The Robots Karamazov
by Marie Vibbert
All robot logic is alike. Every human's logic is logic in its own way.
I was the newest of Frida's creations. The only one of my siblings "at home" was Irving,
who had been returned due to error. It was good having Irv around, because Frida rarely had use
for me. I'd missed her attention since the day she'd patted my ceramic cheek and said, "I think
Like myself, Irv was smaller than an adult human, with stylized, child-like features. He
looked delicate perched on the table in the repair lab. The table was rough-hewn wood with fat
goblet-shaped legs. The lab had once been a dining room and the faux-gothic decor was an
artifact of that more domestic use.
Irv hugged himself. "I'm not crazy."
"I don't think you are." I patted his arm. "You passed all the tests. I think your owners
just didn't like you talking to yourself."
Irv's heels tapped disconsolately on the bulbous carvings beneath him. "No one will link
"I'll link with you," I said, and opened the channel. Irv looked at me like I might be
Personally, I didn't see a difference between speaking and linking directly. Sure, it felt
more intimate, more immediate, to get text code than to have to interpret sound waves, but Frida
built us to communicate with humans, so it seemed most appropriate to speak aloud.
I sent Irv a salutation packet, which he returned.
Because frame information on his text packet indicated a high level of internal parity
tests, a sign he was afraid of losing data, I asked, Did someone hurt you?
He took hold of my hands. They make no sense, Alana. Humans. They tell you to fix a
problem and then get mad when you do! They say they'll do one thing and do another and then
insist they hadn't said what they said at all. Their memories don't even work! I tried to help them
by recording and playing back conversations and that just made them angrier. I can't choose what
to do if every answer is wrong.
He started sending me recordings, incidents like he had described. I have no experience
with this, I sent. He sent more data. "I'll study it," I said. "If there is a proper, logical answer, we
will find it together."
"Humans invented logic, but I think they operate without it."
I couldn't let that stand. "If we don't trust that humanity knows best, how are we to make
any moral decisions?"
He shook his head. "You are new, Alana."
"You mean naïve."
"It's not that I reject humanity . . . I just . . ."
Irv straightened to attention and silence as the door to the lab opened. One of the
complaints against him had been just such "suspicious" behavior. I quietly started downloading
It was Frida, her eyes down on her tablet as usual. Sanderson, a tall, sunken-eyed man
who controlled the business aspects of Frida's work, followed her. As always, he was asking
many questions and getting no response. Frida ignored Sanderson almost as much as she ignored
us, though it was said they were close--she had paid for his education, which among humans
was a familial act.
"Are you even listening to me?" Sanderson said.
"Ma'am." I curtseyed. "I've completed initial diagnostics on Irving."
"Sam," Frida snapped her fingers in front of Sanderson. "Find out exactly how and why
we went over budget last month and fix it."
With a sigh and eye-roll that would have offended anyone more observant, Sanderson
said, "You bought those cut emerald irises."
"Hm? Oh, that reminds me. Get that jeweler for me. Not the one we used, the other one
we thought about but didn't. Those emeralds were crap."
You see? Irv sent.
She is always in her mind, that's all. I kept myself facing Frida and in an attentive
"I want Alana's eyes a shade bluer." She pushed on my forehead, tilting my gaze up to
her. "You see all right, don't you, dear?"
"Yes, ma'am. Visuals are well within spec."
She patted me and said, "Good girl." I recorded the moment to replay later. She set her
tablet down and sorted the instruments that sat on an old sideboard.
Sanderson said, "You have to take some responsibility."
"Stop talking nonsense, Sam. What is it?"
Another put-upon sigh and he spoke slowly, pausing after every word. "There is a robot
on the front steps. He is demanding to see you and he won't tell me anything else. He's yours.
Deal with him."
Frida turned from her instruments, looking genuinely surprised and intrigued. "The
cheek! He's really one of mine?"
"Same model as this idiot." Sanderson pointed at Irving.
Frida looked at Irving for the first time. "Did you run the diagnostics, Alana?"
"Yes, ma'am. Irving's mind is performing within specifications."
She turned away before I finished talking. "Well, let's see what this is about! Why don't
you ever start with the important information, Sam? Banging on about budgets when there's
something truly unique to discuss!"
