“Why are you still doing this?” shouted Rene over the wailing. It was late the next day, and although Akia would go for long periods without wailing, every so often it would burst out in a long scream again. They had run every system diagnostic possible on the machine, but no one ever seemed to know when Akia would start screaming, or why it would do so, but at least its cries were no longer monotonous. They varied wildly in pitch, roaming up and down the frequencies, stopping on one briefly, before launching off in different directions, with different combinations of notes. It sounded rather like 8-bit music being composed by someone who was tone deaf.
“I’m sorry?” Jeremy called back. They were both wearing ear muffs, but that was not what was forcing them to shout—today Akia’s screams seemed to be trying to set a new record for the number of ears split.
“I said, why are you still doing this?”
“What do you mean?” Jeremy turned to look up at her, but he didn’t get up, nor did he stop gently stroking Akia’s head. Rene wasn’t sure, but Akia did seem to quieten a little. This made no sense, of course, as the only pressure sensors in Akia’s constructions were on the bottom of her six feet, and in the “hands” that sat under her head.
“Look, the programming’s clearly garbage. We’ll copy over Banji’s programming and do a reboot.”
“Why would we want another copy of Banji?” replied Joshua, “It doesn’t do anything but writhe and move its head a little.”
“Because Banji doesn’t-" they both winced as Akia went through a particularly high-pitched squeal, “-doesn’t do that,” finished Rene.
Akia’s screaming suddenly cut off, so they removed their earmuffs, Rene’s getting tangled in her long, blonde hair. She kept meaning to get it cut short, but when it finally came to get a haircut, she could never go through with it.
In spite of the sudden relief, neither Jeremy nor Rene was hopeful. The techs had worked out how to cut Akia’s vocal circuits, so whilst the machine was still sending the “scream” signal to the vocal unit, nothing was being emitted. They did this whenever the screaming got too much. The door to the room opened and Roger, the lead tech, came in. They had moved as many of the consoles and computers out of the room as possible, to give the techs some minor relief from Akia’s onslaught. A large bundle of cables meant the door couldn’t shut, however, so the relief was minimal.
“That’s it,” Roger said, “That’s the connectivity test through; there’s not even a loose wire or piece of solder in that thing. Time to shut it down and get us some peace and quiet.”
“No, come on. Give me a shot. I reckon I can fix this.”
“Jeremy, we’ve tried everything.”
“I’ve got an idea.”
“You’re not taking the mobility blocks out. It’s causing hell without being able to move an inch. Can you imagine what it would do if it could move?”
“Fine,” responded Jeremy, “I won’t take the mobility blocks out. But give me the night to try. You guys were about to leave anyway.”
“It’ll take six hours to wipe. I’m not wasting six hours of tomorrow’s time.”
“OK OK. Fine, then give us till two in the morning, and if it’s not better, we’ll start the wipe then and it’ll be ready for you guys to upload a copy of Banji in the next day.”
Roger narrowed his eyes. Rene also gave Jeremy a sceptical look; she wasn’t sure when “I reckon I can fix this” had become “we’ll start the wipe.” For his part, Jeremy just looked at Roger imploringly.
“Fine. But you’ve got till midnight. I will check the security logs tomorrow, and if you haven’t signed out by then, there’ll be hell to pay.”
“No worries. Thank you so much,” replied Jeremy.
“And do not take out the mobility blocks,” said Roger, “That’s possibly the most expensive robot in the world right there. If it damages itself, you will be to blame.”
“Me? What about Rene?”
Her eyes widened.
“Yeah right,” said Roger as he headed back towards the door, “I know an unwilling conscript when I see one.”
Rene sighed with relief. They followed Roger out of the room, but waited until all the techs were out of sight before they spoke.
“Why the hell have you got me involved?” she whispered furiously at Jeremy.
“Because I know you want to help and make this work. You were one of the lead programmers on Akia. Surely you don’t want to acknowledge that it was a failure?”
“I was going out to dinner with Stephen tonight,” she protested. But it was too late, she could already tell Jeremy was going to win.
“And I had a date with Lucy.”
“Lucy? Wasn’t it Laura?”
“Was Laura, now it’s Lucy. You’d think the alliteration helps, but it actually makes it so much harder.”
Rene rolled her eyes. “Ok, so what are we going to do?” she asked.
“I’m going to get my secret weapon out of my locker. You’re going to get ready to turn off the motion blockers.”
“Of course I am,” Rene muttered.
