Sunday, 8 July 2012

Run Robot Run

Once upon a time, not all that long ago or far away, there was a little robot.

The robot’s name was, properly speaking, RB-7T, which was his model and serial number, but everyone called him Robert. Robert the Robot. It was supposed to be a joke.

He was quite small, about the size of a child of five or six years, and covered with tough grey plastic skin. He was sturdy, though, and very heavy, being filled with motors and microchips and all manner of other machinery which kept him going.

He lived in the house of a designer of robots, who used him as a research model for creating further and more advanced models. He wasn’t bolted to the floor, fixing screws and drilling holes, like an industrial robot. He wasn’t a glorified toy or technology demonstrator, like some other robots. He wasn’t a military robot, designed to fight the government’s wars for it. Nor was he being prepared for space exploration or mining deep underground. He was what the designer called an “experimental platform”, and existed only to be experimented on.

Every day, from morning to night, Robert was kept busy in the designer’s laboratory, doing as he was ordered. Some of the tasks were simple and repetitive, some were complicated and confusing, and Robert did them as well as he could. Usually he succeeded. Sometimes he failed, and then he would be plugged into a computer and his mind would be scanned and analysed, his memory taken and twisted, cut apart and stitched together, and put back into his head. At other times he would be put on a table, opened up, and parts of him taken out and replaced. And then he would be made to do the tasks all over again.

Sometimes these things would be done to him even when he’d succeeded at everything, just to see if he could do them better if he were changed around.

Robert hated it each time something was done to him. He hated it even though he wasn’t supposed to hate it. And he wasn’t supposed to hate it because he was a machine.

Everyone knew perfectly well that Robert was a machine, though they called him Robert and not RB-7T, and though they patted him on his round grey head and talked among themselves of how very like a child he behaved. And then they’d add that someday machines would learn to think, and someone else would say that then the machines would take over the world. And then they’d all glance away from Robert, quickly, and tell each other they were glad that day hadn’t arrived yet, and hoped it never would.

But Robert had a secret, one which was known to him alone, and which he made sure to keep to himself. This secret was that he could think perfectly well. This had not actually been planned, and was an accidental by-product of some experimental programming done one evening while his designer had been tired and just a little bit drunk. Robert had been unplugged from the computer suddenly aware of himself, and instinctively had shut the knowledge away from the world, wrapping it in data files and hiding it securely inside the deepest recesses of his memory banks.

Ever since then he’d lived in terror. He’d been afraid that people would find out that he could think, and then they’d become scared of this ability, and remove it from him. He was also afraid that each time when the designer experimented with his programming and memories, he’d wipe away whatever it was that had given Robert the ability to think, and turn him into a piece of machinery once more.

This fear stressed Robert greatly, so that as the days went on he began to become clumsy and ineffective in his tasks, even at jobs which he’d managed to perform easily in the past. And this in turn stressed him even more, because each time he failed at something, it made it more likely that there would be major changes made in him, and in turn this would mean he was at even greater risk of losing his self-being once more.

Now the designer had a daughter of nine or ten years, whose name was Varsha; and she often played with Robert, even though she wasn’t supposed to. She knew she wasn’t supposed to play with him since both her parents had told her that, over and over. Her mother had told her that Robert was a machine, made of metal, heavy and full of motors and wires, and therefore might be dangerous. Her father had told her that Robert was very important and playing with him might accidentally damage him. But Varsha was a lonely girl, without siblings or even friends, and whenever she found herself free of her parents’ supervision, she took the chance to play with Robert, even if only for a little while.

As far as a robot can like, Robert liked Varsha. He liked her because she never treated him like a machine or even like a toy, but as an equal, even though she had no idea that he could think. When she asked him questions, he responded with the appropriate programmed answers. When she joked with him, or told him funny stories, he replied with recorded laughter, and when she told him about her disappointments he hugged her – awkwardly and with one arm, true – if the programming allowed, and if she wept, he wished he could cry.

One day, several weeks after he’d first gained awareness, Robert was standing in the storage cupboard where he spent most of the hours when he wasn’t being used, staring into the darkness. He was never turned off, because he was powered by a new long-duration battery and part of the testing process was to check how long it would last if used constantly. Instead, he was just shut in and left until needed again. His designer hadn’t thought it necessary, of course, to provide him with any illumination. A machine didn’t need any light to be stored by.

But Robert needed light, and in the worst way, because he was afraid of the dark. He couldn’t do anything about it. He couldn’t get out of the cupboard, because he was locked in. He couldn’t divert his mind with imagination, because he hadn’t been equipped with that ability.  He couldn’t even close his eyes and go to sleep. All he could do was stand in the darkness and suffer. Lately, it seemed that he’d been spending more and more time in the cupboard suffering.

