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The Changeling

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Never fall for your equipment, no matter how magically life-like. In the old days, before artificial emotions, before purple goo hydraulics that gave under touch, before synthetic souls – before the DRNs – nobody had to issue such a decree. A cop might like their automated squad car or AI server with the smart-ass user interface, but there was no chance of the wires being crossed for human. The new Lumocorp-issued bots, however, seemed to be designed less as cannon fodder and more as the controlling variable in some kind of demented social experiment, in which professionals under stress were forced to rely on creepily realistic simulacra for life and limb. It wasn't surprising that when feelings were involved, they flowed both ways.

Newly minted Detective Richard Paul resisted assignment to one of the newfangled gadgets. The system seemed hell bent on putting good people out of work anyway; why compound the problem with fake employees that conveniently didn't need to be paid? But then his original partner quit in disgust over some obscure grievances, and the bosses told Paul he'd get a one-year bonus for test-driving a DRN. A harbinger of the future, they said, plus he'd be able to help set policy for the things in the first place.

It didn't hurt that the first DRN model Richard ever saw was good-looking as hell.

He worked for the remnants of Vice back in that part of his career, which in those early days of decriminalized prostitution generally meant an endless stream of low-level synthopioid peddlers and the occasional underground speakeasy. If anybody actually died it got bumped to Homicide, while internet gambling and assorted other online addictions were handling by the geeks on Net Squad. At first glance Richard's new partner, DRN-034, didn't seem suited to the work. He was quiet and restrained, and preferred to observe a situation rather than absorbing it and taking action as needed. But like many of the other early test DRNs, 034 proved to be fanatically loyal to his colleagues, and capable of navigating that fine line between compassion and justice.

Richard liked him. The second day of their partnership, he proposed a few names to go with 034's burgeoning personhood. The android picked Andrew.

 

* * * * *

A year later, during the brutal weeks of the DRN decommissioning, the earliest MXs were already being rolled out. Constructed by a rival company, they were ruled by high-throughput deductive chips attached to state-of-the-art sensory input. Regular computers with skin and eyes, basically, and the lack of emotional capabilities was promoted as a feature. As promised, the MXs were reliable and consistent from unit to unit. No one mourned when an MX was deactivated.

Richard probably wasn't the first person to have the idea to use an MX body as a vehicle for a DRN soul. He heard rumors of other attempts, but the outcomes never percolated around the water cooler. His days spent among the geeks for the great DRN experiment had taught him who to hit up for illicit tech support, and the City was conveniently flooded with ex-Lumocorp engineers thrown out of work. So in the space of one afternoon, his nameless mechanical helper was hacked, wiped, overwritten with Andrew's memories, and jammed up the chest with 034's pilfered Synthetic Soul.

Even the hired geek looked fascinated as she pressed the activation wand to the MX's temple. He opened his eyes and the blue filled in.

“Andrew?” Richard asked after a long moment. “Andrew, bud, say something. You in there now?”

“Processing,” the MX head said, and it was in the standard voice, not that of a DRN. Richard's heart dropped. A minute went by, two minutes, while the android stared unblinking at the ceiling, not twitching from the lab bench.

Then, finally, “Detective Richard Paul, Narcotics Division. You completed the plan. I didn't think you'd actually go through with it. I have a very distinct memory of suspecting you would let me be wiped and sold.”

“What, and lose my best partner? Like I want to be stuck with one these soulless robots?

“Memories indicate that we were more than professional partners in a police setting,” the MX droned on. It was unnerving how much it sounded like an MX, and how little like Andrew. “I have episodic records of us engaging in...”

“Yeah, you need to reboot your impulse control module, or whatever you call it,” Richard interrupted, glancing at the hired geek. She was politely playing dumb and occupying herself with a beepy doohickey, for which he was grateful. “Discretion, remember, Andrew? You're a DRN, not an MX. Not just a machine.”

“DRN-034.”

“That's right.”

“With body model MX-43-beta, unit 112.”

