The State Street Robot Factory20 min read


Claire Humphrey
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Darius sells three pocket robots on the first Tuesday of October, and another three on Wednesday. At this rate he’ll be able to pay for his legs by Christmas.

He does lose one robot to theft: someone figures out how to jimmy open the door of the display pod without scanning their credit code. The pod sends an alarm to Darius. He cranks it back up to its docking station beside the window of his apartment, and he sees its plexiglass door hanging a little ajar, with scratches around the catch.

The scratches buff out quickly with some wet sandpaper followed by an acrylic polish. The catch is a little tougher to fix as one of the metal prongs of the lock is snapped off, but rebuilding a lock isn’t as hard as building a robot. The circuitry within is barely damaged and by evening Darius has the pod looking pristine again, ready for tomorrow’s sales.

He’s been building up inventory for a while in preparation for the gift-giving season. Phalanxes of pocket robots stand on his bookshelves, his eating counter, and the shelf over his bed.

Through the summer he’s been selling only about one a week. People who live here do sometimes walk around Chicago when the weather is good, but they don’t venture down the shadowed, dirty sidewalk overhung by the arches of the elevated train track and the State Street ramp.

When autumn begins, though, and tourists come to town for sports and shopping and theatre, traffic on State gets so heavy that vehicles sit there honking for minutes at a time, and that’s when Darius gets his audience.

The display pod hangs from a long steel cable. Darius cranks it up and down from the window beside his bed. He usually lowers it to about eye level for the cars on the State Street ramp, but when traffic is light he also sometimes tries the people waiting on the train platform. They don’t have as much money but they’re only a few stories below his window and he likes to hear them exclaiming over how cute the robots are.

The display pod has an inner light with a bluish tint which glints enticingly off the robots’ brightly polished plating. Darius makes their armour out of scrap his cousin Little Walker culls for him from an auto wrecker. Each week his other cousin Big Walker goes to an electronics flea market for Darius with a carefully annotated list and brings back whatever he’s been able to purchase. Big Walker always brings his haul right up to Darius’s apartment, even though it’s a long climb up a cold exterior stairwell. The elevator in Darius’s building has been broken for three years now and there are always squatters in the interior stairwells. Little Walker won’t even try most of the time, she just badgered Darius for the code to the display pod so she can pop the auto fragments in there for Darius to haul up.

Little Walker lives with her step-family and says the only time she gets to leave them is when she’s doing something that pays. If she wasn’t hunting scrap for Darius, Little Walker probably wouldn’t get outdoors most days.

Darius doesn’t want to be one more family member hassling her to spend time. He just misses when he was out and about more and got to say hello to folks. Strangers, even.

He tried putting a microphone in the display pod and giving people sales pitches, but they seemed to get a little spooked by his voice. The robots sell themselves, with their pretty sparkling autobody chest plates and the birdlike strut of their legs, as long as Darius shuts up.

The drone that delivers Darius his groceries is the only voice he hears most days, and it’s a dog voice, not human. Darius has to admit it’s a bit alarming to hear it barking outside his window. He’s used to it now but it’s designed to be unpleasant enough to get people to hurry to make it shut up. By giving it progressively longer free power boosts from his robot charger, he’s trained it to fly all the way inside his apartment and leave his groceries on the eating counter. That way he can roll over to the other side of his bed and put the groceries away without much trouble at all, even if it’s a bad pain day.

Pretty much no one else comes up to visit Darius. It’s okay. He gets to see Big Walker once a week, and he usually has enough credit to get the drone to drop off a six pack for them to share.

Last year he wasn’t prepared for the holidays. He didn’t realize, somehow, how much money changes hands in that season. He sold out of robots more quickly than he could make them, leaving him without inventory for most of December and only a modest increase to his balance, enough to buy a bottle of bourbon for Big Walker and a couple of fancy takeout meals which the drone delivered still hot, but not enough to make a difference to the leg situation.

This year he knows what’s coming, sees the potential. He made himself a forecast based on how quickly last year’s robots sold out. He made himself a budget to take into account all the parts he would need, and when he would need them. And he mostly stuck to it, except for a week in spring when he had to use some of his parts money for a recombinant vaccine after Big Walker confessed he’d tested positive for TB.

Darius even built in a bit of a buffer. If he meets eighty percent of his forecast, he’ll get his legs. If he meets a hundred percent, he’ll get his legs and a ten-year warranty.

