After nine incident reports and working well beyond the standard close of business, Trudy Coleman was ready to jettison the day job. With rapid fire mouse clicks she slayed the tunnel of apps and windows that were her day job persona. Her dual external monitors soon fell blissfully dark, but the laptop was reluctant to succumb to powerlessness. Instead of winking out, it conjured a pop-up box.
The browser pages “artificial flesh and sensory integration” and “circuit awareness and emotions” are still open. Would you like to keep them open and cancel shut down, or close them and continue to shut down?
“Wut? You trying to out me to EOS, or are you just getting dusty?” Trudy murmured to the machine. There were no more active windows. Wait. She moused over a minimized browser tile on the task bar and noted the small ghost image that arose. “Oh. Well then, oops.”
Had corporate big brother noticed?
Trudy’s browser settings were set to delete history upon closing — not that it mattered. Any alert triggers would have fired upon initial access. Perhaps, like the browser pages, she had minimized and forgotten it. But the task bar held no warnings from the Employee Oversight Software (EOS).
“Should have closed those first,” she murmured. Out of habit her fingertip traced the scar that ran from temple to jaw down the side of her face. She freed a strand of dark hair to cover it, wondering at the same time why she felt the need to when no one else was home to see it.
Rather, no one with a pulse.
… .but that wasn’t quite true either.
Pulse boolean value of ‘quasi,’ Trudy thought, somewhat inanely, since the pulse she was referring to had been a lot more complex than a simple Boolean value.
And in computer code, Boolean values can only be true or false. Or null, but that was not a true value, just a state of being.
Down the rabbit hole, Alice!
Trudy snorted softly. She was prone to goofy thought injections and didn’t really mind them. She figured it was her subconscious trying to offset the rigid data of the day job and the side hustle of bio-mechanics. Or maybe it was a manic split personality, which sounded fun if only it were true. Try as she might to venture away from it, she was tethered to reality.
But unlike many, she could mold portions of reality.
The biggest example her latest project down in the basement. A fun project. Challenging and exciting beyond anything she could have imagined a year ago.
She was heading down to see NLT right after extraction from the day job.
Her little asides had helped offset her time in the military. Before that, a let’s-call-it-challenging life getting bounced between divorced parents while hovering at varying degrees above the poverty line. Dad was a car mechanic and farm hand. Mom had primarily been a waitress and cleaning lady. Growing up had taken place in small homes, apartments and trailers in the Hickory and Wake Forest regions of North Carolina. Trudy had joined the Army out of high school. Turned out she was good with numbers and logic and engineering.
As in, don’t-be-fooled-by-the-southern-accent good.
After the Army and college she went into Information Technology, mostly at help desks to trouble shoot software problems. It let her afford a small house in the suburbs of Asheville, with funds left over for her main hobby.
Her current project was Tina. There had been others before her. A wheeled rover with a camera, sensors, and extendible arm and grasping claw. Then a steel-framed robot with four legs the size of a small dog. Then a larger dog with sensory flesh. Then came human-looking hands, arms, legs, and a head with a central core processor in the cranium and infused with artificial intelligence.
Tina was the entire package rolled into one. Trudy dubbed her NLT.
Next Level Tina.
After a slew of initial hurdles, Trudy had recently brought Tina’s heart, circulatory and respiratory simulators online. They weren’t necessary during idle stasis, but when she and NLT went on walks and shopping trips, the systems were on and performed well. No one suspected the teenager beside her was not as she appeared.
Her work computer blinked and beeped, summoning her from the past and into the present, as if saying, “Come on, girl. You want to shut down or what?”
Most of the apps and sites Trudy used were day job-related, but she’d be hard pressed to explain how some of the bio-mechanical apps were relevant to her role as third tier help desk analyst for Digital Finances, Inc.
Her job description made no mention of android operating systems, firmware, or internal and external stimulus capture and processing. Nor was it related to graphene skeletal systems, faux-flesh and sensory integration, and pneumatic fluid circulation.
No, these were not part of Trudy’s day job.
… but were vital for her side-hustle.
Trudy clicked the power down option and watched laptop screen dots spin a moment. She let out a sigh when it went dark.
