Inner Sanctum

Ball Machine
This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Ball Machine

Chapter four of ‘Ball Machine’

In the inner sanctum of the programer’s den, Rosa shifted uncomfortably on the simple wooden seat. Tony and Dany both had thousand dollar chairs, with body curves and aerodynamic back supports, cushioned and adjustable arm rests, bulging neck braces and a sophisticated tilt-back action. These were chairs for men who spent twelves hours a day staring at computer screens. Each chair had an owner, their presence still penetrating the tough wool cushioning even when their bodies had stumbled forth in search of sleep or pizza. The chairs held an aura, a force field which kept strangers and interlopers at bay. Tony slid over on his own luxury chair, gliding like an ice skater across the wooden floor. He pointed to a corner where Rosa could fetch a wooden seat, like a set of stocks, designed to be uncomfortable.
Here, in this place, she was low status, not a programmer, not one of the elite.
The room was dingy. Wisps of daylight filtered around the dark blinds over the windows, but barely enough to disturb the ghostly glow of LCD screens.
Rosa took in the scene, the detritus of poor nutrition scattered across desks and bulging from waste paper baskets, and felt immense relief that she had pursued a career in medicine.
Tony was the man in charge, the man with his fingers on the keyboard. Dany was supervising the programming, while Rosa was there, in theory at least, to make the decisions. In practice, she was the client, there to create a wish list, while the boys found ways around the problems she threw at them.
She had the programming notes from Joe in front of her. They didn’t make much sense. She looked through page after page, but she barely had the patience to read the introduction. She handed it to Dany instead. He glanced at it and threw it over his shoulder. “Robotics,” he said. “Not enough. We make android learn. That more important. What you want it to learn?”
“Tennis,” she said.
“That’s done,” Tony said. “What else?
“How to win. Why to win. Make it want to win,” Rosa said.
“We need an order of priorities,” Tony said. “We’re giving rules here. This is important.”
Rules, rules, Rosa thought. “Okay, it has to obey me, before anyone else.”
Tony squinted at her, as though he suspected her of cheating on the tennis match.
“He’s my android,” she said. “Next, he must never reveal his true identity as an artificial life-form without my permission.” She pursed her lips and stared at the blinds on a window on the far side of the room. “He must never harm a human being, he must never lie.”
“You have to be careful of contradictions,” Tony said.
“It’s okay, okay,” Dany said. “Put it in.”
They were working against the clock. It was lunchtime, and the supervisor was in the canteen. They might have an hour on the outside, probably less. Rosa suspected a procedure like this ought to takes months, if not years, but they were throwing this stuff together and hoping it would work.
“What else? Okay, it must be nice to people.”
“What you mean nice?” Tony asked.
“Generous, and kind. It must do what they want.”
“Contradictions,” Tony wailed. “What if they want it to do something bad?” His fingers were flying on the keyboard, creating the core program for the ‘droid, the mind and soul of the machine that would determine how it saw the world, how it behaved. Could it behave? Would it be able to make choices, she wondered.
“It must do good and never do evil,” she said. Her mother would have liked that bit, she thought. “But it must learn all it can. That’s the most important thing. It has to learn about itself.”
“That built in,” Dany said. “Quantum entanglement processor always learning. You can’t stop it.”
“This thing’s going to get bored,” Tony said. “We should give it something else to get involved in, outside of tennis.”
“What like?” Rosa glanced at her watch. “Later maybe, there’s no time now.” She knew the supervisor would be back any minute. “I’d better go.” She didn’t want to be found in here. There would be questions. “How long?”
Tony finished with a finale of frantic typing. “All done. Send.” He hammered on the return key with a theatrical flourish. He pulled a USB stick out of the computer and handed it to her.
“He has a USB connection in his left ear,” Tony said. “Put it in there, and the program loads automatically.”
“Thanks boys,” Rosa yelled, as she carried her wooden chair back over to the corner. “I owe you.”
“We know,” Tony yelled as she slipped out the door. Now she needed to get back to her desk and look busy, maybe even get some work done. There had been comments already, about how she seemed distracted, progress seemed to have slowed. She longed to rush off to the storeroom where the android was hidden inside a packing crate, take him out, load the core program, and let the system start working, begin learning about the world and how to play tennis, how to move, how to speak. She felt like a child at Christmas, but she had to wait. Could she wait?
She got back to her desk. The rest of her team were still at lunch. She could spare five minutes. She slipped away again, and headed for the storeroom.

