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Chapter l. Can You Feel Anything When I Do This?

"Mandelbrot, what does it feel like to be a robot?"

"Forgive me, Master Derec, but that question is meaningless. While it is certainly true that robots can be said to experience sensations vaguely analogous to specified human emotions in some respects, we lack feelings in the accepted sense of the word."

"Sorry, old buddy, but I can't help getting the hunch that you're just equivocating with me."

"That would be impossible. The very foundations of positronic programming insist that robots invariably state the facts explicitly."

"Come, come, don't you concede it's possible that the differences between human and robotic perception may be, by and large, semantic? You agree, don't you, that many human emotions are simply the by-products of chemical reactions that ultimately affect the mind, influencing moods and perceptions. You must admit, humans are nothing if not at the mercy of their bodies. "

"That much has been proven, at least to the satisfaction of respected authorities. "

"Then, by analogy, your own sensations are merely byproducts of smoothly running circuitry and engine joints. A spaceship may feel the same way when, its various parts all working at peak efficiency, it breaks into hyperspace. The only difference between you and it being, I suppose, that you have a mind to perceive it."

Mandelbrot paused, his integrals preoccupied with sorting Derec's perspectives on these matters into several categories in his memory circuits. "I have never quite analyzed the problem that way before, Master Derec. But it seems that in many respects the comparison between human and robot, robot and spaceship must be exceedingly apt."

"Let's look at it this way, Mandelbrot. As a human, I am a carbon-based life-form, the superior result of eons of evolution of inferior biological life-forms. I know what it feels like because I have a mind to perceive the gulf between man and other species of animal life. And with careful, selective comparison, I can imagine-however minimally-what a lower life-form might experience as it makes its way through the day. Furthermore, I can communicate to others what I think it feels like."

"My logic circuits can accept this.”

“Okay then, through analogy or metaphor or through a story I can explain to others what a worm, or a rat, or a cat, or even a dinosaur must feel as they hunt meat, go to sleep, sniff flowers, or whatever."

"I have never seen one of these creatures and certainly wouldn't presume to comprehend what it must be like to be one."

"Ah! But you would know-through proper analogy-what it must be like to be a spaceship."

"Possibly, but I have not been provided with the necessary programming to retrieve the information. Furthermore, I cannot see how such knowledge could possibly help me fulfill the behavioral standards implicit in the Three Laws."

"But you have been programmed to retrieve such information, and your body often reacts accordingly, and sometimes adversely, with regards to your perceptions."'

"You are speaking theoretically?”

“Yes."

"Are you formally presenting me with a problem?"

"Yes."

"Naturally I shall do my best to please you, Master Derec, but my curiosity and logic integrals are only equipped to deal with certain kinds of problems. The one you appear to be presenting may be too subjective for my programmed potentials. "

“Isn't all logic abstract, and hence somewhat subjective, at least in approach? You must agree that, through mutually agreed upon paths of logic, you can use the certain knowledge of two irrefutable facts to learn a third, equally irrefutable fact. "

“Of course."

"Then can't you use such logic to reason how it might feel to be a spaceship, or any other piece of sufficiently advanced machinery?"

“Since you phrase it that manner, of course, but I fail to comprehend what benefit such an endeavor may bring me-or you."

Derec shrugged. It was night in Robot City. He and Mandelbrot had been out walking. He had felt the need to stretch his muscles after a long day spent studying some of the problems complicating his escape from this isolated planet. But at the moment they were sitting atop a rectangular tower and staring at the stars. "Oh, I don't know if it would be of any benefit, except perhaps to satisfy my curiosity. It just seems to me that you must have some idea of what it is like to be a robot, even if you don't have the means to express it."

“Such knowledge would require language, and such a language has not yet been invented."

“Hmmm. I suppose."

"However, I have just made an association that may be of some value."

“What's that?"

“Whenever you or Mistress Ariel have had no need of my assistance, I have been engaging in communication with the robots of this city. They haven't been wondering what it means or feels like to be a robot, but they have been devoting a tremendous amount of spare mental energy to the dilemma of what it must be like to be a human."