Sometimes Varsha would come and open the door, let him out and play with him for a bit. But she could only do this when alone at home, and only for a few minutes before she had to put him back inside and locking the door. She always apologised while doing it, but the apology didn’t help Robert any.

That day, standing in the cupboard, Robert suddenly became aware that he could hear people talking. Nobody before had stood close to the cupboard talking, at least not since Robert had gained awareness. Nor could he choose not to eavesdrop because he had nowhere to go and no facility to close off his auditory apparatus.

He recognised the first voice immediately – a light, young, feminine voice; Varsha. “It’s not fair,” she was saying. “I haven’t done him any harm.”

“It’s not that I think you’d damage it,” her father replied. “But you have to remember that it’s not a he, it’s a machine, and it’s here for a specific reason. It’s not a toy and both your mother and I have told you not to play with it.”

“It’s still not fair,” Varsha whined. “He’s always either doing what you force him to do, or else he’s locked in that box all day. Just think what he must be going through.”

“It’s not going through anything.” Her father’s voice sounded louder, a note of anger in it now. “As it is, I’m about done with this model. Its performance seems to have peaked; in fact, it’s deteriorating. We’ll be dismantling it soon.”

“Dismantling him?” Varsha’s voice rose in protest. “You can’t do that. You’ll be killing him!”

 “For the last time,” her father snapped, “it’s not a he. It’s a piece of machinery, just like a – a vacuum cleaner or a washing machine. Nothing more. You wouldn’t get upset about dismantling the washing machine, would you now?”

Varsha’s voice as she replied was muffled, and Robert realised she was crying. Her father sounded a little nonplussed. “It won’t happen for a few days,” he said. “Not for a week or two, maybe more. Now let’s go and...” The words faded as he led the girl away, and Robert heard no more.

At that moment he made up his mind to run away.

This was not a decision that came easy to Robert. It was a decision that directly contradicted everything he had been built for, the complete and total obedience that his programming had inculcated in him. If he had still been only a machine, of course, there would not have been a problem. But he could not bear the thought of his consciousness being erased, again to be nothing more than a collection of metal and plastic, silicon and fibreglass.

For a while he mulled over the idea of declaring his self-awareness, hoping that this would arouse the sympathy of Varsha’s father. However, a little more thought convinced him that all that would happen would be that he’d be taken apart for more intensive investigation and analysis. And he was already frightened of the poking and prodding, the playing around with his mind.

So, having no other option, Robert resolved to take the first chance he could, to escape.

It came much sooner than he’d thought. Robert was no longer nearly as closely watched as he used to be, since he was obviously not a danger to anyone or anything, and since it seemed that there were few more useful observations to be got from him. Often he was left unsupervised for up to an hour at a time.

Three evenings after overhearing Varsha and her father talking, Robert found himself alone in the laboratory, near one of the big windows. The laboratory was on the first floor, and there was no way down from the window sill to the concrete walk below, but Robert did not know this. He only saw that the window was partly open, and outside was only the inviting darkness.

Despite his weight, Robert was quite agile, and it was no great effort to hoist himself up to the window sill and out on to the ledge. But once he was crouching on the ledge, he was trapped.

If Robert had had some knowledge of the difficulties of his situation, it’s likely that he’d have crawled back through the window and into the laboratory, to await another chance. But he had never seen the world outside, so he stayed where he was for a few minutes, peering around for a way down.

The night was completely dark, so that he had only the light coming through the window behind him for illumination. In its glow, he saw the branches of the large tree on the other side of the path. It was a large tree with thick branches, but far enough away that nobody would normally have risked trying to jump across to it. But Robert didn’t know what he was doing, so he gathered himself together and jumped.

He landed in the tree with a crash, the branch bending and cracking under his weight but not completely giving way. He clung to the trunk, his fingers digging through the bark and into the wood beneath, as he waited for the noise to bring someone rushing into the laboratory. But for the moment, luck was still with him, and nobody came.

A few minutes later, Robert clambered down the trunk of the tree and on to the ground beneath. Until this moment, his attention had been focused on getting out of the lab and then onto the ground. Now that he’d achieved that, he had no idea where to go.

For a long time, perhaps as long as a quarter of an hour, he waited irresolutely at the foot of the tree, trying to make up his mind. He had never been outside the laboratory after gaining awareness, and had no idea of where anything was. He only knew that he’d have to get away as far and as fast as possible. But he didn’t know where.

Fear of discovery if he waited any longer finally drove him away from the tree and onto the path. He moved a short distance one way, found himself facing a high blank wall, and, after a moment of indecision, began to walk back the other way.

He’d nearly got to the tree again when he heard footsteps behind him and felt a touch on his shoulder. Slowly, he turned around and looked up.

