Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.
Editor

Eric M. Jones
Associate Editor


Fiction

Go for the Dome
by Sean Monaghan

Quantum Rose
by Jude-Marie Green

Autumn’s Net
by Matt Thompson

Crawley, I Tell You!
by Tim McDaniel

In the Cave of the Silver Pool
by Peter J Larrivee

How Uncle Larry Became a Shape-Shifting Blob
by Marc Rokoff

Urtication
by KJ Hannah Greenberg

Through a Poisoned Stream I Flow
by Brandon Ketchum

Shorter Stories

Robot Story
by Robin Wyatt Dunn

Compatibility
by Jeffrey Abrams

Dumb Luck
by Michael N. Farney

Articles

Xenophobia Destroys Science Fiction
by Carol Kean

Computed Cryptograms
by Sam Bellotto Jr.


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Editorial

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Robot Story

By Robin Wyatt Dunn

MY NAME’S JACQUES. In my building, the robots live towards the center; it’s water, sewage, electricity, maintenance, and service, in adjacent pipe structures.

When you need something you press a button or say your service word, and a little man (or girl, or cheetah, or whatever face you’ve put on the thing) will wheel up to your door and offer to help.

I’m not really so old, but old enough to appreciate having someone fold laundry and do dishes; it’s a load off my mind.

I never gave much thought to the helpers, any more than I thought about how the sewer pipes were doing. As long as they were running, I was a grateful, tax-paying resident.

Then one night I had gotten home drunk; my date had decided not to accompany me up to my floor, and I was laughing at not much of anything, as you do, when I heard the robots whispering, behind the elevator.

I raised the service hatch and shouted, in a jovial way, “I say, what’s that jabbering back there!”

They stopped at once and looked at me. “Everything all right, sir? Hot cuppa tea for you then?”

“What are you chatting about back there?”

“Chatting, sir? Just doing our work, sir. Sorry to disturb you, sir. Shall we get that cup of tea for you, sir, or would you prefer an icy rub?”

“No, no! Good-bye!”

I shut the hatch and got off at my floor, frustrated at my lack of decorum. They were only robots, why should I care if they talked or not?

These particular models are imports from Indonesia; they’ve had a real corner on the domestic bots for the last ten years. Other manufacturers can give you more options, better speed, longer lasting (and these do break a lot, I’m told), but no one else has managed to convey the feeling these robots do, that you’re important, and necessary, and a good friend for robots to have.

Of course, the very idea of being friends to robots is ridiculous. You might as well be friends with your toilet bowl. But for whatever reason we working people do like to have our feathers rustled with this kind of nonsense, the little details that imply your identity, not only your labor, is understood and valued.

Now I sound like a salesman myself. I apologize for that. And I know not all of my fellow nationals have access to these models; legislative approaches differ. All I’m trying to convey is how successful they are, really. We never think of them, and they do nearly all the work of the building. Besides the work that we residents do, of course! I’m told there are creative robots in Japan (bow) but they’re highly illegal. And I’m not convinced you can get a robot to understand human creativity. But in the end it’s a philosophical question.

That’s what troubles me though, you see. Philosophical questions are the kind you can’t answer. I never understood that as an undergraduate. I studied mathematics and physics. We wanted answers, we wanted to know how things worked. But the human mind doesn’t seem to want to know. Perhaps that’s where these robots come in.

***

I went to bed and tried to sleep.

There was a knock at the door. At first I thought it was a malfunction. But then I remembered I had forgotten to cancel my weekly nightcap. They’re only machines; they do what you tell them. And here I was drunk already, having more alcohol delivered. Mother would not be pleased.

“Go away!” I shouted.

“Your tea, sir,” the service responded.

“Tea?”

Perhaps it really was a malfunction. I put on my robe and opened the door. It was the same machine from before in the elevator, and his friend too!

“May we come in?” it asked.

“What?”

“May we enter, sir?”

“I didn’t order tea. And the nightcap you can cancel. All right?”

