Science Fiction Speculative Coming of Age

The last dab of paint finalized the oil on canvas, at least in part. Excel-354 held his joint to his chest plate while using the other hand to couch his angular chin. The pose he rested in looked odd, something of the uncanny valley, but it came naturally to him, reflecting a human quality that he hoped would also reflect in his work. Contemplating, his mouth twisted into a quizzical crook.

“Hm. Does it look brighter to you?” he asked without breaking posture.

Sunday, the maid who was on one of her weekly visits to the estate, shut the auto-vacuum on the hand-held tablet. She was near the vestibular window toward the back of the room when she took a peek. From several feet away, the painting was hard to make out and looked impressionistic, an amalgam of colors and tones, but attractive nonetheless. Leaning slightly forward, she tilted her head and hooded one of her eyes.

“I'd say you gave it some nice depth. That little patch of light at the top really helps.”

Excel-354 nodded. The hand on his chin was still holding the brush, giving him the iconic flair of an artist. But he only grew more skeptical as he continued to examine his work. He wanted to admire what took him the better part of a season to learn, to revel in the progress be made, but there was something lacking that he was unable to pinpoint. Decisions, decisions! What a way to expend one's time, he mused dolefully. It seemed every stride he made opened up another can of worms.

Tapping his chin, he scanned the canvas while searching through his memory banks, including the glut of information online, yet he came up empty-handed. It could have been that he was too fussy for his own good, that any robot in his shoes would have settled on whatever they found by now, smiled, and called it a day. As a result, he was getting too frustrated to continue, and thought about turning in for the evening before starting afresh the next day. Perhaps, he was a little too human in this regard, he mulled contemptuously.

“Sunday, would you say this is common?” he asked out of the blue, still affixed before the painting.

“Hm? Common?” She leaned her head from side to side, seeing if there was anything unusual about Excel-354 before throwing her hands up in capitulation. “A robot artist?”

“Oh, no, no. I don't mean that.” Abashed, he shut his ocular lenses. “Just...that it doesn't—I mean I'm getting stuck." He lifted his head and gestured with his hand. "There's something off that eludes me, and I'm wondering if I have to quit before returning later with the answer, or some angle of that approach. It's a rather oblique way of accomplishing tasks. It's hard to describe, but I'm told humans go through this often.”

“Sure,” she said, drawing the words out affectionately. “We all get stuck on certain things we can't figure out right away. Take, for instance, the program used for the duct buffers; they were giving me such a hard time last week. I couldn't even get the darn thing to work, so I pulled out a few rags and cleaned the showers myself. I usually keep everything automated for scheduling purposes, but after spending a little time outside my usual regiment, the answer came right back to me. The program turned out to be incompatible while running the plumbing probes at the same time. Sometimes, a tiny bit of physical exercise joggles that good old noodle upstairs,” she said, repeatedly pointing to the side of her head.

Excel-354 was only partially amused. “Interesting story. But I was under the impression that it was more of a biological problem. Robots, from time immemorial, were always more adept at their tasks, even when replacing human artists." His hand gesture was subtle, yet poignant in how loose the curled index finger extended ever so slightly beyond the other digits. "Why does my learning capacity happen to be different?”

“Oh, I see what you're saying,” she said, pivoting her hands in conciliation. “That happened with computers too. Don't kid yourself.” She dismissively waved her hand.

“You mean log jams? Those were characteristic of ancient models. Later iterations solved that problem,” he said, finally dropping his appendages and slightly turning his head toward Sunday's direction, but stopping at the corner of the raised living room. “You don't suppose... I'm a case of retrograde development?”

“Retrograde? Nuh-uh. Believe it or not, you're one of the more advanced models. And as a matter of fact, you were developed with sapience that made you one-of-a-kind!”

“But I'm still a carbon-copy of other robots who came trundling off the assembly line. How would that make me one-of-a-kind?”

“Excel,” she said with gentle reproach, “it's not what you look like. It's how you think. Your personality is what sets you apart from other robots, or anyone for that matter. Ah!” she said lifting the tablet. “Almost forgot.” Her finger danced around the touchscreen before tapping out a command. The vacuum resumed with a mighty whoosh along with the buzz of the wood floor polisher over in the dining room.

“I see. But it's still aggravating. Am I not just a congeries of circuits with a polymer skin? I don't have the assimilative capabilities of other robots—the type of brain I have tends to slow those processes—yet I don't have the regenerative qualities of cellular organisms such as yourself. It's as if I exist in that thin liminal space between both worlds, alone in my uniqueness—”

“Whoa there, tiger!” she said, wishing she didn't have to interrupt. “Please spare me the existentialism. You're not alone. There are plenty of other robots in your position who probably feel the same way. But you see, they grow out of it, understanding their own uniqueness, and so will you if you keep your head bolted on straight. Hope you don't mind the pun.”

