“U, Robot, and The Totally Unremarkable Paper” by NoMan (A.L. Schuhart)

War Machine, by Robert Sorensen

U, Robot sat in a room.

(As will be learned later, it is here that U stopped reading)

It was a big room, not that size was important, which it wasn’t. After all, the size of the room had nothing to do with the size of the robot, nor with how important the robot was, which it was. The robot, I mean.

So, the robot sat in the room. Well not sat, really, at least not the way people sit. I mean, its body, well what a robot means when it says “body”, had adopted the position of sitting, although, really, it wasn’t sitting on anything. Really, its feet were on the floor, its knees bent, back straight, and all that. Just like sitting, except there was no chair. Not even a bench. It was sitting, though, on the power tube because, well, it had to. After all, it got its power from the power tube. And the power tube was just a tube filled with power that stuck up out of the floor upon which, well, the robot sat.

In the room were an astounding number of power tubes, but amazingly only one robot. The tubes stood up as straight as straight is, exactly thirty-two inches tall and thick as a fist. There were exactly eight-hundred and fifty power tubes, arranged in ten rows of eighty-five. The robot called them editing stations. Occasionally the robot would slowly raise itself from one, stand, take three medium steps down the line, and sit on the next one. When it stood, the vacuum seal would go shtuk when it released and then hiss slightly as the pent-up gasses escaped. The robot referred to this as unshtukking, and would laugh about it with the other robots at the robot bar. “Har Har” they would laugh, “Har Har.” The robot bar also had power tubes upon which not to sit. But in the totally unremarkable room where it worked, when it came to the end of the row, it crossed to the next one. When it came to the last editing station in the room, it went home, or to the bar. And that was that.

What else about the room, besides the power tubes? Well, in front of each power tube was a table. Just a standard, metal, shining table like most other tables. Nothing spectacular, out of the ordinary, or unfamiliar. Thus, like the power tubes, there were an astounding number of tables in the room, but still amazingly only one robot. Between each station was just a few feet of space. The robot called this space between the stations the interzone. The room, otherwise, was unremarkable, and neither astounding nor amazing. It was so nondescript, in fact, that you would be overfamiliar with it.

(Again, robot, stop reading. You should have done so already!)

Now the robot, at each station, performed a different function. The first was the opening station, where it opened. The second was the taking out station, where it took out. The third was the laying it neatly upon the table station where it laid it neatly upon the table. The fourth was the shaking out the envelope station, and here it shook out the envelope. The station after that was the most important one of all: the is there any money in the envelope station. This station was only slightly more important than the next most important station, which was the sixth station — the name recognition station — whereat the robot recognized names. But, I’ll tell you about that one later.

And so on. I’m sure you get the point by now. It was an analog robot, and that should explain everything. One thought at a time, and only one.

(Robot, I’m trying to make this easier for you.)

Right now, the robot was sitting at the fifty-third editing station in the third row. This was the counting station, and the robot was counting words which was one of the major functions of the robot, and at which it had excelled in robot school, where it had learned all that it had learned, which was quite a bit. For a robot, that is. The robot called this the word count. And this is the way it went. Beginning with the first word, which the robot called one, it then went on to the next word, assigning it the number two. After completing two, it called the next word three. This complicated process continued in a similar (well not similar really, it was actually rather exact) fashion all the way through until the last word waiting to be counted had been counted, and this was hardly ever the same from day to day. Sometimes the last word was a number such as 8,496 or 10,564 or 23,798. Once it even had a count which ended at the astounding and amazing number of 9,991, and this had happened only once! It goes without saying that this was good because it was different.

However, it was not the case with this word count, which arrived at the totally unremarkable number of 2,647.

(Again, Robot, here is another place for you to stop. See? I am thinking of you!)

