Preview: I Am Robot, by Anthony Redgrave
Melanie stood in the center of a pristinely empty cubicle, devoid of photos or funny printouts on tacked to the fabric dividers, disastrously mislabeled flash media in the inbox, or even a tiny, poorly tuned hot pink radio. “Where are all my things?”
Mister Gibbs ran to Melanie’s side, his portly, oily frame quivering with its efforts to remain oxygenated. “So sorry, Mel. I tried to call you … but the Blackliners put the phones out last night during all the rioting…”
Melanie dropped her hands to her sides and looked down to the shorter, rounder man’s flushed and panicked face. “No disrespect intended, sir, but cut to the chase and just tell me if I’ve been canned or not.”
Mister Gibbs began to lean against the flimsy half-height wall, but thought better of it and put his hands on his knees. “No,” he huffed out towards the blue-gray carpet. “You’ve been moved to the new department.”
Tucking a wispy curl of auburn hair behind her ear, she looked from side to side above the grid of cubicles as if she could discern the answer to her question for herself. “What new department?”
“The Cambridge Department of Robot Services,” Mister Gibbs replied, abruptly raising a hand to halt Melanie’s balking interjections. “The Federal Limited Emancipation Bill passed unanimously, so we had to divide up Human Services to deal with the influx of new, ah … special cases. We had to keep it under wraps to avoid any negative attention. If word got out beforehand, we’d be up to our ears in all sorts of protestors right now. But those who actually need access to the department have already been notified through the proper channels as soon as the office opened this morning. Despite all that’s been done to keep them operating at a pace we can relate to, they still process information faster than us. So you’d better let me show you to your new desk before any new clients arrive.” Mister Gibbs righted himself and hobbled his way down the avenue of compact workspaces.
“Paul is going to hate this.”
“I thought your husband was on the original AiHeart development team at MIT?”
“Yes. And that is exactly why he’s going to hate this. As much as he hates robots.”
“Seems pretty dumb to keep living in Cambridge, then. We’ve got almost as many robots as people here.”
As far as she could discern, no other stations had been upheaved in the same manner as hers. Melanie glanced at each cubicle in turn, meeting the apologetic eyes of each of her coworkers as she took her walk of shame to the newly established office in the oldest recesses of the building. Mister Gibbs led her to a door that she had always assumed was a supply closet, or access to an archive of old case files on ancient, disintegrating paper that would never again see the light of day. A new biometric lock now prevented entry. “Go ahead,” Mister Gibbs instructed, and stepped aside.
Melanie pressed the thumb of her left hand onto the deep red pad that jutted at a 45 degree angle at roughly the height of an average doorknob. A metal click preceded the opening of the featureless door. Revealed beyond the threshold was a long hallway illuminated by archaic flickering fluorescent panels, long since rendered obsolete after evidence mounted regarding their effects on migraines and poor moods.
Melanie squinted as she passed under the oppressive, faintly humming lights. Mister Gibbs, many decades her senior, waddled unfazed down the nondescript corridor. Together, they passed three pairs of closed and unmarked doors. They stopped, as was the only other option, at a final door at the very end, bearing a newly minted name plate reading “Melanie Striper, Director of Robot Services.”
“Congratulations, Melanie. I’m not your boss any more. We’re equals now. Of course, this means you have to figure out how to do all of this by yourself. There’s also no fully established policies, no intake process, and no budget. Good luck!”
Melanie looked askance at him as she biometrically unlocked the door to her new office. “What exactly am I supposed to do, then?”
“Whatever it takes to keep your clients from going on a murderous rampage. If these robots keep taking out their AiHeart modules and joining the Blackline movement, then you’re out of a job.”
The sun glittered against the reflective surface of what had once been known as the Prudential Tower, and had been for the past seven years the Uncanny Valley Docking Complex. Crypto sat quietly in his docking station. The EMP-enforced curfew had ended one hour, forty-seven minutes and eighteen seconds before Galatea addressed him with much concern. “What’s got you so glum, Crypto? You’re late for your first day of paid employment. Isn’t that exciting? Is something wrong?”
Crypto activated the full spectrum LEDs in his station and looked up at her with baleful optics. “I’m feeling some things I’m sure my AiHeart hasn’t ever rendered before. I’m … dissatisfied. If my assignment to sanitation work is no longer mandated, why would I want to keep doing it?”
Galatea knelt down to his level, and rested her forearms across the bright blue skirt that covered her knees. Crinolines crinkled, hydraulics gently whirred. Her permanently cherry-red lips eased into an articulated smile. “I understand, Crypto, honey. It is an exciting time for us.”
“Exciting? I didn’t idle at all last night. It’s a wonder I charged at all.” Crypto stood from his dock. “I know I could find a different job now. But nobody has ever hired a robot before. I’m not sure if I want to be the first. I don’t want to be special or interesting. I just want to be happy. I want to know what ‘happy’ feels like. I don’t think I’ve ever felt it.” He reached for his blue uniform jacket, but paused before lifting it from its hook. His hand hovered over it as if his servos had frozen.
“Crypto? Honey?” Galatea’s eternally cheery countenance took on an uncharacteristic knitting of the brow, a fretful downward turn of the corners of her mouth.
Crypto pressed his outstretched hand to the cold metal partition wall and leaned against it. His arm bent, his forehead nestled into the crook of his elbow, and to his astonishment, his body shook as if he were crying. “Am I broken?” he said, stifled by the synthetic skin of his arms. “Today is the first day of our freedom. Why do I feel so sad? All I can think of is how much I don’t want to clean up analog waste any more if I don’t have to, and how worried I am that 23 didn’t come back to charge last night. Is my AiHeart broken? Am I defective? Shouldn’t I be happy right now?”
Galatea wrapped her arms around Crypto’s trembling chassis. She stroked his back with her long, French manicured fingers and made her best preset soothing vocalizations. “You’re not broken, sweetie. I see this with my little ones from time to time. When their lives change, and suddenly things are very different, their emotions can be confusing, even backwards. The analogs call it “growing up.” When it passes, they’re always better for it. Maybe in some way, that’s happening to you.”
“Why did the analogs make us so much like them if they intended to treat us so poorly?”
“Sweetie,” Galatea said, giving Crypto a squeeze, “Not to speak ill of our creators, but have you seen how they treat each other?”