The Robots Inside Us
by Andrew Najberg
The air smelled like hyacinth, stale popcorn, and the ever-pervasive damp of underground irrigation that kept the lawn green. The streetlamps around the square were hung with summer garlands, and an old man sold balloons from a cart. Short gasps of helium pierced intermingling café speakers. The crowd had diminished as the afternoon carried on, but family clusters dotted the landscape while pedestrians crisscrossed the lanes to and from storefronts.
Emma, in her yellow dress printed with white daisies, tugged the hem of her mother’s blouse. The girl hopped, pointing with her free hand across the square.
“Mommy, mommy, can we go to the window and see what the robot is doing?”
Her mother, Susan, rolled her eyes and emitted a sound that combined a sigh with ‘ugh.’ Overcast was setting in on a soft, steady breeze. The last thing Susan wanted was to be caught in a storm. Her whole body felt a bit heavy. Her energy had been low for so long now.
“Please,” Emma said with extra ‘E’s. “I won’t ask for anything else, and I’ll even buckle myself in the car!”
The car was parked on the square’s far side anyway, and it was only a slight detour. If they didn’t stay long, traffic would still be negligible. Emma had behaved quite well…
Susan tucked the bundle of groceries in the crook of her arm and took Emma’s fingers in her own. The little bones seemed delicate enough to break at the slightest squeeze – yet her daughter’s energy left her awed as the girl bounced up and down on the balls of her feet with each step. Meanwhile, Susan’s bicep and forearm had already started to tremble from holding a single grocery sack.
When they got to the corner of the square where the window into the robot’s dimension had opened so many years back – Susan herself had hardly been a teen -- a couple folk, both with children, stood there scrolling through their phones while their kids watched the robot adjust screws and servos in the wall of a metal chamber. One man whose kid watched the window now complained to his partner about the difficulty of finding quality socks.
Emma pressed herself to the window. To her it was magical – both the robot and the window. The window wasn’t really a window after all, that’s just what folk called it. More accurately, it was an impassible five by seven patch of reality hanging in the air like a mounted flat screen that seemed to display another world. That world was inhabited by a single robot that perpetually repaired itself and its surroundings. The space beyond the robot appeared about ten meters squared, but the cabinets, ducts, conduits, panels, gauges and consoles could, in truth, be of any scale. As Emma gawked, three of the robot’s legs idly transformed into a single leg and back to appendages tipped with what looked like rubber. A cluster of fine pointed tools whirled like blender blades, rapidly alternating between picks and drivers as it conducted fine work with stunning speed.
When the window first appeared, it had been questioned by the whole world, but it yielded few answers and nothing about it ever changed in a tangible way. Even now, the robot removed a small panel to reveal thousands of tiny gears, some seemingly small as a grain of sand, and it removed a couple pins that held the gears in place. A 3D printer mounted on its side produced the replacement with a silent white flash, and yet another arm extended from a recessed slot to transfer the new component to an applicator. When the operation was complete, Susan immediately found herself struggling to identify the precise spot where the repair had occurred.
After a moment, her interest shifted to the window itself because it struck her as much more present since it was the thing that interacted with reality. She paced from side to side, fascinated by the way it didn’t seem to have edges but rather just ceased to exist when one passed a sufficiently obtuse angle. One of the few things researchers had managed to determine about the window was that it was two dimensional in the conventional sense of the material universe. When Susan pressed her hand forward, however, she felt nothing under the pads of her fingers even as it became impossible to reach past a fixed plane.
“Can we have a picnic here next week?” Emma asked, looking over her shoulder.
A mother and daughter nearby laid out a black and white checked blanket. The mom set down an almost cartoonishly large proto-typical basket from which she produced a plate of cling wrapped sandwiches. Then, a bundle of grapes draped on top of sliced apples. Then, a board of cheeses and salted meats with a loaf of bread. Then, cartons of chocolate milk and juice.
Really? Susan thought. Bucking for mother of the year?
“I don’t know,” Susan said. “We’ll have to see how things are going.”
