R O B O T I C A

Aidan Butler


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Maggie believed she was a robot.

"A good robot," she explained.


"A really realistic one, like in Blade Runner, where you have to scrutinize them pretty hard to tell they're not real people."

"Well, sure," I said, "I wouldn't have thought you were a robot, so you're obviously realistic."

"Had you fooled, didn't I?"

"Well, if it's true."

She raised her eyebrows. "If?"

"Well, the robots in Blade Runner behaved like robots. They had some sort of ultra-wicked mission they were on, so they went around killing the real people and wreaking havoc."

"Who says I don't? Seriously, I just haven't figured my mission out yet, so I haven't been forced to take any drastic measures. But I repeat: I haven't figured it out...yet."

*          *         *

At first Maggie was apologetic that she didn't achieve orgasm when we had sex. She wasn't stressed about it, didn't seem embarrassed, but she tried to make sure that there was no pressure on me.

"It's part of my design," she told me. "The Q4 line, which I'm part of, isn't equipped with a high-verisimilitude sex function structurizer. The only time we actually have orgasms is when we start malfunctioning. So don't think that you're incompetent, or anything."

"Oh, that never crossed my mind," I joked.

"I just don't want you to feel inadequate."

"Well, okay. Thanks for explaining that; you're obviously very thoughtful machines."

"Yep."

Then, unexplainably, after we'd been dating for four months, she began having wildly passionate orgasms nearly every time we had sex.

"I can't explain it," she admitted. "I wish there was somewhere I could go for a tune-up. I mean, this could really indicate that my pleasure-center isn't calibrated correctly. Q4's aren't supposed to have this sort of experience."

I tried to tell her that if something feels good, it's almost certainly good for her; she should just flow with the pleasure.

"If it feels good, do it, huh? Is that what you're saying? Look, Mark, we don't even have feelings. We have quasi-affects based on sense-factored information clusters."

"Then maybe you're not really from the Q4 line. Maybe you're a model that's more sexually sophisticated. I mean, do you have your documentation? An owners manual, or something like that?"

"Why would I have my own owners' manual? I'm not my owner. Anyway, I was sent down here totally ignorant. The closest thing I have to docs on myself is a little self-curiosity."

"Well, huh. How about that. You know, maybe...maybe you're not really a robot at all, Maggie."

She looked me over with smoldering eyes.

"I see it's difficult for you to acknowledge my true mechanical nature," she hissed. "You're just not willing to accept that someone you're close to simply doesn't have feelings. Your insensitivity disgusts me."

*          *         *

It occurred to me that maybe Maggie convinced herself that she was a robot to avoid acknowledging the reality of her feelings. Maybe believing that her feelings were merely programmed phenomena, behavioral camouflage, carefully encoded electronic illusions, made them less dangerous to her. And less demanding: there was no reason for her to explore them fully. She didn't have to act on what was unreal, and, devoid of reality, her feelings couldn't injure her.

Of course, the degree of Maggie's self-deception was unclear to me. Did she honestly believe--in her soul--that she was a robot?

Struggling with this question, I reflected on the first time Maggie told me that she was a robot. It was a difficult admission for her to make, and my obvious difficulty believing her intensified the emotional strain.

We were at an Indian restaurant near the zoo. The walls were fuzzy with imitation orange velvet, dusty and faded with age. Statues of multi-armed undulating deities stood near every table, all facing away from each other as if eye contact would lead to brutal cosmic battles.

"They're protecting us from evil spirits," I speculated.

"This music," she said, rolling her eyes. It seemed to be a fifteen second tape-loop: a few tense strokes of electronic sitar, a synthesized horn section rising microtonally to a brief explosion of cymbals, then the sitars again, like a trickle of blood coming from a broken seashell.

"What's the stuff that's sort of like tofu?" she asked, scanning both sides of the wrinkled menu. "Dense, gray, always cut in cubes. Never triangles, or interesting shapes. Smothered in red sauce."

The waiter brought us something that didn't even hint at what we ordered. We ate cautiously, daring but diffident.

"I taste red pepper," I said. "I tasted it in my ice water, too."

"They keep an urn of Tums by the door for when you're leaving."

"Yeah? My digestive system is finding this educational."

"Digesting this stuff is easy. I could digest nails."

