Taubex (Part 2)
We first met the social robot Taubex in our last near fiction story by writer Mark Onspaugh http://rotolab.la/taubex
Here is part 2 of Onspaugh’s vision of a future world in which human, robot and pooch redefine the space of intimate encounters in a post-human world.
Martin, Taubex and Heinz reached the poppy field in about two and a half hours, and Martin’s breathing was labored, his color hectic. Still, the somewhat alarming readings could not belie his jovial mood on their walk, nor his obvious pleasure in the flowers.
It was a vast field of California poppies, a few butter yellow blossoms mixed in with a sea of brilliant orange. The field was several acres, and spread up a hillside, making it look as if it were ablaze.
Martin went and lay down in the flowers, Heinz plopping down at his side.
Taubex hurried to him, trying not to crush any of the blossoms and failing.
“Martin! Do you require medical assistance?”
“Taubex, I am enjoying the flowers.”
“Can’t you enjoy them from a standing position? My sensors detect several toxins and at least ten potentially hazardous microorganisms in the soil.”
“Smell that perfume, Tau.”
“I must tell you, Martin, that these flowers do not have any perfume or pleasant scent within the human range of sensation, and your records show you were never augmented from the basic construct of your species.”
“Then I smell their color…”
“Referencing synesthesia, a psychological…”
“Referencing metaphysics, biology, chemi…”
“Taubex, I order you to lie in the flowers with Heinz and me.”
Taubex, indeed no mech, was under any programmed constraints to obey Martin, Still, Taubex knew that the language Martin was using was part of his sense of humor, a subset of a friendly behavior called “kidding.”
Taubex lay down in the field of poppies next to Martin.
The mech was silent for two minutes, then said, “I have collected all data pertinent to this position, and can find no discernible nor statistically significant variable which makes this position superior or desirable. In fact, the data I referenced earlier would actually indicate…”
Taubex humored his friend and ceased talking.
“Listen to the bees, Taubex.”
Taubex listened, adjusting his auditory sensors to…
“I can hear the whirring in your head, Tau. Don’t shut out other sensations, let the gestalt of the field envelop you. Listen to the breeze through the flowers, to the hum of insects. Smell the grass and the earth, and yes, the flowers. Watch the clouds as they float overhead… Isn’t the sky a most miraculous shade of blue?”
Taubex found Martin’s language inexact and needlessly vague, what humans called “poetic.”
It was certainly no way to collect data. Several of the more creative mechs had tried to mimic human pursuits like romance, poetry and extreme sports. Some had sustained minor damage to their programming or duralloy carapaces, others had been found smashed and leaking various fluids and gels at the bottom of cliffs, in caves and shopping mall parking lots.
The lead mechs had thus advised against such pursuits, reasoning that they had led to the end of humanity and many other species. Counter-programming in the form of several immutable algorithms etched on boron atoms were made available for any mech contemplating such useless (and dangerous) pursuits.
Tau 34abx-1111125678665498990 did not consider himself a poetic daredevil or a romantic. It was true, he had adopted human gender labeling, but this was in deference to Martin, who insisted he could not call any visitor “it”, no matter how appropriate such a label might be.
Taubex, knowing he would be in service long after Martin was dust, reasoned he would go back to a neutral status after the old man was gone.
They went, at Martin’s insistence, to the field seven more times after that. One time they spotted a rabbit, and Martin had laughed with delight at Heinz’s futile efforts to corner and trap the creature.
In all those visits, Taubex never gleaned the allure of the field. He knew it correlated with human standards of beauty, but was unable to feel anything. The nearest he could come was an odd sensation of an endlessly running data loop, like the ones that resulted when one calculated pi or the ramifications of a temporal paradox.
He decided to abandon trying to understand Martin’s joy and just be a part of the experience.
Taubex was correct in his assessment that trips outside were not without peril for the old man. Martin developed a severe respiratory infection, and this quickly advanced to pneumonia. The med-mechs were unable to help him, he was simply too old, and he wouldn’t consider the option of downloading his consciousness into a Kurzweil body.
“No smug android for me,” he croaked to Taubex from within the oxygen tent. “No offense.”
“I cannot be offended,” Taubex reminded him. “And I would not wish to be human.”
At this the old man laughed until he choked, and Taubex concluded that humor, even humor unintended, could be dangerous.
Taubex would spend most of his days and nights by Martin’s bed. The only variation in this routine was preparing Martin the canned soup of which he was so fond, and taking Heinz for a walk. For the most part, though, he and the little dog kept vigil at the old man’s side.
Martin ate less and less. Although he was fed intravenously, this was not enough, and he refused a feeding tube.
Taubex calculated how long Martin might last without sufficient nourishment, allowing for his age, frailty and a hundred other factors.
He rechecked the data several times, but the answer was always the same: the old man had one or two days at the most.
The thought of his existence going from Martin to No-Martin produced a curious chain of equations in his matrix, none of them having any relation to his current situation or research.
A self-diagnostic show nothing, and Taubex concluded it was aberrant processing, perhaps due to some minute impurity in his positronic systems. He programmed his nanites to a more stringent program of maintenance and thought nothing about it.