As the robot quickly recalled, thanks to the power tube upon which it was shtuk, this number had been arrived at before. Upon this determination, the robot reached forward to the very center of the metal table and depressed the very large and redly conspicuous button. Then, the following things happened: a gear turned, a wheel spun, four shutters opened in the windows along the east wall, the floor vibrated briefly, and the coffee pot turned itself off. Then, from the ceiling above, fluttered down a small yellow piece of paper, which the robot deftly caught from the air. The paper was exactly square, and had an ingenious strip of stickiness on one side which conveniently allowed it to be fixed to almost anything. The robot pressed this onto the paper containing the totally unremarkable number of words it had just counted, and deftly wrote rejected upon it. Then the robot neatly placed the paper upon the metal table. These actions filled the robot with a deep sense of satisfaction for having successfully completed another editing decision. Therefore, the robot unshtuk itself, crossed the interzone three paces and shtuk itself atop the comma station, which directly preceded the semi-colon station, which in turn was set before the dangling modifier station, which was just before the agreement station, which anticipated the misspelling station, which lay directly before the fragment station. And on, all the way through the complete and collected editions of Warriner’s finer points of middle school grammar, having been the only text the builders of the room had consulted before construction began. It was, after all, a publishing house, see?

(As you see, Robot, up to this point I have been sure to include many opportunities for you to exercise your trade.)

By the end of each day, the robot will have worked all the way through each of the 850 editing stations, and having rejected most of what it found at them, it will unshtuk itself from the last and most important of all stations, the condescending letter of rejection station, cross the interzone to the door which led out of the large room and do two things. The first thing it would do is to throw the lever on the right side of the door. Immediately after this, the room would change. Here is what happened: First, a large grinding noise would occur for approximately thirteen seconds. The robot knew this because it had once counted the exact seconds the sound lasted, and had done this for exactly forty-seven consecutive days, setting all other work aside to do so. On the forty-eighth, the robot had concluded that the duration of the sound was exactly the same each day. After thirteen seconds, the lights would dim minutely as the power transferred to the conveyor plates which moved the tables exactly one station forward. The movement ended in a peculiar whining noise, not unlike a whipped dog (the genesis of which the robot had never ascertained), a jolt, and a bump. Thus did the papers neatly placed upon each table navigate the room. Each paper’s journey lasted exactly 850 days, or six weeks in robot time.

The second thing that the robot did at the door leading out of the large room was turn out the light.

But that was at the end of the line, at station 850. The 849th station was the reading station, where the robot read the papers. That was why it was called the reading station. Here the robot looked at each word, and read each sentence, or at least the robot read the first sentence. Perhaps not even that, if the paper hadn’t made it successfully through the other 848 stations, and had been stuck with the little yellow square of paper. And to return to a point that was earlier put off, here is where the names it recognized were immediately forwarded. These papers got to skip all those other stations, which sometimes caused a bit of a backlog because, necessarily, they were by definition, accepted.

And here it sat, at the 849th station as we see it now reading the paper in front of it. This paper began with the words: In the nighttime heart of Beirut, in one row of general-address transfer booths, Louis Wu flicked into reality. That was enough of that for the robot knew immediately two things about this paper. The first was that it rejected it. The second was that it was right for doing so. After all, it was the robot that made the decision. So it pushed the button, deftly caught the yellow square of paper, stuck it to the paper before it, and wrote the word it has had to write. It was a common word (all too common, I’m afraid). And felt really good about it.

(How do you feel right now, Robot?)

So it unshtuk itself, crossed the interzone to the condescending rejection letter station, and shtuk itself there. Here it completed the final part of the process for the paper beginning with the words On this day I want to tell you about, which will be a thousand years from now, there were a boy, a girl, and a love story. Nodding its head in certain certainty of yesterday’s second-from-last editing decision, it printed out of its printer a different piece of paper. As it always did, it read admiringly of it own creation. The only thing it had ever printed, in fact, was this. It admired its prose as it skipped through the lines. It paused at the appropriate one, reading A great many of the ideas that may seem innovative to a newcomer are in fact overfamiliar to readers more experienced… and here he was sure that a boy, a girl, and a love story were familiar to it, overly so in fact. Thus it hadn’t had to read the whole paper.

Then it took the two papers, placed them in an envelope, and sealed it. On its way out, having thrown the lever and turned out the light, it dropped the envelope in the mail slot to be returned to whomever had sent it, not having recognized the name.

(Robot, do you know my name?)

The next day, having arrived at the reading station, it read the words One day Trurl the constructor put together a machine that could create anything starting with n. Having noted, previously, at the comma station, the lack of correct punctuation in the first sentence of the paper, it read no further. And moved on to shtuk itself upon the condescending rejection letter station where it promptly dealt with the paper from the day before.