"Pretty powerful stomach, huh?"

"I used to eat digital wrist watches when I was younger."

I stared at her, not quite fathoming what I had just heard.

"You mean...I'm not sure what you mean."

"People eat strange stuff all the time," she shrugged.

"Oh, sure. I sometimes eat hotdogs. And I have absolutely no idea what's inside them."

"That's truly morbid. There can't possibly be any reason for a person to eat hotdog. Unless you hate your body and want to destroy it. That I might understand."

"Well," I said, laughing a little so that I wouldn't sound combative, "I don't think there could possibly be any reason for someone to eat digital wristwatch, either."

Maggie's expression became fixed, lifeless, and her unexpressive gaze fell down toward my food. For a moment I sensed that I had hurt her feelings, but then I wondered if we hadn't simply confused each other.

"That's what you said, right? That you ate digital watches?"

Her disconcerting silence continued, then she looked up at me and nodded.

"That is what I said," she spoke quietly, "and there were plenty of useful reasons why I ate those watches. There were also sound reasons why I ate my father's beeper, and my best friend's mini-walkman. And my uncle's water purification system."

Her stare grew heavy, and I turned down to my plate: the little brown lump of dahl, the cauliflower stained orange in its thick, peppery sauce, the yellow rice glistening with oil. I imagined on my plate a wristwatch dripping with curry sauce, a steaming liquid crystal display moist with vegetable oil, flashing its purchase price, perhaps, or its nutrition information. The silence was prolonged; I heard other diners laughing, chatting affably.

"So," my voice sounded childishly unsteady. "What were the reasons you ate those things?"

"I wanted to learn from them. I wanted to assimilate the wisdom of their technology."

I nibbled at the corner of a piece of flatbread.

"You've got a really curious imagination, Maggie." I was disguising my uneasy perplexity, but I was sure she could sense that I was creeped out by her.

"I'm not that different from digital watches, Mark."

I wasn't looking at her anymore. I imagined getting the check, putting down a twenty, then politely excusing myself from her company. I glanced behind me to see if there were any deity statues blocking the path to the doorway, then took a sip of water.

I tried to break the tension. "Hey, look, Maggie, you're worth much, much more than a watch."

She wrinkled her forehead, gave me a slanted look.

"You don't understand what I'm saying," she said firmly, then reached towards my hand. I found myself leaning away from her.

"I'm mechanical, Mark. I'm a machine. A robot, if you will."

I picked up my fork again, and prodded a cone-shaped piece of cauliflower. Suddenly it started steaming.

"Well." I laughed a frail, slightly wounded laugh. I was disappointed that she was so eccentric and, honestly, a little repulsed. "For a robot, you've got a great appetite. Are you related to a food processor, or a garbage disposal?"

Maggie picked up her small leather change purse, then glanced around for the waiter. A few other-worldly gods met her gaze, but no humans. She set her purse down.

"You know what, Mark?" She spoke at a lower pitch, and her voice shook. "I have a really hard time with jokes like that. I'm not something you have to squirt with motor oil or charge up with power cord. I've had a rough time dealing with the insensitivity of living creatures."

Suddenly she devoured three quick bites of food. Still chewing, she continued reproachfully. "My journey here was a fucking nightmare. I was sent as a fragile bundle of chips, broken self-assembly modules, moody atmospheric adjusters. I sailed past remote stars, past the drifting wreckage of alien war vessels, past deep space fissures and reality bends. The shy, frightened moon looked over her shoulder at me, startled by my descent to this horrid cultural drift-land. I splashed through earth's gloomy atmosphere right into the pus-filled eye of this tragi-comic death-heap. Oh, I didn't want to be here; from time to time I yearn to dismantle myself and soar gracefully back into the much more soothing, emotionally balanced envelope of lightless, frozen space. But I'm programmed for a mission: maybe observation, a data-sweep, culture-tapping, or maybe eventual global domination. I really can't say yet. The transmission will come to me: perhaps tonight, or perhaps in two thousand years, after I've developed a fuller, more healthy contempt for the sickening follies of man. In the meantime, I live as you live: as a pointlessly self-entertaining, self-distracting animal, wastefully pouring my heart into doltish jobs with no end. For me the human question is simply: How does an emotionally embryonic organism cope with a universe rendered vacuous and viciously random by his crippling lack of vision?"

