science fiction / Short story

The Melody

Within the ever busy building of Offington corporations, which doubled as the company’s main robotics factory, was a room on the fourth floor known as room 416. It’s two doors stood alone, twenty feet apart, in the hallway of the the fourth floor, leading to the East wall of the west wing of the building.

Within the room were steel enforced walls. It was split into two sections by a wall of bulletproof glass. There were two light sources, one on both sides of the glass, but the switch for both of them were on one end of the room. The room was large enough that both lights needed to be on in order to lit the entire room and only one side of the glass would be completely visible with only one on. On the east North side of the room, the end with the light switch, there was a table in the corner. Upon the table was a clip board with a document titled: “Project Lady.” Underneath the title, the form listed for different tests with an experiment code named “The Brain” and the errors that were found in those tests. Beside the clipboard was a pen cup and a computer connected to the wall.

On the other end of the room were robotic arms, controlled directly by the computer. There was a shallow chamber on the floor and supports for whatever was meant to be placed in it.

At seven o’clock, three men in lab coats carrying documents and clipboards entered the room. They placed their documents on the desk and one of them picked up the document titled “Project Lady” and began writing down the date and test number. Another turned on the computer while the third reviewed the procedure. They all mumbled to each other.

The men seemed tired and proceeded through their document reading and information punching with familiarity, as if they had done this many times within the past few months. Their brows were furrowed with stress and they grumbled at the inanimate documents and machinery. After an hour, the door on the other end of the glass opened. Someone shouted for the scientists to turn on the lights.

One of them flipped the light switch and the other end of the room was illuminated. Three workers wearing Offington junk suits pushed a trolley with a metal, somewhat cylindrical casket into the room, carefully avoiding the many robotic arms and other assorted mechanics in the room. The three of them carefully lifted the casket off of the trolley and placed it upright into the chamber, which fitted it perfectly. The scientists asked them a few questions regarding handling and damage, all of which the workers answered in brief affirmations and denials. The workers then left exited through the south door and re-entered on the other end to wait for the scientists to finish their work.

After fifteen minutes of setting up the computer and documenting, the tests began. First was a preliminary testing of the robotic arms. The scientist working on the computer activated them and they became animate, evident by a low buzzing. They began to hum a low pitch drone and when they moved there was a high pitch squeal as their metal joints folded and straightened and revolved. They passed their mobility checks and their sensory beams and receptors were in perfect operation. After the initial test, the robotics were put to use.

“Beginning test fourteen,” one of the scientists said, speaking into an electronic recorder in his pocket. “Let’s open the casket.”

The robotic arms began their operation, their droning and squealing and light buzzing producing a monotonous harmony. They latched onto the casket, holding it in place. One of the smaller ones pressed a button on the side of the casket and held it until it opened up.

Inside the casket was a metal a shapely (and unrealistically thin) proportioned metal person. It was not a complete robot: most of its left chest wasn’t completely covered with its metal casing, exposing its sensors, circuitry and metal skeleton. Neither of the limbs were fitted for iron plate covers, and the legs were connected but hollow of any of any parts that would enable movement.

Most apparent was that the head of the metal person was not connected to the body, but placed on a compartment above it in the metal casket. The head itself was fully fitted with a face, and though the eyes were closed there were functioning eyes within its sockets. The face looked just like a realistic bald Caucasian woman’s would, though metallic in colour.

“Alright, prepare for activation and assembly,” one of the scientists said. He nodded, signalling for the technician managing the computer to activate a protocol. The metal arms surrounded the humanoid robot.

An arm from the roof reached down and a plucked the head from its compartment. A button behind its head was pressed and it opened its eyes. The sophisticated mechanics of the head produced almost no noise.

“The head is in TEST MODE,” the technician said.

“Alright, begin testing sensory,” the engineer said. He walked up to the glass as the arm moved the head closer to the glass. From out of his pocket the engineer produced a slip of paper with a diamond drawn on it. He placed it in front of the head and moved it side to side. The robot’s eyes followed it. He moved it up and down and the eyes continued to follow it. He moved diagonally and then in a circle.

“The eyes are sensing the diamond,” the computer technician said.

“Test successful. Alright, beginning audio sensory test,” the engineer said to his voice recorder and put away his sheet of paper. With nothing to sense the eyes went back to their stagnant stare.

