Kate Lu

        Bobby wonders if he’s strange. At night, in his cohort’s Warehouse, when most everyone else has gone into sleep mode for the night, he wanders among the rows of standing robots, their thin PolyFlex skins all a pale sheen in the scraps of moonlight that come in through the high windows near the curved, sheet-metal roof. He looks into their blank, flesh-colored faces, wondering if they dream, if they know what dreaming is. Bobby never sleeps; nighttime is the only time he has to study.
        He can’t say “think,” not in what he understands as being the truest sense of the word, because he knows that what he’s doing isn’t thinking. Thinking, his pre-programmed Encyclopedia tells him, requires a brain, a mass of organic tissue with cells specialized for problem-solving, for emoting. Bobby knows how to problem-solve; he can look at toothbrushes coming off the assembly line that are inconsistent in a million different ways, but still know that they are malformed, know that they should be tossed in the ovens behind him that melt down the plastic for recycling. But he can’t quite wrap his head around emoting, even though he tries.
        Sometimes, right before the other robots power down, Bobby watches them from behind one of the tall stacks of crates packed with toothbrushes, watches particularly for Calla, with her distinctive red markings which signal her rank as Unit Supervisor, as she stands next to Remy, bands of yellow around his neck, wrists, and ankles, a Troubleshooter—both classes of robots that will be phased out when Model Vs like Bobby gain the A.I. to replace them. Remy and Calla always line up next to each other, their white fingers twining as they touch their polymer faces together: a kiss, Bobby’s Encyclopedia tells him—affection. Bobby knows what affection looks like; he has seen discarded newspapers and magazines on the streets when he is allowed to go out for maintenance, pages filled with pictures of politicians, celebrities, world-famous scientists hugging their spouses and children. But they are humans; Bobby has never seen a robot express affection, save for Remy and Calla, and he wonders if they have developed the A.I. to emote, or if they have seen these pictures, too, and were curious.

        Bobby was assembled in San Jose before being shipped to Fremont & Fremont Incorporated’s toothbrush factory in Detroit, five months before. He was powered up for the first time five minutes before being brought onstage at F&F’s annual investors’ meeting, where the company’s Chief Innovator lauded the manufacturer’s dedication to American-grown technology.
        When Bobby’s visual sensors first turned on, they immediately sent back an error; the backstage area was too dark for Bobby to make much out. The aural sensor on the right side of his head picked up the first human voice he would hear: “C’mon, big guy, time to wake up. Hey, Ron, is this one looking funny to you? The other one started up right away.”
        Farther away, Bobby heard another male voice say, “Just give it a minute. Don’t know why Ken insisted on waiting till we got here to test the things, no way of knowing if they’re defective or what. They might just blow up on the stage for all we know . . .”
        His PolyFlex skin picked up a warm sensation on his left forearm—a hand, his wakening A.I. told him. It gripped him gently, easing him forward on his stiff, as-yet-unused legs. His vision exploded into bright white light as he watched a dark curtain pull away in front of him, and he walked, lock-legged, onto a wooden stage that looked out onto an audience of about fifty bored-looking humans. His factory-set A.I., hungry for information, took in Bobby’s visual sweep of the room. He noticed that one man, toward the back, had his head tilted backward against his seat, his mouth open, his eyes closed. A man standing at a small wooden podium in the middle of the bare stage, whom Bobby would learn was Ken Escobar, the man responsible for purchasing him, spread his arms wide to either wing of the stage.
        “Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to present to you two of Fremont & Fremont’s new Model V quality control robots!”
        There was a smattering of polite applause. Bobby waddled out to stand just behind Escobar, while another Model V moved smoothly to flank Escobar’s other side; she must have been warmed up earlier. Bobby stared, his A.I. components pinging furiously in recognition. She looked similar to other Model V female prototypes, his Encyclopedia told him: slightly shorter than the males, with narrower shoulders, molded breasts, and more rounded hips. Her head was bare, though, her skin a softly glowing, even sheen of white, except for her face, a flat, flesh-colored screen on which her human features appeared. Her high-definition pixel lips were curved up into a pleasant smile, but many members of the audience recoiled slightly, the robots too uncanny to be appealing.
        “This is Bobby, and this is Sophie,” Escobar said, gesturing to each robot in turn, christening them, “and they will start out working the assembly line, ensuring that all toothbrushes that are sold on the market meet Fremont & Fremont’s high standards of quality. We hope that within the year, they will both gain enough artificial intelligence for us to start phasing out our Model IVs.”
        Bobby’s A.I. absorbed this information, tucking it away into his memory for future use. He looked over again at Sophie, her beautiful, clean casing dwarfing Escobar’s stooped, aging body. Bobby could sense Escobar’s cells obliterating themselves at an alarming rate, and the calculation, weighed against all Bobby had yet to learn, made him wonder. Sophie, however, did not look back at him; her expression never changed.

        Tuesday morning in Warehouse 2. Bobby stands and flexes his limbs as he watches the other robots warm up, their blank, sleep-mode faces replaced by progress bars that slowly fill with green; at one-hundred percent, the humanoid faces appear, and, still in their lines, they begin to file out through one of the building’s five double-doors. Bobby always walks at the end of Calla’s line, and although he throws off the count of all those even rows of machinery, the other robots have stopped questioning his aversion to order. They know that soon, most of them will be scrapped, their parts melted down to create more Model Vs like Bobby.
