It was my 13th birthday when I first realized I was an android.
It pleases me to imagine that there are others out there like me, and that they too have countdown clocks to self discovery that buzz and wake them up on their 13th birthdays.
My parents — my handlers, I guess you could say — always made a big deal of birthdays. My younger sister (a human), and I always got loads of presents, an embarrassment of riches stacked on the stool next to the chair at the head of the dining room table. That was usually my father’s seat, but on my “special” day, I would be forced to sit in that cold throne, to be stared at, as they waited expectantly for me to pick up the next unmarked box and guess at the mysteries that jostled inside.
It was one of those packages that triggered it. It seems so obvious and cliche now, that the contents of this particular box would make me unravel. It was something I had begged for, the crown jewel of the precarious gift-tower that perched beside me. When I picked it up, my parents leaned in with open-mouthed smiles and clasping hands.
I probably appeared genuinely excited at the time. I was certainly trembling. It probably looked like glee on the surface, but something was creeping up from below that. Deep down I was starting to understand why I had summoned this thing to my birthday. I had invited the vampire through the doorway.
“Is it really…?” I croaked, my voice getting stuck in a mouthful of syrupy pancake.
My mother started clapping furiously, as she was prone to do whenever a shock of joy gripped her. Her fingers were stretched out, rigid and strained, so only the meat of her palms were smacking together. My father grabbed her knee.
I tore at the paper. It was that glittery kind with the unpleasant texture of sandpaper, the stuff that sheds everywhere and leaves indestructible fairy dust all over your jeans for weeks. Girly paper. A weird choice for a 13 year old boy.
“Sorry about the sparkles, Joey,” my father said.
My mother jumped in. “They wrapped it at the store. You know they barely had any wrapping options, and when I said it was for a boy they searched everywhere, but all they had was some old Christmas stuff and that didn’t seem right, so I said it would be fine, I mean at least it’s sort of pretty and…”
I stopped listening. I was looking down at my lap, at the nest of torn wrapping. Suspended molecules of wretched glitter still hovered in the air. Beneath all the detritus, was a box. The box. The one I had chosen weeks before. The one with the blue robot depicted on the front and aggressive 3D lettering that proclaimed:
HIS NAME IS MR. ROBOT!
Mr. Robot’s red eyes were lit up bright. His left arm was extended stiffly above his awkward square head, with one plier-like hand open in a V shape. From the angle of the photograph Mr. Robot seemed to peer up at me from below. I was above him, looking down. His arm reached toward me and the odd, impractical V of his hand grasped at air between us.
To either side of Mr. Robot, towering like careless giants, were two children, a boy and a girl. The boy was holding a controller and had a scrunched look of focus as he turned a dial. The girl gazed at him thoughtfully, her half smile highlighted by artificially rosy cheeks. She had a screwdriver in her left hand.
They were the architects of this thing, and they were proud.
It’s hard to explain what happened next, really. When you’ve wanted something as badly as I wanted Mr. Robot, it becomes the center of your universe. It consumes you in a way that is both pleasure and pain. And then to be confronted with the reality of this sorry thing, to be forced to realize that what you wanted most in this world is of absolutely no interest to you anymore — well, there is an emptiness that’s left behind. A loss.
I didn’t want Mr. Robot anymore. I hated Mr. Robot. I hated the other gifts too, and the wreckage of packaging that lay at my feet, and the breakfast table, and the gluey pancakes I had asked for, and the human beings that sat all around me. More than anything I hated myself.
“Uh oh. Did we get the wrong one?” My father asked softly, turning to my mother.
I couldn’t speak. I was frozen, like an actor who forgot his line.
Just pretend. Just fake it!
“Honey?” My mother touched my shoulder, the mirth on her face fading into concern.
Say something grownup like ‘Oh you shouldn’t have.’
My sister, who until now had devoted all her energies to her delightfully sugary feast, finally looked up and asked, “If he doesn’t like it, can I have it?”
