Beau shakes his head and nods towards his deputy. MOONY gives in and relaxes the arm holding my hangover cure to a 98-degree angle instead of a 90-degree angle. His pupils dilate fully, and then glow white as they boot up the projector system behind their lenses. At first, I struggle to make out the picture projected on the kitchen wall. The plastic surface is white and the snowy landscape even whiter. Then amidst the artificial winter wonderland of Ring 1, the outline of a man- no, a humanoid robot- steps into view. I just thought he was a man at first because he’s wearing cargo pants like an American soldier would wear.
“What’s with the combat gear?” I ask with a tilt of my head.
Beau shrugs. He looks more worn out than I do, and none of his stress is self-inflicted. I guess it never occurred to me before but once word gets out, the Sheriff will probably be swamped with questions and false cries of “my robot seems a bit distressed today, do you think he’s planning on offing himself?” Not just that, but at this point we’re still too close to Earth. Sure, initial accelerations boosted us out of the solar system but once word gets back to the home planet, not only will robotics and sentience end up back under fire but there will be a proverbial red stain on “Ellis Island: The human future.”
I stand on my tip toes and give the Sheriff a small pat on his shoulder murmuring my best attempt at a consoling there, there. Beau looks at my hand cautiously, “What are you doing?”
“It’s not working.” He reaches over and steers my head back towards the screen. I don’t have much more time for empathy or to consider why the Robot’s bothered with clothes at all, because as it nears town center, standing almost directly before Headquarters, it sits down in the snow and the camera switches over to a different view. I guess it’s the bounce from dome surveillance to HQ’s entrance security cameras, and for the first time I can see its face… not in pieces.
“What’s wrong?” Beau asks.
I try to shake off the foreign emotional reaction but it’s harder than it looks. Pull yourself together, Az. You’re a badass, and it’s just a robot, “Nothing. It’s just some of them look alike. You know? It’s unnerving.”
Cue awkward shuffling of feet.
The robot sits; cross-legged in the snow, looking weirdly monastic and tranquil. Almost human from the waist down, and as I wait for it to do something else, I remember the camera shift.
“Wait, why aren’t we watching through the optical feed?”
“Couldn’t if we tried,” He tilts his head in the direction of the table of remains, “He destroyed it.”
“What? How? Why?” I frown, squinting at the screen as if it would explicate something I don’t already see.
A little exasperated Beau says, “Listen, Az. I got no idea. Watch the video, we’ll go from there. Start questioning the other robots or something, have its programming reviewed and all that.”
So, we do watch. The robot sits and wait, or just sit, and then… then it begins to dismember itself. But dismember feels like too messy of a word. Is deconstruct a better word? If I took a knife and divided myself into equal, symmetric sections, and then laid them around me in a circle as this strange artificial being rhythmically… no, ritually did, would it be dismemberment or deconstruction? At what point does suicide or murder or sacrifice become ritual? It was… it was fascinating. It was haunting. It was enthralling. It was macabre. And it was eerily organized… mechanized. A little lone soldier following what we can only assume were orders. One piece at a time. An elbow unhitched and set in front of hum at the 270-degree mark of the big circle of artificial body parts. A finger pulled free and set beside it, until it was barely torso and a single limb left, sitting encircled by pieces of itself.
Beau mumbles an apology, “It’s a little disturbing.”
But I can’t pull my eyes away, “More unnerving really. I could never imagine a robot doing something like this, but watching… I think I find it more artistic than anything. Don’t you?”
I don’t think he does, but I keep talking anyway, maybe out of nervousness because he hasn’t stopped the recording even when the robot has ceased pulling itself apart and that means something else happens.
“Hey Beau, who painted the flower border around the room?”
The question goes unanswered.
“What the hell was that? Was that a gun?” The robot moved so quickly I didn’t even see it pull it out. If you think it’s difficult to find a gun on Earth post-genocide, try looking for one on a starship. You can’t even 3D print one. There are blocks preventing designs like that.
Beau reaches into a drawer and passes me a plastic evidence bag. I’ll be honest: at first, I don’t even want to take it. Then he clarifies, “A bolt gun. The type used for repairs on the ship.”
“A bolt gun?” How… mundane?
“I guess he wanted to destroy his memory systems or something. Must have been what killed his optical feed.” He turns off the projector seconds after the robot slumps forward completely. I breathe a sigh of relief but continue to stare at the wall, as if some other unwelcome surprise will pop up to throw all the rest of the laws of not-nature out the window.
I’m still staring when I proclaim, “Beau, that wasn’t a suicide… that was a statement.”
Either way, he’s right: it was definitely not a malfunction. No wonder they needed an anthropologist. This shit was ritual. But like a black magic or sociopathic sort of ritual. There was a story behind it. And a warning. The machines were still in control. At least over their own lives.
But Beau seems less concerned with how the robot committed suicide and more concerned about how to resolve the mess as quickly as possible, “Yeah, I guess… so we should start by making a list of all animate and inanimate personnel that have access to bolt guns, security feeds, robotics obviously, navigation…”
“Wait, slow down. We should do all that sure but isn’t there more significance in…” I wave my hand at the now-blank wall, “All of that? Protest, statement, ritual; whatever it was, it meant something. It was trying to tell us something. Also, navigation? Why navigation?”
“He worked in navigation. Actually, he was assigned to mission control just down the road.”
I gave a little shake of my shoulders. I’m aggravated. Unnerved. Whatever you want to call it. I’m not a superstitious person, but growing up around robots doesn’t make you immune to their discomforting anthropomorphic qualities.
In defense of everything I’ve learned in gender and sexualities studies, I say, “You shouldn’t call it a he if you’ve never heard it refer to itself as a male.”
