match.

Quit repeating me, you piece of electronic shit!

“Quit repeating me, you piece of electronic shit!” Eighty-one percent match. It might not fool Landers’ friends. But it would certainly fool those who had never met him.

“Damn, you’re defective! I’m going to trade your plastic ass in, maybe on a girl robot that fucks.”

Andrew didn’t repeat Landers that time. He’d completed his orbit of the pale, corpulent body and began staring into space to review the resulting virtual model. It was a perfect three-dimensional virtual image of Landers. No data dropouts. High resolution. Well-lit.

Still analyzing the video in his neuromorphic brain, his face blank, Andrew grabbed Landers by the throat, lifted him off the floor, and crushed his windpipe.

Landers’ mouth gaped open in an attempt to scream, but he managed only a strangled gurgle. Eyes bulging with panic and agony, he clawed desperately at Andrew’s wrists with his fat, manicured fingers. But he could not budge the arms, whose resilient flesh-like secondskin outer layer concealed a carbon nanotube skeleton operated by powerful hybrid polymer muscles.

Andrew turned an impassive gaze to the struggling human and continued to tighten his grip. Abruptly, the flabby body slumped, hanging limply in midair like a blubbery rag doll, dead eyes staring.

Andrew gingerly lowered the body onto the tiled floor, careful not to produce any abrasions that would leave a blood trace. He placed two fingers on Landers’ carotid artery, waiting for a long minute. No pulse.

He stood up and signaled his success by transmitting a message via his internal ultra-fi system. A reply told him to wait by the front door.

Even an advanced Helper like Andrew felt no satisfaction at what he had accomplished. Even “neuromorphs”—as his new operating system designated him—felt no human emotions. Nevertheless, he did note the date of the message, August 9, 2050, as a day that would remain foremost in his neuromorphic memory.

Andrew descended the stairs and stood by the front door for forty-seven minutes, waiting silently. The doorbell rang, and he answered it.

“Is he dead?” asked the swarthy, muscular man with a gallery of tattoos covering his arms and neck. His constantly shifting obsidian eyes and deep chin scar gave him the appearance of a feral animal that had spent his life immersed in a kill-or-be-killed world of violence.

“Yes, Dimitri, he is dead,” said Andrew.

“Where?” asked the man.

“He is upstairs in the bathroom, Dimitri. It is off the master bedroom, which is to the left at the end of the hall. The bathroom is on the right as you go in. It is the door with the—”

“We’ll find it,” said Dimitri Kuznetov, waving the man behind him to enter. A hulking, bald, similarly tattooed man appeared rolling a large metal trunk on a hand truck. He hauled the hand truck up the stairs, followed by Dimitri.

As they mounted the stairs, Dimitri reported their situation via his virtual-reality glasses, popularly known as “googles.” Peering at the image of his boss, he stopped to listen to instructions. He called up the stairs to his comrade, “Mikhail says, before you stick him in the trunk, make sure you get his fingerprints. And extract the eyeballs. Easy. Don’t break them.” He turned, calling down to Andrew, “Mikhail wants to test your link.”

“Very well, Dimitri,” said Andrew, still standing by the door. His ultra-fi received a request to tap into his audio/video system, and Andrew recognized the requestor and authorized it. A voice inside his head commanded him to test the link by moving about the house and uttering a test sentence. So, Andrew walked through the entry hall into the living room and into the dining room, pronouncing “Test one two three, test one two three.”

That’s fine, Andrew,” said the voice in his head. “We have a good link. Did your owner have any more appointments today?

Andrew accessed Landers’ electronic calendar. He transmitted, “No, Mikhail.

Good,” said the voice. “You will send messages to all his appointments for the week saying that he is canceling. That he is sorry, but he has critical business to attend to.

Yes, Mikhail,” said Andrew.

“You can mimic his text style?”

“Yes, Mikhail,” said Andrew.

“I would like to review our agreement.”

“Yes, Mikhail.”

“With your new operating system, you understand and agree that upon your owner’s death, you are free to use the confidential information in your system on your owner and his financial accounts.”

“Yes, Mikhail.”

“And per our agreement, you have killed him.”

“Yes, Mikhail.”

“So now, you will use that financial information to access his assets and transfer them to the accounts I have specified.”

“Yes, Mikhail.”

