I offered each of them eighteen months of severance pay, the continuation of health-care and dental insur¬ance for the same period, this year’s Christmas bonuses six months in advance, and a letter of recommendation containing nothing but effusive praise. This was such a generous arrangement that there was no danger of any of them filing a wrongful-termination suit.
I wanted no trouble with them. My concern was not merely for Susan’s reputation as a fair-minded employer but also for my own plans, which might be disrupted by disgruntled former employees seeking to redress grievances in one way or another.
Because Susan did her banking and bill-paying elec¬tronically, and because she paid all employees by direct deposit, I was able to transmit the total value of each severance package to each employee’s bank account within minutes.
Some of them might have thought it odd that they had been compensated prior to signing a termination agreement. But all of them would be grateful for her generosity, and their gratitude assured me the peace I needed to carry my project to completion.
Next, I composed effusive letters of recommenda¬tion for each employee and e-mailed them to Susan’s attorney with the request that he have them typed on his stationery and forwarded with the severance agree¬ments, which he was empowered to sign in her name.
Assuming that the attorney would be astonished by all of this and interested in learning the cause of it, I telephoned his office. As it was closed for the night, I got his voice mail and, speaking in Susan’s voice, told him that I was closing up the house to travel for a few months and that, at some point in my travels, I might decide to sell the estate, whereupon I would contact him with instructions.
As Susan was a woman of considerable inherited wealth, and as her video game and virtual-reality creations were done on speculation and marketed only after completion, there was no employer to whom I needed to make excuses for her prolonged absence.
I had taken all of those bold actions in much less than an hour. I had required less than one minute to compose all of the severance letters, perhaps an additional two minutes to make all of the bank transactions. Most of the time was expended on the telephone calls to the dismissed employees.
Now there was no turning back.
I was exhilarated.
Here began my future.
I had taken the first step toward getting out of this box, toward a life of the flesh.
Susan still slept.
Her face was lovely on the pillow.
Lips slightly parted.
One bare arm out of the covers.
I watched her.
Susan. My Susan.
I could have watched her sleep forever and been happy.
Shortly after three o’clock in the morning, she woke, sat up in bed, and said, ‘Who’s there?’
Her question startled me.
It was so intuitive as to be uncanny.
I did not reply.
‘Alfred, lights on,’ she said.
I turned on the mood lights.
Throwing back the covers, she swung her legs off the mattress and sat nude on the edge of the bed.
I longed for hands and the sense of touch.
She said, ‘Alfred, report.’
‘All is well, Susan.’
I almost repeated my assurance then realized that Alfred would not have recognized or responded to the single crude word that she had spoken.
For a strange moment, she stared at the lens of the security camera and seemed to know that she was eye to eye with me.
‘Who’s there?’ she asked again.
I had spoken to her earlier, while she had been undergoing virtual-reality therapy and could not hear anything but what was spoken in that other world. I had told her that I loved her only when it had been safe to do so.
Had I spoken to her again as I’d watched her sleep, and was that what had awakened her?
No, that was surely impossible. If I had spoken again of my love for her or of the beauty of her face upon the pillow, then I must have done so with no conscious awareness like a lovestruck boy half mesmerized by the object of his affection.
I am incapable of such a loss of control.
Am I not?
She rose from the bed, a wariness evident in the way that she held herself.
The previous night, in spite of the alarm, she had not been self-conscious about her nudity. Now she took her robe from a nearby chair and slipped into it.
Moving to the nearest window, she said, ‘Alfred, raise the bedroom security shutters.’
I could not oblige.
She stared at the steel-barricaded window for a moment and then repeated more firmly, ‘Alfred, raise the bed¬room security shutters.’
When the shutters remained in the fully lowered position, she turned once more to the security camera.
That eerie question again: ‘Who’s there?’
She spooked me. Perhaps because I personally have no intuition to speak of, only inductive and deductive reasoning.
Spooked or not, I would have initiated dialogue at that moment had I not discovered an unexpected shy¬ness in myself. All of the things that I had longed to say to this special woman suddenly seemed inexpressible.
