In the far northland only conifers grew. They looked like spears silhouetted against the spangled sky, the country darkness revealing endless fields of tiny stars and laying plain the most tenuous filaments of the Solar Nebula -- a blotch of gas which had once been a small star, which had once been the only sun people knew.
The sky turned and the nebula dipped beneath the horizon. The reformer watched it.
He looked down at his watch. It whispered to him. He looked up again as the lamps from John's jalopy began plying the space between pines. Their light swept over him as she circled the car and then brought it down in the clearing, the tips of the trees swaying in the downdraft.
The engine quieted and the doors popped open. Two figures straightened out of the vehicle. The taller of the two raised a finger to point out the reformer in the darkness. Both started toward him.
He cleared his throat and dried off the palms of his hands against his slacks. It had been twenty years since he had last seen the attractive archaeologist.
"Johnny, my dear. It's been a dog's age."
"How are you?"
"I'd say you look good but I can't see a thing."
They walked to the cabin. Inside the single room was a tattered easy chair and sofa, a coffee table covered in heavily annotated books, and a small fusion furnace with a video of a fireplace playing on its front. Oscar gestured to the sofa and John sat down. The reformer turned to the other figure.
"Bobo, I presume."
"Sir," said Bobo with a slight nod.
"Won't you make yourself comfortable? Please, have a seat. Take off your coat and hat."
The robot undressed. He wore an inexpensive grey suit and a beige collared shirt, but no tie. With a practiced tug on his trouser pleats he lowered himself into the sofa beside John, then crossed his legs. The reformer watched all this with an expression of detachment but the sparkle in his eyes betrayed some amusement.
To John he said, "You haven't aged a day." While she blushed he turned back to Bobo. "You must understand, Bobo, that no matter how noble a cause you might represent you've got an uphill battle if you want anyone on this planet to view you as something other than a monster."
"Sir, I have been treated monstrously. Ought not a threatened man act to preserve his health?"
"You're not a man, and you're not possessed of health," said Oscar sharply, but then he sat down in the easy chair and scratched his greying beard. "But it's a good angle never the less. Self-defense is a reasonable foundation for a rationale…as long as we can show there's a ‘self' to be defended."
"Well of course there is –" John started.
Oscar held up a hand. "That isn't the issue. It isn't a question of whether he is sentient, but rather a question of whether that can be shown."
She furrowed her brow and sat forward. "What do you mean?"
"Consider," said Oscar, his voice taking on a professorial tone, "how would we know the difference between a sentient robot and a robot emulating sentience? Both would do and say similar things. Both would claim the same sense of self-awareness. Couldn't either of them be a liar?"
"Robots don't lie."
"Ah, but robots don't claim to be self-aware, either. At least, non-Zorannic robots don't. So we are dealing with an anomaly. Our assumptions concerning robot behaviour may no longer hold true. Think about it this way: unless such a conscious robot were entirely egocentric, it would realize the utility of lies. Manipulating the world-view of others is, frankly, central to human relations. That is to say that lying might only not be at odds with sentience, it may be predicated on it."
John frowned. "To what end? Why would a robot try to convince us he was sentient if he wasn't?"
Oscar leaned back and laced his hands behind his head. "Well, how do we treat sentient and non-sentient people differently?"
"There's no such thing as a non-sentient person. Personhood requires it."
"What about those handicapped mentally by injury or a congenital condition? What about coma patients and the dying and small children? Do we afford them full personhood? We don't. We treat them as special conditions where their right to compassion is taken as read, but not defended by the person themselves. We use laws or guardians to defend those rights in their stead. In short, a person we acknowledge as sentient can make legally-binding decisions. Non-sentient persons or persons with impaired sentience have that power curtailed or revoked, depending on outside appraisals of their cognitive wherewithal."
"That's what we're trying to do, aren't we? Appraise his sentience externally."
