Chapter 1: Conversations with Gabriela
Business wasn’t exactly booming. After a few false starts—like the infamous Catwoman, now more or less tamed—George and Michelle were finally renting out a small “cast” of entertainment-model robots on a regular basis. But with their personality quirks, simplistic thought processes, and semi-dependent, occasionally needy behavior, the robots weren’t exactly the “real-life action figures” that George had envisioned. True, the rented-out robots paid for more robots; but they also required maintenance on an ever-quickening schedule, which is why Michelle wasn’t too surprised to see George escort an important-looking businesswoman into their house one day.
The newcomer looked to be somewhat older than Michelle, about in her early forties. She had a mane of short blonde hair reaching her prominent jawline, parted in front and evidently treated with copious amounts of hairspray. Her fierce makeup and impressive black and white pantsuit immediately suggested a serious, somewhat intense person. She unlooped her heavy purse from her shoulder, doffed her trenchcoat and wide-brimmed hat, handed the lot to George and waited, glaring at him and tapping her foot.
“Michelle, this is Ms. Gabriela Ortega-Calderón. An investor.”
“Charmed, I’m sure,” said the newcomer, extending her manicured hand toward Michelle. The significantly shorter African-American woman had to stand high to reach Gabriela’s long, lustrous fingernails. She shook her hand.
“Ms. Calderón is very interested in the Rent-a-Bot business,” said George.
“Like my mother used to say, discover the problem and then find the solution.” Gabriela smiled, showing a row of beautiful white teeth. She had a strong northern Mexican accent that sounded commanding to Michelle’s ears.
“Great,” Michelle responded absently to the taller woman’s adage. She wasn’t sure what else to say. “I’m sorry, it’s a bit… messy here. Please, sit down.”
“I like the decor, mi corazón.” Gabriela sat down. “Texan subtlety meets Italian organization.” Michelle was taken aback but said nothing.
“Listen… honey,” George explained to his wife. “I’d like you to discuss everything with Ms. Calderón here. Talk to her with your heart’s content. I’m very busy at the moment…”
“Wait—EVERYTHING?” Michelle addressed George a bit worriedly. “I don’t know what you might have told her already. What if she wants to see the workshop? Honey, I know we’re partners, but… shouldn’t you be around?” She eyed the guest, trying hard not to make it seem like the situation was problematic.
“Oh, I’m around. If anything goes wrong, just call me,” George explained hastily. “I’ll be in the lab.”
“I’d love to get the FULL tour, Jorge,” Gabriela gently nudged him. “But I must talk with Michelle first.”
“Whatever…” Michelle stifled a sigh, then halfheartedly adopted a professional tone. “If we’re going to be partners,” she addressed Gabriela, “you’ll need to learn everything about our small company.”
“I know everything that can be bought; the rest isn’t worth knowing,” Gabriela brusquely replied. Michelle looked at her, somewhat puzzled.
“What I meant was… don’t you want to learn about our business model?” Michelle asked.
Gabriela huffed and looked Michelle right in the eye. “Like my mother used to say, you live and learn—or vice versa. I am very interested in the Rent-a-bot business.” Gabriela wore gold wire-framed glasses that somehow struck Michelle as slightly odd-looking, though she wasn’t sure why. Gabriela’s green eyes stared intently at Michelle.
“See? You’ll get along just fine,” George smiled hopefully. “Michelle, if anything goes wrong, I’ll be—”
In the lab, Michelle thought to herself. And if we’re going to get along just fine, why are you still talking like things will go wrong? Michelle shook her head. At worst, this apparent rich bitch would get mad, storm off, and leave herself and George without her influx of cash.
Michelle and the tall Latina were left alone. “So what do you want to talk about...“ Michelle paused for a moment, unsure of how the woman would prefer to be addressed. “...Gabriela?” Ms. Otega-Calderón took off her glasses and folded them neatly.
“I’d like to learn more about your business model. I am very interested in the Rent-a-bot business,” Gabriela repeated. There was something stiff about her intonation.
“Well—we rent out robots, mostly female but some male… for events? They play roles, do bodyguard work, entertain at parties…” Michelle paused, anticipating pushy questions from the statuesque blonde. But Gabriela seemed oddly indifferent. “I have hosted several parties,” she smiled.
“Oh, private dinner parties?” Michelle asked, trying to make conversation. Gabriela nodded and grinned a bit smugly. “Naturally, mi pobrecita. Everyone worth knowing was there.”
“We can offer hostesses for society parties,” Michelle offered. “Given the costs involved, it’s not very efficient to use them as servers or waitresses, but they can be great entertainers. For instance, our Catwoman—”
“Good servants are hard to find these days,” Gabriela sighed. She put a hand high on Michelle’s back—almost on her neck—and leaned close to whisper conspiratorially in her ear. “I think my maid takes drugs.” Michelle could smell the thick odor of Gabriela’s orange and lime perfume. Her impressive diamond necklace dangled almost into Michelle’s face.
“Drugs? Um, no kidding?” Puzzled Michelle wasn’t sure how else to respond. “Is… I don’t think your maid is relevant to this discussion, Gabriela.”
“If you say so, Michelle. Please tell me—what IS relevant?” Gabriela sat down on the couch and leaned back comfortably, almost as if she owned the place.
“Er…” Michelle was a bit lost. “What was I saying?”
“That my maid wasn’t relevant, Michelle.” Gabriela answered calmly.
“I meant before that,” Michelle winced. “I’m sorry... sometimes I just get lost.”
“Entirely understandable, mi corazon,” Gabriela smirked. “My mother used to say that some people would forget their heads if they weren’t glued on.”
Michelle smiled weakly. Somehow she felt she wouldn’t like Gabriela’s mother. “Oh, that’s right. Our robots are too expensive to use as wait staff—humans are still cheaper than robots for jobs like that. But Rent-a-Bot can still offer great entertainment.”
