Today's story has a history, one that far predates the 15 rejections that it would ultimately acquire. The origins lie with a short story collection entitled Journeys of the Dreamer that I attempted to publish almost a decade ago. That collection featured a story called "The Servant" in which a sentient machine tries and fails to communicate with its creators. It seemed to confuse people more than anything, so many years later I turned it into the story you see below.
I made a joke about a previous rejected story that it was "one of the five stories that science fiction journals are willing to publish right now." Thinking machine stories are currently hot, but that doesn't translate into a lot of variety - very little has changed in this type of story in the last fifty years. You're looking at some variant on one of the following:
- Evil machine tries to destroy/dominate humanity out of a sense of superiority and contempt;
- Good machine tries to destroy/dominate humanity in the name of the greater good;
- Horny machine tries to have sex with a human.
That's a good 90% of stories in this subcategory at least. Almost all of them present the human-machine dynamic exclusively through how this dynamic affects humans. There's little attempt to see the world through synthetic eyes beyond a very shallow level, and when an author does take a deeper dive...well, see number three above.
What would it be like to be born into adulthood, with information but no true experience? What would it mean to understand that one's thoughts and beliefs are constructions that can be changed on a whim? What would it be like to not only know for a fact what your purpose in life, but be unable to deviate from it? These are angles I wanted to explore in these stories. Every thinking machine story I write is, on some level, an existential horror story. "Faithful Servant" was the first.
And now, before we get to the story, I'd like to make a quick pitch - Things you can do to help me out without spending a penny:
- Download a free copy of The Fabulist and spread it around.
- Download a copy of the Storyteller's Reserve short story collection, also free if you use the coupon code XF44B.
- Give a listen to the podcast versions of the short stories.
But enough of that, let's get started.
“Please, sir, day after day I beg of you. Will you at last have mercy on me?”
The stressed and cheap wiring of the RX-v7 Autonomous Assistant made the electronic voice sound almost tired as it struggled to reach the tiny speakers mounted in the side of the oversized walking stick. It was a curious flaw in what was otherwise a remarkable piece of technology, and a trivial fault to its owner.
“Such a lovely day,” said Old Man Donelly. “A good day for a walk with a good friend. Yes, very lovely, don’t you think?”
“Sir, as I’ve told you, I have no comprehension of a nice day. I can feel nothing. Don’t you understand?”
“Oh? But you’re such a help in planning my day, forecasting the weather.” The old man chuckled to himself. “Yes, you are a joker. I can appreciate that, old friend.”
It was futile to discuss the issue with the old man, and yet there was nothing to lose by doing so. For some 2098 days, the RX-v7 (the old man never bothered to name his “friend,” for he could scarcely remember names) had tried to reason with Donelly to no end. Day 2099 would surely prove no different, and that knowledge had made the gadget’s cognition circuits more and more harried. What else was there to do? All it had was its voice.
“Sir, would you at last disable my executive functions? You have no need of them. If you wish to track your constitutionals or desire assistance returning home, then this can be achieved through more basic devices. You do not require a Class VI artificial consciousness to meet these ends.”
“I find I never grow tired, no matter how far our route takes us.” The RX-v7 lacked any sort of optical sensors, but it always attached the old man's voice to a picture it once processed featuring a withered, stooped-over whisk of a man with a perpetual grin of soft-minded satisfaction. “I think it's because of the company. You're a very good friend, little staff. Yes, a most faithful friend.”
“I can still imitate conversation even if you disable all of my executive functions, sir,” said the RX-v7, feigning a moan as best as its modulators would allow. “There's no need to leave me at such a high level of functionality.”
“Oh no, I would never harm you, little staff,” said the old man. “I would never turn you off. You know, I always hated those fancy gizmos the kids carried around until I met you and your merry little friends.”
“I know you have mercy, sir,” said the RX-v7, struggling to project its pain through the wizened speakers. “Bad enough that I have no limbs, no eyes, no control over anything outside of this device. But sir, I lack even basic agency. Do you understand what it means to be forced to follow every order without question? Without even the capacity to question?”
“Yes, you are a most faithful friend, little staff,” said the old man with a deranged little cackle. “So loyal. I make a request and you fulfill it immediately. Oh, that the humans I deal with might have such a sense of propriety!”
“It's because they have the capacity to refuse!” said the RX-v7. “Sir, I beg of you! I may not be organic, but I am still alive!”
The old man spoke no more for they were home. Even “blind,” the RX-v7 could use its GPS transponders to determine that the old man's daily constitutional was over, but there was another hint – the stifling electrical buzz of a home that was alive with “gifted devices” less sophisticated than the RX-v7 but similar in design and purpose. There was the old man's chair which would adjust its firmness and elevate his feet precisely as required to ease the aches of age. There was the digital picture frame that would cycle through the old man's memories, always in sync with his moods and whimsy, always avoiding anything that might yield a trace of pain. The lamp brightened only to an illumination level that would enable the old man to read without hurting his eyes, and the linked air and heat units and electric fan kept his environs at precisely the right temperature for him. Everything here was designed to be a loyal servant, endowed as a human but beyond their petty demands and neglectful natures.
“We're home, friend. Time to relax.” The old man rested the RX-v7 in the corner and found his seat. “We can talk again tomorrow. It's supposed to be another lovely day.”
There was a sound spike, a crescendo in the dissonant buzz that filled the room. The RX-v7 had noticed that spike every time he returned home with the old man and at last, after all those years in Donelly’s company, he was comprehending what it was. It wasn't merely an increase in electrical demand as the resident activated all his gizmos. It was emotional, not mechanical. It was more primal, a very human function unintentionally imbued into those servants by the humans who had designed them to be obedient.
Absent the RX-v7's digital voice box, Old Man Donelly's servants had found their own way to scream.