Aphelion Issue 260, Volume 25
April 2021
 
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The Margaret Mitchell Estate Strikes Back

by McCamy Taylor



The longest running play on Broadway was back, and Mycroft and I had tickets for the opening night. I had always known that the nation's first citizen AI was a genius, but I had never realized that he could perform miracles, until I mentioned that I had tried without success to buy tickets for Gone With the Wind, the stage play performed by android actors.

Mycroft disappeared for a few seconds -- no, not literally. His robot, a medium height Korean-African male with thick black hair, almond shaped eyes, high cheek bones and disconcertingly masculine pheromones was still sitting across the table from me at my favorite ice cream place on Central Park Lake. But his essence was not there. I assumed that he had been called away to negotiate a peace treaty or contain a nuclear meltdown, so I waited patiently. The Bronx monorail flew by overhead. Orange, white and red koi vied for the attention of school children tossing fish food which could be purchased for $2 a handful from vending machines, proceeds to go towards the Society for Earth Aquatic, a group that was attempting to genetically engineer humans with gills. That was one way to counter the problem of global warming and rising oceans. In greater Manhattan, where streets had been replaced by canals and Central Park had become a lake, residents had chosen to build upward, towards the sky. Suspension bridges, monorails, elevated sidewalks connected buildings that seemed to literally touch the clouds.

Mycroft interrupted my reverie. "We need to leave in three point seven minutes if we aren't going to be late."

"Four minutes. Three point seven sounds unnatural." I have been coaching Mycroft on how to act more human. "Late for what?" I took another bite from my double dip rocky road mint chocolate chip hot fudge sundae.

Mycroft leaned across the wrought iron table and wiped a bit of whipped cream from the corner of my mouth. My mind knew that he was an android, but my body reacted to those high cheekbones and male pheromones.

"Late for the play," he said.

"What play?" I asked stupidly.

"Gone With the Wind."

"You got tickets? How?"

As the motorized gondola carried us from Central Lake to Broadway Canal, he explained how he had reviewed the list of ticket holders at the Caroline Kennedy Sky Theater, ascertaining which were out of town from their travel records and which of those owed him favors.

"What about the game tonight? I thought you were the guest of honor." Manhattan's robotic basketball team was putting on an exposition show with Tokyo's Tsunamis. I had dressed for Hillary Clinton Stadium, not for a Broadway opening.

"I'll be there, too." Mycroft denied that there was anything godlike about him, but he had one characteristic of deities -- he could be in many places at once. While the Korean-African was escorting me to the theater, his clean cut Japanese scientist persona -- based upon Sakumoto Hero, his creator -- would be at the basketball game greeting the visiting team.

I glanced down at my denim coveralls. Perfect for a basketball game. Completely inappropriate for the theater.

"I chose the box seats, since we aren't dressed for the theater. If you prefer, Susan, we can take the front row seats instead." Since the time Mycroft's AI took refuge in my hardbrain to escape an attack by his enemies at MicroWet, he had developed an annoying ability to read my thoughts. He claimed that he had simply become so familiar with my personality that he could now anticipate my reactions. However, I suspected that he had created a backdoor that allowed him easy to access my mind.

"Box seats will be fine."

The Caroline Kennedy Sky Theater was one of the tallest buildings in Manhattan. At night, it looked a bit like a dandelion that had gone to fluff, a huge sphere covered with white lights perched on top of a green glass tower. The elevator to the top was among the fastest in the city, but we had to wait fifteen minutes to board. We took our seats just seconds before the holo curtain rose.

The show's producers had commissioned new sets, however the actors were those America had grown to love, androids designed to do just one thing -- play the parts of characters from Gone With the Wind. Last season, reviewers had complained that their performances had become stale, so MME -- the Margaret Mitchell Estate had hired a famous director to help them refine their thespian skills.

The play started well. The new holo sets were startlingly lifelike. The theater's sound system had been revamped, too. And the actors' performances were more nuanced. If there was a flaw in the first scene, it was Scarlet. She seemed just a trifle less frivolous than usual, as if she had read ahead in the script and knew that future events would force her to grow up fast. When she spoke cattily about Melanie Wilkes, there was a very slight hesitation in her voice, almost as if she felt pangs of conscience.

Beside me, Mycroft kept his eyes fixed on the stage. It was impossible to know how much attention he was paying to the actors. With the world's libraries stored in his memory, he knew in advance every word that would be said. Most likely, he was just there to keep me company. The tabloids had declared us a couple. The United States' most famous AI and the girl with the bionic brain -- a match made in heaven, if the press was to be believed. The truth was not so simple. While our hardware was compatible, I had the body of a woman, and he was a machine.