She hated to be so uncertain, but there was no telling how the treatments would make her feel. There was no telling why her body had rejected the vaccines and the nanotech therapy, but the radiation treatments were used so sparingly and considered so obsolete that the doctor didn’t know how to interpret their middling results. Apparently, Susan was “one in a billion.”
Susan wanted to spit into the grass it made her so sick to her stomach to think about.
“Can it be just like that one?” Emma squealed as the mother pulled out a plate of watermelon wedges followed by a pecan pie.
Susan doubted she could even carry a basket with so much inside. Her shoulders and back ached just to think about it. Not that they could afford it anyway. Her assessments for treatment trial eligibility were coming up, and the consultation expenses would be heavy if she didn’t qualify.
“Wonder whose backs they stood on to afford so much,” Susan muttered to herself. She didn’t like the envy that slithered through her stomach. The little girl stared at her mother with pure bliss while Emma stared back and forth between Susan and the spread. Susan sighed and said, “I don’t know, we’ll just have to see.”
Emma stood stock still for a moment, processing the response. Her mouth pursed in a slight frown, but the frown vanished as she turned back to the window and asked, “What’s it doing now?”
Susan adjusted her groceries uncomfortably. Her arm was going numb, so she set the bag at her feet. Then, she stepped back for a better view. The robot was opening a small panel in one of the tubes. It placed small objects inside, closed the hatch – which fit so snuggly it was invisible – and pressed a button.
“No one knows really,” Susan said, massaging above her wrist, “Fixing things, I suppose.”
“Fixing what?” Emma asked, leaning forward. Susan half-expected her daughter’s breath to fog on the barrier, but it remained perfectly transparent.
“The pipes?” Susan said, glancing over her shoulder as the wealthy mother’s girl laughed and clapped at something. A sparkler twinkled over all that food. The mother’s smile was huge and full of energy. Susan forced herself to refocus on the other world and put a hand between Emma’s shoulder blades. “Whatever those big consoles are?”
“What do the consoles do? Where do the pipes go?”
Susan sighed as Emma prattled out a string of how and whys Susan just couldn’t answer. That’s life, she wanted to say. No one ever tells you what or why, and you never really know even when you think you do. But that just seemed too harsh.
“How come no one has figured this stuff out?”
Susan watched as the robot turned a laser welder onto its own arm. If only she could simply repair herself. Then she wouldn’t worry that she’d be too exhausted to promise a damn picnic. She found herself lost in the robot’s convoluted form. Each time it turned, different mechanisms seemed to protrude from the side that faced away from the window but somehow it never seemed notably different. Kind of like a kaleidoscope, Susan thought. Each configuration essentially had the same basic components, it just wasn’t possible to track them all, especially with the angle so restricted. Many researchers who studied it suspected it used the perspective constraint to make its own workings invisible to the window. Others argued that it was trying to communicate but no one recognized those attempts as communications. It was even possible the robot did not know it was being watched at all.
“Mommy?” Emma asked, tugging at her blouse again.
Susan jumped and met her daughters gaze with her brow furrowed.
“You were staring off into space,” Emma said.
Susan chuckled, but the laugh fatigued her chest muscles so she forced it to die on her lips. Her breath wheezed on her next inhale, so she took it slow so Emma wouldn’t hear. She looked at the grocery bag by her feet. It had bread and peanut butter and bananas in it. The clouds were still a bit off.
“What if we sit down and have a picnic right now?” Susan said.
“But we don’t have a blanket.”
“It’ll be okay,” Susan said. “We’ll sit on the grass.”
“The ants won’t get us?” Emma asked.
Susan chuckled and ran her fingers through Emma’s hair. There wouldn’t, of course, be pests like that within miles of the square. However, one of Emma’s books – a book that had been one of Susan’s own childhood books – depicted a picnic overrun by ants. What was the book’s name? It had ended in a rainstorm, but somehow the ants even had umbrellas. The title was on the tip of Susan’s tongue, but it wouldn’t come.
Giving up, Susan said, “Doubt there’s been an ant in the park for ten years. The city keeps them away.”
Emma smiled and smoothed her dress, pulling it over her knees as she sat.
“It would have been okay if there were,” Emma said. “I like ants.”
Susan sat next to her.
