When Ellen was a young girl scissors attacked the Earth. There were billions of them and they came from space. They were unreasonable in their aggression and humanity had to defend itself, leaving in the end an exhausted, stunned, and uncertain world littered in the mangled corpses of snippy blades.
Nobody’d ever figured out why it had happened. Religion and science both were mute.
But it had.
“I thought I’d lost you back then,” Uncle Ned says.
“You were just six,” says Ned, “and you couldn’t believe that scissors were hostile. You loved them. You cried when I told you that dynamite blows scissors up, or that rock crushes them. They were your favorite implement. So you wandered out, all on your own, to make peace with them on behalf of the world.”
Ellen has a flash of terrifying memory. She shakes her head.
“They were coming down so hard,” Ned says. “From space, I mean. I couldn’t go after you. All night long I stared at the walls of the dome and I wondered if I’d ever see you again. And then came the morning and the bombardment stopped and I went out to look, and there you were with Navvy Jim.”
“Hee hee,” says Ellen.
“Rock beats scissors, is all he’d say.”
Ellen leans back on the couch. She thinks.
“Whatever happened to him, Ned?”
“To Navvy Jim?”
“I put him to sleep,” Ned says.
“I drained his battery really good,” Ned says, “so he wouldn’t feel any pain. And then I took all his pieces apart and I crated them up. I told him, ‘There’ll be better days again. When the power lines aren’t all cut up and when people are ready to play rock-paper-scissors again.’ But— well.”
“The kids are calling it hobbit-Spock-spider now,” she says. “But the gestures are all different.”
Ellen is taking a break from graduate school. She’s hanging out at her crazy uncle’s ranch. It’s got air and fences and buildings and a rock-paper-scissors-playing robot disassembled and in crates. It’s just the place to clear one’s mind of the stress of an advanced education— but—
“It’s sad,” she tells Ned, a few days later.
“We should get him out,” Ellen says. “We should teach him hobbit-Spock-spider. You can rewire him for that, can’t you?”
“A hobbit-Spock-spider-playing robot?”
“. . . ridiculous,” dismisses Ned. “It’s demeaning to Navvy Jim. Can you just see him there, in his robot voice, saying ‘Spock sings about hobbits?'”
“We could ask him.”
Ned swigs from a bottle unspecified in content. He looks up at the ceiling.
“Well, we can do that,” he allows.
So they go digging together in their old boxes from the 20s and they pull out the pieces. Ellen’s the first to find a good-sized chunk of Navvy Jim. It’s his hand and arm. She plays rock-paper-scissors with it as Ned hunts for the rest. And after a while Ned glances over and sees her playing and he snorts.
“Too young for them to really scare you, huh?” he asks.
Ellen is distracted. She’s chewing hard on her lip. She’s thrown paper and the metal hand has creaked open into scissors.
“Too young,” says Ned. “I mean, the scissors. They don’t send a shudder down your spine.”
“Oh,” says Ellen. “No. Not really.”
“Geezers like me,” says Ned, “even knowing that’s Navvy Jim. That’s terrifying. So you should stick to rock while I’m around.”
Ellen counts to three under her breath and throws rock. The metal hand has creakily gone flat.
“How does he do that?”
Ellen counts to three under her breath. The metal hand closes. Then she throws rock. At that same moment the hand opens.
“Win,” Ellen says.
“Predictive algorithms,” says Ned. “He’d generally set up the next few games in muscle memory so that nobody’d think he was cheating.”
Ellen shakes her head.
“That’s insane, Ned.”
“He got awfully good at it,” Ned admits, “as I recall. That’s the thing with adaptive robots. You never know which direction they’re going to go.”
Ellen throws rock. Navvy Jim’s arm throws paper.
“Look,” Ellen says, “he can’t do that.”
“He got pretty good,” says Ned. “By the end. He said, ‘My eyes see through the walls of time and the barriers of infinity. I am like God. But I cannot see the purpose of the world.'”
Ellen throws scissors. Navvy Jim’s arm throws rock. Ned winces.
“Sorry, Ned,” Ellen says.
“Enh. Oh, hey, here’s his head!”
Ned hefts Navvy Jim’s head out of the box. He taps it. Then he sticks it on a swivel neck and binds it to a battery so that Navvy Jim can watch his reassembly.
“Ned,” says Ellen, “seriously. People need to know about this.”
She throws rock. Navvy Jim’s arm throws paper.
Navvy Jim’s eyes are beginning to glow a soft blue as he wakes up.
“It’s deadly knowledge,” Ned says.
“See,” says Ned. “I tried. Of course I tried. I wrote it all up for the journals. ‘The Amazing RPS Robot That Never Loses.’ ‘Fate, Free Will, and Randomness: An Exploration of Meaning in the Context of Absolute Predictivity.’ ‘Is the World Deterministic?’ ‘An Arbitrarily Accurate Online Algorithm for Predicting Rock-Paper-Scissors.’ And so forth.”
Ned pulls out Navvy Jim’s body. He puts his ear against it and raps it here and there with his hand.
“Good sound,” he says. “Still.”
And metallically Navvy Jim clears his throat and says, “Ellen. You’re here.”
And Ellen can’t help it. Even as creeped out as she is right now, a smile blooms on her face and she pulls herself to her feet and she hugs Navvy Jim’s torso, making sure that the head can see.
“Navvy Jim!” she says.
“Do you know the meaning of the universe?” the robot asks.
“I was hoping,” says Navvy Jim, “that by the time I woke up, someone would know.”
Ellen shakes her head. She lets go and steps back, still smiling.
“I think,” says Navvy Jim, “that it is either, ‘Rock beats scissors’, ‘scissors beats paper’, or ‘paper beats rock.’ But I cannot decide which.”
“For the meaning of the universe?”
“Well,” says Navvy Jim. “For the meaning of my life. I can’t really speak for—”
Fast as a whip, almost cheating, Ellen has thrown rock. But Navvy Jim’s hand is already open in paper again.
“Darn it!” Ellen interrupts.
Navvy Jim giggles synthetically.
“So,” he says. “Does that mean that the world is ready for a rock-paper-scissors-playing robot again?”
“We were going to teach you hobbit-Spock-spider,” Ellen says.
“. . . ah,” says Navvy Jim.
“If you wanted,” says Ellen.
Heartily, Ned adds, “Nothing too dangerous about hobbits, Spocks, or spiders!”
“. . . I am not sure I am ready yet,” says Navvy Jim. “To learn a new game. I have scarcely begun to study my first.”
“. . . oh,” says Ellen.
“But I would like to talk to you, Ned, Ellen,” says Navvy Jim, “for a bit, before I sleep again.”
And so for the rest of her vacation it is Ellen, and Ned, and Navvy Jim, and only when she is about to go back to school do they drain Navvy Jim’s battery and carefully take him apart.
Back a moment, to the last night of her trip, when she asks Ned and Navvy, “So if you tried to write it up for publication why doesn’t anyone know?”
And Navvy Jim says, thoughtfully, “I think that there is an animosity in the cosmos towards the brightness that is humanity; a malign eye, perhaps, looking on our world in some disfavor. But perhaps I am misled by my perspective, and it is simply the capacity of rock-paper-scissors to defend itself against assaults on its theoretical underpinnings.”
“Huh?” says Ellen.
“Scissors cut papers,” says Ned.