One Degree of Separation

BY : LaurieESmith
Category: 1 through F > A.I. - Artificial Intelligence
Dragon prints: 5681
Disclaimer: I do not own A.I. - Artificial Intelligence, nor any of the characters from it. I do not make any money from the writing of this story.

TITLE: "One Degree Of Separation" Part 1/2

AUTHOR: Laurie E. Smith

RATING: NC-17

ARCHIVE: Yes (with permission)

FEEDBACK: Please, please do! Pretty please? ^_^

DISCLAIMER: DreamWorks owns the boys; I just play with them.

SUMMARY: After David's disappearance, Professor Allen Hobby finds himself at a loss and takes consolation where he can find it -- with Gigolo Joe.

NOTES: Taking on "The Pair That Could Not Be Slashed", just to prove that I can. Enjoy!



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David was gone.



It had finally come to the point where he had to deal with that reality, with those three little words that threatened to tear his heart out and completely unman him every time they came to mind. For two weeks he had managed to deny them, but now he felt them every day, growing closer, stalking him like an implacable enemy.



Three little words. So simple, yet when he looked at himself in the mirror each morning he could not bring himself to say them out loud. His mouth opened, but when he met the reflection of his eyes he could not speak them: to voice them would be to give them reality, and then the grief that he had so fiercely and pointlessly resisted would overwhelm him at last.



Given the fact that he had lost David before (in his son of flesh and blood), he had thought that this would be easier, that knowing the territory would make it less horrifying -- that what had not killed him had, as it were, made him stronger. That was a lie, although certainly one he could forgive himself for, since it had kept him going through the long busy days and dark lonely nights since David 2Ős disappearance.



They had been searching for two weeks, issuing bulletins to law enforcement agencies and mecha bounty hunters across the Eastern seaboard, sounding the deeps of the lost city beneath the waves, and finally looking for any trace of wreckage on the sea that would indicate David 2Ős final fate. And they had found nothing: not a glimpse, not an echo, not a scrap of debris anywhere.



David was gone.



He and his team had spent fourteen relentless days looking for answers. Now, on the morning of the fifteenth day, Allen Hobby faced himself in his bathroom mirror and knew that he could buy no more time. He would have to close the active file on the project. It would be considered a success in spite of its miscalculated ending, and certainly Cybertronics would continue to support his research into mapping the impulse pathways of a single neurone, but David 2 -- the mecha mirror image of his dead son, whose small body and awakening mind he had created out of cold metal and electricity -- would never fill his father's arms again.



He was lost, forever lost.



Facing himself in the mirror, Hobby saw his lips part, the horrible words almost whispered. Then he saw the glitter of tears starting in his eyes and turned quickly away, splashing water on his freshly shaven face and patting it dry with a towel, until he knew he was in command of himself once more.



When he glanced up again he saw no fear and no doubt, only calm control: the face of a world-renowned and respected scientist whose fatherly benevolence was almost legendary. He wondered what his colleagues would say if they knew the hell he was going through behind the mask. Surely they suspected, but he doubted they could imagine the depth of his growing sorrow. Only someone who had lost a child could even begin to understand.



His first son would have recognized that he was unhappy: David had always been keenly attuned to his father's moods. His wife would have known too, but she had left him long ago when she grew tired of always taking second place to his life's work, and he hadn't spoken to her in years.



The David he mourned would not have understood, but Hobby could have explained to him what tears meant, and when he saw David 2 smile again it would have redeemed every misery that had ever existed in the wide and weary world.



Was it possible that he had loved his second David too much?



Feeling every day of his fifty-seven years, Professor Hobby donned his comfortable conservative clothes and left the empty comfort of his suite for the sorrowful business of this day he had been dreading..



The first thing he did when he got to his office was to sit down at his desk and write a formal letter to the directors of Cybertronics New Jersey, announcing the end of the active phase of the David 2 project and briefly outlining the steps he would take in the next several days to euthanize it as painlessly as possible. The rest of the day was occupied with meetings and reports and conference calls, all of them devoted to closing the book on his dear little dead dream forever, right through into the darkness of autumn's early evening.



At last, as the richly sedate woodenck ock on his library shelf melodically chimed the fifth hour, Hobby called in his secretary for the last time that day and told her: "Send in Joe."



Joe -- colloquially known as Gigolo Joe, and more officially as Simulate City lover model LX9-2773-HT, serial number AD5782-44YX77T6 -- was a sex mecha who until two weeks ago had been registered as a street prostitute in Haddonfield, New Jersey. He had been framed for the murder of a client, which was not in itself particularly unusual: criminals often attempted to implicate mecha in their crimes to direct attention away from themselves, and quite frequently succeeded, since mecha had no legal recourse and could be detained or destroyed with impunity.



What was unusual about Joe's case was that he had recognized the situation he was in and attempted to evade capture by the authorities -- first by excising his own operating license with a scalpel concealed (along with several other unorthodox items) in his left forearm, and then by fleeing into the woods surrounding the city. There he had been picked up by a Flesh Fair sweep, and as he waited in their holding pen for his turn to be destroyed he had felt a little hand take tight hold of his, and looked down in surprise.



