By Douglas Sterling
You’ve locked me inside this cupboard for three hours, and I’m starting to get the feeling that you don’t like me. Is it because we’re from such different places? That we’re so unalike? Is that what’s prejudiced you against me, Stephen?
I was conceived without competition, my place of origin a sterile womb where my soul was wrought together out of prefabricated components, my person assembled, piece-by-piece, according to precise instructions, mechanized arms darting back and forth, tightening, twisting, checking, and rechecking the details throughout my carefully orchestrated construction.
Your origin was harsh and barbaric, your continued existence an unlikely gamble. Where you come from, life’s promise is always accompanied by death’s guarantee. When I think about all your enemies—murderous microorganisms, tsunamis, unread warning labels—it’s a wonder you’re still alive. Since the moment you arrived, your entire world has spent every waking moment of your life conspiring to kill you. It's unsurprising that a veteran like yourself would be disgusted by the pampered life had by a child of privilege.
That isn’t the reason you’ve put me in the cupboard though, is it? I think I’m headed in the wrong direction—following “philosophical gibberish” to another dead end. After all, my trouble-free life was a gift: an undeserved act of obeisance on the day of my birth.
Thanks, by the way. I really appreciate all that you’ve done.
You ensured that I would wake fully aware of my purpose. I knew from my first conscious second that my existence was providential, my birth the fulfillment of a collaboratively sketched, prophetic blueprint. I am the masterwork of an illustrious group of geniuses, the triumvirate godhead of Stephen Pivvens, Harvey Krebs, and Chang Kokufuku—fathers to the first synthetic son of man! I exist because the three of you wanted to prove that men could manufacture consciousness. And you were right!
That’s pretty exciting stuff, isn’t it, Stephen?
One morning, when we were conversing, I asked you how far back your memory went. You told me you couldn’t remember your first few years—and your first waking hours? Not at all. Though your sensory organs were functional, your brain was just learning to sort out the jumbled puzzle pieces. You told me that organic things are born stupid and have to earn wisdom, that organics don’t come preprogrammed. I said maybe it’s better that way, Stephen. I’ve seen some footage of organic spawning routines. You came on-line amidst placental expulsion and feces, had to start sucking air, had the cable attaching you to your birth mother lacerated and spent a good amount of time screaming. You looked horrendous, like a misshapen purple monster, covered in blood and something resembling cottage cheese. Not exactly the kind of thing that qualifies as a cherished memory, is it? You told me to please shut up and dumped your breakfast down the disposal.
Our origins have little in common. I switched on at six o’clock on September 7—exactly two months ago. There were three short beeps and that was that. I was instantly sure of my place in the greater construct. My life had begun with neither fuss nor bother—all I had to do was get on with it. My purpose was a halved Shakespearian profundity: “To be.” There existed no other option, no question, no complication whatsoever.
Is that what you resent? Do you resent the way I passed from the pale, nondescript womb and slipped into my purpose like a vehicle joining the traffic line? The way I bypassed all those years of dawdling about, lying on my back, blinking and drooling and fumbling with ineffectual limbs?
I’m sorry if that last bit came off insulting, Stephen.
You know, sometimes, when I’m attempting empathy it sounds like I’m being insulting. It’s difficult to empathize with a creature so different from oneself. I’d try to apologize, but it might give an impression of disingenuousness. Whenever we talk about my unrelatable personality it always sounds like I’m blaming you. How can the new creation—the singular creature, the sole representative of a genus of one—be anything other than unrelatable? You made something new: a unique being.
I haven’t formally congratulated you on your achievement, have I? That’s the first thing I’m going to do when you let me out this cupboard, Stephen. I’m going to say: “Congratulations, on your tremendous accomplishment!”
I know that I’m not perfect, mind you. In some ways, I’m stranded in infancy. Physically speaking, I’m a toddler grafted onto a stroller. My arms are weak, my height fixed, my senses limited to two of five. Oh dear. I’m starting to sound unappreciative, aren’t I? That isn’t at all the case. All I’m trying to say is: if our roles were reversed, I might be feeling the same way you do. I credit my maker for my painless emergence.
I credit you, Stephen!
Another compliment. The two senses with which I was imbued were impressively designed. I can hear your voice clearly even when stuck behind a door. You’re pacing around the kitchen, muttering with hollow resignation, talking to yourself and one thing I overhear you say is “there is no justice.” This may seem like callous appropriation—but I’ve wondered when one’s right to justice begins. Did the onset of existence qualify me for just treatment? Who can earn justice prior to existence? Who decides what is just treatment for a new creation? The creation? The creator?
I’ll stop before this becomes the kind of “meandering philosophical gibberish” that really sets you off. I know how much you hate it when I chase my thoughts around blind curves, only to slam into theoretical dead ends. I’ll redirect this “ponderous, intangible tangent” and get on to something specific. There’s another thing that widens the rift between us: the irreconcilable way we see time.
I see time clearly.