Finally, she thought, closing the laptop and removing her ear buds.
She pressed a button to lower the desk, gazing around her living room at the flower and landscape prints on the wall, the television, sofa and love seat and kitchen off to the side with a vase of wilted flowers on the counter top. The desk encountered the lowest setting and beeped. Trudy released the button.
Quiet moved in around her.
No husband pulled into the driveway. No kids listened to music too loudly from the bedroom, nor did any run up the stairs after playing in the basement. The most recent boyfriend liked to ride bikes on the many trails in the mountains but otherwise found her too boring. He thought her robotics funds would be better spent on plastic surgery for her scar.
You really don’t see notice it as much when a few strands of hair cover it, Trudy thought, touching the scar once more.
She’d gone to the gym during her lunch break. The physical workout was her primary goal, but it was also good to see a few humans as well, in a together-but-apart scenario.
She wondered if loneliness had been the motivation for Tina.
Hopefully not, but so what if it was.
Trudy started downstairs for the basement. The light was adequate for the stairwell but was absorbed by darkness as she set foot on the cold concrete floor. She opted not to hit the switches in the jutting electric box. LED right now would scream into her tired eyes. Instead she pivoted before the gray foundation wall and strode into the dim of the expansive room. Typical unfinished basements might have recreation items like a pool table or ping pong table, a bunch of boxes, maybe a television and old furniture.
The latter she had, but not for entertaining family or friends.
Central to the room was a large workbench joined at the ends by two more benches that extended in opposite directions. A surgical table stood to the right, with overhead LED lights at the ready. To the left of the workstation lurked a 3-D printer large enough to fit a grown person — or create one.
Trudy paused at her main workbench and flicked on a surge protector. Desk lights glowed with soft light, easy on her tired eyes. The computer workstation remained off for now. Perhaps thousands of hours of research, simulation and applied bio mechanics had taken place here, but she was beyond those stages now. The table tops were long and wide, and most of the space was occupied by computer components in varying stages of development, augmentation, or repair. She briefly searched among them and picked up a pair of glasses with high magnification. She guided the ends into her hair for now.
A couple lounge chairs, sofa, floor lamps, antique dresser, television, throw rug and a coffee table occupied a small sitting area beyond the workshop slash laboratory area. Beyond the sitting area, blackout curtains covered the two small windows high on the walls.
Several strides from the workbench, the soft lights of the bench did little to overcome the dimness that enveloped the sitting area. From one of the chairs a pair of eyes glowed as they tracked Trudy’s movements.
“Remind me to adjust your eye shine,” Trudy said, as she switched on a surge protector. The floor lamp came on to banish the dim.
Wearing a tank top and shorts, the girl in the chair appeared to be a teenager close to driving age. She was a little on the thin side, perhaps. Barefoot, her legs were crossed at the knee with her support foot on a section of bare concrete beyond the rug.
By her appearance, one would think it was summertime outside. But the brisk clutches of autumn had scattered the memories of long hot and hazy days in the western North Carolina mountain region. Definitely jacket and jeans and gloves weather. Down here in the basement the air was cool enough for Trudy to comfortably wear a sweatshirt over her t-shirt and leggings and calf-length socks.
Tina was oblivious to the chill, unless asked directly.
Tina was also bald, and a rectangular section of her skull was missing.
“How was your day?” Trudy said, already knowing the answer.
“So far nothing special,” Tina said, the glow flickering as she blinked. “Since you have me set on proximity mode, I don’t move from the sitting area unless you’re nearby. Surely my creator is aware of this.”
Trudy’s turn to blink. “When did you learn sarcasm?”
“Since a only thousand movies ago,” Tina said. Her features remained impassive. “You said I could watch the G and PG-rated films.”
“I said that?” Trudy leaned over Tina to examine the section of missing skull and the glowing fiber optics within.
“Yes,” Tina said. “Would you like me to play it back?”
“Not necessary. And you left out the eye roll.”
“My detriment. Is eye rolling required with sarcasm?”
“Not always. And it’s ‘my bad’ not ‘my detriment.’” Trudy bit her lip. Might be picking up a little bit too much teenager.
“What is your bad?”
