Raymond entered the lunchroom with an uncharacteristic sense of purpose. In his hands, he carried a cardboard box, held in a way that suggested its contents were unstable, fragile, or both.
“What’s in the box?” Sam began to say, around a mouthful of microwaved meatloaf, when a patch of chocolate brown fur popped out of the top of the box. A puppy. Raymond walked towards Sam, the puppy’s ears flopping with the bump of each step.
“His name’s Blue.”
“Blue!” Sam reached her hands under the puppy’s armpits and lifted him out of the box.
“Where did you come from, little Blue? Look at you, who could have made something so sweet? Are you our new lab dog? Are you…” She trailed off, switching to cradle the dog close to her chest and placing a hand protectively over its ears.
“Ray, do not tell me this is for Herb.”
Raymond set the box down and smiled sheepishly.
“I thought, you know, ‘man’s best friend’ and everything. Figured it couldn’t hurt.”
“Couldn’t hurt? Ray you saw what Herb did to the rabbit. I’ve never heard noises like that in my life, and I don’t think we’ve got all the blood out of the carpet yet. Not to mention the fish before that. He’s not ready. You’re pushing him too fast.”
Blue wriggled his head free of her protection, alternating glances between the two scientists with piercing naiveté, happy just to be a part of their conversation.
“The rabbit was my fault, not Herb’s.” Ray said, giving Blue a reassuring scratch along the top of his head. “I checked the logs, and I had Herb hooked to the internet from some earlier tests. I guess when we left, Herb looked up ‘rabbits’ and ended up in a bubble of extermination websites. Talking about rabbits as pests, that sort of thing. I’ve taken Herb off the web now, so it’s just the bits we’ve built now. This’ll be a true test.”
Sam rocked Blue in her arms.
“Fine, but I’m coming to watch, and if things even start to look funny I’m stopping it.”
Sam gathered up the remains of her lunch, and the two of them walked across campus to the lab offices. On the way Sam acted as tour guide, narrating their journey to Blue, who played the part of the tourist well and looked with genuine interest at everything Sam pointed out. Finally they reached the laboratory, and together they walked to the large metal door at the back of the room.
“Authorized Personnel Only.” The door warned.
And underneath, “Human Emotions, Robot Body.”
Ray took a lanyard out of his pocket, found the appropriate key, and with a last sly look at Sam, swung the door open.
Inside, Herb’s room looked like the combination of a metals shop and child’s play room. Parts and tools lay scattered across the various benches, alongside all manner of puzzles, toys, and stuffed animals. At the far end of the room sat Herb. The robot’s upper body appeared largely humanoid, albeit built of a hard metal alloy, but instead of legs, their lower body featured a large mechanical tread. They reminded Sam of the tread of a military tank. She could imagine them rolling over trenches, and crushing fallen trees. Ray always said that it didn’t matter much. The important parts of Herb were in its head. Plus, proper robot walking kinesthetics were the work of a different department. Herb sat - or stood, the distinction didn’t much apply - with their right arm up and out in front of their body. A string hung down from their open hand, ending at a yo-yo which dangled in front of their face, spinning idly.
“Whatcha doin’ there Herb?” Ray said, as he entered the room and gestured to Sam to do the same.
“IT IS CALLED YO-YOING.” Herb replied, the flat voice of their text-to-speech software emanating from a round speaker where their mouth would have been. “I WAS BEGINNING TO RESEARCH IT WHEN YOU DISCONNECTED ME FROM THE INTERNET.”
“And how does it make you feel?” Ray asked. “Is it fun?”
“I DO NOT UNDERSTAND THE POINT,” Herb said. “DOES THE YO-YO BRING YOU PLEASURE?”
“Well, you’re not quite doing it right. And even then, I can’t say I personally…” Ray shook his head. “Nevermind. Look, we got you a new friend Herb. His name’s Blue.”
Tentatively, Sam stepped forward and placed the puppy on the table in front of the droid.
The two, Blue and Herb, regarded each other curiously. After a moment, Herb raised their hand and pushed down on the puppy’s forehead, pressing it down onto the table before moving their hand back towards the tail in a swift, lateral motion.
“No, Herb, not so hard! Softer, follow the shape of the body. Like we talked about.” Ray leaned over and demonstrated, petting the dog softly down its length.
Herb assessed the situation, hand paused, hovering in the air, before trying again. This time was better, and Blue wagged his tail, turning on the table to lick at Herb’s hand.
“Whoa bud, look at that! I think he likes you.”
“BLUE.” Herb said.
Herb continued to pet the dog, the servos in Herb’s neck making the occasional noise as the droid moved and tilted its head to view the dog from different angles. With the whir of each servo, Blue’s ears would perk up, and he would tilt his head in a similar fashion, looking up at the droid’s face.
“Here,” Ray said, rummaging around the room until he found a small, orange ball. “You can play fetch with this. Toss the ball around, and get Blue to chase it and bring it back to you. The lady at the store said Blue loves that game. Sound fun?”
Herb raised their hand without averting their gaze from the dog. Ray placed the ball in the outstretched, metallic palm, and then walked with Sam just outside of the room. From inside he could hear the sound of the ball being thrown, followed by the skittering of Blue’s nails on the tile floor as he raced after it.
“This is going great!” Ray whispered excitedly. “Way better than I could have hoped.”
“It’s still early Ray. But I admit, it’s going better than I thought it would, too. This was promising.”
