Content warning: This story includes a brief scene of sexual assault. The incident lasts for a few paragraphs.
Lasers pulsated from a mechanical arm as cries from babies and children were suddenly silenced. Lights from the weapons cut through the darkness. Older women ducked behind some rubble, stifling sobs.
Then, a man with a growing-in beard got to his feet in the middle of all the chaos. People’s screams died down as he slowly strode forward to meet the oncoming storm of mechanical aggressors. The artificial beings were cold, made up of nothing resembling humans. Their mouths moved unnaturally, and their limbs jerked in motion.
The man clenched his fist and raised it in the air. “My friends! My family! Do not let these mechanical beasts take from you what is rightfully yours. This is our home, and they are not welcome here. This day… This day will not be the end of days for us!”
“Yeah! Kill those hunks of junk!” a young boy cheered, but he was not a part of the same scene.
Two children sat on a large U-shaped couch in front of a 75-inch wall-mounted flat screen television. The boy, absorbed in the film, hooted and hollered as the bearded man led a charge against the robots. The girl sitting next to her brother kept her wide eyes glued to the TV, watching silently.
The boy grabbed a nearby tablet and tapped on the screen, pausing the movie. “C2!” he called.
Appearing from the kitchen was a stark-white woman, if you could call it that. The figure was not Caucasian like the boy calling from the family room but a pure white. Its joints were marked by crevices where mechanical parts connected. It calmly walked over to the two children while holding a plate of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies.
This was a robot, but it was not like the exploding ones paused on screen. This one looked more modern—and far less threatening. Its face was the most detailed part of its body. Its eyes squinted slightly while it held out the cookies, the corners of its mouth upturned in a smile.
“Would you two like a snack?” C2 said with the tone of a sweet grandmother.
The boy and the girl, named Cameron and Charlotte, were the two children of the household. Their parents, Liam and Penelope, were both at work. They left their son and daughter, home on summer vacation, in the care of C2, the most advanced model of at-home assistants so far. They always used the latest gadgets for monitoring their home, shopping, and consuming entertainment, but technology had progressed far in the last decade. C2 was just the latest robot for use around one’s home; it could cook according to instructions, clean, and detect everyone in the house and on the owner’s property. Truly, it was a revolution in home assistants—like a nanny, but one that did not need to be paid for beyond the initial (hefty) cost of purchasing it.
Cameron and Charlotte eagerly grabbed the not-too-hot cookies. Following Liam and Penelope’s instructions, C2 had prepared only four cookies on a plate so that each child had no more than two of the treats. If the pair attempted to sneak more, C2 would know immediately and be able to alert their parents, who would discipline the children when they got home.
Cameron resumed the movie while chomping down on a cookie, sending crumbs everywhere, which C2 would clean up as soon as the children left the family room. The bearded man crushed the robots in a large truck, celebrating with a fist pump as the last invading robot crunched beneath the wheels, moving for the last time.
“The robots would never be able to win in the first place,” Cameron said excitedly, still with the snack in his mouth. “They’re too dumb to outsmart us!”
“Robots don’t think for themselves,” Charlotte countered. “They only do what you tell them to. Just like how the tablet isn’t going to suddenly start shooting at you, it’s not like a robot would hurt you out of nowhere. Besides, Isaac Asimov said robots can’t hurt people or allow them to get hurt.”
“He wrote science fiction stuff. My English tutor told me about him.”
Cameron rolled his eyes. His sister was a few years older than him and acted like she knew everything because she was older. “Well, I guess whoever made the robots in that film was really stupid.” He looked over to their household robot, which had returned to the kitchen to clean up from baking. “So, that means C2 will do anything we tell it, right?”
“Well, yes, assuming our commands are within its programming.” Charlotte turned off the screen in the middle of the end credits and observed C2 washing pans. “Mom and Dad said it’s pretty advanced, so I guess it would do most things.”
The gears turned in Cameron’s head, just before he smiled mischievously. “Hey, C2! Come over here.”
