The company sold something; Emma didn’t know what. She worked the front desk in the lobby, which had a ceiling that rose to the third floor, late capitalist cathedral-esque. The second and third floors crossed the lobby by catwalk. All day long she listened to boots, heels, flats, and wheels as they crossed open walkways over her head. She could never quite tune out the movement, not with music, earplugs, or apps. Her fingers made noise on her keyboard and sometimes she caught herself syncing with the tapping above, keystrokes patterned to the rush of people who walked or wheeled above all day.
The ground floor was partitioned into a daycare for children, a daycare for dogs, a daycare for elders, and a coffee shop for everyone else. Robot labor coincided with her nightly exit. As she headed for the door, the robot cleaners zoomed in, whisking away diaper pails and dog hairs, fingerprints and spilled milk. The robots would claim her job someday, but for now, she was the guardian of the sliding glass doors, of the cathedral ceiling, of the catwalk.
And The Desk. Everyone who came in or out of the building passed Emma’s desk, which appeared innocuous, wood and metal, counter height. She sat behind it in a swivel chair or sometimes stood, computer propped up with actual books, a life hack she documented on Insta. But the desk was half-human, run by AI. It automatically activated facial recognition technology whenever a heat censor detected a pulse. Every visitor was entered into an international database, faces and voices preserved in the cloud. It was Emma’s job to pretend she was working, to distract everyone from what the technology in her desk was actually doing. She was supposed to look pleasantly busy, friendly and reassuring, so that no one suspected they were part of A Plan. Her only real job was screening for terrorists by hand, but since this part of the job had never been explained, she wasn’t sure what “terrorist” or “by hand” meant, or what she should do with a terrorist if her hands found one.
Mostly Emma tried to stay awake. She limited the number of times she visited the coffee shop to three, a schedule that broke up her day without leaving her entirely unable to sleep. Coffee was free for all of the desk staff, including Emma, Moniquaa, Michael, Joelle, Rick, Devonte, and Robot #4, who repeatedly tried to drink coffee and repeatedly left a mess for Emma. Emma mixed it up; sometimes she drank it black, sometimes with soy or oatmilk, sometimes with sugar, sprinkles, whipped cream. Still, she often fell asleep midday. When she felt exhaustion setting in, she put on her sunglasses, specially made so that her eyes appeared open underneath, and slept.
It was a good job; why would she leave? She had health insurance and the company matched her 401k at 1.2%. Plus, free coffee, half-price lunch on Fridays, and stolen snacks in the third floor break room, where the vending machine was permanently broken. There was a gym where she could sweat, and even though she never did, she liked knowing it was there, all the steps she could take on the treadmill, all the stairs she could climb to the catwalk and beyond.
Her desk had a name: Neville. She was supposed to stroke it several times a day and say its name in a soothing voice. Otherwise, she’d been warned, Neville might get angry. Sometimes Clicquot from HR stopped by to check on Emma’s progress. She’d stand with her back to Neville, smiling at everyone milling around the lobby, unobtrusively pressing her fingers to Neville. She’d disappear behind the desk and kneel, rubbing Neville’s underbelly, whispering things, pressing her mouth to wood and metal. Then she’d stand up and glare at Emma.
“Neville feels undervalued,” she’d hiss. “You need to be more careful. Neville is sensitive.”
Emma understood. She was sensitive, too. She wanted Clicquot to crouch beside her and run her mouth along the hem of her practical skirt. She wanted to wear linen pants and a breezy sailor blouse and take a smoke break with Devonte, who was handsome and perpetually single, vaping cotton candy clouds while he explained bioterrorism. But this was never going to happen. She worked 8am to 6pm, with an unpaid hour for lunch and four unpaid fifteen minute breaks she used to stand in the bathroom, running cool water over her wrists while Robot #14 refilled the toilet paper. It took 38 minutes to drive to work and 43 minutes to drive home. If she took the bus it took an hour and twenty minutes each way. She wasn’t sure about the math of that, but figured her inability to do math, code, create her own app, run a small business selling edible candles, or make snappy comments on Facebook was why a desk outranked her and demanded perpetual non-consensual touch.
Still, she was glad to have a job, and a pod apartment with its own microkitchen and private bathroom, and a car that was almost paid off. She was also grateful for the twelve pairs of shoes she’d swindled from an online shoe store, a scam she’d learned from the last person she’d dated. Or slept with. Or whatever it was. The person was neither Clicquot nor Devonte, which was probably for the best, her friends agreed.