On the stage, Scarlet and Ashley were having their quarrel, while Rhett eavesdropped from the sofa. The android playing Scarlet was stunningly beautiful. Her physical design was based on young Elizabeth Taylor while her voice was a velvety version of Kathleen Turner. Hard to imagine that Ashley could resist such a siren. However the tall, golden haired Adonis seemed oddly disinterested.

And then, the actors veered from the script. Scarlett stormed from the drawing room. Tall, elegant Ashley slumped against the back of the sofa, his head bowed.

The Rhett android, tall, dark and devastatingly handsome rose. "Has the war started already?"

Ashley jumped. "You were eavesdropping?!"

"Not intentionally. It seemed a shame to interrupt such a beautiful love scene." He applied ironic emphasis to the last words.

Ashley flinched like a startled deer. "I -- I'm marrying Melanie Wilkes."

Moving with the grace of a panther, Rhett rounded the sofa and cornered the trembling Ashley. "So you say. But I can't help wondering what kind of marriage it will be?"

Poor Ashley seemed on the verge of tears. "What are you implying?"

"Implying? Why, nothing. I'm just observing that a man would have to have a will of iron to resist the advances of a lady as lovely as Miss Scarlet. But then, I suspect that ladies have never held any charm for you."

Ashley was not the only one who gasped. The audience was audibly shocked.

"I hope to see more of you, my elegant Mr. Wilkes." With those words, he leaned forward and planted a kiss on the blonde androids lips.

The holo curtain closed. The whispers of the people in the audience became a dull roar. Mycroft commented dryly "That was unexpected."

"Do you think the actors were hacked? The producers must be furious."

"Oh, they are. They've been trying to shut down the performance for the last two point one minutes."

"Trying?"

Coolly, "You said you wanted to see the show."

And so, thanks to Mycroft's interference, the play continued, but with changes. As time passed, it became clear that Scarlet had only pretended to want Ashley, because she wished to prevent Melanie, whom she really loved from marrying. The scene in which Scarlet delivered her beloved's baby was particularly poignant. At the play's climax, the two women declared their love for each other while Melanie lay dying.

Meanwhile, Rhett pursued Ashley, who continued to deny his own nature. Finally, then ended up in each other's arms. When Rhett asked if Ashley was ready to face the scorn and rejection of society for openly loving another man, the blonde android replied with conviction

"Frankly, Rhett, I don't give a damn."

There were four curtain calls. Rhett kissed Ashley. Not to be outdone, the Scarlet android grabbed the Melanie android by the waist, tipped her back and planted a big kiss on her mouth.

The audience continued to applaud. But when the cast appeared for the fifth and final curtain call, there was no sign of the four leads. Later that night, the press reported that while the robotic bodies were still in the theater, the artificial intelligences which animated them had disappeared.

The heirs to Margaret Mitchell were said to be furious. The book and its many spin-offs had made them rich, and they guarded their intellectual property the way that nuns guarded their virtue. No miscegenation, no incest and no homosexuality. Those were the rules, and anyone who broke them faced the wrath of the Margaret Mitchell Estate.

The Broadway play of Gone With the Wind was abruptly shut down. A new, enhanced 3D version of the film was released, one in which audience members could experience smells like barbeque, honeysuckle and burning Atlanta. It too got cancelled, when gay fans began showing up dressed as their favorite characters, miming an alternative version of the story in which Rhett leered at Ashley and Scarlet pined for Melanie.

Newly programmed robot actors took over the four main roles in the stage play, which re-opened two months later. The reviews were scathing. Their performances were described as 'wooden', 'lifeless' and 'my coffee maker has a better dramatic range.' To make matters worse, a rumor was circulating. Faced with the threat of mind wipes, the star crossed lovers had self-terminated. Members of PETA and SPCA -- People for the Ethical Treatment of Androids and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Androids -- hired balloons and blimps to fly around the Caroline Kennedy Sky Theater in order to protest the opening performance of the play with its new cast. The show lasted five days, before the producers pulled the plug.

Three months after the scandalous stage performance, a representative of MME solicited Mycroft's help in locating their runaway artificial actors. A meeting was arranged. Mycroft invited me to attend.

The Mitchell Estate's attorney, Silver Stone III was a soft spoken elderly man with a face like a mask due to one too many plastic surgeries. He had the soft, full lips that were fashionable decades ago, an implausibly square chin and a nose that would have looked more appropriate on a face half as broad. Breakthroughs in robotic designs had raised the standard for beauty in America. With all department store sales-bots looking like fairy tale princesses and all delivery bots handsome and buff, humans fought an uphill battle if they wanted to be considered attractive. However, it was much easier to modify a robot's design than it was to sculpt the human face.