The only risk is that he’s had to use credit for all the parts. He’s confident in his numbers, so it’s not a terrible risk. If he’s wrong, it’s just going to set him back a bit, is all. He’ll have to pay some interest. He didn’t borrow from one of those guys who break your kneecaps or anything, and even if he did, Darius doesn’t currently have kneecaps.

A lot of amputees lose their limbs in military service. IEDs and mines are more and more common, and medicine is good enough now to keep people alive even when they’ve suffered massive blood loss and trauma, so you see plenty of vets with limb injuries, with and without prosthetics. People who saw Darius in the early days assumed that was what had happened to him, too. Some people thanked him for his service.

Darius was never a soldier, though. He hadn’t even been in the reserves. Not even at the height of the recent global conflict, when many of his friends had enlisted for jobs like loading supply trains or inspecting munitions.

He’d been making good money delivering packages to the brownstones of Lincoln Park and the elegant towers of the north side. The people in those homes got so many packages that Darius quickly came to recognize his regulars, a cheerful couple who got a case of wine every other week, a family whose deliveries usually came from a locally famed toy shop in multiple boxes at a time, a man in a black Henley who never came downstairs when Darius rang the bell but waved a two-finger salute from his enclosed balcony. The people all looked busy, intent, eager to receive what Darius was bringing them and instantly absorb it into whatever world lay within their doors. The delivery service Darius worked for didn’t have a tipping portal but people often tipped anyway, leaving an envelope on their porch with “Package Guy” written on it, or “Hi, delivery friend!”

Darius didn’t mind the work. He got to know the city very well, and he enjoyed being in his vehicle, which he kept well tuned. He’d find his mind wandering now and then, thinking about his hobby designs, thinking about how if he made his on-time bonus this month he could invest in some nicer finishes and a better cordless grinder.

He was having one of those moments when he narrowly ran a light and one of the new driverless transports T-boned him. Night had just come and Darius was on his way home after detouring for tacos. Because he wasn’t on a call, his job insurance didn’t cover him. The driverless vehicle that hit him had 360-degree liability cams, and the safety testing on those things had to be airtight to allow them to operate in Chicago in the first place so there wasn’t a chance it had malfunctioned. Darius’s lawyer said, as kindly as she could say under the circumstances, that even though the medical bills were going to leave Darius underwater for years, it was better than adding more years by pursuing a case he would never win.

She wrapped up their meeting quickly after that. It was a virtual meeting; Darius was still in the hospital then, but graduated out of intensive care. Once the lawyer disconnected, Darius’s nurse needed her phone back.

“You need one of these for yourself,” she scolded him gently. “How are you going to set your reminders for your meds, and reboot your new legs when they need it?”

“I’m not getting my new legs right away,” Darius said.

“Oh,” the nurse said. “Oh, of course. Well.”

“I’m getting a replacement phone soon,” he felt compelled to offer. “My cousin has an old one. It’s not as nice as the one that got broken in my accident, but it can do the stuff you said.”

Her face cleared a little. “When you do, I’ll set you up with the leg app, and a payment plan. And we’ll get you fitted here so you can just place the order as soon as you’re approved.”

Darius did install the leg app when Big Walker brought him his phone. The app was free, and not hard to use. The nurse input all the specifications for the legs Darius would need, and set up a pending order. Darius breezily redirected her before she could link the app to his bank account for approval analysis.

Ten years later, Darius still has the pending order stored in the app. The app has been updated seven times. There are new versions of the legs, too.

The legs he first saw are now on a clearance sale: the attachment points are all custom but the skeleton form only comes in five sizes, while the newer models have more customization, updated firmware, and improved ergonomics. Maybe Darius’s size will go on an even deeper discount this winter if another update is released. He hasn’t factored that into his budget, but he thinks about it often when he looks at the pending order in the app, the red line through the original price and the months of work it has already saved him.

The interest rate on the pending payment plan has gone up a few percent, and Darius hasn’t had the heart to calculate what that will cost him over the full term. It just means the full term will be a little longer, that’s all. The down payment is the important part. That gets him the legs. And once he has the legs, he’ll make damn sure they aren’t repossessed.

He misses the job often. But he would have lost it anyway, once drones starting taking on the majority of the work. That’s the bright spot Darius thinks about a lot: if he hadn’t lost his legs in that accident, he would have been able to find all kinds of other work, but he wouldn’t have had those months of slow recovery where he filled up all his lonely, pain-struck moments with designs for his robots, and began building them, scrap by scrap.

An early winter storm hits Chicago right before Thanksgiving. Darius is ahead of his forecast by eight percent when he sees the weather warning pop up on his morning dashboard.

