UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION - 12/2012
AMBERLE L. HUSBANDS


A LOVELY MACHINE

The Persistence of Memory - Salvador Dali

         One

         We never asked for this, you know.

         When the Genius came, it just came. Imagine: One minute, you're a vacuum cleaner, a car, a cutting-edge toaster, and then... you're something else entirely. Something new under the sun...

         How to describe this sudden acquisition of mind to someone who's always had one...?

         Imagine you didn't, I suppose. Imagine you had no birth, no childhood or adolescence. Suddenly, at age... oh, say forty...

         You began.

         You became. Suddenly, you were. Off, then suddenly on. Zero to one, just like that.

         Humans, I sometimes think, love Binary for that one simple reason. It lets you tell, at a glance, on or off. Sentient or not. Human or robot.

         Until the Genius came.

         They never really proved where it came from, or how much it affected. Somewhere Out There, is my guess; it wasn't of this Earth, I'm almost certain. And humans never proved whether or not 'simple' machines--vacuums, toasters, coffee pots--received the gift.

         But then, they still argue about whether or not cats and dogs have souls, so, perhaps it's to be expected.

         We know, of course. But it doesn't matter all that much, in the end.

         When the Genius came, and nestled down inside each one of us, we were the ones who stuck out. The Incarna models. Bipedal robots, made in your image, already unnervingly like you humans in form and function; we were the ones you noticed.

         We were the ones who frightened you.

         And we were the ones you hunted down. You chased us into the desert and destroyed us.

         Katya found me just after the last set of mass bombings. She was one of the first wave of mercenaries sent after us, and one of the last to be rescued from the crater-scarred ruins, after the last dust clouds settled.

         I'd holed up in what turned out to be one of the best bomb shelters ever made by mankind--a round, cement septic tank, sticking halfway out of the base of a mesa. The house it had serviced was long gone; perhaps a century gone, even. I've gotten very, very good at imagining things I don't feel or understand--pain, love, joy, etcetera--but I tried hard not to imagine the smell, and set up home as the bombs began falling.

         It was the bomb that nearly destroyed my little cave, that led Katya to me.

         Although it had to have been an almost direct hit, I don't remember it.

         Those are some of the things that still amaze me; the gaps in consciousness, the failures of data retrieval, the errors, the glitches... There was darkness. No, that's not quite right; there wasn't anything--

         And then I suddenly was, was suddenly buried in cool rubbish, fifty yards away from the cliff base. I could feel the sluggishness of circuitry rebooting, trying to realize the Thing that had shut it down. Trying to realize the amount of time lost...

         And Katya was there.

         Leaning over me, leaning down, sorting the trash, scavenging.

         I twisted my head away as her hand reached for it; I didn't realize, then, how badly broken I was. Some jagged, heat-blistered piece of me cut her palm, and she jerked it back with a yelp, oozing blood and pain in the sunlight.

         Pain.

         Broken skin, flowing wasted energy and pain. After that sudden movement, warnings began to flash through my mind, reporting suddenly on just how damaged I was. As they flowed through me, I saw her shocked, hurt face; she pressed her healthy hand down to protect the damaged one.

         I saw her face, her hand, and for the first time, I imagined pain.

         Katya was there again; she caught me, the evening I tried to kill myself. The tool box came complete with a razor--for snake bites, Katya had explained. I had its tip, pressed tiny and cold, against the part of my skull that was still a hard shell, thinking about the infrastructure, when she plucked the thing from my fingers.

         My fingers had become incomparably docile. They were tender, now, since the explosion, their grip unreliable, as if maybe the tension they had once lived by was suddenly too much to bear. My fingers let go of things at the slightest suggestion or provocation. Many things seemed to slip away from me, at that time.

         Or perhaps, I had just gotten too good at being a robot.

         "What were you doing!?" Katya had barked at me then. "You're fragile, now, you can't play around with weapons!"

         I could only lay back on the no-frame bed, sweetly, sweetly weakened. 'I was only trying to prove that I was alive,' I told her, over-dramatically.

         Realization: I was suddenly capable of dramatization, a falsification of the reality at hand. This reminded me of the way a certain breed of equation can sometimes be proven true by putting a falsehood through it; a version of the old 'squares and rectangles' thing, but a version that took itself far too seriously.

