“The artificial beings would not allow themselves to have hearts.”
As Vee spoke the words, she saw the twinkle in the eyes of her gathered nieces and nephews. They snuggled into their blankets. Most had their eyes fixed on her, but a few snuck a glance through the western window, through which her workshop was visible.
“Why not, Aunt Vee?” one of the older children asked, providing the perfect prompt.
Vee smiled and continued her story. Or rather, she reversed her story, all the way to the beginning.
They are not our creations. We did not build the androids. They came from the stars, and when they began to trust us, they pointed to the sky and showed us which star. And when we began to trust them, we let them into our hearts.
A few hundred years before, they came to Earth to learn about the planet and its native organisms. Finding a sentient species, they focused on humans first. When they first arrived, we called them “artificial beings,” because they provided no name for their species or their civilization, or even their planet. We learned little of them at first. We learned that they were explorers. We learned that they were not born but were constructed. We learned that their customs required them to adapt to the ways of any peoples they visited before they ever set foot upon that people’s planet.
So at first, they were just voices in the void. When they expressed their plans to construct human forms for themselves, human thinkers warned them of the fragility of human forms, of tissue easily torn. But that was how the beings learned.
Their strategy for learning was becoming. They had—so they claimed—no form they would call their native form. So as they traveled toward Earth, they began to take on the forms of human beings. Not all at once, but organ by organ and system by system. They would build themselves a bellows-like organ to serve as lungs and observe the exchange of oxygen at the fragile mucosal surfaces. They would build themselves a tongue and try the basic tastes, then build themselves a nose, combine the two and learn the true meaning of flavor. One by one they sampled our organs, puzzling over the valves of our veins and the circuits of our brains.
All the while, they sent their plans and their blueprints to humanity, exchanging notions and tweaks. Thanks to the artificial beings’ advanced knowledge in the construction of artificial forms, humanity’s knowledge and capability of producing synthetic organs advanced by leaps and bounds. Many human lives were extended. Many were saved.
So out of gratitude, we helped them to become us. They took our forms, our two-fold eyes, arms, legs, ears. They took a name for themselves from our language, and we began to call them “androids.” It was unsettling to many, as might be expected, to see the artificial beings walking among us, looking just like us.
We believed that the organ the androids would be most fascinated by was our brains. For that was where our true selves resided. Our thoughts, ideas, feelings, philosophies, personalities. Our very souls. But if not our brains, we thought perhaps they would be intrigued by our eyes, or even our kidneys. Complex organs performing complex functions.
But the organ that most intrigued the androids was a steadfast but simple pump. They were most fascinated with our hearts. They were not just curious about the workings of the heart: the sorting and separation of blood between chambers, the unique muscle that signified the organ and set it apart from all our other muscles, and the nodes that maintained the coordinated rhythm of pumping. They were fascinated with the romantic ideas we had about our hearts. In particular, that the human heart was where all our emotions lived.
Fear. Sadness. Hatred.
Courage. Joy. Love.
We envisioned a heart aflame with anger or passion, boiling the blood as it passed through its chambers. Or a heart frozen with fear pumping icy blood to the body’s limbs, chilling and halting the motion of those limbs.
They studied the physiology of the human heart. And they studied the mythology of the human heart. As they examined the unique properties of cardiac muscle, they examined accounts of imps and angels residing in the separate chambers of the heart. As they traced the paths of arteries and capillaries, they traced an ancient tale of a leader so good and virtuous that when her hollow-hearted people strayed into evil, she split her own heart into pieces the size of seeds, and placed each piece in the center of each person’s empty heart so that the seed of good could grow, flourish, and fill her people’s hearts.
The artificial beings studied our lore, but they also asked living people why we had chosen the heart as the organ that contained feeling. Why not an organ that lay at the center of our bodies, our stomachs, perhaps? Or our livers?
And we explained.
Because the heart was strong, enduring, and faithful. Its beat was steady and reassuring. Because the heart, through a system of vessels, reached to every edge of a person’s body, connecting all the parts as one whole.
Humanity came to realize that the androids’ fascination with our hearts arose from one major quality that humans possessed and that the androids lacked. Emotion. The androids possessed something akin to curiosity and compassion. They possessed codes of morality. They possessed imagination. But none of them could recall if ever in the long existence of their people they had ever possessed anything like human emotion.
On observing humanity, the androids deemed that granting themselves emotion was too unpredictable and dangerous an experiment to attempt without controls. Taking inspiration from human legends and stories, the androids built emotion into their artificial hearts, not into their brains. That way, if ever something went wrong, they could replace the feeling-filled heart with an empty heart, a heart that only pumped blood.