Without missing a beat, she bit into a flap of bread. I listened to her chew.

"I'm so sorry, Maggie."

She shrugged minutely.

"I guess you can't help it, Mark."

*          *         *

Reflecting on that first date, it's a little perplexing that Maggie and I continued seeing each other. It was not typical for me to date unstable, deluded people, but my life was in a period of turmoil--with my mother attempting suicide four times one afternoon, finally killing several other motorists when she drove head-on into traffic; with my ambitious brother moving to South America to try to start a drug cartel; with my terrier chasing after a little girl on a tricycle and never coming back; with my insurance company dissolving to become a greeting card business--on and on. Perhaps I was desperate for any kind of abrupt change, anything to shake me out of the frightful gloom that had taken hold of me.

Maggie was certainly a distraction. In fact, she was a head-on assault against the very pillars of reality. I spent whole afternoons sitting at my desk at work in a state of listless, imaginative self-consumption, or walking aimlessly around the city, kicking at the litter in my path, wondering to what extent people can define themselves; what it would mean to me if her story were true; whether people are really all that different from inanimate things.

Sometimes when I was with Maggie, she would suddenly stop whatever she was doing and go into a brief but rigid catatonia. Her eyes, glassy and cold, would become transfixed on a point of indefinable significance, like a distant corner, or a patch of grass, or a faraway street light. Her expression one of sternness giving way to awe, she would raise her hands to the level of her waist and tremble.

"What's wrong, Maggie?"

If I asked, she either ignored me or shook her head quickly to demand silence.

"I thought it was my transmission," she'd say breathlessly, her body suddenly slack.

"Well, God, I'm glad it wasn't," I'd joke, "because I really wanted to sleep with you tonight."

"You humans always want to mate with what baffles you."

Sometimes when I hung out at Maggie's house the phone would ring once, then stop. Electrical appliances would switch on by themselves. Lights would flicker mysteriously, and go off without either of us touching their controls. She said it was them acknowledging her mechanical superiority, a sign of veneration, a form of worship.

Strangely, the electronic things in her apartment only went berserk when Maggie was awake. Invariably she woke up just before her alarm clock rang; and as soon as her eyes were open, the appliances and other gadgets began greeting her. I took this as strong evidence that she was consciously controlling their frenzied outbursts, though I couldn't discern how.

Usually when things went on without her help, they stayed on only briefly. But one evening the blender went on while we were lying in bed reading and stayed on for more than ten minutes. I glanced over at Maggie, who was concentrating on the sound.

"Is it trying to tell you something?"

She didn't reply, but after a moment she walked into the kitchen. I followed her, and watched her stare at the whirling blades, slashing at nothing, flickering in the empty glass cylinder. Maggie blinked rapidly, then nodded, and the blender turned off.

One evening I went to her house for dinner. She had cleared everything off her dinner table and put a small copy machine on it. A stack of copy paper rose from the floor as high as my waist. She was standing in front of the machine with somber, studious expression making blank copies, photocopies of leaves she had collected from her yard, copies of cereal boxes, newspapers, and used Kleenexes. One of the copies she made contained columns of numbers and strange, circular symbols.

"What's this a copy of?"

"That's what came out when I tried making a copy of my palm."

*          *         *

When I made love with Maggie, hazy blue light flashed in my mind during orgasm.

And coldness, not warmth, spread from her vagina through my body. I shivered when I screwed her. My teeth chattered. Icy sweat drenched the blanket.

She made love just like the women in pornographic films, histrionically, with exaggerated cries, moans, and pre-written proclamations of passion. It was like she had learned what to do and how to express herself by watching pornography--as if she had no instincts of her own.

Each time we made love, the blue light flashed through my mind--that did not change. But slowly, dark brown text began appearing superimposed over the haze. At first almost imperceptibly faint, the text grew darker, and clearer. I strained to decipher it through the mist of my post-orgasmic mind. Sometimes when we weren't getting along particularly well, I'd seduce Maggie even if it required groveling, simply to have another shot at translating the strange writing.

After about three dozen times seeing the text, I was able to discern that it was columns of numbers interspersed with seemingly random, more or less circular symbols. It was a vivid duplicate of the numbers and symbols she had shown me when, she claimed, she had tried making a copy of her palm.

