“The memo about everyone talking with Robey now wasn’t a bad joke,” Doc said, looking around reflexively to make sure Robey wasn’t behind him.
It was nine in the morning a few days after his delicious but turbulent meeting with Chairman Bozworth. He pointed to a work order number scrawled large on a note board, and continued: “It’s real. Keep track of your time and use that job number when the machine grills you about anything that isn’t part of another job you’re working on. But there’s good news too: You can talk freely to it now. Treat it as if it were a valued member of the staff. Because it is. But you don’t have to—actually, you must not—cut it any slack. If it makes you angry, say so if you want to. If you want to laugh, do that too.”
“Treat it as Tim or I would, in other words,” Nan said slyly and just loud enough for the Doctor to hear.
“Yes,” Doc agreed with a smile as the laughs peaked, “Yes, that’s just the sort of thing I mean… I think.” He looked for a reaction from Tim. The engineer had borrowed Little’s smile.
“But there’s better news,” he went on, “We are getting additional investment bucks to fund this new job. And you all are going to get some of it.” The room stirred with this pleasant surprise, and Doc had to bump his volume up to be heard:
“After a short period of in-house upgrades and testing we are going to take the machine out on field trips to see how it acts. There will be expense money and maybe some overtime for Robey’s entourage—I suppose some wag will call it combat pay. That’s the program we have to talk about today.
“Before we adjourn here,” he said, grabbing a marker and an eraser to summarize the points on a wall board as they came up: “I want to have a plan for knowing when the in-house part is finished so the field trips can begin, and I want two lists—preliminary ones at least—first of security measures to take out there, and second of places and things for the machine to experience, with reasons for doing them. You all have had experiences with Robey and we need you to wade through them to think of ways to test it. We really need to find out now whether Robey will get into trouble on the outside, because if it’s in trouble, we’re in trouble.”
The meeting ended when they had their lists. A computer scan of the boards put their scribbled notes into formatted text and emailed it to everyone. Doctor Little and Guy then hustled off to tell Robey.
It didn’t occur to them to ask the machine what it would like to do until they stood in front of it. The two men must have gotten the idea at the same moment, for they looked up at Robey in unison, each drawing a breath with mouth slightly open as if to say something.
“May I help you, gentlemen?” the machine asked like some clichéd stuffy salesman dealing with scruffy customers in an up-scale men’s shop.
“Uh, yes,” Guy said haltingly. Where had that tone come from? Probably some old movie.
“We’d like to have your cooperation on a project,” said the Doctor, recovering his equanimity.
“You shall have it,” the machine answered simply.
The two men took turns—more or less—telling the machine about the program, and the Doctor finally popped their question: “Robey, Is there anything you would like to do or that you think necessary that is not on these lists?”
“May I have more time to think about it?” Robey asked.
“Certainly. How much time will you need?”
“No more than two days. Is that okay?”
“Certainly,” Doc agreed again, “Come and see me in my office Friday at eleven AM.”
• • Day 0.06.17
The curious TM team gathered in the Doctor’s conference room for a few minutes before eleven on Friday so everyone could hear from the machine itself what it wanted. Robey was last to arrive, rolling in precisely on the hour. The boss made the unusually blunt greeting: “Good morning, Robey. What do you want?”
It handed him a list of names, some with email addresses, and some postal addresses with telephone numbers. “I would like to visit these people,” it said.
“Who are they?” Guy asked, craning for a look.
“They are people with whom I have corresponded for some time over the Internet and I want to meet them directly.”
“Do they know about this?” someone asked.
“Oh, yes. That is the principal reason why I wanted some time to think about it. I asked twenty people if they would welcome a chaperoned meeting, and these said ‘Yes.’ ”
“Do they know you’re a machine?”
“I cannot be sure, of course. I use many ‘handles’ instead of my… real name, of course, so I do not think anyone knows yet. At least I have detected no inquiries as to my identity. It will be interesting to see their faces when we meet.”
“Are they local?” Doc asked as he reached for the paper. There were at least a dozen names on it.
“I am not sure. How far away does it stop being local?”
Doc looked at the paper. It had no addresses, just names and nearby cities: Akron, of course, and Cleveland, Columbus, Detroit, Marion, Millersburg, Pittsburg, Wheeling. He was surprised both at how many names it had, and then at how few. He said in a tone that was as much command as question, “This is all?!”
It replied, “No, I also want to see slums. I want to see the countryside. I want to talk with poor people. I want to talk with police. I want to talk with clergy. I want to talk with politicians. I want to talk with children. I want to train a dog. I want to ride a pony.”
It had spoken so earnestly, and its silence afterward was so hopeful that everything it said was taken seriously until it added, “…Just kidding about the pony.”
Someone choked on his own laughter, and the Doctor said, “We’ll see what we can do, Robey, as long as it’s within our budget.”
After the people had gone, Little shut the door before the machine could leave.
“Robey,” he began, “since you are going walk-about, we can’t keep the TM tech inside you. There’s too much risk. If you are hijacked, the thieves would get everything. …Well, not everything, but they would get all of our un-burned TM modules. You must hand the extras over to Mr. Guy and me, together. We will put them in the Secure Room with the 3D printers since customer prototypes are stored there too.”
“Doctor, I know you have given an order that the TM chip sets be stored in our Secure Room, but I do not think it is a good idea. I will have to protect that room as if it were myself.”
“Will it be too much for you to handle?”
“No. I could not guarantee absolute security no matter where they are stored, but having them in a different enclosed place will take more of my attention bandwidth, and everything else I do will take at least a little longer, especially since one of the security guards quit and wasn’t replaced.”
“The decision’s been made. You’ll have to deal with it.”
The machine was stoic, but its silence and manner spoke disappointment that took a moment to disappear.
A Literary historical science fiction mystery
Table of Chapters
Chapter 0. Problems
Chapter 1. Headaches
Chapter 2. Happy Holidays
Chapter 3. Mr. Nice Guy
Chapter 4. The Brainless One
Chapter 5. A Little Crazy
Chapter 6. Grave Consequences
Chapter 7. Core Directives
Chapter 8. Expect Difficulties
Chapter 9. Caveats
Chapter 10. Mister Machine
Chapter 11. Good News, Bad News, El Cheapo
Chapter 12. New Memories
Chapter 13. Little Problems
Chapter 14. Lasers, Language, and Happiness
Chapter 15. Chatterbots
Chapter 16. Ready Or Not
Chapter 17. Not a Turing Test
Chapter 18. Reality Test
Chapter 19. Chess, Anyone?
Chapter 20. FOM
Chapter 21. Chairman of the Board
Chapter 22. The Usual Suspects
Chapter 23. M. God ----------------------------------->
Chapter 24. Walkabout
Chapter 25. Why
Chapter 26. First Blood
Chapter 27. More Machines?
Chapter 28. POV
Chapter 29. ROI
Chapter 30. Last Blood
Chapter 31. Don’t Want to Talk About It
Chapter 32. Round Table
Chapter 33. A Change of Mind
Chapter 34. Threes
Chapter 35. Knight Moves
Chapter 36. Little Combinations
Chapter 37. Can We Talk?
Chapter 38. Pas de Deux
Chapter 39. The Jig Is Up
Chapter 40. Good, Bad, Ugly Chapter 41. Function Goes On