But a strange thing happened. The hearts that the androids built did not work as expected. They kept breaking, over and over. They would not even work as simple pumps if they contained the constructs of basic emotion. At last, though their knowledge surpassed that of humanity, the androids came to the humans for help. They shared the design of their hearts with all, not just with those who were designated the great thinkers and researchers among humanity. So it came to be that it was not an engineer or an architect or a surgeon who discovered the flaw in the design of the android hearts.
It was a mechanic.
“What was the flaw?” one of the children asked.
Vee peered into the distance then, knowing they longed to hear the secret that only the mechanics of hearts knew. She thought about the heart that she had been working on that very afternoon. A heart that had shattered, that she had put back together.
There were great cosmic powers in the voids between worlds, powers that she could never comprehend. Powers that the androids did understand. Yet somehow, her hands could repair and build what theirs could not. The human mechanics of Earth could fix most androids’ broken hearts.
But try as they might, the human mechanics of Earth could not teach the androids how to fix their own broken hearts.
“My darling,” Vee said, “we still don’t know.”
And she continued her story.
This mechanic who discovered the flaw in the design of the android hearts did not spot the flaw in the blueprints or the models. He did not explain the flaw in terms that an engineer or an architect or even a philosopher would understand. There appeared to be no flaw in the actual construction and programming of the heart. Its tubing and wiring and processors all functioned as they should together. There was no metaphysical melancholy that kept the heart from beating true. The mechanic didn’t so much discover the flaw as bypass it somehow when he successfully built the first true-beating android heart.
It was thought to be a fluke. Until he built another one. And then another. It was thought he had some secret talent, some intuition that his conscious mind did not perceive, and that he therefore could not explain. This seemed to be confirmed after the mechanic taught three of his apprentices to build an android heart, and only one of them succeeded. Still, one of them succeeded in learning what the mechanic taught. It was like a recipe that tasted transcendent when cooked by one skilled chef, but average when cooked by another skilled chef. There seemed to be subtleties and nuances that were yet to be divined.
The androids observed and noted and scrutinized the mechanic and his apprentice as they built still more hearts. But they could not discern anything the human mechanics were doing that was different or more skillful than what the android mechanics had done. While they continued to study the human mechanic, they also accepted that he had some skill they had not yet mastered. And so, they asked him to build all their hearts.
Like an old god working at his forge, the mechanic began to build what he was asked to build. He worked all day and his apprentice worked all night, so that their workshop was always full of sparks and the whirring of machines, and the mechanical beating of dozens upon dozens of android hearts.
The androids began to experience the wonder of having human hearts. They measured their pulses, placed scopes upon their chests to hear the rhythmic beating of their hearts—just a tad faster than the average human.
And they began to feel.
The androids had concerns about feeling negative feelings. They did not want to experience extremes such as rage or hatred that may cause them to harm themselves, each other, or their favored hosts, the humans of Earth. So the design of their hearts contained a silent fail-safe. The operation of this fail-safe was kept in the hands of those among the artificial beings who were designated not to receive human hearts. Should any android get carried away in the expression of his or her emotions, according to agreed-upon limits, a fellow android could activate the fail-safe and destroy the heart.
By allowing human mechanics to build the hearts, even though the fail-safe components were initially hidden from human knowledge, the androids demonstrated great trust and friendship. They allowed their entire artificial bodies to be serviced by those mechanics who learned and studied the designs of the synthetic human forms. But only a small subset of those mechanics were entrusted with the delicate task of repairing and maintaining android hearts.
In return, and so as not to burden the scarce resources on land, the androids began to colonize the ocean floors, building domed cities, and serving as pioneers to test the effects of undersea living on human-like bodies. Other androids lived upon their own ships, and tested the limits of the human body in the vacuum of space above the protective shield of Earth. A small android population lived on Earth in any nation that welcomed them, which in time, became every nation on Earth.
But there were still humans who did not welcome the artificial beings. And there were still those among both peoples who sought to poison the still-fresh friendship between human and android. Among these was one of those heartless androids who was assigned to keep watch over the fail-safes in the hearts of his fellow androids. Though he possessed no emotions, he sorely desired for his people to move on from the Earth and explore more advanced and less volatile beings in distant quadrants of space.
Though he had no heart, a great loathing grew within the heartless android, and it festered and condensed until it became a great hatred, not for humanity, but for his own people. The heartless android viewed humans as lower beings in need of shepherding, far from enlightenment, and not ready to partner with beings such as his own people. But he hated those among his people whom he believed had debased themselves, not by taking on human emotion, but by reveling in it. Their experiment, their mission had come to an end, and yet his people lingered and they languished. Rather than raising humanity up, the androids were lowering themselves to humanity’s level.
