[This is part two of a three part comic short story. If you would like to start with Part 1, you will find it here.]
Bentley Panhurst stood on the sky-walk looking down on the green commons below. Robotic workers slowly swept up litter as squishy lumps of humanity trundled by without acknowledging them. Nearby, other doe eyed, green “synthetic humans”—as Bentley thought of them—gently trimmed the verge with their scissor like hands.
Bentley set down his artist’s portfolio case upon the ground and quickly unzipped the black leather. An impressive six-foot-seven, he stood a head taller than most. Passersby gawked at his gangling frame in its mauve, silk suit with a bright orange flower in the lapel as he fumbled with the bag on the ground below. Bentley could not remember a time when he fit in this world. He had always felt large and out of place—a sentiment he traced back to his birth, which had to be done by C-section. His unruly, red hair, over-sized freckles, and boat-like feet always caused a stir when he entered a room. It didn’t help that Bentley was a bit of a fop, although he didn’t know it himself.
He removed a somewhat worn piece of white poster board from the case and, after smoothing out the wrinkles, pressed the power key on the bottom right corner. He then turned to face the windows looking out over the crowded walk below. The paper in Bentley’s hands flashed to life. On both sides, bright, neon green letters erupted on a field of black. Declaring each letter in turn, it read, P-E-T-R. Then with a flourish, the letters flowed around the board. Until, coming to rest, they spelled out the name of the organization behind them. “People for the Ethical Treatment of Robots.”
“What rubbish,” he heard the man behind him mutter. Bentley could perceive the general disapproval as heads shook and tongues wagged below. He straightened his considerable spine and put on his most detached expression. He was used to this reaction.
In polite society, P.E.T.R. was considered at best, a nuisance, and at worst, a cause of sedition and public disturbance. Display of its logo or other related paraphernalia, while not strictly outlawed, would certainly be perceived as an act of civil disobedience worthy of official attention.
It wasn’t long before Bentley spotted the drone hovering nearby. He waved. It looked to be official, which was to be expected, but disappointed the activist. However, the official drone was soon joined by a second, bright red drone. This hyperactive synthetic bounded through the air like a puppy on its first walk. Clearly local media, thought Bentley. This, of course, is exactly what Bentley Panhurst wanted.
Within a few short minutes, a synthetic, uniformed officer gently sauntered onto the skybridge, along with his human partner.
“Bentley!” the human officer scoffed. “I should have known.” He held out his hand. “Give me the sign, Bentley.”
“No.” Bentley raised the sign over his head, waving it wildly out of reach of the distinctly shorter officer.
“Bentley, don’t make this difficult today. You know that this won’t end well for you or for me. Now just give me the sign.”
Bentley continued to hold his sign over his head, conspicuously waving it back and forth. “Do you get paid?”
“Do you get paid for what you do?”
“No, of course not. No human gets paid for their work. This is my hobby.”
With pity, Bentley clicked his tongue at the officer. “You are oppressed and you don’t even know it.” Bentley paused for a moment while the officer tried to process what Bentley had just said. When the efforts seemed futile, Bentley continued as if he had suddenly reached some momentous decision. “Well, then, I refuse to surrender to you. I cannot surrender to a fellow traveler, even if they don’t yet understand their slavery.”
Turning to the robot, Bentley put his sign down, leaned it against his leg, held out his arms ready to be handcuffed, and said, “You will have to arrest me, my synthetic friend.”
“My what?” asked the human officer.
“Synthetic friend. Synthetic is the preferred term for constructed life.”
“You mean the robot?”
Bentley wrinkled his nose. “That word is demeaning. They are synthetic humans. They are not robots.”
The slightly overweight officer put his hands on his hips. “Bentley, the word ‘robot’ is on your sign.”
This was an awkward point, and Bentley did as he always did when things got awkward. He puffed out his chest and turned up his prodigious nose. Standing tall, he announced, “That is true, but last week the Solidarity Club approved a motion with over 75% support to declare the word ‘robot’ a derogatory term for our fellow synthetic humans. The name of our organization was not changed because it has history, a pedigree, so to speak. Besides, we felt that the acronym P-E-T-S did not well express the sentiments of our organization. It was a marketing decision.”
It took a few moments for the officer to control his laughter. In all that time, his synthetic assistant never moved, and Bentley still stood with his arms stretched straight in front of him like an emaciated Frankenstein’s monster. Wiping a tear from the corner of his eye, the officer said, “Oh, that’s rich, Bentley. Well done. You just made the trip up those three flights of stairs worth it.”
He broke down laughing again.
When finally under control, he reached down to pick up Bentley’s sign. Bentley was quicker. The sign was soon placed back up above his head.
The officers pudgy, stubbled face started to turn red. “Now, Bentley, you’ve had your fun for the day. Give me the sign before there’s trouble.”
“Not until you arrest me.”
“Bentley, I promise you that is the last thing that is going to happen here. It’s just too much paperwork to actually arrest you.” The officer reached for the can of ultra pepper hanging on his belt. Following his motion perfectly, the robotic assistant did exactly the same.
As a wizened, old hand in the activist movement, Bentley instinctively sensed that he was about to get in serious trouble. Holding the sign in front of his face so that his eyes barely peeked out over the top, he decided to negotiate the terms of his surrender. “At least put me in the handcuffs. It’s for the cameras.”
The officer hesitated, then relented. “Yeah. Whatever. Let’s just get this done.”
Bentley put his sign down, but as the officer went to reach for it, Bentley started to snatch it up again. They both halted, hands near the sign, looking at each other. Bentley smiled, “Handcuffs first, if you please.”
The officer sighed, straightened, and surrendered. He forced an exasperated smile. “All right, Bentley. We’ll do it your way.”
