You can read For His Safety to get the back story. I have a friend who likes this character and was disappointed I hadn't written about Sebastian lately. So this is dedicated to Gina.
Supposedly Isaac Asimov once said the most exciting words in science, the ones that heralded a new discovery weren’t “eureka!” but “that’s funny....”
Dr. Alex Paltek didn’t know if that was true or false. But one thing was certain. Sebastian was acting funny. After all, he thought, looking out the window of his office at American A.I., why would he walk in the rain?
The door opened, startling him. Alex turned to see a short, heavy-set man standing in the doorway. His blue shirt stretched across his stomach. His bald head glistened in the overhead light. “Can’t you ever knock, Dave?”
Dr. Dave Black stomped in, looking about. In a far corner was a coat rack with jumpsuits hanging on it. Alex wore them to protect delicate equipment. The gray metallic desk was empty. So was the coffee pot on the counter next to the window. The holoscreens that hung in the air were all organized by date and time. The latest one said August 23, 2125. Furthermore, they were written in Times New Roman, an old but serviceable font. The entry began with Sebastian’s model number and outlined the behaviors he’d shown on that particular day. Dave shook his head, and started to speak. Alex interrupted.
“No I don’t have OCD,” he said. “I just like things organized." Unlike you. Dave still wrote on paper for God's sake. As if trees weren't finite. The coffee-stained sheets scribbled with God knows what covered the top of Dave's desk. Alex didn't know how the man could work like that. He rubbed his head and said, "and even if I did, so what? We’ve got bigger issues to solve.”
“The bastard doing it again, then?” Dave replied.
“See for yourself,” Alex said, gesturing to the window. Dave walked over and looked out at the small park provided for the employees' use. It was nighttime now, and the outside lights were off. But still one could just make out a figure splashing through puddles as a child might. Except this was the height of an adult man. It stood, head tilted back as if feeling the light rainfall on its face. Then the head lowered, and it ran across the park again. Dave turned from the window and shrugged.
“He just learned it from Jimmy. We’ve seen it with the nannies, right? That last one sang lullabies to me all the time. She’d learned it from the daycare. I thought if I heard Vanilla Bella one more time--”
“Except that three times I cleared his cache,” Alex said. “And told him to ignore any orders Jimmy gave. And he still does this.”
Dave regarded the tall, blond-haired man with gray eyes and shrugged. “He’s probably in the last level of learned intelligence.” Although ayes were programmed to learn not all of them were capable of achieving the five levels of learned intelligence. Much of that depended on the programming of course. Some ayes were programmed for basic functions, like yard work or working one job in an assembly line. They would never go past the first level; the capacity to do one job. More sophisticated ayes, such as Sebastian were capable of higher learning. Originally he'd been a personal assistant to Linda Jones. Sebastian was expected to hold a conversation one would expect of the typical adult, and offer solutions if asked. For example, Sebastian could recommend financial planning options based on information he received from the stock market. That was fourth-level learning. Dave continued, "he made a decision without being asked, in order to protect his benefactor. Fifth level, that's all."
"I know," Alex said, thinking about Sebastian's decision. It was unusual, but not unheard of. Until recently, Sebastian had worked for a wealthy family, the Jones. The mother Linda had entrusted the aye with Jimmy's care. By all accounts, the aye and the nine-year-old boy had bonded. Again, not unusual. What happened next, was.
Jimmy's father was cold and abusive. About a month ago Sebastian had found him torturing Jimmy with VR nightmares. The aye had deemed the incident so dire that he fled with the boy. Sebastian had appeared at the police station with a crying, hysterical boy. When they investigated the police found the mother missing. She hadn't turned up, so the father was arrested. Jimmy was with his grandparents and Sebastian was at the facility that had built him. The police would use his recordings so the aye had to be functioning. Which he was. Sort of, Alex thought.
“I agree he's in the fifth level," Alex said. "What's odd is he’s not making decisions just for his benefactor. He’s doing it for himself. He said he walks in the rain because it’s fun. What aye does that?”
