The Roboticist

Art is slow, cumbersome and deliberate, but necessary.” An engrossing offering of flash fiction where obsession proves the only path towards perfection…

by: R. E. Hengsterman

Jannik worked a cramp from the flesh of his hand as jewels of sweat collected beneath his thick, unruly hair. Setting his carving tool aside, he eased the curvature in his spine and leaned his head back in his knitted hands.

Returning to the sculpting table, his tool back in hand — negligible between his thick fingers — he imparted the clay surface. Hours later the Plastilina continued to resist his delicate manipulation. Angled on his stool, face hung in disappointment, Jannik buried a knuckle into his temple as his neural link buzzed.

“Jannik, office.”

Jannik aborted his work, set his tool in the leather holder, wiped the residual clay from his hands, and placed his apron on its hook.

Halfway between the sun-sprayed studio and the kitchen, in the cottage’s deprived narrowness, another disruption.

“Jannik!”

He placed a teapot on the stove, dragged a red phosphorus tip across the striker, and lit the gas burner.

“Answer,” Jannik mumbled.

“Do you know how bi-neural networks work? I link, you answer.”

Unfazed, Jannik measured a serving of Moroccan Mint as the blue flames licked the pot’s underbelly and the syrupy midday air ushered in birdsong that soundtracked a sparrow nipping a cricket off the sill.

Jannik hurried beneath the enormous clerestory. Past the translucent pods and luminescent organic substrate that baptized the nascent. Through the central room where the long-span carbon beams joined curved glass at impossible but faultless slants. A pneumatic swoosh whisked him through a series of glassy ingresses. Hovering close, a storyboard.

Welcome Mr. Pollock,

For over two decades, Robotix has been building the world’s most realistic humanoids. Our craftspeople create products indistinguishable from human beings. Rich with personality and holistic cognitive AI, our automatons support eye contact, facial recognition, natural speech, and evolve through experience.

Jannik swatted, and the drifting projection faded. As he crossed the threshold to Minka’s office her eyes undertook a tiresome crawl. “Mr. Pollock, maybe you should spend more time on campus.”

Minka Sphero was an affable woman with large, unblinking cornflower blue eyes, scarlet cheeks, and hair resembling that of a tousled alpaca. By habit, she twirled every loose strand that befell her face into tiny knots. Behind her large desk, the lower two-thirds of her diminutive torso was undetectable.

“Jannik, when we founded Robotix two decades ago, we forever altered robot-human interaction by integrating art, science, and love to create products capable of moving humanity towards a brighter future.”

“Straight from the mission statement, huh, Minka?”

Your words, Jannik.”

Jannik grunted, bisecting the room as he kneaded the flare on his neck. “We have automatons in tens of millions of homes. You know why, Minka? Because we took away the fear. Gave our product a human face. Art is slow, cumbersome and deliberate, but necessary.”

Minka swiveled to the window. “Slow, cumbersome and deliberate doesn’t sit well with the board.”

Jannik clenched his jaw. His breath truant. His tongue silent, but rapacious against the roof of his mouth.

Minka scuttled from behind the desk. With both hands on his scowl, she yanked him closer. “Everything evolves. Even art.”

Jannik lashed the air. “Trust comes from familiarity.”

“Your legacy is complete, Jannik. Retire, travel on SpaceX, read a book. Your artistry transformed the industry. Your dedication is understandable, but it’s time to let go.”

Minka returned to the window, placed a hand flush against the cool glass. “We’re automating into a homogenous design. It’s time.”

“Fuck time,” Jannik barked.

Minka, though smallish, cracked back, “The paradigm has shifted. There’s widespread acceptance.”

Minka left to polycom with the Robotix board and Jannik traversed the main hub and headed on foot towards the old studio.

As he trudged across campus, away from the manicured lawns, manmade topography and central gardens, a slathered gray sky provoked a breeze that rustled the orchard trees. Ahead, the husks of unmarked buildings and outdated machinery bloomed from the landscape, weather-beaten behind a sagging chain-linked fence.

Twenty minutes of effort brought him to the familiar, squat building, set back from the others as if it had chosen solitude. Its metal skin, rusted. Dangling from the chalky green door, a padlock. Shards of glass punched through ankle high weeds. Black paint nullified incoming sunlight.

Jannik spun numbers into the padlock, stepped inside, and inhaled the lingering metallic residue. On the floor, a hot plate, a half dozen buckets to catch the leaks, a mattress turned on its side, and boxes that read “FRAGILE.” In the corner an oxyacetylene torch, rolls of plastic laminate, and containers of intumescent. He let his fingers drag through the dust of grainy memories, slid past the tangle of out-of-date circuitry and pushed inside the repository where cornflower blue eyes shone through the discarded flesh piled in the shadows like pale firewood.

 

R.E. Hengsterman is an emergency room nurse who writes. He lives in North Carolina with “the family” and sometimes wears pants. His work can be found at www. rehengsterman.com and the occasional tweet @robhengsterman.

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