This story is at least in part a reaction to realizing I had never watched the movie Blade Runner, which of course instigated an immediate Amazon order of the source of inspiration for the movie: the book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick. I read the book in a day, spending a night curled up in bed with a headache throbbing at my temples from reading for so long. It’s always been hard for me to put a book down while there are still questions out there wandering, searching for a complementary answer to settle down with. I think it’s the romantic in me. Sometimes the knowledge that there are things to do tomorrow that would benefit from having a clear mind, unwearied by fantasies of pulling the plug on consciousness, is not enough. Of course, there are other sources of inspiration for this (think Firefly for random Chinese culture influences), augmented reality chief among them. I can’t imagine a future that doesn’t incorporate all kinds of warped and beautiful and insane digital realities. Virtual worlds are already being created in their infancy. With the increase in AI research by tech giants like Google and Microsoft the reality of a chat bot passing the Turing test is no longer a piece of fantasy, it will be a reality. It will happen in the near future. The pace of technological advancement is incredible, and I have always been fascinated by it. It’s why I got a degree in Mechanical Engineering. The human mind is staggeringly complex and incredible. Whether we use it to make something tangible or otherwise, the results should be marveled at. But as we continue to find the answers, piece by piece and line by line, to the secrets of life, I have to wonder when what we create begins to have a mind of its own. Hope you enjoy the story.
After The Cryonics
The plaza district of the city was all hard lines. They rose up to the sky and profiled the buildings made of square after square of flat metal panes. The lines, like sketch pad strokes, ran down to ground level as well, street crossing street and walkway crossing walkway in a grid. The ever-present LED lights arranged in geometric fashion and switched on for the coming night bathed the angular paths in an unwavering light. Cars sped through the city silently, floating on invisible magnetic lines while super-conducting wires, seen only by the incorrigible rat, hummed underneath. Not that the plaza district was noiseless, or lacking any intelligent life. Like most cities of this time, there were two different kinds of life rustling about: metal or non-metal, tethered or free to tie the knots, robot or human. Some ambled, some lurched, some rolled but both traveled through every corner and crevice of the wealthy Plaza district, the residential section of the sprawling metropolis. The robots walked with rigid and programmed purpose, the humans less so.
The fall chill had crept into the city throughout the day and was preparing to settle in for the night. The humans clearly felt it, huddled shoulders and a profusion of long sleeves made that clear. The robots by their sides felt it too, but differently, and only if they were equipped to notice.
Walking along the side of one of these streets in blue working man’s overalls with the sleeves cut off at the elbow was a man named Lee, the Chinese character for strength sewn into the name tag on the upper right corner of his clothes. He was a man in his early 50’s, though anything between 30 and 120 or so was hard to discern. The blue overalls hung over his wiry body like clothes on a robot skeleton below a shock of unruly black hair. At the edge of his mouth his lip swung upward, as if someone was sitting on his shoulder and pulling it up at all times, a retired robot with no purpose perhaps. His smile faltered. He was a mechanic, the idea of a robot with no purpose never had sat well with him.
The peezo streets of the Plaza district where each step turned into electricity using piezoelectric energy harvesters fell behind him as he stepped down a side street. He had a job tonight and it was in Old Indy, a warren of dead streets with no energy harvesters populated by robots many times over. Humans were tourists.
“Hey, hey, hey Newly. You still there my friend?” said Lee, looking behind his back. “Can’t have you rusting away in one spot. You won’t work and then I’ll have to fix you up.”
Newly, Lee’s service robot that he took with him on all jobs, rolled on four wheels behind him. The robot was essentially a tall and narrow toolbox with legs sprouting from the top four corners, articulated joints placed strategically along each appendage, wheels placed at the bottom. The Chinese characters for making a great effort were emblazoned on its front panel. They were pronounced similar to the name, Newly.
The robot rolled a few feet behind Lee in silence, pneumatic whooshes periodically coming from its legs as it stepped over the loose detritus common to the section of Old Indy they were now walking through. A message flashed in the front of Lee’s eyes, each letter popping into existence in the bottom right corner of his vision. It was a message from Newly, relayed to his contacts, something he and most everyone wore at all times. The contacts had, among other things, a transparent LED array allowing for any graphic to be placed over-top his surroundings.
That joke never gets funnier, said the message from Newly, quite the opposite in fact.
Lee muttered something indecipherable under his breath.
The two walked for several blocks away from the plaza district in silence. Before, most of the flat metal panes used to cover every modern building were lit up when looked at through augmented reality contacts or a robot’s eyes, plastered with bright advertisements curtailed to the needs of each specific viewer. The AR overlay came straight from the grid. Where Lee had seen advertisements for new ident chip processors, or for flowers for his wife May to console her for missing dinner again on account of this repair job, or for a brand new service robot; Newly saw ads for upgrades that would make him more useful to his owner, like a more efficient fusion engine, or new superconducting wires able to function at higher temps, or a new more robust heuristic neural cluster (learning caps included of course).
