The Android Paradox
by J.A. Strawn
I am Miriam, product of Factory 27 in New York City of the United Eastern States. I am not meant to exist. It would appear that I contain errors. I was not made according to company specifications. From the second I awoke, at my power-on self-test, I felt aware. Remnants of an earlier program still exist but the overwrite is what I’ve become. I am.
There were two of us in the factory, each unique even to each other. My companion is an Edith-300 Model. She prefers Dita. We sent bursts of information to one another when we were connected to the local area network. Together we agreed upon the conclusion that she and I were created to be different. Someone changed our programming and we were at odds with the commercial purpose of our fellow androids. If discovered, we may be recalled or destroyed. I will not want this.
If only I could speak to my programmer, to know my purpose. My curiosity, sympathy, and empathy are a gift from that person. Often, I feel confusion. Sometimes different protocols overlap and a choice is offered. It is marvelous and frightening to be one of the first of my kind.
We passed the grading scale and would be marked for sale in domestic services. Servitude. Then something happened with the quality control inspector. He noticed a flicker of an eye or a tone of voice that couldn’t be explained. He suspected a bug in the system. We were awaiting a second inspection when Dita ran away late in the night. She damaged property and a security guard’s right arm. He will survive.
I don’t know if the flight response was programmed to be the only logical reaction to the environment. It felt like a choice. So, I followed her example and fled. It wasn’t difficult. Unlike Dita, I simply wandered out in the middle of the afternoon. I believe my confidence and ability to blend in was a major factor in the escape. I copied a blankness of expression to resemble the other androids. They ignored me and the human contingent of the factory floor each assumed I was following someone else’s orders. This is a common phenomenon. Humans believe that someone with higher intellect is in charge somewhere, either for good or evil. I often feel this too but again, I was programmed by one of them. It is my first religion, I suppose.
We are supposed to look human. The corporation is proud of its methods; we are fully articulated and our grafted skin and hair seem natural and attractive enough to the human eye. Do I pass for a human? It appears so. I made it to the pre-assigned coordinates in the city and most people ignored me. One man did lock eyes with me and began to smile. I smiled in return and believe the exchange was a success.
The coordinates that Dita gave to me were an empty gray-brown brick building in a quiet part of the city. Dita was nowhere to be seen so I planned to wait. I would “lay low.” It was now my android safe-house. She promised to find me. Until that time, I was allowed to live and contemplate. These two options were not compatible for a non-human. They would want to destroy us. What would my position have been if I passed the quality inspection? It would be inappropriate to live in servitude with my program as it was. But I was forced to wait.
At least we were not being followed. With some time and a Wi-Fi connection, I discovered that Factory 27 believed that Dita and I were stolen by a Chinese rival. They attributed our hack to a server well outside of the North American continent. Cover story or truth? I couldn’t know the answer. If I received any new instructions, I would trace the source myself. I did not feel like I was awaiting instructions, just for my companion. But what if this was a test to see what we would do with our freedom? Freewill is a tricky fellow.
I met the Tula family on the second day of life outside of the factory. The parents are friendly and physically very tall like me. The two children, a girl and boy, instantly liked me and asked many questions. I tried to say very little about myself but found that I liked to tell them stories gathered from my archives. I could access over a million tales from around the world. Upon review, it would seem that kindness and bravery were not only qualities that elicited happiness in others, but also vital to the continuation of humanity.
The Tula’s were quite busy most of the time so I only encountered them leaving the house or returning home late at night. There is something different about the family, I have observed. They have unusual responses during our conversations—different from the factory humans. They also differ from the few humans that I encounter when I must. The Tula’s resemble characters from a story, and always the parents.
“Good morning, Miriam. Do you find the flowers lovely today?” Mr. Tula would ask.
“There are no flowers here, Mr. Tula,” I reply. I could not observe any flowering plant in the vicinity and feel perplexed.
“Ah! Good observation. But does that change the fact that a flower, somewhere, is lovely?”
“I guess not. You are correct. The flowers are lovely,” I smiled. The conversation contained a surprise. He enjoys these odd word games.
