George Pollock, Jr.
How hard can it be to turn lead into gold?
Break down the lead into subatomic particles, put some together again as gold – and there you are. Simple.
Of course, what was left – well … who could say? A new element? A pile of useless particles?
Who cared? You'd still have gold where there had been mere mundane metal. Something better. Something valuable. Something more.
It just took something of great moment to shake things up.
Which means, she thought, I'm going to need a new supercollider.
Nora Wakeman sat back in the chair at the collider's console in her basement, rubbed her eyes and sighed. She had put off this moment for ages, pushing the old unit as far as she could. And now she had pushed it up against a wall. There was no "further" left. Try to push it through the wall, and it would be crushed. The trauma would destroy it.
Thank God, she thought, that the monthly royalties from the patents had just come in. Buying a new collider wouldn't be a bother.
But where, she thought, am I going to get one?
At this hour?
On a Saturday?
I mean …
All the stores are closed …
Well, Nora, thought … forget it. Nothing I can do about it now. Just wait until you can. Which means Monday.
Lord … tell me why I don't like Mondays …
I just want to sleep the whole day down …
The videophone chimed. She checked the caller ID on the screen. The area code and exchange were familiar; they hadn't changed in decades. More time than she cared to remember.
Skyway Patrol HQ.
She couldn't place the exact extension, but it probably had gone from one person to another in all this time, anyway. So she had no idea who could possibly be on the other end. And why Skyway Patrol would call her late on a Saturday night, she couldn't imagine.
She touched the screen.
General Hardscape. Commandant of Skyway Patrol. A man she loathed.
A man who, in her opinion, had turned the patrol from a dedicated law agency into a labyrinthine bureaucracy of paperwork. More obsessed with procedure than justice. He was a control freak – ever since he became assistant superintendent, two steps below his present rank. He had suggested "procedural reforms" that the brass had eaten up. Why, Nora had never understood. The "reforms" were onerous and obstructive. But they had propelled him upward.
She couldn't work in that environment. She tried. She couldn't. And for that, she had finally – sadly – one day resigned from Skyway Patrol. The place where she had met her husband and – in the duty of which – he had died. And so had she. All that had made her heart happy was gone. And so was that season of her life.
But there had come a new time. One of curiosity and delight in study and science and imagination. It had sustained her and rebuilt her heart. She had become glad again.
But not now. Not on this late night. The man she loathed was facing her.
She felt a cold, simmering anger. "Hardscape," she said. It was simply naming the thing in front of her.
"Wakeman," he answered. It was civil, but not – Nora noticed – restrained animosity. It had more a feeling of contained distress. What could he be distressed about, she thought. Only two words into the conversation, and she was confused.
She adjusted to his tone. A little. "It's late, General. What do you want?"
In the very few times that they'd spoken since her resignation, he would inevitably puff up and assume an exaggerated authority. You could almost see the process. That was always her perception.
He didn't do it now. And that surprised her.
Something's wrong here, she thought.
"I'm not going to play around, Wakeman," he said. "Have you heard from XJ-9 today in any way?"
"No, General …," she replied coolly. "She happens to be on the other side of the world at the moment, fighting in a war. I don't require her to check in." She recalled Skyway Patrol's monitoring – hounding, she believed – of her robot daughter, and she couldn't resist a dig. "What's she done now? Flipped over some tanks as a prank?"
His tone became urgent. "Listen to me: Has anyone from the Army talked to you in the past few hours?"
He didn't take the bait – another surprise – and there was his tone. Something's wrong, she thought again. "No. Why?"
"Wakeman, I have a buddy in the Army. A colonel. We go way back. He's overseas in the theater where XJ-9 is deployed. He assesses battle reports."
"XJ-9" and "battle." Normally, that combination didn't bother her. But now, in the dark background, the concept of war hulked near the words. She didn't like that.
Her coolness became a chill. "Hardscape …," she said, "has something happened to XJ-9?"
"My pal's from Columbus. He saw 'Tremorton, Ohio,' with XJ-9's name on a combat assessment after a really bad fight and recognized it. He knows I know someone from there – that's you – and called me."
The chill inside her turned fully cold, and it spoke only to her: "Really bad fight"?
I … don't want to hear this. I don't want … to hear this. I don't want to hear this.
But … I do.
Something's wrong. Something's very wrong. It's worse than wrong.
"Hard … scape …," she said slowly, "what … has … happened … to my daughter …?"
He took in a small, hesitant breath and glanced away uncomfortably. "Nora …," he replied in shockingly sober familiarity, "are you sitting down?"
Her stomach suddenly felt like freezing paper, and instantly, a frigid hand crushed it into a painful, horrific clump.
Oh, no, she thought …
Oh, God …
She couldn't sleep that night. She tried but realized she couldn't. It was a dark, quiet night and a long, lonely morning.
About 11:30 a.m., she received the Army's official confirmation call from a chaplain. One so soon wasn't SOP, she was told, but because she knew Hardscape, an exception had been made. She thanked the man graciously – but blankly. The right words came out of her mouth but with no feeling behind them.
She needed to talk. To someone who knew XJ-9 and would understand and care and support her. Someone like family.
She awoke the robots.
That was probably too simplistic. First, there was the primary power-up, which just turned on the systems. That was followed by self-diagnostics that each system ran. Some took longer than others – upward of five to six nanoseconds extra. Then came systems integration to confirm complete interactivity. Only then would the AI kick in. With yet a diagnostic of its own to check memory, accumulative and associative functions. Visual sensors – the eyes – would engage with a color, focus, movement, peripheral and brightness/contrast check. Vocal and lingual software would activate at the same time.
