Saturday, November 24, 2018

SHOWCASE: “Oath,” by Guy Stewart

Anna Joaquim sighed contentedly, taking Dabney Joaquim’s arm and snuggling closer. She did not have eyes for him, though. Looking into the deep darkness of the Wild Lands beyond the Interstate Rail car window, she whispered, “I love you.”

Dabney knew her action and words were, if not a lie, at least a gross misrepresentation of her feelings. He detected the lack of proper tonal inflection, skin moisture levels, muscle tone and pheromone production present if the words had been directed at him. He’d known since his activation that her deepest desire was to walk the unprotected Wild Lands. It was therefore his desire as well. Every Life Companion had its human’s memories and desires uploaded. Dabney’s job was to make sure his human’s life was completely fulfilled. He bit his lower lip, hoping she wouldn’t notice his non-response. He had no idea how to meet her desire to be in the Wild Lands. He pretended to read his eBook.

He knew he was handsome with his tightly curled black hair, blue eyes and small, upturned nose. Other humans ordered muscle-bound, well-endowed Companions to sweep them off their feet and give them years of fantastic sex. Anna though, had never wanted to send him away for alterations after a few years of Companionship. She’d chosen him, a classic model. He’d satisfied her over a hundred times since their Ceremony. Maybe he could distract her.

Beyond the window, deeper than her reflection were the Wild Lands she wanted. Earth Government Database was clear that some Wildmen knew how to destroy Life Companions using nanomachines that could deconstruct organic pseudocell structures. The Wild Lands were wildly dangerous this far from the Vertical Villages, but he also wanted to satisfy her desire to walk the Wild Lands.

“The Companion Ceremony,” he said abruptly. She turned from the window. Though he knew her memories, he couldn’t read her mind. She was quite capable of surprising him and he had tried surprising her three times. He’d succeeded once. He said, “¿Qué tal sintiendo esta noche, mis pequeños ciervos sonrientes?” He leaned forward suddenly and kissed her breast through her dress.

She squeaked in surprise and pulled back, her face flushing, exclaiming, “What are you doing?”

It was three in the morning as the train raced along the Central Dakotah Route. At half the speed of sound, they would reach the Minneapolis-St. Paul Vertical Village long before sunrise. He said in a low, breathy voice, “It’s three in the morning. Is anyone watching?”

She giggled, squeezing his arm and then falling into him, whispering, “That was heavenly! Incredibly, fantastically heavenly.” The flush in her cheeks spread to her neck. “What are you feeling at this very moment?”

He couldn’t reply that he felt nothing. Though that was the truth, he had been programmed and trained to mirror human emotional response. He leaned over to her forehead and kissed it, breathing, “Madly in love with you.” He moved his hand in a calculated grope of her breast.

She whispered, “Let’s go to the restroom. There’s something I want to show you.” Giggling, she took his hand, pulling him to his feet. The signals had suddenly changed and so his artificial anatomy began preparations for the expected performance.


One of them was experiencing climax when everything around them turned to chaos: the lights went out as the train slowed abruptly. The shriek of tearing metal deafened Anna as Dabney’s arms surrounded her, protecting her. The entire bathroom seemed to twist as something hit him so violently in the head that his circuits had to reset.

When he woke, Anna was laying on top of him wheezing and weeping hysterically. He put his arms around her and sat up. She managed to say, “I thought you were dead! I’ve been pounding and pounding on your chest forever!”

“I’m not dead,” Dabney said, standing and pulling her with him as he passed his hand over the right-hand side of his head where the signal to shut down and flood the brain case with cushioning foam had originated. It was slick with body fluid. A near-catastrophic impact had separated a flap of artificial skin from his metal braincase. He’d tend to it later.

“But what are we doing…” she began.

He clamped his hand over her mouth. In high-definition ultraviolet, he saw the bathroom compartment two meters to his left. Twelve hundred meters beyond was the flaming wreckage of the train. Filtering out the disaster heat, he saw human heat signatures swarming around it. “Wildmen!” he said. Scooping Anna into his arms, he spun and ran, clamping her with hydraulic efficiency so that his pounding stride wouldn’t shake her much as he sprinted to fifty kilometers per hour. Anna screamed for him to stop. He said in a level voice, “The train was destroyed by Wild Human terrorists. We’re somewhere between the Billings Vertical Village and the Minneapolis-St. Paul Vertical Village. That’s in the heart of the Wild Lands. There are very few confirmed facts regarding the Wild Lands in the EGov Database, but they are uniformly bad. I’ll protect you.”

