I Heart Robot, page 1
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The author makes no claims to, but instead acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of the word marks mentioned in this work of fiction.
Copyright © 2014 by Suzanne van Rooyen
I HEART ROBOT by Suzanne van Rooyen
All rights reserved. Published in the United States of America by Month9Books, LLC.
No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
Published by Month9Books
Cover Design by Terrie Conje
Cover Copyright © 2014 Month9Books, LLC
To my grandfather – thank you for the music.
And to Mark, with love always.
If today were a song, it’d be a dirge in b-flat minor. The androids cluster around the coffin, their false eyes brimming with mimetic tears. They were made to protect and serve their human masters, to entertain and care for us. Now, just one generation later, we toss them in the trash like nothing more than broken toasters.
The androids huddle in a semicircle, four adults and a child droid with synthetic curls. They all look so human; their grief real even if their tears aren’t. The two male-droids are even good looking in that chiseled, adboard model kind of way. They’re a little too perfect. With their machine strength, they lower the cardboard box into the dirt and the child droid begins to sing. His exquisite voice shatters like crystal in my ears, heartbreaking.
Asrid and I shouldn’t be here—the only two humans amongst the machines—but I loved Nana. I loved her before I knew better than to feel anything for a robot. It doesn’t matter how attached you get. A robot can never love you back, regardless of how human their advanced AI might make them seem.
“Why’re they burying it anyway?” Asrid mutters beside me. My friend doesn’t wear black to the funeral, refusing to acknowledge the passing of my nanamaton, an android that always seemed more like a mom and less like an automated child-minder.
“Should be sending it to the scrap heap. Isn’t this against regulation?” Asrid’s face scrunches up in a frown, marring her impeccable makeup. She’s a peacock amongst ravens, and I’m a scruffy crow.
“Nana was like a mother to me. I’ll miss her.” Tears prick the corners of my eyes as the coffin disappears into the earth, and the droid keens a eulogy.
“I know you will, T.” Asrid gives me a one-armed hug.
Svartkyrka Cemetery is losing the battle to weeds. Human tombstones from back when there was real estate for corpses lie in crumbling ruin covered in pigeon poop. No one gets buried anymore—there’s no space and, anyway, it’s unsanitary.
“Can we go now?” Asrid hops between feet to fight off the chill. Autumn has shuffled closer to winter, the copper and russet leaves crunching beneath our shoes. The leaves look like scabs, a carpet of dried blood spilling into the open earth. Fitting for my nanamaton’s funeral, but robots can’t bleed.
“Sure, we can go.”
Asrid wends her way toward the parking lot as I approach the grave. Nana loved yellow anemones, said they were like sunshine on a stick.
“Hope there’s sunshine where you are now, Nana.” I drop a single flower into the ground and wipe away the tear snailing down my cheek. Why Nana chose to permanently shut down and scramble her acuitron brain, I can only guess. Perhaps living in a world controlled by groups like the People Against Robot Autonomy, PARA for short, became too much for her.
“Sorry for your loss,” the child droid says in a tinkling voice.
“Thank you for letting me know,” I say.
“She would’ve wanted you to be here.” The other nanamaton, gray haired and huddled in a trench coat, doesn’t meet my gaze.
I stuff my mitten-covered hands into the pockets of my jacket and hunch my shoulders against the chill. You’d think the universe might have had the courtesy to rain given the sullen occasion, but the sun perches in an acid blue sky.
“Tyri, you coming?” Asrid shouts from the gate, remembering too late that we’re supposed to be stealthy. Government regulation stipulates cremation for humans and scrap heaps for robots. If the authorities discover us committing metal and electronics to the earth instead of recycling, Asrid and I will be fined. The robots will be decommissioned on the spot.
“I’m so sorry,” I whisper to the androids before turning away. Their artificial gaze follows me, boring into my back sharp as a laser.
“Botspit, I’m hungry. I could gnaw on a droid. Where’re we going to lunch?” Asrid ignores the dead and grieving as if none of it exists.
“I think I’ll just go home.”
“Come on, T. I know she was your Nana but she was just a robot, you know.”
Just a robot! Nana changed my diapers. My first day of kindergarten, Nana held my hand. When I came home from school, Nana made me cocoa and sat helping me with homework. Nana cooked my favourite dumpling dinner every Wednesday and made me double-chocolate birthday cake. Nana taught me how to tie my shoelaces and braid my hair. The day I turned sixteen, Mom decided we didn’t need Nana anymore. She should’ve been decommissioned then, but Nana disappeared the day before Mom’s M-Tech buddies came to kill her core and reprocess her parts.
“She was more than that to me,” I say.
“Ah, you’re adorable.” Asrid casts nervous glances across the lot. Satisfied no policemen lurk behind the bushes, she slips her arm through mine and drags me through the gate. The wrought iron is warped and daubed with rust. Marble angels stand sentinel, broken and stained by time. One misses a nose, and the other has lost a wing.
