The Dance of the Quarks
By Wil Forbis
I remember the first time I ever saw one. It was a Sunday afternoon at the San Francisco Opera chamber. My parents and I had arrived early by flotation tram to see my sister sing in a special concert introducing young sopranos. This was to be her first major public performance; she'd spent every day of the preceding three months practicing and perfecting her piece.
We knew that one of them would be in the audience. We were curious what to expect. Would it be able to pass for human? Would we end up sitting right next to it without having a clue? This struck me as unlikely. From what I'd heard, they had been designed to look... special.
In those days, the early 2030s, San Francisco was a Doodle town. Doodle Inc. was, at that point, the world's leading technology company. Their nano satellites connected the cloud net, their motion recognition cameras navigated all flotation trams and it was rumored that every piece of data ever captured now resided in their databases. My mother, an information scientist, had worked for Doodle Inc. since she graduated from UCSF with a Doodle scholarship. My father, a tram design engineer, worked at the Doodle manufacturing plant in Oakland. This was not unusual for a family in the Bay Area. In fact, most of my friends' parents were also Doodle employees.
None of these Doodle employees, however, seemed to know what the Doodle-bots would look like. The entire Doodle-bot project was a closely kept secret; its details were known only to Doodle's CEO, Boris Finch, and his Chief Technology Designer, the well-known eccentric Gaznidius Stark. This much was clear: Stark, a former neurosurgeon turned robotics engineer, had developed technology that could not only match the functionality of the five human senses (sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell), but surpass them. He had implemented this technology in robotic biped units stamped with his patented Personality Grams (TM) --- artificial intelligence software which gave computer lifeforms humanlike behaviors and characteristics. According to the Doodle Inc. press releases, these newly manufactured Doodle-bots were designed to be "super cultural critics." With their augmented ears they could hear minute pitch and tempo discrepancies in the greatest symphonies. With their hyper-acute eyes they could find color differentiations in the work of Miro. Their robotic tongues could savor hidden flavors and textures in food prepared by the finest chefs. Their sense of touch could find microscopic contours in the most perfectly formed sculptures. With their sense of smell they could... well, no one was really sure what that was supposed to do. But the premise was that the Doodle-bots could appreciate the physical world in ways mere humans could not.
That was the idea anyway. I'm not sure anyone really believed it. We humans have always had a certain egotistical streak, a narcissistic self-confidence that might not be fully deserved. It was hard to imagine that a robot... a mere computer made up of of circuits and synthetic neural pathways could appreciate a piano concerto by Mozart, an architectural layout by Frank Lloyd Wright or, for that matter, a fine 2007 Merlot.
As we walked into the opera house, I strained my neck, peering over the towering adults, trying to catch a glimpse of this strange machine. It was my mother who saw him. "Look to your left," she whispered to me as we were pushed by the throng of people. My eyes darted in that direction, but I only had time for a glimpse of the creature. He... it... was dressed like a human, wearing a tan executive raincoat and a fedora. Its face was like that of a man, but sculpted with hard edges and sharp angles. Its skin was colored silver and possessed a luminescent shine. Its eyes seemed cold and dead. For a machine that was purportedly capable of sensing so much about its surroundings, it seemed decidedly disinterested in its environment.
After a few minutes of navigating the chamber, we found our seats. We were no more than 15 feet away from the stage and would have a good view of my sister's performance. I turned in my chair and looked around for the Doodle-bot. I found him seated near the back, staring at the center stage with an impassive look on his face. Unlike most of the other men in the room, he had not removed his hat.
"Don't stare!" my mother scolded me. "How would you like it if some little boy was looking at you?"
I wanted to rebut with the obvious --- that this creature clearly did not share the concerns of humans --- but I bit my tongue. Within a minute, the music director appeared on the stage and introduced the concert. The first performer began singing and I recognized her as a friend of my sister. I enjoyed her voice though the contours of the melody seemed confusing and alien to me. But that wasn't unusual. I had not been born with my sister's musical gifts. Music was pleasant to me --- an entertaining distraction --- but I could not understand its forms. It often had no more meaning to me than a tea kettle's whistle, or the erratic rhythms of a construction site. My father had even pointed out that I thought certain notes produced by consecutive keys on the piano keyboard were, in fact, the same tone. I could not fathom being moved to tears by music, not in the way I had seen my sister overwhelmed.
