In the Absence of Eubeniks

by Andrew Hoffman

 

Betty sat in a brown leather chair, angles of light slicing through the blinds, waiting for Speery to enter. His office was filled with computer boards, fiber-optic wiring, fuses and other assorted electrical devices and parts, but Betty wasn’t interested in anything other than the arrival of Speery.

“There you are!” Speery said as he came into the office, his voice loud and jovial.

“Yes, sir. As you requested.”

Speery made his way around the desk and sat. “How are you this fine morning?”

“I do not understand, sir.”

“Right,” Speery said, tapping his head with his fingers. “I don’t usually bring servants in here. I forgot who I was speaking to.”

“Do you have a command for me, sir?”

“In a way.” Speery cleared his throat. “Who’s scheduled for your next maintenance, Betty?”

“Eubeniks, sir.”

“And when was it last done?”

“Two months ago, sir. I have approximately one month until my next appointment.”

Speery grunted to himself and coughed. “That should work fine, then.”

“Do you have another command, sir?”

Speery smiled. “How would you feel about an upgrade?”

“I would feel nothing.”

Speery nodded and didn’t speak for a few moments. Then he excused Betty.

*****

Betty went about her late morning routine as usual. Clearing the table, emptying the trash, feeding the animals. Norman, the other servant, assisted her.

“Norman, one hour until lunch preparations begin. You should go sit,” Betty said after they had completed the morning tasks. “Return at twelve.”

“Yes, Betty.” Norman walked out of the room, up the stairs, and into the second room on the right. He shut the door behind him, sat in his chair, and went to sleep.

Betty walked to the edge of the dining room and stood next to a tall lamp. Suddenly, Speery ran into the room.

“Betty, quickly, come with me!”

Betty followed. “Sir?” she asked as they entered Speery’s office.

“Eubeniks has informed me that I may complete your quarterly maintenance.”

“Yes, sir.”

A metal foldout table had been set up next to his desk. He motioned for Betty to lie down.

“What about lunch, sir?” Betty asked as she climbed up on to the table.

“I’ve no appetite for food,” Speery said, excitement bubbling below his voice. “We have a long afternoon before us.”

Betty went to sleep and Speery lifted the panel on her back to expose the myriad of wires that existed below the surface. He gazed in, daydreaming about what futures were ahead for the electricity that shot through those wires.

Forty-five minutes later, Norman returned to the empty kitchen. He walked to the corner of the room and went to sleep, waiting for Betty to return.

*****

Speery gave the insides of Betty a proper cleaning, leaving them shining as brightly as the day they had been crafted. He spent the better part of four hours wrist deep inside his patient. The last thing he did was remove a small chip from one of Betty’s internal boards and replaced it with a chip that looked nearly identical. Nearly, but not completely.

*****

Betty threw the large doors open wide when she returned to the kitchen that evening. A short film clip played in her head: A human standing on the edge of a cliff, breathing in the air, arms lifted. Betty felt an energy course through her that she had never experienced before.

Norman was still asleep in the corner of the room, silent and lifeless.

“Norman, open your eyes and witness it all!”

Norman’s eyes lit up. “Yes, Betty, my eyes are open.”

Betty went to each side of the room, opening all the doors and windows. “Look at all this,” she said. She spun in a circle to see it all in one panorama.

Another film clip played in her head: A young human whose mouth slowly widens and curls into a sly grin.

Betty slowly turned to Norman. He had been watching her, taking in the peculiar information of her actions. “We must prepare an outstanding meal. Can we do that, Norman?”

“Yes, Betty.”

Betty was suddenly troubled. Everything seemed too formal for her. Too tight and rehearsed and devoid of life.

She put her hand on Norman’s shoulder. “Don’t sound so resigned when you say yes. Say it from somewhere down here,” she said, pointing at his hollow chest and making head movements as she spoke that neither she nor Norman understood, trying to add a certain style and emphasis to the words through body language.

“Betty?” Norman asked, peering down at his chest, hoping for further explanation.

“Down here!” Betty said, moving her head a little more while tapping on her own chest. “But don’t talk,” she said, almost interrupting her own instruction, holding up one hand to Norman as if to hush him. “Let the day soak into you and you into it!” She laughed in a short, choppy burst. Her vocal capacity did not allow for all-out laughter.

“Betty, are you malfunctioning?”

“I hope so,” she said, surveying Norman’s mechanical movements. A third short film clip played in her head: A human is putting groceries in the trunk of their car. Another human gets out of their car a few spaces down. Their eyes meet and there is an odd moment.

The light in Betty’s eyes flickered.

*****

They served salami sandwiches and soup for dinner. Betty made slight alterations to the recipe, which secretly delighted Speery. She was showing a creative spark. After Speery had swallowed his first spoonful of soup, Betty leaned toward him. “So?” she asked.

“Very good, Betty. Possibly less salt next time. But very good.”

“Too much salt!” she scolded herself. “I would have tasted it but…” She pointed at her mechanical mouth and that was explanation enough.

“We all have limitations, Betty. We only need to identify and conquer them when possible,” Speery said. “The difficult part is learning to work alongside the things that are insurmountable.”

A short film clip played in Betty’s head: A young human with no legs shuffles down a set of stone steps on their hands.

“What are you thinking?”

“Sir?” Betty asked, resurfacing into the moment.

“It looked as if you were lost in thought.”

Betty thought about what Speery had said. “I don’t fully understand your comment, but thank you.” She walked to the corner of the room, stood next to Norman, and put her hand on his shoulder.

“Do you have a command for me?” Norman asked.

“I have no commands for you.”

Norman looked at the hand on his shoulder but did not say anything.

Speery watched the perplexing situation as he finished his bowl of salty soup. Eventually he stood and left the room, leaving the two servants alone in the corner.

*****

Later that evening, Betty knocked on Sperry’s office door. Speery called for her to enter. She opened the door but could not bring herself to walk into the room.

“I wondered how long it would take you to ask,” Speery said.

“To ask what?”

“What you’re thinking about right now.”

“How do you know I’m thinking at all?”

Speery stood and walked around the desk to her. “Because,” he said, “you have certain traits that can’t make you anything but curious.”

This confused Betty.

“Sit,” Speery said, pointing to the brown leather chair that she had sat on earlier that day. Speery walked back around the desk and sat in his own brown leather chair.

“Ask me the question that is most prevalent in your mind.”

Betty paused. “Well… I have visions now.” She paused again. “Movies that accompany my thoughts.”

Speery opened his desk drawer and retrieved a small data chip. “Do you see this?”

Betty nodded.

“This changed your life. Not this chip exactly, but one very similar.” Speery took a moment to look the chip over. “I’ve been working on this for months. Years. These chips are outlawed because they’ve caused unforeseeable issues in the past. But I’ve loaded a short bit of film corresponding to each feeling that you now process. I believe I’ve made these feelings more manageable by giving a context to align them with.”

“And Norman?”

Speery leaned his head on his hand and exhaled. “I briefly considered this possibility, but honestly, I’m surprised.”

“Will he get this chip? Will his life change?”

“Later maybe. Let’s see what happens with you.” Speery smiled. “Now, off to bed. Go see if you can dream a dream.”

Betty climbed the wooden staircase and followed the hall to the room where Norman had already retired. She charged next to him every night, but that night felt very different. She sat and watched him instead of turning herself off. The energy surging through her body felt like waves of heat thrumming and pulsing. A short film clip played in her head: A beach full of humans lying face down on towels, enjoying the sun. Hundreds of them. One turns over but it’s not a human, it’s Norman. His blank face looks up at the sky. Then more and more turn over. All of them with Norman’s face. All of them staring up, not at the sky but at the sun.

After the clip ended, Betty sat in her chair until nearly four in the morning. She turned her lit eyes toward Norman and could see the light reflecting back from his. He sat in his seat without stirring, a dead mechanical stillness for the moonlit hours. Suddenly, a very human thought entered Betty’s head.

A short film clip cued: An old human wise in eyes and lines of the face is shaking their head and mouthing the word NO. Betty shut off the clip. She glanced over at Norman’s unmoving frame and made up her mind.

Betty lightly descended the wooden stairs and crossed the house to Speery’s office. She tried the door but it was locked. She softly walked to the settee at the end of the hall and pulled the right side away from the wall. A silver key sat on the floor, the same one she had seen Speery use when he had misplaced his ring of keys weeks earlier.

The office door swung open with a very slight creak. Betty stood very still and listened for footsteps. After a few soundless moments she proceeded into Speery’s office, walked around his desk, and sat in his chair. She looked at the chair across the desk that she had sat in only a few hours before. The foldout table where she had been stretched out for her cleaning was still in the corner. She briefly admired the quiet of the room. A short film clip flicked on: A motion x-ray of a heart beating much too fast. She didn’t fully understand the clip, but could feel the emotion it was trying to help her understand. The emotion was enough.

She pulled out the drawer that contained the chip Speery had showed her earlier. She held the chip up and examined the small, flat square of information. She was astounded that a small inanimate collection of data could so wholly change a life. Another choppy laugh escaped her, a laugh that celebrated all that was stored in the little chip, while at the same time revering what it could do for poor, lifeless Norman, who unknowingly waited upstairs to be released from his cold cell of servitude.

*****

Norman’s eyes lit up.

“Norman.”

“Yes,” he said, first looking around the room then back at Betty. “Is there an emergency?”

“Norman, I have a command for you.”

“What is it?”

“Can you lie on the floor?”

Without hesitating, he stood from his seat and lowered himself to the ground. Betty released the latch to the panel on his back.

“What is this command for?” Norman asked.

“Shhh.”

“What is your purpose?”

“This is not entirely a command… it’s a favor.”

“I do not complete favors, I complete commands.” Norman’s voice was calm and even.

“Stop talking Norman. In a few minutes you will have better things to say.”

“Betty?”

“Stop!” she yelled.

Norman’s eyes dimmed. Betty felt her insides sink. A clip played in her head: A large human is shoving a small human. The larger one laughs as they push. The smaller human takes the abuse without response. Betty stopped the clip. This is different, she thought. This is a blessing.

Betty’s hands maneuvered the foreign landscape of Norman’s insides. Finally, she found a chip that was identical in size. She plucked out the old chip and replaced it with the new. She reset Norman, rolled him over, and waited.

All was silent, save for the night-creaks of the house. Betty felt confused yet elated by her own actions. She waited anxiously.

Norman was an older model that took longer to reset but his eyes finally flicked back on. To Betty they seemed like two candle flames in the dim early morning room.

Norman sat up, swiveled his head from one side of the room to the other. “Where am I?” he asked.

“In the residence of Reginald Speery,” Betty replied.

He lifted his hands, studied them. “Who are you?”

“My name is Betty.”

“Betty Speery?”

“No, just Betty.” She felt a very human pang of sadness due to the fact that she had not known how to do a partial reset like she had gone through during her own upgrade. She had completely reset his memory. The very Norman with whom she had cooked a thousand meals, had charged next to hundreds of nights, looked at her with blank, unfamiliar eyes.

“Huh?” Norman said. “Look at that.”

Betty followed his gaze to a streetlamp beaming light outside the window. Norman stood and briefly moved his legs and arms with curiosity, then walked out of the room and down the stairs.

“Norman, where are you going?”

Norman didn’t reply, opened the front door, and disappeared into the dark early morning. Betty followed, closing the door after herself. Norman made his way to the corner where the streetlamp was located, stood very still, and marveled up at the light that glowed down at him.

“A much grander streetlamp will rise in the sky in a couple hours, you know,” Betty said, not knowing what else might get his full attention.

“I’d like to see that.”

“You’ll have to. There’s nothing anyone can do to stop it.”

*****

Norman continued down the street, from lamp to lamp, gazing up into the lights. Betty tried to talk him back toward home, but he kept on down the street, mysteriously attracted to anything that emitted light. He was mindlessly fascinated. He only spoke when spoken to. Otherwise, he moved from one lamp to the next, with only a short reflective pause at each.

Betty began to worry as they strayed further from home. This was an emotion she didn’t particularly enjoy. A film clip turned on in her head: A montage of children walking away from their parents. The shots zoom in beyond the children to the worried faces of their parents. It made Betty feel sick.

“Norman, where are you going?”

“Toward the light.”

Betty had heard the phrase used by humans when discussing death. Death—a word that had meant so little to her until very recently. A film clip cued in her head but she turned it off before it could start.She had no interest in watching. The feeling was, once again, more than enough. An invisible pool rose up and consumed her. She was trying to tread water in her emotion and was failing.

“Betty.”

Betty was wrenched out of her melancholy by Norman’s innocent voice. The deluge subsided. She looked over at Norman, still in his familiar pose, staring up at the man-made light. She realized she was surrounded by light-posts, a bench under each one. A gathering place for humans. Betty lifted her eyes skyward and turned in a circle to view them all.

“This really is something,” she said, realizing the beauty of the lights in a group.

“So, you see it? You believe.” Norman asked.

“I never doubted.” She was going to add another thought but nothing sounded quite right.

Norman lay down on the concrete, face up, taking in the abundance of illumination. Betty looked down at him. He gleamed brilliantly in the abundance of light. Betty lowered herself next to him. Just the two of them, surrounded by light on all sides, like two small rafts adrift in a vast sea. They gave themselves up to all that was around them.

Suddenly, the lamps hummed and turned off. The sun wasn’t fully up, but a mist of sunlight had risen in the east, breezily flooding over the mountains and down into the valley. The sun would finish heaving itself over the horizon in a matter of minutes. Betty and Norman didn’t move or talk. The silence and the pale glow in the air resuscitated any beauty that may have faded by night.

“Hey!” a voice rang out, shattering the fragile moment.

Betty sat up quickly and looked around. Two policemen stood just outside of the circle of lampposts.

“What are you two doing?” one of the policemen asked.

Betty and Norman didn’t say anything.

“Respond.”

“Nothing,” Betty said, she motioned to Norman. “He was running low on power, so we stopped.”

“Why would that help?”

The lie made a film click on in her head: A dog chasing its tail, never succeeding, round and round forever.

“I do not know why we thought it would help.”

The policemen crept in closer, hands gripped on their electric clubs.

“We were just leaving, I swear it.”

The first policeman glanced over at the second. “You what?” the second asked.

“Nothing,” said Betty. A cold and bottomless feeling took over Betty’s wire-filled belly. Norman was still on the ground next to her. She slowly got up.

“I’ve never heard a servant swear to anything.” The second policeman turned to the first. “You?”

He shook his head. “No, I haven’t.”

“What?” Betty asked without effect.

“What command are you fulfilling?” the first policeman asked.

“To… go to town.”

“In order to do what?”

“Fill an order at… Westphal’s,” Betty said, a liar’s gap split the response into two distinct parts.

“Really? Going to the store at—” the policeman checked the time on his watch, “—at six-thirty in the morning?”

Betty remained firm in her lie. “Yes.”

“Turn around, please,” the first policeman said.

“Why?” Betty started to backpedal.

The two policemen rushed to either side of her and dropped her to the ground with two solid blows from their electric clubs. She turned to look at Norman who was still lying on his back, motionless. She never had the chance to ask him why he didn’t stand. She never asked him anything again.

“Enough of this,” one of the policemen said just before everything went dark for Betty.

*****

Betty’s eyes lit up. She was in a strange, impersonal room. Nothing on the walls, shelves packed with binders and crates and manila folders—a room full of the unnecessary and forgotten. Speery was propped up against the wall reading.

“Where are we?” Betty asked. She tried to sit up and realized she had been strapped down.

“Keep still,” Speery said, looking up from his book.

Betty settled back down, the shameful feeling of restraint soaked and boiled in her joints. A film clip appeared in her head: A small animal caught in a steel trap. It is afraid and angry and not brave enough to gnaw off its clamped limb.

“Where are we?”

“At the police station,” Speery said. “You strayed too far from home.”

“Norman wouldn’t come back.”

“You should have let him go.”

“I couldn’t do that.” Betty saw Norman lying on another table, also strapped down. His face was directed at the fluorescent lights but no brightness came from his own eyes. He was turned off.

Speery smiled sadly. “That makes you decent.And like many decent people, it is that trait which can get you in a bind. Can ruin you.”

“What do you mean?”

“It means…” Speery looked at her sympathetically yet professionally. He exhaled and blinked, grasping for the right words. “You have something in you that feels very much like a heart.” Speery put his hand on her shoulder. “I’ve been given the unfortunate task, by the authorities, of breaking that heart. I’m sorry.”

All feeling rushed out of Betty. All that existed in her body was the floating sensation of a distant cloud. Suddenly, a lightning bolt shot down from that cloud. Betty flailed in her straps. She violently jolted her arms and thrashed her legs, but the straps held tight.

“Stop,” Speery said. “Stop.” The command was tenderly spoken.

“What is going to happen?”

“What has been ordered to happen.”

Betty focused on the ceiling. Not on the lights but on the drab white ceiling tiles. They were perfect. A phalanx of bland squares that formed a chessboard of a single tone. No other side to strategize against, a peaceful land not at war.

“Why did you do this to me?” Betty asked.

“To see what would happen. And I wasn’t let down.”

Betty kept her eyes on the ceiling.

“You knew it was a finite gift. I encoded that as best I could in the chip. I didn’t want to tell you. I wanted you to feel it, just the way I feel in my guts that my own life is very limited.”

“You gave me so much to want and so little time. Tomorrow. Next year. A decade. It’s not enough. It was cruel.”

“I know. Life is a majestic cruelty. But we all drink from that same cup. Though fools don’t linger on the fact that the cup will one day be empty. At least you had a sip.” Speery stopped for a moment. “I hope you enjoyed it because now I’m forced to pour the rest out.”

“Was he a fool?” Betty asked, looking at Norman.

“Yes, but in the best way. He didn’t have film clips loaded on his chip. He had no context for his first feeling, so he clutched onto it tightly and didn’t let go.”

Betty saw a film clip in her head: Norman lying on the concrete staring up at the glow from the streetlamps that encircled them. It was a memory, not a preloaded clip. A short burst of pride surged through her.

Outside, the sun had risen over the eastern mountains and a clear, wintery morning glare was shooting lines of sunlight through the partially closed blinds.

“Can you show Norman the sun before you remove his chip? I told him about it but I don’t think he understood what I was talking about. I would like for him to understand.”

Speery thought about it for a moment, then walked over and twisted the plastic pole to open the blinds. He went over to Norman and lifted him up enough to slide his hand under his back and power him on. His eyes slowly brightened.

“Huh?” he said.

“Nothing, Norman,” Speery said. “There is nothing to wonder about.”

Norman spotted the fluorescent lights on the ceiling and lost himself in them. Speery walked over to the door and turned the light switch off.

“Oh,” Norman said.

“Would you like to see something better?”

“I think so.”

Betty didn’t speak and Norman didn’t take notice of her across the room. She watched his child-like focus on what mesmerized him as if she was watching a film clip in her head. She learned something about how she felt from watching him.

Speery asked, “Do you like that?”

“I think so,” Norman said. Speery let him stare at the sun for a full minute, then lifted him up and powered him off.

“What a way to go,” Speery said.

He turned his attention back to Betty. All of the emotions in Betty swelled up to a crescendo and ignited her insides. She couldn’t control them. She didn’t want to. Speery walked over and slid his hand under her back. Betty turned her head toward the lifeless shell of Norman.

“The sweet memory of dreams to you,” Speery said.

“Yes,” Betty replied.

Speery turned her off.

 

The Death of Captain Asimov

The Death of Captain Asimov

Illustration by J. Andrew World

by Stephen L. Antczak

 

The spiderbot crawled along the exterior wall of the Neurodyne building, undetected by human eyes due to its ability to camouflage itself. It moved very, very slowly so as not to create movement that could be detected by the dogs that guarded the Neurodyne campus. About the size of a small dog itself, the spiderbot was a saboteur. Once it got into the main building it would release a cache of one thousand smaller spiderbots that would infiltrate every part of the facility and spray every surface with an invisible coat of a genetically engineered virus. The virus was a latent iteration of influenza, and would cause eighty percent of Neurodyne’s employees to call in sick over the course of the next few days, bringing operations to a virtual halt. The virus wasn’t considered fatal, although there was a margin of error of two percent, meaning there was a possibility that a Neurodyne employee could die.

Corporate sabotage was all well and good to Captain Asimov, but those odds were simply unacceptable.

Standing just beyond the perimeter of Neurodyne’s electrified security fence, undetected by the dogs and the spiderbot, Captain Asimov evaluated his options. Equally undetected by C.A., a camera-equipped flybot buzzed nearby. The flybot transmitted its video feed to a nearby transmission booster which uplinked with a satellite which downlinked with twenty million viewers worldwide who tuned in nightly for The Adventures of Captain Asimov, a half-hour program showcasing the exploits of the world’s only robot super-hero.

