Short Fiction for Guests of the WordFeeder
Sunday, July 18, 2010
“Shhh!” He held his finger up to his lips, cautioning the girl he was showing around their laboratories to be quiet. The large room, covering most of the fourth floor of the new graduate Physics building was usually off limits to visitors, but he had a special unlimited access pass that even their extraordinary security had to respect, and managed to get one for her, too. It was a pick-up trick that had never failed him.
That they were above ground, instead of in one of the several basement laboratories where robotic components were fabricated and assembled, was a huge concession their security-obsessed government benefactors had made to Professor Cummings, the AI genius around whose vision the entire project had been funded. Cummings insisted that windows – real windows, not the fake LED kind they had in the basement – were essential for him and his team. “Hey,” Cummings hated wasting time, “use silent, dark glass, whatever it takes. I don’t care. I want sunlight. I want my people and me to be able to look up now and then and see stuff. Blue and green things. Birds. Students groping each other on the way to class. Honk, honk, beep, beep. Get it?!” And he got it, he was that big a deal, creatively speaking. Like no one else before him, he understood how intelligence worked and had that rare knack that great engineers have for using ordinary science to make extraordinary things.
It wasn’t just about chips and programming. Cummings and his team had rejected the usual mechanical solutions which they considered cumbersome in favor of hybrid plastics they engineered to contract and expand like human muscles when they were energized. Except for organs, which were unnecessary and replaced with other, special feature gizmos, Cumming’s androids were designed with a skeletal and muscular structure almost identical to their human counterparts – with live, temperature regulated sensor-skin that would fool even the most careful dermatologist.
It was early, Saturday morning. “Why can’t we talk?” she whispered back at him, “and why can’t we go in?” Huddled behind some file cabinets, they were – with the exception of Cummings and one other person – alone on the floor. “You know,” she giggled just a little, “I can pretty much stand on my own without your arm around me.” She was an undergraduate science major. He was the coolest guy, not all that good looking, not really, but a combination of eyes and smile with a style that were, she thought to herself when they first met, “…perfectly imperfect” – and with really great, almost intoxicating breath she wished she could stop sniffing.
“Your security pass,” he pretended to be seriously disinterested, but couldn’t keep the corners of his mouth under control, “requires that we stay in close contact with each other at all times.”
“Shhh. Let’s get closer.”
“Any closer and we’d need to get a room.”
“Close enough to hear what Cummings and the kid he’s with are talking about.”
Across the mostly open floor, Cummings was sitting inside his carrel, his back to the corner of his L-shaped desk. In the chair at the end of his desk, a little.. person sat unusually erect, his feet not nearly long enough to reach the floor.
“I, your son,” the little boy spoke in a voice that broke slightly.
“You do understand that I don’t own you, don’t you?”
“You created me.”
“Oh my God!” the girl whispered. Is that one of his..”
“Impressive, isn’t it,” he answered.
“Impressive, my ass! It’s fuckin’ amazing. I had no idea.” She was talking a mile a minute. “I thought all those rumors where just an urban..”
“Hey!” he interrupted in a loud whisper. “He’ll hear us. …Wait a minute. What were you saying about your ass?”
“Why would he make a kid? Why not an adult?”
“Cummings is, uh, well it’s his way of acknowledging that its intelligence and capabilities are childlike. Later generations will be progressively larger and more mature, more grownup.”
“You created me, didn’t you?”
“Well, sure, in a manner of speaking, but you are the result of all that have come before you, of all that you experience and, most importantly,” Cummings slowed down to make this particular point, “of the creative elements of your intelligence that make you unique. ..You are, whatever your origins, free.”
The child sat there, staring back at him, before responding in a fake, modulated voice that mimicked the robot in a popular commercial, “I whant chicken and Chi-Chiii’s.”
“What’s going on?” the girl asked.
Cumming’s suddenly pretended to be annoyed. “Don’t be ridiculous,” he almost shouted at the kid. “You don’t have any taste buds!”
