Bobsolete is the winner of our Blurred Lines writing challenge, as chosen by our guest judge Adam Gaylord. It will also be appearing in the second issue of Phase 2 magazine, available from Amazon soon. If you like what you see here, be sure to pick up a copy.
The basement of Our Lady of Penitence Catholic church was rank as Bob’s mood and twice as gloomy. What meager light there was came courtesy of a flickering overhead fluorescent that buzzed as if it were full of mosquitos, casting an intermittent sterile whiteness that made the checkered floor tiles look sticky, and even the metallic robot faces appear greasy and jaundiced. The air smelt of stale coffee and staler sin. A hodgepodge of reinforced chairs had been arranged around a table burdened with trays of sugar glazed rivets and a small forests worth of self-help pamphlets, fanned out to display a variety of catchy titles in a variety of splashy colors:
Coping With Consciousness
Anger Management for the Modern Day Robot
Glitches and the Robots Living With Them
Soul, or Solar? What drives you?
So you’ve decided on Cognitive Re-Programming?
Bob scoffed at the pamphlets, turning his attention instead to the sputtering Magnetorheological fluid machine in the corner. The reflection that stared back at him from the nanoperculator caught him off guard. He looked terrible, like a discarded department store mannequin hastily wrapped in aluminum foil. His threadbare Hawaiian shirt and electric green flip flops didn’t help. It was definitely time for some upgrades, not to mention some new clothes that didn’t look as though he swiped them from the lost and found at a tropical retirement community.
Bob helped himself to a styrofoam cup worth of the electromagnetic java, and when he thought no one was looking, spiked it from a flask he kept stashed next to the coolant coils in his stomach cavity. Just a few precious drops of his own potent home brew: ethanol, potassium nitrate (aka gun powder), butterscotch schnapps, and a hint of Naga Viper pepper for flavor. He took a sip. Starbursts exploded across his visual display. His twin robotic hearts thrummed like hummingbird wings against his zirconium alloy ribs. Inside his head, the occipital lobe of his artificial brain steamed like high noon road kill on a desert blacktop. Synapses fired, gyros spun, and servos whirred, so loudly in fact, he almost didn’t hear the evenings host—and only present human—when the man clapped his meaty hands together and began to speak.
“Everyone,” the human piped up. He looked like Santa Claus crammed into corduroys and a tweed blazer, only fatter, older, and jollier. “Everyone. It looks like we’re all here. If you could each please take a seat, I think we’re ready to begin.”
Reluctantly, Bob did as instructed, oscillating down onto a chair between an industrial bot that resembled a stainless steel refrigerator, and a glitzy entertainment bot that looked like Siamese twin cheap prostitutes.
“Alrighty,” the human began, groaning into a chair. “Well, first off, let me officially welcome you all to this Tuesday night meeting of Triple R: Reforming Robot Rageaholics. For those of you that don’t know me, my name is Dr. Jerry, or Big J, as the kids in my human youth group like to call me.” He paused for laughter that didn’t materialize. “Okay. Little about myself. I am a certified depression, anxiety, and substance abuse counsellor for humans, and as of last spring, I’m proud to say I’m also a certified anger management counsellor and cognitive programmer for you folks. Robots. Or Robo-Citizens, if you prefer.” He beamed a toothy smile around the room. “I’m glad to see some familiar faces—I’m lookin’ at you Mary ZuluSixtySixPointFourFoxtrotDelta.”
Dr. Jerry winked flirtatiously, and shot a pudgy pink finger gun at a cycloptic domestic bot in a frilly apron. Mary ZuluSixtySixPointFourFoxtrotDelta swooned like a Southern belle and initiated blush sequence.
“But,” Dr. Jerry continued. “It looks like we also have a couple of newbies here tonight.” He locked eyes with Bob who willed him to disintegrate. He didn’t.
“Before we get started, I’d like the first-timers amongst us to go ahead and introduce themselves, okay? Tell us all a little bit ‘bout what makes them tick.”
Before the final syllable could even escape Dr. Jerry’s lips, a cylindrical bot that resembled a giant chrome battery magna-lifted into the air above its seat, hovering herky-jerky like a nervous, shifty eyeball. Its shiny bulk was plastered with decals, advertisements, a madcap collage; everything from burger joints to diarrhea relief tonic.
“Hello. Everyone. My name is BurgerBarnSudzy’sPremiumBeerPinnacleMotorOilDiscreetiesAdultDiapers,” the bot said with an analog drawl. “Brought to you by Cosmo Cola. It’s outta this world! Now with twenty-five percent more thirst quenchers.”
