Robot Family: A Short Story -The Toast

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tumblr_m69xyz8CV31rtr3kno1_500I would never, ever ask you to read a 5000 word short story about a robot family if I didn’t absolutely love it. This is GREAT. – Ed.

The robot family upstairs has a mother, a father, 1.5 children and a dog. The l.0 of the children is a robot girl, the .5 is a baby boy. He cries at regular intervals throughout the day, like an alarm going off. Emily could set her clock by him. His cry is a tinny wail, imitation baby rage and need for attention echoing through a can.

The dog is a robot dog. You can have robot dogs in this apartment complex, but only if you’re a robot. If you’re a human, you can have a cat. The robots don’t make robot cats. There’s a running joke that a robot cat can’t be programmed, but that’s not true. There is a robot cat in the Smithsonian. The robots have no interest in cats. A cat is not man’s best friend.

The robot girl rides in the elevator every morning, her mother holding her hand. Emily sees them when she goes to get the mail. The robot mother kneels and touches her forehead to her daughter’s forehead. This is how robots say goodbye, if they like each other. If they don’t like each other, they probably don’t say goodbye. They just leave. In an article in Time Magazine a couple months ago, one of the interviewed robots explained that robots show consideration and affection for other robots by behaving in human ways, even yelling or fighting. A lack of connection to another robot is shown by mechanical, unemotional actions, in short, robot behavior. When the interviewer asks if the robot really feels, the robot just looks at her. The interviewer says his look gave her chills. Emily wonders if the interviewer’s questions gave the robot chills. She imagines being asked if she really feels.

There is almost never anything in the post.

Emily is out of work, which is convenient for spying on the robot family. They live in the apartment just above hers, and every morning at seven the robot dog barks, waking them up. The mother and father robot, or husband and wife robot, Emily doesn’t know which to call them, get out of bed and move around the apartment. Their steps are not that different from those of human families in the morning: slow, careful, lots of pauses while they do this or that preparatory task for the day ahead. The robot father leaves for work a half an hour after the robot daughter gets on her school bus. At eight am it’s not quiet hours in the apartment block anymore. The robot mother switches on the TV.

Emily doesn’t own a TV. She did, but it broke, and she pushed it out onto the balcony. She sits on it in the morning to smoke a cigarette. This is against the apartment rules, but everyone does it, even the landlord, whose apartment is in building C. The only tenants who don’t smoke on the balconies are the robots.

There’s another robot family in building C.  There are two in building D. The complex has no building A, only B, C, and D. A was the last building on the plan, the landlord told Emily when she applied for a lease. It was ambitious, with the biggest apartments and the best floor plans. The company ran out of money, so they never built A. They turned half the space into a play park for the resident children and the other half into a parking lot for the tenants. Most of the tenants don’t own cars. None of the robots own cars.

Robots living among humans: it’s an experiment. Emily doesn’t care. Some people care, a lot. Every morning the paper has several editorials written by concerned citizens who think the robots should go back to their own kind, living in the complexes they built for themselves away from the humans. It’s foolish for them to try to fit into a human world, the concerned citizens argue. Robots don’t need food, so it’s pointless for them to live near grocery stores. They don’t need sleep, so it’s pointless for them to live in apartments with bedrooms. They don’t need bars, or coffee shops, or libraries. If they want to read a book, they can bring it up on the internet in their heads. Emily would like that part of being a robot. She imagines a virtual shelf of books, with digital covers designed to look old and treasured. She flips an imaginary cursor over the books and it brings up first sentences. Call me Ishmael. Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley.

According to the article in Time Magazine, robots read a lot of fiction. They narrowly beat out teenage girls and elderly humans as the greatest readers of fiction. Robot adults read more fiction than robot kids, but the kids read too, at their reading level, which confuses the people who study the robots. The robot child brain is no less developed than the robot adult brain, yet it chooses to focus on reading material designed for the age it says it is. Saying ‘it’ is controversial, but the people who study robots insist this is appropriate for test subjects. A robot test subject may claim to have a gender, but there is nothing gendered about it, according to the scientists.