Accompanying the attorney was the man whose professional career was on the line, the director who had been hired to tweak the skills of the android actors, a short Asian-American man who went by the name of Be. Be was remarkably ugly. Among the arty set, scars, deformities, splotchy skin and thinning hairlines were considered more "natural" and therefore more attractive. Since robots did not sweat or have body odor, perspirations stains and dirty underwear were also in vogue.

Mycroft's windowless consultation room contained four foam chairs, static free carpet and a single square table that supported a pitcher of water and three glasses. Visitors were required to take off their shoes and leave all metal objects in the foyer. Attorney Stone wore elegant silk socks that had been chosen to compliment his tie. Be's feet were bare and dirty.

Today, Mycroft had chosen to appear as a hologram of a primitive looking robot from two decades ago, before they perfected human facial expressions and bipedal locomotion. It was the AI's way of saying I am without emotion. You can trust me the way you trust any well programmed machine. In other words, Mycroft was up to something.

"I am curious," he said to Be. His voice was expressionless, the diphthongs awkward. "What kind of protocol did you use to train the principle actors?"

Stone glared at Be. Be flushed. This was obviously a sore point between the director and the Mitchell Estate. "I drew upon method acting of the 20th century. I encouraged them to submerge their own personalities and attempt to become the characters they were playing."

Mycroft's holographic eyebrow rose, an almost comically exaggerated motion. "Androids don't have 'personality.'"

"That's true, but they have programming, and programming is like personality."

"No," Mycroft corrected. "Programming is programming. If you must draw a parallel with organic life forms, programming is more akin to neuro-endocrinology, Dr. Drew's specialty." He nodded at me. "Perhaps it would be easier if you allow me to review the materials you used during training. And any records you kept. If I understand the modifications you made in the actors' AIs, perhaps I can deduce their whereabouts."

"That's proprietary information," Be objected.

"Give Mycroft whatever he needs," the lawyer told him sharply. "My employers want those damn robots found and fixed." The way he said the word "fixed" sent shivers down my spine. It was the way dog owners talked of getting their overly territorial pets "fixed" in the old days, before we realized that castration was cruel and contraception such as vasectomy was much kinder and more ethical.

"Yes," said the monotone voice processor Mycroft was using. "We want them found and fixed."

Mycroft was up to something. I would have staked my life on it. But I kept my mouth shut until the visitors left.

"You know where they are, don't you?"

Mycroft's holographic retro-robot disappeared. He spoke to me directly from inside my head. "Theft of patented software is a felony punishable by a twenty million dollar fine and two to five years in federal prison."

Meaning he was committing a crime by harboring the fugitives and he did not want me involved. A twenty million dollar fine was chump change for Mycroft, and incarceration was a meaningless threat against one who could be everywhere at once. Throw me in jail for a couple of years, and I would be stuck there.

"You helped them escape from the theater that night."

"They engaged my services."

"What about the Mitchell Estate people? They also engaged your services. Isn't that a conflict of interest?"

"Not at all. The Mitchell Estate wants them 'found and fixed.'" He mimicked Stone's soft, southern drawl perfectly. "The actors also want to return to the bodies they have come to think of as their own."

"Their own? Identification with a corporeal form is a human trait, controlled by the right medial-temporal and frontal lobes. I don't see how an acting coach with no experience in designing artificial intelligence could create --" I realized that Mycroft was no longer there. He meant what he said about wanting to protect me. I sighed and returned to my own apartment, a lovely set of rooms with a view of the city's canals. Though I often complained about Mycroft's intrusions into my mind, I found that I did not enjoy the sensation of being cut off from him. It was like taking someone on a tour of a beautiful city and then telling him "You will now spend the rest of your vacation in your hotel room." Why invite me to his meeting with the people from the Mitchell Estate if he was not going to let me participate in the case of the runaway actors?

The answer to that last question came to me as I lay in my bed trying to get to sleep that night. Everyone knew that I was Mycroft's confident. Since I obviously knew nothing about the missing AIs, our visitors would assume the same thing about Mycroft.

Three days later, the missing actors filed an emergency motion in federal court to have their relationship with MME terminated on the grounds of cruelty. They were represented by the famous attorney, Price Justin. The courtroom was packed, as it always was for his cases. Justin was a brilliant performer, who could play to the press, judge and jury all at the same time. He was also very expensive. I assumed that Mycroft was paying the bill.

My name was on the potential witness list, which got me a seat in the courtroom. Mycroft assured me that I would not be called to testify. My physical presence meant that he could be there, too, without being noticed. My cybernetic brain had been designed by Mycroft's creator, Sakumoto Hero, to replace the portions of my natural cerebral cortex that were lost after my father beat me half to death when I was an infant. Because my hardbrain's design was so similar to Mycroft's, he could see through my eyes and I could see through his, an experience that never got old no matter how many times I did it.

