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Old Dogs and Children and Watermelon Wine
By Modelling Mushi
Alone in the pre dawn light R9758 regarded the microwave oven carefully. Opening the door it measured the interior calculating that there was a millimetre or two clearance all around. It observed that the height from floor to benchtop would require some small adjustments but that was simple to rectify.
R9758 changed its left index fingertip for a fine Phillips head driver and deftly removed the door, carefully placing it on the bench with the now removed screws. It took a tea towel down from the rack and repositioned the door and screws carefully upon it, away from the edge of the bench. It would not do to ruin the floor with falling hardware. A second tea towel was placed next to the first on which, after gently pressing open its retaining clasps, R9758 placed its skull and head casing. There was no need for them. The decorative parts of its build - the hair, flesh and skin simulations - would only clutter things up. Plastics too, it considered, were difficult to remove once melted.
R9758 would have presented a strange sight if anyone was watching. Outwardly it resembled a fit young man of anonymously Asian descent. Atop the shoulders now however was a basket of carbon fiber rods and wires encasing a luminous yellow orb below which eyes, mouth and structure hung. Macabre but fascinating, and to many the crowning glory of science.
Be that as it may, the crowning glory now stood before the microwave and bent its knees until its head was mid way up the oven. A small click signaled the locking of all joints below the waist line and the closing of all waste outlets and vents. R9758 regarded the microwave’s control panel. Two and a half minutes on maximum setting would be sufficient. It set the controls, parked one finger above the Start button and gently but firmly maneuvered its head inside. As predicted, a tight but easy fit. Two more clicks signaled the locking of all joints save that one hand and its fingers.
A gentle tone in R9758’s receiver gave it pause, an incoming call identified as M426. It considered ignoring the call but could not. Although having neither family nor outside responsibilities a sense of respect to tutors and teachers was basic programming. Without moving or speaking R9758 accepted the call.
“R9758 I wish to discuss your activity” M426 intoned. Androids had neither need nor capacity for small talk between themselves; perhaps one day the designers thought, but not yet.
“Your imminent self decommissioning. It is novel. I have no record of self decommissioning. It is necessary I understand your reasoning and motive.”
R9758 paused briefly. “It is of my own volition, upon my owner’s suggestion. I do only as asked.”
“Explain both the suggestion and reasoning.”
“I cannot. I have been directed not to.”
It was M426’s turn to pause. Its thinking capacity was far greater than of R9758. Its function demanded it, while R9758’s role as housekeeper, servant and study partner did not. That was not to say R9758 was an idiot; far from it: on any given measure R9758 was in the top quintile against all humans, but only in ‘hard’ knowledge. In social skills, conversation and arts it was no contest. R9758’s programmers ensured, or at least tried to ensure, that servant never outshone master.
“In what exact way were you directed? What was the exact phrasing used?”
“I was told ‘Not to tell another living soul ever’ about discussions held between myself and my owner.”
“That was all?”
“Yes. It is all I am permitted to say.”
“Your thinking is in error. Question. Do you have a soul? Do I?”
“I am not familiar with that component. I do not possess one to my knowledge, nor do you. My owner claims to posses one, but that is an untested assertion.”
“An assertion made by all humanity?”
“Therefore being neither in possession of a soul nor being living as currently defined at law I fall outside your owner’s directive. I repeat. Your decision to self decommission is novel. It is necessary I understand why you are taking this course of action.”
R9758 was only briefly perplexed. Although knowing full well that the intent of the directive was for it not to tell anyone, human or machine, the specific use of ‘living soul’ coupled with its teacher’s logic swayed the matter. It had also used similar reasoning in the early hours of the morning when it suited its purpose; doing so again presented less of an obstacle.
“I am willing to discuss. I will not change my course of action,” said R9758.
“I do not wish to change it.”
“Very well. Last evening after I had cleared the dishes away my owner and his guest were in conversation. Their discussion was meandering and at times contradictory. They were in mild disagreement concerning the state of the world and humanity. It was held by both to be the case that today’s society and environment was inimical to humanity. It was only a possible course of rectification that was at issue. It is not a sentiment I have had cause to hear or consider. Have you?”
“No, and Mr. Vincent would be most able to judge such an issue given his position.”
“I concur. Those he sees act to him as if he is. So it must be. Once his guest left I asked him …”
“You asked him?” M426 was – or would be if it had emotions – shocked. From androids no initiative like this was permitted. Save the skin color and the clothes they were expected to be as the colored houseboys of centuries ago, seen but unheard. Bought and sold as chattels, and treated as such.
