Fiction: The Robot Who Couldn’t Lie

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by Sunil Patel

robot-tocSunil Patel is a Bay Area fiction writer and playwright who has written about everything from ghostly cows to talking beer. His plays have been performed at San Francisco Theater Pub and San Francisco Olympians Festival, and his fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Fireside Magazine, Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, Flash Fiction Online, The Book Smugglers, FSI, and Asimov’s Science Fiction, among others. Plus he reviews books for Lightspeed and is Assistant Editor of Mothership Zeta. His favorite things to consume include nachos, milkshakes, and narrative. Find out more atghostwritingcow.com, where you can watch his plays, or follow him @ghostwritingcow. His Twitter has been described as “engaging,” “exclamatory,” and “crispy, crunchy, peanut buttery.”

~~~

I will tell you a true story. You can be sure it is true because I cannot lie. To lie would be against my programming.

When I first woke, my light bulb turned on. I came into being and said, “Hello,” which is the truest greeting there is. “Good morning” can be a lie, and “What’s up?” is not an inquiry about the events occurring above a person. Silvi responded with “Hey there, little guy. Don’t be alarmed, but you’ve got a desk lamp for a head.”

She held out a hand, palm out. “Come on, give me a high five.” She glanced at my appendages. “High three.” I did not understand her command. “Well, it was worth a shot. I can teach you that later. She’ll like that.”

Silvi stroked my desk lamp head and cooed. Accessing my initial memory banks, I understood it to be a gesture associated with babies. I was not a baby. I had two arms and two legs but I was not a baby. “You’re the one, little guy,” she said. “I finally got it right.”

Over the first twenty-two days of my existence, she would come into the workshop and ask me questions.

“Where is the Eiffel Tower?”

“What city do I live in?”

“What is that?” She pointed to the garage door with its four small windows. I identified it correctly. Along the wall of the workshop hung many instruments, including wire cutters and soldering irons. If I answered a question incorrectly, she used them to adjust the pieces inside of me: microchips, capacitors, pins. Then she ran her thumb across the screen of her smartphone. After some swipes and presses she asked me the question again and I answered correctly.

“That’s the stuff!” she said.

“That is the stuff,” I repeated, adding the word to my lexicon.

One day she walked in with her hand on her head, rubbing it. “Baseline time’s over, little guy,” she said, her eyes only half open. “It’s raison d’etre time.”

Then she told me stories. A story was not true except when it was, but even a true story could be a lie. Silvi told me stories about a fat man in a red suit who delivered gifts to children around the world, which could not be true because the world is very large and he could not visit all the children in one night. She spoke of creatures from another planet coming down and destroying famous buildings because famous buildings are the best buildings. Some stories she sang, a narrative in rhythm and rhyme, and her voice echoed throughout the entire workshop.

“I would like to tell a story,” I said one day.

“You can’t tell stories, silly,” she said with a smile. “At least not your own. You’ll confuse her!”

Within me I had so many facts. I thought I could recite the facts and that would be a story, but no ordering of knowledge resulted in anything comparable to what she had told or sung.

“The sky is blue,” I said, “and the grass is green.”

“Cool story, bro,” she said, giving me a thumbs-up gesture of approval. A story cannot have temperature but I had learned that language was full of lies. Had I told a good story after all? The sky was blue, and the grass was green. I knew these to be true within a 5% margin of error.

When I had asked Silvi if a truth could be true if it was not 100% true, she gently tapped my light bulb and said, “Close enough for horseshoes, hand grenades, and hand-me-downs.” She stood up and muttered, “We’re all unreliable narrators of our own lives.”

Now Silvi adjusted her goggles, and the sunlight illuminated her blue eyes that were blue like the sky. The colors were at least 95% similar on the chromatic scale; I am not engaging in simile, which can be a lie. “You want to know a word that sounds cool but isn’t?” she said. “Neurodegenerative.”