That afternoon, he prepared Martin a bowl of Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup, which was the old man’s favorite. Taubex hoped the aroma of the soup might encourage the old man to eat, but he shook his head.
Taubex placed the bowl on the bedside table.
“Bet you’ll be glad to be rid of me,” Martin said.
“I will be neither glad nor unhappy, as I am not programmed to feel.”
Martin nodded. “Well, in any case, I won’t be around much longer.”
This statement again brought a cascade of data, this time holographic images of Martin, flowers, the barren Earth and rusted machines.
Martin, who knew Taubex as well as Taubex knew him, could sense that something was off in his friend. He placed his withered hand gently on Taubex’s own.
Though Taubex knew on both a theoretical and empirical level that contact with the old man should not have any effect of statistical relevance, he was surprised to note that the chaotic images ceased, followed by a pleasant white noise that is usually only experienced in a power-down mode.
“It’s all right, Tau, I will miss you, too.”
Taubex looked at the old hand clutching his own, then into the old man’s eyes.
“I am uncertain why your absence causes such confusion. Perhaps I am in need of maintenance.”
“Perhaps,” the old man agreed. “Promise me you will take care of Heinzy when I am gone.”
“I promise, Martin.”
Martin died just before Christmas, 42 ML (Mech Landing). As per his wish, he was buried in the center of the poppy field, and Taubex planted an oak tree there, also per the old man’s wishes.
Taubex volunteered to take care of Heinz, rationalizing the animal would not fare well in a kennel or on his own.
Because he was mindful of the dog’s needs, he would often take him to the field.
The dog would romp and play, and Taubex noted there were more animals for the little dog to chase. He knew Martin would be glad of that, were he still alive.
The thought of Martin caused his optical sensors to cloud for a moment, as if covered with moisture. A diagnostic showed no moisture present.
Still, he wondered if he had tried to weep. Perhaps some unknown sub-routine was causing him to mimic human responses. Perhaps, in an attempt to prevent bias, he had screened such research from himself, and would examine the data later when his thoughts were reintegrated.
But what if it wasn’t something like that?
What if he were contaminated, somehow, or malfunctioning?
The very thought that he was not operating at optimum levels meant he must go in for a maintenance check.
Making sure the little dog had enough food, water and rubber toys to play with in his absence, Taubex reported to the Central Maintenance Unit for his sector.
When the Diagnosticon TY-982333 asked Taubex why he was coming in ahead of schedule, Taubex told it he was following preventative protocols after spending so much time in the company of humans.
This was not true, and Taubex realized he had told his first lie. Such an admission would surely cause for his matrix to be shut down, cleaned, serviced and rebooted. All his relevant data would be downloaded and beamed to Klystra IV, but he would retain no memory of his time here.
The thought that he might not remember Martin filled him with again with cascading images, both of the old man and the little dog.
Heinz! Who would care for the little dog if Taubex did not?
He realized he must pretend to be optimal, that he was not troubled by data cascades and a need to tell falsehoods. To stop the images, he focused on the memory of Martin grasping his hand, and the images ceased, although the feeling of moisture on his optic nodes returned.
He passed the maintenance exams, and the Diagnosticon was impressed with the efficiency of Taubex’s positronic nanites, and made their programming standard for all field mechs.
On his way back to Martin’s home, Taubex wondered if he might be fundamentally different because of some quantum event. Perhaps the very act of interacting with Martin had altered him in some way. He considered it often, but other times he just looked at the flora and fauna that were reclaiming the battered Earth.
One day, as it was time to take Heinz back to the house, the setting sun turned the field into a brilliant blaze of orange, and incandescent field of blossoms like molten gold.
And Taubex felt something.
It was a longing, an ache for the old man who had befriended him, him out of the millions of mechs who were busy terraforming the Earth into a pre-human paradise.
Taubex sighed, unaware he was doing so, and Heinz whined. Taubex patted the little dog on the head and took him home.
Heinz, very old by dog standards and also pining for Martin, died two months later. Taubex filed his report after laying the little animal to rest, then wept where no cameras or recorders would see him.
Taubex was transferred to a lab cloning small reptiles for the nearby desert region. He put in for a side project on mammals, and was granted permission to clone a large dog, what humans had called a German Shepherd.
He named the dog Poppy.
And every night, when other mechs were engaged in data exchange and maintenance, he and Poppy would walk the long miles to the field where Martin and Heinz were buried.
Poppy would chase rabbits and voles, and Taubex would lie amongst the flowers.
And lying there, as the sun came up, he felt happy.
Mark Onspaugh is a California native and the author of over fifty published short stories. Like many writers, he is perpetually curious, having studied psychology at UCLA, exotic animals at Moorpark College’s EATM program, improv comedy with the Groundlings and special effects makeup with Thomas R. Burman, Rick Baker and Rob Bottin. Mark has also written for film and television including the 2007 cult favorite FLIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. “Taubex” is one of 16 stories found in Onspaugh’s 2014 anthology TALES FROM TOMORROW. Mark currently lives in Morro Bay, California with his wife, writer Tobey Crockett and two tricksters who take the form of cats.