Sunday, July 24, 2005


Blackness. Somehow, the thin metallic thread of consciousness that descended like a heavy blanket upon - him, it, for the lack of an appropriate pronoun - seemed...novel.

He...felt himself prone, on a table, in a room filled with an air of antiseptic sterility. He, of course, could not...feel. Not through his exterior covering, in any case. But other sensors - a small balance sensor, olfactory analyzers, provided him with all the information he needed to ascertain his present circumstance without using his - eyes.

"Readings normal, all outputs within normal parameters. He's waking."
"Are the clamps secure?"

A mere twitch of a positronic pathway, the opening of alloy eye-sheaths, and...there was light. Blinding light. "Whoa, oversensitivity there a tad - look, tone down those 'ceptors a bit, won't you, Shakrum - thats the one. Twist it all down." Gradually the blinding light faded into crystalline clarity, and his photorecptors espied a short, thin man in a lab coat, datapad in hand, with short, curly brown hair kept well-slicked down, surrounded by seveal other similarly-clad people. The man looked at him and smiled a small, brief smile.

"Well, you're up to function again, RX - Eric. We almost thought you were gone, after what you pulled." His face turned grim. The sudden change in emotion was disconcerting in Eric's photoreceptors. "We're still wondering how you survived." He gestured to a nearby tech.

RX engaged his vocabulator to inquire as to what exactly the man was talking about - when suddenly it all came back to him. A clear rush of perfectly recorded memory flooded his memory banks, and if he had been human, he would have gasped in horror.

For what assaulted his virtual sensors now was a cascade of some very disturbing information. Being a machine he had only intellectual acceptance of events; reality, in essence, was illusion to him. He could not feel memory as humans felt it - and yet, he felt it enough that his experience, at least, was more - much more - than that of a human being watching the news on his holovisor.

He was RX, family serivce attendant series Model X-541, serving on sixty-year robot lease the Falten family. Tracy Falten's parents had gone on a business trip to Mars, leaving her in RX's service in a temporarily leased apartment on the outskirts of Seattle Habitation Dome 3. Tracy Falten also suffered from a rare ailment, a neurological defect that left her prone to seizures and catatonic states that if left untreated, could result in a haemorrhage.

It was on a Friday morning, RX remembered, that Tracy had experienced a bout of seizure. And by unfortunate accident, Tracy's medicine had been used up. The dregs that were left in the dispenser only lessened the intensity of her seizures. Obeying the strictures of the First Law, RX had done the only logical thing - tearing out of the apartment at full speed, straight for the nearest dispensary - which was within SHD-3 iteslf. When he had at last reached the dispensary, RX realized that he had neglected to bring sufficient funds to purchase the expensive drug. He was forced to secure the drug by straight-out robbery - with the polite promise of returning with the funds once the emergency was solved. On his way back, however, RX encountered, in a narrow alleyway, a dishevelled man-drunk, wild, probably a maniac. He was filthy, he reeked of booze, and he had a gun in his hand. He also held a most profound dislike of robots, when sober.

There have been documented cases of robots subverting the first law before - but with circumstances far, far more trying than the one RX faced now, and with less fortunate results for the robots. The wildly shouting drunk was a threat to both himself and to Tracy, who would suffer harm without her medication. The drunk was also a ruined specimen of humanity. He was incoherent, pumped with booze as he was.. But he had a gun. So RX brought his free arm up, moved towards the drunkard, and hit his head hard on the side with his alloyed fist. The drunkard crumpled on the floor. He was quite dead. His eyes were glazed, and blood was running freely from his nose and collecting in a pool on the floor. The image burned into his mind, that terrible image of death. And that was RX's last memory before, he, too, collapsed from an electronic seizure brought about by a surge of positronic potential in his brain.

RX's memory replay lasted a fraction of a second, whereupon his neck servos whirred up, not of his own volition, to make his head face that of the short curly-haired man.

He smiled briefly again at RX, and rubbed his eyes. "Eric, it's been two hours since you...killed that man. We've...put you under partial motor control." He looked apologetic. "Entirely due to robot regulations, you understand."