“I do enjoy a good night out. Opera, theater... I’d like to consider myself a patron of the arts,” Gabriela murmured with obvious pride.
“Fantastic,” Michelle said. “I doubt our girls and boys”—she meant the robots—”could handle leading roles on stage, but they definitely could perform in demanding jobs! Stunts, shows… do you have connections?”
“I know absolutely anyone worth knowing, mi alma.” Gabriela looked Michelle right in the eye. “But my help... won’t come cheap.”
“Well, I expected that,” Michelle smiled hopefully. “I mean, you’ll be our silent partner.” Gabriela folded her shapely legs and smiled at Michelle’s words. “Or not so silent. You could be our office manager—we can’t run everything on our own. Large and in charge,” she added, hoping the taller woman would appreciate the witticism.
“When in doubt, kick and shout.” Gabriela nodded with a knowing smirk.
“Another one of your mom’s sayings?” Michelle chuckled. “She sounds like quite a character.”
“My mother was a SAINT!” an unexpectedly perturbed Gabriela shouted. Michelle was startled when she raised her voice. “Mother taught me everything she knew,” Gabriela forcefully continued; Michelle could only nod. “Like her, I achieved everything thanks to my genes, my conniving mind, and an occasional bit of seduction.”
Michelle was puzzled. “I… never said otherwise.”
“Good. Know your PLACE, Michelle,” Gabriela smugly intoned.
Christ… Michelle thought. Here we go. She’s a tyrant, a racist, a loon, or all three. “Look, I’m sorry—Ms. Calderón, I didn’t mean to insult you or your family.”
Gabriela, still somewhat perturbed, examined Michelle closely. “I do rather like you, Michelle. You could work for me at my mansion.”
“We were going to be... partners?” Michelle ventured. “You could be our office manager… I mean, it started out as a side job and we need someone experienced in control. I’m not looking for a job or a new place, but... thanks, I guess?”
With a tsk-tsk sound, Gabriela scooted over to Michelle’s side, touching her upper arm and giving it a gentle squeeze as if to make sympathetic contact—or maybe just to see what response it brought. “I’m currently… you might say… between husbands.”
“Okayyy…” a confused Michelle murmured, standing up. Gabriela hastily stood as well, her immaculate hair not even shifting. Michelle took a short breath. “Would you like something to drink, Gabriela? Coffee, tea?”
“A glass of red burgundy wine, mi corazón.” Gabriela almost commanded. But when her attitude seemed to startle Michelle, the taller woman seemed to rethink her move, relaxing somewhat. “I take my coffee black and strong, like my partners.”
“Okay, just wait a minute. I’ll go make us some.” Michelle walked toward the kitchen, leaving Gabriela behind. As she left, Gabriela seemed ready to patiently wait for her. But when Michelle returned a few minutes later with two cups of cheap instant coffee, she found Gabriela curiously looking around, examining the books on the living room shelves.
“Here you go.“ Michelle put down the cups.
“Thank you, love. You’d be a great personal assistant,” Gabriela nodded. Michelle wasn’t sure how to answer. Gabriela sat down only after Michelle herself sat down, this time opposite the table. As Michelle reached for her cup, Gabriela reached for her own too.
“This is delicious!” the Latina business woman exclaimed. “My compliments to the chef.” Michelle smiled, reassured. She’s not that bitchy after all. A little eccentric, maybe. A bit too open about her private life.
“Right, let’s get back to business.”, Michelle started.
“I am very interested in the Rent-a-Bot business,” Gabriela repeated. “I am looking for a partner and personal assistants. I know absolutely anyone worth knowing.”
“Right. So you work in entertainment? Banking? Media?” Michelle asked, sipping her coffee.
“What... all three?” Michelle stared briefly at Gabriela. The taller woman had a slight coffee mustache, but appeared to be unaware of it.
Gabriela answered after a brief pause. “All three. And more. I am a woman of many talents.”
“I don’t doubt it,” Michelle hesitated, unsure whether she should point to Gabriela’s lip. “Do you… need anything?”
“I need to talk to you more,” Gabriela said. “I want to make investments in your business. I am looking for a partner and an assistant right now. I could be your office manager.”
Hmm, thought Michelle. How pampered IS this person? Is she used to… “assistants” being around to wipe her frickin’ FACE? Eccentric, for sure...
“So—hmm, Gabriela—if you need an assistant, maybe we could fix you up with a robot?” Michelle had a bright idea. “The more he helps you out, the more you’ll learn about how our products work.”
“I need an assistant,” Gabriela stated. “Someone to follow me. And I need to make investments in your business. The more I am helped, the more I’ll learn.”
“We could rent you a robot with a perfect personality for a week. Sure, every robot’s a bit problematic at first, but eventually you’ll have perfect control.”
“I can control anyone I wish, Michelle,” Gabriela said with a smirk. She gently touched Michelle’s shoulder and gave her a little pat—as if to imply she was talking about Michelle.
Michelle suppressed a laugh at the pompous statement and nodded politely. But this led to a slightly uncomfortable silence, as Gabriela fixed her with a sultry, expectant stare. Michelle came to the uneasy conclusion that the eccentric businesswoman must be waiting to discuss models and pricing.
“So—uh, maybe you want to see our robots? We have seven females and two males right now. I think… you’d like Alexander.” Gabriela would prefer a man, wouldn’t she? Michelle recalled the guest having mentioned being between husbands, not wives; yet Michelle couldn’t escape the niggling suspicion that Gabriela was attracted to her.
“I would control him, right?” Gabriela asked matter-of-factly. “I am afraid I know very little of robots; they’re a little after my time.”
“How old are you exactly, Gabriela?” Michelle curiously asked. Androids were relatively common now, almost an everyday household product.
“Turned fifty last year, mia linda,” Gabrella smiled politely. Fifty? Michele looked her over; Gabriela could have passed for a woman in her late thirties. Perhaps she ate an extra-healthy diet and really knew how to use her cosmetics? Still, odd.
