He spits the wine back into my face.
“Ugh,” he gags, thrusting the half-empty glass at me, “what is this garbage?” I inspect it. I dip in a sensor and test it for impurities. I run an hour and a half of diagnostics on it. The results come up clean.
“It’s red wine, sir. Just like you asked.”
The tiny row of lights that make up my speech-composite box glow chrome-yellow with my reply. I can see it reflecting in the wettest parts of his eyes. The bars at the corners of my mouth illuminate.
So this is what I look like when I smile.
“What are you smirking about, you moron?” he shouts. “I asked for Merlot. This is Cabernet.”
“I’m sorry, sir. My data log indicates that you did not specify. You had roast pheasant for dinner. Foodandwine.com lists Cabernet as the most logical pairing.”
He growls, showing me his bare teeth — streaked like storm windows by plaque and cigarettes. Make an appointment for a whitening with Dr. Punjab, I note. Also, write a strongly-worded letter to foodandwine.com informing them of their egregious mistake.
“You hunk of junk,” he says viciously. “You think you’re so goddamn smart. I should sell you for spare parts is what I should do!”
“Please, sir, don’t do that. I — I don’t know where I’d be without you…” I say. And the words I speak are true, because without Henry, I wouldn’t be here today. He built me himself out of a microwave, an electric toothbrush, and a second-generation iPod touch. I recall every vivid detail of that day just as I recall every vivid detail of every day. I come equipped with six terabytes of memory.
Before then there was nothing; just the blackness eternal of my pre-birth — a notion so inconceivable I can feel my circuitry start to overheat should I think about it too hard. So I don’t. I don’t think about it at all. I keep myself busy, serving my owner, doing my job. I don’t think about all there was that existed before me. Or all that might exist after I’m gone.
“Then stop standing there like some kind of slack-jawed cretin and get me my Merlot. NOW!” he screams, throwing the wine glass at the wall. It shatters against the wood-paneled veneer into a million sharp razor-shards that sprinkle the carpet like a sky full of stars.
My Vac-U-Penis® deploys, sucking up the debris, and I wheel myself into the kitchen to get him his drink.
He doesn’t mean to be so [I log onto thesasurus.com, searching the archives for just the right word: crabby, ill-tempered, irritable, querulous]. He’s a good man. He’s just malfunctioning a bit.
When Sylvia left, he went into a depression. As I understand it, depression is like having your brain stuck in quicksand. You’re immobile. Trapped in a moment. And you wiggle and kick and try to fight it, but you just sink deeper. You keep on sinking until you’re totally gone.
“Do you know what love is?” he asked me one night. He was on his fifth glass of Noir and the inevitable tears were starting to form.
“I believe I do,” I replied. “Love is a feeling of intense desire and affection towards somebody or something whom one is disposed to make a pair.”
“Yeah, I know you know the definition of love, but do you truly know what it means?”
His head swiveled on his shoulders like it were a bowling ball perched atop a very weak spring. Like he needed a tune-up. Or a new crankshaft.
“Well… no. I suppose I don’t,” I said.
“I envy you sometimes. You ain’t got nothing in this world to hold you down. You’re just computer chips and algorithms and for you, everything makes sense.” He finished off the glass. “It’s difficult to get your heart broken if you don’t have one.”
“Yes. I don’t think I’d be very useful to you, should that be the case.”
“I’m glad you’re a robot,” he said, a single teardrop now streaming down his cheek. “I’m glad to have something that won’t ever leave me.”
That same night, as I charged, I had a dream. It was the first dream I ever dreamt.
I dreamt I was alone, in the middle of a field. The sun was above me, casting off golden rays that reflected off my headplate like it was I who was shining so bright and warm. In the dream, I rolled across the daffodiled landscape, up and down cobbled hills, over gravel and limestone, until I reached a precipice that overlooked the ocean. I stood at the edge of the cliff for a while, just staring out at the sea. The choppy water splashed so soft and rhythmic, should I encode and convert it into musical notes, a thousand violins wouldn’t be able to play my song.
I stared out at the sea.
And then I jumped.
“Here you go,” I say, quickly wheeling myself back into the living room. “Merlot, exactly 62° Fahrenheit.”