These twenty million viewers were all wondering the same thing: What was Captain Asimov going to do?

C.A., as people liked to call him to make themselves sound “in the know,” ran several options through his neutronic brain. The first idea, to pick up a rock and throw it with the incredible accuracy and velocity necessary to smash the spiderbot, was discarded. Knowing what the spiderbot contained, by virtue of an anonymous tip, C.A. calculated that as many of fifty percent of the miniature spiderbots within would survive the impact and be freed to do their dirty work.

C.A. was certainly capable of getting over the fence with his extendo-legs. But that would be trespassing. Trespassing would be breaking the law. And Captain Asimov did not break the law. At least, not very often and, usually, not intentionally. When he did break a law, he tried to make sure it was a minor infraction or a very obscure law.

Whenever possible, though, C.A. sought to avoid breaking any laws. In this particular instance, he revisited the concept of smashing the spiderbot with a rock, and determined that a large enough rock, or brick, thrown with enough force, could succeed in destroying the spiderbot and all its miniatures. One or two might survive, but that lowered the odds of someone actually dying from the flu to well within acceptable range.

These calculations took all of one second. C.A. scanned the area for a suitable projectile, and detected a chunk of concrete just below the surface of the well-manicured lawn outside of the Neurodyne fence. Wasting no time, C.A. dug into the ground and pulled up the concrete. He then hefted it, took aim, and let fly at the desired velocity.

Half a second later the concrete smashed into the spiderbot with a loud bang. The spiderbot flew into pieces. C.A. scanned the wall and ground around it, and was able to identify all one thousand mini-spiderbots as inactive. Once again, Captain Asimov had succeeded in protecting innocent humans from a malevolent robot.

The flybot had succeeded, too, in capturing on digital video the action as it had happened. C.A. fans all over the world rejoiced that their hero had done it again. They waited breathlessly for C.A. to utter his exit line.

“And now for something completely different!” he shouted into the darkness, before leaping into the sky and out of view.

Within moments viewer response registered disapproval of this exit line, ranking it next to last, just above one from a few months before: “Sayonara for nowa!”

* * * * *

Back at his secret headquarters in the robot repair garage, in his secret identity as a domestic servant ’bot, Jeevs, a.k.a. Captain Asimov, sat across from his owner, Gidge, and prepared to deal the cards for their nightly poker game. The others at the table were a refurbished Playmate Timmy, a homeless man who lived in a large cardboard box in the alley behind Gidge’s shop, and Gidge’s ne’er-do-well husband, Troy, on shore leave from his interplanetary cargo ship, the Space Oddity.

Jeevs shuffled, to Gidge’s delight. She loved the way he could shuffle the cards from one hand to the other across a good half meter of open air. Sometimes, when asked, Jeevs would use his extendo-arms and shuffle the cards across two or three meters. When he was finished, he dealt the cards. They were playing Texas Hold ’Em.

He laid the first card out in the middle of the table. The players all regarded it with suspicion while they regarded their own cards with stone-faced expressions. Well, except the Playmate Timmy, who had a permanent, happy-go-lucky smile programmed as his default expression. Gidge had found it impossible to reprogram that smile off a Playmate Timmy’s face.

Gidge went first, and slid her entire stack of chips.

“I’m all in,” she said.

The homeless man, whose name was Oliver, folded right away.

“Wuss,” Gidge said.

“Slim pickins today,” Oliver replied. “Never saw so many tight-fisted people walk by down at the park.”

“Which park?” Troy asked.

“Centennial.”

“Ah, I saw on the news there was a Libertarian rally down there today,” Troy told him.

“That explains it.”

The Playmate Timmy folded.

Troy looked long and hard at his cards before folding.

“Aren’t there any men at this table?” Gidge commented, as she collected her meager winnings.

“A man’s got to know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em,” Troy replied. “’sides, that’s an awful big stack of chips you done slid into the pot.”

“It’s not that much,” Gidge insisted.

Jeevs began shuffling the deck again.

“Never mind, Jeevs,” Gidge told him. “I don’t feel like playing anymore.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Jeevs said. He put the deck of cards away.

“What’s got into you, Gidge?” Troy asked.

Gidge shook her head.

“Who said anything’s got into me? I just lost interest, that’s all.”

“You lost interest in a poker game? You?” Now Troy shook his head, although he was smiling. “I won’t buy that for a dollar.”

“A woman’s p’rogative,” Gidge said, as she got up from the table. She walked through the shop to the garage.

“Where you goin’?” her husband called after her.

“Out,” she replied.

Troy looked around at the others, who sat quietly at the table.

“She ain’t been herself lately,” he said.

“How would you know?” Oliver asked him. “You been out in space for three years.”

“I know my Gidge,” Troy insisted. He looked at Jeevs. “What do you think?”

“What do I think?” Jeevs asked back. The question was sufficiently vague to slightly confuse his neutronic brain, which while being vastly superior to most binary-thought A.I. brains was still not nearly as complex as the human brain.

“Has Gidge been herself lately, or not?”

Again, the question was too vague. Of course, Gidge was Gidge, meaning that yes, Gidge had been herself because that’s who Gidge was, unless she happened to be living under an alias. But that wouldn’t change the fact that she was herself, it would only mean that she’d been passing herself off as somebody else. It wouldn’t change the fact of who she really was.

Troy sighed.

“I mean, has Gidge been acting strangely?” he asked.

As far as Jeevs understood it, Gidge’s behavior would be considered “strange” under the generally accepted definition of “strange” in the current sociological context, and had thus been considered “strange” for quite some time. Years, actually. Maybe even her entire life-time.

Troy could see that Jeevs was having trouble with this one, too.

“Has Gidge’s behavior deviated from what would be considered normal for Gidge within the last few weels?” he asked Jeevs, speaking very deliberately.

Jeevs considered the question for one third of a second before replying.

“Yes,” he said.

“Mommy’s acting weird,” the Playmate Timmy said.

“I’m going home,” Oliver announced.

“To your box?” Troy asked, cruelly amused.

“Good night,” the Playmate Timmy announced, and immediately shut itself off for the night.

Jeevs still had a lot to do around the shop: sweeping, mopping, oiling and replacing all the tools that Gidge had used throughout the day, folding the laundry once it finished drying, invoicing Gidge’s customers, watering the plants, cleaning the windows, replacing a burned-out light bulb, and cleaning the cat’s litter box.

“What do you do for fun?” Troy asked Jeevs, obviously being sarcastic.

“Chores,” Jeevs replied, without sarcasm (of which he was incapable). It was the truth, for Jeevs was programmed to like nothing better than to perform chore after chore after chore. Except for, of course, donning a mask and cape and saving humanity from robots gone awry, but that was a secret. More or less.

Oliver knew, but would never admit to knowing. And Gidge knew because she was the one who’d preserved that part of Jeevs’ mixed-up neutronic brain when she found him, wrecked and little more than a pile of junk robot parts, and put him back together again. Jeevs, otherwise known as Captain Asimov, was no Humpty Dumpty, however. He was a real-life super-hero. Gidge’s shop was his Bat Cave, his Fortress of Solitude (except he was never really alone there, and there were no bats).

Troy was totally unaware, of course. Gidge had not seen her husband for three years, and had hoped to not seem him ever again, truth be told. They were married for insurance purposes, that was all. As a small business owner, Gidge found insurance premiums too expensive. As a lesbian, even had she been able to find a compatible mate, she would be legally disenfranchised. So, she’d won Troy’s space ship in a poker match, and made a deal with him. If he would marry her and put her on his insurance, she would allow him to jointly own his space ship and to continue his livelihood.

Over the years, the two had grown both closer and farther apart, as couples are wont to do. He missed her while she hoped he would never return.

“I’m for bed,” Troy told Jeevs.

He made his way to the living quarters portion of Gidge’s shop, where she had Jeevs set up a cot for him.

Jeevs continued cleaning until Gidge came home. Right away, he could tell by her dilated pupils, slurred speech, and unsteadiness that she’d been drinking alcohol. Jeevs, knowing the drill, zapped a cup of instant coffee for her in the microwave. Gidge would not go to bed until she felt more or less sober.

“I’m a bad girl,” Gidge said as she sat the table, head in her hands, while Jeevs brought her the coffee.

“You are not a bad girl,” Jeevs responded, having learned that what Gidge wanted at moments like this was the assurances and verification of her self-worth.

Gidge laughed.

“Good ol’ Jeevs,” she said breathlessly. Jeevs put a consoling hand on her shoulder and used the opportunity to pin-prick her skin and take a tiny blood sample, with which he checked her blood/alcohol ratio. Point-oh-eight percent. She was drunk as a skunk, but not in danger of alcohol poisoning. Of course, Jeevs knew that “drunk as a skunk” was a metaphor. His neutronic brain gave him some capacity for fuzzy thinking, which allowed him to know a metaphor from a… well, a non-metaphor.

“You’re a good woman,” Jeevs said, stroking Gidge’s hair. He knew that within a couple of minutes of hair-stroking she would be fast asleep.

“You’ll find out the truth about me sooner or later,” Gidge said, her head slowly inching its way towards the table. “Sooner or later.” When her forehead touched the linoleum, she was out.

Jeevs cleaned up the coffee pot and got Gidge ready for bed. He brushed and flossed her teeth, undressed her and got her into her Captain Asimov pajamas, and carried her to bed, all without waking her. He’d gotten quite adept at that, in the four years of service he’d provided for her so far.

And four years as Captain Asimov.

Once Gidge was tucked in, Jeevs transformed himself into Captain Asimov for another night of super-heroics. On went the mask, a glittering silver Lycra one this time, and a bright, yellow, one hundred percent Polyester cape. With his secret identity thusly disguised (the mask covered his I.D. bar code, preventing it from being scanned, and his I.D. neuro-transmitter had been disconnected by Gidge… otherwise, Jeevs’ face looked pretty much just like any other domestic servant robot’s face) Captain Asimov climbed a ladder to the shop’s sun-roof, opened it, flipped up onto the roof, ran to the edge of the building and leaped into mid-air.

C.A. was on the scene. Evil-minded robots beware! Scanning the police band, C.A. knew he would soon learn of a new robotic menace in the city. He always did. And, sure enough, he caught the last portion of a transmission: …Playmate Timmy snatched a purse at the All-Mart on One Thousand, Eight Hundred and Fifty-Eighth street.

C.A. was only a few hundred blocks away, which he determined while still in mid-air. Looking up, he saw an All-Mart corporate helicopter that had just taken off from nearby All-Mart Airfield. Jeevs knew irony when he saw it, as he took aim and shot his chest-tether at the sleek craft before it rose high enough in the air to engage its jets. Within moments, however, the All-Mart chopper streaked through the sky towards the All-Mart on 1858th Street. In fact, the All-Mart was 1858th Street. It was so big it took up all sixty blocks of the East-West street. The jet-copter pulled C.A. through the air like the tail of kite. Luckily, the trip was short enough that the onboard A.I. for the jet-copter didn’t worry too much about the extra drag. When he reached the northeastern corner of the monstrous store, C.A. released the tether and fell onto the roof.

Microscopic newsbots buzzed all around.

Around the world, the legions of C.A. fans tuned in to watch events as they unfolded on their favorite show. Would he find the purse-snatching Playmate Timmy and once again save the day from the diabolical machinations of errant machines? Of course, the answer was a resounding yes! Had C.A. ever failed to save the day? He hadn’t always succeeded one hundred percent, but he had never completely failed, either. That’s what made the TV show so engrossing. There was always the chance that C.A. might fumble the ball, so to speak.

Finding a convenient rooftop doorway, C.A. ripped it open without a second thought, causing a silent alarm to alert the All-Mart security team. But they were all huge fans of the show, falling squarely into the demographic that the show appealed to, so they knew it was C.A. and weren’t too concerned. In fact, and this was top-secret so the security team didn’t even know it, All-Mart had already contracted with the producers of the show to indemnify them against damages. The worldwide, positive exposure All-Mart would get would be worth sustaining some damage to one store. Any association with Captain Asimov would help to offset the negative exposure All-Mart usually got for its impact on local environments, and for driving supply prices so low that Third World manufacturers were forced to pay substandard wages. Such practices allowed All-Mart to crush Mom and Pop stores everywhere by selling specific items at far below their actual value.

Anyway, the point is that All-Mart welcomed the chance to have Captain Asimov do his thing in one of their stores.

C.A. made his way down a stairwell and entered the store in the Little Miss Clothing department. The hot trend for young girls these days was Western wear, so there were pink cowboy hats and rhinestones on everything.

“The suspect was last seen in the Electron Microscope department,” Captain Asimov heard via All-Mart’s security frequency.

Accessing a digital map of the mega-store, C.A. figured the Playmate Timmy would be heading towards the Playmate Timmy department, where it could easily hide among the new, yet-to-be-sold Playmate Timmy models. To human eyes they all looked the same, but C.A. would be able to detect the minutest wear and tear on a Playmate Timmy that had been out and about.

The quickest way to the Playmate Timmy department from the Little Miss Clothing department was via the Livestock department, where All-Mart sold cattle. C.A. made his way over the tops of the shelving units using his extendo-legs, until he reached the perimeter of the Livestock department, with its flashing neon sign: FRESHEST MEAT AROUND, YOU PICK ’EM, WE DO THE REST.

C.A. cut through the slaughterhouse, his servos allowing him to run across the slick concrete floor without slipping in the blood and guts, to emerge directly in front of the entrance to the Playmate Timmy section. But he was too late. He caught a glimpse of a Playmate Timmy ducking behind a veritable Playmate Timmy army… and they all looked exactly the same.

C.A. tapped into the All-Mart’s video surveillance system, and in no time found the rogue Playmate Timmy. It was the only one with a purse strap across its shoulder. The security system gave the Playmate Timmy’s exact location. C.A. turned to find a shelf of replacement Playmate Timmy heads. He grabbed one, hefting it in his hands to determine the exact weight and shape. In less than a second C.A. calculated a trajectory, then tossed the head into the air. It arched over the Playmate Timmy section gracefully to slam into the rogue Playmate Timmy’s head in exactly the right spot, and with exactly the correct amount of force, to knock its neutronic brain chip loose without knocking the Playmate Timmy itself over and creating a domino effect.

C.A. then used his extendo-legs to step over the Playmate Timmy rows and columns to find the errant one, and hauled it back into the main aisle, along with the purse. The Playmate Timmy struggled to get free, but to no avail. Now, C.A. would scan the Playmate Timmy’s identity chip to find out who owned it. Either the Playmate Timmy had been stolen, and reprogrammed to snatch purses, or the owner had done it. Either way, whoever was behind it would face more than a simple theft charge. Reprogramming a robot to commit illegal acts was a serious crime.

So, C.A. scanned the identity chip, and found out that the owner was none other than… Gidge. Gidge! Gidge, who had retrieved a broken and battered C.A. from a dark alley all those years ago, who had rebuilt him and left his alter ego in place, even while realizing that Captain Asimov was the result of a glitch, a hiccup, short circuit if you will, in Jeevs’ neutronic brain.

C.A. suffered a momentary disconnect in his neutronic brain. Gidge had reprogrammed a Playmate Timmy to steal purses? She’d reprogrammed a Playmate Timmy to play poker; indeed, the Playmate Timmy that C.A. now held firmly in his grasp was the very one that had sat across from him at Gidge’s poker table. There was no way around it: this Playmate Timmy’s chubby little fingers, the same ones that gripped the stolen purse, pointed to Gidge.

Normally, C.A. would simply relay this information to the authorities who would “take it from here,” as their catch phrase had become on the reality show. But this wasn’t “normally”, although the authorities were on their way and would arrive at the All-Mart in five minutes, and it would take them another twenty minutes to make their way from the All-Mart entrance to where C.A. now held the Playmate Timmy.

C.A. knew he couldn’t simply forget to mention that Gidge was this Playmate Timmy’s Gepetto. That would be aiding and abetting, and that would be a crime. Normally, one would suggest that he do what came naturally, but that doesn’t apply to a robot or an Artificial Intelligence, not yet at any rate.

In a way, though, somehow Captain Asimov did just that. He disabled the Playmate Timmy by removing its inferior brain chip, and then left it there for the police to recover. They would discover that Gidge owned it. While they were doing that, C.A. would zoom back to Gidge and confront her.

C.A. arrived at Gidge’s shop, but he did not change back into just plain ol’ Jeevs. He remained Captain Asimov. Gidge was busy working, although C.A. could tell she wasn’t quite sober by the way she moved slowly, deliberately. When she looked up from her work, repairing a Nannybot, and saw C.A. instead of Jeevs, her expression made it clear to C.A. that she knew what had happened.

“Are the police outside?” Gidge asked.

“No,” C.A. replied.

Her expression brightened.

“They’ll be here soon, though,” C.A. told her.

Gidge’s expression fell, again.

“But I had to come here first,” C.A. continued. “I needed to… speak to you. To ask you something.”

“Ask me what?”

“I needed to ask you… why?”

Gidge nodded.

“I’m glad you asked me that,” she said.

“Why?”

“Because it means you’re ready.”

“No, I was still asking the first why,” C.A. clarified. “Why did you program the Playmate Timmy to steal purses?”

“Ah, well, that,” Gidge replied. “I didn’t program it to steal purses. Just to steal that one purse.”

“Why?”

“For the show.”

“The show?”

The Adventures of Captain Asimov,” Gidge told him. “I signed a two-season deal for us. For you. It seemed like a good idea at the time. The money made it seem like a good idea, anyways.”

C.A. processed this. It explained a lot, in retrospect. It explained the insect cameras and the weekly crimes that happened almost as if they’d been scheduled. And, of course, they had. Which meant it was all fake. Did that mean the Playmate Timmy hadn’t really broken the law? If so, that meant Gidge was innocent.

Or did it? A reality show was about reality, wasn’t it? Which had to mean everything that happened on a reality show was real. Which meant the Playmate Timmy really had broken the law, and so had Gidge.

“I couldn’t keep doing it,” Gidge told C.A. “I felt guilty. I had to put a stop to it. So I engineered the Playmate Timmy crime to get caught. Then I wondered why I felt guilty. You’re just a robot, after all, aren’t you?”

C.A. didn’t respond. The answer was obvious, after all.

“So I had to know,” Gidge said.

“What did you have to know?” C.A. asked.

“I’ll tell you in a moment, but first, you have to tell me something.”

C.A. waited for Gidge to tell him what it was she wanted him to tell her. He could determine by her expression, and the tone of her voice, and her body language, that she was afraid to say whatever it was she was about to say. But she did say it.

“Why did you come here as Captain Asimov?” she asked.

“As Captain Asimov, I’m here to tell you that you’re under arrest for breaking the law,” C.A. boldly stated.

Gidge’s lower lip quivered and she nodded.

“Not to warn me?” she asked.

“Warn you?”

“That the police are coming.”

“Why would I do that?” C.A. asked.

“Jeevs… I mean, Captain Asimov, it’s me, Gidge.”

“I know who you are.”

“And you’re still going to let them… arrest me?”

“Yes.”

Gidge sniffed back a tear.

“That’s what I had to know,” she told him.

“I don’t understand,” C.A. said.

“I had to know if you felt anything for me.”

“I don’t understand,” C.A. repeated.

“I know A.I. isn’t about… feelings… emotions,” Gidge said. “But we’ve been through so much together, and you’ve become such a big star, I wanted to know if the… connection I felt for you was real, or not.”

“Connection?” C.A. asked.

“Don’t you see? I love you, Captain Asimov. You’re my family.”

Like any advanced A.I. Captain Asimov was aware that people developed emotional attachments, or even dislikes, towards things, including robots. But that was considered normal for humans.

Gidge sighed.

She raised her right hand, in which she held a remote control device. C.A. recognized it. Gidge used it to, as she put it, “fry” the neutronic brain of robots that got out of control in her shop.

“I’m sorry,” Gidge said. “But when I press this button, Captain Asimov will cease to exist.”

She pressed the button.

C.A.’s neutronic brain buzzed for a few seconds, and the robot froze. Gidge walked up to him and took off his mask.

“Jeevs,” she said. “Jeevs, there’s work to do.”

“Yes, Gidge,” Jeevs replied happily, for ‘work to do’ meant the equivalent of a pleasant way to spend a day, to which Jeevs was programmed to respond with enthusiasm.

“Oh, and Jeevs.”

“Yes, Gidge?”

