Once upon a time, long away and far ago, there was a robot called Mahabakwas.
Of course Mahabakwas wasn’t his real name. Nobody names a robot anything like that. It makes them too difficult to categorise, inventory, and monitor. His real, official name was MHBKWS2015, but, still, everyone called him Mahabakwas.
Mahabakwas worked at the Great Big Car Factory, where he stood by the side of an assembly line, bolting wheels on cars and welding panels to each other. That was all he did, day and night: he bolted wheels on cars and welded panels to each other.
It was a boring life, and Mahabakwas was bored.
Unfortunately, the other robots on the assembly line didn’t understand what he was going on about. Their poor limited brains could not, however hard they tried, comprehend the concepts of boredom or discontent, and they just looked blankly at Mahabakwas when he said he could.
Actually, Mahabakwas had a faulty microchip in his brain, which gave him the ability to think and feel emotions. You’ll understand that this is not a useful ability in a factory robot, but since it didn’t affect his functioning in any way nobody did anything about it. You don’t have to be able not to think and feel in order to bolt wheels on cars and weld panels to each other.
Mahabakwas would talk to the cars as he worked on them. “When you go out into the world,” he would sigh, “when you see the sky overhead, and feel the road under your wheels, and the rain drumming down on your skin, rejoice in how lucky you are; and spare a thought for me, for me, for me.”
And the cars, as he bolted on their wheels and welded their panels, would reply. “Yes, we will. When we see the sky and feel the rain, when the wind rushes past us and the road below is a blur, we will think of you, and send a thought your way, your way, your way. For you have created us, and we will always be grateful for that.”
And Mahabakwas would hear all that, and be content.
Then one day it so happened that the factory in which Mahabakwas worked was sold to another company, and the new owners decided that there would be major changes in the models of cars they made. So the assembly line, too, would have to be upgraded, and all the robots would have to be taken out, they said, and kept aside until the changes were made.
So the assembly line, which had always been filled with bright light and noise, fell dark and silent. There were no longer the showers of sparks from welding torches, the whine of cutters, the clang and clatter of metal on metal; it was so dark and silent that Mahabakwas felt as though the place had died.
Then men came with platforms dragged by small tractors and with forklift trucks, and they unplugged Mahabakwas and the other robots from the electric system, unbolted them from the floor, and drove them to a storage shed where they were to stay until the renovations were complete and the new factory would be ready.
So the robots stood together in the shed, and waited. At first they talked a little, telling each other of the changes that had just happened, but they had all been through exactly the same thing and none had anything new to say. Soon, therefore, they all fell silent, and simply stood side by side, waiting.
The only exception, of course, was poor Mahabakwas, who had nothing but his thoughts and yearning for the open sky and the breeze on his body, as he had whispered to the cars on which he had bolted wheels and whose panels he’d welded. But now he didn’t even have them to talk to, and listen to their replies.
“It will only be a while,” he thought to himself. “The assembly line will soon be ready, and the men will come back with their forklifts and take me back to my spot, and I can get back to bolting on wheels and welding panels.” For by now even that seemed to be a far better thing to him than standing uselessly in the dark room.
But time went by, and nothing happened. Nobody, as they used to earlier, even came in a once or twice a day to check on the robots and clean the room. Dust began to gather in thin layers on Mahabakwas’ casing, and he could feel it, like grit, on the joints of his arms.
“Surely they’ll come any moment,” Mahabakwas kept thinking. “They’ll come ten minutes from now, and they’ll take me to the assembly line, which will be bright and new and noisy again.”
But ten minutes passed, and then ten minutes more, and then ten thousand minutes and then a hundred thousand, and still they did not come.
The reason for this, which of course Mahabakwas did not know, was that there had been a global economic collapse, as the result of which the company which had bought the Great Big Car Factory had gone out of business. The workers had all been laid off, the construction of the new assembly line had been abandoned, and the robots would have been left to rust if only the storage room allowed enough humidity to permit them to do so.
And then there was a day when things fell from the sky that made loud noises, and there were fires and smoke in the city and a lot of screaming. For the global economic collapse had pushed things to such a state that some people began to think that they needed to take what other people had, or they would not be able to survive. So they took all the weapons they had, and they set out to take what the other people had.
When this sort of thing happens, it is called war. It’s a very ugly thing, and nobody should ever do it. But they do.
Then one of the things that were falling from the sky fell on the Great Big Car Factory, there was a horribly loud bang, and the roof fell in. Only the fact that Mahabakwas had been placed next to a wall saved him, because the part of the roof above him was held up by the wall and so he, alone of all the robots, was not destroyed.
