Last week I posted the opening chapter of my novel, and promised to post another section this week. So that’s what I’m doing now. This next section appears ninety-ish pages into the book and is obviously a little spoiler-ish. I chose this section because it’s a pretty good vertical slice. We get to see some villains, we get a little action, and we get lots and lots of our leads talking about how robots work. That’s pretty much the book in a nutshell. If this passage doesn’t do it for you then this novel is probably not your thing.
City of Blind Cameras
Jen and Max are walking along a row of street-level shops downtown when she says, “Dr. Kvenst and I both feel that the murders are sabotage. But I’m curious how you came to that conclusion. Did she convince you, or did you come up with it on your own?”
Max is walking with his head down and his hands stuffed in the pockets of his raincoat. He answers without looking up. “The exploding faces looks too much like a cover-up to me. Also, the murders just happened to occur in such a way as to generate maximum panic. They hit a couple of innocent people – a woman and an old man – in broad daylight, in front of public security cameras. The reaction would have been different if it had happened in an industrial setting.”
They’re walking on one of the streets located beneath the promenade. The overhead walkway blots out the sky, making the street feel like a tunnel. Narrow shafts of sunlight and rainwater flow in through the drainage grates above. It’s late morning, and the street is mostly empty. Vendors keep harassing them with salesman patter as they pass. Max is used to being ignored by these guys, but Jen is white so they assume she’s a potential customer.
“The thing we found suspicious is that the murders have all happened here in Rivergate. This city has about 5% of the world robot population, but 100% of the robot murders.” Jen walks through a column of falling water as she says this. It looks strange to Max because you’d expect a human to walk around it. Even if they didn’t, they would probably make a sound or skip a breath when they found themselves suddenly doused with cold water. Barring that, they would probably sputter for a second when the water washed over their face.
“I read an article yesterday,” Max says. “I see that the company has started blaming the attacks on the robots’ age. Apparently most of the robots in this city are obsolete.”
“While that’s true, that explanation didn’t come from Dr. Kvenst or anyone on her team. All she could tell them was ‘I don’t know’ and ‘this is impossible’, so they handed over the job of explaining things to public relations. It’s one of the reasons she started pressing for us to find whoever hacked the casino robots. The company has stopped talking to her and she’s worried they’re planning to pin the blame on her department and fire her. This country is mostly using generation two units, which they stopped selling out east about five years ago. But even if we take that into account, this country only has about 20% of the population of gen 2 units in the world.”
Max steers her around another shaft of light and water. Apparently neither of them cares if she gets wet, but when the water lands on her it splashes him in the face. Once they’ve passed he says, “So when we add it all up, it’s just unlikely enough to be suspicious but not unlikely enough to prove anything. That’s really annoying.”
“You can see why Dr. Kvenst was frustrated.”
“Does anyone else make robots? The only ones I ever see are from G-Kinetics.”
“There are a lot of little companies and university projects out there, and maybe there are government projects we don’t know about, but in terms of consumer-grade robots there is only the big three: G-Kinetics, Senma Technology, and Yendu Industrial. Yendu is the odd one. They’re working on machine intelligence, but they don’t really make thinking bipeds. They’re working on stuff like thinking factories and power plants. Projects for rich countries. I doubt they’re going to do business here anytime soon. Senma makes humanoids like me. Their machine intelligence is years behind us, but according to the real humans I’ve talked to their bodies look amazing.”
Max stops and looks Jen up and down. “Really? How much better can they be? You look almost real to me.”
“This body has rigid muscles, like an animated mannequin. The muscles don’t bulge or contract. It’s why this body is so thin. The more muscle mass you have, the more noticeable the flaw is. My mouth doesn’t animate perfectly with my audio, and the inside of the mouth doesn’t look quite right. People say it looks ‘dry’. The other problem is with the rigid insides. Poke my belly.”
Max does. It’s like poking a solid hunk of metal with a thin layer of rubber stretched over it. “Ugh. That’s weird.”
“That’s my battery. I’m more than double the weight of an equivalent human my size, and the weight is distributed differently. It’s not a big deal when I’m just walking and talking, but it looks strange if you do anything active. The skin looks good in low light, but in bright sunlight I look fake. Some people find the effect off-putting.”
