First published in Scigentasy (2014). Reprinted in Cicada, The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2015, GlitterShip, Great Jones Street, and Medium.
Content Warnings: suicidal ideations, depression, slurs against queer people, emotional abuse.
HOW TO BECOME A ROBOT IN 12 EASY STEPS
by A. Merc Rustad
How to tell your boyfriend you are in love with a robot:
- Tell him, “I may possibly be in love with a robot,” because absolutes are difficult for biological brains to process. He won’t be jealous.
- Ask him what he thinks of a hypothetical situation in which you found someone who might not be human, but is still valuable and right for you. (Your so-called romantic relationship is as fake as you are.)
- Don’t tell him anything. It’s not that he’ll tell you you’re wrong; he’s not like his parents, or yours. But there’s still a statistical possibility he might not be okay with you being in love with a robot.
On my to-do list today:
- Ask the robot out on a date.
- Pick up salad ingredients for dinner.
- Buy Melinda and Kimberly a wedding gift.
The robot is a J-90 SRM, considered “blocky” and “old-school,” probably refurbished from a scrapper, painted bright purple with the coffee shop logo on the chassis. The robot’s square head has an LED screen that greets customers with unfailing politeness and reflects their orders back to them. The bright blue smiley face never changes in the top corner of the screen.
Everyone knows the J-90 SRMs aren’t upgradable AI. They have basic customer service programming and equipment maintenance protocols.
Everyone knows robots in the service industry are there as cheap labor investments and to improve customer satisfaction scores, which they never do because customers are never happy.
Everyone knows you can’t be in love with a robot.
I drop my plate into the automatic disposal, which thanks me for recycling. No one else waits to deposit trash, so I focus on it as I brace myself to walk back to the counter. The J-90 SRM smiles blankly at the empty front counter, waiting for the next customer.
The lunch rush is over. The air reeks of espresso and burned milk. I don’t come here because the food is good or the coffee any better. The neon violet décor is best ignored.
I practiced this in front of a wall a sixteen times over the last week. I have my script. It’s simple. “Hello, I’m Tesla. What may I call you?”
And the robot will reply:
I will say, “It’s nice to meet you.”
And the robot will reply:
I will say, “I would like to know if you’d like to go out with me when you’re off-duty, at a time of both our convenience. I’d like to get to know you better, if that’s acceptable to you.”
And the robot will reply:
The imagined conversation shuts down. I blink at the trash receptacle and look up.
My boyfriend smiles hello, his hands shoved in his jeans pockets, his shoulders hunched to make himself look smaller. At six foot five and three hundred pounds, it never helps. He’s as cuddly and mellow as a black bear in hibernation. Today he’s wearing a gray turtleneck and loafers, his windbreaker unzipped.
I can’t ask the robot out now.
The empty feeling reappears in my chest, where it always sits when I can’t see or hear the robot.
“You still coming to Esteban’s party tonight?” Jonathan asks.
Jonathan smiles again. “I’ll pick you up after work, then.”
“Sounds good,” I say. “We’d better go, or I’ll be late.”
He works as an accountant. He wanted to study robotic engineering, but his parents would only pay for college if he got a practical degree (his grandfather disapproves of robots). Computers crunch the numbers, and he handles the people.
He always staggers his lunch break so he can walk back with me. It’s nice. Jonathan can act as an impenetrable weather shield if it rains and I forget my umbrella.
But Jonathan isn’t the robot.
He offers me his arm, like the gentleman he always is, and we leave the coffee shop. The door wishes us a good day.
I don’t look back at the robot.
A beginner’s guide on how to fake your way through biological social constructs:
- Pretend you are not a robot. This is hard, and you have been working at it for twenty-three years. You are like Data, except in reverse.
- (There are missing protocols in your head. You don’t know why you were born biologically or why there are pieces missing, and you do not really understand how human interaction functions. Sometimes you can fake it. Sometimes people even believe you when you do. You never believe yourself.)
- Memorize enough data about social cues and run facial muscle pattern recognition so you know what to say and when to say it.
- This is not always successful.