They interview the robot test subjects on television sometimes. The floors and walls of the apartment complex are thin. Emily can hear the interviews through the ceiling.

How do you know you’re a woman?

The robots don’t answer questions they think are unnecessary.

Emily took up smoking when she lost her job. That was five years ago. It turns out robots are better at teaching elementary students than humans are. They don’t get tired or overworked, they don’t snap at bratty kids, and they’re unfazed by the battery of insults that a third grader has to assail teachers with. A robot teacher can really wear you down. No matter what you do, no matter what stunt you pull, a robot teacher just says, That is not permissible, Bobby. A robot teacher never screams, throws the class goldfish bowl into the blackboard, and tells Bobby to crawl back into whatever infernal pit he crawled out of. Robot teachers never get fired.

Of course, there are no human children named Bobby. That’s something a robot would name their kid. But Emily doesn’t remember the name of the diminutive offender that caused her to snap, shatter, and explode in front of twenty three wide-eyed, giggling students. Even his face is blurry in her memory, a smear of freckles and obnoxious, ornery persistence.

She would have been let go in a few weeks anyway. Testing of robot teachers was already completed, and most of her colleagues were, like her, out of work within months. There are some schools where children are still taught by humans, but they’re mostly in rural areas. The robots have very little interest in rural areas. There aren’t enough people there for them to watch, to imitate, to learn from.

Emily’s mom lives in a rural area. She can’t even get the internet. Emily has a government pension from her job. They weren’t going to give it to her, but at the last minute they did, because it was cheaper than offering her a certificate to go back to college for a new profession.  It’s enough to buy some food, cigarettes, pay the rent, and her internet bill. It’s not enough for a phone bill. She could call her mom through the internet, but the connection is always bad, and her mother is hard of hearing. Emily knows this is largely a list of excuses and complications she’s created to avoid telephone conversations with her mother, which depress her. Emily writes her mother long letters on paper she steals out of the recycling bins at the apartment complex. People are always throwing stuff away and not shredding it, especially the robots. Her mother has arthritis and can’t write long letters back. Emily gets shakily lettered postcards that thank her for the letters, offer a few sentences of news, and always are signed, Love, your mother. Emily sometimes worries her mother has forgotten her own name.

The recycling bins are a boon, as are the garbage bins. Emily was skilled at the art of dumpster diving in college, and she’s only gotten better. She fishes out the more interesting bottles that held alcohol, the kind she could never afford, rinses them, and sets them on the window sills throughout the apartment. She has a collection of paper from the robot families. The best ones are tacked to the wall with chewing gum. The apartments are inspected once a year, but the selection is on random, and Emily’s apartment has never been chosen. This is lucky; she’s pretty sure her landlord wouldn’t like the chewing gum, but her defense is sound: Blutack costs too much.

Emily hasn’t told her mother about the robots. Her mother is from an older generation. In her mind, robots still work in factories and operate the satellites of the moon. She knows they came out into the sunlight, down onto solid ground, but she’s never met one. There aren’t any robots in the town Emily came from. There, they still worry the robots will eat your families, turn people into fuel for their giant steel ships and buildings, and eradicate all fleshlife just because they can. This isn’t science fiction, Mom, Emily says, and her mother says, if you see them coming, run. Emily hasn’t bothered to explain to her mother that you can’t outrun a robot, but it doesn’t matter, because they would never chase you. There was a spate of robot crimes last year, because a contingent of the robot community thought that in order to more fully understand humans, robots needed to develop vices. Then it turned out that there were no laws governing crimes committed by robots, and it was in the papers for weeks while different political factions lobbied to pass legislation they felt would best protect humans, and the robots discussed it amongst themselves and dismantled the criminal robot faction. Or at least they said they did. None of the parts could be found. A lot of people believe a conspiracy group that says the criminal robots were shipped back to a moon satellite and it was shot out of orbit into open space. Emily wonders if the criminal robots will land somewhere and colonize a planet.