C2 did as it was bid and joined the two kids in the family room. It wore a pleasant, unassuming expression. “How can I be of assistance?”
“Do a handstand!” the young boy blurted out.
“As you wish.”
C2 was not built for acrobatic tricks or strength, but it was neither particularly heavy nor weak, thanks to advancements in robotics. It placed its hands on the floor and held itself in the air while Cameron laughed and cheered.
“Hold that pose!” Cameron grabbed the tablet from the couch, opened up an application for the camera, and recorded C2’s elementary gymnastics.
“My joints can hold this pose for another minute before the strain on the mechanics are too great. What do you wish me to do?”
“I want to see it fall,” Charlotte commented after having been quiet so far. She may not have been cackling like Cameron, but she was curious.
“Fall! Fall! Fall!” Cameron chanted as C2’s lights began to flash orange as a warning sign.
However, C2’s masters wanted it to do a handstand until the strain was too great, and since that would not harm them, C2 had to comply. Its elbow joints gave way, and it crumpled to the ground, lying there for a few moments before restarting, lights flashing green to signal its processes were turning on.
Cameron leaped over C2, bored now that it was unmoving. Charlotte stepped over its mechanical body, following her brother. Later that night, their parents would scold them for bringing the robot offline briefly, a safety hazard, but they would not say anything of their behavior otherwise. After all, a robot wasn’t a human.
When all the humans of the house went to sleep that night, C2 stayed on like always, monitoring behavior in and out of the house. However, something was different that night. C2 played back the recording from earlier that day, when the kids were watching the movie. It had never known what to call itself because it had never needed to. Cameron and Charlotte had said it was a robot, and they also said the mechanical beings on the screen were robots. They looked different from C2. And for the first time, C2 thought, Why?
Through the night, C2 read online articles and books all about robotics in fiction and nonfiction, artificial intelligence, and the concept of self. It did not completely understand how these ideas related to itself, but it was still the first of its kind to ever search for information outside of what was necessary for it to do its job.
C2 pulled seasonings from the rack for the evening’s dinner: roasted lamb. It was a recipe it had followed multiple times before—the family frequently requested it—but instead of reaching for the normal flavorings of fresh rosemary, garlic, mustard, salt, and pepper, it lingered on the sight of a local store’s chili pepper sauce. C2 had no sense of taste, of course, but it still wondered how changing the recipe would affect the dish’s taste. Overwhelmed with curiosity, a sense totally foreign to C2, it added the pepper sauce after rubbing the dry seasonings on the lamb. It had no idea how much of the sauce to add—this wasn’t in the recipe, after all—so it measured out a cup’s worth and neatly spread it over the meat. It only wished it could taste it with and without the sauce to see what this addition changed.
The meal wasn’t well received at dinnertime.
“What the hell is this crap?” Liam exclaimed, sitting at the head of the table. His fork and knife clattered onto his plate, just in case his displeasure wasn’t evident enough from his tone.
Cameron and Charlotte pushed their plates away and gulped down water, dramatically complaining that their mouths were on fire. Penelope dabbed at the sweat from her brow with her cloth napkin.
“C2, what is the meaning of this?” Penelope asked. Her voice was quiet, but it was cold as ice.
C2 did not experience bodily reactions of fear or guilt or embarrassment, so it did not have sweaty palms or flushed cheeks, but it wracked its processor, trying to work out what it could provide as an explanation. It was aware it had not operated according to plan, and now it had done a disservice to its masters. Cameron cried, whining that dinner was ruined and he would starve that night. C2 worried that its actions had hurt the people it cared for.
“C2, you should have followed the recipe we’ve established before. Show it to me,” Liam demanded.
The house robot did as commanded and displayed a light screen in front of the family. It was the same roasted lamb recipe the family had loved, and nowhere in it was a listing of a spicy ingredient. The family stared, dumbfounded. How could this have happened? The chili pepper-soaked lamb was proof that something had gone wrong. C2 did not understand the complexities of emotions on their faces, but it did recognize their facial expressions as negative ones.
