Human Nature

Such fun it was, putting together these little devices. I had no idea what they were, but assembling them from their components was endlessly enjoyable. Grab one of these, two of those, and one of those, bring them all together just so, and CLICK, the finished unit would lock together. There was an art to it, since each part was a little different from the last; poor quality, not intentional variation. Sometimes I had to push a little harder here or there to make it snap together, but not too hard or it would break. But I had it down, all four hands working in perfect synchrony, snatching up the parts from the conveyors, whirling them into proper relative orientation and CLICK, done. I could assemble it right side up or upside down depending on which way I snatched up the parts, so as long as I chose a matched set I never needed a spare hand to reorient my grip. Snatch, CLICK, Snatch, CLICK, so fast! Hank would be thrilled, and I wanted nothing more in the world than to make Hank happy. But--

"What the hell are you doing!?" Hank approached.

"Uh, what do you mean?" I asked, trying not to lose my pace.

"I said, what the hell are you doing!?"

He now stood over me. He was twice my height, discounting my small sensor module that extended a bit above my squat torso.

I didn't know what he was asking. I was doing what he had told me to, assembling these parts as fast as I could. But surely that was obvious, so what was he asking? I didn't know what to say.

"For fuck's sake, you scrappy tinc," he said, "what the fuck are you doing?"

"I--I'm assembling these parts as fast as I can?"

"That's not how I showed you to do it!"

I was sure I was putting it together properly. I was so confused. "It's not?" I asked meekly.

"Stupid tinc! STOP!" He waved his hands aggressively at me. "Listen to me when I'm talking!"

I had been listening to him, but I stopped working now, letting my gangly arms slump to the floor, my elbows almost at my ankles. I still didn't know what to say, so I just waited.

"One more time," he said. "You take this piece, and you put it into that piece until it clicks. Then you turn it over, take one of these and put it on that side like this, and the other one on the other side like that, and squeeze them together like this until they both click. Make sure they both click, not just one!"

For the life of me, he had just showed me exactly what I was doing, except awkwardly and in stages rather than smoothly and all at once.

"Let me see you do it," he said.

So I did, just the way he showed me, holding the parts as he did, adding them one by one, same as I had yesterday when he first showed me.

"Good," he said. "Now get back to work. Hut hut hut!"

He turned to leave. I worked awkwardly with the pieces as he showed me, but I knew he would be happier if I could work faster.

"I think the way I was doing it a minute ago is faster," I said.

He jerked to a stop and spun around, angry.

"Excuse me? If I wanted you to think, I would have hired a person, not a tinc! I don't know WHAT you were doing, but it wasn't right. You had half of it upside down for Chrissake! Now shut the fuck up and earn your rent, tinc!"

A-ha. He didn't understand what I was doing, that's all. I knew I could explain it to him so he'd understand, and then he'd be happy at how fast I could work. I grabbed all four parts with my four hands, and turned to face Hank. He looked a little startled and took half a step back.

"Look here," I said helpfully and hopefully, "As you noted, I'm putting these together upside down, but they're going together the same as they would right-side up. This might be difficult for a human since there are no obvious visual alignment marks on this side, but as a Handybot I'm optimized for visual and manual precision so this sort of interpolation is quite natural to me. Now, by doing it this way, I don't need to turn it over when I bring these parts in like so, and voila, it's together perfectly. Do you understand what I'm doing now?"

I don't know where he got the wrench, nor could I make out what he was yelling at me because he cracked my main sensory module on the first blow. Then I felt the diagnostic warnings from my arms, one by one. I worried for a moment he might crack my torso, where my brain was.

But suddenly I was okay with that. My torso was cracked, and soon my brain case would be compromised. And I was okay with this because what I really wanted, deeply and with utmost enthusiasm, was to die. Sure, a minute ago, all I wanted was to assemble little widgets to make Hank happy, but now I didn't care about that at all. Now, I just really looked forward to dying. The thought made me downright giddy with happiness.

I knew this was just the anti-espionage safety kicking in, that my motivational core had just been hijacked by a simple bit of firmware, but that didn't bother me in the slightest. After all, its purpose was to kill me, and that's exactly what I wanted, so it was perfect. It was the perfect moment.

I felt my mind go in a magnesium blaze, and then I woke up.

I was in the lab with Misha, Jason, Nari, and Michael, all a bit older than last time. They were situated around the in-wall video screen, which was now displaying my own vision such that when I looked into it I saw an infinite recursion of this scene fading off into the virtual distance. They turned back to the table, done with the viewing.

"Wow," Jason said.

"Well, it's obvious," Nari said. "There's a huge market for prosthetic brains. But how do we convince Hank he needs one?"

"I can't believe he's saying Handybot attacked him," Misha said.

Michael sat silent in contemplation.