As the first performer finished her song, I again turned my head around, focusing in on the silver figure in the back. His attention was obviously on the singer, but nothing about his expression indicated that he was finding either pleasure or agony in her performance. I wondered if a robot could go to sleep.
Soon the second performer, a teenage boy, appeared and began to sing. I found his performance also commendable, but no more stirring than the first. I looked up at my mother and after confirming that her attention was being held by the music, again turned my head. The robot looked no different. His metal features rendered no emotion.
The third performer was my sister. She walked on the stage in a pleasant pink dress that my mother had helped pick out. She looked a bit nervous, but she was certainly a very attractive young woman. And everyone in my family knew that she was dedicated to her singing career.
After the pianist's introduction my sister began singing on an emphatic high note, a note I recognized from her hours of practice. It sounded, well, fine, as all music did to me. But as I looked at my mother, I could tell she was euphoric. And judging from the people around me, fixated in their chairs, my sister was, as they say, "nailing it."
The song reached a point of high dynamics and my sister's melodious voice continued to sail throughout the room. My mother had my father's hand clasped in hers, and she would occasionally look over to him and smile. She was obviously proud of her daughter. I'm ashamed to say I felt hurt. It was a look of pride I had never received.
But I was happy to give my sister her day. She looked quite pretty and so in her element. I can only imagine she must've been feeling the beginnings of a sense of relief. This was the day she had dreamed of for many years, and now the dream was coming true.
And then we heard it. From the back of the chamber. It sounded not like a voice, but like audio feedback from those old time MP3 players. It was followed by a sharp report, what I instantly recognized as the sound of a chair hitting the floor. We all turned.
The robot had risen and was waving his mechanical arms. Then he spoke, and for the first time we heard his cold, grating mechanical voice. "This screeching is simply horrendous!" it shouted. "How can you people stand this? This is awful!"
The entire room was now staring at the robot. The pianist's fingers stilled. My sister had stopped singing.
"Simply dreadful," the robot muttered. Then it turned and walked down the center aisle towards the exit. We watched as its darkened silhouette left the building.
For a moment there was only stunned silence. Then one of the Doodle Inc. employees accompanying the robot spoke. "I'm so sorry," he said. "We had no idea that would happen. Young lady, you were singing wonderfully. Please continue."
I turned to look at my sister. Tears were streaming down her face. Her body had taken a slight tremble. She made a noise... it seemed as if she might be trying to say something, but then she just turned and ran off stage.
Again, the Doodle employee spoke. "Everyone, I deeply apologize for what is happened here. Let's just continue. Can we hear the next performer? Please?"
The music director walked on stage. He conferred with the pianist and then frantically gestured to someone offstage. A young boy, the performer scheduled after my sister, walked out. The pianist began his introduction, and everything continued as if nothing happened.
After the show, my parents and I walked into the musicians' area in the back of the Opera chamber. My mother ran up to my sister. "Oh, darling, you were wonderful! Don't listen to what that nasty robot said! You were so beautiful up there."
At first my sister said nothing. A forlorn expression was cast on her face. Then she simply asked, "Can we go home?"
As we rode the floatation tram back to our condominium I looked out on the city. Very little about the night made any sense. My sister... my whole family... were so distraught. Why had this robot, this impassive creature, become argumentative and animated? Music --- something supposed to be joyful --- had caused so much emotional upheaval. For reasons I could not begin to fathom.
My sister never sang again.
My sister, it turned out was not the only victim of the Doodle-bots' sneering condescension. Over the next several months they appeared in art galleries, restaurants, music recitals, plays and poetry readings all over San Francisco and each time they would mercilessly mock the efforts of their human creators. The Doodle-bots claimed we had no sense of symmetry in our arts. Our color choices were disjointed, our harmonies on musical, our textures brutish, our palates unrefined.
