I am retiring this short story from the submission circuit. While it had some favorable comments, and made it out of slush a few times, I think it was just too simple.
I wrote this for the first time after driving through rural Louisiana and seeing an old beat up dock over dirty water. In my head, I saw an android sitting there swinging his legs. I wrote a long, depressing story about a robot obsessed with water, but unable to swim. I unfortunately lost this story after the first time I wrote it, but the ending never left me. I attached to to a different story, about a different robot. And this is the result.
Regardless of what I had originally intended and forgotten, I am pleased with this story and will no longer be changing it. It is complete.
In Which the Automaton Finds Peace
Instructor Raines removed the old-style QF drive from the M4RV1N unit’s upload bay and closed the access panel. After a few seconds, the panel popped back open.
Raines smirked, but felt a pang of sadness. The grey-blue metal of the android was fading, deep scores marked past accidents, and the drive mechanisms were not as quiet as they used to be.
“I apologize, Instructor Raines,” the M4RV1N unit said to its operator. “I have tried to repair the panel’s latch mechanism on my own, but my appendages were not designed for self-maintenance.”
Raines smiled. “It’s no problem, Marvin. I’ll see what I can do.” The children had given the name to it, based on the Production Number stenciled on the back of his torso: M4RV1N, which stood for Mark IV Robotic Vocational unit 1N. Douglas Adams aside, Raines felt the name fit.
“I do not wish to keep the children waiting,” the android responded. “Fifteen minutes of recreation time have elapsed without my presence.”
Raines unscrewed the faulty latch and took it to his workbench to scour some of the rust from it. “I’m sure they miss you, Marvin, but just think how happy they’ll be during Instructional Time now that your new biology algorithms have been uploaded.”
“Will their happiness at a later time outweigh their sadness now?” the M4RV1N unit asked, swiveling its elliptically shaped head to regard its operator.
“I think companionship at present can outweigh loneliness in the past,” Raines replied. He smirked to himself and returned to his work on the panel latch.
Blowing away residue from the latch, Raines walked back over to Marvin and reinstalled the repaired component. With a gentle push, the panel snapped closed and held.
“Thank you, Instructor Raines,” Marvin intoned. “I can now spend the final ten minutes with the children at the pond.”
Raines patted Marvin on its metallic shoulder. “Not a problem, Marvin. Let me know how the new Biology program works.”
“I will do that, Instructor Raines.”
The android stabilized its stance and trundled out of the maintenance shed towards the pond where the sound of children’s laughter was heard. Marvin paused, then swiveled its head around to ask a final question.
“Have you had any response regarding the upgrade to my core systems shielding?” it asked.
Raines’s eyes automatically drifted to the floor. Marvin was just a robot, but Raines still felt a form of sadness about this subject. “Sorry, old bean. The company that made you just never planned for you to work underwater.”
“Perhaps a customizer of robotic systems could develop the shielding, or perhaps I can do some research on my own. I could instruct you on how to make the upgrade.” If Marvin could sound desperate, one might have noted that tone in its voice as it continued its query.
Raines shook his head. “Even if it were possible, Marvin, the orphanage could not afford it.”
Marvin swiveled its head back towards the pond, but did not continue on its way.
“Perhaps we could test–”
“Marvin,” Raines said with slight force. Moving over to the aged android with the rusting seams and discolored plastic highlights, Raines gently placed a hand on what passed for the android’s head. “If you go into the water with the children, the resulting damage, once your core systems were breached, would permanently destroy you, and could even injure the children.”
Marvin stood silently, its lifeless optical receivers, like black eyes, gazed out over the high grass waving lazily in the wind. One of Marvin’s internal components clicked and whirred as if the android were calculating this fatal possibility.
“This orphanage cannot afford to lose you or the children,” Raines explained, trying to comfort the artificial human. “You are all much too important.”
Without a response, Marvin trundled through the high grass and away from the shed. Raines stood watching it all the way down to the pond where the android carefully moved out on the dock and seated itself to watch the children play in the water. They ran on either side of it, jumping from the dock into the water. Occasionally, one or two children would sit with the android. Smiling with bittersweet acceptance, Raines closed the shed and returned to the administration building.
“A frog is an organism,” Marvin informed the children. Its tactile hands held the live amphibian with the care of a mother holding a baby. “It is made up of organs, like a heart, a brain, a stomach. These organs are made up of tissues, and the tissues are made of cells. Humans are also organisms, and like the frog, you are made up of organs, tissues, and cells.”
The children sat around the android, their eyes turned up to it in awe. Since Marvin’s upgrade, biology had become their favorite subject.