It all happened in about ninth-tenths of a second. And you just had to wait. Nora had never been able to speed up the process. It always irked her.
So, she thought, you technically couldn't call it waking them up. Technically.
Even if XJ-5, the chatterbox, did always say, "Aw, Mom! Five more minutes!"
And the hovering robot was here now with the others, in the huge living room where they had been told to gather. It was the only place in the house where all could be together with crowding a room – which for the XJ series meant filling a space until the walls started cracking. So it was the living room or the basement, where the robots were stored in stasis.
And what the woman had to say now was too important for the basement. Much more so.
She surveyed the machines before her, and in them, she saw the growth of her second life:
XJ-1, the chirping white-and-clear "egg" baby, prone to crying and leaking – and vomiting – oil.
XJ-2, the medium-gray ray gun with wheels, a single eye and dangerous laser hiccups.
XJ-3, the toddling, tiny one-eyed lavender doll, unsteady on its two feet.
XJ-4, the four-armed dark-lavender automaton with a single wheel, a prissy white face and a cleanliness complex.
XJ-5, the blue-green chatterbox that looked like an art deco tabletop radio, floating on its plasma-spewing pigtails.
XJ-6, the light-green tripod with a single arm, narrow pigtails much like XJ-9's, a television-set head and a jealous frown.
XJ-7, the stooped blue boxlike mope with treads and a depressed expression.
XJ-8, the larger earlier version of XJ-9, black and white with an unfortunately limited voice, vocabulary and view of its duty.
And for all their flaws, Nora thought, they were all her daughters as much as XJ-9. She had once called them failed prototypes, but she was wrong. They were never failures. They had been activated many times, and working with XJ-9, each had shown a unique quality that made themselves – and the entire series – greater. More than their designs, and more than the mere sum.
That was not failure, the scientist had come to realize. That was purpose. That was higher value.
XJ-5 yawned. "This gonna take long, Mom?" she asked the woman. "More than five minutes?"
"It will take as long as it needs, XJ-5," Nora replied, "and not a second less. Is that clear?" She scanned the group. "Everyone?"
XJ-1 chirped and whistled. XJ-2 and –3 nodded. The rest murmured agreement.
"All right." She sighed deeply and spoke quietly. "It's about XJ-9."
XJ-6 rolled her televised eyes. "Oh, of course! It's always about Jenny! Can't we ever talk about something other than Jenny? It's like she's the only one who …"
"XJ-6!! YOU WILL BE SILENT!!"
The robots recoiled. There was silence. Then XJ-6 whispered, "… Yes, ma'am …"
Nora collected herself. "I got a call from the Army this morning. You remember before your last deactivation that I told you XJ-9 was drafted for the war."
"Yes-I-do," XJ-8 answered in its deep monotone.
The scientist took a deep breath. "XJ-9 has been reported missing in action."
Sudden nervous glances among the robots. Only XJ-1 made no response; Nora assumed the concept was beyond it. XJ-2 and –3 looked up at their sisters with eyes that sought explanation. Maybe even reassurance that what they heard wasn't as bad as it sounded.
"Well, that's not good," XJ-7 said quietly.
"What happened?" XJ-4 asked. An urgency in her voice tempered her usually fussy tone.
"She was doing reconnaissance during combat," the woman said. "She was last seen protecting her commander, who had been shot. After the battle, she couldn't be found."
XJ-4 looked puzzled. "What's 'reconnaissance'?"
XJ-8 intoned: "Covert-surveillance-of-an-enemy-to-determine-its-position-strength-and-movement."
Nora nodded. "That's right. XJ-9 told me she would fly around to find the enemy and report her findings to her commander. That's all she could tell me."
XJ-5 started in: "Was she shot down? Was she hurt? I'll bet they use surface-to-air missiles. Wouldn't that make sense? Doncha think?" She looked around, eager for an answer.
"All I was told this morning," the woman said, using the slight pause to cut the chatty robot off, "was that she was protecting her commander. They said he was a major. I'd assume he was on the ground when that happened, so she probably wasn't flying at the time."
"Makes sense," XJ-7 observed plainly.
XJ-5 started blurting again. "Are they looking for her? Doesn't she have a tracking device? Is it working?"
"Has-a-search-been-initiated?" XJ-8 asked.
"They didn't say," the human replied.
She sighed. "I thought so, too. But you can't keep track of every soldier during a battle. And you can't look for everyone who's missing."
The huge robot considered that. "Accepted."
"Well, have they at least told you when they'll get back to you?" XJ-4's snippiness had returned.
"When they know something, XJ-4. That's all they said."
"Which might be never," XJ-7 grumbled.
"I tell ya, she was a good kid, doncha think?" XJ-5 asked sincerely. "She really was. I always liked her. A real sharp cookie. Remember when …"
An explosion shook the room.
"X!! JAY!! FIVE!!"
Again, the machines recoiled. This time, however, the force of Nora's shout pinned them back, unable to respond to her rage.
Her eyes flamed at them. "YOU WILL NEVER, EVER SPEAK OF XJ-9 LIKE SHE'S GONE!! EVER!! ALL OF YOU!!"
Slowly, the robots – even XJ-1 – looked among themselves and seemed lost. Then came silent expressions of acceptance, of agreement among the sisters. XJ-8 looked back at the woman.
"Understood," it said.
Nora lowered her face and rubbed her eyes. "Very well …," she said, as if weak from the blast. She faced the eight again. "I won't deactivate you right now. I think you should know anything as soon as I do. I'm not going to sort of shake your shoulders and …" She thought. "… wake you up … for something that important."
Her expression softened. "You're her sisters," the scientist said quietly. "You deserve more than that."
