The first thing I noticed about Arnold Eaton’s secretary was how beautiful she was. The second thing I noticed was that she was an android.
She had long blonde hair and deep blue eyes, and she was sitting behind a large mahogany desk in his palatial waiting room. As she looked up at me, I could see that her movements and facial expressions were in tiny increments. Aside from that, she looked absolutely real.
The desk was barren; no computer, no phone, no papers, just an expanse of richly polished wood.
I approached it, as she looked at me expectantly.
“I’m Craig Sanford,” I said. “I have a…”
“Two-o’clock appointment with Mr. Eaton,” she finished for me in a voice that wasn’t at all robotic. In fact, it had a nice, warm lilt to it. “I’ll tell him you’re here.”
Her eyes gazed into the distance for a moment. She blinked a few times and then nodded.
“He says he’s on the phone with a client, but he’ll be available shortly. Would you care to have a seat?” She indicated one of the leather couches.
I was more interested in the phenomenon I was witnessing. “Did you just talk to him in some way?” I asked.
She gave a shy, incremental smile. “I guess you could say I sent him a text.”
This was amazing, but maybe not so surprising. After all, Lemon, Garcia and Newhouser was the advertising agency for 21st Century Automatonics.
You’ve probably seen their commercials, with ordinary folks like you and me having their lives made better in so many ways, thanks to the blessings of automation. Over the final shot it says, “You don’t need the bother. You just need the bot.”
They were Lemon Garcia’s main account, and Arnold Eaton was the account executive in charge of it.
I kept staring at his android secretary. “Do you have a name?” I asked.
“Pleased to meet you.”
Again, the shy smile. “I see you’re here to interview Mr. Eaton for Corporatings Magazine.” It sounded like she was reading off an invisible screen. “Mr. Eaton is an admirer of your work. When the magazine called he requested you in particular.”
“Oh, they neglected to mention that. I guess I should be flattered.”
“And are you flattered?”
I had to think about it. “Maybe. It all depends on the motivation behind it.”
Just then, the massive oaken door behind her opened, and there he stood, the man himself.
He was forty-seven, according to his bio, and his five-thousand-dollar Armani suit couldn’t quite conceal the beer gut. His thinning black hair was pulled back and tied in a little pony tail. Dozens of acne scars, like tiny craters, dotted his moon-shaped face.
“Craig Sanford, writer extraordinaire!” he bellowed, extending his hand, which I shook and he turned into one of those dead-fish kind of handshakes.
“Are you enjoying Athena?”
I glanced at her. Her pleasant expression hadn’t changed.
“I think she’s astonishing,” I said.
“Astonishing isn’t even half of what she is.” He chuckled and indicated his office doorway. “Come into my humble edifice, won’t you?”
His office made the waiting room look impoverished by comparison. Three large Oriental rugs covered a gleaming parquet floor. The paneled walls were filled with pictures of him standing next to various movie stars, politicians, and athletes.
“Athena is a prototype of a series Automatonics is set to release next year,” he explained. “She’s actually a supercomputer, and she’s become invaluable.” He led me over to one of the two conference areas that surrounded his massive desk, and I sat down in one of the plush leather armchairs.
“Coffee? Tea? Booze?” he offered.
“Cheap date, huh?” He sat down in the chair opposite me. “Listen, I wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed the piece you did on Chris Turley.” He was referring to an article I’d written about the CEO of MagnaWorld Communications, who’d recently donated half his net worth, over a billion dollars, to cancer research. “I’d love it if you did something like that about me,” Eaton said with a wink.
“Who wouldn’t?” I told him as I set up my recorder on the coffee table between us. “But I’m not here for a puff piece. People don’t get nice words out of me unless they deserve them.”
“Which is why I set aside this expensive chunk of time today,” he said, leaning back in the chair and folding his hands. “And why I asked specifically for you. So, what do you want to know?”
I figured I may as well get right to it, so I took a deep breath. “We have reports that you left Amberston Advertising last year, not because Lemon Garcia wooed you away, but because Amberston got tired of paying off women who accused you of sexual assault and harassment. That’s what we’ve heard, and I wonder if you’d care to comment.”
For a moment, I thought he was going to leap out of the chair at me. His body tensed and his eyes blazed, first at me, then at the recorder on the table. “Turn that fucking thing off,” he barked.
“As insightful a comment as I’ve ever heard,” I said, reaching over and doing just that.
He shook his head. “Man, you’ve got some stones, coming in here and pulling a cheap stunt like this.”
He kept shaking his head. “Who fed you that bullshit?”
“I don’t reveal sources, but we have more than one. And to caution you, just because I turned off the recorder doesn’t mean this is off the record.”
“Yeah? Well, it better be off the record. Or I’ll have security throw your ass outta here so fast you’ll be chasing it down the hall. Do I make myself clear, journalist?” He made it sound like a synonym for “fecal matter.”
“Amply,” I said. “I hereby declare this officially off the record, okay? Now, about those allegations, would you care to comment on them?”
“As a matter of fact, I would.” He leaned forward in the chair. “Call me a misogynist or whatever you want, but I’m sick and tired of hearing all this oversensitivity crap. It’s like a friggin’ minefield. You tell a woman she’s pretty and she accuses you of rape, for God’s sake.”
“Do you tell many women they’re pretty?”
“Only the hot ones,” he said, and laughed.
“According to what we’ve heard, you haven’t only told women they’re pretty. You’ve groped them, you’ve made sexual advances, you’ve made inappropriate remarks, you’ve…”
“Whoa, hold on. Where are you getting get all this? If Amberston supposedly paid these women to be quiet (which I emphatically deny any knowledge of, by the way) where is this coming from?”
“Again, I’m not going to reveal sources, but you might assume that more women are coming forward. In any case, what do you have to say?”