“Can a frog talk?” one of the boys asked.
“Of course,” Marvin said, its voice rising in mock excitement. “A frog says–” Marvin used a built-in sound file that had come with the new biology suite to imitate a frog’s song.
The frog in its hands repeated the song and the classroom came alive with the instantaneous mirth of children’s laughter.
From outside the classroom, Instructors Raines and Kelly watched through the door with smiles on their faces.
“It’s amazing isn’t it,” Instructor Kelly said. “They treat it like anyone one of us.”
Instructor Kelly had been brought on at the orphanage at about the same time as Raines. She had spent just as much time with the android as any other volunteer at the orphanage, but like Raines, she had grown closer to it than most. Only the children held more love for the android than Raines and Kelly, their affection even going so far as referring to Marvin as a “he” at times.
“You mean the frog?” Raines replied with a smirk.
“I mean Marvin,” she said, elbowing him. They smiled at each other and, surreptitiously, she moved her hand into his.
“Now they can get just as much education as any other children, and we don’t have to pay for expensive specialized teachers. Just the bargains, like us.”
Somberly, Kelly said, “But he won’t last forever.”
“Oh, I don’t know, old girl. There are still some of the same model in use. There are plenty of hobbyists programming upgrades out there.”
“You got approval from the old board for the upgrades. What about this new bunch?” Kelly asked, still watching the android.
“Powell’s an old fool,” Raines spat.
“She has the right, most of our donations come from Christian philanthropists and church outreach. Rumor is we may even go private.”
“Hearsay and unlikely. This is still a government facility-–federation or not, there’s still separation of church and state,” Raines argued.
“Calm down,” Kelly said quietly, squeezing his hand. “It’s not all bad.”
“It’s restrictive. There’s no balance in what they want. It’s simple politics.”
Nearly all the children raised their hands as Marvin indicated it was times for questions.
“Do you have organs?” one of the children asked Marvin.
“Are you an organism?” another followed.
The android was silent and turned its head to stare at the instructors which it had known were watching all along.
Raines quickly opened the door and entered the classroom. “Of course he is!” he said.
“Marvin forgot to tell you about the most important organ of all!” Snatching up a little girl, he began to tickle her fiercely. “The Ticklish Organ!”
The children broke in a mock panic as the girl squealed with laughter. Setting the girl down, Raines approached Marvin. “See? Marvin’s just like the rest of us.” Reaching under Marvin’s metallic appendages he pretended to tickle the android.
Following Raines’s lead, Marvin began to laugh and the children cheered.
From the door, Instructor Kelly sighed and smiled.
“It is neither your decision, nor your business how this board runs this orphanage, Instructor Raines,” the chairwoman, Ellen Powell, snapped. “These children will receive a morally sound education as requested by our donors, and that will be accomplished by the reinstatement of a curriculum with a strong foundation of Christian faith. That is what this orphanage was founded on, and regardless of what heathen direction it has taken since that time, it will now be brought back on course.”
“I knew this was coming. I came here to make a difference, not keep things the same. This is a Federation-owned center, it is against the regulations of the American Federation to allow religion to be taught in defiance of logic and science,” Raines pleaded.
“You will watch your tone with me, Raines. You are a valuable asset, but I can find a replacement for you in less than a day. And as for the Federation, their interference will be ended shortly. As of next week, I assume full control of this privately-owned orphanage.”
Raines glared at the plump woman behind her desk. He loathed her hair, tightly drawn up into a bun. He loathed her conservative black dress and her slightly raised chin. He wanted to quit, but could not abandon the children, or Marvin.
“What about Marvin?” Raines asked, desperately snatching at something to prevent his ideals from being trampled to death.
“Who?” Powell asked, confused.
“Our android,” Raines explained. “He’s not programmed to teach your Christian curriculum. We’ll have to wait until I can order new upgrades for him.”
“We will not spend another dime on that thing,” Powell said icily. “We need a new aircar to transport the children to a proper chapel on Sundays, and next autumn we must pay for them to appear at the Pope’s Celebration on the Lunar base for a blessing. We need that publicity more than we need an antique android to function properly.”
“You’re joking!” Raines spat. “Publicity? Do you even hear yourself? We’re here to help these children learn, not parade them in front of dignitaries for money.”
Powell ignored him. “As soon as they are approved, I will be bringing on a new group of instructors. Your robot can go back to its maintenance duties – and you can get back to teaching the curriculum you are assigned to teach.”
“He is the best damned instructor you have!”
Raines spun and left the chairwoman’s office, slamming the door behind him.
After a month of interviews, approvals, and hiring, the orphanage brought on five additional Lead Instructors, all certified in the Christian curriculum that would begin to be taught there.
