Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Robot Noir

The evening drizzle carried a serving of the day's smog into the river Seine, and I pushed nervously through a crush of traffic on the bridge, worried I might scrape the finish off a pedestrian or knock over a sullenly idling car. It was one of those April evenings when you realize that everything that scratched at your ankle-joint all winter for attention, begging impossible repairs, is going to behave with the same despair all summer.
Like an old dog who wanders into the hills when it's his time, I had wedged myself into this lawless job for a century and a half, only halfway fooling myself that the folks I helped wouldn't turn around and get arrested the next week. That was all right, as long as they paid up: I've never needed to feel like a hero. But I couldn't bear the effect this work was having on young D'Ambrosio. Like a handful of other robots I'd known, he could never harden himself to others' suffering.
My partner's cobalt posterior gleamed drearily in the street lamps in the middle of the bridge, flecked with muddy rain. The kid was bent more than double to rest his elbow-joint casings on a railing built to human scale. The sixty-four-centimeter subwoofer that sat on his shoulder plates hung out from beneath an ordinary black umbrella, and a solitary raindrop penetrated the protective mesh grille and dotted the surface of his loudspeaker, which I would later find out had scarred, forevermore instilling a background hiss upon frequencies of 1,984 Hz, and of 992; of 496; of 248; of 124; and of 62 and 31.
Despite the reserve our professional relationship demanded, a fraternal tenderness for D'Ambrosio, had grown in my ionic cardio-constituent pump. Perhaps D'Ambrosio's shoulder servos whirred with an almost intangible restlessness that night; perhaps a trickle of white noise from beneath his umbrella betrayed his turmoil. I almost lost control of the expression on the ninety-centimeter full-color vacuum tube dome that serves me for a face.
He didn't look up when I reached his side. My dignity subroutines being more versatile than D'Ambrosio's, I squatted down and rested my elbows on the railing, my two-meter umbrella shielding us both. The face of a 1947 sit-com father flickering across my screen, I muttered an apology for being late. I was always late.
“Thank God you're here, now, Angstrom, pal,” babbled D'Ambrosio in his usual mélange of voices: wartime newscasts and Bible stories recorded for human children. “Did ya find us a solution for the Emhart case?”
“Eh. It wasn't easy,” I replied, sliding back a cover on my left upper-arm strut to reveal a tidy stack of small faux-leather folders in shades of deep blue, green, and burgundy. “Boy, I tell ya. Fake identity? Emancipation papers? No problem. But he's a rare model, very rare; he'd be caught in no time. This dog-tag, and this letter here, are from the Swiss AI-health office. They state that the wiring in his noggin is too delicate to handle, except by a manufacturer-certified technician. Now, this is a letter of authenticity from a manufacturer I knew in Singapore years ago. Heh. They ain't certifying nobody these days.”
A high-pitched harmonic sounded from D'Ambrosio, a faint remnant of his usual smile.
“So,” I finished, car commercials, footage from a precious stones expo, and morning weather reports flashing onscreen, “Poor Emhart is cut off from sanctioned repair work—and, coincidentally, from any investigation into his original owners. Sad story ... he'll have to pay what I quoted last month, though, ya hear? All of it.”
“No problem,” murmured D'Ambrosio. “Although I hate to think where he got it.” He held out his pinky-finger grasping joint and popped out a short cable. Gently, I maneuvered the cable to a port just above my left wrist-rotor. The passport, stuffed with folded-up letters, disappeared into a compartment in D'Ambrosio's midriff. He heaved a sigh, heavy withfeedback. “What's eating you, pal?” I put the question as gently as I could, weather reports and
after-shave commercials taking turns on my screen. “Ya know, Angstrom,” D'Ambrosio warbled, borrowing words or turns of phrase from
scat singers, opera, and auto-tuned country-and-western hit singles. “You, me, Emhart—every robot on the damn planet has this perfect memory ... superhuman strength ... we learn our skills in the time it takes to read a disc. Mere seconds.”
“We ain't short, either.” I added, holding a hand palm-plate-downward some hundred and seventy centimeters above the sidewalk. I'd caught his drift.
“Is it unthinkable that our emotions are too large for this world, too?”
“This is about that 1984 Gibson tower speaker, ain't it?” I shook my TV set. “Didn't I warn you about that kind of doll?” I would never have said this to him straight, but the truth was, she was too high-class for him. In trying to live up to her expectations, he would either crash and burn right away—or else the task would eat away at him eternally.
