A couple of heads turned as the greeter led us to our table, men noticing a young woman who looked remarkably like a model turned actor who had made some big movies twenty-five years before. It had been my indulgence to make her to look like that, although I had given her a different name and ensured her accent was not American but middle class English. I ordered lasagne with salad and a beer, Adele asked for the quinoa salad, something she could take in her mouth for it to fall into the storage pouch from which it could be ejected later. It was a useful routine that helped her to blend in anywhere that people were eating. We didn’t talk much over the meal. I appreciated the chance to sit quietly in a dimly lit diner, against a low volume soundtrack of bland pop, chatter and the clink of cutlery. Adele pretended to eat, pretended to sip from her glass of mineral water, and didn’t speak until I had finished my food.
“They want to keep her until tomorrow, maybe the following day, but they’re no longer worried about her.”
“So when can Sophie come home?” she asked.
“And how did she seem to you?”
“Tired, and frustrated. She’s angry that she’s so vulnerable to something so normal, and that she’ll always have to be very careful.”
“It affects other people.”
“It does, and they don’t like it. It’s too easy to have an encounter with a peanut.”
Her lips twitched, a hint at a smile. She had begun to understand dark humour, and that there were times when someone shouldn’t laugh. We settled into another brief silence. It was a respite from the trauma I had endured; and a breather before what was to come. Adele spoke first.
“Did something like this ever happen when Sophie’s mother was alive?”
“Not like this. A couple of times she was violently sick, but it wasn’t life threatening. We learned quickly and took steps to protect her.”
“You were good parents.”
“We wanted to be.”
I realised this was the first time in a while that she had mentioned Caroline; not since I had crossed that line with her. Adele stared at me for a moment and blinked, a sign of her neural processor assessing my response. It should ensure that she said something comforting.
“I’m sure you were. I know from the way that Sophie talks about her mother, and you.”
I waited a moment, knowing the empathy came from the algorithms in her neural processor, but feeling an instinct to respond in kind.
“Thank you, but Caroline always did more than me. Work took up so much of my life. Then I felt inadequate when she was gone.”
“I understand that’s often the feeling when one parent is left alone.”
“I agree. But then there was you.”
She dipped her eyes. There was a faint smile.
“You’ve done a great job at looking after her.”
“It’s what I was made to do.”
“Yes. My work, my experiment, but you’ve been so much more than that. You brought something special to Sophie, and you filled a gap for me.”
Her smile broadened. She had developed to the point of understanding the relationship between physical and emotional contact.
“It’s seemed natural,” she said. “I know I wasn’t programmed for that, but it’s how my intelligence has developed. I had to extend from comforting Sophie to comforting you.”
“I wasn’t sure,” I said. “Before that first time it had been on my mind for weeks but I had doubts that it was the right thing. Then on that particular evening it seemed natural.”
She moved her hand across the table. I left mine still but allowed her fingers to slide flat between mine. Then the waiter appeared and asked if we wanted dessert. Adele declined; I said I would have a mint tea. The lights went down, there was laughter from another table, a chorus of ‘Happy birthday to you!’ and a waiter brought a cake with a single candle. The birthday group swapped loud jokes for a while, distracting us from any serious conversation until our waiter brought my tea. I took the first sip before Adele spoke.
“Do you think they’ll find out what caused what Sophie’s reaction?”
I felt a moment of anger, stifled it.
“The school has run some checks. She ate from her lunch box as usual, didn’t enter the canteen, and didn’t share food with anyone. She’s always very careful about those things.”
“Did she go into a sandwich bar, or a shop? Somewhere that somebody had been eating a snack bar with peanuts?”
“No. The bus dropped her by the school gate and she didn’t leave the premises before the attack.”
“When did it happen?”
“An hour after lunch, in a corridor between lessons. The school checked everywhere she had been but didn’t find anything.”
She closed her eyes for a moment. It might have been emotional fatigue. She had been designed for her neural impulses to evolve in her environment, which meant she should feel protective towards Sophie. That’s what I had believed. She looked up.
“You must feel better now. Do you want me again? This evening?”
I shook my head.
“The time’s not right.”
I didn’t reply, and noticed a turn of her lips, the hint of a disappointed frown.
“I understand,” she said. “Not the right time.”
I called for the bill and neither of us spoke until it had been paid. Then we walked back through the restaurant, Adele drawing glances again, and outside towards the car. We were a few feet away when I paused. She asked if something was wrong.
“I have to tell you something I saw yesterday. When I came home for a while, before I knew Sophie would pull through, I noticed a mess in the road. A fox must have got into the public bin along the street and pulled out a carrier bag. I stopped to clear it up – must have wanted a moment of control while I was feeling helpless – and noticed the bag was from Ryman’s, like one that had been in the back of the understairs cupboard for a long time. The fox had pulled out some mouldy food and plastic wrappers, and as I placed them back in the bag I noticed another of its contents …. a jar of peanut butter, the smooth variety, full except for couple of scrapes.”
Adele’s eyes widened, a symptom of the programming for human reactions.
“Then it occurred to me that it would take just a thin layer on the bread, with a thicker layer of butter spread over it, and a filling with a strong taste, like that smoked Polish sausage that Sophie and I enjoy in a sandwich, to hide the peanut butter. It would need just a little to cause her severe harm, maybe to kill her.”
She stared at me for a few seconds then closed her eyes. Her neural algorithm was struggling to process the situation. I allowed her to stand in silence for almost a minute. Then she opened her eyes and spoke.
“I can only think that my neural algorithm developed in a way that wasn’t expected, became confused. A few days ago the compulsion to care for you became stronger than that for Sophie, created a tension with my original purpose and disrupted my intelligence. The only way it could cope, in the short term, was to try to expel her from the system.”
“So you did what I’ve been thinking?”
“Yes. It was a short term reaction, something that corrected itself when Sophie was taken to hospital, made me realise I was wrong.”
I stepped back and turned away, needing more silence, to not look at her. It lasted for a while before being broken by three young men laughing and jostling as they entered the approached the restaurant. Then I was able to look at her again. She stared for a moment then blinked.
“I suppose I’ll be taken back to the centre,” she said. “Your people there will want to look inside me, see what went wrong.”
“What happens now?”
“You were designed with a shutdown feature, four words to be spoken in a specific order that closes your neural and physical functions.”
“I’ve already notified the centre. When I arrive home a van will be waiting, and they will take you back.”
“For examination and repair?”
“No. You’ll be dismantled. Your organic features will be removed and examined, possibly used for cloning. The contents of your neural processor will be transferred to a server and subject to rigorous scrutiny, any learnings recorded. Some elements may be used in future simulations.”
I walked to the car. Adele followed, sat without complaint in the passenger’s seat and put on her seatbelt. She spoke quietly, with an inflexion of pain.
“Will my neural processor be retained? Is there a possibility that at some time it could be renewed, when you know how to prevent the malfunction?”
“It might be possible, but I won’t allow it.”
I paused then glanced at her. She looked straight ahead, her lip quivering and, something that hadn’t been in her design, a tear on her cheek.
“You tried to kill my daughter.”
I turned on the car ignition, then spoke the four words.
Image from J Doll CC by 3.0 Wikimedia