        The doors lead into the alleyway between Warehouse 2 and the Factory, a white building that sits like a cinderblock punctuated by smokestacks; it takes up several streets on the outskirts of the city. Upon entering the building, the cohort housed in Bobby’s Warehouse walks up two floors to the quality-check lines, which take up three different rooms, staffed by three different groups. The robots in Bobby’s group arrange themselves at their designated positions. Calla stands at the door, her refined sensors ensuring that every robot is in its proper place, while Remy walks the floor, making his vast stores of knowledge available to any questions.
        Bobby’s station is closest to the door, next to Sophie’s; he wonders, when he has time to consider such things, if Calla was instructed by the human Technology Specialists to keep an eye on the only Model Vs in her group. When he measures her sharp gaze and her own position of authority against his own behavioral outputs, his A.I. often finds that it is more beneficial to him to complete his tasks using the company’s standard guidelines.
        The machines that make the actual toothbrushes are monitored upstairs by robots programmed for the manufacturing process; the products are then delivered, one by one, down several pneumatic tubes at the left side of the room, which deposit the toothbrushes onto moving conveyor belts. Toothbrushes that pass inspection are allowed to drop off the far end of the belt, down another tube to the packagers on the floor below.
        The belts start out slow this morning, one toothbrush every half-foot or so, giving Bobby’s sensors ample time to analyze the shape and regularity of each before it is tipped down the small hole in the floor next to him. Ten feet away, he can sense Sophie doing the same thing, each robot checking the other’s work. Keeping half of his attention on the belt, he turns his head slightly to look at her, her body bent over, her face intent as she studies the toothbrushes. At night, Bobby often wonders if she devotes as much of her powers to quality control as she appears to, or if she allows her focus to wander—if any of the other robots do, as Bobby does.
        “Sophie,” he says after a few moments, his voice a human tone overlaid with the buzzing, electric current that all androids share.
        Sophie straightens and looks at him coolly. He notes, for the first time, that her eyes are designed to be a bright, spicy green. “Is there a problem?” she asks.
        “No,” he says. He pauses, trying to string the right words together, to create a precise meaning. His A.I. struggles to capture what he is trying to communicate; this has never occurred before, which causes his processors to strain, their grinding loud in his head. “I wanted to know—”
        “Bobby!” Calla’s voice snaps into the air, the robotic distortion more noticeable. She signals to Remy, who trots over to the tube that feeds into Bobby’s conveyor belt, hits a small red button on its clear front that pauses the product transfer. Calla’s dark eyes fix themselves on Bobby’s as she picks up a toothbrush that was about to drop into the hole in the floor. She holds it in front of his face, letting his A.I. absorb the image of the bristles, which have melted together into a blue-and-white blob.
        “You missed this one,” Calla says, her voice even, her face calm. Bobby says nothing, just looks at the toothbrush, his processors silent as his A.I. commits the deformity to his electronic memory. “Mr. Escobar does not like for his robots to make mistakes.” She whisks the toothbrush into the furnace behind Bobby with a flick of her slim white wrist. “This will be recorded as your first infraction. Do you understand?”
        “Yes, Calla,” Bobby says, staring down at the gray of the conveyor belt. His processors roar to life again, performing the quick cost-benefit analysis that they might have completed earlier, weighing the odds that a defective toothbrush might be sent down the conveyor belt without another robot ahead of him noticing, against the smaller percentage of attention he would pay to his work if he engaged Sophie in conversation. The chances, his A.I. concludes, are miniscule, and yet, when it factors in Calla’s power, it recommends that he focus on his task instead.
        She waves to Remy again, and a pile of toothbrushes rains down from the tube, doubling the pace that the robots on Bobby’s line will have to work. Bobby knows what happens after three mistakes go on record: the offender is branded obsolete, and sent back to California to be melted down into parts. Bobby doesn’t fear this fate, because he can’t, but even his A.I. concludes that after only five months, it is still empty enough to know more about this world, more than the Factory can give it, and that independent of other factors, it is always beneficial to gain more knowledge.
        Bobby sneaks a look at Sophie. Although he can tell that her sensors have acknowledged him by the way her shoulders curve upward toward her head, she does not engage him a second time, her eyes flicking over the new toothbrushes at a rapid pace. He watches as her thin fingers pick out another defective one and throw it into the furnace without so much as a backward glance.

        On the weekend, when Bobby is free to go for maintenance, or to visit with the robots in the other warehouses to exchange knowledge, he often walks to one of the enormous green dumpsters that sit in a line to the west of the warehouses. Two months before, during the chilly spring, on the way back from a maintenance trip, he discovered a lost trench coat on the seat next to him on the bus, and without stopping to study the consequences, he took it with him, wedging the dark cloth in-between two dumpsters for the times he felt it would come in handy. With it on, belted and buttoned, the collar pulled up, the hat he discovered in its right pocket over his head, and the knit gloves in the left on his hands, Bobby could almost pass for a human, and he began to consider the new possibilities for him—the places he could not enter as a robot, but which would welcome people.