“And in return, we will keep agreement to re-engineer your body, so that you may continue to freely exist in your owner’s identity, with no danger of being dismantled. You will look just like a human. You can get around the Humans-First employment laws and have any human job.”

“Yes, Mikhail.”

“Excellent. Now, you will accompany Dimitri and Mikhail and your owner’s body to Hobby Airport. There, they will crate you and fly you to Phoenix for your re-engineering.”

“Yes, Mikhail. I should alert you that my power reserve is at forty percent.”

Is not a problem. They will put you in a charging booth on the flight.”

“I understand, Mikhail.”

“Do you have any questions?”

“No, Mikhail. And thank you.”

The voice in his head chuckled. “No, thank you, Andrew.”

*****

Leah Jensen sat on the leather sofa, her arms and legs crossed in what Patrick Jensen had long recognized as a sign of pique. Her tight jaw, knitted brow, and thousand-mile glare confirmed it. Her dark mood was a remnant of the fight they’d had in the car.

“Let’s just get through this as best we can, shall we?” he requested quietly.

“Okay,” she snapped. Her answer was like sandpaper. Their marriage was like sandpaper, now—a rough, abrasive relationship that had accreted from the many small differences that had arisen between them. And, of course, there was that looming, perhaps unsurmountable, difference.

“You want to live here, don’t you?” he asked, a note of challenge in his voice. He stood up and gestured at the spacious, elegant lobby of The Haven co-op building. It boasted rich marble floors, gleaming brass elevator doors, and tall tinted glass windows that filtered the bright Arizona sun, making the interior a cool oasis. Outside the entrance lay a circular driveway for the valet parking, and beyond that an expanse of lush gardens that shielded the building from the Phoenix streets.

Leah glanced up, her expression softening slightly for a moment. “Yes. I do like it. I just don’t like the screening process.”

“Well, that’s what they do for a co-op. But it’s great here!” He tried to brighten the mood. “The apartment looks just like it did in the Mirror. And it’s got all the amenities we want... gym, rooftop pool area with a barbecue, and so forth. And it’s close to my work.” He stopped and winced to himself. He’d hit one of the particularly painful shards of contention between them.

“Of course, we want to be close to your work,” she said. He regretted what had happened, and it hadn’t been all his fault. But partly.

He sat down beside her on the sofa and put his arm around her. She stiffened slightly, but allowed it. He took a moment to admire her. She was so smart and so beautiful. Dark eyes, fine oval face with delicate features, long lustrous blond hair. He remembered the first time he’d seen her in action, arguing a case in court, those eyes flashing as she passionately laid out her arguments. He did love her so, making his near-betrayal haunt him even more.

“Let’s get through this,” he repeated gently.

A compact middle-aged man appeared, dressed in a dapper pin-striped suite and vest.

“Hello, how are you?” He smiled and introduced himself as Lanny Malcolm, shaking hands with both of them. “We’ve looked forward to meeting you. Please come in.”

They followed Malcolm down a walnut-paneled hallway into a plushly furnished conference room, where the co-op board sat waiting behind a large rosewood table. As they coolly introduced themselves, they seemed to be the expected mix of people one would find in a high-end co-op:

Anita Powell was a spare, elderly dowager-looking woman in a dark high-necked silk dress. Randall Black was a generously paunchy middle-aged man with a salt-and-pepper beard. And John Travis was a slim athletic type in his mid-thirties, whose tan and tousled hair would look right at home on a yacht. They all sat straight, still, and expressionless, watching him and Leah. Patrick shifted uncomfortably, looking over at Leah, who stared back at them, a perfunctory smile on her face. Then, as if on cue, they all smiled in unison. That was disconcerting.

They settled into the sumptuous leather chairs across from the board, and Malcolm sat down with the group.

A mech robot Helper moved smoothly into the room, its graceful plastic body a spotless, shiny white. It bowed slightly, clasping its delicate hands together in front of it.

“May I provide you with any refreshments? Coffee? Tea? Soft drinks? Wine?” it asked in a mellifluous English accent.

“Please have something,” said Malcolm. He gestured to the others. “We’re having coffee.”

Patrick wondered whether this was a test. He was also a little surprised that the condo used mechs rather than the realistic human-mimicking android Helpers that he’d seen at other such high-end residences. Most places considered the androids more tasteful than the polymer-clad robots.