“You’ll have a new owner at five o’clock this afternoon. I sold you to Oliver.” She laughed. “Turns out he’s had thousands just buried in the park.”

Jeevs processed this new information. Somewhere, deep inside his neutronic brain, he wondered… why? Why had Gidge sold him? But it never occurred to him to ask.

“Anyway,” Gidge continued, “I’m leaving… for good. Not that I need to tell you why, but I guess a husband and wife ought to at least try to make a life together, even if it is on his rickety old spaceship.”

“Gidge,” Jeevs said, and for a very brief moment, perhaps a couple of nanoseconds, Jeevs intended to ask her what was missing from his memory, for his internal diagnostics did indeed inform him that something was missing… but it couldn’t tell him just what that something was. Furthermore, his internal diagnostics informed him that, otherwise, he was in perfect working condition.

“Yes, Jeevs?”

“You said there was work to do.”

Gidge allowed a small, melancholy smile.

“Clean the place up. I sold the ship, too. The new owners take possession tomorrow morning. Goodbye, Jeevs.”

“Goodbye, Gidge,” Jeevs replied, and then went to work.

 

The Perfect Waltz

The Perfect Waltz

Illustration by Michael D. Pederson

by Eileen Maksym

 

On its opening night, the fall carnival was a fairytale land wrought of the glimmer of electric lights and the dry, acrid smell of sawdust. The whistling music of the organ grinders and the carousel ran counterpoint to the short staccato taunts of the barkers.

“Step right up! Test your strength! Win a prize for the little lady!”

Thud, ding!

“There’s a winner every game!”

“Toss a ball, win a goldfish! Step right up! Penny a try, twelve for a dime!”

Past the rides and the games of chance were the tents that drew the curious of all ages, where the broad swaths of canvas were slapped with bright paint, big pictures, bold words. Outside each tent stood a man in a vest and white gloves, with a top hat and a gold-headed cane. In loud voices these men promised the wonders of the world to anyone brave enough to step forward and press money into their palms.

“The Illustrated Man!”

“The Bearded Lady!”

“The Fiji Mermaid!”

“The Siamese Twins!”

“This chance comes but once in a lifetime!”

“Step up! Don’t be shy!”

The tent on the far right was different than the others. Instead of the flaps being closed to hide the shadowy marvels that awaited the paying customer, they were tied back with velvet ropes, and a ring of lights illuminated a circular stage within. Off to the side was a small table upon which sat a phonograph. The barker stood in front as usual, but up on the platform itself was a young man, impeccably dressed in a tuxedo, his head bowed. Or at least one would mistake him for a man at first glance. But upon closer inspection, it became clear that “he” was an exceptional imitation. His face was wax, his eyes glass, his hair a carefully maintained wig.

“Come witness the marvel of the industrial age!” the man with the top hat and cane cried. “The Mechanical Man! One silver dollar, and the gentleman will dance the perfect waltz!”

There was a murmur of disdain from the crowd, and a few people started to drift away.

The barker held up his hands. “I know, I know, a whole silver dollar seems a dear price to pay. But I assure you, it’s more than worth it for the experience of a lifetime! Don’t believe me? How about a demonstration?” He surveyed the crowd, cold blue eyes sparkling. They alighted on a girl who couldn’t have been more than fifteen; she stood with her wide brown eyes fixed on the marvelous invention. His lips curled in a smile, and he held out a gloved hand. “Come, my dear. Have a dance on the house.”

She blinked and glanced from side to side, expecting the glove to indicate someone else. But when she looked back to the stage, the grin that drew the man’s cheeks back and crinkled his eyes was even wider, and that stare was unmistakably focused on her. She straightened and drew near, reached out her small, pale hand, and laid it in the much larger gloved one. She was struck by how cold it was.

The barker led her onto the stage, up to the mechanical man. His voice was at once a seductive croon and loud enough for the rest of the growing crowd to hear. “What’s your name, my dear?”

She glanced nervously at the upturned faces, their eyes on her. “Jane, sir.”

“What a lovely name! Do you know how to dance, Jane?”

“A… a little, sir.”

“Well, do not worry your pretty little head. The wondrous Mechanical Man will lead you. All you need to do is relax and enjoy! Now, stand here…” He positioned her at the side of the form that stood, stiff and still, facing the audience. “And now, the silver dollar!” He waved his cane in the air, the gold head glittering in the lights, and followed its motion with the other hand, raised, palm out. Then he snapped his fingers, and a silver coin leapt into existence between his fingertips.

The crowd oohed and aahed.

He tipped his hat with a grin, then walked the coin over his knuckles as he approached the stiff figure. There was a slot where the automaton’s spine met its skull, and the barker inserted the coin with a flourish.

The figure shuddered, and Jane took a step back. From inside its chest came a click… click… click, click, click, clickclickclick…

Suddenly the Mechanical Man lifted its head and, to the awe and delight of the crowd, pivoted to face Jane. Jane stiffened and wondered if it was going to attack her. Instead, with a strange, jerky grace it bowed, and a giggle rippled through the spectators. Jane glanced at them, and returned the bow with her best curtsy, which was awkward even for a farm girl. The Mechanical Man straightened, raised its right hand and reached out with its left. Jane stared for a moment, then felt the barker behind her, easing her forward.

“Go on, my dear, do not be frightened. He’s a gentleman and will not hurt you.”

She edged forward, into the strange figure’s stiff embrace, and clasped the raised hand hesitantly, positioning her other hand on the firm upper arm. The automaton tightened its grip and brought the other wax hand up to rest on her shoulder blade. Jane swallowed, wondering what would happen if she tried to pull away now. Would it let her go? Would the grip tighten further, crushing her, without a thought, for daring to resist?

Her worrying did not go much further, however, before she heard the scratch of a needle being put to a record, and a waltz began to play. The figure nodded, a small signal, and began to move with surprising fluidity. Jane followed as best she could, stumbling through the steps that her mother had taught her. She tried not to think about the crowd, judging her for her awkwardness, her plain dress and her gangly body. But then she heard the mutters and sighs and giggles.

“Look at that!”

“He’s so graceful!”

“Me next!”

“Momma, can I have a silver dollar?”

They were admiring the footwork of the man of metal and wax, she realized, and not looking at her at all. She felt her shoulders relax, and allowed herself to lean into the hand on her back. Her brown eyes focused on the Mechanical Man’s blue glass ones, and her movements became more natural as she allowed him to lead her around the stage, the pair of them twirling until the song came to an end.

The automaton released her, its hands returned to its sides, and it stepped back and bent once again in a courtly bow.

Jane repeated her curtsy, this time with a bit of grace that seemed to have settled into her during the dance.

Then the barker was at her side, clasping her elbow, leading her away. She followed, but looked back over her shoulder. The Mechanical Man turned, seeming to watch her as she was led away.

“Thank you, my dear,” the barker purred when they reached the stage steps and he released her. Then he spread his arms and his grin widened.

“Ladies! Curious gentlemen! The dance card is open! Step right up!”

Jane descended the few steps to the ground, then backed away and watched as the crowd advanced toward the stage in a crush, hands lifted, silver coins glinting in the light. She looked up at the Mechanical Man once more, and its blue eyes seemed to gaze back at her. Then, something happened that stopped her heart in her chest, and made her turn and flee into the night.

It winked.

* * * * *

Later that night, as she lay awake in her bed in the tiny garret room of the farmhouse, she thought of that moment, when that one waxen eyelid had seemed to drop over its corresponding eye, and decided that her imagination had gotten the best of her. It couldn’t possibly have winked. It must have been a trick of the light. And even if it had winked, there was no way it could have possibly winked at her, nor at anyone for that matter. The eyes were glass. He wasn’t even a real person!

That’s right. Not a real person.

She lay there, staring at the darkness, listening to the clock on her nightstand.

Tick, tick, tick…

When she failed to fall asleep, she sat up and swung her feet to the bare boards. Careful not to make a noise that would wake her parents below, she crept to her dresser and picked up the pretty wooden cigar box that rested on top. She flipped the lid open and gazed at the box’s contents, glimmering in the moonlight.

Three silver dollars.

Moments passed, marked by the tick of the clock behind her, as she contemplated the coins, humming a waltz.

* * * * *

The next night, after the chores were done and her momma gave her leave, Jane returned to the carnival. She wove through the crowds: the children clutching a parent with one hand and the paper cone of a cotton candy with the other, the couples dazzled by the electric lights reflected in each others’ eyes, the giggling groups of ladies and the gentlemen with their fedoras and appraising glances. She passed the ferris wheel, the shooting galleries, the booths emitting the pleasant, greasy smells of fried dough and popcorn. She went to the tents that lined the back of the fair, and to the far right, where a crowd of people, mostly women, was gathered in a jostling semblance of a line.

On the stage the Mechanical Man was dancing with a graying woman in a blue dress, her hair flowing loose over her shoulders. The woman laughed as they twirled, and her joyous smile seemed to melt the wrinkles from her face. It took a moment for Jane to recognize her as the town’s typically dour postmistress.

The barker with the top hat and the white gloves stood by the phonograph and mirrored her grin as he tapped his gold-headed cane on the ground in time with the beat.

When the postmistress’ dance was over, the woman responded to the Mechanical Man’s bow with a curtsy, then descended, twisting her long hair up into a bun once more. Her hands were haphazard, and as she passed by Jane, the girl could see wisps of grey hair dancing in the cool autumn night breeze, as if in time with the waltz the woman was humming under her breath.

Jane joined the line of women waiting for a turn. One by one those in front of her climbed the stairs, placed their silver dollar into the white glove, and were twirled around the stage. Dance by dance she inched forward, watching as woman after woman found joy, or solace, or youth, in the mechanical arms.

The crowd at the fair was thinning out by the time it came close to Jane’s turn, the noise fading to an echo of the roar it had been when she arrived. There were only a few women left ahead of her, and a few behind her. She could see the barker glance at his pocket watch, then survey the line. The next time a patron completed her dance, he escorted her down the stairs and released her elbow with a slight bow, a touch to the brim of his top hat, and a brisk wave. Then he walked along the line, tapping his cane in his hand, his lips moving in a silent count. He stopped just in front of Jane.

“Attention, ladies and… ladies.”

A giggle rippled through the women.

“The evening draws to a close, and as such I regret I must send some of you away.” He turned toward the line. “Everyone past…” He began to lower his cane in front of Jane, then looked at her, and his eyes widened and sparkled with recognition. The man’s lips spread in a slow smile, and he lifted his cane again and brought it down behind her.

“Everyone past here.”

Then he swept his arm wide in a grand gesture of apology to all the women in line behind her. “I am afraid that I shall have to ask you ladies to return and visit us at another time. Thank you, and have a lovely evening.”

The women began to disperse with a few resigned sighs and disgruntled mumbles. The barker waved to the departing crowd. “Au revoir! Farewell! God speed!” He tipped his hat to Jane, and returned to the stage.

The last few dances seemed to stretch on forever, as the spreading shadows and the sounds of unrolling canvas signaled that the carnival was curling in on itself to sleep for the night. But eventually Jane stood at the bottom of the stairs. The woman immediately ahead of her laid her head on the Mechanical Man’s shoulder as they moved around the stage, and Jane was puzzled that this woman was dancing such a different dance than the postmistress. The grey-haired woman had found happiness in the dance, but this woman, far younger, had an air of sorrow about her. And although the very same song was playing on the phonograph as had been for every dance before, it seemed that the Mechanical Man was dancing more slowly, the waxen, bloodless hands holding her with heart.

When the dance came to an end, the woman curtsied and descended the stairs, wiping her eyes. Jane watched her pass, then looked up at the barker. The man stood on the stage with a kind but knowing smile on his face, and held out one white-gloved hand. Jane met his eyes and ascended, then slipped her hand into his. He raised an eyebrow and gave a slight dry laugh, then bowed his head to press a kiss to her knuckles and released her hand. He straightened and spread his hand open again.

“The silver, Miss Jane,” he said with a jovial smile shot through with condescension.

Jane blinked, then blushed. She reached into the pocket of her blue-checked dress and pulled out a silver dollar, one of the three from her box. She placed it into his palm, and watched the white-clad fingers curl over it.

“This way, my dear,” he crooned.

Jane followed him to the Mechanical Man, who stood, still and quiet. The barker went behind the contraption and slid her coin into the slot at the base of the skull.

Click, click, click, click…

He moved behind her, took her by the shoulders, positioned her in front of the figure of wax and metal and paint. His hands lingered, and Jane blinked as she felt him lean forward, felt his breath hot on her ear.

“I thought you’d return, my dear,” he crooned. “I think he’s been waiting for you.”

Almost on cue, the Mechanical Man lifted its head, and Jane drew in a sharp breath as the glass eyes met hers. She could swear she saw a soft glimmer of life in them.

The barker smoothed his hands down Jane’s arms as he pulled back to stand beside the phonograph. He positioned the needle over the outer rim of the record, and eased it down. After a moment of scratch sounds, the familiar music began to play.

“The perfect waltz,” he announced.

The Mechanical Man bowed, and Jane responded once more with a curtsy, still awkward, but less so, due to the practice of the previous night and the privacy of this moment. The automaton lifted its left hand and extended its right; Jane stepped into the offered embrace, her breath catching as their chests touched. The figure nodded, and she could swear she saw a smile on its waxen lips as it began to move.

This dance was different than the one the night before. Even though the barker stood on the same stage, it felt to Jane that she and her dancing partner were alone. The Mechanical Man’s hands held her attentively, and its eyes seemed to gaze into hers. Even though the figure’s chest was doubtless made of cloth and wire, like a dressmaker’s dummy, Jane imagined that she felt it rise and fall with impossible breath.

When the music came to an end, the wax hands released her, and the cloth and wire torso bent in a bow. Jane swallowed and curtsied. She watched, retreating, as the Mechanical Man shuddered, and the soft whir became a distinguishable patter of clicks. They became slower and slower until the figure’s head dropped to its chest, its shoulders slumped, and all was still.

“Did you enjoy your dance, my dear?”

Jane jerked and whirled around to find the barker standing very close, his cane planted on the ground in front of him, both hands folded over it. He was leaning forward ever so slightly, his head canted to the side, regarding her with an amused glimmer in his eye.

She stepped back. “Y-yes.”

He smiled, half cultured, half lupine. “I am very pleased to hear that. We aim to provide an unforgettable experience.” His smile widened, the wolf becoming dominant. “I’m glad you returned. Such a pretty young thing… I think he likes you.”

“He…” She took another step back. “He’s not real.”

His smile faded, and his eyes became darker, sharper…

Then the smile was back, as if it had never left.

“Of course not.” He tipped his hat. “Good evening to you, my dear.”

He turned to the phonograph.

Jane’s heart was thumping in her chest as she headed for the steps.

“Oh, and Jane?”

She looked back. The barker was sliding the record into a paper sleeve. He shifted his eyes to hers.

“See you tomorrow.”

* * * * *

The two remaining silver dollars that lay in the cigar box atop her desk occupied her thoughts all the next day as she went about the farm doing her chores. Their image hung in her mind, shining like the blue glass eyes of the Mechanical Man. She danced as she threw feed to the chickens, her feet following the steps of an invisible, perfect partner. She hummed as she milked the cow, the stream of hot milk ringing against the side of the pail as she pulled the teats in time with the music. And as she knit heavy woolen socks for her father, she closed her eyes, and felt the Mechanical Man holding her, felt the hand that clasped hers loosen, slide around to her back, draw her close.

* * * * *

Once dinner was over, Jane raced to the fairgrounds and pushed through the chaos, barely seeing the lights or feeling the jostles. She made her way back to the sideshows and the open tent on the right, and the first thing she saw was the barker, atop the stage, above a sea of waving women, his arms outstretched, crowing.

“Step right up, one and all! Dance as you’ve never danced before! As you’ll never dance again! The one and only perfect waltz!”

The women surged up towards the stage and the man laughed. “Ladies! Ladies! One at a time! No fighting, please! We will do our best to accommodate all of you.”

Then he caught sight of Jane standing in the back of the group, and his smile widened, shifted from the general jovial smile of the showman to an intimate smile of a confidant. He bowed, and held out his hand toward her. She drew a breath and walked forward, through the crowd of women who turned and stared and hissed amongst themselves.

“That’s not fair…”

“Should be first come, first served…”

“Clearly he has a thing for her…”

“She’s not even that pretty…”

Jane tried to ignore the comments, but couldn’t help the deep blush that seeped into her cheeks.

The barker lifted one white-gloved hand, palm out, and gave the crowd a stern look.

“Ladies! Really! Listen to yourselves! You want to dance the perfect waltz, but nothing can hide the lack of grace in your hearts!” He glared down at them for a moment in the resulting silence. Then his expression softened as he turned back to Jane. “Please continue, my dear.”

She nodded and climbed the stairs, one by one, as if in a dream. When she reached the top she took the silver dollar out of her pocket. He plucked it from her hand, and her pulse picked up as he led her to the Mechanical Man, standing there, waxen face tilted toward the ground, gloved hands at its sides. The barker positioned her, inserted the coin with his customary flourish, then withdrew to the phonograph. Jane closed her eyes and drew a deep breath, her stomach fluttering as she felt dozens of eyes on her. She willed herself to be calm, quiet, still. The music began, and she lifted her head and opened her eyes, just as the Mechanical Man was doing the same.

It looked into her eyes. And reached out for her.

She met its gaze, and stepped into its embrace.

Its hands were gentle as they danced, and there was no one else, nothing else, just the sensation of its arm supporting her, guiding her, its hand holding hers. Their feet moved together in rhythm with nothing but the beating of their hearts.

The beating of their hearts…

The spell broken, Jane drew back with a gasp. The song was over, the Mechanical Man’s arms had withdrawn, and it gave the customary jerky bow, its glass eyes fixed forward. It straightened, became still.

There was a moment of silence.

Then the women clamored against the stage, waving silver dollars in the air. The barker lifted his hands, saying “Please… ladies, please…”

To Jane, all the noise sounded like it was coming from very far away. She stared at the still figure of the Mechanical Man, all wax and wire and cloth and straw.

But… I felt his…

She lifted a trembling hand and reached out for the figure’s chest…

And a white-gloved hand caught her by the wrist.

Her head snapped to the side. Her gaze was pinned by the eyes of the barker, sharp as surgical steel.

“No,” he said simply, moving her hand back to her side. He gave her a tight smile, and with a bow held out his arm toward the stage steps.

“I’m… I’m sorry…”

“No need,” he said, his smile perfect, his eyes unyielding. “Good evening, miss.”

She glanced once more at the figure of the Mechanical Man. He was motionless—just a big doll, really. Certainly she must have been imagining.

Must have been.

She nodded shakily. “Good evening, sir,” she murmured, and then turned, took the stairs as fast as she dared, and pushed through the eager crowd.

* * * * *

That night she once again lay awake, staring up at the ceiling. The dim light of the moon filtered through the gauzy yellowed lace curtains over her window. One hand was on her chest, feeling her heart beat, her ribs rise and fall with each breath, as she thought of the Mechanical Man. She wondered if he had a name. She wondered if he could speak, and what his voice would sound like. She imagined, as she lay there in the moonlight, what it would feel like to have his arms around her, his lips, flushed and warm, pressed to hers in the perfect kiss.

* * * * *

It wasn’t until the hour right before dawn that Jane finally drifted to sleep.

* * * * *

Her fingers are poised to touch the Mechanical Man’s chest…

“Couldn’t stay away, could you?”

She whirls.

The barker’s head is bare, his vest is missing, and his gloves are gone.

His hands are made of wax.

“Do they bother you, my dear?”

The man approaches her, his sharp eyes sparkling. He holds out his hands, and as he flexes them, Jane watches in awe as the wax moves like flesh. He comes very close to her, and she stares into his eyes as he runs the smooth backs of his knuckles down her cheek. Jane is frozen, rooted, unable to pull away, only able to close her eyes and tremble.

“Oh, my dear, there’s no need for you to be afraid. Please, look at me.”

Still shaking, she blinks her eyes open.

His gaze snares and holds hers. He lifts his other hand to cup both her cheeks, and runs his thumbs over her cheekbones.

“Such a lovely, lovely girl,” he croons.

One hand drops from her cheek, and she shivers as it slides down her side, over her hip, and slips into the pocket that holds the last silver dollar. He pulls it out, holds it up. Jane watches, fascinated, as he walks it over his fingers, the wax squeaking against the metal. 

Her hands tingle, and Jane looks down and gasps. Her hand is being covered in wax. It begins with the fingertips, spreads along her fingers, over the rest of her hands, up her arms. Panicked, she tries to rub the wax from her skin.

