The Beast, Pt. 5 (Chapter 5a)

5

We make our way through a labyrinth of serpentine halls, up and down escalators and elevators, along automated walkways, by horseback and dogsled and giant robotic crab monster towards the baggage claim. Monk lingers a moment to tip the robotic crab monster, feeding a credit chip into its clicking maw. The thing waggles its eyestalks happily, and Monk smile as he watches it shuffle away. The rest of us have forced our way into the crowd, elbowing men and women and children out of our way to ensure that the bag bots serve us first. We’re busy men with places to go and people to see and pools to lie motionless by for the better parts of days.

Monk’s still smiling when he rejoins us, the goofy grin of a child with a new toy on his face. “I love those things, man. They’re always so… So friendly, you know?”

“They’re programmed to be,” Papa Chub says. His voice isn’t unkind, exactly, but there’s still a note of dismissal in it. A certain blasé tone. “Ho hum,” it seems to say. “The robot crab monsters are friendly. Tell me something I don’t know, hm?”

The smile fades some from Monk’s face.“Well, yeah, but still. It’s just neat, you know? Not the kind of thing you see every day. Unless you do a lot of traveling, I guess.”

Papa Chub shrugs. Monk frowns, a child disappointed not to be getting approval. My heart goes out to him, and thankfully, the nootropics help me do something about it. “You know, the early models weren’t friendly at all.”

Papa Chub says nothing but arches a single eyebrow. He’s listening, even if he isn’t letting it show. Monk, meanwhile, looks shocked beyond belief. “Really?”

“Really. See, these ones actually have brain patterns inspired by dogs, if you can believe it. That’s why they’ll walk up to you if they see you standing around looking lost, and that’s why they wait after they drop you off to see if you need anything else. Or if you’re going to give them a treat.”

“A tip, you mean,” Papa Chub says.

I shake my head. “A treat. There’s a reason you feed it into their mouths. Hell, you could probably jam a hat in there and they’d be just as happy. Whoever maintains the things would probably be pissed off about having to fish a hat out of its internals, though.”

“So they programmed them based on dog behavior?” Monk says. He’s smiling again, amused by the concept. Giant robot animals have been common in air and spaceports and amusement parks for a decade now, serving a function once performed by androids in suits and humans in suits even before them. They honestly are a little silly and pedestrian by this point, but then, as Monk pointed out, it’s all relative. If you don’t travel much or go on vacation much, the novelty lingers.

“I shake my head. It’s not exactly the same thing. They scanned the brains of dogs, identified desirable patterns and elements, digitized those, and used them as the basis for the thing’s AI.”

“So what’d they use back when they were unfriendly?”

“Brain scans of actual crabs.”

“And that didn’t work out?”

“You ever seen a friendly crab?”

“Guess not.”

“Hell, you ever even really look at a crab? They’re like the bugs of the sea. All hard shells and pincers and feelers and antenna and whatnot.”

“Gross.”

“Aggressive, too.”

“Not the kind of thing you want around children.”

“Not unless you want your children eaten.”

“Some people might.”

“There are more efficient ways.”

“What if–”

“Jesus Christ!” Erb interrupts, his voice at a volume bordering on shouting. “Will you guys stop screwing around and get your bags so we can get out of here?”

Monk, Papa Chub, and I all turn to look at him. He’s got a suitcase in each hand and a messenger bag strapped across his chest. Googe is next to him, an oversized backpack on his back and a duffel bag in his right hand. Erb’s dark eyebrows are furrowed in irritation, the tips rising to meet his tastefully messy (and carefully styled) hair, such that the whole effect was that the upper half of his face seemed to have become home to a pair of fuzzy caterpillars. We just stand there staring at him in silence, and his brow furrows more, the caterpillars becoming more agitated. Finally I shrug my shoulders and say, “Yeah, alright.”

There’s a baggage bot not too far from us with a surprisingly small crowd around it given the hundreds of people that must be passing through the area each minute. I spend a few minutes waiting patiently in line until the things acknowledge me.