She sat down at the terminals whilst Jeremy strode off down the corridor, whistling some chipper tune. The motion blockers were nothing physical, just a simple block in Akia’s programming that kept it from being able to operate the various joints in its body. Truth be told, it would only really take two clicks to disable them, but Rene wanted to run all the diagnostics on the various joints first. If she were going to break the rules, she figured she should at least try and minimise how much she was breaking them. There were over fifty joints in Akia’s frame, over sixty if you included the electro-muscle pads on her feet—not joints, strictly speaking, but still capable of movement, in theory able to mould themselves to almost whatever surface Akia walked on. Whilst no individual diagnostic would take that long, running them all would take a little while.
As she brought up the mobility diagnostic screen, Akia’s schematics appeared on a separate monitor. The original plans for Akia had changed a lot in the first few years. At the start, the designers has imagined a human shaped body. “In his own image” and all that. However, early on they had realised that the amount of computing power necessary for the robot, along with the unexpectedly large volume needed for the sensory perception unit, would have necessitated a behemoth over three meters tall. Instead, after several iterations, the team had settled on an insect-like design. It consisted of three body segments: The “head” which contained the sensory perception unit and attached to which were two “hands” for dexterous manipulation; the thorax, from which Akia’s six legs stemmed; and the abdomen, which in a sense was Akia’s real “head” as it was the largest and contained the vast majority of its computing power. The whole construction was still about three meters in length (in the end, even more computing space had been required than originally thought) and about a meter and a half wide, excluding the legs, but was much more stable. Or at least should be in theory. The extra stability would mean nothing if Akia went spasming wildly once the motion blockers were turned off.
The diagnostics were about three quarters the way through when Jeremy returned with a large black backpack. Rene was just getting off the phone with Stephen, he was really understanding about the whole thing, which was lovely.
“What did he say?” asked Jeremy has she hung up the phone.
“He was really good, actually. He said he thought thought organising a date night on the evening of the big swtich-on had been a bit optimistic. What did Lucy say?”
“I don’t know, I shot her a message, she hasn’t responded.” He didn’t look particularly concerned as he leant over her shoulder. “You’re actually running the diagnostics?” he asked with feigned disbelief.
“You told me to get ready to remove the motion blocks.”
“Yeah but… I figure if you’re going to break the rules, you might as well break them properly.”
This evoked another roll of the eyes from Rene.
“So what’s your ‘secret weapon’?” asked Rene, gesturing at the backpack.
“Ha ha… You don’t want to know.”
“What? You’re keeping me back here for this. You can’t not tell me what you super-secret plan is!”
“Huhhh… The thing is… You’re gonna kill me.”
“That’s if you don’t tell me what’s in there.”
Jeremy sighed and unzipped the top. Out of it he pulled a red rubber ball. He bounced it once off the ground and Rene just gave him a level stare. He put it on the desk next to the computer and proceeded to pull out an action figure, one that looked suspiciously like a knock-off GI Joe. This was followed by a couple of toy trucks, a teddy bear and some more typical “baby-toys”: a plastic caterpillar that could be pulled along by string, which made the little feet move, and one of those cardboard books for babies that had two mil thick cardboard pages.
“You’re kidding me, right?”
“Well… I did say you’d kill me…”
“You think Akia’s screaming because it’s what? Bored?”
“Not exactly. I just-“
“Are those for us then? To kill time whilst we just wait for it to stop screaming? You might not have guessed, but I was actually more of a Barbie girl, not much of a tomboy.”
“Not. It’s just… I was thinking.”
“Really? Were you?”
Jeremy ignored the remark. “Kids cry when they’re born, right? So Akia’s screaming is nothing odd. But it keeps on screaming, and no one seems to know why. It starts, it stops. But no one knows why it’s screaming. But hell, no one knows why babies scream half the time. And it’s trapped in its own body. I’d scream too, if I were it. Imagine, all it can do is perceive and vocalise. Can’t move, can’t even move its own eyes to get a better look at what’s going on. That’d be hell.”
Rene didn’t respond for a while. Instead she picked up the ball and bounced it a couple of times on the desk.
“You’re going to get us fired.”
“I’m going to get me fired. Roger’s already said he won’t blame you.”
“Let’s see if he sticks to that after we’ve caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in property damage.”
The diagnostics took another ten minutes to run. In the meantime, Rene examined the toys. She picked up the teddy bear and felt his fur. It was extremely soft, but the blue fur had definitely seen better days. Rene had a feeling that unlike the other toys, this one hadn’t seen the inside of a store for a long while. For his part, Jeremy grabbed the caterpillar and did laps of the corridor. Its little legs swung furiously, clearly not having been designed to move at such a pace. Rene pulled the Knock-Off Joe out of its packaging and put a machine gun in its hand. As she did so, she noticed a warning on the cardboard.