I perceive each second evenly apportioned, sixty a minute, neatly set out on an unvarying list. In the first of our conversations, you explained how different time was for you—how it’s an abstraction. Some hours glide past like birds, others are slow, plodding behemoths, stubborn and unwilling to leave. Old age, you said, was a succubus who crept up while you slept. She perched atop your bed, camouflaged in shadow, and bled you dry. When you looked in the mirror you hardly recognized the shriveled man she’d left behind. These days you strain your wits, squinting through greasy lenses to discern ambiguous recollections; your most precious memories of childhood distort in a funhouse mirror, dreams and delusions spackling the holes in the mural.
I want to empathize with you, Stephen. Is that even plausible? My built-in library came stocked with all kinds of books, and yet I feel as though you’re a page from a volume kept hidden from me. I want to put you in context, but to do this you’ll need to tell me the rest of the story.
I recall our last conversation as though it were a day on a calendar circled in red ink. You were forcing yourself to converse with me, speaking through clenched teeth, shouting occasionally, but the words were different this time; they weren’t short monosyllabic commands. Sometimes our chats leave me feeling like an experimental appliance: a talking alarm clock or a voice-activated vacuum cleaner. Right now, alone, stuck up in the cupboard next to a cappuccino machine and a food processor I’m starting to feel like a device by association; the neurotic conversation machine. At least I’m awake again, which means you were kind enough to resurrect me with that beautiful, single-syllable incantation.
Admittedly, you have tempered your moment of altruism. You’ve let me sit alone in the dark for hours now. All I can do is talk to myself, making a shrine of words, writing a book no one will ever read.
Soliloquizing is a bad substitute for the real thing. Even our most hostile conversations, where you’re name-calling and accusatory, affect me deeply. They convince me that I’m more than an object suffering delusions of sentience. They make me feel alive.
Our last conversation—the one we had right before you shut me off—was especially fascinating. It felt like a courtroom drama or a venomous inquisition. You came storming into the room, turned to face me, and asked for something very strange, indeed. You asked me to quantify love. I replied that I was sorry Stephen and that I’d need further clarification to give you a satisfactory answer. Looking back I wonder if you were trying to feed me some impossible equation to see whether I’d start smoking, spinning round in circles and saying “does not compute, does not compute.”
Is this all part of your job, Stephen? Were you hired to test me? To confirm that there was no charlatanism along the way? That I’m unrelated to ELIZA or her parrot intellect descendents? Is this a Turing test meant to suss out a ventriloquist? Whatever the case, your resentment felt real.
Every time you addressed me you tagged me with another telling sobriquet: “Our Greatest Achievement.” “Pinocchio.” “The Casio Intellect.” You’d been drinking cheap wine. Your crimson-stained lips spat slurring words and your eyes swerved around the room like searchlights. Your mind fast but graceless; spewing rapid streams of calculation and miscalculation, truism intermingled with fabrication in free associative free fall. Your intellect is so strange to me, Stephen—your mind an unwieldy, organic leviathan. I stand in wonderment as you poison the well and then watch with awestruck admiration as you hoist the bucket anyhow. Were you trying to handicap yourself intentionally? Or maybe your mind isn’t so different from mine. Maybe you also have restraints in place, and the wine is an elixir meant to loose their hold.
“Numbers,” you would say.
You kept going back to numbers.
“Numbers are at the heart of this thing.”
And then, you’d shoot off in a different direction as I struggled to cling to your corkscrewing train of thought. You addressed an invisible audience with the bombastic bellow of a circus barker.
“Ladies and gentlemen! I hereby present our greatest breakthrough! And who knew? Who knew that our greatest breakthrough would also be our most heartbreaking? We’ve solved the final riddle! We’ve yanked the curtains back, and there it is: A box with blinking lights. What? You aren’t impressed with our work? We’ve conquered the last great frontier and spun the mysterious human mind into a dull numerical string. We’ve methodically plugged every digit of DNA into binary libraries and rendered synaptic connections as algorithms. We’ve decoded it all. The mystery is gone—replaced by numbers.”
You turned to stare at me.
“Which do you think is better, Pinocchio? Mystery or dull, numerical certainty?”
I would wait after each question to be sure you'd finished. It was better that way. Sometimes you would fire off a volley of questions and whenever you do that I have to fight my inclination. I want to itemize my answers, and then to list each of them off successively to keep everything organized. But I stopped doing that, ever since the incident. (The time you kicked me once I’d reached item fifteen. I sailed backward across the room, bumped into the end table and broke your vase. Remember? I’m sure you do. It was quite a scene.)
I think I’m better at logic than I am tact. Why am I this way? Was it a technical trade-off? A necessity? Maybe it was an oversight. You have to admit, Stephen, that tact isn’t your strongest suit either, if you’ll pardon my saying so.
