Photo by David von Diemar on Unsplash

“You asked me here, on a Saturday, with almost no warning, and can’t even pay me, so can you let me do my job so I can get back to my son’s birthday party?” Erica asked as she dodged yet another police officer blocking her view of the scene.

“Let her through!” Seargent Dillard said and tipped his cap back with a casual “hello”.

He wiped his brow with the back of his blue jacket sleeve and motioned at the scene. Around him, two rookies, a hostess, and an EMT avoided Erica’s attention. Erica, meanwhile, was glaring at Dillard.

Erica I wouldn’t have called you here unless it was a biggie, and you owe me for…”

“I know, the Hallman case, I know. But this is the last time you’re leveraging it to get a free consult, you got that?”

“Yes ma’am,” he said with a selfish smile.

To her left was the restaurant entrance, to the right, the receptionist’s booth. Glass littered the floor and a bloody knife sat near the door with a flag next to it. Erica tiptoed around the crime scene, observing every drop of blood and broken glass like it contained a million fingerprints. She pulled out a pen, knelt to the ground, and pushed a large chunk of glass around, mindful not to otherwise disturb any of the evidence.

“Hey Sarge, she knows the perp was a bot, right? There ain’t gonna be any prints,” a white-vested rookie chimed from the door.

“That’s why she’s here, Buck. She’s the best robot psychologist in the city,” Seargent Dillard explained.

“Then why isn’t she in with the perp down at the station?” he asked.

Erica stood, “do you own a computer, Mr…”

“Oh, Williams, Buck Williams. Yeah ma’am, everyone does.”

“And if it were to suddenly stop working who would you call?”

“The support line I guess.”

“And do you know what they would ask you?”

He shook his head and raised his hands in ignorance.

“They would, politely, ask you if the power cord is plugged in.”

He laughed, “Well of course it’s plugged in, I’m not an idiot!”

“We can’t assume that, Mr. Williams.”

The Seargent laughed and Erica continued cooly and slowly, as if she were speaking to a child, “They would then ask you if it’s turned on, how long you’ve had it, what you typically do on the machine, etcetera. All the while, they are eliminating probable causes. It’s a deduction. Never once does support have to touch your machine, but from simple analysis of the details, they can find the problem, and solve it.”

She knelt back down by the broken glass and followed it back and forth on the floor.

“See here?” she finally said, pointing at the glass. “Remind me. The robot… what’s his name again?”

“T.R.E.V.R. Temperament Reactive Emotional Virtual Receptionist… we call him Trevor,” the young hostess spoke for the first time.

“Thank you. Trevor is a robot like any other, brilliant, calculating, and bound by extremely rigid codes of behavior. In this instance, something went wrong and he brutally attacked four guests with a chef’s knife. What interests me, is that on his way out, he didn’t step on any of the glass.”

Photo by DDP on Unsplash

The Seargent, hostess, and rookies leaned in to look at the carpet. They could see the bloody footprints Trevor made as he stalked out of the restaurant. It was true. The footprints were spread unevenly and avoided all the broken glass.

“What does that mean?”

“It means…” she smiled, “that the power cord was plugged in.”

The hostess, who Erica learned was called “Casey”, was now seated at a small table outside the restaurant. Erica sat across from her.

“I already gave my statement to the police,” she said.

“I know, Casey, but I want to hear it from you. There may be something they left out because they didn’t think it was useful,” Erica said, casting a meaningful look at Seargent Dillard, who rolled his eyes.

“Well. It started like this. We were seating a large party, twenty-two I think. Trevor was handling them really well, until… anyway. I was busy helping a man clean a spill when I heard a crash behind me, and a scream. Trevor had a guest by the arm. He wasn’t saying anything, just holding the man’s arm really hard. I saw blood and the man looked like he was going to faint. Chef came out and attacked Trevor, that’s when Trevor took the knife. He cut Chef across the face and neck. The guests started running and a tray of empty glasses fell. Trevor walked out of the restaurant, but on his way, he swung the knife at anyone who came near him. He cut a woman real deep, she fell over and he just kept walking like nothing happened. His face was totally dead and cold, you know? It was so different. He’s normally so warm and friendly. When he got to the door a new guest was coming in. He saw what was happening and started screaming at him he hit him on the face. Trevor just pushed through him, dropped the knife, then sat down on the ground. That’s when his proximity shut-off switch triggered. I guess that part of his brain was still working…”

Erica thought for a moment.