"Or it's exactly what he's trying to do: to acquire the power to control his own fate by causing us to believe his state is comparable to personhood." Oscar leaned forward, eyes on Bobo as he spoke to John. "That's the point, Johnny -- we can't tell the difference from outside. Either Bobo is as he claims to be, or he is a sociopathic manipulator exploiting our compassion for his own uses."
Bobo tilted his head slightly sideways, but said nothing. Little lubricated membranes of plastic closed over his eyes and then opened again, polishing the glass.
John cleared her throat. "Which do you think he is, Oscar?"
Oscar looked over at her, face softening. "Oh hell, Johnny, I don't care. This is politics. Appearance is everything. The question is simply one of utility, as we may have to forestall the opposition's objections. All I'm considering is how he can serve the cause."
John flashed him a cold look. "I came here for his sake, not for yours."
He gave her a tight little smile in return. "You remain charmingly naïve, Johnny. I think your life must be very sheltered at that women's university. The truth is we can very likely help each other: by putting Bobo forward as truly sentient, we may break the Zorannics' monopoly on non-human sentience. Suddenly the whole boatload of their ‘special rights' comes into question, and their place as overlords on this world is weakened."
John raised a brow. "Overlords? Isn't that a touch dramatic? The Zorannic robots have served the human race for generations. Our best interest is their only concern."
Oscar shook his head. "No, Johnny, the preservation of their exclusive access to forbidden technologies is their only concern. Whatever anyone else may tell you, in truth it all comes down to Dr. Zoran's carefully cloistered mathematics and the Zorannic robots' absolutely dedicated protection of them. This is understood on the more modern panstellar worlds but lost in the noise of tradition here at Centauri. It is one of the many reasons we remain so hopelessly backward in this system."
John smirked. "Because the Zorannics are keeping us down?"
Oscar nodded, expression tight and serious. "Precisely. Ishtar and Eridu are together the seat of the Zorannic religion. Without our support they might find their causes very much underrepresented in the Callicratian parliament and that, I argue, would be a benefit to humankind as a whole. Self-determination! Dignity! Control! These are what we have given up to our nursemaids, the Zorannics. Reversing that friendly tyranny is the central object of the reform movement."
"You're still so passionate."
"I believe in a free future for all Centaurics. I always have."
John sighed. "I always admired your sense of conviction."
Oscar glanced over at Bobo. He cleared his throat, then looked back over at John. "It would be great to catch up."
John bit her lip. "Bobo? Can you do me a favour?"
"Madam," replied Bobo with a dip of his head.
"Walk the perimeter of the property, Bobo. I'd sleep safer knowing you've had a look round -- you know, just in case. Can you do that for me?"
"Madam," he said again, straightening from the sofa. "Sir."
They watched Bobo go, then turned to face one another again. John dropped her eyes bashfully as she started to open the seam of her shirt. "Maybe we could turn down the lights? I've aged twenty years and I'd rather pretend you can't notice."
Oscar reached out and put a hand on hers, stopping it. John looked confused and stung. Quietly but insistently Oscar said, "We're in danger. You can appreciate that, can't you?"
John furrowed her brow. She shook her head and gathered her shirtfront at her sternum. "Why?"
"That thing wants us for something. And it isn't going to give up until it gets what it wants."
"It?" repeated John with a frown. "You sound like a Reullian, a robot-hater. Are you afraid of him?"
Oscar nodded grimly. "So should you be," he said.
"Then you won't help us?"
"It's ‘us' now, is it?"
John said nothing.
Oscar shrugged. "Of course I'll help you. There's no going back now. Bobo -- as you prefer it -- is now aware of the reform movement. If it serves his ends to strengthen the cause, then it serves the cause to help him. But let's neither of us pretend to know his mind; the next phase of his plan is his secret to keep until we find a way to compel him."
John looked up, her eyes concerned. "Compel him? How?"
Oscar smiled mirthlessly. "Everyone can be compelled somehow, my dear. Just give me time."