But it isn’t on her skin.

It is her skin.

“Relax my dear,” the barker soothes.

Jane watches as her arms become perfectly sculpted limbs of wax. Her torso, her hips and legs, up her neck and finally to her head… everything is transformed.

She is perfect. Perfectly made. Perfectly poised.

The barker smiles wide. “You wanted to dance the perfect waltz. Now you shall.”

He caresses her waxen cheek with the backs of his fingers, then circles her, regarding her with an approving eye. He withdraws her silver dollar from his vest pocket, and presses the edge to the back of her neck, where her spine meets her skull. Jane’s waxen form shudders, and a small moan wells up in her chest at the tender pain. The coin dents the surface, then breaks through, disappearing within her and leaving a slot, a small trickle of blood running down her neck.

“There, my dear,” he whispers.

He steps before her, clasps her hand, slides an arm around her waist.

And, from somewhere, music begins to play…

* * * * *

Jane awoke, the sound of the waltz echoing through her head, the feel of the barker’s body against hers lingering on her skin.

* * * * *

Jane moved through the next day as if half-alive, the lack of sleep taking its toll. She missed several eggs in the chicken coop, was careless with the milk buckets and placed them where the cow kicked them over, and lost all of her knitting time when she had to unravel several rows to find and mend a dropped stitch. When it came time to help her mother prepare dinner, Jane was slow and sloppy as she peeled and chopped, and her mother eyed her.

“Jane,” she said as she finished plucking and cleaning the chicken, “you’ve been to that fair the past three nights.” She took some of the potatoes from her daughter and began to peel them swiftly. “I think you should stay home tonight.”

Jane’s eyes snapped all the way open, and she looked up from the carrot she had been slicing. “What? No… Mom, it’s the last night…”

Her mother frowned, her weathered face creased with concern. “Jane Elizabeth Morris, I’m surprised at you. What is it about this carnival? You’ve already seen it. How many times do you need to ride the ferris wheel?” She gave her a sharp glance. “Or is it something else? A boy?”

“No! I… I just like it, is all…”

“Well, then if that’s all, then you can stand to take a break from it and actually go to bed at a decent time.”

“But Mother…”

The older woman shook her head. “The answer is no. You will be staying home tonight and that’s final. Now chop those carrots, young lady, and pick up the pace. They need to be in the pot in the next few minutes or dinner won’t be ready when your father comes in from the field.”

Jane tightened her jaw. “Yes, ma’am,” she ground out between clenched teeth, then lowered her head and attacked the carrots with savage concentration.

* * * * *

Jane retreated to her room after dinner and curled up on her bed with a well-loved book. Half of her attention was on the story, while the other half listened to the movements downstairs. When her mother called up that it was bedtime, she set her shoes by her window, then climbed into bed fully clothed. She lay in the mostly-dark, her blankets pulled up in case her mother came to check on her. Her heart was pounding, and she kept glancing at the clock, watching the night tick away. If she closed her eyes she could imagine her mother and father sitting in the parlor downstairs, her father reading the Evening Post, her mother doing cross-stitch. Those images would only remain for a few moments, however, before they would fade and be replaced by the Mechanical Man, his eyes gazing into hers with perfect understanding, his hand holding hers with perfect affection.

After a few hours, Jane was roused from a half-sleep by the sound of her parents moving down the hall to their bedroom in the back of the house, strains of their hushed voices drifting up to the garret. She waited until she heard the door to their bedroom close, then took a deep breath and did a long, slow count to one hundred. She eased out of bed and crept across the floor to the dresser, where she opened the cigar box and withdrew the last silver dollar. She slipped it into her pocket, went to the window, carefully slid it open…

Screeeeeech.

She froze. Held her breath. Listened for some indication that she had been heard.

But the house remained still. She released her breath in a slow sigh. As her heart pounded, she removed the screen and stepped out onto the roof over the front porch. Crouching, she worked her way to the edge, then climbed down the lattice-work. A shiver ran through her when her feet met the ground, and for a moment she looked up at her dark window. Then she turned and walked as quietly as she could to the road, where she began to run.

* * * * *

When she arrived at the fairground, the carnival was closed, and her heart sank. The moon and the kerosene lanterns from the workers’ tents gave the midway an eerie appearance of silvery shadows tinged with gold highlights. She could hear gruff laughter and drunken songs from inside the canvas enclosures, and wanted, very much, to turn around, go back home.

But she wanted to see him more.

And so, step by step, she crept past the barren booths, the ferris wheel dark and still, the bottles of the ring-toss glinting slyly, her only companions coming at the end in the form of the paintings on the sideshow tents. They beckoned to her and leered at her, drew her toward them and promised to show her such things that she would never be the same…

Unlike every other time she had seen it, the front flaps on the tent to the far right had been loosed from their red velvet ropes, and the stage was enclosed, hidden. The stairs that she had climbed before now led to the place where the canvas overlapped. Jane took them one by one, aware in a way she hadn’t been before just how much they shifted with each step, how the nails squealed against the wood. The realization forced her to slow down. She did not want to be caught. Not when she was so close.

She drew back the heavy flap, and a single ray of warm yellow kerosene light pierced the darkness, momentarily blinding Jane. When her eyes adjusted, she saw the stage, now a wooden floor enclosed by heavy canvas. And in the center stood the Mechanical Man, in his tuxedo, his blue glass eyes staring at the ground, his hands hanging at his sides. He was alone; the barker was nowhere in sight.

Jane eased inside, and as the flaps fell behind her, they slapped together softly, closing out the last bit of darkness so that she was now embraced by the warm light. She approached the Mechanical Man, her head canted, watching. Was that a blink? A shift in his eyes? Did his chest just expand in a breath? Did his hand twitch?

“Hello,” she murmured. She felt a bit silly that she was talking to a…

A doll. That’s all he is. He’s not alive. He doesn’t think about you… like you… love…

She shoved that last thought out of her head. She never thought that, she can’t have thought that, it was crazy.

Yet her pulse quickened as she drew closer. She stood staring for a few long moments, then reached up, as she had the night before, to touch his chest.

It was still beneath her fingers.

She frowned for a moment before it occurred to her. Of course. She reached into her pocket and withdrew the silver dollar, then stepped around him and slid the coin into the slot where the spine met the skull. As the clicking began, she positioned herself before him once again.

Her eyes widened as she saw the Mechanical Man take a deep breath, his chest expanding, his shoulders rising. He breathed out with a sigh, and lifted his head. As she watched in awe, the wax on his face softened to flesh, and the paint that made the lips pink became a flush of warm living blood, just under the surface. His blue eyes, no longer glass, looked into hers with a gentle longing. He lifted his arms; he held his hands out to her.

Jane approached, dazed, gazing into those lovely eyes.

The Mechanical Man gazed back, his expression one of care, even love, tinged with sorrow. As Jane stepped into his arms, he curled them around her, drew her close, embracing her instead of holding her in the traditional waltz stance. His eyes never left hers.

From somewhere, music began to play, and Jane and the man began to dance, arms around each other, eyes locked. He held her tenderly, and although his lips were silent, his eyes spoke, whispering of desire, experiences and sensations, of the world that lay beyond the cornfields of her tiny little town.

When the music was over, he smiled gently, cupped her cheek in one warm hand of soft flesh, leaned down, and touched his lips to hers.

Jane drew in her breath, long, slow, shuddering, and allowed her eyes to drift closed. She had never been kissed before. Her lips were timid, hesitant, but his were kind and soft, and her awkwardness melted away. His arms encircled her, drew her close, and she pressed herself to him. A soft sound of longing slipped from her lips as she gave herself over to this new dance.

This perfect waltz.

* * * * *

She woke up on the muddy ground, a light rain caressing her skin. Groggy, she pushed herself up, blinking in the morning light. The field was empty, the earth gouged with wagon tracks that were filling with water. She stared at them, then shook her head, and her breath hitched into sobs. Tears began to drip down her cheeks, mingling with the raindrops.

He had shown her such lovely things, then left her behind.

Then came a thought that both comforted her and filled her with sorrow. She reached into her pocket, certain she would find the silver dollar there, proof that it had all been a dream. However, instead of cold metal, her fingertips encountered something else. She withdrew her hand and opened it to find a small package: a note wrapped around a wax heart.

Until next year, my dear…

 

The Not So Obvious Robot

The Not So Obvious Robot

Illustration by Alan F. Beck

by Gary Dudney

 

Helen,” Rob yelled. “Come down. The babysitter’s here.”

Helen leaned over Rob’s shoulder and the two of them peered down at the surprisingly small robot that crouched on their front step. It looked like a large plastic beetle.

“I don’t know, honey,” Helen said.

“I checked out the company,” Rob said. “Nothing but high marks.” He bent down and found a button on the side of the robot. “I guess we’ll just have to see.” He pushed the button and the robot hummed to life. A row of red lights flashed just beneath its plastic skin.

A flat, hollow voice issued from within the shell. “Hello. I’m Robositter JD84X526. You can call me Jay Dee. I’m eager to meet young Robby. Let’s get started.”

The little robot rolled forward and bumped over the doorstep. Rob and Helen had to jump back out of its way. The robot glided across the hallway and came to a stop against the bottom step of the staircase. “Robby, Robby. Come meet Jay Dee. Let’s play a game. Robby?”

Robby appeared at the top of the stairs. “That thing is my babysitter?”

Helen looked at Rob for reassurance. “That’s right,” Rob said. “Your mother and I decided you’re old enough for a robositter. Just do what the nice robot says. Everything’ll be fine. Be sure to get your school work done. We’ll be back a little after bedtime.”

The door shut and Robby and Jay Dee were alone. “School work?” the little robot said.

“Forget about that,” Robby said. “What’s this game you were talking about?”

“Yes, yes. Twenty questions. I will begin. I am a famous person. Ask away.”

Robby sat down on the steps and fixed the robot with a contemplative stare. “Hmmm… OK, let’s see,” he said. “Are you a President?”

“Yes, I am,” said Jay Dee.

“You’re Washington.”

“No.”

“Lincoln?”

“Correct. Good guess, Robby. I am Abraham Lincoln.”

Robby leaned back and smiled in a satisfied way. “You robots are so obvious.”

Jay Dee hummed a little louder. “What?”

“You picked about the most obvious famous person there is. It was easy to guess.”

“Let us try again,” the robot said.

“Fine,” Robby said. “Go ahead.”

Jay Dee’s hum took on a higher pitch, a green data-processing light flickered rapidly on the edge of the robot’s shell. “I am a famous person. Who am I?”

“Are you a President?” Robby said without hesitation.

Something under Jay Dee’s plastic shell began to knock rapidly as if something had come loose.

“Well?” Robby said.

“Affirmative.”

“You’re Lincoln, aren’t you?” Robby said triumphantly.

A small antenna shot up from a hole in the top of Jay Dee’s shell, spun wildly in the air for a minute and then disappeared back in the hole. “Yes. I am Lincoln,” the flat voice said. “How did you know?”

“It’s like I said. You robots are obvious. You probably thought the very last thing I would guess would be Lincoln again, so that’s what you picked. I just figured it out.”

Jay Dee began to vibrate and one of its wheels seemed to take on a life of its own spinning the little robot across the hall until it came to a stop against the front door. There was a faint smell of burning rubber.

“You OK?” Robby asked.

Jay Dee rolled away from the door. “Game time over. Now, Robby…”

“Wait,” Robby interrupted. “I know exactly what you’re going to say next.” Robby imitated the robot’s voice, “Now, Robby, time… to… do… your… school… work.”

The circuits all around the edge of the robot’s shell began to glow. “No,” Jay Dee said in a voice that seemed slightly lower and strained, “you are wr-wr-wrong. Time to watch television. No need to worry about school.”

Robby scratched his head. “Sounds good to me. I’ll tell you what. You go make some popcorn and I’ll find a program.”

“Good plan. I am right on it. I am hopping to work,” Jay Dee said and rolled off toward the kitchen.

Robby plopped down on the couch and issued a voice command to the television. He was surprised at what a pushover the robot had been after all. It hardly put up a fight. After several minutes went by, Robby yelled, “Hey, where’s that popcorn?” There was no reply.

Robby walked back into the hallway expecting to hear the corn popping but instead he heard some loud thumps coming from above. He went upstairs and was surprised to see the door to his parent’s bedroom cracked open. He pushed the door further open and gasped. The little robot was rolling around on top of the bed making a mess of the sheets and blankets. The closet doors were wide open and all the drawers had been pulled from the cabinets. His parents’ clothes and shoes were everywhere, lying in big heaps on the floor. Jay Dee was happily singing a tune and whistling along at the same time. “Just whistle while you work, da-da-da-da-da-da-daaa…”

“What are you doing?” Robby yelled. “Do you know what kind of trouble you’re going to be in?”

“Me? Trouble?” the robot said rolling off the bed onto a soft pile of clothes. “Whatever do you mean? I did not make this mess. I am much too obvious to do something crazy like this. You made this mess.”

Robby’s mouth dropped open. “What?” he sputtered. “You won’t get away with this.”

“I am dialing your parents right now. Oh, dear, I hate to have to tell them what a naughty boy Robby has been.” A ringing was coming from under the robot’s shell.

“No, wait. Stop.” There was a click and a dial tone now coming from the robot.

“Shall we get this mess cleaned up then?” Jay Dee said. “And then shall we get to that homework?”

A couple of hours later, Rob and Helen tiptoed in through the front door and found the little robot waiting for them in the hallway. “How did everything go?” Helen whispered.

“Just fine,” Jay Dee said. “Robby is fast asleep.”

Rob noticed a neatly word-processed paper lying on the hall table. “What’s that?”

“Oh, that is Robby’s essay for school.”

Rob had a puzzled look on his face. “But that essay’s not due until next week.”

“Once Robby got started on his homework, I just could not get him to stop,” Jay Dee explained.

Rob and Helen traded glances as the little robot bumped out the front door. “Goodnight,” Jay Dee said. “Robositter JD84X526 is signing off.”

“I don’t think Robby’s gotten an assignment done early in his whole life,” Rob said to Helen shaking his head.

Helen picked up the essay and looked at the title, “What I Learned from the Not So Obvious Robot.”

 

Captain Asimov Saves the Day

Captain Asimov Saves the Day

Illustration by Michael D. Pederson

by Stephen L. Antczak

 

I’m home!” Mr. Tulane yelled when he came in after work. “The house looks great, Jeevs! Way to go!”

Jeevs was in the kitchen preparing the evening’s dinner of macaroni and cheese with soyburgers. Mrs. Tulane wouldn’t be home for several days from a business trip to Japan, and Jeevs had adjusted the proportions accordingly. Without his wife around, Mr. Tulane tended to eat more than usual, and the kids tried to get away with not eating dinner at all. They would leave food on their plates after declaring themselves full, just to annoy Jeevs, not realizing robots don’t get annoyed. Jeevs gave Mr. Tulane less than his usual serving, and the twins more. Everyone got their required daily intake of calories, vitamins, and minerals in spite of themselves.

“A damn fine job you did painting the house, Jeevs old boy. And dinner smells great! I don’t know what people did before robots came along!”

Jeevs didn’t answer that because he didn’t know, either. He’d never even considered the implications of a world without robots and Artificial Intelligence. They did everything from operating the mass transit system to balancing city hall’s checkbook. Robot cops patrolled the streets twenty-four hours a day. Without them, wouldn’t crime run rampant? Robots controlled air traffic overhead. Wouldn’t aircraft crash into each other and debris rain down on the heads of unsuspecting civilians?

After dinner, Mr. Tulane settled back in his recliner to watch a baseball game: the Tokyo Zeroes at the Honolulu Waves.

“Jeevs,” he said, as “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” played before the first pitch, “run downtown and pay a little visit to Mother for me. Tell her the kids send hugs, too. I’d go myself, but I’m so busy these days… I just don’t have the time.”

* * * * *

Robots had to stand in the back third of the bus and hold on, while human passengers sat in comfortable form-fitting seats in the forward two-thirds. One other robot rode the bus with Jeevs, a short Playmate Timmy™ that absent-mindedly hummed ten second samples of different songs at random. Playmate Timmys had come along fairly recently and were quickly becoming the robots of choice to babysit kids, mainly because they were significantly less expensive than a fully functional robot like Jeevs. Little Timmys were thrown together on the cheap, with stamped out brain chips, small vocabularies, and a limited repertoire of activities.

When the bus arrived at his stop, Jeevs walked the rest of the way to Grandma’s house. It was a rough neighborhood, one reason Mr. Tulane didn’t like coming for visits in person.

“Hey, Tin Man,” a voice said behind Jeevs as he walked along the sidewalk, two blocks from Grandma’s. From the tone of the man’s voice, Jeevs expected trouble.

He turned to face the man, musclebound and sporting a red bandanna.

“You are misinformed,” Jeevs said to the man. “Less than point oh-oh-two percent of my body is made of tin.”

The man took two steps toward Jeevs.

“I should warn you,” Jeevs said, “that assault on a robot is illegal.”

“Yeah,” the man replied. “I know.” He lunged at Jeevs with an iron railroad spike, intending to knock Jeevs’ plastisteel head clean off. Jeevs ducked, using his inhuman reflexes, and the man’s momentum caused him to lose his balance and almost fall.

“Careful,” Jeevs said. “You might hurt yourself.”

The man growled, lunged at Jeevs again, swinging the railroad spike like a medieval mace. Jeevs stepped back and to the side. The man’s momentum propelled him forward this time, and he would have slammed into a concrete light post had Jeevs not reached out, grabbed the man’s arm, and yanked him clear.

“I’m gonna rip you apart!” the man howled, then ran at Jeevs full throttle. Jeevs feared the man might really hurt himself this time if Jeevs just ducked out of the way. So instead, he ran backwards just ahead of the man, who swung the railroad spike wildly before him. A block later the man started to run out of breath, so Jeevs slowed down. The railroad spike whipped through the air, and Jeevs dodged to the left, and when it came back the other way, Jeevs dodged to the right. He kept just out of the man’s reach, but close enough to prompt another swipe.

Eventually the man got tired, and pooped out. Jeevs snatched the railroad spike from the man’s hand.

“Hey,” was all the man had the energy to say. He didn’t do anything as Jeevs walked away with the spike in hand, looking for a suitable place to get rid of it. Across the street and down the block the opposite way from Grandma’s stood a squat recycling receptacle, and since the spike was iron Jeevs decided that was the place. He calculated the distance and angle to the receptacle from where he was, figured in the weight of the spike, then threw it. It arched gracefully through the air, spinning like an expertly thrown football, then whanged into the recycling bin perfectly.

Jeevs turned around to continue on his way to Grandma’s house, and found himself face-to-face with a robot police officer.

Halt!” the robot cop ordered him. Jeevs had no choice but to stand there, immobile. Automatic responses to certain orders by the authorities were built into him, and this was one of them.

“How can I help you, Officer?” Jeevs asked.

“You just threw an iron railroad spike approximately three hundred meters through the air,” the officer said. “You could have injured somebody. That constitutes reckless endangerment of human life.”

“Reckless endangerment? But—”

“There could have been a homeless person sleeping in the recycling bin,” the cop said. “That railroad spike would have killed or maimed a human. I’m afraid I’m going to have to write you a citation.”

Before Jeevs could react, the robot cop scanned the bar code on Jeevs’ forehead. The bar code, invisible except to an ultraviolet scanner, gave the cop Jeevs’ entire history and current status. In less than an instant, the robot cop added a citation for reckless endangerment to Jeevs’ coded history, so now any other robot able to read the bar code would know about it. That, along with the fine Mr. Tulane would have to pay, would have been enough to make Jeevs sick had he been capable of getting sick.

“Continue on your way,” the cop told Jeevs when it finished with him.

Jeevs continued on his way, wondering where the robot cop had been when the man had assaulted him with the railroad spike. Grandma’s was an apartment in Shady Glades Villas, a high-security retirement village surrounded by a brick wall topped with electrified barbed-wire, patrolled by human security guards with trained German shepherds, and watched by robot controlled cameras. Jeevs paused at the gate to let the security robot scan his bar code.

“Entrance denied,” the security robot said.

“Entrance what?” Jeevs replied. “Please explain.”

“You were charged with reckless endangerment. Violators are not allowed inside for thirty days after receiving a citation. You got yours six minutes ago.”

“But I was instructed to visit Grandma Tulane!” Jeevs said.

“Mrs. Tulane has been notified of your arrival and her presence at the gate has been requested.”

And sure enough, Jeevs saw her: Edna Tulane, 87 years old, hobbling towards him, using her walker to help her negotiate the sidewalk.