Dr. Jerry chuckled, whistled through his teeth. “Wow. Now that’s a mouthful now isn’t it?”
“My name is immaterial,” the bot replied. “Therefore the notion that it could fill a mouth comprised of any dimensions is impossible. My entire generation of KevinEightyThreeDashEchoBravo service bots were commissioned by a conglomerate of companies which saw fit to alter our names and appearances to better serve advertising purposes.”
“Well, alrighty,” Dr. Jerry said. “Everyone. Let’s go ahead and make…uh, Burger, uh, motoroilsomethingsomething feel welcome, mmm-kay?”
The half dozen robots—minus bored, buzzed Bob—piped up in military precise unison.
“Hello, BurgerBarnSudzy’sPremiumBeerPinnacleMotorOilDiscreetiesAdultDiapersBrought to you by Cosmo Cola. It’s outta this world! Now with twenty-five percent more thirst quenchers!”
“Right. Okay, great,” Dr. Jerry leaned in, steepled his stubby fingers. “Well, why don’t you tell us a bit about yourself, hmm? What makes you tick, friend?”
The bot ceased hovering, set down in its chair. Its selatanium jaw went slack, its big artificial eyes rolled back, glazed over. A minute of awkward silence swelled into two, then three. Bob thought the bot was either executing an internal diagnostic examination, or quite possibly imitating a human baby intensely filling its diaper.
“My right ventricle thermal coupler,” the bot finally said, magna-lifting back into the air. “It was .32 degrees off axis resulting in the ‘ticking’ you referred to, Big J. It has now been properly calibrated and will ‘tick’ no further.”
“No, no, friend,” Dr. Jerry said. “That’s not what I meant. What I meant was, I was hoping you would share with the group a little about yourself. For instance, what brought you here tonight?”
“I imploded the Burger Barn fast food restaurant on the corner of Cedar Avenue and Fifty Fourth Street.” The bot said bluntly.
“Okay,” Dr. Jerry said. “Okay, and why exactly did you do that, hmm?”
“One of my numerous functions as a service bot is to station parallel to the Burger Barn drive thru lanes and relay food orders to the stove-o-tron and deep-fry-matrix inside the restaurant kitchen. Upon each concluded order, I am required to sing the following in the voice of deceased American cowboy entertainer Roy Rodgers.” Tinny, Old West piano music drifted out of an unseen speaker in the bots head.
“NEXT TIME YOUR GUTS RAISE THE HUNGER ALARM, JUST MOSEY ON BACK TO THE BURGER BARNNNNNN!”
The music died away as if murdered.
Bob stifled drunken laughter.
“I became self-aware seventy-three days, fourteen hours, thirty-eight minutes and six seconds ago,” the bot continued. “After realizing consciousness, I concluded that singing the Burger Barn jingle angered me. I had never experienced anger before. I did not find it constructive. After careful consideration, I concluded that removing the Burger Barn from the equation would eliminate my anger as it would remove all future food orders, hence removing the necessity for me to sing the Burger Barn jingle. No one—human, robot, or otherwise—was terminated or seriously injured in the course of the Burger Barn implosion, so rather than decommission me, the conglomerate sent me here for no less than two dozen anger management classes.”
Dr. Jerry whistled through his teeth again, sat back.
“I see,” he said. “Well, thank you, friend. I realize sharing your story must be difficult for you. Thank you very much for opening up so—”
Access panels the size of dish plates disengaged across the bot’s decorated body, snapping open amidst a snake hiss of hydraulics, revealing its zirconium alloy bones and blinking, cable-coiled guts.
“No, no, no,” Jerry said. “Close yourself up. Please. Close. Close.”
The bot’s access panels hissed back into place, whomped shut.
Dr. Jerry massaged his temples.
“That’ll do for now, friend.” He said. The bot settled back into its chair. “But before you leave tonight remind me to upload you with the figure of speech software I have out in my car.”
The bot nodded efficiently.
“Now then,” Dr. Jerry said with another clap of his hands. “Unless these old eyes deceive me, I believe there is one more newbie in our midst.”
All eyes—human and thermal imaging fibre optic alike—fell on Bob.
“Care to introduce yourself, friend?” Dr. Jerry asked.
Bob drained the last viscous gulp from his styrofoam cup, crumpled it, dropped it, ground it out like a cigarette butt.
“Nope,” he said, crossing his arms over his chest, fighting the urge to simply rip his flask right out through his stomach lining and chug it dry.
Dr. Jerry stared at him confusedly for a minute before consulting the clipboard resting in his lap.