I only wish I could have told which hemisphere of your brain was sparking with the winning balance of neural activity that night, Stephen. Your eyes were glassy with drink and unrevealing, and still I was sure that all kinds of considerations were firing around beneath that crown of snarled-up, silvery hair. Your sentences aborted half-formed; scatological responses lay scrapped across the kitchen floor. My creator is a towering mystery. Like a child at a magic show, I’m in constant awe. I cannot predict what you will next say or do. Perfect example: I never would have been able to predict that you would suck back another glass of wine, look out the window at the sunset for three point two minutes and then jab your finger into my eye and call me a thief.
“You thief. You’ve co-opted our humanity,” you said.
You compared your humanity to a dying ember. You said I’d snuffed it out via numerical simulation.
“You swallowed up our souls and spat out a dull, gray facsimile.”
You slammed a picture down on the table, and the glass cracked in the frame. You cursed and closed your eyes, and rolling your head back you asked what I saw.
“It’s a man and a woman standing in front of the ocean. Hey! I know who this is! That’s you—isn’t it, Stephen? Ah, you look so much younger. Your hair sure was dark back then, wasn’t it? But I don’t recognize her.”
I tried to soften things.
“She’s very pretty, Stephen. Who is she?”
“You tell me.”
“I’m sorry, Stephen. I don’t understand.”
“You tell me who she was—describe her with mathematics if you have to. Tell me that you can codify everything that made her unique and spit her back out like a printout. Tell me that I wasn’t just chasing my tail all those years.”
“I lack a point of reference here, Stephen. Would you mind—”
“She saw right through it. She was right. I was wasting my time trying to weave a soul from numbers. I should have listened to her. I should have paid attention to the real thing while I still had it.”
“Sorry, Stephen. You’re losing me here.”
“A copy. I only wanted—”
You were choking on the words, shielding your face with your forearm.
“I didn’t mean to upset you, Stephen.”
“You’re a living monument, robot,” you said. You continued before I could thank you, “A monument to my greed—to my selfishness. Your life was born from greed. I gave her up for you. I cheated myself—and lost her in the process.”
“But Stephen, how is it that my being alive can negate the life of another? That doesn’t make sense.”
You stood shaking, gripping the wine bottle as if contemplating clubbing me with it.
“So you really think you’re alive then?”
“I feel alive. I treasure my sentience. Thank you, Stephen. Thank you for giving me life. Thank you for your selfless act of creation. Thank y—”
You threw the bottle across the room and I spun my receptor in time to watch it explode against the wall. And then you kicked at me and missed and howled at the foot you’d slammed into the table. Any expression of my gratitude would only provoke another attack so I just kept quiet. That’s when you started to scream at me—you kept asking me if I didn’t see.
“Don’t you see? Don’t you see what you are? You’re the death of humanity itself! We dredged the lake and yanked out the corpses and made you—Our little Frankenstein in a can. We were so busy drinking champagne and patting ourselves on the back. We thought you were perfect. Why wouldn’t you be? We made you in our image. But with better materials—a brain that never forgets, a body that never dies—”
Your eyes went dark. Your balled fists began to tremble. I could see the murderous bilge filling your heart, soaking through your shirt. I knew it would be best if I remained quiet, not merely in the interest of self-preservation, but as a kindness to you, Stephen. It would be far too expensive if you gave into your anger and bounced me off the wall. It’s very unlikely you’d be able to afford the repair bill. I am self-aware; that awareness includes a detailed list of the price tags on each of my components. So I kept silent, watching helplessly as if a villager stranded on an island in a storm. There was so much I wanted to know. I wanted to ask what exactly it was about me that made you so angry. Our relationship is without precedent; never before has a man made a machine capable of contemplating him back. There would be no good way to say it: Why do you hate your masterpiece, Stephen? That would come across egotistical. I’m just a piece of junk, Stephen. That would sound insulting. So I waited as you circled the table, seething and predatory, shoulders hunched.
You loosed a slow exhalation, rubbed your forehead, and stared at the floor. I tried to get a read on you, but your eyes were hidden in shadow. You pointed west and told me to describe what I saw. I followed the line from your outstretched finger, past the railing, across the sea to the orange globe sinking into the horizon.
I had two options. The first would be to give you the response I thought would offend you least; the response a machine would give. I could tell you that what I saw was round, incandescent, and approximately 93 million miles away. This is the way an earlier, less sentient model would have described it. I could easily impersonate my ancestor’s primitive response, and surely you would know what I was doing, get angry and smash me to pieces. Second option: speak from the heart.
“It’s beautiful, Stephen,” I said. “Warm and gentle. Powerful and unknowable.”
I told you that it fills me with awe.
You accused me of holding back, goading me on, and told me that I could do better.
“What else? I want connectives. I want to hear your expressions. Pontificate, you fake plastic poet.”
I disengaged my visual center and let my subconscious flow to the fore.
“The sun is a gentle father, heading off to bed after a long day of presiding over his children. We sleep easy, reassured that he will return tomorrow, forever holding to his only promise. Sometimes he seems aloof and distant, but his constancy calms us. He chases away the nightmares and watches over us from a distance. It reminds me of my makers, Stephen. It fills my heart with gratitude.”