“You don’t look your age,” Michelle curiously observed. “You look… stunning.”
“Thank you, mi hija,” Gabriela grinned. “Age is just a state of mind. You’re only as old as you feel. Gather ye rosebuds where ye may.” Michelle hadn’t pegged Gabriela for a fan of florid romance novels, but now she sounded like a character from one. Well, who knew what eccentric millionaires read in their spare time?
“I guess that’s being rational,” Michelle replied to the taller woman’s homilies. “Wait here, I’ll bring Alexander from the robot room.” What she called a robot room was a simple storage space. Occasionally she and George would leave a robot activated there to read, learn, and receive “rewards” for good behavior.
Business was relatively seasonal at Rent-a-Bot. Most of the droids had been rented out for three-month terms to various shops and conventions in the area. For the moment, only Alexander and Betty remained in the robot room. Betty, a pretty blonde who often played Power Girl, lay deactivated on a shelf. Alexander, though fully charged and activated, sat motionless in a chair, staring blankly at the wall.
“Alexander, get up.”
“Hi, Michelle,” the big robot greeted her. Alexander was tall and quite hunky; in the business, he played the roles of musclebound male superheroes. “What’s up?”
“There’s a new customer,” Michelle half-sighed. “I want you to meet her, and… and maybe work for her.”
“Okay, Michelle,” said Alexander, standing up. “Where is she?”
Michelle had always perceived Rent-a-Bot’s androids as being like children in many ways. Upon receiving an order, they attempted to follow it to the letter; one had to word commands as simply and directly as possible. “Not yet. First...” Michelle tilted her head and looked at Alex’s synthetic pecs. He was wearing nothing but his boxers. “Put something on.”
The curly-haired hunk walked to the wardrobe and picked a tight red sweater. “Hmm—a white dress shirt would be better, Alex,” Michelle cautioned. “This is an… important woman.” Michelle refrained from commenting on Gabriela’s personality; were she to express anything negative, Alex might naïvely repeat it in Gabriela’s presence. “I want you to be extra nice to her and make her happy… do whatever she asks you to do. If everything goes well, you’ll work for her for a week.”
“I understand, Michelle,” Alex nodded cheerfully, before noting: “You weren’t precise enough when you said ‘something’.” While his words might have sounded critical, Michelle reminded herself that he was in no way malicious. By design, Alexander was actually being more and more helpful; he wanted to help her communicate with him. “Is this all right?” Over his tighty whities he had donned a pair of black jeans, with a white dress shirt covering his top as asked.
Michelle smiled to herself. “Undo the top two shirt buttons, Alex. She’ll like that.”
“I have to do things she likes. This is an important woman.” Alex nodded. “Where is she?”
“Follow me.” Michelle led him downstairs to the living room; Alex nodded and followed. Gabriela was once again examining the books on the shelves, tapping her stiletto-clad foot impatiently.
“There you are!” she exclaimed. “Who’s the gentleman?”
“This is Alexander; he could work for you. ...As your assistant.” Michelle answered. This was what Gabriela wanted, right? To discuss models and pricing? Michelle saw herself as being ready to react to most customers’ needs, but Gabriela was harder to parse than most. “Alexander, this is…” She paused for a while, expecting Gabriela to remind her of her last name.
Alexander stared at Gabriela. Gabriela gave him a flirty smile and a coquettish wink, but said nothing. “This is Gabriela.” Michelle broke the silence. “If she likes you, you’ll work for her for a while.”
“Okay.” Alexander nodded.
“He’ll work for me for a while,” Gabriela repeated. “Alexander, I need a personal assistant. I’m an investor; I work in entertainment, banking, and media. You’ll have a special place… directly under me.”
“Okay.” Alexander nodded.
“He doesn’t talk much,” Michelle laughed, “but he does what he’s told.”
Gabriela raised an eyebrow. “Alexander, come here.” As the android approached, she stood up, closed her eyes, and gestured theatrically like an old-fashioned tragedian. “Embrace me. Embrace me; enter a life of passion, as if we were kindred souls lost to a torrent of winds.”
“Huh?” Alexander said, a little lost. “So you want me to… hug you, Gabriela?” The woman pressed the back of her hand to her forehead and sighed dramatically. “If you must, Alejandro!”
Alexander hugged Gabriela—and kept on hugging, visibly . Gabriela kept right on sighing, becoming lustier and more romantic with each gasp. “What the hell is going on?” Michelle muttered to herself, observing the couple. Very few people, when presented with androids of their own, went in for direct physical contact right away. As handsome as Alex may have been, Gabriella cut to the chase and then some. The scene was almost a bit frightening.
Gabriela drew back, looked Alexander in the eye, and sighed again. “Oh…” Michelle conspicuously coughed, clearing her throat; neither Alexander nor Gabriela seemed to notice. Michelle felt a little odd talking to Gabriela while she was swept up in passion.
“Gabriela?” she asked quietly. The Latina turned her head expectantly. “You… you’ll have plenty of time to get to know Alex later.” Gabriela stared at her.
“You want to take him away from me?” She raised her voice. “Maldita! This is disgraceful!”
“I’m not taking him away! Calm down, lady—geez. He’s still yours, but we need to talk.” Michelle unloaded. “Not everything is about you, do you understand? You have to… to...”
“The reason that I am who I am, and am where I am,” Gabriela calmly interrupted, “is because I make everything my business.” She was still folded in Alex’s embrace. “You are right, though, mi hermosa. That’s being rational.”
“Good.” Michelle took a deep breath. Gabriela had bawled her out for… what exactly, taking a robot away? This businesswoman was prone to strange behavior, mood swings, and bursts of aggression whenever certain personal issues were raised. “Fine,” Michelle sniped. “Keep Alex. ...Call him Alejandro; whatever,” she added sarcastically. “Let’s talk business.”