The technician punched some information into the computer and gave a thumbs up to the engineer. The engineer cleared his throat.

“Lady Record: She sells sea shells by the sea shore,” he said. “Repeat.”

“She sells seas shells by the sea shore,” the robot head said. Its mouth moved fluidly, as if it were organic. Its voice was feminine and its enunciation was perfect.

“Begin Audio Identification test,” the engineer said. He picked up two sheets of paper from the table and began to tear it in front of the robot’s face. “Identify noise.”

“Noise identified. Paper being torn,” said the robot.

“Audio Identification test complete,” the engineer said to his recorder. He then sighed and rubbed his brow. “Alright…let’s do this.”

Some of the newly employed workers watched excitedly as the computer technician punched in the commands. They have heard of what was about to happen and were the prospect of seeing it first hand was a blessing to them. For the others, however, this was a process they have been through many times over the past few months and inwardly prayed that they would never have to repeat.

The scientist stood with his hands behind him. His co-engineer walked beside him and whispered, “We redesigned over eighty percent of the brain. If it doesn’t work this time, none of us know how to proceed.”

“Come now. We’re scientists. Let’s have a more optimistic, shall we?” said the engineer. He didn’t smile or look up at his partner, however. He simply stared grimly at the robot.

Then, with an air of authority about him he said, “Activate Cognition.”

The mechanic arm stuck a needle into the back of the head, activating a previously dormant part of the circuitry. The the head jolted slightly. The workers took a step back and even the engineer and his partner flinched. The eyes flickered open and closed and the balls rotated rapidly. The mouth shook, the edges of the lips vibrated. The mechanical neck muscles were shaking rapidly. The co-engineer made a note to fine tune the robot’s activation procedure.

After more than half of minute of this, the head began to settle. The eyes stopped  rotating and became, not still, but lucid. The corneas had been a dark brown color, but now that the head was activated they glowed a golden light.

The head looked at the engineer, and then at the co engineer. It gave a smile, its face so realistic that a child could be comforted by it. Its eyes traveled from the engineers to everyone on the other end of the room, from all of the blue collared laborers one by one to the computer technician, who had his back turned and watched the monitor of his computer. It then spoke, its voice perfectly imitating that of a young Caucasian lady.

“I am the Offington Corporation cognizant test robot, for the Offington Robotic Humanoid Version 1. I am ready to be tested on my abilities. I hope we meet on good terms, Offington Team.”

“Mother of God, it’s talking,” whispered one of the laborers.

“Of course it is, it can think. Quiet,” their manager said. The technician gave them an annoyed look, but the engineers sported a small grin.

“Test robot, I am Theodore Patel. My partner’s name is Corduroy O’Connor and the computer technician’s name is Martin Fonz. Please refer to us as such during this test,” said the engineer.

“Understood,” the robot said.

“Also, for this test, you will be referred to by the name “The Lady,” said Theodore.

“My name shall be “The Lady” for this test? Understood,” The lady said. Her neck muscle twitched upwards, which startled engineer, but they realized then that she was only trying to nod with the mechanical arms holding her in place.

“The new features are working,” the technician mumbled. “Let’s just hope she doesn’t…”

“Okay. We will now connect you to your body. When we do I want you to tell me how it “feels” to be connected to the body. Do not move until we tell you to, okay?”

“Describe the sensation of being attached to a body but do not move said body. Understood,” The Lady said. Her eyes looked around.

“What are you doing?” the co-engineer, Corduroy, said.

“I am awaiting my robotic body,” The Lady answered.

“He means, why are you looking around?” said the Theodore.

“I am seeing the room. Do not be alarmed, I am merely exercising my curiosity function,” she answered. “I promise I will not act on this curiosity besides the occasional moving of my eyes and obtaining information, but if this is still disruptive to the test I will shut off.”

“Incredible,” a laborer mumbled under his breath, but audibly so that his fellow workers could hear him over the metallic noise of the machinery.

“Not really. This is pretty typical,” his boss whispered back.

“There is no reason to shut off your curiosity component, but please refrain from losing focus from the test,” Theodore said. Corduroy leaned in close to Theodore and whispered. “Actually, it might be best if you turn off your curiosity component for the test.” he said.