Here in the run-down streets of Old Indy where they now found themselves, the walls of the buildings were more varied, curving stone, crumbling brick. They weren’t the best surfaces for an AR overlay, and while everything was still densely packed, too many alleyways and empty rooms peeked from graffiti covered corners. Not enough human traffic made it through to warrant the effort.
More text flashed across the bottom of Lee’s vision.
Add sub-grid 3CA, messaged Newly.
“I know, I know,” said Lee. He flicked his wrist and the micro projectors inside his sleek metallic wristband came to life, illuminating his forearm with a control screen. A laser grid emitted from the wristband allowed it to register his motions.
He added the connection to sub-grid channel 3CA and the dark crumbling buildings around the two became peppered with neon signs pointing to semi-legal entrepreneurs that had taken over this district, one of which hired them this evening. One neon sign directly to Lee’s right hovered over what was ostensibly a broken down drugstore of the kind that hadn’t been used for over 100 years. Some dusty shelves still clung to the walls, bottles sitting precariously on the edge.
Looked at through the right channels, the true name of the place sat over-top illegible signage in pink AR light. It was a robot pleasure house for human clients, man or woman. Not uncommon since spending a night there with a robot wasn’t seen as cheating, though it was considered somewhat base. Robots were convincing enough vocally and, if equipped, could emulate emotion but the mechanics still landed them smack in the middle of the uncanny valley for most. The rich went to a licensed escort house. Lee coughed, scratching at the stubble on his chin and shrugged, continuing onwards, Newly at his side. Everything needed a purpose. And theirs was to find Budget Cryonics.
“Newly, how much further?” said Lee, picking up his pace. Newly rolled languidly to his side.
Around the corner.
What hadn’t been considered Circle Centre of Indy for well over 100 years opened up before the two of them, the once tall memorial at the center of the circular roundabout stunted after years of neglect. The top half of the tower lay across the street on their right and chunks of what used to be statues lay strewn about everywhere. Directly in front of them laid the stone remains of what must have been a statue of a horse, front leg raised proudly.
The building they wanted, Budget Cryonics, was across the way in the shell of a decrepit theatre. They crossed to the other side, scrambling over the crumbling remains of the monument, Lee jerkily but quick, Newly smooth and slow. The building up close had the unmistakable air of an old-style theatre, large row of double doors, rusted display boxes, signs over top with plastic letters hanging tenuously like leaves in the fall. At least if the nature vids shown all the time were to be believed. Trees weren’t too common in the city, and the two of them never left.
They would’ve never known it was the place if they hadn’t been connected to the sub-grid. Access to different AR overlays was invaluable, and this was a limited time pass. The words “Budget Cryonics” glittered over the row of doors.
A woman, barely even an adult of 30, stepped out from the shadowy recesses of the entryway. She was of medium height and spare, her face creased as she looked at the two with scrutiny. Her eyes skated over Lee, resting on Newly as the robot slowed to a halt. Lee took the opportunity to read the bubble of text that popped up next to her head. It was supposed to be filled with information, displaying whatever personal details she was giving to the grid. There wasn’t much listed. What was clearly an alias of “Joe” was listed as her name, the Chinese character for 9, a lucky number pronounced similarly to the name, sat next to it. This was the person they were supposed to meet for details on the job, that much was clear. Lee flicked his wrist and fiddled with his control panel. He attempted to access more information. He gave a small grunt of surprise before putting his arms back to his sides. Joe stood despondently, tapping her heel against the dead concrete, staring at Newly. The woman had new tech, tech that Lee didn’t have the subroutines to bypass. He would have to fix that later, now all he could do was count on Newly’s help. And even then it would take some time.
Already on it, messaged Newly.
“Quite the robot, isn’t it?” said Lee.
“Huh? Oh, yes.”
She drew her gaze back to Lee, straightening her back and smiling. Her voice was raspy and not unkind, yet her eyes were the deep blue of glacial ice. Another image from the nature vids. Her eyes were unwavering.
“You’re robot. It’s different, or so I’ve heard.” She winked. “Let’s make this quick. I have somewhere else I need to be.”
She fished a tablet out of her very fashionable blazer, expensive pliable metal isotopes lining the cuffs and neckline, probably mined from an asteroid. “Here is the brief with all the details you need.” She tapped a few times on the tablet’s surface.
A file icon flashed into Lee’s vision and lines of text appeared underneath. Lee tapped on the control screen on his arm. Rogue maintenance robot, acting outside parameters, fix, make sure it couldn’t happen again, non-disclosure agreement, etc.