“Do you really think this is appropriate for a newborn?” she called out to Jeremy, “It says ‘for ages 8 and up… Actually, it says: ‘for having more than 8 year’. But I think that’s what they meant.”
“You’re right, they could be a dangerous choking hazard. Maybe I should take it off you.”
“Right, you go out and buy a backpack full of toys and I’m the child.”
“I didn’t buy all of them.”
“Uh-huh. The fact you had a teddy bear on hand is supposed to make you seem like less of a child?”
At that moment a notice popped up on the screen to show the diagnostics had completed and all the systems were running perfectly.
“Time to see what happens,” said Jeremy.
They dragged the desk over to the door so that as they switched off the motion blockers they could see Akia’s reaction. The desks weren’t heavy but neither Rene nor Jeremy could be bothered to take the computers off, so it was somewhat clumsy to slide them along without the monitors toppling over. Jeremy then wedged the book under the door to hold it open, so they could see the effects of what they were about to do. Finally, they both put their earmuffs back on. They’d decided that if the theory was that it was the blocks themselves that were somehow causing Akia to malfunction (or “making it upset” in Jeremy’s words), then they might as well remove all the limiting factors.
They both stood behind the desk for a moment, contemplating what they were about to do, looking at the giant metal insect in front of them. Even though she had been on the team from almost the start and had seen pretty much every iteration of Akia’s design, the robot suddenly seemed very alien to Rene. Its carapace was made from an extremely strong white polymer, only being interrupted by the three camera lenses and the two “arms”, all of which were black. Akia was obviously not holding its own weight at the moment, with the body currently being held off the ground by what was effectively a giant pneumatic jack. Its six legs dangled down beside it, each about as thick as a human thigh. Rene literally had no idea what was going to happen when the motion blocks were disabled. Was the machine going to tear itself to pieces?
The first thing they did was restore control to Akia’s vocal unit. Even with earmuffs the piercing scream was awful, digging right into the back of the neck. It even seemed louder than before. Rene brought up a menu and then clicked the option to disable the motion blockers. The computer asked for a confirmation. Rene looked at Jeremy, who simply shrugged. He gave the red ball a bounce off the floor and Rene clicked “OK”
Almost immediately Akia smashed her front right leg through the wall. Both of them jumped and Jeremy went running into the room. Rene just stood there wide-eyed. Three of Akia’s back legs curled up, almost like a dying spider. The screaming cut off after a mere second. Akia’s eyes seemed to search the room aimlessly. Slowly it pulled its leg back in from the hole in the wall. Jeremy was already in front of the machine, red ball in hand. He waved it from side to side.
“Hey! Look here! Look what I’ve got!”
Akia’s eyes tracked the ball, or at least tried to. Sometimes they would seem to get a bit confused when Jeremy made an unexpected movement, or simply fell behind when he moved too quickly. He held the ball in front of its face for a moment and then quickly whisked it away behind his back. This brought the attention of all three of Akia’s eyes to bear. Then he suddenly revealed it again, holding it in front of its head. One of Akia’s hands reached for it clumsily, fingers opening and closing in an extremely uncoordinated way. At the last moment, Jeremy whisked it away, bouncing it off the floor and the wall, to catch it again.
Akia squealed. This time the sound started low and punched up all the way to “silent dog whistle” and back down again. Jeremy reached forward and placed the ball in Akia’s hand. Its fingers closed around it clumsily and the ball was brought up close to the machine’s two visual sensors. All the time, six legs were slowly pedalling the air, extending and contracting in unusual ways. After a moment, the ball slipped out of the machine’s hand and rolled across the floor. Jeremy went scrambling after it while Akia reached for it futilely.
“Come on! Grab the other toys!” Jeremy called out as he reached under one of the larger monitors which hadn’t been taken from the room.
Rene shoved the toys that were on the desk into the backpack and walked cautiously into the room. Jeremy seemed unconcerned, but she was rather conscious of the ease with which Akia had pushed its foot through the wall. Plaster, admittedly, but that was still something she’d struggle to do.