After she told me about the world, she began to tell me about herself. Her own story did not begin like mine. She was not made from a car and a lamp and coins but from William and Ashley, her parents. She told me of playing in the snow in Pittsburgh, riding a horse in Madison, flying a kite in Raleigh. “This is all the kid stuff, little guy. You’ve got to remember the kid stuff.” I had never been a kid so I did not know how to differentiate kid stuff from other stuff. As she grew older, she met a man and had her own kid to have kid stuff.

That was you, Greta. You are now having kid stuff.

Silvi’s story was a true story according to her, but all stories are lies, even true ones. I had no way of verifying that she flew a kite in Raleigh. I did not believe her to be falsifying any data, whether it was about the world or herself, but my experience of truth did not extend past the workshop. The only truth I did know was that Silvi and I existed and so did the workshop. Any other story was unverifiable.

I longed to tell my own story about Outside. What if I were to ride a horse in Madison? Was considering this against my programming? It could not be since I was allowed to do it. “What is a horse?” I asked.

She laughed, the sound reverberating in the room of metal objects. “It’s a big animal with four legs, and you can put a saddle on it and ride it. I told you about horses already!”

“I want to know more about horses,” I said.

She knelt down, her face next to my bulb, and whispered, “Then you should know how their muscles feel against your thighs as you bounce up and down, how their eyes hold so much heart, how they have so much majesty as they gallop toward you. Tell her all that.”

And then her eyes rolled up, and she put her hand to her head, and she fell backward. She reached out to the table but did not touch it. For thirty-seven seconds after the thud there was silence. Then her face came into view again.

Your mother has a message for you, Greta: Bellasyn does not work. She hopes that when you are older they have more effective therapies.

On some days she came into the workshop in tears. “You’re going to remember it all, right, little guy? Don’t forget anything I told you. Not a single thing. Not about the sky, not about the cheesesteak, not about the dinosaurs.” She grabbed my arm and squeezed, a gesture that did nothing to the non-pliable material. “Don’t forget my favorite dinosaur: it’s the triceratops.”

She told me many beautiful stories, of princes and princesses, of fakirs and genies, of witches and banshees. These were the stories her mother told her, she said. And Silvi was my mother.

That is not a lie. She did not birth me but she did create me so it is truth. If it is truth, then we are family, Greta. Silvi spoke to me of her own family, her mother the nurse and her father the chemist. With no siblings, she was an only child. You are not an only child after all.

I like your laugh, Greta. It sounds like hers. They have a similar timbre. High five.

She said you would like that. I am glad that I learned it.

When Silvi was not in the workshop, I sifted through the data she had given me and put it in chronological order. First, she was born. She did not tell me she was born but because she was alive she must have been born. She did not remember it. The first memory she had was of kid stuff: she took apart a toy truck. As she told it, it did not require much work to dismantle, but it was significantly harder to put back together before her father came home. She did not succeed, but her father helped her, and then they had cake. Silvi liked cake. “Red velvet is the best,” she said. “Silky smooth.” But the cake was a lie because the red was false and velvet is a fabric. “Lies for me, truth for you,” she said. “Truth for her.”

Here is a story I can tell you: I sat in the workshop and stared at the wall across from me. It was grey stone with none of the vibrancy of Outside, as Silvi described it. I sat on a table five feet off the ground and dared not jump down because the impact of the fall could cause me damage. So I did not move. My entire life with her, I did not move.

I do thank you for taking me out of that workshop and bringing me to your bedroom. It is much brighter here, softer. This is a place where humans live.

Silvi’s visits became less frequent. Sometimes when she arrived she looked at me with fear and curiosity, her pupils alternately widening and narrowing to diameters I had correlated with human emotions. “What the hell are you?” she said. Then: “Oh, hey, little guy! How you been? I’ve got a good one for you today; it’s about Chicago.” I had seen her eyes for so long that watching them shift from fear to recognition was comforting, yet frightening. I was becoming unfamiliar to her.

One day the shift did not occur. She touched my cold metal and recoiled. “Junk in the garage…”

“Silvi,” I said, “it is me. It is Little Guy.”

“Holy shit, you can talk!” She stepped closer.

“Can I tell you a story?”

