Surveillance

This story was submitted to the Writing Village Summer 2015 short story competition. Concerning androids, it represented a new way of looking at the source while I was embarking on a full-length novel on the same topic.

Dr Johns regarded me over her antiquated glasses as I walked into her office.

"Your new assignment," she said, not waiting for me to take a seat. She pushed a dataslate across the desk to me.

There were several photos cycling through, paragraphs of text appearing, links to documents about the assignment. Only one photo, in the top-left corner, didn't change. A headshot that was instantly recognisable.

"You know this person." It wasn't a question.

I nodded, mutely. This was a damned big assignment. My previous jobs had just been surveillance of low-level criminals whose organisations we had infiltrated, compiling evidence for the proper agents.

The face in the corner of the screen looked up at me, as if she could hear my swirling thoughts.

"It's McGrogan. She's running for a third term."

Dr Johns lowered her head slightly; that was how she nodded.

"Why do you want me—" I began.

"We think she's an android," Johns said, cutting me off. "And while that's technically not yet illegal, we think she's managed to break her programming. Do you realise how dangerous it is to have an android in a position of power over humans, if it can override all those subroutines? They're all that keep them from harming us. What might be a logical solution to increasing productivity for a 'droid would be a forced labour camp to us. So we have to put in these safety breakers, to override that logic.

"And if she gets a third term, she'd have enough time to push through almost anything she wanted."

I just stared at her, mouth agape. "Do we know for sure she's an android?"

Dr Johns sighed. "We have no conclusive evidence at this stage. It's not as simple as it used to be, when we just needed to show that they couldn't eat or show basic empathy. They're damned sophisticated now, I'm sure McGrogan is top of the line. Hell, she's avoided detection for years, she knows what's she's doing. She's operating on her own behalf, when she should be operating on ours; both as a machine, and as a public servant!"

"So why me? Surely there are plenty of people vastly more experienced."

"Oh yes, hundreds of them," she said, unabashedly. "And that's exactly why it has to be you. No one's heard of you. McGrogan most probably has a spy in our ranks, in fact I'd be surprised if it was only one. She won't know you though, so she won't know she's being watched. Get me some evidence of her being an android and one that needs to be taken down – demonstrate that she's able to harm humans.

"Collect evidence just like you normally do, try to keep everything low-key and the same as always, in case her spies are looking over your work. The only difference is it's going to be submitted directly to me – the link has already been made."

I stood up slowly, picking up the file with shaking hands.

"Oh, and one more thing: do not approach the subject, under any circumstances. Do you you understand? Never approach the subject directly."

"I understand," I said, unsure why I needed to be told that, and began to leave the office.

"And don't come to me directly either. Remember, no one knows you're working on this, no one knows you're reporting directly to me. As far as anyone is concerned, you just came in for an appraisal."

"Did I pass?" I asked, with a weak smile.
Dr Johns looked me directly in the eyes. "We'll see."


Back in my tiny little room, I brought up the file on all my different screens. I thought I might have been given a bigger office to go with the larger responsibility handed to me. I guess that would have drawn too much attention though.

My task now was to watch McGrogan's every move, recording and re-watching everything.

Every action she made had to be collected and submitted for analysis. I could see that my computer had its submission link reformatted to go straight to Johns, via third-party nodes to hide it from watching eyes. I was completely unable to do anything else with the information I gathered beyond sending it straight upstairs.

I set up the screens in the way I found worked best: the main screen in the centre, showing the chosen camera in full; the second screen to the left, with the file's contents and the selection of feeds; and my third screen to the right for recording and compiling.

She was in her office, where she looked to be drafting a speech. I set it to record and went to get a coffee.

They could have at least upgraded me to an office with its own coffee machine. I was going to need a bucket to get through this.

For the next hour, McGrogan just sat in her office, silently writing and editing whatever was on the paper. I couldn't get a clear shot of it, the other camera in the room was behind her shoulder, her body obscuring the paper. 

A voice came through the screen, jarring me out of my stupor, announcing that it was time for her lunch appointment with a factory workers' union rep.

Taking that as my cue, I stopped recording as she went out of the building, set up the automatic alerts on all the feeds to monitor her progress, and left my desk to grab some lunch too.

Eye scanners read her retina identity wherever she went, giving us direct access, meaning we could track her every move. We just had to hope that we had a camera set up in the restaurant.