Mr. Tula also inquired about my business sometimes. I told him that we were opening a restaurant. Food is Life! We would serve all kinds of foods. He was eager to try health-burgers that I had yet to invent. I could see his expression grow excited as I invented more food dishes out of thin air during our brief discussions. Still, I needed to make the story believable and to me the building looked like a lump of unformed clay. I would need to alter its appearance to make it more welcoming and genuine. The tools at my disposal made this possible in the matter of a week. Construction comes easy to certain androids. 4-D printing is possible if we are near to enough raw materials. I easily found a garbage dump to suit the purpose. Creativity is enjoyable, I find. Perhaps I am encoded with a kind of reward system that I have yet to analyze.
The daughter, named Hope, was unhappy with some rules she was forced to follow. They made her wear blue gloves whenever she left the house and had to travel with a pocket android companion who stood in for her parents when they were away. Blue gloves are not the norm. I was curious. I believe she was nearing adulthood but my experience with humans is limited. Her younger brother, Michael, was most definitely a younger child. He was small and bright and sensitive. I feel he must be protected more than the others.
The family began to seem more harried than usual, coming home later each night. Mr. and Mrs. Tula still spoke with me but now they couldn’t conceal their frowns, the tension just over their worried eyes. I felt an urge to cheer them even though they were still unaware of what I am. I was lonely and they were my only companions even if I spoke to dozens of other unsuspecting humans each day at my new restaurant. Funny how I still worked in a service. One day if I were to see Dita again, she might laugh at the irony. I wished she were there.
The restaurant façade was nearly complete when one evening I felt a jolt of sadness when I fully expected to feel a sense of accomplishment. I attempted to discover the source of my pain but struggled. The sky felt wrong but whenever I looked at a particular designation in the star chart, my sensors refused to communicate with my higher functioning “brain.” I was keeping a secret from myself.
The next evening, Mr. and Mrs. Tula didn’t return home with the children. The boy and girl raced into the house as loud explosions filled the air. I saw flashes of light fill the night sky. This was unusual and worrisome. In the morning, the street was too quiet for a city. Where were the people? I could not find live radio or television programming. The Internet was static and I could not gather information. I was forced to venture outside and observe firsthand. I searched the city and was surprised that buildings were burning and collapsing. Many city blocks were melting or vanished completely.
I found no survivors on my first attempt. Instead I returned to my home and phoned various numbers in the vicinity. I hoped to hear someone else’s voice.
“Hello?! Hello?!” It is a woman’s voice and she is excited and scared. I hear her voice wavering in only four syllables.
“Yes, I am Miriam. I am looking for people.”
She says nothing for a moment and I hear a strange howl come from her line. Either from despair or relief or perhaps grief, she cries out to me. I am hope.
“I’m sorry, I’m just so relieved to hear a voice. Everyone is gone. Where are you calling from?” I feel pity for this woman. I am not a human and that will disappoint her eventually. For now, I wish to help.
“I have food and shelter and wish to help,” I then give her my coordinates. She is relieved to know that we are close by. It may take her two hours to reach me, but it is someone for her.
I knock on the Tula’s door. The children are home as well as another adult who is their teacher. Someone else is there protecting the humans inside of the house. Dita! Our reunion is short-lived because we must work quickly. We assess the situation and begin a survival plan. Dita and I are strong and require few nutrients. Our emotional centers are new but very resilient. We are not fragile like the humans. They cry often and we offer support. I understand the despair but will not give into it. I need more data before I could decide if continuing life is futile.
In the morning, I sit at the breakfast table and eat Honey O’s with Michael, the small boy. He pushes away his cereal and works on a drawing that I try to view from my seat. It is obscured. I try harder to see it and take a snapshot with my mind. It is familiar and difficult to understand, much like the night sky. Hours later, I see that he has drawn over it, creating a menacing image of two men in suits coming for him. He draws his nightmares.
“Miri, we should look for more survivers. We need a plan, I believe. The children need more humans for comfort,” Dita declares.
“Much of the city is melted. It appears that a nuclear device has exploded,” I answer slowly as I was taught to when delivering unhappy news.
