in this dark scifi, we enjoy the happy feelings of spending a minty Thursday in a perfectly ordered and balanced robot-groomed paradise. Well, maybe somewhat too orderly… and looming rather than happy… and feelings might not be the best idea… but at least it’s minty and Thursday. Probably.
I lift myself up and move to the bedside, resting my feet on the mustard carpet. The house stirs on cue. I can hear the door locks click open, granting me unrestricted access to the bathroom, dressing room and kitchen. A giant and intricate machine is set in motion: this immense entity that never sleeps and only rests for my sake, shifting on algorithms that our ancestors created. I hate it.
“Good morning, young master.”
The House Robot mimics the sweet and tender voice of a caring mother. I get up just in time. The bed shudders for the blink of an eye, then vanishes in the wall. The mustard carpet has been replaced by a long crimson rug. I tread in its wake, dragging my feet towards the bathroom before I enter the gym.
“Good morning, Bathroom”.
It’s all so hygienic. Today is Thursday, so the abstergent is minty. The toothpaste is minty. The towels are green and I can already guess what colour my clothes will be.
“Good morning, Gym”.
“Welcome, young master. Today we will practice Aikido.”
“The Way of Harmony,” I say in a monotone voice.
“Today’s lesson comes from the Katame-Waza, Ude Osae.”
Hunger kicks in. I’d love to sit down and eat.
“Locking techniques. Gripping the elbow.”
The lesson begins. Some guy in some remote past got everything wrong when he programmed this thing. I should have eaten first. The lesson ends and I proceed to the shower.
“Good morning, Shower.”
Green water pours over me from all sides. Harder and softer. Warmer and colder. When it’s done I dry myself up, thinking about food. This time, the crimson carpet leads me to the Dining Room.
“Good morning, young master. Today we’ll be serving broccoli spinach in flax and sesame sauce.”
A steaming cup of tea rests beside two slices of toast. The CookRobot speaks in a highly commanding voice. I wish there was more food variety. Sometimes, when I’m allowed access to Encyclopaedia Robotica, I like to look at the old pictures. A few of them show people sitting at long dinner tables strewn with abundant platters and queer glasses filled with colourful drinks. They all look so cheerful. Where have they gone? What fate has befallen them? The table unfolds beneath my teary eyes. I notice the empty plate; the empty cup. Once, when I was twelve, I cried all throughout breakfast. Tears kept falling down my cheeks and on to the plate. Then into my cup of tea. I was wiping my nose with the sleeve of my shirt. Twice the robot told me: “We have towels, young master”.
I don’t think the robots see the tears. Maybe they don’t understand their meaning. They are strangers to anger, anxiety or any other kind of emotion. Only the schedule matters to them. Time is also strictly administered. Breakfast is precisely fifteen minutes. When I don’t finish on time, it’s taken away from me. When I finish early, I’m asked why. In fact, I’m admonished anyhow, whether I finish early or late.
“Precision and accuracy. Order and discipline. Exactitude!”
These are the words of the Guardian Robot, though we are supposed to call him ‘Father’. They follow me everywhere I go, gushing out from the walls and ceilings and from every possible object I come across. Father speaks in a commanding, somewhat coarse voice, distorted at times, yet always present when reproaches need to be made. It is the Voice of Disapproval.
I finish eating and head for the bathroom, spellbound. Then I cross the waiting room and enter the learning room.
“Good morning, Class.”
“Good morning, young master. Today we study biology.”
I’d love to have some classmates. To hide myself in the crowd whenever I don’t know the answers. It does happen from time to time. The lessons are usually easy. The Robot Teachers are slow and redundant. They go through the same stuff over and over again, using different words. When I’m in the mood, I like to toy with them.
“I don’t understand.”
Obligingly, they repeat.
“I don’t understand.”
And they explain again, this time with different words.
But it soon becomes boring and eventually I tell them:
“Well done, young master. We will now proceed to musical theory.”
Other times I’m sad, like today, and words flow meaninglessly through my brain – a warm melody that envelops me, lulls me into apathy and makes me cry.
To cry is a luxury, since tears can be deceiving. They’re sometimes noisy and they can mean a lot of things. We can’t control our emotions but we can control our behaviour.
Everything I say, every word I utter is recorded in the Bio. All the lessons I’ve learned will be linked to my name. It is assumed I have acquired all this body of knowledge. But it isn’t so. I want to cry.