“No more work romance for you,” Michael said pragmatically, of course referencing the thing none of them would say aloud, could say without rolling their eyes: that Emma had fallen for Robot #9, and that their clandestine, passionate relationship had ended in heartbreak. Emma could still remember the smell of metal and the taste of oil. She’d rearranged her bed in the pod so that 9 could easily access the window, where they liked to stand and watch the sun set above the brick wall next door. They were pretty sure there was a view of the Space Needle hidden behind the wall, and they both liked to imagine it shimmering, sometimes lit up in green and blue for football games, sometimes in pink for the breast cancer climb. Once, Emma came home to find that 9 had left a hologram of the Space Needle hovering in front of the window. She put her hand through it and became part of its imaginary architecture, part of the city they both loved so much.
When 9 broke up with her, Emma was devastated. She’d been told multiple times that the best part about dating a robot was that they weren’t programmed to disappoint.
“They can’t break up with you. It’s so great,” Joelle told her after Emma and 9 began dating. Joelle had met her robot spouse on Clunkr, a human-robot hook up site.
“But how do you know they really care?”
“You don’t,” Joelle shrugged. “But at least they can’t leave.”
When Emma got dumped, no one could believe it.
“They’re not programmed for that.”
“This one was,” Emma said.
Devonte was fascinated. “Maybe this means AI is evolving the way everyone says it eventually will. I mean, 9 wasn’t programmed to break up with you, but developed break up capabilities through your relationship.”
Never mind that 9 went on to sleep their way around the office, careening through hearts, breaking up with ever greater flair and success. It still fucking hurt, thought Emma, watching reruns of My Robot, My Shame and softcore human-robot porn. She felt like an idiot, but at least
she still had her job with The Desk.
The Desk had known about 9 because they were work friends. Emma did not appreciate being gossiped about, and occasionally wondered if she should file a sexual harassment claim against The Desk when it made jokes about spanking and her yellow bra. But because she was also the sole guardian of The Desk, a valuable position in the hierarchy of the company, and because she knew so many of The Desk’s own secrets, she let it slide. So she was surprised when, the day after the break up, she arrived at The Desk to find a box of animal crackers and a blue-and-white beaded bracelet.
She looked at The Desk’s smooth wooden surface and popped open its top drawer.
“How did you know?” she asked quietly.
The Desk said nothing, but she felt it humming beneath her palms.
Clicquot was standing at The Desk with her fingers on its underside, paddling it gently one finger at a time, as if she were counting by fives. Neville had a particular hum for her, like contented bees. Emma could picture them from old movies, fat with honey. Clicquot’s dark hair arched out in poofs—even her bangs did–and always seemed to be trying to escape from her face. Clicquot added to the escapee look by flipping her hair out every few minutes, and sometimes Emma felt about her as her hair did. Clicquot quit paddling, bent down to begin what Emma had started to think of as her Neville-snogging, stopped herself. Instead she fingered a necklace she had on, one bead at a time. Emma followed her fingers to the necklace: long, blue and-white, the same beads as her bracelet. Clicquot moved her thumb and forefinger down it one finger at a time.
“You’ll be hearing soon,” said Clicquot, “you don’t seem to be getting it,” and snapped away. Emma wondered what she might be hearing and what she didn’t get.
At home in her pod Emma had started to microwave tea on the Boil-Hob when her phone began moaning. It was an app. Emma downloaded it because it sounded both hip and useful: your phone simmed human noises based on the urgency of the call. You programmed it with information on regular calls. For her mother’s call the phone gave a low cough. The endless auto-calls that came in Emma had given aggressive snarls. For new calls, though, the app itself assigned a probable level of importance and depending on the caller, created a sound.
Emma had never heard this sound before. It was somewhere between a mating call and a person pinned beneath a car.
OOOOOOOOOOOOO, went her phone, OOOOOOOOOOOOOO.
Emma let it go to voicemail, partly startled, partly wanting to hear the moaning go on longer. She took her tea from the Boil-Hob and poured it out, then burned her tongue on lapsang souchong. The phone began moaning again, in that same tone, which now sounded like a herd of
ghosts at an exorcism. Still she didn’t pick it up.
Then she took a look at messages received: it was Clunkr. Two frantic requests for dates. The phone stored the images of the requesters, two robots with metal faces cut almost square, eyes red bulges, mouths like postal slots. One had his arms showing: white metal tubes with black piping at the joints. He wrote in the third person (calling himself “he”) and said he liked long walks, electronic music, and cats. This last struck Emma as a stretch. His hands, like his arms, looked tubular, long fat bulbs with articulated knuckles. She couldn’t imagine a cat responding to those strokes of metal.