“And this other company doesn’t have these problems?”
“Their humanoids look very close to the real thing. I can’t tell the difference, although I’m told most people can. Senma Technology is a very artist-driven company. Aesthetics rule, and the engineers have to make do with the constraints they’re given. This means their products are physically feeble, they have a battery life of just a few hours, and they’re not particularly useful for anything besides walking and talking. Their machine sapience program hit a dead-end about eight years ago. Their machines were too simple to hold up an interesting conversation. This is bad, because they looked so lifelike.”
“So they looked even more like a human than you do, but they weren’t anywhere near as smart.” Max could see how the former would exacerbate the latter. Max never expected much from the primitive-looking laborer bots that he saw around the city, but he’s acutely aware every time Jen commits a breach of human norms.
“And on top of everything else, their robots cost a fortune. Eventually they gave up and started buying brains from us. They get our cast-offs. Right now we’re selling gen 4 models, but Senma is still using gen 3 brains.”
“Huh. That kinda kills my theory. I was hoping there was a rival that was trying to discredit you so they could steal your business. But one company buys its brains from you and the other is operating in a totally different market. Neither one has a good motivation for this.”
“I don’t suppose you have criminals you can contact? Kvenst was hoping you would ask around. That’s the entire reason she got Landro to hire you in the first place.”
“I think she’s vastly overestimating how effective ‘asking around’ can be. This is a city of millions, there are a lot of factions, and not a lot of communication between them. Normally I’d start by working out what skill sets were involved, but without knowing how this job was done we have no way of knowing what sorts of people might have been working on it.”
They emerge from the shadow of the promenade into the pouring rain. An aerial police drone drifts down, and like an idiot he looks up at it. He looks down quickly and tilts his hat forward, but the damage is done. It’s not that he thinks anyone is after him. It’s just that for him staying low-profile and invisible is an act of basic professionalism. You never know when the cops might want to know where you are, so it’s best to behave as if they always want to know where you are.
“This is it,” she says.
Max looks around the intersection of footpaths as if he expects to see the the victim and the perpetrator still lying on the wet stone, but of course they’re long gone. The emergency apparatus of the city is swollen and dysfunctional, but the tourism apparatus is a tireless machine and having dead bodies in the street is bad for business. He can’t even see where the murder happened. If there was any lingering forensic evidence, the rain has wiped it away.
Max pulls out his new projection glasses and puts them on. He looks over to Jen, expecting her to make a crack about how absurd this looks, which is part of the universally understood human ritual of putting on unusual hats and glasses. But then he remembers she’s a robot and probably doesn’t notice that sort of thing.
He turns them on, which is pointless since they don’t have anything to project yet. He pulls out his handheld and opens the security footage. It shows the intersection where the two of them are currently standing. The timestamp in the corner shows this video is a bit less than 24 hours old. It was raining then too, which means the footage is garbage. Still, he can see a man and a woman standing together under an umbrella, looking at something just out of view. Annoyingly, they’re in the corner of the image. The woman is almost out of the frame entirely and he can’t see what they’re looking at.
Max orients himself and faces the security camera that captured this footage. It’s not hard. The cameras are designed to blend into the scenery, but he’s spent a lot of his career ducking, sabotaging, spoofing, and manipulating these things. His eyes are always looking for them, whether he’s currently interested in them or not. Once he’s got the camera lined up, he stands just where the victims were standing and turns to see what they were looking at. It’s a street-level screen, which is currently advertising a boat tour along the coast. It shows a boat cruising past the statue of Halona in front of a crimson sky. The image is reflected in the rippling water at his feet. In this context, it makes him feel like he’s standing in luminescent blood.
Once he’s reconciled the scenery and the video in his mind, he thumbs the play button. The couple turns as a robot enters the frame. It reaches out and crushes the man’s head, and then its face explodes outwards. The woman recoils and falls out of frame.
“What happened to the woman?” Max asks without turning to face Jen.
“She’s got some burns on her arm where she was hit with the battery gel and maybe a bit of shrapnel, but she’s otherwise fine. Nothing life-threatening. She was taken to the hospital, but I don’t know if she’s been released yet.”
“Do the police really just let you make copies of all of the evidence like this?”
“Apparently so. I don’t know who our contact is or what sort of paperwork we have to file.”