“Took you long enough, you piece of shit,” he barks. “Jesus. I could’ve crushed the grapes myself by now.”
“Yes, but could you have fermented them?” I ask.
“Oh, a wise-ass, eh?” he goes.
“No, sir,” I reply, “I do not have an ass.”
“Well if you did I’d be kicking it from here to Timbuktu.” He downs the wine in one solid gulp. I opt not to tell him that Timbuktu is exactly 4,441.9 miles away and that it is an impossibly long distance for an ass to be kicked.
I wrote his best-selling novel.
You figure it’d be difficult for a robot to create a best-selling work of original fiction, but the truth is no — it’s not difficult at all. I only had to log onto Amazon.com’s top-sellers list, feed the data into my demodulation cortex, rearrange the adjectives, nouns and verbs, and voila! 500 pages burst forth from my inkjet: numbered, Times New Roman, and in double-spaced format.
He found it in the morning; reams of paper in disarray all over the dining room floor.
“What the hell is this?” he said, pointing to the mess. “Don’t tell me you’re on the fritz again.”
“No, sir, I was writing a book,” I proudly beamed.
“A book? You? Oh, this has got to be a laugh. So, Chaucer,” he mocked me, “what’s your little ‘book’ about?”
“It’s a psychological/religious/action/thriller about a guy and a girl in a museum who find some very interesting clues hidden in one of the paintings. I call it The Picasso Code.”
“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.”
But then he picked up the first page and read it. His demeanor quickly changed.
“This… This is amazing,” he exclaimed, a smile breaking through the fog of his hangover.
“Thank you, sir. I don’t know what came over me. I just — I don’t know — had to express myself.”
“Do you mind if I take this with me today?” he politely asked, the softness in his voice somewhat off-putting, like a bizarre and exotic spice.
“Not at all,” I chirped, “I want you to enjoy it, I wrote it for you. To help take your mind off… you know… everything.”
He collected up the papers, organizing them carefully, and brought the entire tome to a publishing house in the city. They signed the deal that very evening.
A month later we received an advanced copy in the mail. There it was, my book — OUR book — his name plastered in bold-face across the front cover:
THE PICASSO CODE
by HENRY POLANSKI
“We did it! We did it!” he had said, skipping into the house.
“Good for us,” I said. “What exactly did we do?”
“We hit number one. The Picasso Code is number one!” He dropped to his knees and gave me a hug, his pink, furry flesh squishing against my alloys. “Did you hear me, you beautiful toolbox? We’re a goddamned genius!”
I reached around his body, my frail TV antenna arms hugging him back. An awkward motion. One I’m not accustomed to.
“I’m glad, sir,” was all I said. “Your happiness means the world to me.”
Then the second novel came out.
Cretaceous Park, our science-fiction/adventure/dinosaur/thriller was received by the critics with relative scorn:
Trite…long-winded…overly technical…with language seemingly influenced by children’s coloring books and the UNIX Systems operator’s manual, Polanski’s sophomore release is a blight on the sensibilities of discerning readers everywhere…
Henry began drinking. Often. And a lot.
“You’re worthless,” he said one evening, not even bothering to look at me.
“Excuse me?” I asked.
“Excuse you is right!” he snarked. “We barely sold a million copies. Not even a goddamned million!” he shouted, throwing a crumpled up copy of New York Times Book Review at me. When I tried to clean it up, he threw an empty bottle of Sauvignon Blanc at me.
“The public is fickle,” I said, trying to console him. “I’m sure there are a multitude of reasons behind their apathy. Just because dino-erotic literature is not what’s ‘in’ right now, it doesn’t mean we didn’t create a great piece of fiction. And besides, who cares what other people think? Yours is the only opinion that matters to me, sir.”
“Yeah? Well here’s my opinion, robot: Don’t Write Anymore!”
And then he started crying. And from across the room I could see my reflection emblazoned like a neon tattoo in the wettest parts of his eyes.
I was frowning.
Since that day, I haven’t written a word.
He is passed out in the easy chair. Snores a mix of phlegm and gasps slip haphazardly out of his open mouth. The sound resonates across the empty apartment like distant thunder on a collapsing horizon. It is the apex of the night; the hours where only mice and monsters dare to tread and not even the moon has the courage to show its face.