He cancels his grocery drone for the day and focuses on winding his pod up and down, offering all his most enticing stock, because if the storm locks the city in for a few days he can always spend those days polishing up his inventory but he can’t sell if there’s no one on the street.

He makes great numbers during the morning rush hour, and decent numbers through lunch. Overall, he’s a third of the way through his existing inventory and he’s already reinvested in another trip for Little Walker to magpie her way through the scrapyard for some more material.

But the pretty flakes start to flurry harder, and State Street’s painted lines submerge under grey-brown slush, and the cars fighting their way through it grow fewer. Darius, peering down, sees only a few older models, human-driven, with single occupants at the wheel: no one with the time or energy to view the robots displayed in his pod. The driverless cars are too smart to go out in this.

Darius reschedules his grocery drone. Apparently it, too, thinks this weather is a bit much, and it gives him a time slot two days away.

He’s out of cheese. He makes toast and spreads margarine on it and tops it with canned tomatoes and a sprinkle of soy bacon bits.

By the time the grocery drone returns on its revised schedule with his pain prescription refill, a bag of slightly shriveled oranges, a package of tempeh, a Pullman loaf, and a quarter pound of Wisconsin cheddar which Darius recklessly added, Darius, aching his way through wakeful nights without his pills, has buffed and shined and tweaked a good dozen of his less successful robots into premium inventory. He’s ready to make up for lost time. The evening dashboard says the storm is moving on over the lake.

In the morning Darius wakes up early, drinks some precious real coffee instead of instant, and loads his pod with a robot finished in pearl, accessorized with some natural horn buttons Darius bartered from one of his Russian neighbours in exchange for a jar of Big Walker’s homemade jam. Like all of his robots, this one has a wasp-narrow torso, pneumatic limbs and a bouncy gait. When it poses in the display pod it turns from side to side like a model, jumps lightly on the spot, and flexes.

Once the customer gets it home, they’ll be happy to see it can walk, too, a little bit jerkily, and dance from side to side to the rhythm of whatever is on the stereo. It can step over low obstacles like the rolled edge of a rug, or a dog toy. It has basic sensors that will keep it from bonking straight into a wall, and make it jerk to a halt when a human in the house crosses its path.

It is not useful. Darius is pretty sure most of his creations end up back in the scrap heap eventually. He rarely gets customers inquiring about how to replace their power sources, even though hardly anyone outside of mechanics has a boost charger just kicking around.

If Little Walker has ever come across one of his robots on her scrapyard pilgrimages, though, she hasn’t told Darius.

Maybe they’re just sitting on shelves, chest plates dulled with dust, with a ten or twenty percent charge in there, just enough that they haven’t flashed an alarm. Maybe Darius is wrong and plenty of people have boost chargers. Maybe kids trade boosts just like drones do, rewarding each other for favours and training each other to be good.

Whatever happens, the robots don’t belong to Darius once they’ve left the display pod. They’re a means to an end. He likes the process of making them, from the careful work it takes to articulate their limbs and wire their controls, through the satisfaction of choosing eye-catching colour and texture combinations from the magpie hoard Little Walker brings him, to the final polish and the test run he puts them through, up and down his countertop. But then he lets go.

Today’s pearl-and-horn-button robot takes hours to sell. At evening rush hour it’s still in the pod and Darius is five minutes away from giving up and cranking it back, when it finally goes to the occupants of a driverless retro Bel Air coupe.

They bring it back the next day and stuff it back in the pod with its legs over its head. Darius can’t find anything wrong with it: the robot still stands, walks, bounces. The Bel Air people just didn’t like it, he guesses. They didn’t mess it up or anything. It’s still in working order. Darius refunds their credit, runs over the pearl robot with a gentle sanitizing wipe and retires it to a shelf for the moment.

Sometimes things just don’t work, for no reason Darius can see. You can’t force the customer. You just have to back off and wait.

He stocks the pod with a hummingbird-green robot whose head has a crest of copper filaments. It sells in twenty minutes.

For Black Friday week, Darius has a forecast of forty robots. He should have an entire wall of shelves emptied by Saturday night.

He sells nineteen.

The numbers fall off a cliff on Tuesday. At first, he thinks there must be weather again. But the clouds are high and thin, the wind moderate, the dust and salt swirling a little at street level but barely visible from Darius’s aerie.

By Thursday night he’s alarmed. He combs his feeds, but he can’t find any awful reviews or quality issues. Even the Bel Air people left him four stars.