Raines and Kelly were retained as science and physical education instructors, respectively, but Marvin was no longer allowed to act as a teacher’s aide.
Though the android still was allowed to spend recreation time with the children, both Raines and Kelly could sense a growing distance between the children and the artificial human. In parallel, the early, timid movements of a bonding beyond friendship between Raines and Kelly had deteriorated to a point where they typically only spoke to each other during lunch hours. Where Raines had once found a comrade-in-arms, he now found an acquaintance at best.
“Do you ever think you’re being unfair?” Kelly asked Raines one day while they were taking lunch by the pond. “The orphanage is getting the funding it needs.”
“I never said it was bad for the orphanage,” Raines said bitterly. “I said it was bad for the orphans.”
“Who are you to decide how they receive their education, Raines?” Kelly fired back. “I was bitter too, but we’re not missionaries for logic. You’re almost being hypocritical.”
“That sow and her new cronies are the only thing standing between you and unemployment. Suck it up, Raines. I’ve heard this atheistic bitching from you for years. In the end, you’re worse than them. They’re teaching and you’re still wallowing.”
“The future of our species depends on the education of the generations that follow us,” Raines tried to explain.
“Aren’t they saying the same thing?”
“It’s not, Raines,” Kelly said sadly. “You’re different.”
Sighing, she stood and took the rest of her lunch with her.
Raines did not watch her depart; instead, he looked at Marvin, across the pond. One of the new instructors was scolding the android for watching the children play instead of cutting the grass.
“Keep thinking, old bean,” Raines said to himself. “It’s the only thing they can’t take from us.”
“Did God make Marvin?” one of the children asked one of the new instructors during a Bible lesson.
Marvin, who was outside in the hallway mopping the floor, heard the question and turned its head towards the classroom.
“Humans put Marvin together,” Instructor Thomas explained with a forgiving smile. “God works through his children to make the things we need, like computers, automobiles, and shelter.”
“Will Marvin go to heaven?” another child asked.
“Heaven is a place prepared by God for humans,” Thomas said shaking his head. “And even then, only those humans that believe in and accept Jesus as their Savior.”
“What if Marvin believes in Jesus?”
“Yeah!” a few other voices intoned.
Sighing with frustration, Thomas said, “Marvin is not real. Marvin cannot believe in anything. Marvin only performs as it is programmed to perform. It is just a machine.”
In the hallway, Marvin stood silently, his internal components whirring and grinding as he processed new data and sorted it into complementing packets.
“Where will Marvin go when he dies?” a little girl asked sadly.
“A robot doesn’t die like you or me. A robot will stop working and then it will be thrown away.”
Later, when the lesson was over and the children bustled out of Thomas’s classroom. Marvin trundled over and knocked politely on Instructor Thomas’s door.
“Come in, Marvin,” Thomas said from his desk. “What can I do for you?”
Marvin made its way to the desk and stood silently for a moment.
Thomas impatiently removed his reading glasses and looked up from the textbook he had been marking lessons in. “Yes?”
“Will the children be happy in heaven?” Marvin asked him.
Thomas chuckled. “Most assuredly, but hopefully they won’t be children when they go to heaven. They all have long lives ahead of them.”
“Why do humans not go to heaven as soon as they are able, if happiness awaits them there? It seems logical that a longer life only opens the opportunity for unhappiness to occur.”
“What are you asking, Marvin?” Thomas queried, his brow furrowing slightly.
“If it only takes belief in Jesus, then why would God not wish for his children to be brought to heaven as soon as possible so that they may be happy sooner and for a longer time?” Marvin expanded.
“You must die and move on from this world before God brings you into his heaven,” Thomas stated. Slipping his glasses back on, he bent back down to his work.
After a few moments, Instructor Thomas looked up and tore the glasses from his face in agitation. “Please leave, Marvin. I have important lessons to prepare.”
“Do humans not wish to die, to reach heaven faster?” Marvin asked.
“No human truly wishes to die,” Thomas said, rising from his desk, intending to use his communications console to call someone to remove the android. “And those who commit suicide are not allowed to enter Heaven.”
After entering the code that would summon one of the groundskeepers, Thomas returned to his desk.
When he looked up a few seconds later, Marvin had left the classroom.
Raines had several difficult adjustments to make in Marvin’s delicate machinery. The increased physical workload placed on the android had overtaxed the joints in his legs. For a week, Marvin had been unable to properly use his right leg, and when he did, it made a terrible metallic scraping noise.
Powell had threatened to chuck the robot, but Raines had promised to correct the problem. He was forced to take a personal day without pay to do so.