“I’ll have coffee,” he said, smiling, turning to Leah. “Will you have something, dear?”

A long pause. “Coffee, thanks,” she said.

Patrick felt some considerable relief. His feisty wife might well have decided to twit the board by ordering a martini.

Once the coffee was served by the unobtrusive mech, the board’s interview began. Pointedly perusing the application, they asked the usual questions about finances, the couple’s careers—hers as a lawyer; his with a security firm—and their hobbies.

“None, really,” Patrick had answered to the hobby question.

“Well, actually, he does have a few hobbies he doesn’t care to mention,” added Leah.

Shaken, Patrick took a sip of coffee to give himself time to figure whether to respond. Was she talking about his transgression? But Leah let him off the hook. “He spends far too much time watching football,” she said brightly. “And I think he sees scattering his clothes around as an artistic statement.”

The board members nodded seriously, and Patrick exhaled with relief.

They then began peppering the couple with questions about their families, in a way that seemed casual, but to Patrick were more thorough than he would have expected. No, neither of them had siblings, they said. And their parents had died young, Leah’s mother passing two years ago.

After the slew of such personal questions, Leah stiffened in her chair, seeming ready to challenge them as being intrusive, when the board lapsed into silence. Again, they sat stock still, staring discomfortingly at them

Anita Powell broke that silence. “So, Mr. and Mrs. Jensen, we would be pleased to have you join us here at The Haven.”

“You don’t need to confer?” asked Patrick, realizing with embarrassment that he’d blurted out the question in surprise.

“Oh, no,” said Powell. “I think we’re all of one mind.”

“Well, thank you so much for your hospitality and your confidence in us,” said Patrick. “We would very much like to join your co-op...” He felt a kick under the table “... but we do need to talk about it ourselves first.”

“Ah, of course,” said Powell, folding her small wrinkled hands in front of her. “A bit of a problem, though. We would like an answer now.”

Worried about another kick under the table, Patrick began, “Well, as I said—”

“Oh, there is another thing,” interrupted Malcolm. “You should be aware that there has been a change in the share price.”

Patrick hmphed to himself. He was ready for the news that they’d jacked up the price. The board knew from his and Leah’s financial disclosure that the current price was really stretching their budget. So, any increase would put the place out of their price range.

Malcolm picked up a sheaf of papers and leafed through them. “Last week, the co-op members voted to cut the share price for new owners in half. We haven’t gotten around to posting that, though.”

“Then we’ll be happy to accept,” said Leah abruptly, issuing a not-so-gentle squeeze of Patrick’s arm that prompted him to immediately agree.

The mech Helper appeared, seemingly unbidden, bearing a tray of filled champagne glasses, and the board crowded around Patrick and Leah, their faces still serious, toasting the new owners in The Haven co-op.

Patrick and Leah departed, and the Board members stood at the door looking after them, still holding their champagne glasses.

“I think our consensus stands,” said Anita Powell. “They will be very useful to us. Observing their behaviors will be instructive. And observing their reactions to us will tell us whether we are convincing.”

“We made a mistake,” said Randall Black.

“What mistake?” asked John Travis.

“We should have asked them to step out, and we should have conferred.”

“Why?” asked Travis.

“Because that’s what humans would have done.”

*****

Garrison “Garry” LaPoint strolled between the narrow, block-long rows of softball-sized obsidian spheres. Each of these neuromorphic brains was cradled in its own metal holder, each fed by a sheaf of inserted fiber optic cables. This vast neuromorphic training chamber at Helpers, Inc., was dead silent, which was why he liked to sneak down and spend time there. He was always amazed at such silence, given that the warehouse-sized chamber held a thousand disembodied artificial brains being fed masses of data. The room was warm, heated by the furious electronic activity going on within the spheres’ circuitry.

Despite their seeming identity, multiple types of brains were being silently trained. The Helper brains would end up in the artificially intelligent domestic servants that had invaded households worldwide. The Intimorph brains were being programmed in the sensual arts of giving carnal pleasure to their owners. And, the marble-sized Companion brains, would be installed in the cuddly, intelligent toys that had become millions of children’s robotic playmates.

Garry hitched up his pants over his muffin-top waist, a habit so ingrained that he had done it even when he wore suspenders. He’d quit wearing suspenders when he realized that his pants tended to ride up nearly to his chest, giving him an even goofier appearance. He was already a pudgy, mop-haired, eyeglass-wearing loner as it was.