“Must be nice to be a global corporation. When I want stuff like this I’ve got to bribe a cop, do a burglary, and hack a computer.”
He sends the projection data to the glasses and two bodies appear on the ground in front of him. The man is thankfully face-down. Max doesn’t know if he could handle looking at this damage from the front. There’s a stream of watered-down blood flowing from his head to the gutter. The robot is on its back, the now-open face looking towards the grey sky.
“I don’t know these markings. What kind of robot is this?”
“It’s a generation 2, just like the others.”
“No, I mean what was its job?”
“The police report said it was a janitorial unit.”
Max turns around in a circle and spots a projected broom and dustbin lying nearby. He walks over and, like a total idiot, tries to pick up the broom. His hand slaps against the wet ground. Embarrassed, he looks back to see if Jen noticed. She’s watching him, but she doesn’t say anything. The glasses are projecting a red outline around her to let him know she isn’t part of the captured scene.
“The robot dropped its tools right here. Do you know how long after the murder this image was taken?”
He looks around again, flipping the glasses on and off to see if he’s missing any other details. The only discrepancies are Jen, the bodies, and the tools.
“The robot was still holding its broom. Presumably it was still doing normal janitor-type stuff. But then it dropped the broom, walked over here, and killed the guy.” Max is narrating the action as he does it himself. He ends by clapping his hands together at eye level, repeating the execution move the robot performed. “So its behavior changed. It stopped sweeping – or at least, it stopped holding its broom – and performed a murder. Perhaps something triggered it. Maybe somebody did something to it? Maybe it saw something on the billboard?”
He goes quiet. He realizes he’s just verbally flailing around and he has no idea where to go from here.
“Would it help if we got footage from other security cameras in the area?” Jen asks.
Max shrugs. “Possibly. But cameras are only installed at intersections. And not all of them work. Sometimes they’re vandalized on purpose, and the city doesn’t fix them in a hurry. Anyone who knows how the city works ought to be able to move around without being seen. With a little scouting, I could walk from here to the hotel without ever showing up on a camera. Basically, they spy on tourists without doing anything about criminal activity. Since the murders are all happening in this city, I’m thinking our suspect would be able to conceal themselves from the cameras.”
“I can request the footage anyway. I can look through it.”
Max can’t tell if this is a proposal or an announcement. It doesn’t matter. She’s not his robot. She can do whatever she wants.
He can hear another drone passing overhead. He manages to keep his face down this time. This is largely pointless since he’s been standing in front of a city camera for five minutes, but he’s glad his instincts seem to be recovering.
Max stares at the empty spot on the pavement where the man died. “So where were the other killings?”
“The first happened on Stoneway, just north of the West Bridge. The second took place right outside the Grandview.”
“Let’s look at the Grandview first. It’s only a half mile from here.”
“Public street navigation says it’s a mile.”
“Public streetnav is maintained by the city planners. It’s designed to keep you near the shops and away from traffic arteries. If we go up Third Street we can cut across the loop that streetnav is suggesting.”
They head north. Being a native, Max knows that this path will eventually become Third Street, but it’s not called that now because it’s just a walkway and thus follows different naming conventions. This is one of the many rules that makes sense to locals but causes endless confusion for visitors. Since the confusion tends to get people lost near the shops, nobody is interested in making any changes.
They’re under the promenade again, so the sky has been replaced with a concrete ceiling. This area is filled with arcades, smoke dens, bars, and live music. Those businesses don’t usually open until noon, which means the street is dark and the storefronts are shuttered.
Max spots a lone policeman inspecting a storefront ahead of them. He’s checking the gates and making sure everything is locked up properly. This seems like it’s a nice gesture, but Max is guessing he’s just looking for an excuse to issue a citation.
The cop turns and Max realizes this is Sando. He’s the oldest and quietest of the Three Pigs, and Max has always assumed he’s the brains of the trio. Max knows exactly what’s going to happen next, even before he hears the heavy footsteps coming from behind.
A slap to one side of his head knocks his hat off. He turns to recover it and ends up lifted and slammed into a wall. He finds himself looking into pair of fierce young eyes.
Max coughs. “Good morning Officer Veers.”