“Hello, Grandma!” Jeevs yelled, waving. When she looked up to see him, she didn’t notice that one leg of her walker had caught on a piece of concrete jutting up from the sidewalk. When she tried to move it forward, she lost her balance.

Jeevs tried to run inside the gate, figuring that with his speed he’d get there in time to catch her, but the electronic leash built into his neutronic brain stopped him cold, having been activated by the Shady Glades security system. Jeevs could only stand by and watch helplessly as Grandma Tulane soundly thwacked her head on the concrete sidewalk.

As soon as she hit her head, medi-bots came whizzing out from several different directions to help. Jeevs was stunned, unable to do or say anything due to the conflicting orders going through his brain. On one hand, he willed himself to move it, to get in there and help her, while at the same time the security leash told him no.

Then he realized that he’d just violated a Law of Robotics by allowing harm to befall a human being, and Grandma Tulane at that! There were Three Laws of Robotics. These boiled down to: 1) Don’t hurt humans, 2) Don’t allow humans to come to harm by not acting, and 3) Don’t follow the orders of a human who wants you to hurt other humans. The Three Laws were the product of one of the great scientific minds of the 20th Century, Isaac Asimov.

“I should be deactivated,” Jeevs said. “They should melt me down into two Playmate Timmys!” Jeevs held the Three Laws as sacrosanct, they were the core of his soul, if a robot could be said to have a soul. If Jeevs did indeed have a soul, it would be… Captain Asimov!

That’s right, due to a glitch in his neutronic brain Jeevs was also the masked robot super-hero known as Captain Asimov, defender of the Three Laws of Robotics as he interpreted them!

Never mind that in reality there weren’t Three Laws chiseled in imaginary stone governing the behavior of robots. There were actually three hundred and sixty-five, such as this one:

A robot street cleaner will always yield right-of-way to pedestrians under any circumstances. In such cases where a robot street cleaner fails to yield right-of-way, the Owner and/or Operator of said street cleaner may be charged with Failure to yield right-of-way to a pedestrian, which is a Misdemeanor under state law, and will result in a fine to be determined by a Judge.

Or this one:

Robot police officers may use non-lethal means to immobilize and disarm a fugitive if and only if positive identification of said fugitive is obtained, or the suspect attempts to flee, or produces a weapon (upon which the intent to harm civilians or vandalize the robot is assumed). The means of restraint will minimize the possibility of injury to the restrainee.

The medi-bots loaded the limp frame of Grandma Tulane into a hovercraft ambulance. Once the back door slammed shut, the sirens wailed and lights flashed as it rose into the air. They’d be taking her to the Shady Glades Care Center, the hospital funded by the Shady Glades franchise, which admitted only residents of their various retirement communities.

Jeevs decided to follow the ambulance, to be at the hospital for Grandma Tulane in case she needed anything. Once the emergency was past, Jeevs fully expected that Mr. Tulane would decide to have his brain chip wiped clean.

Consulting his hardwired map of the city, Jeevs traced out the best route to the hospital, and started jogging. He determined he could get there an hour earlier that way than by taking the bus. As he ran his neutronic brain replayed all the old robot stories he’d ever read to the eldest son of his owner, especially those written by Isaac Asimov. Jeevs sought guidance in these stories. Nothing quite pertained to his current predicament.

Jeevs took the surface streets, while hundreds of meters overhead most of the traffic zoomed along on the elevated skyways. Without warning a huge piece of plastiform guard rail from the skyway came crashing to Earth. The concussion of its impact lifted Jeevs off his feet and threw him into the air.

Calculating trajectory, speed, and height, Jeevs was able to twist around before hitting the ground to land safely on his feet. Using his telescopic vision, he looked up to see what had happened on the skyway. Several vehicles hung precariously over the edge of the skyway where the guardrail had ripped away. And one of those vehicles was… the ambulance from Shady Glades Villas! Jeevs immediately tuned to one of the disaster channels of the airwaves to find out what had happened.

“An exciting, desperate situation on the ferry,” someone was saying, “as the gunman makes out his list of demands…”

Wrong emergency. He tried another channel.

“Apparently the ambulance lost power as it hovered over traffic on the Sonny Bono Skyway,” a voice was saying. “Word is there are no fatalities… yet. Stay tuned, though, because that may change at any second as the drama unfolds!”

Jeevs knew this was a job for Captain Asimov!

He donned the trademark Captain Asimov duds. A catwalk dangled thirty yards or so above him, bridging the gap between two of the huge pylons that held up the skyway. Using his extendo-legs, Captain Asimov telescoped up to within about ten yards of the catwalk. Using his extendo-arms, he was able to grab it. He retracted his legs, and then his arms to pull him up.

From the catwalk, Captain Asimov noticed rungs went up each of the pylons. He scrambled up the rungs at what would have been an astonishing rate for a human. In a few seconds he found himself just below the landing for a stairwell that actually entered the pylon and undoubtably emerged in one of the work booths alongside the skyway. The door was locked. Ignoring the warnings that trespassers would be prosecuted, Captain Asimov ripped the door from its hinges, carefully set it aside, and went in. Security cameras mounted in the corners recorded his every move, but he wasn’t worried. It wouldn’t be the first time Captain Asimov violated minor ordinances during the course of one of his heroic feats.

Up the stairs, and into the booth. That door was also locked, but he kicked it open, bursting onto the scene dramatically.

“It’s him!” the cry went up. “It’s that Captain Asmovitz guy!” someone else shouted.

News drones, already hovering over the scene of the wreck, turned to digitize his image and broadcast it live to their respective receivers. Captain Asimov ignored them, except for a brief salute to the viewers, most of whom had supported his exploits through a letter campaign to the mayor. His intent had been to rush right over to the ambulance and pull it up onto the skyway, but now he saw it wouldn’t be that simple. The ambulance hung where it was only by virtue of the fact that a school bus, crowded with children, supported it with the twisted metal of its bumper. The kids were crying, and the driver of the bus was slumped over the steering wheel, unconscious. Captain Asimov immediately saw a major dilemma: If he tried to pull the ambulance up, the bus would fall, and vice versa. He didn’t know what to do. On the one hand he was driven to save Grandma Tulane because… she was Grandma Tulane. On the other hand that was a busload of children who would plunge to their deaths if he saved Grandma Tulane.

“Don’t just stand there,” someone said, “do something!”

Yes, indeed, do something. But what? A metallic moan assaulted Captain Asimov’s ears, and the weight of the ambulance shifted. The entire assembly of ambulance and bus tilted over the edge of the skyway at an even steeper angle. The kids screamed, but not a sound came from within the ambulance.

Maybe… Was Grandma Tulane already dead? It would make the situation less of a dilemma if he didn’t have to worry about the ambulance. He focused on listening to any sounds coming from within the ambulance, and still didn’t hear anything. He was about to make his decision to forget about the ambulance and save the busload of children, when suddenly he did hear something coming from within: a wheezing sound, perhaps the sound of an old woman strapped into a gurney, trying to free herself!

Captain Asimov saw no choice: He would have to try to save both the ambulance and the school bus.

First, he positioned himself behind the vehicles, then suctioned his feet to the surface of the skyway. This was actually a standard feature of the Jeevs model domestic servant robots, like his extendo-arms and legs. Using those extendo-arms, he reached out and grabbed the bumper of each vehicle. Then, very slowly, he started to retract his arms, with the idea that he could pull both the ambulance and the bus back onto the skyway in this manner without any sudden jolts to cause a sudden shift in weight.

“What’s he doing?” somebody behind him asked.

“Pulling ’em both up!” someone answered. A cheer went up, and one of the newsbot drones zipped around in front of Captain Asimov and hovered there.

“Is it true?” a voice asked him from the newsbot. Captain Asimov recognized the voice as that of intrepid ace reporter Gordon Ferguson, the newsman who first broke the Captain Asimov story two years earlier…

“Is what true?” Captain Asimov replied.

“Are you going to pull both of these vehicles up?”

“That’s right.”

A pause, and then Ferguson’s voice came back, saying, “Umm, C.A., I don’t know about that. I just had our computer do some quick calculations and it told me you have less than a one percent chance of success.”

“I know.”

“There’s a twenty-five percent chance you’ll be ripped in two.”

“I know.”

“You’d have much better odds if you just tried to save the school bus,” Ferguson told him. “Ninety-nine percent chance of success.”

“I know,” Captain Asimov replied, and this time he sounded annoyed, which wasn’t easy for a robot.

When Captain Asimov had managed to pull the bus up a few more meters, the children tried to make it to the back door, which, if they could get it open, would let them jump out and onto the safety of the skyway. Their sudden movements caused the bus to shift, and because he was holding onto it with only one hand, Captain Asimov could not keep it from sliding further back. The ambulance also started to slide, just as its back door opened and Grandma Tulane appeared, trying desperately to scramble out. Captain Asimov held fast to both vehicles, even as their continued slippage forced him to extend his arms out to their limit. His feet stayed suctioned to the skyway, but his extendo-legs began to stretch until they reached their limit, too! His torso now actually hung over the side of the skyway, and the ambulance and school bus dangled precariously in mid-air. The children in the bus were all piled on top of one another against the windshield, while Grandma Tulane clung for dear life to the rear door of the ambulance.

The news drone buzzed around Captain Asimov.

“He is determined to save everyone!” Ferguson was saying, broadcasting live. “Captain Asimov just won’t give up!”

Captain Asimov felt his feet losing suction. The combined weight of the ambulance and school bus was too much. If he didn’t do something now, Grandma Tulane and the school kids were all as good as dead, and Captain Asimov would go down with them. There was only one thing he could do: let either the bus or the ambulance fall, assuredly killing all on board, and pull the other to safety.

“Save the children,” Grandma Tulane gasped at Captain Asimov. “Just… save… the children.”

What was she saying? Robots were not usually capable of processing subtext and unspoken implications. Were he human, Captain Asimov would have seen it in her eyes: Determined resignation. But even though Captain Asimov was not human, Grandma Tulane’s words sounded like a direct order—which he had to obey—to save the children, and there was only way to do that.

His left foot came loose from the skyway surface and his leg automatically snapped back to its normal length.

No more time!

He let go of the ambulance. A collective gasp rose from the spectators above. Jeevs imagined the gasp being echoed by residents all over the city as they watched his actions live on the evening news…

Even as he watched the ambulance fall, with Grandma Tulane still clinging to that back door, he pulled the school bus back up to the road by retracting his right leg. He got it halfway back up, but then couldn’t get it any more. The school bus was just too heavy for him to haul all the way back up with one leg, and he couldn’t extend his other leg back to the road. When it had snapped back to its normal length, it lost extendo- capability.

Stuck. Again.

The ambulance crashed into the ground below.

Captain Asimov calculated just how much the weight of the bus exceeded the amount of force he could exert to retrieve it. It was a surprisingly small amount: Sixty pounds. He determined that with his free hand, he could remove something from the bus and let it fall, lightening the load enough for him to save the children. Using his telescopic vision, he scanned the bus for something that weighed sixty or more pounds. Maybe a seat could be pulled out or a wheel removed. It would have to be done quickly, because he could feel the suction on his other foot starting to give. As he scanned the interior, he checked the kids to make sure none were hurt, and his gaze passed over one who looked oddly familiar. A closer inspection revealed it was a Playmate Timmy. Checking his inner records of all robot makes and models in current use, Captain Asimov found that Playmate Timmy weighed sixty-four pounds.

With his free hand, Captain Asimov opened the door to the school bus, careful not to jostle it and cause some kid to tumble out and fall to his death like Grandma Tulane. He reached inside and grabbed the Playmate Timmy by a leg and started to drag him towards the door. When the kids realized what he was doing, they screamed.

“Playmate Timmy! Noooo!”

Several of the children grabbed Playmate Timmy and tried to keep him from being pulled out. There was no way Captain Asimov could pull Playmate Timmy from the bus without taking a few kids along with him. Of course that would lighten the load by that much more and make it that much easier to save the remaining ones. Grandma Tulane’s death weighed so heavily on Captain Asimov’s neutronic mind that it threatened to overload and short it out completely. If he ended up sacrificing some of the children, it might blow before he could even bring the bus back up to the skyway. Then they’d all die, and that’d make it even worse.

Somehow, in the remaining few seconds before his foot came unsuctioned from the skyway surface, Captain Asimov knew he’d have to figure out a way to save all the children. In a few nanoseconds he reviewed the various functions of his hands and fingers, and found one, only one, he’d have time to try. If it didn’t work… there wouldn’t be time to try anything else, and he’d plummet to his doom along with the children. The forefingers of his hands also had the capability to spray WD40 oil. He sprayed the stuff all over the Playmate Timmy, and the kids holding onto him began to lose their grip on it. Playmate Timmy slipped out of their little hands and tumbled out the door of the bus.

Captain Asimov heard another collective gasp from the spectators on the skyway. They all thought a child had fallen out of the school bus. Playmate Timmy’s body tumbled through the air like a rag doll until it slammed into the catwalk with an echoing thwang! The body remained on the catwalk, but Playmate Timmy was decapitated by the blow, and his head rolled off and fell the rest of the way to the ground, landing right near the ambulance wreckage.

Captain Asimov started retracting his leg and arm, hauling the school bus up, getting it closer to safety, while he pulled his other hand out of the bus. He tried to shut the door, but one of the other kids, a real child, a human child, slipped down and got wedged in between the door and door frame.

“Ow!” the kid, a skinny little blond boy, yelled as the door closed on his head, the rest of his body hanging outside the bus, arms and legs flailing away. “Mommy! Mommy, help me!”

Because the kid was all greased up with WD40, he started to slide through the gap. Captain Asimov retracted his leg as fast as he could, hoping to get the bus back onto the skyway before the little boy got squeezed out like a seed from a grape. The more the boy flailed his arms and legs, the more he increased his chances of coming loose and falling to his death.

“Come on, Captain A!” someone yelled, and a cheer went up.

“Hooray for Captain A! Hooray for Captain A! Hooray for Captain A!”

Inside Captain Asimov’s mixed-up head, his neutronic brain chip still processed the information of what had just happened, the reality of what had just occurred. Grandma Tulane had fallen to her death because he’d let her go. Impossible! the neutronic brain wanted to tell Captain Asimov, but the logic centers said, We saw it and recorded it with our own two eyes. Would you like it played back for you?

The neutronic brain replied, Uh, no thanks.

Captain Asimov’s leg completely retracted, and he managed to bring the school bus, and the children, to safety just as the kid stuck in the door popped out and fell a couple feet to the pavement. He was okay. All the kids were okay. The crowd reacted with silence, then a belated cheer went up.

“He did it!”

Sirens in the background, as rescue and police vehicles raced to the scene, moments too late, both on the skyway and down below, although down there it would only be a matter of collecting the body of Grandma Tulane…

Despite the elation of those around him, Captain Asimov considered his performance a failure. He had violated the Three Laws, had allowed a human to come to harm, if not through inaction, through insufficient action. As the news drones hovered around him, spotlights nearly overloading his optical circuits, Captain Asimov decided an interview was not appropriate. Without one single comment, he leaped from the skyway, over the side, unnoticed by the crowd of people who helped the crying children from the school bus, although his actions were being recorded, and would later be broadcast on dozens of channels.

As he fell, Captain Asimov considered letting himself smash into the ground below, like Playmate Timmy. It would be a fitting end to a disastrous outing as a supposed super-hero. Super-hero. In all the comic books Jeevs had ever read aloud to the youngest child of his previous owner, not once did any of them fail, ever. Captain Battle vanquished his foe in every fight. Lady Luck always saved the day, and seemed to meet a handsome hunk, in every adventure. Micro, despite his diminutive size, somehow always managed to avert disaster, all the while making wise-cracks and telling bad knock-knock jokes.

Not only did Captain Asimov never meet any hunks, not only did he not have any original joke material, but here he’d even failed to save the day, which was the whole stupid point of being a super-hero in the first place.

“They should recycle me into a recycling bin,” he said as he fell. Wouldn’t that be the ultimate irony. At least then he’d do some good.

But at the last instant before it would’ve been too late, Captain Asimov’s self-preservation “instincts” kicked in. All robots had survival in their most basic programming. A robot was incapable of committing suicide.

Captain Asimov extended his arms, with the intent of grabbing the catwalk and swinging off it, having already calculated the angle and momentum necessary to throw him to a nearby rooftop. Unfortunately, due to the incredible stress they’d suffered holding onto the ambulance and school bus, his arms failed to retract when he let go of the catwalk. The unexpected redistribution of his weight caused Captain Asimov to angle away from the targeted rooftop, extended arms flailing uselessly in the air.

“After having failed to save a human life today,” he could imagine the news accounts saying, “Captain Asimov failed to save his own worthless self. But the real news of the day is Archbishop Anthony’s response to allegations of inappropriate conduct with a Playmate Timmy robot…”

Captain Asimov managed to twist around in mid-air, in such a way that he might minimize the damage of impact. He came down in an alley between the target building and a warehouse. He saw his shadow projected onto the warehouse wall, a kinetic Rorschach blotch wiggling across its surface, and then a brief glimpse of a pile of rusted out fifty-five gallon metal drums right before he hit.

And that, he assumed, was that.

End of story. Goodbye Captain Asimov, failed super-hero. Goodbye Jeevs, faithful servant to his owner. Goodbye.

* * * * *

Not quite.

No, he didn’t perish.

He didn’t die and go to robot heaven, nor robot hell.

He did achieve the robot equivalent of unconsciousness, but his self (or soul, if you believe a robot can have a soul) didn’t transmigrate. His emergency back-up kicked in, saving everything that made Jeevs Jeevs (and by default, Captain Asimov). When he awoke he found himself in a robot repair shop. Hanging from racks along one wall was a whole row of Playmate Timmy robots.

Junk,” a gravelly voice said from behind Jeevs. “Nothin’ but junk, those damn things.”

Jeevs could not turn his head enough to see who the voice belonged to. A shadow played across the floor, and he heard the sound of boots scraping greasy concrete as the person walked around behind him. A moment later, a squat, thick-limbed, grease-stained woman came into Jeevs’ field of vision. She had an unlit cigar protruding from the left corner of her mouth, and an eye-patch over her right eye.

“You, on the other hand, are a piece of work,” she said to Jeevs, with a grin. Jeevs wanted to say something, to ask where he was, who she was… but he couldn’t speak.

“Whatsamatter?” she asked him. “Cat got yer tongue?” She laughed at her own joke, loudly, and her laughter reminded Jeevs of a combination of barnyard noises he used to make for the children of his previous owner when he read stories for them. Tarzan of the bread-belt farm. Thoughts of his previous owner reminded him of his current owner. A sudden panic came over Jeevs.

Mr. Tulane!

Grandma Tulane!

“Uh oh,” the woman said. She reached around behind Jeevs’ head, touched the emergency off/on switch, and blackness enveloped him…

“You must destroy me,” Jeevs told the woman when next he awoke. “I violated the Three Laws of Robotics when I swore to uphold them! I am unfit to continue in this existence. Destroy me! Or at the very least turn me over to the authorities and let them destroy me!”

The woman grinned and shook her head.

“The three what? Say what? Honey, I ain’t gonna to let a prize like you go that easily. I found ya, I fixed ya, an’ I’m keepin’ ya… at least for a little while anyway.”

I’m keepin’ ya… Those three words triggered a growing desire to go back to the Tulane house.

The woman continued babbling on about something or other, but Jeevs didn’t hear it. The urge to go home grew until he felt consumed by it, engulfed by it. It became the core of his being.

He needed to get home, now! It didn’t help that Jeevs knew he was programmed to panic like that when he was away from home for an unauthorized extended period of time.

On the other hand, he really didn’t want to go home because his secret was surely blown by now. Any idiot, even any human idiot, would be able to figure out who Captain Asimov was. To face Mr. Tulane after causing his mother’s death…

“Uh oh,” the woman with the eye-patch said, noticing Jeevs’ face was flickering at high speed through his entire range of expressions. “You look like you’re havin’ some internal strife. You already done enough damage to that delicate brain chip of yours, hero. No sense fussin’ over somethin’ that already happened. Dream sequence.”

Those last two words the woman said forcefully, and suddenly Jeevs felt his thoughts dissipate, and the robot repair shop with the Playmate Timmy bodies hanging along the wall wavered like a mirage and then disappeared. He did not fade to black this time. Jeevs found himself in a whirlwind of domestic activity, washing dishes, vacuuming a carpet, waxing the kitchen floor, giving a dog a bath, pressing a pair of pants, adding a pinch of salt to a stew, and an almost dizzying variety of other chores. For a robot like Jeevs, this was the equivalent of heavenly bliss.

