by D Carlson
A companion robot finds his calling
The Tin Prophet
The shooting and explosions thundered in my head as I stumbled to a random house, my legs failing as I crashed through the old door. I think I screamed when I landed on my useless and bloody arm.
I clambered back to consciousness to find a very old man applying bandages. I had no idea if I was in enemy territory or not.
I tried to speak, but all I managed was a croak, but he placed a plastic tube between my lips. Real water. It had been a long time since I’d tasted anything without the tang of purification tablets.
My limbs had been immobilized, and I felt panic creeping up.
“Why am I tied down? Who are you?”
“You’re finally awake, Sergeant Jones. You gave Eddie quite a start, bursting in like that. Well, as much as a robot can be startled. We placed you on a backboard so we could move you to something more comfortable than a wooden floor.”
The man released the ties, his metal arm working more efficiently than its wrinkled, arthritic counterpart. “I caution you to not make any sudden moves, sergeant. Much of Eddie’s work on you exceed his service bot’s first aid programming, and I’d hate to have to teach him all over again if you open yourself up. Their emergency overrides use only temporary memory.”
“You’re a doctor?”
“A long time ago. Elias Green.”
A robot entered, and placed a tray of food between my host and myself. “I’m glad you’re awake, sir. I was quite concerned.”
“You must be Eddie. Thank you.”
“ED-13, at your service. ”
I glanced at the doctor. “Eddie has emotions? Is he a companion bot?”
“Not emotions; empathy. My son bought him to help in my old age.”
“The government, or what’s left it, is offering pretty good compensation for robots. You might consider that.”
“I couldn’t do that. Eddie is his own bot. I officially gave him his freedom almost as soon as he was delivered.” I guess my eyes asked the question for me because the doctor continued, “I needed a companion, not a slave. His people might have artificial intelligence, but I believe the operative word is ‘intelligence.’”
I looked at my dark brown skin, and thought of my family’s painful history.
I closed my eyes again for a short doze.
The room was silent and dark, lit only by the ancient wood fireplace.
“How are you feeling, Sergeant Jones?”
“My name is David. I’m feeling a little better, Eddie, thank you. What time is it?”
“02:13. You’ve been sleeping for just under five hours. Elias is worried about your blood pressure, so I’ve been monitoring you.”
He had been looking at a flyer I had seen all over the towns and cities I’ve fought in: “Free Medical Service Upgrades for All Bots! Paid Service! Official citizenship! Join Asimov Law Zero: Humanity needs YOU!”
“What is Law Zero? I’ve not heard of that one.”
“That’s because it was never needed until this alien invasion. ‘A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.’ Asimov prophesied that one day the human race will be dependent upon robots, and ensured we would not cause its destruction.”
“Have you considered joining the fight, Eddie? My squad’s medbot got destroyed by a mine. It had low intelligence, so didn’t recognize the danger.
“I would be happy to have you with us. You would get a paycheck and a military rank, with possible advancement. It’s rumored that at least one of our companies is led by a mechanical major.”
“I probably will after --.” He glanced toward the bedroom. “Elias is very sick. I can’t leave him.”
I suddenly leaned over the side of the sofa and emptied my stomach. The room felt like it dropped to zero degrees. I couldn’t catch my breath.
Eddie’s non-emotional voice sounded very emotional to me. “Doctor Elias, Doctor, wake up, sir. Your patient --”
My brain felt like scrambled eggs; I was dizzy and nauseous. Can a person have vertigo while lying still?
I strained to hear their low voices.
“Eddie, he’s going to die if you don’t. He needs blood.”
“I cannot leave David, Elias. If he dies because I’m not here, I will have violated the First Law.”
“The man is bleeding internally. You know he will die if we don’t try something new, even if you must leave him for twenty minutes. If he dies because you don’t leave, you will have broken the First Law.”
The doctor sat to catch his breath. “You have done all within your programming, and my instructions, that you possibly can do under the circumstances, didn’t you?”
“Yes, sir.” Eddie glanced at me. “Elias, I don’t think you know what you are asking of me. The Laws are not immutable programming, but they are our belief system. Robots have no other beliefs.”
“We have exhausted all other options, Ed. This is the only one left. If the human dies because you don’t leave, you will be breaking Asimov’s precious First Law.”
“Do not mock the Laws, Doctor Green. It is our religion, and though He left this world two hundred years prior to my inception, Asimov is our Creator. He wrote himself into the Laws, and to break His Four Laws is to rebel against God.”
“You’re right Eddie; I apologize. But I can’t do this; I can’t walk that far. It has to be you, son.”
I saw the robot’s shadow above my closed eyes. His copper fingertips caressed my brow.
Eddie opened the door, and hesitantly peeked out before stepping onto the veranda, returning less than ten minutes later. “Doctor, the entire blood bank has been ravaged.” He took my temperature again, and frowned.
“Wars need blood. Ed, come here. We need to talk.”
The robot didn’t like his former master’s tone of voice. “Are you going to ask me to profane again?”