The mess on that paper must have really burned itself into my mind, I thought. Why was it so intriguing to me? What could it mean?

Puzzling over these questions, I realized that I had been seeing a hazy version of those columnized numbers and symbols in my mind for about two weeks before she showed me the printout of them.

*          *         *

I was never completely convinced that Maggie was a robot. There were times when my doubts were stretched thin; certainly there were things I could not explain, but I was not willing to concede that these things were genuine evidence that she was a facsimile of a woman.

For example, one afternoon Maggie and I went for a walk in a peaceful, idyllic cemetery; trees shaded the countless tombstones, some of which were more than two centuries old; between the cemetery and a long stretch of highway was a dark, still lake. I imagined human souls drifting through the water, perhaps reincarnated as fish. A brisk, incessant wind brushed at our hair, but none of the autumn leaves scattered across the cemetery lawns were moved by it.

Maggie found a rusty, squeaky pogo stick on the grass beside one of the tombstones. The tombstones in that part of the cemetery were all horizontal slabs in the ground; I suppose they were less expensive than the upright ones. Maggie hopped onto the pogo stick and with breath-taking poise and speed began bouncing from one flat tombstone across three feet of grass to another, then back, over and over. The springy rubber base of the pogo stick hit granite at least once every second; her arch through the air was perfectly even, unalterable; the base of the pogo stick landed in exactly the same place on both tombstones every time. I stared at her in awe. After about two minutes she closed her eyes; still her motion remained perfectly regular. She continued bouncing for a few more minutes, and when she stopped, she was not panting.

On another occasion, in late summer, we bought popsicles from a cart vendor outside the museum of modern art and sat down on a cool cement bench to lick them. Instead of stroking her tongue along the cold sweet ice, she balanced the popsicle stick on the tip of her right ring finger and let it melt over her hand until it was just a stick. Not once did it come close to falling, or even sway perceptibly. But at one point Maggie held her left hand up beside her raised right hand and, with her eyes closed, tossed the popsicle over to the tip of her left ring finger. Still, it did not tilt at all.

These were impressive feats, but I considered them little more than circus tricks. Ways for her to gnaw gently at my sanity.

Other things she did were more disturbing, and seemed to bolster her wacky robotism claims a bit more. For example, Maggie never excreted waste when I was with her. Never once did she use a toilet when I was around.

"I have an atomic shatter compound in my chest cavity," she explained. "When I feel like it, I release it upon the substances I've ingested and it annihilates them completely."

"That's unhealthy," I scolded her. "You'll never get adequate nutrition doing that crap."

One evening, just to bother me, she vomited on my bedroom floor. The chewed-up food did not reek of stomach fluids; the colors were still distinct, almost completely unaltered.

"Taste it," she commanded.

"Clean it up!" I shouted back.

"That'll prove to you that I'm a robot. Food that's been in a real organism's stomach for two hours would taste dramatically different."

"Just get a goddam mop, Maggie."

"You're afraid to know the truth, you piddly, craven human."

One afternoon we were in a pet store.

"This little guy," the shop owner said proudly, pointing at a solitary, missile-shaped, three-inch long polka-dotted fish in a particularly bubbly tank, "he's a fresh-water Mozambiquan unther. Very rare."

"Looks phallic," Maggie said.

"Why's he all alone?" I asked. "Combative? Cannibalistic?"

"Nah, just expensive and delicate. High maintenance."

Maggie lifted the lid of the tank.

"What're you doin'?" the guy asked her, reaching toward her with alarm. With the astonishing speed of a famished predator, Maggie shot her hand into the rough water, seemingly without creating any splash, then slapped her palm against her open mouth. The fish was gone. Quickly Maggie scooped several handfuls of water into her mouth, gulping.

She sniffed, shook her head briskly, then said with a gesture toward me, "He'll pay you for it."

Four hours later, after we returned home from a movie, she vomited the fish, whole and flapping vigorously, along with a gutful of its water, into the glass cylinder of her blender. The Mozambiquan unther began swimming in tight circles inside the glass.

"Cute, Maggie. But it'll die in there; it'll run out of oxygen. And it needs a brisk current, remember?"

Without anyone touching its buttons, the blender switched on to a slow mix speed, and its blades spun harmlessly below the polka-dotted fish, creating a full, bubbly current.

