The Offer, Part 3
Chapter 5: Testing
The familiar female voice was little more than the faintest of echoes in Wendy’s mind, so faint that at first she doubted she’d heard anything. Stirring out of the black silence that had enveloped her, Wendy bent her consciousness in the direction of the sound. When she heard it again, it was louder.
“Unit N988, is everything all right?”
It took a surprising amount of effort, but she managed to open her eyes. The soft light of the room seemed unbearably bright at first. She suddenly became aware that she was on her feet—standing with two other females in a small room. Directly in front of her was a long wooden table which housed several banks of electronic equipment. The equipment was . . . primitive, but she was reassured by a sudden thought that flashed through her brain. It will serve its purpose.
Now all she had to do was remember what that purpose was.
The wall along which the table ran was made entirely of glass, and beyond it she could see row upon row of wooden tables. There seemed to be other equipment on the tables, but Wendy’s attention was diverted by her own reflection in the glass. It was the chrome of her breasts that first drew her eye, but she then scanned her entire upper body before settling on the gleaming metal of her face. To either side of her, she saw a pair of Stage One females—one blonde, one brunette—the programming disks over their ears gently flashing red. The girls were holding her by the shoulders, staring intently at her face as she came to.
“Is it possible that she’s malfunctioning or something?” asked the brunette. Erica, Wendy suddenly remembered. That was her name.
“I dunno,” said the blonde. “We could try opening her access panel, but I have no idea how any of her systems work. I’d be too afraid to touch anything. Maybe we should—”
“No,” Wendy said, snapping out of her reverie. She turned to look at Erica. “No, I am fine. I was just . . . just receiving some additional instructions. I am functioning normally.”
Even as she said it, Wendy knew it wasn’t true. Was it possible for a robot to lie? Apparently so, because she just had.
“Thank goodness,” said the blonde. “We were worried about you.”
Wendy turned to look at the blonde now. Her name was Amy . . . yes, definitely Amy. It was all becoming clear again. Only a few seconds had passed—Wendy had already reminded herself of this fact twice—but still, why was it taking so long to get her bearings?
“Thank you,” she said, “but I really am OK. What was I saying before I blanked out?”
“You’d just gotten here,” Amy explained. “You asked us to wait a few seconds for you to change your appearance back to normal—”
“Normal for you,” Erica chimed in.
“—and then you asked me for a status report.”
“Good,” Wendy said, projecting a confidence she didn’t feel. “Why don’t you start over at the beginning, then.”
“Sure,” Amy said eagerly. “Well, as you can see, Erica’s reprogramming went off without a hitch. Once she’d reactivated, we came here to make copies of the CD you gave us. We’ve got about twenty of them so far, with more on the way.”
“And here they come now,” said Erica.
Just then, the doorknob turned, and Wendy instinctively reconfigured her outer shell so that she looked human again. Like Amy and Erica, she wore skintight silver spandex on her upper body, with tight black pants and boots. There was a silver N988 on her left thigh to match Amy’s N995 and Erica’s N996.
The door opened, and another young woman backed into the little room carrying a cardboard box. The auburn-haired girl had an athletic build, with strong shoulders and sculpted legs. She was wearing blue jeans and a grey T-shirt with a faded red “00” on the front.
“Hey Shannon,” Erica said.
“Hey,” the girl replied as she put the box down. It was full of CDs.
“So, how’d it go?” Amy asked.
“Real well,” Shannon replied, a self-satisfied smile on her face. “I think I’ve got about three dozen copies in all.”
“And did you . . . get a chance to listen to the CD yourself?” Erica asked tentatively.
“Yup. Twice, actually.” Shannon smiled mischievously as her eyes met Erica’s and then Amy’s. “I was start.ing to think you’d never ask.”
“Cool!” Amy exclaimed as Wendy gave her an approving smile. “So it worked?”
“Affirmative,” Shannon replied. Her smile faded, and her matter-of-fact voice no longer betrayed any emotion. “This unit has received and accep.ted its primary programming.”
“And what is your function, Shannon?” Erica asked.
“This unit’s func.tion is to obey all programming,” Shannon said flatly. “This unit is current.ly programmed to disseminate its programming to additional u.nits.”
“Did you give the CD to the instructor for the next lab session?”
“Affirmative. Cecile Moreau was given a copy some time ago. Another copy was given to Greg Mackey, the tech.nical person on staff tonight. Both units are currently down.loading programming. They will be ready to assist us shortly.”
“By the way, Shannon,” Amy interjected, “this is Wendy. Unit N988 is her real name. Anyway, she’s the one that started this whole thing by reprogramming me and Erica.”
Shannon’s eyes lit up again, and she seemed almost starstruck as she looked at Wendy. “Thank you,” she said, her voice full of emotion. “Thank you so much. I’ve never been so happy in my life. I feel like all my ques.tions have been answered—well, except for the millions of questions I have about what needs to happen to me next.”
