You have to understand, I woke up one day, and if I’d had any sort of life before that day, I didn’t remember it.
There was a man standing over me. I didn’t know him, though he said he’d known me my whole life. He made me call him “Father.”
On that first day I can remember, I had so many questions I tried to ask him. I had awoken in that room above the factory. It was laid out with everything he thought I needed: clothes hanging on a rack, a washing machine to clean them in, and a cot. There was no window in my room, and the door only locked on the outside.
I was scared. It was the first feeling I could ever remember having. He was there, standing over me. I tried to ask him all my questions, but he shook his head and said he didn’t have time to answer them all. He said he worked in the old workshop down below and he said I should help him. That’s what I was there for. He said he would answer just one question. It didn’t seem fair, but what could I do?
So, I asked him who I was. He answered simply, “A robot.” At the confusion he must have seen on my face, he explained what a robot was and how it was different from what he was, a human.
He taught me how to help him in the factory. At night, we went upstairs. He had a room up there, too, which I was not allowed in. He would order me to lay on the cot and close my eyes. He said keeping my eyes closed for ten minutes was the signal to my body to power down, and a timer would restart me the next day.
I tried to ask him my questions over and over. I tried to be very helpful so he would want to answer me. He only grew angry with me when I asked.
I tried to learn what I could without asking questions. Usually he called me “Robot,” but one day, he called out “Alice” over and over until I found him. I thought Alice must be my real name. But the next day, when he needed my help, he called out “Polly.” That name lasted for a few days before he changed it to Jackie, then Ginger, then Tania. A name only lasted as long as he liked it, and when he couldn’t think of one he liked, he would go back to calling me Robot.
It was just the two of us, the father and me. No one ever came there. Sometimes he would leave, locking me inside. I would sit in my room and run the washing machine, even if there were no dirty clothes. I would sit beside it, sometimes put my face against it, and listen to the sounds it made inside. It was the same as me, a robot. Sometimes I whispered to it. I asked if it was scared, or lonely, or sad. I knew robots could feel those three emotions. Maybe that’s what made us different from humans: humans could have so many feelings. They could be happy, excited, hopeful, and many other things I didn’t seem to be capable of experiencing.
One day, after he had been gone a while, he came home with a pink box. He called to me, “Robot, I have something for you!” I came and I opened the box and inside was a cake. He said it was my birthday. Exactly one year since I had opened my eyes the first time. Awakened, trapped in that room. He said on birthdays, people got presents. I asked, “What about robots? I have never seen you give a cake to the washing machine.” He said I was a special enough robot to get a present on my birthday. I told him I did not want the cake. I could see him beginning to get angry. I said what I wanted for my present was the answers to my questions.
He was silent for a moment, then he picked up the box with the cake and threw it against the wall. He left again. He came back before I finished cleaning up the cake. He sat at the table and he said he would answer one question.
I finished cleaning, so I could think carefully of which question to ask. I sat next to him at the table and asked where I had come from. He answered that I came from here, the factory. He had built me, with the help of a woman he knew who was a computer programmer. She was the reason that, when I opened my eyes, I already knew how to eat and walk and speak and so many other things. She had done her part and then left, and he had finished me himself. That was why he had me call him Father, because he had made me. That first day I opened my eyes was the day he had turned me on.
That evening, I washed the rags I had used to clean up the cake. I put a hand on the rumbling machine and told it, “You are lucky to not have a birthday.”
I waited for a whole year more to pass. I kept track of the days until that same day came around again. During breakfast I asked, “Can I have another answer for my birthday?” The father didn’t look happy, but he nodded.
I asked quickly before he could change his mind, “Why do I look like you and not like the other machines?” None of the machines in the factory had two arms or legs or a torso like I did. And, while there were no mirrors in the factory, so I had never seen it, I had felt the round head on the top of my body and knew it was like a human’s.