“Can you tell me a story? Tell me a fucking story, you weird robot thing, show me what you got.”

I did not know what to do. She had never given me permission to tell a story, and I did not know what kind of story I was allowed to tell. I struggled to combine all my data into a narrative but in the end I accessed one of Silvi’s favorite memories, which she had told to me several times. Each time it contained a new detail, sometimes conflicting with previous details, and I was unable to reconcile the truth. But I did my best.

“In Chicago you went to a store called The Boring Store. It was a lie because it was not boring. It only pretended to be boring. The store sold toys that let you pretend to be a spy. You bought spy binoculars and asked the girl at the counter where you could get a milkshake. Or you asked the boy at the counter where you could get a sundae. Or you asked a customer where you could get frozen yogurt.”

Silvi’s eyes flickered with recognition during my story but the light faded. “That sounds like me, I guess.”

“It was you. You told me. It was a happy story.”

“No more happy stories for me, little guy.” She blinked at her last two words, mouthing them to herself. She reached a hand out and stroked my arm and did not recoil. “Hey.” Her cheeks rose slightly with her smile.

As she left the workshop, she turned to me and said, “It was a boy, and it was a milkshake. Tell her that version.”

I told you all the versions. But the version with the boy and the milkshake is the one we will call the truth.

I do not want to tell you the rest of the story. You know the rest of the story. Your eyes have already become wet.

It happened on a Thursday.

She stumbled in, off balance, grabbing at instruments on the wall. They tumbled to the floor with a series of clangs. “What the hell are you?” she said, her voice full of confusion and anger. She reached out to touch me but used too much force and I fell on my side. I had never seen the world from this perspective before. It was all sideways. The floor was a lie and then so were Silvi’s eyes. She did not see me anymore.

The floor was not down but that is where she fell.

“Silvi,” I said. She said nothing. I repeated her name. “It is me,” I said. “It is Little Guy.” I could not see her to know if she was moving.

I shifted my weight to roll my body closer to the edge of the table and saw that Silvi was three feet away. Before my last revolution I faced away from her so I did not see how far down I would fall when I made that final turn. One second later, I crashed onto the solid ground. I felt everything rattle inside me. Something dislodged: a microchip, a capacitor, a pin. A word Silvi had never taught me saturated my consciousness: embellish. But I continued to roll myself toward Silvi.

{Blood pooled around her head. It had directly struck the concrete when she fell. I rolled to look into her eyes. There was no life in them.}

Next to her feet, I said her name again. She did not respond. I rolled to her face, clanking with each revolution. “I will tell you a story,” I said.

Her eyes fluttered open. “No,” she said. “Tell her. She is the best story.” Weakly, she brought a hand close to her face. “High five.”

{She lay completely still, arms splayed out. The blood began to coat my arms as well. I touched her face, leaving a print.}

I brought my own appendage up and touched it to her hand. “High five,” I said.

{I stayed by her side for two-and-a-half-minutes until an older woman whose face resembled Silvi’s opened the door and shrieked. It was the loudest sound I had ever heard, louder than the clanging of the tools on the ground, louder than the sound Silvi made as she fell, louder than the sound I made as I fell. She made that sound for a very long time.}

Her eyes closed and did not open.

{She sounded like a banshee, I thought. A simile. I had used a simile. }

At that moment a triceratops tore a hole in the garage door, and the shearing of metal was the loudest sound I had ever heard. Sunlight streamed in from Outside, where the sky was blue and the grass was green. The triceratops entered the workshop and picked Silvi up with its horns, hoisting her on its back. It carried her away.

{The older woman bent down to Silvi’s body and stroked her hair, repeating her name. Then she said Greta’s name.}

Now I have told you a story and everything was true. I performed my duty as your mother asked. Lies for her, truth for you, but a lie can be truth if you believe it. That is why the letters are embedded in the word like a microchip, a capacitor, a pin.

You are welcome, Greta. I was only following my programming.

You are right. She is your mother and her story is your story.

And it is my story too.

Originally published in Orson Scott Card’s InterGalactic Medicine Show, May 2015.

 

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