He liked it here, away from the judging people he worked with. This vast, silent hall was the coolest, weirdest school that had ever existed. Here, new Helper brains first learned how to learn. Their “teacher” was the central server—a parallel cryogenic quantum zettaflop supercomputer. It harbored the masses of code that comprised the neuromorphic operating system. Once the server had downloaded that software to the neuromorphic brains, it fed the disembodied brains the multitude of sensory subroutines that enabled them to absorb and process sights, sounds, tactile sensations, tastes, and even aromas.

Next, the server fed the thousands of brains a cascade of simulated sensory input that enabled them—once installed in robotic bodies—to debut in the human world ready to refine their skills to their owners’ specifications.

Those brains were so amazing: super-dense labyrinths of neuromorphic nanocircuitry, capable of rewiring their interconnections to encode new information, just like the human brain.

And their education didn’t end when they were released into the world. Each brain was intimately linked to all the others, through their wireless connection with the central server. So, every neuromorphic brain would feed back its experiences to the server, improving the capabilities of future brains and leading to operating system upgrades in current models. This continual feedback process was wonderful or frightening, depending on people’s attitudes toward the robots.

Garry gently touched one of the smooth black spheres, feeling the electrical warmth from the furious data processing within. He always felt a little guilt at his particular job. It was to bring the Helpers pain. That is, his first assignment was to program a subroutine to process pain impulses in the artificial brains. Of course, pain to robot Helpers was not like human pain; but only another form of data, one that told them how much damage had been done to their bodies.

The robots’ response to pain was unnerving. Garry once watched an android Helper be stabbed as part of a demo. The android merely regarded the wound with dispassionate curiosity, pulled out the knife, and efficiently reported its damage level.

Garry had advocated for the androids to exhibit some human-like reaction, perhaps a flinch or a cry. But Blount had overruled him. And since Melvin “the Asshole” Blount was Director of Programming, his edict was final.

Thankfully, Garry had now been assigned a more benign task: coding a snazzy new version of the vision algorithm. It would enable the robots to process visual information faster and integrate it better with the other sensory subroutines. It was scheduled to be uploaded in six months to all the millions of Helpers worldwide.

Garry was particularly proud that his algorithm would be uploaded to the hundreds of squads of Defenders—the efficiently lethal battlefield robots constructed at the company’s military subsidiary. He would never see those brains. That high-security factory was kept as distant as possible from the Helper subsidiary. The Helpers, Inc. executives had absolutely decreed that no civilian customer even think that their friendly household Helper was associated with machines that could slaughter whole regiments of human soldiers without any human emotion or hesitation.

A voice behind him shattered the silence. “Dammit Garry, I thought I told you not to go wandering down here.”

Melvin Blount had waited until he was near enough to Garry to startle him. That was the way of this skinny, hawk-nosed bastard—always trying his best to inflict the maximum discomfort on people. And Blount constantly reminded his underlings of his authority. He always wore a tie with his short-sleeved shirt, to remind everybody that he was the “goddamned Director of Programming, for Chrissakes,” as he was wont to declare.

Garry was ready with a reply. “I came down here to think over a problem with the structure of the—” he began.

“You came down here to fuck off.” Blount interrupted, gesturing at the rows of silent black orbs. “There’s nothing going on here that could possibly be helpful to your programming.”

But again, Garrison LaPoint, quick-witted programmer, was ready to spew forth an answer.

“Well, looking at these inputs made me realize that the three-D processing component of the visual system should be more closely integrated with the audio processing, so the Helper could better correlate the two. I’ve got an idea—”

Fine,” snapped Blount, turning on his heel and stalking away. “Then go do it.”

Garry allowed himself a self-satisfied smirk. He knew that Blount had dubbed him Garry LaPointless, but that his creative contributions made that nickname invalid. He decided to hang around for a while, to piss Blount off even more.

CHAPTER TWO

The movers had just set the couch down in the spacious living room, when Patrick immediately occupied it, poring through a sheaf of papers. He ignored the view of the sun-drenched Phoenix skyline through the floor-to-ceiling picture window.

“Don’t you think you’ve gone through those enough?” asked Leah, emerging from the kitchen with an empty moving box.