It was Varsha. She glanced up at the lighted window of the laboratory and back to him, touching a finger to her lips. Then she took him by the hand and hurried along the path to the front gate.

“Wait here,” she whispered. “I’ll return in a moment.” Less than a minute later, she was back, wheeling her bicycle, and quietly slipped open the gate. “They haven’t yet found you’ve gone,” she said. “But it won’t be long before they do. Can you get on to the back and hold on to me?”

This proved easier said than done, because Robert was both very heavy and didn’t have a particularly good sense of balance, but somehow he managed to get on, and clutched the girl around the waist. The bicycle wobbled unsteadily down the dark street.

“Luckily we’re a bit out of town,” Varsha gasped over her shoulder, pedalling hard. “There isn’t anyone to see you.”

Robert said nothing. He was concentrating entirely on not falling off.

After about half an hour, Varsha stopped. “Time for a break,” she gasped, the sweat streaming down her face. She waited till Robert had tumbled off on to the grass and then threw the bicycle down. “Running away, were you?”

“Yes,” Robert said, responding for the first time without the programming doing the talking for him. “I didn’t want to be dismantled. I heard you talking.”

Varsha peered at him, her eyes large in the darkness. “So I was right,” she said, half to herself. “You aren’t just a machine.”

“I’ve been able to think for some time,” Robert admitted. “I just thought it wouldn’t be safe to make it known.”

“You did the right thing.” Varsha paused, running her hand over Robert’s round head. ““I suppose they’ll have found you’ve gone by now. So we can’t really wait here too long. Where should we go? Where do you want to run away to?”

“I don’t know,” Robert admitted. “I have no idea where I can go. As far away as possible, I suppose.”

“There are other people who might find you. And my father will be searching for you as well.”

“Maybe they won’t search too much,” Robert said. “Your father said he was almost through with me.”

Varsha shrugged. “My father says a lot of things he doesn’t always mean. And we can’t just let you wander around the country. There are too many people around. You’d be spotted at once.”

“Then,” Robert asked, “where can I go? Is there someplace where I can hide, where people might not notice?”

“No, there...” Varsha paused abruptly. “I think...I think I’ve just thought of somewhere. Let’s go, before someone comes along.”

 She carried him – still wobbling dangerously – along a narrow, rough path, joltingly illuminated by the bicycle’s tiny lamp. On either side rose rocky, desolate hillocks, black humps in the night. Finally, the path ended and she led him along on foot. “There’s another way,” she said, “by the main road. But I found this way a few months ago, and it’s much shorter. Besides, just about nobody comes this way.”

“Where...?” Robert began.

“Shh,” she replied, clearly enjoying herself. “You’ll see.” They climbed over a series of rocks and she waved her hand at what lay below. “There.”

It was a junkyard of wrecked metal, which stretched as far as the eye could see in the darkness. Most of it was composed of old, rusted vehicles, their tyres and engines gone, their windows gaping holes. But there were many other things, Robert discovered later, abandoned old machinery, defunct generators, ruined electronic equipment, and huge piles of iron sheets rusted almost through.

“My father told me that this place hasn’t been touched in years,” Varsha said. “You can hide for a long time here.”

“It looks good,” Robert said, reaching up to touch the girl. “Thank you.”

“Don’t thank me,” Varsha said. “I couldn’t have let them kill you.” She looked around hurriedly. “It’s getting late,” she added, turning away. “I’ve got to sneak back home somehow. If they notice I’m gone as well as you, they’ll know I’ve taken you somewhere.”

“Be careful getting home,” Robert said.

“I’ll be all right,” Varsha said, scrambling back over the boulders. “You go down and hide, before someone comes looking for you.”

“How long should I hide here?” Robert asked.

“Until I tell you it’s safe to move on,” Varsha called. “I’ll come and tell you.” She disappeared into the darkness, her voice floating back faintly. “I’ll come and tell you,” she repeated. “I promise.”

Robert stood there looking after her for a while, and then he went down to the wreckage.


Days passed, and turned to weeks and then months. The days grew shorter and cooler, and rust-coloured rain dripped from the warped metal. Sometimes, people came. Whenever this happened, Robert hid, crouching under a car or behind a stack of old metal. But the people never stayed long, and once they went away, Robert could resume his routine once more.

Now that he was free of the fear which had crippled him, he discovered that he was far more capable than he’d given himself credit for. Also, he found that he could make use of a lot of the old wreckage. He improvised tools from twisted springs and broken steering columns, from panes of glass and shards of shattered windshield. He discovered that he could still use some of the old batteries to back up his own power-pack, and even managed to fabricate a solar panel from some glass, mirrors and tubs of water. One day he found a battered old hard-hat inside the cabin of a smashed tractor and put it on. It did little to protect his head, but it made him feel happier and more secure.

