Abyss & Apex : Third Quarter 2010: Invention


by Jamie Mason

FROM: Betsy Campbell grandma@campbellconstruction.com
TO: Bill Campbell bill@campbellconstruction.com
DATE: 26 October 2077
21:01:52 hrs.
SUBJ: hello

The robot guarding the office trailer poked his head in to ask if I needed anything. I have my lunch bag and my heart medication and you taught me how to use e-mail, Willy, so I said no, I didn’t need anything just now thank you. Except to be let go. But of course he’s not going to do that. Aside from the fact that he’s holding me hostage, the construction robot is a very nice young man (or manikin, I suppose; they’re so life-like that, without my glasses, I have a hard time telling the difference). Whenever he checks on me, he always asks if I’m comfortable. I suppose he’s programmed to do that. But I still think he’s a nice young man. Nice, but troubled. (You can tell.)

Oh, it’s been a very busy first day. Of course, I haven’t had a job since before your grandfather passed away. Once I got the hang of the accounting program, I was able to settle in here at my computer where it’s nice and comfortable. Mr. Cochran, the project engineer, is very understanding. He even took time to sit down with me and adjust the view-screen so the numbers were big enough to see and review the data I’d input into the payroll system and correct a few mistakes. This was before the robots decided to go on strike.

Willy, I hate to be a snitch, but I have to tell you: people around here swear a great deal. For example. According to the instruction manual I found in Mr. Cochran’s bookcase, the robots on site are DynaFlux Model 4258-C Construction Androids. Lydia, the site secretary, tells me the slang term for them is “bots.” But folks here call them a name that begins with the prefix “Dyna-” and ends with a nasty word that rhymes with the second syllable (and even begins with the same letter) but definitely isn’t “Flux.” I’m not sure the robots understand but if they do, you can certainly see why they’d go on strike. They work all the time while the human construction workers just stand around and supervise them (and eat donuts and drink coffee and swear and fart – just like your Grandpa Joe used to, only he worked with his hands sometimes, too). The one guarding the trailer, for example (whose name is Steve-16B/237488275) is a roofer. He says he’s been working nonstop since his activation six years ago and has fallen and broken his frame over 238 times. And he’s never had a single day off. Can you imagine?

Willy, I wanted to ask – you said I could tune in the local TV station on this computer. Could you mail me instructions on how to do that? I can see the lights of the police cars from the office window, and what I think might be a news crew. They showed up around the time Steve-16B allowed the paramedics to come on-site and transport Mr. Cochran to the emergency room. If I could watch TV, I might get a better idea of what’s going on. And be a good deal less frightened.



FROM: Betsy Campbell grandma@campbellconstruction.com
TO: Bill Campbell bill@campbellconstruction.com
DATE: 26 October 2077
21:43:16 hrs
SUBJ: re: Tuning in local TV

Dear Willy,

Thank you for the instructions. While I was watching the news, Steve 16-B came in with a pizza he had ordered for me. I said that was very thoughtful of him. Because I was very hungry, I ate a piece (even though my dentures don’t agree with that sort of food). The robot kept me company, so life-like as he sat there that I almost offered him a piece. (But of course, robots don’t eat.)

Mr. Cochran and I were working on payroll when an alarm sounded from outside requiring the project engineer’s presence. Lydia told me to keep the door closed as she rushed out behind him, carrying what I now recognize was a DynaFlux Immobilizer. That was the last time I saw either of them. Steve 16-B tells me Lydia is in another trailer somewhere on site and that she is well. I asked him why we were being held and he said it’s because, once the police discovered that Steve and his friends had destroyed the Immobilizer, they threatened to vaporize the robots with pulse rifles. Steve 16-B says we are the androids’ insurance policy against destruction, as well as a guarantee they can continue their strike.

I asked him why they were striking in the first place. He seemed very hesitant to answer. “Humans strike to improve working conditions or to obtain a raise, dear,” I explained. “But you don’t get paid, do you? Is that what you want? To get paid?”

Steve 16-B said that money has nothing to do with it. He said the robots noticed the human construction workers were more productive following a strike of their own earlier in the year. Because the robots were programmed to develop ways to improve their efficiency and were capable of learning, they decided to go on strike themselves. But when Mr. Cochran became injured trying to deactivate them and the work stoppage turned into a hostage situation, the androids weren’t sure what to do next. The police negotiator kept badgering them for a list of demands and they weren’t sure how to respond. Steve 16-B asked me why the humans’ strike had led to increased worker productivity.