Rosa slotted the disk into the robot’s ear. The data downloaded in seconds, and she removed it. She put the lid back on the packing crate where the android was hidden, and left the program to load while she got on with her day job, with her real work, which she had been neglecting all these weeks.
She made her way back to the medical lab and stared at her screen. This was what mattered to people out there in the world. She couldn’t focus though. Time and again, her thoughts went back to her robot.
Synthetic skin. Lifelike silicone flesh. Contact lenses for the eyes. It was all falling into place. But how could she make it all work as one? How could she make the software programs integrate, and turn them into a tennis player, a real player? She stared out of the window. How did humans do it?
She thought of her dad, her brothers, their love of football. The beautiful game.
Rosa’s home was a Caribbean island so small it barely showed on most maps. No one she met in the States had heard of it. When she’d gone to England, the customs men had stopped her, held her for two hours, while they checked the place existed.
But it was there all right.
There was something she needed to remember, something her father had told her. He was a football coach in his spare time, when he wasn’t growing food and tinkering with engines and fixing up people’s houses and mending what little plumbing the island had scraped together.
He talked about the players, what made them stand out, the few who could really play. They go beyond thought, he’d said. There was no thinking, only the doing. They became a part of the sport itself. Focused totally on the ball and the movement of the players and the flow of the game. Nothing else existed, in that moment.
That shouldn’t be hard, for an android. There would be no distractions. Focus was what they did best. But they didn’t anticipate. They couldn’t let go and rely on some subconscious spirit moving through them, a mysterious connection with the essence of the game itself.
How do you give that to a heap of metal?

*****

He woke, and things seemed more clear, as though his thoughts had coalesced. He opened his eyes. Darkness. He tried to move, but felt walls around him. Where he was, why he was here? He found no clue in his memories.
He stretched his arms, pushed hard against the restraining walls. A cracking sound, and light filtered through. He punched at the hole, making it wider, ripping at wood, tearing his way out of the womb in which he had been entombed.
He stepped out of the wooden coffin, turned to examine it. He searched his database. A packing case, he concluded. Had he ever seen a packing case before?
He stood, in virtual darkness, in a small room, filled with brooms and mops and buckets, tubs of cleaning materials and packets of toilet rolls. A glimmer of light smuggled itself under the door, enough for him to see clearly.
He felt a compulsion, a need for movement. His being surged with energy, and he longed to use it, to run, to chase, to compete. To win. Knowledge of a game suffused every inch of him. Not sure who he was, where he was, all the same he knew his purpose. He was born to play the game, to win the game.
He looked inside himself, and found knowledge of tennis rules, matches, statistics and opinions, defeats and victories. He replayed entire matches in his mind, finals of great tournaments. McEnroe versus Borg, Becker against Edberg, Safin and Sampras. He watched every point in his imagination, examining the shots used, the tactics, the turning points, the reasons for victory and defeat.
He longed to move like his heroes, to play like them. He tried to move, to practice a swing of the arm, a gyration of the hip, rising up into the ball using his legs. He took a broom and snapped it in half to use as a racket. But the room wasn’t big enough and his swing was compressed by tight walls.
He could walk through the door, punch his way out if it was locked. But there was another thought nagging at his mind. There was Rosa, who was important. He must obey her in everything. Why? It was the way. He had no choice. She wanted him to stay here, to remain hidden. He must not be revealed. His nature held some secret or mystery that must not be disclosed. Because Rosa said so. Rosa knew best. But where was Rosa?

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