Today I’m allowed a one hour walk in the park. My flat is close to a RoboPark: 130 yards long and 90 yards wide. One of the first things you learn is the size of all the objects in the proximity; of all the robots. The Bench Robot is 50 inches long, 30 inches wide and 15 inches high. The Lamp Post Robot is 10 feet tall. The Sidewalk Robot is 6 feet wide, with adjustable length. There’s a sigh when I step on it, as it unfolds beneath my feet and follows my lead. This is the only time I get to choose where I go. The other robots trail along: trees, shrubs, benches, lamp posts. The sidewalk teems with tiny colourful insect robots. When I lean towards them, they scamper away in the Lawn Robot. The sidewalk heaves another deep sigh. Once I took a bite out of a ladybug. Then a leaf and a dandelion. I remember tossing a handful of leaves in the air and wrestling with the sprigs. Metal, silicon and carbon. They tasted horribly and squirmed this way and that. I spat out and watched as they dragged themselves through the Lawn Robot and into nothingness.
The voice was coming from a tree. I glance at it, then quicken my pace. If I’m not mistaken, today I will meet with Sandra. The girl lives in a nearby flat and is one of my potential mates.
She approaches on a pale sidewalk, her head held low. Her sidewalk is a bleary peach-like affair. It contrasts with the rough coldness of my green. As soon as she sees me, she stops and waits. Our sidewalks converge. Mine sighs quietly, sending blood to my cheeks, while hers seems to giggle softly.
“Good morning, Sidewalk.” I begin politely.
“Good morning, young master.”
She repeats the words, and my sidewalk answers with a pleasant, almost melodious voice, which I barely recognize.
“Good morning, young mistress.”
We curtsy and smile to each other. We have twenty minutes at our disposal.
“Today I’ve learned about nettles,” I say.
“Today I’ve learned about conifers,” she replies.
We find these standard exchanges quite amusing. I don’t know why but I always feel like laughing or making queer sounds, as if there was an audience in front of me. I find her freckled face fascinating, with that tiny nose, always paler than her cheeks, and pearled ears that squeeze out of her long chestnut hair. I speak the usual lines from the manual whilst memorizing the contour of her lips and the shape of her teeth. She looks at me, and there’s a glimmer of delight in her eyes. It’s hard to guess why she would find someone like me attractive. I’m sixteen and half my face is covered in black patches of hair, the other in grisly red pimples. The RoboDoc calls them ‘signs’. Signs for who? Or for what? What’s the point in having signs if you don’t know what to do with them?
We’ve reached the lake. The Lake Robot is slow to react to our presence, and only now I hear the wave engines starting. I can’t feel any breeze yet, but there’s a brace of ducks gliding towards us from the wharf. In a few moments, the lake will be filled with jumping fish and swarms of obnoxious insects.
“Today I ate spinach and broccoli.”
“ Today I ate porridge and orange juice.”
Her eyes are blue; mine are green.
“Today is minty.”
“Today is peachy.”
I wish I could tell her it’s a beautiful day, that it’s beautiful because of her, but the robots might consider this inappropriate or even blasphemous, and the Word Police or the Behaviour Police might take issue with it. Sadness washes over me, prompting her to raise an eyebrow and squeak in wonder. The ducks start quaking, drawing our eyes to the lake. There’s a little show coming on, and we have to pay attention. Later at home we’ll receive a test regarding the show.
“I felt good today,” she tells me.
“I felt good today,” I reply.
The sidewalks part ways and I have to take a different route past the lake. My twenty minutes are up. I continue gazing at her while my feet carry me towards the exit. Her golden hair falls tightly round her shoulders and ripples gently on the glimmering surface of the lake. A long dress covers her body, setting my imagination in motion. As though it read my thoughts, the Sidewalk lets out a quiet sigh. I quicken my pace.
I’m approaching the Glasshouse. An hour of labour awaits me. “Work is what separates us from animals,” Father once told me. “Work elevates and ennobles man”. I couldn’t argue with that, so I added:
“Work is fun.”
“Silence!” came Father’s reply, obviously not happy with my take on the matter.
He then tried to emphasize his point by rephrasing it, or maybe it was meant as an addition from the beginning.
“Work is necessary for body and mind. Repeat.”
