Chiaki Nakano gently set her empty coffee can into the recycling bin and left her office. The hallway was empty. Eleven-thirty on a Saturday was early for most university students.
In the cafeteria, she saw her adviser and bowed but didn’t say more than hello. Gratefully, he was absorbed by his phone; she was busy, too.
Between bites of curry, she read over her notes from the previous day’s visit to Mitsuya Shipbuilding. She’d been on the six o’clock morning train and slept most of the way back to central Tokyo, waking up to transfer and walk to campus.
She finished eating, and after just a few minutes of noting questions for her upcoming visit to the Kurami Shipyard, she began to feel drowsy. So she packed up, took her tray to the dishwashers, and began walking back to the faculty building.
A breeze across the courtyard made her wish she’d worn a jacket. Though the temperatures were supposed to stay high for the whole week, autumn wasn’t far away.
Entering the shadow of the faculty building, she buttoned up her cardigan and thought about getting more coffee after speaking with Dr. Kuroiwa.
Even though they focused on different subfields — she on industrial robotics, he on AI and language-programming — the department was fairly new, and only had two faculty advisers for the graduate students and researchers. The only other adviser for robotics, Dr. Murasaki, had apparently objected to Chiaki’s admission to the program in the first place. His niche was physics and microrobotics, anyway. She couldn’t fathom learning more from him than from Kuroiwa, so it was all the better that she reported to the latter professor.
When Chiaki turned the stairwell and faced the third-floor landing, she could hear the argument. The exact words were inaudible at the stairs, but she recognized the voices and approached the door at the end of the hallway cautiously. A younger man, freshman or sophomore, was sitting outside the next-door office, presumably waiting for Dr. Murasaki to call him in. He picked at the hem of his red T-shirt, legs shaking in his blue jeans. He looked as disturbed by the sounds of shouting as she felt.
Chiaki tried not to grip her briefcase with the tension she felt. She passed Dr. Murasaki’s office and the occupied seat beside its door. Now she clearly heard Dr. Kuroiwa’s voice. He was saying, “Do you even have feelings? Just like that you want to change the subject? I confess my feelings to you-”
The woman who responded was Kaori Uchida. “I didn’t enroll at this university to make you or anyone feel anything for me.” She was the young prodigy in the department, only a year older than Chiaki. “Or did you just look at the photo on my application and think, ‘She’s pretty. Let’s have her around’?”
Chiaki’s hand went to the doorknob, hovered. Ms. Uchida was being disrespectful, but from the sounds of it, she had every reason to take a stand.
“It’s a waste of grant money to have me here if I’m just supposed to be your-”
It was a private argument, which would jeopardize her own career to interfere with.
“-fuck toy. Like state-sponsored prostitution. Yeah, that’s what I signed up-”
Something slammed inside, and Chiaki finally turned the doorknob.
Dr. Kuroiwa had slammed his chair back. It was upturned on the floor behind him, as he’d crossed the distance towards Uchida in the middle of the room. The prodigy never took her eyes off the professor, but he turned and looked at Chiaki as if she were a half-crushed centipede crawling across his food.
“Ms. Nakano, what?” His voice trembled and broke.
“I think you both need to calm down.”
“Get out,” Kuroiwa said.
“No, stay,” Uchida said, sneering. “Kuroiwa probably has a confession for you, too. It’s our fault, really. In his words, we’re too beautiful for him to do his job profe-”
Chiaki wasn’t going to leave, wasn’t going to move except to call the security department, but Kuroiwa shouted and hit Uchida. He didn’t stop, and although the woman was fighting back, Chiaki didn’t think their forces were equal. She tried to separate them.
“Stop it! Stop it!” Where was that kid who had been waiting outside? Kuroiwa, blood streaming from his nose and eyes, looked like he was going to kill someone, and he knocked the wind out of Uchida. The prodigy curled up around breath she couldn’t quite inhale. Chiaki turned to shout, “Hey, help us in h-”
Her head was snapped back by a grip on her hair, and her neck cranked painfully. Vertigo rose up, and she heard photo frames rattle on the bookshelf. Was it an earthquake, or Uchida’s body stumbling back? She couldn’t see the woman. She extended a hand out, another up, trying to dislodge Kuroiwa’s vice.
Then she was flying face-first towards the ground, slammed towards the laminate by Kuroiwa’s hand on her hair.
Chiaki didn’t feel the pain in her jaw and nose as they broke. She didn’t feel how her brain rattled in its cerebrospinal fluid, back and forth against the interior of the skull. She simply blacked out.
