Nico (vilakins) wrote,
Nico
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Fic: Beta Release

Here's my story for the Freedom City mailing list fiction party, which this year was on the subject of androids, robots, or clones.


Beta Release

"Y'know," said Vila after they had left the Avalon android and its little phial of poison with Servalan and Travis, "I wouldn't mind one of those."

"I can imagine," said Avon. "One that looked like her, of course."

"Or even me." Realising how that sounded, Vila hastily added, "Could be useful, that, for when I'd rather not be there."

"If it was anything like you, Vila, it wouldn't work."

"Course not. It wouldn't be stupid, would it?"

Avon hid a smile.

All the same: an android, he could not help but think later, had possibilities. It could be sent on Blake's idiotic and suicidal missions while he stayed in his warm, comfortable cabin. It could do the necessary but boring technical tasks around the ship. It could--and this last one was the clincher--sit uncomplainingly and stolidly through all of Blake's fervent revolutionary speeches about the rights of the (some of them undoubtedly very) common people.

***

After they had dropped the real Avalon off, Avon went to speak to Jenna at her position on the flight deck.

"Why did you think that android was Avalon?" he asked.

Jenna compressed her lips and kept her eyes on her displays. "I already said. I only met her the once." She tapped in three numbers.

Why were people so defensive when one was merely looking for information? "You didn't think it odd that she had such an obsessive desire for her tunic?"

"Why should I?" Jenna frowned at her screen and entered two more numbers. "She'd been interrogated. People do strange things when they’re in shock."

"Hmm." Avon was not satisfied. Shock as an excuse was of no use to him. "Surely there was something that might have tipped you off that--"

"Look." Jenna abandoned all pretence that she was calculating a course and glared at Avon. "We all thought she was human. You did too. What the hell d'you want from me?"

"If you wish to infer criticism, that is your choice. I am merely trying to ascertain what would make an android indistinguishable from--"

"Someone like you?" Jenna looked at him with active dislike. She spoke slowly and deliberately. "She looked like Avalon. She sounded like Avalon. She answered when we spoke to her, just like Avalon."

"At last, what I wanted to know." Avon turned and walked out.

Jenna gritted her teeth, reduced the inertial dampening by a tiny amount and changed course abruptly, making Avon stagger and fall against the side of the doorway (and causing a series of distant crashes and yells). To her fury, he merely righted himself, straightening his tunic, and continued out.

***

Back in his cabin, Avon stretched out on his lounger and put his hands behind his head. So it would not require much. It would just have to look and sound like him, and respond to verbal stimuli. Zen could take care of the first two, and the programming of the last would be considerably more interesting than fixing exploded consoles with Vila.

"Zen," he said. "A small task for your nanobots."

***

The first test was to be Blake's weekly session, variously described as "consciousness raising" by Blake, "the simple man's guide to Rebellion" by Avon, "Blake's blather" by Vila, "cruel and unusual punishment" by Gan, and "often interesting" by Cally. Despite Avon's objections that his consciousness was already of sufficient loftiness and Vila's that it constituted oppression of the shipboard proletariat, attendance was compulsory. Ever since Avon and Vila had been caught playing a game of chess on a portable board, everyone had been forced to sit well separated and in plain view of Blake. For a while, Avon had done the Lindor Times cryptic crossword under cover of taking notes, but people were no longer allowed to bring datapads. Or for that matter packets of loud crisps (Vila and Gan), drinks of unusual colour and unknown, possibly mentally numbing properties (Vila), hair curling tongs (Jenna), nail manicure sets (Gan), or hand-held weapons manuals (Cally), despite the relevance of the last to the subject.

After some thought, Avon had decided on an expressionless face for the android which cut down on the programming considerably, a standard set of software responses used by many AI systems, and a small selection of sarcastic remarks depending on certain verbal triggers which he could expand after testing.

***

"Here we go again," said Vila as Avon sat down on the flight deck couch near him.

Avon turned to look at him. "Where?"

Vila stared back. Avon looked cold and distant; maybe he was just more annoyed than usual at being here. "Heading straight for the Boredom System and the gas giant Tedium Prime at time distort minus ten."

"There is no such system in the database."