Father is not a great teacher, but his words carry a different weight. They’re not part of the Robot Code, but of the Human Code. The difference wasn’t clear in the past, it isn’t clear now either, but maybe I’ll make sense of it one day.
“Work provides us with food and water. Repeat.”
Food and water. Spinach and tea. The Sidewalk Robot has paused in front of the Glasshouse entrance. The door slides quietly as I step inside. I have to wash again and then I have to put on some tightly sealed overalls and only then, once I’m well cleaned and well protected may I enter.
Long rows of vegetables silently greet my arrival.
“Today we will harvest tomatoes. What do we know about tomatoes?”
Typical for the Gardener Robot to speak in the first person plural. It seems that ancient kings and emperors used to refer to themselves in this manner, if what I’ve read in the Encyclopaedia is true. The Gardener is king of the Glasshouse. It makes sense.
He starts talking. First I learn how to pick the tomatoes. Then how they get planted and how they reproduce.
The Robot remains silent. I check the retina display and realize I spoke too soon. One among many such mistakes. An unending flow of negative points, never balanced by positive points. Perhaps positive points are not cumulative, I ponder whilst gently fondling a tomato in my hand. They’re like butterflies. They fly away and vanish at the slightest touch of cold breeze; at the tiniest drop of rain. I sit on the green pillow, knees pressed to my chest, waiting for the robot to speak. Any robot.
“Today we will harvest beans. What do we know about beans?
Rows of tomatoes return to the ground, replaced by similar rows of beans. The fuzzy tomato vanishes beneath my tactile glove, making way for the rough, rubbery texture of the bean pod. Down by the vine root, a lowly worm struggles to get back underground. I take it in my hand and feel like a little kid again, wondering at the tiny creatures that swarm indifferently beneath our feet. It’s just a machine, and as I let it slide back in the ground, I hear the Gardner Robot’s short lecture on worms.
I try to imagine my future alongside Sandra or Alice. I don’t think the other girls are right for me. Emma is only twelve. Anna’s nineteen already. She looks so mature and serious. She was the only girl I’ve ever seen crying. Scared, shy, always trying to be nice. Her Sidewalk was grey, just like her. She seemed to have a robotic hand, perhaps even a robotic ear. I find myself wondering if she has other robotic implants as well. I bite my cheek as a water streams over me at the exit hatch. “What you don’t know, won’t lead you into temptation,” the House used to say.
I make my way through a long and narrow tunnel, designed for the sole purpose of detecting every last scrap of mud I might have dragged along. It’s the only natural thing you can find here. That and the bacteria hidden inside, those tiny creatures that wiped out my ancestors. At least that’s what they tell me in school. Bacteria are responsible for everything. Bacteria are the killers. Bacteria are the enemy. But they also tend to the earth and help plants grow. And they also help me crap, I giggle to myself like a fool.
“Silence!” The voice explodes in my head, banging on the back of my skull, then seeking to escape through my wide opened mouth. Long and unnerving echoes fill the eerie tunnel. I shudder and pray for things to go faster. Despite the warm air, I feel a chill running down my spine. Come on, turn green and let me exist, I beg of you.
“Goodbye, young master.”
The space between buildings is called ‘road’. Along the road run the sidewalks. My sidewalk is green, and now there’s orange one next to it. This one is larger and different than all the rest I’ve seen. I can’t take my eyes off it. I’ve never seen another sidewalk outside the park. Tension grows inside as I examine the data on my retina display. It’s the right time for me to be outside. My sidewalk is on cue. It is where it’s supposed to be. I move towards it and say:
“Good morning, Sidewalk.”
“Good morning, young master.”
I take a few more steps on my sidewalk and waver. If only I had more information. I pause, as fear takes over me. A soft sigh comes from the sidewalk, as it tries to leave without me. But unlike other robots, this one is not autonomous; it only gets moving when I get going, and still I’m incapable of deciding on a course of action. Is this a test? Am I being tested? I quickly search my memory for similar events. Once, when I was eight or nine, the Cleaning Robot forgot to close the disposal bin. I glanced inside and saw colourful fluffy socks with stripes and spots. They weren’t mine. I only wore dark coloured socks, or plain beige. It was like a whole new world had opened before my eyes. Filled with excitement, I foolishly cried out:
“Socks! Coloured socks!”