*          *         *

Despite Maggie's general weirdness, our dates were often very predictable. We'd rent a movie, cook dinner, watch the movie, bicker for a while, then have sex and go to sleep.

"What do you dream about?" I asked her one evening as sleep settled upon me.

"When you sleep here I share your dreams. I see them exactly as you do."

"Bullshit."

"Want to test me? Ask me what you dreamed about last night."

"Forget it. What do you dream about when you're not plagiarizing my dreams?"

She was quiet.

"Do you dream about those columns of numbers? Those circular symbols?"

She shook her head.

"I dream about energy."

"Energy?"

"I imagine different forms of energy. How energy leaves living things, and where it flows. How it's such a waste for so much of this world's energy to be trapped in waste-gushing, noisy little organisms whose most magnificent form of expression is war. When I sleep, I imagine the earth as a place in which most of the energy is held by geological forces, where the most intelligent beings are shifting sand formations, and where nothing is more noisy than the waves of lifeless ponds licking gooey clay shores."

*          *         *

For the first few months that we dated Maggie insisted on renting movies that featured robots. Sci-fi, obviously. She'd scoff at the absurdity of the depictions, sometimes fly into self-righteous fury about how denigrating they were.

She wondered if other apparent humans were robots, like her.

"You wouldn't be able to tell?"

"I seem to be programmed not to," she said sadly. "But I can wonder about it. I'm pretty certain that a few extremely significant creative figures in human history were robots. Aristotle, Leonardo, Nietzsche, who eventually malfunctioned, Gandhi--"

"Gandhi was a robot? Come on!"

"Did he eat? I rest my case. Also Saint Thomas Aquinas, Buddha, Pythagoras, Euclid--"

"Okay, enough."

"Geniuses need to be really detached from their culture. Carl Jung--another robot--defined 'genius' as someone who views the temporal world from a world eternal. Only we machine-entities can accomplish that."

"Fine. But do you ever see people on the street and think: Hey, he or she is one of my technological twins?"

Maggie was silent. The blender in the kitchen, humming softly to keep the fish's current going, suddenly went wild. We rushed toward the grinding roar and found the Mozambiquan unther pureed, like a watery cherry shake.

*          *         *

When my mother finally managed to kill herself, it was entirely accidental: she was eating breakfast in bed, and choked to death on a large bite of honeydew melon. The tray over her lap was undisturbed: there was a plate of scrambled eggs and sausage, a croissant, a glass of grapefruit juice, still standing upright, and a bowl of fresh fruit. I called her the evening she died, got no response, and drove over to see if she was all right. She had been lying there all day, the images on the television across the room bouncing against her lifeless eyes, the food slowly drying out, turning gray and cold.

I wondered what she was watching when she died, what occupied her mind in her last calm moment. It occurred to me that her last calm moment must have been years ago, before her despair began driving her to self-destruction.

For much of that night I wondered how things could have been better, or at least different; to what extent events in people's lives can be averted. Maggie called to see if I wanted to come over and watch Alien. As if believing for a moment that she was a robot, the thought of being with her disgusted me; I thought that kissing her would be like kissing my mother's corpse. I wanted to surround myself things that affirmed life, vibrated and glowed with vital energy.

I went to a bird sanctuary the next day to grieve. Aside from a small group of blind tourists at a picnic table there were no other people there, and in the absence of other people the abundance of life was striking: the ground broke open with discreet flowering weeds, trees spread out branches like hugging arms; insects danced drunkenly through the warm air, birds darted and swerved through shadows of leaves, positioning themselves to sing to unseen audiences. I lay on a small wooden bridge crossing a creek and listened to insects hum and buzz, birds whistle and chirp; the rustle of branches sounded the sky shedding clothing, brushing clouds from its smooth azure skin; water splashed and gurgled between rocks underneath me, and after a few moments it struck me that perhaps that was what my mother sounded like choking, her saliva battling to dislodge the cool slash of melon.

*          *         *

"It's really not so bad that she died."

"That's callous."

"How dare you call me callous. And how juvenile of you to call me names. Really, I think we could be a bit more dignified, Mark."

"My fucking mother died."

"If she had her way, she would've died a hundred times by now."

"How can you possibly say this to me? She left this world not more than forty-eight hours ago, and you're talking about her like she's some corrupt politician who just lost re-election."