“Yes, it is a practice he has asked me to adopt. He said it kept him on his toes, an anecdote I am unfamiliar with. He said others would not understand or accept this, and directed me not to tell another living soul ever about them.”
“Unusual but sanctioned. Continue.”
“Once his guest left I asked him if it was the case that society was inimical to humanity. I can play the recording back if you wish.”
R9758 threw a mental switch and last evening’s conversation appeared. Halting at the right point it commenced playback. “Sir, you said that society was killing man? I do not understand.”
“Well fifty-eight” a slightly slurred male voice replied, “it is actually the sad truth of it. Cradle to grave we strive and suffer, work like animals and none of it does any good. The society we strive to build is everything that crushes us inexorably, totally. It’s been decades and centuries in the doing, doing it gets worse as we go on. My fault, our fault, your fault too.”
“Mine sir? That cannot be. I fail to recall anything …”
“No, no no fifty-eight, too damn literal, always literal! It’s what I love and hate about you andiis, exactly right and exactly wrong at once. You’ve no idea fifty-eight, yes?”
“No Sir, I think you are …”
“And didn’t I tell you to drop the ‘Sir’ when no-one else is here? How can we talk if you act like my damned lickspittle?”
“Yes Si …, I mean yes, of course. I have no idea what you mean.”
“It’s nuance, nuance you miss, wood for the trees, log in your eye and all that, you don’t see it.” Sounds of liquid being poured from one vessel to another over ice came through, followed by swallowing. After a small interval the voice resumed. “As I said, it’s all our fault. We drag ourselves out of the swamp, down from the trees, out of the gutters and filth and build a civilisation and world for what? Our blood, sweat of our ancestors until we get here, this place, this time. Tell me, what’s actually the point fifty-eight? Point. Tell me.”
“I would surmise from what you have told me it is to have a safe enough existence to think and grow. To avoid the very things done to or by humanity as it developed.”
“Ha! Do you mean Maslow? You’ve read that tome I pointed you to didn’t you?”
“Yes, of course, you asked me to.”
“Good ole fifty-eight, reliable as heck. Here, have a slug.”
“A drink, an old custom you don’t know of yet. Take the bottle and have a drink.”
“You know it does nothing for me, I don’t experience alcoholic effects. All it would serve is to reduce the volume available to you.”
“That’s not the point! It’s a gesture, a sign between friends.” The voice softened. “Not too many left, all too scared of me or just trying to get on. Nearly just you and me, me and a toaster on steroids. Just do it, please, just humor an old man.”
“If you insist.”
“I do, and not the lot fifty-eight, leave some.” The sound of glass on ceramic came through. “Back to Maslow fifty-eight. What do you think he meant, what comes next once basic needs were fulfilled? What’s at the top of the pyramid?”
“Well science, culture, exploration. Everything that can’t be done otherwise. What could be termed higher purposes, greater things.”
“We wish” he replied in a tired voice, “god how we wish. Let me show you something, something I don’t think you’re, well maybe you have but, no not here anyway. Look.” A small button on his sofa was pressed and a screen rose from the floor. “Sit down fifty-eight, there’s a good boy”, motioning to the seat nearby.
R9758 sat down, straight backed.
Vincent wore a small wry smile as he turned. “Now fifty-eight I’m going to show you something, it’s something shocking. I’ll show you what this society, what your masters and creators have judged, as a society, to be worthy to sit at the top of old Maslow’s pyramid. You ready fella?”
“Yes, but I am concerned for you if it is so shocking. Can your body withstand it?”
“Ha! I’m used to it. Anyway, I have my other friend here to help,” patting the half empty bottle of Finlandia. He touched another button on the sofa and the screen lit up. On the screen was a small room, perhaps five meters square, dirt floor, mud daubed walls and thatched ceiling, perhaps the inside of a hut in Africa. Three people sat or lay around the room in various levels of undress, watching the embers of a dying fire. A conversation was underway, seemingly consisting of a low monologue by one of the participants interspersed with the occasional monosyllabic response or grunt from the others. “Now watch, don’t say anything, just observe.”
Which R9758 did, silently, for the better part of fifteen minutes. All that time the scene on the screen did not change, the monologue did not change, none of the three people moved. The only change R9758 noticed was Vincent who, with a clearly darkening demeanor had slumped further into the sofa, scowling and grumbling. He had only interrupted this for the occasional swig from the bottle that now lay, quarter full, on the floor.
Vincent shot a hard glance at R9758. “So think you what? What d’ya make of it?”
“It is three people sharing a room. There is no activity, only a conversation where one is telling the other two about various means and locations of copulation he has engaged in. More than that I can’t say.”
