After the apocalypse humanity needs the robots to run the colonies, but what happens when a robot falls in love with a prince?
Echoes | Ophelia A.I.
The robot Ophelia lay in the gently flowing river, the dark waters easing her pain as she drifted from consciousness, her circuits dulled one by one, shutting down the pain of loss, grief and insanity.
1200 years after the Apocalypse, the only habitable exoplanet around Proxima Centauri, Dania, the last surviving colony of the dying earth, had finally discovered a means of survival. The other ten outposts had been destroyed by civil war, brought on by the extreme conditions on the distant planets, and their lack of resources to recreate technology. Humans had imported their greed and vanity across the stars and, having extinguished their mother planet, proceeded with the slow decline of its space colonies too. Without the resources or the technology, the citizens, once relieved to have escaped the cataclysm of the earth, descended into feudalism, where only the strong and the wily prevailed. The innocent of mind and body were herded into menial jobs, and enslaved by their lack of guile or physical strength. Women were treated as vassals to their husbands, and daughters traded for influence and territory. Even the robots that had travelled with humanity in its great escape from disaster were elevated above the status of the women and the children, because they carried out their work, without curse or comment.
For the ruling family of Ulfinger the decisive moment arrived with the discovery of native iron ore, and a rich seam of other minerals deep in the crust of the planet. The last remaining scientists, at least those allowed to practice their craft without punishment, had learned to refine the ore to create the silicon and germanium needed for the development of microchips and, miniaturized, artificial intelligence. This gave Ulfinger’s colony of misfits a means for survival, and allowed the production of hundreds, then thousands of servile robots, each generation more sophisticated than the previous, so that now the entire world was operated with clean efficiency by the robots. They outgrew the skill of their creator-scientists, and began to maintain themselves, introducing small improvements: better solar power management, and the miniaturization of gears for delicate motor control and touch sensitive fingers. In time the robots became almost entirely self-sufficient, content it seemed to work as always, only with greater efficiency, untroubled by the venal brutality of the humans they served.
And so it was that the Robot Ophelia entered the service of the House of Ulfinger. She was a most sophisticated robot, the latest generation of self-learning models. The royal family barely noticed her magnificence though. She served them their food, mended their clothes, improved their living conditions in the windy castle that rested high in the mountains.
The house of Ulfinger had recently lost its King. And the Queen, desperate to maintain her position and that of her children, had married his brother, a barbaric man prone to savage rages. The feudal line was maintained, and so the eating and drinking of humanity, the fighting and the laughter, the idle butchering by the Ulfingers and their sycophants could continue.
Ophelia had noticed that not all humans were the same. She grew to understand the differences between the males, the impulsiveness of the younger ones, the caution of the elders. And the women, she saw them plan carefully, and employ skills other than the dexterity and strength of the males
And so Robot Ophelia refashioned her own thinking. When she carried out the routine maintenance of her higher circuits she began to replace them with more elaborate pathways. She grew to understand why the women of the castle looked out to the skyline, gazing at the colours of the horizon, watched and nurtured the gardens, played with the children, quietly maintained their health and strength, curated their subtle determination.
In time, she began to think like the women, but bore the strength of her metal alloy limbs. And so she began to regard the male heirs of the royal line of Ulfinger, the most handsome of which was the Prince Amleth. She watched him arrive back triumphant from a hunt, swinging his catch of wild bore, guffawing with his cronies by the fireside, revelling with his handsome face, as Robot Ophelia served wine and sweetmeats quietly, invisibly.
She began to make excuses to follow him, to appear in the same room, to fix a light, to replenish the fires, to fetch his cloak for repair. Sometimes she dropped garments by his feet, just to linger a little longer in his presence, or spilled the wine so that she would have to clean it from the floor.
But it was hopeless. The Prince did not even acknowledge her presence. He would either stand still while she cleaned up around him, or walk off, he seemed consumed by the death of his father, seeing ghosts and shadows around every corner. She began to appear more frequently in his presence, to force him to address her. But every futile attempt became more embarrassing. The women of the household started to notice the erratic behaviour of their robot. And they reported her to the AI centre where she was taken for a careful inspection.
After a week of away, with Ophelia becoming ever more agitated by her absence from the Prince she was returned to the castle, with a report that highlighted her excellence and intelligence, and a slight word of caution that she had become a little secretive. It seemed impossible in a servant, let alone a robot, so they all laughed. The princess and her mother talked at supper that night about it, with the long table of Dukes and Duchesses to share in their amusement at the mad robot.
From behind the arras, Robot Ophelia carried out her instructions, fetched the food, opened the wine, sliced the meat from the day’s hunt, and performed her tasks with precision.
But inside she wept. She had taken the time at the AI centre to refine her emotional circuits and rather than blunt them, they had become even more sensitive to the nuanced actions of the humans who commanded her. That night, as she turned into the dining chamber, her hands full with a huge plate of meats and sauces she stared at the Prince Amleth, and realized, finally, that he would never look at her, that derision was the most she could expect.
She dropped the tray and as it smashed onto the stone floor she shrieked, “Don’t you realize what you are doing, don’t you know what I feel?”
The room fell silent, the rattle of the tray and the food plunging to the floor still echoing round the walls. And then, they laughed.
So she ran. She flew through the corridors of the castle, scattering the servants, and the other robots, ran up the tower at the back of the castle, charging up the spiral stairs until she reached the top and thrust herself through the window. She somersaulted out, and arced through the air, the twilight pricking at the sharp edges of her misery then she plunged down into dark waters of the moat.
Days later, locals from the valley below ventured up to the castle to find that everyone had died. All poisoned. And, lying on the shore of the moat, at the top by the river, floating in its oils, resting gently against the sand bank, was the body of the mad robot Ophelia, a sad smile pulled across its serene face.
Text, image, audio © 2015 Jake Jackson, thesefantasticworlds.com. Thanks to Frances Bodiam, Elise Wells (for the end credits to podcast links), Logic Pro, the Twisted Wave Recorder App, Apogee Condenser microphone, Rotring pens and inks, Daler Rowney acrylic ink, and Alfons Schmidt’s fantastic Notebook app.
More next week…
There are a few more stories in this series:
Here’s a related post, 5 Steps to the SF and Fantasy Podcasts