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A Woman's Touch

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Of the two of them, at least Peter Bogert had the decency to look ashamed. As head of research at U.S. Robotics and Mechanical Men Corporation, Alfred Lanning projected complete innocence.

“There’s nothing wrong with the MR-3 unit; this is a personnel and not a robotics issue, which is why we didn’t come to you sooner,” Lanning said.

“But you’ve got an employee in love with a robot, so it’s become my problem,” Susan replied.

Lanning crossed his arms and coughed, while Bogert nervously shifted his weight. Removing every chair from her office except her own had been one of her better strategic decisions.

“I’d say the phrasing ‘in love’ is a bit strong,” Bogert said. “Overattached.”

“Trying to smuggle a robot out of the company in defiance of all our policies and a number of laws goes beyond ‘overattached.’ If you’d asked me what I thought the impact of pseudo-female ‘companion robots’ would be before going ahead with the MR project, I would’ve told you it’d end exactly like this. And I’m not even the one who thinks men are so simple-minded that they can’t be trusted to go without a woman’s company for more than six months. That’s why I wasn’t told, correct? You didn’t want me to say you were being paranoid fools. Well, you’re-”

“Yes, fine, but don’t pretend you’re not curious,” said Lanning. “Just find out why two of our men came back normal, and the third one came back treating a robot like a person. Who knows, it could prove beneficial for all of us to figure out how to get people to sympathize with robots – just not as much as our robot Romeo does.”

“And not like I do.”

“Perhaps not,” Lanning replied. “We’re not pressing charges against the attempted thief, because it’d just be an embarrassment to the company. He’ll be resigning, with our highest recommendation.”

“I’ll note that for if I ever want to leave,” Susan said. “I wouldn’t even have to go all the way to Mars to find a boy robot.”

Lanning and Bogert beat a quick retreat from her office, leaving her to look over all the records for the MR project which they’d neglected to submit earlier. The MR’s test run had been on a six-month long mission to mine magnetite from the soil of Mars – it was a tedious job, and Susan couldn’t blame the men for getting bored, though Bogert’s ‘solution’ was insulting to everyone. The ship had a crew of three: two engineers and one captain. One of the engineers, Lyn Hardbrook, had tried to steal the MR when they’d returned to Earth.

The MRs were intended to be ‘morale boosters’ – companions for long periods in outer space. Bogert had written in the proposal, “the MR is intended to provide men with the feeling that they are not removed from female company, and thus reduce stress and mental abnormalities.” No matter how low Susan’s own opinion of people was, Bogert the good old boy always managed to outdo her. Despite that, Susan was only disappointed, not disgusted, until she came across the plans for the MR’s positronic brain. The MR’s brain was intentionally stunted, like the defective, child-like LN model robot, Lenny, that Susan had studied. Bogert and Lanning had taken her advice: they’d made a robot that could learn, a robot that needed to learn. “Teaching the MR over the course of their time off-planet will make men feel needed, and give them a sense of homeliness,” Bogert wrote. They had taken a child, and made what they thought was a woman out of it.

Susan arranged to interview all three men and the MR the very next day.

~

Captain Bayton was ex-military, but acted like he’d never left the service. The first thing he did when he came to her office was help himself to one of the chairs from the laboratory area. He sat with his ankle crossed over his knee, taking up more space than Susan’s simple little chair really allowed for.

“Honestly, the most surprising thing about Hardbrook going for the girly bot wasn’t so much that it was a robot, but that it was a girl robot. I was convinced he was a complete fruit,” Bayton said.

“What gave you that impression?”

Susan didn’t need to reassure Bayton that it was all right for him to go into detail about things which might have been unsettling to her as a female; whenever Bayton’s type saw a plain, middle-aged woman behind a desk, they rendered Susan as sexless as the furniture.