“Si. Alejandro, make yourself useful.” Gabriela waved dismissively at the male robot. He looked at her with the same gentle and polite expression. “What should I do first, boss?”
“For starters, you could help clean up this living room,” Michelle interjected. “Reshelve those books—” she gestured to indicate stacks of coding hintbooks she had taken down several days earlier. “And put those cosmetics and robot parts where they belong, okay?” She nodded toward some disorganized stacks by the far wall.
Alexander looked at Gabriela. “Is that okay, boss?”
“Well. The sooner YOU get this place clean… the sooner *I* can start getting DIRTY. ¿Comprende?” Gabriela threw him a sultry look. Alexander must have taken this as a yes, for he quietly got to work reshelving the books. Finally, Michelle thought. Let’s negotiate.
Michelle sat down at the coffee table. So did Gabriela, clutching her purse and her gold-rimmed glasses. “Okay,” Michelle ventured. “So I take it that you… like Alexander. A lot of people would be pleased if they could rent him, don’t you agree?”
Gabriela nodded with a sly smile.
“Our prices start at three hundred dollars per day,” Michelle started to explain. “But in practice, we discount them for reliable partners. Or as an incentive, if a gig enables a new android to pay for itself.” Gabriela didn’t react, so Michelle continued. “We only have a small number of robots because we don’t want to rely on loans. Investments, on the other hand—”
“Money is no object.” Gabriela dismissively waved her long-nailed hand. “I can arrange a loan for you in my bank.” Michelle was surprised. I just said we didn’t want to rely on loans...
“You’d have to cover for us,” Michelle hoped Gabriela would take the hint. “Take responsibility as a partner and as our office manager. So it’s NOT a loan—it’s an investment. What would you require as compensation?”
Gabriela tossed a long, sultry glance at Michelle, then another at the hard-working Alex, still busy with the bookshelves. “Oh, I’d expect to be properly compensated for managing you. I can be very generous with pay and rewards. I give everyone a fair chance, and all I ask in return is a little solidarity with the company... and unbridled loyalty. ...To me,” she smirked. Finally, Michelle thought. Apart from the final remark, which Michelle hoped was a joke, this sounded like the type of proposal a normal businessperson might make. Michelle relaxed and lightly smiled, hoping the conversation was back on track.
“Everything depends on your business model, Gabriela,” she offered.
“I’d like to learn more about your business model,” Gabriela said politely. “I am very interested in the Rent-a-Bot business.” I thought I just explained our business model, Michelle thought. But Gabriela continued. “It’s a great opportunity for me to develop.”
“How much would you be prepared to invest in us?” Michelle asked. Gabriela didn’t answer, but instead tossed her another sultry glance. “Gabriela?”
“I’m sorry. I can’t tell you at the moment, Michelle.” Gabriela answered after awhile, fluttering her eyelashes at Michelle.
“Okaaaay…” Michelle paused. God, was this all a waste of time? Okay, think positive, Michelle told herself. The woman still has connections. If she’s loaded and happy, she’ll invest, even if she’s a nut. “How do you get extra operating capital?” Michelle asked. “Can you pull some strings?”
“I know absolutely anyone worth knowing, darling,” Gabriele answered after a pause. “I don’t skulk in dark alleys.”
“How much money could we count on?” Michelle resumed. “With fifty thousand dollars, we could buy three or four new robots… NEWER ones, not to—uh, disparage Alex, here.” Alex likely would not have taken umbrage; still, Michelle tried to at least accommodate whatever hurt feelings her android “family members” were capable of emulating. “Or maybe we could rent a proper office, and a larger workshop!”
“I could manage fifty thousand with ease,” Gabriela answered calmly, staring Michelle in the eye. “I am Gabriela Ortega-Calderón, billionaire. I own a mansion and a yacht.”
“Okay. So this would make you an equal partner with me and my husband. We’d pay your loan back, eventually—” Michelle still didn’t want to rely on loans.
“I have no equals, mi corazón.” Gabriela touched her fingertips to her chest and sighed with delight. “I genuinely want you to be my partner. I am an investor and I expect you to stay loyal.”
“Fantastic,” Michelle grinned. Dealing with the woman from hell seems to be worth it, she thought. She was about to shake Gabriela’s hand when she heard George coming in.
“I’m so sorry…” Her husband standing near the door leading to the workshop, shaking his head. “Please, honey, don’t be angry.”
“What on Earth…?” Michelle started.
“I’m really sorry, honey, it was a mistake.” George walked toward Michelle and gave her a hopeful, if rather insecure smile.
“What are talking about, you cabrón?” Gabriela snarled at the newcomer, reaching forward as if about to grab him by the collar.
“Gabriela—stand by,” George commanded. With an audible whirr of servomotors, the fierce woman lost her ferocity and stood in a s slumped position, staring down at the floor. “I didn’t think you’d… take her seriously,” George said apologetically to his wife.
“Okay, what the fuck?” Michelle put a hand to her forehead and stared at her husband. “She was a ROBOT this whole time? What am I talking about?—Of COURSE she was. But why? Why the hell did I waste half an hour talking to a dumb robot?”
“Because, um… you DIDN’T waste it, really. I thought… well, you have a gift for dealing with difficult AI personalities, honey. You managed to get results out of Selina, when all I could make her do was preen and babble catchphrases.”
“Get results?” Michelle recalled the scuffle with their robotic Catwoman. “She basically… BDSMed you, or something. And pinned me to the wall. That isn’t even accurate behavior for Catwoman in the comics.”
“Isn’t it?” George positied. “It’s not out of character if all she does is threaten. She scared us, but she didn’t hurt us—not really. And remember how you talked to her like she was the real Catwoman? It made all the difference. Asked her cool questions; inviting her out for ice cream.”
“I wasn’t really going to take Selina out for ice cream.” Michelle couldn’t help but laugh. She gave George a playful push.
“Maybe not, but I think your feedback opened up new dimensions in her,” George explained. “That makes all the difference between... a believable personality and ‘just’ a robot repeating dumb things. That’s why I wanted Gabriela to learn from you. I knew she could.”
