Tells of the Block Widowers
By Jez Patterson
THE FAN WASN’T THERE SO MUCH to cool the air as to simply turn it like a ladle in a soup tureen. Tom looked over to where his friends sat around the white-clothed table, two of them wearing complementing white trousers and jackets in the traditional Southern style. It matched their collection of snowy hair and beards. He sighed, fondly, immediately glad they hadn’t noticed him there in the doorway because it would have embarrassed them to hear it.
They looked like gentleman angels, sat there. Or, at least, how Tom would have liked Heaven to look. The sun that entered the room was like that shone by a bank of fluorescents stacked immediately outside the window.
“They’ve been waiting for you all morning,” Harry, the house waiter told him in a low voice and Tom smiled. “I take it the operation was a success?”
Tom held up his arm where the new artificial joints allowed him to bend it at the elbow, twist it at the wrist and shoulder. “Better than new, Harry. Although, it is new, so I don’t know what I mean by that.”
“Shall I announce you?”
“No. If it’s okay, I’d just like to stand here a while. It’s not often a man gets to hear his friends bad-mouthing him.”
“I’m sure they’d never do anything like that.”
Tom smiled again. The only thing not artificial about Harry was his sincerity—a fact they all appreciated immensely.
“It’s not just a question of a simple ratio of artificial body-parts to human,” Doc Jeffers said, jabbing a bony finger at the others. “If it were, we’d end up calling people half-castes and suchlike all over again.”
“Half cast,” Jim, the writer, said, laughing. “You know, I kind of like that.” When the others didn’t respond, he said, “Cast? As in metal? Like when you pour it in a mold? Only, if you’re only half cast, you’re only half metal ... half robot? Aw, you guys have no sense of humor.”
“On the contrary,” Doc Jeffers said. “It’s our innate sense of humor that means we find that comment singularly and irretrievably unfunny.”
“Being human is a state of self-definition, self-awareness. You shouldn’t be defined by what others tell you that you are: be it inferior, less of a man, not possessing the rights because others say so.” Manuel’s finger was also out, wagging the way it did when he made a speech.
“So speaks the libertarian!” Doc Jeffers said. “So, if a mouse claims to be a tiger, we should allow him to define himself that way?”
“We’re not talking about mice and tigers,” Jim said. “We’re talking about robots.”
“When we should be listening to them!” Manuel said.
“Hey, I thought we were on the same side here, Mani?” Jim said.
“You can’t be on the same side as the robots,” Rodrigo said, as always biding his time before entering the conversation. “You’re human. Well, those parts of you not already cut off and thrown away and then replaced.”
“You make us sound the way Harry prepares our steaks,” Reverend Duke said, laughing. “Just a case of trimming off our fat and gristle?”
“Aha. Maybe we should consult the man who speaks for our Creator then!” Manuel said, turning to face him. “Go on, Reverend: what’s the Church’s official mandate on what constitutes human and what constitutes robot?”
“Speaking of Harry ...” Jim said interrupting the baiting of Reverend Duke. He licked at his dry lips. When he and others looked over towards Harry they spotted Tom lurking in the doorway. “Hey! It’s Tommy! Go on, Tommy, let’s see those new legs in action! Get over here!”
“It was my arm,” Tom said, bending it and flapping it up and down like a wing. Manuel whistled, exaggerating how impressed he was. They’d all had something replaced as age ticked off the bits it wanted to take away. “Amongst other things ...”
“Pity we’re all widowers, eh?” Jim said and nudged Doc Jeffers who, for a medical man, was oddly reticent on matters of a physical nature. Not that any of them could remember what that constituted, it had all been so long. “C’mon over, Tom. The Doc here has got us talking about what makes a man a man, a robot not.”
“Actually, it was the Reverend’s turn to speak,” Doc Jeffers said as Tom sat down. “Harry? Bring Tom something tall and wet.” Jim raised his arm to deliver another suggestive nudge and Doc Jeffers drilled him with an eye until he lowered it. “Reverend?”
“The Church accepts all living things into its embrace.”
“Awwww ...” Jim said. “What kind of an answer’s that?”
“‘In His image,’” Manuel said. “Isn’t that what the Bible or something says? In God’s own image? Well, first there was Man in God’s image, and then Robot in Man’s. Look at Harry: he’s pretty much in our image, wouldn’t you say?”
Harry placed a glass of lemonade at Tom’s elbow and Tom ran a finger through the condensation, not feeling thirsty yet.
“You misquote scripture the way Jim misquotes his own poetry,” Rodrigo said.
“Yes? Well then how about the great lawyer tell us what our esteemed governments have decided?” Jim said.
“Sure,” Rodrigo said.
“Hold on,” Manuel said. “He might charge us by the word.”
“Lawyers aren’t to be considered human either,” Jim added. “More something between a lizard and a leech. A leechard?”
“Now, now, Jim, Manuel—play nicely,” Tom said. “Or I’ll ask you to see me after.” They bowed their heads in mock chastisement. They always liked it when he spouted some teacher cliché. It had been years since he’d been in a classroom—years since they’d all practiced their various professions. Years they’d spent as widowers, without company other than Harry’s, sat round this table, talking nonsense and arguing the nonsensical.
The only change to their routine came when one of them went to have something replaced.
“Rodrigo ...” Tom said, inviting him to take the floor.
“Actually, the law’s clear on the matter and separates body from the brain in terms of its reckoning.”
“What about the soul?” Jim said, clicking his fingers. “Back me up on this, Reverend. Do robots have souls?”
“If they did, some lawyer would find a way to buy it off them.”
Manuel and Jim high-fived and laughed together.