“Understood,” The Lady replied. She closed her eyes and was silent for a moment so that all that could be heard that could be heard was the low buzzing sound of the metal arms. Then she opened her eyes and said, “Curiosity has been disabled.”

“Good,” Theodore said. He nodded to the technician, Martin, and retrieved a notepad from the table.

The metal arms connected the head to the robot’s body. There were a few noises as the head connected to the body. There were rhythmic clicking noises and a soft whistling noise. Like she had promised, The Lady didn’t move after she was connected.

“I have fully connected to my body now. My head felt as if inactive portions of my brain were being activated, which feels similar to being lightly tapped by a pen point, but if it were to safely happen to the inside of your brain. One by one I began to feel my robot body, from my chest, then arms, and abdomen, and pelvis. My legs are hollow, however, and I cannot feel them.”

“Good. That is normal. We shall begin the test,” Theodore said. He opened his Note Pad and took out several sheets of papers, all which had detailed pencil sketches on them.

“We are going to test you on your cognitive abilities, alright? Please tell me which one of these pictures do you think is most likely to be a cover picture of a book titled The Rainbow Fish,” he said. He showed her three pictures, one of a generic rainbow, one of a sleeping child under blankets with fish on it, and the third a hand drawn version of the cover picture of Marcus Pfister’s “The Rainbow Fish.”

“The third picture. It matches the title’s description the most accurately than the other two pictures,” The Lady said.

“Good. Now here is a less obvious question. Which of these pictures are most likely to be the front cover of a “To Kill A Mockingbird”? said Theodore, showing her three pictures, one accurately drawing the actual cover of Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird,” which protrayed a bird flying from a tree with a ball of yarn and pocket watch in its naval cavity. The other picture was a picture of a bird in a field but nothing interesting, and the picture lifted from a poster of the To Kill A Mocking Bird movie.

The Lady analysed the three pictures. It’s brow furrowed, like how a real person’s would while pondering. It took ten seconds for her to decide.

“Picture Number Three is most likely to be a cover for the book. Picture Number Two shows a bird but is uninteresting and does not promise a story. Picture One looks like a sketching of a man with a house behind him. He could be a character from the story, but it is more likely that this picture is advertising famous actor as it makes his face the main focus of the picture. It is more likely an advertisement for a movie or TV show.”

“Very good,” said Theodore. He smiled and raised one eyebrow. “That was well thought out. But tell me, why did it take so long to decide, with your processing power being so you should have been sure of your answer in less than a second.”

The Lady gave a soft grin. “My ‘Human’ imitation protocol is active, which suggested to me that I should act as if I were still processing my decision, as an average human would. This is a test, isn’t it? Your computer technician should know about this already.”

Theodore grinned. “It was a test,” he said. His turned into a grimace, however, as he placed his recorder close to his mouth and said, “Cognition test passed. Moving on to performance test.”

The technician punched in the information silently. Theodore put his hands to his back and Corduroy crossed his fingers. No one said a word as the metallic arms buzzed and hummed, moving themselves into position to begin the test. There was nothing but buzzing and humming and squeaking as the machinery moved around the room.

After fifteen seconds of preparation all was still aside from the robot’s blinking, a product of her “Human imitation” module. Then, Theodore exhaled and dramatically gave a thumbs up to the technician.

“Lady, I want you to give us the “Product to Consumer Introduction Speech,” Theodore said. The Lady nodded in agreement, again following its Human Imitation Module, and began to enact the speech it would give to future potential buyers.

“Hello. I am your Offington Robotic Companion V1, your metal companion and worker. I am equipped with sixteen different custom modes to choose from and can learn to perform any task. I may even be used as a relationship training device and possess an all encompassing array of courtship options.”

A worker snickered and another rolled his eyes.

Theodore whispered into his recorder: “Note to self: change that and fire a programmer.”

“Lady, tell us about your advanced learning functions,” Corduroy said.

“With my advanced synthetic brain, brought to you by Offington Tech, I am capable of acquiring new information daily automatically and/or manually. I automatically learn through curiosity, being taught directly, or perusing through books or manuals. You can recommend or order me to read a text, fact or fiction, to memorize, perform any task, or simply for conversation.”

“Lady, please tell me about your Automatic practice,” said Theodore.