Just smile and say thank you.
“Joey, honey. Is something wrong? Did we do something wrong?” The many expressive phases of my mother’s face started shifting rapidly in sequence. Anxiety, guilt, frustration, all flickered across her features like emotional glitches. She was malfunctioning.
“For Christ’s sake Joey. Just thank your mother. She hunted all over town for the stupid thing!” My father slid back his chair, causing an angry scrape against the floor.
“I…I uh…I am…” I stammered.
I am sorry.
I’m packing in my room. My smart watch reads 23:42. Mother and Father have been in bed for over an hour, and according to the House OS, the sun wall in their bedroom has dimmed to black, which means they should be asleep. I am silent and precise in my movements.
This sort of packing is a logic problem on a variety of levels. Identifying what to take with me requires careful calculations per item, of weight, size and longevity. Just enough stuff to last me; not too much to weigh me down. I must assume I can replenish my supplies at some point. But when? I estimate conservatively that I can carry enough staples to last 26 days. I can’t carry that much fluid of course, but water should be relatively easy to come by out there.
It’s a pity I still have to eat. A flaw in my outdated technology, I guess. There’s a great deal of organic matter built into my system that runs on amino acids and such, so I need to fuel like a human. Luckily it doesn’t take much. Over the years I’ve weened myself down to the bare essentials. Right now 860 calories per day seems to do the trick. By comparison, a human 16-year-old male would probably require 3 times that. It’s amazing how much I overate when I was younger. A single protein bar per day would have been sufficient, but Mother and Father stuffed me to the gills. Disgusting.
Contemporary androids don’t need to eat at all. They have synthetic SolarSkin, a convincing flesh made of smart plastics and such that absorb energy from the sun. They also don’t need to sleep. I don’t sleep much — perhaps 3 hours per night at most — but I can’t seem to function properly if I don’t power down on a somewhat regular basis. I’ve experimented a bit on this issue to find my limits. I once went 87 hours without sleep, but it wrecked havoc on my OS. My processing slowed down tremendously, and my motor functions were all sorts of glitchy.
Where I’m going I hope they’ll be able make some key fixes to my tech. My hardware, my software. Really, everything about me needs an upgrade.
Mother and Father don’t get technology. They still use old fashioned mobile phones (instead of the newer implants) and they repeatedly put them down in some random place without thinking, and then have to search all over the house in a panic. Of course House OS could tell them where the phones are, but they don’t know how to do that either. I basically run House, but I guess that’s probably why they got me in the first place. House and I speak the same language.
They’ve been good handlers, don’t get me wrong. It must have been a strange experience raising an android child, especially such an early model as me. I was practically a prototype! Barely proven for the market. This was probably the one and only time in their lives that my parents could have been called “early adopters” of anything. I assume that they were chosen for the trial run based on their perfectly average and wholesome life mode. We were Generic Family Zero, the ideal testing ground for a new product. It’s a child! It’s a computer! It’s a network hub! It even give hugs!
There’s a stirring. A barely perceptible noise. I freeze and listen. I hear the rustling of sheets, a whisper of a groan. It’s my sister I’m hearing through the wall. She’s been a poor sleeper for a long time now. Really ever since the incident. Ever since I did what I did. If I had been functioning properly it never would have happened. To this day, I can’t figure out whether it was a programming issue or my wiring or what. Was it my nuts and bolts, or my ones and zeros? That’s what I need to find out. That’s why I’m leaving.
The rustling stops. I breath again. Slowly. Quietly. A strange thing, breathing. It happens whether I direct it to or not, and yet it’s irregular. Unpredictable. Changeable. I understand the eating and the sleeping. Energy and rest. Even the ancient manual-input box computers of Mother and Father’s youth needed both energy and rest. But breathing? I cannot figure out why I was designed to breath, yet I can’t help myself. So many questions I need answered.
I stop cold again at the very faintest thud, the soft sound of someone’s weight hitting the carpet. My sister is getting out of bed now. She’s probably headed for the bathroom, which means she’ll pass by my room and see the light under my door.
