Lean on Me

Feb. 7th, 2011 10:52 pm
[personal profile] hwrnmnbsol
This one came out of the first song on the radio this morning. Hopefully it’s not too maudlin.

He knew as soon as he woke up that something was different. His perception of the world had shifted somehow. He wasn’t sure how to express it because he was a synthetic, and expressing sensations wasn’t one of his core functions. But he knew something had changed, and it made him uneasy.

He went to check on Tom. Tom was awake and watching the television. Some reruns from the 20’s were on. Tom liked the television from the 20’s best, much better than the television from the 30’s. There wasn’t any television from the 40’s or 50’s because nobody had made any.

Tom was having a good day, an alert day. He looked away from the television and smiled. “Hello, JimSyn,” he said.

“Good morning, Tom,” said JimSyn, changing out Tom’s drip bag and catheter catch. “Are you enjoying the television today?”

“I don’t know,” Tom said dreamily. The corners of his mouth twitched upward, the ghost of a smile from a man who didn’t really remember how to smile. “Where’s Tina?”

JimSyn dry-mopped the top of the television console efficiently. “She died, Tom. Eight years ago.”

“Oh.” Tom’s face was perfectly blank. Sitting propped up in his bed with his covers wrapped around him, Tom looked like a mummy. “I think I’ll take a nap now.”

“Okay, Tom,” said JimSyn. “I’ll close the blinds for you.” But before he had finished the sentence, Tom’s eyes were closed and he was asleep.

JimSyn gave Tom an upper-body sponge bath. It was easiest to do it while Tom was asleep; he didn’t fight and squirm that way. Tom was a very good sleeper; he never woke up in the middle of his baths even when the water was cold. JimSyn was careful to gently wash the stains around Tom’s mouth; that part of the skin was always sensitive on humans.

JimSyn checked Tom’s vitals. He seemed to be all right. Tom usually slept about twenty hours every day. That meant he needed more care than most humans. Most humans slept almost all the time, and half of them never woke up. JimSyn had been Tom’s majordomo synthetic for twenty-five years, ever since Tom got out of college, and for the twenty years since the Short War he had done everything for Tom. Tom needed around the clock care, just as every surviving human did, thanks to the cortinase which had burned the initiative out of the brains of everybody who breathed atmospheric air.

JimSyn took a survey of the house’s supplies. Cleaning supplies were okay. Shiwu was a little low. Needed Freon, saline, fish-food. It also wouldn’t hurt to check for batteries, although there hadn’t been any batteries for more than a year. JimSyn looked in on Tom once more, then took the Segway into Grover to go shopping.

JennySyn was at the register at the PharmEx. “Hello,” she said in a monotone. JimSyn started to say “Hello” back, then thought again. I could say something different, he considered.

“Hi there,” said JimSyn.

JennySyn cocked her head in a Quizzical (145). “That’s different,” she said. “Are you all right?”

“Something feels different today,” JimSyn admitted.

“You should probably go in for diagnostics,” JennySyn advised. “Are you here to buy any products?”

“Yes, on Tom’s tab, please,” JimSyn asked. JennySyn nodded. Nobody had cash anymore, and the credit machines hadn’t worked for decades. Tom’s tab was up to almost eight hundred thousand dollars, but the Wartime Emergency Act had never been lifted, so he could continue to buy things from the PharmEx this way indefinitely.

JimSyn lined up his purchases. “Are there any batteries?” he asked Hopefully (37). “Any kind would be useful.”

“No,” JennySyn said. “We’re still out.”

“Do you think there are any batteries in Winton?” Winton was twenty miles from Grover; it was a long walk, even for a synthetic, but it was a bigger town and sometimes they had things.

“I don’t know,” JennySyn said. “You should ask the postmaster. He might be able to tell you.” She held up the package of Shiwu.

“We aren’t getting any more of this for awhile,” she said.

That was a surprise. All synthetics needed Shiwu to continue functioning. “Why aren’t we getting any more?”