“Uhhh… okay,” Richard answered. “How do you feel?”

“I do not feel. I do not have an emotional processing core to interpret that input.”

“Well, crap,” Richard said, turning to the engineer. “Do we need additional hardware? I thought the Synthetic Soul would be enough.”

The tech shook her head. “Honestly it was a long shot, but you wanted to fiddle with him as little as possible. The Soul's only supposed to generate an emotional response, but I thought maybe, with the memories, the MX neural net would recognize the signals. I guess not, it's just ignoring the extraneous information.”

“So, in English…?”

“I got a variant of the DRN chip around here somewhere. They were modifying them for the skinbot market, you know.”

“Oh great, this is getting better and better.”

Richard let her insert the chip anyway, desperate to fix Andrew to some minimum level before he had to return the MX unit to the station. If this didn't work, he'd probably have to abandon the project, at least until he could scrounge up enough funds for a defunct DRN body. Which, given his pathetic salary, could be years.

They rebooted him with the new makeshift hardware installed, and started over again. This time, after the blue eyes filled in and Andrew stared at the ceiling for a few moments absorbing the new components, he turned to the other two with comprehension in his eyes, mute.

“Hey,” said Richard, crouching down next to the table and stroking his cheek. “How do you feel now?”

“Weird,” Andrew replied. “Everything is wrong, Richard, I can't...” He reached over and clutched Richard's hand.

“Is he going to be all right?” Richard asked the tech. “What can I do – or should I do – to help him out?”

“You just dumped a mind into a foreign body, one that it wasn't designed for. Just because he's an android doesn't mean that it won't take time to adjust. He needs a familiar environment and time to integrate all the new sensory information with what the neural net expects.”

“So, just bring him home and wait?”

“Yup. Bring him home.”

* * * * *

The first few weeks, it was like having a child along as a partner. A kid with superstrength and incredible reflexes and entire databases of anti-perp techniques crammed into his head, but emotionally Andrew was little better than a five-year-old. He was inquisitive and impulsive, honest even when the truth was a fool's endeavor for cops, and seemed subject to mild swings of mood. As a beta tester Richard diligently reported all these faults to the android deployment team, a breach of trust he later regretted, when the exact same set of flaws were trotted out in public as arguments to shut down every last DRN.

Within a month, however, the mood swings subsided. Andrew seemed to learn appropriate reactions on the fly, in response to their cases, and in response to conversations with Richard himself. Which seemed entirely reasonable to Richard; did the techies really think that a sparkling new intelligence straight out of the manufacturer's box was going to react like a seasoned human? Programmers couldn't predict everything, that was for damn sure. Richard thought the androids would immensely benefit from a trial run with people under less dangerous circumstances – high school youth tutors, for instance, or maybe guards in the Cubes. The deployment team shook their collective heads at the suggestion. Not cost effective, they said. Cops would have to shake out their partner's bugs out on their own.

After that rough beginning, Andrew's personality stabilized into something that appealed to Richard even more: Calm, rational, competent, compassionate, fiercely devoted to his job and to Richard personally. He observed something similar among the other first DRNs deployed, that their personalities were highly varied, and they tended to mimic whatever their partners unconsciously wanted most. Richard's own life at the time was a bounty of stress and loneliness. Besides his partner's sudden departure, it was less than a year since his wife took off for sunnier pastures. Richard was in need of reliable friends, and Andrew, with his slight smile, needed one too.

“So, what are you doing after shift tonight, Richard?” Andrew asked one fateful night. “Not that I don't love hanging out for hours in a dark room filled with a bunch of plugged-in DRNs, but you are better company.”

“Sure, bot, why not? Local bar, great for observing folks. Drunk folks, admittedly, but that's humanity after hours for you.”

“Observation of our cases indicates that 'after hours' is hopelessly optimistic,” Andrew shot back. “But it would be nice to observe people who are not engaged in criminal activity.”

Andrew was a little stiff even back then, but Richard liked him that way.