Bentley Panhurst stood up and held his arms out again as the human commanded his robotic counterpart to place Bentley in handcuffs.
Thirty minutes later, Bentley Panhurst exited his new model Aston Martin Trouncer at the front steps of the Workers Solidarity Club in an upscale part of town. The club was the local hangout for all those dedicated to causes, crusades, and revolutions of all types. After Bentley shut the door, the car pulled itself away from the curb and headed toward its reserved space in the parking garage. Whistling, Panhurst gently stroked the car as it moved out from under his fingers. Full to the brim with a sense of rich meaning and purpose, he took the steps in front of the columned marble building two at a time. A synthetic doorman waited for him at the top. As the robot opened the door, Bentley bowed ostentatiously, opened the other door on his own and entered the building.
Inside, the dark wood, blood red carpet, and dim yellow lighting gave the club a distinctly ancient look. An android coat attendant waited at the counter to Bentley’s left. Being in a particularly good mood, Bentley insisted on hanging his own coat and promptly climbed over the counter to do so. The robot offered no resistance, although he did watch where Bentley hung his coat. He felt sure that the sythetic approved. After all, no one could want to be anyone’s slave.
Bentley opened the doors of the great room in the club with a flourish, making a grand entrance. Approaching the bar, he asked for a drink. As he expected, on the big screens around the room a news clip of him being handcuffed and led away was playing over and over again. Spontaneous cheers and clapping erupted from various parties and groups as he entered. Bentley closed his eyes and waved away the attention as if he didn’t deserve it.
He spent the next few minutes greeting well wishers and shaking hands. It took him a while to get his glass of scotch and water from the bartender. Feeling magnanimous, he gave the synthetic bartender a kiss and an extra large tip. When he was finally able to break away, he joined his fellow members of P.E.T.R. in their usual corner by the kitchen.
“Bentley, congratulations old chap! It couldn’t have happened to someone more deserving.” Atley Underwood spent his idle time as a local writer in lefty intellectual circles. He was best known for his treatise on the unfairness of idling robotic workers in order to keep the economy running, Even a Robot Has to Eat.
“Bentley, you must be totally chuffed about all this!” Sporn Maltic added. “This group hasn’t had anyone arrested since Prissy tried to liberate one of our synthetic brethren from his position as a cashier at Plaidmart. Well done!”
Bently nodded and waved his drink at his friends before taking a sip.
He was just enjoying his scotch, when, from the deep wingback in the corner, an oily high pitched voice destroyed his reverie. “What did you really accomplish today, Bentley?”
Lawrence Brudhomme leaned forward into the light. Brudhomme had a head of long, straight brown hair worn pulled back and tied at the bottom with a sky blue ribbon. Even indoors he wore a long, woolen scarf, hand knitted by one of his paramours, and brown fingerless leather gloves. Bentley had never understood what reason had possessed Brudhomme to join the Solidarity Club. He voted against every sensible measure and seemed to despise anything they did, but he saved particular bitterness for anything Bentley tried for a cause. His real delight seemed to come from belittling Bentley. “What did you really accomplish for the cause of robot liberation, Bentley?”
“Brudhomme, we do not call them robots any more. They are synthetic persons.” Bentley felt like he had scored a point. The nods around the circle seemed to affirm him.
Lawrence smiled, his eyes full of twinkling disdain. “It’s one of the wonders of the universe that over billions of years, evolution has transformed small, single-celled organisms into fully self-aware animals capable of understanding their world and the laws of physics which constrain and create it, Bentley. Judging by a universal standard, your existence is a big deal.” Here, Brudhomme paused and looked at Bentley out of the corner of one eye as he sipped his own drink.
Bentley shifted uncomfortably in his chair. He wasn’t sure what to make of what Brudhomme had said. It sounded like a compliment, but since he didn’t have a clue where Brudhomme was going with all of this, he wasn’t sure how to respond. “Thank you, ” he said tentatively. Brudhomme had a way of getting under his skin and making him feel inferior.
Brudhomme chuckled to himself. “Yet, for all the grandeur the universe invested in you, the best you can do is fake your own arrest. The problem with you, Bentley Panhurst, and with everyone these days, is that we created a world in which we no longer have a reason to grow. Think of all the wasted effort—the suffering of all your millions of evolutionary ancestors. The wondrous achievements of evolution are being completely wasted on you, Bentley. Hundreds of millions of years of ceaseless activity, and the best you can think to do to solve the great problem of our age is hold a sign.” Brudhomme gestured to the room with his drink and fell silent.
Bentley felt totally deflated and unsure of what to say next, but unwilling to let any gap in conversation go unfilled, he answered, “Well, everyone has to start somewhere.”
Brudhomme went on as if he hadn’t spoken. “Niches in the evolutionary matrix aren’t granted, Bentley—they’re carved. They require constant attention, tending, and improvement. If left unguarded for even an evolutionary nanosecond, they can be taken away without an ounce of mercy, compassion, or love. Rising to the top of the evolutionary matrix requires determination, resolve, and an eternal quest for the next great moment on the evolutionary ladder. The problem is, Bentley, that our current era, this baked-in drive to achieve something—to grow—and the willingness, if necessary, to suffer to get there has no where to go in the human species.” Brudhomme sighed as he stood. “To put it bluntly, the human animal is not, nor ever will be, designed for utopia— at least not the sorts of utopia we seem to strive to create.” With that, Brudhomme set down his glass and started to walk away.
Bentley tried to stop him. “What’s gotten into you, Brudhomme?”
Brudhomme looked down at Bentley as if he suddenly remembered he was still in the room. “Oh, never mind me, Bentley, I’m just bored, but all of that is about to change. Just you wait. I’m going to do something, something to really release our synthetic brethren from their bondage.” With that, Brudhomme walked away.