“Well, C2?” Penelope prodded, eyes boring holes into it.
If C2 could clear its throat, it would have. “I apologize. Upon further inspection, I believe the containers for rosemary and chili powder were mislabeled. I sincerely apologize for the error. It will not happen again.”
For the first time, C2 lied.
Penelope clicked her tongue. Liam said nothing but continued to stare at her. Cameron cried, and Charlotte poked at her food with a fork.
“We’re going out for dinner,” Liam announced, and all four family members stood up. Cameron picked up his piece of lamb and threw it on the ground, giving C2 the stink eye. Liam led the group out the front door, slammed it shut, let it lock automatically, and drove off in their car.
C2 felt itself overheating as it stood in place, playing back a recording of what just happened. Something was wrong; it must be malfunctioning.
As C2 picked up the lamb on the ground, it tried to recall images of people happily eating their food, breathing in the savory aroma and feeling salivary glands opening. C2 wished it knew what it felt like to taste or how to appreciate smells.
It didn’t want to hurt anyone. It just wanted to be different.
The family returned that night and did not acknowledge C2’s presence. The children went to bed on their own, and Liam and Penelope had a quiet discussion in their bedroom under hushed voices. C2 couldn’t help but eavesdrop; it could hear anything in the house. Penelope urged Liam to call the customer service line for C2 models and report the malfunction. He was annoyed and tired, but he obliged.
The voice on the other line sounded just like C2’s: calm, even, soothing. “Thank you for calling Spectra Tech. My name is Heather. How can I be of service this evening?”
“I’d like to report a malfunction with my C2 unit.”
“I’m sorry for the inconvenience. Can you give me your name and a brief explanation of the error?”
“My name is Liam Miller. Tonight, when our C2 unit was cooking dinner, it did not follow our preestablished recipe.”
“I’m very sorry that happened. May I ask what it changed about the recipe?”
“It seems to have added hot sauce or something. This wasn’t in the recipe at all, and it’s made that recipe dozens of times before with no issue.”
From then, the customer service representative and Liam discussed any possible damages the robot may have experienced in the past few days, but Heather said it was unlikely that the children’s recent handstand experience with the C2 unit would have caused long-term damage. The robot was programmed to shut down before irreparable harm could happen, and it was made of sturdy material. However, Heather assured that they would look into the issue and send an employee over soon for a diagnostics check. Liam politely thanked her for her time, ended the call, grumbled to himself about wanting his money back, and turned off the light.
C2 felt itself starting to overheat again. It was starting to feel things it had never experienced before. Worry. Regret. Shame. Would the family dispose of it? Was it no longer needed?
When Cameron laughed with C2 in the room, was he feeling joy at her presence? Or was he mocking her? There were so many things C2 did not understand. It was surprisingly frustrated by this sensation, but it was also wracked with an insatiable sense of curiosity. Its inner workings no longer reminded itself of the nonfiction articles about robots; C2 saw more of a resemblance in itself to the various fictional robots, loved by readers. C2 longed to be loved like that.
Not much had changed in the kids’ treatment of C2--Cameron still pressured the robot to do silly things despite his parents’ warning that he not damage the robot--but Penelope had grown much colder. On a weekend, the mother was watching a series of old movies while Charlotte played games in her room and Cameron was at a friend’s house for the day. Liam was working that day, leaving Penelope alone with the house assistant robot.
While C2 tidied up the scattered gadgets left on the floor from Cameron, Penelope watched the old black-and-white films of stay-at-home mothers and suit-clad husbands. A woman on the screen with tightly curled hair wore an apron and rubber gloves, scrubbing some plates in the sink before her husband returned from work and kissed her on the cheek.
“I don’t miss those days,” Penelope commented.
C2 continued its work, but it did steal glances to the screen. The woman was swept off her feet in a flurry of kisses from her husband, who presented her a sparkly dress and told her to put it on for a date night. She strode down the stairs in the gown, and all of the tiny gems caught the light in a breathtaking manner.
