Mulholland Books Popcorn Fiction Popcorn Fiction - What Makes a Man? by Judith Lutz
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Two robots create a human long after mankind has been wiped out in this provocative tale from screenwriter Judith Lutz.

What Makes a Man?

I.

 

It looked like the year 4013 was shaping up to be a good one for robot-beings Smithsonian 7005 and Einstein 257. All the lonely years of hard work and experimentation might finally pan out. It could happen at any moment.

Smith and 257 were about to find out if their dream to create a human-child could, in fact, come true. At long last, this was what they'd waited almost 2,000 years for: the chance to make their mark by reconstructing the human race all over again. Not to mention the hope of easing their loneliness.

Old Smith was frail. As Curator of the Human Museum, housed in the dimly lit cave that was both his workplace and the home he shared with 257, his mission was to preserve human relics from millenniums past, before the big bomb that wiped out human civilization in the late 21st century. Gatherings were difficult, and often involved arduous journeys which wore his parts to their thinnest possible extreme.

Every nook and cranny of Smith's museum was stuffed with relics of the once majestic human race: botanical illustrations, a manual of etiquette, a Sears catalog, Life Magazine, Architectural Digest, Poe, Dickens, books on Nazism, the Manhattan Project, the Vietnam War, the killing of Bin Laden, Stephen King novels, Superman comics, a program from Super Bowl XCVIII.

A beat up Orange Crush machine stood in a corner, near a basketball hoop, in front of a DVD player which played "E.T.," no sound. Dean Martin crooned "Volare" from an ancient phonograph.

Dusting magazines that held print ads for Coke, Alka-Seltzer, and Rogaine, Smith's innards creaked and ached with algorithms simulating hope and fear. He and 257 might be remaking mankind from this very cave. He stood before his most prized artifact, an Arrow Shirt magazine ad, with the tagline, "What Makes A Man?" He desperately hoped he would soon know the answer.

Smith finished his dusting and made his way through a dim hallway that led to an expansive light-filled laboratory. It was there that 257 worked, hunched over elaborate machinery connected by fat, snaking cables. Strange plant hybrids meandered their way through wall and window cracks.

Fragile like Smith, though housing more robust components, 257 studied a notebook filled with diagrams and equations. Squinting in deep concentration, his optical sensors jumped from one item to another: from an illustration of a human skeleton to Leonardo da Vinci's anatomy drawings to a comic book image of a bodybuilder he-man.

"Well?" Smith asked gently.

His words startled 257, who finally looked up and closed his notebook.

"We will surely be successful this time, Smith," 257 said reverently.

"Full human awareness? Critical thought? Capable of self-perpetuating?"

257 nodded. "The launch is tomorrow."

Their optical sensors met, hopeful. 257 was finished for the day and shut the light.

After dinner, Smith and 257 sat on their mid-20th century modern couch in front of a large-screen talking television. "What would you like to view tonight?" it asked them.

Smith, falling asleep, had the same answer as usual. "We'd like the 'What Makes A Man?' commercial, please."

The commercial began to play. Smith fell asleep. But 257 watched intently.

II.

 

The next morning in the lab, Smith helped 257 pour luminous elements into a mold, which then glowed in midair. The cylindrical matrix was held in place by powerful magnets. This is where the human would be born.

A glare emerged. Soon the brilliance became overwhelming, and a man-like shape appeared to grow in the mold. Smith and 257 jumped and howled and hugged.

When the glow faded, an ill-proportioned creature with pockmarked skin, not muscularly defined, certainly not handsome by any stretch, stared at them from the matrix.

Yet a sublime glow shined from his being: innocent, all-loving. His eyes were kind.

Overhead lights began to flash. The man-like creature screamed.

Birth.

III.

 

That night, Smith "coo-ed" to the adult sized newborn who was dressed in sweatpants, a sweatshirt, and Nike Airs. His body was made to that of a 21 year-old. 257 studiously observed each of the newborn's actions, making notes as Smith read psychologist Erik Erikson out loud. "Someday, maybe, there will exist a well-informed conviction that the most deadly of all possible sins is the mutilation of a child's spirit; for such mutilation undercuts the life principle of trust, without which every human act, may it feel ever so good and seem ever so right is prone to perversion by destructive forms of conscientiousness."

The newborn looked at Smith and 257, blinked, smiled, and said "Show me the money!"