Vila frowned. All right, Avon wasn't in the mood for a bit of banter, but he'd have thought that time distort comment would have at least sparked that appreciative warmth he often saw in his eyes. "You all right?"

"Yes."

Avon might answer like that if he had his nose in a gadget, but not here. Surely he could've have squeezed an insult out of that. "You got a headache?"

"No."

Oh come on! Vila could think of a few answers to that one without even trying: "Yes, and it's called Vila Restal / Roj Blake" (take your pick). "I will have if you don't shut up." "No, but I have a dreadful buzzing in my ear." Not just plain "No".

"Right," said Blake. "Let's begin, shall we?"

"That," said Avon, "implies a choice."

Nah, thought Vila, reassured. Must've been imagining things.

"Today I will talk--"

"At great length, no doubt."

Vila sniggered.

"Avon. Vila." Blake glared at them both. "My topic today is entitled People versus Tanks."

Tanks filled with what? Vila thought with interest until the vid started on the big screen. Oh. Troopers. Pity, when an all-terrain drinks dispenser would be so much more useful. "Bit unequal, isn't it?" He looked away quickly, envying Jenna who was on duty at her station and could ignore all this.

"That's the point. Human versus machine is a powerful image."

Gan wrinkled his forehead. "But most of the rebels are being killed."

"That's the beauty of it," Blake said, his eyes alight with fervour. "It does sometimes work--"

"Passive resistance." Cally nodded sagely. "As used by Gandhi and his followers."

"Correct, Cally," Blake said approvingly.

Teacher's pet, thought Vila.

"And civilians actually stopped the tanks in the Philippines."

"Philippine 'ell," said Vila, glad of a bit of distracting wordplay, but not failing to note that there was no answering flicker of appreciation on Avon's face.

"And even when it doesn't work," Blake continued, "it does."

"You sound like Vila," said Avon.

Everyone stared at him. "What d'you mean?" Vila demanded.

Avon turned his head to look at him. "It was a contradiction in terms. You tend to employ those."

"Eh?" Something was wrong with Avon, but what?

Blake shook his head as if clearing it. "No, it's not. You see, the image is such a powerful one, it has sparked off massive uprisings."

And people say I don't make sense. Vila kept his eyes firmly away from the flickering images on the screen and tried to think of a large purple cylinder with caterpillar tracks, an enormous volume of white wine (red being too graphic), and a multitude of slender hoses just right for filling glasses, trundling bizarrely through your typical rocky planetscape.

"Ah!" said Cally. "As we say on Auron--"

"Oh, spare me from yet another numbing example of clichéd banality." said Avon, reconvincing Vila of his Avonness.

Cally frowned. "A picture--"

"Is worth a thousand words."

"No. A picture," Cally said with overdone patience, "engages the emotions directly."

"Not very snappy, is it?" said Vila. "And if you think we're going to volunteer to get flattened, you can--"

"Of course not!" Blake approached the dividing line between exasperation and outright anger. "It is however the perfect stratagem for people on outlying planets where the Federation's hold is not so strong."

"Like Zephron." Gan sounded almost dangerous.

Blake lifted his hands. "I would never ask it of anyone. However it's something you should all know about. It will be used in some form at some point."

"That it, then?" said Vila, still looking intently at a screenless wall.

"Yes," said Blake through gritted teeth, then as they all leaped to their feet to leave, "Not so fast, Vila and Avon. I've got a job for you two."

"Wouldn't you know it?" Vila muttered. "Detention."

"Correct. We are indeed detained."

"Not for long," said Blake. "The shield was slow coming up during the last battle. I want you two to trace the circuitry and test it."



Vila followed Avon out, still trying to put his finger on what was wrong. "Oh, wonderful. Answer back, I mean express my democratic opinion, and I have to work as a punishment. I call that oppre--"

"You working is an oxymoron," Avon said automatically.

Vila stopped in his tracks. Automatically. That was it. A suspicion began to form in his mind. And besides, he was sure he'd heard that one before. He caught up with Avon as he opened a panel, and leaned against the wall, watching. He grinned to himself. The reason he so often helped Avon was because Avon was clumsy at close work.

"You're fast," he said.

"I am."

"You have a very delicate touch."

"I do."

"You're a lot better at that than me."

"Correct."

