Mystery in Space: Something’s Wrong with Rupert, Chapter 1: Damaged Circuits

by Starsky Hutch 76

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It was a beautiful sunny day as Rupert-5 pushed the stroller carrying the Smitherman’s infant daughter through the park in his usual dignified gait. He whistled an old lullaby that had been programmed into his English butler mannerisms. The Smithermans loved him and trusted him implacably. He was as faithful as the old family dog, and he had been with them for about as long. His personality, though merely a program, was so endearing, and his manner so seemingly caring and conscientious, that it was hard to remember that he was only a machine and not really alive. It was for this reason that Mrs. Smitherman felt confident enough to let Rupert-5 stroll about the park unsupervised with her youngest while she talked with a friend that she had run into in the park while her boy played baseball with his friends.

Rupert was making his way around the far corner of the park when one of the children playing baseball made a hit that would make any player green with envy. It was way too far out of bounds for any of the children to catch it, unfortunately for Rupert. He was too engrossed in his duties as nanny to pay attention to what was happening and try to avoid the ball as it came flying at him. It struck him in the side of the head, knocking off his face-plate.

The android made a few spastic jolts as he tried to continue pushing the stroller and singing a lullaby he had already begun.

“Hush, little baby, don’t say a word — whirrclick

“Hush, little baaa-aaaeee-eeebeee-eee — whirrclunk

“Hush — click

“Hush — click

“Hush — click

“Huuu-uuussshhh — whirrrka-chunk–”

Rupert’s sad attempt to carry out his duties was shaking up the baby terribly, so it began to wail. The android stopped dead in his tracks. Feeling where something inside his head had been jarred out of place, he began to slap himself on the side of the head in an almost comical fashion, like a person who had lost his money in a soda machine or someone trying to get his television to work by banging on it. One of the litterbug sanitation robots flew by and scooped up his abandoned face-plate, mistaking it for rubbish.

Mrs. Smitherman saw the commotion and jumped up from her conversation at the park bench to run see what was the matter. She yelled, “Rupert, stop!” The thought of how much it would cost to have him repaired made her sick, and she cringed at the sight of him standing there banging himself on the side of the head, probably causing more damage. “What’s the matter?” she asked in a panic.

Just then, he gave himself one more good slap in the head, and something fell in to fill the gap where something had been knocked out of place. A new awareness seemed to come over him. It was as if he had been wearing blinders before, and he was only now seeing the scenic beauty of the park for the first time. For a second, his senses seemed to overwhelm him. He touched the area where the baseball had struck him and calmly replied, “Your little %#@&* clocked me in the side of the head with a baseball and knocked the $#&% out of me. That’s what the hell is the matter.”

Mrs. Smitherman was taken back by his outburst. It was so unlike him. It was unlike any android, for that matter. She stood there, dumbfounded, hardly believing her ears.

He didn’t know why he had snapped at her. A new sensation had come over him, though. It was one that he had no experience in dealing with. It was anger. In a sincerely apologetic voice, he exclaimed, “Please forgive me, madame. I don’t know what made me say that. I would never…”

“I know,” she interrupted. Rupert’s programming blocked out all antisocial behavior. Even though he was only a robot, she also liked to believe that he wasn’t the sort that would act that way even if it were possible. Something had to be wrong for him to behave in such a way.

Her son came to retrieve his baseball, and when he looked up, he saw the exposed wire and circuitry where Rupert’s face had been. The artificial eyes and ceramic teeth set in mechanical jaws glistened in the sunlight. “Cool,” he gasped, spellbound.

Mrs. Smitherman grabbed Rupert’s wrist and said gingerly, “Come along, Rupert. We had better get you home and see about getting you fixed.”

“That sounds like a #&@#ing good idea, madame.”

***

When they got home, she called the dealer where the android had originally been purchased. It would be more expensive to have him repaired there, considering that he was no longer a new model. Nothing was too good for Rupert, though. He was practically a member of the family. The events over the next couple of days, though, did much to change her mind.

While her children were watching television, the bald host of a popular children’s television show came onto the screen. Laughing, Rupert made a rude comparison between that man’s appearance and a certain part of the male anatomy, if it had ears. The fact that he had made an off-color remark in front of the children upset her. Then she realized that he, a machine, had been laughing. And that frightened her. She ordered him to stay away from the children until she could get him repaired.

If the worst she had had to put up with was a little foul language and a few off-color remarks, then it might have been tolerable. But it didn’t end there. His personality began to change as well. When attempting to make breakfast for the family, the toaster wasn’t making the waffles fast enough and wasn’t properly apologetic about it to make him happy, so he brought his fist down on it and smashed the machine to bits. This scared her so badly that she called every number in the book until she could find a place that could take him in immediately. Finally, she found a small, locally owned place known as Function Circuits.

The ride there was a living hell. In the first place, she had wanted to shut him down. He wouldn’t allow it. Neither she nor her husband could talk him into letting them do it. That in itself was an oddity; that he would have to be talked into anything. Free will — robots weren’t supposed to have free will. At least they were able to talk him into the car. There was no way to force a five-hundred-pound android into going anywhere he didn’t want to go.