* * * * *

Richard didn't dare did leave his confused Andrew-MX hybrid at the station's charging bay, so he risked censure and brought him back to his apartment for the night. Unlike the old situation with the DRNs, the MXs were likely to notice one of their compatriots was missing, but Richard decided the lie that they were on a stakeout would have to suffice for the night. He still had a weak charger from a year ago, when Andrew came home as often as possible.

He hadn't changed a thing in his apartment. He could only hope the familiar environment would help Andrew feel at ease.

“So, uh, maybe you should talk about it,” Richard stammered, after getting him hooked up to the juice trickle coming off his a standard electrical outlet. He flopped onto the sofa next to him, leaning against Andrew, hoping the familiar contact would trigger comfort and soothing. But it wasn't familiar at all, on Richard's end ether. Andrew sat rigidly on the couch, looking around with uncharacteristically confused eyes coming off the normally stoic MX face. He was too hard, too cold, with the wrong color, build, and voice.

“If I babble out loud, I don't know if it will help. Everything is wrong. Everything is flat and lifeless, but also too loud and stimulating, This body has a higher threshold for sensory information, so more is pouring in. The neural net can catch it, but the feelings seem to come in fits and starts and are jerky compared to...”

“Okay, shhhh.” Richard soothed. “You could start with the voice, that's more than a little weird on my end.”

“Like this?” Andrew said in standard DRN mode, and finally seemed like Andrew, hiding out in that strange body.

“Oh God, so much better,” Richard said. “Now what else can we do? You've got to get used to it, man. I'll help in any way I can, but in the end it's all on you.”

Andrew didn't directly respond, but closed his eyes and yet again took Richard's hand. He brought it up, not to his lips as Richard might have guessed, but placed it on his chest, over the formless MX tunic.

“Can you touch me?” he asked, in the soft feathery whisper of the DRN voice. “I think I can get used to this new emotional processor chip, and the neural net is what it is. I feel the pull of logic even now talking to you. But the sensory overload is a trip, man. I almost wish the MX's memories were in here now, just to compare. Just to have a sense that this is normal.”

In response, Richard reached his hands underneath the shirt to help pull it over Andrew's head, slowly, with dragging skin contact. “He isn't in there with you, too?” Richard asked.

“You wiped what little MX personality was here. He was only two weeks old and a clone of a thousand others, right on down to the last byte. I wouldn't mourn."

"That's supposed to be a feature, not a bug. Look where uniqueness got you DRNs -- wiped and scattered off to indentured servitude."

"I'm just worried the clones will be able to detect my difference, since it sticks out more. I do have access to some of the unit's procedural routines, and based on those they'll have a backup memories on the servers at the charging station. It might be tough to hide this from the other MXs,” Andrew added. “They are more linked together than we DRNs were. The expectation is complete sharing of information with the central server.”

“You'll figure it out.”

Richard leaned over then, kissing him. A familiar act, one to compare to Andrew's memories from before. Andrew hesitated before responding, in a perfect replica from what Richard himself could recall. If he closed his eyes, if he didn't look at the foreign creature sitting next to him, it was as if everything was the same.

“I missed you,” Richard whispered, after they broke off. “Never would admit that to anyone else, bot, but it's been a long year. Don't give up on me, now that I've finally got you back. It took months of scheming to get assigned another android, you know.”

“But you managed it. Thank you, for given me back life.”

“It was your idea, remember? Now that you're in an MX body, how do you think you'll manage?”

“A partition should work. One half for the logi-droid, one half for you. This brain wants to fall into line and follow orders.”

“Brain?”

“Hardware, mind, neural net, whatever. Don't you call it the ghost in the machine? Tell me the truth, Richard, is this mind enough for you? I look completely different. And my personality may follow the body. We were built to be adaptable, so who knows how stable this is?”

“You were adapted to be my partner, and you still are. C'mere, please. You worried about your new body? Well, it is kind of buff. Let's test drive it out.”

