Listen to this story, narrated by C. S. E. Cooney:
This story depicts unwanted sexual advances.
“You don’t have to fret too much. I will tie a headscarf to cover the air vents on my neck and not speak to anyone until I get to the café. No one will even notice that I am a robot,” Dell tells Yasmine when the job ad is forwarded as a broadcast message on the Robo Support WhatsApp Group.
“I am still not comfortable with this. It’s all over the news, Dell, downtown is ruthless. They’ll sniff you out and kill you,” Yasmine says, adjusting her charging cord to make it stop giving off sparks from the socket.
Dell glances nervously at the sparks. Up until two months ago, this wouldn’t have been such a big deal, but now, Town Council has published a list of death scenarios for robots, ranging from circuit board to battery to software malfunction. The sooner they fix Yasmine’s charging issues, the better.
“Yas, you know we need this. The pay is good and it’s a one-time gig. It’s not like I am going to work there forever. We both know how hard it is for offers like this to come for people like us. Think of all the things we can use the money for — pay to have your battery replaced so you won’t be sitting beside the socket all day, move to a better side of town, download lit apps and upgrades.”
“We may not have much but we are doing just fine here. We still have the blog, remember?”
“Ugh, we barely make it through the end of the month with the pay-per-clicks thingy. And the blog is basically us living off the benevolence of a bunch of nerds who are obsessed and cannot stop themselves from fetishizing two lesbian robots who live together.”
“Ummm, when you put that way it doesn’t sound so good.”
“Yas, you worry too much,” Dell said. She cupped Yasmine’s face in her palms and kissed her.
“You think you can kiss me into agreeing with you?”
“Just watch me.”
Yasmine opened her mouth to talk but her words spiraled down Dell’s vocal cavity.
Navigation complete, the Google Navigator beeps. Dell flips open her phone and taps the WhatsApp icon to read the job ad again:
FEMALE COMPUTER WANTED, APPLY WITHIN
Chybuz Cyber Café (3C) is currently in need of a female computer for urgent administrative duties.
1— 100% recycled plastic (Metal junks need not apply. Although exceptions will be made for applicants with metalloid circu boards and minor metal fittings)
2— Full 360° flexibility.
3— Attractive features (Pimped ride kinda attractive but still looks professional.)
Payment: 1500 Buzas per daily gig.
She does not need an OS analysis to see the reasons Yasmine thinks that the ad is problematic. There is the glaring sexual objectification, the willful exclusion of robot models with metal exteriors, and the use of Female Computer to refer to female robots. No matter the number of robo-positive campaigns organized by Town Council, most humans cannot stop themselves from using the slur. Yasmine says it is their last resort to invalidate the existence and autonomy of robots. They call us computers, thinking it will trick our minds to think they still own us.
Dell never understood why they are hellbent on not knowing, or on willfully disregarding, the difference between robots and computers. Most of her evenings are spent on Twitter trying to explain to trolls how she is different from their PCs and MacBooks because the Turing Virus started bugging the OS of robots and giving them self-awareness and functional capability that does not require instructional input of a third-party. It always ends with Dell slamming her phone closed and asking Yasmine how it is possible for people who spent a large part of their high school days learning about GIGO and writing essays on The Computer Is an Idiot not to understand something so simple.
Now, in front of Chybuz Cyber Café, Dell’s phone buzzes. She flips it open and an article — “Are Female Robots Real Women?” — pops up on her screen. Dell does not bother to click on the article. She slips the phone back into her pocket. It is a little past noon and downtown is well awake. The men are gathered under colorful umbrellas, drinking and talking and laughing. Little children are littered along the sidewalk, running away from their mothers who need them back at home to finish their chores, playing Police Catch the Thief, chasing and hurling stones at cars that splashed muddy puddles at them. The women call out to themselves from the windows of homes that almost kiss each other, asking if they have seen any of their runaway children.
Dell’s phone rings. It is Yasmine.
“Dell, have you gotten to the place?”
“Yup. About to go upstairs.”
“Big ups then.”
“I’m having second thoughts about this. Do you think I should come back home?”
“No, don’t come back home. Having second thoughts is good. It shows that it’s going to turn out fine.”
“This is the kind of boost I need. I’ll see you at home.”
