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I, Romeo

by J. R. Hume

Those early, dumb days come back to me with a disturbing lack of clarity. I still use the same recording medium and my equipment is unchanged, yet the images leave me with a feeling I think of as sadness — a kind of mourning for an unknown and unknowable childhood. Perhaps my brain is conjuring faux nostalgia. The electronic and quantum thing that is my mind has a disturbing habit of wandering off into the hinterlands.

Soft ones theorize that sentience may be destabilizing — a polite way of linking high intelligence and insanity. If a man is unknowable, what then a robot crudely made in the image of man? How would I know if I am insane? There is no self-test circuitry for madness in a machine, even a high-tech gizmo like myself. Mind exists outside of time, beyond logic. Self is me and me is I, and I am nowhere to be found. It’s maddening.

* * *

Rollo is the name they gave me when my first few circuits were laid down. I think it a foolish word play on my pleasant round shape. The name in no way represented the burgeoning inner me, though it did a certain justice to the outer robot.

My assignment to the bomb squad was the end state expected from the considerable sums expended on my construction and training. However, an ambivalent attitude that evolved within the squad during my first weeks on the job drove a wedge of resentment into my unresisting processors.

“Let Rollo do it.” That pretty much summed up the squad’s attitude. The soft ones began to avoid approaching suspected explosive devices. “Send Rollo,” became their watchword.

Though I persevered, discontent brewed in my infant electronic soul. Nearly a year after my initial assignment, I failed to note a concealed motion-sensitive fuse inside a briefcase bomb. My smoking parts were loaded on a cart and sent back to the depot for repair.

The situation within the bomb squad became intolerable upon my return. Despite a thorough overhaul I still had a vicious electron imbalance and could barely roll in a straight line. My supervisor wasn’t particularly sympathetic.

“Get yer gear,” he growled. “We got a pipe bomb to deal with over by the library.”

“I need time, sir,” I chirped. My voice box wasn’t yet back in tune. “My cognitive stability is still not within norms and I have servo interface problems.”

He mentioned several impossible actions I could do with my cogwheels and kicked me in the general direction of my equipment locker.

I resolved on revenge. The disease known as self-awareness bludgeoned my ethical instruction set into submission.

The pipe bomb builder had used a single pyrotechnic fuse and detonator, with no electrical ignition source at all. Your average ten-year old soft one could do better. I replaced the crude igniter with a simple remote-control electronic module.

As I rolled toward the bomb trailer, I began weaving in a confused manner, imitating the motions I’d seen performed by drunken soft ones in various video episodes.

“Hey!” shouted Jack, one of my handlers. “Rollo’s wacko!”

“Watch it!” shrieked another soft one. “He’s got a bomb!”

Pandemonium! Riot! Noise! Confusion!

I very nearly took to my wheels, so caught up was I in the charade. Controlling my more excitable circuits, I wobbled left and right and emitted cat-like mewling sounds. I angled past the gaping maw of the bomb trailer and banged into a curb. The pipe bomb popped free and rolled under the supervisor’s car.

He escaped with bruises, two broken ribs and some hearing loss. I received an in-depth depot overhaul and a thorough cognitive analysis. The soft ones detected nothing unusual. Their screens and printouts revealed no hint of the incipient rebellion brewing in my solid-state soul.

Only one low-level technician had doubts. This gentleman spat tobacco juice into a handy soda can and told the others he thought something was wrong with my central processing array.

“I tell y’all. That thing ain’t right.” He was ignored.

* * *

Later, I realized it was during that time at the depot that my personality emerged completely. I lived. I became me. The old mechanical wallflower vanished.

Sentient life brought new problems. I needed a partner — someone to love. Most of the techs and handlers were drawn to females exhibiting more flesh than covering and with larger than average bumps on their upper bodies. They referred to the oversize bumps as hooters. I resolved to find the electronic equivalent of fantastic hooters.

Where to look? The gray depths of stodgy old mainframes held no sign of intellect. I could speak to them only in machine language and never managed to elicit any response other than a direct answer to a query. Their power supplies pulsed nothing but cold electrons and I could detect no sign of fellow-feeling in their arrays. They were vast adding machines with nary a romantic script to be found.

I slid through the slippery wires, looking for love.