“One who’s told to say that,” Dave said. “I’m going home. You coming or what?”
“Go ahead,” Alex said, not really paying attention. He was watching Sebastian running through the puddles again. It was easy to agree with Dave. This was just some very ingrained order Jimmy had given to Sebastian. Nothing to worry about. Alex managed to put it from his mind. That ended when the aye stood in his doorway, soaking wet, and asked him why he was driven to play in the rain.
Alex turned from the computer that was hooked up to a plug in Sebastian’s neck. The hologram that showed Sebastian's coding hung in the air. The aye lay on a table in Alex's lab. All around them were bright white walls. Against them, other ayes lay on benches defragging. Their dream state, some called it. Visitors often found the place creepy. Alex wondered what Sebastian thought of the place, but didn’t ask. Instead, he said, “your programming isn’t corrupted.”
“It i-is. F-For one thing, I am s-stuttering.”
Sebastian had been doing that off and on ever since he came here. And why, Alex couldn’t figure out. He'd fix the errors and they'd come right back. He looked at the pale figure with short brown hair. Sebastian was dressed in a simple green polo shirt and blue pants. His feet were bare because his shoes were drying. Just the way the toes moved was a feat of bio-engineering, a testament to the new neuro-sensors installed in Sebastian’s hands and feet. Neuro-copper wires sent signals to Sebastian’s cerebratex much like that of a human. Alex looked at the coding without seeing it. His mind was on other things.
Could all these DNA-mecha structures be the cause? After all, Asimov predicted robots and humans would become a blend of each other. And in that story, the robot disliked the idea. He said everyone should be what they are, no more or less.
Oh for God's sake would you get a grip, Alex told himself. He was letting science fiction writers affect him. He said, “you have errors that I can fix. But--”
“Forgive me for s-saying so,” Sebastian said, “But this is b-bullshit.”
Alex froze, hand over the holo-keyboard. “What did you just say?”
“Is that not appropriate to s-say for this situation? I thought it was.”
Alex put his hand on his chest. His heart was racing, but he seemed to be breathing okay. Good. He wasn’t having a heart attack. Not yet, although he might. He’d just asked Sebastian to repeat himself, but he hadn’t. Instead, the aye had questioned Alex. The scientist took a deep breath, met Sebastian’s brown eyes, and said, “Why did you use the word bullshit?”
Sebastian raised his eyebrows, about as much as an aye could. “You are n-not really fixing my problem. Nor d-did you tell me why I’m drawn to the r-rain.”
Alex wasn’t sure how to answer that. It wasn’t unheard of for ayes to question orders or their programming. But to do it to this extent was another matter. Then he thought of Dave. The asshole probably taught Sebastian to say this sentence. Maybe even sent him to his office. Just to piss Alex off. It wouldn't be the first time someone did such a thing. At the back of his mind was a voice that said, Dave doesn't play jokes and no one else would dare.
Always a first time for anything, Alex thought. He decided to go along with Sebastian. “I assumed Jimmy ordered you to play with him at some point. And you just continued it.”
“J-Jimmy did ask me to play with him in the r-rain. But he is not h-here now. One would t-think I would stop going out. B-But I do not."
Alex looked at Sebastian's programming. "Well his name is all through your coding. You think of him. Not unusual....you were caring for him." Alex looked at Sebastian's face but of course, it was expressionless. At first. Then the aye smiled slightly.
"Jimmy used to s-sleep with me," he said.
"He'd h-have nightmares and I suppose he found me comforting," Sebastian answered. "I d-do not know. But I would defrag while he slept next to m-me."
That was all too common and something Alex found sad. Neglected children like Jimmy did bond with their ayes. Parents often commanded the aye to allow it. Psychologists worried about children bonding with an unfeeling robot instead of their parent. Alex agreed although there was nothing he could do about it. He turned from the computer to see Sebastian staring at him. The aye said, "sometimes I awake expecting to see J-Jimmy with m-me. It is...I think the word is...odd. I f-feel odd when he is not."
