by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in Daily Science Fiction, May 2021
“Where did your plush exterior go?”
“I stripped it off.” Anxlo7’s shiny metal interior gleamed, skeletal and mechanical, without the cinnamon brown teddy bear fur that usually covered her.
“But now you look… scary,” Maradia said to the robot she’d designed for Crossroads Station’s upcoming children’s carnival. “You’ll scare the kids.”
“Maybe I want to scare the kids,” Anxlo7 said. Her big gold eyes still looked dreamy and inviting; she hadn’t replaced those. Yet. But they popped creepily out of her uncovered metal skull, looking much too large without a synth skin covering to bulk her body up.
“It’s not that kind of carnival. And if you scare the kids away from my booth, I won’t have a chance to interest them in learning about robotics.” Maradia walked past Anxlo7 to the storage closet, opened it up, and found the cinnamon brown fur hanging inside like a discarded winter coat. She sighed. This was the problem with designing sentient robots — they had minds of their own.
Sure, sentient robots were much more capable than the sub-sentient ones; however, they were also much more trouble. With great intellect comes self-reflection, and with self-reflection comes sentience. And sentience — legally, according to the Bill of Sentience — means independence and self-determination.
“Okay, so you don’t want to be a giant teddy bear,” Maradia said. “What do you want to be?”
Anxlo7 spread her arms, bare pistons showing. “What’s wrong with this? I look great.”
Maradia smiled, a flicker of pride in her work kindling deep in her chest. She was glad that her latest robot creation was so happy with her own body. “You do look great,” Maradia said. “But you also look kind of like a Terminator. Access your pop culture archives to get the reference.”
A few moments later, Anxlo7 said, “Are there any more of those movies I could download?” Her brain was pre-loaded with a massive database of information, but she knew it was less extensive than the computer networks on Crossroads Station.
“Beyond the first twenty? I don’t think so. There’s been talk of reviving them off and on for centuries, but the twentieth one had such a final end with the robots destroying every branch of the multi-verse to make sure they finally, permanently killed that kid.”
“Yeah…” Anxlo7 conceded, looking down at her shining, silver, skeletal body. “Maybe I shouldn’t go to the children’s carnival this way.”
“Do you want to go to the carnival?” Maradia asked. “You don’t have to.” She had several other, older robots who she’d designed that could probably take over with helping at her booth if Anxlo7 really wasn’t interested.
“I do!” Anxlo7 insisted. She had been originally designed as an ambassador of sorts, and she had always expected to help Maradia at the carnival. “I just… don’t feel like being cuddly. It’s not me.”
Maradia thought back over the programs she’d cobbled together for Anxlo7’s core intellectual code. She couldn’t remember anything that would lead to this quirk in her sense of identity, but then there were so many unpredictable factors in how a sentient-level program would interact with the vast databases of knowledge necessary for survival among human society. “What if I made you a custom exterior?” Maradia asked. “Something more to your liking?”
“I don’t know…” Anxlo7 ran her skeletal metal hands over the silvery flash of her mechanical hips. “Like what?”
“What if I made the ears pointier on the fur suit? Added some fangs? And basically turned you into a cat… or… a tiger! A lion?”
“Well…” Anxlo7’s dreamy gold eyes looked away from her creator. She was clearly unimpressed with Maradia’s suggestions but didn’t want to say so. She was programmed to be kind and probably feared hurting Maradia’s feelings.
“Still too cuddly?” Maradia asked.
Anxlo7 nodded, still looking away.
“How about… feathers?”
Anxlo7 glanced sidewise at Maradia. Interested but noncommittal.
Maradia continued, hopeful: “Some kind of bird?”
Anxlo7 sighed dramatically — something that she was physically incapable of needing to do, so it was entirely a way of theatrically showing her disappointment at the idea of being a bird.
“Not a bird,” Maradia said. “Then how about a dinosaur?”
Now a gleam of real interest showed in Anxlo7’s golden eyes. What was it with Maradia’s robots wanting to be dinosaurs? This wasn’t the first time it had happened. Her best guess was that artificial lifeforms were as susceptible to going through a dinosaur obsession phase as human children. Although, something about the way Anxlo7 held herself made Maradia think, maybe this time, she was dealing with more than a phase.
Working together, Maradia and her wayward creation designed a new exterior and redesigned some of Anxlo7’s interior musculature. By the time they were done, the cuddly cinnamon-brown teddy bear who’d stripped down to a gleaming silver skeleton was a gorgeous velociraptor with forest green feathers.
Anxlo7 had sharp teeth and curved claws now, but her gold eyes looked the same, dreamy and inviting. Every child at the children’s carnival would want to ride her, and Maradia would be there to teach them about robotics before and after their rides.