“You didn’t say anything about my new bug.” Asrid pouts when we reach her vehicle. The hoverbug is neon pink, matching her shoes, handbag, and the ribbons holding up her blond hair. The ‘E’ badge that stands for Engel Motors looks more like a spastic frog than the angel it’s supposed to represent.
“Is it meant to smell like cherries?” Even the plush interior is unicorn puke pink. I put on my sunglasses in case all that color stains my eyes.
“Yes, in fact.” Asrid flicks a switch and the engine purrs. “Slipstream Waffles.” She assumes that monotone voice she always uses when addressing machines.
The last thing I want is to sit on sticky vinyl in a noisy waffle house, indulging in sugar and calories served by permanently smiling droids on roller-skates.
“Take me home to Vinterberg.”
“Tyri, don’t annoy me.”
“Sassa, Don’t patronize me.” I give her the glare she knows better than to argue with.
“Vinterberg,” I say again and Asrid heaves a melodramatic sigh.
“Be boring. Going home to make love to your violin?”
“Why ask when you know the answer?” Nana’s coffin lowering into the ground replays in my mind to a soundtrack in b-flat minor.
“How does Rurik put up with being the other love of your life?”
It’s my turn to sigh. Rurik doesn’t really put up with it or even understand why I love music so much. But then, I don’t understand why he gets so hung up on politics, and I definitely don’t understand why he didn’t show up for Nana’s funeral when he knows how much she meant to me.
“We manage.” I stare out the tinted windows at the darkened scenery whipping past.
The hoverbug takes the quickest route, zipping along the street ways that skirt the chaotic center of Baldur. The jungle of concrete
The hoverbug slows and lands in my driveway.
“I’ll call you later,” I say before disembarking.
“You heard anything yet?”
“No, but tomorrow is the last day so I’ll hear soon.” I’m trying not to think about why it’s taking so long to hear back after my audition for the Baldur Junior Philharmonic Orchestra.
“You’ll get in T. I’m sure of it. You’re brilliant.”
Asrid’s words make me smile despite the morbidity of the day. She waves and the hoverbug zooms off, leaving me in the rustling-leave calm of Vinterberg.
I press my thumb to the access pad and the front door hisses open. Mom’s at work like always. Taking off my coat and shoes, I whistle for Glitch. She pads into the hallway, her face lopsided from sleep. She stretches and sits down with a decisive humph as if to say, ‘Well, human, I’m here. Now, worship me.’ And I do.
“Hey my Glitchy girl.” I fold my cyborg Shiba Inu into my arms and sweep her off the floor. Her mechatronic back leg sticks out straight and stiff, the rest of her soft and warm. She licks my ear, one paw on my forehead.
“Good afternoon, Tyri. Would you like some refreshments?” Miles whirs out of the kitchen into the hallway. He’s nothing like Nana, just a bipedal mass of electronics and metal with assorted appendages capable of mundane tasks. He doesn’t even have eyes, only a flashing array of lights. Despite Mom designing a new generation of androids for M-Tech, we can’t afford the new model housebot. Maybe it’s better this way. I don’t feel much for our bot, but I dubbed him Miles. It seemed to fit.
“Would you like some refreshments?” he repeats.
“Tea and a sandwich.” I carry Glitch into my bedroom at the back of the house. Glitch leaps from my arms, landing on the bed where she curls up in a knot of black, white, and tan fur amongst my pillows.
Still in my black lace skirt and corset, I stretch and flex my fingers. Twisting the cricks from my neck and rolling my shoulders, I ease out the graveyard tension. My violin lies in a bed of blue velvet, waiting for my touch. With the strings in tune and the bow sufficiently taut, the instrument nestles against my jaw as if I was born with a gap there just for the violin. It completes me.
I warm-up my fingers, letting them trip over the strings as my bow arcs and glides. Then I’m ready to play: Beethoven’s Kreutzer violin sonata in A major, Nana’s favorite. Glitch’s ears twitch back and forth. She raises her head to howl but thinks better of it, yawning and curling back into sleep.
The frenzied opening of the sonata segues into a melancholy tune and in the brief moment of calm, my moby warbles at me. I have mail. I try to ignore the distraction and play through the screeching reminder of an unread message, but it might be the one I’ve been anticipating.
Vibrating in my hand, the moby blinks at me: One unread email. Subject: BPO audition.
“This is it, Glitchy.”
She raises her head as I sit beside her. One hand buried in her fur, I open the email. The words blur together, pixelate and run like wet ink across the screen. Disbelief makes my vision swim. I have to read the message several times over to make sure I haven’t misunderstood.
“Codes! I got in.” Blood warms my cheeks as I whisk Glitch into my arms, spinning her around before squeezing her to my chest. She does not approve and scratches at me until I drop her back on the bed. Miles enters with a tray of tea and neat triangular sandwiches.
“Miles, I got in! I’m going to play for the junior BPO. This is amazing.” I’m jumping up and down.
Miles flashes orange. “Could not compute. Please restate.”
“I’m going to play for the best junior orchestra in the country. This could be my chance to break into the scene, to meet all the right people, and make an impression!” My one chance to escape the life already planned for me by Mom. The last thing I want to be is a robot technician.