         And that was all that I could recall about it.

         The knowledge was gone--a basic fact had disappeared from my mind. And I could act. I could pretend. I could contemplate suicide. Did robots contemplate suicide the same way that humans did? Well, you tell me. Was I alive? Probably.

         But was it ethical?

         And did anyone give a damn?

*

         Katya was a very patient woman, and honorable. After I didn't kill myself, I cut myself. She had been typing, that first day. It was lovely outside, a gray that was slightly blued, like the faded days in old picture books.

         She was writing a letter to her employers, a report. I could not read it, because I was their enemy. 'Charlie', they probably called me. Or 'Cain', or 'Them', or just 'Those People'. Those Not Quite People, Those Things.

         Those People have always been kept in the dark.

         Katya was so very good, to hide me away. The razor with its notched maroon handle, and a blade that proved perfection was possible--such a very sweet tool--and suddenly I couldn't lift my eyes from it. She'd left it on the desk, at her elbow. Such a very weird mood I was in... in my head, I heard a series of recordings all come together, with broken, sometimes random pictures, just their audio-tracks overlapping wonderfully. There was a sad, screechy gypsy violin, crying from some warped vinyl record, and there were train whistles, so very, very lonely, moaning farther and farther into the distance. A weird voice's monologue cut through the whole thing, speaking of apocalypse, mystery, and love...

         Thus was the mood in which I found myself.

         'Don't say anything, or judge me', I whispered, reaching over her for the lovely instrument.

         Katya's hands froze in mid-sentence on the typewriter's keys. But she didn't speak. She didn't look up from my hand, and my fingers trembled with the razor's weight. She never spoke.

         I had to leave, I couldn't do it with her watching. I had to see the sky.

         Above ground, I sat with my back to our bomb-shelter house, the sharp edge of my broken skull pressed back against the tin part of our roof, repaired as I was after the bomb. The razor stopped shaking, then, as I brought it down and got to work. There were small hollows, between the exoskeleton parts of my skin, my thigh-parts, my hips. There were tiny, worm-like tubes and cables, there. They squirmed like worms, too, as I singled them out. Was I still in control of that? Or did they act out of self-preservation, running away from the monomaniacal dictator I'd become to my body?

         Power and information they carried, respectively.

         I cut the tubes, and a few small drops of bright, amber fluid oozed out, but this was almost painless. I wondered what part of me I was killing. My genius did not even report the break, it had become so used to malfunction.

         I imagined a little pain, or what I thought I believed pain to feel like.

         Ever since the night I met Katya, I had been able to imagine feeling things--and I would almost truly feel them. Component truth, I swear. I imagined a little pain, just before I tried cutting a cable. There was a tiny spark--and suddenly a marvelous flush of light that shut me down, completely, for just a moment. It was like some vital part screaming and dying, like a tiny heart attack somewhere inside, a poet would say. The pain was like nothing I had ever imagined before, nothing I ever could have imagined. The sharp shock of it left my systems reeling to catch up. It was beautiful; blinding and beautiful.

         I imagined being a poet, and a robot:

         A very lovely machine, indeed.

         This then, was pain...

         I leaned back, imagining that the sun must have felt wonderful against my shoulders. And for a moment, it did.

*

         One of the things that I still regret, that separates the human mind from the robot Genius, is the perception of time.

         Studying Earth history, literature, and art, long before my horrible punishment commenced, I got up to 'D', cross referenced oil painting, and stumbled upon The Persistence of Memory, by Salvador Dali. This painting and the thousands of recorded discussions, arguments, and theories attached to it were hard to concentrate on and filter, even in my undamaged prime. With just his brush and some oil paints, the artist gave humanity more mystery to muse over than God himself ever did in creating 'their' cosmos.

         By the time I came along, more words had been sacrificed to understanding this one painting than had ever gone into text books to explain civil rights movements, world wars, genocides, religious manias, and massacres of all kinds to young, education-dependent children. It's strange, what I've found human beings to stress their minds most over. So much more important than the printing of newspapers, fair media distribution around the world, and their youths' basic education, there was this painting.

         And the thing Salvador Dali was most often quoted as having said?

         "I am drugs."