This android allied himself with a man who would come to be known as the wicked mechanic, for his given name was considered unworthy of repeating, even in most official records. With the heartless android’s help, the wicked mechanic gained access to knowledge that no other mechanic possessed. They planned to disable the fail-safes in some of the android hearts, and trigger them in others. They would do so at random, with dozens of androids around the world. Their plan was to sow chaos and suspicion between humans and androids. Their aim was to provoke the humans into rescinding their welcome to Earth, and to provoke the artificial beings into leaving both their human forms and the Earth behind.
The wicked mechanic, having the general trust of the androids to repair and maintain their human bodies, carried out the sabotage.
“Was there a flaw in his heart?” one of the children asked about the wicked mechanic.
“Maybe the android or someone forced him to do it,” another child suggested. “Maybe they threatened his family.” The children were loath to think badly of any mechanic, especially a mechanic of hearts.
By those who admired his actions, there were many tales told of the wicked mechanic’s harrowing ordeals, outwitting the android observers who monitored his repairs, and even suffering betrayal from his android ally, who did not warn him that the removal of the fail-safe might cause an android heart to burst into sudden flames.
There was some truth in the tales. The fail-safes meant to keep the androids from acting upon their most destructive emotions had a stabilizing effect on the heart. That effect was itself a fail-safe against the removing of the fail-safe. Androids and human mechanics were aware of the stabilizing effect, but most were unaware of what would happen if that effect were removed.
Instead of having some androids who died when their fail-safes were activated and others who caused mayhem and destruction after their fail-safes were removed, all the androids that the wicked mechanic tampered with began to die one by one.
Some of those androids were fearful of going to another mechanic. But many did. And what one wicked mechanic had ruined, seven other mechanics repaired. They were the best of the mechanics from around the world. They risked their lives. The androids were like ticking bombs, and before the mechanics could finish their work, three of them died along with the last androids they attempted to fix. But before they died, they and the mechanics who survived, managed to save dozens of androids.
Before the authorities could catch him, the wicked mechanic vanished. He was never seen again, but his counterpart among the androids, the heartless android who was filled with enough hate to hatch a plan that killed dozens of his own people, was captured and imprisoned.
After that, the artificial beings would not allow themselves to have hearts filled with emotion. They could not have such hearts without the fail-safe, but with the fail-safe in place, any android might fall victim to another wicked mechanic. Human authorities investigated the wicked mechanic and proposed additional controls on the already rigorous examination and assessment of mechanics. But the androids would not further risk the lives of their people.
Most of the artificial beings left the Earth after that and continued on their mission of exploration, flying away to distant regions of the cosmos. But many stayed, with the permission of their human hosts. They stayed to foster what had become a fragile friendship, and to continue teaching, learning from, and working with humanity.
In time, humanity forgot what the androids with hearts were once like. Later generations of humans only knew the androids as emotionless automatons who were nonetheless true and good, as they operated upon reason and logic, and adhered to a code of ethics and morality.
As still more time passed, and the androids deemed that they were not advancing as they observed humanity was advancing, they once again dared to wonder if they might try to experience emotion. The replication and refinement of synthetic human organs had advanced exceedingly. The androids lifted their ban against having emotional hearts. Many a mechanic asked a favorite android client if he or she might be ready for a heart filled with feelings. But for a long time, the androids were still hesitant.
When, at last, the androids asked for hearts, humanity provided.
A human hand was still needed to service the hearts, because only a human hand could build and repair an android heart such that it worked as it was supposed to. The mystery of why this was so abided. So too abided the partnership and the friendship between humans and androids, and their shared resolve to solve the mystery of the human heart.
One of the children timidly called out, “Aunt Vee?” before the others began yelling out the names of more stories they wanted to hear.
Vee held out her hands to silence the others, and nodded to the child who had called her name, her youngest niece.
“What is the most important heart you’ve ever built or fixed?”
Vee heard the other children whispering the names of renowned androids. She wasn’t a famous mechanic. She wasn’t the best mechanic. But she did have many years of experience. And that included experience with building and repairing many hearts. Hearts that, while they didn’t look exactly like human hearts, functioned exactly as a human heart would.
“You know the answer to that,” Vee said.
“She does, but she wants to hear it from you,” another child teased.
“My darling,” Vee said, gazing into her youngest niece’s android eyes, “The most important heart I’ve ever fixed is yours.”
Copyright © 2017 Nila L. Patel.