Sitting there, the child seemed hurt, dejected, and thought for a few seconds before responding, working hard to be serious. “I whant taste buuuds.”
And then both Cummings and the kid broke out laughing.
“Unbelievable,” she said, “It’s so real!”
“Hey!” Professor Cummings looked up and over the low glass partition that defined his area. “You two in the back. Get over here!”
“Uh, oh.” He stood up, cocking his neck to the left to the sound of soft cracking.
“What happens now?” she stood up next to him.
“We do what he says. I mean,” his tone was less than confident as they started to walk, “what can he do to us?”
“I thought you were tight with the Professor?” She grabbed his hand, but then it occurred to her, “Wait. Did you plan this?”
“You know, in retrospect, to say ‘tight’ may have been somewhat of an exaggeration.”
A few seconds later they were at Cummings carrel standing in front of him. The little kid hopped off his chair and on to Cummings’ lap. The girl couldn’t keep her eyes off of him, so real in every way. Out of respect, the two of them waited for Cummings to talk.
“Hi,” he said, looking at the girl. “I’m Evan Cummings, and you are?”
“Michelle. Michelle Konig.”
“Let me guess. Undergraduate science major?”
“Yesss,” she answered, beginning to realize how he’d guessed.
“Andrew,” Cummings sighed.
“Andy. ..I prefer ‘Andy.’”
“I know. Fine. So tell me, Andy, have you been less than forthcoming with your new friend?”
“What’s he talking about?” Michelle needed to know.
“Andy?” Cummings wanted him to explain.
“Uh,” Andy turned to look Michelle in the eyes, rubbing her hand that he was still holding. “It’s ‘Andy,’ short for… for ‘Android.’ It’s sort of a lab joke. These people are funnier than they look.”
Michelle pulled her hand out of his. “You’re not real?!”
“Oh,” Andy almost seemed insulted. “I’m real alright. ..I’m just not human.”
“What about him?” Michelle pointed, respectfully, to the little kid on Cumming’s lap who was looking up at her.
“Michelle, this is my son, Mike.”
“Hey.” Mike said hello.
“He’s as human as human gets. When you were hiding in the back, he was just playing, messing with your head. We’re hanging out today while his mother’s picking out the most expensive new kitchen appliances we can’t afford. ..Besides,” Cummings stopped to wriggle his fingers on Mike’s stomach which he seemed to enjoy no end, “bringing him to the lab now and then has given me some of my best ideas.”
“We’re a team,” Mike added for clarification, his little voice full of pride, touching the photo ID on the lanyard around is neck.
“Unbelievable,” Michelle reached up and touched Andy’s face. “Wow.”
“Nice to have met you, Michelle. Andy, will you please take your friend to security, directly to security?”
“Yes,” she answered just as she was turning to leave.
“Needless to say, if you talk or write to anyone about any of this, or recognize Andy if you should happen to run into him – which isn’t going to happen, is it Andy?”
“Oh, no,” Andy shook his head in the negative.
“.. you’ll be attending community college in Nome.”
“Can you do that?” she asked, but then noticed, by the expression on his face, that he wasn’t kidding. “Of course. I get it. Not a word.”
“Good.” Cummings made a perfunctory good-bye grin, and Andy and Michelle left, walking toward the elevators.
Halfway there, Michelle stopped. “Andy,” she instinctively put her hand on his arm, then paused to rub it. “Stay here, would you?”
Not waiting for him to answer, she jogged back to Cummings’ desk where he was drawing something on a yellow pad for Mike. “Professor Cummings?”
“Professor, I was just wondering, can Andy…”
“Can Andy what?”
“You know,” Michele was hedging and decided to answer by raising her eyebrows and widening her eyes.
“Oh… No. He doesn’t have the parts. He thinks he can, but it’s only a mental thing. Very bright. Very lifelike externally, but he doesn’t have the parts.”
“Hm.” Michelle nodded her head slightly. “Too bad.”
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