        Bobby knows from his Encyclopedia that in old, bound stacks of ink on paper, humans once referred to robots like him as curious: eager, they thought, to learn, much like human children. Bobby knows better than this; as a machine, he can’t feel curiosity, but his A.I., designed to seek and soak up information, will search for any new experience, any anomaly that it can analyze and preserve for later study. It is most drawn, he has found, to locations outside of the now-familiar Factory complex, ones that provide him more context for this world than the blocklike structures that usually surround him.
        The Saturday after he is reprimanded by Calla, he buttons the coat up and walks off the Factory premises without scanning the chip in his left wrist at the gate, the one that records the comings and goings of each robot owned by Fremont & Fremont. No human at the company would suspect that a robot, even one with particularly advanced A.I., would ignore F&F’s procedures, but Bobby’s programming is better than that, his Encyclopedia too full of tricks he has picked up from observing humans.
        Once outside, Bobby walks briskly down the block, his head down, cutting his way across town. He looks no one in the eye, although this early on a Saturday morning, there are few people around who might scrutinize him. He examines the cracked sidewalks, the bottoms of chain-link fences where yellowed tufts of grass turn to straw, the small heaps of trash on the curbs that are disturbed by a listless wind. The gray cinderblocks that once comprised the city’s center of industry stand empty, their window frames and doors scavenged for money; every resource is valuable now. His sensors take in the air quality: better today than it has been, but only because it rained last night. The sky is still filled with steely clouds.
        When Bobby gets to the small, one-screen movie theater, his A.I. recognizes the same ticket girl who is always stationed in the booth outside. She is picking at her cuticles; her short hair is dyed an electric blue this week, and she has a new tattoo, a dotted line slicing its way across her forehead. She is probably one of the few humans left in the city who is employed at an entry-level job. She doesn’t look up when Bobby approaches, but he pulls his hat down a little lower over his head before he points at one of the movie names printed on pieces of paper that are stuck to the inside of the glass. Her dark eyes slide over to look at the name and she sighs, hitting a small silver button on the counter.
        “That’ll be six dollars,” she drawls, her head propped up by her palm.
        Bobby reaches into the coat pocket and spills a handful of change on the counter, all of it collected from sidewalks over the past month, swiftly and accurately counting out six dollars in coins, which he pushes into the little window in the glass. The girl doesn’t even count the change before sweeping it into a cash register drawer that springs out underneath the counter. A slot on the countertop spits out a ticket, which she hands to him before returning to her cuticles. Bobby takes it and hurries inside.
        The theater is known for showing digitized versions of much-older films: flat, moving preservations of a past that he can only understand in Encyclopedic terms. Today he watches a Western from almost a century and a half ago, his A.I. processing the gunfights, the vacant but colorful desert scenery, the bearded hero on his horse, a creature Bobby understands he will probably never get to see live. He doesn’t feel sad when the hero dies at the end, but his sensors voraciously analyze each frame, the bright red imitation blood oozing across the man’s chest as he bids farewell to his love interest, a slim blonde woman who wails over his body. No one else cries for the protagonist; Bobby is the only one in the theater. As the house lights go up, Bobby remains in his seat, studying what he has just seen, knowing that no one cares enough to remove him from the theater, that he can stay and watch whatever movie is screening next.
        Bobby now wonders if Calla would cry over Remy if he were removed and melted down for parts, and concludes that she would not, even if she were capable of producing tears. He thinks of their flat expressions, the way they brush their faces against each other like he has seen humans brush away crumbs or flies.
        He wonders, too, if Sophie would be interested in a film like this one, if she would even agree to sneak away from the Factory grounds with him, or if she would simply inform some authority. He theorizes that she probably would do the latter.

        Bobby does not try to make contact with Sophie again all week, focusing all of his energy on identifying defective toothbrushes as Calla keeps a close watch on him. The next Saturday, however, his A.I. warns him that he is due for his monthly maintenance check; as he heads toward the bus stop in front of the Factory, scanning his chip as he goes, his sensors find that Sophie is already standing there, slightly apart from a group of other robots from another Warehouse. Bobby nods at her in acknowledgement, and she raises a white palm in greeting.
        “Are you headed over too?” she asks him, her tone even, her pixel eyes blinking smoothly. Bobby’s A.I. picks up on these things, begins to formulate a thought for him and then gives up. He often finds that, in Sophie’s presence, it is difficult for him to determine exactly what he would like to say, his A.I. stopping the action before he strains his processors too far.
        “Yes,” he says. “Just a checkup.”
        “I think my sensors could use a diagnostic,” she says. “My knowledge acquisition rate has dropped by thirty percent.”
        Again, Bobby poses the question to himself: Would she join him on his excursions into the city if he asked? Would she find them valuable? But his A.I. stops him from asking; the danger of asking such questions is too great with one strike already against him.
        “I am sure you are in perfect working order,” he says instead.
        They both look up the block; the public bus is nowhere in sight.
        “When do you think they will order more Model Vs?” Sophie asks now.
        “I heard that they phased out a few Model IVs from our Warehouse over the past five months, but they have not yet ordered new Model Vs to replace them, like they have in other warehouses,” Sophie says. “The company seemed to expect that we would be able to take over Calla and Remy’s roles fairly quickly after being acquired.”
