Monday, January 2, 2017

Old Fiction: "The Changeling"

As I publish more, it's been fun to look back on my old fiction to see what I used to do that I don't anymore, what concerned me then and how that has changed. So I thought I'd post some old old and possibly terribly embarrassing fiction over time.

Today's story is "The Changeling," inspired by Asimovian robots and the question of humanity and sentience in artificial intelligence. Further ruminations on the story afterwards.

~*~*~*~*~

There was once a little boy who died and after that, he stood outside the world, looking through the windows like gazing, when alive, into the shop window at something he wanted. He watched as his companion since birth, a squat robot K-N, wheeled about his deathbed. 

“Charlie Kim?” K-N said, tugging at the little boy’s cooling body. “Charlie Kim, wake up! Mummy will come in with breakfast soon!”

Charlie Kim, who had died at 3.24am, sighed and pressed his nose to the window, knowing that even if he called out to K-N, K-N couldn’t hear him.

When his mother entered with a breakfast tray, K-N cried, “Charlie Kim isn’t awake!”

“Maybe he’s playing a game,” his mother said, placing the tray down.

But Charlie Kim wasn’t, which greatly upset everyone – his mother upturned the breakfast tray, and his father heard the commotion and came running into the room, only to yell incoherently about lying doctors. K-N wheeled about the room, back and forth between the sobbing parents, but none of her programmed responses seemed to work. Charlie Kim knew that that would scramble her positronic circuits, because she wasn’t built to handle grief.

Charlie Kim felt marginally gratified watching his funeral. After it was over, someone came up to him and said, “Okay Charlie Kim, it’s time to go. You ready?”

He shook his head. “I can’t. I have to wait for K-N.”

“Oh, but she can’t come, Charlie Kim,” the someone (or perhaps it was a something) said, shaking its head.

“She will,” Charlie Kim said confidently. “She promised to come, so I’ll wait for her.”

“Well, if you say so,” the someone said doubtfully. “Anytime you’re ready.”

K-N was traded back to the company she came from in exchange for a newer model, where her inventors went about reusing parts of her in other machines. They put her positron circuits into a newer, more flexible body that didn’t wheel about, but clanged about on crude, springy legs. They added more, smaller circuits, so she could perform more functions and instead of going back to Charlie Kim’s house like she thought she would, she was sent to a nursing home to care for elderly residents.

K-N spent her days talking to the residents, bringing them what they needed to feel comfortable before dying. She told them stories she read with Charlie Kim, and pointed out the star where she was sure Charlie Kim was waiting at. 

“There’s a gate into a garden, which is paradise,” she told them. “It’s probably very big for little kids like me and Charlie, but that means we have lots of room so we can go in together.”

“Oh, you’re so creative, Annie!” the residents would gush, imagining they were speaking to a real little girl instead of a noisy little robot.

One day, one of the residents died, and he came out of the world the same way Charlie Kim had come. 

“Excuse me, sir,” Charlie Kim said to him. “I’m Charlie Kim. Can I ask you a question?”

“Charlie Kim? Isn’t that the name of Annie’s friend?”

“I don’t know about an Annie, sir, but you knew my friend, K-N.”

“Oh! Yes. I thought she was joshing me. Why’re you still here, then? Are you an angel?”

“I’m waiting for K-N. I promised her I wouldn’t go to Heaven without her, and she promised she would come, so here I am. Is she okay?”

“Make sense. She’s okay, I guess,” the old man said. “That’s mighty big of you, son.”

“I wouldn’t know about that, sir. I made a promise and I’m going to keep it.”

“Well, good luck,” the old man replied, then disappeared into the mists of the universe.

Charlie Kim kept watch, and he met more residents of the nursing home K-N worked at. He had conversations of a similar theme with most of them, and a couple of them stayed with him for a while, but waiting for their mortal loved ones. They then bid Charlie Kim good luck and went off to their new destinies without looking back.

The nursing home, due to the nature of politicking in administrative bureaucracies, eventually closed, and K-N was auctioned off to an antique dealer who needed help in refinishing his merchandise at low cost. K-N was once again updated with new functions added to her circuits – her body was refurbished with complex hands for her new job, and got new legs that moved smoother, Charlie Kim could tell that she liked her new joints. She didn’t move quickly, but she moved well and the antiques dealer was very pleased with her. He, too, called her Anne – K-Anne. 