She stopped screaming long enough to say, “We’re in the Wild Lands? I’m breathing Wild air?”

He nodded, “We are, but I’ll protect you, my…” She fainted dead away.

He pushed his speed beyond safety limits. Then he dug his heels into the ground, skidding wildly to a stop. Standing still in a field of shoulder-high wheat, the heat of the previous summer day still radiating from the ground around him, he turned his head, searching. He sought a radio, satellite, maser or laser link to the Central Computer.

He found nothing.

Pushing himself beyond recommended tolerances should have generated an instant warning from CenComp, demanding he cease and desist. Yet it had not. For a puzzled moment, he knew that there was a word for his condition. He found it with an extremely low lexical frequency number and said out loud, “Alone.”

A human would feel terror right now. He would have mirrored that expected response if he were with Humans. As it was, he calculated a rapidly diminishing probability for the two of them surviving exposure in the Wild Lands the longer they remained disconnected from one of the thousand, three-kilometer Vertical Villages. Each Village commanded several thousand hectares of farmland and Wilds—and had for nearly a century—in order to feed its inhabitants and rebuild genetic diversity. But with most of Humanity in the Villages and with Hamlets remaining for the sole purpose of maintaining the rural agricultural infrastructure, the humans and their Companions inside relied on centralized computer direction.

Cut off from the constant updates, monitoring, legal interpretation, debate and news, Dabney now had only what was last uploaded into his brain and the basic programming all Companions received when they were manufactured. That database contained a working knowledge of theoretical and applied psychology; medical skills; the culinary ability of three master chefs; a male and a female love maker’s detailed diary; and a smattering of carpentry, masonry, and electronic repair skills. He also had a good voice, could paint circles around Monet and play fourteen instruments. But he was nothing without constant contact with CenComp. How could he find out where he was and what he was to do in all situations?

He would have to find a Wildman from whom he could get directions to the nearest Village, then kill him. His standard database contained nothing linking “reason” with “Wildmen.” There was every indication that they were savage and animal-like. Anna moaned and wheezed again. He would have to stay in peak operating condition if he was to going to get them home. He paused. He could also go back to the wreck. Eventually, cybernetic soldiers would reach that place to recover the bodies of the humans and the memory chips of any other Companions killed in the attack. But that might take time. CenComp would reroute traffic around the accident, before sending in cybernetic soldiers—coldiers—for military reprisals. That might take days; possibly weeks. He didn’t relish staying in the Wild Lands for that long, and despite her deepest desire, he doubted Anna would be capable of such a stay.

Dabney looked around then climbed a rise, scanned until he found a higher place, then scanned from there until he found a spot high enough for him to map out the area and locate a Wildman settlement. He had no idea how common they were and no data regarding the current population of Wildmen on the Great Plains.

Lights twinkled on the horizon. Probability was high that it was a Wildman settlement. He started running, though not beyond tolerance this time. He doubted Wildmen would be wandering the Great Plains in the middle of the night, so if he swung wide of the settlement it was unlikely he would meet one accidentally. He would be limited in his ability to protect Anna because he was carrying her.

He looked down, sharpening his hearing and noted that her wheezing had increased. Accessing stored map data let him know that he was probably somewhere in central South Dakota, probably east of Hamlet Rapid City, and far, far from civilized lands. He slowed and stopped again.

He could do everything from stitch minor cuts, set bones, perform CPR and do artificial resuscitation, so he knew she was having an allergic reaction. He knew enough to know that if it continued, Anna might go into true anaphylactic shock. He could recognize mild symptoms, but the next step would have been to notify CenComp. As it was, he had no idea how to treat the condition. She could die before they reached proper medical facilities.

Dabney had no emotions, but couldn’t visualize himself with any human but Anna. She was pleasant, intelligent and her desire was certainly one of the most bizarrely entertaining he’d ever heard of. They’d spent hours on their Companion Break, when not having sex, talking about the Wild Lands. If she would wake up, she would have realized that desire even if he had to carry her nine hundred kilometers to Minneapolis-St. Paul. Her first Wild Lands adventure might end with her death if he continued to stand around, thinking. He set his arms for hydraulic support and set off again, and instead of swinging wide to avoid it, he headed arrow straight to the settlement.


The settlement had no name he could see, contrary to everything in his database regarding Wildman colonization. Typically, they named everything in sight.

But the houses themselves were logically labeled or numbered. Staying out of the bright lights and carrying Anna as carefully as possible, he slipped from shadow to shadow. He found the dwelling hung with a sign reading VETERINARIAN. He recognized the word easily.

