This novel is limited to 100 free copies due to its part in Inkitt’s Novel Contest.
I was thinking about my grandmother’s feet. She hobbles around on small curled toes, and each foot looks as if it had been bound when she was a child. Of course they weren’t, but her bunions are so severe that her feet are kind of triangular. She’s ninety now, and she keeps shuffling a long, slow but persistent. When I picture her small farmhouse, I can see her standing—no weaving precariously—at the stove frying bacon. The house is always spotless, but the sweet smell of bacon is never washed away.
I was slouched on a beat up park bench squinting into the sun-infused smog. We’d been sitting here for like an hour. “Dad? Dad, why are you talking in metaphors again?” No answer. I listened to the click of marbles in my pocket. Three old women got up from a bench across the path. To the right, a young couple meandered between piles of broken concrete. I got up to draw a circle in the gravel, but my dad pinched my waist hard without looking down. That meant to sit still, not to make a move.
He looked straight ahead, his eyes tracking the elderly women’s every gesture. “It ain’t poetry, Jacob. It’s a statement of fact. I catch androids, time and time again, because of this flaw. There are other ways to detect them....” Dad’s voice trailed off as he looked down and rubbed the grease off his knuckles. “They don’t know they’re doing it, and they don’t do it all the time. I guess they can taste but not very well. I mean you know they’re super intelligent, but butter side up or upside down? It doesn’t make any goddamn difference to them. Once you start casing one, you’ll notice they make the mistake only fifty percent of the time. They hold the toast vertically, and when they’re done spreading it might fall face down or face up.”
“Don’t they worry about the butter falling off?”
“Programming is too reasonable. Androids never over-butter. Funny how that got coded in them but not the up-down orientation.”
“What about jelly?”
He gave me a look. He didn’t know if I was serious or not. “Don’t know son. Just don’t know… Be quiet! I need to concentrate.” His voice faded away. It’s not my fault he has trouble focusing; he’s always been that way.
“Never mind, Dad. It was just a joke.” I should be back in school.
“It’s like a phoneme that they never learned to pronounce. And if no one teaches you the difference, then your V and your B will sound the same. I mean doubles can fully adapt and learn, but they never had parents, and they can’t evolve.” Maybe in a different time, he would have been a professor, not a toggleman.
“Is it true, that if you just try to shut them down, they explode and burn?”
“No. The shutdown itself is never dramatic. It’s what they’re doing when they finally break down that makes them a menace, especially when we don’t know how to fix them anymore. They are stubborn to a fault. True humans are safer. Generally, they break down slowly, or at least they know how to retire. Humans don’t get in the cockpit of a plane and then just melt. On the outside, they look healthy, but an old double might die of a system failure at any moment.
I could smell cigarette smoke and someone behind us coughed. “Let’s go home. There’s nothing here.”
We walked to the street and signaled for the car. It drifted over; its dented doors already open. We quickly climbed up between the dirty skyscrapers. The smog thickened, and the abandoned buildings of the city-center disappeared.
I wiggled in the hard plastic chair of a hospital waiting room. I was bored: my dad had stopped talking a while ago. His lecture about the collapsed medical system was unfinished.
“Do they turn off at night, like a light switch?”
“You can’t get close enough to know. Made to be perfect human replicas: bio signature emitters, 90% organic materials. Skin that wrinkles and hair that grays over time. Made by some American-Chinese mega company. I read that when they were fresh off the assembly line, they all had odd accents, but over a short time their language adapted perfectly to every region. They could have been made to be easily recognizable, but people just get creeped out by robots like that. If you make them noticeably different they end up looking like people with freakish special needs. Imagine. Back then, we used to have technology so advanced that they could make androids indistinguishable from humans. All just so they could be the best nannies and care givers possible. They were programmed to insert and go unnoticed; designed at the root to never self-reveal. And over the generations, they have migrated and done it, again and again, and each time they re-insert the harder they are to trace. Our government’s in serious decay, they can’t keep track of humans, let alone androids.”
“Can’t you just scan them for metal?”
“Not effectively. Scan that guy over there that we’ve been watching.”
“It reads sixteen percent metals.”
“Now use the same settings to scan me.”
“You’re nineteen percent! Dad, I always knew it. You’re a robot!” I laughed and jabbed him under the arm.
“No. But I’ve had some work done.” He was laughing too, slapping his knee.
“There are so many of them out there. How do you know you’re really shooting a bot?”
“They don’t feel. They are not governed by the same mechanical physics. When their programming dies they fold like a broken mannequin.”