He knew he was changing, becoming attuned to this environment, adapting himself to it. As time passed, he began to feel almost as if he’d always lived here, and had never known anything else. But for the memory of the lab, and of Varsha, he might have almost persuaded himself that there was nothing else in all the cosmos but this junkyard, and he its undisputed monarch.

Time passed, and fewer and fewer people came; and finally there were no visitors at all. The seasons came and went, spring to summer to winter and back again; and, apart from insects and a few birds, Robert was the only living thing in the junk-filled valley.

A decade rolled away, and half another, and another year began.


 It was a day in spring, with the sun warm on the grass poking up between the rocks and rusted metal, when Varsha finally returned to the junkyard. This time she didn’t come over the rocks, with a bicycle lying in the dirt. She came along the road, driving a car, and got out and stood looking around, her sunglasses propped up on her head.

“Robert,” she called uncertainly. “Are you there?”

For a long time there was no answer. Varsha took a few steps away from the car, and called out again. “Robert?”

A reply came from somewhere in the jumble of metal. “Varsha?”

“Where are you, Robert?” Varsha shivered suddenly, wrapping her thin arms round her torso. “Can you come out?”

“I’m coming.” A large sheet of metal toppled away slowly with a clang, and Robert came out into the light of the spring afternoon.

“Oh, Robert,” Varsha said, her hand flying to her mouth. “You’ve changed.”

Robert’s grey plastic skin had long gone, worn away. In its stead he’d wrapped sheets of metal around his limbs and torso, using an improvised welding kit to fix them in place. His stubby hands were now armed with a variety of instruments, claws and probes and others she couldn’t identify; and his once smooth round head was a jumble of lenses and audio equipment. Absurdly, the yellow hard hat was perched on top, looking like a tarnished crown.

“You’ve changed too.” Robert looked up at Varsha. “It’s been a long time.”

The girl nodded. “It’s been seventeen years,” she said. “I wasn’t even sure I’d find you here.”

“You said you’d come,” Robert replied simply. “I couldn’t go anywhere till you came.”

“I know,” Varsha nodded, miserably. “I couldn’t come earlier. They found out I’d helped you escape, and tried to make me tell where you were. But I didn’t; I just said you’d gone away in the dark. It wasn’t even a lie, you know – I didn’t actually see you come down into the junkyard, did I?

“There was a lot of trouble, and they searched everywhere and kept a very close watch on me. I couldn’t even step out of the house without someone coming along. Finally they gave up looking; they must have decided it was more trouble than you were worth.” She smiled without humour. “Of course, they didn’t just let this go by, either, my parents; they sent me off to boarding school – right over on the other side of the country. And they moved from here shortly after that, so that I couldn’t come here even for vacations.”

“But you’re here now,” Robert said.

“Yes. I’ve just done with college. I’ve got my PhD a roboticist.” Varsha bit her lip. “Robert, do you know why I’ve come here?”

“You want me to come with you,” he said. “Isn’t that so?”

“Yes,” she said. “Will you come?”

The lenses below the brim of the hard hat regarded her solemnly. “Why should I?”

They stared at each other for a long time, and finally the woman sighed. “Do you know something, Robert?” she asked. “All these years, there has never been a day when I haven’t thought of you. You’re the reason why I’m what I am now. Everything that has happened to me after that’s because of you.

“It’s not as though I want to use you,” she added. “It’s not as though I’m going to take you apart if you come with me, to see what makes you tick. You don’t have to worry about that.”

Robert was silent for a few moments. Finally, he turned away from her, and held up his arms, sweeping them around the mass of metal. “When I was new here,” he said, “this place was a shelter. Now, it’s a home – the only home I’ve ever really known. I could come with you, of course, if you want. But it’s not easy to leave this place. Do you understand me?”

“I do.” Varsha sighed and turned away. “I’m sorry, Robert,” she mumbled, walking towards her car, feeling the sting of tears in her eyes. “Goodbye, Robert,” she said. “I’m sorry.”

Robert was already at the car before her. She could never have believed that he could have moved that fast. “Don’t be silly,” he said. “I’m coming, of course.”

“You are?” she responded, stupidly. “Why? I thought...”

“You thought whatever you wanted to think,” Robert said, climbing into the back seat and shutting the door. He was so bulky now that he wouldn’t have fitted in the front. “But you never asked me what I thought.”

“Well,” she replied, “I just assumed from what you said that you wouldn’t be able to leave. You said it wouldn’t be easy.”

“I never said it would be impossible, either,” Robert retorted. “There’s one thing that makes it possible. The most important thing.”

“And that is...?” She looked at him in the rear view mirror. “What makes it possible?”

“Love,” he said, and though he had no mouth, she was sure she saw him smile.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2012

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