“Yes, that makes sense, after a fashion. The robots' goal of determining the Laws of Humanics has struck me as a unique phenomenon."

"Perhaps it is not, Master Derec. After all, if I may remind you, you recall only your experiences of the last few weeks, and my knowledge of history is rather limited in scope. Even so, I never would have thought of making connections the way you have, which leads my circuits to conclude your subconscious is directing our conversation so that it has some bearing on your greater problems."

Derec laughed uncomfortably. He hadn't considered it before. Strange, he thought, that a robot had. "My subconscious? Perhaps. I suppose I feel that if I better understand the world I'm in, I might better understand myself."

"I believe I am acting in accordance with the Three Laws if I help a human know himself better. For that reason, my circuits are currently humming with a sensation you might recognize as pleasure."

"That's nice. Now if you'll excuse me, I'd like to be alone right now." For a moment Derec felt a vague twinge of anxiety, and he actually feared that he might be insulting

Mandelbrot, a robot that, after all they'd been through together, he couldn't help but regard as his good friend.

But if Mandelbrot had taken umbrage, he showed no evidence of it. He was, as always, inscrutable. "Of course. I shall wait in the lobby."

Derec watched as Mandelbrot walked to the lift and slowly descended. Of course Mandelbrot hadn't taken umbrage. It was impossible for him to be insulted.

Crossing his legs to be more comfortable, Derec returned to looking at the stars and the cityscape spread out below and beyond, but his thoughts remained inward. Normally he was not the reflective type, but tonight he felt moody, and gave in easily to the anxiousness and insecurity he normally held in check while trying to deal with his various predicaments more logically.

He smiled at this observation on what he was feeling. Perhaps he was taking himself too seriously, the result of lately reading too much Shakespeare. He had discovered the plays of the ancient, so-called "Immortal Bard" as a means of mental escape and relaxation. Now he was finding that the more he scrutinized the texts, the more he learned about himself. It was as if the specific events and characters portrayed in the plays spoke directly to him, and had some immediate bearing on the situation in which he had found himself when he had awakened, shorn of memory, in that survival pod not so long ago.

He couldn't help but wonder why the plays were beginning to affect him so. It was as if he was beginning to redefine himself through them.

He shrugged again, and again pondered the stars. Not just to analyze them for clues to the location of the world he was on, but to respond to them as he imagined countless men and women had throughout the course of history. He tried to imagine how they had looked to the men of Shakespeare's time, before mankind had learned how the universe came to be, where the Earth stood in relation to it, or how to build a hyperspace drive. Their searching but scientifically ignorant minds must have perceived in the stars a coldly savage beauty beyond the range of his empathy.

One star in the sky, perhaps, might be the sun of his homeworld. Somewhere out there, he thought, someone knew the answers to his questions. Someone who knew who he really was and how he came to be in that survival pod.

Below him was the city of towers, pyramids, cubes, spires and tetragons, some of which, even as he watched, were changing in accordance with the city's program. Occasionally robots, their activity assisting the alterations and additions, glistened in the reflections of the starlight reflected in turn from the city walls. The robots never slept, the city never slept. It changed constantly, unpredictably.

The city was like a giant robot, composed of billions upon billions of metallic cells functioning in accordance to nuclei-encoded DNA patterns of action and reaction. Although composed of inorganic matter, the city was a living thing, a triumph of a design philosophy Derec called "minimalist engineering."

Derec had partially been inspired to ascend to the top of this tower-through a door and lift that appeared when he needed them-precisely because he had watched its basic structure coil, snakelike, from the street like a giant, growing ribbon. And once the ribbon had reached its preordained height, the cells had spread out and coalesced into a solid structure. Perhaps they had multiplied as well.

Two towers directly in front of him merged and sank into the street as if dropping on a great lift. About a kilometer away to his right, a set of buildings of varying heights gradually became uniform, then merged into a single, vast, square construction. It stayed that way for approximately three minutes, then methodically began metamorphosing into a row of crystals.