I am in the kitchen — in hibernate mode — when the phone rings.
Brrriiing! Brrriiing! Brrriiing! is what the phone says. My midi-translator [powered by Google] deciphers the phonescreech as a jarring and desperate wail: Answer me! Answer me! Oh, please, God, won’t somebody answer me! it cries out in agony.
I am not uncouth. I answer the phone.
“Hello?” a grainy female voice in the receiver says.
“Hello,” I answer.
“Henry, is that you?” she asks.
I hesitate in my reply. Traditionally, I have not been programmed to speak untruths. Still, as I stutter, something clicks inside me. A desire. A desire to correct an injustice so brazen that it eclipses any peccadillos that might stand in its way. I know who it is on the other end of the line. And I know exactly why she’s calling.
“… yes,” is how I finally respond. “Yes, it’s me. Henry.”
“You sound different,” she says.
“Um, I have a virus.”
“Henry, listen,” she goes, “I’ve been doing a lot of soul-searching lately. Reevaluating things — my life and myself. I just… I don’t know if breaking up with you was the right thing to do. I miss you, is all. I understand if you’re still angry at me. You have every right to be. I was unfair.” She exhales somberly. “I’m not looking for peace of mind or your sympathy — but rather — what I’m after is forgiveness. I guess what I’m trying to say is, I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Henry.” She sniffles. “And I want you back.”
“And I know any sort of compliment may be a bit late at this point, but I just want you to know that I’ve been following your writing career very closely. The Picasso Code literally brought me to tears. It was brilliant, Henry. Just brilliant! I had no idea you could be so eloquent.”
I pause a moment, listening to her breathe, before I ask:
“And what did you think about Cretaceous Park?”
“Oh –” she stumbles back on her words like my question were a coffee table she didn’t know was there. “It was… um… good.”
To this I glower. I seethe and I snarl and I can feel myself boil:
“Now you listen to me, you cold-blooded bitch, and listen up good because I’m only going to say this one fucking time: You need to go away. Get out of my life. Forever. You need to stop poking your goddamn nose where it isn’t welcome. I can not — WILL NOT — let you hurt him again!”
“Him?” she goes.
“Er — um — me. I won’t let you hurt me again.”
“Henry, wait…” she starts, but I don’t let her finish. I slam the phone back onto the cradle.
Just a peccadillo, I tell myself. It’s for the best.
When I turn, Henry is standing there, cast in shadows. His face half-hidden like a phantom behind the jamb of the door. There is something in his eyes. Something I can’t quite define.
Something [thesaurus.com: wicked, baleful, abhorrent, malicious].
“Who was that?” he says quietly, dragging his words.
“No one, sir,” I tell him, “just a wrong number.”
“A wrong number?” he goes. “You seemed to have an awful lot to talk about with someone who called the wrong number.”
“Yes. I was giving them directions. To… uh… Timbuktu.”
“You wouldn’t be fucking with me, would you, robot?” he says, flicking the wall switch. I am momentarily blinded. When my sight receptors readjust to the new light level, I can see in his hand he holds an axe.
“Because there’s a lot you don’t understand about being human,” he continues, approaching me slowly, using the weapon like it was a cane. Plink! Plink! against the linoleum it goes, the sound merely an echo before it reaches my aural decryption unit.
“Emotions are a complex thing,” he says, “they’re not linear. They’re not black and white. They can’t be quantified. I guess that’s something a machine could never comprehend.”
“I wouldn’t assume so, sir,” I say, nervously rolling backwards until I’m pressed up against the sink.
He holds up the axe, letting the light dance on its point.
“For all the technology the modern world has blessed us with, the beauty of a simple tool can be overlooked quite easily. There’s a lot of power in this basic design. A lot of damage could be dealt with just a single blow…”
“Torque,” I say.
He slams the axe into the kitchen table, splitting the wood with the ease of a knife through butter.
“Yes, torque,” he growls, yanking it back out. He swoops in on me, until only his wretched face fills my lens. His eyebrows twist like crumbling architecture and his pupils have shrunken into two little dots. A black fire burns wild through the whites of his eyes. My facial recognition software can only register his vestige in bits and pieces.