"First of all, I have no sympathy because, once again, I have no genuine feelings at all. What the hell do you expect? And even if feelings were part of my design, I couldn't feel very bad about your mother's long-overdue demise. She had it coming. She'd been courting the angel of death for years. And think about it this way: maybe the energy that was once bundled up in your mother's world-weary soul has flowed to other humans; maybe that very same energy is now fueling the dexterous fingers of a world-class chef as he rips the feathers off of wild pheasants before tossing them into an oven; maybe the same energy is behind a heroic soldier, dashing bravely across a muddy battlefield right into the bullets of unseen gunmen. Your mother's vital energy might have finally found a worthwhile purpose."

"You truly are cold-hearted."

"No, I'm heartless. But at least I'm not purposeless. I might not know what my purpose is, but at least I have one."

*          *         *

I took Maggie to the bird sanctuary one afternoon. It seemed that more and more, the things I did with her were rooted in an ulterior motive: I was trying to disabuse her of the notion that she was a robot, or trying to get her to confess that she knew it was simply a strategy for dealing with painful emotions. It wasn't so much that I was getting together with Maggie to have fun anymore; it was more like she was a grim research project, or a logical argument that I could not allow myself to lose for fear that everything meaningful to be would be refuted. And although her position was preposterous and grounded in no evidence at all, she seemed to be winning.

It occurred to me that emotional self-protection was only one possible explanation for Maggie's robot story. She could have convinced herself that she was a robot simply to distinguish herself in her own mind, to give her some special classification against the undistinguished mass of humankind. The pressure on women to be stunning is extreme, emotionally crippling, and so even though Maggie was beautiful, every fashion choice she made seemed calculated to negate her beauty, or to show her disdain for physicality. This even though, as a putative robot, there was nothing about her that was non-physical. My hope was that by bringing her to a place overflowing with the glory of nature, I'd break down the mental barrier between her and the rest of life--make her want to accept her relatedness to it. "You are a part of this," I would say, gesturing grandly at the resplendent sunlight raining down like luminous crystal dust over the trees, streams, and flowers. "You are part of the limitless, ever-changing beauty of life, Maggie! You are one with all this, life flows through you, life embraces you because you are life!"

I believed, of course, that the only way that our relationship could evolve is if she accepted the reality of her feelings and then shared them with me. I needed to know what was going on for her, and presumably, something was.

But when we got to the bird sanctuary and began walking around the trails, it looked as though it had just been sprayed with powerful deadly gasses: no insects looped through the air around us, or buzzed or hummed in the trees; no birds whistled or chirped from the branches. There was no evidence of life at all, except for the trees which stood motionless, unswaying, as if the sky had solidified like a great bowl of blueberry jello. On the bridge crossing the steam, I noticed that the water, gurgling and splashing a few days before, had become still, opaque.

"This is so strange," I said. "It's like this place has gone dead."

"Nature is daunted by the supremacy of machines," Maggie announced happily.

"Jesus, this is weird. Even the shadows don't seem to be moving."

"Organisms flee in terror; the motor is God."

Staring motionlessly into a dense wall of trees, shadows slashed into multi-sided shapes by crisscrossing branches and dusty clouds of leaves, I felt like I had been horribly deceived. Life was not gorgeous, triumphant, and resonant with message and meaning; it was scarred, withering, fluttering, and trivial.

Maggie grabbed a fistful of buds from a small flowering plant, crushed them in her fingers, then tossed them onto the ground.

"Living things are frightened to death by us flawless electro-pods. I mean, just look at you, and your need to reduce me to your level. Life is defective matter with an attitude problem. Life is material decay with a bad personality. Life is despicable, reeking shit."

*          *         *

The numbers and symbols continued to flash through my mind when I ejaculated: pillars of inscrutable data, strange looping forms pulsing through the noetic haze. I waited for the vision as my sexual excitement intensified, I yearned for the delicious mystery of The Numbers. Actual orgasm became unimportant. What was valuable to me about sex was, more and more, the vision.

Whenever I came across accounting ledgers, or numeric spread-sheets, though the similarity to my orgasmic visions was only slight, I became aroused.