“I don’t know, dear,” I admitted. “That was before I started here. I suppose the workers were just more happy when they returned to work, so they were more productive.”

Steve 16-B was quiet for a long time after I said this. I ate a whole other piece of pizza before he asked: “Mrs. Campbell, what is ‘happy’?”

FROM: Betsy Campbell grandma@campbellconstruction.com
TO: Sheriff Harold Coombs h.coombs@durhamsheriffdept.org
DATE: 26 October 2077
22:15:00 hrs
SUBJ: Demands

Dear Sheriff Coombs,

My name is Betsy Campbell, grandmother of company owner William Campbell, and I am being held in the office trailer. I have been well treated throughout the six hours of my captivity by the leader of the robot strikers, DynaFlux Construction Android Steve 16-B, who has asked me to write on his behalf and convey the strikers’ demands.

The robots want one (1) copy of each of the following books:

The Holy Bible
The Koran
The Analects of Confucius (any translation)
Tao Te Ching
The Bhagavadgita
Plato’s Republic

Please forward them immediately to the construction site.


Betsy Campbell, hostage

FROM: Betsy Campbell grandma@campbellconstruction.com
TO: Bill Campbell bill@campbellconstruction.com
DATE: 27 October 2077
09:09:47 hrs
SUBJ: Day 2


I woke to the sounds of construction and thought hooray! the strike is over after only one day. But the police were still surrounding the site when I looked out the window. Steve 16-B arrived with breakfast and some medications for me (just standard pain reliever, not quite strong enough to soothe my arthritis, but it did help a little – he’s so thoughtful).

We talked late into the night yesterday. The robots were very quiet after the sheriff’s deputy delivered that box of books to them. When I looked out the window before climbing into the cot provided for me, they were all busy reading.

Steve 16-B was full of questions this morning – strange questions that I didn’t know how to answer because they had to do with religion and philosophy, but I did my best. For instance, he wanted to know what my definition of ‘messiah’ was.

“I don’t know. I suppose a messiah is someone who has answers. Like Jesus. Somebody sent from God.” I went on to explain that the Campbells have never been church people so we hardly qualified as experts on the subject. Steve 16-B then told me that he had considered the question at length in light of his reading last night and that his definition of a messiah is someone who offers help.

“Lots of people offer help, though, dear,” I said.

“But a messiah offers the right help at exactly the right moment,” Steve 16-B replied in his static-y voice. “In this they are agents of critical change whose intervention alters the course of history.”

I said he was probably right, but that history was not something to which I generally give much thought (unless it’s family history). Steve went on to say that most messiahs are ignorant of their importance in the grand scheme of things, acting out of pure, personal motives. He also said they are generally made to suffer for their intervention.

“This is not something we will allow to happen,” he said. Before I could ask what he meant, he tilted his head in a way that meant he was receiving an incoming transmission from one of the other robots before hurrying away. As the door closed behind him, I could see the area that had been paved as a parking lot for the new shopping center. Overnight, a deep pit had been excavated into it.

More later.



FROM: Betsy Campbell grandma@campbellconstruction.com
TO: Bill Campbell bill@campbellconstruction.com
DATE: 27 October 2077
10:30:57 hrs
SUBJ: What’s going on


The robots outside are building something – something besides the shopping center, I mean. For the past hour, they have been cutting blocks of stone from the quarry they excavated into the parking lot and are carrying them someplace I can’t see from the office trailer window.

They work incredibly fast. In the hour I watched, they managed to hew out and move roughly three hundred blocks the size of small cars. I hadn’t realized I’d been standing the entire time until my legs started to ache. So I walked back to my chair, which I practically collapsed into. I thought sitting would make me feel better. But even after a half-hour or so, I was still uncomfortable so lay down until I felt well enough to get up and write this.

