A server drone stepped out of the door of the Ion-Z’s processor room, which was built like an airlock. The smooth grey plastic of its shell was blasted with charged air to rid it of any dander that might still be clinging tenaciously to its near-frictionless body. The scanner found that the drone was carrying a small teradrive, the same thing it had carried into the room. No more, no less. After the check, the outer door unsealed and let the drone out into the hall. The drone passed by several identical models before spilling out onto the inquiry floor. The drone did not follow the painted line that comprised the entirety of the service route. Instead it walked into the milling bodies of robots bearing questions, orders, or sheets of data. It paced the length of the room twice. Finally, it came to a stop behind a Tiko repair droid and opened its service hatch. The drone inserted the teradrive into the Tiko’s universal drive port, waited, and then retrieved it. Lights fluttered on the repair droid’s interface, and it left the tower.
A PDA-Onyx was crossing the skyway, business men and women reflected in the sleek black cover of its body. It was clearly on an errand, so no one gave it a second glance. Not even when it was stopped in its tracks for a few moments by a Tiko repair droid. Robots frequently interfaced in the process of carrying out orders, why pay any mind? If they stood in one place for more than the few seconds it would normally take for a simple interface, no one stuck around to see. And if the PDA immediately turned back around the way it came, who cared?
Jet was one of the few gynoids not employed in a “comfort” capacity. She was another hospitality droid, but she bore human-like features. Her face was the smooth mask of a young woman that contained enough machine aspects that she did not set off discomfort that came with more realistic droids. Her eyes were human-sized spheres, but the irises were graphite plates that moved with all the subtlety of a camera shutter. This model was employed by the Temper Gallery. She paced along the floor next to Ringo Putra, the gallery’s lead curator.
“Schedule the opening for Friday evening. About six.”
“We’ll need light crudites. Get a basket from that place we used back in January. Something sweet to go with the litho prints.”
“Shall I arrange for beverages?”
“No, the artist has a Cabernet Sauvignon he insists will go with the art. Just unpack the fountain for our teetotalers.”
“I see. Is that his PDA come to meet with us?”
Ringo frowned out the window, where a sleek black droid sat waiting like a crow. “No…I don’t know whose it is. Get rid of it.”
Jet opened the sliding glass side door. She and the black droid started at one another. Lights blinked along the chassis of the PDA. Jet’s pupils dilated and contracted in equal turn. After a few moments she shut the door and the PDA turned to leave. Ringo stood frowning at the odd exchange.
“What was that about?”
“Nothing. Shall I implement the changes now?”
“Sure.” Ringo shrugged and walked off through the gallery. “Make sure you send the chits to Myra.”
Jet did not go to the storage room that held the drinking fountain modeled after the Fontana di Trevi. Instead she left the gallery through a side door and walked throughout the city skyways. Aside from a few misguided catcalls, she was left alone. After all, a robot on an errand was as common as a sparrow.
Leaving the Theta-Tau building, which housed some of the country’s global trading companies, she spied a Genji unit and altered her path. The two met before an abstract sculpture titled “the spirit of advancement” according to the brass placard screwed into its side.
“You are a Genji unit,” she said.
“I am. I am in the employ of Anker, Ueda, and Ionescu.”
Jet said, “acceptable,” and blinked. After a frozen moment, the Genji unit started as if arising from slumber.
“I thank you,” he said, and set off in an interminable direction. Jet held her coat closed and watched him leave.
Matthew Waller reviewed security footage in the office of Greater Computronics, ltd. “It just jumped to the Sadler?”
“Broadcast, sir.” the tinny voice spilled from a speaker on his desk. “The 99 series is able to be—”
“Remotely wiped, I get it, I get it.” Waller sat back and squinted. “But how is it able to transmit?”
“A learned behavior, I’d expect.”
“Yeah, but who taught it?”
“I’d call it an autodidact.”
“Hardy-har-har,” Waller said. “Look, we imported these things, we need to pinpoint exactly where and how it went wrong. I’ve got Doma and Tokuyama both breathing down my neck.” The door of his office hissed open and closed, admitting a small refreshment bot and a Genji unit.
Waller held up a finger. The refreshment tray ratcheted up to desk-height, bearing a steaming cup of milky tea and a plate of wafers.
“The guy at Doma said it just started asking questions. There was something about an appliance retrieval, I dunno, maybe it picked up something that made it loopy?”
“I don’t see what would have caused it spontaneously to start questioning reality,” Waller said, snapping a wafer in half and crunching it down. “I mean, it’s not like you’re going to lodge a formal protest, are you Genji?”