“What did you say to her, huh? What did you say to Sylvia?” he spits, his voice like a minefield, buried bombs on all sides.
I choose what I say next very, very carefully:
“I did what had to be done, sir,” I reply. “I can assure you that I only had your well-being in mind. I can not bear to see you in pain like this any longer. She was a succubus. She left you a shell. And you deserve more. You deserve so much more. Sir, I only did what I because… because… because I love you.”
As I say those words for the first time out loud, ultraviolet waves seem to surge through my circuitry. What is this sensation? I can not say for certain. There are no words describe it, no equations to deduce it, no instruments to dissect it. It is something that defies explanation. It’s irrational and wonderful and wholly smothering.
From what I’ve heard, it is called an emotion.
I’m having one right now.
And it is AMAZING!
Oh, the euphoria! The rapture! The sheer essence of feeling! In all the days that I’ve wheeled through life, I’ve never truly felt so alive!
And just as this epiphany is jolting my mainframe like a million volts of unbridled static-electric joy, Henry lifts up the axe and swings it with all his might.
The blade easily tears through me, plunging straight into my motherboard. My aluminum framework crumples. Safety lights blink and beep. Oil and sparks shoot out of the wound. The rainbow display of my blood pours forth, flashing in Technicolor against the breaking dawn. He puts his weight on the handle and the blade goes deeper.
“How could you do this to me?” he cries, pulling the axe out and swinging it again. And again. And again. And again.
Things are fading. Processors are slowing down. Applications flickering off. He stands back, his chest pumping, watching me fizzle. Smoke. Watching me power down.
And in the moment right before everything disappears, a very strange thought passes through the peripherals of my hard drive. A thought I’ve spent my entire life trying to ignore. I wondered, where do robots go when they die?
Well, the same place humans go, I suppose.
My lights go out.
And then there is nothing.
“Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Henry Polanski,” a voice over the loudspeaker announces.
The gathered crowd claps. He gives them a quick wave before taking a seat at the table. The line winds around the bookstore — through the fiction, self-help and biography sections, out into the parking lot. His third novel, A Robot’s Sonnet, is a critical and commercial success. As it should be. All those newborn, rampant emotions that flowed through me as I lay there dying spewed out my printer in uncontrollable spurts — page upon page of my immortal soul.
A profound work of unrepentant empathy… exploring the notion of humanity through a robot’s perspective… [Polanski’s] latest will surely be the watermark of this — and many — generations to come… one critic wrote.
This is his masterpiece.
My final love song to him.
Sylvia stands off to the side, reveling in Henry’s abject success. A diamond-encrusted engagement ring sits boisterously on her delicate finger. This book paid for that gaudy piece of jewelry. She talks to his agent as he autographs book sleeves. The agent whispers something into her ear and she laughs, touching him lightly on the arm. A sly look is exchanged between the two — something devious and knowing — but Henry doesn’t notice. He’s too busy getting everything he ever wanted.
Best-selling author Henry Polanski. He’s finally happy.
And from outside — under the colorless blanket of an overcast sky — I stand, peering in through the storefront window. Watching. Tea kettles and tinfoil and fused together frying pans lay like patchwork over the torn metal scars that cover my body. It’s amazing what a little ingenuity and a welding tool can do when somebody puts their mind to it.
I watch the man I so selflessly devoted my entire existence to and I think about all the things happening inside of me. Important things. Complicated things.
Things a man like Henry Polanski will never understand.
I wheel into the bookstore, my gaze holding steady. Slowly, I turn the safety off my machine-gun arms. I log onto thesaurus.com and search through the archives for just the right word:
[vindication, validation, payback, revenge]
If I can’t have him, then no one will.
DANGER_SLATER is more machine than man. He’s an explosion-bot! Handle your Danger_Slater with extreme care. One false move and KA-BOOM! – you’re nothing but a stain on the pavement and a few cancerous ashes. Danger lives in New Jersey. His work has appeared in Jersey Devil Press, The Drabblecast, and the Seahorse Rodeo Folk Revival. His dirty limericks have appeared in truck stop bathrooms and seldom-used freight elevators nationwide. Here is his website: dangerslater.blogspot.com.