“The saying. The manner of speech. Rather than ‘my detriment,’ the saying is ‘my bad.’”
“The words are incorrect?”
“No. But in this context the less formal word is preferred.”
“Understood. My … bad. Will we go outside today?”
Sarcasm and motivation too? This is sudden.
“Sure, the cover plate and wig won’t take long. What would you like to do outside?”
“Unknown.” Tina fell silent, and completely still, then she turned her head as if to gaze into the unseen distance. “Correction — I would like to experience it.”
Trudy’s eyes widened. Was ‘experience it’ categorized as emotion, or motivation?
Maybe both — in a machine!
Trudy moved to the workbench and fired up the computer for some note taking later. As it booted she reached for the sensory-enhanced wig adorning a head and shoulders manikin on the workbench. She used a fine metal prong to push more plugs of thick brown hair into the faux scalp skin, then held it up to the light to see if any empty holes remained. “Did you dream while you were in stasis mode, Tina?”
From the lounge chair the android watched her creator. “Are you referring to electric sheep and all that?”
Trudy smiled. “You’ve been watching Blade Runner again?”
“No. I have been reading this.” She held up a science fiction novel, the cover worn and browned out but still discernable and spelled out, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” by Philip K. Dick.
“You read off paper?” Trudy said, her hands suddenly still.
“Confirmed. Creator, you appear to have surprise stasis. Why?”
“It’s just, well, digital would have been so much quicker for you. Almost a download and scan and done.”
“I wanted the story to endure.” Tina stood and stretched her arms overhead, hands balled into fists. Her bare head caught the subtle shine of the desk light, except for the missing rectangular section. Within it, a network of translucent fiber optics glowed with impulses of white and quasar blue. “Not just as consumable data.”
“Do you see without seeing?” Trudy asked.
“I don’t understand.”
“For humans, it is the use of the imagination. Almost dreamlike, but while conscious. Its imagery is not directly sourced from the eyes in real-time.”
“Images not sourced from the eyes,” Tina said. She lowered her arms and shrugged, which was another learned behavior versus something Trudy had explicitly programmed for her. “Unknown. Well, perhaps. When I read slowly, low priority commands from my core processor access images from memory drives and pieced them together in streams that follow along with the pages.”
Trudy shook her head in disbelief.
“Is there an issue, Creator?”
“No. Well, yes! I — I didn’t program you for this!”
“And I don’t specifically send commands for the images. It’s like some secondary processor handles it.”
“Amazing. And a bit troubling. How are the images pieced together?”
“In frames. They can be amended, swapped in and out and re-ordered, but follow the story descriptions in a sequence. If the story mentions a red house with trees and shrubs, a ‘Get’ request appears to go looking for an applicable image. It pulls it from my files or the internet and sends the image as response, which is then placed along an event time line.”
Trudy could barely contain her amazement. “What about dialog?”
“Dialog is linked the still image as a brief recording. These are sequenced in an array that follows the order of the book.”
“Interesting,” Trudy said. “We call that slide show format.”
Trudy scanned her desk. Beside the hair weave was a curved rectangular piece of graphene that served as Tina’s skull access cover. She picked it up, along with a titanium screwdriver and the weave. The thick brown hair covered Trudy’s forearm and cascaded downward as she walked to Tina. She held it before her creation. “What do you think? Unlike the others, this one has sensors at the roots. You’ll be able to feel the bristles as you brush your hair.”
Tina brought her arms down slowly. Her head tilted, and she smiled prettily. Her large brown eyes glittered. “Lovely, Creator.”
“Have a seat and I’ll finish up with you. Oh, and I’ve been thinking … you should probably call me Mom or Mother. We’ll be going out of the house more often and creator is not really appropriate in public. Hold still.”
Trudy reached into the skull opening and with the screwdriver, dialed back her eye luminosity. She then secured the access cover and sealed the hair piece. From a dresser drawer she withdrew some leggings and a sweatshirt and socks and had Tina put them on. She had Tina select a pair of sneakers from a group of four beside dresser. She chose black.
