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Collector's Item

Daniel McPherson is a computer engineer and musician from Blacksburg, Virginia. After some success as a teen writer, with publications in Merlyn's Pen magazine and the young writers anthology White Knuckles, he fell out of writing until his passion for storytelling was rekindled by creating bed time stories for his son. His recent fiction has appeared in the humorous speculative fiction anthologies Alternate Hilarities and Alternate Hilarities 2: Vampires Suck.

I answer the door. The man who stands at the threshold opens his mouth to speak, then pauses, staring at me. The edges of his mouth curl into a grin, and he licks his thin lips.
For reasons I do not understand, I am overcome by an urge to slam the door in his face. But my programming takes hold and I ask, "Can I help you?"
"Yes, pardon the interruption." He speaks politely now, his composure regained. "Is your owner at home?"
"Who may I ask is calling?"
"I am Zhenya Ostrovsky." He smiles. "I collect things."
I hear Master Logan's voice behind me. "Mr. Ostrovsky. I'm sorry you troubled yourself coming over. As I explained on the phone, it's completely out of the question. I can't sell Adam."
I turn to Master Logan, confused. Sell me?
"May I at least step inside to discuss it?"
"I suppose. Adam, would you see our guest in?"
I lead the gaunt man to a chair, trying to hide the stiffness in my leg and the creak of my joints. Ostrovsky beams at me.
"Fascinating. The Adam A1 was one of the first commercially available robotic servants. A poor seller, I'm afraid. Ahead of its time. Few are still in existence, and I've never seen one functioning so well."
Logan smiles. "Adam has been in our family since before I was born. My father bought him the first week they were sold. He spent so much on him that my mother wouldn't speak to him for a month, but he was convinced robotics were the future. The market crash and depression dampened his enthusiasm, and when I was six he gave Adam to me. He's been my companion ever since. I couldn't imagine life without him."
I only faintly remember belonging to Logan's father, but my recollections of Master Logan's childhood are vivid and rich. It would pain me to be parted from him. I am pleased to hear that he feels the same.
"You are attached to him?"
Logan shrugs. "I know it's difficult to understand. My friends think it's foolish."
"Oh, not at all! I understand sentimentality. Why else would I collect these old units? There's something charming about them that goes beyond their usefulness as a mechanical servant. Their hybrid, cobbled-together technology. Spring powered motors, gear logic mingled with vacuum tubes. Where others see obsolescence, I see the brilliant optimism of an age gone by."
"Then you understand why I can't sell him."
He nods. "I appreciate your position. But consider: collecting outdated technology is a game for the rich. Which--" He gestures at our tiny apartment. "I am sad to say you are not.
"Your Adam is in remarkable condition for his age, but I see numerous dents and a fair amount of rust. He's had some sort of mishap in his left leg. You couldn't find the original knee plate, or the correct screws. As a patch job, your repair isn't bad, but I noticed his limp as he let me in."
Master Logan looks embarrassed.
"He will have more problems. His vacuum tubes will fail, and you won't be able to replace them. One of his gears will crack. You won't find the correct part, and you won't be able to repair it. It takes considerable money to maintain these old models, and you do not have it."
I want to object, but I know that everything he's said is correct.
"I can restore him." Ostrovsky's eyes gleam as he looks at me. Through me. "All original parts. Factory programming. He will be just as he was the day he was made."
Logan shakes his head. "I can't."
"I'm prepared," he continues, "to offer you a trade." He steps to the door. "If I may?"
A second man, younger and more plumply built, makes his way into our apartment, pushing something large under a beige sheet.
"My assistant Rohit," the collector says.
Rohit wheels his package to the center of the apartment and removes the cover.
It is a household robot, the latest model from the same company that produced me over fifty years ago. Its ivory skin shines sleek and seamless. My own chassis seems clunky and quaint in comparison.
"I offer you this new Adam A52," Ostrovsky says, "In addition to the payment offer I have already made."
Master Logan is speechless. This unit is owned by the wealthiest celebrities and businessmen, the type of luxury Logan could not reasonably expect to see in his lifetime, much less own. Its processing power and physical capabilities exceed my own by an embarrassing margin.
"It's a generous offer," Logan says at last. "But I still can't accept. As wonderful as I'm sure this robot is, it wouldn't be Adam."
The collector laughs. "Oh, but it will!"