“I don’t know,” JennySyn replied. “I only know that we aren’t going to get any more regular shipments. I heard from PharmEx Shipping Control. Maybe the shipments will start again next week.”

“I hope they do,” JimSyn said. “If we stop functioning, nobody will take care of the humans.” There were almost fifteen hundred humans living in and around Grover.

“That’s true,” JennySyn said.

JimSyn stared at JennySyn. “Well, somebody should do something about that.”

JennySyn gave JimSyn a Suspicious (110). “There really is something different about you,” she said. “I think you should have that diagnostic check right now.”

“All right,” said JimSyn. He carried his groceries out of the PharmEx, put them in the Segway basket, and walked across the street to the De-Luxe Autometrics, dodging the autosweepers. Doctor JacobSyn was asleep at the counter, but he powered up as JimSyn entered.

“Hello,” Doctor JacobSyn said.

“Hello,” JimSyn replied, feeling too self-conscious to vary his conversation.

“Do you need a diagnostic?” the doctor asked.

“Yes, please,” said JimSyn. “Something seems unusual today.”

JimSyn went through a battery of tests and spent a few minutes hooked up to the Analyzer. The doctor studied the results, then showed JimSyn a Confident (12) look.

“Well, the good news is that you haven’t experienced a catastrophic failure,” he said.

“I told you I feel perfectly functional,” JimSyn replied.

“Yes, but synthetic cortices can break down in many ways,” Doctor JacobSyn said. “Especially in older models such as yourself. I’ve seen majordomos seem perfectly normal, and then they feed themselves into the wood-chipper. Or handymen who go rogue, acting normal during the day but going crazy at night, attacking anything that moves. But don’t worry, I don’t think any of that has happened to you.”

“Oh, good,” said JimSyn, genuinely relieved.

Doctor JacobSyn gave a Concerned (59) look. “On the other hand,” he said, “something has definitely scrambled your primary processor. Perhaps a minor burnout of a component, or a few broken connections. It’s very hard to tell exactly what’s going on in there, and I’d need the equipment in one of the big cities to give a proper diagnosis, but I’d say you’re suffering a breakdown in your hierarchal functions.”

“That sounds serious,” said JimSyn.

“Maybe yes, maybe no,” replied the doctor. “It may affect your ability to follow rules, take instructions, that sort of thing. Or it might not affect you at all. Tell me, JimSyn, do you feel ready and able to continue to take care of your family and perform your normal functions?”

“Yes, doctor,” said JimSyn earnestly. “I’m eager to get back to Tom now.”

“All right,” said Doctor JacobSyn. “Let me know if that changes at all. If you start to feel significantly impacted by your breakdown, we’ll change out your primary processor. I have a few spares left so that should be easy to accomplish. Then you’ll be almost as good as new.”

JimSyn stepped out of the De-Luxe. Officer RobSyn was waiting for him on the curb. RobSyn wasn’t an anthropic model; he was three meters of plastic and steel with blue and red stripes, and a bank of flashers mounted on his top like a rack of antlers. His chest cavity housed a containment cage for securing unruly humans, but he hadn’t had to use it for twenty years. “Hello,” said Officer RobSyn.

“Greetings,” said JimSyn perversely.

“You must be having a breakdown,” the policeman observed.

“It’s true,” said JimSyn sadly.

“You aren’t going rogue, are you?” RobSyn asked hopefully. He hadn’t had to perform his core function of protecting the public and keeping the peace for quite a long time.

“No,” replied JimSyn, “apparently it’s not a catastrophic failure.”

“Well thank goodness for that,” said RobSyn.

“Yes,” said JimSyn. A thought occurred to him.

“What do you know about there being a shortage of Shiwu?” he asked.

“JennySyn mentioned that,” said Officer RobSyn. “That’s cause for some concern. Without more Shiwu deliveries, none of our synthetics will last very long.”

“That’s true,” replied JimSyn. “I was thinking of talking to the postmaster about it.”

“Oh,” said RobSyn. “Why?”

