“You didn’t take the class, did you?”
Officer Rocklynne seemed pretty upset.
“What class?” Ben asked. The little robots were out of earshot, their big load lumbering away toward some distant shelf.
“The Argus class. The one you were supposed to take before you came down here.” Rocklynne shoveled another heap of sand onto the blue ooze that was now pouring out of the dissolved wall of the Low-Velocity Viscosity Projector’s mini-vault. “They’re Arguses.”
Ben dumped a shovelful of sand over Rocklynne’s. “Right. They’re Arguses. Which is, what, a secret society?”
“Don’t just shovel that on my sand. We need to cover all that slime. No, the Arguses are not a secret society. They’re a very old model of robot. There were problems with the Argus line.” He distributed some more sand over the outer edges of the mounting ooze. “It was a bad idea to start with. They were built as companions for –” he closed his eyes for a moment, concentrating, and went on: “human-persons-who-have-not-yet-achieved-their-full-growth.”
“Oh, you mean –”
“Don’t say it. Yes, that’s what I mean. They were made to be very durable, and they had strict compulsions never to harm human-persons-who-have-not-yet-achieved-their-full-growth in any way, through action or inaction. Even frustrating a… a person like that… would cause them real pain, the way robots feel when they’re not performing their function.”
Like Violet, Ben thought. He shoveled some more sand over the other edge of the ooze. “Sure, okay. Not to harm or even frustrate –” Rocklynne held up a finger. “– a person of that description. A shorter than usual person?”
“Specifically, human-persons-who-have-not-yet-achieved-their-full-growth. Other people are short too, you see.”
Ben nodded. He picked up some more sand, but they were starting to run low; the blue ooze, on the other hand, looked to be picking up steam. “Hope that Containment Squad gets here soon. So, okay, it makes sense: they’re meant to pl–”
“Don’t say it.”
“That is, they’re meant to, uh, interact in a lighthearted way with persons of that description. So the builders made sure they couldn’t ever harm those persons. What’s the problem?”
Rocklynne wiped his forehead. He was also looking at their dwindling pile of sand. “Well, I guess the designers of the Argus line had never seen an actual person of that description. When the robots went out to, uh, do what they were meant to do, they ended up in all these scenarios like fiery rescues, underwater captures, chemical experiments, full-on war… simulations, battles to the death….”
Ben thought back on the kind of games he’d played with his own toys. “Oh. Yeah. I think I see the problem.”
“And the Arguses could only feel satisfied by doing their job, right? Which was basically to be tortured all day, every day. And they couldn’t fight back, or even raise an objection.”
“Yeah,” Ben said. “You take your cat, like. You play rough with it, it’s got those claws and teeth. You figure it out.” He picked up another shovelful of sand.
“Exactly. So there were… there were these incidents. Only about twelve per cent of the time, but still….”
Ben stood up straight. “No! They didn’t hurt the –”
“Don’t say it. No. But the designers didn’t put in those kind of constraints when it came to adult human persons. Right? And you set up that kind of situation, something’s going to give. Something’s going to crack.”
Ben looked up and down the corridor. He though he could hear those little metallic feet on their way back. “Yeah, I get it.”
“So the whole line was recalled, except for a few that… went rogue. Disappeared. And over time the League was able to make some slight changes to the Arguses’, you know, psychology or something, so that they could feel useful by doing other forms of work. But they can’t ever come into contact with human-persons-who-have-not-yet-achieved-their-full-growth, and you have to exercise a lot of discretion when you talk to them. Some words, you know, they just bring back all those horrible experiences, and there’s always a chance – it’s a small chance – that one of them will crack because of the memories. But they’re really good workers. They really want to do their jobs. You know, especially Bonkadoo and Wapfangle, they’re–”
Ben was really trying not to crack up, but there are limits.
Rocklynne glared at him. “They’re just names, all right? Get over it. Anyway, a couple of them are showing real potential as leaders. The work program’s been a big success. And this is a great place for them, because persons of that description never come down here, and so few of us are authorized to come to the Vault that it’s easy to make sure we all get the training.”
“Yeah. I think maybe Violet kind of made a mistake, there,” Ben said. “That’s not like her, but she’s been, you know….”
Rocklynne nodded. “Yeah. We all know. Anyway, most of the training is about the words you can never say.”
He looked toward the distant sound of Argus footsteps. Then he leaned in and whispered: “Words like boy or girl, child, kid, or children, game or toy or play. Like.…” He was looking into Ben’s face, which had suddenly gone blank. “No. Tell me you didn’t.”
“I guess I… yeah, most of those, I think. Also ‘horsing around’.”
Rocklynne shook his head. “You probably shouldn’t talk to them at all. And ‘horsing around’? I mean, I’ve never even understood what that means.”
“It means –”
“Don’t say it.”
Ben dragged his shovel through the last of the sand pile. “It’s strange. I’ve never even heard about these fellas before.”
“It was a long time ago,” Rocklynne told him. “It’s taken decades to get them over the worst of it, so they could come back into the world. Even a little bit.”
Ben pointed at the broken wall of the Low-Velocity Viscosity Projector’s mini-vault. “That stuff is really pouring out now,” he said. “Have we got any more sand?”
“A couple of buckets, three rows down,” said Rocklynne. “I don’t know what’s keeping that Containment Squad.”
“There were some delays in the monorail system this morning,” Ben remembered. “Maybe they got stuck somewhere on their way to work.”
It wasn’t a bad explanation. It was just completely wrong.