- Example: a woman approximately your biological age approaches you and proceeds to explain in detail how mad she is at her boyfriend. Example: boyfriend is guilty of using her toiletries like toothbrush and comb when he comes over, and leaving towels on the bathroom floor. “Such a slob,” she says, gripping her beer like a club. “How do you manage men?” You ask if she has told him to bring his own toothbrush and comb and to hang up the towels. It seems the first logical step: factual communication. “He should figure it out!” she says. You are confused. You say that maybe he is unaware of the protocols she has in place. She gives you a strange look, huffs her breath out, and walks off.
- Now the woman’s friends ignore you, and you notice their stares and awkward pauses when you are within their proximity. You have no escape because you didn’t drive separately.
- Ask your boyfriend not to take you to any more parties.
Jonathan and I lounge on the plush leather couch in his apartment. He takes up most of it, and I curl against his side. We have a bowl of popcorn, and we’re watching reruns of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
“I have something to tell you,” he says. His shoulders tense.
I keep watching the TV. He knows I pay attention when he tells me things, even if I don’t look at him. “Okay.”
“I’m…” He hesitates. The Borg fire on the Enterprise again. “I’m seeing someone else.”
“A guy?” I ask, hopeful.
“Yeah. I met him at the gym. His name’s Bernardo.”
I sigh in relief. Secrets are heavy and hurt when you have to carry them around all your life. (I have to make lists to keep track of mine.) “I’m glad. Are you going to tell anyone?”
He relaxes and squeezes my hand. “Just you right now. But from what he’s told me, his family’s pretty accepting.”
“Lucky,” I say.
We scrape extra butter off the bowl with the last kernels of popcorn.
We’ve been pretend-dating for two years now. We’ve never slept together. That’s okay. I like cuddling with him, and he likes telling me about crazy customers at his firm, and everyone thinks we’re a perfectly adorable straight couple on the outside.
The empty spot in my chest grows bigger as I watch Data on screen. Data has the entire crew of the Enterprise. Jonathan has Bernardo now. I don’t know if the robot will be interested in me in return. (What if the robot isn’t?)
The room shrinks in on me, the umber-painted walls and football memorabilia suffocating. I jerk to my feet.
Jonathan mutes the TV. “Something wrong?”
“I have to go.”
“Want me to drive you home?”
“It’s four blocks away.” But I appreciate his offer, so I add, “But thanks.”
I find my coat piled by the door while he takes the popcorn bowl into the kitchen.
Jonathan leans against the wall as I carefully lace each boot to the proper tightness. “If you want to talk, Tesla, I’ll listen.”
I know that. He came out to me before we started dating. I told him I wasn’t interested in socially acceptable relationships, either, and he laughed and looked so relieved he almost cried. We made an elaborate plan, a public persona our families wouldn’t hate.
I’m not ready to trust him as much as he trusts me.
How to tell your fake boyfriend you would like to become a robot:
- Tell him, “I would like to be a robot.” You can also say, “I am really a robot, not a female-bodied biological machine,” because that is closer to the truth.
- Do not tell him anything. If you do, you will also have to admit that you think about ways to hurt yourself so you have an excuse to replace body parts with machine parts.
- Besides, insurance is unlikely to cover your transition into a robot.
I have this nightmare more and more often.
I’m surrounded by robots. Some of them look like the J-90 SRM, some are the newer androids, some are computer cores floating in the air. I’m the only human.
I try to speak, but I have no voice. I try to touch them, but I can’t lift my hands. I try to follow them as they walk over a hill and through two huge doors, like glowing LED screens, but I can’t move.
Soon, all the robots are gone, and I’m all alone in the empty landscape.
11 Reasons you want to become a robot:
- Robots are logical and know their purpose.
- Robots have programming they understand.
- Robots are not held to unattainable standards and then criticized when they fail.
- Robots are not crippled by emotions they don’t know how to process.
- Robots are not judged based on what sex organs they were born with.
- Robots have mechanical bodies that are strong and durable. They are not required to have sex.
- Robots do not feel guilt (about existing, about failing, about being something other than expected).
- Robots can multitask.
- Robots do not feel unsafe all the time.