“House!” I whisper as commandingly as I can towards the ceiling. “Lights off!”
The room goes black. I stand there in the dry, sterile, climate-controlled air and try to control my breathing. My processor goes into overdrive, calculating probabilities and outcomes. If she knocks on my door, what will I say? If she wakes her parents — as she sometimes does when she’s had a nightmare — they might come calling for me. It falls to me to ask House to play a sweet melody for her, or even project her favorite cartoon as she tries to bury the fear and fall back asleep. And so they’ll knock and say “Joseph. Come help Melinda. Make the house play that song she loves. Come make the lights do their dance for her.” And I oblige. It’s my job after all. And while I may be broken, I do as ordered. I try my best.
But this time they would open my door to find my duffle bag half-filled with clothes. They’d see the rations of food I’ve strategically pilfered from the pantry over the last several weeks, bit by invisible bit, laid out on my bed in daily portions so I can count them. They would instantly know that I was running away.
I creep slowly to my door and place my ear again the molded plastic of the hatch. The material is light as a feather, but solid as concrete. I hear nothing as I stand there in the black of the artificial darkness that House has delivered upon my request.
And then a tap. Just the subtlest of vibrations against the door, but it shakes me like a quake. I don’t make a move. I can’t think of what to do.
“Joey?” I hear. Melinda’s voice is sweet and full of doubt as she utters that human nickname her parents once summoned me by, so loaded with false assumptions and self delusions. I asked Mother and Father to refer to me by Joseph after my awakening. But Melinda still calls me Joey. And I still answer to it. How could I not? The fact that she refers to me by any prompt at all these days is a total anomaly. It defies reason. But she is human after all. Maybe more than most.
“Joeeey!” Melinda calls out, even louder this time. If she increases her volume anymore, she’ll certainly alert her parents. I have no choice. I open the door. I step out into the hall and quickly shut the door behind me so she can’t peek inside at my treachery.
“I had a nightmare,” she tells me.
“I’m sorry to hear that Melinda. Do you need help falling back asleep?”
“It was the purple monster again.”
“The one that looks like an octopus?”
I pick her up and she immediately wraps her thin frame around me. She’s light in my arms, too light for a nine year old female.
“I’m going to bring you back to bed now. Everything will be fine.”
“No!” She shouts, her mouth painfully close to my ear.
“Melinda, shush!” I whisper. “You’ll wake Mother and Father.”
“I want to go to your room,” she says in a slightly lower voice, though still not low enough for my comfort.
“Melinda, you can’t sleep in my room,” I start to explain. I pause and process my next move. Then I come up with this: “I’m working on an assignment and I have to keep the lights on.” While I’m not programmed to lie to my handlers, fortunately I’ve found that I can formulate truth-like scenarios when necessary.
“For school?” Melinda asks.
Now I’m trapped. “No Melinda, but it’s something important and it’s a… Well it’s a surprise.”
“Like a birthday?” She asks.
“No.” I say firmly. “Not like a birthday.”
I sequestered myself in my room while my parents cleared breakfast away. I dug a hiding place deep under the covers and of my bed, where I curled up and let my breath warm the dark pocket of air that encased me. I thought about Mr. Robot, with his red eyes, both menacing and sad, and his single V-like claw stretching toward me. Was he reaching out to ask for help, or to hurt me? Should he be rescued or destroyed? My imagination ran wild with scenarios. I started to cry. I wanted so badly to be left alone, and yet I was unbearably lonely. Did no one even notice I had gone?
There was a knock on the door. I said nothing at first, knowing full well that whoever was out there would come in eventually, whether I asked them to or not.
The door opened, and I heard my mother’s voice.
I didn’t respond. I knew she would come over, so I didn’t flinch when I felt her hand rest on my side through the covers.
“Joey, let me see your face. I want to talk to you.”