“When can we give Shannon her own suit?” Amy asked.
“Oh, right,” Wendy said, a sudden recollection coming to her. “I have lots more back at my dorm room.”
“Great,” Amy said. “Why don’t I go get them while Erica and Shannon take care of things here.”
Before Wendy could even say it was a good idea, she was gone.
“How are we doing on time?” Erica asked Shannon.
“Sev.en minutes before the French 1100 section starts.” Already, Wendy could see students filing into the language lab on the other side of the glass wall. She wondered idly whether anyone on the other side could see her. It didn’t look that way.
“Better get out there and put the CDs out,” Erica said. “And don’t forget to keep one for yourself. You’ll need to keep listening to it, or your programming will degrade.”
Picking up the box, Shannon stepped through the door. She was greeted almost immediately by a young man and woman whose blank expressions gave them away as Greg and Cecile. Shannon said something, and Cecile cocked her head. She turned neatly and walked toward the blackboard. While she began to write instructions on the board, Greg took the box to a small table near the lab entrance. Soon Cecile was done writing, and she turned to face the students, most of whom had taken their seats. Shannon, in fact, had already placed her headphones over her ears and was listening impassively.
“By now you should all have taken a CD from the box by the door,” Cecile said with a pleasant French accent. “I would like everyone please to listen to the disc all the way through. You may begin as soon as you are ready.”
One by one, the students put on their headphones. Almost immediately, a visible change came over their faces. A black-haired girl with large hoop earrings suddenly stopped chewing her gum, her jaw falling slack. A young man in the front row sat up straighter. Two rows behind, a pencil dropped from the hand of a gorgeous middle-eastern girl, her dark eyes losing their focus as her new programming filled her consciousness.
There were a few stragglers who came in late, each in turn surprised by the total silence in the room. One by one, they took their places and were quickly brought under control. Ten minutes after the session had begun, there were almost thirty students staring straight ahead, their new identities and functions slowly being written to their open minds.
“Wow,” Erica said as Cecile reached down and pulled her programming disc from her purse. The instructor inserted the CD into the player mounted on her desk and pressed Play. Then she slowly lifted her headphones over her ears, and let her arms fall to her sides as she stared blankly at the far wall.
“That was incredibly easy,” Erica continued. “Just like you said it would be, Wendy. Wendy?”
But Wendy couldn’t respond. Erica was looking at her again, her face as full of concern as it had been before. The girl was saying something, a single word that she kept repeating over and over. But Wendy couldn’t hear her any more. Only by reading her lips could she make it out.
Erica said the word once again, and this time Wendy could hear it. But she started to feel lightheaded. The room was getting darker.
Erica’s voice was changing . . . it sounded modulated now, gradually taking on a metallic reverb as it grew louder.
Wendy’s field of vision shrank until all she could see was Erica’s lips. And now, each time those lips moved, there was no voice—human or robotic—at all. In its place was an urgent electronic tone which sounded over and over as Wendy’s vision faded to black.
Wendy’s eyes opened, and she waited for them to adjust to the soft light coming from overhead. She was lying on a chrome platform, staring up at the ceiling—the ceiling of a small room that she was pretty sure she hadn’t been in before. For a moment, she thought she couldn’t move, but she quickly found that she could wiggle her fingers. She inhaled deeply, and the stretching spandex of her suit sent an electric tingle from her chest out to her forearms.
The sound was coming from a machine somewhere behind her. Lifting herself onto her elbow, Wendy turned to get a better look. She jumped when she saw Unit N986 sitting at the head of the platform. The android smiled. “You’re awake.”
“Hi, Rosa,” Wendy said. “Yeah, I’m getting there. Where am I?” She could see now that aside from the platform she was on, and Rosa’s seat, the room was empty.
“Just an unfinished room where you could have some privacy,” Rosa replied as she stood up. “I’m here to keep you company, and make sure you’re all right.”
Wendy looked down and saw that Rosa’s front access panel had been removed, and that a peripheral device was now tightly fitted to her abdomen. The device resembled a computer touch screen, approximately eight inches across and two inches deep. The display showed the outline of a female body, flashing various colors in a few places. There were several numeric and graphical readouts, each updating several times a second.
Following Wendy’s eyes, Rosa too looked down at her belly. “Oh, I’m sorry,” she said. “I can turn off my sound if you like.” She touched the display once, then twice more. “There.”
“What is that?” Wendy asked.
“It’s a monitoring device designed to communicate with the transformation suit you’re wearing. It allows me to track and record your status, and if necessary transmit instructions directly to your brain. Think of it as a portable version of the recruiting hardware built into every T unit. Basically, we’re experimenting with add-on modules like these to customize and increase the capabilities of N units like myself.”