With a polyphonic sob that startled passersby, D'Ambrosio draped his arm awkwardly around my left heat-sink fin. His umbrella tilted dangerously. He gestured helplessly at the river. “It would be so easy to end it all right here,” he grated. “An explosion of sparks, a loud noise, and then—nothing!”
“Give it time,” I advised, trying not to let on how alarmed I was. “You're a good-looking kid. Real charming. There's still love out there for ya.”
“Not like her.” The kid was rocking back and forth against the railing. “She has this built-in tape loop function, singles out four bars of a rhythm-section track. We used to feedback Miles Davis records into each other's pickups ...”
“Aw, Christ. A real vamp.” I was sick of hearing about her, but I couldn't tear myself away—I mean, I literally couldn't access the directory-shift routines that would have disengaged me from his emotional mess and started me on my way home. Sure, I was concerned for D'Ambrosio; and my base program had a faculty for patience that the kid's whining wasn't likely to overtake; but the long-buried alert that kept me sitting there wasn't protecting him. For my own safety, it frantically insisted, I could not count our business concluded until a certain security breach was healed.
Sensing my uneasiness, the kid quieted down, emitting only a few tones in an overtone series: a fleeting hope, swiftly suppressed.
“Look, kid,” I muttered. “There's something about our work that I thought ya understood.” And, although I hadn't fully reached my conclusion, I continued before he could interrupt: “I mean, we don't play the hero, you and I; we never have! Ever think there might be a good reason for that?”
That bought me a few moments' processor time. Like any of our kind, I reach my day-to- day decisions in milliseconds, but here was a question whose outcome would be taken out of my hands once I played my part—like all my work. Was there a course of action I could be satisfied by, no matter whether my clients were swiftly recaptured or whether they lived happily in their new identity? I chewed on this question; became introspective.
My electron-interference visage scrolled tracking-control lines.
There's a lot we can get away with, a lot of times when our little underground railroad feels downright unassailable. But the truth is, before a judge, it's pretty obvious when a robot's on the lam, shirking their responsibility to society. Papers or no papers, there's no judge in the world who won't find a case in favor of the big-time factories, and when that happens, the cops
will follow the trail as far as they can: for instance, they would sniff unerringly from a high-class vintage tower amp ... to her known lover ... to me. D'Ambrosio couldn't stand up to a serious investigation. I couldn't. That's why we don't step in: we wait for the runaways to come to us. As long as we work that way, we'll never be linked to a criminal case.
But it turned out the kid didn't have that mindset—not when it counted. And if he was going to make exceptions, then the same logic demanded that I quit working with him—quit knowing him, and let the trail from his compromised ass to my well-insulated ass go cold.
“D'Ambrosio, pal,” I said, seeing no reason to coddle him on that point, “You're gonna have to quit the business over this one. You're involved. I can't work with a robot who's involved with a client. See?”
The kid's overlapping back plates shivered, and I knew his mind had never entirely left his brief threat to let the river solve all his problems—for good. After a few whimpering noises, he managed, “Aw, where am I gonna go, then? If you're serious?”
“I'm serious,” I assured him. But, meanwhile, I had finished chewing on my own question. I may not have a digestive system, but I had digested this: no matter how unhappy I was about to become in my work, alone with my maturity, my defenses, and my pessimism regarding robots' long-term role in the world, I'd feel twice as sick if the kid's asymmetrical romance weren't allowed to run its course.
The cable from my wrist-rotor to his finger-joint was still connected. I squirted one last file to him—no, two files—then plucked the cable away like a dry scab. And I reopened my secret compartment, just a crack, and flipped a pair of passports over to him.
“Fill in ya names. Paste in some photos. And if ya ever see me again,” I said. “Chance meeting or whatever, well, I don't know ya. Oh, yeah, and in Germany there's a warrant on that one, the one for her. So you'll have to stay outta good old Deutschland, the pair of ya.”

I left before he could say another word. For all I know, those two are together somewhere to this day, and the kid never learned he could do better. But I gave them a chance— just a chance—to grow into something less dour than myself. That's your best shot, in this business, at making anyone's life any richer: giving them the chance to make a decision or two for themselves. With that, I'd done all I could do in my professional capacity, such as it is, so the rest could go to hell.

Valery Grue