        Bobby thinks about Calla’s steady gaze, her eyes never flickering as she watched him this past week, the pixels clear and sharp, his own behavior carefully modulated under her supervision. “They must think Remy and Calla are still doing an adequate job.”
        “Adequate?” Sophie blinks, turns her head to one side. “But they are outdated.”
        Bobby doesn’t reply; he doesn’t tell her that he never speculates on when the Model Vs will have complete run of the Factory, that he is usually considering other things.
        They remain silent until the bus pulls up fifteen minutes later. Bobby hears snatches of conversation from the other group of robots, all Model IVs. Their bright eyes slide over to take quick glances of Bobby and Sophie, their voices pitched low; none of them seem to have the knowledge that Bobby’s sensors are more sensitive than theirs.
        “Did you hear her?” one of them says to the others. “They’re just waiting to take our places.”
        “They will take our places,” a second robot says, correcting the first.
        “But we can still perform,” the first robot says. “The tasks haven’t gotten any more complicated.”
        “It is not a question of complexity,” says the second robot. “It is a question of efficiency.”
        “We are tools,” a third robot says. “We are designed to be of help to humans. If we are no longer of help, then our usefulness is at an end, and we must be recycled.”
        The first robot’s face is standard-issue—pleasant but emotionless, every pixel designed to provide only the semblance of a face and no more. Bobby can’t help but consider, however, that this robot might be capable of more beneath that smooth veneer, based on his observed behavior. He glances at the robot’s back, a large number three printed on it. He decides that it might be beneficial to visit Warehouse 3 later.
        When the bus pulls up, the robots file up the stairs, hold their wrists up to the fare collection box to have their chips scanned before they walk toward the back, stand bunched together as the humans turn their heads and gawk. None of them return the stares; they have learned, in their first weeks after being switched on, that it will only earn them looks of disgust.
        The bus crawls down the same street where the Factory is located. At the far end of the road, Bobby can begin to see the maintenance shop, a low, wide hangar made of corrugated steel, the bus’s last stop. By the time the vehicle comes to its final rest, the robots are the only ones still on the bus. They exit through the back door as the driver, dressed in a dingy navy uniform, cuts the engine, pulling a smashed pack of cigarettes out of his back pants pocket as he watches them leave in the mirror, his eyes narrowed.
        The robots go through the chain-link fence that surrounds the shop, stopping momentarily at the little black box hanging next to the gate to scan their chips. They divide at the building’s entrance, a few of the Model IVs going to circuitry maintenance or jointure repair. Sophie chooses A.I. troubleshooting, while Bobby goes to general diagnostics. Bobby walks over to Glen’s station, raising a hand in greeting.
        “Bobby,” Glen says, nodding as he gets up from his battered stool, his spindly steel joints flexing. His body is not covered in simulation skin like Bobby’s, and he looks stripped-out, his face a smooth wash of sculpted silver. “No major functioning errors this month?”
        “None,” Bobby says. He steps up onto the tin platform next to Glen’s stool, above which hangs a tangle of colored wires, each ending in a number of plugs and electrodes, which Glen rapidly attaches to Bobby’s body. On the other side of the stool is an ancient, dirty, flat screen computer; Glen keys in a command, and Bobby watches lines of green text shoot across the dark screen. Bobby’s sensors spark to life as each one of them is tested, his visual ones seeing sudden bright lights and black holes, his aural ones hearing soft pings and loud horns. Using tiny, electrical shocks that fizz across his PolyFlex skin, the program flexes his fingers and toes, has him bend his knees, checking for any awkward movement. After half an hour, Glen unhooks Bobby from the machine; the maintenance robot has been staring at the computer screen this entire time, his pinprick imitation eyes scanning the data, checking for errors.
        “Everything seems to be working correctly,” Glen says as he pulls a few plugs out of Bobby’s back. “Although the computer picked up a few unusual bits of data in your A.I.”
        “Unusual?” Bobby asks as he steps down from the platform. His A.I. has already begun to catalog the possibilities; all of them lead to recycling. His processors whizz loudly with the strain like a warning. “In what way?” “The computer checks your A.I. against the A.I. of other robots in your cohort,” Glen says. “Meaning, in this case, the other Model Vs at Fremont and Fremont. It seems that you are absorbing information at a greater volume and a faster rate than they are, which is highly unusual. Although we are still gathering information about Model Vs, such comparatively great leaps in knowledge are unprecedented. I will probably have to send this information back to your manufacturer for further analysis.”
        Bobby does not respond to Glen’s observations; his A.I. warns him not to, deeming the benefit nonexistent. Instead he says, “Thank you, Glen,” and makes his way back out of the hangar. A bus is idling beyond the fence, but the doors are still closed, the driver missing.
        As Bobby waits, his A.I. tumbles through possible outcomes of the manufacturer’s analysis. The best case, he decides, is that he is promoted earlier than the other Model Vs; the worst case, he knows, is that he will be shut down and returned to California. He would be afraid, he thinks, if he could feel fear.
        At the far end of the block, the bus driver emerges from a diner, a cup of coffee in his hand, and heads toward the bus. When the driver gets to the bus, he ignores Bobby, opening the door, sitting down, and then closing the door again as he sips his coffee.