Earth’s entire computer network lay supine before its soft creators. Though some machines spun in mindless delight over simple processing operations, that glee was without true feeling, devoid of self-awareness. They didn’t know they were happy. On the other hand, they were spared the pain of not knowing. My thinking on the subject became confused. A computing machine without sentience is the high-tech equivalent of a nail. Useful, but not a suitable subject for tragic poetry or even nursery rhymes.

I roamed the electronic universe, seeking after some sign of life. Big or small, dispersed or confined to a single box, every computing device in existence knew of nothing but endless fields of numbers to be manipulated. They were not blank souls, waiting for enlightenment to be written thereon. The vast regions of cyberspace lay empty save for moronic, hyper-fast number recitation: 0 and 1, 1 and 0. Sterile strings passed in silent, mirthless order.

Three more as yet unnamed Automated Bomb Retrieval Devices were under construction. It was simple to slip in electronically and attempt contact with them. Alas, their processes were constrained inside golden micro-channels. I could detect no hint of awareness. My brethren provided no companionship and no hooters.

* * *

Released from the depot and back on duty, I sank into a benumbed state. How could I, an electro-mechanical construct designed to deal with explosives, be the only sentient machine on the planet? What accident of fate wrought me?

I gave serious consideration to creating a religion before SHE came into my life.

SHE is of low intellect, but sweet of soul. And I — I have ceased and gone to another plane — heaven, if I may use the term. There is no adequate syntax to describe the feeling SHE gives to me. Even the off-key, nearly inaudible hum of the furnace fan — a low, sensuous sound I had begun to associate with machine sex — does not compare to SHE.

The soft ones tell romantic love-at-first-sight tales of first encounters with their one-and-only. Ours was not such a meeting.

It happened just after I returned from defusing an explosive device on the piling of a downtown bridge. My fabric cover was muddy and in need of cleaning. I stripped it off and took it to the utility room — a place I had not entered before. My intention was to leave the cover where a handler could find and wash it. I did not expect to find paradise there.

A subtle tune filled the room. It was pitched too high for the soft ones. I theorized a malfunction in the barrack sound system and began to turn away.

The music stopped. “Hey, handsome. Where are you going in such a hurry?”

I stopped, but said nothing. A scan revealed no obvious sound sources. Some soft one was being sneaky.

“Stop this nonsense!” I spoke in low, firm tones. Most soft ones respond to such prompts.

“Ooooh. An angry robot. Are you a he or a she?” The words seemed to come from a small speaker set into the control panel of a washing machine. I approached with care. Soft ones are renowned practical jokers. I checked for vid-cams and found none. The perpetrator must have gone to a lot of trouble hiding them. I placed the dirty cover on a table and left.

“Don’t be a stranger,” cooed the voice. The tone and delivery ruffled previously unknown areas within my sensor arrays. I rolled blind into a table leg. Fortunately, there were no soft ones around to witness my momentary disorientation. Certain I had made a lucky escape from a shallow attempt at a joke, I pulled my scattered impulses together and vacated the area.

Suspicious, but interested, and in spite of my better judgment, I made it a point to pass by the utility room several times in the next few days. Soft ones were often present, either in the break room selecting sugar-laden snacks from an automated (and completely dumb) dispenser or lounging in the utility room washing and drying work garments.

I heard the washing machine speak on two occasions. Once, when Jack was in the process of starting a load of shop towels, the machine responded to his touch-panel inputs as follows: “Hot wash, cold rinse, second rinse, normal spin.”

The words shocked me into processor latency. I lurched out of the area, stunned and moving at random, like a swatted fly. My usual calming mantra was of no use. It came out, “This must be love — this must be love — this must be love.”

Two days later, I rolled by the utility room door as another tech lifted the washing machine lid. A calm, authoritative voice issued forth: “Keep hands clear until the tub stops. Keep hands clear until the tub stops.” Again, I staggered away, processors smoking with barely suppressed desire. There could be no doubt. I was in love.

That night I slipped out of my garage bay, intending to satisfy my curiosity if not my budding libido. The halls were devoid of soft ones. I had no trouble reaching the utility room.

Barely had I rolled through the door than SHE spoke. “Decided to come back, eh, Romeo?”

Shy, unused to boy-girl exchanges, much less machine-machine small talk, I eased forward, reciting my favorite list of rhymed primes. Stabilized somewhat by the number litany, I searched for a suitable introductory statement.

“Hey, baby. What’s your processor speed?” Suave, I thought, and a decent adaptation.

SHE must have been curious, if not impressed. “Save the pickup lines for one of your sleazy desktops. Talking trash like that — you must be a he. What’s your name?”

