‘You see why we decided to send him to see you, Dr. Calvin.’ I managed a weak, apologetic smile in the face of the wall of silence that had spent the last hour building behind the chief robopsychologist’s desk.
As general manager, it was my duty to accompany this client who had been making strange demands of our engineers into our chief robopsychologist’s office. Not a task for the weak-hearted, I can assure you.
Finally Dr. Calvin broke her silence - not that that made the mood in the room any better you understand.
‘You are asking that we alter a robot’s second Law to have it cater to the whims of your child. I don’t think you quite understand the peril you would be putting your child into if we allowed a robot with alterations to the three Laws into your hands.’ she said.
I watched as Dr. Calvin’s face became pensive for a moment, before she seemed to come to a decision and said: ‘But perhaps if I recounted the tale of the last time USR allowed such an occurrence, you might begin to...’
It had taken a significant amount of cajoling for Gregory Powell and Michael Donovan to agree to go anywhere near a space-warp ship again, let alone ride in one. It was with great reluctance that they found themselves stepping into one of the rare commercial models. They were greeted by a robot wearing an apron upon which someone had carefully embroidered the characters ‘51va’. It lead them through the familiar corridor of angle-less rooms, where books lined the gently sloping walls in perfectly fitted cases, before they finally came to a room in which their client rose from his desk to greet them.
‘Ah, gentlemen! Isn’t it a wonderful morning for a trip to old Jove?’ He said, gesturing them into the two armchairs before the desk.
To the robot he said: ‘Let’s get going shall we,’ and it left through the other door and promptly the light from a long porthole behind the desk changed and dimmed.
‘Is our pilot custom made, Houston?’ asked Powell. ‘I don’t think we’ve ever come across that model before.’
‘Noticed, did you?’ Houston said, the folds in his shirt smoothing out as he leant back in his chair. ‘Sylvia was meant as a nursemaid for when my Alice was little. Nowadays she mostly ferries me to Europa and back so I can keep an eye on things at the water mine. But this week my daughter has been getting her to help with half-term homework. That’s why you fellas are here - to see if my robots can work unsupervised so I can spend less time out here and more time with the kid.’
‘You ever been in one of these before, boys?’ asked Houston, indicating the ship with an expansive wave of a hand
‘We tested out the first prototype.’ said Powell
Houston whistled: ‘I’m in the company of experts!’
‘So-so.’ admitted Donovan.
‘But in that case it was just a matter of waiting for a prankster super-robot to let us back into the
solar system, you know.’ finished Powell.
‘The jump is a lot smoother in this model, apparently.’
‘How do you mean?’
‘Well, just take a look out of the porthole behind me.’
‘Holy Joe - Mike! Look where we are!’
‘Whatever’s the matter?’ exclaimed Houston as both men leapt to their feet.
‘More like look where we aren’t!’ came Donovan’s wail.
Through the smooth, curved crystal of the porthole came the glowing light of a bulbous red giant around which the ship was slowly orbiting.
‘How in Jupiter’s name has this happened?’ cried Houston.
Turning away, Powell said: ‘Let’s find out.’
‘How?’ asked Donovan, his hair flaming in the alien starlight.
‘We’ll ask the pilot.’ said Powell succinctly. ‘Houston, would you mind fetching Sylvia for us?’
‘Of course.’ replied Houston, and ambled out of the room.
‘How did this happen again, Greg?’
‘This time we have access to the pilot at least.’
‘That’s not going to make much of a difference if we can’t figure out what’s wrong.’
‘Who else could work it out, Mike, if not us? We're the pride of the company.’
‘Of the system.' admitted Donovan, morosely.
Houston returned pale-faced and followed by the pilot.
‘Thank you, Houston. Hello Sylvia.' said Powell, leaning on the front of the desk.
‘I would offer you a seat but I don't think these are specially reinforced.' Powell apologised.
‘No problem. What's this all about?' This was said with a robotic level of impassiveness.
‘Well Sylvia, we were just wondering why you flew all of us out to this remote star, rather than to Europa like we'd planned.' Powell asked.