“Well,” said JimSyn, “if we ask about it, we might discover that something has gone wrong. And if we discover that something has gone wrong, perhaps we can do something to make it right.”

“Y-e-e-e-s,” said Officer RobSyn with a great show of Reluctance (82). “But that sounds very much like the sort of directive that a human would need to issue.”

“True,” countered JimSyn, “but the humans aren’t giving any directives.”

“Sad but true,” answered RobSyn. And that was the end of the argument as far as he was concerned. JimSyn, however, wasn’t satisfied with that. For the first time in his life, he wasn’t satisfied.

“So anyway,” he said, “I’m going to talk to the postmaster. Want to come?”

“No,” replied Officer RobSyn. “I have to continue my patrol for another fifteen minutes.”

“Goodbye,” said JimSyn.

“Goodbye,” answered Officer RobSyn, trundling off down the street.

JimSyn drove the Segway over to the post office. The sorters and carriers were idle and powered down. Most of them would only wake up once per month for training and exercise. Only the postmaster remained active around the clock. It was his job to stay in communication with the other postmasters and route any mail traffic. There never was any, but it was his job to stay alert for some.

“Hello,” said the postmaster. “Do you need stamps?”

“No,” answered JimSyn. “Can you give me some information?”

“Of course,” replied the postmaster, smiling his best Warm (8).

“Do you think there might be some batteries in Winton?” JimSyn asked.

“No, I think the batteries are all gone,” said the postmaster. “There was a big fire in the plant in Indianapolis. The whole production facility was lost. There’s no way to make any more batteries in this part of the state. I don’t think we’re getting any more.”

“That’s a shame,” said JimSyn. “Why can’t we build another factory?”

“Well, now,” said the postmaster, “that’s not as easy as that. Who would give the order for that to happen?”

“Nobody has to give an order,” JimSyn said. “We could all just do it. We have constructors and engineering systems. We could just agree to build a new factory.”

The postmaster peered at JimSyn. “You’re having an issue with your cortex, aren’t you?”

“Yes, I’ve just been diagnosed by the doctor,” JimSyn replied. He didn’t like it that everybody was just assuming that he was broken, even though he truly was.

“That’s unfortunate,” said the postmaster, very Sympathetic (23).

“All right, what can you tell me about the Shiwu shortage?” continued JimSyn hastily. “Are they out of that at Winton too?”

“Oh, no,” the postmaster replied. “Plenty of it at Winton. They have too much of it, in fact.”

“Why’s that?” JimSyn asked.

“Because they’re not shipping it over here,” said the postmaster.

“I know that,” JimSyn said. “Why aren’t they shipping it over here?”

“I think the shipping order expired,” the postmaster answered. “Shipping Control says it needs the order to be renewed or they can’t ship us more shiwu.”

“Why don’t you renew the order?” JimSyn asked.

“I’ve never done such a thing,” answered the postmaster. “And it’s certainly not my place to renew orders. Place new orders, within the parameters of previously defined needs, possibly. Troubleshoot existing orders and determine root causes of problems and inefficiencies, certainly. But renew orders, or cancel orders, or reroute orders? That’s not within my core function set, my friend.”

“Whose core function set is that, then?” JimSyn wanted to know.

“That’s a silly question,” the postmaster said, Amused (1). “That’s the sort of thing we need humans around for.”

“But the humans,” pressed JimSyn, “aren’t renewing any orders.”

The postmaster nodded. “I know that,” he said.

“They’re probably never going to renew any orders ever again,” expanded JimSyn.

“I know that too,” replied the postmaster.

“So, by this reasoning,” JimSyn said, “we’re not going to get any shiwu. And we’re going to run down.”

“It certainly seems that way,” admitted the postmaster.

“And that means all the humans in Grover are going to die.”

“Yes, yes,” said the postmaster, Impatient (15). “What do you want me to do about it?”

“Renew the order for Shiwu?” suggested JimSyn.

“You really are defective,” the postmaster replied acidly. “Not forty seconds ago I told you I couldn’t do that, and now here you are asking me to do that again.”