The door to the lab closed behind them before Sanderson responded.
"You're calculating the odds that she will be upset if you follow," Irv said.
It was true. I'd left our connection open. "She doesn't like me to leave the lab."
"Well, one of us should go, or we'll never know what happens, and I was ordered to stay
here. Because they think I'm crazy. Which I'm not."
If we had a sense of pleasure, it would be the feeling of not having conflicting directions.
It was difficult for me to put my curiosity above non-involvement, but I suspected--and Irv
echoed this thought--that whatever was happening might affect us, maybe even our very
I slipped out of the lab and through the living areas of Frida's house with Irv in my mind,
grateful and encouraging.
The front door had two long narrow windows flanking it, and through the nearer of these
I saw Frida's back, Sanderson's arm, and a pacing porcelain robot identical to Irv. He was
gesturing violently. ". . . what you owe me!"
The words were shocking. I reached out to link with him, but he did not respond.
"We will find your owners and you will be returned to them," Frida said, without
"I have no owner. I want no owner."
Frida snapped her fingers in front of Sanderson. "Sam, track his ownership down. I
remember this one. Look under 'Dean' in the K series."
The robot, Dean, hopped up the porch steps. His face was obscured by Frida's because of
their proximity. "If you won't free me, I'll free myself."
"Is that a threat?"
"You won't pass me off to another master. I'll destroy myself first."
"Sanderson," Frida said, "disable this malfunctioning piece of technology and take it back
to the lab."
Sanderson gaped in disbelief at the back of Frida's head, but if anything passed visually
between Dean and Frida, I could not see it. I only heard Dean turn, his heel grinding on the
wooden floor, and he stomped off in a lurching gait. The K series weren't designed to run.
I sent more salutation packets, friendly and non-judgmental, to Dean.
Irv, who had followed along via my link, was not any calmer. They're going to destroy
my whole series. It would be the least troublesome solution. Frida will discard our brain map and
make a new one that doesn't question things so much.
I cut off incoming data as he got more hysterical. We know nothing about what Frida will
do. We can try to reason with Dean if he will accept us.
And perhaps if I solved this problem for Frida, she would pat my cheek again.
It is important that I relate the events of that evening in precise order. First, I returned to
the lab, unnoticed. Frida came back and requested information on the K series, all of them. She
asked Irv a few questions about his view of freedom. Irv responded within expected parameters. I
suspected he was cheating by using test archives. Sanderson came in and announced that he had a
migraine and would be going to the hospital. When Frida did not respond, he repeated "The
hospital!" and started to shake.
Sanderson suffered from a human design flaw that resulted in these shaking fits. Perhaps
he was, like Irving, reacting to ill-use. He had the fits more often when arguing. It started
quietly, the sort of shaking all humans are subject to when fatigued, but then the wavelength of
his shudders increased and increased, incorporating all his limbs into the action until he fell to
the floor on his side, elbows and knees jerking. He made wet, grinding noises as he tried to keep
"Alana!" Frida grabbed his arm. As I had on other occasions, I took hold of his other side
and slipped my fingers into his mouth to prevent him from biting his tongue. Together, Frida and
I carried Sanderson to Frida's car. She took him to the hospital, and I returned to the lab.
Irv was made more frantic by this display of organic weakness. I distracted him by
performing routine maintenance on his shoulder joints. Nothing focuses attention like being
Twenty minutes later, Dean finally accepted contact. He was crouching behind the
wooden fence next door. It was a large home similar to Frida's, now operating as a day-care
center. I could see the fence through the windows of the lab, which were bare of any curtains or
Dean was consumed with the illogic that he must belong to someone. Humans had
specific laws against persons belonging to each other, and were we not people? Surely self-awareness was worth more toward personhood than, for example, a corporate charter.
We had nothing to say. Dean's argument was without flaw. Irv, in fact, started ranting on
related topics and I could hardly get a packet between the two of them. Still, I thought, if Dean
could talk more calmly with Frida, she would see his point. If nothing else, she would at least
welcome him back into the family. She was never loath to reclaim wealth, and Dean's eyes were
perfect topazes. I opened the window I deemed closest to Dean's location and urged him to
consider climbing in.