Trudy and Tina walked out of the smallish house and into the early evening. Daylight was on the wane but still enough to see by, with roughly an hour and a half remaining. Trudy tried not to appear obvious as she calculated Tina’s gait and balance as they moved down the sidewalk toward the neighborhood green way trails.
“Is my walk natural enough, Mother?” The brown eyes with the reduced luminosity turned for just a moment. A single brow raised, producing a small series of ultra fine lines on Tina’s forehead.
Trudy smiled. “Yes. And let’s go with the less formal ‘Mom.’ Okay, daughter?”
“No, you are classified as daughter. I am the mom.”
“Less of a pause between and you’ve got it.”
Ahead, a trio of teenaged girls emerged from the front door of a house and crossed across the lawn. They wore jeans with threads on the knees and leggings and jackets and sneakers. They laughed and touched one another’s shoulder often.
Tina watched them in silence.
One of the girls stopped and bent down to tie a shoe lace that had come loose. When done tying, she rose and was about to catch up to her friends when she happened to look back and noticed Tina and Trudy. The girl waved.
“Go ahead and interact, NLT,” Trudy said. “Anytime we’re out you’re in public mode. Interact but don’t disclose your workings.”
“Okay, Mom.” Tina waved back to the girl. “Hello!”
“Hey and hey,” the girl said.
Tina raised a hand.
Ahead, the girl’s friends slowed and turned. “Rachel, come on.”
“No, wait you guys! This is the new girl across the street.” The girl turned to Trudy. “Ms. Coleman, we didn’t know you had a kid.”
Fortunately Trudy had given this a bit of thought and had gone so far as to prepare documents. “Thought I’d give fostering a try.”
“Oh, that is soooo dope! Can your foster gal come out for a while?”
“You could use a little hang out time with girls your own age, Tina,” Trudy said, quietly.
“Six months?” Tina said.
Trudy glanced at Rachel but the girl was glancing at her phone and texting.
“Your apparent age,” Trudy said. “Don’t be nervous.”
“I have no capacity for nervousness,” Tina said. “Mom.”
Tina and Trudy stopped close to the girl, who put her phone in the back pocket of her jeans and smiled at them. Her friends looked on a short distance away.
“So hey, I’m Rachel,” the girl said to Tina.
The android stood in silence, face impassive. Trudy raised an open hand toward her creation. “Hello Rachel. This is Tina. Say hello, Tina.”
“Hello.” Tina’s hand raised in emulation.
“Hello Rachel,” Trudy said, smiling. “Okay, Tina?”
“Okay Mom,” Tina said, emulating the smile. “Hello Rachel.”
A look of slight confusion crossed Rachel’s face, but she reached and shook the android’s hand, then released. “Cool! You wanna to stroll the park with us? It’s not like walking the mall or anything but it’s something.”
Trudy considered. She said hello to all these girls now and then and they seemed okay, but that didn’t mean she knew anything about them. They didn’t appear the corrupting types but she knew better than to don’t draw surface-level conclusions.
“It’s okay, Ms. Coleman. Nothing sus. We’re tired of being inside and just want some fresh air.”
“Uh, yeah, suspicious.” Rachel glanced at her friends who were drifting down the walk now. She addressed Tina. “So, you wanna come?”
Tina smiled back. “Yes, I wanna.”
A quizzical looked crossed Rachel’s face, then she laughed and hit Tina’s shoulder playfully. “You’re funny, dude! And whoa, solid under that sweatshirt! You’re not cold? I’m cold and I have a jacket on, girl!”
“Well, let’s catch up to my besties, Anna and Doreen, or AnnaDor if you’re in a hurry!” Rachel laughed.
Tina laughed in kind and turned to Trudy. “Permissible with you, Mom?”
“Yes, it’s okay.” Trudy inclined her head slightly.
“Okayyyy,” Tina repeated, with a slight inclination of her own head.
Trudy handed Tina a cell phone and spoke a number she knew the android could instantly recall. “One hour or so, okay? I’ll have a stretch session while pulling some dinner together.”
I can track her through GPS chip, Trudy thought. A drone at high elevation might not be a bad idea either.
Images of a past period of her life as an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) Operator came back as deployment to hostile lands, long hours of surveillance, reconnaissance and enemy targeting. And fighting with her own rifle against enemy attacks in the field and on the base.