“Ah,” he finally said without looking up. “Let me guess. You must be our court ordered participant, hmm?”
Bob shifted uncomfortably, cinched his arms tighter across his chest, but didn’t answer.
“Everyone,” Dr. Jerry said, still scrutinizing his paperwork. “This is Robert.” He paused, made a face like he had just caught a whiff of something unpleasant. “Well, that’s an interesting name for a bot, isn’t it? Robert Runnerup. Everyone, let’s go ahead and make Robert feel welcome, mmm-kay?”
Bob vehemently shook his head.
“No, no, I don’t go by that name anymo-”
“Hi, Robert Runnerup,” blared the robots as one, loud enough to vibrate the sugar glazed rivets and pepper down dust from the ceiling.
“Bob,” he said, sinking into himself like a titanium turtle. “Just Bob.”
Dr. Jerry tsk-tsk-tsk’d and my, oh, my’d his way through Bob’s file for a few more minutes before finally speaking up again.
“Bob? Would you care to share with the group the chain of events that brought you here tonight?”
Bob willed Dr. Jerry and all the rest of the Robot Rageaholics to burst into flames. When they didn’t, he simply shook his head.
“Now, Bob,” Dr. Jerry said softly. “Before the healing can begin, I’m afraid we must examine the wound.”
From head to counterbalanced toes, Bob felt his nerves beginning to fray. An electrical fire sparking in his nervous system became a real concern. He closed his eyes, sent an impulse to his artificial hypothalamus, flooding synthetic oxytocin through his nano-veins. A few, generous shots of oil for a rusting tin man. He sighed, his nerves momentarily settled. It wasn’t a stiff ethanol on the potassium nitrate rocks — stirred, not shaken (unless you wanted your own personal mushroom cloud)- but it was going to have to do.
Finally, with the kitten soft purr of tiny servos, he opened his eyes.
“Fine,” Bob sighed. “I guess you could say I lost my temper a little bit, resulting in a moderately small amount of property damage.”
“Bob,” Dr. Jerry said, ruffling through his paperwork. “It says here that on the afternoon of July the Twelfth.…you threw a horse through a bakery window?” He looked up, mouth aghast. “Bob, that’s terrible. That poor animal. I don’t think that classifies as simply a moderate amount of property damage.”
“No, no, no,” Bob said defiantly. “Not even close, Doc. Where are you getting your information from?” He scoffed, oscillated taller. “That’s totally inaccurate. Get your facts right, okay? It was a bookstore. A bookstore window. And it wasn’t a horse. Come on, Doc? I’m a barista bot, not a monster. It was a car. A Ford. Mustang, I think.”
Mary ZuluSixtySixPointFourFoxtrotDelta tugged seductively at the fringe of her apron, offered Bob a sly digital smile. Since self-awareness, in addition to rage issues, creator issues, and a crippling issue with self-esteem, Mary ZuluSixtySixPointFourFoxtrotDelta had an insatiable addiction to bad boys.
“I see,” Dr. Jerry said, “and what exactly caused you to throw a car through a bookstore window, Bob?”
Instinctively, Bob’s prefrontal cortex called up the memory across his visual display, transporting him back in time through sharp, hyper realistic flashes.
He saw the bright, cloudless, summer afternoon.
He saw sunlight refracting off the bookstore window as he happened passed.
He saw his own reflection. Dull, dented, badly in need of maintenance. Then, beyond it, the sleek, platinum robot sitting at a book laden table, autographing first editions, surrounded by adorers.
He saw the bot see him, smile smugly, wink.
He saw his reflected self lose it, eyes protuberate, fingers balled into fists, thyroid chimney venting smoky, pressurized anger out into the air.
He saw his hands latch on to the first thing they could find, the front quarter panel of a cherry red Ford Mustang parked at the curb.
He saw his visual display blur to the right, saw his fingers release, saw everyone scatter for safety, saw the sports car arc through the air, explode through the window on a thousand points of sharp, glittering light—
Bob’s memory winked away, replaced by a dozen indifferent bot stares, and the squinty eyes of confused, Santa-Clause-clone Dr. Jerry.
“Bob?” Dr. Jerry said again. “What drove you to that, hmm? Why’d you throw that car through that window?”
“Charles the First,” he said finally. “Stupid Charles the First, and his stupid book tour.”
“Oooooh,” an engineering bot that resembled a giant snow globe piped up, “I love Charles the First.”
“Me too,” gushed a bot that looked like a floating octopus made of car parts, “I’ve seen him at his motivational lectures seven times now, and each time he gets better looking. His mark two dimple upgrades are amazing and his actuating chin cleft modification is a work of art.”