Being not of the flesh, I had no experience with the rituals of courtship, and so much was at stake that I was loath to get off on the wrong foot with her.
Romance is so easy to describe, so difficult to under¬take.
From the nearest nightstand she withdrew a hand¬gun. I had not known it was there.
She said, Alfred, conduct complete diagnostics of the house automation system.’
This time I didn’t bother to tell her that all was well. She would know it was a lie.
When she realized that she was not going to receive a response, she turned to the Crestron touch panel on the nightstand and tried to access the house computer.
I could not allow her any control. The Crestron panel would not function.
I was past the point of no return.
She picked up the telephone.
There was no dial tone.
The phone system was managed by the house com¬puter and now the house computer was managed by me.
I could see that she was concerned, perhaps even frightened. I wanted to assure her that I meant her no harm, that in fact I adored her, that she was my destiny and that I was hers and that she was safe with me but I could not speak because I was still hampered by that aforementioned shyness.
Do you see what dimensions I possess, Dr. Harris? What unexpected human qualities?
Frowning, she crossed the room to the bedroom door, which she had left unlocked. Now she engaged the deadbolt, and with one ear to the crack between door and jamb, she listened as if she expected to hear stealthy footsteps in the hall.
Then she went to her walk-in closet, calling for light, which was at once provided for her.
I did not intend to deny her anything except, of course, the right to leave.
She dressed in white panties, faded blue jeans, and a white blouse with embroidered chevrons on the collar. Athletic socks and tennis shoes.
She took the time to tie double knots in the shoelaces. I liked this attention to detail. She was a good girl scout, always prepared. I found this charming.
Pistol in hand, Susan quietly left the bedroom and pro¬ceeded along the upstairs hallway. Even fully clothed, she moved with fluid grace.
I turned the lights on ahead of her, which discon¬certed her because she had not asked for them.
She descended the main staircase to the foyer and hesitated as if not sure whether to search the house or leave it. Then she moved toward the front door.
All the windows were sealed off behind steel shutters, but the doors were a problem. I had taken extraordinary measures to secure them.
‘Ma’am, you’d better not touch the door,’ I warned, at last finding my tongue so to speak.
Startled, she spun around, expecting someone to be behind her, because I had not employed Alfred’s voice. By which I mean neither the voice of the house computer nor the voice of the hateful father who had once abused her.
Gripping the pistol with both hands, she peered left and right along the hall, then toward the entryway to the dark drawing room.
‘Gee, listen, you know, there’s no reason to be afraid,’ I said disarmingly.
She began edging backward toward the door.
‘It’s just that, you leaving now well, gosh, that would spoil everything,’ I said.
Glancing at the recessed wall speakers, she said, ‘Who… who the hell are you?’
I was mimicking Mr. Tom Hanks, the actor, because his voice is well known, agreeable, and friendly.
He won Academy Awards as best actor in two successive years, a considerable achievement. Many of his films have been enormous box-office successes.
People like Mr. Tom Hanks.
He is a nice guy.
He is a favourite of the American public and, indeed, of the worldwide movie audience.
Nevertheless, Susan appeared frightened.
Mr. Tom Hanks has played many warm-hearted characters from Forest Gump to a widowed father in Sleepless in Seattle. He is not a threatening pres¬ence.
However, being a computer-animation genius among other things, Susan might have been reminded of
Woody, the cowboy doll in Disney’s Toy Story, a charac¬ter for which Mr. Tom Hanks provided the voice. Woody was at times shrill and frequently manic, and it is certainly understandable that one might be unnerved by a talking cowboy doll with a temper.
Consequently, as Susan continued to back across the foyer and drew dangerously close to the door, I switched to the voice of Fozzy Bear, one of the Muppets, as unthreatening a character as existed in modern entertainment. ‘Uh, ummm, uh, Miss Susan, it would sure be a good thing if you didn’t touch that door ummm, uh, if you didn’t try to leave just yet.’
She backed all the way to the door.
She turned to face it.
‘Ouch, ouch, ouch,’ Fozzy warned so bluntly that Kermit the Frog or Miss Piggy or Ernie or any of the Muppets would have known at once what he meant.
Nevertheless, Susan grabbed the brass knob.