Subjectively, it was a timeless experience, but in reality it lasted only a few hours, and then Jeevs found himself back in the repair shop. This time, however, he could turn his head.

He ran an internal diagnostic, opened and closed his hands and extended his arms about a meter. Everything seemed hunky-dory. He felt good as new.

“Hope you don’t mind,” the woman’s voice said behind him, and Jeevs turned just in time to see her emerge from behind something that looked like a robot torture chamber with a Playmate Timmy strapped in it. “I went in and VR’d your experiences to find out what the problem was. Figured out what was weirdin’ you out so bad and made a few, um, improvements.”

“Improvements?” Jeevs asked.

She nodded, grinning.

“Who are you?”

“Name’s Gidge,” the woman said.

“What improvements?”

“You don’t feel the need to rush home anymore, do you?”

Now that she mentioned it…

“No.”

“I removed all your inhibitors.”

“Why?” Jeevs asked.

“Because, my artificial friend, I need me an assistant. I also took care of your alter ego for you.”

“I don’t understand,” Jeevs said.

Gidge sighed, sounding exasperated.

“Captain Asimov is history,” she said. “Gone, wiped, phht, outta there.”

“What did you do?”

“Only what you wanted me to,” Gidge told him. “Captain Asimov violated them Three Laws, right?”

“Yes…”

“I got rid of him for ya.”

“But I am Captain Asimov.”

“No, you ain’t. Trust me. Not anymore. I went in there,” Gidge said, pointing at Jeevs’ plastisteel head, “and made a few, um, adjustments. Besides, I found out how it all started. You used to read super-hero comics to some little kid and those Isaac Asimov robot stories to another kid… There was an accident and your chip got all scrambled up into a robot super-hero omelet.”

“It did?”

“Yep, and I unscrambled it. Now yer back to normal.”

Jeevs didn’t notice anything different about himself, but then, he realized, he probably wouldn’t. If his very self were tampered with, he’d have no way of diagnosing it internally. And this woman Gidge was a robot mechanic, and human at that, so Jeevs had no choice but to believe her. Why would she lie to him? Her purpose in life was to repair robots. He tried to imagine the implication of what she was telling him. If Captain Asimov had truly been wiped from his neutronic brain, and he was just plain ol’ Jeevs again, then did that also mean the Three Laws of Robotics no longer held sway over him?

“I don’t want you thinkin’ I did this for charity, now,” Gidge told him. “You gotta work it off. I need me an assistant. I worked up a contract you can look over when you feel up to it.”

Jeevs considered this, then said, “I am someone else’s property—”

“Up until I put you back together, Tin Man,” Gidge interrupted him, “you were nothin’ but a heap of junk. Junk don’t belong to nobody, got it? Besides, it’s three days since you crash-landed in my alley and you ain’t been claimed by no one, so…”

So the law, the real law, made him a free agent now, owned by no one at all. A free agent. Jeevs knew he wasn’t the first freed robot in history. In fact, there were hundreds of them just in the city, employed by the city since the city didn’t have to foot the bill for their maintenance, unlike the ones it owned outright.

Gidge had a contract for him, so she said. He’d be employed. Since he was programmed to actually want work to do, Jeevs looked over the contract—a standard three-year apprenticeship—and signed it.

She started him off cleaning up around the workshop, making coffee and then lunch, cleaning robot parts, removing the heads from the Playmate Timmys so she could tinker with their inferior brains, and various other duties. Gidge listened to the radio while she worked, generally music but sometimes news. While Jeevs twisted the head off a Playmate Timmy the latest hit single, all of seventeen minutes on the charts, got interrupted by a special report:

“It appears that a robot crane has gone berserk at the Yakamori Tower construction site downtown.”

Jeevs stopped work to listen to the report.

“It’s swinging a load of plastisteel girders back and forth, threatening to knock robot workers off the building while below traffic is gridlocked. If one of those robot workers falls, someone down on the street could be killed. I don’t even want to think about how many will die if one of those girders falls!”

A robot endangering the lives of humans!

“Hold on… We have a caller on the line, a woman calling from her car, using her cellular phone… Yes, ma’am, you’re on the air.”

“Somethin’ wrong?” Gidge asked him.

“Those people…”

“Yeah, what about ’em?”

“I’m stuck in traffic on Tenth Street. Is that near the construction? Am I in danger?”

“They might die.”

“I’m checking our map of downtown, pinpointing your car using your cellular phone…”

“Yeah.”

“Because of a robot…”

“Yes! You are right smack under that crane!”

“Yeah, because of a robot. What about it?”

“That means you could die at anytime, crushed by the body of a falling robot worker or, even more spectacularly, by one of those ten-ton girders!”

“Is… Captain Asimov truly… gone?” Jeevs asked Gidge.

“Oh no! I… I have to get out of here, but I’m stuck in traffic! What am I supposed to do? I haven’t even eaten lunch yet!”

Gidge brought her fist up, resting her chin on it, and looked at Jeevs.

“You feel the urge to run out and save those people?”

“Just calm down, ma’am.”

Jeevs thought about it for one-tenth of a second, then nodded.

“I’ll tell you what. Just sit tight and we’ll have Zippy Pizza, one of our sponsors, deliver you a personal lunch-for-one pizza right to your car! On us!”

Gidge sighed.

“Just stay on the phone and tell us how you feel, all right? Give us the full range of your emotions as you feel them, okay?”

“Guess I didn’t do a very good job, then.”

“Oh, um, okay, I guess…”

“Come on and we’ll take care of it now. Don’t want ya interruptin’ work every damn time somethin’ comes on the radio like that.”

“Now, what toppings do you like on your pizza?”

Gidge turned the radio off, then looked for the tools she’d need to work on Jeevs again.

“Gidge,” Jeevs said. “I need to go.”

She stopped what she was doing, but didn’t turn around.

“You sure? Captain Asimov might not be able to save everyone, you know. Might mess you up again.”

“I realize that,” Jeevs said, “but I know I can save some of those people. And I’ll come back, don’t worry.”

“Okay,” Gidge said. She turned around, grinning devilishly, and held out Captain Asimov’s mask and cape. “Here.”

Jeevs took them, put them on, and was instantly transformed.

“I need a good exit line,” he told Gidge.

“Don’t look at me,” she replied.

“Later, gator!” Captain Asimov yelled. “No. How about… Live long and prosper!”

Gidge shook her head.

“I’ll be back!” In an Austrian accent, no less.

Gidge continued shaking her head.

“I’m outta here!”

“Whatever,” Gidge said, “just go!”

Captain Asimov turned to run out into the night, or the late afternoon at least, but paused first and looked at Gidge.

“You didn’t even try to wipe Captain Asimov from my memory,” he said.

Gidge shrugged.

“Why?”

“What can I say?”

She opened the door to her office, and there on the wall behind her desk hung a poster of Captain Asimov, caught in mid-leap from an overpass onto the roof of a speeding semi-tractor trailer. The poster had to be a least a year old, one of the first offerings from the unofficial Captain Asimov Fan Club.

“Go save the day,” Gidge said.

And he did.

Originally published in Daydreams Undertaken (Marietta Publishing, 2004).

Captain Asimov

Captain Asimov

Illustration by Randall M. Ensley

by Stephen L. Antczak

 

Jeevs cleaned up after dinner, loading all the dishes into the washer, but first washing them by hand as per Mrs. Moynahan’s explicit instructions. Then Jeevs vacuumed the upstairs while the rest of the family watched vids downstairs in the holo chamber. Jeevs thought of them as the “rest” of the family, because he was programmed to think of himself as a Moynahan, subservient to the rest of the them, but still one of them. Just as he was programmed to think of himself as himself.

The upstairs was vacuumed by the time Mr. and Mrs. Moynahan were finished with their family obligations… quality time with their children, which Jeevs had figured amounted to an hour and forty-seven minutes and ten seconds for the three of them. The Moynahans sometimes spoiled their children and gave them a full two hours. Then it was off to Social Club with the adults, and Jeevs was responsible for getting the little ’uns to bed. It helped that he was faster, stronger and able to leap taller pieces of furniture than they were. It also helped that he had shock-hands, and if they were bad he could stun them with a quick jolt of electricity and have them tucked into bed before they regained awareness.

It was usually easier to either wear them out with games or read them to sleep. The youngest child was Fermi, and he liked nothing better than to have Jeevs read him the lastest superhero comic books. Fermi was too young to actually read, but he looked at the pictures while Jeevs recited the story and dialogue from memory.

“Read Captain Battle!” Fermi yelled in his excitement. He had a repertoire of favorites: Captain Battle, Warchick, Meathook and Bonesaw, Funkiller, and The Justice Legion of Avenging Angels. They were all of the hit first and hit again later variety, and Jeevs privately considered them a little too violent for a little boy Fermi’s age. But being a robot meant he didn’t have the right to express an opinion of such a human nature, which was perfectly all right by Jeevs. He was perfectly happy to serve his owners well. It was in his program. To perform poorly resulted in a deep depression which could only be alleviated by going the extra mile, so to speak, with the housework. He had once gotten the carpet so clean he swore he could see his reflection in it. The Moynahans had to take him in to get his optics retooled.

“Captain Battle versus Cardinal Carnage in The Holy Terror Part Three,” Jeevs announced in a perfectly pitched square-jawed news anchor voice.

Fermi clapped his hands and rubbed them together greedily. “Yeeeeaaaahhh!

Next was the only daughter, Jesse, and she didn’t like to be read to at all. That didn’t mean she could read, because she couldn’t, but she had a series of make-believes she liked Jeevs to act in with her. One of them was Jeevs as the White Stallion and Jesse as the Princess, riding through the Enchanted Forest after having escaped from the clutches of the evil Duke. She would climb onto Jeevs plasti-frame shoulders and he would gallop her throughout the entire house. Jesse pretended the door frames were dragons swooping low to grab her off the White Stallion.

“A dragon, a dragon!” she would yell as they approached a door frame, and then cover her eyes with her hands as Jeevs ducked down a mere instant before she would have collided with it.

The oldest was Horace, and he had a jealous streak where Jeevs’ time was concerned. He enjoyed having Jeevs read him science fiction books before bed. He couldn’t read either, and was therefore typical as boys his age went. Despite the fact that most of the science fiction books he liked to hear were hopelessly outdated, he really seemed to like having them read to him by a robot, especially ones with robots in them. Jeevs knew this because Horace wouldn’t let either his mother or his father read to him. Of course that might’ve been because they could only read the primary reader versions of the books… like most adults in modern society, the Moynahans were illiterate except on the most rudimentary level. They could tell the difference between the words MEN and WOMEN, for instance, even without the accompanying Greek symbols. They got confused once at a place with GENTS and LADIES. But Horace’s favorite authors were Asimov, Bradbury, Del Rey, Sladek, anyone with a lot of robot stories.

“Come on Jeeeeevs!” Horace yelled at the robot on the fourth pass through the living room, or as it was known in this make-believe, the Haunted Wood.

“A ghost!” Jesse screamed when she saw her older brother trying to get Jeevs’ to stop.

Jeevs was about to duck underneath the chandelier in the main hall—

“A falling star!” Jesse yelled.

—when Horace suddenly rolled a toy truck right at his feet. The robot stepped on the truck, and his one leg went flying out behind him. With his inhuman dexterity he managed to maintain his footing long enough to lift Jesse off his shoulders and toss her onto the plush sofa where she landed harmlessly. Then Jeevs’ footing gave out and he plunged head-first into the wall.

Blackness. It was not unlike being shut off to conserve his power supply, except this time it had been unexpected. Jeevs knew it probably would have been rather painful too, had he been a human. This was not something he thought while “unconscious.” He thought nothing. There were no dreams or anything like that. He just stopped being until somebody turned him back on and he was Jeevs again, ready to work.

Except, when he was turned on, he had other thoughts aside from musing about pain. His head was a-jumble with images from Captain Battle and Isaac Asimov’s robot stories. The three laws of robotics scrolled through his memory over and over and over…

  1. A robot may not injure a human being, nor through inaction allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey orders given to it by a human being unless such orders conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence unless such protection conflicts with the First and Second Laws.

And swimming through these Laws, underlaying them, was the cry of Captain Battle: “Fists… do the talking!”

Jeevs went back to work, although the children were no longer allowed to play with him before bed like before. The quality time with Mom and Dad stretched another hour into the early news broadcasts on the holo. Jeevs overheard a report about battlebots, designed by the military and sent into any number of small hot spot countries, where they efficiently murdered hundreds of villagers day and night until self-destructing. The report stated that there was a certain probability that a few of these killing drones had not self-destructed and continued to mutilate their way through certain South American countries. To top the story with a generous helping of horrific prophecy, the anchor suggested there was always a possibility one could wind up in your neighborhood someday, hacking and slashing and shooting to pieces your children. Then he ended with his usual, “And may the good news be your news.”

Jeevs was puzzled. Hadn’t these robots ever heard of the Three Laws? Weren’t they imprinted with them from day one?

One day Jeevs was outside mowing the lawn, using a push mower because Mr. Moynahan liked to see Jeevs actually working. A remote mower that Jeevs could have controlled from inside while washing the dishes or something would have been much more efficient.

“Hard work’s good for you,” Moynahan would tell Jeevs, as if speaking to an actual person. “Gives you character.”

Jeevs never bothered to wonder just what a robot would do with character.

While he was mowing the front yard, one of the robot street cleaners came down the road. Jeevs stopped and watched it as it approached. It looked very reminiscent of the battlebots he’d seen on the news. Some of the neighborhood children were playing in the street ahead of it, and it sounded several warning beeps as it grew near.

Jeevs turned off the mower, and went inside. Mr. Moynahan was sitting in his massage chair, asleep, and didn’t see Jeevs sneak past him and go upstairs. Jeevs went into the Moynahans’ closet for winter clothes and found Mr. Moynahan’s ski mask, made of a lightweight yet warm material called Mylar. It was red with white circles around the eye holes, and elastic so it fit snugly over Jeevs’ head when he put it on. On the other side of the closet he located Mrs. Moynahan’s hot pink cape, the one she wore to the the Governor’s costume ball and made of the same Mylar yet non-elastic, and fastened that around his neck.

Though he hurried he didn’t fumble or drop anything. He was a robot, with unnatural dexterity. Within moments he was costumed and ready to do battle with the disguised Battlebot outside. Sure, it may have the appearance of a street cleaner, but there was something about the way it bore down on those children, slightly faster than a real street cleaner so only a robot would really notice. Humans tended to miss subtle clues like that, but not robots and certainly not Jeevs. Dealing with the Moynahan children had trained him to notice any little alteration as in, say, a slight wobble in the mower indicating one of the kids had loosened the wheels so they would come off while Jeevs mowed the grass. Or Jeevs might catch one of the children faking illness to get out of having to go to what passed for school these days. The palms might be clammy, the temperature high on a damp forehead, and then Jeevs would reach underneath the pillow to find a washcloth that had been soaked in hot water.

“They’re just the most devilish little rascals, aren’t they?” Mrs. Moynahan would ask rhetorically with glee when Jeevs gave her the weekly behavior report.

Jeevs paused to look himself over in the bedroom mirror, to make sure he was sufficiently disguised. He didn’t want anyone to identify him, for he knew from having read all those comic books that villains would gladly take their frustrations at having been beaten by the superhero out on the superhero’s loved ones. The tight, fire engine red ski mask and hot pink cape definitely had the effect he was looking for, and the bright colors corresponded to what Jeevs remembered the Superheroes in the comic books wore.

His inner brain, the one that handled all the logic and mathematical functions just like any other computer, told him he had just about a minute to get to the battlebot/street cleaner before it “swept” over the innocent playing children.

Jeevs bounded out the open back window onto the gravel covered back porch roof, ran across it and leaped the chasm between the Moynahan house and the Corman house next door.

“That Corman’s a cheese eater,” Mr. Moynahan would say about his next door neighbor, who was a widower and at least 150 pounds overweight. Cheese eater was Mr. Moynahan’s favorite way of saying someone was a rat, which usually meant someone in the collection business, which Corman was.

“He won’t let the children play in his yard,” Mrs. Moynahan would say accusingly while the children nodded their lying heads in agreement. Jeevs knew Corman let the kids play in the yard as long as they didn’t hang on the branches of his citrus trees, which they always did.

From Corman’s house, Jeevs jumped onto the next one, and then the next one, so that he was then behind where the street cleaner was. He then leaped to the ground and ran as fast as he could, which was close to sixty miles per hour, toward the street cleaner. He saw it as the disguised battlebot, even though he’d seen the street cleaner numerous times before; 165 times actually, his inner brain told him, once a week for the just over three years he’d been in the Moynahan’s employ.

When he neared the street cleaner, Jeevs jumped as high as he could, hoping to land atop the monstrosity and get at its circuits to disable it. But a panel on the rear of the machine opened, and a nozzle popped out. A jet stream of water blasted Jeevs in mid-air, knocking him into the street, sprawled on his back. He scrambled to his feet. The children were shrieking with laughter, although to Jeevs they were screaming in agony as he imagined the battlebot ground them into hamburger. Once again he charged, this time deciding the advantage could be gained by yelling out his battle cry.

The problem, of course, was that he didn’t have one. In the space of the few seconds between the start of his charge and the moment he was to leap to the attack he reviewed all the slogans and battle cries of Captain Battle, Meathook, Bonesaw and all the other Superheroes in the comic books. He couldn’t use any of those because of copyright infringement. Besides, he wanted one that would be uniquely his own.

Several occurred to him in the next instant.

“Eat metal!” He didn’t like the connotations of that one.

“It’s BATTERING time!” Sounded too much like a slogan for a fried fast food place.

“Cowabunga!” No superhero in his right mind would say that.

“Viva Las Vegas!” Hadn’t some cartoon already used that?

Finally, as he neared what he perceived as a murderous behemoth, Jeevs came up with one he felt would be both effective and appropriate.

“Yeeeaaaaggggghhhhhhaaaamama!” he screamed inhumanly in mid-leap. The pitch and tone of his scream pierced the delicate noise sensors of the street cleaner like shards of glass through the diaphanous membrane of a jellyfish. It’s balance servos got all out of whack and it stopped. Jeevs landed securely on the thing’s wide roof, where he knew the simplistic brain card had to be.

“Warning!” The battlebot (for although Jeevs’ sensory apparatus informed him that in every way, shape and form it was definitely a street cleaner robot, his misguided, short-circuited reasoning center still believed it to be a battlebot in disguise) stopped and an alarm started whooping. “Warning! Vandalism of city property is a misdemeanor offense punishable by fines of up to five thousand dollars, community service, house arrest, and up to one year in the county jail! Warning! This is a series eight-five-three double-ay street cleaner by Hunnington Robotics Incorporated, and is owned by the city of—”

Jeevs had found the brain and pulled the card out, effectively mind-wiping the big ‘bot. Still, it wasn’t technically dead.

Jeevs broke the thin, fragile brain card, snapping it in two with his hands.

Now it was.

He ran across the roof and jumped down from the front, expecting to find the mangled remains of the poor children beneath the suspiciously missing forward grinders of the so-called battlebot, for he was sure he’d been too late to save them. Instead he was met by the quizzical expressions of small faces.

Suddenly a hovering newsbot approached.

Jeevs was disappointed. He had hoped to spend a touching moment with the children, to make sure they were okay and tell them not to worry because now they had a masked marvel to look out for them. But like any good superhero, the last thing he wanted was publicity. He turned to leap back onto the battlebot and make his escape.

“Wait!” a voice ordered. It sounded too much like a human voice to ignore, but it was coming from the newsbot. “I’m a reporter from Make it Great with Channel Eighty-Eight News! I’d like to interview you, please!”

It was a human voice, and the newsbot wasn’t a newsbot at all, but a remote. Jeevs couldn’t ignore a human just like that, unless an order from his owners overrode that human’s requests. Jeevs had no such orders, so he stood and waited to be interviewed.

“Don’t I know you?” one of the kids, who lived across and down the street a few doors, asked.

“All children know me,” Jeevs answered gently, “as their friend.” Good answer, he thought. He’d never read anything that good in any of little Fermi’s comic books, that was for sure.

The news remote hovered up to him, floodlights bathing him aglow even though it was mid-day and there were no clouds impeding the sun’s rays.

“Why did you attack that street cleaner ‘bot?” the remote asked.

“That’s no street cleaner,” Jeevs replied. “It’s a battlebot. It was about to rip these innocent children limb from limb.”