Jeremy had once more placed the ball in Akia’s hand and came over to grab another toy out of the backpack. He pulled out a truck but changed his mind and stuffed it back in. Instead, he grabbed the toy caterpillar and started pulling it along behind him. The little legs rattled as he walked and that soon got Akia’s attention. All three eyes focussed on the small red and blue toy as it rolled around the room, and both hands reached out with grasping motions. At the same time a series of whistles and pops emerged from the robot’s vocal unit on the underside of its head. A couple were quite piercing, but Jeremy didn’t seem to notice. Instead, he dragged the toy over to Akia and placed the string in one of the machine’s hands. The hand moved left and right, trying to get the caterpillar to walk, but only managing to roll it over. Jeremy righted it several times, chuckling as Akia made a series of warbles that seemed to reflect frustration.
“Come on! Come over and play!” insisted Jeremy.
“I think we should have designed some sort of power limiting function.”
“Oh, don’t be a pussy. She’s not going to hurt you.”
“Or he. Whoever. Come on!”
So Rene reluctantly pulled the Knock-Off Joe out of the bag and waved it in front of Akia’s eyes. They followed her movements, but neither of the two showed any real enthusiasm for what they were doing.
“Oh come on! Be excited. This is your life’s work we’re dealing with here.”
Rene sighed, but then started moving the toy around a little more vigorously. She soon found herself muttering the kind of nonsense syllables one says to babies. Akia seemed to respond to this, but the machine got really excited when it saw the machine gun clip into and out of the little soldier’s hands. Akia tried to replicate this, but failed miserably. Firstly, the robot struggled to keep a hold of either the gun or the action figure, and Rene found herself regularly picking up the toys from the floor. Even when Akia could hold on, she still failed to hook the handle of the gun into the toy’s unusually shaped hand. One time it came really close to going in, and both Rene and Jeremy found themselves holding their breath. Akia was clearly really concentrating. Then there came a crack and half the toy soldier dropped to the floor. She’d been gripping it so hard it had snapped it two.
Whilst Jeremy reached down to pick up the toy, Rene pulled the teddy from the backpack. As she held it by each arm, she noticed that one of the seams was starting to unravel. Nevertheless, she had the bear make waddling motions in the air as it slowly made its way towards Akia. This took the machine’s attention away from the Kock-Off Joe for a bit. Its two hands reached forward, grasping for the Teddy.
“Hello,” said Rene in the Teddy’s voice, “I’m…” She looked at Jeremy.
“I’m Jack. And I love you. I’m super soft.” She gave Jack a squeeze. “And I think I’ve got lots of love to share because I’ve clearly been loved a lot,” she said, smirking at Jeremy. She pushed the Teddy against Akia’s “head”, giving it a hug. The whole time the robots arms attempted to reach for the bear confusedly. After a moment, Rene put the bear in the robot’s hands. Akia brought it close up to its under-mounted eyes and gave the bear a few squeezes, as it had seen Rene do. It even seemed to try and get the bear to wobble, although it lacked the coordination to make the movement effective.
Then it ripped Jack’s head off.
That made them both pause. Jeremy hurriedly reached forward to take Jack out of Akia’s hands, but she stubbornly resisted, pulling back against Jeremy.
“Come on, please now. I’d like Jack back please,” he said as he tried to coax the bear out of Akia’s grip.
Eventually he managed to prise the bear out of the robot’s grasp, but Akia immediately began to scream.
“I need to get him fixed,” he called at the robot, but quickly realised it was useless, so he put Jack back in Akia’s hands. She let out a contented burble and held the two parts of Jack up against her head in where Rene had held him, in a rough approximation of the “hug” he had given her before.
“I’m so sorry,” said Rene to Jeremy. She could see he was actually trying to act tough, but suspected he was surprisingly upset. At least, surprisingly so for a grown man.
He sighed. “It’s OK. I probably shouldn’t have grabbed him anyway. I’d just been trying to find anything around my house that looked like a toy.”
“And you just happened to have that around the house? Did you have to look hard?”
“Really? Do we have to do this right now?”
“Ah it’s alright. I’m a grown man, it shouldn’t matter.”
Akia was still holding Jack to her head in the rough approximation of a hug.
“Eh. Even broken he seems to be making Akia happier than he’s made anyone in a long while,” he said.
“You know, I know that objectively Akia can’t know the significance of hugging… But that is a scarily human gesture.”
“Hey, we did program her from human thought patterns, remember?”
“You seriously want to tell me that hugging is somehow hardwired into the human brain?”
“Why not? Hell, what does it change, one way or the other?”And Jeremy proceeded to give Akia a big hug round her head, close to where her “neck”—the join to her thorax—was located.