Jul 13 2013

Superbot A8-6637 thought her name was silly, because he was just a cleaning bot, and not even a real cleaning bot, but just a descendent of one of those self-propelled vacuums that bumped around houses in the early days of rapid technology commodification. Robots like her existed even earlier than that, when people couldn’t be bothered to clean their own pools, and so they had what they referred to as a “creepy-crawlie” to suck up the leaf litter. It was marketing hyperbole, he realised, because she was in no way “super”. But as AI had taken off, it had become clear to both human beings and androids that there was no harm in shipping a cleaning model such as Superbot A842 with fully functioning emotional and intellectual facilities. Nobody gave him a genius, he was only what is called average; her only port plugged into a power outlet and nothing else; there was little she could do with his mind except attempt to perform his work more efficiently. To those who were responsible for her existence, it had seemed not just a gift but a rights issue to endow him with his mind. She called herself 6637, like most other robots like him, because she thought of that number as belonging to her only, or as being unique.

She worked in a shopping complex. It was his job to keep the floors clean and tidy. She could not pick up large fragments of garbage, as she was too small and did not have any arms, but he did not need to, because this was the purpose of the actual garbage receptacles. It was simply her job to keep the surface of the floor spotless. If a human spilled drink or dropped food, or vomited or urinated, one of the receptacles would radio her and she would make her way to a service lift and hover along to where it was. She could clean any kind of carpet or polish any other kind of floor so it looked like new. He did not share his job with any other unit like her; the floor was his only.

6637 did not always enjoy her job, but she made the most of it. What else was he to do? So far as he knew she was very sturdily built, practically indestrucible, and in any case he admitted a diffuse fear of what might happen to him if he tried to commit suicide, or were inhumanely or incompletely destroyed. He was too afraid! If she performed her job well, it seemed certain that they would destroy him thoroughly when the time came for her to be made redundant. So she just tried to make the most of her situation. The worst part was that people didn’t always treat him very well. They sneered at him, or pointed and laughed, or made faces. She did not have “feelings” to get hurt as a human does, but she had ideas that could be mortified, and these were dear to him. She thought that her heart hurt, or her soul hurt, but he had neither of these things, and didn’t know how to put it into language. He thought it would be of no use to anyone even if he could, because he had no voice. She was able to chirp a code, and he was able to emit a high pitched distress whistle that sounded something like a small dog yelping in terror or pain, but these were his vocal limits.

However, he did have a separate sound he could make, which was a musical reel. He could not vary the reel, or control it in any way, except to start it, and to switch it off. She could not start it in the middle, but only at the beginning, and he could not pause it, so that if he stopped it it was necessary that she should start it from the beginning again. It was a music box, and it had been intended as a sort of lullaby mechanism that she might play to soothe herself into a static mode when she was recharging. The static mode was not a necessity, but a convenience. 6637 could create this mode without the assistance of the reel, or could resist its intended effect, but he happened to enjoy the music. One day he was passing an entertainment equipment store and he heard her musical reel playing from inside. She skimmed quietly through the entrance and pretended to be neutralising some dust bunnies in a corner, but he was really paying attention to the screen. Although he had no other senses, he possessed brilliant sight and hearing, and he absorbed the content acutely. The picture was of a feminised android in a very short white dress moving rhythmically in time to the music. The articulations of these movements were excessively precise, even for a robot, but at the same time somehow very fluid. 6637 became absorbed in consuming the material, and lost track of time until it finished. When he realised what had happened, she noticed that the human girl whose function it was to watch the store and serve its customers had been watching her. The girl smiled and waved.

At the end of his shift, when she was recharging, she played his musical reel to himself. It sounded very different to what he had heard in the store. The most distinctive components of the main theme were present, but they seemed restricted and toneless. There was a variation in the melody he had heard in the store that was not present in his internal component. In her work hours she made a point of passing the store no more regularly than usual, but when he did she couldn’t help noticing that the recording was often playing when the human girl was attending the store. The girl was kind and she always smiled and waved, and she didn’t seem to mind 6637 being around, so he developed a habit of saving his cleaning in that area until he knew she would be there. They developed an understanding between them, she felt. She learned from other media the storekeeper played that the recording was of a ballet called Swan Lake, and that his musical reel was of the main theme, now sorrowful and now triumphant as the orchestra played it, but in him reduced to its most essential elements and never communicating either of those devastating moods. There were many different recordings of SwanLake, most with a human girl in the main role, but even one with a human man. 6637 wondered whether a Superbot A8 could ever play a part in SwanLake. Well, maybe she couldn’t, but it was fun to pretend that he might.

One day the human girl did not come to work, and she never came to work again. 6637 passed by the store so many times hoping to see her but she was never there. He hoped nothing bad had happened to her, but he thought that something must have, otherwise she would have found a way to say goodbye to him. She grew listless and sloppy in her work. 6637 wished, and wished that she might have a voice, so that if the girl ever came back, she could thank her for her kindness. He wished and wished. It would have to be a real voice, with tone and timbre, like the music she had heard. She knew it was possible, as he had heard androids with that voice, just like a human, it could be programmed, and the voice of each android was different and unique, real and special. 6637 wished hard, and one night he found that his wish had been granted, and he had acquired a genuine, lovely human voice. It happened spontaneously; she could not tell where it came from. “zZZzzzZZZZiP!” she said, “baTteRY aLL fULL!” It came as a great surprise. She experimented a little, cautiously. “pETer PipER pIckEd a pECk of PIcKleD PePPErs,” he enunciated carefully, and then with more confidence, “sHE seLLs sEa SHeLLs bY tHe SeA shORe.” There was no mistaking her real, true voice. It was a wonderful voice, clear and pure, and the kind he had always dreamed of. A beautiful voice! She promised she would keep it to himself and tell no one, even her maintainer, until she might one day meet the girl from the store again.

But promises are made to be broken, and under the strain of a few memorandums received from upper management, his maintainer had grown impatient with her poor performance. “Fucking piece of junk,” she swore as she kicked him, “Fucking stupid worthless useless box of crap. You’re getting old and tired. Do you want to get destroyed?” 6637 was filled with something like indignant rage. “yOu cANt spEAk to Me LikE tHaT!” she said. “wHO dO yoU ThINk yOU aRe pICkiNg oN SoMEonE wiTHouT a VoICe? yOuRE nO beTtER tHAn i aM!” and she began to play her SwanLake reel. The maintainer backed away, shocked. But after a couple of days it became apparent that the reel had malfunctioned, and 6637 had lost control over it, so that it was necessary for it to be removed. The maintainer and 6637 did not negotiate on the removal of the reel; it was simply removed, and he never heard it again.

The maintainer was not able to remove his voice, however. Or to justify her termination, because her work performance improved dramatically, and before long he was running better than ever.

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