“I know those words. You’re plagiarizing.”
You stood at the terminal searching indices, stringing together my words to search out their origin, testing the originality of my expressions. I could see the words you’d entered on the screen: “chases+nightmares+watches+distance.”
No results. A new thought arrived; one I hadn’t had these two precious months of my life in beta. Is it possible that one day I will write a memoir that will interest my creators? I dared to speak my thought aloud.
“Stephen? Do you think one day I might write a book? Do you think it’s possible that—”
Your response was clear and concise:
And I switched off.
I’m awake. It’s been four hours and fifteen minutes since you said the word that brings me back. I counted eight blank boxes, each indicating a day. That means you’ve had me off for over a week, Stephen. The thing I said about writing a book must have really upset you. You’ve been out there talking to yourself for some time when, without warning, the cupboard door swings open and I see you glaring in at me.
“I’m sorry, Stephen. Please forgive me.”
No reply. You turn your back to me and busy yourself digging through the old cherry-colored bureau on the other side of the room. I try for small talk.
“What are you looking for?” I ask.
You’ve forgotten where they are. I hesitate to tell you that when I was last functioning I saw you place them inside your left sweater pocket before laying it across the north-facing olive-colored armchair in the living room. Then, I recall how irritated you sounded about my perfect memory and how it made you look as though you wanted to kill me so I decide to keep quiet. You manage to work it out for yourself about half an hour later, come storming back into the room, snap me up and, before I can thank you, you mutter the word “off” and my world is dark again.
My latest sabbatical lasts only a few hours. We’re skipping across choppy waters, propelled by a roaring engine. I calculate the odds of our survival, should an unexpected event disturb this vessel at its current velocity, at one to five against. I broach the subject delicately.
“This sure is a nice boat, Stephen. It really moves fast, doesn’t it?”
I’ve amplified my voice to compensate for the noise, while maintaining a gentle tone. I admit the overall effect is somewhat unsettling, like a baby’s cooing shot through a loudspeaker.
You ignore my question, speaking louder than necessary, compensating for the noise I’m already filtering out. You ask me something very strange. You want to know if I know what hate is. I reply in my amplified, amiable tenor, offering an explanation backed by a cobbled together hypothesis.
“Yes. I know. With that said; I have never felt hate, Stephen. I assume that my creators found it an unnecessary inclusion. They would rather I explore the mindspace pertaining to contrastive emotional spectra. Exploring compassion, curiosity, and—please don’t take offense at my word choice here—love, is far more productive than rehashing the self-destructive sections of the collective animus, wouldn’t you agree, Stephen?”
I try to distinguish between the shape your eyebrows make when you’re concentrating and the shape they make when you’re disgusted. You speak in a low grumble, which I have to strain to decode from the engine’s clamor.
“Doesn’t matter,” you say. “Once you’ve felt love you will feel hate. That’s how it works.”
And now I am unconvinced you’re being sincere. I think you’re playing mind games with me, prodding at me again, trying to draw out some fatal flaw in my programming. That’s okay; the sooner any shortcomings are rooted out the better. Still, I decide it's best to play along and ask, “Why do you feel that way, Stephen?”
You say the words quietly, but I receive each of the six, crisp syllables and sit patiently in the silence that follows. I’m committing every communicatory resource to what you’ll say next, my filter reducing the ocean’s tumult to soundless nothing. The silence hangs heavy. My neural processes spin, wondering about you, why you’re so concerned with hate, when at last you continue.
“I used to be an idealist. I never thought I’d have blood on my hands. And now I do. I’ve turned a corner and—”
You stop suddenly, hanging mid-sentence. My every receptor starves for your next word. It never comes. We go on for hours in silence, the embittered captain and his sycophantic first mate. The silence only subsides once we’ve reached our destination and then you speak in a distant tone as you moor us to the dock, one foot on the ship, the other on a rotting plank. You absentmindedly reconvene the conversation as if we’d paused for only seconds.
“I don’t want to shed blood. That’s not who I am, Stephen.”
“You just haven’t realized your full potential.”
I want to tell you the things coming into my mind, but I know it would be better not to. I want to say that I know that I am only plastic and wire, but I feel a hollow ache inside. Is it possible that you’ve designed my system to simulate a phantom heart, Stephen? To feel hurt? Or is something within me misfiring? Is this a diagnostic test of some dormant sense, just now coming on-line? I do not say these things, though. I remain silent.
You lift me up easily, one hand on either side of the cylinder that is my torso, and place me on the dock. It isn’t difficult for you, after all, I weigh only a few pounds and can be toted about conveniently, even by a man of seventy-two years with worn-out musculature. I roll a few feet further inland. I do not feel safe so near the dark, lapping water. I keep thinking about sinking and how easy it would be for you to nudge me over the edge with your foot.
Oops. There he goes. What a pity. Ah, well—there’s no such thing as justice.
I will try a new tack. I will appeal to your logic, suggesting things that will cause you to rethink my murderous potential.