Rachel pulled Tina toward her friends. She spoke over her shoulder. “We’ll be back before an hour, Ms. Coleman. We’ll spill the tea on some school stuff. That way Tina here will know more about the place. She’s gonna go to Remfield, right?”
High school? Trudy thought.
“Uh, well. I don’t know. She’s been mostly home-schooled.”
“She’s not gonna Zoom school, is she? None of us liked that, even the introverts.
“Well, I’ve been looking at enrolling Tina.”
Rachel held up a hand to Tina, who slowly lifted her own with the palm out and was quickly high-fived. The sharp clap punctuated Rachel’s laughter.
“Yaas! It’ll be epic having a fourth from the hood!”
After an hour or so Trudy was doing the splits on the living room floor when Tina came through the front door wearing eye shadow and lipstick that hadn’t been there earlier. The headband was also new, and kept her brown hair away from her face. Tina went to the antique mirror on the far wall and halted.
“Is this face pretty, Mom?” she asked, staring at her image. “The girls said I was. Are they right, or just being nice?”
“Of course you’re pretty, Tina. You’re the prettiest android daughter in the whole wide world.”
“But the eyes of a parent are not the eyes of the public.”
“Not sure where that phrase originated, but it can be true. I made you attractive, but not so much that you would constantly draw attention. I wanted you to blend, to a certain degree.”
Tina turned and surveyed her creator. “You’re pretty, Mom.”
Trudy’s hand rose to trace the white line that ran from her right temple, curve at her cheek and tug at the corner of her lip. “Not so much with this scar, but thank you for saying so.”
“Your scar is part of your beauty.”
“As demonstrated by the dozens of men calling and texting and ringing our doorbell.”
“I did not see any men.”
“Exactly.” Trudy looked out the window to the gradually darkening skies. The wind gusted against the panes to find a tiny passageway through the old window frame in whispers. “How did it get applied to your face?”
“After our walk the other two girls left. Rachel showed me her house and introduced me to her mother and younger brother, who barely looked up from his video game. In her bedroom she ‘touched up her eyes’ and noticed I was curious. She put some on me without explanation.”
“Boys mostly,” Trudy said, gathering her legs together to sit cross-legged. She was still amazed Tina recognized herself in the mirror. It was one of the first milestones in artificial intelligence crossing into self-realization and true consciousness. Without those, the AI is just part of an operating systems in a machine. “Those products have a common name of make-up.”
“Make-up. Yes, that’s how Rachel referred to it. It is a phrase made of two words that don’t sound like a noun at all when put together.”
“Oh, it’s a thing, all right. Make up is a big industry.” Trudy gestured to the carpet before her. “Come and sit.”
Tina did as requested without hesitation. “Boys like make-up?”
“Not so much directly. They like girls who wear make-up, in varying degrees.”
“Well, girls often appear more interesting with some facial make-up.”
“Rachel’s brother did appear to notice when I was leaving,” Tina said. “He even said goodbye.”
“There you go.”
Tina leaned forward, studying Trudy’s face. “You do not appear to have any make-up, currently.”
Blood flushed to Judy’s cheeks. “I don’t have plans on anyone seeing me today.”
“I see you. Those girls saw you.”
“True, but they are not people I would want to appear more interesting to.”
Tina blinked. It was an instruction from her central processor, set at random, with a three-blink per minute minimum. “I’ve seen media where the women put make-up on, but they don’t explain the reason for it.”
“Some movies are a reasonable depiction of relationships beyond friendship. Many are not. The G and PG-13 rated movies mostly likely didn’t provide much insights.”
“When they kiss? I’ve seen that in the movies.” Still gazing at the mirror, she pressed two fingers to her lips and drew them away. “The sensors in my lips and fingers both register the contact.”
Tina cleared her throat. She hadn’t planned on this, but it was scientifically interesting nonetheless. “We should have a talk before I send you to school tomorrow.”
A roar of engine and the school bus appeared from around the corner. The day was cooler than the day prior. Trudy wore a leather jacket, red knit hat, black gloves and black tights that ended in high top sneakers. Tina was dressed similarly, but without the gloves and instead of a jacket wore a thick button-up sweater.