Vila sensed victory. "In that case, doesn't it make sense that you do the whole job yourself?"

"Yes. That is logical."

"See you later then!" Vila went off, whistling cheerfully.

***

Damn! Avon, who had been watching and listening via the android's vision and sound pickup, shook his head in mixed annoyance and admiration. With the exception of his predictable cowardice and laziness, Vila had been difficult to program for. This development was however only a minor problem which could easily be taken care of.

There was a knock at his door. He opened it.

"Hello, Avon me old mate."

"Vila, the only person who can be wrong four times in five words. I was expecting you."

Vila sauntered in without being asked, threw himself onto the leather lounger, and grinned up at Avon. "You did it!"

"Obviously." Avon went to stand over him in a futile attempt to invade his personal space enough that he would leave or at least vacate his chair.

"Didn't work that well though, did it?"

"Not on you, no."

Vila sat up, looking curious. "Why?"

Avon folded his arms. "You think about it."

Vila did so, then his face cleared. "You programmed it to answer things people often say, like me complaining about work, and Cally with her Auronar sayings, and Blake rabbitting on about revolution. What'd you do, get it to choose from a list of six insults for each special word it recognised?"

Avon smiled despite himself. "Something like that, yes."

"Why did it take so long to insult me?"

Avon raised an eyebrow.

"I'm more unpredictable?"

"Apart from moaning about work, the weather, and your imminent demise, yes, you seem to be."

Vila beamed.

Avon put his hands on the backrest, either side of Vila's head (which did not appear to bother him at all). "You will of course say nothing about it to anyone else."

"Course not! Not as long as it does my work for me."

That particular matter was at the top of his to-do list. "The deal goes both ways, Vila. You can be my beta tester."

"All right then." Vila crossed his legs, looking comfortable and relaxed.

Avon stood back. "That's it. Remove yourself. I have work to do."

"Okay, okay, I can take a hint." Vila got up and strolled out.

***

"You're a lot better at this than me, aren't you," Vila said slyly.

"I am."

Oh, this was too easy. "In that case, it's logical that you do it all yourself."

"Perhaps. But if you do not do anything, you will not improve."

Aha! Avon's been at the programming. "But even then I'll never be as good as you."

"Undoubtedly. You can however aspire to the ideal."

"Yeah but listen, mate. If the repairs I do aren't as good as yours, that's not fair on the ship and the crew, is it? Don't you think we deserve the best quality workmanship we can get?"

"Yes. That is true."

"I'll be off, then."

***

Avon shook his head half-admiringly. He would have to program around Vila's latest ploy, but a more important matter had come up. Blake wanted the main component of the new Federation plasma cannon and Avon was not at all keen to risk his life getting it. It was so much more efficient to stay safely in orbit so that he could work on it when they brought it back.

Surprisingly enough, Vila would probably understand, given his recent winning argument.

***

"You're joking! I mean, I see your point, but are you sure that thing'll even teleport? Don't you have to be alive?"

"One has to have a mind, which would explain your various accidents."

Vila rolled his eyes. "Why? Does it use my brain somehow?"

Avon could not resist. "Well, you don't."

"You're fairly predictable yourself, you know."

He had a point. Avon cleared his throat. "To answer your question, not in the sense you mean. It needs to operate at the quantum level to move you, and your brain already does that. So does a positronic one. If you recall, the Avalon android was teleported successfully."

"All you had to say was 'yes'. But thanks."

Avon was surprised. "What for?"

"If it's using my brain, it's not destroying and recreating it, is it? I've always been a bit worried I died back there on Cygnus Alpha and I'm just a copy of a copy of a copy of a--"

"I get your point. I can reassure you that you're you, if that's any consolation." Avon paused, impressed at Vila's grasp of logic despite himself. "Why did you put the bracelet on that first time, then?"

Vila shrugged. "I was going to die anyway. And if I couldn't tell I was a copy, it was better than not being anything at all."

"In that case, why has it worried you since?"

"I'd just prefer to be me if I have a choice!"

"Each to his own."

"Exactly!"

Avon shook his head. "Let's move on, shall we. As you know, Blake has one of his--" here, his upper lip curled very slightly, "--missions planned again."

