Robots of the World, Unite!

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It was toward the end of their relationship. “Relationship” was too strong a term — they had been fucking once or twice a week for the past three months, but lately the shimmer of excitement had dulled, and now the sex was perfunctory and rushed, not even desperate, as though desperation was too strong an emotion to conjure. Still, it was sex, and Gerald, a male graduate student in a world of male graduate students, prayed that it would never stop. He was, in some minor, embarrassing way, in love.


     Her name was Luba. From the beginning, she’d been fascinated with his robots. Gerald figured her Russian ancestry might somehow explain it; robot, after all, was a Czech word, and perhaps all eastern Europeans liked robots, with their vague whiffs of sadness and communism. Luba was tall and pale, swan-like, with a cloud of fine blonde hair. She smelled like lemon and soap, and baby powder. It was what Gerald imagined angels must smell like.
     Luba liked to rendezvous in Gerald’s lab, the Robotics and Automation lab, a damp basement space cluttered with ratchets and rusted soldering irons, stacks of busted oscilloscopes, intestinal snarls of wire. The room reeked of cutting fluid and bare feet. Luba would tap on the door at midnight or one a.m., after her shift at the Drunken Schoolboy Saloon, then wander bemusedly among the various broken-down robots, touching their battered metal shells, before she kissed Gerald, dropped her coat, and scooted onto the rickety prototype table.

He licked his index finger then touched Luba between the legs, like some obscure tribal greeting.

     That night, she was late. At one-thirty Gerald grabbed his backpack and flipped off the lights, allowing himself a moment of silent self-pity in the lab’s greenish LED glow. There was a rap at the door. “Sorry,” Luba said, touching his elbow as she brushed past, “I had laundry issues.”
     She yanked off her wooly hat and scratched her scalp, shrugged off her coat and tossed it over an empty acetylene tank. Gerald stepped behind Luba and kissed the bony knob of her spine, then peeled her sweatshirt over her head. He unbuttoned her jeans, knelt, and yanked down her pants and panties — the yellow Raggedy Anne ones — then steered her by the hips to the prototype table and hoisted her aboard. Luba hissed at the steel’s chill. Gerald shucked his pants down to his ankles. He had been hard, on and off, since noon.
     He licked his index finger then touched Luba between the legs, like some obscure tribal greeting. He had always loved her scorn for foreplay — she was like a man that way, unencumbered by patience — but now something in her passive willingness made Gerald’s stomach twine into a knot. He pressed into her — a warm, tunneling handshake, a rush of homecoming, of relief.
     Luba said, “Hang on.”
     She wiggled up the table, let her legs flop shut.
     “What? What’s up?”
     Luba shrugged. She lay on her back, her hair scrawled on the studded table, her panties puddled at her feet. “I dunno. I sorta don’t feel like it.”
     “But you came here — you’re here,” Gerald said, immediately regretting the note of anguish in his voice. Now she would pull on her jeans and sweatshirt, smiling stiffly, assuring Gerald that everything was fine, no problem — why would he think there was a problem? Next week there would be a telephone message, full of pity and false cheer. You’re an awesome guy, Gerald. I’m still going to call you, okay?
     Now he said, “Let’s try something different — what do you want me to do?”
     Luba shrugged again, staring past Gerald, at the lab’s clutter.
     “Anything,” he said. He dropped to a squat and pried her knees apart.
     She said, “Start one of the robots.”
     Gerald followed her stare to the Schilling Titan II, a titanium manipulator with sluggish servovalves and leaky hydraulics; the Puma 560, a battered blue gantry with a mangled end-effector. The brain-dead microbots. And, of course, Amelio, the animatronic head, the topic of Gerald’s dormant Ph.D. thesis.
     He said, “What’s up with you and robots?”
     “I dunno.” A playful grin tugged at the corners of her lips. “I just like them. Make one move.”
     He supposed it could be arousing, the talk of elasticity and friction, balls and sockets, stress and strain. He supposed it could ignite a spark, seeing lifeless bodies move and talk and act vaguely like people, though without the half-truths and indecision, the forgotten promises, the stony threats. He supposed.
     He hiked his jeans with one hand and shuffled to the controller PC, flipped the PUMA circuit breaker and popped the safety relay. He called up the initialization sequence, and the PUMA’s motors whirred, its joints slewing to a home position with the arm pointing upward at a sixty-degree angle. Luba lay on her side, hands tucked beneath her chin, staring. She said, “That’s it?”
     “Well. Pretty much. Yeah.”
     “That’s all it does?”
     “What did you expect it to do?”
     Luba shrugged. “I dunno.”
     “It doesn’t, like, dance or anything.”
     “Dancing would be cool.”
     Gerald called up the homing command, and the PUMA shuddered, its detents locking. He snapped the circuit breaker shut, then leaned back in the chair. He gestured vaguely, then dropped his hands in his lap. “Well. Sorry.”
     “Turn on that one.”