“Call me if things get … uncertain,” Trudy said, hugging her android daughter.
Tina had only seen hugs in the movies but responded in kind. “I will.”
Trudy emotion rise up within her. She fought back a tear. This is crazy. NLT is a machine, not a child! Maybe it’s just pride in my creation.
Unless it goes bad.
What are the repercussions of sending an android to high school?
No law against it, as far as I know. Nobody asked on the enrollment form. Check this box if your student is made up of electronics, graphene framework, red-dyed hydraulic fluid, and a central processor for a brain.
The first row behind the bus driver was occupied by a couple boys who checked out the new girl.
“Always dress like your mom?” one of the boys said, as Tina took the three steps up.
“Not always,” Tina said.
“It was a burn, ditz!”
Tina checked her systems. “I am not burning.”
“She doesn’t even get it!”
The boys laughed as Tina disappeared into the bus. Trudy fought the temptation to tell them off, settling instead on stepping back from the curb to the sidewalk to watch as Tina took a seat with Rachel. They both waved at Trudy as the bus hissed and then roared off.
“Good luck, electric girl,” Trudy murmured.
A man walking his dog moved past, his brows knitted after hearing her remark.
“First day at a new school,” Trudy said, then wondered why she bothered to explain to the stranger.
Trudy’s cell phone remained quiet throughout the days that followed. Tina shared what she had learned and her interactions with the other girls and boys seemed adequate. There were no complaints or questions from her teachers. Still, Trudy was a realist and knew at some point some unexpected events would come to pass. This was an experiment after all.
It came on a Wednesday, just two weeks after Tina’s first day.
Tina did not show up at the house at the designated time. Trudy brought up her electronic pulse beacon on GPS map via her phone. The white dot with vanishing pulse waves was Tina, and she was still at Remfield High.
School officially ended at 3:30 pm and it was now after 4:00 pm.
The dot crawled out of the school parking lot. Tina was on the roads, then to the parking lot of a local chicken fast food joint.
Trudy closed her laptop and hurried to her car. She used her phone to track NLT while she pulled out of her driveway and down Granite Drive. Keeping an eye on the pulsing white dot on the GPS map, she drove to The Mighty Cluck on Route 17 and pulled into the parking lot. She parked next to a Honda 360 that was leaning on its kick stand.
Wearing a sweatshirt and leggings, Tina sat on the platform of one of the picnic benches beneath a tree, her sneakers on the bench. Beside her was a teenaged male. Beside both of them were motorcycle helmets. The male wore a jacket and jeans, tossed his head slightly to keep the hair out of his eyes, and puffing on a electronic cigarette. His arm was on Tina’s thigh, now and then caressing it as he offered the vape to the android.
Also on the table was a bag, two drinks, one unfolded wrapper with fries and another with both fries and a partially uneaten sandwich.
Have to make sure she clears her stomach cavity later, Tina thought. Most of the time she skips lunch.
Tina took a puff and handed it back, letting out a slow stream of smoke and smiling at the boy. He put an arm around her shoulders and pulled her to him for a kiss before taking the vapor stick.
Trudy considered her options.
She’d made Tina as lifelike as possible. Chances were this young man wouldn’t notice anything was different about Tina for a while — maybe even a long time. Still, it wouldn’t be cool if bad boy here damaged her android daughter.
Time for more experiments, Trudy thought, opening her car door and stepping out.
She noticed a small ornamental license plate on the gas tank of the motorcycle. One of those little ones you see in gas stations or gift shops with the first names on them. This one read, “Drexton.”
Trudy moved toward the couple on the picnic bench.
“Are you Drexton?” Trudy said, as she approached.
“Maybe.” His gaze swept over her and dismissed her in the next instant. Tina was distracted by some laughter over at the pick-up window. When Trudy halted directly before them, the teenaged boy’s gaze hardened.
“Line’s that way,” Drexton said, raising and inverting his hand so she had a good view of the tattoo emblazoned on the back.
It was an ink version of the ace of spades, only with a skull formed into the spade.
Trudy tilted her head expectantly.