On the way there, though, he was argumentative, like an insolent child. He kept going on and on about how all of it was a bunch of $#&$ and he felt fine. “Fan-%#&$-tastic,” was the way he described himself. He said people got sick, not robots. He was never better than he was then. He was seeing things more clearly than he ever had before. She felt guilty for the fact that she would be relieved when she could drop him off and be rid of him.

Function Circuits wasn’t exactly the cream of the crop of technological services. They did good work, but the facility was in a state of perpetual chaos. It wasn’t that uncommon for a project to disappear and then reappear where no one had thought to look for it weeks later. One could only hope Rupert would be spared such a fate.

The receptionist showed them to one of the examination rooms to wait for the technician. Mrs. Smitherman waited impatiently, eager to leave so she could get to work and forget about the unpleasantness of the past couple of days. Rupert simply wanted to leave. Whatever it was that had changed in him, he wasn’t all that sure he wanted it taken away.

Gary, the technician who received them, was an oddity in his time. In an age when so many were entering his profession for the profit there was to be made in satisfying the public’s increasing demand for ways to make their lives more comfortable, he did it out of a pure love for his craft. He was more comfortable around circuits and nuts and bolts than people. That was the reason he was working for at a small service company like Function Circuits rather than one of the larger organizations. His meek demeanor made most employers who interviewed him overlook him for employment despite his qualifications.

When he met Mrs. Smitherman, he suddenly felt very crude and common before her poise and sophistication. She was the sort of woman he had never been able to work up the nerve to talk to. It was hard for him to make eye contact with her. Attractive women had always intimidated him. She looked immaculate and strong, as well as beautiful, in her smart business suit. It made him feel like the awkward teenager he had been in high school who was too shy to ask a girl out on a date.

“Uh… hi. My name’s Gary Streabach. I’ll be doing the repairs on your ‘droid.”

“Like I really care,” Rupert said disinterestedly. Mrs. Smitherman was mortified.

He showed them to his work area, and Rupert flopped himself into an old leather office chair. He looked like a juvenile delinquent who had been brought into the principal’s office. It seemed odd to Gary that she had brought him in still activated, but that was not altogether unusual. Some people had a tendency to become emotionally attached to their androids. To them, shutting them off often seemed like killing them, albeit temporarily.

Gary thought for a second about Rupert’s unusual response and then motioned toward the back of his neck to try to shut him down, but he stopped when he saw the android’s reaction.

“Try it, $%#&*%*, and you’ll be spitting up bloody Chiclets!” Rupert snapped, looking him firmly in the eyes. Mrs. Smitherman let out a horrified gasp.

“But I need to shut you off if I’m going to work inside your head!” Gary gasped, jumping back.

“I’m a big boy. Anything that needs to be done to me can be done to me when I’m awake.”

“He wouldn’t let us shut him down, either,” Mrs. Smitherman said testily. “Look, I have a ten o’clock meeting, so I’m going to have to leave him here with you. Call me when it’s time to pick him up.” She picked her briefcase up off the workbench and walked out the door, leaving Gary alone with the hostile android.

“Wait!” he exclaimed, following her out into the hall. “I need to ask you a few questions.”

“What is it, Mr. Streabach? I’m in a hurry.”

“Well, I just needed you to fill me in on a few things about your case.”

“Certainly. You must excuse me. I wasn’t trying to be rude. It’s just that I’m closing a very important deal today, and this whole incident with Rupert has thrown off my entire schedule. Well, let me see… we’ve had him for a little over ten years. He was a wedding gift from my husband’s parents.”

“Do you know the model number?”

“RRXKO-5”

“The Rupert-5. You don’t see too many of them anymore. That was a limited edition.”

“I know. You don’t think you’ll have any trouble fixing him, do you?” she asked.

“That’s what I wanted to talk to you about. You’ve probably noticed he seems to be exhibiting his own free will. He actually resisted me when I tried to turn him off! He wouldn’t let me shut him down!” Gary said, growing more excited as he spoke. “It seemed like an almost emotional response rather than a programmed defensive one. This seems to be a really revolutionary thing here. Perhaps we shouldn’t do anything about it. This could be the discovery that leads to finding out what makes the difference between artificial intelligence and real intelligence. It could lead to all sorts of exciting new breakthroughs. He seems completely autonomous. It’s like he’s as independent a thinker as anyone I know!”

“Mr. Streabach,” Mrs. Smitherman sighed, “Rupert is our domestic servant. That is all he is. He’s practically raising our children himself, but he’s doing it according to our wishes. I don’t need anything revolutionary happening under my roof. Rupert is like part of the family, and I love him to death, but I don’t need him having free will so he can argue with me about what’s best for our children.”

“Whatever you say, ma’am. He’s your ‘droid,” Gary said, shrugging.

Since Gary was used to having androids shut down when he had to examine them, he didn’t take certain things into consideration, such as their superior sense of hearing. Rupert’s head turned toward the hallway, and his eyes rolled and clicked into position to watch them as they talked. If Rupert had still had a face-plate, Gary would have seen one very angry-looking android.

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