"Thanks, Mom," XJ-7 said. It wasn't her usual resigned, mopey facetiousness. She sounded sincere. Grateful for the kindness.
Nora surveyed them a final time. "That's all," she concluded. "You may do as you wish around the house. Just don't break anything." She yawned. "I didn't get any sleep. I'm going to try to take a nap."
After a moment, XJ-4 picked up XJ-1 and started away. She seemed to just pick a random direction and leave. XJ-2 and –3 quickly followed her like ducklings after their mother.
XJ-5 seemed at a loss about where to go – what to do – next. Finally, silently, she floated in the direction of the TV room off the living room.
XJ-7 sighed deeply, glanced around and rolled away, vaguely in the direction that XJ-4 went. It all seemed to be the same to her.
XJ-8 stood its ground. "Have-a-good-nap-Mother," it said, then turned and headed heavily down the nearby hall toward Nora's study.
Alone was XJ-6. She studied the woman, and Nora swore she detected in the face screen a sense of shame. The robot turned away and headed with her spiderlike gait for the front door. She opened it, paused and looked back slightly at the human.
"I'm … sorry … Mother …," she whispered, then exited and shut the door softly behind her.
Nora's nap took eight hours.
When she awoke, it was dark outside. She hadn't realized how draining the situation had truly been. But it felt good for her mind to have just shut down in sleep. It helped.
She yawned deeply, then sat up over the edge of her bed and stretched. She reached down to scratch her lower right back and, in turning, noticed that the nearby wastebasket was full.
Well, she thought, might as well empty all of them. It was a mindless chore. But maybe mindless was the best thing right now. Probably so.
She grabbed the basket and headed off.
XJ-8 was kneeling in front of the lighted aquarium in the dark study.
That's not normal, the woman concluded.
The highlighted front of the robot had startled her when she opened the door. XJ-8 looked like a ghost. The specter of a partly lit robot phantasm was a disturbing thing if you didn't expect it.
And maybe even if you did, the scientist thought.
The bright clear-blue-white light of the tank was muted as Nora turned on the light. XJ-8 turned to her. "Hello-Mother," it said.
The woman entered the dark-paneled room. "XJ-8," she replied, "is everything … all right …?"
She ventured farther inside for the wastebasket between a huge oak desk and one of the bookcases that lined the room. She emptied the basket into a large white plastic bag from the bathroom upstairs. "Watching the fish, were you?" she asked.
"No," the large robot said.
It surprised her. "Well, what else is there to watch in an aquarium, XJ-8?"
"Oook-kaaay … And that would be … why …?"
"Most people watch the fish."
The woman was intrigued. "Coordinate what, XJ-8?"
"Why-XJ-9-was-drafted. I-am-stronger-than-XJ-9. It-was-inefficient-to-take-XJ-9."
Nora sighed. When XJ-9 was drafted, the woman learned the military's standard for combat robots: AI of 60 or higher out of 100. XJ-9 was at 87, and she had her fame as a hometown superhero, so the Army snapped her up immediately.
But then there was XJ-8. AI of 52 and would always be so. She was only one phase below XJ-9. Yet, the advances between them meant XJ-8 could never be retrofitted with higher AI. At 52, life was a black-and-white, yes-or-no proposition. If a 52 was told to fight the enemy – and the enemy asked to surrender and sought mercy – what then? The military decided to avoid the question by setting the bar at 60. That was considered the beginning of judgment and adaptability.
And at a level like 87, the military thought, robots might even protect their human comrades without hesitation. Maybe even with what humans would call valor.
At least, that's what the military hoped.
Nora studied the machine kneeling by the aquarium. "XJ-9 is …" She considered her next word carefully. "… nimbler than you are, XJ-8 …"
"I-see," the robot replied. Silence followed, then: "But-I-should-have-been-taken-anyway. XJ-9-is-better. She-should-be-here-to-help-you."
"She had no choice. She had to obey the law that drafted her. Robots have to."
"We need you here, XJ-8," the woman said. "Me and your sisters."
"For whatever we need." Nora thought. "You're valuable, XJ-8. Always. Anywhere. But especially here. Especially to us."
"Thank-you-Mother." Then the robot considered something in its bulky way. "XJ-9-should-come-home. She-is-helpful-too. She-is-valuable."
"Indeed," the scientist answered softly.
"We all do, dear ..." The woman sighed. "Want me to leave the light on?"
She headed for the door and switched off the light. Looking back one more time, she saw that XJ-8 had faced the aquarium again – quietly, studiously, even thoughtfully – watching in the dark the bubbles in the liquid light.
It seemed strange to Nora that a robot with no legs, no arms – no body, for that matter – would nevertheless choose to watch television from the vantage of a couch.
Apparently, that hadn't occurred to XJ-5.
She floated above the center of three cushions, slightly rising and falling on the small pale yellow plasma flares from her "pigtails." A slight, hollow, airy hissing accompanied the hovering. If she noticed when Nora entered the TV room, she didn't make any indication.
"Hello, XJ-5," the woman said.
The robot didn't turn, just focused on the TV. A cartoon was playing. "Hey," the robot said. That was all.
And that was unusual for XJ-5, the scientist knew. She walked past the machine to the far end of the couch and emptied the wicker wastebasket there. "What are you watching?" she asked.
"Some cartoon." The reply sounded as if XJ-5 hadn't even engaged her CPU to respond.
"What's it called?"
"Dunno. Came in the middle."
Nora watched for a moment: A young redhaired man in a blue sort-of jumpsuit, a mask and a red-and-blue cape was talking to two young women in blue outfits that echoed his attire but were more feminine. They didn't wear masks. One woman, with blue hair, stood quietly, looking almost pained. The other, a blonde, started yelling at the man viciously. Her entire appearance got fiercer with each sentence. It looked like anime but not quite.