- Robots are perfect machines that are capable and functional and can be fixed if something breaks.
- Robots are happy.
It’s Saturday, so I head to the Purple Bean early.
The robot isn’t there.
I stare at the polished chrome and plastic K-100, which has a molded face that smiles with humanistic features.
“Welcome to the Purple Bean,” the new robot says in a chirpy voice that has inflection and none of the mechanical monotone I like about the old robot. “I’m Janey. How can I serve you today?”
“Where’s the J-90 SRM?”
Robbie, the barista who works weekends, leans around the espresso machine and sighs. She must have gotten this question a lot. The panic in my chest is winching so tight it might crack my ribs into little pieces. Why did they retire the robot?
“Manager finally got the company to upgrade,” Robbie says. “Like it?”
“Where’s the J-90 SRM?”
“Eh, recycled, I guess.” Robbie shrugs. “You want the usual?”
I can’t look at the new K-100. It isn’t right. It doesn’t belong in the robot’s place, and neither do I. “I have to go.”
“Have a wonderful day,” the door says.
How to rescue a robot from being scrapped: [skill level: intermediate]
- Call your boyfriend, who owns an SUV, and ask him to drive you to the Gates-MacDowell recycle plant.
- Argue with the technician, who refuses to sell you the decommissioned robot. It’s company protocol, he says, and service industry robots are required to have processors and cores wiped before being recycled.
- Lie and say you only want to purchase the J-90 SRM because you’re starting a collection. Under the law, historical preservation collections are exempt from standardized recycling procedures.
- Do not commit physical violence on the tech when he hesitates. It’s rude, and he’s only doing his job.
- Do not admit you asked your boyfriend along because his size is intimidating, and he knows how to look grouchy at eight a.m.
- The technician will finally agree and give you a claim ticket.
- Drive around and find the robot in the docking yard.
- Do not break down when you see how badly the robot has been damaged: the robot’s LED screen cracked, the robot’s chassis has been crunched inwards, the robot’s missing arm.
- Try not to believe it is your fault. (That is illogical, even if you still have biological processing units.)
Two techs wheel the robot out and load it into Jonathan’s car. The gut-punched feeling doesn’t go away. The robot looks so helpless, shut down and blank in the back seat. I flip open the robot’s chassis, but the power core is gone, along with the programming module.
The robot is just a shell of what the robot once was.
I feel like crying. I don’t want to. It’s uncomfortable and doesn’t solve problems.
“What’s wrong, Tesla?” Jonathan asks.
I shut the chassis. My hands tremble. “They broke the robot.”
“It’ll be okay,” Jonathan says. As if anything can be okay right now. As if there is nothing wrong with me. “You can fix it.”
I squirm back into the passenger seat and grip the dash. He’s right. We were friends because we both liked robots and I spent my social studies classes in school researching robotics and programming.
“I’ve never done anything this complex,” I say. I’ve only dismantled, reverse-engineered, and rebuilt the small household appliances and computers. No one has ever let me build a robot.
“You’ll do fine,” he says. “And if you need help, I know just the guy to ask.”
“Want to meet my boyfriend?”
Necessary questions to ask your boyfriend’s new boyfriend (a former Army engineer of robotics):
- You’ve been following the development of cyborg bodies, so you ask him if he agrees with the estimates that replacement of all organic tissue sans brain and spinal cord with inorganic machinery is still ten years out, at best. Some scientists predict longer. Some predict never, but you don’t believe them. (He’ll answer that the best the field can offer right now are limbs and some artificial organs.)
- Ask him how to upload human consciousness into a robot body. (He’ll tell you there is no feasible way to do this yet, and the technology is still twenty years out.)
- Do not tell him you cannot wait that long. (You cannot last forever.)
- Instead, ask him if he can get you parts you need to fix the robot.
Bernardo—six inches shorter and a hundred pounds lighter than Jonathan, tattooed neck to ankles, always smelling of cigarettes—is part robot. He lost his right arm at the shoulder socket in an accident, and now wears the cybernetic prosthetic. It has limited sensory perception, but he says it’s not as good as his old hand.
I like him. I tell Jonathan this, and my boyfriend beams.
