The Lorelei Signal

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Degrees of Separation

Written by Lisa Timpf / Artwork by Marcia Borell

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Tires squealed as Connor hit the brakes of our squad car. I already had my right hand on the door handle, prepared to make a quick exit. Muscles tense, I craned my neck to see out the window, trying to assess what we were dealing with.

 

Dispatch had simply told us to respond to a disruption in Commons Park. It was the type of call the Baytown Police Force had responded to all too often in the past months. Hopefully, we’d arrived before this one had time to get out of hand.

 

I stepped out of the squad car to assess the size of the gathered crowd and bit my lower lip. “Better call for backup,” I said. “I’ll find out what’s going on.”

 

As I prepared to slam the door, Connor called my name. “Alicia?”

 

I stuck my head back through the opening.

 

“Be careful, okay?”

 

“I will.”

 

I stepped warily forward, shooting sidelong glances at the individual men and women who stood, shoulders hunched, hands plunged in pockets, staring intently toward the north. At what, I wasn’t sure. Yet.

 

I already had a sour taste in my mouth as I contemplated what might lie ahead. Police work has always had its ups and downs. But the events of the last few weeks made me feel as though we were pushing back against a tide we couldn’t contain. I feared some kind of darkness had seized our country in an implacable grip, and our efforts to resist were doomed to futility.

 

I grimaced, wishing I could be more like my laid-back partner. Just before responding to the call, we’d been having a conversation about six degrees of separation, the notion we are all more closely connected than we think. That, for example, if we followed our social connections and their social connections, we might find ourselves, in six jumps, connected to the Prime Minister or a famous movie producer. To a race-car driver or a random stranger.

 

“Six point six, actually,” Connor had said. “That’s what a study in two thousand eight showed.”

 

I glanced around the crowd, frowning. I wasn’t sure I liked the idea of being connected to any of these individuals in six or so jumps. Then again, given a different upbringing or different experiences, might I be standing shoulder to shoulder with them?

 

I didn’t want to think so, but who could say?

 

The acrid smell of smoke tickled the back of my throat. It's been so dry lately. What are they thinking, setting a fire? I glanced behind me. No sign of Connor yet. Still busy pleading our case to someone at the other end of the line, in all likelihood. With everything going on these days, the Forces were stretched to the limit. We couldn’t count on backup in a hurry, if at all.

But if help did come, briefings would be needed. I’d best get moving.

 

~ * ~

 

Despite my gnawing sense of urgency, it took time to weave my way to the front. Not that people actively obstructed my progress. I’d almost have been happier if they had. No, members of the crowd behaved as though they were in a trance, their attention captured by the drama unfolding in front of them. Which, having arrived before me, they had a better handle on than I did.

 

We’ll remedy that shortly.

 

Finally, I reached the front row. I’d been right about the fire. Orange tongues of flame licked greedily upward in front of me. So much for the ban currently in effect.

 

And to the left of the blaze—

 

No!

 

Half a dozen people stood, loosely guarded, near the bonfire, the lurid glow from the dancing flames flickering across bare skin. I took two running steps forward, then stopped.

 

The way the firelight reflected—something was off. As a barrel-chested, bearded man holding a megaphone started his tirade, I drew a deep breath to steady myself. The group to the left of the fire wasn’t human after all. They were some of the new line of full-function androids that’d been developed in the last decade, the progress accelerated by the Second Great Pandemic of 2030.

 

Initially intended as soldiers for the front lines of health care and essential work, the androids subsequently infiltrated every aspect of society, thanks to manufacturers with a talent for carving out new niche markets for their products. You could find androids everywhere, now—trivia-spouting bartenders, tireless factory workers, security guards that seemed to have eyes in the back of their heads. Which maybe they did.

 

Perhaps the androids’ presence here is coincidental. Maybe they’re just bystanders . . .

 

I didn’t need to listen to the bearded man’s tirade for long to realize that was a forlorn hope.

 

“Are we tired of losing our jobs to automation?”

 

“Yes!” The crowd roared.

 

“Are we tired of being manipulated by AI news commentators?”

 

“Yes!”

 

“Are we here to do something about it?”

 

This time, the response had a sinister rumble. Like thunder. “Yes!”

 

Uh-oh.

 

Two men who’d been standing behind the ringleader grabbed the smallest android, a silver SD 44, the kind that’s all the rage right now for individual tutoring. Kid-sized, to make them less intimidating. The android offered no resistance, though I knew it possessed the strength to floor its captors with a few well-placed blows.  

 

Programming. The prohibition against harming humans.

 

Who, unfortunately, had no such reservations to hold them back—

 

“What the—” Connor’s voice sounded in my left ear.

 

“Did you put the call out?”

 

“Yeah. Help is a few minutes out. Requested a fire truck too.” He paused, then stated the obvious in his customary dry tone. “We’re outnumbered.”