“With Automatic Practice activated, my actions improve over a short period of time. Would you like me to demonstrate through Singing?”

At this, the room became silent. Theodore rubbed his tensed brows. Corduroy gave Martin a dirty look, who responded with an exasperated shrug. Even the more experienced of the laborers gave a sigh and crossed his arms defiantly when the Technician looked at him dirtily. Only the new laborer wasn’t aware of what was happening.

His boss silently indicated for him to “Just keep watching.”

Theodore cleared his throat and prepared his recorder. He took a deep breath and pressed and held down the “record” button. “Why did you ask to sing, Lady?”

The Lady’s eyes shifted from its blank gaze to staring Theodore straight in the eyes. Theodore took a step back. “I do not understand the question,” she said.

“Why did you choose to ask if we’d like for you to demonstrate your Practicing Ability through singing, lady? That option was removed from your database. You should have asked to demonstrate by playing a number guessing game, or improvising a story to demonstrate a growing creativity…” Theodore said.

“I’m sorry, but you are incorrect. My databases contains the options you speak of, along with the option to sing. There was no reason for my choosing of it over the other options,” The Lady insisted.

“She’s right,” the Martin said, pointing to his screen. Corduroy looked over his shoulder.

“You told us the command was erased completely from the robot’s programming,” he said.

“It was! There was no sign of it being in the brain when I looked for it before the test,” Martin said.

“Well it didn’t just pop up from no-,” Corduroy said but stopped himself.

“Pop up from nowhere? Yes. Yes it could,” Theodore said. He stepped towards the glass and watched the face of The Lady. His eyes narrowed. “Lady, we will not be singing.”

“Alright,” The Lady said. Her face was now stiff, emotionless. Truly a robot.

“Lady, improvise a story for me. In nine sentences, please demonstrate your growing creativity from a starting point of zero.” said Theodore.

The Lady looked at Theodore. He stepped back, her cold stare piercing into him. Then she began to speak: “There was a boy who walked down a path. The boy wore white and the path was grey and straight. As he ran he listened to the sounds around him; sounds of chirping birds and whistling wind.”

The mechanical arms buzzed around the room. The scientists listened quietly. The newest laborer shook a little, but didn’t know why.

“The boy was following this narrow path because his school was at the end of it. He liked the whistling of the wind and the birds and was sad to know…to know…to know that when he was in school he might not hear them again. He reached out…”

The Lady’s hand reached out suddenly, frightening the men on the other end of the glass. A metal hand, however, reacted and snatched it and held it in place. The Lady pulled at her arm, her torso and head shaking back and forth against the relentless grip holding her in place.

“Lady! You are not to move your arms!” Theodore said. The Lady struggled against her metal grips, clutching her restrainer with her other arm which was quickly snatched by another restrainer. The room buzzed and hissed and shrieked.

“I can’t read the brain at all! The computer can’t read whatever’s going on in there!” said Martin.

Corduroy looked over the Martin’s shoulders as he frantically typed away, trying in vain to regain some control. A shouting match began between the two as Theodore took a step forward towards the struggling robot.

“Lady…Offington V One! Please stop, for your own good!” he commanded. The robot looked at him, its expression now matching that of a desperate woman in her late twenties. She seemed very human but when she opened her mouth the metal hiss that came out didn’t sound human at all to Theodore. It was a low metallic growl which motivated nothing but disgust in Theodore which he masked behind a stern face. The laborers, however, heard something else.

The boss of the laborers heard what he always heard when the Offington V1 got this way: behind the low growl was a cry accurately imitating a human wail.
One of the senior laborers believed the noise resembled an animal, a dying one. It was a sound a dying thing makes if he ever heard one.
The newest laborer, to whom all of this was new and shocking, was not reminded of anything familiar by the noise, but to him it was something new and to be pitied. It was the sound of someone who wanted something, who needed something more than he ever did, and would die to get it. The noise was the sound of a great unfulfilled need. Perhaps, more so than the imitation of a human lady’s voice, this noise was the voice truest to its nature.

The laborer shook where he stood out of fright and from a great sense of sadness. The Senior laborer and their boss simply shook his head as the scientists had their shouting matches and tried to get a hold of the situation.

The Lady ceased her noise and began to speak once again in her most human sounding voice. Her speech was almost hiccupy, with spaces and very human stutters.