I point flippantly to the androgynous piece of smooth synthetic skin along the robot’s pelvis. Humanoid, but not that humanoid. It’s rare to see a robot with fully-designed genitalia; usually that’s only for sexual therapy robots or anatomically correct medical training bots, which are illegal in some countries because the practice of cutting up semi-sentient beings was deemed “inhuman” (surprise surprise). The fact that the word inhuman can logistically be used in relation to the literally inhuman, and in legal practice too, is a linguistic anthropology dissertation just waiting to happen. Robots with a specific necessity for realism (such as robots who are in charge of education, maternity robots, medical robots, robots that assist in the treatment of developmental delays like autism or when you can find them- pleasure droids) will also have realistic sex organs. Still they- at least robots with self-awareness- typically choose a gender or genders or something in between. SOL told me once that of all the AI on the ship 42% refer to themselves as female, 31% as male, and 27% as other or all of the above or non-gender, which I found interesting because the gender distribution of the humans on Ellis is almost identical.
I go on, “Just because his serial code may spell out a historically masculine name or…”
He stops me, “Look, Jones.”
I approach the table, unsure what his outstretched hand is pointing at and notice two very interesting things. One: my lawful babysitter is wearing a wedding Ring. Weird. Two: when I pull the droids ear back, to check the spot where serial codes usually lie, I see not a number… but a name.
“It’s been scratched out.” I say to myself more than anyone else in the room.
“We found him this way.”
Thank god I love Nancy Drew books (my apologies, I know it’s another archaic reference. When I was a kid, I didn’t get to watch much modern TV or have access to very many books. Libraries ended up quite the sanctuary. And even though they’re mostly digital these days, and paper books are rarely printed, a lot of the libraries in SanfranDiego still have some of the classic stuff.)
“But it hasn’t been effectively scratched out.” Beau projects a miniature of the robot from his watch and reads out the serial that hovers below, “Original serial code, M24AL36. Guess you could call him Mal.”
Root word. Mal. Meaning bad. Alternatively, MAL, the only letters in his 7-digit serial code.
“Like from Firefly.” I let a small smile creep across my lips.
“Never mind. It’s just an old Millennial TV show… but under where it’s scratched out… does that say Sonny?”
“Yeah, Sonny. Sounded like a boy’s name to me. And sorry I guess that’s a stereotype or something.”
“More than that… It’s an omen.” I let the translucent silicon piece fold back into position and turn around to face my two keepers.
“What do you mean?” Beau asks.
“I guess you wouldn’t know. There was this movie from the early 2000’s based on a book by Issac Asimov called I, Robot. In the movie, the protagonist is a robot who names himself Sonny.”
I can tell by the slightly blank look on his face that he doesn’t get it.
“Me Asimov. Him Sonny.”
He scratches his head again, somewhat absently and checks his wrist pad before letting it flicker off, “Could be a coincidence… or maybe that’s why he left you that die. Markham says you didn’t have any idea what it could mean?”
I shake my head and he continues, pointing at Sonny’s chest, “That’s where we found your envelope. Taped to Sonny’s chest.”
I start to tell him that in I, Robot it doesn’t end well for Sonny’s maker, but MOONY cocks his head and chimes in abruptly, “Someone is at the door, Sheriff.”
I look at Beau who looks at the door and grumbles to himself a stressed mantra of something like “dear god let this all be over soon”. He rubs both hands on his face, gives me a look that says stay put and leaves the room.
I do not stay put. Of course I don’t stay put. Why would I ever stay put? A good anthropologist follows the action!… Unless you’re studying meditation, I suppose.
In the welcome area of the Sheriff’s office Beau stands directly in front of two familiar faces. At least, they’re familiar to me, but the big man in charge seems confused to hell.
“Captain!” I approach with wide arms and a gritty smile that says please save me from this madness. The experienced seaman stands just within the doorway as if nervous about tracking mud into the house.
“Fancy seeing you here, Asimov. They finally get you for that little stunt you and Kyoko pulled down in Ring 8…
I’m just far enough behind Beau to wave my hands frantically to stop him from continuing. The Captain and Beau manage to catch me right as I’m mouthing a hushed shutthefuckupppp.
Beau heaves out an extremely aggravated sigh and the Captain decides not to continue with what I’ll admit is a glorious story about my brief attempt at starting a piracy crusade, “How can I help you…”
“Captain Boone Marshall. Command of the fish and marine wildlife monitoring services down in the big old salty blue.” He cocks his head as if to indicate to an ocean directly behind him.
I step forward and hold my hands out in my best Vanna White interpretation to present the Capitan, “Sheriff, meet the Pirate King of the Seafarers.”
Beau rolls his eyes. The Captain rolls his eyes. I think even MOONY rolls his eyes. I’m almost proud.
Boone decides to clue the Sheriff in, “Az did a little side project with us a couple months back.” He narrows his eyes for a moment and adds, “I’d like to add that I’m not a pirate. Well at least not anymore, sir. You see, that was just a bit of medical aid we borrowed from the Somalians back in the day. They weren’t very good at sharing you see, and the folks down in Kenya were in a frightful state after what happened in 2086…”
“Hey! Did you bring NEMO with you?”
He gives me a jovial grin, “Missing the old droid? Thought you two ended things.”
“Oh, you never end a relationship with a robot.”
Beau looks to the ceiling for help and says, “Well you normally don’t start one either.”
But Boone’s smile fades, “I’ve come with serious news. On our research vessel we have many passionate stargazers, and they’ve noticed something that I worry has not come to your attention.”
Beau and I don’t say a damn thing. But I can feel something bad coming.
“Ellis has changed course.”
For the first time ever, Beau and I are completely in sync.
“Ellis is WHAT?”