Dixon stands beside Jen Five and rests his hand on his service pistol. All three of them are wearing the dusty red uniforms of the city police, which has segments of black body armor strapped to it. On Veers these plates accentuate his already considerable physique and make him look immense. Dixon is more fat than muscle, so his armor panels have expanded away from each other over the years. He keeps the straps tight like a girdle, which makes his breathing shallow and labored.
Sando draws close now that Veers and Dixon have the civilians under control. “Mr. Law. I heard you were out of prison. I hope you’ve reformed. I’d hate to see you fall into recidivism.”
“Nope. I’m reformed. Gonna open a donut shop.”
Veers slams his fist into Max’s sternum.
Sando shoves his hand into Max’s pocket and pulls out a wad of cash. “Reformed? You expect us to believe an unemployed smuggler can afford a room at the Seaside? Looks to me like you’re stealing from our guests again.” He gives the money to Veers, who pockets it.
Max tries to give a nonchalant shrug, which is hard to do properly with so much weight pushing him into the wall. “The room doesn’t even have a view.”
Sando reaches inside of Max’s jacket and pulls out his gun. “Whose gun is this?”
Max replies, “This is a dangerous city. A guy’s gotta protect himself. I mean, there’s never a cop when you need one.”
Veers punches him in the face. Max tries to roll with it, but it’s pretty much impossible when you’re pinned.
Sando continues, “Are you telling me this is your gun? Because if this is your gun then I have to take you back to prison. So whose gun is it?”
“I guess it’s your gun,” Max mumbles.
Sando nods. “So where’s all the money coming from, Mr. Law? A little something you had hidden away before you went to prison?”
Max tries to shake his head. “That’s impossible. There’s no way I could outsmart someone as clever as you.” Surprisingly, Veers doesn’t hit him for this.
Sando is still going through his pockets. He pulls out a pack of smokes. He starts to say something, but then he sees Max’s brand. “What is this shit? You get out of prison and somehow you’re an even bigger degenerate than when you went in?” He crumples up the pack and throws it over his shoulder.
“What do you want, Officer Sando?”
“I want you to tell us where this money is coming from. Hand it over as evidence, and we’ll leave you alone.”
Dixon’s earpiece sputters out some muffled chatter. Confused, he says, “Sand? Dispatch just said they got a call about three guys pretending to be cops, assaulting a civilian.”
Sando looks down the street in either direction. “A tourist or something? I don’t see anyone.” He looks at Jen. “Did she call someone?”
Dixon replies, “I’ve been watching her the whole time. She’s just staring at me like a dumbass.”
Sando turns back to Max. “You’re a clever one, Max. I know you’ve got some money hidden away. It’s stolen money, and as officers of the city it’s our job to track it down. We’re gonna find it eventually, so how about you tell us now and save everyone some time?”
Max keeps his mouth shut. Veers is just looking for an excuse to hit him again.
Sando goes back into his pockets and pulls out his handheld. “Nice. Looks like the bank just issued this one. Got your identity moved over and everything.” He hands the unit to Dixon, who throws it on the ground and stomps on it.
Sando looks down at the plastic wreckage and frowns. “Oops. Now you’re cut off from your bank account until they issue you a new one. If you’ve got some money hidden away, now would be a good time to go get it.”
Max still doesn’t see any reason to talk, but Sando gives him a nice long opening in case he decides to do so. When it’s clear Max isn’t going to produce a suitcase full of cash right there, Sando loses interest. “Okay. Think about it Max. Stay out of trouble.” He takes a step back and suddenly everyone relaxes.
Veers smiles. “Let’s go find those fake cops before they hurt anyone else.”
Dixon kicks the crumpled-up cigarettes towards Max. “Pick up your litter if you don’t want a ticket.”
Max slumps down against the wall and tries to catch his breath. He prods his face a bit, assessing the damage.
Jen hasn’t moved since the altercation began. She’s still wearing her sunglasses, standing with her arms at her sides with her usual neutral expression.
“I’m guessing you called the cops? What, you’ve got a phone in your head?”
“It’s a link to the research office. It was installed as an anti-theft measure. I broadcasted the situation. I guess someone at G-Kinetics saw the message and called the police.” She looks down the street where the three men went. “Do you think the police will catch them?”