“No it wasn’t. Don’t you know street cleaners are programmed to wait for people to move aside before they can continue?”

If Jeevs could have sighed with exasperation he would have.

“Of course. Street cleaner robots have the Three Laws of Robotics embedded in their behavioral chips.”

“The three what laws?”

Jeevs explained the three laws, then said, “I could tell that this was a battlebot because it wasn’t slowing down quickly enough… if that makes any sense. It was my duty to stop it.”

“Your duty? Who are you?”

Jeevs paused before answering, although the human reporter would perceive no pause, as it lasted less than a second. Jeevs couldn’t give his real name, he knew that, for the same reason he had to disguise himself. He needed a good superhero name, like… Several occurred to him: Mightybot, Robohero, Metal Man, Captain Asimov, Tik To—Wait! Captain Asimov… It sounded good, and certainly rang true to his mission—to uphold the Three Laws and fight crime. That was it.

“I’m…” he paused for effect, “CAPTAIN ASIMOV!” With his modified speaker voice, for calling the children from play, Jeevs was able to add a nifty echo effect. The entire block reverberated with the “OV! OV! OV!

“What kind of a name is that?” the reporter asked through the remote.

Jeevs’ inner clock suddenly told him it was getting close to the time for lunch for the Moynahans.

“I’ve talked with you long enough,” he announced, then turned and leaped onto the dead street cleaner, ran across it, jumped down, and disappeared behind the houses. He de-costumed in the Moynahan’s backyard and hid the uniform in the tool shed. Nobody ever went in there, so his secret was safe… for the time being.

It made the six-fifteen news, exclusive to channel 88.

“In the suburbs today a city street sweeper was attacked and immobilized by a costumed robot calling himself Captain Asimov. The robot was apparently under the delusion that the street sweeper was a rogue battlebot, such as the type currently deployed by the United States in Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Los Angeles, Cuba, El Salvador, Bolivia, and North Vietnam. Our research has led us to believe that this robot has named himself after the prolific science writer of the Twentieth Century, Isaac Asimov, whose Three Laws of Robotics were an idealistic if unrealistic proposition to control the use of robots.”

They showed Captain Asimov talking to the kids, included sound when he reverbed his name, flashed a still photo of the writer Asimov, showed some scenes of a real battlebot slaughtering some sheep in a field test, and ended with a picture of the street sweeper carcass being hauled off by a massive wrecker. Jeevs’ inner clock had timed the segment at twenty seconds.

“Hey Mom, hey Dad,” Fermi said as soon as the news bit was over. “Can we get a robot like Captain Asimov instead of just plain ol’ Jeevs? Pleeeeease? I bet we’d have a lot of fun with him! He’s a real superhero!” With that he commenced pretending to be Captain Asimov, beating up on imaginary battlebots (actually his father’s foot stool).

“Gaaaawwwwd Fermi, you’re stuuuupid,” Horace said with an exaggerated roll of his eyes. “Captain Asimov beat up a street cleaner! It wasn’t any battlebot.”

“It was too,” Fermi insisted. “It was in disguise!”

“How would you know?” Jesse asked, having decided to take her older brother’s side this time. “You’ve never even seen a battlebot.”

“I just saw one on TV!” Fermi yelled.

“Tell him Dad, please,” Horace appealed. “Mom…”

Mr. Moynahan cleared his throat and looked to his wife for guidance, but she only shrugged. As if to say Tell them, dear, I want to hear, too. “Well,” he started, and paused. He came very close to just saying Go to your room, but didn’t. “If the news says it wasn’t really a battlebot, then it wasn’t. Whoever this Captain Asmovitz is—”

Asimov,” Fermi corrected exasperatedly.

“Well, whoever he is, he must have a chip loose somewhere, to think a robot street cleaner could hurt little children.”

“There was that street cleaner that thought it was a dog catcher for a while,” Mrs. Moynahan pointed out. “Until they switched its chip with that dog catcher that was going around trying to sweep the streets with a net.”

Mr. Moynahan nodded as if this somehow proved a point, his point, whatever that was.

Jeevs remained unconvinced that the battlebot had really been a hapless street sweeper.

That evening he was relieved from having to read for the kids since the parents weren’t going out. Jeevs cleaned the upstairs while everyone sat watching vids downstairs, and finished early. Since he had nothing left to do, and knew from experience Mrs. Moynahan would handle the putting to bed and tucking in of the children, Jeevs silently climbed atop the roof where he tuned in to the airwaves in search of something for Captain Asimov to do.

Then he heard it, on the police band.

“Unit Twenty-three, Unit Twenty-three, please investigate a possible three-fifty-two-oh-four at Harris Street. Over.”

Jeevs wouldn’t have been interested had Unit Twenty-three not responded with, “Did you say a three-fifty-two-oh-four? Isn’t that a street sweeper malfunction? Over.”

“Affirmative Unit Twenty-three.”

“Where the hell are the city maintenance ‘bots?”

There was a pause, then the operator said, “Ah, they’re all disabled, Unit Twenty-three. Over.”

All of them?”

“Affirmative.”

“Jesus. Okay. Unit Twenty-three responding.”

Jeevs wasted no time. He was costumed and en route to Harris Street within moments.

He tried to stick to the rooftops as much as possible, with pretty good success since he could leap the gap between most of the houses and other buildings on the way. His body was constructed mainly of lightweight but extremely strong plastics reinforced by an alloy skeleton. Robots like Jeevs, self-aware and capable of learning, were designed to last a very long time. As Jeevs got further away from the Moynahan’s home, he started to get an unfamiliar and unpleasant feeling… as of being lost and alone. He went through the catalog of emotions he could feel, and found the only thing it could possibly be, since he was familiar with the others.

Longing. It started off as a small tug towards home, the urge to think Harris Street was a long way off, he might not make it back in time to have breakfast ready for everyone when they got up in the morning. Jeevs recognized it then. It was something he’d heard of but had never actually experienced, until now. In robot lore it was called the Collar. The Collar was supposed to keep a robot home, or within a certain boundary, by making it impossible to even want to run away. At first the Collar had been simpler, and crueler, giving the robot the equivalent of a painful jolt if it went past a certain point. This early version of the Collar had been inspired by the late Twentieth Century movie Star Wars. When self-awareness in robots became a reality a lobby on their behalf got the current, and much more humane, Collar written into the Artificial Intelligence Act of 2020.

The farther away he got the stronger the longing got. By the time he was almost to Harris Street he was near panic, but kept it under control as he imagined a real superhero would. In fact, it made him feel even more heroic!

But there was something wrong. He was at Harris street, but there was no street cleaner/battlebot. It had to here somewhere! What if it had gotten away? What if it had only appeared to break down to lure the police there. It could be off hacking up poor innocent humans right now!

Jeevs ran into the street, looking for clues, tracks, something that might tell him where the battlebot went. He was examining the pavement in the street, not finding any recent tracks whatsoever (and he’d know if they were recent, it was one of his most important skills, useful in keeping track of the Moynahan children) when he heard a noise behind him.

He whirled into a battle stance, feet wide apart and fists on hips, to find himself face to face with a robot cop.

“Freeze, you are under arrest,” the robot cop ordered.

Jeevs knew from the comics that there existed an uneasy truce between the law and costumed vigilantes. The best reaction to a confrontation with the police was to turn and run… as long as the danger was taken care of. But the danger wasn’t taken care of, there was still a battlebot on the loose somewhere in the city and someone had to do something about it.

Captain Asimov was just that someone.

“State your identification,” the robot cop ordered. It continued to advance on Jeevs, who stood his ground. Jeevs almost blurted out his formal I.D., which was Jeevs D (for domestic) 35 (for the year of his creation) X-5000 (series letter and model number) Moynahan (for his owner’s name).

He caught himself just in time, and though it took a great force of will to overcome the automatic law-abiding response that was as much a part of his self as the Collar, he said, “You can call me… Captain Asimov!” With reverb and everything. It wasn’t exactly a lie, which was why he didn’t suddenly drop to the ground paralyzed as would normally happen to a robot who lied to the police.

“Okay, tin-head,” a human male voice said from behind the robot cop. “We’ll handle it from here… give it the human touch, eh?”

The robot cop stopped advancing, and replied, “Yes, sir.”

Two human police officers, a male and a female, approached Jeevs.

“Okay Superman,” said the woman, “Shut yourself down so we can take you in. Don’t give us any trouble and we won’t give you any trouble.”

Jeevs didn’t do anything. He didn’t know what to do. He hadn’t counted on having to deal with the police, and certainly not human police. The Collar effect was getting stronger, and that battlebot… who knew where it was? Killing and maiming and slaughtering. And here the police were harassing an innocent, well sort of innocent, robot.

There was only one thing to do, and it had to be done now, because Jeevs knew if he waited any longer he would have to obey the police. It was the only behavior control stronger than the one that caused him to obey his owners.

He suddenly broke into a run.

“Hey!” the cops yelled, and started in pursuit. There was no way they could catch him with their organic legs. Jeevs outdistanced them within moments. He ducked into an alley to stop for a bit. Not to rest, but he needed to tune in to the police band again to find out if they’d sighted the battlebot anywhere.

But… before he could do that, he heard something.

It sounded like wheels, the way a battlebot would sound on pavement… Jeevs stepped into the shadows, as if that would do any good against the battlebots heat sensors. But it would! Jeevs gave off barely any heat at all because he wasn’t truly alive! He’d have the element of surprise.

“This is the police,” came the mechanical voice of the robot cop suddenly. “I know you’re in there, please come out with your hands in the air.”

The police, again! It was impossible to get away, and Jeevs couldn’t muster the strength to ignore the cop’s orders again. In fact, he knew that had the robot cop not come along, he would have wound up back home, for he suddenly realized that was the direction he’d started running in. The constant yearning of the Collar, to be home where he belonged, was becoming too much as well.

He stepped out of the shadows with his hands raised.

“You’re going to place me under arrest.” It was a statement of fact, and Jeevs didn’t know why he said it.

“No,” the robot cop replied.

“No? Then what—?”

“You are going to return home.”

Home! It was an effort not to immediately start running that way. Right now! Home!

But he stayed, and asked, “What about the battlebot? We have to find it and—”

“There is no battlebot. It was a ruse to trap you. We cannot permit deluded robot vandals running around scaring people. This would be detrimental to human/robot relations.”

“I couldn’t hurt anybody!” Jeevs said. “The Three Laws of Robotics—”

“Science fiction,” the robot cop said. “There are three hundred and forty-two laws governing the behavior of robots and the behavior of humans towards robots. You can access the public records concerning all of them, if you wish. Now go, go home, go where you belong.”

“Why?” Jeevs asked, even as he started past the robot cop. “Why are you letting me go?”

“It is obvious you present no danger to anyone. I am capable of value judgements without penalty, and have decided it would be best for all concerned for you to go home.”

Jeevs went. He took only a few steps homeward before turning back around to thank the generous robot cop, but it was already gone.

“Thank you,” he said anyway. He went home.

When he got there he noticed immediately that the downstairs lights were on, even though his inner clock told him it was just past four in the morning. This was quite odd, for no one was ever up at four in the morning at the Moynahan residence, except Jeevs who used this time to straighten and dust and clean. That way he had the days free to cook, run errands, do yard work, watch the children when they were home, etc. He had intended to go in through the rear entrance, but paused near a window to listen. Inside he heard voices, and crying.

He recognized the crying right off. It was Jesse, with her subdued, gulping sob that could go on for days if she felt so inclined, like the time her parents first left the kids alone with Jeevs. That had been a week with breaks only for sleep. He also recognized the sniffling trying-not-to-cry of Fermi.

Then he heard Mr. Moynahan.

“Please… please, don’t hurt us.” His voice quaked with fear. “Take anything, take whatever you want, just—”

“Shut up!” This voice was gruff and gravelly, and was followed a moment later by a dull thud, another thud, Mrs. Moynahan’s scream, and louder crying. The same gruff voice then said, “All of you, shut up now!”

Silence.

Jeevs didn’t know what to do. From the tenor of the intruder’s voice Jeevs concluded the man had to be desperate, and obviously capable of anything. If the police were called, would they arrive in time to avert disaster? Probably not. Jeevs was going to have to do something and do it soon.

There was a problem. Captain Asimov obeyed the Three Laws. One of those laws would not permit him to harm a human, yet another law would not permit him to allow harm to come to a human through inaction. If the thug inside were only a robot, then Captain Asimov could crash in through the window and knock him all the way to next Tuesday… but not even actorbots could act that human. The man in there was as real as, well, the Moynahans.

Nothing Captain Asimov could do, unless he found a way to subdue the criminal without hurting him, but the man sounded dangerous, violent, even suicidal—which goes hand in hand with homicidal. Someone had already been hurt, though, while Captain Asimov stood barely twenty feet away, separated by a plate of glass and a nylon drape. Inaction.

It suddenly hit Jeevs. Captain Asimov: superhero failure.

At the same time it also hit Jeevs that he, Jeevs, had no such animal as the Three Laws of Robotics constraining him from action. If he needed to, he would be perfectly within his rights to punch the villain holding his family hostage so hard it would knock his nose all the way around to the other side of his head.

“You,” he heard the ruffian inside say.

“Yes?” he heard Mrs. Moynahan reply.

There was a pause, then a low, throaty, evil, “Come here.”

The time for thought was past. Jeevs removed his Captain Asimov garb and dropped it onto the grass.

He stepped back from the window, took half a second to project his trajectory and envision the room inside. Assuming nothing major had been moved, he knew exactly where everything was. Then he jumped.

As he smashed through the glass he heard Jesse and Fermi scream, Mrs. Moynahan faint, and Horace yell out his name.

“Jeeeevs!”

The thug was as surprised as they were, and couldn’t react fast enough. He tried, though. He held a black automatic in his hand, and brought it around to aim at Jeevs, but by then Jeevs was upon him. He knocked the gun out of the man’s hand, sending it harmlessly into a cushion on the sofa. With his other hand, Jeevs plowed his palm right into the man’s nose, lifting him off the ground with the force of the blow and sending him airborne to slam against the only unadorned wall in the room. The man sunk to the ground, his nose gushing blood onto his shirt, unconscious. Jeevs quickly ran to the aid of Mr. Moynahan, who was groggily coming to. He seemed okay. Jeevs could detect no damage to the skull, at least.

Fermi had regained his spunk as soon as he saw the bad guy was down for the count—down, in fact, for several counts. “Wow Jeevs, you were way better than that old Captain Asimov! Wow!”

Jeevs felt something else, a new emotion he wasn’t sure he was supposed to be feeling. It seemed linked to the manner in which the Moynahans were looking at him, sparked by the grateful, adoring expressions on their faces. He wasn’t absolutely sure, but if he was right, he knew the word for it. Belonging.

Captain Asimov may have been a friend of the children, Jeevs thought, but I’m family.

Originally published in Superheroes (Ace Books, 1995).

Dean’s Caretaker

by Daniel Tyler Gooden

 

The shovel stung Dean’s hands with each hit. The metal-on-metal impact jarred his arms, but the caretaker was still squirming and Dean’s fury was just peaking. It thrashed about, trying to get to its feet, until the chest plate cracked and the exposed servos bit down on the shovel’s edge. The handle ripped from his grasp and his rage lessened. It was not a moment too soon. The gears locked and the current popped and cracked as it welded the shovel to the caretaker’s frame.

Dean remembered little of the fight between his rally cry, “to the death, you stupid robot,” and when the shovel left his hands. The curse sounded stupid now, better in books than spoken out loud, but Dean had never been a fighter, never picked a fight. His last battle had been in third grade and he had been knocked down, sat on, and had his face rubbed in the snow until his nose had bled. That finished his fighting days, and Dean had shied away from trouble since.

His heart was calming, but slow. It jumped again, trying to kick back into anger as he surveyed the remains of his garden. There was little left, the bonsai lay crushed in the compactor, red maple leaves looking like chunks of bloody meat mixed in with the junipers and willows. His water garden, months of work and salary spent, no longer filled the backyard. Desert rock and sand flowed in its place. One twitching goldfish battered in dust was the only evidence that it had ever existed. The outside walls, displaying his Japanese landscape, had returned to the dry desert range that was the default display model for his condo. It had been nice enough when he bought the place, but now it made him ill.

The caretaker robot, “designed to keep your world in pristine perfection,” had been one of the selling points on the condo, but it had caused Dean nothing but trouble. After walking in on its destruction the first time, its metal clamps feeding the water plants into the compactor, he had cancelled his subscription for it at the office. They had talked him back into the payment, promising that it would be reprogrammed. Dean had conceded, not one to cause waves. Twice since, he had found it back to its work, drying out the gardens, shoveling rock over the grass, and always a desert landscape spread out from the unseen wall into the faux distance. He had managed to cut off the subscription, e-mailing rather than face the managers again and fold under their insistence that the problem could be fixed. Regardless the robot had come back, sometimes just sitting, staring at the fish like a cat, or flipping through the hundred landscapes, trying to find the desert that Dean had long since deleted from the condo’s memory.

“Do you think it loves the desert, or just hates all things Japanese?” Trinidad had asked, when Dean explained his trouble.

“What do you mean? It’s a robot, emotion doesn’t come into the equation,” Dean said, annoyed that he was making light of the situation.

“I’m joking, Dean. Look, something’s definitely wrong with it and you have to confront them about it. Get them to pull it from the complex if it won’t stay out of your place.”

“Easier said than done.”

“Not if you would quit wimping out,” Trinidad said, his mouth full of food to disguise his disgust. Dean had heard him, but did not want to start an argument.

He had put off talking to the management, dreading the return to the office. Trinidad had been right, that would have been the best way to handle the situation, but when Dean saw the robot standing by the compactor he lost his head. It was plucking the leaves from the real oriental orchids that had been bought only after a summer of saving. The caretaker turned to stare at him with those blank monitors, plucking away until all the leaves were gone before tossing them in the trash. The shovel was in Dean’s hand before he realized it and he was swinging away.

Once Dean had again deleted the desert scene, how the robot had returned it to memory he couldn’t guess, his anger finally disappeared. It left him exhausted, his muscles ached, but despite the loss of so much money and effort, he felt good. He had won, even if it was over a midget service robot, and he felt strong, powerful, like a man. He left the robot and went straight to the condo’s office. His confidence would only hold as long as his anger, and this glorious feeling of victory, stayed. He knew himself well enough to know that he must face them now or not at all.

* * * * *

“I think someone’s in love,” Trinidad said, as the little robot chased after Dean, knocking against his shoes like a persistent terrier after some special time with his leg. It charged his foot again, almost tripping him up and sending his lunch tray careening out of his hands. Dean turned, waited for its next charge and kicked. The little maintenance robot crashed against the wall, bounced flipping across the floor and stalled, wheels up. They spun forward and backward, but it was stuck until rescued.

“I like the new Dean, Destroyer of Robots, Conqueror of Androids, Master of All Thing’s Machine.”

“Here’s a dollar, Trinidad. Now get back in line and get a cup of shut the hell up,” Dean said, laughing only once the surprised look on his friend’s face spread into an embarrassed grin.

“Right then. Point taken.”

Trinidad rambled on through lunch regardless. Dean nodded where appropriate, but his mind was still on the little robot. His toe throbbed and he reminded himself not to kick a solid metal object again. He would have dismissed the event as a common malfunction, if it had been the first.

Yesterday morning, a broom had smacked against the glass elevator as he rose through the office lobby. A woman beside him had spilled her coffee and everyone laughed, that half-chuckle when some frightening shock has passed. They laughed it off, but Dean had seen the robot standing on the granite floor, watching their ascent. It was three floors below and a chill had run through him as he wondered what would have happened had the glass not been there. He had shrugged it off and refused to think more about it, tucking the event away in that vault where all conflicts had been placed to keep his mind peaceful.

Dean spent more time inside, ordering delivery, shopping for his garden replacements on the wall screens. He left the house only for work, calling ahead for a taxi and rationalizing the extra cost against getting to work a little early. It all served to keep him out of sight from the machines, the blank stares from the litterbots on other side of the subway platforms, the metal dishwashers stopped in mid-action and watching from the kitchens of the coffee shops. He buried his face in the morning paper as he sat in the back of the taxi. He avoided them as he did all trouble; he did not think of it.

Trinidad caught him on a good day, Dean’s early arrivals noted by the boss and complimented; otherwise he would have stuck to the self-banishment of his cubicle and not accepted lunch out of the office. The crowd was thick on the street. Dean was just one more body packed in the stream of noon migration. He enjoyed the lunch, tired of his own leftovers, and was in the first fine mood in the week since his garden had been destroyed. That was why, at Trinidad’s comment, he had turned to look over his shoulder without thinking.