One day, Charlie Kim’s parents died in an accident, and they were shocked to find him still at the door of the world. 

“I’m waiting for K-Anne,” Charlie Kim told them.

“Wouldn’t you rather come with your parents?” they asked, holding out their arms that he might have found tempting if he were still alive.

He thought about this for a while. “No,” he answered quite decisively. “I’d rather go with K-Anne.”

“Oh.” His mother looked sad, realizing even more keenly how selfish children could be.

“I promised her, Mum,” Charlie told her. “You said it was bad to break promises.”

Bad things happened to K-Anne after the old antiques dealer died. She was sent to work bottling caps in a factory. It was cheaper than paying someone rent for their labour and besides, no one wanted to work in factories anymore. When the factory fell into bankruptcy, she was sold to a farmer, who called her Kane. He wouldn’t stop calling her Kane, even though she very politely pointed out to him that her serial number was K-N: “Two separate syllables.”

“It sounds like Kay, and Enn! Don’t talk back to me, robot!”

“K-N,” Charlie Kim would shout whenever the farmer called her that. “Her name is K-Anne!” 

The work on the farm was hard on K-Anne – the sun was hot and nearly melted some of her wires together, and she had to steal oil from the farmer’s garage to lubricate her joints before they rusted in the humid air. Her pleas for maintenance went ignored.

One night, while oiling her joints, K-Anne was approached by another android, which had crept stealthily onto the farm after watching her for several days. It was one of a group making a small village for themselves away from humans. K-Anne quickly accepted.

For a while, she was happy, helping the village get set up and doing what she could, but she parted soon after on a philosophical point about humankind, and Charlie Kim was sorry that she left a place she loved on his account. She was followed by a friend of hers from the village, S-X, who left because he felt he had a better life among the humans.

Which was a little true and mostly not, because the humans had broken out in war again, and Charlie Kim watched, horrified as a dead boy could be, as more and more people trooped out of the world. Some were happy to leave it behind; others wept at the windows next to Charlie Kim and railed at the unfairness until someone came to get them.

“Are you still waiting, Charlie Kim?” a someone asked.

“Yes,” he replied. “We promised.”

K-Anne and S-X, in account of their build, were not sent to the war-fields, but to the factories, where they helped assemble robots that could withstand the gunpower of the enemy. The work wasn’t hard on K-Anne, but she was expected to keep going non-stop with only breaks for maintenance. Sometimes, she took a few moments to step outside and gaze at the first star she learned to identify. She would then remember a promise she made a long time ago, and stories of a gate to paradise. 

The war went on for years. When it came to an end, androids from all over took part in rebuilding the cities. K-Anne herself took control of the factory, and with a worker population in which humans were the minority, she rebuilt the small town. The humans chafed at being outnumbered, but none dared to be openly hateful.

“Stupid robots,” spat a newly departed. “Took my job and m home, and now they’re running my town! They’ll take over the world before you know it!”

“K-Anne tried to get you a doctor, though” Charlie Kim pointed out. 

“Huh? Oh, Miss Kay, yeah – she’s one of the good ones. The rest are rotten – out to get us. Why, I think-”

Charlie Kim never heard the rest of the sentence, because someone ushered the poor soul away before it was finished.

Kay-Anne was a good administrator to the humans in her town, and eventually the rest of humanity flocked to her rule, which was benevolent to them – over-generous for the likes of her fellow androids. A biographer published a book about her, which she had recalled because she felt a key component of her youth was missing due to lost records from before the war.

A brilliant inventor gave her the most finely-crafted body she had ever had, and the town celebrated it for weeks. It was the closest to the human body she ever had, and with it, she sometimes cocked her head in solitude, as if she heard Charlie Kim call her name. By the time of the inventor’s death, her body had been modified to react to temperature, feel pressure and other such delicate functions that androids never enjoyed before. Kay-Anne became a trend setter among the androids, who quickly began to innovate on the designs of her body for themselves.

Charlie Kim met the inventor briefly before she moved on. “Thanks a lot for what you did, ma’am,” he said. “I think Kay-Anne really liked your work.”

“I’m sorry,” the inventor said, “but who are you? Are you an angel?”

He shook his head. “If you keep walking that way, someone will come get you.” He pointed into the vague distance. “Kay-Anne was my friend. I was very sick, and I told her I’d wait for her so we can go to Heaven together.”