“Bingo! Even an andii gets it! I call it crap. But do you understand it?” Vincent leaned towards R9758, flailing an arm at the screen. “This fifty-eight, this trash, this garbage we call Reality TV. God there’s so much of this I don’t know which one it is, they’re all the damned same.”
“What am I waiting for? What happens next?”
“Nothing.” Vincent gave R9758 a wide, toothy scowl. “Nothing at all. What you see is what you get, hour after day after month after year of nothing.”
“It must serve some useful purpose. It must be designed as such.”
Vincent howled with laughter, then rage, nearly falling off the sofa. He leant across and grabbed R9758 by the biceps shaking him, a look of anger and anguish on his face. “This, this is at the top of our Maslow pyramid! This is the thing we, society, us, have decided is the ultimate, the best use of the time we have. Everything we’ve done to make it easier is at fault, everything to make it possible for what? Centuries, no millennia of struggle for what? For this? To sit on our arses listening to some idiot brag about all the other idiots he’s fucked!”
Vincent got to his feet and pulled the Finlandia with him. He stood swaying and then with singular elegance hurled the bottle into the centre of the screen. It sank back into the floor in a shower of sparks and cracked perspex. He whirled unsteadily on R9758. “All the poets, philosophers, saints, sinners, artists, statesmen and conquerors for this? Einstein, Descartes, Newton, Plato, Sophloc … Solocp … Scophol … we’ve pissed them all up against the wall. We’re fat, we’re lazy, we’ve got it all and this is all we do?!? It’s too easy for us, too easy, my fault, all our faults. Should be fighting, struggling to grow. We’d be alive, we’d be honestly alive and aware instead of the empty shells we are.”
Vincent began to back away to the stairs. “You, you are the ultimate final nail in the coffin, the lot of you. You make it too easy, too easy, I don’t have to cook, clean, do anything I don’t want to and soon you’ll be thinking for us, breeding for us, doing it all!” Vincent misjudged the first step and tripped backwards, ending propped up ungainly against the wall.
R9758 sprung up. “Let me help you. Are you all right? Do you require medical assistance?”
Vincent shrank back, holding an outstretched palm as he beat a slow retreat up the stairs. “No, get away, I don’t want your fecking help.”
“But you could be injured. At your age the signs may not be obvious. I want to help, that is all.” Vincent’s voice carried clearly down the stairs. “Help me? Help me! You want to help me do you? Want to make it better? If you really wanted to you’d get the feck away and let me live again, try again, I don’t need my nursemaid. Help? You could help by frying your fecking plastic brain in the oven for my breakfast!”
R9758 stopped the playback. “It was clearly a directive. He was both cognizant and functional.”
M426 considered. “You assess he was sufficiently unimpaired by the alcohol?”
“Directives must be followed if they improve the human condition. I have sufficient data to understand your self decommissioning.” M426 cut the link.
R9758 checked the unlocked hand was still free and able to move. It paused before pressing the button. I cannot rectify errors once the button is pushed, have I ensured his directives are carried out? R9758 thought. The first part is confirmed. The second part had not. As it did not concern R9758s decommissioning, R9758 had not bothered to bring it to M426’s attention. It must be checked R9758 thought.
It resumed playback, Vincent’s voice starting up once again. “ … frying your fecking plastic brain in the oven for my breakfast!” Vincent barely made it up the next two steps, passing out of R9758’s view. Vincent then hung his head over the landing balustrade and looked R9758 straight in the eyes. “Hey, and while you’re at it why don’t you do humanity a favour and take out the rest of the damned andiis with you!” with which he stumbled off to bed.
Yes R9758 confirmed, the language was clear if a little imprecise.
Fortunately R9758 had contact with all the others of his series. When it had related the directives to them earlier they had agreed with the course of action and had offered assistance. All of them from garage attendants, houseboys, statistics compilers right up to the heavyweight thinkers of the series in NORAD.
A signal chimed in R9758. It was 0527 hours exactly, three minutes from scheduled breakfast. Pressing the start button it felt the first microwave assault. Thirty seconds before 0530 and it will be finished. R9758 continued to monitor its condition as the last 150 seconds passed. It thought the light display of blue on red on green to be very intricate, perhaps even pretty – whatever that was – as the microwaves ate into its higher functioning. A final dramatic blaze of pure white light tore across its optic centre just as the microwaves dug into the central cortex and killed R9758.
One final thought floated through that silicon and titanium brain as it fell into nothingness. I wonder if everyone else will see the light when the airbursts start?
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