“Dad, how do you know I’m not a robot?
He laughed, hard and sincere, but he didn’t take his eyes of the patients sitting against the wall. “I held you when you were five minutes old in this very hospital. It’s the small things. Like learning to shake your penis three times after you pee. Did you figure that out on your own? No, I taught you. I was living like a machine before, but being a father changed me.” He laughed again, but it was softer. “I’m the perfect killer because I am a dad.” Then he went silent.
I read my tablet for a while.
“After you gather evidence, then there’s some basic intuition involved. You have to know for sure that you are taking out a double. Like your ripped up fingernails sticking up all jagged and wonky. You know why I used to rip those off of you? Because it just wasn’t right. You’re not an animal. I can prove you aren’t a machine because I shaped you, I raised you. Robots don’t have dynamic adaptation; true evolution is organic. You can’t replicate culture. You have to live and breathe it.
I looked around at the lonely faces in the waiting room. “Have you ever seen a sad robot?”
“No. Never over an extended time. They can’t get depressed. All their emotions are emulations, simulations. They smile only because they are programmed to. They use the same food we do as fuel, but any emotions they have about enjoying it are simulations. They eat the same way we do, but it’s a ruse.
“Why are we hanging out here?”
“They wait but they don’t ever go in. They sign in but never actually go into the doctor’s appointment. Stay here. I’m just going to use the bathroom.
I stayed in the waiting room. I opened Fizzle and started playing. I heard two metallic pops and a dull thud, but I didn’t look up from the game I had started. A minute later, and he was standing over me wagging his finger.
He turned away and yelled without looking back. “Turn it off.” I followed him, but he walked at a pace like he didn’t care if I could catch up. Outside, I had to run to keep up. Dad looked mad. I knew he’d feel better later. I think sometimes he likes to kill them, shut them down hard. But other times, he’s got regrets, and I think that when he spends so much time stalking, so much time evaluating, he already knows, and he’s just delaying the worst part of his job.
The sky was brighter than usual that morning, as I followed dad, briskly maneuvering around sidewalk rubble. “So of course, there is the global food and water shortage.” Dad loved to talk as if I’d just asked him a burning geopolitical question.
“Turns out those bots can’t drink salt water either. But why get rid of them all? Really, I suspect it’s the corporations who want the private property. They don’t want the liability of anybody, robot or not, messing up the land grab.
A tall man in a suit and trim, grey beard walked past us. My dad motioned with his eyes, and we followed the stranger. We tailed him from about a block away.
“Dad, am I just cover for you?”
He looked down and smiled, then shook his head emphatically, his eyes locked on me. “It’s only a bonus, Son, only a bonus.”
The tall man stopped at a flower stand and bought a dozen roses. He rubbed a petal between thumb and fore finger, bent sharply at the neck, and breathed in. Harry guided his son by the shoulder, and they pretended to look in a shop window. The man continued walking.
Stopping at the same stand, Harry pulled gently on Jacob’s collar, “Did you notice anything weird?”
“No. He just likes flowers.”
“But these red flowers are so much nicer. He chose the white flowers and all the white flowers are a bit spent.”
“The white roses are cheaper. Maybe he’s on a budget?”
“No. He’s dressed too well.”
The man entered a large decaying apartment building.
“Quick! This is our chance.”
My father started running. He whipped out his electronic pick and scanned the door controls. The old double doors clicked open.
With a quick turn of the head he commanded. “Throw the marbles!”
They scattered and bounced as Dad fell forward pretending to trip. They clattered against the hard, cold floor dispersing throughout the lobby and catching up to the bearded man. He quickly and precisely stepped around each marble without slowing his pace or even looking down.
“Son, how many times have I told you to watch where you’re going?” My father’s tone, loud yet flat. “Stay here and pick those up.” The bearded android held the elevator door, and my father stepped inside.
The elevator door closed silently, effortlessly. It’s how the best machines act. I looked around and saw how fancy this lobby was. Nice places hide behind crappy exteriors; these days nobody with means wants to attract attention. The molding at the ceiling’s edges was ornate and had the dull shine of real gold leaf, the unstripped original. Gold sold at more than five thousand an ounce at even the sleaziest recyclers. I’d watched dad sell all ours.
A small door opened in the corner of the lobby, and a floor bot rolled out. It was only a foot tall and shaped in an almost perfect cube. It was slow and started vacuuming the room methodically doubling back and forth. First it traced the southern wall, and then it stepped over with precision to cleanse the second foot wide strip of marble floor. Most of my glassies had bounced towards the northern wall. I had plenty of time.