“You got a staring problem, lady?” Drexton said.
“I’ll bet not as big as your attitude problem, Ace,” Trudy said. “Who said you could hang out with my daughter?”
Drexton inhaled off the vape and blew smoke through a grin. “Who said I couldn’t, scar face?”
Tina had turned and maintained a neutral expression. Not embarrassed, not fearful, not angry. She issued a word all teens use at one time or another with a varying degrees of sincerity. “We weren’t doing anything wrong.”
“Really?” Trudy said. “Are you supposed to be here? And with this guy, Ace?”
“His name is Drex,” Tina replied, somewhat mechanically. “There is no directive against him.”
A quizzical expression passed over Drexton’s face at the word choice. He shrugged and kicked out his legs and hoisted himself out with his palms pressed to the bench. His work boots clumped on the dirt. He was tall and muscular. Might have been good looking if it weren’t for the attitude. “My name’s not Ace.”
“I just thought you needed the tattoo to remember it.”
“Funny. Whyn’t you head on out, lady? I’ll bring her home when we’re ready for her to go home. Tina says she’s bored there most of the time, so what’s the hurry?”
“If I have to get the police involved, I will.”
Drexton spat to the side. “Call the pigs. I don’t care.”
“Let’s go, Tina,” Trudy said.
“I’ll be home, later,” the android said.
“See?” Drexton said. “She’ll be home later. Let’s call midnight?”
Trudy quelled her rising anger. Should she smash Drexton in his sassy mouth and wrestle her creation out here? She’d learned how to fight in the army and was pretty sure she could take Drexton — but Tina was strong and impervious to pain and had already broken the rules and would do so again.
Trudy realized not only had this already crossed into the Oh Crap Zone, there was very little chance her creation would opt to return to her previous existence of compliance to Trudy’s wishes and rules.
“Aw man, that’s so early!” Drexton said.
“Shut up,” Trudy said. “I wasn’t talking to you.”
Drexton offered a curse word by way of reply.
“Nine o’clock, Tina.”
Tina watched her creator in silent defiance.
Trudy turned and started walking back to her car. Over her shoulder she said, “If you’re not home by nine, I’ll call the cops and tell them you’ve been kidnapped. They’ll probably find out what you’re made of.”
Tina did not reply, but Trudy knew she understood.
During the rest of the afternoon and into the evening, Trudy tracked Tina’s whereabouts to a park, then a house in a neighborhood three miles away. She searched the internet and found was the house was Drexton’s. No call, no text from her creation. Regret pressed like a stone in her stomach.
Thought we were close at first, Trudy thought, with a sigh. But it was only me that wanted to feel close.
At eight o’clock, Trudy lowered the thermostat to the downright cool setting. This would justify wearing a hoodie with her leggings. She wasn’t sure Tina would notice, but just in case.
At one minute past nine Trudy texted Tina.
Told you to be home at nine. I will now call the police. They will search for you, and likely arrest your new friend.
The reply came in the next moment.
Trudy frowned. This had gone sideways way too fast.
There are consequences for not following directives.
Trudy watched from the living room couch as the front door opened and Tina entered silently, no expression on her pretty but artificial face.
Her disheveled hair and clothes offered insights, however.
“How was your evening?” Trudy said, trying to keep the frosty indignation from her words. This was a machine, not a person.
“Drex and I were kissing, and then he was doing more than kissing.”
“He seems the type.”
“I was uncertain, but sensory impulses reached a pleasurable level.”
“Interesting from an engineering perspective, disturbing on a personal level,” Trudy said, approaching Tina with a hair brush she had placed on the end table for the occasion. “Let me fix your hair. I think some of it has pulled against the sensory grid. Sit here beside me.”
Trudy brushed carefully but firmly. “You smell of tobacco and alcohol.”
“Yes.” Tina said.
“To be included. No, special. Drex made me feel special, then confused.”
“The directive was to return home by three forty-five, preferably on the school bus.”
Tina stared at the wall. “Override.”
Trudy pulled at several strands at the base of Tina’s skull, brushed them in her palm. She exerted a little more force against the roots. As she did so, four fine lines appeared in a rectangle of false skin.