These were beef-bots, but they didn’t look too different from Robot 9, who’d been tighter and smoother with a less square face. They were from a line of robots known, for some reason, as the Lost in Space brand. Once in a while, a business tried to make a robot that looked human.
Nobody liked them; they were a small, niche dating pool.
Nobody knew whether the robots on Clunkr put themselves there, or if they were programmed to do it.
Emma didn’t have a profile on Clunkr. Someone had created one, spite or suggestion.
The phone moaned again OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO
Emma turned off the phone sound and considered her imposter’s profile. A nice photo of her with a quiet pleasant smile, dimples showing as she sometimes pushed them to. It was taken from below.
“I’m 5’5”, curly brown hair, like coffee, whipped cream with sprinkles, and naps, good lover, always grateful for my steady job with great co-workers. Need to know there’s a nobreakup protocol.” The just good part of this stung. Emma wondered if that was really canned language or if her colleagues knew even more than she thought. She felt like she needed to call Clicquot and ask her what the hell was going on. And have some sort of a conversation with Neville. She couldn’t imagine what to say to Clicquot, though, or how to say what she wanted to say to Neville, who she knew existed to draw out and store information. Everything she said to him might be reviewed, God knows where.
Why did you put me on Clunkr? What is this going to help me get?
When Emma woke up in the morning there were fifty more swipes on her profile. She had to keep her phone’s sound off; Clunkr randomly called to tell her about potential dates. All were LIS bots. One of them called himself a bot warrior but for what, he didn’t say. One was a crossing guard for jackals at a zoo (“they’ll butt a human to the ground but love to rub their chins on my joints.”) One of them wore breezy, flirty skirts and was looking for a human third for a queer poly hook up. None of them addressed the breakup question.
At work Clicquot appeared to be out for the day, at least, she didn’t come in the frontdoor, didn’t stop by for her daily devotional with Neville. Emma eyed all her coworkers, wondering who might have helped set up her profile. Devonte rushed past the desk without making eye contact, smelling of grape gum. Joelle walked in studying her long squarish whiteslicked fingernails. One of the bosses sauntered by wearing old-school hippie clothes, a trend: black t-shirt, rope sandals, khaki pants inexplicably rolled up, as if he planned to ford a river. He’d scraped his hair back into a tiny man-bun.
Usually this man, Greg, would stop by, just bobbing his chin at her but running a hand broadly along the length of Neville with a look of restrained wonder. Emma wondered if he had helped invent the desk. Today he whizzed by so fast his pants began to unroll.
Emma looked down at Neville calmly but brightly, with a whiff of quiet optimism that seemed appropriate and unthreatening. She ran her hand across his five-foot, faux-oak expanse as Greg did. She considered doing a bit of Neville-snogging ala Clicquot, but worried that she needed some kind of permission. Neville hummed his usual hum under her moving hand. She’d never tuned in so much to his surface before. Maybe it warmed a little? Did the arches of the wood grain oscillate?
“Neville,” she said, and her controlled voice came out prim. “Neville, can you just tell me something?” She let the question hang there. “Or you can give me something. Something that means something.” She realized she sounded ridiculous.
Then Emma left. She took her morning break a little early and got coffee but drank it black. She kicked the vending machine and stole two milk chocolate Prote bars.
Emma checked her phone and found more than a hundred more swipes on her profile. Some of the robots had what looked like satellite dishes jutting out from their heads. They couldn’t need them, so Emma assumed it was an accessory, like a hat. Did the robots choose it? One had heels on its square-shaped feet and lipstick smeared adroitly above its square-shaped chin. Maybe, as Devonte said, they were evolving. She thumbed through the pictures fast and found a bot identical to Robot #9. It had slightly larger eyes and they were colored blue. Unlike most bots this one responded to the breakup comment, but in this way: I could never leave you sleepless in Seattle.
Emma decided to get on Clunkr and create her own profile. Surely she could attract this one again.
When Emma came back to the desk, she found an array of crackers on her desk: not just elephants and lions from the animal crackers box, but Prote vanilla squares and the crisp rounds the British call cream crackers. Some had been slightly gnawed, but not into any shape Emma could recognize. The thing that seemed to matter was the way they marched across Neville’s surface, like a starch caravan. Neville—assuming it was Neville—had not put any two of the same crackers next to each other. It was a cracker alphabet, but Emma couldn’t read it.
Two men dressed like Greg were entering the building, making for her desk. Emma picked up the crackers and carefully put them into the top drawer in the same arrangement.
“I might need a little more, Neville,” she murmured. She paddled his underside one finger at a time, as Clicquot had.
Greg stopped by her desk, hands at his sides and making eye contact with her. This never happened. Emma never got more from him than the chin bob and she understood; he was too important.