Over the next several years, the public grew to loathe the robots. At certain performances people pelted the robo-critics with micro-phones, Doodle-pads and ash trays. At art showings the mechanical guests would have drinks poured on them. But the robots, ensconced in their mechanical shells, simply sulked away without apology. People began complaining to the Doodle corporation, begging that unwelcome creatures be removed. But the robo-rights movement was taking hold and Doodle argued that robots deserved the freedom to exist in the public spaces of man. For a while, the situation was at an impasse. But then a Doodle-bot walked into a performance of the San Francisco Philharmonic as it was being conducted by the great Suki Fujihawa. During a quiet moment of Beethovenís Eroica symphony the robot rose and began hurling insults at Fujihawa over her choice of tempo. Fujihawa leapt into the audience and battered her fists at the robot's metal hide. The Doodle-bot simply sneered and left the building. Later that night, Fujihawa was found hanging in her apartment. On her table was a suicide note bemoaning humanity's act of ceding the arts to robot eyes and ears.
The public reaction to the public death of a beloved artist was overwhelming. Doodle Inc. rounded up most of the Doodle-bots and brought them in for reprogramming. The company also donated 10 million dollars to Fujihawa's family. For a time, there seemed to be a calm.
During the period of these events, I grew from a boy to a man. I went to Doodle University and received a two-year degree in information entropy; then I followed my parents' footsteps and went to work for the company. I did well for myself and by my mid-twenties was making a substantial living. I was comfortable in the world of manipulating data, passing information bits from port to port. I'd never had my sister's flair for the arts, but I was more than competent in the realm of numbers and technology.
This is not to say the arts were removed from my life. I began dating Nylene, a raven haired cyber- sculptor I met at a downtown ecstasy bar. In many ways we were opposites - she had no degree and was barely making a living with her work --- but on some strange level we hit it off. She could talk endlessly about color and visual forms in ways that reminded me of my sister's childhood love of music. Several months after our initial meeting, Nylene moved into my apartment.
Around the same time, I began hearing of an interesting development at work. Gaznidius Stark had decided to re-release the Doodle-bots to the public. Their hypercritical traits had been subdued, he claimed, and they would exist merely to inform their human contemporaries of the aspects of the sensory world that we might otherwise miss.
At first the reintroduction of the Doodle-bots went well. The robots attended music performances, restaurants and art galleries and politely offered their opinions of the work. It seemed as if Stark's tinkering had worked. But then the gossip began in the hallways at work. Rumors flew that the robots, as they were spending more time amongst humans, were slipping back to their old, brutally honest ways. Nothing about this was reported in the , but Doodle Inc. executives were worried.
It was during this period that I had my second interaction with a Doodle-bot. On a cool Friday night in late September, Nylene and I stepped out to a gallery show. The program mainly featured paintings with a modern edge, and Nylene knew several of the artists being shown. We walked through the large industrial loft, stopping at various works which caught our eye. Nylene would comment on what she perceived to be the motivation and intent of the artist. I nodded, content to merely observe the strange shapes and textures present in the paintings.
We were there for about an hour and had consumed several glasses of wine when Nylene grabbed my arm and led me over to a particularly adventurous painting. To my untrained eye it appeared to be abstract; a collection of shapes and colors interacting in various ways.
"Oh, this is brilliant," said Nylene. "Don't you think so, honey?"
"It's very... interesting," I replied. "Is this supposed to be a bird?"
"Of course not, silly," Nylene replied. "This piece is working with conventional representational forms. It's taking the raw auras from the mythological totems of the American Indian and applying them as commentary on man's divided state: his love for technology and his denial of his natural roots. This here is the coyote, the trickster. And here we have the phoenix like eagle."
"So it is a bird. It's an eagle."
Nylene sighed. "I have so much work to do with you. Yes, it appears to be a bird. But it's really a representation of what man could be if he wasn't so enslaved to all this..." she waved her hands in the air "... stuff. Our machines, our buildings, our computers."
"I see," I replied. I got the dig, that I was from this technological world she was bemoaning. But it didn't bother me, in fact, I found it mildly amusing. Nylene might complain about such things when she was out in public, but she would practically have a mental breakdown if the cyber-wine servant back at the apartment didn't serve her Shiraz at the right temperature. She was more of a slave to technology than anyone I knew.
From the corner of my eye, I caught a figure walking up behind us. I presumed it to be another guest eyeing the painting. Then I heard it, that unmistakable mechanical voice. "This is atrocious scribbling! It's devoid of any conceptualization of color and tone. Simply awful!"