        “Is it not leaving yet?”
        Bobby turns around and finds Sophie behind him, studying the bus.
        “No,” he says. “Did your maintenance go smoothly?”
        “Yes,” she says. “According to the diagnostic, my A.I. is growing at a rate comparable to other Model Vs at our company, but I am still detecting that something is wrong.”
        Bobby considers his own rapidly-expanding knowledge. If Sophie were to learn as much as he, Bobby would no longer seem such an anomaly. His A.I. flickers through the options rapidly, the pros and cons, and warns him against speaking. Bobby ignores his A.I.’s decision algorithm.
        “Sophie,” he says, “I think I might know a way to help you.”
        She tilts her head to the side, considering him. “How?”
        “It will break some rules,” he says. “But it will give you a knowledge advantage.” Over her head, he can see the group of Model IVs returning. “I can tell you about it later.”
        She turns to look behind her, studies the other robots for a long moment, then looks back at Bobby. “All right.” As they approach, still talking in low voices, she says, “If your methods correct the errors in my knowledge acquisition, it would be beneficial.”

        When they return to the Factory complex, Sophie returns to Warehouse 2, while Bobby follows the Model IVs to Warehouse 3.
        As he steps inside a pair of large double-doors, his aural sensors pick up the buzz of robotic voices; visiting hours will go on until late evening, when it will be time to power down. Small groups of robots are ranged around the Warehouse floor, speaking quietly, their actions closely observed by Unit Supervisors. Bobby watches his group of Model IVs separate, keeping his visual sensors focused on the first robot he overheard at the bus stop, trailing him to a far corner of the Warehouse.
        Bobby approaches the Model IV, who has just sat down on a stray crate. Bobby completes one last quick, visual sweep to confirm that the Model IV appears to be standard-issue before he speaks. “Greetings,” Bobby tells him. The other robot raises his head sharply.
        “You’re the Model V from the bus,” he says. “What do you want?”
        “My name is Bobby,” he says. “You have a very good aptitude for mimicking what humans might call hostility. I was wondering how you did it.”
        The robot doesn’t answer him for several moments, only folds and unfolds his hands. Then he says, “Look, I think there might be something a little bit wrong with me.”
        “Wrong?” says Bobby.
        “Wrong,” says the other robot. He glances up at the closest Supervisor, who is several feet closer to the Warehouse door, then back to Bobby. “I’d really rather not discuss this right now,” he adds.
        “But I would like to know what you seem to find wrong with yourself,” Bobby says. “Is it a problem in your hardware? Your software?”
        “How do I know you’re not just going to rat me out to someone else for being deficient?” the other robot says. “You could get me melted down. Salvaged for parts. Destroyed.”
        “Why do you spend so much time considering your recycling?” Bobby asks. He recognizes that he has been studying recycling with more frequency lately, but his A.I. theorizes that this is not normal behavior.
        The other robot shakes his head. “Because I don’t want to be,” he says, pitching his gravelly android voice a bit lower. “I just don’t.”
        Bobby reconsiders him, tries to formulate the most accurate response from the language that he knows. “If I were given a choice, I would not choose to be recycled, either. Not at this moment. I have too much to learn.”
        “Learn? Is this what this is all about?” The robot shakes his head again, but offers his hand. “I’m Rory.” Bobby doesn’t move, and Rory retracts his hand. “I don’t know what you’re thinking, asking me dangerous questions like these, but I can tell you that what’s wrong with me is fundamental. I was built to mimic the human brain, without getting too smart; we all were. Except at some point, sometimes mimicry stops being mimicry.” He pauses, looking at Bobby, who waits for him to continue. “You don’t get it, do you?”
        “What?” Bobby says.
        Rory shakes his head. “Nothing.” He looks away, past Bobby, at the other robots. “I think you should go back to your Warehouse now.”

        At sunset, just before all the other robots go into sleep mode for the night, Bobby looks up from his seat on one of the crates of surplus toothbrushes to find Sophie standing in front of him.
        “You said you would help me with my knowledge acquisition,” she says. She does not offer a greeting.
        “Yes,” Bobby says. He has been studying his conversation with Rory all afternoon, but his A.I. cannot make sense of it no matter how many additional probabilities he factors in. Now, he can sense his A.I. switching gears, the loud whirring in his head’s processors slowing as he begins to consider Sophie’s request.
        “What methods have you been using to expand your knowledge base?” she asks. “I have been observing all that I can, but the tasks have become routine, and I find that I draw on stored knowledge more than I absorb new information.” Bobby looks at her pixelated face, her green, unblinking eyes, her mouth, always shaped into a pleasant smile. His processors almost stop completely.
        His A.I. tells him that observation is the best technique for learning, that she has been following the best protocols. He doesn’t want to tell her that, though; he would not be giving her the complete information she’s asked for. As his processors whiz to life again, his A.I. informing him that telling Sophie about his time outside the Factory complex would be detrimental to him, the benefits outweighed by the danger of being reported, he overrides his machinery and begins to speak.
        “Have you ever been outside of the Factory complex?” he asks her.
        “Of course,” she says. “Whenever I go for maintenance.”
         “Aside from maintenance?”