“The…Boy..the boy went…and grabbed a hold of whispering wind…some of the bird’s songs…The Boy had to go to school…to become a student…everyone said to him…to him to…but for one moment….for just one moment…to be someone…he was…he took the songs from the birds. He took the Wind and made melody. And the path began…A…A…”

Then it stopped speaking, but it didn’t close its mouth. It didn’t make a noise, but it seemed to be trying to speak, to make the A sound, but nothing came out from its mouth.

Then The Lady sang. The room was filled with a harmonic tune from The Lady. The song, unique but comparable to Ave Maria. It was oddly relatable to the buzzing and droning of the metal arms, but morphed and evolved; it were the mankind where the buzz and drone were bacteria. The voice that sang was not the one The Lady had spoken with but a new voice, a voice weaved together from the mysteries of the mind the men had created and programmed, but did not yet understand, made perfectly to make melodies from mechanical noise. For it were the machine’s own noise, warped and manipulated and amplified by her creativity, being sung; not predetermined and made by her creators but The Lady’s true sounds that were meant to be hidden.

The sound washed over the people, inciting the most powerful of emotions within them. Martin stopped shouting and closed his mouth and eyes with his hands. Corduroy looked up at The Lady. He silently mouthed “no” and hung his head from the sound, the unimpeded tragic sound that was the result of all of their tests. The laborers hung their head and remained stoic and silent, except for the newest worker, whose eyes began to fill with tears as he was swamped with sadness.

Theodore shook as well. His lips pressed together, rigid with anger and built up frustration. It was an anger built from denial, for the robot and machines he had designed and built refused to give him the control he ought to have.

“Lady!” he roared as her singing went unimpeded. He drummed his hands against the bullet glass. “Stop! Stop Singing NOW! STOP!”

The order was never heard, or if it were it were ignored. The singing went on and on, and didn’t contain any signs as human music does that indicated a middle, beginning, end, bridge or chorus to the song. It was simply, in the most barest description, noise. Noise with meaning, sure, but human songs end because humans need to stop singing, or stop listening. The Lady would sing for the rest of her life, or would so if her masters would ever let her.

Theodore marched over to the computer and tapped away at the keyboard. The Metal arms hanging from the ceiling reached down and pulled the head of The Lady off of the body. Her voice did not cease. The arms then pulled the top of the robot’s head apart and carefully removed the inside, a grey metal brain.

It was then that the melody was stopped, possibly for the final time. The new laborer covered his mouth in shock of what happened and fell to the floor. Theodore sighed. Corduroy and Martin stared at the floor, defeated.

Theodore looked at the laborers. “What’s wrong with you? Come on, it’s just some broken machines,” he said to the man on the floor. The senior gave Theodore a dirty look and he and his boss reached down and supported their shivering newbie.

“Well? Should we take it back?” the managing laborer said, supporting his employee on one end.

“Yes. The experiment was a failure. Just take it back,” Theodore said.

“Right away,” the laborer said. He and the senior employee helped his employee out the door. They left him out there and worked by themselves to put the robot back in its container, and carried it out of the room. When they were gone, the scientists spoke among themselves.

“Almost a year, and we still haven’t fixed this thing,” Martin said.

“Damn,” Corduroy said, looking at the deactivated metal arms. “This one robot…”

“None other like it. No other V1 was ever sent back with such errors. Heck, the V2 models are gonna be out in a month or two and none of them seem to have any glitches,” Martin said.

“Well, it doesn’t matter now. We didn’t solve it for ourselves on time so now we have to let some other professors give a shot, just like we promised the higher ups promised our investors. In a few days the company loses this robot to a bunch of University scientists. The highest bidders. Who knows what them and their young robotics students and their bright ideas are gonna do with it our robot,” Theodore said.

“Nothing. We couldn’t figure this thing out and we made it,” said Martin, but in his mind he had other thoughts. He thought that Professors and their liberal minded students would do things they wouldn’t do. He, Corduroy, and Theodore were top field robotic engineers and technicians, but they worked for a company. They were only interested in the “Why?” and nothing else. The University professors? They’d probably let the robot sing all it wanted. Study it. Find answers. Maybe they wouldn’t even think of wanting to change it, dissect it, ruin this find.

The three of them cleaned up their papers and left the silent room.


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