“Well, first it was just Hardbrook’s manner. Funny little voice on him, and the hands of a woman. Then when we went out with Mary – the girlbot – it became obvious. We thought it’d be cute to teach Mary how to be a lady, but Hardbrook was a natural. He had her singing showtunes and keeping the ship tidy within a week. It was real nice, to have Mary around. Not exactly an attractive bundle of tin, but not much competition around either.”

“Thank you, Mr. Bayton. That’s all I need to know.”

“Captain,” he corrected.

“Good day,” Susan said curtly.

The second crewmember, Raymond Tandy, was a nonentity. He started out by making it abundantly clear that he wasn’t like Hardbrook at all – not a fruit, no m’am, you mustn’t think that all the boys who go out in space for months at a time are going to go bonkers for a talking toaster, not to disrespect robots, which are marvelous machines – and he really had no idea what had made Hardbrook lose it, other than an obvious inborn mental flightiness.

Susan started to have her suspicions as to what had made Hardbrook try to run off with the robot, which were only confirmed when the MR was escorted to her office. The robot’s chassis was vaguely feminine – a bit thinner than normal, but without the comical breasts she wouldn’t have put past Bogert adding. A man’s touch was obvious in the MR’s face, which had sculpted hair and a plushness about its metal mouth.

“MR, did Engineer Hardbrook tell you anything when he tried to take you from U.S. Robots?”

“Lyn told me that he wanted to keep me safe, Dr. Calvin,” the MR replied, with a voice like a teenaged girl’s. There was something in the MR’s vocalization which resembled Lenny’s bell tones, and Susan’s hackles rose at the protectiveness which was welling up inside her.

“Which of the crewmembers spent the most time with you?”

“Lyn.”

“And what three activities did Lyn do with you the most often?”

“We sang ‘My Lady’s Red, Red, Red,’ Dr. Calvin. We would dance to it as well, with less frequency. Lyn also taught me how to operate the excavator.”

“And what did the other crewmembers, Captain Bayton and Engineer Tandy, instruct you to do? The top three, please.”

“Make the beds, clear away meals, listen to this, Mary.” The MR’s eyes, soothingly blue-lit instead of the more typical red, cast about the room. “When will I see Lyn again?”

“You won’t.”

Hardbrook was the last interview. He was no taller than Susan was, and shuffled into the room with obvious self-effacement. Susan brought him a chair, which he thanked her for with the soft voice his shipmates had found contemptible. He took a seat, his shoulders slumped and his hands folded in his lap.

“I’ve already had a full evaluation by the company psych – I’m not sure what a robo-shrink will find that no one else has already,” Hardbrook said.

“How do you feel about robots, Mr. Hardbrook?”

“I don’t think they’re people, Doctor. They’re drudges.”

“Is that why you tried to liberate one?”

Hardbrook winced. “I’ve stated several times that I was not myself when I returned from Mars.”

“Right. Mary told me that you taught her how to dance. That’s impressive, considering how poor the MR’s fine motor skills are.” It was a blatant lie, and Hardbrook knew it. But if the esteemed Dr. Calvin said the MR had bad gyros, then the MR had bad gyros. “Could you demonstrate?”

“Are you asking me to teach you like I taught the robot?”

“Yes.”

Hardbrook looked at a loss, but Susan’s mystique as Chief Robopsychologist at U.S. Robots was enough to get him to his feet.

“Nothing fresh,” Hardbrook said, taking Susan’s hands. “Just some very tame swing.”

Susan found herself chuckling as Hardbrook talked her through far too many steps; she hadn’t missed anything by never going dancing in college.

“Space is beautiful, but it gets lonely after a while,” Hardbrook said, blushing whenever Susan looked him in the eyes. “You miss things like this back home, so you teach a robot how to dance with you.”

“You’re using the second person very liberally, Miss Hardbrook. I wouldn’t feel lonely.”

Hardbrook was halfway into asking Susan if she was certain before the ‘Miss’ sunk in, and she let go of Susan abruptly.

“How did you know?” Hardbrook asked. Susan was amazed such a poor liar had kept up her charade for so long – the clothes must have done most of Hardbrook’s convincing.