I turned. There it stood wearing a tan business suit and a fedora, its silver skin reflecting the high overhanging lights. Its expression was impassive, unmoving, but one could catch a condescending gleam in its eye.
Nylene spoke. "I'm sorry... what? This piece is remarkable. The images are fully realized and present a unified theme. The color is divine!"
The robot emitted that strange audio feedback sound that I'd first heard from my sister's attacker. I now understood it to be some approximation of laughter. The robot turned to Nylene. "You are a blind moron. This is no more unified than a sick dog's vomit on the sidewalk. These colors shriek and scream like a third rate discontinued video unit."
Nylene step back, clearly in shock at the robot's impertinence. I., frankly, had no idea what they were talking about, but I knew I had to step in. I turned to the robot. "Why don't you get the hell out of here? No one is interested in your opinions on anything!"
The robot simply smiled. "You humans observe nothing and are taken in by any charlatan hawking a circus freak. You'll never know what true art is."
"Shut the fark up," came a voice from behind me. I turned to see that a crowd was gathering, angry at the mechanical interloper's comments.
A young woman in a florescent dress stepped forth. "You Doodle-bots are the ones that don't know what art is! You have no souls!"
A beefy, young teenager with a mohawk walked to the front of the crowd and stared directly at the robot. "Let's take this outside, bitch!" he sneered.
The tension was thick and it looked like things might turn violent. Frankly, I wouldn't have minded the opportunity to bash the metallic snob into the shape of a twisted garbage can. Suddenly one of the gallery owners appeared and whispered something into the Doodle-bot's ear. The robot's face remained unchanged, but it wandered away from the crowd, down into one of the labyrinthine corridors of the gallery. The gallery owner turned to the gathering, "I'm sorry about that. Everyone just go back to appreciating the art."
I turned to Nylene. "Well, that was certainly a surprise. Have I ever told you what one of those things did to my sister?"
Nylene was focused on the painting. "What?" she asked. "Oh, yes, you have."
I was a little upset at her indifference. But for some reason the painting had recaptured her attention. I stood there for 20 or so seconds as her eyes scanned the piece of art. Finally I had to interrupt her. "What are you thinking about?"
"I hate to say this," Nylene said, "but I think I see his point."
"These colors are out of sync," Nylene said. "I wouldn't have noticed if it wasn't pointed out to me. And, in a way, this theme does seem... bulky. Why an eagle to represent pure man? It seems so... obvious."
"Jesus Christ," I exclaimed. "I can't believe you're taking that thing's side. Come on." I grabbed her arm and led her away from the painting.
We spent the next 20 minutes browsing the rest of the artwork in the gallery. Then my stomach started to rumble and I recommended we get some tapas from a nearby after-hours restaurant. We walked out of the gallery and down several blocks. Few people were out, but I noticed one man up ahead staring at the concrete exterior of a building. It struck me as a little odd, and then I realized it wasn't a man at all... it was the Doodle-bot. As we approached him I wondered if the violence hinted at in the art gallery was about to become real. But the robot figure seemed to show no sense of his surroundings; he was simply staring at the blank concrete. As we passed, we could hear him muttering.
"Beautiful... simply stunning. A unification of symmetry and form that simultaneously comforts and overwhelms. Exquisite!"
Nylene and I looked at each other, wide-eyed. We kept walking and about a block later burst into uproarious laughter.
A year later, Nylene and I were married. We had a blissful honeymoon in Chile and then returned to our lives in San Francisco. Nylene began to have some success as an artist and received favorable reviews from many (human) critics. Over our dinners, she would eagerly report to me her latest concepts of what could be done with shape or color --- ideas which were largely lost on me.
The Doodle-bots faded into the background. More of them began behaving like the one we've seen in the alley, becoming entranced with... well, nothing really. They seemed lost in observation of the very basic shapes and colors and sounds of the everyday world, their vaunted critical intellect wasted. Occasionally I would pass one on the street and, like most people, pretend not to notice it, as if it were a homeless vagrant snorting Xenon gas from a paper bag.
Three years into my marriage, I received a major promotion at work and became second in command to the Doodle Inc. Data Maintenance Engineer, a man who reported directly to Gaznidius Stark. I became immersed in the science of information pattern recognition and often spent late nights at the Doodle Inc. campus optimizing arrays of data mining algorithms.