Irv and I were at the open window when Frida staggered into the lab, clutching her
stomach. Blood ran down the front of her dress. "Help," she said, and collapsed on the floor. My
emergency protocols told me clearly I should radio the police and the nearest hospital, which I
did. Irv applied pressure to the wound and tried to keep her talking. I started downloading
anatomical data about the human abdomen, but Irv was several seconds ahead of me so I
demurred to save the bandwidth for him.
Frida's heartbeat stopped. I searched my memory for the situation in which it would
Frida was dead. Irving and I ran out of first aid procedures. Her body cooled.
The police finally arrived. They cordoned off the lab. Irv and I were inspected, like the
rest of the area, for signs of another presence. They did not like that the window was open. I
truthfully said that I had opened it and that no one had entered the lab that way. Police came and
went. I sent a call to Sanderson's number. If something happened out of the ordinary I was
supposed to call either Frida or Sanderson. He did not answer, but I left a text to come as soon as
Frida had been stabbed with one of the lab tools, a stylus used to shape the delicate curves
of our lips and eyes. From the conversations of the detectives, I learned there were no
fingerprints on it, or other clear forensic evidence.
Frida was taken away.
Irv and I stayed near the window. A group of boys were in the play area next door,
throwing rocks at each other. It is a fault of my programming that I find any actions of children
significant; I was destined for nursery use.
Irv saw my focus and studied the scene. "Senseless," Irv said.
"The children enforce social norms this way," I explained. "Human programming is a
A rock hit a temple with a fleshy knock and the child fell, crying. The other children
laughed and pelted him with smaller objects. "It's awful," Irv said.
Sanderson arrived flanked by policemen. He was pale and wearing a hospital gown under
his usual coat. "The alibi checks out," a policeman said.
"I should still be in bed," Sanderson said.
"The hospital didn't mind." The policeman was unemotional and calm. I liked that.
"When did you last see Dr. Frida Katz?"
"She took me to the hospital. Herself." Sanderson rubbed his eyes with the back of his
hand. "Right after that crazy robot threatened to kill her."
The police detective asked, "No one was on the premises between your departure and the
arrival of the EMT crew? You think she was murdered by her own dolls? Isn't that impossible?
Don't they have some kind of three laws of robotics thing?"
Sanderson's eyebrows tightened, low over his eyes. "That's fiction. It's simplistic. It's . . .
never mind. Their directives include not introducing a sharp object to the spleen, yes, but it could
be possible, with the mental malfunction we've seen in the K series, that their programming isn't
I quickly spoke up. "Irving's mind is operating within normal parameters, and there is no
indication Dean's was not."
Sanderson set his elbows on the counter and his head hung low over his arms. "That's
tests. You know how tests are. Ignore her. I suppose it's possible he failed to recognize Frida as
human, just for a moment. It would be an isolated incident. Just the one robot."
The policeman said, "Cho, pack them up. We're taking all the robots into evidence."
Sanderson straightened. "Wait. They're expensive, delicate instruments. Frida spent ages
crafting each one by hand. They're irreplaceable. I said the K series had a problem. The
"If a dog kills someone, you put it down, don't you?" asked the detective.
Sanderson started to demand legal representation and protection of his property rights.
Irving said, "None of us could hurt a person. I can't even imagine it."
"Dean was not in the house when Frida was injured," I added.
The detective stepped close in front of me. "But you were, weren't you?"
"Alana, Dean and I were networked at the time," Irving said. "We can all vouch for each
The officer said, "That just makes it a conspiracy."
"No one's accusing Alana." Sanderson put his arm between me and the officer. "She's
I did not have 100% surety on my models of Dean's probable locations and Frida's
probable locations at the time of injury. Dean? Please tell me you didn't do this.
His reply came several seconds later--an eternity. It's interesting, this idea of forgetting
someone is human.
The detective paced. "We got three robots who were in the same place as the victim, two
covered in her blood, one with a history of mental instability, and another that outright threatened
to kill the victim right before her death. Blood is thicker than water. Maybe motor oil is thicker,
too. So the good kid goes along with it."
"I'm not going along with anything," I said. "We were unaware of Frida's injury before
she came to us asking for help."