I came back, sandwich in hand, to see that I had a camera feed flashing in the Saucy Salmon, a restaurant located near the docks. It was nowhere near the factories the union represented, which caught my attention. Maybe he was trying, like me, to not be noticed.

Only one camera in this restaurant, I could pick up a decent image of the two, sitting conveniently in the centre. It wasn't too busy in there, I still had to clean up the audio a little.

They were saying nothing of any real interest, just about campaign promises for the factory unions. A standard campaign promise for anyone to try to make, android or no. I brought up a file on the union rep – a Mr Finch – but his record was clean. No confirmed underhand dealings. No unconfirmed ones either.

I ate my sandwich and watched them talk and eat their lunches. Absolutely nothing happened of note. This was probably how the whole thing was going to go, I thought. Me just watching a woman work and go about her business, doing nothing wrong.

This was so much easier in the earlier days of 'droids. Just this lunch meeting would be enough to prove if she was or wasn't artificial; they used to never be able to mimic behaviours like eating, not with any degree of success anyway.

I needed to work out exactly what type of evidence I needed to collect. Not only did I need to demonstrate that she was artificial, I also needed to show that she had managed to override her programming.

I sighed. This was a damnably hard assignment. The only way I had ever shown someone to be an android before had been to show examples of non-human behaviour such as being unable to harm humans or allow them to come to harm – which they all still had hard-wired into them. In other words, running exactly as programmed.

That was the opposite of what I needed.

I pondered the problem as I finished my sandwich. McGrogan and Finch slowly ate their lunch, discussing promises for factory workers if she got a third term.

Androids were so well-made and human-like now that the inbuilt rule to not harm humans was the primary method of detection. I would have to find a case where another method had been used. I certainly had never heard of such a thing with the current generation of artificials.

As my target wrapped up her lunchtime meeting and went about her day as normal, I set up the cameras for automatic tracking and recording which I could review and submit while she was asleep and inactive. I then used my second screen to bring up past cases of android detection, limited to the past two years; anything older was essentially obsolete.

During the day I went through dozens of cases, and they were all the same. I even recognised a few as my own handiwork. I couldn't directly filter the results to what I wanted to look for, not if I was being watched. No, I had to do this the long, boring, exhausting way.

All sorts of investigated people, even internal agency workers that hadn't been declared as androids popped up on my screen, all conclusively declared android or human thanks to our work. I would have carried on through the night except I had to review the day's surveillance and submit anything notable.

There was not much of that. McGrogan had done little after her lunch: she'd made a speech at a university, made promises about tuition, answered some questions. Nothing harmful to humans there, nothing that showed she was artificial either. Then she returned home and had a quiet night in. I was envious of that last part.


Three days passed and I could still not find any past case to help me, while McGrogan acted just as one would expect her to: canvassing for her third term, visiting with her advisors, writing reports, eating, sleeping, drinking, and watching programs on her sofa at home. Pretty human.

"Have you got something for me yet?" came a voice, waking me. I looked up the screen and saw McGrogan asleep in bed. I must have followed suit.

It was Johns' voice, over a private audio link. "Not yet, no," I said, yawning. "She's done nothing out of the ordinary so far."

"Well look harder. We're running out of time, the election's only a week away, and we need to take her down."

Take her down?

"You know, I think you might be mistaken here, she seems to be human."

"Oh, you think I'm mistaken do you? It doesn't matter what you think, you just need to help me make sure she never again runs for office; or for anything else, for that matter." And the link went dead.

I felt something unpleasant in my stomach. What exactly were they planning to do to her? Destroy her? If she was an undeclared android, running for office, she would just need to issue an official declaration. Politically damaging but not a crime. Especially if she was unaware she was artificial. That still happened these days, false memories were made to be damn convincing.

I hoped now that I could just prove that she was a human and that she would be left well alone.

If only taking an X-ray photo or a direct test of empathy wasn't illegal.

No, it had to be a behavioural test. She was declared as human, so if I showed her behaviour to be at the expense of others, that didn't prove she was an android working against her programming. And the only way I knew to declare her as an android, was to show that she couldn't act against her programming, meaning she could still run for office. There had to be a logical solution there, but I just couldn't grasp it.

And I was no longer sure that I wanted to. McGrogan didn't deserve whatever Johns had cooked up for her.

I stretched and went back to the coffee machine.


Keeping myself awake during the nights that followed was hard. My sleeping patterns had been destroyed by this assignment, my back was killing me, and as I became more sure that my subject was human, the more sick I felt about my part in her potential demise.