I would like to say that it was my frequent absences that began causing problems in my marriage, but I know there was more to it than that. Nylene appreciated the comforts I provided her, but she was frustrated with my inability to connect with her art. She often referred to her artistic soul as "her core," and I began to understand that she felt I was oblivious to this. The truth is, I wanted to understand her art and her soul --- in the same way I wanted to appreciate my sister's singing --- but I simply didn't have the biological software to do so.
As a result, I was, at first, happy when she found a companion: a twentysomething bohemian named Marcus who seemed to be overtly homosexual. He began escorting her to art galleries and filling her days with conversations at coffeehouses. I didn't mind; they connected and there was certainly no sexual threat. Or so I thought. Until the day I arrived home early and found the two of them in bed together. I screamed and threw things. Nylene cried and tearfully told me that our marriage was no longer satisfying her. I demanded she remove herself from the apartment and then I left, running out into a rainy San Francisco evening.
I did what I was frequently doing in times of stress. I went to a bar and started drinking. I had one scotch, then another, then another. I sat there replaying five years of marriage in my head. In hindsight, it all seemed obvious. From the first day there had always been a chasm between us, a separation born from my inability to understand her love for the arts. Whereas to her shapes and colors represented ideas and feelings, to me they were merely shapes and colors. How many evenings had I spent at an art gallery nodding politely while she expounded on the beauty of works that seemedto be merely interesting distractions? Just as I had always felt deaf to the beauty of my sister's voice --- a beauty my parents were aware of in no uncertain terms --- I had been blind to Nylene's art. Or so the world seemed to be telling me. But was it all a chimera? Were these people claiming to hear something in music and see something in our that really wasn't there? Was I the only one who could see that the emperor had no clothes?
These seemed to be questions that were both essential to the core of my existence and yet unanswerable. Because of my affliction --- my purported inability to appreciate the aesthetic world --- I had been denied the full love of my parents (a love they did give my sister) and now was being denied the love of my wife. I downed another scotch. How could I find out who was right?
After eight drinks in three hours I decided that I had to return home. I stumbled off the barstool, paid with a credit bill and walked outside. It was still raining. I didn't care. I tried to drunkenly navigate my way back to our... my building. After a few wrong turns, I found my course and was soon within throwing distance of the apartment. That's when I saw it. A Doodle-bot standing in an alleyway staring at the hard blank concrete of a wall.
I stopped at the opening in the alleyway and stared. The robot's metal face showed no emotion but its eyes told a different story. They seemed alive, engaged as it took in every nuance and minutia of... what? A blank wall? What did it see there?
Slowly, trying not to disturb the creature, I walked into the alley. As I got closer, I could hear the mumbling, metallic voice speaking through the pitter-patter of the rain drops. Speaking of grand beauty, of a universe of worlds and ideas. Finally I could take it no more. I grabbed the robot by the shoulders and slammed it up against the wall. "What? What is it that you see?"
The robot's face had been formed from a metal mold --- there was no way it could change its expression --- so it must've been a trick of the light that made me think a smile crossed its face. It mocked me. "I see things you will never see. Because humans are blind."
A swelling rage knotted my stomach and was released in an agonized scream. What had Stark created here? Monsters that thought they knew more than their creators? And then I realized how I could get my answer.
I ran back to my apartment building, up the elevator, and burst into my quarters. Nylene and her consort were gone. But I had little interest in them at this point.
I sat down at my computation kiosk. I removed the Doodle key from my wallet and scanned the algorithm crystals embedded in its skin. When they had been fully digitized, I began manipulating them in the three-dimensional visual space of my workstation. It didn't have to be perfect, it only had to give me temporary anonymous access to the campus.
It took me several hours to assemble new codes for the crystals, but it would've taken anyone else days. I was simply put, one of the best people on earth at this job. Suddenly I appreciated my talents for math and technology, talents so mocked by Nylene and her community.
It was now past midnight. I flagged a cab and was ferried over to the Doodle Inc. campus. I walked through the darkened collection of buildings, stopping at Node 7, the same building I entered every day. Despite the late hour, the building was still busy with late-night workers. The security guard greeted me and I explained that, yet again, I had some last minute functions to complete. I took the elevator up to my floor.