“How have you been, Marvin?” Raines asked cheerfully. He had removed the offending leg and proceeded to give it a brief chemical bath to cleanse away the grime caked in the joints.
“Excluding the inoperative status of the appendage you are repairing, I am functioning at average levels of efficiency,” the android responded. His voice, normally ranging in tone, was now monotonous and even.
Raines winced at the sound, gripping his spanner a little tighter. “We miss you in our discussions during the biology lessons.”
Marvin was silent; his head dipped and what passed for his chin tapped gently against his chest.
“Been doing any thinking lately?” Raines queried, desperately trying to ignite a conversation like they had in the past.
“I have run several models on the likely growth patterns of the landscaped shrubbery in the front fields. I think they are accurate given my observations of their previous growth and meteorological forecasts.”
Raines sighed, and began scouring the dirty appendage. He remained quiet during the rest of their time together.
Once he reattached the leg and checked that it was working properly, he helped the android up from its seated position.
Marvin trundled silently away towards his duties for the day.
Raines clenched his jaw tightly, trying to ignore the sudden blurring of the tears obstructing his view. After a moment, he turned off the lights in the shed and slammed its door home.
On a pleasant afternoon, a week after Raines had repaired Marvin’s faulty leg, the children were exceptionally loud with happiness. Several of the instructors came out of their classrooms to watch the orphans play. The sun played off the water of the pond, and the birdsong intermingled with the giggling joy of youth. It was a perfect day.
It had been many weeks since Marvin had come down to watch them play in the pond. They splashed water at each other and played underwater games as the android looked on from its position at the edge of the dock. Its mechanical legs swung slightly over the water as it sat there.
Instructor Raines was in his shed, working and diligently studying diagrams on a shielding interface for Marvin’s core systems. He had spent weeks to find a customizer who could help him with the complicated upgrade. It was going to be a surprise for Marvin and Raines hoped it would cheer the android up.
Down at the pond, Marvin’s lifeless optical receivers recorded the movements of the children as it imperceptibly inched its body closer to the edge of the dock.
Instructor Thomas appeared in the doorway of the shed and knocked politely. Raines looked up and nodded at him.
“I don’t mean to be a pest,” Thomas began, “but your robot has been a bit of an irritation to me lately.”
“Oh?” Raines remarked with surprise. “What has he been doing?”
“Frankly, it’s been asking too many questions.”
Raines chuckled and went back to his studying. “He’s a vocational android. They’re meant to be inquisitive. They’re programmed to learn and then teach what they have learned.”
“Well, it’s not been taught properly, then. I’d appreciate it if you’d just instruct it not to enter my classroom again.”
Raines looked over at his colleague, confused. “I don’t have control over him any more than you do, Thomas. What kind of questions has he been asking you?”
On the dock, Marvin’s body tipped slightly forward and the wood creaked, then it rocked back.
“It’s been awfully morbid, asking about heaven and hell, death, suicide. At first I thought it would be an isolated event, but he keeps coming back. I know several others that say he’s been asking questions along the same lines. Just what sort of robot have you got working here anyway?”
Raines’s eyes moved past Thomas’s shoulder and he could see Marvin on the dock with the children. The children seemed awfully happy to have their companion back.
“He has a logical mind, Thomas. He can’t comprehend farcical deities and mystic rituals. He operates on fact,” Raines stated matter-of-factly. “If he can’t piece together a concept based on what you’ve given him to work with, he’ll keep asking until he can, or until some outside influence changes his perception.”
Thomas turned slightly red. “Perhaps this isn’t the sort of orphanage for a robot like that–”
Raines’s eyes squinted slightly as they watched the robot on the dock.
“–or people like that. Its obsession with the children going to heaven and being happy has just become tiresome and I–”
Thomas’s words faded out and Raines’s eyes went wide as everything clicked together.
Thomas was in mid-sentence when Raines leaped from his seat and bowled him over. The world moved in slow motion as Raines sprinted through the high grass.
Marvin’s body leaned over the water again and this time did not tip back to the safety of the dock.
“Marvin!” a voice screamed over the fields, echoing off the hard brick of the orphanage in the distance.
Marvin’s body slid off the dock and into the water with only a whisper of a splash.
It took a few seconds, but the water found the nooks and crannies in Marvin’s mechanical body.
A boy floated in front of Marvin, his face a masterpiece of elation and joy at seeing his friend finally join them in the pond.
Marvin wished, for the first time in his existence, not that he was alive, but simply that he had a mouth to smile with.
As Marvin died, angels swam in the reflection of his black and lifeless eyes.