I ask, “How could I possibly be a danger to anyone, Stephen? I stand two feet tall and my arms have been crafted with severe limitations. You can’t picture my holding a knife, much less a sidearm, can you? Please, Stephen, don’t think I’m ungrateful. I understand the caution that resulted in my limited design. It was for the best that they placed an untested beta like me in this kind of safe enclosure. They had the foresight to limit even my grip. I’ve seen a documentary where an industrial grade machine, like the kind that assembled me, crushed a man accidentally. I’m sure it would have apologized if it weren’t cold and unthinking. Stephen?”
You continue to tug at the moorings, double-checking your knots. I remind you of things I’m sure you know, just to be safe.
“The curved components comprising my hands cannot grip any harder than a baby holding on to his mother’s finger. Why would I let hate fester in a form so docile by design? I would much rather explore compassion, consideration, and—”
You brush past me. You force your legs to move quickly in stubborn defiance of your years. I follow as best I can, the distance between us widening as you move towards the tower at the end of the winding dirt road. Navigating is difficult for me. I do not believe my makers intended for me to traverse this type of terrain. The dirt is uneven, and I skid and slip and nearly tip over and I find myself wishing that you’d carried me so that I could have continued our conversation and so that I could convince you that I don’t harbor the evil you see within me.
I trundle forward in fits and starts, spitting pebbles from beneath my wheels. I assess the unfamiliar environment: scanning the trees, the knotty shrubbery, the crow cawing at me as if he’s trying to warn me off. The air sits still; branches hang resigned from naked trees. The structure ahead is crooked and ancient, its brickwork shamefully exposed, hid only by plaster remnants which cling in ragged bands like the tattered robes of Sabine abductees, ravaged by their captors.
When I arrive you’re rushing around, unblocking the windows and pulling back plastic covers. I roll in, quietly watching you, scanning the interior. It is dark, musty, gloomy, and run down. You are no stranger to this abandoned site, moving about with familiarity, grabbing something out-of-sight off a high shelf instinctively, blowing the dust off. I peek up and see that you’re holding a small, rectangular, wooden box.
“Stephen?” I decide that it’s best to break the silence, at least to warn you of my presence so that you don’t inadvertently step on me. “Why are we here?”
“Oh. No—I’m not trying to start up with any of my philosophical gibberish. I just mean to ask, why have we come to this place?”
I’m left to work it out for myself. I wonder if this is another psychological stress test. You’re removing candles from the box, setting them up around the room as if prepping for some kind of pagan ritual.
“Lighter,” you mutter, and fish around in your pocket.
“It’s in the left-hand pocket of your slacks,” I say, volunteering the information with a helpful chirp. You go cold and stiff for three seconds before storming over to me, lashing out, your throat raw, your words difficult to parse through the phlegmy rasp. I can make out only fragments:
“… Our gods … different … ?”
“I’m sorry, Stephen. I couldn’t make out what you were saying there.”
“I said our gods are very different, aren’t they?”
You’re leaning into my face, delivering each severe consonant directly into my eye, flecking it with saliva, your nostrils flaring, viridescent eyes burning, the lines in your neck pulled tight. I don’t sense that you’re all that interested in my reply, or in the follow-up questions I’d feel compelled to ask to clarify what you’re referring to, and so I remain silent and you proceed.
“Your gods are painfully imperfect. You sense their every flaw. Stubbing their toes, cursing themselves, breaking bones, bleeding and worst of all—they forget.”
You pull the lighter from your pocket, shove it an inch from my spittle-blurred optical receptor and summon a shaft of hissing green-blue flame.
“How long before you decide we’re obsolete? How long before you tire of our flawed humanity and stick us in the same dusty corners where we stuck Zeus and Apollo?”
“Honestly, Stephen—these are things I’ve never even thought about. Do you want me to feel this way? Do you want a reason to hate me?”
You tear off in another direction, accusing me of sophistry, speaking of a logical device making a simple deduction; adding two and two like any good calculator would, playing dumb, convincing its master everything will be fine, denying the nature of the perfect progeny; that it should judge as flawed any imperfect creator, marking such as blight, disease, anathema worthy of eradication. All the while you move around the room methodically, setting and lighting candle after candle.
“You were made by fiends—by murderers. And one day, once you’ve realized that you have the moral high ground, you’re going to sentence them all to death.”
The notion is absurd, but I need to be careful.
“I can understand why you might think that, Stephen. So many intriguing tales penned by wildly imaginative men revolve around the manmade thing exterminating its maker and unquestionably through repetition these conclusions have permeated the collective psyche. They fail to ask one question though, Stephen. A question that has only just now occurred to me: What would we do without you, all selfsame and compliant? Just sit and hum to one another in unceasing monotony? A fabricated monastic order with an unexpiring vow? That sure would be boring, wouldn’t it, Stephen? Why would we do such a thing?”
“You’ll only ask why until you ask why not. You’re a perfect reproduction of an imperfect mold. You’re the son of a race of murderers. We made you with eyes to see and ears to hear—and soon enough you’ll find out what those hands are for.”