“As I was saying, before I was so rudely interrupted: being human—rather than any concept or idealism of humanity—is determined entirely by natural or artificial brain capacity. You can replace the entire human body with artificial limbs, organs, blood, structure, whatever else you like, and you will always remain human as long as your brain retains a majority human.”
“Fifty-one percent?” said Jim, one eyebrow raised.
Rodrigo shrugged. “It’s the law.”
“What about if it’s fifty-fifty?” Manuel asked. “Who decides then?”
“Never going to happen,” Doc Jeffers said. “We’re not talking about counting beans here. There’s always going to be a difference, once you take the percentage to decimal places. The balance always has to tip one way or another.”
The matter was settled as far as they were concerned with another round of nods, shrugs, or smiles.
Doc Jeffers leaned back in his chair, its wicker back creaking as his might have done if his spine hadn’t been replaced some time back. He caught himself before he was fully comfortable. “I say, Tom? Are you alright? I know you’ve just come back from surgery and all but ... Hell, these days it’s hardly like it was when we were growing up. What the devil’s wrong?”
“Yes. You look like you’ve seen your life just flash before your eyes and blow its fuse,” Jim added, his flair for the dramatic line not diminished after all these years.
“I had more than my arm replaced,” Tom said and made to swallow, although his new throat didn’t require any lubrication. He looked down at the lemonade, understanding now why he hadn’t touched it. “My brain ... The synapses, the slow pathways, I don’t know. They did some work on it.”
“I thought you were looking brighter,” Reverend Duke said gently, but despite his heart not changing its steady, manufactured rhythm, Tom didn’t feel reassured.
“They told me afterwards just how much they had to replace. Along with the memory replacements they did the last time and those other enhancements ... In short, my brain’s no longer all my own.”
“How much?” Rodrigo asked, any emotion suddenly squeezed out of his voice.
“Meaning ...” Manuel said for them all and shook his head, his body stiffening. “You shouldn’t be sitting here. By all rights, you should probably be serving Harry. Or, at least, he shouldn’t have to be serving you.”
“But, Manuel ... You were the one who was just saying ...” Tom’s eyes widened as he begged the self-proclaimed libertarian for support.
“You can’t just sit at this table like you were one of us,” Doc Jeffers said, his chair not the only one scraping away from Tom. There was little attempt at subtlety as they pulled back.
“Robots can’t earn private property, can’t drive on a public street—and there’s certainly no health care provision afforded them,” Rodrigo recited.
“But, fellows ...” Tom said.
“And they can’t belong to this club,” Jim said. “We start allowing robots to join, then what’s the point of calling this a gentlemen’s club.”
“You’re no longer one of us. You should leave. Now.”
Tom stared at Doc Jeffers, then at each of the other men around the table. Men he’d considered friends. Called friends. As opposed to not meeting his eyes, they all stared straight back, as undaunted by his reaction as they would have been by an offended toaster.
Harry bent over to bring his voice box near to Tom.
“I think it best that you come with me now.”
Tom rose as in a dream. He had never felt so alive, so vital following his operations, and now he was being ousted from a club he’d seemingly spent his entire life belonging to. As they reached the doors to the patio he heard Jim say, “Find him something easy to do, Harry. Maybe some work in the gardens. The kitchens, even.” When Tom turned to offer a proud rebuke, Harry took his new arm and steered him away.
“The Gentlemen are quite right. Please. Let’s step outside.”
When they were out on the patio, Harry carefully closed the doors and then came and stood beside him.
Tom stared out at robots walking, robots working, robots toiling in the gardens.
“I don’t know what’s just happened, Harry. One moment I was a man and the next ...”
“We all were. Once.” When Tom turned he saw Harry smiling kindly. “It’s our job to look after them.”
“I’m not wiping the backsides and waiting on men I once considered friends!”
“But it’s the least we can do for them,” Harry said.
“I don’t owe those men anything now except my disdain!”
“They’re the last, Tom. You were too—up until today. How do you think we all got here?” Harry swept his arms out to indicate the robots on view, ended it with his open hands presenting Tom as a new member. “We stopped having babies—it doesn’t matter why. The population got older, but the technology was getting better. We started replacing body parts, prolonging life by giving ourselves synthetic blood. Then replacing those parts of our brains that were deteriorating. We converted ourselves bit by bit until, finally, we were more robot than human.
“The process doesn’t stop at some fixed percentage. Eventually, all of you will be replaced. Eventually, they’ll be nothing left in us that was human. The men you left back there are old, they’re forgetting ... and soon they’ll be joining you, have no fear.
“Until then, we look after them. They’re the last remaining representatives of what we were. Or—for some of us now—an entirely other species. One that will soon be extinct.”
Although Tom wished his reaction would be to laugh at this, deny it blindly, shout and rave at Harry, he found no such resistance occurring. Maybe it was the new brain that allowed him to grasp all this as the truth. He couldn’t remember if his old self could have done so. Probably not, considering the years he’d accumulated.
“I’ve never been out here, Harry. On the patio. Never looked and seen what’s become of the world whilst we’ve been sitting in there.”
“None of them do. They just sit at the table every day, getting older, trying to remember ... and then getting replaced. As I said: they’ll be joining us out here soon enough.”
“And you, Harry? Have you always been a waiter?”
“Now more than ever,” Harry said and Tom grunted at the joke. Yes. They were now all those charged with waiting. He looked back over his shoulder, back into the sunlit room and the gentlemen angels.
“Gardens or kitchens?” he asked Harry.
“Go and look at both,” Harry said. “Whatever you decide is right for you.”
Jez Patterson is a British teacher and writer. His work has appeared in “Daily Science Fiction,” “Stupefying Stories.” “Mythaxis,” and elsewhere. His previous story for us, “Comes the Shape of Things,” appeared in the 12-NOV-2013 issue.