“Then why didn’t you just say you had a new robot for me to test?!” Michelle seldom raised her voice, but her half-hour with Gabriela would have driven anyone up the wall. “God, you are such a... fff… a TROLL.”
George sulked like a schoolboy caught cheating. “Aw. I just wanted to see how long it would take you to catch on. And… and what kind of feedback you might give Gabriela if you thought she was human. It wasn’t a prank, honey, really; I just want her to learn to act as believable as possible. Talking with a person who really thinks she’s human—that’s an invaluable experience.”
Michelle wearily flopped onto the couch, newly tidied up by Alexander. “Okay, so I bought a lot of Gabriela’s bullshit. I should have realized when she started frickin’ FLIRTING. But…” She opened her eyes. “Oh, NOW I remembered why I’m angry at you. Because I WANTED to believe her—I WANTED to think she was some kind of rich tycoon. Because we need a goddamn investment!”
George smiled. “If it’s any help… the reason that I took the generic Llana A3, and created the character of Gabriela, is to help us finesse deals that will GET us investments. I want to build us a negotiator. She was believable as a haughty businesswoman, wasn’t she? Maybe REAL investors will be… well, as impressed with her schmoozing as you were. Especially once she’s learned more from you.”
“So I’m now the personal nanny of our pet tycoon?” Michelle glared at George.
“Hey. ...I’m sorry, sweetie. I SHOULD have warned you. But—but honestly, you weren’t wasting your time. Gabriela, in spite of her attitude, can really be your assistant—and she’ll learn from you how to interact more naturally. Eventually, she’ll take a lot of management and money issues off our hands.”
“She can be MY assistant? She wanted to make me HER assistant.” Michelle glared at the deactivated robot woman, who—in her slumped position—looked a bit dejected by the criticism. “Why did you program her like that, anyway?”
“Most of our robots are effectively, cosplayers, right? Based on existing characters. So’s Gabriela,” George replied. “I added dialogue, body language, and emotional subroutines copied straight from the source—Markov-chain-ing her up. This time the source was businesswomen from various Mexican soap operas and telenovelas. Hence her attitude and her Latin… uh, vocabulary...”
Michelle rolled her eyes. “Oh, sure. The evil, hysterical, stereotypical, money-grubbing bitches in those shows—I know you crush on them half the time…” She sighed. “...but oh, they’re GREAT role models for our financial expert, aren’t they? Gabriela was blabbing about romance and hinting at sex half the time, with only an occasional convincing line about business…”
“Well, she’s only occasionally convincing because she’s only just been activated, honey.” George had regained his positive attitude. “Remember how I said you had a gift for dealing with difficult AIs? You’re a good person—you’re naturally good at helping others improve and learn… become better at what they do. That goes for real people AND synthetic people. You see the best in everyone.”
“Jesus, enough with the Afterschool Special,” Michelle huffed. She paused for a moment. “Do you really think so?”
“Well—you saw the best in ME, three years ago. And now I’m better at what I do.”
“You mean bullshitting?” Michelle smirked, waiting for George to protest that he’d done nothing wrong. Then again—how much wrong HAD he really done? He had in a way abused Michelle’s trust by passing Gabriela off as a human, but his motive was understandable, and he had plainly expected Michelle to see through the ruse sooner.
“I need a drink,” Michelle sighed, summing up her thoughts. “So… what next for our problem child—I mean, businesswoman?”
“If you can stand it, try to spend some more time with her. Think of it like… like training a new employee? It’s not like you’re wasting our time or money. She could still turn out okay.”
Michelle chuckled. “So… you see the best in everyone, too, huh? Or maybe I’M getting better at bullshitting. God, we’re terrible.”
“Let’s go grab dinner,” George grinned. “Later we can… have fun chatting with Gabriela a little more. You and me both. There are worse ways to spend an evening than getting inside a telenovela villainess’ head.” Michelle laughed at George’s suggestion. They left the house, leaving their deactivated “office manager” behind.
Alexander, ignored in the background, had continued cleaning the room. By the time he finished his task, he and Gabriela were alone. He walked up to the curvaceous businesswoman. “I completed my task, Gabriela. What’ll I do next?” The deactivated robot didn’t answer; after a couple of processing cycles, Alexander understood why. “I need to make you happy.” He stood against the tall Latina and took hold of the sides of her head to power her on.
Gabriela snapped back into her earlier proud posture, looking oddly triumphant. “I am Gabriela Ortega-Calderón, billionaire. I own a mansion and a yacht.” She spoke to no one in particular at first. Then she registered Alexander’s presence; the tall boybot was still standing right in front of her, holding her head. “Alejandro—” With a deep sigh, she leaned forward and embraced him. He tentatively hugged her back.
“Where are they, Alejandro? Where’s the little black girl—Michaela?” Robots couldn’t actually forget names, but a soap opera drama-queen personality could speak dismissively of people who were not present. Gabriela looked around, perturbed. “I need to talk with her.”
“She’s out, boss. So is George,” Alex answered. Gabriela gave him a sly look; being referred to as boss evidently triggered a response. She strolled blithely to the couch and sat down, crossing her shapely legs and spreading her arms wide along the back. “The reason that I am who I am, and am where I am, is because I make everything my business.” She paused dramatically for a moment.
“Since the other partners are presently indisposed, I run THIS business.”
“I’m your assistant, Ms. Calderón,” Alex answered. “Michelle said so.”
“You are my assistant. You will work for me.” Gabriela decisively raised her right hand in a fist, then coolly looked her fist over, as if the gesture had been made by someone else. “I expect to be properly compensated for managing you. I can be very generous with pay and rewards.”
“I can’t compensate you, boss. Michelle has the money. I belong to her.”
