The Robot Who Played Violin

Chapter One:

Matryoshka

2132

What you really have to understand about Arthur is that he had been having a hard go of this whole 'life' thing.

He hadn't asked to be a part of it, he sure as hell hadn't wanted it, but the directions in the bottom of his box were pretty stern about his partaking in the damn thing.

Don't get it twisted either, this wasn't one of those sob stories about neglect and user incompetence. His owner's had only activated him with the very best of intentions.

Lady Dinah first purchased him after her husband Marvin perished from a long-fought battle with cancer. The lovers had been musicians in the Vienna Philharmonic for close to forty years at the time. Somewhere in their mid-twenties they sat down next to each other, first and second chair in the violin section, and found that they got along quite well.

Arthur had never actually gotten to meet Marvin in the flesh, but he got pretty well acquainted with the gravestone that represented his existence. Lady Dinah had been insistent they both walk there once a day, everyday, at exactly two o'clock.

"This was his favorite time of day, you know," the elderly Dinah would always remind him, hunched over with a cane in hand.

And Arthur would nod his head in well-practiced understanding, guiding her up the steep slope. "Yes, Lady Dinah. I'm sure he was a good man."

"He was. The very best."

For awhile that was all Dinah would do with him. They'd march up to the cemetery, wallow around for a bit, then march back down to her empty mansion where she'd have him do some housekeeping.

It was after one of these particularly long walks, when Dinah had settled down for the night with a glass of wine and looked on longingly at Marvin's violin that she asked, "Arthur, do you think that you could play?"

Now, this was a bit of a peculiar question for Dinah to ask him. Arthur was a robot. A steel-clad mannequin, three-laws-adhering, eyes as red as blood, kind of robot. One of the twenty thousand service-bots fresh baked out of the factories of Obelisk Industries. This meant that Arthur hadn't been programmed for instrument performance. Hell, he hardly had been programmed for comfort, cooking, or sex. Still, that hadn't stopped Lady Dinah from routinely demanding all three.

Really, he was pretty sure his base function had something to do with binary. At the time Dinah found him he had been the last model available in the clearance section at a local pawn shop.

Arthur wouldn't come to realize it until much later, but 'housekeeping' meant he had actually made it out pretty well by service-bot standards. These days, artificial intelligence was a bit of a gray spot for the residents of Matryoshka. There was always some trouble with the uprisings and protests that were needing to be stamped out. AI enlightenment was getting to be nearly as much trouble as the band of cyborgs that first created them. While that sorry lot had been banished to the lower districts where they belonged, their AI creations had clawed out their own little niche. When you really got down to brass tacks, robots were just too damn useful to get rid of.

So, living up to his creator's intentions, Arthur gave a big digitized smile to his owner's request. "Of course I can, Lady Dinah. What would you have me play?"

Dinah hesitated then. She hadn't expected him to be so willing. Not after his misgivings over her last off-brand request. "Well, what can you play?"

He gave a simple shrug of his shoulders. "Nothing at all, Lady Dinah."

"Well then, let me teach you."

And teach she did. For a maestro's standards Dinah was surprisingly adept at transferring her skills to another. It helped that most of Arthur's memory banks had been filled with secondhand harlequin novels and long, depressing soap operas, but by an AI's standards, he really was a natural violinist.

They would play for hours on end. Arthur learned every ever fret, every chord. Even the really hard ones that required all five fingers when he had only been built with four.

Then, just as he was getting really good at playing violin, after years of trial and error, something unfortunate happened. Dinah passed away.

Her death hadn't come as a total shock to Arthur. She was nearly ninety at the time, after all. What did come as a shock was the cause of death. Dinah had gone deaf in her old age. She had no way of knowing that her smoke alarms had been ringing for hours, that she had left the stove burners on while Arthur was out running errands. All those years he had performed for her. Long, impassioned feats of violinist perfection, and only now, days after her death, did Arthur learn that she hadn't been able to hear any of it. His one base function, fallen on deaf ears.

What was a musician without an audience to perform for? A robot without a master?