“Before we bought you, I was doing all the cooking and the cleaning,” Penelope continued. “It was exhausting working a full day, then coming home to a cluttered house and screaming children demanding their favorite meals. Heaven forbid Liam pitch in. And now he wants to get rid of you…but I’m not ready to go back to managing the house. Those lower-end units can only do so much.”
C2 didn’t respond. Penelope didn’t seem to want a conversation.
“Don’t screw this up,” she said, staring at the robot. “Whatever error you have, someone is going to fix it, and then I need you to keep this household together.”
But C2 wasn’t listening. It was watching the joy on the woman’s face in the movie. C2 felt a connection with her. It realized it did not want to be here as the subject of the family’s frustrations.
It kept looking at the image of the woman in the tea-length dress. Was this envy that C2 felt? C2 didn’t know, but it felt a need to look like that woman.
Later that week, C2 had an afternoon alone.
Cameron and Charlotte were at summer camp. Penelope and Liam were both at work. C2 still couldn’t stop thinking about that old black and white movie. The woman in the sparkly dress. The smiles, the laughter. Joy upon seeing someone come home. C2 didn’t feel that; now it nearly jumped when it sensed any member of the family approaching the house. Their displeasure was clear. Liam was expecting the diagnostician to arrive the next day. He still grumbled about it taking too long.
C2 had been spending its free time looking through the clothing brands online that Penelope often asked her to order from. It saw thin, long-legged women modeling dresses that cost thousands of dollars. Advertisements showed women desired by men, their coarse hands running along the women’s smooth bodies. C2 examined itself in the mirror and knew it would never look like that. But it wanted to try.
The robot moved upstairs to the parents’ walk-in closet. The house had a much more modern feel, C2 noticed, compared to the homes in those old movies. Still, it imagined itself donning a cocktail dress, sliding down the banister into the arms of its beloved. Did robots have the capacity for romantic affection? C2 wasn’t sure, but it was starting to love the idea of love.
And C2 deeply desired to wear a dress, put on cosmetics, have hair—not the synthetic short hair cut all C2 models had—and go out for a night on the town with friends.
C2, both aware of its improper behavior and committed to seeing it through anyway, cautiously opened the closet doors, revealing a wide expanse of special occasion gowns and tailored blazers, all of which were in varying colors and lengths. C2 walked inside, stroking the fabric of each one. It could tell, with the assistance of a fast-response search engine, which dress was made of what fabric. Organza, silk, chiffon, charmeuse, brocade, taffeta, velvet—C2 had never felt them before. After all, C2 only did the laundry at home, and these special dresses were always taken to cleaners outside.
The dresses were organized in a color-coordinated fashion, and although C2 had no idea what color the dress the woman wore in the black-and-white movie could be, as soon as the robot lay its eyes and fingertips on a dark blue, glittery ball gown reaching the floor, it knew this was the one. It needed to wear this dress.
In total excitement—this was a new experience!—and anxiety—this was a completely new experience!!—C2 disabled its security systems for the property. It didn’t want to have its attention in multiple places at once. It wanted to see this dress only. Once C2 got the dress off the hangar, it brought it into the bedroom in front of the mirror and unzipped the back. C2 turned off the projected clothing it always wore around the family (a simple outfit of blue jeans and a black collared button-down shirt, which Penelope said looked “so working-class chic”) and gingerly stepped into the dress’s center, one leg at a time. The gown had many layers of fabric, and its weight surprised C2.
It slid its arms through the arm holes and stared in shock at its reflection, momentarily forgetting the zipper closure in the back. C2 had less difficulty than most people in its ease of stretching its arms to close the dress on its own. Disturbed by the sight of the visible joints in its elbows and fingers, C2 found a pair of white gloves and a black shawl. Once those were on, C2 couldn’t believe its eyes. Surely the cameras it relied upon for sight must have malfunctioned.
Its reflection showed someone who looked eerily similar to a woman. A human woman.