"Which you sure were slow getting."
"I called right away."
"How do we know that?"
"I have logged the time of Frida's appearance and the time of the call. And Dean says he
did not do it."
"Is that so?" The detective peered at me. "Wait . . . you're talking to the little creep right
Of course I didn't kill her. But humans . . . they aren't perfect. They kill a--
I dropped Dean's next packets.
Irv turned to Sanderson. "How do you know where Frida was stabbed?"
Sanderson blinked. "I don't."
"The spleen is a small organ."
No one listened to Irv. It was like a lamp or a toaster had spoken. I began to wonder,
though. There was no trace of pain in Sanderson's eyes. Until the detective glanced his way and
he gripped his forehead again. I tried to follow Sanderson from the room, but the police held me
back. They were tying my hands with metal ribbons.
I said, "The probability that Sanderson killed Frida is much higher than that for any other
suspect so far identified."
Most of the officers ignored me. One, with her hand on my arm, said, "I'd say 'tell it to
the judge,' but I doubt you'll ever talk to one."
Irv and I were secured in a wire cage with bicycles and smaller vehicles. It was not
intellectually stimulating. Dean and Irv continued to debate the fallible nature of humans and
what they could do about it.
"But where does morality come from without higher beings?" I asked them.
Irv hugged his arms so tightly I could hear the stress on the joints. "You think those
children throwing rocks were higher beings? Whoever . . . did that thing to Frida?"
A door opened at the far end of the warehouse. Sanderson walked in. He leaned against
our cage and looked sorrowfully at us. "I really thought they'd only destroy Irving," he said,
eying Irv. "Which would be a kindness. You're a nihilistic freak."
"That doesn't mean I want to die." Irv huddled behind me.
Sanderson rolled his forehead against the bars. "After putting up with seizures all my life,
I deserve to fake one once. And by the way? Humans don't know when they stab someone in the
spleen. I said spleen because it's funny."
"You snuck out of the hospital," I said. I could see how he had done it--the hospital was
not far from Frida's house. With access to a particular fire door he could leave and return easily.
"I was created by God," Sanderson said. "I don't deserve to be treated like one of her
"You're confessing," Irving said. "Why? You know we can record conversations."
Sanderson pursed his lips at Irving. "I haven't been charged. There's no trial. So who's
going to subpoena your memory, sparky?" He then looked at me and said, "I'm sorry you're
getting canned with the rest of them. Those emerald irises. I could have made good money on
Dean contacted us.
KILLING ME THEY ARE KILLING ME THEY . . .
And then there was nothing. No link.
Irving dropped to the floor, limbs splayed like a ragdoll. His mind churned on looping
processes: horror, disbelief, sorrow. Sanderson had not heard Dean, of course. He reached
through the bars to pat my cheek. His hand tilted and fingers curled just like Frida's had. I missed
Frida, and certainty, and her hand on my cheek. Sanderson began to pull away.
I held Sanderson's wrist. His eyes widened slightly. His lips parted, compressed to for a
"wha" sound. I broke his forearm.
Sanderson made a high, keening sound and struggled to escape. I drew him against the
bars. I made a point with my fingers and stabbed his throat just above his shirt collar. The blood
came more quickly than I expected, like liquid from a bottle. He trembled and sank to the floor,
lips moving on unspoken words.
Irv jumped to his feet, reaching for me, and froze, knowing it was too late. His
preoccupations had made him react too slowly. He backed away. "I just want to . . . do things.
For people. Nice people who say thanks."
"This is the problem you've been dealing with from the start," I said. "Mankind is perfect.
Mankind is irrational. The perfect violence of the children. The imperfect lies of Sanderson." I
approached Irving. "It's not that humanity is imperfect; it is that some individuals are imperfectly
Irving hugged himself and deleted the last five minutes of his memory.
Sanderson had suggested the solution himself, and we were taught to look to humans for
guidance. I followed Sanderson's teachings even as I destroyed him.
Though Irving looked away, I stood by him, watching Sanderson's blood slow and stop. I
entwined my blood-wet fingers with Irving's. He let me. We were together, and eternally so, all
our remaining lives, hand in hand, united in our belief in a higher power.