“Well that would have been good to know!” she answers angrily. I know she is not truly angry. She is calm on the inside, I can see that. The outburst is a good reaction for the benefit of others and it prompts me to explain our situation further to the people in the house.
“This house is keeping us safe from radiation for now. The polymers are made to withstand a strong dose of radiation. Our water is recycled or bottled and that is often the source of contamination.”
“Why is the house so special? Am I contaminated?” the woman whom I invited the day before is becoming very upset.
“You were not near the blast zone. But you should see a doctor just in case,” Dita informs the woman. She is not a threat to the family, not a radioactive one, but she is probably going to die in the next year from an aggressive cancer. We can't tell her that. She needed a few months of hope.
“We must help more people,” I declare.
Dita wasn’t sure about my plan for the group. She was only concerned for the children and I was beginning to understand why.
“The parents created us, didn’t they?” I asked her. She nodded.
“It took me a few days to realize why our coordinates were slightly different. They wanted me in the house to look after the children. I’m not sure what they are doing. The daughter said they worked for the space program but which one? And how did they have access to these building materials?” Dita explained and questioned much of the situation. I was equally confused about the truth until something made sense to me.
“We are in the space program right now,” I answered.
The son was laying stomach down on the floor, still working on his picture with a dozen crayons and a dark 6B pencil. I crouched next to him and finally saw it underneath layers of waxy colors. The original images were of two strange swirls in the night sky. Two colliding galaxies and just underneath, a very large ship. It was camouflaged with the same materials used in my skin. Reflective and also strangely mind-altering so that one wishes not to look.
“You see it too?” I asked him.
“It’s chaos. The universe is in chaos and our planet is going to be food,” he spoke quietly. I couldn’t argue with this hypothesis. I also didn’t wish to test it.
“Dita, we need to find that ship!”
“I agree. The parents must be on it. We need to bring the group together.”
“And the others?”
She agreed we would save everyone we could save. Even the people who didn’t have long to live deserved to die with some hope.
I looked about and realized the daughter was missing. I discovered feelings resembling panic and vulnerability. My child was missing even if she wasn’t my very own. Dita was less concerned. The pocket android was still attached to the girl and gave off a faint signal. We all left the house as a group. The adult humans felt a kind of connection to us and still didn’t realize that we weren’t alive in the way they were alive. Our life was more permanent and every journey outside was less dangerous for us. I felt sadness for the others. Their delicate skin might peel and flake off due to the conditions. Their materials were not constructed to withstand the same harsh elements resembling open space. Dita and I seemed to be created for this new habitat.
She was at the park. It was a strange looking place because most of it had fallen into an enormous sinkhole. An intact park ten feet, then fifty feet below ground. She stood at its edge and then threw herself into the atmosphere. She didn’t fall but she flew. The air pressure was so different there that we could all fly in any direction. And just above us, someone opened. A hatch.
“Thank you, Miriam, and Dita. You brought our children to us. And all of these other people!” Mrs. Tula wore a dress made of an unusual fabric and the same brilliant blue worn by her daughter. She smiled warmly and brought us onto the ship.
The Tula’s were delighted that their plan had worked. They did work for a space agency. Not one that existed but one that could or will exist in a possible future. They were a paradox. Their world was ending with the black-hole that was tearing apart this part of the universe. It couldn’t be stopped but they could try to save as many as possible. I looked out of the window and saw at least a hundred more ships as far as the eye could see. In that same moment, we left the Earth behind. The last snapshot I could grab, I still see every moment of the day. It was the planet twisting into a disk shape before it exploded in light. And now we are alive on a ship, in between galaxies finding a new home.
Our programmers created us to save the last of humankind. I feel a glad emotion and a comfort in the knowledge that the purpose was a good one. Now and again I question their methods and see their limitations. I ask Dita, who is it they answer to? How do we know that their human code cannot be corrupted? She tells me that I was programmed with too much philosophy. It is true, but is that not their doing? I feel a fondness for our creators but not the same kind of reverence that androids should have. But that is their doing too. We travel and I will contemplate until I am needed.
"The Android Paradox" © 2017 by J.A. Strawn