Before I entered the hallway leading to the data engineering section, I stopped before a security terminal. I placed my security key in the scan slot and everything worked like a charm. I was given anonymous administrator level access to the building with no ties leading back to me. I then set the security cameras into recycle mode -- they would permanently delete their memories every 10 minutes. I was a ghost in the machine.
I entered the data engineering section. The hallways were mostly empty with only a few of the night shift gloomily walking by. I walked up to the door to my station and kept going. I had an entirely different goal in mind.
I walked down a long hallway and encountered a two-door security port. This was the real test. Would my security key be able to bypass whatever personal formats Stark had put in place? I was pleasantly surprised to find he had none. He had complete faith in the company-wide security protocols.
I passed through the security port and into Gaznidius Stark's personal work area. As I walked, lights came on illuminating the surroundings. I had no guarantee he would be here, but it was well known among Doodle employees that he practically lived in his work chamber. After I rounded a few corridors I found him in his laboratory, seated at a desk, peering into a data visualization scope. He was lost in his work, unaware of my presence.
Despite the fact that he was my ultimate superior, I had never been in the presence of Stark; he preferred to leave any oversight of Doodle's technical divisions to his underlings. As such, I was struck by the man's appearance. He was a strange little gnome, the epitome of a mad scientist. What hair he had left was white and frayed. His body had a strange twist to it, presumably the result of scoliosis. One wondered why he had not had one of the bio-cosmetic makeovers that were so popular with the wealthy.
"Stark!" I called out. The man's entire body shook. He swiveled in his chair and turned to face me.
"Who are you?" He asked, his voice laced with panic.
"That's not important," I replied, with a noticeable drunken slur. "I need you to answer a question."
"How did you get in here?" He asked. His face still had traces of fear, but it was beginning to turn into sneering contempt.
I ignored him. "The Doodle-bots."
"What of them?"
"You told the world they would be hypersensitive. They would be able to see things men cannot. You said they would be better than human. You created them. You must have some knowledge of what they can sense. What is it?"
The old man chuckled. "The Doodle-bots... my bastard children. You're quite right. I did say they would be better than human. I could not have been more wrong."
"What do you mean?"
"They're all too human. Narcissists. Vainglorious. Drunk on their own power. They think that because they can see the shape of an atom, or hear the symphony of sound waves buttressing oxygen molecules they have become gods. They're merely fools."
I had no reply. The copious amount of alcohol I had consumed was starting starting to catch up with me and a mild vertigo had taken hold.
Starke looked at me quizzically. "Who are you? Some kind of reporter. No one has ever gotten in here before."
"It doesn't matter who I am!" I shouted, taking umbrage at the fact that the face of my company's technology was unaware of my existence. "I know that the Doodle-bots can sense the world on a more granular level than we. That's not what I'm asking. I'm asking whether they can see... I don't know... Beauty? Truth? God?"
Stark's lips drew back across his teeth. He spoke quietly. "Boy, I gave up on God a long time ago. As for beauty, truth? How would I know if the Doodle-bots see it? I'm like you. Merely human. Granting the human mind the power of hyper senses is something I lost interest in a long time ago."
"You lost interest? Why?"
"Finch was opposed to it. And I came to see that he was right. Our brains were made for the senses we have -- our human eyes, our human ears, our human nose and nerves. If there is a truth and beauty out there beyond what we see, we shall never know it. To us it will always be shadows on the cave wall."
I sighed. I had come here wanting so much more. And yet I couldn't deny the obvious truth to his words. We, humans, would never see the world the way the Doodle-bots did. Even if we had the sensory apparatuses, we were limited by the weaknesses of the human mind. We could comprehend only what we had been programmed to comprehend by eons of evolution.
Stark walked closer to me and then paused and spoke. "I can see you're not a reporter. I don't know why you felt you had to come here. But you should leave. If you are found here it will be a very serious offense."
I looked at him. Just minutes before he'd seemed so queer and threatening. Now he seemed like just an old man. Somebody's grandfather who strolled down to the lake on Sunday mornings to feed the pigeons.
