R O B O T I C A
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."
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
* * *
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
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
"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
"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
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,
"They keep an urn of Tums by the door for when you're
"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
"That's what you said, right? That you ate digital watches?"
Her disconcerting silence continued, then she looked up at me
"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
"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
"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.
"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."
"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
She shook her head.
"I dream about 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,
"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
"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
* * *
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
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."
"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,
"My fucking mother died."
"If she had her way, she would've died a hundred times by
"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
"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
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
"Nature is daunted by the supremacy of machines," Maggie
"Jesus, this is weird. Even the shadows don't seem to be
"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
"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."
"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
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
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,
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.
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
"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."
"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
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
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,
In those moments, the world around me seemed profoundly
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