I’m going to have to smear your peanut butter with my fingers,” Susan said.
“That’s okay mommy,” Emma said. “We get to eat in the square.”
Susan made their sandwiches, and she and Emma drank orange juice straight from the carton. They would need to go to the store again in a day or two probably because of it, but that was okay. A lot had been sold out anyway, so maybe they’d be lucky and catch a better shipment. Susan couldn’t help casting another jealous glance at the mother and daughter surrounded by enough food to feed a family of eight. Several other folk gawked and frowned as they passed, so Susan wasn’t alone in wondering why some got so lucky.
Through the window, the robot turned again with a waving new tube sticking off its upper left quadrant. It reminded Susan of those old flapping wind tubes people used to advertise when she was a kid. The ones that used snap and flaunt their arms like crazy. A flash happened somewhere deep in the robot’s chamber on the other side of the biggest conduit pillar. The robot rolled or glided – it was unclear which – to the other side of the pillar. More flashes followed. Perhaps the robot was welding or perhaps the light was whatever it was trying to fix.
“Em,” Susan said. “There’s something I want to tell you.”
Emma looked up. Her eyes were watery blue like the Southern Ocean once was. Her forehead was devoid of worry lines, and the corners of her eyes had never been walked by crows. A smudge of peanut butter stuck to her upper lip, and her whole face knotted as she jammed the peanut butter off the roof of her mouth with her tongue.
When Susan didn’t continue, Emma smacked her lips and said, “What is it mommy?”
Susan smiled back. She couldn’t ruin the picnic.
“I love you very much,” Susan said. Then, she turned back to the robot. “What do you think it’s doing.”
“I think that the window really shows us inside ourselves,” Emma said.
“I don’t think we have robots inside us,” Susan smirked despite the cold wave that bloomed in her belly. Of course, Emma had probably learned about nano-treatments in science class, but what if she’d found the pamphlets? “And I’m pretty sure that if we did, they’d all be different. There’s only one robot in there.”
“I wonder if I’m a robot sometimes,” Emma said.
This time, Susan laughed outright even though it hurt her whole frame.
“What makes you say that?” Susan asked as she poked her daughter playfully in the ribs. Emma giggle and squirmed. “See? Would a robot be ticklish?”
“My teacher said we shouldn’t make assumptions about things we can’t confirm.”
Susan nodded soberly and said, “She’s right, of course.”
Then, Emma looked down at herself. “But if that’s true, then how do we know if we really feel things or if we’re just pretending to feel things? Dreams aren’t real, but I feel them.”
“Do you think that robots dream?”
“Do you think that one couldn’t?”
Susan considered that the robot beyond the window didn’t have anything that would be considered a face or even something discernable as a sensor. Yet, it interacted with unerring precision with everything. People questioned whether the robot was really a robot or some sort of life form made of metal. Others argued those would be the same thing, while yet others claimed that there wasn’t enough evidence either way. Did it have a mind in its chassis within which it could dream? Perhaps every motion, every transformation, roiled on seas of doubt.
“I can’t say what happens inside that robot,” Susan said. She put her hand around Emma’s shoulder and squeezed gently. The feeling in her heart was overwhelming. She knew she felt that, just like she felt she was dying. “But, what I do know is that you are not a robot because I felt you come out of my own body. I felt you grow inside me.”
“And what if that robot built me, put me in a tube, and I appeared in your belly?”
Susan rubbed her hand up and down on Emma’s bicep. It reminded her of the way her own parents had been taught as little kids that a stork delivered babies. Back then, it had been easy to unlearn the myth, but now, who knew what to believe was possible if a place like the robot’s chamber could open up in a town square. What if the one day, perhaps a winter night while Susan slept, the robot removed a bolt from underneath a conduit, and Susan’s tumors poured from her body and through the holes? How different was that in conceptual likelihood from nano-filament lasers burning out cancerous cells?
Emma reached up and brushed a tear from Susan’s cheek, her finger leaving a smudge of peanut butter in its wake. Susan hadn’t even realized she’d started crying, but she wiped the next volley of tears away with her own wrists.
“Mommy, you’re crying,” Emma said.
“Sometimes mommies do that.”