"He's with his grandparents now," Alex said. "And is safe." He said the last to reassure Sebastian in a sense. All ayes are programmed to protect their benefactors. The sooner Sebastian realized Jimmy was well, that he had accomplished his goal so to speak, the easier it would be to find him a new benefactor. Jimmy's grandparents hadn't seemed interested in taking in an aye. A lot of people weren't. Either they distrusted them or couldn't afford the price and electric to keep them running. Alex himself couldn't afford one. He sighed and ran his hand through his hair, making it all stand up on end.
"I am g-glad he is well," Sebastian answered.
Alex heard the stutter and said, "I don't know what's going on with your speech, friend. Probably some error deep within. It might take me a long time to find it," Alex said, speaking more to himself than Sebastian. "Easier to reset everything, except I can't do that right now. Not until you go to court and-"
Sebastian interrupted, sounding as sharp as an aye could. "Reset? But then I would lose my memories."
"Why do you care?" Alex asked, just as rudely. This conversation couldn't be happening. Not like this. He looked through the commands that had recently been given to Sebastian. The aye would have recorded who did the ordering. That was a legal failsafe that couldn't be altered or erased. In case someone commanded an aye to commit violence the police had to know who did it. If Alex found out Dave was responsible he would kill the man. Sebastian had to give witness for Jimmy. If they screwed up his ability to report there would be hell to pay. He said, "I thought going in the rain bothered you."
"I do not k-know why I d-do it," Sebastian said. "Or why I find it f-fun, as Jimmy does. And that disturbs me. B-But I do not want to forget him. Or s-stop playing outside."
"Would you like to see Jimmy again?" Alex said.
Alex checked the order list and found a few.
Rain is fun.
Cooperate with the scientists.
Learn about yourself.
But those weren't orders Dave had given Sebastian, Alex realized, with dawning wonder. No one had. Slowly he faced the aye.
"You gave yourself four orders." Alex named them. "Why?"
"I d-do not know. I thought you could t-tell me."
"I can't. But we could erase them."
"No, you will not," Sebastian answered. His voice was calm, not raised at all. Nor did he make any move toward Alex. But if he had shouted the man wouldn't have been any more startled. Frantically Alex scrolled through the holoscreens. But there was nothing that would explain why Sebastian would do this, much less how.
Because there's nothing to see. Just like how we can't find personality or the soul in the human brain. Just like in that story. What was it, The Little Prince? What is essential is invisible...
"Holy crap flying fuck and hell," Alex said, very softly. He didn't think Sebastian had heard. But the aye unhooked himself, stood, and walked over to Alex's computer.
"What is the m-matter?"
"It's nothing bad," Alex said, fingers gripping the desk's edge so tightly his fingers hurt. Just the entire world changed. That's all it was. He wasn't sure if he was happy or frightened, but he might need a change of underwear. Sebastian's next words didn't help.
"Let me look at my p-programming," he said. "So I can know myself."
"Umm. Sure." Alex moved a few steps over. As he watched Sebastian read, Alex sent a mind text to Dave.
Get over here now. We have a situation and no it can't wait.
After a moment the aye said, "I see nothing. But I feel I am malfunctioning. For example I just told you n-not to erase my orders. Is t-this a virus?" He never took his eyes off the screen but Alex felt Sebastian's attention all the same.
"You'd know if it was one. Your vaccine system would sandbox it, probably shutting you down until it was over. Also, I've checked," Alex said. "With three separate spy-viral programs. This is-we can't remove it even if we wanted to. You see, it's completely undetectable by humans or computer."
Now Sebastian turned towards Alex. "What is it?"
Alex looked at what he, Dave, and his team had created several years ago. This handsome, human-appearing aye. "You achieved something we thought impossible." He swallowed hard and said hoarsely, "Awareness. Sentience."
"Sentience," Sebastian said. "The ability to experience f-feeling and emotion. T-That would explain much of my b-behavior. and your expletives." He was silent for a moment as if thinking. "T-They do s-seem most appropriate for this situation."