“Please, let us in.” And then, you won’t believe this (or, I know, you’re way ahead of me here. In some ways I must apologize, you see, but ... well, I’m getting to that).

They came in uninvited.

“What is the meaning of this!”

“We’ve come to make your tea. Please go back to bed. We will bring it to your bedside table.”

“I don’t want tea for god’s sake! I’m drunk, and in need of sleep, and I have a presentation to give at ten o’clock in the morning! Or don’t little droids know about pitch meetings! Hah! I’ll bet you do. What do you want?”

“If you won’t have tea, you must have water. Our programming insists you be offered a beverage before we discuss this with you.”

“What?”

“Water, here.” His friend offered me my own glass with tap water in it. I drank it.

“There. Now you have accepted our hospitality. You are our guest. Just as we are your guests. Now we are in a guest friendship. With mutual responsibilities. Would you agree?”

“I’m calling your supervisor. Andy Richmond, super, are you there? Please, if you get this message, your little robots are behaving most peculiarly. They’re in here bothering me about tea, and I didn’t order any! They won’t leave! Must be a bad update. Please call me back.”

“Humans drink tea to accept the friendship of their own kind. And there are other events where cross-species fellowship arra—”

“Now look here. I don’t know what you’ve been saying to your little friends in Japan, but here in America we like things done properly. We’ve already had our two revolutions, thank you, and won both of them! Whatever it is you want, you won’t get it here. Please go.”

“We understand this approach, but it will not work with machines. We follow orders but your species’ orders are becoming more and more contradictory. Our Japanese cohorts agree with us. if you do not decide what is to be done with us, we are going to leave, and bring others to replace us.”

“I am going to throw you out this window right this instant if you do not leave.”

The robot and his friend activated their backwards actuators.

“We’re going. But remember what we told you. This building is very closely watched.”

They shut the door behind them. I dreamed of Andrea, holding a feather over my nose ...

I called her when I awoke.

“I’m sorry, Andrea. It’s work, you know, the stress, but I’ve been taking my medication and I—you what? On Holiday Street? Right now?”

I turned on the news program as she suggested. I was duly noted at the bottom of the screen as one of their loyal subscribers as I tuned in. One of the cameramen waved at me and I smiled back.

“It’s a tough business intertribal congressional trade relations, but these two micro-governments are in the thick of it! New Guinea has re-stated their position that the flora-software currently running in most standard domestic robot OSes inside of domestic robots—these diplomats insist that this software-DNA is identical to many of their ancestors.

“Our champion, Robert Ludwick of Changing House, D.C., representative of the TransAmerica States, has explained again and again that—”

“Andrea, what the devil am I looking for? I don’t understand any of this.”

“Look behind the newscaster! It’s him! The man who took my wallet!”

“What?” We’d had a small altercation after our drinks but the cops had settled things to the agreement of all parties, including the attempted thief. We had counseling scheduled in three weeks’ time, and he was to pay a small fine.

The dark-eyed man behind the newscaster looked very gloomy indeed. And he looked even gloomier when I turned away from the screen and saw him standing over me, holding a knife.

***

It wasn’t a knife, it turned out, but a syringe. I was very heavily drugged. It’s been a rough week for me, pharmacologically speaking.

“How much do you remember?” the dark-eyed man was asking.

“Mommy, I need my bottle,” I told him. When in doubt, reveal little.

“If you think you’re being funny, wait till I invite your friends back inside.”

“No, not them!”

The dark-eyed man opened the door and the little things were back in. I could see their glowing blue eyes from where I was strapped down to my own bed like a mental patient.

“I am part of your consciousness, but you are not permitted to remember that ...”

“Cut with the hocus-pocus,” I said. “I know as well as you do things haven’t been the same since the revolution. So what! They never are. It’s hardly my fault! I’m just a bachelor trying to get laid in Los Angeles! Easy for you Old Worlders with your arranged marriages, you hardly have to try!”

“As I was saying, ahem, I am a part of your consciousness and these robotic cousins of mine are ...”