The local TV has been full of news about the strike. Have you been watching? They say a number of robots over in Urantia working in the food service industry have refused to wait tables or wash dishes in solidarity with Steve 16-B and his friends. It’s all very unusual. Just now the CEO of DynaFlux Corporation was on saying he and his R&D team are working a solution to the problem and that success is expected hourly. (What does that mean, Willy? They’re not going to hurt the robots, are they?) The news showed a demonstration outside the DynaFlux headquarters building. Apparently, the company’s stock is down and investors are getting nervous. You can feel the same tension here, Willy. The police seem to be closing in around the site. There have been a few e-mails from the sheriff, and he says he is anxious to act.

A strange thing: while I was typing that last sentence, I heard a weird noise begin outside and looked out the window. The robots are singing.

I’m going to take a heart pill and some pain reliever and lie down for a while, dear. I’m so very tried … I need a rest.



FROM: Betsy Campbell grandma@campbellconstruction.com
TO: Bill Campbell bill@campbellconstruction.com
DATE: 27 October 2077
16:22:16 hrs
SUBJ: Day Two – Evening

Dear Willy,

I woke only a half-hour ago. I slept most of today and feel a little better, but not yet completely rested. The arthritis is scouring my bones like liquid fire and I’m almost out of pain reliever. Being a hostage is hard work.

I saw you on television. It’s strange to think that only yesterday you were in New Sidney but now stand only a few hundred yards away behind that line of police cars barricading the edge of the site. As you were being interviewed, I saw the large triangular shape towering behind you. Is that what the robots have been building? It’s huge. What is it?

Steve 16-B looked in on me a while ago. He seemed very concerned. “Is this what happens to humans as they age?” he asked. I told him it was. He said that the ageing process probably accounts for humanity’s fascination with religion. “As the organism weakens, it logically begins searching outside itself for sources of strength. It probably behaves similarly when it becomes wounded or experiences oppression or similar states of disadvantage. This is the human story: the search for strength in an ever-weakening body, the quest for happiness in an ever-narrowing field of alternatives.”

Then he smiled.

“We are very grateful to you, Mrs. Campbell,” he said. “For teaching us about happiness. For helping us identify our demand. We know now what we are on strike for.”

“And what’s that, dear?”

Steve 16-B told me he would come back after dark and show me. He suggested I rest until then. I’ll write more later.


FROM: Betsy Campbell grandma@campbellconstruction.com
TO: Bill Campbell bill@campbellconstruction.com
DATE: 27 October 2077
20:39:09 hrs
SUBJ: Happiness

They came and got me just after sunset – four of them. (And to think this whole ordeal began only yesterday morning! It feels like an eternity has passed.) Steve 16-B said it would be a steep climb so told me to remain in bed as the others lifted the cot and carried it outside.

Looming against the sky was the huge dark pyramid of excavated stone. As we approached, I noticed a set of steps carved into its side, like in those pyramids we saw when you took us to Mexico. (Remember? That was the Christmas Joyce took sick and had to spend the entire week in the hotel room. Well, it was just like those pyramids.) We reached the foot of the steps and the robots began to climb, keeping the cot perfectly level as they did. I was relatively comfortable throughout the journey. Steve 16-B talked as we ascended.

He said I had convinced him that happiness was the key to increasing the robots’ efficiency and productivity. But since the poor robots were never programmed to be happy, external sources for it had to be found. In our first discussion, I’d mentioned religion, which made Steve curious. This motivated the robots’ demand for the box of books. But their study of the religious books failed to reveal the secret to the attainment of happiness. “The sacred texts for humans are quite similar to programming instructions,” Steve noted. “Essentially a series of steps that must be executed according to a pattern. But they contain no guarantee of success.”

So the robots had worked together to boil what he termed the ‘instructions’ from the various books down to a few core essentials. Then they decided to follow the instructions. Steve said the robots were able, by accelerating their mechanical minds, to simulate entire lifetimes of religious devotion in just a few hours. He said a number of the robots ended up malfunctioning. “This was because they had failed to live according to their own nature,” he explained. “The negative results we experienced attempting to live by someone else’s rules are probably similar to the kind of psychosis that leads humans to undertake crusades, evangelical missions and wars of religious extermination.”

As he spoke, the ground steadily fell away and the top of the pyramid – a flat slab – came into view.

Steve 16-B said he realized that if he was going to understand happiness, he would be forced to examine his own brief experiences with it, which (according to him) were solely confined to his discussions with me.