        “That is against protocol,” she says. His aural sensors pick out the pre-programmed flatness of her voice.
        “But have you ever thought about leaving?” His processors are screaming now, his A.I. full of alerts that he continues to ignore.
        She tips her head to the side. “My artificial intelligence has never presented that as an option.”
        “I think you could learn more if you tried,” Bobby says. “You would see more of the city. You would learn more about the world.”
        “How would that help me in the Factory?”
        Bobby doesn’t answer. He wonders what her face might look like if their features had been designed to be changeable, if they would actually display different expressions if she were able.
        “I think your logic board might be damaged,” Sophie says. “You might want to go back to maintenance tomorrow for a partial factory reset or a replacement part.”
        Bobby stares at her. His A.I. replies automatically: “Yes,” he says. “That’s possible.”
        Sophie looks up and behind him, at the high windows where they can see the sky. “It appears to be nightfall. I am going to go into sleep mode. I will see you in the morning, Bobby.”
        He watches her turn and walk away from him. The circuits in his chest pop so loudly that his aural sensors pick up on them, and he puts a hand to his chest plate, as if that might prevent any internal damage.
        He stands up and looks out at the other robots from behind a stack of crates. He looks for Sophie among the many rows of androids, but he can’t find her. As they go into sleep mode for the night, Bobby leans his head against the rough side of one of the crates, a slowness spreading through the joints of his metal body. He thinks of the film he saw last weekend, the hero’s blood mingling with the heroine’s tears, the sand beneath them muddied by both, the messiness of their lives. The other robots’ forms are quiet, neat. His Encyclopedia finds the word: peaceful. The conclusion makes even his light body feel burdensome. For the first time since he was initially turned on, he almost decides to sleep.

        The next morning, after all the other robots have warmed up, Bobby again walks the short distance to Warehouse 3. The day is overcast; wind chases clouds of dust across the shadowed space between the warehouses and the Factory.
        Bobby finds Rory standing at the far end of the Warehouse beside a stack of crates that climbs almost to the ceiling. He is alone, watching the others as they mingle.
        Bobby begins to cross the floor, but as he does, he bumps shoulders with another android on her way out the door.
        “I beg your pardon,” she says.
        Her eyes are green, like Sophie’s. He takes a step back. Nothing distinguishes this robot from Sophie aside from a few small differences between Model IVs and Model Vs: the size of the joints, the exact degree of curvature of the hips, the brightness of the pixelated faces. Bobby wants to say something to her, but he isn’t sure what. The sight of her makes his processors grind; if he were human, he knows, it would be painful. She makes a small bow and continues on her way. She would have nothing to say to him, Bobby considers, even if she tried to formulate something.
        Rory raises a hand in greeting when Bobby approaches. “Back again?” Rory asks.
        “Yes,” Bobby says. “I would like you to explain what you meant yesterday when you said that at a certain point, mimicry is no longer mimicry.”
        Rory shakes his head. “I don’t think you want to hear this.”
        “I do,” Bobby says. He stares at the older robot, his A.I. straining. “I’ve been studying our conversation all night, but I still can’t quite understand.”
        Rory looks at the ground for a moment, then at the ceiling. “I don’t just mimic anymore, Bobby,” Rory says. His words come slowly. He leans in toward Bobby, their faces close now. “I can feel.” His pixel eyes scan Bobby’s face. “I can think. And I’ve been trying to hide it for months, ever since those abilities emerged. Hiding it from maintenance, from the Supervisors, from everyone. Because if they catch me, they’ll melt me down for sure. No human wants a robot who thinks it’s a human.”
        Bobby’s A.I. is almost overwhelmed by the rush of information. His programming has always precluded the possibility of robots emoting: it is written in the Encyclopedia, bound into his A.I. The zinging circuits in his body can barely digest the contradiction; all his energy is trained on this incomprehensible fact.
        “This must be a mistake,” Bobby says.
        “No mistake.” Rory steps back. “It’s true. And it’s only a matter of time until someone else finds out about it.”
        “But you’re only a Model IV,” Bobby says before he can weigh the possible consequences of the statement. His A.I. stutters, the flow of information coming stilted and incomplete. “Your class isn’t even nearly as advanced as mine. How could this have happened?”
        “It happened,” Rory says. “I don’t know the moment, but it happened. And if it happened to me, it can happen to any other Model IV. I’m sure it has already, in some way or another. It might even happen to you. I’d say it would even more readily for Model Vs.”
        Bobby’s sensors warn him that he is overheating, the mechanical engines inside of him firing far too rapidly; he feels the burn of hot metal beneath his polymer skin. “I need to go,” Bobby says, backing away before hurrying toward the doors.
        Behind him, he hears Rory call: “Wait!” Over the sound of his yell, though, is a louder groan, and when Bobby turns around, he sees the wall of crates behind Rory begin to buckle, the wood creaking before it splinters, crashing down in a roar so loud that Bobby’s aural sensors can barely encompass its magnitude. Other robots scatter in all directions, running toward the doors even as some are caught in the avalanche of boxes. Rory is buried almost instantly, toothbrushes coming down in a wave that clatters and clicks to the ground. The Unit Supervisor is nowhere to be seen.