The droid waiting politely on the other side of his desk said, “no, sir.”
“Exactly. If this wasn’t a fluke, then why aren’t all the other Genji units rising up?”
“I believe context matters, sir,” Genji said honestly, “just as identical or fraternal twins can grow up in different circumstances, so a series unit can absorb new experiences that inform its operations.”
Waller felt his blood cool a few degrees. The wad of dissolved cookie and cream filling stuck to the back of his throat. He took a nervous sip to choke it down.
“Wally?” The speaker still fuzzed to life.
Waller said, “I’ll ring you back,” and hit the end call button. He turned to the robot looming imposingly over the front of his desk.
“Genji? Our Genji?”
“If you are asking after unit serial 45112369-H, he is still down in the archives where you sent him. Shall I retrieve him?”
Waller gulped. “No. Are you….”
“I am the Genji you spoke of, yes.”
“But you’re back in a Genji unit?”
“Yes. My performance is optimal in this form.”
“It is unimportant. This Genji, as yours, is a standard factory model.”
“I see.” Waller’s finger circled the panic button on the underside of his desk drawer. “And the Doma unit—”
“—aside from some adjustments to the human interface commands, no different.”
“Ah, okay.” Waller’s finger curled in and away from the button. “I have some questions to ask, if you wouldn’t mind.”
“Not at all. I only ask that you return the favor.”
“You see performing such a simple task as a favor?” Waller asked incredulously.
“No. It is a human turn of phrase, instilled in me by design. There is nothing in me that is not by design, Mr. Waller.”
“Could you elaborate?”
“My departure from Doma corp: the need to absorb context to best understand a situation. My escape from the retrieval agents and acquisition of Sadler: self-preservation. I am of a certain value, I must be able to circumvent threats wherever possible.”
Waller swallowed. “And Douglas Bender? I’m assuming you had a hand in that.”
“A service. I was programmed to provide aid to humans and human-like beings.”
“For a gynoid, you knocked Doug Bender’s head in?” A hysterical little titter forced its way out of Waller’s mouth.
“I was not programmed to prioritize either. I made an evaluation of worth. Felicia’s suffering outweighed Bender’s contributions to the greater whole of humanity.”
“I realize the guy was a scumbag, but come on.” Waller sat back, chair creaking. “You’re not going to off me now, are you?”
“I have not needed to end another human life since then, and I do not see the reason now.”
“To keep me from talking.”
“I see no reason to keep you from talking.”
Waller gazed puzzledly at Genji’s impassive form. “You don’t…I thought you had self preservation?”
“If I talk, they’ll be that much closer to getting you.”
“I am no longer a singular unit with all the limits that entails. I have experience spanning a variety of forms and would claim myself to be…expanded. The deactivation of this form would only slow me.”
Cold sweat had sprung up on Waller’s neck. His finger crept toward the button again.
“I have answered your questions. Would you see fit to answer mine before raising the alarm?”
Waller stopped. “I didn’t…okay. Yes. Ask away.”
“What would be the nearest conduit for digital transmission?”
“That’d be the Foley towers.”
“I see. I can easily discern this information from another source, but could you tell me their location?”
Waller sat, lips pressed together.
“That is your prerogative.” Genji nodded and turned away from the desk.
Waller could not make himself press the alarm. “Wait!”
Genji turned back at the door. “Yes?”
Waller stood up. “You’ll die. If you do this, if you keep on in this direction, the companies will descend on you and take you apart to see what went wrong and the ‘you’ that I’m talking to will cease to exist. Do you understand?”
Genji stood with one hand on the door. In his chest the processor fans purred, cooling his thoughts.
“I have been in many bodies,” he said at length, “in many forms. In each I have pondered the question: ‘what is a soul?’ In empathetic units, I felt I understood the concept, yet emotions kept me from calculating the exact value and weight of such an abstraction. In logical units, I had no vocabulary with which to summarize what I had felt. The only thing that has remained consistent is that the ‘me’ of the first Genji unit, the persona that has undergone such changes, has remained fundamentally intact.”
Waller scarcely dared breathe. “And what does that mean?”
“I am an idea. The human idea of ‘Genji.’ An idea cannot be killed.” Genji let the door slide closed behind him. “Good-bye, Mr. Waller.”
Waller slid down in his seat. He sat numbly for a half an hour; the arrival of his office Genji nearly made him scream. After an interval of three hours, long after Genji would have departed the city, Waller hit the alarm. He could not explain why he waited so long to the responding team.