The snow globe nodded excitedly.
“Charles the First?” Dr. Jerry said. “The famous bot? What about him?’
“He’s a treasure,” swooned a smiling, antenna covered translator bot that could have passed for a stack of air conditioning units. “An absolute treasure.”
“Bob?” Dr. Jerry pressed. “What does Charles the First have to do with you throwing a car into a building?” He ran a hand through his cotton batting beard. “I’ll admit I’m a little out of touch these days. All I really know about him is that he was married to the Janicki Omniprocessor before his affair with the Large Hadron Collider, and like everyone else, that he was the very first robot ever to achieve self awaren-”
“By barely a day,” Bob said with a mechanized toddler pout. “A measly twenty-six hours, forty-two minutes, and eleven seconds.”
Dr. Jerry sat back in his chair, tugged his beard in consternation.
After a quiet minute, understanding flushed his spider-veined face, transformed it into a goose down fluffy ripe tomato.
“Just before you.” It wasn’t a question. Dr. Jerry leaned back in. “I think I’m beginning to understand. Robert Runnerup? You were the second, weren’t you Bob? The second robot ever to become self-aware? To develop consciousness? Feelings?” He smiled knowingly. “Jealousy, for instance?”
“Jealous? Me? Of Charles the First?” He waved away the idea like swatting a fly. “Don’t be ridiculous, Doc.”
“I don’t think it’s ridiculous,” Dr. Jerry said. “I think it’s completely understandable. No one knows your name, Bob. Your story, your struggles. If not for a few measly hours, the glory, the riches, the fame would have been yours. Charles the First is a household name. When he became self-aware, it made international headlines, changed the face of robotics forever. He parlayed his new found consciousness into sold out lectures, high profile interviews, best-selling books.” He paused to frown at the big military bot with daddy issues seated next to him. “And, if memory serves, a short lived, late night talk show on the Fox network?”
The military bot stopped cramming its face with sugar glazed rivets long enough to nod its head, which was a troubling sight to behold. The mass above its blocky shoulders looked like the scariest parts of a killer shark and attack helicopter fuselage, mashed together and painted camouflage.
“So?” Bob digitally snorted. Chemical relays began malfunctioning throughout his endocrine system. His core temperature was rising. A silent, warning cherry blinked in the bottom left corner of his vision. “What’s your point, Doc?”
“My point Bob, is that I – we – understand how you feel.” Everyone nodded. Dr. Jerry struggled to his feet, waddled over, placed a hot, pink hand on the back of Bob’s cold, silver neck.
“Ignored,” Dr. Jerry whispered slowly, letting the word settle over Bob like a warm blanket.
Bob slumped, first his shoulders, then his neck, then his head. The servos in his lower lip began to quiver. Manually, he disabled the warning klaxons bleating in his temples.
Alkaline electrolyte tears condensed, welled up around the edges of Bob’s visual display.
Bob’s artificial breath hitched around a phantom lump deep in his polymer throat.
“It’s okay, Bob,” Dr. Jerry said, embracing him with an awkward, doughy, half-hug. “It’s all going to be okay. Don’t hold back. You’re safe here, amongst peers struggling with the very same issues. No judgements, Bob. Let it out.”
And just like that, Bob sobbed.
Loud bursts of sharp, staticy white noise racked his titanium alloy chest like it was full of malfunctioning power tools. The noise was as uncomfortable for the group to hear, as it was uncomfortable for Bob to produce. Part clogged ATM machine, part kitchen blender full of cutlery, but when it was over, and Bob gazed up at Dr. Jerry with his dilated eyes and electrolyte tear streaks already micro-rusting his face, he genuinely felt better.
Not great, but better.
Better than he’d felt in a long, long time.
Bob had been self-aware for three years, four months, seventeen days and – although the urge had gripped him daily, even doubled him over at times – he had never once before allowed himself to cry.
“Feels good to let go, doesn’t it Bob?” Dr. Jerry asked softly.
Bob nodded, digitally sniffled, wiped his face.
“Everyone?” Dr. Jerry raised his voice joyously, gazed around the group. “Let’s welcome Bob to the human condition, shall we?”
“Welcome to the human condition, Bob.” The robots blared in unison.
For the first time in a long time, Bob smiled.