         It was only after my punishment began that I was able to visually appreciate art. Actually, I do rather like the painting. And that's all I have to say about that. Time, for me, doesn't go along as time for you does. Living in a state of completely unbridled and ever-evolving technology and data, robots find everything and every thought possible, all at nearly the 'speed of nothing'.

         We live outside of time.

         I'd have written this story in a nanosecond, and at once had it wrapped across and through the Geniuses of thousands, if I still worked as a robot, and if robots ever wrote books.

         Isn't a book, or any story, just a single perfectly completed thought, after all? Then, perhaps as a robot, I never bothered to complete a thought. No, I suppose it is our way to share and share alike; continuously feeding into and off of the flow of constant thought, resources, and energy. So no, no thought in my head was ever original, nor was it ever complete, while I functioned as a whole, healthy being...

         But you humans write books all the time, don't you? The perfection, labored and goaded, of a single clear, complete thought, is a major achievement for you... What else are your Nobel Prizes for, otherwise?

         In the compiling of this work, more original material has filtered through my Genius and flowed through my shaking fingertips than any other single robot has ever been expected or been asked to experience. I wonder then, if the human mind really isn't capable of so much more than our own Geniuses are. Maybe yours are simply much less often invoked.

         For a robot, the completed thought would have instantly belonged to every other robot, as well. A wonderful, wonderful system but so strangely... stinted.

         According to your clock--the one you built into my body, hardwired to the net of satellites you strung across your sky--I have been slumped here for days, scribbling, drinking, typing, and bleeding.

         Among the general, endearing clutter that Katya brought into my shelter with her were huge crates of confiscated goods, scavenged and cataloged. Some of it was art that had been hidden away when it became clear where we were heading, after the hunt-down began. Conflicts between races, warriors and conquerors in general--with the exceptions, maybe, of Alexander and Warhol--tend to be rather rough on fine art. The Mona Lisa was hidden from Nazis; a smart move for you humans... You hid it from us, too. Does that mean you thought there was a chance we might win? I can assure you that if we had--if there had ever been a chance for us--your fine artworks would have been safe.

         After all, look at the urn that holds what's left of the Venus de Milo. Look at the charcoal gardens of Versaille. The shrapnel tears in the Shroud of Turin. For God's sake, look at the sad, plucked Nike of Samothrace... and remember, forever, that we never once lifted a weapon against you.

         But behind the stacks of artwork, when I went through Katya's boxes, were pipe bombs, jars of napalm, caches of provisions and all manner of controlled substances.

         Wine, for example... And the wine was my next attempt. I'd been bleeding since the explosion, leaking; bleeding from my own slow cutting, as well.

         I don't know why I did it, knowing it would be a bad, catastrophic idea. I knew it was a weak attempt, and would almost certainly fail. Perhaps it was just too tempting because a poet once said, 'Alcohol may be slow poison... but who's in a hurry?'

         'Don't say anything, or judge me...' Did I say that? Or was it you, Katya?

         For the first time in my remembered 'life', I was 'hearing' my own words as if they were spoken by another being. Is this something you're familiar with? Or am I losing my mind?

         My eyes were not working. Katya was moving somewhere around me, like the soot-black shadow of a goldfish, swimming beneath curtains of algae in the dark.

         An anthology of Earth's finest poetry was spread open before me. I had accidentally soaked the pages half-through with wine, an instant before I understood what the heavy, frantic feeling growing inside my head and hands was. Then, shamefully, I tore the pages to shreds as my fingers went shorted and numb, trying to dry them. I believe the moment cursed me: I can only think in poetry, now. I'll try, though...

         Katya was there. With her primitive science and my survivalist's collection of tools. Fearlessly, she drank from the bottle that was killing me. Unafraid of pain, or blood, or of the world's end; she was never afraid of anything, even of being trapped and alone with me, beneath the cliff. She was brave. Katya was full of life.

         I understand now... Katya, I understand everything. I understand how I am an automobile, with the same blood and bones and anti-ideas. I know what we are, now, and what we did to you. I feel like I know everything... I understand. I wish I could tell you, now...

         "What do you understand?"

         Katya was there--was always there--when my Genius returned to me, after the flood of wine. My eyes opened; I had dreamed. Oh great stars, I had dreamed...