One Tuesday in June, Emily is sitting on the balcony thinking about how when she was little, around this time, summer vacation would start. Summer vacation is a thing of the past, schools don’t do it now. The robot teachers would rather not take the summer off, and since no children work on farms these days, there’s no need to keep children at home during the fertile months of the year. Emily misses it, as much as she misses working. It was a great feeling, watching the kids run out the door, down the steps to their parents. Emily always liked watching the faces of the parents. Some of them looking excited to spend more time with their kids, some of them looking like the guillotine was about to drop. Emily’s friends used to ask her if she was ever going to find a nice guy and have kids, and Emily used to say serenely, I work with children all day. They’re all the children I need. Then Bobby put one toe over the line, Emily wound up in the principal’s office, and the goldfish, presumably, were flushed down the toilet. She hopes the next teacher gave them a proper burial. Emily really feels bad about the goldfish.

imagesThere’s a knock at the door. At first Emily thinks she has imagined it, but then it comes again – thunk thunk thunk in quick succession. Emily stubs out her cigarette, reties her bathrobe, considers tearing down all the chewing-gummed papers, and shrugs. If she has to repaint, she’ll repaint. She goes through the living room and opens the door.

The robot girl is standing there, her face tilted up. She’s expecting a grown-up. Emily feels momentarily disconcerted.

“Aren’t you supposed to be in school?” she asks.

The robot girl puts out her metal hand. “It’s my mom. Something‘s wrong with her.”

“Do you want me to call-” Emily has no idea who you call for robot emergencies. “The police?”

“Please.” The robot girl puts her metal fingers into Emily’s palm. “Please just come.”

The robot family’s apartment is nice and neat. It has human furniture, which Emily finds strange, especially because it looks as if it is never used. The sofa is completely new. There are no lights on, so everything is fairly dim. Robots don’t need light to see. Emily has a sudden hunch that the fridge, if she opens it, will be totally bare. Why have a fridge? No wonder people are suspicious of robots.

“In the bedroom,” says the robot girl, and as Emily follows her down the hallway, she has a momentary flash of concern that must be genetic, straight from her mother. They’re going to eat her. Run, Emily, run! Then the bedroom door opens, and she sees the robot mom on the ground. Fitful sparks are coming from the side of her head. Behind her, the robot baby is sitting and crying, a low, quavering wail that almost sounds like a real baby.

Emily kneels by the robot mom. “Can you hear me?” she asks.

The robot mom’s head is moving from side to side with sharp little jerks; something in her computer chip is making her twitch. She speaks; something’s wrong with her voice monitor. “Take kids to park,” she says. “Go to store. List for store. More oil. Son needs memory upgrade. Schedule service.” Then she stops talking.

Emily turns to the robot daughter. “When did this happen?”

“I found her here.” The robot daughter stands still, looking at her mother. “When I got up.”

“Where’s your dad?”

“He’s out of town.”

“Do you have a number for him?”

“I sent him a message,” says the robot girl, tapping her head. Once again Emily is envious. “Who do you call in case of emergency?” she asks.

“An automatic service report has been dispatched.” The robot girl points to the baby. “Will you pick him up?”

“Um.” Emily looks at the robot baby. “Can I?”

“He’s not heavy. He’s a very light alloy.”

“I’m not good with kids,” says Emily.

The robot girl stares at her without blinking. “You are a teacher,” she says. “I looked you up.”

“Was,” says Emily. “I was a teacher.” She steps across the robot mother’s jerking frame and crouches down beside the baby. “How did you look me up?”

“There are listings. Records.”

“I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to access those.” Emily makes a face at the robot baby.

“It is an emergency.” The robot girl sits down with an abrupt thump, awkwardly, as if she doesn’t sit often. She simply falls backwards and lands on her small metal rear. Emily reaches out and lifts the baby. The robot daughter was right; he’s not heavy. She sets him on her own lap. He continues to cry.

“Does he have a mute switch?” Emily asks.

“Do human babies have a mute switch?” The girl seems genuinely curious. “What is a mute switch?”