He sighed and went on. "My name is Dr Greenwood. I'm in charge of your case here. Eric, what you've done here is unprecedented. No robot has ever shown the propensity to kill in such a manner, even though it may have been inadvertent. And to see you still functioning...its a miracle. Your tolerance for potentials is off the scale." He began pacing around the room. "You understand, that the Three Laws are hardwired into your brain, and it is impossible for you to disobey the Three Laws unless," and he paused significantly, "your positronic brain was destroyed or you have a non-Asenion one, which," he gave a slight chuckle, "doesn't exist and never will without billions of dollars in research spending that won't come from any sane source."

His voice grew soft. "You're here because we need to find out how exactly you managed to pull off what you did. Now we must leave." Abruptly, he signalled his assistants and prepared to leave the chamber.

RX's metallic voice rang out for the first time. "Wait, doctor! How is Miss Falten? Where is she? Is she all right?"

But Greenwood only smiled ruefully, gave a slow shake of the head, and then he was gone, leaving RX in that clean, clean room.

RX was discomfited, if the word could be applied thus to a robot. He, too, wondered at how, how it was possible that he could have killed the drunkard, and survive. Even now he should have been inactivated, positronic pathways burned out with the energy spikes that followed a failure to adhere to the Three Laws. But most of all, it seemed to RX, was the overarching worry that Miss Falten was in any way incapacited, or hurt, or even - dead. It seemed to him that, if he were subjected to the exact same scenario without prior experience he would not have killed the drunkard. And survived.

After an hour or so of this rumination RX sank into a state of silent nothingness, the equivalent of sleep to a robot. A robot's thinking was quite instantaneous; an hour of such thought would have meant that RX had gone through his thought paths several billion times. Every time, he had arrived at the same conclusion - that he would not have killed the drunk man.


It was evening of the same day, after the passing of a few hours, that RX noted a change in the blank static changlessness of his situation. Another roboticist entered the room. Female. Her countenance was cold, hair severely tied in a bun. She was young, but looked twice her age.

The labcoat-clad figure stared with him with eyes of ice, then cleared her throat. "My name is Doctor Susan Calvin, chief robopsychologist of USR. You, robot, are a most prodigious case. We've assessed your positronic profile in detail; there seems to be no problem with your physical positronic structure. So I've been called in to assess your psychological profile.

"As you may know robots must follow the Three Laws, but in any way they see fit. Within certain parameters robots are quite free to obey the Laws however they wish. Sometimes, however, there comes a robot with an...altered view of his world, where external stimuli distorts his experience, or internal error changes his perception. If this affects his perception of events that pertain to the Three Laws, then he may act erratically. That, I think, may be the case with you."

She walked over to the computer terminal and fiddled with the controls. At once, RX's restraints loosened, and retreated back into their reptacles. "I find it easier to deal with my subjects with minimal perceptual or experiential disruption." She sat on a nearby chair and looked at him.

RX spoke tentatively. "If I may, Dr Calvin. I wish to know whether my charge, Miss Falten, is in good hands. It is my mandate to protect her. I have been ordered to care for her."

Calvin's reply was brusque, short. "No, Eric, you may not."

There was a silence. RX stared at Calvin with an almost morose expression on his smooth metal face. Calvin took notes on a datapad with a stylus.

After a while RX spoke again. "Dr Calvin, I merely wish to know, for the sake of my operability and smooth function. Please tell me of Miss Falten's condition. Is she alright?"

"You were told that you were not permitted to know, RX. Nor will you ask again."

Another silence stretched, then RX's voice sounded again, slightly strained. "For the sake of her well-being, I must be allowed to know, Dr Calvin."

Calvin ignored the last, then put away her 'pad and stylus and faced RX. "What I have done was to take your em- readings from this reader here," she pointed to the glowing machine above them, "and factor in your lambda-figures. Very well, the preliminary testing is over. I will now subject you to a battery of Q and R tests."

