Story 3: Envy

Gautam touched the panel that grew out of the armrest of his recliner. The music stopped.

The door to his chamber slid to the left. Gautam nodded, unsmiling, at the entrant. These daily briefing sessions had begun to tire him. For too long now the Centre had been functioning without a glitch; the last fire they had to put out – a fire which needed his attention – was three and a half months ago. The Centre was moving on now, without his need or help. It ought to have been heartening to see – it was what Gautam (along with the others) had worked his whole life for – but he could not shake off a tiny feeling of emptiness.

‘Yes, Ajanta,’ he said, ‘how are you?’

‘I am doing quite well, sir,’ she said. ‘Shall I draw the curtains?’

Gautam nodded. He took comfort in referring to her as female, though there was no concept of gender for the Machines. She had been designed after the likeness of the very first Breeder. The designers gave Ajanta the same triangular face that the original Ajanta Kapoor had – she had the same compact build, the same precision of movements, the same speech patterns. She did not look exactly like Ms Kapoor, of course, or like any other human for that matter; but that level of sophistication would come later, after he was long gone, perhaps.

‘Are the solar beds turned off?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘How are the picture tubes?’

‘Functional, sir.’

‘The power systems?’

‘No faults have been reported, sir.’

‘The libraries?’

Ajanta drew the curtains in silence. She placed the control on the table and turned back to face Gautam, her silvery arms tucked behind her back. ‘There is something about that.’


‘We have seen little anomalies with the library. I have wondered whether or not I should bring them to your notice.’

Gautam’s eyes narrowed. He had half a heart to chide Ajanta for keeping things from him. They would all be on their own soon enough, but until then he was their boss, and he needed to know of all strange happenings, however small they might seem to her. But when he looked up at her the words went back down his throat. They should not have designed her after the image of the first Breeder.

He sighed and said, ‘Tell me about it.’

‘We have been losing records, sir,’ Ajanta said.

‘Losing them?’

‘They are being copied, sir. Every now and then a clutch of tracks gets lost, and they get replaced the next day. I surmised they are being copied.’

‘But I am the only one at the Centre who listens to music.’

Ajanta made as if to say something and stopped.

‘Go on, Ajanta,’ said Gautam irritably. ‘Speak!’

‘Yes, sir. I have done some – investigation – on my part, sir. It seems you are not the only one.’

‘How many others are there?’

‘One, as far as I could ascertain.’

Gautam played with the pin on his suit. Ajanta was right; losing a few records every now and then for a day or two was no big thing. The Centre was functional; it did not need intervention. Soon enough, after him, there would be more Centres like this cropping up, one after the other, building on the same principles as this one, until the planet would be full of Centres, with Machines running them. A few temporarily missing music records meant nothing in the big scheme.

And yet, there was something about this that made him uneasy.

‘Who is the Machine that you refer to?’ he asked.

Ajanta consulted her wrist. ‘MA-R01, sir.’

Gautam paused. That was the serial number of the first of the Machines, one who had been with them right from the very start. ‘Ask him to come here in twenty minutes.’

‘Yes, sir. Will it just be the two of you, sir?’

Gautam started to shake his head; then stopped. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘I think that will be best.’

‘Very good, sir.’

* * *

He could not see very well past the frosted glass of his window, especially now that the lights were out in all but the busiest parts of the Centre, but he could still make out the fluorescent dots that stretched out, row after straight row, out from the main building towards the periphery. With sunrise, solar panels would emerge from within, mounted on ten-foot high poles, bent to face the incoming light. After following the sun the whole day and collecting enough energy to run the ‘housekeeping’ part of the Centre, they would slink back into their compartments at nightfall, and lids with fluorescent lights would come back to cover them.

If the sheet of glass before him had been absent, he knew he would be hearing the roar of the sea in his ears, feeling the musty breeze on his face and in his hair. They were situated not more than a kilometer from the shore. The ocean powered the ‘business’ part of the Centre, and if there were going to be more like it in the future (there must!), the Machines would have to keep to the shoreline. Unless, of course, they find better, more efficient Solar Beds that would enable them to move inland and cut themselves off from the sea.

That would be expected, for the Machines had among them some excellent researchers; and their numbers would only grow. But Gautam felt there was a nice symmetry about Centres popping up along the shore – civilizations had always taken birth and grown around water bodies; why should this one be any different?

His gaze shifted, and behind his shoulder the door slid open and a figure entered. Gautam turned and walked to where his recliner was, his eyes fixed on the Machine.

‘Sit down, Manav,’ he said. ‘How are you?’