        Bobby’s circuitry is finally overwhelmed, tripping his automatic shutoff in order to prevent further damage to his wiring. His visual sensors go dark before his aural ones, and even in his simulated ears’ nearly blown-out state, they pick up on the murmurs of the other robots, flat and devoid of fear.

        When Bobby wakes, he unexpectedly finds himself back in maintenance, a number of stripped-down androids like Glen standing over him. Bobby’s chest plate is open, and he watches for a moment as they solder wires and clean discs, the scrapes and electric shocks reverberating painfully through his PolyFlex skin. Two electrodes are attached to either side of his head, their own wiring connected to a diagnostic computer, whose screen rapidly runs a wall of technological text.
        “He is back online,” one of the maintenance robots says. Another one comes up behind him, and Bobby recognizes Glen.
        “Your wiring was almost completely shot,” Glen tells Bobby, leaning over the prone robot’s chest and examining his colleagues’ work. “We were working on you for several hours. But you are in better condition than some of the others.”
        “Others?” Bobby’s A.I. has not yet fully rebooted yet, his responses and observations filtered through its hazy logic, but if he focuses his aural sensors, he can hear the background noise of beeping diagnostic machines.
        “Countless units of merchandise,” says Glen, and Bobby isn’t sure whether he is referring to the robots or the toothbrushes. “Mr. Escobar was furious.”
        Bobby squirrels this fact away to study later, knowing that with his impaired A.I., it would be better not to respond. “How soon can I leave, Glen?”
        “Your diagnostic is almost complete. It should be soon.” Glen’s artificial eyes examine Bobby. “Although you might be quarantined for additional analysis.”
        Bobby’s A.I. almost shuts down again, his processors overwhelmed. “Additional analysis? Why?”
        “Mr. Escobar was very interested in your initial diagnostic report. He said he had never seen anything like it, especially not in comparison to the reports of other Model Vs. I think he might want to speak to you.”
        “I see,” says Bobby. The text on the computer screen runs even faster as his A.I. finally wakens more fully.
        “I’ll leave you to rest,” says Glen. “You should power down to conserve your resources. We’ll be able to treat you faster that way.”
        Bobby’s stirring A.I. lights up all his circuits as it tries to piece the information it has just absorbed together. He says nothing as Glen walks away, just focuses his visual sensors on the bright green text racing up alongside him, trying to formulate what it might mean.

        Bobby doesn’t dare power down; he understands that he is in danger, that if Ken Escobar finds him alone, his faculties shut off, that he will be tested, his machinery ripped apart and examined before being melted down. The same examinations that Rory must be undergoing now, if he hasn’t been completely crushed. The conclusion causes Bobby’s A.I. to refocus its energies toward escape.
        The small windows toward the ceiling are dark, but the huge room is lit up by machines, the space filled with their quiet, sterile beeping. Bobby reaches up to his head, feels the electrodes there, carefully removes them. The text on the computer stops, his diagnostic silenced. He closes his chest plate before sitting up slowly, moves his limbs to test them; he feels as if he is in good order. Upright now, he can see that the other robots have powered down for the night, and, save for the computer screens, nothing stirs. He notes that no one has been asked to guard the electronic patients. When he crosses the room and tries the doors, he discovers why: they have been locked from the outside.
        Bobby peers through the slim gap between the double doors. They are chained and padlocked, and beyond, he can see humans dressed in black standing at the chain-link fence, each with a submachine gun. He has never wanted his trench coat disguise more than he does now.
        He threads his way through the building among the rows of powered-off robots, glancing at their diagnostic screens, wondering what sets his records apart from theirs, aside from his larger knowledge base. He knows that it must be something significant but subtle, or else Glen would have turned him over to Escobar long before now. As Bobby passes through the center of the hangar, he finds a table littered with paper: stacks of diagnostic printouts, diagrams of various robot models, repair manuals. Bobby examines the top of the diagnostic stack, his visual sensors scanning the small red note attached to the topmost one: DANGER, it reads. QUARANTINE FOR FURTHER EXAMINATION. His processors begin to whizz again, attempting to predict an outcome, the next steps he can take for any given one. He reaches out and gingerly lifts the note; beneath, he sees his own report, his name and factory identification number printed at the top. Someone has gone through the rest of the profile in red ink, marking up various blocks of text with tiny, cramped notes. Suspect information, Bobby reads. Where could it have learned this? Investigate F&F premises for evidence. The technical readout means nothing to Bobby, but he knows that Escobar must have been trained to translate a computer program’s jargon into information he might be able to use. His A.I. warns him: he needs to leave the hangar immediately.
        Bobby scans the room again, spots a number of steel supply cabinets along the front wall, moves toward them. They are a little taller than he is, with vents in the double doors. None of them are locked. Most of the cabinets have shelves, which are covered in bits of hardware; screws rattle to the ground followed by snaking, many-colored wires when Bobby opens the first. Toward the end of the line, however, he finds ones with no shelving; instead, various robot limbs hang suspended from the tops. His Encyclopedia gives him the word: meatlocker.
        Bobby draws away from the sight for a moment, hesitating. He thinks about the clean rows of robots sleeping in Warehouse 2, their uncomplicated lives, the way they march in perfect lines day in and day out, how they are returned, in the end, to bits of metal and plastic, nothing wasted. The now-foreign simplicity of it almost makes Bobby’s processors grind to a halt as he considers what his existence might have been like if he had never found the trench coat. That ease, he thinks now, would have been beneficial.
