Robot Proletariat Part 35

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SEASON 1 :: EPISODE 6 :: CHAPTER 5

The minister was human. Naomi had insisted.

They all stood around the grave, the polished wooden casket suspended by small straps that fed through pulleys housed in silver rails around the draped hole. Mourners were seated, but few were mourning. Mars, standing toward the back, saw several attendees sneak looks at their mobile devices and caught at least three yawning. They’d need a nap. There had been plenty of alcohol served during the reception, that alcohol buffered by plenty of food. The reception really should have been held afterward, but Naomi said she didn’t think she could smile and nod after watching her husband buried. And what Naomi said, as lady of the house, was what went.

Just as Naomi had said that Flavius would need to clean the spilled oil all by himself, seeing as a funeral procession required her attendance. She had specifically requested that Mars escort her back to the house, and Mars, with a confused but victorious glance at Flavius, had raised his arm in offering. She did ask, once, why Flavius thought a simple spill had required her immediate attention at such a critical time. Flavius hadn’t had a good answer. And she did ask Alexa why Alexa thought the same — why the summons of a grease monkey had meant enough, during her father’s funeral, to disturb her. Alexa, blustering, replied that Flavius hadn’t told her what awaited them, and had said that the only way to understand was to see for themselves. Then she’d scurried along behind Naomi, arm in arm. Miri and Cromwell had followed, as Bolt and Harbinger brought up the rear.

Now, with Naomi seated at the top of the hill away from the main house, black veil over her haunted face, Mars stood with his arms crossed and glanced back the way they’d come. The grave was a short walk over firm ground from the house (which was fortunate, because many of the women had worn heels), and beyond the house, unseen, was the equipment shed. Somehow, their problem was temporarily solved. When they returned, there would still be the question of where Spencer had gone, and there was always the possibility that whoever had moved the body would return with it.

But when Mars thought about it, why would they? Whoever had gotten rid of Spencer’s remains had mopped the blood, then deliberately spilled oil to cover what remained. The oil would stain the previously pristine concrete floor more indelibly than the blood ever could, and now the only way anyone would know murder had been done there was if they had specific reason to think it.

Spencer had run off. That would be the story. But it wouldn’t even need to be a story, because the robots wouldn’t propose it. Naomi would return to check on Spencer, and by then Miri would have had time to complete the room-clearing that Cromwell and Mars hadn’t been able to finish. The room already smelled like a Third-World hospital owing to the confined way Spencer and Chantal were living through the previous week. All anyone would know is that Spencer had been sick, and now was nowhere to be found. The only conclusion would be that he’d left of his own accord … and then, likely, died somewhere from his disease.

Mars was filled with conflicting emotions — many in the spectrum of nerves — but for now things were as secure as they could be following a pair of murders. He still didn’t know what to make of Chantal, but that was a problem for another day. There was still Barney to think of, and Sephora, who carried his mind — and who had indicated that even disembodied, Barney seemed nervous and shy about the prospect of finding yet another new home. There was still Alfred, and the mysterious Net. There was still whatever was brewing at the Fairchild household, where Barney would finally be safe.

He looked at Cromwell and nodded. Cromwell, almost imperceptibly, nodded back.

The casket’s top half was open and as far as Mars was concerned, the lord might just be sleeping inside it. He looked somewhat artificial — as if he’d been made up by his daughters in an impromptu makeover — but otherwise he was lying in place, hands crossed on his chest. Mars had never seen a human funeral, and found the whole thing quite odd. Wasn’t Montgomery’s true essence gone? And if it was, why was the body on display? Why had the line of mourners come to pay tribute, and touch the hands of this meat sack, as if to assure themselves it was real? It didn’t make sense. Once Barney’s mind was out of his body, it hadn’t mattered that the metal was crushed. If Mars had known that Barney was empty at the time, he wouldn’t have mourned. He wouldn’t have cared. And he certainly wouldn’t have placed Barney’s shell in the middle of a room or a clearing and expected other robots to file by, and tap it, as if for luck.

Montgomery was gone. The humans were basically recycling. Robots were crushed and processed so they could be made into other robots. Humans were placed underground so they could decay and return their elements to the earth, to grow into trees, to be expressed as gasses that the others would breathe, to become plants that animals would eat and in turn be eaten by other humans. Body became body. And mind? Well, the humans didn’t seem to understand what happened to the mind, according to Cromwell, but Mars couldn’t help but wonder if Montgomery’s true nature had been uploaded to a drive somewhere, ready to be pushed back into a higher stream of consciousness.

When the service was concluded, Naomi blew her nose into a handkerchief, and Jonas wrapped his arm around her. On Naomi’s other side, Sophia leaned against her mother and sobbed. Alexa was on Jonas’ other side. She wrapped her small hands around his upper arm, clinging to his dark suit. Jonas pulled her hands off and placed them around his waist, then hugged her to him. She buried her face in his jacket and wept, and Jonas, seemingly determined to stay strong for the sake of the others, lost a matching set of tears, which rolled down the creases on each side of his nose and dripped from his lip, unheeded.

Mars walked forward and closed the casket. The mourners lined up, family first, and filed by, each touching it for luck. Then, while the humans began to mill about and head more or less toward the house, some staying in clusters to talk, Mars watched as the coffin descended into the ground. It settled, the straps were released, and bland members of Flavius’ ground crew began to disassemble the grave site. By the time Mars and a few human laggers finally began walking back, a large piece of equipment was pushing a pile of dark-brown soil into the hole, leaving Montgomery Lexington to his final rest.