“It makes something go silent,” Emily explains. “Human babies don’t have them. A lot of parents would probably upgrade if they could.”

“That’s how you know a baby needs to be fed or changed,” says the girl. “If it is crying.” She stares at Emily. “It must cry.”

“Yeah, well, when does he get hungry?” says Emily. “In the morning, around 3? And in the mid-morning, and in the afternoon, and at night – you made him a real baby, but why? Isn’t that the point of being a robot? To not have to … bother with this stuff?” She almost said fuck but stopped herself at the last minute. Even if the positronic brain in the robot girl’s head is technically an adult, there’s something wrong with saying fuck in front of her.

“I didn’t make him,” says the robot girl.

Emily joggles the crying robot baby, which makes its joints squeak. “You know,” she says, in her teacher voice, “When I was about your age, my parents brought home my baby brother. I was really jealous at first. I thought they didn’t love me.”

The robot girl just sits there.

“But eventually,” Emily goes on, “I got used to him, and I learned to love him.” She feels stupid; the story has no punch line, because it’s not the whole story. She’s leaving out the part where he dies. That’s the problem with the teacher voice. You can’t say and then when he was just eleven years old, he died in it. That upsets kids.

“My parents didn’t bring him home,” says the robot girl. “We all came from the same development unit. We’re Family 1.0.”

“I guess we were family 0,” Emily jokes. It’s not funny. The robot baby has stopped crying and is hiccupping. Every hiccup echoes off his metal interior, creating more hiccups. None of them can look at the mother robot, who is perfectly still. There is a steady drip of oil from a spot on her head where the casing has come unscrewed.

awesomo11“Did uh, did your dad send you a message back?” Emily asks.

“He says wait for the emergency dispatch unit,” says the robot girl. She sits up straight, her hands resting by her hips.

The Emergency Dispatch Unit is two guys in coveralls with a large covered truck. When they knock, the girl robot goes to let them in, and the robot dog, which ignored Emily, tries to bite them. The robot girl has to change the settings. The men are clearly annoyed by the robot dog. They pick up the mother robot without ceremony and begin to carry her out of the apartment. Emily panics. “Don’t you need a stretcher?” she says, hurrying after them with the robot baby on your hip.

The taller man looks at her like she’s crazy. “She’s a robot,” he says.

The robot girl tugs at Emily’s sleeve. “I want to go with her,” she says. Emily looks at her, and the teacher-voice springs back into her mind, ready with a speech about how it’ll be better, if they wait there in the apartment, watching movies and popping popcorn. The emergency dispatch unit guy, Phil, as the patch on his uniform says, is right. This isn’t a patient, it’s a robot. New memory unit, some new circuits, she’ll be right as rain. On the other hand, Emily was once told that everything would be okay, and it wasn’t. She can’t afford to be the person who does that, even to a robot. She turns to Emergency Dispatch Unit 2, whose nametag has been torn off. “We’re coming with you.”

“Suit yourself,” he says. “You’ll have to ride in the back.”

The back is full of broken robot pieces. They’re more like a salvage team than an emergency dispatch. Emily finds a box to sit on, and balances the baby on her lap. The robot girl sits on the floor beside her mother, ignoring the heads and eyes and fingers and what look like femurs of robots scattered around her. Emily bites her lip and tries not to superimpose. Just because she is imagining a heap of limbs and broken bodies doesn’t mean that’s how the robot girl sees it. The baby laughs and claps its hands, making a sound like toy cymbals. They go around the corners too fast, and Emily has a hard time keeping her balance.

When the truck stops, the Emergency Dispatch Unit comes back and picks up the mother robot. Emily gets out of the truck herself, then turns to help the little girl robot with one arm while clutching the baby with the other. She wants to put the baby down, but doesn’t dare. The truck is parked outside a long low warehouse painted gunmetal grey. A tall door with bolts is open. The Emergency Dispatch Unit disappears through the door with the mother robot carried between them. Emily and the kids follow more slowly.