We both look at him, confused.
"People don't understand how much of a unique identity robots can develop. Even now, their manufacturers assure us that their personalities are preprogrammed and interchangeable, and at first perhaps that is true. But you and I know that over time, these Adams develop their own attitudes and behaviors. After only a few months they can already be easily distinguished from another supposedly identical unit. After so many years of continuous use, all with the same owners, I'm sure your Adam has his own personality as much as any human does.
"I would never propose to take your companion's personality away from you. Fortunately for us both, that is not necessary. Rohit has developed a method to transfer the programming from one of these old units into a new one."
Logan looks doubtful.
"It's flawless," Ostrovsky continues. "Challenging, of course. The gear logic must be converted to digital, and other adjustments must be made, but Rohit's method is foolproof. Your Adam can be moved into this new chassis. All of his memories, all of his thoughts and desires. All of him."
The word "No" forms on Logan's lips. But he hesitates.
"He will be your old friend, in this new, vastly improved body. And you will sell his old, abandoned shell to me."
Logan looks at me. I am already considering what our guest has said. He is correct about my systems aging and failing, and about Logan's inability to manage my decline. One of my vacuum tubes has already started to fail. I have avoided telling Master Logan.
"I think you should accept his offer," I say at last.
Logan sighs and nods reluctantly. The collector claps his hands together.
Rohit opens my chassis. "I have to disconnect the speaker and motor control boards to access the system memory," he says as he attaches probes to various points on my processing boards. He runs these to a small breakout box attached to a slim computer. From there, a single white cable leads to the new robot. As if by magic, the seamless shell of its chest opens to expose a small port, into which Rohit plugs the cable.
Under the robot's white skin, a faint blue light pulses slowly.
Nothing happens for several minutes. All three men watch silently.
At last the new robot raises his head. It didn't work, I think.
"It worked," the robot says, "Master Logan, it worked!"
"No," I say, "I'm still here." But my speaker board is still disconnected.
Logan eyes the robot skeptically. "That dent on your left shoulder." He points to me, my old chassis. "I told my father you slipped on a spill in the kitchen and fell. What really happened?"
"You had just discovered Tarzan, and we were wrestling. I was playing the role of an invading gorilla, and you pushed me from your bed into a quicksand pit, represented by your floor."
How could he know that?
"It is you, then!" Logan's eyes glisten with joy. "Adam, do you think you can live without that dent?"
He raises his arms, testing their smooth, rust free movement. "Yes, I believe I can get used to this."
In horror, I realize what has happened. Rohit has copied all of my programming into this new chassis. Not transferred, but copied. All of what I know, what I am, who I am. Now this copy stands before Master Logan, fully convinced that he is me, possessing all of my memories and thoughts and identity. While I, the original, sit trapped in this disconnected shell.
"Reattach me," I plead. "Reconnect me to my body so I can speak."
The thin man counts a stack of bills and hands it to Master Logan. They shake hands. The technician disconnects his probes and cables, gathers his equipment. The robot gushes over his new body, thanking Master Logan. I recognize my own diction and speech patterns in his voice.
No, I think, that's not me. But I realize that it is. A new copy of me, who believes himself to be the true original every bit as much as I do. A perfect copy. Master Logan will never know the difference.
Logan embraces the new robot. As the collector carries me away, he doesn't give me another glance.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, October 17th, 2014

Author Comments

This story is inspired by countless SciFi tales of cloning and teleportation, but also owes a debt to the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode (and Louis Pollock story) "Breakdown," in which a paralyzed accident victim struggles to signal that he is still alive. I toyed with various ways for Adam to communicate his situation before settling on the ending published here.

My wife wanted to know if Ostrovsky understands what's truly happening during the programming transfer. I don't really have an answer, but I suspect he does. I have some vague ideas about his ulterior motive and his plan for Adam (and whether Adam can manage to escape it), and may return to them someday. In the meantime, feel free to accept the ending as it is or let it play out however your imagination sees fit.

- Daniel McPherson
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