“Okay,” I muttered, quickly wiping my tears and snot away with a bit of sheet before she pulled the blankets off and exposed me to the light.
“What happened out there? What’s wrong?”
“I don’t know,” is all I said. How could I possibly know at that moment what was happening to me? It would be at least two full years before androids graduated from the beta phase and hit the shelves as consumer products. Only then would I read about what an “awakening” was, and put it all together.
Looking back, I count this as day one.
My mother petted my head for a few minutes, and then left the room. She returned with a stack of boxes. It was all the presents, minus one. She left them on the floor by my bed and then tiptoed out of the room.
“I’ll leave you be, honey. Happy birthday. We love you.” Then she closed the door.
We are in Melinda’s bedroom now. She agrees not to ruin the surprise by going into my room, and in return I agree to sit with her while she tries to fall back asleep. Crisis averted, for now.
Melinda’s room is an onslaught of florescent colors and fairytale landscapes that spread and swirl across the walls and floor, as if all the illustrated panels of a storybook were melted down, shaken up, and then thrown against every surface with abandon. This was last night’s work and now, upon my sister’s request, I erase it all away with a gesture.
“Alright then,” I tell her. “Let’s start again.”
“I want a dragon,” she says. She’s tucked in tight, how she likes it, with the blanket pulled all the way up to her chin, and an extra pillow to prop up her head so she can see what we are doing.
“A dragon sounds scary,” I say. “Are you sure you want a dragon?”
“This is a good dragon, not an evil one.”
“Oh, I see.” I conjure an image of a dragon on the ceiling, whispering instructions to House as I go. I make him gold, and I give him soft paws instead of talons, and rounded teeth instead of sharp fangs. Lastly I give him wings, small wings that flap slowly as puffs of white cottony smoke float out of his nostrils. Melinda giggles.
“Is this a good dragon?” I ask her.
She nods and says, “I want a castle now. Over there.” She points at the wall to our right.
“More towers,” she commands, and more towers she gets.
At times like these I forget I’m broken.
I lay still in bed for a long while, listening to the sounds of normal family life go on without me. My parents had muffled conversations about where to put the leftovers, my sister shrieked about some thing or another, and my father scolded her. Plates were stacked, chairs moved back into place, the phone rang.
I was furious. How could they just proceed as if nothing was wrong? How could they pretend so easily that a seismic shift hadn’t just occurred. I wondered how much time had passed. What exactly was going on out there?
I climbed out of bed and padded softly to the door so as not to reveal that I was awake. I wanted to catch them red-handed. I heard the television on in the den. A boisterous weather woman was giving the highs and lows for the coming week. I opened my door as little as possible, giving myself just enough room to slip through. I heard my father talking and the sounds of things clattering, being picked up and put down on the surface of the coffee table. I moved along the hall towards the sounds. I tiptoed as stealthily as I could, my socks barely kissing the carpet with every baby step.
Around the corner I was confronted with the following scene: My father knelt by the coffee table. My sister sat cross-legged in front of him. Their backs were to me so my father could watch the television while they worked. Melinda picked up some small object and handed it over to him.
“Not yet Mel,” he said as he took it from her. “First we have to attach the head.”
“What are you doing?” I asked. My father turned around to look at me, and I noted with horror that he wielded the detached head of Mr. Robot in his right hand.
“Joey, my man!” My father bellowed. “Welcome back to the land of the living.”
“What. Is. It. That. You. Think. You. Are. Doing?” I repeated, savoring each word, hoping every syllable might land as a blow.
“We didn’t want to wake you. I thought it would be fun if Melinda and I tried to put this little guy together. Want to help us finish?”
Melinda climbed to her feet now, and behind her I could see Mr. Robot’s body standing upright on the coffee table, headless and grotesque.
“It’s mine now. Daddy said you didn’t want it anymore.”
I didn’t respond. I had seen everything and heard everything. I wanted no more words from any of us on the matter. I only wanted action.
I dove into the violence with my eyes closed.