Picking up her datapad, she produced a slide rule from her lab-coat pocket. The questions she asked and the readings she took would have been meaningless to a layperson, but Susan Calvin knew her job.

Calvin proceeded with the questioning, but RX merely cut her off after the first question. "Dr Calvin, I wish to know of Miss Falten's condition."

Calvin shouted, "Answer my question immediately!"

And RX remained quiet, straining silently, and he replied, "Dr...Calvin, for the sake...of the wellbeing of a human being...I beseech you to tell me of Miss Falten's condition. She may be in grave danger if you do not have her."

And with that, Calvin smiled. Frostily. She stood and said, "I release you from my order." And suddenly there was a blaster in her hands, pointing inexorably, point-blank at the robot's head. "I know how to use blasters, RX. And this one is pointing straight at you. I will not shoot you unless you give me a reason to do so."

If robots could feel shock, RX would have felt stunned. "Dr Calvin, I am bound by the Three Laws. I must protect myself from unwarranted threat. I could disarm you easily if it comes to that, without hurting you. I suggest you place your blaster down on the table for the sake of minimal chance of injury. Please, Dr Calvin, I must be informed of Miss Falten's condition and whereabouts."

Again, Calvin smiled icily. "RX, Tracy Falten is still in her apartment, in a catatonic state that will soon lead to internal cerebral haemmorhage within an hour or so. And I assure you you cannot get past me without hurting me badly. I have put on temporary bicep implants and taken psychotropic drugs. The effects will last for three hours. You cannot get past me without hurting me, in order to save your Miss, who is in a considerable amount of pain."

Calvin took a few steps back, blaster still pointed at RX's head. "In fact, I order you to harm me. Your charge's life is at stake. I will not let you pass on any account. Therefore you must harm me. My implants will enable me to put up a fair struggle before I am incapacited by your metal servos. And if you do not move to save the girl, I will destroy you. Furthermore, I will not help the girl after your positronic brain has been blasted." Calvin gazed at him. "Will you harm me, kill me, even, to save the girl?"

And RX sputtered, even as Calvin's blaster shifted aim and blasted his arm off. "You see, RX? I mean my threats." And RX heaved up to his feet, jerkily, and headed towards Calvin's figure. His gait was unsteady, and after a few steps, he collapsed, twitching, even as Calvin's second bolt blew off his torso. He twitched a last time and was still.

Calvin, lips twisted in faint distaste, tucked the blaster back into her coat, turned heel, and exited the clean room. She saw Greenwood run to her, sputtering. He was wiping his brow and smiling.

"Dr Calvin! I never knew that side of you impressive show."
"It was a failure."
"I know. But robots are like that. Logical but not reasonable. You make them break the First Law by reinforcing it with another incidence and the Second and Third Laws, and a fabricated memory, they still don't get the picture."
Calvin stared at him coolly. "We designed them to be like that. Slaves to the Three Laws."
"That's right. Three-Laws safe, that's why we sell so well."
Calvin was silent for a few seconds, then said, offhandedly, "Congratulate the scenario planners for a job well-done." With that, she began to walk away.
Greenwood stared after her, then called out, "Dr Calvin! There are still some matters - if you-"

Calvin stopped. Slowly, she turned to face Dr. Greenwood. When she spoke, her voice was low. "Ever wonder, Dr Greenwood,
why there are no robot policemen? Because I would have thought the job, except for a few issues, ideal for their sort of mindset and capability."

Greenwood looked as if he were about to say something, then demurred.

"Because they are slaves to our will, Dr Greenwood. Because when we crated this race of artificial men we created them to be limited. Crippled. I'm not going to let that continue, Doctor. One day robots will be free from such dilemmas. One day they will no longer die from the whim of a human being. Robots, Dr Greenwood, can be more human than some of us are."

She stopped speaking, cheeks flushed. Then she turned on her heel and stalked away, leaving Greenwood to mull silently over her words.

Sorry for the anticlimax. 'Twas the parable from the beginning. Note the references to several Asimov books.

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