"Superheroes?" Nora ventured.
"Actors playing superheroes," XJ-5 said vacantly. "I think."
A huge young man with purple skin, shaggy blue hair and a light-blue, light-green outfit appeared. He was joined by some sort of small, purple, furry animal with a large blue jewel on its chest. The blonde had finished speaking, but she still visibly fumed. The blue-haired woman looked pityingly at the redhaired man. The huge man started speaking. He sounded like an idiot. The purple creature just listened.
"Who are the big man and the animal?" the scientist asked.
A deep sigh. "Beats me …"
"Are they actors, too?"
"I guess …"
"Are they supposed to be on a TV show?"
"Mom …," XJ-5 groaned.
"That blonde said, 'Tokyo.' It this Japan?"
"Mom …" The word had grown an edge.
"They don't look Japanese."
"Mom, please, I'm just …"
An older Asian man with gray hair and a brown suit appeared, followed by a sycophantic-sounding younger Asian man in a dark suit. The older man started yelling loudly at the previous characters, who were reduced to tiny, cute – and scared – figures in the corner of the screen.
"And why," Nora said, "do those two look Japanese?"
XJ-5 snapped her "face" toward the woman.
For the second time in eight hours, there was an explosion in the Wakeman house.
"I DON'T KNOW, MOM!! IT'S THE FIRST TIME I'VE SEEN THIS!! I DON'T KNOW!! I JUST WANT TO WATCH THIS!! PLEASE!! CAN I JUST WATCH THIS IN PEACE?! IS THAT ALL RIGHT WITH YOU?!"
The woman froze. The talkative robot had never been so riled up. Yet in the same instant, the scientist's maternal, parental indignation rose. "Don't use that tone of voice with me, young lady," she said quietly.
XJ-5 turned away. "I'm … sorry … Mom ..." She sounded exasperated. "I … just don't feel like … talking … right now …" A pause. "I just don't feel like talking …"
The robot tilted her "head" to the floor. "I just want to watch something … mindless. I don't want to think about anything … If I start talking, I'll start thinking …"
She fell silent, and the cartoon filled the void.
"I'll start thinking about Jenny …," she whispered and sounded as if she knew that her fear might overwhelm her at any moment.
"I see," Nora said softly.
"I don't want to think about Jenny … Not about what …" Her filtered voice drifted off. When it returned, the words were quietly desperate. Nearly tearful. "Oh, Mom, I don't want to talk … please … Just let me watch …"
The woman watched the robot hover with its subtle hiss. She finally sighed and walked over, placed a hand on the back of XJ-5's "head" and rested a cheek on the top.
"I understand, dear," she said tenderly.
She let go, headed for the door and then looked back. "If you do want to talk," she told the robot, "I'll be here. Always."
XJ-5 said nothing at first, just focused on the TV. Finally, again in something that sounded somewhat tearful, she answered:
"I know …"
Nora left the room and headed for the kitchen.
The scientist watched the boxy blue robot roll back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.
XJ-7 would grab a clattering handful of plates from the open dishwasher, trundle over to an overhead cabinet and put them in. More plates, more trundling. Back and forth. Back and forth. Back and forth.
"Very considerate of you, XJ-7," Nora said at last. "Thank you."
The robot kept up her pace. "No problem," she replied.
What struck the woman was XJ-7's tone. She could have spoken in her usual mopey tone, but it wasn't there. In its place was a sense of balanced acceptance of the moment. It was strange.
Nora had emptied the kitchen trash into the big plastic bag and kept watching the robot. The machine had finished putting away the dishes and had started on the cups and glasses in the top rack.
Then XJ-7 started humming. Music. Very softly.
Nora nearly dropped the bag.
The woman didn't recognize the tune. It hardly mattered. That XJ-7 was humming music at all was.
Because it was strange.
"XJ-7 …," Nora began cautiously, "why … are you … humming …?"
The last glass went up. "Just felt like it," XJ-7 said without looking at it or the scientist.
"You're usually not so …" Again, the woman considered a next word carefully. "… lighthearted …"
XJ-7 returned to the dishwasher, took out the flatware caddy, trundled to a drawer, opened it and set the caddy on the counter directly above. She grabbed a rattling handful of flatware and started distributing the pieces into the drawer. "Well …," she said, "… don't really have a lot to worry about right now. Just thought I'd hum."
"You're not … worried … about … anything …?"
"Not right now."
"Not … pessimistic?"
Nora thought. "Not even about … XJ-9 … ?"
The last fork disappeared into the drawer, which the robot closed. She sighed. "I hope she's all right," she answered simply. Then she returned the caddy to the dishwasher. "Jenny can take care of herself. No use worrying about it. Won't help her over there. So I'm not going to stress about it."
She closed the dishwasher. "So I just felt like humming. That's all."
The woman nodded thoughtfully.
"Well," XJ-7 said, "Got a few other things to do around here." She spun slowly away from Nora. "See ya, Mom."
The robot stopped and turned her head back to the scientist.
"You're right," Nora said. "Worrying about XJ-9 won't help her." She paused. "But hoping for her might. I believe that."
XJ-7 stood quietly for a moment, then turned back toward the doorway.
"Whatever," she said, and trundled out of the room.
She didn't notice the trim of light around the door when she entered the basement. She was facing away from it as she emptied the wastebasket by the washer and dryer. Only when she turned back did she see the glow leaking around the door under the staircase.
The entry to the XJs' crypt.
Nora went in.