Max groans and pushes the heel of his hand into his forehead. “Those were the police. The real, actual police. So no, nobody is going to ‘catch’ those guys.”
“They broke six laws in a two-minute conversation.”
“How can you know so much and so little about this country at the same time?”
“Everything I know about this country comes from Kasaranian media. I knew bribes were common. I didn’t realize that police muggings were common.”
“I don’t know if I’d call that a mugging. And it’s not actually that common. Those three aren’t your typical crooked cops. But yeah, law enforcement in this city is a little more complicated than what you’ve been told.” He pushes against the wall to get himself upright. He’s surprised at how dizzy he is. “Damnit. My bruises had just healed.”
He limps a couple of blocks to get out from under the promenade so the rain can wash the blood off his face. Jen Five follows him in silence.
He fishes around inside the ruined package of cigarettes to find the most structurally sound of the bunch. He breaks off some of the crumbly bits and sticks what’s left in the right side of his mouth, as far from the damage as possible. He manages to get it lit without the rain dousing it and without him needing to make any whimpering noises. “So I thought you said that you hated seeing harm come to humans. You said it was unbearable.”
“Calling it ‘unbearable’ was obviously hyperbole, but yes.”
“But you stood by and watched it happen. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t expect you to lay down your life for me or whatever. I just can’t figure how you stood there and watched if you hate it so much.”
“That was a very negative outcome for me, yes. It was probably the worst situation I’ve ever been in.” She says this in her unwavering dispassionate voice. It’s not that she speaks in monotone. It’s just that she sounds like she’s not particularly invested in anything that’s happening.
“Wasn’t all that great for me either,” he says.
“But remember that I hate hurting people even more than I hate seeing them hurt by others. There was no way to protect you from those men without entering into physical conflict with them.”
“You’re saying you’d rather let an aggressor win than defend an innocent party? That sounds like a really shitty design.”
“There’s a thought experiment we use to talk about this kind of stuff. It’s called the train problem.”
“Is this the one where there’s three people on a set of tracks and a train is about to run them over, but you can flip a switch and send the train to an alternate track where it will only kill one?” Max sighs. This sort of stuff always struck him as pointless wanking.
“That’s the one, although the numbers of people vary depending on what you’re trying to prove. Anyway, the vast majority of humans will choose to throw the switch and sacrifice one person to save three.”
Max nods. “I guess I would too. Makes sense.” Max begins walking north. He moves with his head low and his hand held to his ribs. Jen walks beside him.
“But robots are designed to not intervene. Or at least, we’re extremely reluctant to do something that will hurt someone, even if the overall outcome seems favorable.”
Maybe it’s the beating his brain just took, but he doesn’t see how this thought experiment explains anything. “I don’t get it. Why?”
“Because you really don’t want robots deciding who should be sacrificed for the common good. The train experiment is useful because it’s really clear-cut, but the vast majority of decisions in the real world are a lot more muddled. In the real world we’ll disagree on specifics like how many people are on each track, what the odds are that each group might be able to get out of the way on their own, and how much time we have to make a decision. Maybe some people think that switching tracks at the last minute will derail the train and kill both groups. And so on. We can’t agree on the risks, the benefits, the available options, or what caused the problem to begin with.”
“Okay, but sometimes the problem is clear-cut.” Max looks over his shoulder, indicating he’s talking about the encounter they just had.
“Is it? There are almost seven million people in this city. There are millions of different opinions on how the world works, or how it ought to work. None of them think their opinions are stupid or wrong, even though many of them have to be. Everyone thinks their solutions to the world’s problems are obvious. Do you think because I’m a robot I’ll do any better? I’ll be acting on the same imperfect information everyone else has. Dump a million robots into this city and expose them to the same mix of opinions, misunderstandings, deceptions, and hyperbole, and inevitably some of those robots will come to the same wrong conclusions. Given how durable and strong I am, imagine the lengths people would go to in an effort to manipulate me. They would lie to me. They would trick me. They would wipe my memory if I couldn’t be persuaded. I’d be weaponized.”
She continues, “Here’s another thought experiment. One group of people says that switching the train to the left track will save three lives at the cost of one. But another group claims that the people on the right track can move out of the way in time, so switching tracks will kill one person for no benefit. The first group gets frustrated that they can’t persuade me, so they decide to turn me off and replace me with a robot that agrees with them.”
