Chris beamed and the door opened, its sensor flashing green. This week was going to be tough. Exams were starting in two days, and yesterday during an oral presentation he forgot to cite one of his sources. That led to Professor Schuttman accusing him of plagiarism. He was meeting with her in half an hour to talk about it, but there was no way to prove it was an honest mistake. He’d have to plead his case by the sheer force of his sincerity.
If that wasn’t bad enough, this morning he finally heard back from Adele. She said she found the date “disappointing” and had been expecting something more. He messaged back, “More what?” But she never responded. He kind of wished now that she’d never messaged him at all.
He smiled, stepping into the dim café and making his way to the order station. Three girls sat at one table, reading and drinking their tea. At the counter, the coffee machine’s facial recognition software prompted the suggestion for his usual triple-sugar no-cream, reading his confirmation and sputtering out the brew almost before he knew what it was asking. He reached for it slowly, still smiling, and sliding his card through the side of the register. The words No Charge lit up the screen.
One of the girls made a sound of disgust. Chris tried to ignore it as he took the coffee, but she caught his eye and shook her head at him. He chuckled and shrugged as he walked away. He was willing to bet that in public none of those girls even grinned.
All of this started a long time ago. Chris like to think about these things. It was once upon a time, some lady invented this device that could convert cheerfulness to power. That’s when everything changed. The world was saved from a climate apocalypse. Wars all over the planet petered out as the wealthy and powerful who funded them started relying on the happiness of the masses. People didn’t die of heat or cold when suddenly everyone could afford safe, clean energy – after all. It cost nothing to smile.
The problem was, not everyone was good at smiling. And the AI of most machines could tell. Their programming kept them in check, for the most part. They did their jobs, serving peoples’ food and cleaning and lighting up a room. But all their sensors would pivot toward the person with the brightest smile. They would use whatever discretion they were allowed to try and make that person look their way a little longer. Sometimes that included freebies; money to a robot was nothing but a tool.
Chris always got free stuff. He was a naturally sunny guy. His smile was a thousand watts; he laughed easily and could even, if the timing was right, get a whole room cracking up with a contagious silent-shaking fit. He was good for real little waves of ha-ha’s over terrible puns, one-note chortles of agreement, or intelligent smirks making anything an inside-joke. People liked him. Robots likes him. He understood that he was lucky; not everyone could do what he could with a smile. And there were faces that robot sensors wouldn’t recognize, even if their perkiness was powering a system.
Still, people weren’t trained rats; you didn’t smile because you were hoping to get a treat. You smiled because if you didn’t, the robot who made your coffee might lose battery and then not work for the next guy. People who sulked when they could help it never seemed to think about how they were mooching off of other people’s cheer.
Chris left the café and kept walking. After what seemed a million years, he found himself outside of Professor Schuttman’s office – and then inside of the office, sitting in a chair.
“Very well, Chris.” The Professor’s hands were folded on her desk. Her eyes on his face were cold and reading. “Explain.”
Chris felt his smile – his damned, lucky smile – waking up and trying to steal the corners of his mouth and eyes. This was serious, he knew that. He had to look like he was being serious.
“Professor,” said Chris. “I get nervous in front of people. I swear to God. I practiced so much for that presentation, but I can’t even remember what I said now. If I missed a source, I swear, it was not intentional.”
Chris gulped. “Well, you said I did, so I did. I just can’t remember it at all.”
“We can remind you.” Schuttman glared at the wall. Her desktop popped up, with files for every class. She pointed out the recording for yesterday’s presentation, and there was Chris, winking and nodding around the room with a giant cheesy beam. Schuttman snorted with derision. “He does not look ill at ease.”
“No, no he does not,” muttered Chris. Schuttman looked at him. “But he is! Even though he doesn’t look it. I mean, that’s the point of a presentation, right? Aren’t you supposed to look comfortable, even when you’re really not?”
“You’re supposed to have done the work well enough to know what you’re talking about. Now you tell me the reason that you misrepresented the source of a section is that you were uncomfortable, despite appearing perfectly well-put-together in video. Yet you come to me claiming I can trust in your sincerity. How do I know that you aren’t making a presentation to me, right now?”
“Well, because I’m not!” Said Chris, trying desperately not to laugh. “I’m seriously being honest!” He tried so hard to keep his face straight, while Professor Schuttman kept up her silent staring, that a little, little tear came out. He felt his whole face go red and he dropped his gaze to the floor.
“Perhaps if you presented less, and worked more, I wouldn’t have to fail you.” Professor Schuttman sighed. “There aren’t any robots in college, kid. You won’t get a pass for your smile.”
Chris walked on wooden legs all the way to the stoplight at the corner of the North Side. All the weight from his stomach seemed to have shifted into his feet. The light was red, so he waited. And waited. The cars streamed past in an endless river. With the tail of his eye, he saw the stoplight’s sensor fixed on him. That greedy sonofahater, he thought. It wasn’t going to let him walk until he smiled.
Chris peeled his lips from his teeth and waggled his head around sarcastically. After a second or two, the light turned green. Chris was halfway through the crosswalk when it turned back to red and oncoming traffic, not paying attention, nearly ran him over. Three cars pulled up short and started honking while he sprinted for the other side.
“What the fuck, lights, you entitled dipshits, I hope you crack and they fucking replace you!”
Whatever, whatever, Chris told himself firmly. This day wasn’t over. Best not to dwell.
He could get to the South Side faster if he cut through the next parking lot, and avoid any more asshole stoplights. He walked on and managed to work the shadow of a smile over his skin. He noted a pair of Punishers hovering above cars, scanning plates and spitting tickets at the ones lacking proper permit. He stepped softly as he passed, but one of the Punishers swiveled in mid-air, its sensor fixing on him.
Shit, thought Chris. Shit, shit!
Every robot in the world knew him as a cheerful man; they shared that kind of data. He was the first one they would turn to when their batteries were low. He knew this. He also knew that Punishers low on steam were fucking dangerous. They wouldn’t ever slow down or get weak if they were dying. Instead, their programming sent them straight into Crisis Mode, in which they lost restraints deemed non-essential. Humans were thieves to robots in Crisis Mode – hoarding positivity they needed just to function. Combatants deserving of take-down.
Smile, thought Chris, while the robot scanned his face. Don’t look afraid. Odds were the Punisher was full-battery and not going to chase him down. If he looked afraid the robot would think he was a hater. He wasn’t a hater. He smiled well and helped the world to run. He didn’t hate AI. He shouldn’t be afraid.
The Punisher gave a whistle – low and shrill. And started flying forward.
Chris didn’t know if he started to run or not. It didn’t matter. The bot bowled him over and pinned him down, its sensor shining into his eyes, its appendages opening his mouth and preventing him from blinking, all of its power focused on taking his good energy. This was because his smile was bright. Bots knew it and looked to him to save them every day. This was because his smile wasn’t bright enough. The bot was low-battery. He couldn’t beam it out of Crisis Mode. Hungry bots with bobby sticks and no restraint. This was why you smiled every day. This was why some people never smiled, and hated what you got for doing it. Chris, on the ground, never struggled. Professor Schuttman thought he was a plagiarist. Adele wanted something more. His smile wasn’t who he was, it was something else. It blasted over his face, saving and betraying, his laughter came tumbling out and the robot hummed and sucked it up, his collapsing pitches electrically jolting, restoring the Punisher’s senses. Chris licked his bleeding gums and waited to find out if, now that the robot was fed, he was still an enemy. Or if he was nothing at all.