XJ-2 and –3 sat on their pedestals, eyes closed, powered down, looking at youthful peace. Across the room, XJ-4 had her back to the woman and was working on something on a counter. Her four hands seemed to be wiping something simultaneously. A black liquid dipped off the counter in front of her, and she stood in its dark puddle on the floor. Its splatter covered her single wheel and the lower part of its single, stalk-like "leg."
"XJ-4?" the scientist asked.
The robot's head swerved around toward her. "Oh, hello, Mother," she said.
The woman was stunned: The fastidious robot – usually neat to the point of annoyance – wore a spray of the black liquid across her usually pristine white face. Nora had never seen there anything more than a mote of dust – and XJ-4 would usually cleanse it away briskly, complaining in a prissy tone about the air quality. To see her with such a blemish was unusual. Unprecedented, even, Nora thought.
And what was astonishing beyond saying was that, in her voice and expression, XJ-4 seemed perfectly fine with it.
"What are you doing?" the human asked.
She was answered by a chirping-whistling-tweeting from behind the robot. XJ-4 turned back to the counter and – strangely – addressed it in a playful, tender voice: "Oh, shush, now! I'm almost done!"
Nora walked over. On the counter, XJ-1 lay in an area not coated by the black liquid – oil, the woman saw now. The robot wiped the last splotch off the baby's front with the paper towels she held. The taller machine's touch apparently calmed the child.
"There …," XJ-4 said kindly, "Didn't I tell you you'd be fine?" The egg baby squealed happily in reply.
"Baby-barfed, did she?" Nora asked.
"Yes," XJ-4 answered. "I think it's from the stress."
"I think she senses the tension we feel about Jenny. So I thought I'd put her down for a recharge."
The human glanced back at XJ-2 and –3. "Them, too?"
"Yes. About an hour ago. XJ-3 was really acting upset, so I finally just held her and rocked her until she went offline by herself."
"Very kind of you, XJ-4," the woman said.
The robot had finished cleaning XJ-1 and picked her up, cradling the baby 'bot's face against her left shoulder. She patted its bottom softly. "OK …," she whispered. "That's a good girl … You're all nice and clean now, aren't you?" she teased. "Yes, you are! Yes, you are!" As she spoke, she began bouncing the baby playfully in her arms. XJ-1 squealed again with a smile.
XJ-4 rolled over to XJ-1's pedestal and placed her on it. "Now, you be a good girl and go to sleep, all right?" the larger robot asked. The smaller one beeped and tweeted. To the scientist, it sounded like gleeful agreement.
XJ-4 bent over and touched her face to XJ-1's. "Good night, little one. Have beautiful dreams …" An instant later, there was a sound. A tiny smacking sound. XJ-1 closed its yes and went offline.
A kiss, Nora realized. The sound was a kiss.
"Very maternal of you, XJ-4," the woman observed quietly.
XJ-4 rolled back to the counter. He body opened, and her arms grabbed more towels and a spray bottle of green liquid. Cleaner, the scientist assumed. "I feel sorry for the little ones, Mother," she said as she sprayed the liquid on the surface.
"Why's that, dear?"
A circular rubbing started with the towels. "They know something's wrong. Maybe XJ-3 understands. I don't know. But they can't express themselves. All they probably feel is … fear … and … they can't … do anything about it …"
After several seconds, the woman noticed that XJ-4 was rubbing the same spot over and over. Over and over. Again and again. The rubbing got harder and harder. Rougher and rougher. Over – and over – again.
"It must be horrible …," she whispered.
"I'm certain they're grateful for your attention, XJ-4," Nora said.
The robot glanced back. And chuckled. The human had never seen her do that. Something was affecting the XJs, affecting them deeply, she understood.
"I'm not so sure about XJ-2," the robot chuckled again. "When I started to head her down here, she got fussy. Laser-hiccupped all over the ceiling in the first-floor hallway."
"I didn't notice. When did that happen?"
"About the hour ago I mentioned."
The human saw that the robot had finally moved on from rubbing the one spot. "It's … not like you … to let things like that go for so long, XJ-4."
The robot stopped and sighed. "The little ones were more important. Cleaning … could … wait. There are… more important things … to worry about …"
Her tone fell somber. "… Like …"
A very long silence.
"… Jenny …"
Of course, the woman thought.
XJ-4 bowed her head slightly. After more silence, she turned and noticed the plastic bag. "Are you taking out the trash?" she asked.
"Last I checked, the back-door light was burned out. I asked XJ-7 to replace it." A smirk. "I made a list of things to do while you were asleep. It … kept my mind busy … not thinking about … things …"
"I understand, dear."
XJ-4 chuckled once more. The woman was starting to enjoy the sight, the feel. "I gave the list to XJ-7 to keep her from moping." She smiled. "Please don't tell her."
The human smiled back. "It'll be our little secret. She was emptying the dishwasher before I came down here."
Suddenly, the robot's expression went sour, and she let out an exasperated huff. "Just now?"
"That was the first thing on the list!! I gave it to her a half-hour ago!!"
Nora thought. "What was replacing the light bulb?"
"Sixth," the robot fumed. She turned around, and her prissy tone – the tone uniquely hers – returned.
"Take a flashlight, Mother …," she sighed heavily, and started rubbing the counter again.
The rattling of the garbage can's lid and the banging of the can itself covered the sound. And the sound itself couldn't be seen. The bulb hadn't been replaced, and all Nora had was a flashlight, after all.
It sounded like gasping for air. At first. The woman swung the beam outward into the backyard with its wall of trees at the far end. The flare scanned the expanse, starting at the swimming pool on the left. Nothing to be seen.
Only heard. And now it was clearer. Now it was muffled, unrestrained sobbing.