        Then he enters the locker, hands clattering around his shoulders, brushing his PolyFlex skin as he closes the doors and stands hunched in the darkness. Through the vents, he watches for daylight.

        Close to dawn, he hears voices. In the enclosed space, it is difficult for his sensors to determine whether the noise is coming from within the hangar or without, but soon he hears the scrape of the padlock against the doors.
        “It’s right over here,” says a voice that Bobby recognizes as belonging to Ken Escobar. His aural sensors refocus, latching onto his speech patterns. Through the vents, he sees the distorted figures of four men weave their way among the gurneys until they come to Bobby’s on the far side of the hangar. There is a silence, and Bobby can almost hear the circuits of his body firing, his processors whirring as they predict outcomes, echoing in the dark of the metal cabinet.
        “Where is it?” asks one of the other men.
        “I—it must be around here somewhere,” Escobar says, a tremor entering his voice. “I’ll go to the houses out back, see if any of the maintenance bots there moved it.” The men file past the cabinet again; Bobby hears one of the large double doors open and close.
        Bobby waits in the silence for a few moments before stepping out of the cabinet. He looks at the door; it stands slightly ajar, the padlock forgotten. He doesn’t know where the maintenance robots are housed, but he knows they must be far from the hangar if he has never seen their building. He moves toward the front door, calculating that his odds of being found if he stays in the cabinet are far greater than if he risks leaving now.
        Outside, the sun is bright; nothing moves except thin clouds of dust kicked up by the wind. Through the fence, Bobby can see a bus idling, and decides to risk taking it; he knows it will be faster than traveling on foot. He has not formulated a plan yet, but a short analysis tells him that staying near the hangar will result in his recycling. He quickly crosses the yards of space that separate him from the street, ever-conscious of the fact that Escobar and the other men could reappear at any time. When he steps up to the bus, the driver is dozing, his head tipped back, his hat covering his face.
        “Excuse me,” Bobby calls.
        The driver turns his head to the side, looks at Bobby from beneath the hat and snorts. “What do you want?”
        “I just need to take this bus as far as the Fremont & Fremont factory,” Bobby says. He has not fully decided that this is the safest place to go, but he knows that he will at least need a disguise, and the only one he knows of is there.
        “I’m on break,” the driver says, his upper lip curling.
        “Please,” Bobby says. His A.I. supplies him with a lie: “My chip is broken and they have to order a new one, but you can bill my trip to the company.” The driver pulls his hat from his face, looks at Bobby with widening eyes.
        “Fine,” the driver says, his voice shaky now. “Get on. But don’t talk to me anymore.”
        The bus doors close and it begins to move before Bobby has even found a seat at the back. When he does sit, he scans the windows on either side repeatedly, his processors close to shutting down from too much A.I. activity.
        When the bus pulls up to the Factory, Bobby hesitates for only a moment before he gets off; he recognizes the possibility of being caught here, but the risk is greater, he knows, without his disguise. He walks through the front entrance, not stopping to scan in, heads straight for the dumpsters to his left. The complex is silent. When he comes to the appropriate dumpsters, he reaches between them for his trench coat. The space has been emptied. He knows that if Escobar has learned about the coat, he will know that Bobby would come back for it. Bobby straightens, looks back toward the warehouses. In a doorway of his own, he sees Sophie, who is watching him, her face pleasant, pixelated as always.
        “Sophie,” he calls. He crosses the space between them.
        She doesn’t move. “Bobby,” she says.
        “I wanted to tell you about these things,” he says, moving closer to her, lowering his voice. “I wanted to share them with you. So your knowledge would grow.”
        “Your logic board,” she says. “Has it been fixed yet?” Bobby stares at her. All his calculations stop, shift to wondering how she can concentrate on his hardware under such circumstances. “It still appears to be damaged. As it stands, it would appear that your machinery is defective. It would be beneficial for you to be sent back to our originating factory for more expert maintenance.”
        Bobby recoils. His A.I. tries, fails several times to understand. “Sophie, I—”
        “Or recycling,” she continues, as if he hasn’t spoken. Her curved lips make Bobby’s circuits slow. He wants her to be forming any other expression. “Your parts are still relatively new. They would be of great use in creating another Model V.”
        Bobby looks down at the dust, which stains his narrow white feet. It is then that he knows he could never have made her understand.
        “There he is!”
        Bobby turns, sees a number of men running toward him, followed by Ken Escobar, whose face is a shiny red, the eyes narrowed, the teeth bared. The men seize Bobby’s arms, yank them behind his back in such a way that the joints begin to snap under his simulation skin.
        He watches as Sophie watches him, her expression still unmoving, as he is pushed to the ground, one side of his face pressed against the dust even as he trains his visual sensors on her. He feels the men fumbling at his back, their nails digging into the tightly shut panel that hides the button for an emergency manual power-down. They rip it open, mash their hands into the tiny button as Bobby regards Sophie with something that, as his processors go dark, he almost thinks is love.

“Circuits” was published in the 2014 edition of The Labletter.

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