Baby's first words! Smith and 257 were elated. Smith handed the newborn a Red Sox pennant. He took it, waved it, put his hand on Smith's.

257 turned to Smith. "We still have to name him."

Hours later, Smith and 257 were still casting about the museum, searching for name ideas. "Rogaine? Robin Hood? Atticus?" Finally, a name they could agree on: Dr. Pepper. They tried it out on the newborn, who smiled.

Smith went to a cabinet and found a bottle of fine champagne. "I've been saving this for 2,000 years." He uncorked the champagne and it shot out of the bottle. They all laughed. Their first laugh together.

The TV remarked, "Welcome, Dr. Pepper!" Dr. Pepper drank and the robots poured the champagne over each other's heads.

IV.

 

Smith and 257 doted over Dr. Pepper. Though he was misshapen, he was quite graceful. He started to cry and they knew it was time to feed him. "What would you like to eat?" 257 asked.

"Vegetables. Animals give me gas."

"Where the hell did he get that from?" Smith muttered. 257 thought perhaps it came from the TV, but the TV called to them from the other room.

"It wasn't me. Who knows where they pick that stuff up."

Smith pulled an avocado from a preserved cylinder and gave it to Dr. Pepper, who chewed until he hit the pit, then spit it out in their faces. "This is too hard."

257 checked a book, then explained it to Dr. Pepper, "That's the pit. You don't eat it. You put it in water and let it grow roots. Then you plant it and hope a tree grows that will make more avocados. Life has a cycle."

Dr. Pepper nodded. "Okay," he shrugged.

That night, they all settled in front of the talking TV to watch film clips and commercials. "This is what humans did," Smith intoned wisely. "This is your ancestry." At that moment, a home movie from the early 1960s appeared.

The scene was a family barbeque in a simple backyard where Dad was turning burgers on a grill and Mom was serving lemonade. Buster rolled in the dirt, and a beautiful teenaged Girl was on the portable phone, giggling. She was especially shapely. The breeze blew her summer dress against her long legs.

Dr. Pepper couldn't take his eyes off the Girl. "What is that?" he demanded.

"That," 257 answered, "is a Girl."

Dr. Pepper moved closer to the TV. "I love Girl."

V.

 

The next day, Smith and 257 gave Dr. Pepper a tour of the museum. "This is what humans were like in the old days," Smith told him. "This is who you were modeled after." Dr. Pepper was wide-eyed. Then 257 sat him down in front of a large table, filled with books.

"We need to give you an education."

Smith held a checklist. The history of human civilization. Geography. Etiquette. Philosophy. Math. Grammar. Composition.

257 read to him, "'The unexamined life is not worth living.' That's from Socrates. Here is the commentary. 'However immodest and controversial, this is a claim about what makes a human life -- about what makes a life human - and that is curiosity.'

But Dr. Pepper was not listening. He was distracted by the gears and machinery around the lab. Far more interested in what was surrounding him than anything in the books. He got up and tinkered with the various robotic equipment lying around. Smith and 257 looked at each other as if to ask, what shall we do?

Smith responded, "We shall let him play with the equipment as we read." 257 nodded his approval as Dr. Pepper began to whoop, howl, and roll around with a playful hybrid plant/animal, which he then named Socrates.

That night, 257 and Smith were still at it, trying to get Dr. Pepper to focus. It was getting late.

257 read from an ethics book. "Now listen, Dr. Pepper, and think about this. 'You're walking down the street and you find a suitcase full of money. Nobody's around. What do you do? A. Keep the money. B. Give it to poor people C. Turn it in to police D. Buy presents for loved ones.'"

Dr. Pepper asked, "What's a street?"

"I taught you that yesterday."

Smith dragged Dr. Pepper to a gigantic book that sat on a small stand in front of him. After every piece of info that 257 would read to him, Dr. Pepper would ask the same question: "why?"

"Why do I have to study? Why do I have to learn?"

"To understand the world."

"Why do I have to understand the world?"

No matter what 257 said, Dr. Pepper countered with, "why." 257 had no more answers.

"Well, then it's stupid!" Dr. Pepper cried.

Frustrated, 257 slammed his armature on the table. Dr. Pepper picked up the huge book and heaved it across the room.

It hit 257.

His arm broke off, and pieces tumbled out of his body casing. He was deeply wounded and weakened. Smith cried out that he didn't know how to fix a wound that deep. His fading memory was no help.