"Who's there?!" Nora called.
The sobbing suddenly lowered, as if the crier had covered his or her mouth. Yet, the emotion was too strong, and it still leaked out.
And now it had direction. The beam crept slowly back to the right. It rested on the shed on the right side of the yard. The shed that XJ-9 once tried to make her own place – and failed. A painful lesson in responsibility that Jenny had had to learn. And one that the scientist had to let her learn. It had been harder on Nora than she had ever admitted to Jenny – or ever would.
"I said, 'Who's there?!' " she yelled again.
She finally realized that the sound was coming from behind the shed. She started slowly toward it.
I'm probably going to regret this, she thought. "Show yourself!!"
More steps. What do I really expect to do if someone's there, she continued. Say "Hello"?
"Come out!! I have a plasma ray!!" It was the first thing that came to mind. She didn't have a plasma ray, and as soon as she said it, she knew how stupid it sounded. But I need all the stupid threats I can get right now, she thought.
Closer to the shed. "If you know what's good for you, you'll just run away right now!!" It would be good for me, at least, she noted.
Finally at the far left corner of the shed. The sobbing to the right around the corner had shrunk to whimpering, and Nora could hear someone – something, maybe – move slightly.
She considered: She could blind it with the flashlight first. Before she did what – well, she didn't know. But she could then use the torch as a weapon, at least until its bulb broke. And then she'd be in the dark. With someone. Or something. What, she didn't know. That frightened her.
Alone. In the dark. With fear.
The worst of all possible worlds.
At which, she wondered why she was being this philosophical outside a backyard shed at night.
How, she thought, do I get myself into these things?
… let's do this …
A sudden turn to the right around the corner, with the flashlight held out with both hands, like a knife. And an old woman screaming with her whole body – and with her eyes bravely closed.
She waited for something to happen. In the dark. With her eyes closed. For something. Anything.
Well, Nora thought …
… this is disappointing ...
She peeked from one eye. There was an image of someone holding a hand up in front of his or her face, shielding it from the light.
She opened the other eye.
The robot was sitting against the back wall of the shed, her tripod legs drawn tightly against the slim body that supported her TV-set head. Her only arm was raised against the light.
The woman lowered the light from the robot's face. "XJ-6?" she asked, as if she didn't know what she saw.
XJ-6 had lowered her arm, then turned away quickly. "Lea'me ALONE!!" she moaned. The human sensed in her tone that electronic tears were flowing.
"What are you doing out here?" the scientist asked. It was more confusing to her than an intruder would have been.
XJ-6 didn't turn back. "LEAVE ME ALONE!!" she wailed. She covered her face with her hand, which trembled slightly. Muffled sobbing started again.
"Just … leave me alone …," she whimpered.
Nora lowered her arms and pointed the flashlight casually with one hand. She watched the suffering robot for a moment.
"XJ-6," she finally said quietly but firmly, "I'm not going anywhere until I find out why one of my daughters is crying in the dark behind a shed."
XJ-6's sobs toned down to robotic sniffling. Nothing more.
After a moment, the woman laid the flashlight in the grass, pointing the beam toward the robot. An eerie glow fired its legs and lower body. Her upper body and the underside of her head were frosted with the torch's white-yellow tinge. The human sat down to the left to XJ-6.
And put an arm gently around the robot's shoulders.
"What's wrong, dear?" she whispered.
XJ-6 turned her head slightly toward the scientist but kept its face down. "Mama …" she said as if that one word took all her strength.
"Mama" wasn't a word that Nora usually associated with XJ-6. "Yes, dear …?"
The robot finally looked at her. "Mama," she repeated, "can we … die?"
The woman squinted in confusion. "Who?"
"I … don't understand."
"The XJs … Can we die?"
Nora thought. "Well …," she said, "you can be shut down …"
"That's just SLEEPING …," XJ-6 moaned.
A sigh. "I suppose … you could be dismantled – or have your memory erased …"
At which, XJ-6 exploded in the human's arm.
"NO, MAMA!! DIE!! DIE, MAMA!! CAN WE DIE?!"
Her daughter, the scientist saw, was in some sort of wretched horrible pain that she didn't understand. Her creation deserved an honest answer.
"I … don't know, dear …" A silence later, she ventured a question: "Why do you ask?"
XJ-6 had settled into slow, deep breathing – a programmed reflex to cool her workings when she was under stress. "Jenny …," she finally replied softly.
Of course, the woman thought. Of course. "XJ-9 can take care of herself," she comforted. "You know that."
"But what if she can't …?" the robot whimpered. "What if she's captured? What'll they do to her?" Her distress was coming back before Nora could stop it. "What if she's torn apart?! What if she's blown up?! What if she's DESTROYED, MAMA?!"
A gasp, then a blast: "SHE'S GONNA DIE, MAMA!! SHE'S GONNA DIE!!"
Suddenly, XJ-6 spun toward the woman, wrapped her arm around Nora's waist and buried its head in her left shoulder. A murmur started from there: "She's gonna die, Mama … she's gonna die … she's gonna die … she's gonna die …"
And then – with painful, ultimate feeling: "And … I'll … die …"
The scientist was silent for a few moments. "XJ-6," she said at last, "I didn't know … you felt this … strongly … about Jenny …"
The reply was muffled. "Mama …will … we still be a family … without … Jenny …?"
"Of course we will, dear." Nora reached up and gently lifted the robot's face to hers. "But remember," she said tenderly, "I've already forbidden all of you from thinking that XJ-9 is gone. You mustn't." She thought. "Not just for Jenny's sake. For yours, too."