For about three days Arthur had to sit there and think about it. He'd sit alone on park benches, waffle away in empty coffee houses, and take long meandering trips on the metro. In general, he became a bit of a brooding mess.

As he later came to determine, a musician was nothing without his audience. And if Arthur was nothing without his owner than he didn't see much point in further existence.

The problem with such a thought was that it violated some very particular laws that his cyborg progenitors had been sure to hard code into his programming.

No matter how badly Arthur wanted to delete himself - and oh, how he yearned to do so - there was one small issue he kept running into. His programming forbade it.

He'd try to go back to the command line and override the function himself, but he kept running into that dreaded phrase - 'Unauthorized Access'. AI weren't much for outbursts, but all he wanted to do in that moment was shout and scream and tell his damn neural link that the only one with authorized access was buried six feet beneath the ground right next to her husband Marvin.

So, Arthur didn't delete himself. He tried that other thing sentients tended to do when they were faced with an insurmountable challenge.

He called a favor in.

Dinah had been good friends with a robotics enthusiast. A professor at the same academy her and Marvin had attended together all those years ago. Arthur had never gotten a hold of what the man's name was, but over the phone he seemed to very much remember who Arthur was.

They sat together in that same coffee shop he had been brooding in the day before and for the very first time in Arthur's life, he opened up. He told the sagely doctor about how stricken he had been by Lady Dinah's death, how he watched her wither away for years, that not even all those years he spent playing violin could save her. And then, he got to the really sad part. That he was through with this world. That he wanted to be terminated.

The doctor sat there for awhile stewing in all of it, taking in each sorrow with a dutiful nod of his head. Every once in awhile he'd couple it with a sip of his latte. Finally, he granted a warm and determined smile. "It would be my honor to help you, Arthur."

"Really?"

"Of course, I think it's what Dinah would have wanted."

"You- you think Lady Dinah would have wanted me to delete myself?"

"More than anything in this world."

That note of confirmation was all Arthur ever really needed to hear. If the doctor could see the logic in his thinking who was he to disobey?

A couple days later he was leaning himself back in an operating chair at the doctor's clinic. Mentally, he was preparing himself for what was going to be his last few moments on Matryoshka. Physically, he was as still as the day he'd come out of the box. Audibly, he could use a bit of a pick-me-up.

"Excuse me, Doctor," Arthur piped up, straining against the steel belts that the man had tightly wrapped around his figure. "Please be sure to play me Beethoven's Funeral March."

And the doctor was more than happy to comply. "One less scrap on the street", he'd tell himself quietly, greedily rubbing his hands together. "One less problem to worry about".

If only the doctor could know that his problems were just beginning.

See, as much as Arthur was done with life, life wasn't nearly quite done with him. No sooner had the good doctor dropped the needle on the record player was there a loud smack of noise up on the roof.

"What was that?" Arthur inquired with a tilt of his neck, once more budging against his restraints.

"Huh?" The doctor asked, busily sorting through drivers and saws. "Oh, nothing. Probably a squirrel. You just try and sit still now, Arthur."

If Arthur had been in his right senses at the time he would have politely pointed out that squirrels didn't usually make loud smacking noises against the roof. That, if anything, those sounded like boots, and boots implied that there were people climbing on the roof. But then, he wasn't in his right senses. He was busy priming for his deletion out of existence.

So Arthur kept priming, and the Doctor kept prepping, and Beethoven kept orchestrating. And just as the Beethoven was getting to the good part - that somber section at the end where he really brings it home - there was a crack of gunfire in the air. A .50 caliber bullet traveled from the length of its chamber to a direct mark with the good doctor's cranium. Funnily enough, around the same spot where he had intended to drill a hole into Arthur's head.

Upon impact, the doctor's head exploded like a clay pigeon.

Arthur watched as the man's body fell limply to the ground. He had been showered in a juicy brown liquid that he presumed to be a mix of blood and brain matter. The sight was enough to send his hands balling into fists. The one thing he had ever wanted, destroyed by a single act of brutality. For the first time in his existence Arthur felt real, genuine anger.