Eaton thought for a moment. “Okay, I’ll show you what I have to say.”
He got up from the chair, moved behind his desk, and pressed a key on his computer. “Athena, would you come in here, please?”
After a second or two, the door opened and she stood, smiling, in the entrance. Eaton, still behind his desk, gestured toward the chair across from me, next to the one he’d been sitting in.
“Have a seat over there. Okay, sweet cheeks?”
I looked at her to see if there was any reaction to this jarringly creepy remark. There wasn’t. She crossed the room, her strides moving in those same minuscule increments, and lowered herself to the chair, where she sat on the edge with her hands in her lap. Eaton came up and stood just over her shoulder.
“Mr. Sanford here wants to know about sexual harassment in the workplace, Athena. Have you seen any?”
She tilted her head to look up at him. As she did, a strand of blonde hair fell across her cheek. “I’m not sure what you mean.”
“I’m not sure either,” he said, reaching out and tucking her hair back in place. “Maybe Mr. Sanford can enlighten us.”
She turned and looked at me.
“Well, you just saw a good example of it right there, when he adjusted your hair. Do you mind that he did that to you?”
“No,” she said.
“There you are,” Eaton put in.
“Why do you think he did it, Athena?”
Her eyes looked away from me for a moment, then back.
“I don’t have enough information, I’m sorry.”
“How about when he called you ‘sweet cheeks’?”
“Mr. Eaton was kidding around and being friendly.”
“Bingo,” Eaton said. He reached out and gave her shoulder a squeeze, letting his hand rest there lightly. “One thing about Athena, she’s incapable of lying. Now tell Mr. Sanford; have you ever had any problems working with me?”
“There have been no problems that I’m aware of,” she said, in a voice that might have had a bit less lilt, but I couldn’t tell.
“Why is his hand on your shoulder?” I asked her.
“I don’t have enough information, I’m sorry.”
“Did you know that it’s considered inappropriate touching, a form of sexual harassment or even sexual assault?”
The tiniest pause, or so it seemed.
“No,” she said.
“Has he ever touched you anyplace else?”
Eaton removed his hand. “Okay, Athena, I think Mr. Sanford is starting to enjoy himself a little too much. That’ll be all for now, thank you.”
She stood up and nodded to me. Then, in her distinctive fashion, she crossed the room and left. Eaton sat back down in the chair opposite me.
“I swear, it’s people like you that create all the problems. You’re the ones with the prurient interest. Now, turn that recorder back on and we can talk about things that are actually important.”
* * *
What followed was, essentially, a waste of an hour-and-a-half, in which he regaled me with a litany of his accomplishments in the advertising industry. Every time I tried to get him back to sexual harassment, he’d say, “Asked and answered.” Finally, we wrapped it up and, with a smug half smile, he escorted me to the door.
The waiting room had become crowded, and Athena was too busy handling visitors for me to ask her any more questions. She smiled as I passed her desk and said it was nice meeting me.
“Likewise,” I told her.
Later that evening, I sat in my one-bedroom apartment and listened to the interview, trying in vain to find a story in it that someone other than Arnold Eaton would care about. Finally, I went to bed.
At seven A.M., I was awakened by the phone. It was Phil Bonham, my editor.
“Are you watching CNN?”
“No, I was sleeping.”
“Well, turn it on,” he said and hung up.
CNN was in commercial, so I booted up my laptop, clicked on their website, and there it was: “Top Ad Exec Hospitalized After Bizarre Incident.”
Evidently, Arnold Eaton was undergoing emergency surgery at Roosevelt Hospital at that very moment, after being discovered unconscious in his office by the building’s cleaning staff.
“At first, we thought we were interrupting something,” a member of the cleaning crew, who wished to remain anonymous, told CNN reporters. “There was a woman sitting in one of the easy chairs, and Mr. Eaton seemed to be on his knees in front of her. Then we noticed he wasn’t really on his knees, he was half slumped over. Then we noticed it wasn’t really a woman, it was his secretary, she’s sort of a robot. And he had his right hand up her dress.”
They’d called out, apologizing and saying they’d come back later, but got no response, so they took a closer look.
Eaton was unconscious, his right arm a hideous purple color. Athena seemed to have shut off. She was sitting inert, her blue eyes staring, her legs pressed tightly together, trapping Eaton’s hand between them. It took police and EMS workers over twenty minutes to free his hand, and doctors at Roosevelt Hospital said it had been crushed so badly, they didn’t know if they could save it.
I grabbed the phone and called Phil, who picked up on the first ring.
“Really something, huh?” he said. “What do you think?”
“I’m trying to figure it out. Eaton must have thought he was living in hog’s heaven. He had a virtual woman he could play around with, who wouldn’t even know he was doing it. He even showed off in front of me, off the record, of course.”
“So what do you think went wrong?”
As he was saying it I realized it. “Maybe it was me. Maybe I was what went wrong. Sexual assault and sexual harassment weren’t in her database until I introduced them. Then, since she’s a computer, she must have gone on and done an advanced search.”
“Yeah, but still, she’s an android. She’s not supposed to have feelings.”
“I don’t know. Imagine the mountain of stuff she must have pulled up, with all its relentless fear, grief, anger, and shame. You don’t need feelings to recognize an outrage when you see one, and realize that it isn’t right.”
We both were silent for a moment.
“I suppose we have to shit-can the interview,” Phil sighed.
“There wasn’t anything worthwhile there anyway.”
“You know,” said Phil, “I guess it isn’t funny, but can you imagine the moment he realized his hand was stuck? What do you think went through his mind?”
“Probably, he thanked God it wasn’t his face.”
“You’ve got no shame at all,” Phil said, chortling as we hung up.