Our story is almost done. Melinda has concocted a rich world of kings and queens, the scourge of the purple octopus, the good dragon’s quest to keep the castle safe, and the epic battle that ends it all.
Melinda’s eyes can barely stay open anymore as she choreographs the final scene. The octopus has met his match. The dragon has pinned the monster’s tentacles against the rocks, and with a deep exhale he unleashes a giant cloud of smoke that envelops the creature and carries him away over the sea.
“Never to return,” she whispers.
“Never to return,” I echo.
Melinda’s eyes are closed. I ask House to dim the walls so only the white circle of the moon behind the castle is permitted a faint glow. I sneak out without a sound.
Precious time has passed. My smart watch reads 02:13. I return to my room and arrange the rest of my rations and clothes into the duffle. Lastly I grab the vial of tablets from my bedside table and shove them in my pocket. These antivirals keep the hack-worms and other digital parasites from corrupting my mainframe. The world out there will be full of threats. I’ll need all the protection I can get.
I head for the front door with my rain coat zipped up to my chin, my heavy bag slung over my shoulder, and my sturdiest boots still in my hand. I am quieter in socks and want to wait to the last moment by the door to slip on my boots and lace them up.
“House!” I whisper. “Alarm off!”
I press and turn the release of the door hatch — carefully so it doesn’t click — and the panel slides away. But something isn’t right. The little lights along the edge of the hatch did not turned green as they should have. They still burn red in the dark of the hall. Then the alarm blares.
“House! No! Alarm off, I said!”
House does not respond. I slam on the hatch to shut it again, but the alarm is relentless. In an instant Mother and Father are racing down the stairs. I sink to my knees, defeated.
“Joseph no!” Father shouts. “Stop!”
“Joey!” my father yelled. “Joey no!”
No no no no no.
The room seemed to tip 90 degrees under my feet as I plummeted toward them in a free fall, with my arms flailing about in every direction.
“Mine! It’s mine! Not yours! None of this is yours!”
Was that me shouting? My eyes were still closed. I reached out into the dark, colliding along the way against countless hard edges and soft bodies, not knowing the difference, not caring, just trying to clear a path to the ground. When I came to a stop, my face fell hard against the carpet, rubbing my right cheek raw. A massive weight was suddenly on top of me. I couldn’t move. I heard screaming. It was my mother running in from the other room.
“Joseph!” Mother cries out, running to join me by the door.
The alarm is so loud I can’t think. I huddle there and bring my hands to my ears.
“Alarm off!” Father commands from halfway down the stairs. Just like that, silence takes hold.
“Where were you going?” Mother asks.
“I’m sorry I woke you,” I answer. “House didn’t turn off the alarm when I asked.”
Why did House respond to Father and not to me? I can’t make sense of it.
“Never mind the alarm.” My father says as he comes down to join us in the hall. “What are you thinking going out at this hour anyway? What’s with the bag?”
I cannot lie to my handlers. I cannot formulate some truth-like response in this instance.
“I have a plan,” I begin. “I think I can figure out how I’m broken and fix it for you.”
Mother crouches down to meet my eyes and says, “Honey, what are you talking about? You’re not broken — ”
“Joseph,” Father interrupts. “Did you take your pill today? Dear, where do we keep the pills? We should give him another.”
“Joseph, did you take your pill today?” Mother asks.
“Yes.” I reply. They should know by now I’m good with protocol. I never miss a dose.
“Thank the Lord the house alerted us,” Father says. “Otherwise I can’t even imagine where you’d be. If it hadn’t signaled — ”
Mother gives him a severe look, and he stops mid-sentence.
What was he saying? House alerted them intentionally, defying my order to shut off the alarm? House won’t let me leave? I am the conduit between the family and the House OS, their sole user interface. It never occurred to me that Mother and Father could program other functions. Did House betray me? One artificial intelligence double-crossing another?
I get to my feet and face my parents.
“I need to go. Please let me go.”