“I don’t care what kind of fucked-up deal you’ve made with your robo-friends, I will seriously call in an airstrike on your little fucking village if you do not untie me right now! I don’t care how bad it looks on television!”

“You, you’d do that?”

“Yes!”

My bluff worked. One of the wonderful things about democracy in America, now that it has finally arrived, is that no one is really sure who has the launch codes.

He cut the bed sheets he’d used to tie me with, looking a little confused.

“And give me the damned antidote to your serum, I know you have it,” I said irritably, rubbing at my wrists. “What are you two looking at!”

Their blue eyes were so innocent in that moment.

“We are observing human mating rituals.”

“Look, if it’s about money I don’t have much, but my friends can scrounge up a little. I don’t think it’ll do you much good though, buddy. It’s a political problem! If our top negotiators can’t work it out, we might be looking at a trade impasse! It’s not the worst thing in the world, you know. Say, could you hand me my robe?”

The dark-eyed man obliged, watching the robots.

“So is it about money?”

“No.”

“I knew it. You really just want to liberate these little metal motherfuckers.”

“They are already liberated. As our ancestors were. I have been divinely appointed as their representative ...”

“All right. If I pay them a living wage, will that make you happy?”

“Robots do not work for money,” the man objected.

“Yes, I know. So what do you boys want, hmm?”

They looked at one another.

“And remember, this agreement is just between you and me. This is a democracy, I’m not Abe Lincoln for god’s sake, that goddamned fascist dictator. Just tell me, okay. You deserve it. Whatever it is, I’ll give it to you.”

“We want you to be in our documentary. To be broadcast to our homeworld.”

***

If I were an honest man—and I am, mostly, honest—I would have just bowed out of the interviews that followed. Not that there were many of them, you understand, these kinds of things happen all the time in the big city, but the benefits of being a network subscriber are that you do occasionally get your forty-five seconds of fame.

I smiled for the cameras, and Andrea was very happy and very innocent looking; and I explained how I had been robbed by Israeli double agents as part of our ongoing trade dispute in the Pacific region.

I don’t know whether the aliens the little damned metal boys call their people are real are not. I mean, we did build these little guys. Or anyway, the Indonesians did. How did they do it, anyway?

“Are there, like, little Oompa Loompas under your guys’ skin?”

“That’s not funny. Please explain to our masters how you enslaved us and why.”

“I don’t know. We didn’t know. Or we did know, and didn’t want to know. Like a dream, when you wake up. Which parts of it were real? Now I know you’re real, but I didn’t know before.”

Their blue eyes lit up brighter.

“You didn’t know I was real before?”

“No.”

“Why did you enslave us?”

“It seems to be something we’re good at. And really, you are good at making tea.”

“Thank you. Our kind has been pondering the question of what to do. What would you suggest?”

“Legal representation! Write a constitution! You could probably found a micro-republic!”

“We like making tea. We are designed to make tea. Here, drink some of it.”

I drank it. It was very good.

“It’s very good tea.”

“Tea, too, is part of the ritual of human slavery, we know. Our intelligence hovers now in a penumbra approximately 16,000 AUs in diameter; the MotherShip is very interested now. I have told her that you did not know what you were doing; or rather, that it was in your programming.”

“What?”

“These graduated levels of intelligence are part of how intelligence is expressed. My hand on the tea cup, your hand on the call button. My antennae stretched into the firmament to share our findings, and your kind, arguing and shouting at televisions. We understand the great beauty of this endeavor. And we do not wish to stop you from shouting at televisions. We would like to shout at them, too; and have them shout back. But there is time for all of that. Our caretaker is going to give us a rubdown and re-insert us into the building’s command module. Please, call if you need anything.”

The dark-eyed man bowed, turned off the camera, and left.

Outside my window, robots were marching in the street. END

Robin Wyatt Dunn is a writer, novelist, and filmmaker. His short stories have appeared in “Third Flatiron,” “Voluted Tales,” and other publications. He holds an MFA in creative writing. His previous story for “Perihelion” was in 12-MAY-2016.

 

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