The robot's photoelectric gaze flickered as she glanced between the three men, before managing a convincing look of befuddlement at the floor.
‘It's a bit confusing really, boss. I know that's where we were set to go, but I felt this was more important, you know?'
‘Could you take us back to Earth now?'
The pilot contrived a look of awkwardness ‘I’d rather not.'
There was a pause while Powell frowned at the ceiling. The pilot broke the silence.
‘Is that all? Only I wanted to make sure I get all the data I can on the star.'
‘Sure. Thanks. You're dismissed.'
‘Psychosis, do you think?' asked Houston once the robot had gone.
Powell continued to frown at the ceiling: 'No. Analogies to human disorders won’t help us find out what’s wrong with our pilot; unfortunately any similarities there might be are completely ersatz.’
There was a pause, then Powell said: ‘Do you mind if my colleague and I discuss this in the other room?’
‘Go ahead! But… Gentlemen, I want to assure you both that this isn’t some prank of mine-’
‘At least we’re not in any immediate danger.' said Donovan as they closed the door on Houston's anxious face. 'There's oxygen.'
‘No immediate danger? When the only capable pilot of this ship, the only one of us that knows whether we’re even in the same galaxy as dear old Sol or not, has taken it into its parallelepiped skull to fly us all out here just so it can take some holiday snaps?’
Donovan frowned at a bookcase: ‘I guess you’re right.’
‘Let’s think it through: Houston's been nipping to and from Europa almost every day since he got this ship, and all that with Sylvia at the wheel and no mention of any previous detours. So what's the difference this time?'
‘I know what it is. She's messing with us; it’s Brain all over again.’
‘Consider untapping yourself from that adrenaline keg of yours for once, huh?’ said Powell.
‘Your moustache seems especially well smoothed down for someone who believes “nothing is to be gained from excitement”.’ Donovan muttered, and subsequently Powell dropped the subject.
‘Look - we're probably making this too complex. Let's go through the basics: as far as we know there's no imbalance of laws to blame-'
‘But Houston said he'd had her specially made for his daughter.' said Donovan.
At that, Powell remained silent for five minutes.
‘Houston?’ Powell spoke quietly, but the corpulent man jumped as Powell returned to the study.
‘You said that this isn’t your doing - I’m not so sure; when you had your robot made, they didn’t alter any major positronic pathways did they?’
‘You’ve got it, haven’t you, Greg.’ said Donovan, following.
‘How the devil do you know that?’ Houston stood wide eyed.
Powell interrupted: ‘Quickly - tell me - does Sylvia ever seem reluctant to follow orders while your daughter is away at school?’
‘Why, no. But I don’t see what that has to do with us being stranded out here in the middle of nowhere!’ Houston was forced to shout this last sentence as Powell jogged out of the other door to the cockpit.
Donovan laid a calming hand on the startled man’s arm.
‘What? What can he say to her?’
‘Oh plenty. But it was me that suggested the cake.’
‘Cake?’ I asked.
Dr. Calvin nodded solemnly: ‘Powell realised that the robot’s laws had been altered so the child’s desires were more important than any other orders it might be given; they weren’t stranded in the middle of nowhere, but specifically next to a red giant, and the child had asked for help with her astronomy homework. He persuaded the 5YLI to take them back to Earth by saying that the child would want to pick up a surprise cake at US Robots.’
‘So what happened to the nursemaid?’ asked the client.
‘While they were supposedly waiting for the child’s cake to be brought out to them, the robot became compliant enough for it to be lead away for ‘routine tests’.’
‘You mean you destroyed it?’
‘Naturally.’ I saw Dr. Calvin’s eyes glitter. ‘A robot taken to non-compliance when a child’s whim isn’t catered for? Can you be so sure that altering the priorities of the second law wouldn’t warp those of the first law? What if the next project was on black holes?’
We both watched as the light of comprehension dawned across the man’s face, and Dr. Calvin nodded coolly at me.
‘Take our client to look at the latest humanoid models. I am sure he will find them all satisfactory nursemaids.’
‘And that is all.’ said Dr. Calvin, rising.