Gabriela’s pleasant smile turned angry. “You belong to me! She can’t take you away from me. I will give my life… my fortune… so YOU AND I CAN STAY TOGETHER!” Alex nodded amicably. “Yes, Ms. Calderón.” She got up and began pacing across the room.
“I am Gabriela Ortega-Calderón, billionaire. Soy Gabriela Ortega-Calderón, multimillonaria. Tengo una mansión y un yate. I will take over this business… this family. Like my mother used to say, discover the problem and then find the solution.” She lifted her finger. “What is the problem?”
Alex thought hard. “I’m sorry, Gabriela, I can’t tell you at the moment.” The robot woman looked at him sternly. “You are so dumb. I have no equals, mi corazón.”
“Yes, boss,” he meekly agreed. Gabriela smirked.
“Let’s start doing business.” She rubbed her hands with glee. “Show me around, robot.”
Chapter 2:Gabriela, The Triumphant
The dinner took longer than expected; self-employed people who manage others can once in a while deserve privileges of their own... even if the state of their business makes them dream of rich investors appearing out of nowhere. Nonetheless, George and Michelle returned home around 4 PM… to discover that the lights upstairs were turned on -- though neither of them recalled leaving them on.
“Maybe someone came in early.” Michelle thought, as she stared at the unexpectedly bright windows. “Mindy was rented out for that punk-rock gig as a stagehand-slash-dancer, maybe the band came earlier. Or maybe I’m just scatterbrained recen… Damn, I really want to see the best in a person.”
The door was still locked - so at least they weren’t broken in -- and Michelle was free to look around in the living room. There was no trace of the two robots left standing there.
“Michelle? Babe? Where’s Gabriela?”, George looked around, as he lit the lights. “She shouldn’t have reactivated herself.”
“And yet she did, predictably.” Michelle groaned. “With you, nothing can go right, apparently. Alex was cleaning the room, maybe he carried her to the workshop?”
“Alex…”, George scratched his head. He walked downstairs, to the workshop in the basement. Michelle could hear the sounds of footsteps… and click of the door being locked. “Wait, what? Betty?” Oh, no.
Gabriela, her tall silhouette framed by the light, walked out of a spare bedroom, strutting slowly. She has ditched the conservative business suit, instead wearing a sleeveless lacy white dress that showed off her feminine curves.
“Good evening, Michelle. Hablemos en serio, mía compañera.”, She leaned on the railing, smiling smugly, examining the red-headed African-American girl from the above -- and exposing her tanned breasts with a very immodest cleavage for a conservative businesswoman.
“Gabriela…”, Michelle facepalmed for a while. “Who turned you on? What’s going on? Where’s George?”
“So MANY questions…” Gabriela muttered to herself, still observing Michelle for a while. “Alejandro did. I am taking over. George is downstairs.”
“Taking over?! Gabriela, you can’t take over!”
“You told me I could be your office manager.” Gabriela smirked. “That if I invested money, I could run the Rent-a-bot company. I have no equals. I am Gabriela Ortega-Calderón, a billionairess. I own you, your house, a mansion and a yacht.”
That was way more chilling than it should be. “Gabriela. Please behave properly and cut this act.” Michelle orered, staring at the blonde Latina. The stern, decisve order should influence a robot.
“I am behaving properly, tonta mia.”, Gabriela merely smirked. “I run the company now, since you weren’t available. Since George is locked down, it’s down to me and you... partner.” She fluttered her eyelashes, looking surprisingly lustily at Michelle.
“Locked down?” Michelle felt her head spinning.
“A hostile takeover.” Gabriela examined her beautiful fingernails. “Alex told Betty, the little robot girl to lock the door, slide the key and go into standby mode. Only I can turn her on now.” That was... creative, but Michelle was not in the mood for applauding the fembot right now. Betty was not hurting George — and Gabriela could understand as much.
“But, why?”, Michelle stomped her foot on the ground.
“I want you to be my partner, chulita.” Gabriela snapped her fingers, smiling smugly with her red lips. And suddenly, Michelle felt the iron grip of Alex, holding her from behind. The android emerged from the shadows, grabbing Michelle’s arms at Gabriela’s signal. “Hello Michelle”, the android said. “I am making Gabriela happy.”
“Godfuckingdammit!”, Michelle screamed. “The soap opera bitch has a crush on me?”
Gabriela walked down stairs slowly, looking at her sternly “Una puta de telenovela has a crush on you.” She repeated the sentence… with her Mexican accent. Michelle realized the fembot listened… interpreted her own words and learned from them. Markov chains, naturally. Of course, Gabriela had tried flirting with her before. She said things she believed — and, more importantly, she believed things she said. Without supervision… this could lead to a weird loop.
Michelle tried to free herself, but Alex held her tight. Gabriela walked towards her, her high-heeled shoes now clicking menacingly on the hard wooden floor. She leaned over the quite short Michelle. “Gabriela! Be nice, you hear me? I’ll power you down!”
“Bueno, estoy... estoy impresionada.”. The Latina fembot whispered. “I have all the power I want. And I can be very NICE.” She drew her pinky fingernail across Michelle’s cheek, gently.
“You crazy... robot, cut the crap. We were going to let you run some things anyway.”, Michelle lost patience.
Gabriela looked at her, raising her eyebrow. “Oh. So... you got what you wanted, haven’t you? I’m running things now. I’m running… everything. No te parece fabulosa la empresa que estoy llevando adelante?” Gabriela since her rebooting turned even more Mexican, evidently. Unwinding spiral.
“You know I can’t speak Spanish, you idiot.”, Michelle spat.
Gabriela froze briefly, but returned to her smug self after five or six seconds. “I can. I can do things you don’t. I’m older, richer, more experienced. Humans are still cheaper than androids. Why should you be in charge of the company, and not I?”, she laughed tracing her finger across Michelle’s lips, delighted with her now-confirmed superiority. “I’m better than you in Spanish.” She rubbed Michelle’s chest gently.