Nothing she was doing could show anything conclusive either way. And no past cases were coming up to help me. I needed a fresh approach.

Maybe her general behaviour could demonstrate her nature. Androids may be able to simulate human behaviour, almost down to a tee, but there were traps that they still fell into.

I brought up a record of all her waking and sleeping times that week. They might pretend to sleep, and they might slip up and do it in an artificial way. Relying on an internal clock meant they often went to bed and woke up at the exact same time every day, to the second.

However, McGrogan's times were erratic. Usually waking up at 7am, not on the dot though; sleeping at different times every night. There was no pattern. This didn't disprove that she was a human or an android, just that she wasn't predictable.

An older test then.

Later in the day, when asked a question about homelessess at a press conference I got a clear shot at her retina. Illegal though it was, I reviewed the reaction: it passed as human, showing what looked to be genuine empathy. Again, this only demonstrated that if she was an android, she was sophisticated enough to fool an empathy test. Or that she was human.

Watching her general behaviour now, she only reacted the way a human would. This still couldn't discount that she was just a well-built machine, capable of fooling everyone, including me.

Dr Johns' voice came shouting through my headphones, demanding evidence of a rogue android.

"I have submitted everything I can," I almost shouted back, forgetting my fear of Dr Johns.

"Listen, before the election today, we are destroying her, even if we have to do it without your feeble attempts."

The link went silent.

Destroying her. And they would go ahead without my evidence. Would they just forge evidence if they couldn't get anything solid? That was a risky move for our already controversial agency. What was worth exposing our borderline illicit activities?

Reviewing that day's footage provided the answer. I saw McGrogan drawing up a paper. Getting a clear shot at it, I could just make out what it related to: shutting down the Android OverWatch Agency. McGrogan was going to outlaw us once and for all if she got a third term.

This was no 'droid I was observing, just an opponent of AOWA. I felt sick that I had been party to taking down someone innocent. They might be nearly putting me out of a job, but they didn't deserve to lose their life, which was clearly what Johns was planning.

I was going to have to break the one explicit rule I had been given. I had to meet my subject directly, to warn her.


I left my computer to continue to work automatically yet make it look like it was under my manual control. It was an ugly hack, but it would buy me enough time.

McGrogan was on her way to a public speech before the voting opened. I knew from my observations what her route would be. Soon enough I came upon her car along the main road, pulled alongside it, waving and trying to hail McGrogan and her driver.

Their car sped up to avoid me and I had to give chase. I must look like a dangerous lunatic to them. Setting everything to automatic as I came up behind their car instead of overtaking, I hacked into their onboard system and sent a message: "AOWA knows, they're after you."

However their car didn't stop or even slow down. I was left with only one option. I opened the roof, walked out onto the front of my car, and leapt over onto theirs. They swerved and tried to pull away. My car was still behind, blindly following. My hand closed on the remote in my pocket, I cancelled the cruising instructions and set it to try and park at the closest legal opportunity, so it wouldn't crash into the one I was stood so precariously on.

To get them to stop I had to get inside the car. I smashed the roof and prepared to jump in. The politician was sat perfectly upright in the back seat, calmly holding out a remote in her hand. She pressed a button and the world around me went black.


Colours began to come back into view. I was lying on my back, looking up at the sky. I could hear voices a short way away. Sitting up, my vision getting clearer, I saw that the car had been parked to the side of the road. McGrogan was talking to a face on the car's screen.

"...obviously it needs some combat upgrades to be of actual use in such a situation, but I think you can agree that its tenacity is certainly top of the line."

"Oh yes, I quite agree, its programming seems to be of a fine design; I must congratulate you on your fine work," McGrogan said to the screen.

"Uh, excuse me," I said, still dazed. "What's going on?"

McGrogan turned to me, Dr Johns' face visible behind her shoulder on the screen. "I'm sure everything is a bit fuzzy at the moment, a result of the implanted memories disappearing. We were testing your programming, dear. Your dedication to saving me from grievous harm overrode an explicit command from a human who was your superior, and therefore had authority over you, to not interfere. Within the parameters of the test, you saved my life. You'll be my new bodyguard 'droid, as designed by Dr Johns here." McGrogan smiled at me.

"A test?"

"Yes indeed," she said.

"Did I pass?"

I looked beyond McGrogan's smiling face to look at Dr Johns, who lowered her head slightly.

© 2015 Thomas J. Spargo