Baggage bots are, like most things in life, pretty innocuous until you think about them too hard, and then they become objects of abject horror, like clowns.

Or babies, I suppose.

Your average baggage bot is built like a giant serving tray with a perpetually cheerful disembodied head, torso, and arms on the end. They’re of the “deliberately artificial” school of design since, holy crap, how upsetting would it be if it looked like an actual person, mechanical from the waist down, sexless from the waist up, face trapped in a servile rictus, personality perpetually fawning? Possessing only a limited degree of mobility because they’re tethered by a massive hose to the arcane underworkings of the spaceport where baggage is sorted and handled and sucked up and spat out for passengers to claim?

Truly, thank God for robots. Without them, we’d have to subject other people to these lives of subhuman slavery. I mean, it’d be that or have all the luggage from a given flight dumped onto some kind of carousel for people to patiently wait by so they can pick it up themselves, and who has time for that?

The bag bot turns its head to look at me. “Greetings, Sir!” it chirps, its voice represented by a soundwave on the LCD screen that serves as the thing’s mouth. “Can I help you with your luggage?” It takes me a moment to respond, my performance-enhanced brain racing to supply me with unrequested facts about these kinds of machines. I dismiss them as best as I can, and what’s left is a half-formed opinion on the practicality of the system. The whole thing is overkill. Part of the Meadows’ whole schtick of fun and novelty and playfulness. In reality, it’d probably be more efficient to just have luggage routed through a pneumatic tube system built into the walls of the space, but hey, that’s boring.

Still, you do what you can with the tools you’re given, and when all you have is a bag bot, everything looks like a forced interaction with a needlessly complicated machine. “You certainly can,” I say, a smile coming to my face. I don’t know why. Force of habit, I suppose. The thing’s just a machine, and I wouldn’t treat my car like a friend, despite the fact it asks me how my day’s going every time I get into it.

“I’d be happy to! One moment please while I scan your biometrics.” The bag bot rotates its serving tray body to face me and leans forward to look at my eyes. Its articulated eyebrows make it look like its squinting, its oscilloscope mouth purses fake lips into a thin line. I can’t remember the last time I saw anything look so deep in concentration.

The bag bot leans back, adopting a more natural posture. Its mouth smiles again.“Your pupils appear to be unnaturally dilated, Sir. If this condition persists, you may wish to seek medical attention.”

“Uh, yeah, thanks,” I say. I glance over my shoulder. Monk and Papa Chub are still where I left them, talking to each other, likely still discussing the finer points of animatronic crustaceans. Googe is just standing behind me patiently, but Erb is rolling his eyes, his lips pressed together in irrtatiojn, at me, at Monk and Papa Chub, at the Meadows, possibly at the whole of the universe. “I’ll take my bags, please.”

“If you like, I can also recommend a store where you can purchase high-quality polarized sunglasses.”

“Just the bags. Thanks.”

“Sunglasses with polarized lenses are excellent for preventing eyestrain from bright lights, or irritation from inclement weather and wind.”

“Uh, I don’t think I need to worry about that on a climate-controlled space station. Just my bags, please.”

“They are also excellent for disguising conjunctivitis, no matter the cause. Particularly from law enforce–”

My patience snaps, drive by my own nature and by stimulants. The nootropics provide the insult, whatever good an insult is against an unfeeling machine. “Hey. C-3PO. Just the bags, yeah?”

The bag bot makes a clicking noise, as if it were somehow mechanically shifting at my unexpected outburst. “Of course, Sir,” it says, its voice taking on a decidedly less pleasant and more neutral tone than it had been using. The hole at the center of its serving tray body irises open and I can hear the rush of air as my luggage is vacuumed up, does a little hop in the air, and appears before me. “Here is your luggage, Sir. Enjoy your stay, Sir.”

I turn and walk away. Googe has a look of confusion on his pale face, his light eyebrows arched in puzzlement. “What’d you call that thing?”

“Ancient obscure movie reference. Don’t worry about it. Nothing you’ve ever heard of.”

Word Count: 3,900 (1,920 words a day to go!)

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