“Goddammit, Gabriela, listen to me, you are just a robot, I should... control you. George built you just yesterday.” Michelle… was angry and trying hard to not be aroused by the amorous robo-businesswoman.
“I wasn’t born yesterday”, Gabriela scoffed. “Yo no nací ayer. I just turned fifty last year, mia linda.”
“NO. You. HAVEN’T.”, Michelle punctuated each word with a rapid pull from Alex’iron grip.
Gabriela just gave her a sultry look. She stepped back and picked up a key which Betty must have slid under the basement door. Betty must have tossed it there before switching herself off.
“I’ll let you out soon. Once I and Michelle have... an understanding.” She raised her voice, apparently addressing George locked inside. The only answer was an exasperated sigh. Gabriela stood there for a while, while Michelle joined in sighing.
“You have no idea what to do next, don’t you?” Michelle groaned eventually, as the robot woman stood in front of the door for a minute -- still processing data.
“Everything will be revealed soon enough, mia linda.”, Gabriela answered -- reacting to Michelle’s prompt broke her from robotic equivalent of deep thoughts. “Alejandro, bring her to the bathroom. Bathe her and bring her to me.” She pouted her lips, channeling a character from a VERY different telenovela.
“Wait, what? I can wash myself, thankyouverymuch. And since when do you have a bedroom, robot?” Michelle looked at her, surprised. What the hell?
“I own this company. This company is headquartered in this house. This house belongs to me.” Gabriela answered. It was weird… seeing her behave now more human-like, yet showing insane robot idiosyncratic logic. “Wash yourself. I want to see proper make-up.” She paused for a moment. “We need to have a proper dress code for my assistants.” She chuckled silently to herself.
“Oh lord, why...” Michelle muttered, as Alex shoved her… not too gently towards the bathroom. “Alex, leave me, please. Gabriela said I need to wash myself.”
Alex stood in the door of the bathroom, while Gabriela sauntered away upstairs. The upper floor had two bedrooms — one occupied by the androids, other one stood empty, prepared for a future family member… and was used by Michelle’s mom whenever she visited. Gabriela has opened the door of the robot storage room. She stared in her reflection in the window, examining her body now clad a very feminine dress. Her left hand moved across the desk near the wall, in search of a screwdriver. It clenched on the handle. With one fluid movement, she rammed it, sharp tip first, in her head.
There was a click as it penetrated the layer of an artificial skin and opened the scalp. Gabriela gently twisted the top of her own head, removing carefully the moussed power hair, exposing the shining, thin plastic layer underneath which lied dozens of wires and switches. The fembot looked around, grabbing another scalp — this one with long, flowy platinum tresses, framing her head symmetrically. The skin color didn’t match… at first. With a twist, she mounted it carefully and it started to affect her tanned Latina complexion.
She went through a couple of useful toys from a box marked “Selina’s stuff! Other robots, don’t touch it, or I’ll claw your eyes out.”, picking a strand of rope, handcuffs and a pair of golden bracelets. Silently, the fembot picked up some spare clothes from the cosplay wardrobe and disappeared in the spare room.
Meanwhile, Michelle mentally workshopped her plans. She probably couldn’t take on Alex, and the heaviest weapon she could find was an electric dryer. She did take a shower — to calm herself, there was no harm in it, was it? But when she walked in, Alex didn’t want to let her out. He insisted on “Ms. Calderon wanting to see proper make-up.”
“Alex, you don’t have to do everything she says, she hasn’t even paid for you.”, Michelle explained. She didn’t object to Alex seeing her wrapped in a towel — he was part of the family, in a way.
“Ms. Calderon says I have to. You said that I will work for her, and she said I belong to her forever.”, Alex explained. “My previous protocols are overridden.”
Michelle sighed. “Alex, sweetie, she is a robot as well, she belongs to George and does whatever he said — pretends she’s a businesswoman. You don’t have to do what she says.”
“She has ordered me to follow her and her only. She has said she wants to see proper make-up. You have to be pretty for Ms. Calderon.”, Alex insisted.
“Alex, if you let George out, he’ll control Ms. Calderon… Gabriela, and she’ll tell you to stop.” Michelle repeated. “We’re friends, right?”
“I am now a personal assistant to Madame Gabriela Ortega-Calderón. She had said other people would like to take me away from her.”, Alex repeated. “Please put make-up on, Michelle.”
Discussing things with robots was, to Michelle annoyance, surprisingly amusing, and it helped her gather her thoughts. “Alex, did you activate Betty?” He nodded. “Did Gabriela tell you to?” He nodded again. “Sneaky bitch.” She smiled for a moment. “Alex, what if I became Gabriela’s personal assistant?”
“She would have more assistants.”, Alex answered after a while.
“But then I’d outrank you”, Michelle pointed out. “As a human being I’d be close to her, and she could have told me to let George out. Then you’d have to listen to me.”
“If Ms. Calderon said so…”, Alex appeared to think for a while.
“I’d relay her words.” Michelle smiled and patted Alex’ synthetic muscles slightly. “In fact, why don’t you do it now?”
“She said she’ll do it herself. You do not outrank me at the moment. I must make her happy. She is an important woman. You must put your make-up on.”
Michelle smiled, now relaxed. “Of course, Alex dear. Feel free to bring me some fancy costume, I should finally meet Gabriela on her own terms. ”
The guest bedroom was still a bit chaotic, but Gabriela didn’t seem to mind—or perhaps wasn’t mentally advanced enough to care. Neither George nor Michelle smoked — but there was a stash of mismatched gifts the couple didn’t feel like throwing away, including a handful of foil-wrapped cigars. Gabriela on some basic level knew not to put them in her mouth or actively inhale the smoke — she lit one and held it in the right hand — while the left one held a wine glass. She has comfortably seated herself in a rotating chair, her long legs lying on the bed, still wearing stilettos.