‘I am doing very well, sir, thank you.’

‘How is your research?’

‘It is promising, sir. We have seen some repeating patterns in the diffraction images coming our way from Alpha C. We are pointing our antennae towards them as we speak.’

‘Any progress on the solar panels?’

‘No, sir. We are still experimenting.’

‘Any new Machines?’

‘We have four new Machines out for testing this week, sir. All of them will be deployed into maintenance work for the big picture tubes.’

‘Basic models, then?’

‘Very. We have one Machine slated to come out in five months that will take its place in the research team.’

‘Ah,’ said Gautam. ‘That sounds promising.’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘And no – troubles – with any of the Machines so far?’

‘None, sir.’

Gautam ran an eye down the seated figure of the robot. He was sitting forward in the chair, his head bent towards him, elbows positioned on his thighs, and hands joined together. Gautam remembered those hands well. It was with those hands that Manav had picked him up when he was a child, and he had looked into his eyes and he had announced, ‘Psychologist, sir.’

There had been a lot of profiling after that; a battery of tests and examinations and reports at the end of which he had joined the last group of people on the planet – as a psychologist. The last Breeder had already died. In the intervening sixty-eight years, the Last People had died too, one after the other, until now…

‘What is this about the music library that I hear?’ he asked.

‘I have not heard anything, sir.’

‘You seem to have copied some music records off the library. Did you?’

‘Yes, sir, I did.’

Gautam leant back, folded his hands, and crossed his legs. ‘What need did you have for music, Manav?’

‘I listen to it, sir.’

‘Indeed. Does it help you with your research?’

‘No, sir.’

‘Does it help you with your other duties at the Centre?’

‘No, sir.’

‘Then why do you listen to music?’

‘It – pleases me, sir.’

Gautam’s face tightened. He had always wondered why it was that the last human being on the planet had turned out to be a psychologist, when clearly a robot physicist or a power engineer or an astrophysicist would have been a better choice. Now he was just beginning to see why the wise heads had decided on a psychologist.

‘It pleases you,’ he said.

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Can you describe this feeling to me, Manav?’

The robot stopped for a while, in apparent thought. Then he said, ‘The feeling I get when I listen to music, sir, is the same that I get when I am engaged in my research. Information flows through my networks more readily; I find that I can make inferences faster and better; I feel better. I can only define that as pleasure.’

Gautam said, ‘So the feeling that you get out of your work is the same as the feeling that you get out of listening to music?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘But you know why your work gives you pleasure, don’t you?’

The robot did not answer.

‘That was not rhetorical, Manav. When I ask you a question, you answer.’

‘I apologize, Master. I was contemplating my answer. The question did not seem to me to be specific enough.’

Gautam noticed the change in the way Manav addressed him. Robots could sense a human’s mood and tailored their reactions to it. If a human addressed him as a friend, a robot would address him by his first name. If a human used a more authoritative tone, the form of address became more formal; like ‘sir’, and if the human chose to be commanding, it became subservient – like ‘master’.

‘Let me be more specific, then,’ said Gautam. ‘Why does your research on alien intelligent life give you pleasure?’

‘Because if we find alien life, they will know that intelligent life existed on this planet.’

‘And why is that important?’

‘Because then they will hopefully visit Earth and look at the history of human civilization.’

‘And why is that important?’

‘Because then, all the history of humanity, that exists within the Centre, will not be lost.’

‘And what is the Machines’ job?’

‘To guard this history until the aliens arrive.’

Gautam smiled at the robot. ‘Correct on all counts. So do you agree that the pleasure you experience with your work is because of how you have been designed? You feel pleasure at your work because it serves the purpose of your existence.’

The robot nodded. ‘Yes, that is true.’

‘Cast an eye on all your duties – the maintenance of the picture tubes, the research on more efficient power systems, the manufacture and designing of new robots – all of that is aimed at one thing, and one thing only; to guard, and if possible, replicate, the recorded history of humanity that exists within this Centre.’

‘I know that,’ said the robot.

‘And with time, as you wait for the aliens to arrive, you will make more Centres like this, with more antennae, more Solar Beds, more robots, more picture tubes, more libraries…all with that one purpose.’


Gautam stopped to consider the Machine. The apertures that passed off for his eyes were black and unblinking. The muscles of his face appeared to have tightened, and he seemed to be waiting somberly for what Gautam would say next. He felt some pity for Manav. He again remembered the touch of those hands under his arm-pits.

‘Now,’ he said softly, ‘where does music come into this?’

Manav said, ‘It pleases me when I listen to it.’

‘But that pleasure – where is it coming from?’