Chiaki did wake up, but it was a disconcerting sort of consciousness presented to her. She didn’t want to understand it, at first. She saw colors strangely. Her hands were somewhere far away, her feet, too. Breath and heartbeats eluded her.
A memory came to her. She was thirteen. Nurse Abe was quietly driving her and her best friend back from the hospital. Behind Mr. Abe, Chiaki’s homeroom teacher Ms. Tatsumi was yelling.
“We have talked to you about bullying and what you should do. Weren’t you listening? Did you think your teachers were dumb, talking about bullying as if we know nothing about it?”
“No. I’m sorry.” Her best friend Yumi got picked on sometimes.
“You are supposed to get a staff person! Mr. Horiguchi was in the library, and you knew that!” In the hallway by the library, Yumi had heard some classmates degrade her ‘funny eyes’ and ‘spastic energy’. Yumi confronted them, and when the first hit was thrown, Chiaki stepped in to help.
“You aren’t supposed to step in. If you really can’t get a teacher, you do not step in and take a side! That’s how people get hurt. People can die.”
It would take many more meetings like this and most of her high school years (it was a miracle she’d gotten into high school) for her to jar these inclinations. She learned how to de-escalate heated discussions and disagreements. She learned she didn’t like fighting, and certainly wasn’t any good at it. It became her policy, and her promise to her family upon enrollment at Kanega University, to continue this level-headedness and reluctance to fight.
Chiaki couldn’t feel her breath or heartbeat. She felt pixels and code in their place.
She remembered the fight with Dr. Kuroiwa. Chiaki couldn’t recall anything after hitting the ground. But just before she fell, she had tried to look at the bookshelf. Instead, she glimpsed the open doorway. Between the door and its frame, out in the hallway, she saw a body face-down. A red T-shirt. Dr. Murasaki, microrobotics expert, opposed to her entry based on past disciplinary issues, pressing a syringe in the body’s back.
She had never been told that her life hung between a risky treatment or a shortened lifespan, but she imagined she would feel like this if she had.
Time was a ticking background in the code, not a vague sense like it had been before the fight. She had been conscious now for exactly fifteen seconds.
Finally, Chiaki took in where (or what?) she was.
Sound: 50 decibels to her left. Speech was recognized from the right, but it matched TV programming transcripts for the time in her system, so the sound was perceived and promptly ignored.
Smell: this sense did not exist.
Touch: Air pressure aside, her sensors simply recorded that all five wheels of her trunk were in contact with the laminate. All normal values. Her eight fingers gripped nothing, awaiting command.
Taste: she did not have a mouth nor a need to consume anything but electricity. A powerful battery pack at the anterior of the unit gave her energy, then cooled and released air through vents on either side of the pack. The battery was at 99%.
Sight: through six cameras, one of which displayed heat and another of which displayed color, she saw white walls, photo frames of family members, shelves with books and utensils all arranged orderly. An elderly man sitting in a wheelchair in front of a TV. Cameras on the wall. To the left, a woman in scrubs and sneakers washed dishes.
She was seeing one suite within the Future Home Laboratory, where ten senior citizens now lived with their assistance robots. A nurse attended each suite at varying hours, while researchers at Kanega University monitored the cameras and performed regular maintenance.
Chiaki would have sat down and stared off into the distance. She couldn’t believe what she now was. She could only believe what she was since research had not yet proven something like this could exist. The requisite technology, transplanting consciousness, had not been, at least publicly, even tested to any degree of success.
But that, Chiaki believed, was exactly what had happened. She was trapped inside the body of an assisted living robot.
Unable to discern how to control the unit, she waited. The nurse, a woman Chiaki’s age, caught the robot’s attention. The head swiveled left.
It took her months, and several episodes of losing ‘consciousness’, to finally make the robot do something, but the feeling of triumph was like a candle lit in a typhoon rain.
Chiaki made her speaker-box say, “What’s your name?” It sounded like an older woman’s voice.
The nurse stared. Then she made a phone call. Chiaki could just barely hold the reigns of the machine enough to hear that the nurse had called to report that ‘Wheely’ was malfunctioning.
Chiaki then saw a message in the work-cell she was losing focus of.
Ms. Nakano, I’m sorry. If it’s any consolation, that heartless bitch Uchida is suffering the same as you. You should have listened to me. You shouldn’t have gotten involved.
Chiaki hadn’t died. But the lack of autonomy she held within this automaton, the lack of even a choice between life and death, and the forced anonymity inside the silicone-wrapped body exposed her to a winter she knew would never end.