Miles keeps flashing orange. “Apologies, Tyri. Could not compute, but registering joy.” His visual array flashes green. “Happy birthday!” He says in his clipped metallic voice before leaving the room.
I clutch the moby and read the email another ten times before calling Mom. I reach her voicemail, and my joy tones down a notch. I don’t want to talk to another machine, so I hang up and call Rurik instead.
“Hey, Tyri. Now’s not a good time. Can I call you back later?”
“I got in,” I say.
“To the orchestra?”
“That’s great.” He doesn’t sound half as happy as I am.
“Thanks, I’m so excited, but kind of scared too—”
“T, I’m just in the middle of something. I’ll call you back in a bit, okay?” He hangs up, leaving me babbling into silence.
Deflated, I slump onto the floor and rest my head on the bed. Glitch shuffles over to give me another ear wash, delicately nibbling around my earrings. I should’ve known Rurik would be busy getting ready to go to Osholm University. Getting a scholarship to the most prestigious school in all of Skandia is way more impressive than scoring a desk in the Baldur Junior Orchestra. Still, I received better acknowledgment from the housebot than my boyfriend. I call Asrid.
“Hey T, what’s up?” Asrid answers with Sara’s high-pitched giggle in the background.
“I got in!”
“That’s awesome, except I guess that means more practicing and less time with your friends, huh?” Asrid sounds genuinely put out, as if she’d even notice my absence when Sara’s around. Codes, isn’t there someone who could just be happy for me? Maybe Mom’s right, and I am being selfish wanting the “Bohemian non-existence” when I could have a “sensible and society-assisting” career in robotics.
“Sorry, I . . . thought you’d like to know.”
“I’m happy for you, Tyri. I know it’s a big deal to you. Congrats. Seriously, you deserve this considering how hard you practice,” Asrid says, and Sara shouts congratulations in the background.
“Hey, our food arrived. Chat later?”
“Sure.” I hang up and reach for my violin. Nana would’ve understood. She would’ve danced around the living room with me. She probably would’ve baked me a cake and thrown a party. Determined not to cry, I skip the second movement of Beethoven’s sonata and barrel straight into the jaunty third. The notes warp under my fingers, and the tune slides into b-flat minor.
Two days until the first rehearsal. Maybe I’ll be able to do something different with my life; something that makes me happy instead of just useful.
If anyone cared to ask my opinion on the human condition, I’d say humans are the never-ending wait. They’re waiting for something better, something different, something that makes them feel more alive.
I feel almost human; I’ve been waiting nineteen days, sixteen hours, and twenty-three minutes for just one thing, one word, eight letters: accepted. My entire existence hinges on another person’s subjective opinion of my ability.
Walking helps, it makes the minutes flow liquid, passing by in a single ribbon of time. I’d sleep if I could; I hear it makes time flow even faster. There’s a tingle of anticipation in my circuit, a simultaneous dread and thrill that makes waiting an agony and a pleasure.
That would be my second opinion on the human condition: it’s a paradox. It’s never black and white with them, but a kaleidoscopic swirl of grays, mixed emotions, and complications. Robots are simpler. Binary. On or off. Even us convoluted androids can be reduced to ones and zeros.
The email pings behind my eyes, and I pause mid step on a corner in lower Baldur. The few humans out on the windy street cast me sideways glances and nothing more, dismissing my presence. I’m just another kid with his hoodie up against the chill. I don’t wear the orange patch we’re supposed to, declaring make, model, and human owners. Anonymity is my only protection now. There’s only so far you can run from your past before the towns become villages, and there aren’t any more hydrogen stations. Itching to read the mail, I head into an unkempt park, home to vagrants and squirrels, in search of privacy.
My vision blurs with a scrawl of text. The pinprick letters scan across my cybernetic eyeballs. I smile, a reflexive reaction to the good news. The emotion module upgrade is working. The complex code packages unraveling emotions in my core and throughout my circuits make me feel even more human.
Accepted. Rehearsal Saturday: two o’clock at the Baldur Opera House.
A red exclamation mark blinks in my peripheral vision. My tank’s almost empty. I’ve got less than six hours till I’m incapacitated unless I can pilfer some hydrogen. Still smiling, I jog past the sleeping nightclubs and comatose bars of downtown Baldur to the dilapidated warehouse district. A hydrogen station, its yellow and green paint peeling away in thin ribbons, sports a new sign tacked beneath the company logo: Strictly No Unauthorized Robots.
I wait and watch. A cluster of junkies huddles around a barrel fire far away enough not to notice my crime; their bloodshot eyes focus on the flames, their addled thoughts lost in oblivion. In fifteen minutes, no humans approach the station. I saunter, hands in pockets, toward the pumps and complete one last scan of the surroundings. Still no humans or approaching hoverbugs.
I thumb through my wallet and jam the fake transaction card into the slot; there’s nothing the black market doesn’t have for those with enough cash. I wait as the card confuses the machine, making it think I’m a human customer instead of a desperate, thieving android.