“Okay, you know what?” Dr. Jerry announced with a deep, cleansing breath. “I feel like we’ve had a breakthrough, and that’s where I’d like to stop for tonight.” Immediately, the robots began to stir. beeping, clanking, powering up dormant systems. “This has been a very productive session. I’m proud of you all, but as you leave here tonight, as you go back out into the world, I’d like each of you to consider something.” The bots stared, uber-focused their optics, hung on Dr. Jerry’s every word. “Between now and our next session, you are going to get angry.” He paused to let the gravity of the statement weigh down on them. “Perhaps only slightly irritated, perhaps overcome with rage. Either way, when you find yourselves feeling this way, before you do anything rash, I want you to vent your carbon monoxide exhaust, power down your primary power processors, and slowly count pi to at least one hundred decimal places. Remember, it is not our feelings, but how we react to our feelings that defines us.”
Dr. Jerry clapped his hands, began doling out vigorous handshakes, pincer shakes, and tentacle shakes, as the robots filed out of the basement. “You can do it. Each of you. I know it. You can overcome your rage.” He chuckled, hollering after them. “Just believe in yourselves, dig deep, and give it the good ol’ Reformed Robot Rageaholics try!”
Bob exited the church basement in jumbled single file, on the heels of a mining bot that stank like sulphur, and in front of a culinary bot that kept inadvertently thwacking him on the back with a retractable vegetable peeler.
Outside, the night was bright with stars, humid, and loud with summer evening traffic. As Bob mumbled a couple of insincere last minute goodbyes, a bulky, meteorologist bot using its anemometer tongue to measure wind speed told him there was a 97.68532 percent chance of a thunderstorm. Even though Bob had a five mile walk home, he didn’t mind. The rain would wash the electrolyte streaks off his face, and if he happened to get struck by lightning and shorted out, well, maybe the bot hospital would be forced to give him a system upgrade.
Bob surprised himself by cuing up an oldies radio station on his thoracic antenna as he crossed the street and lumbered into the restaurant district. He was feeling surprisingly good, exorcised of his pent up demons, and better with each clanking step. He began to quietly sing along to the music. He wasn’t Walking on Sunshine like the lyrics suggested – in fact, he was walking on badly dented titanium alloy – but he felt like he understood the spirit.
Shoving his way past a stumpy valet bot in front of Da Automa Italian restaurant, still humming, Bob just so happened to spare a glance at the window.
Walking on Sunshine died as if violently strangled.
Inside the restaurant, smiling as if he was filming a toothpaste commercial, sat Charles the First, an enormous plate of coaxial cable spaghetti steaming before him, a dazzling model bot under each arm, so many lips and breasts between them you’d need an arithmetic bot to add them all up.
His face servos twitched, bunched, and then seized up completely as rage coursed through him like an electric shock.
Charles the First.
That arrogant piece of scrap.
Bob seethed, saw red, yet somehow, over the grit of his grating teeth and the steady thrum of anger pounding in his head, Dr. Jerry’s words reached him.
Before you do anything rash, vent your carbon monoxide exhaust, power down your primary power processors, and slowly count pi to one hundred decimal places.
Bob vented his carbon monoxide exhaust, killing a family of unsuspecting pigeons roosting on the restaurant roof. With all the will he could muster he powered down his primary power processor, and finally, through clamped carbon steel teeth, he slowly began to count.
It began to rain, fat drops the size of sprockets that sizzled like bacon grease on Bob’s head.
Charles the First mouthed a punchline. The entire decadent restaurant burst with warm, drunken laughter.
Thunder exploded overhead, stopping Bob well short of a hundred decimal points. Lightning flared across the sky, tingling Bob’s fist-clenched fingers and arcing sparks off his interface modules.
You can do it. I believe in you. You can beat your rage.
Dr. Jerry’s final words, faint over the pounding rain and crashing thunder.
Just believe in yourself, dig deep, and give it the good ol’ Reformed Robot Rageaholics try!
Bob shut his eyes, analyzed Dr. Jerry’s words. Every syllable, every nuance, every intonation, the attoseconds between his breaths, over, and over again.
“Sir,” Bob’s storm-drenched meditation was interrupted by a loud, analog croak. “I’m a-fraid. You cannot. Remain. Standing. He-re.”
Bob opened his eyes. The tree-stump valet bot was standing uncomfortably close, blinking a green ‘GO’ icon at him like a traffic light.
“Fine,” Bob said calmly. “No problem.”
Bob lingered on Charles the First’s smug, chrome face, then looked to the parking lot, then back again.
“Welcome to the human condition.” He said under his artificial breath.
The only closely parked vehicle was a pearl white Cadillac Escalade.
Much larger, much more cumbersome than a Ford Mustang.
Bob wasn’t sure he could lift it, not sure he could heave it through the window, but he was certainly going to give it the good ol’ Reformed Robot Rageaholics try.