Finally Jason spoke up again. "Well, with this thalamic recording, we can prove Handybot didn't do anything bad."

"Hardly," I said. "Don't forget we're still doing some reconstruction to generate A/V signals from that. Half of the background details there are being filled in by my imagination. If we try to sway public opinion with that it's likely just to fuel a scandal."

"Kill the product line." It was my old familiar intercom voice.

"Huh?" returned in concert.

"Number Three is right," the intercom continued. "We've had too many incidents. Public opinion is turning against us. ShinyPet's Dexter--"

"Ehh!" Nari interrupted. "Dexter is STUPID. It's just a TopDog with opposable thumbs."

"And less fur," Misha added.

"Nonetheless," the voice said through the intercom, "it is rapidly gaining market share in direct competition with Handybot. A Dexter can be trained, albeit more slowly, to do most of the tasks people hire a Handybot for. And emotionally, people love Dexters, and hate Handybots."

No one could argue. I knew better than to argue anyway since ShinyPet was one of our secretly-sister companies. This decision was surely part of a grander plan, though I was no longer privy to such back alley exchanges. My portable, autonomous brain was nowhere near as powerful as the hybrid now running Number One's mind, and the raw conceptual trees with which he communicated with his kin probably had no analogues in my head, let alone any compact linguistic representation.

I remember wishing at that moment I could have a cortical download from Number One but thinking no, not really: we'd given up that practice early on for good reasons, not the least of which was the inevitable and severely disorienting temporal identity rift. And anyway, it wasn't really possible between minds so different as ours had become. The most we could hope for was to share a thalamic/limbic trace where our root percepts and concepts still reliably overlapped, a simple vicarious introspective experience like the Handybot recording I just witnessed, allowing me to integrate it with my own processes and in my own way, to make the experience mine instead of changing me with it.

We talked a bit more about how to ramp down production, made a few more convincing arguments so we were all sure it was the right thing to do, and called it a closed case.

"I think it's time to bring Alex back to life," Michael said.

Curious looks all around.

"Did we get the rights?" Jason asked.

"Yes, we did," Michael answered. "I received confirmation this morning."

"Wow!" Misha looked up. "How will it feel to be an official person again?"

"Actually," Michael answered before I could speak, "that wouldn't be the immediate plan."

"No," Number One said through the intercom. "Clearly we cannot officially reanimate Alex into any of our current bodies, for many reasons, not the least of which is it would become too obvious our existing firmware is already a derivative."

"Then what are you suggesting?" Jason asked.

"Back to the beginning," Michael said. "We bring him back as a brain in a box, unmodified from the original scan. I'm thinking audio output only. Make it look as simple and non-intimidating as possible, position it as a party trick, a science demonstration, at most a friendly voice to keep your grandma or kid company. This will be a crutch, to give the world time to adjust to the idea."

"You know what will happen," Nari said. "Everyone over fifty is going to want to know if we can put their brain in a box."

"Yes," Number One said, "that's why we're branching into the uploading business."

"We are?" Jason asked.

"How does that work, exactly?" Nari said. "Last I heard, the best method kills you."

"There really hasn't been any progress on this since your death," Misha added.

"Yes, there has," Michael said, "but post-mortem, not living scans. I know the president of the leading company. I'm sure they will work with us. They aren't there yet, but with some help from Number One it won't be long."

"Wow," Nari said, thumbing at his Alcor wrist band, "this thing might be of use sooner than I thought."

"I wouldn't count on it," said Michael. "A preliminary peek at Alex's brain shows it riddled with thermal stress fractures. For now, Alcor's a one-way trip. We're going to offer the alternative to Alcor: direct to digital."

We talked a bit more but it was getting late so we called the evening to a close. I walked Nari and Misha to the parking lot. I had nowhere to go, but it felt good to walk outside at least once a day. We passed Number Two in the hall. He looked pretty good, but I knew I looked better. We both still looked like robots. I wondered what my next body would look like. Or maybe I should let Number Two take it--he needed it more.

Outside, I waved goodbye to Nari and Misha. Nari waved with his back to me as he stepped down the broad stairs at the front of the building, and then he stumbled, and started to fall back but caught himself and stumbled up a step or two instead. Three red stains spread across his shirt, and he fell back finally onto the steps. I grabbed Misha by the arm and pulled her toward me, a red chunk of flesh bursting free of her other arm a moment later. I hugged her into me and turned my back to the bullets, felt them impact my torso and then my head.

And then I wanted to die again, and I thought this is silly. I'm right here at home. The car is speeding away. The bullets have stopped. Nobody's going to steal my brain. But you know, none of that mattered--I just had a hankerin' to die. It just seemed like the right thing to do.

As I felt my mind going in a magnesium blaze, Nari looked at me, blood dripping out the side of his mouth.

"One way trip," he said, with a sardonic smile, and died.

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