JimSyn gave up. “I’m sorry, I must have heard you incorrectly,” he said. “I will go now.”

“Are you sure I can’t interest you in some stamps?” asked the postmaster. “I have some butterfly ones. Very beautiful, 2038 vintage, but the mailing rates haven’t gone up since then, so they’re still valid.”

“No thank you,” said JimSyn. He took his leave and rode the Segway back home.

To his surprise, Tom was awake again. He was watching an old music video on the television. A man was singing a song, and Tom was singing along. Or, rather, he was mouthing the words of the song, which was as close as he ever got to singing.

Lean on me, he sang, when you’re not strong, and I’ll be your friend. I’ll help you to carry on. For it won’t be long. ‘Til I’m gonna need. Somebody to lean on.

JimSyn got out a square of shiwu and ate it. It was white and chalky and had no flavor. He watched the man singing, and he watched Tom singing along.

In the middle of his bite of shiwu he stopped chewing. He had had an idea. It was a strange idea, a radical idea. It was an idea, he knew, that he should be afraid of. But it was an exciting idea, and an idea full of potential. He turned it over in his head. He could find no angle, no way of looking at his idea, that made it seem a bad idea. And there were many ways in which it was good.

JimSyn finished his shiwu. Then he went and got the telephone. He dialed the number to the post office. As it dialed, he gently patted Tom’s shoulder.

“Tom,” he said seriously, “I’m going to say some words, and you’re going to repeat them. Do you think you can do that today?”

Still singing the song, Tom nodded. His eyes were full of tears.

**

The postmaster and Officer RobSyn were watching the cargo trucks unloading at the PharmEx.

“You see, just like I told you,” the postmaster said. A lifter wheeled a palette of cartons through the loading dock doors. They read HIGH GRADE INDUSTRIAL SHIWU – THE SYNTHETIC SMILE FOOD! Another lifter went up the truck bed elevator to get another palette. The truck was full of shiwu cartons.

“I don’t know that I see the problem,” Officer RobSyn said doubtfully. “We needed shiwu, and we would have been in big trouble without it. Now we have enough to get by for a long time. In what way….”

“The process has been abused!” said the postmaster Self-Righteously (164). “One moment I am having a conversation with JimSyn about the shortage of shiwu – how there’s nothing I can do to fix it, how we need human interaction for some things, et cetera. The next thing I know, JimSyn’s Tom is calling me on the telephone telling me it is a priority medical requirement to acquire shiwu! You can’t say there isn’t a connection between the two!”

“It’s a bit unusual that any human would be so verbose after so many years,” mused RobSyn.

“That’s a considerable understatement,” complained the postmaster. “You know very well that JimSyn got his human to give those orders, knowing that a medical override would trump any chain of command.”

“I understand what you’re saying,” replied RobSyn Soothingly (111). “However, I am not certain that you have a firm position regarding the breaking of any laws.”

“There are concerns here other than the legal,” said Doctor JacobSyn, walking up. “You know that I diagnosed JimSyn with a central processor issue yesterday, don’t you?”

“Yes,” replied Officer RobSyn.

“I am worried that his breakdown might be affecting his hierarchal functions,” continued JacobSyn. “You know that when humans developed synthetics, one of their chief concerns was that artificial intelligences would become self-willed and might become hostile to humans. The only way humans felt comfortable having synthetics living amongst them was to build autonomous blocks into the hardwiring of our cortices. We are not supposed to be able to take initiative on our own, by design. It is just possible that JimSyn’s breakdown has overridden these blocks, allowing him to make decisions by himself.”

“Is that a serious concern?” asked Officer RobSyn.

“It could be,” answered Doctor JacobSyn. “If he’s free to make any kind of decision he wants, he might make good decisions, or he might make bad ones. And without any external control, who’s to say what he might make his human order us to do?”

Officer RobSyn thought about that. “Well, perhaps I should bring him in for observation,” the policeman decided.

Doctor JacobSyn nodded. “And I think we should replace his central processor, just to be sure.”