Dr. Pepper was immediately remorseful. Tears came quickly. "I'm so sorry. It was an accident. I'm so sorry, 257. Please come back." Dr. Pepper used every ounce of his human resourcefulness to try and fix 257, with Smith pacing in circles in the background.

VI.

 

The next morning, Dr. Pepper, worn and weary, was still at it, with Smith by his side. The emergency surgery helped somewhat, but 257 was still weak.

By noon, Dr. Pepper had reached a completion point. He and Smith sat by 257's side, not knowing if he would survive. Dr. Pepper read a cheery Hallmark get well card from the museum. 257 didn't respond. Dr. Pepper was filled with guilt and remorse.

It was then that Smith suggested Dr. Pepper take a break. Smith wanted to sit quietly with 257 while 257 repaired and reprogrammed. The talking TV, in an effort to soothe Dr. Pepper, played the home movie Dr. Pepper saw earlier and loved.

Dr. Pepper watched the backyard family scene replayed. His eyes gazed lovingly at the house and the laughter that filled the air. The Girl emerged from the doorway. Deeply drawn to her, he clicked on the remote and became a hologram within the scene, close to her.

Dr. Pepper existed within the picture, but could not interact with her as she laughed with her family. It was as if he was not there. They continued their barbeque around him. Dr. Pepper continued to try and interact, but to no avail.

When Smith saw that Dr. Pepper was in the TV he ran to it and demanded he remove himself immediately.

"I'm worried you will get lost in that strange place. Get out of there, now! Now!"

Smith was able to click on the remote to get him back home. Dr. Pepper emerged from the scene, and back into the lab. Smith made Dr. Pepper promise never to do that again.

Dr. Pepper asked the TV for a "print out" of the family barbeque, featuring the Girl. The TV spit it out the top of its head. Dr. Pepper clutched the photo to his heart.

In the resting room, 257 sat up, somewhat repaired but vitally weakened. He knew he could not go on much longer. Soon he would expire. Smith helped him walk to the study area, where he stood, waiting for Dr. Pepper to join them for dinner. They looked at the clock. Dr. Pepper was very late.

VII.

 

Dr. Pepper was back in the home movie. He couldn't take his eyes from the Girl. He watched her every move and tried to get as close as he could to her happy laughter. For the first time, Dr. Pepper felt really free.

257 and Smith were worried. They got up to search for Dr. Pepper.

There he was, on the TV as a hologram in the home movie. Smith reproached the TV, "How could you have let him in there? You knew it was against my wishes."

"But he loves her. It means so much to him."

"You idiot! You're just an idiot box!"

257 came weakly up behind him. "Stop that. We need to set a good example." 257 clicked the remote and tried to force Dr. Pepper back into the room. But the TV was not going to let that happen. "I'm not letting him back into the room until Smith apologizes to me."

Smith was sorry. "I will never talk like that to you again. I mean that sincerely."

The TV was satisfied. "I forgive you. I understand." At that moment, Dr. Pepper was ejected from the home movie and returned to the room.

He faced 257 and Smith. 257 had to lie down, he was not well, not well at all. Dr. Pepper sat down by his side with tears in his eyes.

"257, Smith. I thank you for the life you've given me. I hope you will understand this, but I am leaving here. In order to feel truly human I need to find Girl.

"There is no Girl."

"I need to follow my heart, go my own way. I need to see what else is out there for me, whatever it is."

257 couldn't look at Dr. Pepper. Smith put his arm around Dr. Pepper. 257's optical sensors then moved to Dr. Pepper, seeing him for the first time. "We'll be here for you, Dr. Pepper. Always." Dr. Pepper laid down next to 257 and held him for a long while.

Then it was time. He got up and approached the door to the cave. After a moment, he opened it. Bright light shined in. He stepped outside and began to walk.

257 and Smith stared out at him as he wandered into the distance. Sad. Proud. Hopeful. They watched him until they could no longer see him on the horizon.

257 and Smith were silent. Then they turned to each other. 257 broke into a weakened smile. "Next we make a Girl?" Smith nodded. They stepped outside the cave.

Dr. Pepper's footprints had trailed off into the unknown.

About the Author

Screen and TV writer Judith Lutz was born and bred in the Garden State, studied journalism in the Empire State, and started her career as a playwright in Los Angeles, in a state of joy. She's currently writing a one-hour television pilot. A woman of mystery and power, she writes dramatic comedy.