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.

 

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