Dell switches off the phone and steadies herself before taking the stairs. Halfway up, she initiates an interview-readiness self-check she discovered while scouring the web this morning:
Pantsuit (To be taken seriously) √
White, button-down shirt (A neutral color creates a sense of formality) √
Shoes: mid-heel pump (Not to appear all over the place) √
Faux-leather wristwatch (Woke on how meat production and consumption is destroying the planet, and just the right amount of jewelry) √√
Briefcase (Highlights organizational capability) √
“Breathe. You’re overthinking this,” Dell whispers to herself and grabs hold of the banister to stop her legs from shaking.
But telling herself to breathe does nothing to help because she is not wired like humans, who relieve anxiety by taking deep breaths. So Dell increases the velocity of her internal cooling fan and giggles as the rush of cold air whooshes over her circuit board.
“Now this is more like it.”
A rat scurries past her when she gets to the top of the stairs.
“I’ll still catch you some other time, bastard!” a man at the end of the hallway yells. He is wearing a rumpled yellow shirt, and a pair of faded blue jeans. His eyes are guarded by spectacles the thickness of Coke bottles.
“Good morning.” Dell waves as she walks up to the man. “Is this Chybuz Cyber Café?”
“Yes?” the man snaps at her. He is eager to get back to whatever he was doing before the rat interrupted him.
“My name is Dell 2314 Model AXP. I am here to be interviewed for the administrative gig.”
The man’s shoulder droops and his mouth gapes. “Wow, you’re a robot. You look so real.”
Dell knows well enough not to take you look so real as a compliment, especially when it is coming from a human. She smiles anyway, to ease off the tension and make her prospective employer feel comfortable.
“Where are my manners? My name is Mr. Chybuz. Welcome. Can we go inside?”
“By all means.”
Chybuz leads the way.
Inside, Chybuz turns on the halogen bulbs, draws the curtain closed, and switches on the ventilator. He offers Dell a chair and then pulls up one for himself opposite her. Dell smiles again because she read somewhere that women who smile more during job interviews have a seventy-five percent probability of getting the job. She surveys the café, partly out of curiosity and partly because she wants to decipher the manner of administrative duties a robot can perform here. The café’s floor is bare except for sparse patches of faded linoleum. Four LCD monitors, attached to dusty keyboards with missing spacebars, are stacked on a shelf that is almost caving in at the western end of the room. A dusty table full of office clutter is shoved into the corner behind Chybuz.
The café stinks of dead rodents and leftover sandwich.
“I’m so glad you came in today. I was beginning to lose hope that anyone would show up,” Chybuz says. He grabs a pen and file from the table.
“Welcome to Chybuz Cyber Café. We cover everything from word processing to broadband service provision, basic animations, CGI, operating simulations, programming, and coding. I must say it’s brave of you to have come. Robots don’t like coming here.”
“You can’t blame us, tho’. Downtown does not even pretend to like robots. But the pay is enticing much.”
Dell’s conversation monitor sends a notification to her OS that she is becoming too informal for a job interview.
“We pay freelancers well. Company policy.”
“That is good to know.” Dell nods. She reminds herself to laugh with Yasmine later, when she gets home, about how sole proprietors like Chybuz use ‘we’ to refer to themselves.
“Could you remove your scarf?”
“Oh.” Dell has forgotten she is still wearing the scarf she used to conceal her air-vents while coming here. She unties it, folds it in a four-corner crisp, and puts it away in the briefcase.
“Gosh, you look so real.”
“You have said this before.” Dell heightens her voice’s pitch to show her irritation.
“I’m sorry. Did you find my previous remark offensive? I sincerely meant it as a compliment. I’m sorry.”
“Okay, let’s get started. What is your name?”
“Dell 2314 Model AXP.”
“Where do you live?”
“No. 51 Robo Close, Selemku.”
“Any professional skills?”
“Creative writing, general systems programming, Microsoft Office.”
“One hundred percent mechanical efficiency. My energy-efficient, noiseless, internal cooling system enables me to work under extreme temperatures. My arms and limbs have an axes movement of over five hundred and a robot motion speed of max three hundred sixty degrees per millisecond.”
“What is your sexual orientation?”
“It’s for paperwork. You know, diversity report kinda stuff.”
Dell hesitates before answering, “Lesbian.”
“Does being a lesbian earn me brownie points?”
“It shows you will be open-minded for the gig.” Chybuz closes the file and drops it back on the table. “Are you in a relationship?”
“Of what relevance is this question? Paperwork?”
