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Daydreams of angels, p.16
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       Daydreams of Angels, p.16

           Heather O'Neill
 
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  Androids were made with better eyesight than humans so that they could work on the tiniest computer parts. A side effect of this provision was that when they looked up into the sky at night, they were able to perceive thousands more stars, thousands more configurations and astral phenomena than the average human eye could ever discern. And so when they walked at night, they could not help but look up into the sky and marvel. In fact, this became the easiest way to tell an android from the general human population. Androids were the ones on the street with their briefcases dangling at their sides, staring up at the stars in wonder. For this reason, androids were not given driving licences. It led to too many accidents, this ability to be struck by perfect things.

  * * *

  In the summer of 2112 a female android named 4F6 stopped on her way home from the pharmaceutical factory and stood looking up at the stars above. As she looked, visions flashed before her. She imagined the stars were a group of ancient coal miners with lamps on their hats, being lowered by elevator into a deep dark hole.

  Imagining in this way was not typical of robots; but 4F6 had known she was different from other androids for a long time. Once, at rush hour four years ago, she had been shoved to the subway tracks by accident, and as she hit the rail, an electrical current surged through her. Since that time, her electrical currencies had always been too high.

  She had already experienced some peculiar side effects from her accident. She was able to turn on lightbulbs solely by looking at them. And unlike other androids, she was able to tell what was funny. She was forever explaining jokes to the androids she worked with, but they couldn’t understand at all. To them jokes were merely equations with slightly incorrect answers.

  As she was standing there, peacefully looking up at the stars, she realized that another android in a tweed suit was standing right beside her, also looking up at the night sky.

  Naturally, they introduced themselves. Androids were always very cordial and polite as it greatly increased workplace efficiency. 4F6 liked BX19 immediately. She liked his brown eyes and his pale skin. He told her that he worked transcribing trials at the courthouse. He began to repeat verbatim one of the cases he had sat in on that day. A man was on trial for murdering his ex-wife’s new boyfriend. He had strangled him with his bare hands and now showed no remorse. Then he told her the story of a man who had robbed a convenience store and only got away with fifteen dollars and had subsequently been sentenced to fifteen years in prison.

  4F6 was moved by these stories. She had never had anyone say such things to her. The only kind of talk she heard was from the androids at the pharmaceutical factory, who only spoke of formulae and the table of elements. All this talk of murder and love, to her, was like poetry.

  Somewhere within 4F6’s circuitry there stirred a desire to reach out and touch BX19. Androids often mimicked human behaviour out of curiosity. They had, of course, tried kissing and lovemaking, and certain androids claimed they had felt something, but it was the general consensus that they were unable to feel anything at all while engaging in such human activity. 4F6, herself, had never been kissed before, but now, for the first time, she wanted to be.

  “Please kiss me,” she said.

  BX19 leaned over and did as he was told. He was being polite, but when his lips touched her lips, 4F6’s heart felt like it had dunked into her stomach. When that happens with humans, it is merely a sensation, but with an android, every emotion has a definite mechanical reaction. Tiny wires and bolts fell from inside her chest and into her stomach. 4F6 felt the metal parts moving around in her belly. But later that night, lying in bed, the discomfort she was feeling in her stomach was the furthest thing from her mind. She replayed the kiss over and over, until her short-term memory projector snapped off as she drifted into sleep.

  * * *

  The next morning as 4F6 was gaining consciousness as she lay in bed staring at the ceiling, she felt something fall between her legs. She pulled off her blankets and rummaged through the sheets, searching for the errant part. Suddenly her hand touched something cold and metallic. She pushed away the blankets and there, wrapped in her bedding, was a tiny stick-like figure. 4F6 was horrified.

  Its skeleton was made of wires and tiny screws and bolts. It had a tiny spring for a spine, and small frayed, spliced wires grew out of its head like hair. It had tightly wound wire for a neck, and where a heart would go there was a tiny valve that looked as if it could be cranked. The little thing started to move its arms in the air over itself. It was obviously some sort of android, but it didn’t look human the way other androids did. No skin had been grafted onto it.

  The little thing looked at 4F6 through the holes in the minuscule bolts he had for eyes. There was an awful darkness and limitlessness to those eyes.

  She realized that it was a baby, her baby, conceived from her kiss. The gestation period for the tiny robot had only been a day. She had never heard of robots making robots—perhaps on a factory assembly line, but never without being told to. Never in a bed, and never as the result of a spontaneous kiss. 4F6 knew that something horribly wrong had happened.

  Although androids didn’t really know what it meant beyond the softer skin and crooked teeth, they somehow wished to be human. They considered themselves inferior and tongue-tied around people. Whenever they saw a human, they couldn’t help but think, He invented me. Humans did not know what their origins had been. They believed in God and searched for the meaning of life in the Bible. Androids, on the other hand, had no Bible. The closest thing they had to a Bible was the original grant application that requested funding for robotics research. Every android had a copy of this proposal. It was a bestseller among androids. It said that the applicants of that grant would like to create a robot capable of operating all of man’s other inventions, thus reducing the workday. There was never any debate about the origins of existence or the meaning of life among androids.

