Monk frowns. “Textured insect protein? Screw that. I’m not eating TIP while we’re here. I get enough of that at home.”
Papa Chub smiles. “That’s all your wife gives you? Just the TIP?”
“No, sometimes we’ll also… Oh, ha ha. Funny.”
Papa Chub’s smile widens into a grin. “I think so.”
“No food,” Erb cuts in. “Take us to the hotel.”
“What? No,” Googe interjects, his voice rising in a whine the longer he talks. “Come on. I’m hungry. I want sushi.”
“You’ve also two bags to keep track of, as do we all. Let’s drop our stuff off at the hotel, then go eat.”
“No problem! Which hotel, fellas?”
“The Tropicali,” I say. “Wait, shouldn’t you already know that?”
“The Tropicali! Great choice!”
I turn to Papa Chub. “Didn’t you tell the woman at the podium where we going?”
“Yeah. I told her the Tropicali.”
“So why’s the bot asking us?”
He shrugs. “It’s a dumb soulless automaton. Its programming is probably a hundred years old. Who the hell knows?”
“Right, but it only has the one job.”
“Maybe it was always driving there?” Erb offers.
“Then the questions were just it making small talk?”
“Or the illusion of it making small talk.”
“Like the Chinese room thing.”
“Is that racist?” Googe asks.
“It’s a thought experiment,” I say with a shake of my head.
“A racist thought experiment?”
“It’s not racist!”
Monk leans forward in his seat and calls out, “Hey! Johnny!”
The bot’s head spins around, its lips split in a perpetual grin. “Yo!”
“How’s life treating you?”
“Oh, not too bad! My wife and I are getting along great. Little Johnny Junior’s having some trouble with bullies in school, but I’ve been teaching him how to box and it’s doing wonders for his self-esteem. My mother-in-law’s supposed to visit for two whole weeks next month, though, and ugh! Let’s just say I’m hoping there’s overtime at my job those weeks, you know what I mean?”
“Oh, man, do I know what that’s like. Don’t even get me started.”
“Oh, now that’s just utterly preposterous,” I say with a sniff. “Like a robot’s married with kids and a sitcom mother-in-law. How unimaginative can a programmer get?”
Papa Chub, meanwhile, frowns and turns to look at Monk with an expression that’s equal parts disbelief and mild disgust. “Dude. Don’t engage the soulless automaton in small talk.”
Monk gestures towards the front seat, where Johnny is sitting with its hands on the fake steering well, humming happily and turning it carelessly like a child with a toy. “Hey,” he hisses, his voice a whisper. “Don’t be a dick. It’s just trying to be polite.”
“Thanks for noticing!” Johnny announces loudly, its head swiveling around again to regard us each in turn. “I was ranked third in politeness back at the academy!” Its eyes shut and its head tilts up slightly, some long dead programmer’s idea of what pride looks like in something that can’t feel real emotions. Its eyes open and it looks away and to the side and gives a shrug of feigned humility. “Of course, that was years ago, and who knows how things would shake out if you tested all of us again. But I like to think that I’ve always been polite and that I always will be!”
We sit in silence while Johnny turns back around to face the road, a road it can’t actually see, a road that’s navigated by the sensor array on the exterior of the cab, and resumes whistling. “Okay,” Monk says after a moment passes. “I’ll admit, that really strains credibility.”
Papa Chub snorts. “Honestly, it’s utterly ridiculous. Academies? Come on! What’s the point of an automaton you have to train? It’s not like the thing’s a true AI capable of learning. Hell, it’s probably just operating off some kind of a feedback loop or something. If ‘passengers’ equals ‘chatty’, then run ‘prattle on about made-up robot academy.’”
This sweeping generalization sparks something in me. The part of me that gets a thrill from breaking things, the part of me that needs no stimulants or nootropics or what-the-hell-ever to revel in breaking things comes screaming to the surface. “Let’s find out!” I clear my throat. “’Don’t be a dick. It’s just trying to be water soluble.’”
“Thanks for noticing!” Johnny says, its head spinning around, its face going through the entire animation that accompanied its previous bout of banter. “I was ranked third in water solubility back at the academy! Of course, that was years ago, and who knows how things would shake out if you tested all of us again. But I like think that I’ve always been water soluble and that I always will be!”
Erb laughs. He gets the bot to announce that its always been a huge fan of flatus symphonies (it turns out that this is the sort of thing one gets ranked in at robot academies.) Googe discovers that our friend Johnny excels at getting kicked in the junk. Stifling laughter Monk announces, “Oh, man! Let me try.” He leans forward in his seat and his voice takes on the rich timbre of a movie announcer. “’Don’t be a dick. It’s just trying to give us a free ride.’”
Johnny’s head spins completely around. Its LCD eyes flash red and its animatronic eyebrows appear on its face. Its voice is a low growl, far cry from the obnoxiously chipper tone it’d be using for the entirety of the ride thus far. “Attempting to scam a Johnny Cab 5000 is a federal offense punishable by a sentence of up to three lifetimes in a virtual prison and a fine of 250,000 credits.”
Monk’s face goes pale. “Holy crap, I was joking!” Papa Chub, meanwhile is laughing so hard that his face to starting to turn flushed.
“Wow. Wow, man. Wow. Way to fail the Turing test.”
“That’s not what the Turing test is!” Monk says wheeling around to face Papa Chub, his fists clenched and his lips pulled back in a snarl.
“Please hold still while I log your identities to report you to the proper authorities,” Johnny says, its voice rumbling. I can feel my eyes go wide at this. I glance around and see that I’m the only one who heard the threat, that my friends are too busy laughing at Monk, at Papa Chub, at the absurdity of the situation to register an appropriate amount of fear at the possibility of spending the equivalent of three lifetimes in a simulated prison, of having to pay a quarter of a million credits to some cab company so cheap that they use outdated machines, of having our lives ruined by a Goddamn robot named Johnny.
“Uh, guys? Guys? Guys, this thing’s trying to screw us. Guys?” But it’s no use. Everyone’s too busy roaring with laughter, teasing and arguing with each other. If anything’s going to be done, it’s up to me to do it.
Johnny regards us with its hideous red eyes, its face rapidly sweeping from one of us to the next, and I say a silent prayer thanking the god of outdated machines that the piece of junk is so inefficient in recognizing and processing and cross-checking our identities. There’s only one thing I can think of doing to solve this problem.
I get up from my seat. Johnny’s head snaps to look at me, its eyes glowing with hate and its lips twisted in a snarl. “Hey, fella!” he hisses. “It’s not safe to get up while the cab’s moving! Please return to your seat.”
This would be an amazing time to think of an action movie one-liner, but the only thing that comes to mind is, “Thanks, but I’d rather take yours!” I’m not very pleased with it, but I say it anyway, and then I brace myself against the ceiling and the fake driver’s seat the robot’s in and kick it as hard as I can in its ugly rubbery face.
Word Count: 9,047 (2,155 words a day to go!)