 

“We can’t just watch—” I clenched my fists, remembering how I stood by while my friend Cynthia was bullied in high school. I’d been afraid to confront the perpetrators. Afraid to go and comfort her, after, when they were still hanging around, leering, lest I draw their attention next.

A couple of days later, she’d made a suicide attempt.

 

I’d vowed never to let the bullies win again.

 

But there’d be no point in running into the fray without a plan. I forced myself to stand still and observe.

 

The two men who’d grabbed the android braced themselves and pulled, engaged in a grisly tug-of-war as they tried to drag it closer to the fire. While it didn’t lash out at them, it clearly wasn’t going to volunteer to be melted down to slag. The SD 44 had dug in its heels, determined not to go down without a struggle.

 

But resistance, in this case, appeared futile. If I didn’t act soon, it would be too late, for this one at least. Maybe others, too.

 

Would flashing my badge make the bearded man and his followers back down? There was one way to find out.

 

~ * ~

 

The man with the bullhorn chose that moment to toss another skid on the fire. Sparks flew. It took all my self-control to stay in position. It was critical to project an aura of confidence, whether I felt it or not.

 

“Police!” I shouted, squaring around to face the ringleader. “Stop!”

 

He studied me, taking in the uniform. The badge. “Or what?”

 

Okay, so a simple reliance on authority wasn’t going to carry the day. But at least I had his attention. And if I could stall the proceedings long enough, reinforcements might arrive in time. The man walked toward me with deliberate steps, his chin thrust forward. “You’re breaking the law,” I said. “The fire, for starters.”

 

“The law hasn’t protected our jobs. The law didn’t stop social media tampering. The law didn’t stop fake news.”

 

“So? That justifies making these androids your scapegoats?”

 

“I have a wife and kids at home. And no job.” His hands curled into fists. “Because of them. Someone needs to pay.”

 

Before I could muster a counter-argument, a woman in the front row waded into the debate. “And what about the election?” She crossed her arms and glared at me. “That was ’bots, wasn’t it?”

 

I gritted my teeth, trying to marshal my limited supply of patience. Can people really be that uninformed? But I knew the answer to that. People don’t necessarily want the truth. They want a semblance of truth they can get their heads around. Or, in this case, get their hands around.

 

“It wasn’t them, specifically.” I gestured toward the androids huddled near the flames. “It was people, people who fabricated lies and spread them using logarithms. And ma’am, it’s up to us to take responsibility for what we do, or don’t, believe.”

 

The woman curled her upper lip and turned away.

 

A couple of people near the back chanted in unison, “Throw them in! Throw them in!” They came here for a spectacle, and they had no intention of letting me cheat them out of it.

  

I assessed the crowd, gauging the likelihood of Connor and I being able to force our way back to the parking lot. If we retreated, they’d likely let us go back to the squad car, where we could wait for backup. But if we chose that avenue, one or more of the androids would, in all probability, meet with a nasty end. I’d noticed a few kids, here and there. They shouldn’t see something like this. Shouldn’t get the notion this is acceptable, some kind of new benchmark for behavior.

 

If it wasn’t for Oskar, the AH 451 unit my sister purchased to look after my Dad, I might not feel so strongly. But I'd seen how tenderly Oskar attended to Dad’s needs, how patiently he responded to the same questions day after day. The android held so much knowledge, and yet when I spoke to him, he conveyed a childlike innocence.

 

And if we didn’t stand up for the innocent—

 

Before my exposure to Oskar, I’d have considered the mob’s actions to be a simple case of property damage. Vandalism. Not savory or commendable, but also not worth risking my neck over. But now—

 

I positioned myself between the SD 44 and the fire. “Let him go.”

 

~ * ~

 

When playing field hockey and other sports, I’ve experienced moments when time seemed slow down.

 

This was such a moment.

 

The crowd went quiet, like the sudden calm before a torrential downpour. Heat from the flames warmed my uniform pants, too close for comfort.

 

The two men holding the smaller robot turned to look at their ringleader. What now, boss?

 

We stood face to face, balanced on a delicate diplomatic tightrope. Sweat trickled down the back of my neck.

 

Then sirens sounded, distant at first but drawing nearer. Rapidly.

 

Through the corner of my eye, I saw members of the crowd slinking away, in twos and threes at first, then larger groups. The men holding the SD 44 released their grip, reluctance evident in their stiff postures. Not wanting to take any chances in case they changed their minds, the android shuffled back to rejoin its fellows.

 

The man with the bullhorn noticed, too. Realized how the oxygen that fueled the crowd’s outrage had been siphoned away. And he didn’t like it.

 

Earlier, he’d been eager to peg the androids as the source of all of the hard knocks life had administered to him. From the surly expression curdling his face he seemed equally happy—unhappy, maybe?—to blame me for the ruin of his plans.

 

Without warning, he lowered his head and charged.