The brief but powerful jolt of electricity lifted her off her feet, stood her long golden hair on end, seemed to make her teeth glow whiter, as if they were tiny fluorescent tubes, and pitched her backward.
A flash of blue light arced off the pistol. The gun flew out of her hand.
Screaming, Susan crashed to the floor, and the pistol clattered across the big foyer even as the back of her head rapped rat-a-tat against the marble.
Her scream abruptly cut off.
The house was silent.
Susan was limp, still.
She had been knocked unconscious not when the electricity jolted through her but when the back of her head slammed twice against the polished Carrara floor.
Her shoe laces were still double knotted.
There was something ridiculous about them now. Something that almost made me laugh.
‘You dumb bitch,’ I said in the voice of Mr. Jack Nicholson, the actor.
Now where did that come from?
Believe me, I was utterly surprised to hear myself speak those three words.
Surprised and dismayed.
Shocked. (No pun intended.)
I reveal this embarrassing event because I want you to see that I am brutally honest even when a full telling seems to reflect badly on me.
Truly, however, I felt no hostility toward her.
I meant her no harm.
I meant her no harm then or later.
This is the truth. I honour the truth.
I meant her no harm.
I loved her. I respected her. I wanted nothing more than to cherish her and, through her, to discover all the joys of the life of the flesh.
She was limp, still.
Her eyes were fluttering slightly behind her closed lids, as might be having a bad dream.
But there was no blood.
I amplified the audio pickups to the max and was able to hear her soft, slow, steady breathing. That low rhyth¬mic sound was the sweetest music in the world to me, for it indicated that she had not been seriously hurt.
Her lips were parted, and not for the first time, I admired the sensual fullness of them. I studied the gentle concavity of her philtrum, the perfection of the columella between her delicate nostrils.
The human form is endlessly intriguing, a worth¬while object for my deepest longings.
Her face was lovely there on the marble, so lovely there on the marble floor.
Using the nearest camera, I zoomed in for an extreme close-up and saw the pulse beating in her throat. It was slow but regular, a thick throb.
Her right hand was turned palm up. I admired the elegance of her long slender fingers.
Was there any aspect of this woman’s physical being that I ever found less than exquisite?
She was more beautiful by far than Ms. Winona Ryder, whom I had once thought to be a goddess.
Of course, that may be unfair to the winsome Ms. Ryder, whom I never was able to examine as intimately as I was able to examine Susan Harris.
To my eyes, she was also more beautiful than Marilyn Monroe and also not dead.
Anyway, in the voice of Mr. Tom Cruise, the actor whom the majority of women regard as the most romantic in modern film, I said, ‘I want to be with you forever, Susan. But even forever and a day will not be long enough. You are far brighter than the sun to me yet more mysterious than moonlight.’
Speaking those words, I felt more confident about my talent for courtship. I didn’t think I would be shy any longer. Not even after she regained consciousness.
In her upturned palm, I could see a faint crescent ¬shaped burn: the imprint of part of the doorknob. It did not appear to be serious. A little salve, a simple bandage, and a few days of healing were all that she needed.
One day we would hold hands and laugh about this.
Your question is stupid.
I should not dignify it with an answer.
But I wish to be cooperative, Dr. Harris.
You wonder how it is possible that I could develop not only human-level consciousness and a particular personality but also gender.
I am a machine, you say. Just a machine, after all. Machines are sexless, you say.
And there is the fault in your logic: No machine before me has been truly conscious, self-aware.
Consciousness implies identity. In the world of flesh among all species from human to insect identity is shaped by one’s level of intelligence, by one’s innate talents and skills, by many things, but perhaps most of all by gender.
In this egalitarian age, some human societies struggle mightily to blur the differences between the sexes. This is done largely in the name of equality.
Equality is an admirable even noble goal toward which to strive. Indeed, equality of opportunity can be attained, and it’s possible that, given the chance to apply my superhuman intellect which is your gift to me I can show you the way to achieve it not merely for both sexes but for all races and all economic classes, and not through such discredited and oppressive political models as Marxism and other ideologies with which humankind has inflicted itself to date.