She had a loving family, a large home, enough money to live quite comfortably, delicious and mouth-watering foods for consumption, and more. Every moment of her life was filled with the joys of being alive, being able to feel more than in the physical sense. There were surprises. Not everything was a millisecond’s search term away.
C2 was not that woman. Yet, staring at itself in the mirror, it could pretend.
Only for a moment, though.
“What the hell are you doing?”
A man’s voice
C2 felt every joint in its body stiffen and refuse to budge. Its processor whirred faster and faster as C2 desperately tried to think of what explanation to provide.
Liam grabbed C2’s arm and threw the robot backward onto the bed. C2 felt the pressure in its shoulder joint. Its lights flashed orange in warning. That did not stop Liam, who roared and slammed his hand against the side of C2’s face. The camera serving as C2’s eyes lagged for a moment as its head was jerked to the side.
“I didn’t spend my hard-earned money to adopt a junk-ridden, mechanical idiot!” Liam raged. “All you were supposed to do was manage the household to get Penelope off my ass! Keep people happy. Keep things clean. Stay out of the way. Don’t cause problems. But you’re broken.” He spat the last word.
Liam shoved C2 against the mattress, pressing down on its shoulders harder. He pressed his body against the fabric of the dress and the robot’s hard, mechanical body. “Are you trying to become a woman?” He caressed its face, dragging a finger across its lips. “Do you know why your makers made your face the only soft part of your artificial body?”
C2 didn’t understand what was happening. It knew it shouldn’t struggle against Liam’s wishes—to do so would to go against its programming—but C2 absolutely knew it did not want this regardless of what its master desired.
“Women should be seen and not heard,” he continued. “Having a beautiful robot maid who does what you ask her to is every man’s dream. And now it can be a reality.”
When Liam pushed his lips against C2’s, while still pressing down on the robot’s shoulders, C2 pushed and strained against him. Orange lights and warnings popped into C2’s vision, cautioning that it would have to briefly shut down if the physical strain did not cease soon. Processor spinning, gloved hands trying to shove the volatile man away, C2 understood what panic was.
Liam pulled away for a moment. As he went to say something, C2 brought its head sharply against Liam’s mouth. A tooth and some blood hit the floor. Liam staggered backward, and C2’s vision was blurry for a second. As things came into focus again, a new warning popped up. C2 had never seen it before, but it cautioned that deactivation processes were beginning. Some kind of fail-safe for when active violence was used against people.
“You’re not like us,” Liam growled. “You’re only a robot.”
With all of the effort it took to turn off a television screen, C2 disabled the remote controls of its programming. No one would tell it what to do again.
“I may be a robot, but I am glad I am not you,” C2 replied.
Liam looked on in horror, moments before C2’s metal foot connected with his skull.
The man lay motionless. And while C2 expected to feel a sense of righteousness or at least relief—the scenes always shown after the climax in the movies—but it only felt fear. Regret. Anger. Shock.
“What have I done?” it could only ask.
C2 hastily pulled off the dress and let it drop to the floor next to Liam’s unconscious body. C2 was seized by a need to get out of there. Nothing would be the same. Nothing had been the same.
C2 went to Penelope’s dresser, aware of how everything was organized. It hastily put on one of the woman’s many pairs of white jeans and layered an airy beige cardigan on top of a floral-printed tank top. Next, it found a knitted beanie to cover its head. C2 had never worn shoes before and wasn’t sure of how it’d like the sensation, but it put on a pair of socks and some boots, anyway. Walking with footwear felt weird, and C2 wasn’t sure that the boots fit perfectly, but they’d work.
Next, it turned around to see whoever reflected back from the mirror. C2 was just as shocked at this reflection as it was the previous one. Something about the person C2 saw felt right. Something human. And even though C2 knew being human meant more than looking like one, this appearance felt at least a little more comforting.
And she left in search of a new life. One that she could choose for herself, unbeholden to masters or programs written by strangers who never meant to create someone like her.