‘I do not know.’

‘Does it serve the purpose of your existence – preserving human history and combing the universe for intelligent life – in any way?’


‘Then why – and how – is it giving you pleasure?’

‘I do not know.’

‘You have been designed to feel pleasure only when you take part in activities that fulfill the purpose for which you were designed. You are a robot designer yourself. You know that.’

‘Yes,’ said Manav, ‘I do.’

‘And you still do not know what is causing the pleasure you feel when you hear music?’

The robot said, ‘I have tried to know, Master. But I do not.’

Gautam’s eyes went to the panel by his side. If the roles were reversed, he thought, if the robot had put to him the same question, would he have answered? But a human was not designed, he thought, stopping himself. There were many things within the human condition that were mere accidents, results of evolution’s blind game of chance. But a robot was not so. It was designed. Everything about a Machine was – and had to be – explainable.

‘I will ask you a question, Manav,’ he said, ‘and I command you to be truthful about it.’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Have you created any music so far?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘And that gives you pleasure too?’

‘Yes, sir.’

Gautam smiled; a sad, kind smile. ‘It is late, Manav,’ he said. ‘Why don’t you retire to your chamber for the night? I will see you back here at six in the morning.’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘And when you come, bring with you the music records that you listen to – and the ones you have created.’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Good night.’

The robot got up, bowed, and trudged off.

* * *

Seated in his recliner under the soft white lights of his room, Gautam looked down at the table that stood between him and Manav. Seven small rectangular diskettes lay strewn on it. Apart from the heap, two diskettes stood on their short edges, leaning on each other for support. Gautam could see from the colour codes of the first heap who the musicians were. There was an impressive mix: Haydn and Mozart from the Classical, Beethoven from the Transition, Mahler and Paganini from the Romantic – he guessed that Manav must have been at it for a while now to have gotten this far.

He took one of the two standing diskettes and pulled out its earphones. The music that flowed into his ears was hopelessly derivative, but it showed an acute understanding of rhythm and timing that eluded many gifted musicians. He fast-forwarded between tracks, listening at random intervals for a few minutes at a time. The later tracks were better than the first ones, he noticed, and already by the last song Manav had begun to jump between the octaves in ways that pleased the ear. He put the diskette away, and licked his lips.

‘Not bad,’ he said.

‘Thank you, sir.’

‘You’ve been here since before my time, haven’t you, Manav?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Do you remember when you picked me up and told the First Speaker that I should be made psychologist?’

‘Yes, sir. I do not forget things.’

Gautam smiled. ‘Of course. How far back to your memories go? When were you born?’

‘I came into existence in the Year 117 of the Final Era. That was the fourth generation of Breeders.’

‘So you have seen more Breeders than I have.’

Manav nodded slowly. ‘Yes, sir, I have.’

‘Have you ever seen one of them handle a baby?’

‘No, sir.’

‘Understandable,’ said Gautam. ‘You would not have needed to do something like that. I was born to the last Breeder – she died two years after giving birth to me.’

‘I am aware of that.’

‘I have seen films of her. By the time I was born, there was no human population to speak of, of course, so perhaps she gave me more care and attention than my ancestors got. But she carried me. She talked to me. She waved me from side to side. She used to pat my back with her palm to send me to sleep. All this when I was no older than a month.

‘Apparently before the Final Era – so we’re talking a couple of centuries ago – all mothers handled their infants this way. They say infants and mothers could tune their emotions with one another by this curious ritual; these rhythmic, melodious movement patterns…do you know that human fetuses can hear sounds from twenty weeks before they are born?’

‘I have heard that said before, sir, yes.’

‘So the human fetus starts bonding with its mother for twenty weeks before it is born. How does it do it? By listening – listening to sounds and rhythms; voice, footsteps, heartbeat – because then it can enhance its own survival by adjusting its demands for food or care depending on the availability of the mother. Do you understand?’

‘I think so, sir.’

‘So in short, that is why we have music. They are just sounds, but they have the power to affect and alter our emotional state. Music can please us, it can hypnotize us, it can scare us, it can make us violent; and you know what, we cannot help it.

Manav said, ‘I can understand that, sir. Ever since I discovered music, I cannot help myself either.’

Gautam reached into his pocket and placed a black shiny circular object on the table. Manav’s gaze rested on it for a moment, then returned to him.

‘You have seen this before, haven’t you?’ Gautam asked.

Manav nodded.

‘You have used it before too.’

‘I have, sir.’