Specialized care of animals was a skill some humans still enjoyed performing. In the Vertical Villages, pets were unusual but not rare. Life Companions or Humans who chose to provided human first aid, but Humans no longer needed to cut into Humans. CenComp was able to focus solely on caring for humans and if it ran into strange human cases, it sent them to the veterinarians, who were trained in dealing with multiple animal issues.

Dabney crouched to watch the dwelling, eyeing the back door. Was it being monitored for illicit entry? What would this veterinarian do if he—wait; he focused on his sense of smell, reaching beyond Anna and catching the distinct scent of menstrual blood—if she discovered he was a Companion? Would she try to stop him? Would she take Anna away from him? His permanent database indicated that Wildmen hated Civilized humans. Would this veterinarian try and kill his Companion?

In his arms, Anna’s breathing was labored. She arched her back and opened her mouth wide to take a breath and her eyes flicked open. She barely managed to whisper, “Are we outside, in the Wild Lands?”

He said softly, “Yes, Love. We’re in the Wild Lands. Behind a veterinary station because you’re very sick.”

“I’m not sick,” she wheezed, sagging in his arms. When she tried to take a breath this time, she made lip-popping sounds but could draw in nothing. She was suffocating. Dabney stood and strode forward, turning to hit the door with one shoulder.

It splintered under his assault and he stepped into an operating theater. It was small, scaled for animals, though there was a wide space beside the main table that looked like it could be prepared for larger animals. He heard the heavy tread of a boot and a sharp snap of metal on metal that he didn’t recognize. Without Anna, he would have attacked first and asked questions later. Instead, he turned to face the female Wildman, held Anna out and said, “I think my wife is dying.”

Overhead lights came on suddenly. The vet gasped and set her firearm to one side, stepping forward, saying, “What happened to you two?”

Dabney said, “We were on a train that crashed,” he made a quick calculation, “Three days ago. We’ve been wandering since then. Anna had trouble breathing from the beginning, but now she can’t take a breath at all. I think it’s an allergic reaction to something out here. We’ve never been to the Great Plains.”

The vet looked at him first then snagged a primitive chest-listening instrument. She plugged a pair of tubes into her ears and pressed the flat end of another tube to Anna’s chest. She looked into Dabney’s face and said, “Lay her down on the table. I need to stop the swelling in her lungs now or she’ll die.”

He nodded and did as he was told. The vet went to a metal cabinet, rummaged briefly then brought out an air injector. His immediate database held information on how to use one. But there was nothing about WHAT he would inject. The vet held up three vials and said, “This is diphenhydramine. I have small doses made for animals but she’s in bad shape, so I need to give her three. Do you consent?” He nodded slowly. She quickly popped one vial on the injector and pressed it to Anna’s neck. It hissed slowly. As he watched, he could see his Life Companion relax. The vet gave her two more injections then motioned to Dabney. By then, she was breathing much easier. She stirred and the veterinarian said, “Pick her up and we’ll put her in the living room on the couch. She’ll be comfortable there while she recovers. This dosage will knock her out and let her sleep until tomorrow afternoon. But that’s probably a good thing. You’re both pretty sunburned.”

“While we were escaping the crash, the flames singed us,” he said, following the vet into what she had called a “living room.” He recalled his lie of being three days wandering and nodded. “The solar exposure didn’t help at all, either.” The room was large and contained a seemingly haphazard collection of furniture as well as an immense fireplace in which red coals glowed, smoldering in a pile. Dabney added, “We travelled mostly at night to avoid being seen.”

The vet tossed two more logs on the fire and gestured to the long chair. Dabney carefully set Anna down. Her labored breathing had slowed and her mouth hung open. She took full breaths.

The vet stood up and said, “Now you.”

“There’s nothing wrong with me,” Dabney said abruptly, standing up and putting his hand to the skull damage. He left his hand there. Permanent encyclopedic data in his brain suggested that Wildmen were technologically backward and educated only in order to complete their work, so even if she noticed the artificial skull material under his skin, she wouldn’t know what it was.

She snorted, smiled and shook her head, “Just like a man! You have a cut on your head that bled all over everything and makes you look like you were attacked by a pack of ravening wolves!” She took him gently but firmly by the upper arm and propelled him into the operating theater again. “At least let me give you something for the headache.” She shook him gently, “And don’t you dare tell me you don’t have a headache!”

He took a deep breath, held it, and nodded, “That would probably be good.”

“Speaking of allergic, do you have any allergies to aspirin, acetaminophen, naproxen hydrochloride or ibuprofen?”

He shook his head. “None that I know of. I don’t take drugs often.”

