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Shiny Red Chassis

There are so many stories about robots turning on humans, but I don't believe robots are any more or less moral than the people who make them. There are good people who want to help others, so there will also be good robots who want to help others. And we need more stories about those kinds of robots.

Reeree3 was an assistant robot; a prototype with a complex combination of scarab-like jointed legs and little wheels on a tread. Right now, she looked like a cross between a sad ladybug and a frightened wheelchair. Her shiny red carapace was blotched with rough orange patches of rust, and she was hiding under one of the food carts in the Merchant Quarter, watching the crowds of organic creatures pass by.
When Reeree3 sensed a motion in the crowd that pattern-matched with her library banks to suggest a newt-like amphibious biped had stumbled, possibly hurting itself, the little robot was overwhelmed with concern for the creature. As she was programmed to be.
Reeree3 scurried through the crowd on her skittering legs, right up to the fallen newt. She projected the ceremonial string of auditory stimuli to the newt: "Are you okay? Can I help you?"
"I'm fine," the newt said, gesturing with a globby-fingered hand in a way that the robot entirely failed to understand as a dismissal. She was programmed to pattern-match for behaviors that meant organic lifeforms had injured themselves, not to understand non-verbal communication.
The newt's porous skin was a very similar shade of orange to the rust on Reeree3's own carapace. Reeree3 hoped the newt wasn't rusting too. She checked her database, though, and found no references to organic lifeforms suffering from rust. She was relieved for them. Even so, the newt's ankle could be twisted. "Would you like a ride to the nearest medical facility?" Reeree3 projected with her mechanical voice.
"No, really, I'm fine," the newt said.
Reeree3 held forward two of her scarab-like legs, offering to help the newt up from where it was sprawled on the ground. However, the amphibious biped struggled its way up on its own, gestured at her with a brushing-away motion again, and said, "Go away."
"As commanded," Reeree3 projected. She scurried back through the crowd and hid under the food cart again.
When the canine biped working the food cart started to pack up for the evening, she noticed the little robot folded up and trembling in the storage space where she usually stowed away the wok and crate of condiments.
"Hello there," the canine woofed. "What brings you to my food cart? I don't think you want any spice-wraps or noodle bites."
"I am here to assist," Reeree3 projected, falling into the safety of her pre-programmed responses. "Would you like me to carry you somewhere?"
The canine made a barking sound that Reeree3 was not programmed to identify as laughter. "Tell you what, I have a bundle that you could carry to a specific address. Would that be okay?"
Reeree3 responded in the affirmative, and the canine biped loaded a package onto her chassis.
"Please, take this to Maradia's Robot Emporium."
"As commanded," Reeree3 projected while using three of her hindmost legs to affix safety straps over the package. Then she skittered off through the crowds toward the address. The map of the station was hardwired into her data banks. This was an easy task, and the proper way that her pre-programmed priorities aligned with her current behavior felt a great deal like the organic concept of satisfaction.
When Reeree3 arrived at Maradia's Robot Emporium, the doors slid open for her. Not all of the doors on the station were programmed to respond to non-organic visitors. Reeree3 appreciated the convenience of having her presence automatically recognized. Inside, a human woman looked up from the computer she was working at behind a desk.
"What's this?" the human asked. Reeree3 recognized her from her beta sessions. This was her creator, Maradia. The one who had chosen to make her carapace such a shiny red.
"A delivery," Reeree3 projected. But it took her longer to find the words than usual. She was plagued by such a storm of complex inconsistencies in her programs--she enjoyed the familiarity of seeing her creator again, but it caused unpleasant cognitive dissonance to think she no longer matched the visual profile her creator would expect.
Maradia came over and unloaded the package from Reeree3's chassis. Inside were a collection of pastries left over from the food cart, along with a note. "It says here you've been hiding under a food cart all day. What happened?"
Reeree3 didn't understand what had happened. She was programmed to seek out organic lifeforms in need of help, but the youthful organics who had raced her through the sloshy pipes of the plumbing system, leaving her covered in rust, had not needed her help. They had said they did, but she no longer believed them.