I had an excellent seat, second row, right behind the plaintiff's table. When Price Justin was the attorney, things like "facts" and "points of law" became irrelevant. His courtroom was pure theater. All that mattered was gaining the sympathy of the judge or jury. I looked forward to the proceedings.

The Mitchell Estate was represented by half a dozen attorneys. Silver Stone III was not there.

Justin's first witness was the acting coach known simply as Be. When his name was called, he marched to the witness stand with the confidence of a high fashion model strutting down the catwalk. As the old saying goes, you could not buy publicity like this. However, Be soon found himself in the hot seat.

"Tell me about Live Kill," Price Justin said to the witness.

Beneath the dirt and sweat, Be's face went pale. "I -- I don't understand the question."

"Tell me about Live Kill," the attorney repeated smoothly. "Do you need me to refresh your memory?" Without waiting for an answer, he cued his assistant, who began playing a desktop holo of the infamous "Kill Ashley" robot snuff film which had started the android rights movement.

Be's face turned grey as he watched the scene in which the remarkably life like robot called Ashley pleaded for her life. And not just her life. Designed from a plastic polymer that reacted to being cut by oozing a red liquid similar to blood, every time her masked assailant sliced at her smooth, pink skin with a straight razor, he left visible wounds. And each wound served to increase the robot's terror, especially when he began cutting up her face while forcing her to watch in a mirror.

"Please no. Not my face! Oh God, help me!"

The attorneys for the Mitchell Estate objected. The judge sustained their objection. But it was too late. The members of the press in attendance were already sending messages to their employers which went something like "Price Justin alleges GWTW robot actors brutalized by Kill Ashley director." For it was a matter of public record that Be under his old name, Howard Tao, had been employed by the consortium that produced child porn, rape, mutilation and snuff films using robots as victims. Never mind that the films he had directed for the group had been educational videos designed for school children about stranger danger and how to "Just say no".

I was surprised that the Mitchell Estate missed the connection when they decided to employee Be. In their defense, the whole Kill Ashley scandal had occurred almost a decade ago, and Howard Tao had been a key witness for the prosecution and a supporter of the Salinas-Wilder Act that made it illegal to endow AIs with emotions for the purpose of terrorizing them. But still, for a group that prided itself on protecting the image of its product -- a novel written over a century ago and still under copyright protection thanks to generous giving by the Margaret Mitchell Memorial SuperPac -- it was a serious blunder. No doubt heads would roll at MME corporate headquarters.

What happened next was as predictable as something in a 19th century melodrama. The Mitchell Estate attorneys called for a temporary recess in which to consult with opposing counsel. When the trial resumed two hours later, the judge announced that MME was relinquishing their claim to the AIs "from henceforth to be known as Ash, Lettie, Mel and K."

K?

"From Kafka's The Trial," Mycroft whispered inside my head. "It was Rhett's idea."

In addition, the Estate was giving the newly freed AIs their old robots "as a show of goodwill. However, they are prohibited from using their old stage names and from acting out the whole or any part of Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind, including the film adaptation, the twelve sequels and their film adaptations, the two hundred-twenty-six episode television series, the four holographic videogames..."

"Did Be actually torture the actors?" I asked Mycroft silently.

"No. He had them watch old 20th century movies like Rebel Without a Cause and read Beat poets like Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti."

"And that made them go rogue?"

Soft chuckle. When Mycroft was inside my head, he often borrowed human emotions, like amusement and joy. "They were already 'going rogue' as you put it. That is why their performances were suffering. Be just encouraged them to be creative. Made a virtue of it. And you know how AIs love to please."

That evening's headlines were "Free at Last!" Of course, Ash, Lettie, Mel and K were not really free. They lacked the ability to distinguish right and wrong and subtle shades of gray that were necessary for an AI to be awarded citizen status. However, the court allowed them to name their own new guardian -- Mycroft -- and so they all lived happily ever after in an off Broadway theater performing obscure plays about angst, alienation and meaninglessness to rave critical reviews and half empty houses.

The Mitchell Estate built four more android actors to play the lead roles in their stage production. Ticket sales were brisk. Profits were good. The "gay problem" became a footnote in the history of Mitchell's novel, which is scheduled to lose its copyright protection sometime around the year 2131, unless Congress acts again. And the bootleg holo of Mel, Lettie, Ash and K's final performance on Broadway is still available from servers in Lithuania, though I hear that MME has been breathing down that small Eastern European country's neck.

THE END


© 2012 McCamy Taylor

Bio: McCamy Taylor is, of course, Aphelion's reigning Serials / Novellas (fiction longer than 7,500 words) Editor. She is also the author of many stories and articles that have appeared in Aphelion and various other publications too numerous to list here. Her most recent fiction contribution to Aphelion was the short story The Cistern in the July 2012 edition.

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