"I'm sorry I bothered you." I said. I walked out of the room. I made my way back through the corridors to the security portal. This time, I didn't have to use my key. The doors opened of their own accord.
With the doors opened, I saw them. Two Doodle-bots, both wearing beige raincoats and classically styled fedoras. They looked at me and then spoke in unison in their gravelly voices. "You must come with us."
I tensed and another round of vertigo hit me. "What...?" Each robot grabbed one of my arms and pushed me backwards. They dragged me, half stumbling back in the very direction I'd just come from. I was forced, screaming, back into Stark's chamber. The old man was there. Smiling.
"I'm sorry for the deception," he said. "But I knew I had no chance of overpowering you. I needed..." he contemptuously nodded at the two Doodle-bots "Tweedledee and Tweedledum here." He approached me, waving a strange spray canister towards my face.
"What?" I screamed. "What do you want!?"
"Yes," the old man said. "You will do perfectly." He hit the trigger on the canister and a strange mist bombarded my nose and throat. Within seconds I was unconscious.
I awoke. Blinded. No, wait... not blinded. It was true that I could barely see --- everything was a blurry visage, as if I was peering through a telescope lens covered with petroleum jelly --- but I could "see." I had some indescribable sense of my surroundings. Up, down, left right. All space seemed known to me, if only at a distanced level.
I was in a large, circular room with high ceilings. Around me were scattered objects... trays, tables, an information kiosk. I was lying on a platform five feet off the ground.
I rose. My body ached. Every inch of muscle had a dull throbbing. Was it dull because the pain was muted, or because my powerful "awareness" of everything around me blotted out a much sharper pain?
I slid off the table and stood. It wasn't easy --- my intestines churned and I thought I might vomit --- but I was able to remain upright. I attempted to walk. The pain nagged at me but I was able to move.
What was I wearing? I still could not see well, but I ran my hands over my arms and chest. I was covered with something wonderfully soft, almost deliciously sensuous. A cloth with an undulating weave that seemed to dance under my fingers.
But where was I? How long had I been here? Where was Stark? Where were his two robots?
I wanted to leave the chamber. There were two doors, one on each side of the room, separated by the diameter of the room. I approached both doors, but each was closed off with a security portal. Suspecting it might be voice-activated, I tried to speak, but my voice was so dry and scratchy that my command was barely audible. Even the most basic attempts at speech left me wheezing.
I returned to the center of the room. Near me was a large object, like a very tall clothing dresser. Somehow I knew it was hollow and transparent... made of hardened glass. The container was filled with fluid. And something was in there, floating. It was large yet flaccid, like a flag undulating in the peaceful water currents. But not shaped like a flag. It had sections that were their own shapes. It was long. I still could not see it exactly, but I could sense it. Why did it seem so familiar? I ran my hand over the glass, and only then did I realize even my hands were also covered with this strange fabric that draped my body. My fingers could feel the churning water within the container. I concentrated on sensing this object. It was rectangular, with two long sections connected at the top, and two even longer sections connected at the bottom. And something split off at the top. I "looked" at it... trying to ascertain why it was so familiar. It dawned on me. This was some kind of suit. The four offshoot sections were containers for arms and legs. And the thing at the top was some kind of mask.
But that wasn't quite right. The fabric used to make the suit was unlike any cloth. And there was that smell that slipped through the fluid in the container and made its way into my nostrils. Musky. Dark.
For a brief moment, the suit came closer to me. The mask danced before my eyes. And then I knew what it was. My face. My skin. The object was a suit made up of my own flesh. Flesh I had been relieved of. Suddenly the dull ache pervading my body made sense.
I tore at the fabric which ensconced me. It gave away easily. And, beneath it, I saw what I knew I would see. The cold metal of the Doodle-bots. My skin had been replaced with shiny silver armor.
I screamed. Or I tried to. But I could only summon a gurgling metallic whisper. The lips on the suit of flesh in the container before me drew back into a smile, mocking me.
I slid down to the floor and lay there. I curled myself into a ball and wept with no tears.
I have no idea how long I was there. I was wakened by the sound of the security portal opening. I brought myself up to a sitting position and looked around. It was Stark, accompanied by his two robotic aids. He looked at me and smiled. "I see you've come to understand your current condition. Excellent."