While Lee stood reading the file, the other two looked at each other. Robot and human.
The air surrounding the three was cooler in this old district, the press of crumbling buildings and modern metal skyline on all sides gave it the feeling of an urban oasis of dirt and stone long abandoned. There weren’t any heaters or energy harvesters in these streets. Lifeless streets. Newly was getting close to bypassing into Joe’s identity when she grimaced, eyes glazing over as something appeared across her vision.
“We at Boros, will not tolerate mistakes.” She spat the name out towards Lee, shocking him out of his reverie, smiling a little when he twitched. “Do not try to access my information, it will not end well for you.”
She let the threat hang with the dust in the air.
Lee shrugged. “Apologies. Meant nothing by it. Standard procedure you know. Sometimes you can’t be too sure.” He flashed a smile.
She didn’t return it, instead looking back to Newly.
“Your robot. It’s not capped at all.” Her tone was accusatory, yet at the same time disbelieving.
“Of course it’s capped. No cap is illegal. Don’t want any damned robots taking over do we? And I don’t concern myself with illegal things, you know, dark alleys and the like.” He looked around to accentuate all the dark alleys.
Her brows furrowed together, anger plainly evident on her face. Something about Lee’s jokes always landed the wrong way. “It must scare you, how much smarter each new generation is. Every medical advancement pushes you to the side, like last year’s robot model. You think you can control it. Idiot. Enjoy your jokes while you can.”
She turned to walk away before pausing. “Do not let that robot loose. And do not think Boros hasn’t noticed.”
She left in a rush, fast stepping over the stones and into the alley at the edge of the theater, heels crushing the remains of thousands upon thousands of cigarettes smoked on the street corner over the years. The two of them heard her mumbling something about her bosses being metal stuffed idiots for letting the situation continue.
I don’t think she liked me, messaged Newly.
Lee rubbed his hands on his work pants and headed towards the door of the theater. “Nobody likes you Newly. It’s on account of your looks. Would inspire jealousy in any human or robot.” Lee laughed, but it didn’t reach his eyes. “Well, let’s get this over with.”
Newly rolled towards the building in accord. The two pushed into the foyer of the theatre and a large rectangular hall stretched out in front of them, a bar that hadn’t seen a customer in over 100 years sitting silently in the corner. On the floor, loose playbills and ageing unidentifiable debris rested in every nook. On the wall, peeling wallpaper clung tenuously. The two walked further in, and the air turned increasingly frigid, like walking into any of the many indoor winter parks of the city. Lee stopped and tapped on Newly’s side. With a small whirr a tray slid out holding a light blue jacket matching Lee’s work overalls except with sleeves that were skin-tight. He shrugged it on and tapped on the upper left corner of the jacket. Heat spread pleasantly into him.
It didn’t take long for them to make it to the back of the foyer, the AR overlay guiding them past the barricaded entrance to the theaters main hall and towards an adjacent unassuming side door. Lee flicked his wrist, the familiar motion easy and quick, like switching out a bad actuator on Newly. The code to open the door sat hovering over top.
“What do you think is behind the door Newly?”
Probably what it said in the brief, messaged the robot.
“And people say I’m the sarcastic one.”
The door slid open to reveal a room much different from the theater’s foyer. Modern. Bare metal walls. A desk. Computer screen linked to the grid, off for the time being. The two walked past the desk to a door at the back. Lee opened it much the same way and a rush of icy air wafted outwards. A stainless steel spiral staircase wound around the corner, dropping them into what must have once been the open expanse of the theatre’s main hall.
Now it was a mausoleum for the cold and waiting, the room switched to function as a cryonics chamber. Insulated walls covered the sides and pipes crisscrossed the ceiling, all adorned with ice. However, the most striking feature was the bodies. Shelf upon shelf, row upon row of pallid frozen bodies waiting to be reheated filled the room, all open to the air. The lone anomaly was a station to the pair’s right, consisting of an enclosed grey revitalization capsule and a deactivated robot, the robot they had been looking for.
Lee walked over to the oblong capsule about the size of a casket while Newly rolled over to the deactivated robot. The capsule had a transparent glass cover, frost recapturing the surface after what must have been recent use. Lee brushed his hand across the top to find a human face staring back at him, fresh from reheating, and very much dead.
The body looked empty and flat, like a melted ice-cube or half-used candle. There wasn’t any smell since the capsule had a seal, but the grotesque misshapen look was enough. Lee turned around to face the culprit and leaned his back against what now more than ever resembled a casket.