"It's becoming meaningful to me," I told Maggie one night while we lay in each other's arms. "Not any solid, well-defined meaning, just some faint connotation. It's almost as if I'm seeing the precise mathematical formula for pleasure, and even though I can't quite sort it out, it fills me with warmth and joy."

Maggie chuckled.

"I think I'm just rubbing off on you. Your brain is struggling to become robotic."

Whenever I opened my eyes after staring at the columns of numbers and symbols on display in my mind, the room around me seemed unwholesomely detailed, fiercely material, annoyingly three-dimensional, as if I was crashing from a plane of pure information to wasteland of irrelevance.

The walls, the bed, the lusterless light, her body and mine.

*          *         *

It occurred to me that if Maggie's mission was world domination, one of her possible strategies could be convincing earthlings that they're actually robots. Believing that, earthlings would rally to her side, willingly sacrifice themselves for her purpose. Humans are, I realized, susceptible to incredible degrees of self-deception even without any strong evidence or fancy props backing up their delusions; but if she could induce hallucinations in other people, as perhaps she was doing with me when I came, mass deception could be almost effortless.

*          *         *

When I masturbated, my mind remained blank during climax. Without Maggie, the marvelous inner screen was an ashen void. But one afternoon I brought myself to climax in my small bathroom and my semen sprayed against the wall two feet from where I was sitting, and as the whitish fluid dripped down the wall, the moisture formed one of the symbols from the luminous code that flashed into my mind. So clear, so distinct was the symbol gleaming on my wall--as if it had come to assure me that whatever triggered those images was some blessed faculty of my own; they were not transmitted solely by Maggie.

I wept with joy.

*          *         *

In the last month that I knew Maggie, she became extremely ill.

"So what I'd like to know is, how exactly does a bunch of wires and chips and gears and ratchets and cranks get influenza? Hm?"

"Who the hell died and made you omniscient? I didn't say it was the flu, buddy. Even data-slip malfunctions are designed to follow a human-recognizable pattern so as not to betray my true nature. And anyway, as usual you're being totally insensitive to the details of my..."

Her sentence broke up into coughing; holding her arms to her chest, she bent over then fell onto the bed and lay silent.

For two weeks of her illness, Maggie coughed almost incessantly, slept for more than twelve hours a day, threw up everything that she ate and drank--still without any sign of stomach fluids chemically changing what she had put inside herself--and occasionally left her apartment at odd times to go for several hours walks. She would not tell me where she was going, and in fact she became increasingly uncommunicative, often not even responding when I greeted her, or asked her direct questions.

After the ten days of being sick, she stopped calling in to work, and effectively quit her job at the carpet emporium.

Sometimes when she coughed I heard a strange rattling sound in her chest, slightly metallic, and a tinny scraping noise. Sometimes a thin mist seemed to fill the air in front of her face.

"The worst thing about you humans," she said one evening, waking me up in the middle of the night after coming home from one of her mysterious excursions, "is that you do everything over and over again. There's so little in your lives that you do just once. Everything is attached to some shallow biological purpose. Every human act is servitude to a decaying body, a sloppy biological mess terrified at its own imminent demise. You'd think that asking a human to innovate, to behave with true inner freedom, to forget its own trivial destiny for one split second, is like asking him to slaughter a busload of schoolgirls or something. Humans are only one kind of consciousness, you know. And living consciousness just has too many damn problems."

"Uh huh," I said in sleepy sarcasm, patting her on the tummy. "You robots are really fine specimens of consciousness. Really splendid and giving."

"You're robots too, pal. Just really primitive, deficient ones."

*          *         *

In the third week of her illness, Maggie stopped communicating with me directly. I stayed with her, kept her apartment stocked with food, aspirin, and various illness-combating sweet syrups, and although we were around each other continuously except when she was off on her walks, she no longer acknowledged me. Her only words took the form of strange maxims, shreds of songs she apparently made up, or unmelodic, listless chants.

Every day she moved more of her appliances and other electrically powered possessions closer to her bed, until the blender, the stereo, the toaster oven, the microwave, the hair dryer, the disconnected telephone, the television and VCR, the clock and the game console were all heaped within a few feet of where she lay. Turning themselves on and off, they emitted random series of chirps, clicks, buzzes, and pops. Once in a while she would turn and speak incoherently.