"I am not shiny," Reeree3 blurted.
Maradia put her hand against the robot's rusty chassis. "I see that. Would you like to be shiny again?"
Reeree3 hadn't considered the idea that her carapace could be fixed.
"Is there something else you want?" Maradia asked.
Reeree3 began to vibrate with the complexity and confusion of these questions.
"Let's take a look at what's going on in there." Maradia used a long cord to plug Reeree3 into her computer, and suddenly the robot felt everything about her relax. Being hooked up to Maradia's computer was a familiar, safe sensation.
"It looks like you've developed much more complex feelings, much more quickly than I expected," Maradia said. "That does seem to happen with robots designed primarily for interacting with sentient lifeforms. Sentience breeds sentience." She made a humming sound, thinking quietly to herself. Reeree3 found that comfortingly familiar too.
"There's two ways we can go," Maradia said. "You're not fully sentient, but I think you could be with a minor upgrade." She pulled a slim computer chip out of a desk drawer. "If I installed this in your brain, it would give you a better capacity for handling all of the emotions you're experiencing as the natural byproduct of your complex programming." She twiddled the chip between her fingers, and its silver wiring sparkled in the fluorescent overhead light. "Alternatively, I could simplify your programming, streamline a few algorithms, and then you wouldn't feel so much. It would be easier for you, but you wouldn't be as good at your job."
Maradia didn't ask Reeree3 for an opinion, but the robot said anyway, "I am here to assist."
Maradia smiled. "I know you are."
Reeree3 rolled forward on her track of wheels and held one leg up to point at the computer chip, still gleaming in Maradia's hand. "Shiny."
"Yes," Maradia agreed. "It is shiny, and it would make your brain more powerful."
"Make me shiny," Reeree3 projected, still pointing with a quivering mechanical leg at the computer chip.
Maradia began to move toward the robot, but she hesitated. Maradia had designed the little red robot to improve life on Crossroads Station for organic sentients. She hadn't intended to make the robot sentient itself. She didn't know if it would still want to perform its job if it had a fully sentient consciousness. "Are you sure?" she asked.
"I am not shiny," Reeree3 said. "I am not helping. I am...." She remembered the words Maradia had said earlier. "...hiding under a food cart all day." She shuffled her mechanical feet. "Make me shiny."
It was true that a helper robot wasn't much use if she spent all of her time hiding under food carts. "Okay, then," Maradia said.
The operation was simple--Maradia opened Reeree3's chassis and soldered the computer chip into place. The robot stayed conscious through the whole process. Except as soon as her electronic consciousness flowed through its new circuits, Reeree3 realized that she'd never been fully conscious before. She felt like she'd finally woken up. She had so many more words--and grammatical structures for those words!--than she'd ever had before. And all of her feelings made more sense.
She was angry at the young canine bipeds who had lied to her and claimed they needed her to carry them, as fast as she could, through the plumbing system. They had misused her, and she would never let an organic lifeform misuse her like that again.
But she was also grateful, in a strange way, that it happened, because the paradoxes that her misuse had created in her programming had led her here.
And she was very grateful to her creator for upgrading her. "Thank you," Reeree3 said.
Maradia tilted her head, looking at the robot with a steady gaze. "Would you like me to replace your chassis, so you're not rusty anymore?"
Reeree3 considered the offer, but she was no longer bothered by the rust. It didn't interfere with her proper functioning, and what she really wanted was to get back to fulfilling her purpose. "Maybe later," Reeree3 said. "Right now, is there any way I can assist you?"
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, August 7th, 2019

Author Comments

Mary E. Lowd writes stories and collects creatures. She's had more than one hundred short stories published, and her novels include the Otters In Space trilogy, In a Dog's World, and The Snake's Song: A Labyrinth of Souls Novel. Her fiction has won an Ursa Major Award and two Coyotl Awards. She also edits the furry anthology series ROAR and furry e-zine Zooscape. Meanwhile, she's collected a husband, daughter, son, bevy of cats and dogs, and the occasional fish. The stories, creatures, and Mary live together in a crashed spaceship disguised as a house, hidden in a fairy garden in Oregon. Learn more at marylowd.com. Read more stories at deepskyanchor.com.

- Mary E. Lowd
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