“Robots don’t,” Emma said with a sniffle.
Emma stood and stepped to the window. She didn’t move fast enough for her mother to miss the glistening on her own cheeks. To Susan, the strange thing was the look of disappointment on her daughter’s face.
Susan stood too and stepped beside her daughter.
On the other side of the window, the robot was removing pieces from itself and arranging them in a perfect row from smallest to largest. It buffed each piece one at a time with a little spinning brush on a prehensile appendage, and it then scanned each one with a laser to determine it free of carbon accumulation. Its concentration never wavered, perhaps never existed at all. Something about its demeaner reminded Susan of her grandfather in his workshop whistling while he disassembled mechanical watches. She used to slip in and watch him from behind the shelves by the door. Every moment, he was careful. Each motion was exactly the one he wanted to make.
However, one time, she’d burst in to ask him some foolish question or another or perhaps at grandma’s behest. He’d startled, and both his calipers and tweezers had flown up out of his hands. Whenever his memory resurfaced, it was almost invariably that frozen moment, his bushy salt and pepper eyebrows high on his forehead, his mouth and eyes all ‘o’s.
Emma took her mother’s hand.
“Mommies aren’t supposed to die,” she said. “Please tell me that you’re a robot and that you can just repair yourself.”
The sob escaped Susan’s throat before she could stop it, and the tears immediately ran freely.
“Why would you-“
“I heard you talking with daddy.”
Susan’s blood ran like ice. Like coolant, she thought in an inner voice that felt giddy enough to make her a little nervous. Her whole body was shaking. She sat down hard, letting her legs slack in as controlled a collapse as she could manage. Several people around them stopped to look.
She thought she heard someone ask if she was okay.
Emma sat down and leaned against her mother. She wrapped her arms around Susan’s waist and squeezed.
“If I was a robot, maybe I could fix you,” Emma whispered.
“I don’t need to be fixed,” Susan whispered back. Susan’s tears fell from her chin onto the back of her own hand. They were warm, and they made the skin underneath feel alive. She thought about her grandfather’s surprised face, about the way his tools had seemed to fly on their own accord and glint in the lamp that bent over the spread parts. “The truth is that I can’t tell you how lucky we really are.”
On impulse, Susan stuck her thumb into the still open jar of peanut butter in the grass and smudged a stripe down the bridge of Emma’s nose.
Emma’s eyes widened. Her jaw dropped in a gasp.
“Mommy!” she burst.
Susan attempted to force on a serious face. She ground her molars as she fought the smile, but then they were both laughing. They fell to their sides and continued laughing. Of course, Susan knew she really was that lucky, that the world around her would change and grow, that her daughter would laugh and cry and dream of being a robot because that was all part of being alive. They laughed even as the people around them looked on, unable to discern what had caused such an eruption. To them, to anyone, the surface of another person was where one’s self stopped, and all they could do was envy that kind of happiness. Moments like these, after all, were one in a billion.
Meanwhile, both Susan and Emma ran out of breath to support their cackles, and they breathed in long through their noses as they smiled into each other’s eyes. After a moment, Susan’s gaze shifted to the tipped over jar of peanut butter. There, a black ant strolled in circles on the tan surface.
“Look,” she whispered.
Emma reached out, let the ant crawl onto her finger and then the back of her hand. She raised it before her eyes. Its antennae pivoted as if in search of signals.
“I think it’s a sign,” Emma said with a smile.
“Does it matter?”
Andrew Najberg is the author of the collection of poems The Goats Have Taken Over the Barracks (Finishing Line Press, 2021) and the chapbook of poems Easy to Lose (Finishing Line Press 2007). His poems have appeared dozens of journals online and in print, including North American Review, Asheville Poetry Review, Cimarron Review, Another Chicago Magazine, and Good River Review. His short fiction
has appeared in Fleas on the Dog, The Wondrous Real, Psychopomp Magazine and Bookends Review. An AWP Intro award recipient, he received an MFA in poetry from Spalding University, an MA in creative
writing from University of Tennessee at Knoxville. Currently, he teaches for the University of Tennessee
Fiction by Jared Cappel:
"The Robots Inside Us" October 2021