A few days ago, such a sight would have instilled within him a sense of wonder. Now it was all very ordinary. No wonder he had sought to amuse himself by engaging in what he had thought was a slight mental diversion.

Suddenly a tremendous glare appeared in the midst of the city. Derec averted his eyes in panic, assuming it was an explosion.

But as the seconds passed and the glare remained, he realized that no sound or sensation of violence had accompanied its birth. Whatever its nature, its presence had been declared as if it had been turned on by a switch.

Feeling a little self-conscious, he slowly removed his fingers from his eyes and ventured a look. The glare was coalescing into a series of easily definable colors. Various hues of crimson, ochre, and blue. The colors changed as the tetragonal pyramid they were coming from changed.

The pyramid was situated near the city's border. The eight-sided figure was balanced precariously on the narrow tip of its base, and it rotated like a spinning top in slow motion. From Derec's vantage point it resembled a tremendous bauble, thanks to those brilliantly changing lights.

Watching it, he gradually felt all anxieties cease. His own problems seemed dwarfed into insignificance compared to the splendor of this sight. What beauty this city was capable of!

Soon this feeling of calm was uprooted by his growing curiosity, a restless need to know more that quickly became overwhelming, relentlessly gnawing. He would have to examine the building firsthand, then return to his "roost" where his access controls were, and get down to seriously plumbing the depths of the city's mysterious programming.

Like the plays of Shakespeare, the strange structure seemed a good place to escape to for a time. Besides, he never knew-he might find out something that would help him and Ariel get off this crazy planet.

"So there you are!" said a familiar voice behind him. "What are you doing here?"

He looked up to see Ariel staring down at him. She stood with her legs apart and her hands on her hips. The breeze blew strands of hair across her nose and mouth. She had a mischievous light in her eyes. Suddenly it was time to forget the city for a moment and to stare at her. Her unexpected presence had taken his breath away. His nerves had come back.

All right,he admitted to himself, so it's not just her presence-it's her -everything about her!

"Hi. I was just thinking of you," he managed to say, the catch in his voice painfully obvious, at least to him.

"Liar," she said with combined sarcasm and warmth. "But that's all right. I wanted to see you, too."

"Have you noticed that building?"

"Of course. I've been standing here for the last few moments, while you've been zoned out. Amazing, isn't it? I bet you're already trying to figure out how to analyze it."

"Oh, of course. How did you find me?" he asked.

"Wolruf sniffed you out. She and Mandelbrot are waiting downstairs."

"What's Wolruf doing down there?"

"She doesn't like the cold air up here. Says it makes her too nostalgic for the wild fields during those cold autumn nights." Ariel sat down beside him. She leaned back and supported herself on her palms. The fingers of her right hand almost touched his.

Derec was acutely aware of her fingers' warmth. He wanted to stretch out his hand the half-inch it would take to touch them, but instead he leaned back on his elbows and scrunched his hands close to his sides.

"What are you doing up here in the first placer' she asked.

"Making a pit stop.”

“Huh?"

The moment's silence between them was decidedly awkward. She blinked, then stared at the rotating building.

During that moment, Derec's thoughts shuffled like cards, and he was on the verge of blurting many things. But in the end he finally decided on the noncommittal, "I've just been taking a break from things."

"That's good. It's healthy to stop thinking about worrisome things for a while. Have you come up with a way out of here yet?"

"No, but you must admit the here-and-now isn't a bad place to be in, compared to some of our predicaments."

"Please, I don't want to think about hospitals now. If I never see another diagnostic robot again, it'll be too soon for me."

"But you'll be better off when you do!" Derec exclaimed, immediately regretting the words.

Ariel's face darkened with anger. "Why? Just because I've got a disease that's slowly driving me insane?"

"Uh, well, yes. For a beginning."

"Very funny, Mr. Normal. Hasn't it occurred to you that I might like the disease, that I might prefer the way my mind is working now to how it worked during the time when I was 'sane'?"