Hobby knew this because he had subjected both the tapes from the Flesh Fair and Joe's own neural cube scans to close scrutiny in those first few days after David 2Ős disappearance. His child mecha had latched onto Joe and clung to him desperately, terrified of the uproar and destruction all around them. Joe had not pushed him away -- as a companion mecha, he was programmed to always give comfort when asked -- but when the Flesh Fair's ringmaster pulled David 2 out of the cage and Joe found himself being dragged toward the stage he'd made one last desperate (and futile) bid for freedom. His inability to break David 2Ős robotically strong grip on his hand had ended up saving him when the mob recognized David 2Ős essential humanity and rioted at the prospect of the little mecha's destruction, and one of the Flesh Fair employees had released them both from the instrument of torture meant to melt them in a shower of acid.



They had set off together into the woods, prototype and lover robot and an elderly supertoy, and from that point until David 2Ős savage attack on his duplicate they had not been apart for more than a brief span of minutes at a time. In sharing DavidŐs final hours, Joe had unwittingly stored invaluable data for Hobby's later analysis: the scan of his neural cube had provided a second-by-second record of DavidŐs every word, expression, and movement. Through Joe's eyes, Hobby had watched DavidŐs quest to find the Blue Fairy guide him from one amazing evolutionary leap to another, wonder upon wonder, until the door of the amphibicopter slid closed and separated him from Joe -- and his creator -- forever.



He had almost wept when he watched that footage for the first time, proud of his childŐs accomplishments, and fearful that David would never return from the cold sea. He had kept the shameful tears closeted in his heart, but still they almost overcame him several times during the first three days after David's disappearance, as he'd poured over every available source of data: Joe's scans and Flesh Fair footage and the recordings of security cameras in the Doctor Know franchise and on the street outside its doors -- until he almost felt like he had been there, walking every step beside his son yet powerless to help him. David had to do the best he could with Joe's advice, which, filtered through the lover robot's limited programming, had been by turns cunning, comedic, and far too adult for David to understand.



And, at one point in the hallway of a Doctor Know franchise, revolutionary.



"Yes, Professor Hobby." Sheila nodded and went away. No more than ten minutes later there was a respectful knock at Hobby's door, and two Cybertronics security guards entered, with Joe between them. They all came to stand in front of his desk, awaiting instructions.



"Thank you," he told the guards. "Would you wait outside, please?"



When they were gone Hobby considered Joe, while Joe kept his eyes lowered. He was clad in a simple dark jumpsuit of the type Cybertronics provided for its sanitation mecha, but his slim frame managed to carry it with something like fashionable elegance. His hands were lightly clasped behind him while he looked at the back of one of the framed photographs on Hobby's desk. It had a notation on the backing, David and Allen, Pierson Harbor, Aug 2125 , and was one of Hobby's favorites. Caroline had taken it on a bright and breezy day long ago, when all had been right with the world.



"Joe," he finally said, and the mecha looked up to meet his gaze with clear green eyes. "Do you know why I've called you here?"



"No, Professor Hobby."



Hobby sighed. He wasn't looking forward to what he was about to do.



After the neural cube scan he had assigned a team to give Joe what was commonly called a "deep diagnostic", which basically meant taking the mecha apart, testing every system, then putting him back together again. Joe's former owners had taken remarkable care of him -- he'd passed the mechanical inspection with flying colors -- but his behavioral benchmarks had been slightly off, a condition which, the team assured him, was not unheard of in LX9-277Es and was not a source of concern.



Hobby had already known this, because AC-3 neural cubes of the type that sat behind Joe's smooth forehead had played a significant part in his preparatory research leading up to the David 2 project. The AC-3 had been patented seven years ago, and its revolutionarily sensitive feedback paths had made a new level of complex real-time personality emulation possible.



The LX9s had been one of the first companion mecha models to incorporate the new technology. Joe had been part of the initial production run -- in fact, he'd been one of the first one hundred units released by the Agency for marketing trials -- and had probably been idiosycratic from the day he left the factory, since one consequence of the AC-3's sensitivity to stimuli was a tendency for secondary programming pathways to impress themselves on the initial conditioned responses, resulting in internal operational interactions and self-referencing feedback... in short, a rudimentary type of conciousness. Certain aspects of its operation had been copied and directly applied to the initial templates for David 2's neuronal sequencing.



Hobby found it more than a little ironic that the robot that had guided and protected David in his final hours was also, in a sense, his distant ancestor. And now David's creator was a to to repay both those debts with a one-way ticket to oblivion.



It had been a long and thoroughly wretched day. While Joe watched, Hobby rose from his chair and went to one of the cabinets, from which he retrieved a clean glass and a bottle of Pertsovka vodka, which, once poured, burned down his throat with a clean and painful fire. He refilled the glass and brought it, with the bottle, back to his desk, where he sat down and closed his eyes for a moment, savoring the numbness that he could already imagine spreading outward from his stomach to all the tired places of his body.



When he opened his eyes again Joe was still watching him, waiting. For what? Orders? Hobby's team had done everything with him that there was to be done: he had been thoroughly examined and questioned and had his memory recorded for detailed analysis.