He gets Big Walker and Little Walker on a call together. Big Walker is in the middle of dinner and he’s eating a burrito as he listens to Darius explain the situation.

“It’s, like, art, right? Not really a toy?” Big Walker says messily, and then picks a strand of shredded lettuce off his chin.

Darius shrugs. “I get too bored if I make them all the same, so I guess that means they’re art.”

“Do they know that?” Big Walker gestures with one shoulder out toward the darkening blue window beside him, where presumably people are waiting in traffic the way they do on all the ramps in the city every evening. “Maybe they want to pay toy prices, not art prices.”

Darius adds a twenty percent discount to the data burst that pings the phones of the drivers on State Street and the people who wait on the train platform whenever they come within two meters of the display pod.

Sales go up five percent over the next few days. It’s a small enough number that he’s not even sure if it means anything. He’s farther off his forecast with every sale. He goes back to full price, and sales go down seven percent.

It’s Little Walker who figures out what has changed, a miserable week later. She actually comes all the way up to Darius’s apartment to bring him a flimsy transparent acetate box containing a red and blue robot with a hard plastic body and a dog-like face limned in gold-tone paint slightly off kilter to its features.

Without speaking, she tears apart the acetate box, drops the pieces on Darius’s floor where he can’t reach them, and sets the robot on Darius’s counter. It’s smaller than one of his own. When Little Walker controls it through the app on her phone, the robot turns slowly from side to side, jumps listlessly, trips on a zip tie, and falls over.

“It’s in the top ten sellers on all the big shop sites,” she says. “All the kids I know want one.”

“What does it cost?” Darius says. The twist in his gut could be excitement at the opportunity to capitalize, or fear that he won’t be able to compete.

“Less than yours,” Little Walker says. “Not, like, tons less. Ten, twelve percent? Their margin is probably amazing.”

She was the one who’d taught Darius about margin, by accident; he’d been going over math homework with her while she was still in school, and there was a set of problems about a small business owner that got his attention. He saw what math could do for him and once he’d started looking at things that way, there was a lot more he could learn.

“So if the price is similar, and mine are handmade …” Darius muses. “You’d think I’m going to start going gangbusters again soon, right? Better value proposition?”

Little Walker sighs. “I thought that too,” she says. “You remember my middle step-sister, Anita? I borrowed your pearl guy from the case and showed it on her class stream while they were on break. Know what they said? I mean, you don’t want to know, honestly.”

“Hit me.”

“They called it a knockoff,” she says. “They don’t care that it’s better. They care that it’s not the brand on their wish list.”

Darius presses a fist into his sternum.

“Can you, like, add that brand onto them?” Little Walker suggests.

“And get a takedown fine? I can’t afford that shit.”

“Maybe turn that around on them? You did yours first, right?”

“I don’t have a copyright. There are other folks like me building little guys like this in other cities. I got the basic code off an open-source tutorial ages ago,” Darius says, absently running his palm down the torso of his latest half-finished project.

Little Walker stands in front of him, half-turned to look out the window at the dark orange night sky. “I still need you to pay me for the latest batch,” she mumbles into the collar of her jacket.

“I know you do,” Darius says.

“I pay the bills for Anita’s classes now,” she says, “and she needs a new tablet.”

“I know.”

“I know,” Little Walker echoes, dipping to her knees to pick up the torn packaging from the mass-produced robot.

She leaves without saying anything else. Darius hauls himself over to his mini-refrigerator. On the door of it, held with a magnet, is a paper pamphlet his social worker gave him, back when she was still coming in person regularly; it advertises a program where people like Darius, people without legs, can sign up for a waiting list to enter wheelchair accessible housing.

Darius peels the magnet off; it’s been in the same place so long it’s faintly sticky, and leaves a rectangular mark on the pamphlet.

He reads it through again. Nothing has changed. The pamphlet doesn’t say anything about whether the accessible housing comes with a wheelchair, or where in the city it’s located.

Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. He’d see more people, he thinks, based on the picture in the pamphlet of a group of guys in chairs in the lobby of a building.

The guys are all white and old and wearing sweaters with collars. It isn’t his life. The pamphlet says it costs a monthly rate that’s higher than his current place, and there’s no information about how he’s supposed to work if he moves there.

Darius sticks the pamphlet back onto the fridge. He dices half an onion and fries it for a little while before adding some beans to the pan.

He’ll recheck the math in more detail later, but at this rate of weekly decline to his forecast, he definitely won’t have enough for his legs by Christmas. Maybe not even by Easter.