"Uh, no, it hasn't, and I don't think it has occurred to you, either. Listen, Ariel, I was attempting to make a joke. I didn't mean to offend you, or even to bring the subject up. The words just stumbled out. "

"Why am I not surprised?" Ariel turned away from him with a shrug.

"I want you to be well. I'm concerned for you."

She wiped her face and forehead. Was she perspiring?

Derec couldn't tell in the dark. "Listen, you've got to understand that lately I've been experiencing serious difficulty in keeping my thoughts straight," she said. "It's not always bad. It comes and it goes. Even so, sometimes I feel like someone is pulling my brain out of my head with a pair of pliers. I just got over one of those moments."

"I'm sorry. I didn't know." Derec suddenly felt like his heart had been caught in pliers, too. The inches between them seemed like a gulf. He wondered if he was insane, too, to think of crossing that gulf and taking her in his arms. He wondered if she would relax when he glided her head to his chest.

He decided to change the subject, in the hopes of changing the unspoken subject, too. "You know, even though I still don't know my identity, I think I've managed to find out a lot of things about myself since I awoke on that mining complex. I've discovered I've got pretty good instincts. Especially about being able to tell who my friends are."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah. And upon due consideration, I've come to the conclusion that you just might be one of them."

Ariel smiled. "Yeah? You really think so?"

Derec smiled in return. "That's for me to know and for you to find out."

"Well, I can live with that." She pursed her lips. "So tell me, Mr. Genius, how does that building fit in with the city's programming?"

"I don't know. It's an anomaly.”

“What do you call that shape?”

“A tetragonal pyramid."

"Looks like two pyramids stuck together to me.”

“That's why it's called tetragonal."

"Look how it shines, how the colors glitter. Do you think Dr. Avery is responsible? He's responsible for everything else."

"If you mean did he plan something like that, I'm not sure I know."

"That's a straight answer," she said sarcastically.

"Excuse me, I'm not trying to be obtuse. I mean, the structure could be implicit in the programming, to some degree anyway, but whether or not Avery knew it when he set Robot City in motion, I can't say.”

“If you had to make a guess-"

“I'd say not. I've studied the programming of the central computer system pretty closely, not to mention cell specimens taken both from the city and from various robots, and I certainly hadn't suspected anything that. "that breathtaking was possible."

"Have you noticed how the hues in the crimson plane give the illusion of depth, as if it were made of crystallized lava? And' how the blue plane most resembles the Auroran sky?"

"Sorry, but I can't remember having seen lava, and I've only vague memories of the Auroran sky."

"Oh. I'm the one who should be sorry now.”

“Forget it. Come on. The building's probably even more beautiful close up."

"Absolutely! But what about Wolruf and Mandelbrot? Wolruf might be impressed, but I don't see how a robot like Mandelbrot is going to have his reinforced curiosity integral aroused by something his programming hasn't prepared him to appreciate. "

Derec shook his head. "Don't bet on it. If my suspicions are correct, it's a robot who's personally responsible. I'm interested in finding out which one. And if I'm interested, Mandelbrot will be interested."

"I see. You'll doubtlessly spend hours with him trying to pinpoint some obscure, insignificant detail, instead of trying to get us out of here," Ariel observed sneeringly. "Don't you ever get tired of robots?"

Derec realized her sudden mood swing wasn't her fault, but couldn't help saying what he did. "I see you're 'not forward but modest as the dove-not hot but temperate as the mom."'

Much to his surprise, Ariel burst out laughing.

And much to his chagrin, Derec felt insulted. He had wanted the joke to be his own private one. "What's so funny?"

"That's from The Taming of the Shrew. I read that play last night, and when I reached those lines, I happened to wonder aloud if you'd ever say them to me."

Now Derec felt inexplicably crestfallen. "You mean you've been reading Shakespeare, too?"

"Can I help it? You've been leaving printouts of the plays allover the place. Most untidy. Come on. Let's go downstairs. I know where a couple of fast scooters are sitting, just waiting for us to hop on."


The Sense Of Humor by Isaac Asimov | Prodigy | Chapter 2. Becalmed Motion







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