Author : Philip Berry

Jake, aged nine, was found with his hands deep in the inverted workings of a 3rd generation litter picker, behind a mineral refinery by outer orbital. He was a mile from home, and it was an hour before bed time. The ten-legged picker had been tipped onto its weathered, bronze carapace. Its long legs twitched with each application of the circuit tester. ‘Borrowed’ from an electrician’s toolbox, it emitted a small charge whenever Jake pressed a button on its yellow plastic handle.

The flickering, elongated shadows of the legs on the refinery’s concrete wall caught a security guard’s attention. The muted chirrup of the picker’s balance alarm confirmed that something was seriously wrong. So he called it in, and five minutes later a three-man police squad spilled from the ramp of a dust-roiling craft. Jake had no idea what was going on. The Tasers levelled at his narrow chest were not required.

His mother, Dorothy, stared through a two-way mirror. Jake sat on the other side, scared and very still. Detective Desolt, standing by Dorothy’s shoulder, whispered,
“He seems to have no understanding. Does he go to school?”
“Yes. He never misses a day.”
“Haven’t they taught him RAM principles?”
“I don’t know. We only arrived three months ago. There was no RAM law in Washington state.”
“Well, we are more progressive here. Hopefully his… ignorance… will sway the judge.”
“What could happen?”
“Maximum five months residential education.”
Dorothy sobbed. “He won’t cope with that. He won’t.”
“Follow me. Let’s see if we can’t teach him some awareness before the hearing.”

Jake smiled when Dorothy entered, but as he stood to hug her a female officer restrained him.
“Jake. I’m Detective Desolt. Tell me… do you know what torture is?”
“Causing pain… to make people say things, or do things.”
“And what were you trying to make the litter-picker do?”
“Nothing… I just wanted to know how it…”
“Jake, do you know what pain is?”
“Something that hurts?”
“That’s a tautology.”
Jake’s looked totally bewildered. “I… I don’t know.”
“Pain, Jake, is an unpleasant sensory or emotional experience associated with material injury.”
“To flesh and bone, Detective!” interrupted Dorothy.
“To all autonomous materials.”
“But the picker felt no pain. This is stupid!”
“The description I received was clear. Its legs were flailing, an alarm was sounding… which your son had attempted to muffle, and three of its bulbs were flashing. Those are all manifestations of distress.”
“Detective. They are… malfunctions…”
“No… they are reflexes. It didn’t feel anything. It didn’t suffer.”
Desolt sat on a chair next to Jake and took his hand. He then pinched the skin on the back of the boy’s hand. Jake yelped and pulled his arm away. His legs flexed at the knees.
“We do this in the classroom… in 3rd grade actually, Jake will have missed it. The reaction is typical. The same reaction we see in our mechanicals.”
Dorothy was caught between panic and anger.
“This is absurd! The whole thing is absurd! He was just experimenting! He wants to be an engineer.”
“He has broken the law. You’re not helping him.”
Jake hung his head. Dorothy raised an arm and slapped Desolt across the cheek. His head rotated by ten degrees. His cheek did not flush. Dorothy looked into his eyes and caught a metallic glint at retinal depth. Desolt stood, smiled and made his way to the door. With his finger over the lock-pad he turned and said,
“I can assure you madam, that hurt. A lot.”