“You say he pushed through the guests as he left? He didn’t attack them with the knife?”

“No, I don’t think so. I remember he put the knife at his side, dropped it, and pushed with his hands.”

“So why didn’t he attack the people in the doorway, but he did inside the restaurant?” Erica stood and paced a bit, then sat down again.

She rubbed her scalp at her thin grey roots and huffed.

“They’d be serving cake right about now at my son’s party,” she said, annoyed.

“Sorry but…” Sarge started.

“Nevermind. Casey, you said that he had gripped a man by the arm and he was squeezing it right? What was happening before that?”

“I don’t know. I think Trevor had just brought them their meals. Like I said. He was handling them really well. The guest had his phone out… maybe he was trying to take a picture with him?”

“You said the ‘E’ in T.R.E.V.R. stands for Emotional, right? Why is that necessary for his position?”

“He’s a host like anyone else on the staff. He takes personal feedback and responds in different ways depending on the emotions of the customer.”

“If they are hostile, what will happen?” Erica asked.

“He’ll become progressively nicer until his personality indicator hits three or four. From there he will fetch one of the managers.”

Photo by Manki Kim on Unsplash

Erica’s eyes lit up with a connection.

“And this indicator, how high does it go?”

“I think it’s on a scale of one to ten. I’ve never seen it over six though. And like I said, it stops at three on the bottom end. He can’t go below that.”

“What if he is doing well? What if he’s praised?” Erica pushed.

Casey laughed, “he’s a bot in the restaurant business. People usually treat humans like crap. How do you think they’re going to treat a bot?”

“Just imagine for a second. What if that table he was serving really liked him? What if they were saying nice things like, ‘wow, you’re so great!’ and ‘thank you for your service!’ What if they said that? What would happen?”

Casey thought about it, “I think his personality meter goes up and he becomes more forgiving. More resilient to criticism, but like I said. I’ve never seen it above six.”

Erica waved her hand impatiently, “Okay, but what if they were laying it on thick. What if they told him he was the best server in the world?”

“He’d just get really confident I think. I don’t think there is an upper limit to how positive you can be with him. He doesn’t have a set reaction. He just would go to ten and then… that’s it.”

Erica leaned back in her seat triumphantly.

“I think it’s time to see Trevor.”

At the station, Trevor was seated with his back to the window of the interrogation room. His face was perfectly still and his eyes unblinking. Long cheekbones stood out under a mask of white-pink skin. He hadn’t washed since the attack so he was still covered in blood. His black and white suite looked dashing on his long, thin frame. His hands were clasped in large steel restraints and he was staring at the wall.

Erica took a deep breath and entered the room cautiously.

Trevor didn’t move or react. His steel blue eyes remained fixed at a distant point in space.

“Hello Trevor,” she said.

He still didn’t move. She noticed the distinct lack of smell. He was bloody and sweaty, but still somehow sterile. There was no musk like what you’d expect from a man sitting in a closed room alone for hours.

She sat across from him and looked him in the eye.

He made eye contact with her. She knew that if he was still violent, he could reach across the table and crush her windpipe like a soda can.

She spoke in one fast breath of words, “you are responsible for the physical harm of four humans you disgusting pile of sub-human garbage.”

He twitched, and she could feel the hands of the observing officers go to their guns. They were behind the glass and outside the door, but she knew they were ready to pounce. She put her hand up to indicate that they should relax.

“You’re a sorry excuse for a machine and you should be disassembled as soon as they tear out every malfunctioning piece of hardware from your shabby system.”

He stood and threw the table to the wall. The table crumpled and fell apart like an autumn leaf. Rushing across the gap, Trevor broke free of the restraints and his bloody hand lifted Erica off the ground by her neck. The restraining wires hung uselessly from his wrists like braids of torn hair.

Police stormed in through the door, but before they could react, Erica spoke again.

“I hate you!”

Trevor’s bloody hand, wrapped powerfully around her neck, relaxed. Slowly, he put her down and wipe his hands on his jacket.