His balls touched the chilly steel, sending a shiver through his spine.

     She pointed at Amelio. Once, years ago, Gerald had dreamed of Amelio as the world’s first social robot—a talking, interacting creature! Friend of children! Beloved by pets! — but now it was just a shitheap in the corner, a monument to failure. Amelio had an aluminum head with wide freakshow eyes, and a one-degree-of-freedom jaw that clacked when it spit phrases from its tiny lexicon: “Stop that.” “I don’t understand.” “I like it.” Amelio could track gestures and hear voices and obey simple commands, but his brain — Gerald’s thesis — was soup. And yet Gerald was fond of Amelio: he felt, at least, that he understood him, in a way that he would never understand a woman like Luba.
     “That’s Amelio.”
     “Ah-mee-lee-oh. Good name.”
    “It’s Latin for something.”
    Gerald shuffled to Amelio’s terminal and flipped the breaker. Amelio’s head jerked to an upright quiver, panning leftward until his eyes found a feature to track — Luba’s lolling feet.
     Amelio said, “I like it.”
     Gerald shuffled back to the prototype table. His balls touched the chilly steel, sending a shiver through his spine, and suddenly — strangely — recalling for him an image of himself as a young graduate student, standing naked in front of a mirror, performing an experiment. He’d been flapping his arms at varying frequencies, watching his stomach and balls jiggle in response. At a certain frequency his balls had begun vibrating out of phase with the jelly around his midsection. What joy! His body was a dynamic system, explainable by physics! Now, this memory caused in Gerald a twinge of sadness. He was, he realized, a tremendous geek.
     Luba clasped her ankles behind Gerald’s back, her gaze fixed on Amelio’s jittery mouth, and Gerald dropped his jeans with a pang of scruffy guilt. He worked his way inside her. She’d shifted positions, and the hole pattern on the table’s surface had quilted her bottom with blotchy scarlet bumps. Gerald adjusted his angle, let gravity tug him faster.
     Amelio said, “I don’t understand.”
     It must be confused by the repetitive motion, Gerald thought, the periodic velocity vectors in its field of view. Luba giggled. He gripped her hipbone, the immaculate skin that looked like it had never seen sun. He thought: I could marry this girl. It was a vintage sexthought, a quarter-millimeter from insanity — but down there, somewhere, was a sober nut of truth.
     Amelio said, “I don’t understand.”
     Luba’s jaw and fists tightened. She thrashed, her back pressing into an arch, a glaze of sweat on her sternum. She tore at Gerald’s wrist. A small thrilling birdsound escaped her throat, and she squeezed Gerald, a warm viscoelastic clench — and then her body seemed to collapse into tiny, precise shudders. Gerald’s stomach fell away. She looked like a woman riding out a hurricane. He couldn’t look away from her pained face.
     Finally Luba blinked, her eyes slowly focusing.
     He said, “Pretty cool, huh?”
     Luba giggled. “I like Amelio.” Her chest was marbled with orgasm rash. “Why doesn’t he say more?”
     “That’s all he knows.”
     “Yeah. Sad.”
     He could teach Amelio — couldn’t he? He could teach him to say, “Come here,” and “Go faster,” and “Tell me more” — that part was easy. He could teach him how to recognize affection — was that possible? Had anything similar been reported in the literature? And she could help him, Luba, this strange girl, this lover of machines. And, yes, it would be possible to grant Amelio memory — of laughter, of good deeds done to him, of people he liked — so that eventually, one day, he might say, “You. Yes. I like you. I love you.”
     Gerald said, “Luba, please: come back. Tomorrow night. I want to teach him something new.” 


©2003 Karl Iagnemma and

Karl Iagnemma‘s writing has appeared in Playboy, The Best American Short Stories, and The Journal of Autonomous Robots. His first book of short stories, On the Nature of Human Romantic Interaction, was recently published by the Dial Press. Visit for more information.