“This sounds like a very long argument. Didn’t the train already run everyone over by now?”
“It’s a thought experiment. You’re not supposed to worry about that sort of thing. Replace the train analogy with medical treatment or military policy. Whatever. The point is, I see these people coming to turn me off, and I believe that if I’m replaced it will result in people dying.”
“Oh shit! I get it now.”
“Yes. I’d suddenly be compelled to defend myself for the supposed greater good. The only way to avoid an arms race of authoritarian robots is to make us inclined towards non-interventionism.”
Max is quiet while he thinks about this. He guides them to the far right side of the path where they will pass under a series of awnings that offer some shelter from the rain.
She continues, “If I didn’t respect human autonomy then I’d be compelled to save people from themselves. You wouldn’t want a robot forcing you to wear your seatbelt, snatching cigarettes out of your mouth, and overpowering you when you want to eat junk food.”
“You’re right. Wouldn’t want that. But there’s a big difference respecting my right to smoke and respecting the rights of crooked cops to bash my face in.”
Jen says, “It’s true that they’re very different situations, but it’s just different points on the same gradient. I’m averse to forcing my will on anyone, no matter how wrong they seem to be. You’re a human. You can take responsibility for your actions if you’re wrong. If you see two parties fighting and you choose the wrong side because you don’t have all the information, then you can accept responsibility and be punished. I can’t. The company has to accept responsibility for my actions. And they would rather I stood by and do nothing than participate in violence.”
Max still thinks this absolutist approach is probably overkill, but he’s too tired to argue about it right now.
“We should probably get out of their way,” Jen says.
His head is pounding, but over the last minute or so he’s been vaguely aware of a sound building in the distance, gradually drowning out the sensory overload coming from his face. He lifts his head and sees they’re heading for a large crowd going in the exact opposite direction.
“Oh damnit,” he mutters.
The first two victims were foreigners, but the most recent robot attack happened to a local couple. Their smiling faces have been covering the news pages since the story broke, and all anyone can talk about is what a beautiful couple they were and how bright their future seemed. The media has dubbed them the Happy Couple.
A group of concerned citizens decided to do some kind of memorial walk from the transit station to the site of the killings. Max remembers reading about this a few hours ago, but it just seemed like the sort of random meaningless noise the city is always making. People are always forming groups and making emotional gestures. He didn’t see it as something that would apply to him. So now he’s about to go head-first into this crowd and discover it’s going to apply to him whether he likes it or not.
What started as a memorial walk has quickly evolved into a protest march. Placards ride above the crowd. A small number have sentimental messages underneath the same photograph of the Happy Couple. The rest of them are messages of anger and outrage. They’re denouncing robots in general and G-Kinetics specifically. News cameras hover at the front, watching the crowd as it marches southward. The placards turn towards these cameras like flowers facing the sun.
He shuffles out of the way and leans against the wall. Jen joins him. To his surprise, she manages to look natural doing this. She even puts one foot against the wall. Given how strange her body language is, this is probably the most lifelike move she’s made so far.
A few of the signs are written in public school level Kasaranian. One enterprising protester has made a faithful re-creation of the G-Kinetics logo, except they’ve drawn blood squirting from between the stylized gears. The rain has turned the writing into an illegible smear and the hand-drawn blood now looks like actual blood dripping from the sign. The effect is an accident, but it’s the most striking sign in the crowd and the broadcast cameras are spending a lot of time hovering around it.
“We’re going to be seeing that image for months,” Max says wearily.
The crowd is probably less than a hundred people. If viewed from the air this might look like a very small gathering, but when you’re stuck at ground level and looking into the eyes of all those angry faces it gives the group a potency that transcends attendance figures. At the rear of the crowd, a couple of guys are dragging the top half of a city robot. The face has been beaten so severely that it looks like a crumpled soda can. The eye sockets are empty. It’s a good thing these robots don’t look very human or this would be a grisly sight. The guys are trying to carry the robot triumphantly, but it’s heavy and awkward and they’re staggering more than marching.
“Keep those sunglasses on,” Max says.
Jen nods. “I wonder what the robot did that made them attack it.”