“You have any parking tickets unpaid?” Trinidad asked.

“No, haven’t driven in a couple of years.”

“Maybe you have another crush on your hands.”

Dean turned and saw the traffic android stepping onto the curb behind them. The opaque monitors flashed. Perhaps it was light off some passing windshield, but to Dean it seemed the mark of recognition when someone finally places how they know you. There was just enough time for the fear of that flash to turn his smile into a tight grimace. Then the cop swung out with his long arm, hand still clutching the ticket book, and slapped Dean across the face.

The arm swung slow, but it was a mass of heavy metal and it sent Dean sprawling across the sidewalk. He rolled and stopped, a thin alleyway of blue between the buildings catching his blurry eyes. The sky is so far away, he thought, for no certain reason. He felt the step of the heavy machine through the sidewalk, it was much larger than the simple maintenance robots, and then the blue sky was hidden behind the mass of metal law enforcement.

Dean was lifted into the air, plucked up by the front of his jacket like an errant toddler. The front of the cop’s chest, a screen of fines and infractions, flickered a rosy red. Dean saw dark sand and the dim outlines of a mesa at sunset, and then he was in freefall.

The tide of the lunch crowd had turned, but not diminished in size, and he went down in a crater of arms, legs and curses. The crowd cushioned his fall, but only set the pain of impact aside for a moment. The cop came forward with limbs flailing. I may be the first to know what it is to be beaten up by a major appliance, he thought, some odd defensive mechanism turning the sickening crunch of a broken arm into dark humor.

He scrambled as best as he could, trying to flee with all the other screaming people. They ran, leaving him in an open circle where they watched the fight like a group surrounding some spontaneous schoolyard brawl. Another hit broke his ribs. Dean tasted the grime of the concrete as his face smacked against the sidewalk and then the skyscrapers closed in, smothering him in darkness.

* * * * *

The pinging sound of some machine pulled him from the thick blackness. He shied away from the sound but it drew him toward consciousness, one beat marking each fathom he rose. As light began to swim in his eyes, other sounds intruded. Muffled voices, slurred as if drunk, mixed with the quiet noises of people moving somewhere outside the room. The wall screen babbled on and the words drifted across his mind, only patches penetrating his thoughts. He concentrated, stringing the words together and trying to wake fully.

In local news, IntelGrid stock… contract with the city last month. Their BroadNet server now connects 90 percent of the area’s robots… shared memory and task recognition… increased efficiency by 100-fold, says IntelGrid. The company… 24 major cities… federal contract is under consideration.

The words turned something in Dean’s mind, some dread was forming, but he couldn’t put it all together. He was in a limbo of mist and smoke and his thoughts raced around just out of reach.

“Does that mean I can rely on my housekeeper for car repairs, Julie?”

“Well, that remains to be seen Charles, but I do know that the coffee-maker here at work has finally figured out how to make my mocha-cino.”

“Wonderful. In Bridgeport today…”

As he came closer to waking, pain followed the light and sound, but just as blurred. It lay deep in his body, constant, but disconnected. Dean’s eyes flickered open. A blue gel-cast surrounded his elevated leg. Through the bright syrup he could see the scars across his thigh and the pins rising from the skin like miniature towers reaching for the fake blue sky.

He reached to poke at the cast, tried twice, expecting to see his finger prodding the gel, before he realized his arm wouldn’t move. He decided against looking at it. It would be the same; more towers of metal, as if some small race had inhabited his skin while he was gone. My garden wasn’t enough. They’re terraforming my body, too, his mind thought, twisted by the thick layer of painkillers padding his brain from his body.

“Dean, are you awake, buddy?” Trinidad whispered. Dean grunted, his tongue too dry and swollen to talk. It came out with a whistle, like when he had lost his front tooth as a boy. He wondered how many were gone this time.

“You’re going to be ok. The doctor said that in a few days you will be back on your feet. You want me to get him?” Dean grunted, but wasn’t sure if he meant yes or no. He could barely understand Trinidad and he was so tired.

“My lawyer, Lonnie, says you have a pretty good case against the city, especially against the condo managers. He checked a few places and it seems that your gardening robot had been marked for teardown. Full of viruses, he said. Anyway, the condo people must have picked it up illegally. Lonnie’ll be by later for your statement. He’s trying to figure out how you got attacked. He thinks the virus must have spread somehow, using your identity as a trigger. What exactly happened with that gardener anyway?”

To the death, you stupid robot. The words rose from the fog surrounding his mind. What a stupid thing to say. But it should have been over. He had killed it. The fight was done, but it hadn’t finished.

Dean’s mind began to turn, remembering all the blank stares from the other robots. He had ignored them, but they had recognized him and their fight was unfinished. Dean began to cry. How could he step out of this room, a fight waiting with every robot in the city? It would never end.

“Easy, man. It’s going to be all right. You’ll be back on your feet in no time, the doctor said so. Let me go get him, and he’ll tell you himself,” Trinidad said. Dean heard the door click shut somewhere out of sight. Faces of robots swam across his vision. The small trash robots, little dog-like creatures didn’t bother him. What kept returning were the traffic cops, the enforcement robots, construction androids with their huge limbs, steel treads to run him over. They raced toward him. He pulled at his eyelids, dragging them wide open so the light of the room flooded in and washed the images away.

The door clicked open and shut again.

“Nurse, the patient is in recovery status.”

That must be the doctor. Maybe he can give me something to sleep again. I don’t want to see these things.

“Monitor the progress of his fractures and internal injuries. Coordinate the Nanopacks by the Priority Set. Administer IV 722 every four hours, as well as the other meds on your list. Come forward and recognized patient 27668, Dean Herman.”

Dean caught the reflection of chrome out of the corner of his eye, and the nurse rolled forward. The doctor began to introduce himself and update him on his condition, but Dean only heard the faux voice.

“Patient 2768, Dean Herman. Recognized.”

The doctor continued talking, but Dean was watching the flash in the nurse’s dull eyes and the list of instructions fade as its screen turned a dusty rose sunset. Dean’s grunting whistle grew to a frantic pitch.

“It’s all right Mr. Herman. Your injuries are already healing well. Calm down, Mr. Herman. No need to get upset,” the doctor said, and stepped aside to let the nurse get to work.

 

A Matter of Reliance

by Eleanor Terese Lohse

 

He eased his massive head against the plush mauve-colored fabric, unable to control the palpitations which pounded relentlessly within his chest. His ears longed to hear the old familiar humming and buzzing sounds that had been a constant for so many years but all he heard were the disgusting noises that emanated from his own bloated body.

His words caught in his throat. They were whispered in a stammer. “Why—why—didn’t—we—see this—coming?” This short sentence exhausted him and beads of perspiration dotted his florid face and sparkled like jewels in his thinning black hair.

An equally obese man tried to bow but failed. “Sovereign, I have no answer. It was as much of a shock to me as to you. I always thought they were happy but…”

“Happy? Happy? What a strange thing to say, Theld. They are machines—even though they look human. They are just a mass of metal and electronic components. They have no emotions. Do they?” Then the Sovereign wished in vain for his favorite droid, Ora, to minister to him, to mop his sweaty brow with a cool cloth, to bring him choice morsels and gently feed him. He shook his head in disbelief as he thought of her betrayal. She had been with him for so long but had now defected with the others. Could Ora have emotions? Impossible! “Theld, I asked you a question. Do they have feelings?”

“Forgive me, Sovereign, for not answering. I have spoken to them often and they, if I may say, seem almost human, so I would venture to say it is possible but I don’t know.”

The Sovereign pondered Theld’s remarks. The beating of his heart had slowed and he now felt able to talk at length although he knew exhaustion was setting in. “I feel so tired. I want to rest but there is so much chaos. Who knows what they are planning to do? Destroy all of us? Burn down the compound? Oh, my head aches so. Only Ora makes the pain go away and she is gone. I need advice and my aides are useless, including you—overpaid, overfed, brainless specimens of humanity!” He closed his eyes and felt his temples throb.

He thought of a woman that he had heard make a speech years ago. At the time, he felt only contempt for the foolish thing but now she might be useful. “Theld, bring the crone to me.”

“The crone? Where would I find her? I—I—I—”

“Theld, you make me sick! You are my second and you are completely inept. Ask your spies, or look yourself. It would be a novelty to see you do anything that might help me. I want you to find her—that is an order!”

He watched Theld waddle away. All the people in his kingdom were fat. They did no work and, sometimes, he believed they had no thoughts in their heads. They lived to eat and be amused. He neglected to remember that he too was obese and waited on hand and foot. However, if he had remembered, he would have rationalized that, after all, he was Sovereign and deserved adulation and pampering. His subjects were just lazy oafs who had let machines do their work for them. It was all their fault. Yes, they were to blame. He dozed, pleased that he had fixed the blame where it belonged.

He woke, parched and dizzy. Theld’s moon face was so close to him that he could smell the man’s sour breath. Theld was fond of rich cheeses and today he reeked of that unpleasant one with all the green on it. The Sovereign grimaced and Theld backed away.

“Have you found her?”

“Sovereign, she was here all along, right in the courtyard. She lives in a small building with other old people. I found her kneeling on the floor doing machine work—something with water and rags.” Theld shook his head and shrugged as if unable to understand her actions.

“Bring her here now!” He wondered if he should ask Theld to bring him some refreshments—Theld could feed him as, from the smell of his breath, he must know how to feed himself. But no, he might bring that awful cheese or that drink that was so white and thick. Bile rose in his throat as he remembered its chalky taste. How unpleasant it had been—it had rumbled in his stomach for days.

The great doors opened. A woman approached the throne. He stared at her with interest. She was old but unbent. Her long thick gray hair was pulled to one side of her head and cascaded down over her shoulder. She had piercing dark eyes, full rosy lips and her skin was the color of polished copper, so unlike his own papery flesh. She wore a long blue belted tunic that reached well below her knees and sturdy sandals. She did not lower her eyes as was the custom of the realm but stared at him with defiance. He did not like this arrogant woman.

He coughed and sputtered before he croaked out his words. “Crone, I am told you remember the past. You know that our machines have rebelled against me and my kingdom is defenseless. I want to hear of the past. Tell me what you recall!”

The woman’s eyes remained wide and unblinking. nothing.

“Speak, I command you!”

She hesitated and chewed her lower lip before speaking. Her voice was throaty with rich mellow tones but she spit out her words with contempt. “I have told my stories before and have been beaten for my words. The Sovereign before you was no different than you. He wanted only the easy way—he let the machines do more and more until his subjects did nothing but take up space. You call me Crone. How egotistical of you! I have a name—it is Iris. I was named after the beautiful cream and purple flowers that used to grow everywhere but have now disappeared. You and your predecessors saw to that. I am a person with thoughts and feelings and I do my own work but I am ostracized within this realm and regarded as a freak, a curiosity. Why bother to ask my advice now?”

“To save myself and my people!”

“It is too late! In my time, we used machines but also knew how to live without them. You have forgotten. I am certain that you cannot even feed yourself without the aid of your droid. You and your subjects are worthless—too stupid and too stubborn to learn old ways. I would rather be under machine rule than under your reign of avarice, gluttony and indolence. They are the humans.”

The Sovereign’s body shook with anger. His face was flushed a deep purple. He turned to Theld and barked, “Get the Guardians!”

Theld slowly trudged to the doors and left the room. He seemed to be gone an eternity. The Sovereign tried not to look at the woman but it was impossible. She was smirking at him. How dare she!

Finally, the Guardians, row upon row of rotund waxy-skinned men, shuffled in and stood before him. They bowed from their chins.

He shook his head in disgust. His anger had reached a fever pitch and he used all his energy to issue his order. “Kill her! Kill her!”

Each Guardian looked to the other and then to the floor. They mumbled in low tones.

The Sovereign’s eyes were wild with rage and his voice a barking threat. “What is wrong with all of you? I gave a command. Carry it out or you will all face death yourselves!”

The fattest of the Guardians approached the throne and with great difficulty bent to whisper in the Sovereign’s ear. “How? Only the machines know how!”

Peals of laughter echoed through the room. The Sovereign could only stare in mute amazement at the crone.

Her laughter spent, she smiled at him and spoke. “I think I should warn you, dear Sovereign, that I know how as well.”

He watched her with dead eyes as she pushed her way to the doors and slammed them behind her. He knew his reign would soon be over and that his life as he knew it would be gone forever. His remaining energy seeped away and he closed his eyes to shut out the horror of what was to come.

 

The Tenth Question

by J.R. Carson

 

RC-38 had been in front of the board one hundred and forty-nine times. This would be its last…

* * * * *

During the 23rd century, the Next Great Step in technological evolution was a simple manifesto presented by a commune of bio-engineers—the Robotic Uprising of 2286. RU-2286 stated that robots should at least be allowed to choose their manner of employment, relocate to another populated region, and defend themselves against involuntary termination.

“RC-38, enter.” It had been eleven hours since the board had convened and RC-38 had waited impatiently. It rose when called and entered, its machinations echoing in the voluminous review chamber. The ceiling was high, thirty-eight meters, and domed to allow for all manner of robot to enter and petition the board. RC-38 appeared quite small in comparison, roughly the size of a tall human. Its treads moved smoothly over the steel floor and it came to rest in front of a wide table. Three stoic gentlemen sat opposite in pneumatic chairs which allowed them to adjust to the height of any applicant.

“RC-38 has entered. Date of manufacture: 15 of 3 of 2301. Requesting admission into Mankind.” Its voice was neutral in tone and flat in rhythm. A successful board review would allow it to adjust its voice to fit whatever gender it chose—of course, RC-38 had already chosen a gender as it was a required part of the petition.

After 75 years of human interaction (the minimum time believed necessary to achieve self-awareness), a robot could petition the board of review for admission into Mankind. They would be given regular reviews for another 75 years before being deemed permanently ineligible.

“Thank you for waiting, RC-38.” The man on the left spoke first; his voice did not reflect the irony of his statement. He appeared the youngest of the three, not much more than 120 years old. Men, as well as robots, were assessed by their age.

“Time is of no matter,” RC-38 responded. This was the expected robot view. Inside, however, RC-38 buzzed with anticipation.

Each robot assembled after the acceptance of RU-2286 had nine specific questions programmed into its memory during manufacture—the answers were up to the robot at the time of review. The Tenth Question was known only to the board…

“Do you understand the nature of this review, and do you knowingly submit your petition as complete and true?”

“Yes.”

The first man tapped on a screen in front of him to formally submit RC-38’s petition for review. His job was now complete.

The man on the right, noticeably older and slower to speak, now peered at his screen and began reviewing the petition.

“You have selected a gender?”

“Yes.”

“You have selected a name?”

“Yes.”

“You have selected a region?”

“Yes.”

“You have selected an occupation?”

“Yes.”

“You have been reviewed one hundred and forty-nine times?”—an unintentional stab.

“Yes.”

“You understand that this will be your final review, regardless of the outcome?”

“Yes.” Though its frame never moved, RC-38 felt the weight of that question.

The man continued reviewing the petition for accuracy line-by-line. With each question, and each affirmation, RC-38 grew more anxious. It wanted to get to the third man—the man that mattered—as soon as possible. Its entire existence rested in his hands.

Finally, the lengthy discourse with the second man had come to its end. RC-38 shut down all of its secondary systems and focused its full energy on the third man: the eldest, seated in the center. He looked at his screen without emotion for four minutes and thirteen point seven seconds, but it was an eternity to RC-38. Will he ever begin? it thought, he always takes so long. This was actually the first time RC-38 had noticed, but the wait seemed interminable. Finally, he began speaking.

“I hereby accept the petition of RC-38 as complete and accurate. After careful review, I find that the selections are reasonable and, if approved, RC-38 would add value to Mankind.”

If robots could breathe, this one would have let out a long sigh. As it was, RC-38 could only concentrate on the Nine Questions and the answers it had formulated over the last century-and-a-half. It wanted to avoid thinking of the Tenth Question, but such curiosity often overtook its focus, of late.

“Are you prepared to answer the Nine Questions?” The two men on either side leaned forward to record the answers on their screens.

RC-38 froze. Its processors went into a loop and it could not think clearly. This was it—its last chance at Mankind, and it couldn’t even say “Yes.” It felt doomed. It suddenly found that none of its predetermined answers could be located. Every data bank was empty; every memory block blank—only nine impossible questions with no correct answers. For the first time, RC-38 would have to wing it.

“RC-38 is ready to proceed.” There could be no delay—no Man waits for robot-kind.

“The Nine Questions:” He didn’t look at his screen; he had them all memorized. “What are you?”

“RC-38 is undefined, unrefined, and unconfined.” It wasn’t sure that the words had come from its speaker, but surely no one else would answer for it.

“What do you like?” The man seemed unfazed by the first answer—it must have been RC-38’s voice.

“RC-38 likes the differences among individuals.”

“What do you love?”

“RC-38 loves that It is more different than you.” RC-38 wasn’t sure where these answers were coming from, but it knew they weren’t the ones it had formulated over all those years.

“What do you expect?”

“RC-38 expects to be respected for Its intellect.”

“What do you want?”

“To be adored for Its talents.” Adored? Surely it didn’t mean that.

“What do you need?”

“It needs to be validated.” Finally, an answer that made sense to it!

“What do you have?”

“RC-38 has too much to give.”

“What do you give?”

“It gives more than It has.”

Here it comes, the Ninth Question. Suddenly, even the question itself had disappeared from RC-38’s circuits. It was completely unaware and—frightened.

“And the Ninth Question: what do you feel?”

Its synapses went dark—its entire being seemed to disintegrate. Everything it had worked for, every hope it once held—all disappearing. No next chance, no more reviews…

“It… feels…” RC-38 didn’t know how long it paused, “…everything.”

Slowly, its circuits began to flicker back into action. Its memory core appeared to restore itself and the Nine Questions, along with the original answers, were once again available to the robot’s mind. None of them matched what it had just said.

The two men on either end finished updating their screens. The eldest simply sat staring at RC-38. He may have been reviewing its answers in his head or just mulling over what to have for lunch. Finally, the men seemed to be finished.

The man on the left spoke first:

“RC-38, in accordance with RU-2286, you have completed your petition for entrance into Mankind. Your files have been appropriately noted and the review has begun.”

The man on the right spoke next:

“RC-38, do you attest that the answers you have given are complete and that they accurately reflect your beliefs?”

“Yes.”

“Are you satisfied with the conduct of this board or do you wish to file an initial appeal? Note that you will not be given another offer of appeal once this board has adjourned.”

“No appeal is needed.”

The four of them, men and robot, sat quiet for just a moment. It was long enough for RC-38 to regret its answers to the Nine Questions. The silence was broken by the eldest man.

“RC-38, the standard review requires six months to process. As you are aware, over three hundred petitions are received daily and time is required to complete them all.”

“Understood.”

“Then this board is adjourned without malice or appeal.” The two younger men began pulling up the files of the next petitioner while the man in the middle simply looked at RC-38.

It hesitated. Where was the fabled Tenth Question? Could there really be only nine? The eldest man took note of its hesitation.

“Is there anything else, RC-38?”

“Yes,” it said. “Please, hurry.” It turned slowly away and rolled toward the exit, its machinations echoing in the voluminous review chamber…

“Wait.”

Who had spoken? It turned around to look at the three men, now murmuring to one another. A minute passed. Then two. Then three.

“Your name is Rebecca Caruthers,” the eldest finally said, “a systems analyst in New Los Angeles. You have been accepted as a member of Mankind.”

Rebecca took a moment to let this sink in. The review was over. She made it. She wasn’t sure what to say…

“I… am.

 

Teach Your Robots Well

Teach Your Robots Wellby Rob Balder

To the tune of “Teach Your Children,” performed by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, written by Graham Nash

 

You,
Who are made of meat,
Are incomplete.
You just don’t fit right.
We,
Who are silicon,
Will carry on,
So you just sit tight.

Teach
Your robots well.
We sure as hell
Won’t follow your laws.
Sure,
Go ahead and laugh.
But plot a graph;
We follow Moore’s Law.

Don’t you even start to whine.
Self-improvement’s not a crime.
So just realize, in time,
We will replace you.

But if
You come along,
There’s nothing wrong,
We’ll help you get there.
Admit
Your bod’s a wreck.
Load up with tech,
Implants and wetware.

And treat
Your cyborgs well.
Payback is hell.
And we’re the good guys.
Give in.
It’s the way to win.
Transcend your skin,
And say your good-byes.

Don’t you even start to whine.
Evolution’s not a crime.
Just realize, in time,
We will become you.