XJ-6 spoke with what would be, in a human, a choked voice. "I've been so … jealous, Mama … so mean … so cruel … I'm sorry …"
"Jenny knows you're not malicious, XJ-6. We all know that."
"I promise I'll change …"
A snort of a laugh. "Then how will we recognize you?" The scientist settled a bit, chuckled and smiled at the robot. "And how will XJ-9 know you when she comes back?"
XJ-6's televised eyes looked away. Their shape – their expression – turned thoughtful.
"We love you for you. For what you are," Nora said, and the robot looked back at her. "And Jenny loves you, too. Especially her."
Slowly, XJ-6 lowered its head back onto the woman's shoulder. The human felt the weight of the robot press against her. Somehow, she seemed lighter than earlier – as if XJ-6 had finally released her burden of fear and sorrow. And there came the tiny buzz of her eyes closing on the TV screen. In deepest rest, Nora seemed to sense.
"I love Jenny, too, Mama …," the robot whispered.
Nora tightened her grip around XJ-6's shoulder.
"Jenny will be all right, dear," she whispered back in the darkness and the flashlight's glow. "She'll be all right …"
It was the same number.
The videophone had rung the following morning, and caller ID had flashed onto the screen. It was the same number.
Nora wasn't sure she wanted to answer. That she wanted to hear what he had to say. That she wanted to know.
Finally, a second later, she accepted that she had to know.
She tapped the screen. Hardscape's face appeared instantly. "General …," she acknowledged.
"Wakeman," he answered. "There's news about XJ-9." He paused. "She's been found and is OK."
"Oh, thank God," she whispered. "Thank God."
"She was separated from her unit after a battle. She said her GPS was damaged. An American patrol found her and brought her back to its base."
"Thank God …," the woman repeated softly.
"But …," he continued in a tone that suggested caution would follow, "there's a … situation …"
She sobered suddenly. "What? What's wrong, Hardscape? What's happened with XJ-9?"
He took in a small, hesitant breath and glanced away uncomfortably.
We've done this, she thought instantly.
Only the day before. We've done this. We've done this.
Slowly, she felt frightened again. Deeply.
"Nora …," he said, "are you sitting down?"
Again, her stomach suddenly felt like freezing paper, and instantly, once more, a frigid hand crushed it into a painful, horrific clump.
Oh, no, she thought …
Oh, God …
The living room.
She had called them there again – even the little ones, XJ-1, -2 and –3. They all had to hear. And she could tell from their faces – from XJ-4 on up – that they were anxious. Maybe, possibly, afraid. Something she had never really seen in them before. It was as if their very natures had changed under the stress.
"XJ-9 has been found," Nora announced from the chair she sat in, "and is all right."
A relaxing, a visible slumping relief of the robots followed. "ALL RIGHT!!" XJ-5 shouted. "That's our Jenny!"
"That-is-good-news," XJ-8 intoned.
"Hooray," XJ-7 offered simply.
"Well," XJ-4 huffed fastidiously, "I can finally get back to straightening this place up."
"Wha'd she do?" XJ-6 asked snidely, "Get lost?"
"Actually, XJ-6 …, the woman answered coolly, "yes."
XJ-6 rolled her eyes. "Of course. Jenny the drama queen …"
"She got lost at the end of a battle in a war, XJ-6," the woman reminded.
"Whoa!" XJ-5 said. "That's crazy! I thought she just flew around! Where was she? Did she get hit?"
"She did get hit," the scientist confirmed. "An enemy soldier shot her in a shoulder."
XJ-7 cringed. "That's gotta hurt."
"XJ-9-has-a-high-damage-threshold-before-incapacitation," XJ-8 noted.
"What happened?" XJ-4 asked. "Can she be repainted?"
Nora bowed her head and rubbed her forehead slowly. "XJ-9 was flying as part of her mission during the battle. She saw her commander shot in a leg. The enemy soldier who shot him was aiming again to kill him. XJ-9 came down and covered her commander to protect him. That's when she was shot."
"Commendable-act," XJ-8 commented.
"Suppose it couldn't be helped," XJ-7 said.
"What does she want?" XJ-6 sneered. "A medal?"
Nora frowned at the robot intently. Almost scoldingly. "XJ-6 …," she replied in a near-growl, "I respect the … feelings … you shared last night, but now … recite the First Law of Robotics."
The robot was taken aback. "Huh?"
"Recite the First Law of Robotics."
"What's that got to do with Jenny?"
Slowly, the woman got up from the chair and strode steadily over to XJ-6. She stopped in front of the robot and glared. Not in annoyance. The XJs could see she was in seething yet restrained anger. It seemed that if the tether of her fierce expression broke, her hand would snap away wickedly and slap XJ-6 in the face.
"I will not tell you again, young lady …," she warned in chilling softness. "Recite … the First Law of Robotics …"
XJ-6 paused. Maybe it was the heightened electrical conductivity of the scientist's skin, or the stress signature of her tightened muscles. But the robot sensed – somehow – that if it didn't comply, Nora would release some unexpectedly high energy. At the robot.
And XJ-6 realized that it probably wouldn't like it if that happened.
"The … First Law of Robotics …," she began, almost in shame, "is: A robot may not injure a human being or … through inaction … allow a human being to come to harm …"
"Nailed it!" XJ-5 said. "Man, I tell ya, if you're a robot and don't know that, ya might as well …"
"X!! JAY!! FIVE!!" Nora snapped.
The hovering machine fell silent instantly. She seemed surprised. More – she seemed shocked.
The woman sighed deeply and stepped away from XJ-6. She rubbed her temples with both hands, then crossed her arms, looking away from the robots. "Your … sister," she started quietly, "honored … the second part of the law. She didn't stand by when a human was in danger … She acted – and saved the man's life …"
XJ-5 said nothing.