Inside the warehouse, there are lots of steel workbenches in rows, all covered with plastic tarpaulins except for one on the end. On this surface the men in emergency dispatch uniforms lay the robot mother. They start to draw the tarp over her, but Emily says, “Wait,” and they shrug and have her sign a clipboard, even though she’s not related to the robots. When she hands it back to the nameless emergency dispatch man, he turns and heads for the door.

“Wait,” says Emily again. “What happens now?”

Emergency Dispatch Phil is already out the door, waving his coworker through. “Not our job,” he says. They go back out into the sunlight, leaving Emily in the vast chilly gloom with the baby robot, the little girl robot, and the mother robot supine on the workbench.

The little girl robot stands on both feet, her rubberized sole-pads flat on the floor. She locks her hands at her side, and looks straight ahead of herself. The baby has fallen into a ticking sleep on Emily’s shoulder, and she realizes this is when it would be napping, at home, presumably in its human crib. When it sleeps it vibrates slightly, a warm hum coming from its core, and Emily suspects the robots are trying to mix that strange sensation you have when holding a real sleeping baby, even if you do not like babies very much. Trying not to wake it, even though its sleep is probably programmed, she tiptoes around the warehouse, peeping under the other tarpaulins.

There is a robot in some state of disrepair on almost every bench. Some of them are only pieces of robots, like the things in the back of the Emergency Dispatch Vehicle. Truck, Emily says to herself. It was just a truck. She wonders who hired the Emergency Dispatch men. Are they a government-created service for robots? Did the robots hire them? What do robots know about ambulances, about what’s supposed to happen at the end of a hospital journey? They must know something; there are lots of robot nurses. Human nurses were the first to go. There are still a few perversely dedicated souls that love looking after the sick and dying, but more and more humans in disrepair are tended by robots. There are very few robot doctors, although many machines doctors now use closely resemble tiny robots.

Apparently robots are not tended by humans.

Emily returns to the half-uncovered workstation, to the robot girl, standing resolutely still. “Is your dad coming?” Emily says, switching the robot baby from one hip to the other.

The little girl nods.

“When is he coming?”

“He’s on a business trip,” says the robot girl. “He’ll come when he’s done.”

“When will that be?” says Emily. She can’t stay with them here for a week, a month – unlike the robots she has to eat, and sleep somewhere other than under a tarpaulin on a metal workbench. She needs to pee, often, preferably in a bathroom, not periodically change her oil cartridge. But she can’t leave them here, they’re children – they’re not children – they’re all alone. “When will he be here?”

The little girl robot doesn’t know. “When he is,” she says.

Emily looks around the warehouse. There are two skylights set in the far end. A corner of one of the skylights has a hole in it, and as Emily watches a bird flies in and lands on one of the steel crossbeams that lattice the roof of the warehouse. She sees it has built a nest there, crooked in the crossbeam and its angle.

“How long does he sleep?” she asks the robot girl, nodding at the baby.

“This is his morning nap,” says the girl. “An hour and a half, then he needs to be fed.”

“What does your mom feed him?”

“She changes his cartridge.”

“Great,” says Emily. There might be a spare cartridge here, somewhere, amongst all the pieces of robots and bolts and screws and lengths of tin and things which look more like torture implements than tools for repair. “Okay, well,” and she slides down the workbench leg to sit on the floor, which is dirty, gritted over with dust that has settled on oil. Crossing her legs, she tries to make a comfortable space for the robot baby in her lap. His little metal fists punch her shoulder and left breast.

“He needs to have his cartridge changed a lot because the cartridges are so small,” the robot girl volunteers. She does not sit down.

“Well, we’ll figure something out,” says Emily, suddenly sleepy. She leans her head back against the workbench and dozes, the warmth of the robot baby unexpectedly soothing.    

The robot baby cries when he wakes up. Fortunately, just as Emily is shaking her head and trying to come out of her stupor, the robot father is there. He takes the baby from her, thanking her for taking care of the children. Emily says it was no trouble at all and that they were very good, just like she used to tell the parents of the children she babysat when she was a teenager, or the parents of her students back when she thought things would get better. She pats the robot baby. “Do you have a cartridge for him?”