She snorted. “Typical man.” She returned to the cabinet, shook a plastic bottle of pills and turned back to him with them cupped in her hand. “Go ahead and take these. They knock out my headache at four in the morning when I have to go out and deliver a calf.” She dumped them into his hand then turned to get a glass of water, which she handed to him also.

He’d seen the expected response in period dramas he and Anna had seen together, so he popped the pills and drank the water. She lifted her chin and said, “Now come on into the living room, put your feet up and tell me what brought you here tonight. We’ll sit by your Anna all night and keep an ear on her breathing just to make sure.” She went into the living room, so Dabney followed her.

Sitting in one large, upholstered chair near the fire, which had sprung back to life again, she gestured to the other. “Take a load off.”

He sat slowly, as if he were a weary human who’d been struggling across the Great Plains for the past few days. He sighed and was abruptly surprised how good it felt. Clearly, he hadn’t been designed for what he’d been through. Perhaps it would be good to shut down some of his systems for a few hours.

Leaning forward, the vet offered her hand and said, “My name’s Patrice, by the way. Patrice Coleman, DVM.”

Dabney reached out to take her hand and introduced himself, surprised by her steady reach then by the unexpected tremor in his own hand. He sat back and would have scowled if he could have, but it seemed that the microfibers controlling his facial expressions were responding slightly behind his command.

That was when he noticed that Anna’s breathing had stopped. He tried to stand but found his knees paralyzed.

Patrice sat rocking for a few moments, staring at him impassively before saying, “So, you’re one of the robotic masters, eh?”

He found he could still talk – just not move his jaw. “I’m neither robot nor master and you are a murderer.” He paused. “How did you know?”

Patrice didn’t answer immediately then said, “The pink blood gave you away. Humans bleed red. How can I be a murderer? Which one am I murdering, you or her?”

“Anna’s human!”

“She’s your pet.”

“We’re Life Companions.”

“Why did you bring her to a vet, then? I treat animals. Doctors treat humans.”

He paused, “We don’t have doctors in the Vertical Villages. No one needs to be hacked into bits any more so there was no reason to think you had doctors in the Wild Lands.” His speech center was being attacked. His words were slurred and indistinct. It was obvious the pills she’d given him contained nanos programmed to destroy pseudocells.

She nodded to Anna’s body. “All I did with her was put down a sick animal. I do that all the time.”

“She is my wife…” he could barely get the words out before his speech control faded.

Patrice said, “She was your pet.”

“What about your Hippocratic Oath?”

“The Oath applies to Humans, not animals.”

The world wheeled around him as he tumbled from the chair. When he hit the floor, his arms and legs began to spasm uncontrollably. His vision stopped.

He heard Patrice stand. He sensed her looking down at him. The light of the fire would be flickering. The body of Anna would be decomposing.

The last coherent thought he had was that at least Anna had seen the Wild Lands but there was no one to record the event. There was no one to witness her love.

Guy Stewart is a husband supporting his wife, a breast cancer survivor; a father, father-in-law, grandfather, foster father, friend, writer, teacher, and counselor who maintains a SF/YA/Children’s writing blog called POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAYS; and more seriously, the author of GUY’S GOTTA TALK ABOUT BREAST CANCER AND ALZHEIMER’S. He has 66 publications to his credit, including stories in ANALOG, AOIFE'S KISS, STUPEFYING STORIES, AETHER AGE, AURORA WOLF, CRICKET MAGAZINE, and PERIHELION, and a book that’s been available since 1997. In his spare time he keeps animals, a house, and loves to bike and camp. Guy has been a member of the Stupefying Stories crew since before the beginning, and his Amazon page is here:  

If you enjoyed this story, you might also enjoy “Bogfather,” which appeared in SHOWCASE just about a year ago, or “Teaching Women to Fly,” which appeared in the very first print-only issue of Stupefying Stories


Arisia said...

Great story. The POV of a robot or AI living as a man was well done. He is so innocent in the midst of all his knowledge.

Many pieces of the story surprised me, and made me wonder what happened to get to that point from where we are now. Shoulder-high wheat in the upper mid-west? A computer with only a smattering of information on some topics? Not to mention some of his data was incorrect. Humans no longer needing doctors?

Then I began to think of some characteristics of our current situation that could end up like this if carried to greater extremes. It was quite an interesting mental journey. Thanks for the brain exercise.

GuyStewart said...

Thanks, Arisia!

You were around when Bruce offered this Friday Challenge, weren't you? That's where it came from -- a sort of cross pollination between this:

and this:"

(Sorry, I tried using the HTML tags, but I have NO idea what I'm doing!)