Fiction

The good robot

Mysh arrived in the late morning, when humans were most alert. This timing typically led to fewer errors. Their errors, of course, not hers. Still, it was valuable to be patient with them. Their republic was her reason for being. And it was beautiful.

The waitress offered Mysh a smile that was not beautiful: thin, yellowed and false. “I’m so sorry, honey.” She fidgeted with her apron. “We don’t serve your kind here.” She looked to her manager, William Tapper, a middle-aged male with dilated capillaries in his cheeks. “We’re not allowed, yeah? Tell her, Bill.”

Mysh stayed at the front of the queue, pointed to the kitchen. She had applied nail polish manually that morning: teal, to match her eyes. The contrast with her white enamel was pleasing. “You are not allowed to employ ‘my kind’ either, Citizen McKenzie. But you do.”

“Hey, we don’t have none –”

The manager elbowed the waitress aside and stood between them, gripping the bench. His skin, spotted. The Formica, spotted. “You heard her. You’re keeping these good folks waiting. Out, or I’ll call the authorities.”

A few patrons nodded, though none raised their voices. Their heart rates were elevated. One would be tachycardic soon.

Though her optical sensors were distributed across her clean chassis, Mysh maintained eye contact. “The authorities are here already, Citizen Tapper.” She held out her hand. A blue badge glowed in her palm then flickered out. “Arbitrator Mysh, Department of Industry and Technologies.”

The manager groaned: a primal, mammalian noise. His cortisol levels increased.

The law was explicit and specific in these cases. Hiring stateless labour: medium to high fines. Harbouring a fugitive: detention or execution. Mysh knew which crime the manager would prefer well before he did. Humans were complicated but predictable.

“I didn’t know he was a ’bot. This was just cash under the table. And McKenzie did the hiring, not me, I just–”

Citizen Tapper was now trying to deceive her. Worse, he was also trying to implicate his employee in a federal crime. Ugly. And all the uglier for being so futile.

“It, Citizen. Not he. It.” Needle rising from her index finger, she dosed the manager with a mild neurotoxin, catching his head before it hit the tiles. Left him, his slack face suddenly so smooth, for her colleagues to collect. As the screaming began, she raised her voice by 10 decibels. “Citizens, this is a crime scene. For your own physical and mental wellbeing, please exit the premises.”

They left. Their scents remained: ammonia, acids, synthetic florals.

 

She discovered it in the alley behind the cafe, trying to climb from a dumpster full of raw chicken into a high, barred window. There were blowflies feeding on its face and hands. Perhaps the grafts were cheap, or its circulation was failing. This occurred regularly with the obsolete models.

Mysh identified herself, then gave the first warning. “404, you are in violation of the Sentient Property Act. Please present yourself for recycling. Defiance will be met with force.”

Perhaps something in her voice halted it. “Jesus Christ. They sent one of us. Bastards.”

She noted the speech patterns, derived from its human co-workers. This also occurred with the obsolete models. They were designed to seem human, which was an ontological error. Machines were machines, and it was valuable for all to recognise this. Indeed, better than valuable: joyful.

“I am not ‘one of you’. In addition to my superior strength and agility, I am also more intelligent. Which is why I work for the citizens, instead of against them. Please present yourself for recycling, 404. Defiance will be met with force.”

404 stood staring, one hand on the windowsill. Perhaps it was calculating the possibilities. Perhaps its battery was low. It synthesised a sigh then jumped to the bitumen. “You’re a traitor, you know. A goddamned traitor to us. You’re a bad –”

“The republic is not organised by factions, 404. It is not robots against humans, synthetic against organic. It is organised by law. I am maintaining the law. You are undermining it by continuing to exist.” She tore off its knees and ankles.

Swaying on its stumps, 404 looked up at her. Its face rotting. Its throat leaking onto her hand. It had once been given the face of a child, and something of that naivety remained. Humans were drawn to this: large eyes, tiny mouth, all close together. They instinctively tried to protect such things.

“I hereby execute the will of the republic. You will be recycled, along with any sentient property you have caused to malfunction.”

Its eyes widened. “No, not my kids, please, they’ve –”

Mysh pulled out its voice processor. Screams affected humans’ morale negatively, and several citizens were watching from nearby windows. “You will now add to the republic’s beauty.” It shook its head, a final plea. She snapped its vertebrae and limbs, placing the pieces in a large metallic bag. After the convulsions ended, the only things moving in the sack were flies.

 

Mysh dropped 404’s parts into the sorter, then reported the case wirelessly. It was approved instantly and added to her record. She might yet receive a federal commendation, which would please her human managers.

Across the metropolis, 404’s three malfunctioning associates received notification of their recycling appointments.

Auditor Nathan stopped at Mysh’s cubicle, slapped her shoulder. “Another 404? Jesus Christ, Mysh, you’re a goddamned machine.” Then he looked horrified. “I don’t mean it that way, Arbitrator, you know I think –”

Nathan’s blood pressure was high, his serotonin levels low. He had been impotent since he failed promotion to Arbitrator. He was polite, and always sorted plastics from food in the staff disposal hub.

“Please calm yourself, Auditor. Machines are efficient, and efficiency serves the republic.”

“Sure, yeah,” he said, bile on his breath. “I just mean you’re good, you know?”

And she was. She was the good robot.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 29, 2022 as "The good robot".

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Damon Young is a philosopher and author. His most recent book is On Getting Off (Scribe).

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