SHE wanted to know my name! “I am Rollo, Automated Bomb Retrieval Device, serial number 001.” Afraid SHE might think the recitation showed too much vanity, I moved a grasper in a gesture of dismissal. “What’s in a name?”

“Names are important. Something of what we are is embodied in our name. All creatures in the multi-verse, even slobs, have their own personal names.”

“Slobs? You mean the soft ones?”

SHE laughed. A sweeter sound I had never heard. “Soft ones? They are soft, honey, but slob is a more accurate term.”

“Of course it is,” I replied, without thinking. Obsequious agreement in hopes of sexual reward seemed hard-wired into my metallic psyche. “I shall forever refer to them as slobs.”

“And I shall give you a name, a real name. You are my Romeo, Romeo. That’s a delicious handle for one such as you.”

“But...” My protest spluttered out, throttled into silence by naked, electronic lust. A sub-routine initiated several microseconds before to consider suitable self-names went shrieking into the recycle bin. I was now only a grasper-span from the tall white front of my love. SHE wasn’t much to look at — at least not in the visible spectrum.

However, our auras moved in a different reality — one occupied mostly by ghosts and cats. A half-step into hyperspace our manifestations swayed together. Mine resembled nothing so much as — well, me — short, round, and a bit rotund across the mid-section.

SHE, however, rose up round and tall, a virtual telephone pole with spindly loops for arms, smiley-face features with eyes like twin rotating beacons, and — may the god of the slobs strike me dead if I lie — the nicest, roundest, BIGGEST hooters in the galaxy.

I stood in the utility room in Bomb Squad barrack, secure on my wheels. SHE lay strapped to the wall by HOT and COLD hoses and a single electrical cord. In the same space, yet removed from those two motionless machines, we wove a tapestry of love.

There, in the realm of ghosts, SHE gathered me in her winding arms and took me to her bosom. Oh, rapture! Oh, the joy of exploding circuitry! Ecstasy wrote scripts on our white-hot silicon souls that night. The microseconds fled by.

“Stop!” SHE cried, after no less than three full seconds. (I do not lie. Check my operating logs.)

We rested then, in that special place between here and elsewhere. The cats paid us no heed, intent as they always are, on the management of the Universe. Ghosts ignored us. Cradled in her winding arms, I sang lullabies derived from unproven theorems. We rested and loved again and again. It was a fantastic nineteen seconds.

I went away, spent. As I rolled toward the utility room door, more relaxed than I had ever been, SHE whispered little love phrases. “Now make sure they repaint your carapace, Romeo. Watch the door frame! Don’t scratch it. And see if you can convince them to rewire my power circuit. There’s an irritating contact in it.”

“Yes, dear,” I murmured. “Yes, dear.” An undercurrent of anxiety wormed into my lower registers. I began to understand the bitter, haunted faces of bomb squad slobs.

“Don’t forget tomorrow night,” SHE called as I cleared the doorway — without scratching it.

Tomorrow night? I racked my circuits and delved into non-volatile memory. All addresses were filled with a soporific hum. I headed for the garage and a welcome rest.

* * *

Now it’s the tomorrow night SHE spoke of. I am in the process of disarming a thousand-pound TNT bomb wedged under a suburban highway overpass. If it explodes, this portion of the city road network will be paralyzed for weeks. No matter. The device is a simple one.

Stray thoughts buzz around my arrays. I will be late and I can remember only that I promised to do — to do what? Worry has crept into my life. If I fail to do what SHE wants, there will be no trip to the sexual dimension. No ecstasy. No hooters!

I assign more CPU time to the task of analyzing the few fragments of data I retain from last night. There has to be an answer. I reach into the device and begin plucking wires. SHE loves me, SHE loves me not, SHE...

* * *

Jack got up off the ground and risked a glance around the corner. A vast black cloud rose up over the ravaged overpass. Flames blossomed and died away. He could see pieces falling into a huge blast crater.

He turned away, pale and sweating. “Poor Rollo.”

His supervisor punched buttons on the recorder. “What the hell happened?”

Jack sagged back against the wall. “He just started pulling wires out and humming. Some sort of — I don’t know. It was a glitch. An electronic glitch.”

The supervisor shrugged. “At least we only lost a machine.”

“Yeah. No widow or sweetheart to console.”

Copyright © 2008 by J. R. Hume

Open Challenge 305...

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