The robot father shakes his head. “He’ll have to wait,” he says, and then, just like that, he turns the baby over and flips a switch located in the small of its back. Immediately, it stops crying.

“He does have a mute switch!” Emily says, amused, but when the robot father turns the baby back over it’s obvious that it’s not just muted. There’s no hum, no light in its little chest bulb, no sign of robot life. “You turned him off,” she says.

The father nods. He goes over to the robot daughter, opens a panel in her shoulder blade, and makes some tch-tch noises, then adjusts a knob.

“Are you going to turn her off too?” Emily says. Her voice has a hysterical edge.

“No, she has a rechargeable generator, like me,” says the father. “I had to switch it on.” He puts the baby on the workstation beside the robot mother and steps into place, directly beside his daughter. Emily sees now that their stance is identical; feet hip width apart, arms locked, faces forward.

“What happens now?” says Emily.

“We wait for the repairmen,” says the father.

“For how long?” says Emily, looking around the deserted warehouse. There are no other stationary robots waiting for someone to come and fix their family members, their powerless metal loved ones. The other abandoned robots slumber on beneath their grey and blue plastic blankets.

“Until they come,” says the robot father. He doesn’t turn his head and look at her.

“Okay,” says Emily. “Okay, well, if you need anything, you can contact me – you can do that, right? You can do that.” She doesn’t know what the robots could possibly need from her; she just knows that leaving them here feels wrong, even though the father is here now. She stands for a moment, clenching and unclenching her fist, and then she leaves the warehouse by the same door as the emergency dispatch men.

The warehouse is in the industrial district. Emily has to cross a wide expanse of pot-holed parking lot to get to a road, and even then it’s not a real road, it’s just a paved network between other warehouses and business complexes. The bridge overhead rattles with traffic, and Emily can see three water towers across the buildings, clumped together like thin-stemmed metal mushrooms. She walks, looking for a bus stop, planning to tell the driver what, she doesn’t know, definitely not a story about helping robots. Nobody will ever believe her. Robots don’t need our help.

When she finds a bus stop, the automated scrolling LED tells her she has missed her bus by a few minutes, and will have to wait an hour for the next one. There’s no one else at the bus stop. Emily’s feet hurt; this whole time, she’s been wearing slippers and her pajamas and robe. She is a guaranteed crazy person now, fully unhinged, wandering the industrial district in her nightclothes.

Sitting at the bus stop, waiting, Emily feels a strange, cool emptiness, as if her insides were made of metal. If she had the internet in her head, she thinks, she would send a message to her mother. She wants to contact her mother. She almost wants to tell her she would never leave her lying on a bench in a near-abandoned warehouse, that she would go in search of someone to fix her, but she knows her mother is old, and age can’t be fixed; the robots haven’t helped with that. Instead she imagines the conversation they would actually have, all the static and delays, and the sounds she would make that mean she’s listening while her mother tells her about the rain and the wind and the height of the fuel grain in the north field. She promises herself she can’t have another cigarette until she and her mother actually have this conversation, the one they always have, the one she could take part in while asleep, but even so. Calling at all in Emily’s family is saying I love you.

The bus comes, a little late, but it comes. Emily gets on and stares down the human bus driver, who stares back at her. He jerks his head towards the interior of the bus. “Just sit down,” he says, “I don’t even want to know.” Emily goes to the very back of the bus. She breathes a sigh of relief at not having to argue with a robot, also at not having to fabricate something, whatever has happened to her clearly so illogical, so human, it defies explanation. She sleeps all the way to the city center and finds her way home just as the children are getting out of school, running and jumping and boarding the long yellow buses, driven by robot bus drivers.

Ann Eleven only communes with the dead on alternate Tuesdays and is fueled primarily by PG Tips and whiskey. If she had known William Gibson would be so active on Twitter, she would never have made her twitter handle @caycepollard, but it's too late to turn this boat around now.

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