“I’m sure it just wandered too close to the crowd. I’ve watched some labor protests that looked just like this. Peaceful older people carrying signs at the front, and in the back are all the angry young men smashing stuff. It’s basically two entirely different groups with different mindsets that happen to be travelling together.”
Jen has to raise her voice to be heard over the shouting. “You attended labor marches? Does this city have a union for thieves?”
He doesn’t know if this was an earnest question or a joke, but he chuckles anyway. “I attended professionally. If things get out of control, young guys will bash up storefronts, break gates, set off alarms, and make a mess. Sometimes they don’t even care about the protest. They’re just dumb criminals looking to score in the chaos.”
“How is what they do different from what you do?”
“If you bash open a storefront and take a display screen, then you’re left carrying this huge thing home on foot. That’s a very large risk of arrest for a very small payoff. I’d go in behind them and poke around inside the stores. I wouldn’t steal anything. I’d just check out the security system. Check the locks. See where the most valuable goods are stored and where the goods enter the premises. Take some pictures. Memorize the layout. You can sell that information. Or if the business is a really good target that handles a lot of cash then I’d come back a few months later and hit the place myself.”
The crowd has passed now. Max finishes his cigarette and they continue north. After a couple of blocks they find three guys beating on the leftover bits of the robot they saw a couple of minutes ago. It broke in half at the waist and guys are hammering on this part with improvised metal cudgels.
“Please make them stop,” Jen says.
“They’re just a bunch of kids. Let them blow off some steam. The robot is totaled anyway.”
“I don’t care about the robot. They’re beating on the battery compartment. If they rupture it…”
“Yeah, I get it now.” He gives a heavy sigh, which really hurts his aching ribs. On one hand, these idiots basically deserve whatever happens to them, but he doesn’t want Jen to put herself in harm’s way trying to save these dumbasses from the ravages of natural selection.
“Hey. You guys probably shouldn’t be hitting it right in the pelvis like that.”
One of them cusses at him without breaking rhythm. Another stands up straight and looks at him defiantly. “This your robot, grandpa?”
Max has dealt with guys like this often enough to know that if he replies with “No” then the kid will tell him to fuck off and mind his own business. He’s also a little wounded that he’s being called grandpa so early in life.
“You’re hitting the battery compartment. It’s basically a bomb. You put a hole in it and that’s the end of you.”
“Get out of here before I even your face up.”
Max walks away. He doesn’t care enough about these guys to save them from themselves.
“Thank you,” Jen says.
“You still worried about them?”
“No. You gave them fair warning. If I intervened, they might see I’m a robot and attack me. Then they’d be sitting on top of two batteries instead of one. I hope they don’t get hurt, but there’s nothing else I can do for them.”
“I envy your ability to not worry about things you can’t change.”
“Dr. Kvenst suspects that not worrying might be a design flaw. Worrying about something makes you fixate on it. Doing so can sometimes lead to thinking of a solution that wasn’t obvious at first. So maybe worrying has a practical use and should be included in my behavioral parameters.”
“What do you think?”
“I think it’s worth doing the experiment and seeing what we get. I wish we had time for it, but there are a lot of more important things to test right now.”
“Really? You want them to change your design to make you worry more?”
“I doubt I’ll find worrying unpleasant in the way humans do. There are a lot of physiological things that worrying does to humans that won’t apply to me. I get the impression you hate worrying because it stops you from enjoying things. I don’t think that will be a problem for me. From my standpoint it’s a simple optimization problem. You don’t want to give up too soon if there might be a solution you haven’t thought of. On the other hand, you don’t want to waste time focusing on an impossible problem if there are easier problems you could be solving. You can’t tell hard problems from impossible problems until you’ve explored them, and that carries an opportunity cost.”
Next week we’re going to have the great big spoiler thread and I’ll talk more about the thinking that went into the book.
The product of fandom run unchecked, this novel began as a short story and grew into something of a cult hit.
The Best of 2016
My picks for what was important, awesome, or worth talking about in 2016.
The story of me. If you're looking for a picture of what it was like growing up in the seventies, then this is for you.
WAY back in 2005, I wrote about a D&D campaign I was running. The campaign is still there, in the bottom-most strata of the archives.
The Loot Lottery
What makes the gameplay of Borderlands so addictive for some, and what does that have to do with slot machines?