The next day, the robot examined this paper: It happened upon my fifth trip into the spaces, and the first ever made under the private-enterprise acts. And rejected that because the sentence made no sense whatsoever, thereby showing a certain lack of familiarity with the tools of the trade, which even an electrician must have. Unshtuk and shtuk. The day after that it read this one: First hint I had we’d been spotted by a crusoe was a little tick coming to my moonsuit from the miniradar Pete and I were gaily heaving into position near the east end of Gioja crater to scan for wrecks, trash, and nodules of raw metal. This paper had been flagged at both the definite article station and the this isn’t a real word station, so the robot barely shtuk itself for thirty seconds before unshtukking. And the next day, it read: He drank alone which sounded like an old rock song. Unshtuk and shtuk. And the next day: Old Dr. Full felt the winter in his bones as he limped down the alley. Unshtuk and shtuk. Because it just felt like going to the robot bar, and really didn’t have any obligation to explain its decision-making process to anyone. Har. Har.

At the reading station, the next day, the robot came across this: the perfect paper. And this caused the robot to act differently. Because it was the perfect paper, it had not one square of yellow paper upon it. And it was clean, that is clean for two reasons. The first was that it did not have a yellow square of paper stuck to it. The second was that there was nothing on it. Not one word. Nothing. It was blank and unremarkable, which of course made it different and remarkable for its unremarkableness. And this caused the robot to do something that it hardly ever did, and in fact which it had not done at all this month, and had never done before.

(Perhaps, Robot, having read this far despite my urgings, you will have to continue to find out what it is that happens now. Be wary, Robot, of what lies beyond this point. I cannot speak to the consequences of your further reading. I cannot tell what might happen.)

With trembling, metal fingers, caused by the sudden surge of power up the power tube upon which it was shtuk, the robot gently lifted the paper and read it again. When it had finished the reading, it repeated it, and then again. Each time it read it, the robot noted, the paper was different, and meant something that it had not meant before. And though the narrative expressed there was short, it was deep, and drew parallels to every electric dream and analogic desire the robot held in its metal mind. The paper gave it insight into itself the way no other paper ever had, as if the words that were not upon it were the very same words that the robot itself would choose to not place upon it were the robot to choose not to place such words upon a paper for itself, which it wouldn’t. But could it not, it would not, were it so inclined. And though it wasn’t so inclined, the possibility existed that it might not, and that was enough for the robot to reach for the rarely used, and not mentioned up to this point, green button placed only upon this of all the 850 unremarkable metal tables in the large room. And this button, so rarely pressed it was stiff and unyielding, and whose plastical parts groaned and protested with torturous slowness, when finally depressed did so only under mechanical duress. And such a special and rare button it was, it had a further function, one which the robot here depressing it had no knowledge of.

(This is your last chance, Robot, to get while the getting is good.)

It published the paper. *

About the Author: A. L. Schuhart is an Assistant Professor of English at Northern Virginia Community College in Annandale, VA where he teaches writing and literature, including a course in Science Fiction. Currently, he is working on a doctorate at George Mason University. He is married with two children. He enjoys carpentry, gardening, baking, and computer games.
(c) 2005 A.L. Schuhart aschuhart@nvcc.edu

About the Artist: Robert Sorensen was born in Summit, New Jersey, has lived in Paris, France, and currently resides in Colorado. His education includes studying painting at L’Academie des Beux Arts de Chaville and studying acting at the Lee Strasberg Institute in NYC, followed by professional work in a theatrical touring company and later, work in TV, films, and documentaries. Robert also wrote an SF screenplay about saving planet Earth from an alien invasion in the year 2059, with the title “QUANTEX-Z or ATOMIC VISIONS”. Robert is an avid international voyager whose passion is to visit, contact, and experience the cultures and peoples from all over Planet Earth and has visited most of Europe, Turkey, Israel, Egypt, Turkey, and most recently Mexico. Robert has exhibited his artwork extensively in Paris, once in London, and several times in the United States. In his artwork, Robert most often takes dream images and bites out of his own life and puts them on canvas, paper, or the computer screen. His themes include the hidden aura-energy within all living and non-living subjects and their surrounding environments.
© 2005 Robert Sorensen robertsorensen1@msn.com

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