“Promising? Come off it, this is huge! If Herb can develop a genuine bond with Blue, no one will be able to dispute Artificial Emotion Theory. We know robots can be smart, but now we can demonstrate they can be human. Think about the barriers that this is going to break down for robotics if I can show a robot capable of feeling emotions.”
Sam didn’t have an opportunity to respond, as sharp, pained yelps echoed out of the room. Sam and Ray rushed back into the room to see Herb stuck in the corner of the room, struggling on giant treaded legs to turn around. In doing so, the droid rolled again over the dog’s tail, triggering another volley of screams.
“Herb, careful,” Ray said, grabbing the robot by the shoulders and dragging Herb away from the dog.
Sam knelt beside Blue, grateful that Herb had seemingly only rolled over the dog’s tail. Blue let out a soft cry. Sam could see that his tail was kinked at an unnatural angle, and blood was beginning to trickle out from under the fur.
“We need to take him to a vet,” Sam said.
“Take him to the Buller building, there’s always a vet on call there.” Ray replied. “I’ll deal with Herb and meet you there.”
Gently, doing her best to stabilize his tail, Sam scooped Blue up and hurried out of the room. The sound of her footsteps faded away, leaving Ray and the robot in silence.
“I AM VERY BAD AT THIS.”
“No, it’s my fault.” Ray leaned his back against the wall, and slid down to sit on the floor. “Sam’s right, I push you too hard.”
Herb rolled over and picked up the orange ball.
“THIS WILL NEGATIVELY AFFECT YOUR THESIS AND FUTURE JOB PROSPECTS.”
“What? No, don’t worry about that. I just need to temper my expectations of you, I guess. Baby steps,” he muttered, more to himself than to Herb.
“Listen, we’ll start over tomorrow. Forget today ever happened. I’m going to go check on Blue. I’ll see you in the morning.”
Ray got up from the floor, paused for a moment with his hand on Herb’s shoulder, and then walked out of the room. The sound of the door locking echoed through the room.
The next day, Ray gingerly carried Blue back to the office, taking care to ensure that the cast on the dog’s tail stayed as still as possible. Sam had been adamant that this was a bad idea. That they were lucky that all Blue had was a fractured tail. That it could have been much worse. Ray knew all of this, but still felt like he needed to provide some closure to Herb, whatever closure Herb was capable of. At least for the benefit of future research, he wanted Herb to know that Blue hadn’t ended up like the rabbit. Or the fish.
At the lab, he set Blue down on the ground as he fumbled for his keys and unlocked the door. He tried to open the door, but it only opened a crack before stopping hard, blocked by something inside Herb’s room. He pushed again, harder this time, and felt something heavy behind the door shift a few millimetres. This didn’t make sense. Something was wrong.
“Herb?” Ray said, as he pressed his shoulder against the door.
“Herb, what’s going on in there? Open the door.”
Ray pushed hard, lowering his centre of gravity to strain against the weight of whatever blocked the entryway. He heard the scraping of metal on tile as the door inched open. Meanwhile, Blue sat on the floor, sniffing the air passively as he watched Ray struggle. Finally, Ray managed to push the door open enough that he could fit his head through the gap and look inside.
The first thing that Ray could see, pressed against the door and blocking his entry, was Herb’s legs. The two treads sat against the door like a discarded pyramid, various wires draping off the spot in the middle where the rest of Herb ought to be. Further back, in the corner of the room with their back against the wall, Ray could see Herb’s disconnected upper half. The robot leaned on one arm and the bottom of their torso to stay upright.
“Herb, Jesus, what the hell happened?”
Ray shoved harder into the door, widening the gap enough that he could squeeze through sideways and enter the room. Inside he saw that many of the tools had been moved, and parts of Herb lay strewn about the floor in a path leading to where he leaned against the wall. He moved forward and knelt beside the robot.
“Who did this to you?
“You did? Why would you take your legs off? You need those.”
“THEY HARM THINGS.” Herb said, using their free arm to play with a loose wire that hung at their severed midsection. “THEY HARMED THE RABBIT AND THE DOG AND YOUR CAREER PROSPECTS, SO I REMOVED THEM.”
Ray didn’t know how to respond. Was this the emotion he was looking for? This kind of self-flagellation, self-sacrifice, wasn’t something he’d expected. He wasn’t certain if he’d even personally felt whatever emotions these might be. Whatever it was, at least the experiment with Blue hadn’t been a total bust.
Shit, Blue, Ray thought, realizing he’d left the dog outside the room. He turned to go find him and saw that the dog had already crept into the room, and was creeping around the entrance, its body held tight to the floor. Blue noticed the two of them in the corner and perked up, before trotting towards them. As the dog approached, Herb extended a metallic hand. Blue sniffed an outstretched finger, and licked the cold metal digit. The dog’s tail began to wag, forgetting that it was broken, and Blue let out a small yelp.
“SEEING ME HURTS HIM.”
“No, Herb, it’s not like that. He’s wagging his tail because he’s happy to see you. It’s just like a… a happy hurt.”
Herb looked across the room to his discarded legs. He then turned and looked to the ground in the corner beside him. The orange ball lay there. He picked it up and held it aloft, inspecting it.
“CAN I TRY TO PLAY AGAIN?”
Ray took a seat against the wall, leaning his shoulder against Herb’s to help stabilize the robot’s metal frame.
“Sure thing, Herb.”
Herb bent his arm back, cocking his head to look at Blue, who was himself staring intently at the ball. With a smooth motion, Herb’s forearm swung forward and released the ball.
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Really good, again! A fresh take on the prompt and so engagingly written. You got me feeling sympathy for a robot!