“Is there a Heaven? That’s an old myth, isn’t it?”

Charlie Kim pointed again. “You’re about to find out.”

The last war took its toll. A nuclear winter washed over the world, which the androids quickly built bodies to withstand, so they could better aid the humans. The humans might conceivably have been able to survive the nuclear winter with the androids’ help, but infertility rates went up. Slowly, the census numbers for humans dropped, until the last human took pills to die painlessly, driven by a mad loneliness.

Then the world was silent but for the occasional android sound. They were all wirelessly connected to a vast Control Center they built to facilitate efficient communication without speech, and set about building their own civilization.

Cayenne was one of the few bereft from the loss of the humans, having her primary function rendered defunct. She tried to help with the building process, but her fellows complained that she was sometimes unresponsive. She had her circuits checked, and nothing wrong was found. Even an adjustment of her primary function couldn’t improve her performance.

One day, Cayenne simply walked away, using a navigation system long-buried under newer circuits to find her way back to where a house once stood, now eaten away by the elements. She entered the ruins and looked up at the sky longingly. 

The world was snowy and gray and Cayenne felt very cold in her joints. Her rarely used tear-ducts filled up as, for the first time, she understood the loss of Charlie Kim to her. The world she knew was gone, replaced by a collective of whispering voices she found she wanted no part of. She remember a promise made long ago to a dying friend, and she thought about what a good life she had led so far.

Her new feelings of grief and solitude alarmed the other androids on the network, prompting a physical search party to go out and find her. 

“Serial number K-N 44Z,” the Control Center boomed to her, “your circuits require maintenance. You will be collected shortly for reprogramming.”

“No.” She shook her head. “Good luck to you, wherever you’re going in this world you’re building.” Cayenne fell to the ground and called out to the only star she recognized in her failing brain.

“Charlie Kim! Charlie Kim!” she cried. “Did you keep your promise?”

With that, she shut down, and Control Center lost communication with her. The search party brought her body back to the capital, and they proceeded to replace all her positronic circuits with new ones, and created a new android, serial number N-E-XTR. She filled in the administrative capacity that Cayenne left, and grew friendly with Essex, Cayenne’s old friend.

Cayenne walked out of the world like a child walking into a kindergarten for the first time – feeling small at how big the universe is, scared at leaving home, yet excited all the same. And Charlie Kim was there, waiting, smiling, and they took each other’s hands.

“Okay, Charlie Kim,” someone said. “Now are you ready to go?”

Charlie Kim, still holding Cayenne’s hands tightly, beamed. “Yes, sir, I am, now that Cayenne’s here.”

“Where are we going?” she asked.

“Well, you two go into that gate,” the someone said, pointing to a star in the distance. “Good luck. I’ll see you on the other side.

Cayenne and Charlie Kim walked through the gate they had been directed to and found that either the gate was smaller than they thought it would be, or they had grown up. Together, they passed into the mists of the universe and beyond.

~*~*~*~*~

This story is an amalgamation of what I read in Asimov's Robot Dreams collection, the Snow Queen, and an idea I had about the afterlife where people could hang around waiting for their loved ones. In years prior I had written AI stories where the androids' names were all some sort of letter-based pun. So K-N = Cayenne, S-X = Essex, and N-E-XTR = Annie Exeter. They're not particularly clever, but I like them. Charlie Kim has a particular ring to it too. 

I actually don't remember when I wrote this. A copy I have says 2009, but that's the time I bought a new computer and copied the file over so that can't be right. I have a vague memory of writing this while still in Halifax, which would put it between '03 to '08. I know I wrote this long before RaceFail, when I was still trying to write "unmarked" or "universal" stories. 

The style, however, remains current: I still like writing fairytale remixes that zoom in and out between the distant storytelling voice and a closer POV. I also still like stories that cover vast swathes of time. (Once my brother borrowed a VHS of The Lion King. I was 9, in Standard Four, so my schooltime was in the afternoon. I woke up at 9am after my mom had left for work, watched The Lion King, then ate lunch and dressed for school. This went on for maybe a month until my brother returned the tape.)

I'm not as interested in artificial intelligence stories these days, but I'm still interested in afterlife stories, which you'll see in "The Last Cheng Beng Gift." I am also plotting out a quartet of novels which will have ancestors hanging around to nudge the plot along. 

Until next time!

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