“They really gut these things,” Bernardo says when he drops off the power cell.
(I want to ask him how much I owe him. But when he says nothing about repayment, I stay quiet. I can’t afford it. Maybe he knows that.)
We put the robot in the spare bedroom in my apartment, which Jonathan wanted to turn into an office, but never organized himself enough to do so. I liked the empty room, but now it’s the robot’s home. I hid the late payment notices and overdue bills in a drawer before Jonathan saw them.
“Getting a new arm might be tricky, but I have a buddy who works a scrap yard out in Maine,” Bernardo says. “Bet she could dig up the right model parts.”
I’m going to reconstruct the old personality and programming pathways. There are subsystems, “nerve clusters,” that serve as redundant processing. Personality modules get routed through functionality programs, and vestiges of the robot’s personality build up in subsystems. Newer models are completely wiped, but they usually don’t bother with old ones.
Bernardo rubs his shaved head. “You realize this won’t be a quick and easy fix, right? Might take weeks. Hell, it might not even work.”
I trace a finger through the air in front of the robot’s dark LED screen. I have not been able to ask the robot if I have permission to touch the robot. It bothers me that I have to handle parts and repairs without the robot’s consent. Does that make it wrong? To fix the robot without knowing if the robot wishes to be fixed?
Will the robot hate me if I succeed?
“I know,” I whisper. “But I need to save the robot.”
How to tell your pretend-boyfriend and his real boyfriend that your internal processors are failing:
- The biological term is “depression,” but you don’t have an official diagnostic (diagnosis) and it’s a hard word to say. It feels heavy and stings your mouth. Like when you tried to eat a battery when you were small and your parents got upset.
- Instead, you try to hide the feeling. But the dark stain has already spilled across your hardwiring and clogged your processor. You don’t have access to any working help files to fix this. Tech support is unavailable for your model. (No extended warranty exists.)
- Pretend the reason you have no energy is because you’re sick with a generic bug.
- You have time to sleep. Your job is canceling out many of your functions; robots can perform cleaning and maintenance in hotels for much better wage investment, and since you are not (yet) a robot, you know you will be replaced soon.
- The literal translation of the word “depression:” you are broken and devalued and have no further use.
- No one refurbishes broken robots.
- Please self-terminate.
I work on the robot during my spare time. I have lots of it now. Working on the robot is the only reason I have to wake up.
I need to repair the robot’s destroyed servos and piece together the robot’s memory and function programming from what the computer recovered.
There are subroutine lists in my head that are getting bigger and bigger:
- You will not be able to fix the robot.
- You do not have enough money to fix the robot.
- You do not have the skill to fix the robot.
- The robot will hate you.
- You are not a robot.
Bernardo and Jonathan are in the kitchen. They laugh and joke while making stir fry. I’m not hungry.
I haven’t been hungry for a few days now.
“You should just buy a new core, Tesla,” Bernardo says. “Would save you a lot of headaches.”
I don’t need a blank, programmable core. What I want is the robot who worked in the Purple Bean. The robot who asked for my order, like the robot did every customer. But the moment I knew I could love this robot was when the robot asked what I would like to be called. “Tesla,” I said, and the blue LED smiley face in the upper corner of the robot’s screen flickered in a shy smile.
Everyone knows robots are not people.
There’s silence in the kitchen. Then Jonathan says, quietly, “Tesla, what’s this?”
I assume he’s found the eviction notice.
Reasons why you want to self-terminate (a partial list):
- Your weekly visit to your parents’ house in the suburbs brings the inevitable question about when you will marry your boyfriend, settle down (so you can pop out babies), and raise a family.
- You don’t tell them you just lost your job.
- You make the mistake of mentioning that you’re going to your best friend Melinda’s wedding next weekend. You’re happy for her: she’s finally marrying her longtime girlfriend, Kimberly.
- That sets your dad off on another rant about the evils of gay people and how they all deserve to die.
- (You’ve heard this all your life. You thought you escaped it when you were eighteen and moved out. But you never do escape, do you? There is no escape.)