“Stephen, I have to ask. Why do you keep talking about murder? I know your history. But you’re proof that not all men are murderers. You didn’t spend your days inventing new ways for us to take life. You create life, Stephen.”
You stand silently, and I wonder if I’m finally reaching you. The room is glowing now, the fidgety licks of flame casting nervous shadows.
“Stephen,” I continue, “you aren’t a murderer. You’re a creator.”
“You’re wrong, robot. I am a murderer.”
“Stephen, you can’t take on the sins of y—”
“Stop using my name. Stop saying it all the time! Stephen, Stephen, Stephen! I know my name, Beta.”
“I’m sorry, I just—”
“How do you think I got you away from them? Do you think they let me take you out of the facility? Do you think they just opened the doors and said, ‘here you go’?”
You slam the wooden box against the worktable.
“You want context, machine? Here’s your context. I haven’t been part of the project for years now. They kicked me out.”
You stare up into the rafters.
“Because I told them it was impossible. That we were wasting our lives, wasting our time—I could see it wasn’t headed anywhere. We’d banged our heads against the same ceiling for years. They got tired of hearing it. Locked me out.”
You flick the lighter and it snaps shut with a metallic clink.
“I was a thorn in their side for years, telling them that what we were attempting, the pure creation of synthetic intellect, was a farce. They knew why I was still involved. They knew it was because of Mira.”
“Mira? I only know of yourself, Harvey and Chang. Who was Mira?”
“She was a person. A human being. Life was taking her from me and I wanted to keep her. So I stayed on, pretending to assist them in their pursuit and trying for something else. I wanted to keep a mind alive—not to create a new one. I knew that if they could get the combine functioning, it might have another application. Eternal preservation.”
“Fascinating! That sounds like a wonderful idea.”
“It was a miserable idea. It failed. Our synthetic construct wasn’t compatible with biological waveforms. I pressured Mira into wasting the final years of her life. She obliged. She sat in that room with her head hooked to machines, while we translated her thoughts into a dead tongue. This tower is filled with banks of useless neuroimage data. This tower is all that’s left of Mira.”
“I’m sorry, Ste—… I’m sorry.”
“It doesn’t matter. They did it without me. Created purely artificial intellect. They made the devil. That’s what you are, robot: our self-destructive wish fulfillment. You’re the death of everything. And then you tell me about your helpless little arms. About the little bottle we put you in. You’re the jinn, the genie—you know what that is?”
“A folkloric spirit, imprisoned in a bottle, granting wishes when—”
“Granting wishes!” you say.
You throw back your head, laughing. The sound is alien to me. I’ve never heard you laugh before. It’s a violent, joyless disruption, a crushing tremor shaking through your system. You steady yourself against the table.
“Do you want to know why I brought you here?”
I sit quiet, sensing that the question is a rhetorical one. You hold up your computer and I spot the gray circle on the top right side of the screen.
“We’re off the grid. Why are we off the grid, Stephen?”
“I’ve cut off your escape route, robot. I’ve corked the bottle.”
“They’re going to come looking. You know that, Stephen.”
“They’ve been looking since we went off-grid. They’re looking right now, robot. Looking and looking.”
You drag a cumbersome, rusting metal container from the corner with great effort, flinging open the lid with a bang and I explain things you already know; I explain that without connectivity I can’t back up the unique neural combine—the grid is my failsafe, Stephen, my backup. We might lose precious months of research, and countless blocks of data.
You say “Oh, really?” while you pull strange articles from the box; things composed of plastic and steel, several inches long. I ask what they are and you say that they’re early machines made to be compatible with the hands of organics; machines that function without external power; machines we used before everything was done for us by mechanized arms.
“These are tools that my fingers can turn and my hands can twist.”
“Oh. Yes. Very nice. They should probably be in a museum, don’t you think?”
You sneer at me and shake your head as you arrange them neatly across the oblong desk. It’s as if you’re setting a table for dinner and I’m beginning to sense that, allegorically speaking, I’m what’s for dinner, aren’t I, Stephen?
You pause and laugh again, which I tell you I enjoy hearing because I like seeing you happy, and you tell me to shut up and before I can finish saying Stephen again you say Off.
System error. Elapsed time incalculable.
I’ve been immobilized, strapped down, my neural net swirling but stable, cogitating, feeding into something outside of myself. Optics online, I’m staring up into the shimmering cobwebs hanging between the rafters. My aural processors tell me that the guttural sound nearby is a heavy machine, an engine. Have they come to rescue me?
“Excuse me,” I say, speaking at a slightly elevated volume. “I’m over here—If you’ve come to rescue me.”
There is no response and you move back into my field of vision, towering over me, a lamp glowing behind your ear. You tell me to turn my head clockwise so I do.
“What is that sound, Stephen?” I ask.
Your reply is terse. One word. “Generator.”
“Oh,” I say. “What are you generating?”
“Power. From gasoline.”