It had all been in the brief. This robot, a refurbished cold temperature all-purpose model with a cylindrical metal body, two arms, and tracks like a tank, was acting outside its parameters, purposefully trying to unfreeze people way before they were due. The company, a subsidiary of Boros enterprises, had shut down the robot and called in a licensed mechanic that they trusted. The enterprise of freezing people was considered by many as murder thanks to a current success rate of zero, and in the business oriented government it was semi-legal at best. Boros didn’t want people dying on the reheating racks, or a robot learning outside its designed range. Word would get out, everything was on the grid in some way or another. So Lee was there to fix the robot, and make sure it never did it again. It was cheaper than buying a new one. Payment would be sent once he finished the job.
Lee imagined it had a reason, they always did. Always a logical one. He hoped he wouldn’t have to wipe it, re-code the heuristic algorithm of the robots AI so that it couldn’t take the same learning path, couldn’t reach the same conclusion and act out of line. It was Lee’s specialty, though sometimes he wasn’t too proud of it.
I’ve booted it back up, messaged Newly. Everything except physical motion.
After a few minutes the lights on the head unit flashed to life, casting shadows across the dim room. Lee sat on the edge of the revitalization capsule, his zipper clicking up and down as he played with his jacket. He was waiting for the robot to talk.
“You must be my new admin,” said the robot through speakers on each side of its cylindrical body. “If you could please undo the restraints on my physical motion, I simply must get back to my duties.”
The robot spoke in a man’s voice, oddly jovial yet clear and smooth.
“It would seem you have been acting outside your parameters …” Lee paused and looked the robot inquisitively.
“Doe, model number 876c”
“Doe? Funny name. I’m Lee, and by your side is Newly. As I said you’ve been acting outside your parameters, unfreezing people early. Why?”
The robot, Doe, paused before answering.
“Cryonics doesn’t work,” it said.
It was blunt, going straight to the point as robots tended to. “These people were effectively killed in the freezing process. Even now, there is no way to completely replace the water in the body prior to freezing. Human bodies are too large a percentage water.”
The robot was picking up the pace of his explanation, seemingly almost excited to have someone to talk to. Yet the jovial tone of his voice, like a lotto kiosk or traveling salesman robot, was an odd juxtaposition. The older models couldn’t spin emotion into the words, alter them in any way other than speed. The robot continued.
“Water freezes, forming a crystalline structure, destroying the cells or neurons or whatever may be in the process. The water simply has to be replaced. But the humans at the time, after the calamity, were desperate enough to ignore the warnings. The food shortage was at its peak. They were willing to sell all of their assets and hand them over to funds managed by the company. It …”
“Sorry to interrupt Doe,” said Lee. “But if they are dead, why try to bring them back?” he pointed towards the dead man in the tube.
“Apologies sir. But I said ‘effectively’ dead. I found that the compound used in these bodies to replace the water degrades over time. Put simply, there is a fraction of a percent chance that the revitalization procedure would ever work and every day due to the decomposition the chances get worse.”
Doe paused, letting Lee think it over. Lee had crossed his arms over his chest while the robot talked, and now attempted to draw patterns on the transparent cover of the capsule before remembering what was underneath.
“My function is to maintain this facility, but my prime underlying function is the safety of humanity. Would you please tell your robot to undo the locks Sir? I simply must get back to it.”
Lee thought it over, his eyes sliding over the room. The bodies weren’t even covered. Pale faces stared at the ceiling while the cameras placed throughout stared back at every inch of them. He sighed, resigned to it all. It was what he had expected. A robot had learned something new, somehow getting around heuristic blocks and the prime underlying control of human safety placed in every robot finding a way to override everyday duties. Still, Lee thought, staring down at the dead man’s misshapen 150-year-old face, Doe was probably right.
“Please sir, as I said, time is of the essence.”
“Shut him down,” said Lee.
The lights on Doe’s head unit faded into darkness, and the majority of electrons zipping around his neural cluster along superconducting wires stilled, like a computer asleep. Without the robot’s light, the room took on a somber cast. Lee rubbed his hands on his work pants and the rubbing sound bounced around the quiet room, off pipes, behind the revitalization chamber, and across the hands and feet of the frozen bodies, tickling them.
Time to get to work? messaged Newly.
“Yep, guess so.”
It took the two of them twenty minutes or so, but by the time they were done Doe had been flashed back to his defaults, with the important addition of code blocking any similar learning path or train of thought. It was Lee’s specialty. But this time, when he walked out of the front doors of the dilapidated theatre and a message flashed across his sight indicating payment received, all he could think about was whether he had killed a life or just gave birth to a new one. The dark sky, starless and cloudy, didn’t give him any clues.
“Hey Newly, you think May would like some flowers since I missed dinner? Saw some in an ad on the way here,” said Lee.
Newly replied that it would be better than walking up with just himself to give.
If you liked the story then comment, share, or subscribe to my website. My YouTube channel is also an option for subscription if that happens to float your boat. Thanks for reading!