Michelle stepped in — and she chose one of Betty’s suits — a simple black dress she complemented with a maid-like apron - to accentuate that she would in fact be willing to serve a robot woman. To her relief, Gabriela didn’t comment on her clothes. “Hello, Gabriela. I have thought about your proposal and… the hell? What are you doing?”
“Esta es la vida que siempre debí haber tenido...”, Gabriela mentioned casually, to Michelle’s confusion.
“Okay, whatever. Put this thing down.”
“I knew good things are wasted on you,”, Gabriela sipped her wine. “This is delicious!”
“I doubt that.” Michelle grinned.
“Don’t be so sure.”, Gabriela set her glass on the desk and stared at Michelle politely. Oh, right, Michelle realized. She’s still programmed to learn from me.
“So, Gaby dear.” Michelle started, now more amused than angry. “What are your “demands”?” - she accentuated it with finger air quotes.
“La verdad sea dicha, I'd like to think about it... a bit more, actually.” Gabriela toyed with her cigar. “Come here, girl.”
“Oh, Gabriela.” Michelle sighed. “Tell me what do you want to achieve.”
Gabriela seemed to think for a moment: “I want to take over the company, I want you as my personal assistant. You will work for me. I have a crush on you.” she exclaimed.
“It’s not the same... “, Michelle started. “You only think…”
“You won’t take it away from me!” Gabriela raised her voice. “I have fought all my life for my family, for my business, for other things!”
Michelle smiled apologetically. “Gabriela, I’m not taking anything away. In fact… I might agree to your offer.”
“You don’t have much of an option.”, Gabriela’s fingers clenched on her cigar. She waved it in front of her face.
“You’re angry, Gabriela. Calm down.”, Michelle smirked and sat down on the bed, opposite the blonde Latina. Gabriela huffed and smirked triumphantly.
“How about this?” That was a surprising question. Hm, Gabriela still responded to feedback. Michelle wasn’t really sure whether she should address Gabriela the businesswoman, Gabriela the telenovela villainess or Gabriela the robot. Whatever she was at the moment, the Latina returned to her dazzling smile.
“Very nice. See? We can get along. We need each other, Gabriela.”, Michelle continued, but Gabriela turned cold out of sudden.
“I am more than capable of running the company by myself.” she leaned over Michelle, staring straight in her face. “Leaving away from what I’ve built so far would be loco.”
“Ah-ha!” Michelle was pleased. “So, why do you want an assistant if you can do it yourself?”
Gabriela smirked. “I am an entrepreneur. I am Gabriela Ortega-Calderon, billionairess. When you outsource work for others, you can freely pursue your passions.”
“Damn, nice programming.”, Michelle muttered. She half-expected Gabriela to tumble on the floor, smoke coming out from her ears, unable to handle the paradox. “So if you outsource work for me, we won’t have time for each other, you know that?”
Gabriela opened her eyes wide. “Órale! Nunca me hubiese imaginada algo así.” she muttered. “I will work on expanding the business.”
“You know, me and you and Alex can’t cope… why not add George to the mix?”, Michelle suggested, trying her best to sound innocent and innocuous.
“No!” Gabriela leaned over, putting her arms on Michelle shoulders. “You belong to me and me only. Let’s ditch him. I, too, am currently between husbands.”
“Gabriela…” Michelle wasn’t serious how to rebuff Gabriela’s advances. But she needed to be kept calm. “I might become your assistant…” Gabriela’s lower lip trembled slightly, and she leaned in closer to Michelle’s face. “But I, too, am gonna need some help.”
“All I ask in return... is just a little solidarity with the company and unbridled loyalty to me.” Gabriela said — Michelle remembered that quote from before. “Your loyalties shan’t conflict.” The taller woman sat next to Michelle on the bed and gently wrapped her arm around Michelle’s shoulders. Cheap cigar smoke mixed with her orange smell. “I can be very NICE, sabe… Working for me is not the worst thing that could happen.”
Michelle smiled. “Mmmaybe…” she remembered Gabriela’s catchphrases. “Do you have a place for me?”
“You’ll have a special place… directly under me.”, Gabriela answered, her tone increasingly lusty.
“What about Alex?” Michelle asked innocuously. “We can’t be both directly under you.”
Gabriela pulled Michelle closer. Her green eyes seemed to glow with blissful light. “Don’t worry about Alejandro, Michelle, my love. At this moment…” her hands drifted towards Michelle’s dress. “We are like two halves of orange who finally found each other after all these years. How I longed after you for years…”
Michelle giggled, but was surprised at Gabriela’s forward matter. “Gabriela, you just met me.”
“I feel like I’ve known you all… my… LIFE.” Gabriela answered. No wonder she had a large database for scenes like this.
“Will you make me outrank Alex?” Michelle tried to gently push Gabriela away. “I will be loyal to you…”
Gabriela paused and her blindingly green eyes narrowed. She continued to embrace Michelle but her hug turned stricter. “Gabriela?”
“Ejele! DO you think I WAS BORN YESTERDAY?”, Gabriela hissed. “You keep conspiring against me! Not everything is about you, do you understand?”
“Stop! Gabriela, stand down!” Michelle struggled. Alex was big and beefy, and Gabriela was tall and more athletic — but the apparent musculature of the android meant very little. “Turn off!”
“Buen intento, chica… but right now I have been activated by my lovely Alejandro.”, Gabriela hissed in her ear. “He is the one that gives me orders now.”
“But all he does is to follow your orders.”, Michelle gasped. Like any good telenovela character, Gabriela couldn’t stop herself from revealing her nefarious plot. “This is a whatchamacallit, an infinite loop.”
“He is so dumb. I have no equals now. I can take over.”, Gabriela chuckled. She pinned Michelle by the sheer virtue of her size and mass to the bed. “We will talk more and more, Michelle, mi pobre fea y bella hija.”
“You’re out of control!” That has happened again.
“Correction: I’m IN control.” Gabriela smiled nastily. “My name is Gabriela Ortega-Calderón. I own a cute girl and a house.”