"Oh yeah, to nick that dooflickey from that shipyard."

"Succinctly put. The point is, there is no need for me to be there. You break in, you and Blake bring it back here, and I analyse and test it here."

"So why's the android going?"

"Because Blake, as usual, does not see it that way. The weapons complex has security, so you are going. The new plasma cannon crystal assembly is a technical matter, so he thinks I should be there. And I shall appear to be. And you, Vila, will ensure that Blake does not realise I am not."

Vila nodded. Good; he got the point. As long as the android remained undetected, he could get it to work for him.

***

"There you go." Vila stood back from the door with a debonair flourish. "Piece of cake." He stared at the shining black prototype cannon in the centre of the room, hoisted on a testing cradle. "Big, isn’t it?" He was glad the thing was pointing well away from the door.

Blake closed the door and positioned himself in front of it, his own gun ready. "All right, get to work, you two."

'Avon' walked over to the cannon and began to unscrew a side panel, while Vila leaned on the cold metallic surface and watched as the android exposed the crystal assembly, undid some screws and bolts, then pulled. And pulled again.

"What's the matter?"

"It's stuck. As you should be able to work out."

"Belt it one then."

'Avon' hesitated briefly, then reached for its belt.

"Oh, very funny!" Vila, seeing Blake approaching out of the corner of his eye, moved quickly in front of 'Avon'. "I meant, use a bit of percussive maintenance."

'Avon' stood still.

The real one couldn't have programmed that expression in; it must be looking for it. Vila sighed. "Whack it hard."

"Ah. Yes, the shock of impact may well loosen the part which is held by excessive friction."

"There you go."

"What's going on here?" Blake demanded

"It's a bit stuck," Vila said as 'Avon' picked up a large hammer from a work bench and hit the casing three times. "Now give it a good yank. Put all your strength into it."

'Avon' did so. The assembly moved--and so did the cannon on its cradle. Vila watched in frozen horror as it tilted towards him. 'Avon' stepped to one side as Blake leaped to the other, pushing Vila out of the way. The cannon crashed to the floor, so hard that Vila, sprawled just out of range, felt the impact through the concrete.

"Bloody hell!" He sat up, white and shaken.

"That was useful advice," said 'Avon', holding up the crystals in their now slightly twisted casing.

"You almost killed me and Vila!" Blake said accusingly.

"I suggest we teleport now. That made a considerable noise."

Blake drew in his breath for a good bellow, then changed his mind. "Bring us up, Cally."


Avon quickly gave the android an order over his comms connection and hurried out of his cabin in the direction of the teleport bay.


"What happened?" asked Cally, taking in the shocked-looking Vila and angry Blake.

"The mission was successful." Avon said, and walked quickly away.

"Avon!" Blake shouted.

Cally frowned. "Are you all right, Vila?"

"Yeah. I think so. Missed me by that much." He held two fingers a couple of centimetres apart.

In the corridor, Avon passed the android, smoothly taking the weapons assembly from it. "Yes, Blake?" He stood in the doorway.

"You don't have anything more than that to say?"

"You almost flattened me!" Vila said.

"Actually, being a cylinder, the cannon wouldn't have--" Avon stopped, seeing the look on his face. "I'm sorry," he said quietly.

"That's all very well," said Blake, "but I'd like an explanation."

"I miscalculated the centre of gravity. I have already apologised." Avon nodded, turned, and went out, followed by Vila.

"That thing's dangerous, Avon."

"So are you with your poorly expressed suggestions."

"Oh, so now it's my fault?"

"No." Avon stopped at his cabin door. "I cut corners. The android was prepared to follow its orders regardless of the result. I will have to add some basic governing laws." He looked thoughtful. "Asimov's should do."

***

Asimov's eh? It turned out not to be hard to find those on a Galacnet search. Vila grinned with satisfaction. Now that was going to be useful.

***

Vila looked doubtfully at the mangled casing. "You'd be much better at fixing that. More accurate too."

"That is correct. You will however improve with practice."

"I'd still never be as good as you."

"This is undoubtedly true. However, your increased skill will be useful if I am not available."

Vila looked sideways at 'Avon'. "Ah, but if you force me to do it, it'll take me ages and I'll get bored and frustrated which will harm my mental wellbeing. And I could split a fingernail!"