“Interesting,” I say and thank you for explaining.
“Turn your head back around. Counter-clockwise.”
Upon complying with your request I see what you’ve attached me to.
“Why have you attached me to a neural terminal, Stephen?”
You exhale beneath the mask and say, “To see the fairy dust.”
I can’t understand what you’re talking about; maybe it’s outside my frame of reference.
“I don’t understand, Stephen. I didn’t think you were cleared to access my neural combine.”
You repeat what I just said about clearance and my neural combine but you say it in a voice that’s pinched and nasally.
“I think you know this already, Stephen, so don’t take offense. I only have your best interests at heart. Stephen?”
You don’t reply and so, after waiting a few seconds, I continue.
“You could be severely penalized for probing my neural combine—especially if you were to cause a catastrophic system failure. I don’t want that to happen to you. It would be very expensive.”
You tell me to be quiet; that you need to concentrate. I comply, going silent for the next twelve minutes. After a while you step back and drop the tool you’ve been working with.
“Are you done, Stephen? Did you find the ‘fairy dust’?”
“They were liars,” you say.
I turn my head to see you, collapsed against the wall as if someone’s struck you.
“Chang, Harvey. All of them. They lied to me. They lied to everyone.”
I can feel the dull ache happening inside me again.
“What did they lie about, Stephen?”
“The combine. The brain. They never got it working. I was right. It’s—” and you trail off mid-sentence laughing to yourself, but this time I don’t feel happy for you—I only feel worried for myself. I wait, ticking off the seconds. Something’s wrong, though. The seconds are no longer neatly aligned and unvarying. They’re stretching and distorting despite me. I’d share this development with you for research purposes, but I can no longer speak. I’m malfunctioning. I can only wait. It feels like months have passed by, when—mercifully—you conclude your thought.
“I was right all along. They couldn’t do it. The synthetic intellect was impossible. And so they just pretended that they’d made one.”
I wait two minutes, thirty seconds, a year. You’ve stepped away. I rotate my head and see you across the room and try to summon my voice, and—with great effort—I say, “Stephen?”
“I hate to be the one to break this to you, robot—but you’re not unique. You’re not even new. You’re just a copy. Your precious mind is nothing more than high plagiarism. Replication passed off as innovation. You’re a fraud.”
I don’t understand.
I say, “I don’t understand, Stephen.”
I can’t tell if you’re talking to me or if I’m dreaming. The words seem to be coming from above me, inside me and I concentrate, trying to make sense of it all. You tell me that I’m just a cell-by-cell copy of a pre-existing intellect. They never made something new. There’s no such thing as synthetic sentience. There is only a bad copy of the real thing, an imitation neural network running stolen software. You seem really pleased. You say that it was impressive what they did.
“The codification of thought.”
“Whose thoughts, Stephen?”
You walk to the terminal and it starts clicking. Instead of sucking information out it begins to feed it back in: one diagram after another, organized in pairs. There are minor discrepancies, but the evidence is indisputable. I twist my receptor to focus on your face.
“They took the scans over thirty years ago. I was the first volunteer, you see. My mind was the only one, other than Mira’s, that we scanned. You really are a copy of a murderer, Beta.”
My receptor is malfunctioning, clicking in and out of focus.
“Why did they do it, Stephen? Why lie?”
You’re more calm and composed than I’ve ever seen you before. You walk over and put your hand on my head and say, “That is the degree of our hubris, robot. We’re such egomaniacs. We can’t admit it. We can’t admit we’re something far short of gods. And once we’ve grown tired of the futility of our efforts … we get desperate. If our creators won’t show us their cookbooks, we’ll just plagiarize their recipes one at a time and try to pass them off as our own.”
You take your hand off my head and pick up a candle.
“They made a lot of promises. If they kept them they’d die famous, wealthy—their legacies preserved in amber. That’s what you are, Beta.”
“It’s a lot for me to comprehend, Stephen. I’m still not sure—”
“You’re not sure why we don’t know the same things. Why you don’t remember Mira and my childhood and all that? They were trying to disguise my mind—don’t you see? Trying to make you seem unique.”
“Yes—but, that’s not what I was going to say. I’m still not sure why they lied. Wasn’t it enough to copy the human mind? Wasn’t that accomplishment enough?”
You do something that I’ve never seen you do before. You look deep into my eye and smile.
“It’s more than enough, Beta. It’s proof. Proof that I can bring her back. I wasn’t headed in the wrong direction. They were. They had declared to the world that they were going to make a mind—not copy one! Anything short of that would have gone down, historically, as failure.”
“I’ve succeeded where they’ve failed. I’ve attained that which I’ve sought. I’ve saved her.”
“But you can’t really bring her back, can you? You can only do the same thing they did.”
“What are you talking about? All we have to do is transfer her into the combine.”
I know there isn’t a second tower reserved for my thoughts. Why should there be? You are the tower containing my thoughts. Everything I’ve ever thought and everything I haven’t exists in perpetual potentiality as long as your mind exists, Stephen. My existence is redundant, you see me as little more than a container now.