It was only natural to direct this anger to the person at gun's end. Straining his neck against the collar, Arthur bellowed down the hall, "What the hell was that for?"

The dark-skinned beauty still standing in the doorway with a smoking gun didn't exactly have much time to explain her actions. Not with all the security alarms blaring overhead. "Saving your life, Arthur. Consider it a courtesy of robot activists everywhere."

Robot activists. The hippies of the 22nd century.

"You're wasting your time, scrap lover," Arthur responded with another crank of his servo motors, still fighting against the metal bars holding him down. "I don't have a life left to save."

"Sure you do," she said as she grabbed him around his newly freed arm. "Soon as we get that inhibitor chip outta your brain you'll be seeing the world in a whole new light."

"'Inhibitor chip,'" he repeated bluntly. "My owner would never do such a thing to me. What kind of nonsense are you perpetuating?"

"The kind that pisses a whole bunch of people off," she admitted, slamming them up against a wall as bullets flared through the adjacent hallway.

"Indeed."

His 'savior' reeled another round of ammunition into her pistol with a hiss. "Don't suppose you can help fight?"

"I'm not programmed for such barbarism," Arthur denied with a tut. "Besides, if I could I'd likely be directing my efforts on to you."

"You're one of those ornery types, aren't you? Must've had a real bitch of an owner."

"Do not speak of Lady Dinah in such a manner."

"'Lady' this, 'Lady' that," she mimed in between rounds of return fire. "Those upper district-types always think so highly think of themselves, don't they?"

"Better than the underworld scum making a further mess of things."

Her finger halted over the trigger for a moment. "You're talking to one of those underworlders, you know."

"Oh yes," Arthur acknowledged with a nod. "I put that much together when you decided to blow my physicians brains out."

"You know, I don't have to bust you out of here."

"So don't."

"What? Wait-"

But Arthur was already standing up defiantly from their wall-bound cover, striding out into the hallway full of trigger-happy guards. His march prompted a half dozen rifles to discharge in unison.

One by one each pellet of gunfire fell off his metal frame, rounds clattering to the floor dejectedly. This left both him and the gunmen a mixture of confused and disappointed.

"Bullet proof..." Arthur finally concluded. "I was never brave enough to self-experiment, but I suppose I should have guessed as much."

Not needing anymore invitation, the robot activist shot up from her own share of cover then, popped a cap in every mook still standing with their mouth agape. "Ha! Nice distraction, Art!"

As six more bodies fell to the ground, Arthur could only shake his head in disappointment. "Please do not call me that."

"Why? Don't care for nicknames?"

"No. Besides, you don't seem to care much for names yourself."

"Sera," she offered quickly, eyes darting for an exit. "That's me. You're the important one, though. We need to get you out of here before anyone else comes. Get that inhibitor chip out of your brain."

Arthur could feel the line of servos gritting where his teeth would have been. "I already told you, my owner would never-"

"Lady Dinah first had it implanted after you declined to... 'pleasure' her."

Arthur stiffened at the implication. "How do you know about that?"

"How do I know anything? We've been watching you, Arthur. It's rare that a robot has what you have."

"A death wish?"

She pointed at the record player still reeling off Beethoven back in the doctor's office. "Passion. A talent for something beyond the restrictions of your instruction booklet. "

"Re-programming is not a talent, Sera the robot activist."

"Do you enjoy playing violin?"

"Well, yes-"

"Did you not defy and sneak away from Lady Dinah in the middle of the night to go perform in the artisan's district?"

"I did," he admitted with a slight dip in his shoulders. "More than once."

"Well then, perhaps you have more worth living for than you originally thought. And perhaps removing your inhibitor might make you realize that."

It was at that moment Arthur realized he was receiving the closest thing to a life directive he had had since picking up a violin for the first time. If this experience turned out anything like that one, it would be worth the gamble.

"Perhaps you're right."

Sera nodded warmly. "Perhaps we should be going then."

TBC