"That is also true. Very well; I shall carry out the testing."

"Afternoon tea time, I think." Vila left for the galley.


In his cabin, Avon laughed out loud. Trust Vila to find out about the Three Laws of Robotics and exploit them.

***

It did not last for long though.

"I need another component," said Avon. "And the manual would be useful too."

Vila was aghast. "You're not suggesting going back there!"

"Why not?"

"They must've known it was us."

"In which case they won't be expecting us back again."

"Unless they've figured out we didn't get enough!"

"He's right, Avon," said Blake.

"Do you or do you not want a working model of the latest Federation plasma cannon so that I can adjust the shielding to counteract it?"

Blake gnawed at his knuckle. "All right. You go in and out as fast as you can while Jenna provides a diversion by firing at the repair yards from orbit." He looked a little disconcerted by the reversal in his and Avon's usual arguments.

"Acceptable." Avon left before Blake thought more than was good for him.

Vila followed him out. "You won't be going though, will you?"

"Of course not. Far too dangerous."

"Oh, thanks. I feel reassured."

"You should be." Avon smiled at him, but he didn't seem to get it.

***

"We're in," said Vila with less than his usual panache. He considered teleporting right back, but the thought of what Blake would have to say about his desertion of 'Avon' put him off the idea. He followed the android over to the prototype, now back on its cradle. "Just hurry!"

"I shall."

But as 'Avon' put his hand on the cannon's access panel, three troopers stepped out from behind a large and conveniently placed crate.

"Oh, no!" Vila raised his bracelet as several more things happened at once: an alarm went off; 'Avon' stepped quickly in front of him, and the troopers fired. 'Avon' staggered slightly, then fired back, rapidly and devastatingly accurately, bringing down all three troopers almost at the same time. Then it swayed and fell sideways like a felled tree (and, judging by the impact, almost as heavily).

"Avon!" Vila knelt beside it, horrified.

"Teleport, you idiot!" the android said urgently, and, bizarrely, without moving its lips.

Vila stared in horror at the blast damage to its far hand--and the smashed and partially melted bracelet--than grabbed its other wrist tightly. "Teleport!"

***

"Avon!" Cally leaped up from behind the controls and ran forward with Blake.

"He's dead." Vila looked mournfully up at them. "Or should I say, no longer functioning."

"No!" Cally reached out to touch the dark stains on the android's body.

"That's just oil. He's only a machine."

She turned him, outraged. "Vila!"

"That's in poor taste, even for you, Vila." Blake said.

"It is however quite accurate," said Avon from behind them. "It's a moderately successful android I built and have been testing."

"It saved my life," Vila said into the shocked silence.

"You seem puzzled."

"Avon!" Blake said ominously.

"It killed those troopers. I thought it couldn't harm anyone or let harm come to them and all that. Avon, it saved my life!"

"Of course it did. The three laws were ridiculously altruistic. I programmed it only to protect the crew."

"Avon," said Cally, her eyes narrowed in anger.

"Oh." Vila sat back on his heels. "I suppose you think the wrong one survived."

"Actually, no."

"Really?" Vila jumped to his feet.

"It was useful. You are more so." Avon, seeing Blake and Cally advancing with intent, decided a change of location was prudent.

Vila followed him, trotting to keep up. "Even if I'm not as fast and accurate?"

"It cannot pick locks; you can. Besides--" Avon's eyes had that warm, amused look they got sometimes. "--you make a much more interesting if less skilled chess opponent."

Vila grinned. "Because I'm unpredictable?"

"At times."

"Maybe you can fix the android." Vila would miss being able to convince it to do his work; almost as much fun as the skiving off, that had been.

"No. The power surges from the blasts were too much for the circuitry."

"But... but it spoke to me. It said, 'Teleport, you idiot!' Avon!" Vila grabbed his arm. "It didn’t sound like it usually did, not the way it said it. Avon, it was learning. It was becoming real!"

Avon shook himself free. "Don't be stupid. I was monitoring from up here. That was me."

"Oh." Vila stopped, and grinned to himself. Avon gave a damn. Even if it was only because he was useful. "Yeah," he said out loud and in his most aggrieved voice. "Might've known."
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