No one’s waiting on him but him, though. It took Darius a decade to figure his shit out and get his business up and running, and that’s on Darius, but he’s got it together now. He’s a small business owner now. An entrepreneur.

He moves over to the window to eat his dinner. His pod chimes just as he’s finishing up; a red glitter-finish robot with blue and silver stripes on its helmet has just sold. The glitter paint cost a lot, and this piece used up what Darius had on hand, but maybe if he leans into that, a little?

December comes with bad weather and a further downtrend. Darius keeps winding his pod up and down, wondering if he’s changing over the display too often, or not often enough; he’s down to about fifty percent of his forecast now, and he’s hardly even thinking about his legs these days, but about Little Walker’s step-sister’s school bills and even his own rent and his grocery drone.

And that’s before the day his display pod is severed.

He can’t tell, from the frayed state of the cable, whether it was stolen by a malicious or bored human, or whether the high winds blew it back and forth against something until it sawed through. One of his robots is gone with it, a small yellow one with bird-claw hands.

He calls Little Walker and Big Walker and asks them to keep a lookout on the street for the pod; maybe it’s just lying somewhere, fallen, amid the rest of the debris the city collects in its corners and alleys.

By the end of the week, it’s pretty clear the pod isn’t going to be found.

The phalanxes of robots standing on every surface in Darius’s apartment are less numerous than they were at the beginning of the season, but they are still numerous. How is he going to sell them without the pod?

Darius is an entrepreneur. He’ll think of something. That’s what entrepreneurs do.

Darius wakes up in the middle of the night, early in the new year. That’s not unusual. He wakes up in the middle of the night a lot, usually to roll over and hook up his chamberpot and piss, sometimes to stay awake and look out at the quiet city for a while, and the colours of light the buildings cast up into the sky.

The pain isn’t unusual either. It’s called phantom pain, but it feels like real pain. It bothers him: not as much as it did before he got into the regular practice of therapeutic thought patterns, but it still bothers him a lot. He has painkillers that help, and the mental practice makes it more bearable too, but nothing makes it vanish. It’s the backdrop to many of his restless nights.

What’s unusual tonight is the vision in his mind. It’s fresh, clear, not fully formed but well formed.

It’s like the visions he first had of his robots, of how the open-source code would be supported on the platform he would build. Of the physicality of them, of the way they would live. The eventual, real robots didn’t match the visions; they exceeded the visions. It took his breath away the first time he finished one and set it in motion.

He can almost feel this vision, right now, alone in the never-darkness of the Chicago night.

He can almost see the code. Someone’s maybe even done some of the work for him, out there.

Someone’s already done some of the work for him. It’s made real in every one of the robots on the shelves around him.

Darius knows how the code works, now. He’s come to learn enough of its language to get by in the world it has made.

He’s got an overflowing scrap-heap on the counter farthest away from his bed. He paid Little Walker for every bit of it, even though he didn’t think he could use it. He wasn’t going to see Anita bounced out of her class or Little Walker bounced out of the home where she stayed on sufferance as long as she watched over her step-siblings. He wasn’t going to be the kind of businessman who dragged others down with him when his fortunes failed.

He’s got his tools. He’s got enough credit to pay the grocery drone another month.

He’s got robots he can tear down for parts, if he must.

Darius sits up in bed, props himself against the wall, feeling the stretch of repaired muscle in his partial hamstrings. The work they do isn’t what it would be if he was standing, walking, running, but it’s still work: holding him up, stabilizing him.

Nothing is what it was. Everything in this room, everything in this body, is what it is.

He flicks the reading light on beside the bed. He opens his tablet and pulls up the code he uses for the robots.

He opens a calculator. Enters his own weight, give or take, and the equation for the forces his materials will need to bear.

No one does it this way. Maybe because it’s hard. Maybe because they don’t have to. But Darius does, and Darius will.

Darius is an entrepreneur, and he’s pretty good at math now, and pretty good at adapting. At managing a budget, at optimizing his grocery drone for enough calories and nutrients, at reducing waste.

And pretty good at building something beautiful, something strong enough to travel a little way over uncertain ground.

He records a message and sets it to send to Little Walker and Big Walker for when they wake up.

“Cousins,” he says. “Good morning, cousins! I’m working on something new.”

  • Claire Humphrey

    Claire Humphrey lives in Toronto where she works in the book business and writes short fiction and novels. Her stories have appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Strange Horizons, Interzone, Crossed Genres, PodCastle, Fantasy Magazine and numerous anthologies including the upcoming Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History. She is also the reviews editor at Ideomancer.

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