Captain Webster
and the Proprietary Scientist

by Marjorie Salzwedel

part 1 of 2


The three young research scientists and I had waited for half an hour for the technicians to arrive at the hangar. We were already in the interstellar convertiplane at our consoles in the arrow-head shaped copter-starship that seated twelve.

This was a special day, August 26, 2038 for my prodigy, Captain Webster, who was not to be just another robot that piloted interstellar space ships but a super-genius who had been given an astounding vocabulary with access to every written language known to mankind.

I dispensed with the customary countdown, energized the transformer, and pushed the button. The dwarf-sized robot stood up, turned to look at us, and said, “I am Captain Webster.”

As he walked toward us, I thought how his roundish figure suited him and supported his huge head. He was almost as wide as he was tall. His arms hung like two long arcs by his side, and from his thighs, his legs bent backwards as if he were ready to spring forward.

His large elongated head was constructed to house the huge brain cavity within. All sensors were in the lower part of his face, below the small, useless nose. His receivers resembled two ears, his telescopic sight was enabled behind two dark irises. He moved his lips in sync with the consonants he used. He wasn’t particularly scary-looking because he had symmetry and balance.

Webster’s monotone voice echoed in the interior of the copter-ship. “Please introduce yourselves by your first names.”

The scientists were on board to study the difficulties college students from foreign countries had in communicating with students from other countries. The professors rose from their consoles and shook the mannequin’s hand in turn when the robot extended his stiff metallic one, gloved in soft plastic.

“Henry.”

“Benjamin.”

“John.”

When they sat down, each rubbed his hands together in a curious way as if to feel how different their own hands felt compared to the soft, smooth plastic of Captain Webster’s. I stepped forward from my console, which was behind the research scientists.

“Ah, the proprietary scientist? I am glad to see you again, Dr. Zetterman. In our trial runs, you always stood beside me.”

“Here I am again and am your humble guardian,” I said, trying not to display possessiveness, thinking he might resent it.

Captain Webster responded with a nod. He stared wide-eyed at me for the longest time and replied, “Thank you, Doctor Zetterman. You have formed me well.”

“You’re welcome,” I said, surprised by his terseness. An artist of some versatility, I could have made the irises of his eyes lighter, blue maybe, instead of dark brown. He looked brooding when he furrowed his forehead for an instant. At the last minute I had added the ability to wrinkle his brow that way and noticed he was making use of it.

“I consider you my crew, if that is satisfactory to all of you,” the robot said.

“Yes,” they each responded, keeping replies simple.

The dwarf sauntered back to the captain’s console and sat down, making a clunking noise. Only the sizzle of the recycled molecules fueling the starship Starship could be heard.

I was determined that the captain should lift off. I had clearance for the mini-spacecraft that morning from MacArthur Control Center to fly at low altitude within a small radius of air space some fifty miles out on Long Island.

I pushed the button to light up the console. Captain Webster initiated the starter and the plane rolled forward.

The walls of the laboratory vibrated as the huge bay doors of the hangar opened, and the robotic captain steered us out and up above the treetops, heading across southern Long Island to South Haven’s leafy forest preserve.

The copter-ship hovered and emitted a shroud of mist to hide itself from the first-year college students on the trail below. We all expected the same efficiency from Captain Webster as we expected from the other robots that most often flew airplanes and spaceships. This was a little different since it was a team project of observation from the air, recording human behavior for linguistic study.

“You will reset the ignition to default, Henry.”

Henry did so.

“Benjamin, have you all the systems highlighted from which we will select our fields of interest?”

“Yes, and at my finger tips.”

“Stewart, you will maneuver our telephoto lenses.”

“Already set.”

“Secure your seatbelts across your shoulders as well as across your laps.”

In turn, they all replied, “Done.”

“Of course, at any time, I will have control of the override, should any of you err in your judgments. We will be just above the tree line.”

“Yes,” they all answered. I didn’t say anything because I had the master key tab ten-number password that would nullify the override if necessary. It was not something to argue about, and I was proud of the Captain, the way he looked and sounded.

In fact, when I had finished the design and was working on the assemblage, integrating all the parts, it was almost as if the cortex of his brain seemed to build itself before I was even finished with his simulated nervous system.

We were comfortable in the contoured orthopedic seats with the monitors in front of us, the keyboards at our fingertips as we began typing our introductory notes for our reports. The copter-ship emitted an almost inaudible purr.

I was astonished to hear the robot and the research scientists suddenly stop typing and begin to discuss history.

“Just decades ago, people were misled to spend their time and money shopping at malls for silly things. I learned that retailers hoodwinked consumers to buy things they didn’t want and would never need,” the robot said gleefully as if he were enjoying a private joke.

“What a waste,” he said with scornful derision. “It shows that you live in a less than perfect world. Humbling, I suppose.” His voice had an antagonistic tone that I wouldn’t have thought possible.

When the researchers shrugged with indifference, I saw Captain Webster scan each of their facial muscles on his monitor to determine their reaction. He looked puzzled. On my monitor I saw that he was searching and sorting through the world’s entire history of Eastern and Western linquistic common errors. I had forgotten that the real world was new to him.

“What were people thinking?” Benjamin asked.

“They weren’t thinking,” Captain Webster replied in a dogmatic tone.

I thought about how the malls had been a good real estate investment for universities, which bought them and turned them into learning and fitness centers. That happened all over the globe.

I recorded this interchange into my computer: “The research scientists, Dr. Henry Goodworth, Dr. Benjamin Sears, and Dr. John White and I are studying a group of first-year foreign university students on a nature walk, a test of linguistic interaction and surveillance and also to see how Captain Webster handles the operation and how we get along together.”

The truth was that the whole operation was to test the robot as well as to record the research scientists’ evaluations of common mistakes in learning languages.

Spread out below us was the Southhaven Forest Preserve, maintained for almost a century. Rabbits, squirrels and tamed foxes romped along the well-groomed paths. Turtles were everywhere. Horses were kept in the horse barns and could be rented by the hour to ride along the roads that wove under the tall canopy of trees.

At the bend of the lake, boats were rented by couples, families or individuals who liked being on the water surrounded by nature. Ducks and geese swam in the large pond, and birds flew over and dived for genetically perfect fish. Fishing had not been allowed since 2025, and since the middle of the Twenty-First Century, the sport had been considered barbaric.

All our fingers flew over the keyboards as we recorded the mistakes the foreign students from fifteen different countries made in trying to understand one another. As we listened, our consoles recorded everything.

Yet it was easy to take notes with our own point of view as each conflict emerged. Our voice-activated automatic whizphone caught all our remarks so we could brainstorm our spontaneous observations at a later date, even our asides that we spoke into our own computers.

Two of the students suddenly stepped off the path and ran under the trees.

“Where did those two go?” Benjamin asked, staring at his monitor. “They’re speaking French, and I have to reference key words to know what they’ve said.”

“They’re chasing a rabbit,” Henry answered.

“The others have stopped to watch,” John replied.

“Do they understand one another?” Henry inquired.

“They’re trying. No, it seems they’ve shrugged and given up. They have no patience, neither the ones who ran after the rabbit nor the ones who stood waiting.”

The students in front of the group became confused when they reached a fork in the road. The crew on the plane watched them argue over which path to take.

“They are not using one of the Earthspeak languages and are splitting up. Most of them have stayed on the main road; six of them have gone off on a side path.”


Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2009 by Marjorie Salzwedel

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