The Potential Man
by Carl Ross Beideman
Table of Contents|
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7
The robot lay on the exam table, closed eyelids twitching in concert with flickering lights. Spools of artery-cable, graphene chip assortments, glowing power cells and surgical tools lay about the robotics lab. Male mannequin robots littered the floor. Heads on legless torsos looked at one another.
A power surge strobed the lights. Then darkness. All silent but shifty mechanical eyeballs. The robot on the exam table was plugged into a server that shrank the room. Its mind finished downloading. A whirring in its chest. Its spherical heart spun.
Outside, a rocket ignited. The robot turned his head to the window. EXODUS written vertically in black. The rocket’s fire bloomed against darkening skies.
Then the window was empty. The newborn robot closed its eyes and wandered the corridors of its mind, which was sterile and frost white. Footfalls echoed. Each open room contained floor to ceiling filing cabinets. Within each cabinet were folders: routines and subroutines. Dewey would have been astonished. The robot stood before a blue room. After an eternity, it stepped in.
A manila folder on the floor. The robot had no sense of time. Eventually it bent to pick up the folder like a front-lawn newspaper. A sheet of white paper inside. A typewritten message: WAKE UP.
Reading the words, the newborn was called into itself. Its eyes blasted open. It felt no thirst, no hunger, no cold. It rolled its head observing the scrap robots, their muted faces. One lay door-stopped in the corner, making eye contact with the newborn. It pointed at its own chest, then at the newborn.
The newborn observed this for minutes. Finally, by epiphany, it glanced at its own hairless, mushroom-colored plastic chest. A note was pinned. Black blood beaded at the pinhole. An arm raised. It noticed the arm without possession, like any object in the room. It lifted the note. The arm was useful.
REMEMBER US. FIND US. SAVE US.
It heard the andric words in its mind, echoing the halls as if someone else was there. He was self-aware. Now that he had himself to speak to, he asked the question: What am I? A room in his mind glowed green. PHILOSOPHY. He devoured it, then History, Science, Arts & Leisure, etc. He understood that the scrap robots’ minds were unseeded. Forbidden. The newborn was illicit.
History told that Earth’s atmosphere was poisoned. Breakthroughs in robotics were attributed to necessity. Robot designs had fallen into and climbed back out of the uncanny valley. Beyond human, said history, sharp, far-reaching logic.
The B-series had urged exodus, masterminded spacecraft designs. Two centuries after their creation, they embarked. No more were permitted. Inhibited robots remained: governed like golf carts. The newborn wondered where exactly the B-series went. He raised his head, stared at the husk door stop, at the B-series inside.
He remembered the rocket launch like a shred of dream. Humanity was gone. His data banks were reserved on the matter. His commands seemed impossible. Easy to start at the beginning: REMEMBER US.
Instead of sitting on the exam table for centuries, living entirely in his mind, creating world upon virtual world within himself, the newborn sat up. He tested his toes before standing. They depressed like piano hammers. He weighed more than a human, but alloy and shock-absorption landed him cat-light. Sensors noted the amount his skin contracted: the floor was cold.
A husk robot was propped behind the exam table, its chin resting on its chest. A metal desk lamp switch protruded out of its navel. The newborn flipped the switch. The husk came to life, look annoyed, and switched off.
The Institute’s dirty seams contrasted with the corridors of his own mind-space. His ears pinged, isolated and amplified a muffled sound: two flights down, third door left. The newborn moved to investigate. He read DIRECTOR on the door, C-T-O-R slashed with black marker.
The newborn opened the door. Inside, a record player was spinning a record. It crackled with static discharge. He heard each nick and mote of dust within the disc’s grooves. He recognized Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool. Slatted shades were drawn. Journals and hardcover books lined the walls. A few lay flayed on the floor.
The robot isolated two distinct and interesting things: alcohol and cancer. He heard inefficient breathing behind a leather chair that faced the window.
A page turned, then another. The newborn walked around the desk. A friar-topped, dirty-snow-bearded man did not look up. The robot saw pulsing veins in his temples, pores clogged with salt and dirt.
“Not polite to stare.” The old man creased a page of a first edition and looked up, removing reading glasses.
The robot heard the rubber creak of old skin and muscle. He was sure of it now, after running autonomic simulations and probabilities: the old man was addressing him.
“Who am I?” A rich, new voice. Tuned to perfection. Resonating against metal. It dampened immediately. A breathless voice. Reading had called him into himself. Speaking confirmed it. In saying, “Who am I?” he also simultaneously said, “Yes, I am.”
The old man creaked a smile. “You’re Bix. Punk got you running.”
The old man winked a wizened eye, as colorful blue as his hair was neutral. This spry wink against an aged backdrop conveyed endurance. The old man motioned Bix behind the desk and bellied up to it. He pointed to a representation of himself with a scientist in a lab coat. A decanted-scotch smell filled the room.
“The man with the unfortunate hair built you. Thought he had me duped for years. I had him sift and select data, write protocols for interstellar ship service, on-world harvesting, et cetera. Basically compressing all of humanity’s memories.”
Bix’s angular, plastic face was blank.
“He put those memories in you. He put ’em into the husks. They can’t act on ’em; they’re only librarian and library.”
The old man poured into a sweaty tumbler. “You’re a fail-safe.” The old man raised the tumbler and pointed his index at Bix. “With everyone gone, law can’t enforce itself, so there’s no ban.”
Bix stood. A golem.
“You’re a bellhop waiting for his tip.”
Bix considered. Sat.
The old man leaned in, stale alcohol on his tongue. “We exhausted all approaches, but in the end consciousness — approachable, human consciousness — can’t be programmed. Josef found a back door. It can be evoked.” He drank then coughed. Coughing reminded him of something and he retracted a pipe from the desk. “You don’t mind if I smoke?” He lit up with a match stick.
“No.” Bix identified the match tip’s accelerant.
“Remember Zhaungzi’s parable of the ugly man?”
Bix retrieved the information. “A manual.”
“That’s a thin analysis. It typifies the rhetorical strategy of evocation. Zhaungzi couldn’t teach the essence of Taoism overtly. It was a passive concept. Instead he told parables. By hiding messages between the words, Taoism remained unviolated by language. The ugly man is a humble man, in this case. Point is, you can lead a horse to water and so on.” He muffled his words in the tumbler.
Bix looked stupid. He had not considered facial expression as a form of communication. He had no feelings to communicate.
The old man, perhaps boggled by Bix’s indifferent gaze, slammed his scotch. “You see imperfections, want to fix them. How dare you! Embrace them.” His fist pulsed on the desk. “You know what Josef called you? He called you the Potential Man. Your brothers the B-series were more; they leaped right over us. He tried again with you.” The tomato-faced old man paused for breath, wheezing somewhere in his trachea.
“Imperfections,” he stressed, leaning back and listening.
“Miles knows everything and nothing, like you. But he knows the value of them. He adds humble notes. We could ride one to the beginning of the universe. But it’s the notes he leaves out” — he leveled his ocean-eyed stare at Bix — “it’s the spaces between.” He paused, looped by the spinning disc. “Nothing more authentic than a record; it’s warm, disarming.”
The old man’s scotch could have been a bottle of tears.
Beneath his frozen gaze, Bix’s processes swarmed. Patterns emerged from chaos. Bix made a face. “Why aren’t you on the ship?”
The old man smiled and poured another drink.
Copyright © 2016 by Carl Ross Beideman