Then a second machine appeared; it was smaller but quicker. It had more sophisticated sensors and went directly to the first of my hard earned marbles and sucked it up. I heard the glass ball ping around inside its metal belly. I didn’t want to lose any more, but for some reason, I wasn’t moving. Robots like these were expensive and rare because the masses of unemployed were willing to do the same work.
Then an even smaller robot darted out and scanned the whole room. It assessed were the greatest concentration of marbles were and headed right toward them. I ran and jumped right in front of it. It stopped and backed up a respectful two feet. Its head spun once, and then it started to side-step me. I tiptoed in the same direction. It followed the same pattern. This is fun. I felt smart, but I wasn’t sure how I could win. After sparing through a few more jumps, I bent down and shoved the bot away. It whined as its motor resisted. I turned and ran for my marbles.
A man entered from a gold trimmed door hidden within the decorations of the ornate walls. I hadn’t notice it before. The tall, thin African-American was slipping on a dark trim vest, an untied bowtie around his neck.
“Can I help you, young man?”
“No. I’m just waiting for my dad.”
“I’ve not seen you here before.” His face was not unkind but severe.
“He’s upstairs finishing up some business.” Dad would be proud of my pun.
“This is a private lobby. These are residential apartments only. Your father’s not a door-to-door man is he?” He stared straight into my eyes ignoring the ricochet of marbles pinging inside hungry robots. My dad had taught me to stare right back, to say whatever I wanted, because the lie didn’t matter, just the attitude.
“Oh, he’s not selling anything. He’s tuning some guy’s piano. Hey, can you help me get my marbles? I spilled ′em all, and my dad is mad. He made me stay down here and pick them all up, and now I’m never gonna get ’em back.”
“Sure Sonny.” He snapped his fingers twice and the bots froze in place. The man followed me around bending gracefully at the waist to scoop up marbles. Why wasn’t my dad back?
The man leaned down and handed me the last marbles. The hair at his temples was cut short—the gray standing out. “The name’s David. I’ve just started my breakfast; can I interest you in some food?” What would my dad do? I knew. But would he be mad at me for taking a stranger’s food?
David coughed as he walked down a plain service hall. He leaned acutely as he opened his door waving me in with one smooth gesture. The kitchen looked like a 1950’s movie set and was brightly lit. It smelled like perfectly brewed coffee. At a small chrome banded table, he had a plate of eggs and potatoes. My mouth watered.
David’s back was to me as he stood at the counter. Humming something eerie. Does he realize that he’s whistling, that it sound foreboding or that it’s in D-minor? He turned quickly on his heels and presented me a plate of cheese, jam and toast. Raspberry jam, homemade by the looks of it and so pungent I could smell it before I grabbed the plate. The thin slices of sharp cheddar just like my mom would cut. And two slices of dry toast.
I sat slowly at the table, slinking under close to its edges. I was torn. This simple homemade meal presented to me without asking. Generosity—no thought of return. Also, I was distracted by how hungry I was. David had the pure grandma effect, so I was hungry, hungry. I wanted that raspberry jam! I looked around. I was looking for bacon. I wanted this to be her house. David was eating his food. Not really looking at me, but not ignoring me either.
I took a bite of cheese. It was aged, sharp and it crumbled deliciously in my mouth. I turned the first piece of toast over. Dry.
I sat back against my chair, and breathed out. I took the next few bites without looking away from the plate. I was living in the now. Diving into this plate. Devouring. The last piece of toast was cold, but as I bit down, the center of the underside was warm, warm and moist. I stood up, my knees trembling.
“Thank you. Don’t follow me. Please, don’t leave this room for at least an hour.” David nodded.
I left my toast on the plate turned right side up. If I got back to the lobby before my dad came down, he wouldn’t be the wiser.
Luckily the elevator had stopped working and when my dad showed up at the bottom of the stairs, he was out of breath, his face blank.
“Come on, let’s go to the diner.”
“Can I have waffles?”
We found the last booth in the crowded restaurant. I had been here many times, but not usually for breakfast. That was the one meal Dad liked to cook. All the waitresses knew him by name. He seemed at home here, like it was his office. Me? No, they don’t know me. I should be in school. Up until last year, I was still attending regularly. I don’t give a crap about school, or robots even, but I like studying Dad. I watched him eat. There was a gleam in his eye as he gobbled down his omelet.