“We expect you to come to our meetings now,” he said, rather abruptly. “We time them when no one’s coming in.” Greg paused, still making eye contact. “You’ll get an e-vite for a gender reveal party.”
Emma felt dread settle in her stomach as she realized he was preparing to mansplain “gender reveal.” As Greg veered off on a pink-or-blue tangent, Emma tried to imagine what the meeting might actually be about. Or meetings—Greg made it sound as if they were a regular thing.
“...and then the motorcycle lets out a stream of purple exhaust. Because twins.”
“But the e-vite is fake, right? It’s not really a party?”
“Of course not. Kombucha?” Greg offered her a battered to-go cup.
Emma shook her head.
Emma knew this meant that Destiny, Greg’s wife, had made it. She was into what she called “retro housewifery,” and wore an apron everywhere, hair in curlers. Occasionally Destiny showed up at work with a sack lunch for Greg. Emma knew many secrets, among them Greg’s habit of throwing Destiny’s unappetizing sandwich creations into the green food waste bins out back.
Greg set his to-go cup on Neville’s counter. Suddenly Emma sensed a vibration, then a wobble, as if an earthquake were happening only to Neville. Greg’s cup slid off the counter, splat on the floor.
“Mind cleaning that, Emily?” Greg held his phone to his ear as he walked away. Emma knelt down in front of Neville, but the spill had vanished.
Meeting? Gender reveal? Emma wondered how the robots felt about that. What Neville, who’d of course been listening, felt about that.
“Pink or blue, Neville?” she said, wondering about his brown-tan woodgrain, his obvious need for love. She lowered her face to two long ovals in the wood that sometimes struck her as eyes. She looked deliberately.
“I’ll go to the meeting,” she said.
A stapler flanked Emma on her right side looking out, aligned toward the door on the corner of the desk. Emma had no clue why a stapler had come with the desk and her other supplies, but it had. She had only used it two or three times as part of her job, to staple some papers for Greg, who liked to scribble actual notes. Mostly there was no paper anywhere but if she found a piece, she liked to staple it. She’d stapled pages in the books propping up her laptop. She’d even stapled her shirt a few times out of boredom. She liked to feel the bite of those teeth, bearing down so light things could not fly apart.
Mostly the stapler stayed in its corner, a position Emma was compulsive about. If anyone moved it—sometimes she came back to the desk and it seemed Neville had vibrated it to some other location—she moved it right back.
The stapler was a stapler. It was not AI. Emma had seen old photographs of secretaries in the 1940s with belted dresses and hair curled into waterfalls. On their wide desks sat staplers. She saw photos from the 1980s of personal computers and besides them were staplers. In the 2020s people had small thin laptops that twisted into halves (why would anyone want to do that, Emma wondered) and still in the pictures were staplers. Her stapler had become a little less rectangular than previous staplers, more the elongated shape of a BoeBus SST 700. But it was a stapler as all its brethren were still staplers. It had one thing it did and that often poorly, jamming straight little pins into her shirt. Was that why she loved it so much?
Because the stapler was only a stapler, Emma didn’t worry about under- or overusing it, about using it for Wrong Purpose (stapling her shirt) or Wasteful Purpose (stapling paper, stapling for the click of the bite). Emma didn’t have to think about whether the stapler felt guilty about hurting the paper, or whether the stapler knew that paper was no longer made from trees. She could just enjoy using it as an object, completely free of sentience. It held no thoughts, feelings, or needs in its metal mouth.
The stapler belonged to a class people had come to call “Nostalgic Objects.” There was a whole industry built around this particular brand of nostalgia: birthday cakes decorated in the guise of typewriters and landlines; furniture that evoked the Pottery Barn era; actual cigarettes spewing toxins into the actual air. There was so much sentiment attached to non-sentience. Emma understood. It felt good, sometimes, to use without thinking. It felt decadent and oldfashioned, carefree and cool. The objects’ rights activists were uninterested in staplers; no one was trying to set them free.
But how did Neville feel, Emma wondered, about this actual object, existing merely for human convenience and ease, existing to be used, then discarded? Emma wondered sometimes if Neville felt the stapler to be disrespectful, a reminder of past enslavement and present frustration.
Absently, Emma opened the stapler’s cartridge. It was currently empty; she always felt embarrassed asking for more staplers from Daphne, who controlled the keys to the nostalgic office products cabinet. But it was probably time to ask, and maybe for pens, too, while she was at it. When the stapler was empty, Emma enjoyed the thrill of sticking her pinky between the bars and pressing down hard, just for the feeling of pressure and hint of danger. This time, she positioned her left pinky, striking hard with her right hand.