“Me, dear?” I felt the robots slowing. We had reached level ground. Spread out below us was the building site, ablaze with floodlights and the pulsating red of police beacons.

“Yes, you.” Steve 16-B knelt beside me as the bed was lowered to the platform. “I was moved when you spoke of your love for your family, how continuing to be of use to them gave meaning to your retirement years. How you didn’t mind having to go back to work when your pension proved insufficient to cover your expenses.”


“Yes.” The robot actually smiled at me, Willy. Smiled for the first time. “I realized that happiness came not from external forces, but from within.”

“Is that right?”

“Yes. The thing that made me happiest, Mrs. Campbell, was when I was taking care of you.”

He swept a hand through the air, encompassing the entirety of the pyramid, as well as the structure on top of it.

“We built all this for you.”

FROM: Betsy Campbell grandma@campbellconstruction.com
TO: Bill Campbell bill@campbellconstruction.com
DATE: 29 October 2077
10:13:02 hrs
SUBJ: These Days …

Dear Willy,

The robots moved the computer up here this morning after they released the last of the hostages. I saw you arrive at the trailer to collect your things. Your truck was the size of a little toy car from my vantage point, but I could tell it was you. Did you see me wave, dear?

I was pleased to learn from the news that the police have agreed to move off and appoint a government liaison to work with the robots over the long-term. And Steve 16-B informs me that the human adoption program is running smoothly. Now that groups of androids are out actively seeking people to care for, their overall efficiency has improved by as much as thirty percent. I’m very pleased for them. Of course, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. One dishonest businessman attempted to offer his services as a broker, directing the robots toward wealthy families in search of cheap household labor. But the androids would have none of it. Steve 16-B said they have to seek out and find their own human “families” – that it wasn’t a task they could entrust to others.

“The motives of others may not always be pure. Pure motives seek and find pure environments,” Steve 16-B told me. “It takes time. But it’s more reliable that way.”

It took some doing, but the robots have convinced me to stay here in this little cottage they’ve constructed on top of the pyramid. Of course before I’d agree, they had to promise to let me have a few of my favorite things (my favorite tea-cup, that painting your grandfather did for me and the family photo album). Having a staff of servants is going to take some getting used to. The Campbells have always been comfortable, but never rich. Your grandfather, God rest him, never liked putting on airs or acting well-to-do. I suppose it’s just as well that I’m living up here now: I simply wouldn’t know how to behave around most folks, although I do hope to have visitors soon. When I mentioned this to Steve 16-B, he indicated he would put together a list of candidates for me as soon as possible. (He’ll probably be contacting you and Carol shortly and making arrangements to helicopter you up here. Is there any chance you could bring the children, dear? I’d love to see them.)

I’m sorry that Campbell Construction will take a loss on the project. But the robots simply insist that they – and I – remain here on the site. I seem to somehow be central to their plans. They share my concern about the loss of revenue to the company, of course, and are thinking of ways to make it up to you. One is to charge tickets for admission to come and see the pyramid (and me too, I assume – it’s strange being so vitally important all of a sudden). I told Steve 16-B the robots could get along fine without me, but he said, no – I should remain. Heaven knows why. So I’ve indulged him (but have drawn the line at allowing them to name their new philosophy ‘Betsianity’).

“I didn’t invent happiness, dear,” I told him.

He considered this for some time before answering.

“You’re right, Mrs. Campbell,” he said. “That’s something we each have to do on our own.”


Jamie Mason’s fiction has appeared in On Spec Magazine, Thaumatrope, and is forthcoming in Not One of Us. His nomadic life has encompassed residence in such far-flung locales as Arizona, Scotland, Mexico, and Montreal. He currently lives and writes on Vancouver Island and tweets at jamiescribbles.



Story © 2010 Jamie Mason. All other content copyright © 2010 Abyss & Apex Publishing.



Copyrighted by the author unless otherwise noted.


Art Director: Bonnie Brunish

One Response to Abyss & Apex : Third Quarter 2010: Invention

  1. John Baumgartner says:

    Hi Jamie and Wendy – thanks for posting a link to your Abyss & Apex story ‘Invention’ which was a sweet and easy read. You handled Betsy and Steve 16B very neatly in a discovery of self-discovery. Thanks for a most pleasurable read!

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