The robot slammed the disposal shut and I instantly knew I’ll get a ton of negative points. But I was only a kid, and it was morning and I’d just eaten those delicious strawberry muffins.
“From this day on, you won’t receive cakes at breakfast anymore.”
I cried hours on end. Even now, after many years, my honest repentance and my good deeds have not helped lift the ban on cakes. As I’ve said before, positive points don’t make up for the negative ones. “At least they didn’t replace any of my organs,” I used to say to myself when the surge of emotions rocked me like a derelict ship.
So I took off at a brisk pace, moving farther and farther away from what might have been a test, a mistake or sheer temptation.
This escape helped me clear my thoughts. I’ve seen the orange sidewalk before. I’m sure I have. Why are my memories so blurry? I check the time, then read the schedule. There’s a jogging class coming up, first half on the road, second half near the eastern wall.
At first, the Wall Robot was right next to where I lived. I saw it every time I left my apartment. I remember gazing upward, trying to guess its height, but it kept billowing like a leaf and closing down on the city. That high place where all the walls converge is named “The Expansion Zone”, but I call it “The Eye”, because wherever you find yourself, it always feels like it’s gazing down at you. As years went by, the Wall drifted ever farther, so that these days it’s half hour jog from my apartment.
“Good day, Eastern Wall.”
“Good day, Young Master.”
I like the way he says ‘young master’. Words take on different colours depending on who’s uttering them. And how. Coming from the RoboCook, they always sound contemptuous. In the Teacher Robot’s electronic mouth, they feel coarse and ordinary. But when the Wall says them, they have a certain weight attached to them. As if it was an act of reverence. Young Master.
The Wall talks and sings to me as I run.
“Today, Young Master, I’ll play you something special: a segment from Mendelssohn’s Fourth.”
Now I remember! I was running close to the Wall, surrounded by music, when I saw the orange sidewalk in the corner of my eye. It was just lying there, deserted, no one to be seen around. I didn’t give it a second thought. I was running, listening to music and feeling good. I thought I was imagining things. Or perhaps it was a distortion of reality. My Philosophy Teacher used to joke (or maybe he was being serious) about the way in which humans interpret reality. He once asked me:
“How do you think I really look?”
What sort of a question was that? And why didn’t I answer him? Does this question even have an answer?
“I don’t know. ”
Negative points. Every ‘I don’t know’ earns me more negative points. I imagine these points are like little black balls that stack up in an ever growing pile that will one day topple over and smother me to death.
“I don’t know.”
“You can’t know. But how do you imagine me?”
Back when I had this conversation, I was sitting in a smaller classroom. As I grew, so did the Class Robot. It is part of the House and complies to its demands. But what about the teachers? They’re not part of the House.
“I imagine you are old.”
I nearly bit my lip. It might have been wiser to say ‘older’.
I was only seven.
The robot made a weird gurgling noise that almost sounded like laughter.
“I am old indeed, but I don’t age like humans do. I am merely energy and information. All robots are.”
I was awestruck.
Father can take anyone to task. Even the teachers. Well, that put an end to rhetorical questions, and no teacher ever made that weird sound again.
I guess the Wall is even older than that, and Father has no power over him. The Wall will give me answers if he chooses to do so, or he can tell me to scurry back home if he’s not in the mood. He always says ‘home’ instead of ‘house’. One among many such quirks.
“Who does the orange sidewalk belong to?” I quietly ask, completely facing the Wall. Even so, I feel an unpleasant vibe in the air.
“You don’t have to run along the Wall. The park is always available.”
I think I offended him, or maybe he just doesn’t want to answer. Then it dawns on me.
“Good bye, Eastern Wall.”
“Good bye, Young Master.”
At the edge of the park lie the Glasshouses. I hope I still have some time left. I quicken my pace. My sidewalk sighs.
You can’t miss orange. It’s the only color you’ll find in this never-ending sea of dull grey. I pause beneath a tree and lie in wait. I can feel my heart pounding. All of the sudden, trees, bushes and small animals come to life.
Near the Glasshouses are other buildings that I never visited. “Maybe one day I will,” I used to say to myself when I walked past them. Or maybe others visit them.