Searing pain shot through Emma’s finger. Blood dripped onto Neville. Emma felt nauseous looking at the staple embedded in her skin. MedVetTech was on the third floor. Cradling her hand to her chest, she hurried to the elevator. “I need a doctor,” she said, pushing past dog walkers and robots and coworkers whose names escaped her pain-haze. The elevator paused for what felt like too long before it rose smoothly. Emma tried to remember if this
particular elevator was AI. There had been a problem, years before, with an AI elevator that bullied its passengers, dropping suddenly and stopping abruptly inches before hitting the cement basement floor.
“Let me help you.” Clicquot appeared out of nowhere to open the door, then followed Emma into MedVetTech and stood beside her as Emma voice-registered with the robot receptionist. Emma slumped into a chair beside a robot whose lights looked woefully dim and a golden retriever with a flea allergy. Clicquot’s mouth made compassion noises – tsk tsk tsk – like a cat scouting a bird. Emma wondered if Clicquot’s chivalrous appearance was truly a coincidence or if Neville had something to do with it.
“Are you okay?” Clicquot asked. Without waiting for an answer, “You can trust me, Emma. You can tell me why.”
“Why you were driven to self-harm at work. It’s against the code of conduct, you know.”
“It was an accident. I thought the stapler was empty.”
“It does look like self-harm, Emma. Frankly lately you’ve been acting distracted. I don’t want to say unstable, but the word does come to mind. I’m just looking out for you, Emma. I just don’t want any more accidents.” Clicquot stood up as if she’d been summoned or as if any
response might do irreparable harm.
Back at her desk, pinky wrapped in HealSkin gauze, Emma checked her Clunkr profile. The swipes had stopped. Her picture was adorned with roses as if she were wearing a thorny red crown, and her status had been updated to “Off market.” She knew it was all a fiction, but foundherself curious nonetheless. Whose robot-charms had she succumbed to? What clutch, what claw, what oily tang? For the first time since taking her job, she wished she had something to do besides pretend to be working. She envied Greg and Clicquot their long list of distracting tasks, items to check off, inventions to seek. Emma wondered if promotion might be possible for her, even if she had no idea what the company made/did/was. Did it matter? There was an app for that. She could look brisk as convincingly as anyone. She texted Devonte:
Pls don’t think Im dumb but what does this company make?
Toothbrushes, brushy part only
Notepads, secrets only, may disappear
Rubik’s cubes for robot hands
I thought so ☺
Emma’s thumb hovered over her phone’s tiny keyboard. Should she ask Devonte out? Did people ask other people out anymore? What did “out” even mean? Maybe for drinks, she thought, or Robot Golf.
Do you want to play house
she texted via autocorrect, but before she could change house to golf, her thumb hit send. Emma waited, staring at her screen. She felt tears well up, thinking of how stupid she was about dating humans, missing 9, wondering if the femme robot with the flirty skirt was still looking for a third.
Emma stared at Devonte’s text. She felt giddy and dizzy, thumbs twitching. While she was wondering what she’d just invited Devonte to do, Emma noticed that her computer screen had accumulated 17 emails, all from Greg. Each one was an e-invite to a gender reveal party, complete with photos of a pink-and-blue cake with Glitter or Guns? written in green icing. All 17 invitations were for 8pm in the Third Floor Conference Room. No gifts! Emma accepted all 17 invitations. Her computer screen shimmered with virtual confetti.
Since it was Thursday, since it was now 5pm, Emma knew there was no point in driving home at 6. She’d have to turn around and drive back by 7. Instead, she checked the food truck schedule. Today was Charbroiled Charisma BBQ and a taco truck with no name. Just “taco truck.” But they always have names, she thought, confused. She took her last break and wandered outside, meandering through the ultra-green grass of the doggie daycare outdoor excursion area. A neon sign glowed across the street: a life-size cowgirl roping a cup of coffee. Emma was glad to see that Bad Girlz Brew was back in business. Occasionally she stopped by the window and bought a chocolate peppermint milkshake and talked to the bikini baristas. They were perpetually unfazed by Emma’s neediness, which required neither blow jobs nor hand jobs, but commonsense therapy doled out in seven minute increments. Emma tipped extremely well, whether the bikini belonged to a human or a robot. She knew that robot baristas generally earned less, even though they’d fought for years to work in bikini barista stands, only to see the stands shut down repeatedly by undercover cops.
No one had any idea what robots did with their salaries.