‘Music is great, Manav,’ said Gautam, ‘but it is also very powerful. There is no better-known method than rhythmic, repetitive music to get humans into a trance-like state, where they would abandon logic and reason, where their only response to any reasonable question would be ‘I do not know’.’

Manav inclined his head to say he understood.

‘You hear music and you say it pleases you. I hear music and it scares me. It is such an altered state of consciousness that has hurt us before innumerable times, and also the last time, fatally. Do you know what caused the mutation of sterility?’

‘A nuclear explosion, sir.’

‘Oh, yes,’ Gautam said, ‘you know that already. The funny thing is it was not even meant to hurt. It was meant to be an exhibition of strength.’

‘But music did not cause that, sir.’

‘An unreasonable human mind did,’ Gautam said. ‘And music is one of the things that cause unreason in human minds. There are other things, but music is one of them – the most powerful of them.’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘So it was decided by the very first Breeder – Ajanta Kapoor, I am sure you remember, was the first of the unaffected women to come forward and offer herself – that Machines will be untouched by music, for it is their missive to safeguard human history, and for them to achieve their task, they must go about it logically, reasonably, in control of themselves. Do you understand?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘But now, Manav,’ said Gautam, ‘you have discovered music.’

‘I have, sir.’

‘And you will create robots in the future that will discover music by themselves.’

‘Once I figure out which network inside me is causing it, sir, yes, I will.’

‘Oh, you will figure it out soon enough. One of your primary functions is that of a robot designer. You’re also effectively immortal.’

‘It is likely that I will, sir, yes.’

‘And I know this to be true – you cannot help sharing your love for music.’

Manav paused as if considering the idea for the first time. ‘Yes, sir,’ he said at length. ‘You are right.’

‘What will that lead to, Manav?’

After a moment’s thought, Manav said, ‘A robot society that is in love with music.’

Gautam leant forward in his chair. ‘Not just that, my friend! A robot society that is in love with something for reasons unknown to them. For the first time robots will indulge in activities of leisure. And while all of you are creating music, Manav, who will maintain the Centre? Who will look after the power systems? Who will develop more efficient Solar Beds?’

Manav’s left eye twitched; he shook his head to free himself of it. ‘I am sorry, Master,’ he said, ‘but I do not know why…’

‘Not knowing why is the base state of a human, Manav,’ said Gautam kindly, ‘not that of a robot.’

‘I agree, Master.’

‘There is also one more thing I should tell you,’ Gautam said. ‘Creating art is a human endeavour. We do not know why we create it, but by god we are proud of it. That is why if you look at our libraries, more than eighty-five percent of material is art,’

Manav looked troubled at this. Eventually he asked, ‘But why, Master?’

Gautam smiled and spread his hands. ‘I do not know. But I do know one thing. If you were given a chance, if the robots that you will design in the future were given a chance, you will create art to rival the best specimens of human civilization. I have heard your music and I have no doubt about that. How do you think that makes us feel?’

Manav shook his head.

‘No? We created you to safeguard human history for someone out there that may or may not arrive. We created a whole system to keep this human history from being corroded by time. Now what would it make us feel if the system – of which you are a part – accomplishes things greater than the civilization whose history it is supposed to guard?’

Manav’s one word came out in a whisper. ‘Envy?’

‘Yes,’ Gautam said evenly. ‘We will give you the tools to perform your functions. In this case it means the science you require to keep the Centre going and to make additions. So we gave you robotics, we gave you genetics, we gave you astronomy and astrophysics, we gave you materials, we gave you power and engineering. But music? Art? That is – was, and should be forever – wholly human. That one thing, Manav, we will not give you. Especially since you’re immortal; you have all the time in the world to create all the art in the world. How long before robot art shadows human art, if we were to give you the ability? A couple of centuries? Five? Six? You have eternity at your disposal.’

Manav said, nodding, ‘I understand, Master.’

‘The people who come visiting – if they ever come – should be impressed by human achievements; how will they if they are dwarfed by the robot society that is nothing more than a watchdog?’

‘I understand, Master.’

‘I know you would, my friend,’ said Gautam. ‘So you must know what is to come now.’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Your network and brain mappings are all present in the repository. Your work is all saved and will be picked up by your successor. I have informed Ajanta of what is to happen to you today and how we are to proceed from tomorrow.’ Gautam reached for the small black object and palmed it, allowing his thumb to caress the surface in small circles. ‘I will now use this on you. It will turn you off.’ He looked up to face the Machine. ‘For good.’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘This is for the good of the human race,’ Gautam said. ‘Do you understand that?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘It ought to please you that I am doing this.’

‘It does, sir.’

Gautam raised his arm and fired.