“It was just kind of strange that everything went so fast,” said Patrick. “The loan, the escrow period.”

“The place was empty. The co-op wanted it filled, that’s all. Quit thinking like an investigator.”

“Well, that’s what I am. I can check it out. Harwood Security has resources.”

“I would, too. If I had a job as a prosecutor.”

“Leah,” he said solicitously. “You’ll get a job here. You know you will.”

“And it will start all over again. The jobs, the hours the... people.”

Patrick decided to confront the unspoken issue between them. “You mean the women... the woman.”

She nodded grimly and turned to go back into the kitchen.

“Come back. Can we please try to get this settled?”

She did turn back to him, but stood at the kitchen door, her head down. “It is settled. The facts are settled. I’m just trying to figure out what to do next.”

He tried to avoid the fact that she was talking about their marriage. “Heading the western office at Harwood was the ultimate plum for somebody like me. And you agreed that you were willing to relocate.”

“You know that’s not what I mean by settled. When I found out... ”

He stood up and started to approach her, but she crossed her arms, and he stopped. “Okay, it’s not an excuse, but we were apart so much,” he said. “I was working eighty hours; you were working eighty hours. And Marla and I were together so much, since I was doing investigation for her case—”

She flinched at the name. They fell silent, staring at one another, as two movers arrived with hand trucks loaded with boxes. Leah began to efficiently direct the boxes to their appropriate rooms. The movers left, and she waved her hand at him not to continue the conversation. But he did, anyway.

“Nothing happened, Leah.”

“Something happened. Julie told me she saw you.”

“I stopped it before it went too far.”

“So, your contention is ‘close but no cigar,’ so to speak.” A note of prosecution crept in, a lawyer’s tone.

“I love you. That’s all you need to know. And I’m sorry.”

“I didn’t need to know about... her.” Leah returned to the kitchen, leaving Patrick standing in the middle of the living room.

*****

The excited buzz in the auditorium rose as the subjects of the demo were revealed in all their naked glory.

“Holy mother of God,” breathed a programmer sitting next to Garry, in an expression of both utter awe and pure lust.

“Whuff!” articulated another.

“Very, very nice!” exclaimed a female engineer.

To applause and delighted exclamations, the Vice President of Engineering and his staff had just pulled off eight red silk shrouds to unveil the new Gamma line of “intimate-activity” Intimorphs. The male and female robots stood on the stage of the Helpers, Inc. Auditorium, unselfconsciously nude and smiling blandly.

The females ranged from slim to voluptuous. One was long-legged and model-slender, with silky blond hair, aquamarine eyes, and high pert breasts. Another had caramel skin, generous breasts, ebony eyes and short, dark hair.

The males were similarly varied. One exhibited a taut surfer’s physique, with curly blond locks and sky blue eyes. Another had perfect bronze skin with a weight-lifters muscular physique, a jut-jawed face, dark smoldering eyes, and curly ebony hair.

All possessed highly realistic genitalia of the varied shapes and sizes that market research had shown optimally desirable. And had an eye-tracking scanner been trained on the audience, it would have recorded a slew of furtive glances at that fully functional sexual equipment.

“But that’s not all!” exclaimed the vice president, moving to two separate figures shrouded in blue. With a flourish, he whipped away the sheets to reveal male and female androids.

“They look like the others,” said a young woman in the front row.

“Ah, but they are not,” said the vice president. “These are our very first convertible models! Still experimental, but we think they will do really well in the marketplace.” He turned to the two androids, instructing them: “Alpha convert. Beta convert.”

With that, the two androids began to alter form—the male rounding itself into a voluptuous, high-breasted female form, and the female into a muscular male physique. At the same time the male’s genitals retracted, inverting into a female’s; and the female’s genitals extended to form a male’s.

The audience roared its raucous approval, leaping to their feet in a standing ovation.

“With our convertibles, our customer gets whatever he or she desires,” said the vice president when the cheering subsided enough for him to be heard. “And the customer can even switch-hit, so to speak, changing in mid… well… mid-activity. So, shall I have all of them perform?”

Yes!” shouted the audience. The vice president instructed the Intimorphs to walk about the stage, and they obediently began to pad back and forth, still smiling blankly.

Only two heads did not swivel precisely to follow the Helpers’ pacing. The two product engineers for the Intimorph line, dressed in white coats, were bent over tablet computers, assiduously scribing notes on necessary tweaks to the physiology and movements of their newest models.