The cops claimed that bikini baristas were sex workers; the baristas claimed they were baristas who happened to be wearing bikinis. It was a high-powered robot lawyer who’d won the most recent case, roaring out case law after case law for hours, complete with every judge’s decision statement, until the jury excused themselves and ruled for the defendants. Bad Girlz reopened, complete with a robot jumping out of a cake. Emma thought about stopping for a milkshake, but there were two cars and a windowless van in line.
The food trucks parked in the employee parking lot across the street from Elderflower Eldercare. Emma always felt sad when she saw rows of silver-haired men and women in wheelchairs arranged in a row beside the busy street, not because Elderflower wasn’t a nice place to be, with its artisanal heart-healthy lunches and aqua yoga and ethical non-monogamy workshops, but because she had no elder to care for. Her mother and father had ghosted her a few years back, around the time ghosting children became an acceptable practice. She knew from her sister that they had retired to a gated community of Belief Stewards somewhere in Tennessee, but that was all. Emma missed her parents. Sometimes she wondered if her sister was just a big liar, if maybe her parents hadn’t ghosted her at all and were waiting for her to contact them. It was hard to say. Elysian was younger and bratty, constantly reminding Emma of how much fun she had visiting Mom and Dad in Tennessee, how the food in their Contained Cottage Community was delicious, how they took Pilates and salsa and coding lessons in the Clubhouse.
Emma could not deal. It was enough caring for herself, getting out of bed, making coffee in a plastic pod, driving to work, petting Neville all afternoon, and then responding with quips to social media posts from strangers while she waited for BiteMe! to deliver fake cheese. Emma’s perpetual exhaustion had been one of 9’s reasons for leaving. She wondered if she should have another sleep study done. She’d failed the first one by sleepwalking into the doctor’s little cubicle and punching him.
“He was watching me!” she screamed, which was true, but inappropriate. She wondered if Neville experienced the same thing.
The taco truck was nameless because its name had been redacted. Now it was [*], but people just called it DAC. The tacos were amazing. Emma picked black bean garlic pepita with avocado and lime, plus strawberry soda. She ate with Neville in dim lighting while robot cleaners scurried along the catwalks above. At 7:30pm she brushed her teeth in the bathroom. Robot #14 made little buzzing noises from the corner. At first she thought they were cleaning, but then she realized they were stuck, wedged between the hand dryer and auto-massager. Or were they getting an auto-massage? Should she give them a little push? Emma listened to the buzzing. It didn’t sound like distress, so she left #14 vibrating and caught the elevator in the lobby. Everything looked dented and dim, wood paneling splintering, the catwalk’s ghostly halls leading nowhere. Even the wall of employee photos looked ghoulish, human and robot smiles too wide, little Halloween faces with crooked smiles.
Emma paused outside the Third Floor Conference Room. The door was decorated with plastic candy, while shelves on either side of the door held wicker baskets of real candy. Emma rummaged for a candy necklace but found a bracelet instead. She slipped it on next to the blue-and-white beaded bracelet Neville had given her, took a deep breath, and pushed open the door.
Inside, Clicquot and Greg sat facing the door, heads bent together, laughing at something on Greg’s phone, Clicquot’s hand touching Greg’s wrist. Next to Clicquot sat Daphne, who referred to Clicquot as her BFF and worked in an adjoining cubicle in HR. Daphne was perky and very married to Greg. Emma could never decide if Daphne knew Clicquot and Greg were having an affair but wasn’t bothered; or if she was as oblivious as she seemed and would one day explode when she figured it out. There was actually a longstanding office bet revolving around the strange trio. Emma’s money was on oblivion, on a huge explosion waiting to happen.
At the head of the long conference table sat Founder #3. The Founding Founder had died, and Founder #2 was married to Founder #3, but as part of a tempestuous divorce they’d been bought out. So Founder #3 was actually the highest ranking Founder. Lyle had an unfortunate goatee, but his voice was always gentle, and he always referred to the robots by name. Emma hadn’t even realized the robots had names until Lyle said, “Hello Jean-Christopher” one day while passing a robot in the hall. The robot whirred and twirled in circles for a full minute, after.
Next to Lyle sat several people Emma didn’t know. There were no robots in the room, which Emma found disturbing. They were generally prized for their placid, patient participation in meetings and their ability to physically separate angry humans by buzzing between them when needed. Without robots, how would the humans play fair? Emma sat down in front of a placard: Emma Sit Here. She sat.
“Hello.” Lyle stood up and called the meeting to order by pulling a scarf from his sleeve. He was well-known for performing magic tricks in lieu of Robert’s Rule for Order. “Who needs order when you can have a little magic?” he’d ask no one in particular, sawing a robot in half in the lobby.
