What the hell is she doing here? Thought Bing.
Alpha was standing on the pavement directly outside Bing’s office door waiting for it to open. It was difficult to tell with a robot whose face was a CCTV camera, but Bing was under the impression that she seemed nervous.
Bing remained in the alleyway. He had purchased his coffee from the back door of the cafe across the street from his office. He had never been a fan of the stimulant-free infusions that the cafe sold over the counter. The technician hired to clean the gunk out of the dispensing nozzles had an entrepreneurial streak and had rigged one of the machines to make a drink which tasted nothing like coffee, but had the wakening qualities of a jet of steam to the nether regions. He sold this from the alleyway door to the cafe. Most mornings the alleyway was filled with a mob of bleary eyed workers. It occurred to Bing that with his monopoly on stimulant drinks, the gunk-cleaner was probably one of the most powerful men on the ship.
Alpha’s hands clutched at the strap of her handbag as she looked up and down the street. Bing sighed, and trudged out of the alleyway. The robot’s lens locked onto him and she straightened up. Although she wasn’t wearing any clothes over her thin metal frame, she made a motion as if smoothing out creases from her top.
“Mr Mulholland. I need to speak to you.”
Bing said nothing, but eyed her suspiciously. He walked around her and unlocked the office door. Alpha followed him inside.
“Morning Bing,” said Honda, the receptionist. Honda was a robotic arm which had previously been part of a construction line for a large car company. He watched silently as the other robot followed the lawyer in. Honda picked up a pencil in his pincer-like grip and used it to tap some keys on the computer keyboard in front of him. Bing felt his wristwatch buzz and saw from the screen that he had received an email.
Subject: Other Robot
Body: Who is that other robot?
Bing sighed again. “We’ll discuss this later, Honda. Alpha, come with me.”
Above Honda’s pincer was a black hemispherical lens. He watched Bing and the other robot, Alpha he’d heard Bing call her, go into his office and shut the door. The robot looked down at where he was attached to the floor with large bolts. The other robot moved with ease, just like a human. Honda knew what was happening here: the other robot was his replacement. His boss had clearly grown tired of Honda’s inability to move around, and his lack of dual hands. Honda felt himself beginning to overheat. He picked up the pencil again and typed into the computer’s search engine: “can robots have panic attacks?”
“What can I do for you Alpha?” asked Bing, aware that his watch had buzzed again with another incoming email.
“Well, Mr Mulholland, I have gotten myself into some trouble.”
“I see. Why don’t you tell me about it.” He subtly checked his email. It was Honda again:
Subject: Other Robot (2)
Body: Am I fired? Is it because I don’t have legs or hands?
Bing flicked the email closed. He had grown used to the fact that his receptionist had all the self-esteem of an unpopular teenager, although why he had been programmed this way remained a mystery to him. He ignored the buzzing of several subsequent emails being received and tried to focus on Alpha.
“Do you remember when you came to the labs yesterday, and we went into Enclosure A, and there was the doggy?”
Bing remembered a somewhat different version of that story, but he nodded. He was equal parts interested and fearful of where this story was going.
Alpha opened her bag and very gingerly removed the chameleon that she had encountered the day before. “I, um, I went back and I took the doggy. My boss was mad. He wanted me to have my memory wiped, so I ran away.”
Bing had wondered when this day might arrive. Robots back on earth were nothing like the ones on the Isaac Newton. The artificial intelligence of even the most menial of the ship’s robots, such as his brooding receptionist, who was continuing to send emails to Bing’s watch, was quite astounding. Bing and William Symington had had a discussion several months ago, accompanied by some fine wine, about what would happen if a robot broke the law. On one hand the robot is property it has no rights and strictly speaking the robot’s owner should be held liable for any criminal wrongdoing. On the other hand, a robot has a mind of its own (albeit an artificial one) and, as Alpha had shown, is capable of committing crimes of its own volition.
“What will happen to me, Mr Mulholland?” asked Alpha, gingerly running a finger down the chameleon’s back. The lizard seemed entirely content sitting on Alpha’s arm.
“To be honest, I don’t know. You might be the first robot to have taken it upon yourself to commit a crime.”
“I’m not a criminal. They weren’t being nice to the doggy.”
“Of course,” said Bing, gently. “I could make a call to the Alpha Bio Labs administrator and see if we can sort something out. Ok?”
“Thank you Mr Mulholland,” she said, sounding relieved.
Bing paused for a moment, but concluded that there was probably no simple way of raising the subject of money. “You realise that as a client of the firm you will have to pay for my services?”
“Yes, that had occurred to me. I don’t have any money, and I can’t go back to the lab. Maybe I could work for you to pay for my services?”
From the other side of the wall there was the sound of an eavesdropping robot knocking over something heavy out of shock.
Bing sighed. “Fine.” As if one mental robot isn’t enough, he thought.
“Fantastic, what should I do first?”
“Go to the alleyway across the street and get me a coffee from the guy at the back of the cafe.” Bing handed her some money from his wallet. He opened the office door for her, but went out first.
“Honda, this is Alpha. She’s going to be working with us for a while.”
Honda’s pincer snapped shut involuntarily, crushing the pencil he’d been holding. The robot quickly swept it into the bin, hoping that no-one had noticed.
“Nice to meet you Honda. I’m going to get Mr Mulholland some coffee. Can I leave my doggy with you?” She sat the chameleon on the desk in front of Honda and skipped out the door.
Honda waited until the door swung shut behind her before saying anything. “Am I fired Bing?”
“No, Honda, you’re not fired. Alpha is a client and will be working for me to pay off her bill.”
“Ok, next question: what the hell is this thing?” said the robot peering at the chameleon with its big round lens. The chameleon’s eye moved to look at Honda, who recoiled in horror. “I hate it.”
Bing sighed and retreated to his office. “Has anyone called?”
“Ivan Gunderson phoned and said he wants to speak to you about prosecuting the scientists at Alpha Bio Labs. He sounded impatient.” Honda picked up a pencil and used it to nudge the chameleon towards the edge of the table.
A small fly buzzed onto the table.
“Ah, good morning Reginald, how are you this morning?” Said Honda to the fly. Honda had spent much of the previous day trying to catch the fly, who had entered the office uninvited. After several hours of chasing the tiny beast, Honda had realised that it meant no harm and was most likely lost. Once he stopped trying to kill it, he considered that it was quite nice to have another living thing in the office when Bing wasn’t around.
The chameleon turned towards the fly, and with a flick of its tongue swept the insect into its mouth.
Honda looked on in disbelief. His emotion simulator had never acted in this way before. He found that the instructions coming out of it were overpowering his normal protocols. He lifted the chameleon by the tail, and dropped it in the paper bin.
“Ah, better,” said the robot.