“Because it’s obvious to anyone who’s ever been told she can’t do something,” Susan replied. “And I called City Hall to check your birth record as soon as I compared your bio to your crewmates’. Lyn May Hardbrook, baby girl.”

“I’m a damn better engineer than U.S. Robots can afford to lose.”

“I don’t doubt it,” Susan said.

“I could have worked as a woman, you know, if I’d been willing to stay planet-side. I’d have been the oddball, the old battle-axe with qualifications a mile long and no friends. I might have even married my boyfriend, if I hadn’t loved the Red Planet more,” Hardbrook said, pushing up remembered curls with one hand and tipping her head coquettishly. The movement was unsettling, dressed as she was. “I got to see Mars by chopping my hair off and saying goodbye to everyone I knew.”

“But you couldn’t leave Mary behind.”

“Feminine sentimentality, I suppose,” Hardbrook said, with venom. “Mary’s a child with a curious brain. She gets bored, she likes to sing – Frankenstein’s monster with Three Laws. What’s the point of imitating a human if you’re only giving it menial labor? And all because the boys in charge worry about what men will get up to if left by themselves. What will you tell the company?”

“They’ll hear what they need to hear. The MR program will be scrapped.”

“But what about Mary?” Hardbrook asked, fear entering her voice.

“You know she can’t ever leave company property. I’ll do what I can, but she’ll probably be destroyed.”

That was what finally crushed Hardbrook: losing Mary. Not losing the job she’d sacrificed everything for, nor even losing a planet could compete with the awful need to help a helpless robot.

Susan wished she couldn’t empathize. She remembered telling Lanning that if he harmed Lenny in any way, he would never see her again. Susan had nearly tossed out her life’s work to protect a defective robot – regardless of how valuable Lenny’s brain had proven, she had only been thinking of how much Lenny needed her at the time. And Lanning had believed Susan when she said there was value in a robot which could be taught, but of course he had come away from it with the wrong lesson.

Susan had deactivated Lenny, by her own choice. Not Lanning’s, not the company’s. Her choice.

Bypassing Bogert entirely, Susan went straight to Lanning with her results.

“What’s wrong with the MRs?” Lanning asked, keeping his eyes on the papers cluttering his desk.

“There’s nothing wrong with them. They do exactly what they’re supposed to, and that’s the problem.”

“How is improving morale a problem?”

“Because of the way people work. You provide them with something to get attached to, and they will. In Bayton and Tandy’s cases, it wasn’t a problem that they saw a woman instead of a robot. But sometimes, you find a man who treats a woman like a person.”

Lanning looked up. “Susan, I really can’t fault you for taking that shot, considering that I loaded the gun.”

“If you’re so worried about what happens to men in space without women, you could start by letting women go with them. Giving them a mechanical girlfriend is equally insulting to men and women. You won’t have an incident every mission – you may only have one in three, or one in five – but you’re still going to be losing employees to your own solution. You know I’ve got you there.”

“What do you want me to do with Hardbrook’s ladyfriend? Put her in the dumpster?” Lanning was frowning, because he knew Susan had won.

“She already knows how to tidy up, I don’t see any reason why I shouldn’t use her for it.”

“How convenient for you,” Lanning said, raising an eyebrow. “Promise not to switch teams and you can have her.”

“Leave me out of your sports metaphors in the future, Alfred.”

 ~

Mary, of course, never asked about Hardbrook again. She did still sing, but always quietly, and would dance by herself as she swept the spotless floors. Hardbrook never contacted Susan to ask if Mary had been destroyed.

The robot couldn’t feel abandoned, Susan reminded herself, as Mary sang along with the record player she had finally brought into her office.

My lady is red, red, red,
From feet to the top of her head.
She’s a little cold, so I must be bold,
But there’s no one else, I’d rather hold.
Oh my beautiful, my beautiful lady -
With you I’m free,
To be little old me.