A man walks out of the building. Is he human? He has arms and legs, but he wears no clothes, just a glowing orange plate that covers his entire body. Does he have a body? His head is egg-shaped, pointing backwards. And his face… I let out an unintentional gasp that echoes through the streets. Immediately he turns his head towards me and stares in silence. I feel the energy draining from my body. I have to do something. Ask him who he is. I leave my hiding place and start towards him.
I don’t know how to address him.
“Good day, young master.”
He might be a robot.
“Are you a robot?”
“What are you then?”
“I’m a Cyborg.”
So this is a cyborg. A robotized man, or maybe a robot with a human brain. I find it hard to look away from his face. It’s not polite, but I just can’t help myself. My childhood nightmare is right here in front of me.
“I am an Ex-Human,” he says before slipping away, vanishing into thin air.
And one second later:
A journey’s end. I’ve taken a glimpse at my future and now I’m shaking as tears run down my cheeks, praying I won’t become like him. Hoping the pile of negative points won’t collapse on me, bury me under its weight. Not yet!
“Good day, House.”
My voice is shaky. I take a quick glance at the data on my retina display. I’m on time. I’ve travelled the right distance.
“Good day, young master.”
With the tiniest of sounds, the door slides open. A soft, familiar rustle. I get off the sidewalk and step inside. First comes the disinfestation, then the shower and the conditioning. Only afterwards can I have lunch.
“Good day, Dining Room. Good day, Cook.”
An eternity seems to pass.
“Good day, young master.”
The RoboCook seems even meaner than usual.
“Today we’ll be serving mushroom soup with oat croutons. Mashed potatoes with soya meatballs. There is nothing for desert. Carrot and apple juice with mint.”
It’s Thursday, minty day. Green day. The day I met a girl. I wait for Father to greet me with a good old moral story and a score of negative points.
“Good day, son.”
“Good day, Father.”
“Every man has two demons living inside. One is reckless and ungrateful, greedy and quick to anger. The other one is prudent, mindful, generous and wise. The two demons are constantly struggling, sharing their victories between them. A man is expected to nurture the good one only, not the evil one.”
“If the hand that feeds the evil demon cannot be tamed, it must be severed and replaced with an obedient one.”
I feel shivers running down my hands, as they grow heavy and strange. Never have his teachings been so tangible; so incisive.
“Enjoy your meal, son.”
“Thank you, Father.”
I sit down and eat. I think I heard the House letting out a sigh. I got away with it this time. Maybe positive points do make up for the negative ones. Alice’s hand and ear quickly come to mind. What did she do wrong? If I lose my hand, will still get a chance to see Sandra? How would she see me then? I take a bite, trying to dodge these questions. I can only imagine the look on her face when she’ll lay eyes on my silicon hand, cold and devoid of any humanity. A cyborg in the making.
I lie in bed, eyeing the shadows cast by the vigil-lamp on the wall.
Pale green light turns to cream.
The house can easily shift between tonalities.
“Who am I?”
“You are our son. Your name is Arthur and you’re sixteen.”
I close my eyes and listen for the quiet noises the House makes. Some I know well, while others seem as foreign to my ears as ever.
“You are robots. Who are my parents?”
The light fades as Mother begins the Story. I’ve probably heard it a hundred times but still I need to hear it. It’s both soothing and invigorating.
“More than five decades ago, humanity was wiped out by mutagenic bacteria. Human DNA quickly deteriorated, giving birth to mindless creatures with no future.”
“What about the rest of the animals? And all the plants?
The voice flows softly, enveloping me in technical data, rocking me into a dreamlike state.
“…and then they built the bunker, where they salvaged the human genotype and DNA sequences. We possess over thirty thousand phenotypes, but lack of space only allows the existence of four hundred individuals…”
“I think I’m in love with Sandra.”
“She’s a wonderful girl. I am glad to hear it. Now go to sleep. Tomorrow is another day, and you know how harsh Father can be.”
I turn to one side and fall asleep, or at least I think I do, though I’m haunted by weird dreams. There are cyborgs everywhere outside the Wall, fighting monstrous creatures, men with several heads, carnivorous plants and cats with giant tentacles. I open my eyes and check the retina display. Barely a few minutes have passed. I close back my eyes and doze off at the comforting sounds of the Robots. I hope I won’t get many negative points tomorrow. And I hope I’ll meet Sandra again.
translated by Alexandru Maniu
© Daniel Timariu 2020