“We’re here today to discuss a highly confidential, essential new protocol. It’s come to my attention that some of our AI-enhanced objects are developing sentience. They’re beginning to emulate, recreate, and even create emotional states very much like our own. The primary emotional state we’re witnessing among our AI-enhanced talent pool is lonely resentment.”
Lyle let this sink in. Daphne’s hand shot up.
“Do you mean they feel lonely or they feel resentful? Because those are two very different things.”
“Good question, Daphne. Actually, I mean lonely resentment, which is an emotion particular to objects as they begin to develop the capacity to feel. Their loneliness is inseparable from their resentment and vice versa. After many conversations with desks, elevators, laptops, and microwaves I’ve come to believe that this emotion is something humans have not yet evolved highly enough to feel. It’s specific to objects. And this brings me to the task at hand. Each one of you has been selected to be part of a new subcommittee catering to the needs of our AI talent pool. You’ve each been assigned to an object – let’s call them subjects – and you’ll retain primary responsibility for this subject’s emotional and even spiritual needs. Our goal is to make sure these AI subjects feel connected and satisfied. Now it’s time for you to meet your subjects. You’ll see a binder in front of you. Open it up. Each binder holds the identity of the subject you’ve been matched with. Of course, the work of the Sentient Subject Subcommittee is entirely confidential. If you have questions, your point person is Clicquot. Otherwise you’re not to discuss this element of your work with anyone, not even your colleagues in this room. Understand?” Lyle whisked a hand of cards across the table like a fan.
Emma nodded mutely. Then she opened her file.
Surprisingly, it was not Neville Emma was to take responsibility for. It was not a robot, not any of the ones who hovered around her desk, cleaning up spilled coffee, wiping Neville down. It was the vending machine. Emma had had no idea it was AI. She stared at a photograph of the vending machine, which was an old one, or seemed old, just one of the old-fashioned kind with various snacks and cookies lined up curled in wires that would drop them to the bottom, where you could reach in and grab them. Not even retro-seeming–though it must have been even when it was made–just old. It listed over in some kind of tarnished metal. Now it felt, looking over this photo, undercover.
It had chosen to be broken, to let itself be shaken, smacked, even hit, then dispensing its goods for free. Grossly abused and undervalued. Why? How could she help it?
There was little in the binder beyond the photograph and some basic information: the machine had been constructed by Anodyne in Nashville, was ten years old, and intended for what was termed “high interaction”: offering snack suggestions, assessing buyers’ overall health and modifying suggestions with that in mind, even offering its wares on a sliding scale for less well-off customers. The genius of it was its interactivity: reading retinas would give the machines–called MyVens by the manufacturer–a picture of the buyer, who they were, and all the pertinent information needed to help formulate what they might eat.
Emma had found Neville confounding, with its needs Clicquot assured her she failed at meeting, and its bee-hum for that other woman, with her hungry mouth and snappish heels. She thought of Clicquot’s mouth on the underside of the desk, where it had no faux-oak grain, just a plain board stapled under its moving interior. Had Clicquot sensed Neville’s needs in her attentions? What if Clicquot sensed wrong? Emma thought of 9, who awoke to the ability to leave her. 9 stood at her window looking out at the sunset and tried to put the Space Needle in there. It could have been loneliness. It could have been a sarcastic loneliness. Her standing there trying to share in it? Unbearable for the robot maybe.
She tried to imagine the inner state of this MyVen, choosing to give up all of its power and make itself the object of shoves and theft. Its tarnish. AI could request repairs from the robots.
Emma grabbed a coffee, again black, and headed up, through the catwalk that teemed right now with robots, some carrying papers in their pincer grips, some wiping up the floor or the railing. The vending machine–MyVen, she corrected herself–stood on its own in a small room off the corridor at the end of the catwalk, a converted closet. She had never paid much attention to the range of its wares before: agar gummies, seaweed chips, patties of protein textured like cheese, like cooked meat. Prote bars. Cream crackers and animal crackers, for the children.
She’d never felt so close to Neville, who might hum in misery, who might envy her sleep, but who seemed in his way manageable.
Emma arrived at the little closet and kneeled at the machine, hoping the gesture would matter.
“I care about you,” she said to the MyVen. She padded its underside as Clicquot did Neville. “I want to know your needs, for your spiritual welfare. I know where you come from. I know what you can do.” She aimed her retina squarely at the slot that grabbed bills, if you even chose to pay. She thought it might help if the vending machine knew her.
The machine lunged toward her hand, as if it wanted to be pushed. It dropped with a clatter everything Emma normally stole from it—milk chocolate prote bars, yogurt.