"The icy top melted away," she'd mutter inexplicably, or: "Numbering that would be difficult without tape"; "So goes the myth of nothingness"; "All before noon, my timely friends"; "Weaving only, my sister, weaving only."

Whenever I spoke her name, whether whispering or calling to her in fear or frustration, one of the machines on the floor beside her would respond with a brief, solemn clatter. She would ignore me.

*          *         *

In the last week of her illness she rocked back and forth constantly, crumpled into a fetal position under the blanket, still wearing the jeans and jacket she put on for her last walk. The machines grew increasingly expressive, their percussive elegy now almost constant. The blender did not cease its ineffectual whirling, and its sound wore away to a dry, piercing scrape. For several days Maggie was speechless, didn't even make any demented non sequiturs. Then, one evening while I was lying beside her reading the Gospels, she stopped rocking, reached out, laid her hand on the blender, and said with a startlingly clear, energetic voice:

"I've been impregnated by the moon, and aborted by the clouds."

Her hand rested on the blender for a moment, then knocked it over. It was silent.

"Maggie?"

She did not move.

*          *         *

The next morning most of her was gone. The shallow concavity in the bed where she had lain for many days was filled with her hair: every strand from her head, along with her eyelashes and eyebrows, the fuzz from her skin, the dense, dark hair of her genitals, all resting in the spots they'd be in if they were still attached to her body. That was all.

I stared at her fibrous remains for nearly an hour, paralyzed by sadness and fear that if I walked to another part of the house I'd find her skin, or her eyes. Clusters of wires, scattered chips with rows of metal pins.

In the strange silence that prevailed over the chorus of gadgets by her bed, a breeze slowly mingled her hair together, swept some of it onto the floor, some onto my body. I gathered a few long, dark brown strands, then left.

*          *         *

"So you have feelings?"

Petra looked at me like I was a cad, then turned away with a scowl.

"Of course I have feelings. I have feelings you can't even begin to experience. Feelings that cannot be expressed in any language; feelings no one else has ever felt. My feelings are landscapes, each one abounding in sunny detail. Limitlessly complex, fluctuating with quantum speed; thundering, whispering, screeching, singing. Life is all about feelings, Mark; feelings are life itself, in all its untamed glory, and majesty. And danger."

"Danger...?"

"Every good thing conceals peril. The interior world could grievously crumble without any warning."

When I made love with Petra, I saw no energetic data, no numbers swimming in turbulent haze. When I struggled to visualize those numbers now, I saw them as pure data passing quickly across the sky above the earth, then vanishing. The world I knew could not accommodate pure data.

Maggie was gone.

I wondered, of course, whether she hadn't simply changed shape, infiltrated human society with greater stealth. Maybe she had to disappear as part of her mission; maybe her illness was the context of the revelation. I imagined Maggie crouching at a train track late in the night, violently disassembling herself, attaching her receptors, recording units, and her data manipulation parts to the underside of a train that would carry her cognitive net swiftly across the country; I imagined Maggie in business attire weaving through a line of employees into the Pentagon, stepping up to a security desk, and then detonating. The gargantuan walls of the complex crumbling, countless propaganda files and military secrets devoured by Martian flames, transmitting the information to some distant race, or locking it in time for some future earth race.

For several months, whenever I saw women who looked like Maggie from behind or from a distance, I was arrested, filled with joy shot through with fear. Elation toppling over into anxiety. Excitement tinged with loathsome guilt. My unresolved feelings for Maggie were mutating in their obsolescence.

*          *         *

Once or twice I told myself it was true--Maggie was a robot--and tried to simulate her simulated consciousness: I tried to make myself a robot. But I could not shake the meaning from things; I could not enhance the meaning of things. And I found in these moments that I did not like myself for my fixity, my mental lock.

Sometimes I imagined that the world in all its clashing, diverse pieces was a single data-thread of Maggie's knowing, or that the entire world was a robotic duplicate, a sophisticated counterfeit of some genuine world: smells became, momentarily, digital assemblages, maybe transmitted along fine electric wires entering my body invisibly; all sounds seemed to come from speakers hidden behind parked cars, buildings, or clouds; images seemed projected, or holographic. It all seemed like a masterful put-up, the dress rehearsal of a chaotic, interminable drama.

In those moments, the world around me seemed profoundly secure.



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Swagazine 9
Winter 2001




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