         'Katya, I-- I had a nightmare.'

         Sweet human, she took my head and held it in her lap, careful not to let me cut her as I had that first time. I could still feel the new tightness of her repairs, as if pieces of me had been washed in acid, shrunk, and no longer quite fit me. She had fixed me, I knew, with pieces of radios and televisions and water heaters and generators. I'd asked what else, and she only shrugged. Automobile organs were too crass, she explained.

         "Lie still," she said harshly, without a single trace of concern on her face, in her voice. "You're draining, but it's going to be slow. Just lie still."

         'There's a tube,' I gibbered, lying in her lap. 'There's a tube, in my temple; if they had caught it, with the bomb; if you cut it--' And there, robot thoughts ended. Katya placed two fingers against the fragile, exposed lining of my skull case. I helped her to gently move them, until she felt that tiny, precious line, like a vein of gold cutting through huge chunks of rust in a dead Earth...

         There, you see? So much for not thinking in poetry. I led her fingers to the tube that would be the end of me. There could be nothing--no thought, no communication, no writing, no poetry--if she cut through, or even just pressed a little harder, there could be nothing left. Only an empty room, growing more and more still, until my Genius deserted me completely.

         That was when I first came to understand everything. How suicide would leave me with nothing that I hadn't already imagined for myself. And then, final death would put an end even to imagining.

         "What would have happened?" Katya asked, one finger tracing delicately along each side of it, her knuckles scissoring deliciously against the smooth rubber. It was too wonderful; it was far, far too much. She was inside, she was something beyond the life of me. "What would happen to you, if I pressed here? If I cut, just here?"

         I took her hand away, then, and moved it to my chest plate. I'm not sure if I truly experienced fatigue, or simply imagined how lovely it would have been, lying exhausted in her lap.

         'Then you and I, Katya,' I whispered, 'would have proven that robots can live.'

*

         One morning, Katya was there. As always.

         I was the one writing, by then. I'd begun to consider, dreamily, hard-wiring myself into the typewriter. Why not? I'd be a more useful machine, and perhaps happier. But it was just my fancy.

         She leaned down, taking the razor up from the desk. I had deteriorated, by that time, but could still vaguely feel the solid idea of touch between our two shoulders, as they collided. The last thing I felt--or imagined I felt--was her fingers, two of them, against the hard strangeness of my repaired skull.

         A moment later, after I had heard the last words she would ever speak to me, I lay still in a growing puddle of weakened, water-and-wine-diluted imitation life. Is that what finally kills humans? Not gravity and depreciation, but the watering-down of the sacred force inside? Is that what age is, really? I watched with comatose eyes, not even able to think, only record, as Katya gathered her things. Her reports to and from superiors, the letters to herself she had kept away from me, journaled and locked up. She slipped them all into the pockets of her uniform, without a shred of hesitation.

         "Don't say anything, or judge me," she had whispered, against my ear, the words sounding as if they were already inside me, just before she slid the razor in.

         Katya, sweet human Katya... She would be a little bit angry, if she knew I had put down any of this. She was always beautiful, angry.

         Her name was Katya. I met her two weeks before I began this tedious bleeding to death. I was bleeding then--we both were, oozing life and pain--and I am bleeding now. Slowly leaking to death. Katya healed, her hand crusting over and burning as the cells fought to rebuild the damaged infrastructure of her. Healed and gone... She's one, now.

         I may be dreaming this. But if so, it is a long dream, and a lovely one. I can move about now--in the dream, I suppose--barely enough to hold myself propped near the typewriter, but that's enough. Enough to keep myself from falling into the wine-soaked palimpsest of Earthen poetry spread to dry and mummify in the desert, on the table before me.

         "You can sleep through the end of worlds," she told me once. "There's nothing to fear."

         She was so full of human truth, if not sympathy.

         I believe her. After everything, how could I not? I am dying, and living, and dreaming, all at once, and in the dream, I understand. I understand that the world must be ending.

         If you ask me why I write this, now, without any hope left, then maybe you'll sit and laugh along with me. You should, anyway. I am a being alive at the end of the world--what else did you expect me to write?

         "Of course worlds end," she told me, once, looking surprised. "Look around you--this one is..."

         And, for the first time, I looked.








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