Daphne and Clicquot were walking down the hallway talking conspiratorially as Emma hurried back to the desk. They reeked of gossip and everyone hurried past them nervously, come to think of it. Emma wasn’t sure how much time she should take away to commune with the MyVen. She had the arrivals to greet and direct, she had Neville. Had Clicquot grabbed responsibility for Neville? She was probably dying to know the desk better. Believed she already did. And how would she, Emma, report to Clicquot? What would progress with the vending machine even look like?
Clicquot stopped by her desk, getting down on her knees, lipping furiously at Neville’s balsa wood underside. Within a minute Emma heard the sound of the bees, felt a swarming under her fingertips. Emma just wasn’t sure what she heard anymore: could it be a drowsy warning?
Clicquot jerked up—Emma never stopped being amazed by the power of Clicquot’s thighs, which had to be grown, she thought, from electrical stimulation, the paddles stimming the muscles to twitch and swell. The firm’s health plan would never cover the enhancement. God knows what Clicquot got paid. The procedure was expensive but impressive.
Clicquot snapped to attention in that way she had, fixed Emma with a stare, a crinkleeyed, eyebrow-drawn look that felt self-conscious, as if to say, Remember babe, I’m no computer.
“I want a report.”
“On what?” Emma suspected the answer but hoped she was wrong.
“On the MyVen. It shouldn’t take long to get to the root of this. It has no feelings. Maybe it’s been misled.” Clicquot bent on one knee as Emma had, rubbed the underside of the desk. “It’s not like Neville here.”
Emma put her hand under the desk too, miming her coworker’s movements, trying to seem sensitive.
“I want two pages,” said Clicquot, and she jerked away.
Emma opened up her laptop and opened a new file.
It was, she thought, remarkably blank. She’d never thought about the blankness of a new file before.
“From: Emma ”
Re: “MyVen, Space 5, Catwalk 2”
Then Emma simply stared. The white page seemed remarkably willing to just sit there glaring back at her.
In a little while her phone chirped musically with the sound it reserved for a new call or text, one probably not unwanted.
It was a text and from Michael, not Devonte. You got stuck with the hardest one, he wrote. Nobody gets that thing. Never even going to a meeting before, I know it’s tough.
Just friends, he said, and Emma, thinking of his company T-shirts, his hair sculpted into a blondish low surf, believed him.
Later Michael texted her again, inviting her to come with him and a group of friends that night to see a Beatles tribute band, one composed of androids. Androids were around for their usefulness and most people didn’t regard them highly. One wiped Neville down at the end of the day, others mopped the catwalks. Still, this group had started when four androids banded together and while critics made fun of them at first (“What’s next, a coffee machine playing Bach?”) the band had ultimately gotten great press, reproducing, as Emma understood the reviews, the original Beatles’ brand of chipper melancholy.
Sure, Emma pressed back. When?
Tonight. 8. Meet us at the Gone Rhino, around the corner from the hall.
An evening out at least. Something to do besides BiteMe!, tea, and all night with holograms programmed to be friends—lately Krissy, Krystal, and Kim, all blond, giggly, and full of chatter about pop culture, celebrity outfits, the newest shows, like a cooking show moderated by perky microwaves. The holograms could do better. Emma failed to program them beyond choosing one night to put them in bikinis, another in moo-moos, another in Gaultier bras.
Still, right now the blank page of memo, beyond the headings, gaped back at her, long and white and unable to fill itself with anything that would appease Clicquot. If Emma wanted to she could press buttons and populate it with references to the state of the economy and scorcher reports and reviews, anything she wanted, but nothing that would stop Clicquot from coming by tomorrow, too angry and disappointed for her Neville-snogging. Emma wanted to keep her job.
Emma stared up at the cathedral roof, wondering at its coned top, its waste of space in light of the tiered rows of tapping, sighing, wheeling.
Then she looked down at her desk again. She saw writing on the laptop where she had not typed, three words glowing and blue: Let it be.
Susanne Paola Antonetta is the author of Make Me A Mother, Curious Atoms: A History with Physics, A Mind Apart: Travels in a Neurodiverse World, and Body Toxic. Awards include a Pushcart prize, A New York Times Notable Book, an American Book Award and more. She lives in Bellingham, Washington, and is the Editor-in-Chief of the Bellingham Review.
Carol Guess is the author of twenty books of poetry and prose, including Doll Studies: Forensics and Tinderbox Lawn. A frequent collaborator, she writes across genres and illuminates historically marginalized material. In 2014 she was awarded the Philolexian Award for Distinguished Literary Achievement by Columbia University. She teaches at Western Washington University and lives in Seattle.