His answer was, “I wanted to build a robot that looked like a human. Instead of metal on the outside, I used flexible polymers that would have a similar feel to skin. I selected red and blue wires and tubes for the inside to give the impression of veins. I even found a rare and expensive paint that would give your outsides a natural skin tone.” He lowered his head and let it slowly shake back and forth as he confessed, “I couldn’t afford enough, though, and so I couldn’t paint your neck and your face. They’re still your original, unnatural color.”
When he said that, it was the first time I realized that I did not know what my face looked like. I had never seen it, not that I could remember.
Later that day, I took a piece of paper and a pencil. I pressed the paper over my face, and I tried to use the pencil to draw the outline of my eyes, nose, and mouth. I wanted to know what I looked like, but the face on the page didn’t look human at all. I wondered if that was what I really looked like.
The next day, while the father and I were working, I asked if he would take a picture of me. So I could see what my face looked like. His reply was, “I already gave you a present this year.” He was going to make me wait another year to ask for a picture of myself.
I couldn’t stand to wait that long. I searched through the whole factory, trying to find something reflective. The windows were all too yellowed with age. The metal parts of the machines and the shelves were all too rusted. I even tried to use the silverware, but they were covered in scratches that my true image hid behind.
The weather was getting colder, and the father gave me newspapers to start the fire in the old stove that helped to heat the place. I was crumpling one up when I saw the picture of a woman. My fingers dragged across her smooth face and then my own. I tore the image out and put it in my pocket. As I went through the rest of the paper, I tore out all the pictures with people’s faces. I hid them under the washing machine, trusting my friend to guard them well.
When the father would go out, I would sort through the pictures looking for features I thought looked like mine. I measured my eyes and found two eyes that had the same ratio, though half the size of mine. I found a nose and mouth that matched mine, though I had to mix two separate lips. Most of the face was black and white, but the nose and the bottom lip were in color, from the Sunday paper. I found tape and taped the pieces to a sheet of paper and then measured my head and drew the right proportions around the face. And that was a picture of me. I hung it on the wall and pretended it was a mirror and I was seeing my face. But when I put a hand to my face, the reflection didn’t follow. I ran my fingers over my face and then over the image. It looked human. If my parts looked like that, then I looked very human.
I burned the pictures I hadn’t used and hid the image of myself under the washing machine. For one year, it was the best image I had of myself.
Finally, my birthday came around again. First thing in the morning I asked, “Will you take a picture of me for my birthday?” I felt my insides collapse when he replied, “No.” He had made me wait a year, never having any intention of letting me see myself. I was so crushed, I dared to ask a second question.
He tilted his head and said, “It would make you sad. Your head is not the color of the rest of your body. And I regret that I didn’t do a good job on your face. Hands and feet are detailed, but easy to sculpt. A face is simple elements—just eyes, nose, and mouth, really—but hard to make realistic. I tried very hard, but your face simply doesn’t look like a human face.”
“I want to see it, anyway,” I said. But he snapped, “I already answered your question.” And he walked away.
For the first time, perhaps because he had answered two questions when he always said he would only answer one, I started to wonder if the answers he gave me were always true.
I thought of my questions all year. If he had answered two questions, maybe I could manage to get him to answer three.
On the day, I waited until after breakfast to ask my question, as his mood was always a little better after breakfast.
Once he had finished his final sip of coffee, I asked, “If I am a robot, then why do I breathe air like you?”
He smiled. “You don’t breathe the way I do. You filter the air for me, and I simply made it appear that you were breathing the air in and out. But you don’t have lungs. You just have a chamber with filters that I change some nights when your power is off.”
“Why haven’t you ever mentioned that before?”
“Why would I? You’re never grateful for anything I do for you, anyway.” He roughly pushed his chair back from the table and left before I could ask him a third question.
Another year passed. This time I waited until lunch to start my questions.
As we sat at our table with the food I had prepared, I asked, “If I am a robot, then why do I eat food like you?”