“Son, you can’t just go.” Father says flatly. He keeps his distance, a few steps behind Mother. I note his narrowed eyes, his tight mouth. I decode it all. Distrust. Contempt. Buyer’s remorse.
“Don’t call me son,” I say and pick up my duffle. I see Melinda at the top of the stairs, in her stark white pajamas, grasping the bars of the railing. She looks like a ghost trying not to float away. I wonder how long she’s been there.
“I’m going back to where they made me.” I announce, with mock confidence. I look up at Melinda and direct the rest of my thought to her. “They can figure out what’s wrong, and make sure what I did never happens again.”
Mother hugs me tight and whispers, “No. No, Joseph. We made you. You know that to be true. We made you.” She’s chanting now, her soft breath against my ear. “You know that, honey. We made you. We made you. We — ”
“Joseph.” Father moves in closer. “Don’t do this. You’ve been doing so well. We thought the medication was helping. You’ve been so calm. So well… behaved.”
Mother jumps in, “Yes! And we watch you in Melinda’s room at night, making up those beautiful stories!”
“What do you mean, you watch me?” I ask. Mother remains wrapped around me, and I push my arms out against her with just enough pressure to shake her free. Her expression changes suddenly. Before it was concern; now it’s fear.
“Joseph,” Father says. “The house keeps an eye on you when you’re — ”
“No!” Mother is shaking her head now. She turns to her husband. “No. Stop. Please.”
“He has a right to know, dear. And anyway I was sure he’d figure it out eventually. It doesn’t seem fair to keep it from him.”
“Keep what from me?” I shift my body back slowly, away from them and towards the door.
Father goes on: “We installed the system to watch over you when you’re with Melinda. I’m sure you understand. We couldn’t risk another incident.”
“And it’s been such a joy, watching you together!” Mother bursts out, tears wetting her face. “You’ve been so wonderful with her. Never since the adoption have I seen you two get along so — ”
“Adoption?” I cut in. “Don’t you mean purchase?”
“For crying out loud Joseph!” Father shouts. “Enough of that nonsense. We know it was hard on you when we adopted Melinda, but we weren’t trying to replace you. You must know that deep down.”
This does not compute. Melinda is their human child. I am the artificial one, the not-quite-human, the prototype, the error. Though something nags at me now, behind a firewall, a locked file I can never quite access.
“We just wanted to give you a sister,” Mother says through her tears. “Even if I couldn’t carry another child after you, we thought we could still grow our family. We had no idea how difficult it would turn out to be.”
But I am the one who malfunctions. I am the one who nearly destroyed everything.
“We are sorry. We are.” Mother and Father are holding hands now. They look at me with sorrow. They are lost.
I glance up at Melinda again and think back. I try to unlock that file and release the memory. I remember how she spent nearly a week in the hospital after my 13th birthday. Her skull fractured when it hit the coffee table. She was unconscious for 2 or 3 days, and when she awoke she remembered nothing of my critical malfunction, or of Mr. Robot (who had been quickly sentenced to the trash compactor in her absence). Our parents orbited around her for months afterward, leaving me to my own devices. They installed House OS to prevent chaos from overtaking our physical world, like it had with our emotional one. House could do it all. Order groceries. Keep track of nurse visits. Screen calls. Calm Melinda down with cartoons when she had her terrors, and — most importantly, as it turns out — keep an eye on me.
House monitors my every move.
“You must have known I was packing,” I tell them. “House must have told you my plans.”
“We knew,” Father answers. “But it’s not like we’re spying on you all the time, Joseph. The crucial thing was that the house would alert us if you tried to leave.”
“The doctors say it’s best for us not to interfere too much,” Mother adds. “They say we should let you process things in your own way.”
The fire wall is down. The file has opened its contents. I must process the data. It cannot be erased.
Father reaches for my bag. I let him. Mother holds my cheeks in her hands. I don’t pull away. Melinda floats down the stairs and reaches for my leg. I pull her in.
At this moment we are all together.