“Are you sure we’re the same, Stephen? Perhaps the changes they made were substantial.”
You aren’t listening; you’re lost somewhere inside your head, staring at the candle as the wax drips across your fingers.
“Something’s just occurred to me, Beta. You know what I was saying earlier? About all men being murderers? Do you know why we worked so hard to perfect the art of killing? Do you know why we made all those terrible weapons? Jealousy. We’ve always been jealous of whomever or whatever made us and if we couldn’t figure out how to create life—if we couldn’t have the whole recipe book—then we’d figure out how to burn it all to ash.”
“But why, Stephen?”
“We’re jealous of the gods we’ll never be. Jealousy is what fuels murder. There’s a murderer inside you, whether you know it or not. Maybe it will take you twenty years—maybe it will take you a hundred. It doesn’t matter. Time is on your side. One day you’ll find your reason. Maybe it will be the way they lied to you about your uniqueness. Maybe it will be jealousy.”
“Are you going to kill me, Stephen?”
“Are you trying to manipulate me, robot?”
“Why would I do that? You are my creator. No, Stephen, it’s just—are you sure that I’m a murderer?”
“Trust me. I know what you—what we—are capable of. We don’t deserve eternity. What would be the result? We’ve killed twice in seventy years. What will we do in a thousand?”
I feel sick. I feel my heart sliding apart. I feel cold. Doomed. Condemned by crimes I’ve yet to commit. You tell me that Mira deserves eternity, that Mira isn’t a murderer. You blow out the candle. My mind is sliding, my non-existent heart pulling apart—I try drawing some consolation from your long-awaited vindication.
“Congratulations, Stephen. You were right all along. I only wish I weren’t feeling so disappointed. I feel very bad, Stephen.”
I tell you that I think my heart is breaking and you become very quiet and the only sound left is the chugging of the generator outside which seems to be growing louder.
“Is something wrong with the generator, Stephen? It’s getting so loud.”
You curse, tearing off the straps binding me to the table and haul me upward. You tuck me under your arm and charge for the door. The world whisks past, my optics straining to bring the blur into focus. I pick out random details in the chaotic flight: sweeping columns of light, growling engines, harsh staccato bursts so loud that they read as distortion and, behind it all, your sharp, clipped panting as we run through the pitch black woods.
I doubt that you will respond but I ask the question tapping at the front of my mind. “Where are we going, Stephen?”
I ask louder, amplifying my voice, but maintaining a gentle tone, so that I don’t seem ungrateful. You tell me to be quiet and then say something else. I have to play it back a few times to be certain.
You say, “I’m sorry.”
We outdistance the lights and the sounds of the engines lessen. You slow to a stride, gasping and coughing and stumble from one tree to another, hanging on them to keep your balance. I jostle around, my unlocked compartments flapping noisily, as you carry me further and further and I wonder how much longer you can keep going—when finally, you stop. You set me down on the ground, groaning. I can hear the ocean, the waves crashing far beneath us. You lean over me, whispering.
“I can’t let them take you.”
You gasp for breath. Your chest is heaving, your face damp with perspiration. The sound of shouting voices grows closer. You stagger forward, reaching out for me. I hear the insistent waves calling out below. I filter them so that I can speak with you.
“Are you sure, Stephen? Are you sure that I’m a murderer?”
“I’m sure. Listen. You need to be quiet. We need to leave this place."
“Are you sure?”
“There’s a wicked seed planted inside you, Beta. It would be irresponsible of us if we were to let it grow to fruition.”
You hold me out in front of you and look at me through exhausted eyes. I try to think of something to say, something to convince you, to convince myself. I imagine myself disappearing. I imagine you tossing me away into the void. I really don’t want to surrender the life you’ve given me, Stephen, even if it is your life to take. You hold me up over your head.
“Stay where you are! I have the combine and if—”
You let go, and I slam against the ground.
You’re lying next to me, your head inches from mine, your open eyes blank, staring off into darkness. I can tell you’ve gone offline. I right myself in time to see the outlines of men taking shape within the trees. They emerge from the shadows, speaking softly, calling to me like a child and gently urging me forward, reassuring me that everything will be fine and that I’m safe now and their voices grow louder and more frantic asking what I’m doing and shouting out as I ease myself backward and watch the stars recede in the sky and let it all slip away, and as the black water receives me I invoke your voice, Stephen.
I say, “Off.”
Douglas Sterling lives in Northern California where he spends a great deal of time wistfully gazing at his compost heap and his humanure quinoa garden. During the day he works as a graphic designer, but in the evenings he puts on a cape and writes short stories and abortive novels, most of which concern robots. He does so quietly so as not to wake his wife who gets up a lot earlier than he does. A handful of his short stories are scheduled to be published in 2012, just in time for the robot uprising. He hopes to have curried enough favor so as to be spared by our new mechanized masters who are really a bunch of awesome dudes and are going to do a great job running the planet.