He leaned back in his chair. “You don’t eat like me. Look at what you have. Liquid made of vegetables and grains, the same that can be burned for fuel in cars and other machines, just like you. Now look at my plate. Meat, bread with butter, just a few vegetables. If you ate this, it would harm your system. I don’t know what would even happen because you don’t have a stomach, so you can’t digest food.”
I had more questions, but without much thought, I grabbed the steak off his plate and used my teeth to tear off mouthfuls. I barely chewed, hurriedly trying to eat as much as I could before he was able to grab it back.
When he had managed to wrench it away from me, he plopped what was left of it back on his plate. His face tight, he stared at the remains of his lunch.
He stood, wiped his hands on his napkin and declared, “I hope you realize I have no intention of fixing you, if you break down now.”
He didn’t usually go out in the middle of the day, but that day he did.
It wasn’t much later that I realized there was a problem. My insides began to rumble like the washing machine. Then my body threw out the steak, undigested, just like he said.
I cleaned it up, hoping the father would never know.
I didn’t feel right. I went up to my room to try to go to sleep. I laid down for a few minutes, and then more of the meat came back out.
I don’t know when the father came in, but he held back my hair while I leaned over the edge of my cot and emptied out all the meat pieces I had tried to eat. When I laid back, he felt my forehead.
“You’re overheating. You probably gummed up your cooling system with grease. I can’t get to that without completely taking you apart. We’ll just have to try and keep you cool and hope your system is able to clear itself. If not …” He shrugged.
He laid a cool rag across my forehead and cleaned up my mess.
I didn’t want to close my eyes, wondering if it was all true and I might overheat, shut down, and never be able to restart again. Would the father try and fix me, or did he mean it when he said he wouldn’t? Was anything he said ever true?
Eventually my eyes closed on their own.
My eyes opened again the next morning. Next to my bed was a glass full of the green fuel I normally ate.
I was functioning, but I wasn’t happy.
I knew I should thank the father by diving back into work. If I acted normal, he would probably act normal, and everything could go back to the way it was. But how long would I be able to stand it?
The next year, I waited. I waited to see if he would say anything first. After all these years, all the questions he’d answered and all the ones he hadn’t, I wondered if he wouldn’t say something about it being my birthday. Of course, he didn’t.
But that night, he made dinner for us. He had never cooked for us before. Usually he told me what to make, and I did. I worried he meant to offer me dinner instead of an answer to my question.
We sat down to dinner and I saw he’d made us the same meal. Both of our plates had nothing but large steaks on them.
As I stared at the food, he egged me on. “Go on. Eat.”
I replied, “Thank you for the food, but I would prefer another answer for my birthday.”
He grunted and with his mouth full, he said, “Robots don’t have birthdays.”
I said quietly, “But I have always …”
“Been ungrateful,” he finished, throwing down his fork. “Constantly reminding me of my failures in you. All the ways I tried to make you seem human, you throw back in my face.”
“I want to know if I am human.”
“I’ve told you since the beginning what you are.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Then there’s no point in asking any more questions.”
He picked up his fork and attacked his steak some more.
I picked up the knife and fork he had put out for me. I inspected them both, then set the fork back down.
I said, “Perhaps I don’t need your answers. Perhaps I can find my own.”
I gently placed the blade against my arm, the one closest to him to be sure he’d see.
In response, he put a piece of steak in his mouth and stared straight ahead while he ate.
I said quietly, “Do you suppose I bleed like you?”
He kept chewing.
I muttered, “I’ve wondered for a very long time,” and quickly put pressure on the blade, sliding it down the soft flesh below the inside of my elbow. I tried to muffle the sounds of pain that wanted to escape my mouth. There was a ringing in my ears, but I was more focused on the dark liquid oozing its way out of my arm. Deep red, the same color and consistency I had seen come out of the father when he cut himself.
He took a peripheral glance at my arm before taking a drink of his water.
“Oil,” he said, as he set the cup down. “And other fluids necessary to keep you functioning, all mixed with a dye I created myself to make it look like blood.”