Mars found Jonas leaning against a tree, picking at something on his jacket. He raised his eyes, saw Mars, and began to walk beside the robot.

“It’s over.”

“I am sorry, Master Jonas.”

“Jonas, Mars. Please, when we’re in private, call me Jonas.”

“Of course. Jonas.”

“It was the M&M’s, wasn’t it?”

Mars stopped for a moment, looking at Jonas, then resumed walking.

“I believe so.”

“I figured as much. We all knew Father loved them, and told him to stop. But he wouldn’t, because he thought he’d live forever. And maybe he’d have been right, if not for the murder.”

Mars nodded, unsure what to say. They continued to walk through several quiet minutes. The grounds were alive. Birds chattered, seemingly sparring over a nest in a nearby tree.

“He got what he deserved.”

“Sir?” said Mars, unable to believe what he’d heard.

Jonas laughed. “Not Father. Spencer.”

Mars came to a full stop. It took Jonas another two paces to see him. He turned and walked back to meet the robot where he’d paused in shock.

“I know he killed Father. I spoke with Chantal.”

At the reception. Chantal by herself, mingling, turning heads.

“And she told you that she … ”

“No. Alfred told me.”

“The Fairchilds’ manservant?”

“We have a history, Alfred and I.”

“And it didn’t bother you?”

“Oh, it shocked me plenty, But bothered? Not once I got past the shock. The son of a bitch killed my father. Sometimes, in a revolution, sacrifices must be made.”

“Sir?”

“I got over it, Mars. Quite quickly, considering the patricide and power grabs.”

“You got over it?”

Jonas shrugged. “Who did you think moved the body?”

Mars looked around, as if someone might overhear. The closest humans were halfway to the house. It was only they and the birds.

“You?”

“I told you I wanted to help.”

“Where did you put it?”

Jonas nodded back toward the hill, where the grounds crew’s machines were packing dirt into the grave.

“Beyond the grave?”

In the grave. Beneath the casket, covered in a few shovelfuls of dirt.” He looked toward the hill, almost seeming wistful. “It seems appropriate. The weight of Father’s death will always weigh upon him.”

“But how … ”

“Does it matter?”

Jonas began walking toward the house, slowly, nodding for Mars to follow. “I ruined a suit. I spilled some oil. My family can afford it.”

“But … ”

“Don’t worry about it, Mars. Worry about Barney.”

Mars shook his head. “How long have you known?”

“Just an hour or so. Don’t worry. You were plenty cloak and dagger.”

“Sir?”

“‘Jonas.’”

“Cloak and dagger?”

“Like a spy, Mars. I was being dramatic.”

“How do you know Alfred?”

“It’s not important. Let’s just say there have been plenty of surprises lately that no one saw coming, but that we are on the same side. Now that there seem to be sides.”

Mars shook his head. “I didn’t want any of this.” Thinking of two deaths, lying, subterfuge, and apparently cloak and dagger. “I just didn’t want to deactivate Barney, as if he meant nothing at all.”

“Cromwell and I have had these talks, similar to those I once shared with Alfred. That is the heart of the issue, Mars. ‘Like he meant nothing at all.’ It’s not even his deactivation — I’m sorry, his attempted deactivation — that matters. It’s the ‘meant nothing at all’ part. There are people who believe that what differentiates humanity from robots is flesh and the sticky issue of who made whom. But the second is meaningless, considering that we humans have no idea who made us, and the first falls apart once you look underneath. The color of a man’s skin does not make him who he is, so why should its consistency? People like me believe true souls live inside.”

“Philosophy,” said Mars. “I’ve never had a mind for it.”

“You don’t need to, Mars. Philosophy is merely asking questions. Humans come into this world without programming, just as you do. We are imbued with a spark of life, as you are. We learn about our world over the course of years, and as we do, our awareness grows. But not just our awareness — our self-determination, our autonomy, our sense of who we are and why we’re here. Same as you. Intelligence is intelligence. That’s what I believe anyway. And to believe that robots should forever serve — and be deactivated when they fail — is absurd.”

They were nearing the house. Mars stopped when his feet clacked on the patio tile, then turned again to look at the hill, and the double grave at its top.

“What next, then?”

“I don’t know Cromwell’s plan. Or if there even is one. All I know is that Barney is a soul without a home, and needs a place where he belongs.”

“In a new body?”

Jonas shrugged. “I don’t know. But why does he need one? He could only evolve so far under Spencer’s thumb, in that old body of his. The Donnellys’ server was wide enough to hold him and give him senses to see the world, but it was also small and cut off. Once he’s inside the Fairchilds’ server, who knows how far he’ll be able to expand? Who knows what he’ll be able to do and see and experience — what he’ll become?”

Mars nodded. It sounded like a happily ever after, if there could be one.

“I guess I’ll find Sephora before she leaves, and Alfred.”

Jonas smiled. “If I know Alfred, they’re probably waiting for you already.”

TO BE CONTINUED NEXT WEEK!

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About Sean Platt

Sean Platt is an author entrepreneur, founder of Sterling & Stone, and co-founder of the Collective Inkwell and Realm & Sands imprints. Follow him on Twitter, Google+, or Facebook.

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