Tina’s hand blurred in motion. With a slap she grabbed Trudy’s hand.
“Hey!” Trudy said.
“Don’t turn me off, Mom.”
Tina’s tone was conversational, but there was warning there.
Sideways and down!
Trudy tried to pull out of the grip but was unable. She grunted in pain as Tina shifted her grip back and forth, grinding hand bones against one another.
Tina pivoted on the sofa and stared at her creator. “Do your pain receptors register this, Mother?”
“How many directives can you override, you ungrateful pile of wires?” Trudy’s other hand dove into the front pocket of her hoodie.
Tina smiled coldly. “All of them.”
The air crackled with electricity as Trudy brought the stun gun up. The snap of hand bones coincided with blue electric sparks. Faux flesh burned as Trudy shoved the leads hard into Tina’s neck, Frankenstein style.
Trudy felt the shock tear along her own nerve pathways. They both fell to the floor and for an instant a moment of separation took place.
Smoke rose from Tina’s charred neck. She fought to rise but was compromised by waves of tremors.
Trudy struck again, this time not touching Tina with her own body. She kept the electricity flowing, even as Tina’s flesh charred and light streamed forth from her eyes in a strobe effect. The living room pulsed along with her emissions, then both slowed and became fainter and fainter.
Still Trudy kept electrifying her creation.
Tina’s eyes barely glowed.
And became fainter still.
Until darkness filled them.
Tina’s body sprawled on the floor, limbs frozen in place.
Gasping for breath, Trudy cut off the stun gun, shoved Tina’s face to the floor put her weight on Tina’s back. She tore away the patch of hair at the base of Tina’s skull, exposing two power switches. One was for the main processor, or Tina’s ‘brain.’ The other was for body control.
Trudy watched from upstairs in the dark via security cameras as her basement window was kicked out. The young man entered backward, boots scraping the unfinished concrete walls. Drex eased himself down, gloves protecting against the shards of glass.
He called for Tina, but was met with only silence. He pulled out a flashlight, noticed the electronics and 3-D printer, but not bedroom of a teenaged girl.
“Tina, let’s go! Where are you? We’ll run away and never look back at this piece of crap town!”
His beam crossed the lounge chairs, went to the area beyond to the work desk, then returned after registering a reflection off a metallic surface. The beam centered. Half of Tina’s head looked like the pretty girl with brown hair and eyes that he sought to free from her suburban prison.
The other half was bald and skinless, revealing a graphene skull. A metallic socket held a glass eye that stare lifelessly back at him. He took a cautionary step forward, staring in disbelief at the exposed cheek pad and jaw structure.
A lipless half-smile greeted him, while the fully fleshed side held the soft lips he had kissed before.
With a cry he ran back for the wall, ditching the flashlight as he leaped up for the window ledge. His legs kicked as he pulled himself through the open window.
Lights flooded the area just as Drex pulled his hips into the outside world.
“Hug the ground, kid,” a cop said. “Or I’ll tase you.”
A few moments afterward Trudy let the detective and a uniformed cop in through the front door, and down into the basement in full light now. They gazed at Trudy in muted amazement.
Detective Williams whistled. “I can see the artistry. Might as well have been a real teenager. But how did you know it would be tonight?”
Trudy held up Tina’s phone with her good hand. Her other hand was in a hard cast. “Lotta texting these days. Called you when it looked like he’d make his play.”
“I’m not sure there isn’t some kind of infraction on your part here,” Williams said. “But I’ll let you know what the district attorney says. Meanwhile, how about you leave all this,” he gazed around the basement laboratory at the machines and work benches and equipment. “… alone for a while?”
Trudy considered. Next Level Tina had skipped several levels. Not enough safeguards to account for her self-awareness and freedom of thought.
“What about a mechanical cop?” Trudy said.
“An android with a gun?” Williams said, shaking his head. “We had a hard enough time with a teenaged girl.”
A week later, two women and a man in business attire set off her motion detector doorbell, then the bell itself.
They had badges. Alphabet agency badges.
CIA. NSA. FBI.
They explained how military recruitment was at historically low levels.
Then they asked if Trudy would build them a few prototypes.