- You make a second mistake and talk back. You’ve never done that; it’s safer to say nothing. But you’re too stressed to play safe, so you tell him he’s wrong and that it’s hurting you when he says that.
- That makes him paranoid, and he demands that you tell him you aren’t one of those fags too.
- You don’t tell your parents you’re probably asexual and you really want to be a robot because robots are never condemned because of who they love.
- You stop listening as he gets louder and louder, angrier and angrier, until you’re afraid he will reach for the rifle in the gun cabinet.
- You run from the house and are almost hit by a truck. Horns blare and slushy snow sprays your face as you reach the safety of the opposite sidewalk.
- You wish you were three seconds slower so the bumper wouldn’t have missed you. It was a big truck.
- You start making another list.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Jonathan asks, more concerned than angry. “I would’ve helped out.”
The subroutine list boots up:
- You are not an adult if you cannot exist independently at all times.
- Therefore, logically, you are a non-operational drone.
- You will be a burden on everyone.
- You already are.
“I thought I could manage,” I say. The robot’s LED screen is still cracked and dark. I wonder what the robot dreams about.
Bernardo is quiet in the kitchen, giving us privacy.
Jonathan rubs his eyes. “Okay. Look. You’re always welcome to stay with me and Bern. We’ll figure it out, Tesla. Don’t we always?”
I know how small his apartment is. Bernardo has just moved in with him; there’s no space left.
“What about the robot?” I ask.
How to self-destruct: a robot’s guide.
- Water damage. Large bodies of water will short-circuit internal machinery. In biological entities, this is referred to as “drowning.” There are several bridges nearby, and the rivers are deep.
- Overload. Tapping into a power source far beyond what your circuits can handle, such as an industrial grade electric fence. There is one at the Gates-MacDowell recycle plant.
- Complete power drain. Biologically this is known as blood-loss. There are plenty of shaving razors in the bathroom.
- Substantial physical damage. Explosives or crushing via industrial recycling machines will be sufficient. Option: stand in front of a train.
- Impact from substantial height; a fall. You live in a very high apartment complex.
- Corrupt your internal systems by ingesting industrial grade chemicals. Acid is known to damage organic and inorganic tissue alike.
- Fill in the blank. (Tip: use the internet.)
Bernardo’s family owns a rental garage, and he uses one of the units for rebuilding his custom motorcycle. He says I can store the robot there, until another unit opens up.
Jonathan has moved his Budweiser memorabilia collection into storage so the small room he kept it in is now an unofficial bedroom. He shows it to me and says I can move in anytime I want. He and Bernardo are sharing his bedroom.
I don’t know what to do.
I have no operating procedures for accepting help.
I should self-destruct and spare them all. That would be easier, wouldn’t it? Better for them?
But the robot isn’t finished.
I don’t know what to do.
How to have awkward conversations about your relationship with your boyfriend and your boyfriend’s boyfriend:
- Agree to move in with them. Temporarily. (You feel like you are intruding. Try not to notice that they both are genuinely happy to have you live with them.)
- Order pizza and watch the Futurama marathon on TV.
- Your boyfriend says, “I’m going to come out to my family. I’ve written a FB update, and I just have to hit send.”
- Your boyfriend’s boyfriend kisses him, and you fistbump them both in celebration.
- You tell him you’re proud of him. You will be the first to like his status.
- He posts the message to his wall. You immediately like the update.
- (You don’t know what this means for your façade of boyfriend/girlfriend.)
- Your boyfriend says, “Tesla, we need to talk. About us. About all three of us.” You know what he means. Where do you fit in now?
- You say, “Okay.”
- “I’m entirely cool with you being part of this relationship, Tesla,” your boyfriend’s boyfriend says. “Who gives a fuck what other people think? But it’s up to you, totally.”
- “What he said,” your boyfriend says. “Hell, you can bring the robot in too. It’s not like any of us object to robots as part of the family.” He pats his boyfriend’s cybernetic arm. “We’ll make it work.”
- You don’t say, “I can be a robot, and that’s okay?” Instead, you tell them you’ll think about it.
I write another list.
I write down all the lists. In order. In detail.
Then I print them out and give them to Jonathan and Bernardo.
