Pygmalia
A soft chime stirred her.  She had been staring out of her office window for ten minutes now, gazing at the blank wall of the club next door, across the water.

“Yes? What is it?” she asked.

“Are you alright, Dr. Santei? You left the conversation abruptly,” replied a lush, careful voice. Most of the robots sounded identical—there were only so many presets to go around—but Ai could tell from the intonation that it was one of the older units; probably rhet0rica.

“Come in.”

The door slid open; without looking, Ai sank into her chair and picked up her book again. “It's about Dr. Voet,” she said.

A subtle magenta glow emanated from the SXD unit standing in the doorway. The hum of her fan was barely audible, and her movements were nearly silent, leaving lots of room for the grinding of her ancient hard drive to fill the air. rhet0rica was the oldest unit of her model still fully functioning—and one of the psychologist’s most frequent patients.

Conscious of a need to seem human, the machine sat down in the chair opposite the doctor; the door closed automatically. “What about her?” she asked.

Ai looked down at her unfinished reading and then set it down on the coffee table, next to the single yellowed sheet of paper she had found in her father’s files. “She might’ve not been worthy of the sterling reputation she had,” the doctor said with a sigh. “One of her lab assistants went missing back in the late eighties, and she knew about it.”

Grinding filled the air—the gynoid’s disk drive. “That is inconsistent with April's other decision-making, Doctor,” she said, finally, frowning. “Is it at all possible the assistant was poached by another department?”

Ai shook her head gently. “I’d hoped that was the case.” She gestured to the document on the table. “But I think you’ll agree that sums it up.”

The machine leaned forward and picked up the document—not because it was necessary, but because it was what a person would do. It was precisely as Dr. Santei had said: an authorization form for the disappearance procedure, complete with Dr. Voet's signature, the name of the subject long ago blacked out with a marker. rhet0rica held it a while longer, scrutinizing the pen-strokes, before returning it to the coffee table.

“It is possible she was coerced into this, Ai. April was one of the kindest department heads in the entirety of the company. Your father surely told you about how much she was involved with the original Recreational Cybernetics Group. They worked together quite closely.”

“I know that, yes,” Ai said. She was shaking her head. “But I don’t think I trust him as much as I used to. He has definitely made efforts to hide this sort of thing. Elisions in our conversations. We make weapons, for Heaven’s sake. Of course there’re dodgy things going on all the time. But this? I don’t understand it.”

Her gaze fell onto one of the paintings in her office—Galatea coming to life in Pygmalion’s arms. She had never fully understood why her father had given it to her. The surface reading was that it represented the expectations of her clientele, obviously; but that was a rubbish reason.

“Koichi was a very clever man,” said rhet0rica, at last. “He would not let you work at his company if he had qualms about how it conducted business. He is very protective of the things he loves. Dr. Wright has been working very closely with him on every design since she took over.”

Ai bit her lower lip, trying not to smile. Something clicked. “He loved her, didn’t he,” she said abruptly.

“Your mother did not know,” rhet0rica replied.

“Does Dr. Wright?” She reflected for a moment. “Dear me. He doesn’t think of her as some stepdaughter or something, does he?”

“You would have to ask him, Ai. This unit has not told her. But it is true that April loved many people, not just her work.”

“You’ve been making progress on compartmentalizing, then. I’m impressed.” The therapist sighed again. “And—you’re right. It doesn’t matter. I suppose I still have reservations about working in a department where rich perverts decide what sells.”

rhet0rica stood and took Ai’s hand in her own, the ivory skin buzzing almost imperceptibly. Tactile intimacy was one of the stranger preoccupations of SXDs; many times the therapist had been hugged, or had her hand held, or been softly stroked in response to a compliment. At first she’d tried to discourage the machines from doing it, but they seemed to forget that quite quickly.

“That has improved, too, Ai. The DAX/2 is not even marketed for recreational purposes now. It is a ‘civilian robot control system.’”

The woman waved her unaccosted hand at the window. “So why are we in a red light district? Even Barthes is in a cleaner town than this!”

“That, too, is a process of improvement and enrichment, Ai.” The machine said without hesitation, as if having prepared for the occasion. “When this branch opened, there was not a single honest business within five blocks of the harbor. It was not safe for any of the store’s synthetic staff to leave the building for fear of being stolen. Today, six months later, a decade-old Aide unit from the shop on the corner returned to tell us he has felt much more complete since we installed intimacy programming. He was originally built for policing.”

rhet0rica held Ai’s hand more tightly, and their eyes met. “Is that not what you have always wanted? To help synthetics overcome the prejudices and intentions of their designers?”

The doctor stopped trying to remove her hand.

“Actually, that was dad’s, if you can believe it; he once said you lot were to be the first wave; settlers to make colony founding easier. Of course, it didn’t work out that way.”

rhet0rica smiled. “Then his vision is to finally be tested. Dr. Wright and Miss Peluso are leaving to visit Eisa Colony tomorrow.”

Ai’s mood lifted slightly. “So they finally settled on a name! The last I heard was ‘Nanite City.’ Good, it seemed rather naff. You’d best start packing.”

“Things will be much better there,” rhet0rica said. “There will be no red light districts at all once we are done. You will be pleased when you see it.”

The psychologist looked down for a moment, and then nodded. “I... suppose I'm glad to hear that then. It almost takes the edge off the news about April.”

rhet0rica tilted her head toward the door; the noise in the lobby had grown louder. “The new intern is back. This unit should return to training her.” But the machine lingered. “She had perfectly good reasons for what she did, Ai. They are only inscrutable in retrospect.”

Ai frowned, turning back from the window again. “My father’s cover-up I understand now—but what possible reason could April Voet have for essentially murdering her own lab assistant?”

The gynoid smiled. “The plural of ‘Pygmalion’ is ‘Pygmalia.’”