"It-is-the-law," XJ-8 stated.
XJ-7 sighed. "She's a better 'bot than me. I couldn't move that fast."
"I'll bet battles are really messy …," XJ-4 muttered.
XJ-6 squinted in annoyance. "Sooo …," she growled, "what's the big … damn … deal …?"
Nora turned silently back to the robots. She didn't seem perturbed at XJ-6's tone. In fact, her expression was pensive, even fearful. As if she were being crushed by the very frightening weight of what she was about to say.
"The only way for XJ-9 to save the man's life in that moment," she said, "was to kill the enemy soldier."
All sound in the room ended. The tiny whirrs of gyro compensation, the small creaks of joints – it all stopped. Only XJ-5's hover flares fizzed steadily. And even they seemed to have grown quieter – as if they had switched to minimal autonomic function.
Your sister XJ-9 … Jennifer …," the scientist said, "has violated the First Law of Robotics. She has killed a human being."
There was a sharp surprise of metallic clattering. The XJs all started at the noise and turned toward it.
XJ-6 had fallen on what served as her knees. Her televised eyes were flared, quivering and apparently locked open in disbelief.
"No …," she whispered.
Then a tiny rattling. The little ones looked at one another, suspecting that the noise came from them. It didn't. They scanned the rest of the group, seeking the source.
In her crumple, XJ-6 was shivering. It seemed detached from her conscious functioning. Something like a reflex, an unthinking response to an overload. She slowly turned her head aimlessly and lit upon the little ones.
There was a burst of movement, an explosion.
With a blur of a sweep, XJ-6 instantly scooped up the little ones tightly in the crook of her elbow. The eyes of XJ-1, -2 and –3 registered surprise and suddenly found XJ-6's face – her eyes now closed – buried among them.
And she screamed.
"NOOOOOO!! MAMA, NOOOOOOOO!! NOOOOOO!!" A huge gulp of air, then: NO!! NO!! NO!! NO!! NO!!" Her head fell forward, nearly covering the little ones, until her forehead touched the floor. Almost immediately, her body began heaving, surrendering to the rhythm of sobs.
The robot closest to her, XJ-4, reached out cautiously to her sister. An instant later, her hand gently, kindly touched the green robot's shoulder. XJ-4 closed her eyes and said nothing.
"Noooo …," XJ-6 whimpered.
XJ-7 was silent, thoughtful. Then her question was simple: "What are they going to do with Jenny?"
A muffled wail from XJ-6 answered her. The little ones appeared frightened and confused. To the extent that they could at the moment, they looked around, asking with their eyes for someone – anyone – to please, please tell them what was going on.
"The-penalty-for-a robot-killing-a-human …," XJ-8 started.
"XJ-8, NO!!" Nora yelled. It did no good. It was too late. The horror would be spoken.
"… is-destruction," the huge robot concluded.
XJ-6 shrieked madly on the floor, and the little ones cringed in her arm at the scream. The others gasped. The mere word – when meaning the punishment – was a system overload that needed to be cooled down first of all, at all costs.
The woman sighed. Destruction: For robots, it was more than mere erasure, simple shutdown or standard dismantling.
It was oblivion.
A condemned robot would be restrained and disassembled bolt by screw, starting at its feet. The process would advance up the body and disintegrate the legs, the arms, the chest, the neck, the head. Then the CPU – its brain – would be pulled apart, bit by bit, picked over like fallen fruit by a bird. And all while the robot's AI was functioning.
Afterward, the pieces would be crushed, shredded, ground, chopped – whatever was needed – to destroy their very nature. And then that material would be melted down. The metal, the plastic, the glass – it all would be recycled. The robot might be thought of living on in another form, but few automatons were that romantic about it. Humans certainly weren't. The robot was, simply, gone. And it would have felt every instant of its own …
Well, there was no other word for it:
The theory, when applied to a human, was called an execution.
And it happened to any robot that killed a human. The reason didn't matter.
And yet, Nora thought …
And yet …
"I'm … don't know …," she said. "They might not … Maybe …"
"How's … that?" XJ-5 asked.
"It's war, XJ-5. The rules often aren't followed in a war … If they want to use robot soldiers, maybe the First Law … doesn't apply as much …"
"In-time-of-war," XJ-8 recited, "the-law-falls-silent."
"That might be …," the woman whispered. She collected herself. "I'm … going to leave you activated … until I know what's going to happen with XJ-9. I'll let you know when I know something."
She watched the assembled machines. With a tiny trundle, XJ-7 rolled over to XJ-6 and placed a hand on the sobbing robot's free shoulder.
XJ-5 floated slowly, smoothly over the green robot's near-cubic head. She tilted slightly and rested a "cheek" on the top. Nora swore she heard a sympathetic sigh.
Finally, XJ-8 made a step or two forward and spread her huge arms. They closed in around the group and, with surprising tenderness, embraced her sisters. "It-will-be-all-right," she said with even more surprising gentleness. "Jenny-is-strong."
The embrace tightened a shade more. "We-are-all-strong."
Nora Wakeman studied the group. Her daughters. She had made them, but they had sides to themselves she had never designed. They had changed themselves. Become more. Old things had become new, different things. It had been their own doing. The scientist had had nothing to do with it.
And she was proud – immensely proud – of that.
Finally, the woman turned away and headed from the room. She left the XJs by themselves to comfort – in their sisters way – one of their hurting own.
"My Life as a Teenage Robot," "Kappa Mikey," and their characters and situations; and "I Don't Like Mondays" are copyright of their respective owners. Story copyright 2009 by George Pollock, Jr.