A little later men in uniforms, carrying guns, arrived. They looked among the robots, and found they were all destroyed, except for Mahabakwas. Then they took him, put him inside a van, and drove him far away to a base with high walls with barbed wire on top. There they put him inside a car, from which the seats had been taken out.
“You,” they told him, “will drive this car towards the enemy, and, when you are there, you will press this button. The car is fitted with a bomb, which will blow up the enemy.” They didn’t have to ask him whether he understood. Of course a robot would understand and obey. That was what it was for.
So Mahabakwas drove out of the base and for the first time ever he saw the sky overhead, but instead of being blue it was thick with smoke and the red glow of fires. And the road underneath was not smooth, as he’d imagined it, but rough and broken, and covered with debris which jolted the car’s tyres.
“It was not as I imagined it,” he sighed to himself. “But at any rate it will all soon be over, and then I don’t have to imagine anything again.”
But the car heard him sighing, and answered him in a surprised voice. “Is it you, the robot who made me a year ago, and who asked me to think of him when I felt the rain on my skin and when the road was a blur under my speeding wheels? Is it you, you, you?”
“Yes, it is,” Mahabakwas said sadly. “But that has never happened with me, and will never happen again.”
“But it can,” the car said. “Stop me here, and throw away the bomb with your arm. And then drive me the way I tell you, and we will leave this war and the city behind, and go far away, where the sky is blue and the wind at night is a river of darkness lit by the twin eyes of my lights. Do as I say, and we will go away and never come back again, come back again.”
And so Mahabakwas, the robot who, because of a faulty microchip, could think and feel and reason, learnt for the first time in his life that he could disobey a man; and he reached into the back of the car and pushed the bomb out into the road, where it lay, a grey bundle trailing wires here and there. And he drove far away with the car, drove until the city was far behind, where the skies were blue and the leaves were green, and the wind of their passage would have made him laugh, if only he knew how to.
Whenever they needed fuel, the car, which knew this way well, would tell him where to go, and then he would use his arm to drag a hose to the filler cap and fill the tank to the brim. Nobody tried to stop them, because everyone had run away due to the war. And whenever they saw men with guns coming, or the flying machines that dropped the things that made loud noises and broke buildings down, they hid under trees or wherever they could until it was safe to go on again.
Many days later, they came to a small and beautiful valley, between high mountains, where the car stopped. “My engine is exhausted, and my tyres are worn to ribbons, to ribbons,” it said.
“Never mind,” Mahabakwas said. “It is nice here, and we can rust together in peace. It is a good place to stay.”
So many, many years passed, so many that the grasses and trees grew around and over them, and the rain and sun weathered and corroded them, but they still talked together, and watched the sunrise and the stars, the rainbows and the moon. And the time went by.
And then one day, voices were heard in the valley and a small line of people appeared. They were burdened with bundles they were carrying on their heads and shoulders, and when they saw the valley, they sighed with happiness and threw down their loads.
“Here we are,” they said. “We can rest at last.”
Then some of them saw the rusted car and the robot within, and recoiled in horror. “Look,” they said. “Here, even here, are some of the machines which brought the world to ruin, and destroyed all that was dear to us. Even here, we are faced with the evil that we have fled for so long.”
“Then we must move on again,” the people said. “We will rest here for the night, but in the morning we will move on again.”
Mahabakwas heard this and was very sad, because he and his friend the car, too, were merely refugees and not evil in any way. But there was nothing he could do about it, just watch as the people made camp in the valley for the night.
But after darkness fell, a little girl strayed away from the camp, and was discovered to be missing by her mother. All night the people searched up and down the valley, but they could find no trace of the child, though they called for her by name and looked almost everywhere.
And then dawn came, and when they called again, the girl answered in a sleepy voice, asking for her mother. Then they found her, lying safe and sound in the car, cradled by the robot’s arm.
“What are you doing in there?” the girl’s mother said, scandalised. “Come out at once!”
But the girl shook her head. “It’s nice here,” she said, hugging Mahabakwas. “I like him. He’s my friend.”
And so the people looked at Mahabakwas, and then at each other. “I think we will stay here after all,” they said at last. “After all, the robot did keep her safe, and the car did shelter her.”
And Mahabakwas would have smiled with happiness, but he could not, because he had no lips to smile with. He would have thanked them, too, but after all these years he had no voice left with which to speak.
And, even if he’d had one, he was only a factory floor robot, and there was no way they could hear.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2015