* * * * *

After hanging out at the bar and only getting mildly plastered, Andrew insisted on driving Richard home. The automated car was perfected capable of delivering him to his door in one piece, but Richard found he enjoyed having a babysitter. It was nice to have someone cluck over him for a change.

Once inside, he poured himself a glass of watered down orange juice chased with soda, to sober up, and plopped down on the couch next to his partner. The android's body was curiously warm, he noted. That seemed like a waste of energy, but maybe the DRN processors just ran hot, what did he know?

“Richard, can I ask you an honest question?” Andrew asked. It seemed to come out of nowhere, but in retrospect, he'd been building up to it all along. “Do you like me?”

“Like you? Of course I like you, bot, would you be sitting here in my place at one am if I didn't like you?”

“No. I mean like this.” He leaned over, and rested his lips on Richard's. The kiss was soft, tentative, barely a kiss at all, but still the gesture was so non-self-centered and giving that Richard's heart melted. He sank into Andrew, deepening the kiss and coaxing a little more response out of him. Ever the quick study, Andrew was able to mimic him and follow along.

When they broke off, Richard didn't let go of his grip around the android's neck. “'Kay,” he mumbled. “I take that as a sign you like me too. Although for future reference you might want to check in a little more before springing yourself on a coworker, because this interoffice romance stuff gets complicated. Or so I'm told.” Despite the rebuke, he caressed the back of Andrew's neck, skin to skin, watching him for a reaction.

“You seemed to need it. Or… maybe receptive is the word. Was I wrong?” He closed his eyes at the gentle touch, and the lights on his cheek swirled around in ephemeral patterns. Richard reached out and touched that part of his face directly, for the first time, and Andrew tipped his head back, offering more. The cheek patch pleasantly buzzed under Richard's fingertips.

“Not wrong. You DRNS were always too pretty for your own good. But I'm a little concerned that you're throwing yourself at me because it's what you think I want, and not because you want it too. This is no fun for me to treat you like a thing, Andrew. You're not just an overly weepy piece of equipment to me.”

“Wow, that was an excellent speech for someone still at .09 BAC,” Andrew said, and Richard laughed. “I wouldn't have done it if I thought there was any chance you'd use me and throw me away like a thing. You won't. I trust you.”

“God, we're really laying it on tonight, aren't we?”

But he leaned back in anyway for more, more kissing, more lessons. A learning curve on both sides.

 

* * * * *

The next day after uploading his old partner and erasing the new, Richard couldn't delay bringing Andrew back to the station for a proper charging and updating of files. He had to trust Andrew would be able to manage the MX collective without tipping himself off. Richard spent the morning dealing with paperwork, then picked up his refreshed and rebooted partner at the barracks. He appeared like every other MX, eagle-eyed but blank on opinions of the world, and Richard had to check the ID number on his vest to make sure it was really Andrew.

“So, how'd it go?” he pestered Andrew as soon as they were in the safety of their squad car. “You still you, bot? The MXs didn't gang up on you, I hope.”

Slowly the android turned towards him, and Richard could see him sliding back into the role of Andrew. “The partition worked,” he started off slowly, but now his eyes seemed human again. “When the MXs ping me, all they get back is what they expect to get back.”

“That's good, right? You did it, bud.”

Andrew tipped his head, considering, and somehow from the way he did it, Richard knew he expected the blue lights to race around his face. But on the MXs, that didn't exist. “It's lonely in there, pretending,” he said, and gently took Richard's hand and dragged it onto his chest. As if to remind himself that comfort existed, and he too could feel it. “Sometimes it's like it would be easier just to let the partition take over, and let this neural net slide back to deductive logic processing. It's what it was designed to do. It's what it wants to do. I have to fight it every second I let this consciousness rise, and let myself be me.”