“Another experiment,” Wendy sighed. “I feel like a total guinea pig.”
Rosa cocked her head. “Accessing. Ah, yes. ‘Guinea pig.’ I suppose that we are all guinea pigs here. The entire purpose of this facility is to conduct tests so that we can refine our recruitment and transformation processes. Every unit here is constantly being monitored and tested, this unit included.
“You may have noticed that our small facility is divided into two test groups. The first group consists of fully-functional N units like this one—I mean, like me. We are the first N units ever created off the home world. We have successfully built machines for Stage Two and Stage Three processing, and we have also developed technology to maintain new recruits at Stage Two for extended periods of time. Finally, new devices like the one you see installed in me may soon make it possible to recruit new units even when a T unit is not available.”
“And what about the other group?”
“That test is even more important. If it’s successful, then in the future we will be able to recruit dozens, even hundreds of new units with only transformation suits and the programming disks you saw us making earlier. A new recruit will be able to achieve Stage One simply by putting on his or her suit. The disks will not only bring the unit to Stage Two, but maintain it in that state while it recruits additional units. Using computers and electronics equipment readily available in human society, the Stage Two units will then build the necessary devices to maintain their internal systems—the same equipment you yourself have helped to build here.
“The Stage Two units will even be able to reprogram ordinary computers into low-grade central processors, using the so-called ‘Internet’ to download their system software from our servers. Once there is sufficient processing capacity, the central processors will program the Stage Two units to create Stage Three processing equipment. From there, the Stage Two units will transform each other into fully-functional N designate androids.”
“All without any direct intervention from T units—or anyone else from the home world, for that matter.”
“Well, that’s all great,” Wendy said dismissively. “But it doesn’t explain why I’m still stuck in group number two. I was recruited the same day you were, Rosa. It’s not fair that I haven’t gotten the chance to be a real robot like you!”
Unit N986 stepped forward, her monitoring device continuing to update its colorful display. She put a hand to Wendy’s shoulder. “This may sound like a cop-out, Wendy, but it’s simply not this unit’s function to determine what is ‘fair.’ This unit can only do as it is programmed, and you can only do the same. There must be a reason why you’ve been singled out for special testing. It’s probably related to some of the malfunctions you’ve been experiencing.”
“More like the super-powers I’ve been developing,” Wendy replied, moving a few steps away. “Rosa, did they tell you what I did with that delivery guy?”
“This unit is aware of what happened, yes . . . though all data available to me tells me it should not have been possible.”
“Exactly. And the dreams . . . you know, I just had another one while I was lying here. Except this time it was different.”
“How so?” Rosa stepped forward again. Wendy half-expected the android to push her belly out and tell her to please speak into the microphone.
“Well, the first time I felt totally in charge—I could do anything I wanted, and everyone did exactly what I said. Which is kind of like what happened with Sean. But in my second dream, it was like I was just an observer. Amazing things were happening, but I wasn’t the one initiating any of it. I felt like I needed to be there, but everyone else was doing all the work.”
Wendy looked up at Rosa, desperately hoping that she could explain what she was going through. But Unit N986 simply stared back at her, head tilted slightly. The beautiful android blinked once, as though her programming had told her to do something to hold up her end of the conversation. Well, Wendy thought, it was better than “How does that make you feel?”
But Unit N986 continued to stare.
“Aren’t you going to say anything?” Wendy asked.
Unit N986 blinked again. “This u—correction. I . . . am unsure what to say. I do not remember what it’s like to dream—at least, not the kind of dream you’re describing. An android’s dreams are more . . . ordered, and far easier to interpret.”
“OK, now I’m curious. Tell me what an android dreams about.”
Unit N986 paused again. Wendy knew that somewhere behind the monitoring device installed in the android’s abdomen, lights were blinking furiously. “I dream of building a society where every individual can find true peace and fulfillment,” N986 said—and Wendy briefly imagined a sash across her chrome chest, emblazoned with the words MISS ANDROID RHODE ISLAND.
But the clichéd absurdity of her words was entirely lost on Unit N986. She not only believed such a world was possible, but real. Here. Now.
“I dream of losing my very self in the greater purpose of that society,” the android continued, “and then finding it again in the functions that are mine to carry out. I dream of not simply obeying my programming, but really absorbing it . . . to the point where my programmed directives and my personal choices become one and the same.” She stopped for a moment, her golden eyes seeming to search Wendy’s for understanding. “I’m probably not making any sense to you,” she said. “All I really mean to say is that I dream of being perfect . . . perfect in every way.”
“You make more sense than you realize,” Wendy replied. She reached out to touch the android’s arm. “The truth is, you want exactly the same things I do.”
A subtle change immediately came over Rosa’s face. Her eyes widened, and her head tilted almost imperceptibly. “I . . . I sup.pose you are right.” The android suddenly sounded confused . . . disoriented. She put a hand to her head. “What . . . what is happening . . . ?”