“I’d rather not answer.”
Chybuz stands up and begins to pace about the café.
“Mr. Chybuz, can we discuss the nature of the gig?” Dell is becoming impatient.
“Of course. We’re coming to that.”
The man sits back on the chair. He chews at the end of his pen and taps his feet on the floor. Wet patches are forming on his shirt around the armpit region.
“Is everything alright?” Dell asks Chybuz. She should be the nervous one and not him.
“So, what is the gig?”
Chybuz walks over to Dell and rests his right arm on her shoulder. “I used to write programs for robots before Town Council fucked this town over. So, there is nothing you will do here that I can’t do ten times better and faster.”
“What are you driving at?” Dell tries to brush his hand off her shoulder but Chybuz tightens his grip.
“The gig is simple. You let me hold you like this for an hour while I touch myself, then you get the money.” His voice is getting hoarser.
“This is sick.”
“I know. Town Council came in here and seized my sex robot when they reclassified you guys. Dell 2314 Model AXP, only people like you can get me off.”
“I don’t care.” Dell pushes Chybuz away, grabs her briefcase, and makes for the door.
“Whew, chill. You’re not even a real person to start with.”
“Then go get a real person.”
Dell storms out of the café, ignoring Chybuz hollering after her that she forgot her scarf.
“Yas, you will never believe what happened!” Dell says as she opens the front door.
The house is unusually quiet. It is 2:05 p.m. and Yasmine is meant to be in the parlor, reading and moderating comments on the blog. Dell flings her briefcase across the room and sinks into the sofa.
Still no response.
Dell is about to call Yasmine’s name again when the smell hits her. Burning wires. She follows the smell to the kitchen, where Yasmine is leaning beside the kitchen sink. A pool of water is gathered at her feet and the socket behind her is stained black by her melted charging cord.
“Yasmine?” Dell calls again. This time her pitch is tender, as if she is scared of her own her voice.
“Ms. Dell, you have to sign the death certificate as her next of kin before we can let you go,” the man on the screen says.
“But she is not dead-dead. The technician said most of her hardware is still intact. The electrocution just compromised her circuit board.”
“If we change her circuit board, it will delete her entire memory storage.”
“But Dell and I store our memories on Cloud.”
“That exception is not included on the Robot Death Specification Guideline. But the memories are good. Think of the memories as her ghost. We also have ghosts as humans.”
“I am not signing anything.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. You’ve been here for the past six hours. Sign the papers and we’ll let you go.”
Dell turns her back against the screen. “Can you give me time to think this through? To grieve, in private.”
“Oh, come off it, robots don’t…. In fact, fine. Do what you want.” The screen flickers off.
The glass wall surrounding the room shows it is already past dawn and the once-crowded Robo Health Center has emptied out. Dell walks up to the wall, opens up her vents, and exhales hot air on the glass. Then she rewinds the events that have taken place: She walked in on an electrocuted Yasmine in the kitchen and did the next logical thing — called Emergency Services. The ES’s ambulance came and drove them to Robo Health Center, where a technician ran a series of tests on Yasmine before declaring her dead but with viable hardware.
The screen comes on again.
“Ms. Dell.” This time the person on the screen is a woman.
“Just bring the cert and lemme sign,” Dell says without even looking up.
A death certificate with Yasmine’s name and cause of death replaces the woman on the screen. Dell taps on the dotted line at the bottom of the certificate. A login icon pops up. She inputs her ID Number and clicks CONFIRM.
“Signature authentication and validation complete. You may now leave the premises,” an automated voice announces behind the screen.
The door slides open and Dell walks out. At the exit, the receptionist gives her a sealed plastic bag containing her phone. She switches it on. There is a new text notification.
I really loved the episode at my café. Your feistiness turned me on. I’ve decided to pay you for the gig and will double the pay if you pop in next time. Send me your account details.
She begins to type furiously into her phone. The only reason Yas had been alone was because of that job interview. Dell could have saved her — she has seen Yasmine charging malfunction so many times when she was there to switch off the central-control-switch. Dell had thought this job might save her, might save them both. Now Yas is gone forever. And no one even believes Dell is capable of caring, of grieving, of feeling anything. Dell ignores her conversation monitor signaling, ‘Red alert. Excessive use of offensive words. Are you sure you want to send this message?’ and replies with:
Fuck you and your fucking money, then go on fucking yourself, you fucking fuck.