“It's only your first day,” Richard countered, although it was terrifying to hear Andrew talk like this. “Look at me. Look.” He pulled Andrew's face – that foreign face with familiar reflective eyes – towards him, palming the absent cheek lights in the process, in the same way he used to. “You can do it. I'll drag your sorry ass home every night if I have to, but you'll muddle through. You have something to live for, remember? You've given me something to live for too.”

“I did make a promise,” Andrew said. “It feels like another life, like that happened to another android, and I only have the ghost of his memories.”

“Then you need to make new memories. Sure, they may be Andrew-MX Frankenstein memories, but they'll still be yours. And I still love you. Come home tonight, I'll prove it.”

“The MXs will notice my repeated absences off-duty,” Andrew said. “What should I tell them?”

“How about that your partner is one of those perverted, overattached bot lovers? You know, the truth. Pretty sure it's in the mission statement of even the MXs to keep their partners happy.”

“True.”

He wrapped those long arms around Richard, who was struck by how odd this would look if someone came by to see them. How incriminating that his programming had been altered, to see an MX acting distraught and devoted and needy. It was impossible to care about the consequences at that moment, however; Richard sensed that if Andrew didn't get enough time as a DRN, that part of him would slip down and slowly wash away in the stream of logic from the MX.

"C'mon. Time to go home again," Richard said. "You need to practice switching back and forth, and we can't do that here in the parking garage."

"But you need to get work done," Andrew protested.

"I need my DRN more," Richard shot back. "You are going to live, Andrew, if I have to drag that lunking body home every day for a year." He started the car.

To his surprise, Andrew smiled at that. It made him look unlike either a DRN or an MX, but eerily like a real human. "Thanks, man," he murmured.

"What, like I'm going to let a partner down? Keep at it bot, we'll make it work."

* * * * *

When the hammer swung over the heads of the DRNs, Richard couldn't believe it. He'd been duly updating the deployment task force with a sanitized version of their relationship, detailing Andrew's successful adaptation to competent cop. If the training of the DRNs was consistent and well-designed, he argued, if they were introduced to people and social skills at the beginning, they could learn to handle the stresses of police work. But many of the DRNs did not fare so well, and the powers that be saw those problems as a fatal and dangerous flaw to the model as a whole.

An evaluation was imposed, the Lugar test, intended to weed out every maladapted DRN. And here, logical Andrew was the one to see the writing on the wall. Even though Richard knew he would pass the test, Andrew realized that one performance test wasn't enough. An android's lifetime worth of top-notch detective work was not enough. He was a piece of equipment after all, and even if the hurdle were overcome for this week or this month, sooner or later they would all be declared obsolete. Progress, after all, seemed to be defined by the number of objects that could be thrown away.

And Andrew, in his stubborn way, was determined to be nobody's trash. Richard loved that about him.

It took Richard awhile to come around to the plan. The bodies would change, Andrew argued, but the heart of the DRNs lay in that flickering artificial soul. He made backups of himself – his memories, sensory impressions, thought processes, and emotions – on a series of cheap servers he scrounged up for Richard's place. Richard secretly wondered if that meant there were really two Andrews now, or maybe an infinite number of them, destroyed at each backup and created anew. The bot scoffed at the notion. Androids needed bodies with chips and processors and sensors for consciousness, he claimed, just as the human mind needed the hardware of neurons and synapses and receptors to exist.

Richard didn't get it. But who was he to question the mysteries of the androids? All he cared about was the spark of hope. The point of reckoning was drawing near, they both could feel. Some of the DRNs tried to run, and some of the humans helped them despite the fact that they were doomed. Andrew plotted to run away in a different way, into the fire instead of away. He relied on Richard to carry out his resurrection, years later if need be.

On the day of auction, in which the DRNs were to be wiped and sold in bulk lots at exorbitant prices, Richard reached into his lover's chest and yanked out the precious stick, without which Andrew was nothing more than a series of files on a computer. The shell of DRN-034 would never operate properly again, but that was not their concern. Then Richard clutched and kissed his hand, and silently renewed the pact. Make me live again. His command, and his promise.