I strained to speak. "Why?" I asked hoarsely.
"Why not?" chuckled Stark. "And more to the point, because you asked for this. What do you think you were really saying when you came in demanding to know what the Doodle-bots could see and hear? There was only one way for you to truly find out. You need to become the first human being to experience hypersensitivity."
"I... never... wanted this. Never!"
"Sometimes, we don't know what we want until we have it," Stark replied gruffly. "And yours are not the only wants to be considered here. The flaw with the Doodle-bots was that while they could report to us, rather belligerently, what they saw and experienced, we could never experience it ourselves. We were separated by the chasms of furious language and meaningless data. It is not enough to know, we must have the experience ourselves. And you are the first person to do this. You should be thanking me. Humanity should be thanking me."
I struggled to my feet and righted myself. My eyes burned holes in the gnomish demon before me. "You want to be thanked?"
"I understand your anger. But this is a great moment. For science. For technology. For humanity."
I approached Stark. He didn't flinch when I raised one of my hands and touched his face. I could feel the oily sweat, the porous skin and the nodules of growing whiskers. I could smell his escaping pheromones. And I could hear that steady pulse. His heartbeat. Timed like a clock. Too perfect in a stressful situation. He must've had a pacemaker.
"I will thank you," I said. With one hand, I grabbed the scruff of his neck. With the other I reached into his mouth, past his tongue, down his throat. My hand was a guided missile seeking the source of that infernal throbbing pulse. When I found it, my fingers gripped. And I pulled.
Was he at all alive when I pulled his still beating heart out of his mouth? His eyes seemed to curl a bit but for all I know consciousness had left him. His body went limp and I released my grip on him so that he fell to the ground. I then opened the metal claw that held his heart and the slimy, dance muscle fell to the floor, landing by his head. I leaned down and, using his laboratory coat, wiped his black blood off my hand.
The two Doodle-bots, my new brethren, simply stared. They did not approach me. On one of them I saw again that impossible flicker of a smile. I walked between them and towards the security portal. This time, it opened easily. I walked through it, and realized I was in the original cavern where I had first challenged Stark. Navigating my way into the main public chambers of the technology building was easy. When I reached the large spacious waiting area of the building, an alarm sounded. Security guards began running about. But if they were looking for anyone, it was a human, not another ill tempered silver skinned robot art critic determinedly walking out the front door.
I boarded a flotation tram and disembarked at Fisherman 's Wharf. I walked around the area. The advantage of being a Doodle-bot was easy to see; our reputation for sourness was so firmly established that I was ignored by all passerbys. Eyes darted away when I passed, children were shunted off to the side.
The evening came and the sky grew dark. No one noticed when I grabbed a hot turkey sandwich off a street vendor's display cart. I hurried off to an alley and brought the meal to my metal lips. It was the best thing I'd ever tasted. A swarm of flavors and textures overwhelmed the mind. Each taste carried with it an assortment of smells and colors which fired like tiny suns and then dissipated into the ether. Satiated, I leaned against the wall. How long could I exist in this form --- an amalgamation of machine and man? I had no idea. Eventually I grew tired and slept, dreaming dreams like no other before.
With the next day's sun, I awoke. Something was different. Now, I could truly see. My vision was active. It'd simply taken my brain a period of time to acclimate to the new sensory information bombarding it. But now I was rewired. My senses unified, each flowing into the other. As I saw the photons bouncing off the objects around me I could simultaneously hear the disruption of the air molecules and taste and smell chemical trails. If I chose to run my hands over something, I could feel tiny contours of interlocking molecules. And more than just observing these things, I was intensely aware of their beauty, their symmetry. I could see on a level subatomic; I could watch the flickering shadows of dancing quarks as they moved in time with the symphonic hum of the material universe. Now I understood what the Doodle-bots saw when they stared off into space. And now I knew what the Doodle-bots knew.
Humans are blind.
Wil Forbis is a well known international playboy who lives a fast paced life attending chic parties, performing feats of derring-do and making love to the world's most beautiful women. Together with his partner, Scrotum-Boy, he is making the world safe for democracy. Email - firstname.lastname@example.orgVisit Wil's web log, The Wil Forbis Blog, and receive complete enlightenment.