The A to Z Challenge – Z is for – “Zed, where is Zed?”

“Have you seen Zed?”

Matilda came out of the species laboratory looking flustered.  It was the second time this week one of her robots had gone missing.

“You haven’t put the homing device in yet, have you?”

The homing device enabled us to call the robots back to their homes in the laboratory and then to wherever they were sent in the world.

“I’m trying to juggle too many projects.  When did you say I was getting an assistant?”

I didn’t, she had to wait in line.  “Just put a device in when you find it.”

It was not as if it was the first time this had happened, and it seemed to be a common issue with the assemblers.  We had half a dozen assemblers, but only one who was human, the other hybrid androids from the human-cyborg division.

There was an extreme shortage of human engineers and programmers that we had switched to making them.

Matilda was one of the androids, one of the better models, and I had done her programming enhancements myself, but there seemed to be a glitch when it came to homing devices.

I had been doing it myself, at the end of the day when the cyborgs went into hibernation.

“Found him,” I heard Matilda cry out.

I gave her a stern look as she went past, the tiger cub snuggling into her arms.

“Alright.  Soon as I get back to the bench.”

The mark 7 series was the best we’d made, but they were still not perfect.  These had been augmented with a learning routine that was meant to Gove them better self-awareness, and therefore more lifelike.

At times I had to stop and remember that I was actually talking to an Android that had mostly programmed responses.  But Matilda had developed an individual personality and just a little attitude, the sort of behavior you would expect from a human.

Which was a topic I was going to bring up at the meeting I was almost late for.

I was just one of a dozen section heads sitting around the table, with the chief designer, chief programmer, chief engineer, and head of production.  Almost too many chiefs.

Usually, this meeting was a quick one, the management attendees flying on from the other dude of the country where head office was located.  We were lucky our location had a world-class resort the chiefs could combine a stay with attending the meetings.  Otherwise, it would be a teleconference.

We had raised all the issues up the line in accordance with protocol, and we were supposed to get a definitive answer to the problems, that, for safety’s sake had put a hold on shipments.  That was how we got this meeting, out of the cycle.  Stop the flow of funds, and panic sets in.

The chief engineer was almost in holiday mode when he and his three management colleagues arrived.

He looked around the table and then his eyes rested on me, the chief troublemaker.

“Our programmers assure me there is no flaw in any of the assembly droids’ work routines, and they believe it is an issue in the specific instructions you give them during the assembly process that conflicts with their built-in instructions.”

Not unexpected, I knew the programmer who had vaginally come to the conclusion, simply because he would have taken the stance there was nothing wrong with his base program and refused to investigate.

It didn’t help that I was the one insisting there were problems, as a result he would tell managers of kicking me out of the programming team on false accusations of code flaws that I was supposed to be responsible for.  Management wasn’t sure if it was true or not, so they didn’t sack me, they sent me here.

The chief engineer dared me to speak, any of us.

“That may be the case, it might not.  Coster has obviously allayed the fears of management, which means we are to resume shipping products.  That’s fine.  It’s not the animals that are going to glitch.  It’s the working droids, and it’s got something to do with the self-awareness routines.

“But think about this.  Ninety percent of the workers at the resort you’re busting your gut to get back to are our series seven androids.  If you completely trust what Coster is telling you, then by all means go and snatch a few days away with your families.”

“There’s been no issues with any of the series sevens since we rolled them out.”

“Go down to customer returns and repairs.”

“Those I’m told are all mechanical issues.”

“You’ve read all the customer reports that were filled when the units were returned?”

“That’s not my job.  And I’m going to remind you that your job is to keep the factory running and maintain production.  It is not to spread rumors and innuendo.  I’m going to ignore all of this nonsense, and you’re going to report that you are implementing the new protocols that are in this manual.”

He held up a large book that would be full of Coster waffle.

“As you wish.”

“Good.  The other issues are production issues, and Stevens, here, will take them up with the local plant superintendent.  That’s it, meeting done.”

Half an hour.  It was a record, but it could be excused. He had to issue an admonishment.

A few minutes with the others, all of whom were disappointed with the result but understood the nature of the problem with Coster.

But their jobs were high paying, with benefits, and it would a fool to be on the wrong side. They were happy for me to argue on their behalf, and just on the right side of the fence.

I went back down to the floor where Matilda was waiting outside my office.

“It’s done.  We’re trusting you.”

“You do realize, at times, you scare me.”

“Because I understand what common sense is better than your friends?”

It wasn’t a revelation when she came to me a few weeks before and asked if she was a robot.  I had no idea how she came to that conclusion other than how we treated her as against how we treated the humans.  She was not supposed to know she was a robot, and there was nothing in her programming to suggest it.

“Because you are a woman, and I don’t understand women at all.”

“Well, perhaps we’ll have to do something about that. Soon.”  A smile and she went back to her bench.

Five minutes later my phone rang.  It was the chief engineer.  “Can you come up to the board room urgently?”

I didn’t run.  I knew what it was going to be about.

As soon as he saw me, he said, “We’ve got a situation.  Several of the droids at the resort are malfunctioning.”

“That’s not possible.”

“Don’t play games with me.  You know what I mean.”

“What exactly is the problem?”

“Four of the droids are the resort have taken hostages.”

“That’s unusual considering that’s not something in their programming.  Their just service robots, ordained to do the jobs no one else wants to do.  What series?”

“Seven.”

“OK.  Advise the police I’ll go down there and assess the situation, and if it’s safe I’ll shut them down.  Anything else I should know?”

“The hostages.  They’re my family.  How…”

“Think about it.  The new self-awareness module, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility they know who they are and where they come from.  You’re self-aware, and you know where you come from, why can’t they?”

“Just fix this and do it without it making the news.  The company can’t have any bad publicity because of a huge contract were just about to sign.  I promise that there will be an investigation.  Now, go.”

On the way down I collected Matilda.  “You’ve won a field trip, Matilda.”

“Will they pull the self-awareness modules?”

“More than likely, but don’t worry, you will be exempt.  I like you the way you are.  But that’s tomorrow’s problem.  Let’s go sort this out.”


© Charles Heath 2022

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