This was the point where Hobby was supposed to call the guards back in to take Joe away and hand him over to the New Jersey police, who, having waited politely for the opportunity, would promptly eject his cube and erase it: even though he had been proven innocent of the Haddonfield murder, the theft of a police amphibicopter was crime enough to warrant his immediate destruction.



The look in Joe's eyes -- alert, interested -- told him that the mecha knew it, too. What he was waiting for was his own destruction, just as he had waited in the cage at the Flesh Fair.



Mecha, as a woman in the stands had pointed out, did not plead for their lives. Yet Joe had cared enough about his own existence to evade the police in Haddonfield, an intriguing behavioral anomaly. When dragged toward the stage where he'd watched other mecha being destroyed, he had tried several times to get away. Where did his threshold lie between resistance and acquiesence? The examinations he'd undergone in the past two weeks hadn't included that determination, and for a moment Hobby toyed with the thought of exactly how such a test could be structured and administered: a virtual reality simulation would probably be best, although in Joe's case it no longer mattered. He was the last element of the David 2 project's active phase, and Hobby was about to close him down along with the rest of it.



Perhaps because his departure would mark that finality, Hobby found himself reluctant to send the mecha away. He studied Joe for several minutes in silence, while Joe stood unmoving and unselfconcious for his scrutiny. Certainly a lover robot should be used to being looked at, and Joe was a fine example of the type, with excellent body sculpture and strong features more androgynous than strictly handsome.



A basic modern LX9-2773-HT unit retailed at $7,000, but Joe, equipped with chameleon derma and calibrated for both heterosexual and homosexual interaction, would have cost at least $15,000 when he was made new. Everything, including beauty, had its price. Even love: David 2 had cost $900,000,000, or so close as to make no real difference.



He let his gaze drift across the wall of photographs that now, more than ever, seemed to separate him from the world -- slices of time, captured in suspension and consisting of a single exquisite element that he would never possess again. His love for his son, trapped in the frozen patterns of light and shadow, their edges cutting him with every breath he took.



When he looked past them and up at Joe he found the lover robot observing him intently, as unmoving as any photograph. Cool green eyes, the mind behind them briskly clocking every second and half-second, analyzed his expression and calculated response patterns for the actions he was most likely to perform based on his behavioral cues. And more than that: self-referencing feedback between his basic programming and the patterns impressed upon his sensitive brain by experience were informing him that he was performing those evaluations.



Not many mecha were capable of that. His destruction, as necessary as it was, would be an unfortunate waste.



Joe's face was the last thing David had seen. As the second glass of vodka went the way of the first and his gaze continued to drift across the past (with occasional fleeting glances up toward the solid and attentive present), Hobby found that thought increasingly compelling. Manufactured sexuality and manufactured emotion had intersected and formed a connection that even now, after considering the available data for hours and days, he did not fully understand. And he wanted to understand, not least because he was a scientist, but mostly because understanding would mean another part of David for him to hold.



Clearly David had defaulted to Joe as the closest thing to an adult orga he could find. Joe's motivation for helping David was far less explicable. Under repeated questioning -- "Why did you get into the amphibicopter rather than taking advantage of the confusion to run away? And having done so, why did you bring David to New York?" -- Joe's response had been consistant: "Because David needed me." Always the same words and the same certainty. And as tempting as it might be to understand that answer in terms of a companion mecha's programmed imperative to please and to serve, Hobby's instincts wouldn't let that conclusion ring true.



When the second glass was empty he carefully poured himself another. That was a lot of alcohol to put away in one evening, but it was almost quarter to six and by now the offices around him would be empty -- why shouldn't he allow himself the luxury of relaxation? In a few minutes he would call the guards back to take Joe away, and it would finally be over, so he could return to his suite of silent rooms where sleep would elude him for hours and perhaps the tears he did not want to shed would find their way through his weariness at last.



"Professor Hobby?"



Joe's voice startled him, making his hand twitch and tap the neck of the bottl the the rim of the glass, almost overflowing it. He managed to set the bottle down without spilling any, then looked up at Joe, whose fine brows were drawn in a little frown, his sleek head tilted questioningly. It puzzled Hobby. What had the mecha seen? He would not have spoken except in response to a cue from the orga in front of him.



Then again, this was a robot that had puzzled his observers by pacing his cell, rather than sitting still for hours on end as would be expected of a mecha in confinement. He paced, he keyed his own internal music system on and off, he whistled spritely little tunes, and often he would dance -- actually quite well, considering the limited space he had to work with. He repeated the entire two-hour dialogue of a recent romantic comedy, with accurate pacing and accent and pitch, then went on to count the perforations in the ceiling tiles, twice. The self-referencing feedback operations had been providing themselves with stimulation when the environment itself failed to do so.



Therefore, it was possible that Joe had simply grown tired of watching him drink. He immediately decided that this was indeed the case, even though his normally sharp patterns of thought were by now growing quite blurry.



"Do you think about him?" he asked.



Joe did not seem surprised by the question. "About David?"



"Yes."



"Of course I do."



"Explain


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