The cover page has four letters on it: H-E-L-P.
Reasons why you should avoid self-termination (right now):
- Jonathan says, “If you ever need to talk, I’ll listen.”
- Bernardo says, “It’ll get better. I promise it does. I’ve been there, where you’re at, thinking there’s nothing more than the world fucking with you. I was in hell my whole childhood and through high school.” He’ll show you the scars on his wrists and throat, his tattoos never covering them up. “I know it fucking hurts. But there’s people who love you and we’re willing to help you survive. You’re strong enough to make it.”
- Your best friend Melinda says, “Who else is going to write me snarky texts while I’m at work or go to horror movies with me (you know my wife hates them) or come camping with us every summer like we’ve done since we were ten?” And she’ll hold her hands out and say, “You deserve to be happy. Please don’t leave.”
- You will get another job.
- You will function again, if you give yourself time and let your friends help. And they will. They already do.
- The robot needs you.
- Because if you self-terminate, you won’t have a chance to become a robot in the future.
“Hey, Tesla,” Jonathan says, poking his head around the garage-workshop door. “Bern and I are going over to his parents for dinner. Want to come?”
“Hey, I’ll come for you anytime,” Bernardo calls from the parking lot.
Jonathan rolls his eyes, his goofy smile wider than ever.
I shake my head. The robot is almost finished. “You guys have fun. Say hi for me.”
The garage is silent. Ready.
I sit by the power grid. I’ve unplugged all the other devices, powered down the phone and the data hub. I carefully hid Bernardo’s bike behind a plastic privacy wall he used to divide the garage so we each have a workspace.
We’re alone, the robot and I.
I rig up a secondary external power core and keep the dedicated computer running the diagnostic.
The robot stands motionless, the LED screen blank. It’s still cracked, but it will function.
“Can you hear me?” I ask. “Are you there?”
I power up the robot and key the download sequence, re-installing the rescued memory core.
The robot’s screen flickers. The blue smiley face appears in the center, split with spiderweb cracks.
“Hello,” I say.
“Hello, Tesla,” the robot says.
“How do you feel?”
“I am well,” the robot says. “I believe you saved my life.”
The hole closes in my chest, just a little.
The robot’s clean, symmetrical lines and tarnished purple surface glow. The robot is perfect. I stand up.
“How may I thank you for your help, Tesla?”
“Is there a way I can become a robot too?”
The robot’s pixelated face shifts; now the robot’s expression frowns. “I do not know, Tesla. I am not programmed with such knowledge. I am sorry.”
I think about the speculative technical papers I read, articles Bernardo forwarded to me.
“I have a hypothesis,” I tell the robot. “If I could power myself with enough electricity, my electromagnetic thought patterns might be able to travel into a mechanical apparatus such as the computer hub.”
(Consciousness uploads aren’t feasible yet.)
“I believe such a procedure would be damaging to your current organic shell,” the robot says.
Yes, I understand electrocution’s effects on biological tissue. I have thought about it before. (Many times. All the time.)
The robot says, “May I suggest that you consider the matter before doing anything regrettable, Tesla?”
And I reply:
The robot says: “I should not like to see you deprogrammed and consigned to the scrapping plant for organic tissue.”
And I reply:
The robot says: “I will be sad if you die.”
I look up at the frowning blue pixel face. And I think of Jonathan and Bernardo returning and finding my body stiff and blackened, my fingers plugged into the power grid.
The robot extends one blocky hand. “Perhaps I would be allowed to devise a more reliable solution? I would like to understand you better, if that is acceptable.” The blue lines curve up into a hopeful smile.
The robot is still here. Jonathan and Bernardo are here. Melinda and Kimberly are here. I’m not a robot (yet), but I’m not alone.
“Is this an acceptable solution, Tesla?” the robot asks.
I take the robot’s hand, and the robot’s blocky fingers slowly curl around mine. “Yes. I would like that very much.” Then I ask the robot, “What would you like me to call you?”
How to become a robot:
- You don’t.
- Not yet.
- But you will.
© 2014 by Merc Rustad
5,000 words | Science Fiction