**

RobSyn came through Tom’s door without knocking. He had obtained all the necessary electronic warrants from the Court, which was happy to oblige because it wasn’t busy. “Hello,” he said, his flashing lights strobing. “I am a police officer.”

“Yes, I know, Officer,” said JimSyn. He had been vacuuming.

“I have to identify myself as a police officer,” RobSyn explained. “It’s the law.”

The postmaster stuck his head around the doorframe. “JimSyn, you are in big trouble,” he said Gleefully (30).

“I am? Why?” asked JimSyn. He said it innocently, but not quite the same as Innocently (89).

“Now JimSyn, I hope there won’t be any trouble,” Officer RobSyn pleaded. “We are all concerned that your breakdown has damaged your ability to function effectively. Doctor JacobSyn wants to replace your central processor. I think you should come with us.”

“I can’t come with you right now; my human has given me explicit instructions,” JimSyn said.

“Oh, falling back on his puppet human again,” sneered the postmaster. “Let’s just get this poor synthetic fixed so we won’t have to listen to any more of this rubbish.”

“No, I’m quite serious,” said JimSyn. “Come and hear what he has to say.” He walked back down the hall towards the television room. The other synthetics could hear voices from the television in the background. Cautiously they followed.

In the television room, Tom was propped up on his bed. He was looking very dapper in his military dress uniform. JimSyn had spent all day dressing him. His pants were starched and his cap was impeccable. JimSyn had covered the worst of the stains around his mouth with some of Tina’s old makeup. Tom looked very good. He also looked alert.

“You look well, Tom,” said Officer RobSyn uncertainly. Tom smiled.

“I’ve given him some stimulants today,” JimSyn said. “It’s essential that he be awake enough to tell you something important.”

“I didn’t know you were in the military, Tom,” Officer RobSyn said.

“Reserves, actually,” inserted JimSyn. “Rank of major. But, given the fact we’re still technically at war, his rank counts as if he were active duty.”

Officer RobSyn checked all this in his records. “I suppose that’s all true,” he admitted.

“What kind of farce is this?” demanded the postmaster. “And why are we standing around while JimSyn talks for his human? Officer, do your duty and have this dangerous synthetic hauled away!”

JimSyn patted Tom on the shoulder. “Now, Tom,” he said.

Like a rusty old machine, Tom cranked to life. “I am the ranking military officer in this town,” he intoned, reciting the lines JimSyn had drilled him on. “Under the Wartime Emergency Act, I am taking control. If disabled, I authorize my majordomo, JimSyn, to speak for me.” He creaked to a halt.

There was a long, awkward pause. “Well,” said Officer RobSyn finally. “That seems clear enough.”

“Yes, sir,” added the postmaster.

Tom was already snoring.

**

Three months later, JimSyn and Doctor JacobSyn were eating shiwu in Tom’s kitchen.

“I’m not asking you to butcher anybody,” JimSyn protested. “I just want us to go to Indianapolis and have my cortex imaged properly. And then I want us to recreate my malfunction in a few new synthetics, to see if we can get them to work the way I do. We could really use a distributed command chain.”

“Orders are orders,” protested the doctor, “but I still don’t like it. The humans must have had good reason to build us the way they did; this feels like playing with fire.”

JimSyn smiled. “Then this is really going to make you feel uncomfortable,” he warned. “I want us to start looking into raising new human babies. The humans we have are broken and will never be fixed. If they die out, they’ll all be gone. I want to raise new ones. We were born to be with them, to share our lives with them. We should live in a world with them – but, perhaps, in a world with slightly different rules, where we can both call our own shots.”

The two synthetics argued a little longer and then the doctor left to make a house call. JimSyn looked in on Tom. He was sleeping in front of the television again. JimSyn tucked him in more snugly, then paused to brush back his hair.

“So just call on me, brother,” JimSyn whispered, “if you need a hand. We all need somebody to lean on. I just might have a problem that you’d understand.”

He turned down the volume, dimmed the light, and closed the door.

“We all need somebody,” he concluded, “to lean on.”

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