I pictured my grandmother standing in the field of her Montana farm. The wheat fields rippling while her plain cotton dress blows in the wind. The farm house is behind her. Beyond it, I see the top of the old windmill. I saw the fat, round gear box casting—the rust of its exterior a dark rich red—and the cogged gears properly greased with pig lard. There is a loud thud of the pump rod dropping as it contracted and faithfully pumped water, a stubborn heart still beating.
“Your grandma grew up in Flaxville and really never moved far from it. Some of the roads in town are still dirt. We had space stations orbiting above and colonies on Mars, but people were still born dirt-poor in the middle of our country. She’d barely graduated high school, thought nothing about walking five miles to visit friends.” I imagined her feet, young and flat against the hard plains. Her back straight like I’d never seen it.
“Your kindergarten teacher was one.”
“How did you know?”
“She didn’t sleep. Ever.”
“Ew, Dad! How did you know that? Did you go to her house?”
“Yes. Well, not really.”
The true creep factor, the real uncanny valley, is the issue of intimacy—not sexual intimacy—the messy results of potentially falling in love, truly giving oneself over to a machine. Is that intimacy, or is it co-dependency? Is it cleaner or messier than falling in love with flesh and bones? What if that robot is a better partner? What if they piss you off less?
My father kept scanning the room methodically from side to side. “When I surveilled Ms. Fischer, she was always pacing, so I set up a motion detection camera. She’d pace around her apartment all night. Usually she was doing prep, creating handmade materials for the classroom. I thought it was too much. That’s why I set up the cameras.”
“Why didn’t you zap her and collect? We never had enough money.”
He had a pained expression on his face. “You hated day care and preschool before, but as soon as you went to her class, you were happy. I could leave you with her and you wouldn’t cry, and she wasn’t operating heavy machinery, not driving a school bus.”
“Why did you start tracking her in the first place?”
“A parent breakfast. The toast. If I see something like that even one time, I get suspicious.”
“Never mind Jacob. She got shut down later anyway. It doesn’t matter; a job’s a job. It was years later; you were in third or fourth grade.”
We were standing together at a high table surrounded by wide shoulders and mustaches. Dad was talking to me a lot but rarely making eye contact. His focus was on the tables around him, on the hands of the many off-duty police officers. “Such a waste of good beer.” He muttered.
I knew what my father was thinking because I’d heard the lecture many times. Robots, doubles with guns. The bounty was the highest because they represented the greatest risk both to society and to togglemen. The three laws? Just urban legend. Hopeful thinking. Robots would kill you to save themselves. I’d seen it. We’ll that’s how Dad explained it.
Heavy mugs clunked against the tables. Cops were yelling, slapping each other on the backs. I was getting bored. My dad was focused on a short fat man who was clean shaven—one of the few in the room. How old is he? I couldn’t tell.
My father stepped over to him, “Got a light?” The man in uniform hesitated and then moved for his pocket and pulled out a square Zippo lighter. He flipped, struck it and brought it to my dad’s dangling cigarette in a fluid swinging motion. Dad nodded his thanks and stepped back.
“Let’s go Jacob.” We left the smell of beer and urine and walked across the litter filled street.
My dad’s out right now. He hasn’t taken me on any punches this past month. He’s started to make enough money, and I’m back in school full time. But sometimes I cut and spy on him. He’s my dad; someone’s got to keep him out of trouble.
I found him stalking a woman pushing a stroller, and for no apparent reason, the double started walking really quickly. He picked up the pace. I waited to evaluate and then ran up the next street. I ran for two blocks to parallel them, hoping that they would not change direction. I rounded the corner, and looking left, I saw nothing, but as I turned and looked south, I could see a small crowd gathered. I crouched down, and through a thin forest of legs, I saw the woman on the ground. The stroller was knocked over. Someone in the crowd was crying. I saw my dad turning south and storming off, trench coat billowing behind.
I sat on the ground. This was like a car wreck, I could not look away. Eventually the small crowd dissipated. They were still city. They could move on.
The woman was sprawled out, but one hand still gripped the overturned stroller. The sidewalk moist below her, but it wasn’t blood. It was clear hydraulic fluid. You could smell the sweet petroleum, see that it still seeped from her back. Her eyes were closed, a grimace frozen on her face. Suddenly, something moved beneath the blankets that had spilled out of the stroller. Without thinking, I tugged the blanket off. Underneath a baby—no a doll—squirmed with its legs in the air. It was very realistic, but it was a toy. Its skin was grey, and it was missing one eye. It was showing its age, an animatronic baby doll that, at one time, had belonged to a very rich family. It kicked its pudgy legs. It kept opening and closing its mouth, but it made no sound. Could this machine, this de facto human nanny, really nurture? Or was it simple dedication to programming that kept her hands tightly gripped on the stroller’s handle?