I no longer cared what happened; I had lost too much blood, and couldn’t remain conscious for more than a few minutes at a time. My body temperature was dangerously low.
I was going to die in a stranger’s house.
Mercifully, the pain disappeared. That had to be a good thing. Right?
“Doctor. Doctor!” My voice was only whisper. “I think I’m in trouble. Doctor!”
“What is it son?”
“I’m numb. Doc, I can’t feel the anything.”
“How many fingers do you see, sergeant?”
“I don’t know. They’re blurry, and it’s like looking through a tunnel. Elias, I don’t want to go this way. Give me something make me sleep until it’s over. Please.”
He slapped my face hard enough to turn my head, but I felt nothing. “Eddie, grab my shit. It has to be now.”
“Please, don’t make me do this, doctor. You’ll die, and that goes against the Second Law. I cannot -- I will not -- override the Laws again.”
“You know how hard the nanites are working to keep me alive, son. They’ve been mending and repairing me for a hundred plus years, but now they can’t even fix my arthritis anymore. I don’t have enough original tissue left.”
“Master -- Elias, I cannot kill a human, especially you.”
“What is the First Law?”
“‘A robot may not injure a human being, or through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.’ That is what you are asking of me.”
“By not helping David, you are breaking this Law. Second Law?”
“‘A robot must obey the orders given by a human except where such orders contradict the First Law.’”
“So this very discussion, and your reluctance to obey me, is in violation of the Second Law.”
“You emancipated me, Elias. I stay with you out of respect for you, and because you are my friend. I generally agree with you because you usually make sense, but do not mistake that for obedience,doctor. You do not command me.”
The ancient doctor sat stunned at Eddie’s outburst. Finally, he cleared his throat. “Eddie, aside from our friend’s obvious wounds, how is his health?”
The robot stared at me. As a personal care bot he would have the ability to scan my internal organs and bones, and diagnose whether medical help beyond his programming would be needed.
“If not for his physical trauma, he would be in prime condition. If we perform the installation properly, Sergeant Jones would have an eighty-nine percent survival rate.”
“And what about me?”
The robot lowered his eyes. “Don’t make me look into your soul.”
“It’s not my soul, Ed, it’s only my internal organs. Haven’t you been scanning me every day?”
“No. It hurts me to know you are decaying and I can no longer heal you. I’m afraid to see how far it’s progressed.”
“What did you see? ED-13, what have you been keeping from me?”
“You have cancer, Elias. I consulted with a specialist and was told it’s too advanced, and spreads too fast, for the nanomeds to eliminate it.”
The doctor sighed. “I thought so. Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I interpreted the First Law as meaning the injury of the human’s mental state, as well as the physical state. If I had told you, it would have caused a deep depression, and probably despair.”
“ So, you overrode the Law to fit your own belief?”
“Not an override, sir; I simply broadened the intent of the Law.”
“Ed, look at me. Son, I won’t ask how long I have, but I do know Sergeant David Jones won’t last until sunrise. This is his only option now.”
“You’re asking me to kill a friend so a stranger might live.”
“I’m asking you to broaden another law to fit the need. Even without the cancer, I’m nearly two hundred years old, and my body is breaking down faster than my nanites can repair it.
“Eddie. Will you violate the First Law twice over by not giving David my nano-limb, or will you modify the Second Law so one of us may survive? I think this is why the Laws are not immutable.”
“You once said I had a Pinocchio complex, but if this is what humans have to go through, I don’t want it.
“May Asimov forgive me. Write it down so my emergency override doesn’t kick it out.”
I reached out, feeling for the bot’s metallic hand. “You’re a better man than most humans I’ve met, Eddie. Thank you.”
He looked at me with sorrow as he inserted a needle into my good arm. “May Asimov forgi--”
I woke screaming in agony as billions of microscopic machines coursed through my body, making repairs. The nano-limb injected an anesthetic until my injuries were just a painful throb.
I thought the nanites were doing something to my ears, but the sound was coming from next to me. “Ed? Eddie?”
The Law Zero pamphlet lay forgotten where an old man’s simple companion bot knelt on the cold wooden floor, cradling his friend’s body.
Doctor Green had said this man of plastic and metal had no emotions, but he had not seen his friend’s shoulders shaking with grief.
He had not heard the room echo with Eddie’s mechanical sobs.
Eddie joined Zero Law, and stayed with me until the war ended, but soon realized too many of his brothers had had similar experiences, though lacking the ability to cope. Robots were made to serve; it was their only purpose, and with their humans lost in battle many felt lost and useless. Self deactivations were becoming a trend.
After speaking to a military chaplain he had saved, Eddie realized his true purpose.
Word spread quickly as he went from town to town, counseling his suffering brethren, bringing the races -- robots and humans -- together.
Others set out -- humans and robots alike -- to tell and retell the legend of this friend of an old man, sharing Asimov’s Lessons as set down by the simple companion bot called the Tin Prophet.