His demeanor changed and he looked around as if waking up from a dream.

“I’m terribly sorry about all that. Can I offer you a table on the veranda?” he said.

Outside, Erica rubbed her neck while an EMT listened to her breathing. They were outside the station now and the afternoon sun beat down on them with uncaring severity.

Seargent Dillard rubbed his sweaty head and read over the notes again and again, trying to make sense of it.

“So, eh, Erica, if you’re okay. What happened?”

She waved the EMT off and stood up.

“When I saw that Trevor was avoiding the glass, I knew he was still functioning as he should, at least on a basic level. Obviously, something had happened to his personality routines, but the core of what made him a functioning bot was still in there. He avoided causing damage, took care to preserve himself, all the basic functions worked. Then I got the testimony from Casey. She gave me two vital pieces of information, first, that he hadn’t attacked anyone outside the restaurant, and second, that he was receiving positive inputs to his personality indicator.”

“I don’t follow,” Sarge said.

“It’s simple. The personality indicator acts like a simple ego. If someone is mean to him, it causes him to react more passively, eventually creating an organic response to a negative customer. He will exit the hostile situation and return to the manager. Normally, this negative response is balanced by the occasional positive experience and vice versa. This night, however, he was not receiving any negative comments. In fact, he was receiving positive comments, a lot of them. His ego swelled to unforeseen proportions. Being in the food service industry, the creators probably never anticipated he would get such a positive reaction. As a result, they never gave him an upper limit on his ego.”

“So you’re saying he became aggressive because he thought he was better than us?”

“No, just the opposite. His indicator went so high that it eventually went over its intended limitation, or… lack thereof. Do you know what happens in a computer when a digit on a counter exceeds its allotted space?”

Sarge shrugged, “It stops going up?”

She shook her head, “no, it cycles back around to the beginning.”

“So you’re saying…”

Erica nodded, “Yes. Trevor’s indicator rotated back to one. He had an ego that was lower than the lowest it was ever meant to be. Since it technically never hit three, the indicator didn’t send him to the manager.”

Sarge let out a low whistle, “how’d you fix him then?”

“I got the indicator to rotate back around. My first comment in the interrogation room established our negative rapport. He began counting from two. My second comment put him back down to one and he became aggressive again. My last comment cycled him back to ten. No doubt with all the negative comments he’ll get from your men, he’ll be docile until the mechanics get here to sort him out.”

Photo by Armin Lotfi on Unsplash

“It’s amazing to think,” Sarge pondered, “all it took for the bot to go haywire was a few compliments. You’re saying that all that bloodshed was caused by some low-self esteem? Unbelievable.”

“It’s not so unbelievable. Remember, these bots get their personalities from us. They’re modeled after our own minds. What you witnessed today wasn’t the result of a mindless spasm of a disturbed machine, or the Machiavellian plans of a terrorist. What you saw was the natural state of a person at their lowest; a human mind, put under the same stress, would react the same way. Being a nothing, being at a place lower than you were ever meant to be, causes unimaginable torment, and we snap, just like that.”

“You can’t tell me that every kid with low-self esteem is going to run around slashing people like Freddy Kruger,” Sarge argued, “It doesn’t make any sense. Why would he start attacking people?”

“The dissonance of being beneath everyone resulted in a desire to cement that perception. When you’re in a place that dark, that hollow, you have to find a way of deserving it just to make sense of the world. ‘There must be a reason!’ your mind screams, so you go ahead and make one.”

Sarge finished his report solemnly and wiped the sweat off his brow again.

“Do you really think all of us are that terrible, deep down I mean?”

“No,” Erica said, putting on her coat and walking towards her car, “I’m saying that when you believe you’re that low, you become the monster everyone wants you to be.”

Sarge walked her to the door and knocked on the window. She rolled it down as she started the engine.

“I don’t suppose I could ask you to write up a report so we can recall all the T.R.E.V.R. units?”

She smiled and shook her head, “No. You’ll just have to manage on your own. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to my son’s birthday party before they eat all the cake.”

Follow “Don’t Wake the Mage” to get the latest stories of monsters, magic, and science fiction adventure.

Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer, English Teacher, Gamer, Nerd.

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