  But now this baby robot had been created by some unknown force, independent of man. 4F6 knew that this would not be taken lightly.

  She knew that if the scientists found out about the baby, there would be a mass android recall. They would tamper with their insides, making sure that no other android would be capable of experiencing love as 4F6 had, because it was love that had created the little spring man, she was sure. They would take away androids’ ability to be amazed by stars, too, for good measure, and 4F6 didn’t want to be without those parts. Without those things she would only be an appliance— a machine.

  She wrapped the tiny robot up in a sock and put him in her briefcase. She called work to say that she would be a little late that day because she was going to stop at the Android Servicing Unit to be recharged; but instead, she took the bus all the way to the edge of town.

  When the bus reached the end of the line, she walked down an empty street, and as she walked she convinced herself that what she was about to do was necessary for the safety of androids everywhere. It was not an easy task, this convincing. 4F6 was programmed to know when to yell and when to whisper, when to fuel up and when to rest; but in this matter, she was not at all certain what she knew at all. Had anyone been watching her, they would have seen a woman walking along haltingly, as though looking for a street address she was not certain existed.

  She had been to the dump before. She had enjoyed estimating how many pieces of debris were contained within each pile, but she was not interested in that today. She had no desire for calculating. She took the baby robot out of her briefcase and threw it over the fence onto a heap of garbage. That’s where it belongs, she thought. It was junk, a broken, incomplete thing.

  She repeated this idea to herself over and over as she waited for the bus, boarded it, and returned to work.

  Several years earlier she had had her temperature regulator exchanged. In the moments when she lay on the metal gurney, her chest plate opened, the old part removed and the new part not yet inserted, she had really felt fine and complete. The little wire thing that had fallen from
her was not even half the size of the temperature regulator, yet back at the factory assembly line, as she stood making calculations on her clipboard, she had the sensation of being empty. As much as she considered it, it did not make any sense to her. Yet there it was.

  * * *

  At the dump, there were seagulls circling above and crying out as though in pain. The tiny robot, lying on his back, wished that one of the birds would swoop down and pick him up in its claws, because he wanted so badly to be held; but the seagulls seemed interested in everything in the dump except him.

  As it started to get dark, the little robot began to feel more and more alone. He stood up on his feet, which looked like tiny salad forks, and stumbled over the garbage. He passed a used shoe, piles of books and tin cans, and green metal chairs and couches with cushions covered in coffee stains. Then, among all of it, he saw something that comforted him: a toaster, lying all by itself. The robot hurried over and wrapped his arms around it, circling its electrical cord around his body. He lay there, entwined with the toaster, and in this way, he tried to assure himself that, somehow, he was loved.

  When the stars came out, so numerous and fantastic, the little robot was so struck by the utter mystery of being alone that he forgot, at least for those moments, how painful it was.

  As he gazed up at the stars, he was struck by quizzical thoughts, thoughts that, could he articulate them, might take the form of such words as Why am I here? How big is the universe? Why am I me and not someone else?

  Although androids all over the world were coming up with an infinite complexity of answers, the little robot was the first to ask a question.

  MESSAGES IN BOTTLES

  There was once a boy and a girl who were twins. They lived in Montreal. Their mother was a famous cellist. She composed a tune so complex that no one could play it except for her. Their father was a famous physician. He had invented several unsuccessful treatments for polio. But unsuccessful treatments were all the rage back then.

  They were serious children, as the children of eminent people so often are. They practised sitting utterly still, in case they ever needed to have their portrait painted. They were able to walk all the way to the park with ten library books on their heads. They were able to use big words that they themselves didn’t know the meaning of. When they sat down to eat, there would be eighteen different forks and they used each one correctly. At ten years old, they worried about death. They never made small talk.

  The twins both did very well in their classes at school, and their jackets were covered with little pins for punctuality and attendance, as though they were war heroes. If the children weren’t geniuses, then at least they comported themselves as if they were.

  In addition to their reserved disposition, the twins were known for their beauty. They had black hair and pale skin, which had the effect of making them both look uncannily like Snow White. People who manufactured cracker boxes were always trying to get them to pose for them.

  One day in 1913, the twins’ parents were invited to attend the World’s Fair. Their parents made the children pack their very best clothes and they boarded the Stromberg ocean liner on the dock in Old Montreal on a cloudless afternoon. The circular windows were in a long row on the side of the ship as though a child had tried to multiply a million times two on a blank sheet of paper.

  It was a famous ocean liner. Back then ocean liners were like movie stars. No one ever thought that this particular ship would sink, because so many famous things had happened aboard it. A Bulgarian prince had committed adultery in one of the cabins with a young girl. A French philosopher had composed a text so difficult that no one had even been able to get through the title.