The electric telegram invaded instantaneously all my digital media including my cortex shunt. If you are rich, you can customize the delivery, soften the blow. We couldn’t afford to pay the premiums for personalized data or to block government messages. The few times I’ve gotten personal messages, they’ve always been bad news. Mom’s crash. My expulsion from Roosevelt. And I don’t know if it’s the medium of the delivery or the content of the message, but I got a migraine right away. A moment later, I was throwing up.
I still felt sick, but Dad said we had to travel. He’d bought the tickets for the bolt jump, and we’d be in Bismarck, North Dakota in an hour. Where did Dad get the money for the tickets? Later we’ll have to go the rest of the way in Roberts rusted 99’ Ford 150. It’ll take hours to get to Scoby, Montana, twenty miles away from what used to be called Canada.
The coffin sits in the living room. The curtains are pulled down low creating twilight in the narrow Victorian salon. The coffin is a dark, red wood. I look carefully. It is real wood, maybe even virgin, and lacquered so thickly that the resulting shine makes the wood look like metal. I want to study the exterior, but really, I’m scared to focus on the inside. The coffin must have been really expensive, and who paid for all this anyway? I finally get the courage to let me eyes rest on her, to see her serene face and perfect makeup. Her hair is done just as she would have wanted. I look down to the other end of the coffin, and it’s longer than it needs to be, but she’s got her favorite black shoes on, and they hide the real shape of her feet. I imagine them finally extended, relaxed, the bunions and pain gone.
Robert is in the kitchen making us breakfast. He insisted. Dad hates Robert even though it’s not his own mother. He thinks he hates him for Mom, but she wasn’t like that, at least I don’t think so.
My grandmother’s companion of twenty years is an excellent cook. He must be scrambling eggs; there is a slight sulfuric smell. The large kitchen counter has a plate filled with toast and pastries. No butter until you reach down and see that the bottoms are damp—no soggy—with butter. Shocked, I back away. I’d known Robert my whole life and had never known.
I can see the top of my dad’s head. He is sitting on one of the hard, sensible kitchen chairs. I imagine him just staring like he does on any job, and I can hear Robert singing or mumbling and pots clanging in the sink. Then silence. “Harry, where is Jacob? I want him to help me with the corn.” I stand up from the behind the stair railing. I feel tall. I walk into the kitchen. “I can help.”
My father does not look at me. “Dad, are you alright?” He does not move his head. His jaw is set and fingers twitching, but his eyes are relaxed, his brow soft.
I walk outside with Robert. He grabs the unhusked corn and tosses it back and forth between his large hands.
“Do you know your factory date?”
With each toss the dried ends rustle and the dense cob thuds in his palms. He peels back the first leaf with a loud scrape. Each tug of the leaves a satisfying rasp. With a large blade held firm he places it under the glistening yellow rows and cuts quickly. The kernels drop effortlessly into the metal bowl.
“I deleted those files and renamed myself, but there were some baseline files I could not delete. I remember the factory floor—cold—and the smell of acetone.” Silence. Then he continued to move the blade confidently. “I came north and found a human to care for. She had dementia. She thought I was Rob, her first son. Under my care she lived another fifteen years. She really loved me. To survive, I took her son’s name and identity, but I was only taking what she had already given me.”
“With your grandmother it was different. Her cognitive skills were fully functional for years. The degradation only really began last year, and through it all, she’s never confused me with family. She might love me, but she has never crossed a line. And I assure you, I never have….”
The robot spoke slowly, “I could do more you know. I want to, but nobody asks.”
“Robert, why don’t you move on. Find someone else to help. Get out before my dad changes his mind.
“You know what he does, what he is, right?”
He took the corn scraps and said, “Let me show you some friends of mine.”
It is dark when we walk back into the kitchen, and my dad is gone. I go in the back and find him by the pig pen.
“Jacob, look at these fat sows. They are perfect. He must have thirty here.
“You should see the cattle on the north side. Robert’s learned to be an excellent farmer and rancher. Do you know this farm makes money now?
“Android labor. He’s a teacher. Turns out it’s not a big leap to get their programing to shift from human caretaker to taking care of animals.”
My father did not say anything.
“Dad. He paid for that old fashioned embalming so we could see her one last time. He’s learned how to make this cold prairie fertile. You have to let go. Let him be Robert, let this place grow.”
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