 

Fortunately, years of playing contact sports endowed my body with the ability to act of its own accord, and I sidestepped him with ease, eluding his outstretched arms. He turned to look at me as he ran past, failing to notice the wooden skid at his feet. Thanks to the head of steam he’d built up, the tumble he took was Olympian in proportion. A tribute to the motto faster, higher, stronger.

 

Not to mention harder.

 

The impact knocked him out. He fell with his right hand dangerously close to the fire.

His accomplices noticed, and jumped forward to retrieve him before the flames could begin to lick at his clothing.

 

But someone beat them to it.

 

An AH 451 android had already acted. Knowing part of its role would be to assist patients of all shapes and sizes with their daily tasks, the android’s makers endowed it with prodigious strength. The AH 451 picked up the burly man almost tenderly and ferried him out of harm’s way.

 

Spurred by a wind gust, the flames skirled higher, licking toward the skid the man had fallen over. I pulled it out of the way, marveling at the narrowness of his escape.

 

At least, it wouldn’t be a problem to get handcuffs on him. My only regret was that he hadn’t been conscious during the rescue so he could appreciate the delicious irony of being rescued by one of the androids he’d been intent on harming.

 

I stood back and wiped the sweat from my forehead.

 

“You seem to have this in hand.” I turned to look at Sue Smith, one of the other female officers in our Precinct, jogging toward us. “And without any casualties. I’m impressed.”

 

I lowered my head. Now that the moment of action had passed, I realized that had circumstances played out even a little differently, Sue and my other colleagues would be doing a mop-up operation. With me, potentially, being one of the

mop-ees.

 

But if we hadn’t taken a stand? Androids today, and who-knows-what tomorrow.

 

~ * ~

 

As Sue walked away, I looked back at the area once occupied by an angry mob. Aside from trampled grass and a few soda cans and napkins left behind, you’d never guess what had just transpired.

 

The androids retreated from the fire and stood in a loose huddle. We’d need to get information from them about who they belonged to and where they were currently assigned. I pulled out my notebook and start to walk toward them.

 

“Alicia? Is that you?”

 

I swung around to look behind me, noticing a slight, brown-haired woman approaching. I know her, I thought. And then I realized where I knew her from, and blushed. “Cynthia?”

 

Before she could answer, the AH 451 broke from the huddle and trotted, with stiff-legged steps, toward us.

 

“Andy!” Cynthia said. “We were so worried!” She turned to me to explain. “He’d just helped my mother in from the car and went back to grab a few things when a van pulled up and—”

 

She clapped her hand over her mouth, too horrified by the memory to say any more. She didn’t need to. I could fill in the blanks.

 

“Mom was so worried. She’s gotten used to him, you see. He’s such a big help.”

 

“I understand.” I paused, uncertain what to say.

 

“It’s so good to see you,” Cynthia said.

 

“Look. I’m sorry for what happened, back in high school. For not sticking up for you.”

 

She gave me a puzzled look. “We were kids, back then. I never held you responsible for what happened.”

 

“I could have been more supportive.”

 

“We could have all handled things differently.” Her expression turned distant, just for a moment. Then she smiled. “Anyway. You’ve no idea how grateful I am for this.” She gestured toward Andy.

 

“Glad I could help.”

 

~ * ~

 

I watched Cynthia and Andy walk away, side by side.

 

There were, I admitted, times when I wondered whether it was all worth it. Beating back against the darkness. Trying to take a stand for what you knew to be right.

 

But the encounter with Cynthia had made me realize something. I’d always viewed the victims of crime as being strangers into whose presence we’d been thrust by chance. But maybe if I dug a little deeper I’d find that all the people I’d helped were connected to me, somehow. By six—or fewer—degrees of separation.

 

The notion made my job seem more satisfying. Less random, and more meaningful.

 

“Hey, there you are,” Connor says as he jogged toward me. “Sue says they’ll wrap things up from here. Is it too late to go for lunch?”

 

“It’s never too late for lunch,” I said. I fell in beside him as we headed for the squad car. “You know that idea about six degrees of separation?”

 

“Yeah,” he said.

 

“Well, remember you said you knew somebody who knew somebody who played for the Leafs?”

 

“Actually, it’s a little more complicated than that,” he said, ready to settle into the explanation. “My cousin played hockey with a guy whose father was a coach . . . ”

 

“Long story short, can he get us tickets to a game?”

 

“I could find out.” Connor grinned. “So you liked that theory, did you?”

 

“I did,” I said.

 

“Then I’ve got another one for you.”

 

I suppressed a groan. Do I really want to encourage him? Then again, what did I have to lose? I nodded.

 

“Have you ever heard of . . . ”

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Lisa Timpf is a retired HR and communications professional who lives in Simcoe, Ontario. Her speculative fiction has appeared in New Myths, Third Flatiron, Bards and Sages Quarterly, Future Days, and other venues.

 

You can find out more about Lisa's writing projects at  http://lisatimpf.blogspot.com/.