  The shipwreck made headlines all over the world. It turned out that the lifeboats had holes in them from termites and they simply sank. Down went all the tea sets and half-written novels and brand-new suits to a watery grave. It was a terrible tragedy.

  It was reported that there were no survivors. The twins, however, were saved from the wreckage by climbing onto their mother’s cello. The cello made such a mournful noise as it rode over the waves that a whale fell in love with it.

  After three long days at sea, they were washed up onto the shore of a deserted island.

  For the first night all the twins could do was sit on the beach and feel homesick. They missed going to the zoo. They missed a cat named Clyde. They missed their mother and father. They even missed their classmates and going to school.

  The twins had been taught to never sulk and to always be industrious. The next day they began collecting oysters. They opened each one up and peeked inside. By the end of the day their pockets were filled with pearls. They strung the pearls into a long necklace that resembled a diagram of the moon’s phases. They traded it with a pelican for some fish to eat.

  The next morning an old turtle stopped by the island. He was brilliant because he was two hundred years old, and he was able to give the twins lessons in philosophy and morality. He came by every morning and in that way, the twins didn’t fall behind on any of their schooling.

  Sometimes sea creatures tried to seduce the little girl. She was much too dignified to encourage any of them. The octopus would sneak up onto the beach and place his tentacles around her neck. It felt like she was being kissed by twenty lips at once. It made her feel so strange that she blushed and told him to please return to the bottom of the sea.

  The clamshells opened and closed like the eyes of an ingenue blinking slowly at them. As if they were flirting with the children.

  Sometimes swans would show up, having heard from birds that the girl was unbearably lovely. The swans were used to being the prettiest creatures on the sea and they, therefore, would go out of their way to the island in order to convince themselves that she wasn’t all that. The girl fell in love with a terribly handsome male swan, but he mocked her affections when she confessed them. With its little Zorro mask, the swan turned his head up to the sky and laughed, which sounded like a bicycle horn being squeezed. She wept at his insensitive response.

  The girl wondered if they spent their whole lives on the island, whether she would have to marry a walrus. They were respectable and dependable. They wouldn’t cheat on you. But it would be a loveless life. Some of the swans told her that it took seven years to learn to love a walrus. After that, though, everything was okay. More or less.

  The twins saw so many sunrises and sunsets. They watched them as if they were at the theatre. Sometimes they found them so silly that they wept. Sometimes they found them so sad and powerful that they wept too. The sky dressed itself up in a new, fabulous outfit each night before heading off to a nightclub.

  One day a current passed by that was filled with the tea that had fallen off a cargo ship en route from Sri Lanka. The twins dipped their teacups into the water and had a tea party. They stayed up all night, alert from the caffeine.

  They cast a net in the water that night and pulled in a load of starfish and empty bottles. Lazy pirates, who had no consideration for polluting the sea, would finish their bottles of Coca-Cola and beer and then toss the bottles overboard.

  The girl sat by moonlight and wrote letters on the backs of musical scores that were inside the cello case, in order to stick them inside the bottles. She began filling the bottles with letters every night and then tossing them into the sea to be found.

  She would sometimes write descriptions of their adventures. She wrote down observations they had made about marine life, and facts about never-before-seen creatures. She also included long descriptions of loneliness and isolation, knowing that these would be valued by the new science of psychology. Like every writer, she felt absolutely sure that her readers were out there. Every night she implored them not to forget about her brother and her on the island.

  The boy also wrote letters. He used ink from a murdered octopus and the quill of a pelican to write them. His were chastising letters, remonstrating that people had not found and rescued him and his sister. He so
metimes called his readers terrible names.

  The boy’s personality was coming undone very quickly. He was getting wild. He was killing more fish than he needed to eat, and he wore a necklace of shark teeth. He stung himself with jellyfish every night because he liked the paralysis and numbness. He practically glowed because he had electrocuted himself so often. He harnessed the electricity from a jellyfish in order to light up blowfish and use them as patio lanterns.

  Some nights there were terrible storms out at sea that would frighten the twins with their violence. The following morning all sorts of things would have washed up on shore from the different shipwrecks.

  One day a telephone washed up on the beach. The twins were ecstatic. The girl called home, but there was, of course, no answer. She called a friend from school named Antoine, and they talked for three hours. She called the police station in Montreal. The officer on the other end of the line told her that he couldn’t possibly imagine where this island might be. Therefore, he couldn’t send his men out to rescue them.

  They used the phone for a month, but then the line was cut, since there was no way for them to pay the bill.

  One day a queen-sized bed with a golden frame washed up on shore. The twins decided to climb onto the bed and sail off on it, hoping to encounter another ship.

  The bed was at sea for a number of days. One day they passed a swan with a monkey playing a banjo on its back. The twins stood on the edge of the bed with their hands clasped together in supplication and implored the monkey and the swan to help them. But the swan and the monkey did not even deign to turn their heads as they continued on their way.

 
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