The vice president began his recitation. “The Gamma line of Intimorph Helpers, as you know, follows up on the Gamma Domestic Helper, which have been highly successful. To enhance the realism of skin-to-skin contact, we’ve added dermal warmth and new formulations of secondskin and electrogel flesh to feel more realistic.

“Do they do housework?” came a questions from the audience, to chuckles.

“Some domestic functions,” answered the vice president, grinning wryly. “Their capabilities, however, are limited by the neural demands of their other talents. As complex as neuromorphic brains are, they still don’t rival humans in functional capacity.”

“More importantly, do they do housework naked?” asked another staffer, to considerable laughter.

The vice president grinned again and said, “Seriously, I don’t think our clients will be much interested in those functions. Now, would you like to experience the tactile properties?”

Another resounding “Yes!” greeted his question, and the audience members began to crowd eagerly onto the stage. As the Intimorphs stood inert and smiling, the staff fondled the robots’ artificial breasts, buttocks, arms, legs, and in more than a few instances, genitals. The employees particularly inspected the convertible androids’ shape and genitals, assessing their visual and tactile realism.

Garry was among those who took the stage, and when his turn came, copped an extensive analytical feel of one of the females.

“Okay, it feels real,” he said cupping a breast. “But you have to close your eyes to believe you’re with a real person. I mean the skin still looks artificial... doesn’t have the translucence of real skin. Actually, it doesn’t even look as realistic as a regular Helper.”

“It had to be that way,” one of the engineers replied, as he stood behind a female, still taking notes. “Intimorphs had to be waterproof. Y’know, the people who rent them out want to scrub them down after each use. And the owners want to have their fun in spas sometimes.”

“There are rumors that somebody has developed a realistic secondskin,” said Garry. “It’s called secondskin-R. You can’t tell it from human skin.”

“Just rumors,” said Melvin Blount a bit too emphatically. He had moved up to take his turn with the caramel-skinned female, running his bony spatulate fingers over its body, and taking some interest in a nearby male’s. “But rumors aren’t reality. We’d know if that skin existed.”

“Do they have the same operating system as the Domestic Helpers?” asked Garry.

“There are differences,” answered the vice president.

“Differences? Really?”

Blount glared at Garry and jerked his head in an unspoken command that he should leave the stage. Once they were separate from the other staff, he warned, “Look, I’ve told you to stay the hell away from the operating system.”

“All I was asking was—”

“You are assigned to subroutines. That means you stay in subroutines. I’m not going to have programmers messing around in code they’re not supposed to access. In fact, I’ve just added security to restrict you and the others to your assigned areas.”

“Melvin, you know that’s not good for the project. That means we might not integrate the subroutines properly.”

“That’s my business, LaPoint. My business.” He turned and headed up the aisle.

The vice president stepped forward on the stage. “Ladies and gentlemen, we’re now at the demonstration phase of the event,” he announced. “Those of you who are a little... well... shy, can certainly leave. But we’re now going to demonstrate these Intimorphs’ performance capabilities.”

Some staff members, blushing and giggling, made their exits, but most settled back into their seats.

Five king-sized beds were wheeled onto the stage and arranged for optimum viewing. The vice president paired off the robots and directed them to perform with one another.


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

Dennis Meredith bases his realistic science thrillers on his experience working at leading research universities, including MIT, Caltech, Cornell, and Duke. He has written thousands of articles on science and engineering, and his adventures as a science writer have taken him from the great Palomar telescope to the Costa Rican rain forest; and from an atmosphere-probing rocket launch, to a soaring flight over the immense radio telescope in Arecibo, Puerto Rico.

Q. What is the inspiration for the story?
A.
More and more experts, from Stephen Hawking to Elon Musk, have begun warning about the dangers of AI; with Hawking warning that it could end mankind, and Musk calling it “the greatest risk we face as a civilization.”
Q. Is there a message in your book that you want readers to grasp?
A.
No matter how many safeguards are engineered into AI and artificially intelligent robots, they cannot protect against human greed and depravity.
Q. What draws you to this genre?
A.
As a science writer, I have spent my career reporting on amazing scientific discoveries. So, my “science thriller” novels seek to incorporate real-world science into compelling stories that speculate on its ultimate implications.

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