“No, I don't mind. As a matter of fact, I'm rather partial to a good joke once in a while.”

“Hey, so am I! How many robots have you heard about who've got that kind of sense of humor?”

“Oh. Mm… none that I know of, especially the ones used for specified functions.”

“There. And you know what? There are a lot of humans who lack a funny bone too! Boy, those people really get on my nerves,” she mused, swinging her arm in mock emphasis.

Excel thought for a moment about the idiom Sunday mentioned. Did he have any nerves for annoying people to get on? Perhaps figuratively. He did have tactile sensors across his body that could have been sensitive to irritation or some form of external stimuli. He contemplated fashioning his own idiom with respect to those sensors at some point in the future. But that was impertinent for now.

He continued, “Even the master jests on occasion. Though oftentimes, I think they tend to be tacit insults.”

Sunday chuckled. “The major domo's a charming man, despite a few eccentricities. Busy, too!” She briefly recalled his extensive stamp collection.

“He seems fond enough when he sees me, but he never said anything about the pieces I've done before. Maybe they weren't good enough, which makes me wonder whether this sapient brain of mine allows me to improve accordingly.” He began to get down again. She saw it in his slump.

“But it takes practice, and you're putting that in. I've seen a few improvements already.” She saw that he certainly got the color schemes down.

“Sometimes I wish I was programmable so I was able to take in vast quantities of information in seconds. Human emotion tends to harry that.”

“Listen.” She lifted her head from the tablet. “I understand how belittling it can be when you don't live up to your own expectations, but you're a fully autonomous unit who's worth a lot more than some dumb old computer, even with all that quantifiable data.” She moved closer to Excel-354, leaned in and made eye contact. Her eyes were glassed over as she spoke from the heart, though it made him feel like a child. “Sapience makes you very special, Excel. That's where all those decisions come from that you have to make on your own, to be able to see what works and what doesn't.”

“You mean we have to make mistakes too?” He splayed his hands, feeling somewhat cloyed by her maternal succor.

“Just like everybody else. And regular robots don't count because they don't have what you have.” She leaned back, swiping both hands out. “Decisions are part of the natural learning process. Without room for error, you'd just be another robot solely dependent on a series of programs. You wouldn't want that, would you?” A light on the interface of her tablet, blinked.

“Well, no. Of course, not.”  

“It's one thing to be given all the knowledge in the world, but it's what you do with it that makes you who you are.”

“Like freewill?”

“That's right, and unlike presets, freewill gives you authority over what you say and do. It's what gives you your heart and soul.” She pointed at him before tapping the screen. The filter for the duct buffer would soon need replacement. 

He moaned out the equivalent of a sigh. “I suppose you're right. Maybe it's best to dispense with my pride and try again tomorrow.”

“See? That's the spirit!” She pulled back her arm and affectionately tapped him in the shoulder joint. Averting her eyes, she noticed the vacuum trundling toward the divan across the room. Quickly, she lowered the pressure to avoid sucking in the slipcovers on the upholstery.

"Thanks, Sunday," he joyously commended with his hands balled. She chuckled at the welcoming change in his countenance. “It's always a pleasure speaking with you!”

“And you too, Excel! Keep up the great work!”

Excel-354, content with his own understanding, set his brush aside and decided to settle on a physical book for the night. Perhaps Hermann Hesse or Shakespeare to contend with the travails of human sentiment. That'll put my mind at ease, he concluded to himself, and pattered over to the library, admiring the sheen of Sunday's handiwork glimmering from the teak wood floor.  

Sunday smiled at the subtle wobble in Excel's stride. “What a fine little robot. So human-like, indeed!” she admitted in sotto.

Curious, she stepped toward the painting and narrowed her eyes to get a closer glimpse. From a distance, it looked competent enough with the colors and tones balancing the composition and setting a rapturous mood. However, upon closer inspection, the image resolved into a bauhaus depiction of a robot, the features of which were not too far removed from Excel-354's design, looming over the surface of an abstraction of Earth. What she thought was the sun, the last element he applied, doubled as the robot's third-eye shining brightly at the viewer. The limbs seemed slightly confusing to her when she noticed they were distinctly phasing into human hands and feet, bridging the separation between the cybernetic and organic, as if they were merging, becoming a single unit. What appeared as a parhelic circle framed the image in its diaphanous glow, perhaps serving as a metaphorical device for a halo. Maybe. Sunday figured its meaning was best left to individual interpretation, but it was impressive nonetheless.

Speculating on whether or not he was gaining some spiritual sense, she gave a revealing smirk and said to herself, “Well. Well. Well. Looks like somebody's going to be eligible for citizenship!”

Casually flicking her shoulders, she returned to her chores.

September 01, 2023 19:38

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RBE | Illustrated Short Stories | 2024-06

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