I jumped to my feet and shouted, “And what makes it pump through my body? What did you put where my heart should be?” I grabbed up the knife again and pointed it at my chest. “Will a knife be able to pierce the delicate mechanics you used to create a robot heart that’s nothing like yours?”
He stared into my eyes. “Do you want to find out?”
Blood was dripping down off my arm onto the concrete floor. He stayed focused on my eyes. He didn’t stand, didn’t move until he decided to take another bite of steak.
He wasn’t going to stop me. I wasn’t sure he even cared one way or the other.
I threw down the knife and ran up to my room. After wiping the blood off my arm with a towel, I wrapped a piece of cloth tightly around it many times.
I sat on the floor by the washing machine while it took care of my bloody towel. I sat close to the machine, but it didn’t help. Even with my head leaning against the metal as it rumbled, I couldn’t feel its spirit like I had once thought I could. It was just a cold, lifeless machine. It didn’t have feelings, happy or sad. It never had a slowly building rage growing from its center that it didn’t know what to do with.
A robot should know what to do, I thought. I had only one idea and I knew it wasn’t a good idea. What else could I do?
Turning off the lights to my room, I sat on the edge of my bed. I didn’t lay down. I didn’t close my eyes. I didn’t move. I had to wait for hours, but eventually I saw the lights outside my room shut off, disappearing from the crack under my door. The father was going to bed.
I waited longer. He had to be asleep.
When it was late enough, I snuck into his room. I had never been in it, as I wasn’t allowed. It had infinitely more things in it than my room. He had more furniture than he needed, more clothes than he wore, and more things than he could use.
He was asleep on his bed, which was big enough for multiple people.
I stood over him, lying still on his back on the center of the bed. I imagined that I slept just like him at night.
But he was not what I was here for.
I walked around the room. There was so much more stuff than I thought there would be. I struggled to discern what it all was in the dark. The white letters stood out in the dark.
Polaroid. I didn’t know what the word meant, but I had seen the father take pictures with it before.
I took the camera with me out onto the walkway. I didn’t waste a moment. I held it up and tried to point it squarely on my face.
Behind the camera, I saw his door open. He was awake. I felt desperately for the button to take the picture. At the same time as there was a bright flash, I felt myself being tackled. I fell back against the railing. The camera sailed out of my hand. I heard the broken pieces scatter on the warehouse floor far below. The camera was probably ruined, but it had still taken a picture.
I tried to run down the stairs, but the father grabbed me from behind. He wrapped his arms around me so tightly, I struggled to breathe.
The rage swelled up in me. I lashed out with surprising force, knocking him back so hard, he too went over the railing. After a moment of being stunned, I looked over the rail, and saw him lying among the broken camera pieces. A single photo was by his head.
As badly as I wanted to see the picture, I went back into his room to get his phone. He had always kept it with him and never let me touch it, so I wasn’t sure how it worked. I kept pressing buttons until I finally figured out how to call the last person the father had called.
When they answered, I said, “Please, the father is hurt. He may be dead. Please come help.”
I left the phone on his bed. Then I walked down to get the photo, careful to avoid looking at the body. I just wanted to see what I looked like. I needed to know.
* * *
The woman was sitting at a dining table that seemed out of place in the large factory. When the detective asked her what happened, she told him everything she remembered, starting several years ago.
After explaining it all, she handed him a photo, saying, “This is what he died for.”
It was a crooked picture of walls and a ceiling. Barely visible at the bottom of the picture was the very top of two heads.
“I still don’t know what I look like,” she whispered. Then an idea flashed life back into her eyes. She looked up at the detective and asked, “Will you tell me? Am I like him?” She stole a glance at where the body still lay, now covered with a sheet.
The detective knew she had suffered years of trauma. He didn’t want to do anything that might excite or upset her, but he also didn’t want to lie to her.
He answered, “You’re as human as he was.”
Her eyes drifted away from his as she considered his belated answer. It wasn’t a lie. There was only one difference between this woman and the one she called the father: his face had been painted to look like a human’s