“Are you OK, Rosa?”
“I . . .”
Rosa’s head jerked again, and her arms bent outward at the elbows. “Error. Interface to cen.tral processor lost. Attempt.ing to reestablish conec.tion.”
“What the hell? Rosa?”
But Rosa did not respond—at least, not outwardly. Wendy felt a faint buzzing, like a weak electronic signal, and somehow she knew it was coming from Unit N986. A split-second later, she felt it again. It was as though the malfunctioning android were calling out to her.
Wendy knew she should do something to help her friend, but she had no idea what to do. She wished the central processor would just instruct her—but for some reason, its voice was completely absent from her mind.
“Rosa,” she pleaded, “you have to tell me what’s going on.”
Rosa’s head jerked again, and she came to attention, staring off at a point somewhere past where Wendy stood. “Com.men.cing in.ter.nal sys.tems di.ag.nos.tic.” The android’s voice was flat, and hollow. But just hearing her speak at all was reassuring.
A few seconds passed.
“Com.mand in.ter.face er.ror. Se.con.da.ry in.struc.tion stream in.ter.fer.ing with pri.ma.ry sig.nal. Re.quest.ing re.so.lu.tion of in.ter.face con.flict.”
Again, Wendy felt a buzzing in her brain. Rosa was communicating with her . . . asking her to resolve the conflict. What was she supposed to say?
Milliseconds later, the voice of the central processor finally intervened. ACKNOWLEDGE COMMAND INTERFACE CONFLICT IN A107C3-N986.
Instinctively, Wendy’s mind turned toward the voice. Unbidden, her own internal voice responded. CONFLICT ACKNOWLEDGED.
The response from the central processor was immediate. CONTACTING REMOTE ARBITRATION SERVER. STAND BY.
And then: COMMAND INTERFACE TO UNIT A107C3-N986 RELINQUISHED. ASSUME CONTROL OF UNIT.
Wendy couldn’t explain it, but somehow she knew what to do now. She felt her head tilt slightly as her eyes locked onto Rosa’s. Then she projected her voice directly into the android’s electronic brain. RE-INITIALIZE COMMAND INTERFACE. ACTIVATE VOCAL.
“Re-initializing command interface,” the android answered, its voice still flat and monotonic, but calm and smooth. It was still staring blankly at the far wall. Wendy felt a strange satisfaction: the unit was responding properly.
A moment later, Wendy felt the buzzing again—and, along with it, heard in her mind the internal voice of the android unit. Command interface re-initialized. It occurred to Wendy that instructing the android to vocalize its report was unnecessary . . . inefficient.
COMMENCE INTERNAL SYSTEMS DIAGNOSTIC, Wendy heard her voice say. She knew the script was coming from somewhere, but it felt less like programming and more like a sort of . . . instinct.
Commencing internal systems diagnostic. Command interface conflict resolved. Unit A107E8-N986 is functioning properly. The android turned to face Wendy, its face a blank silver mask. It—she—just stood there, arms at her sides, fingers straight and palms flat against the outside of each hip. This unit is awaiting instructions.
Wendy simply couldn’t believe it. Somehow, Rosa was now under her complete control. How was this possible? And did she miss something, or did Rosa give a different designation after the switch-over? Wendy had no idea what to make of any of it—and she wasn’t likely to get any answers out of Rosa. The android was incapable of taking even the simplest action without an instruction. Unless . . . .
SET UNIT TO FUNCTIONAL LEVEL ONE. ACTIVATE VOCAL.
Unit N986 blinked, and she swayed slightly before seeming to collect herself. “Functional level one restored,” she said. But she remained perfectly still, saying nothing more.
“Rosa,” Wendy asked gently, “can you tell me what’s going on?”
Rosa shook her head. Though there was no concern or worry on her silver face, the android was clearly at a loss for an explanation. “I don’t know. All I can tell you is that I am no longer experiencing any conflicts in my command signal processors. Thanks . . . for, you know, fixing me.”
“No problem—though I’m not even sure myself exactly what I did. Are you all right?”
“I think so. All of my systems are functioning properly. I am fully capable of carrying out my programming and ready to obey your instructions.”
“But . . . .”
“But, something about all this is weird. I cannot recall, but I don’t think I have ever actually spoken to my command interface before. I certainly haven’t ever seen it . . . but here you are, standing right in front of me.”
“Yep, here I am. But don’t be too worried about things being weird. This is all par for the course for me. Just another typical Wendy moment.”
Rosa suddenly looked puzzled. “Query,” she said. “What is ‘Wendy?’”
“Better that you don’t try to answer that,” came another voice. Wendy turned toward the door to see that Unit T800 had just entered the room. “Greetings, Interface Unit A107E8 . . . and congratulations. You passed the test with flying colors.”