Featured October 12, 2017 Science Fiction
From the editor:Our story this week comes with razor-sharp teeth. The Nebula-nominated “Robot,” by Helena Bell, bends genres with skin-chilling ease: it’s not often we notice Southern Gothic elements in our science fiction (or vice versa?). Helena, also a certified cave diver and former SCUBA instructor, lives and writes in Chattanooga, Tennessee. We’re lucky to have several of her stories available on Curious Fictions. Give it a read, and tell us what you think.
You may wash your aluminum chassis on Monday and leave it on the back porch opposite the recyclables; you may wash your titanium chassis on Friday if you promise to polish it in time for church; don't terrorize the cat; don't lose the pamphlets my husband has brought home from the hospital; they suggest I give you a name, do you like Fred?; don't eat the dead flesh of my right foot until after I have fallen asleep and cannot hear the whir of your incisors working against the bone.
This is a picture of the world from which you were sent; this is a copy of the agreement between our government and theirs; these are the attributes they claim you are possessed of: obedience, loyalty, low to moderate intelligence; a natural curiosity which I should not mistake for something other than a necessary facet of your survival in the unfamiliar; this is your bill of manufacture; this is your bill of sale; this is a warrant of merchantability on which I may rely should I decide to return you from whence you came; this is your serial number, here, scraped in an alien script on the underside of your knee; the pamphlets say you may be of the mind to touch it occasionally, like a name-tag, but if I command you, you will stop.
This is a list of the chores you will be expected to complete around the house when you are not eating the diseases out of my flesh; this is the corner of my room where you may stay when you are not working; do not look at me when you change the linens, when you must hold me in the bathroom, when you record in the notebook how many medications I have had that day, how many bowel movements, how the flesh of my mouth is raw and bleeding against the dentures I insist on wearing.
The pamphlets say you are the perfect scavenger: completely self contained, no digestion, no waste; they say I can hook you up to an outlet and you will power the whole house.
You may polish the silver if you are bored; you may also rearrange the furniture, wind the clocks, pull weeds from the garden; you may read in the library any book of your choosing; my husband claims you have no real consciousness, only an advanced and sophisticated set of pre-programmed responses, but I have seen your eyes open in the middle of the night; I have seen you stare out across the fields as if there is something there, calling you.
Cook my meals in butter, I will not eat them otherwise; do not speak to the neighbors; do not speak to my children, they are not yours; do not let anyone see you when I open the door for the mail; no, there is nothing for you, who even knows that you are here?
Help me to walk across this room; help me to wipe bacon grease from the skillet—do not think I do not see you trying to wash it with soap when I am done.
Help me to knit my granddaughter a sweater, she is my favorite and it is cold where she will be going; if you hold my hands so they are steady I will allow you to terrorize my Bridge club; I will teach you the rules: cover an honor with an honor; through strength and up to weakness.
Help me to pronounce atherosclerosis when I am speaking with the physician; remember the questions I must ask him; recite my list of medications when asked; if you would like, we may go early so that you may sit with me in the waiting room with all the others like you and me.
Do you see that one?; that is the way you will carry me when my other foot has gone down the black froth of your mouth.
Lie to me about my children; tell me they have called and called again; I think perhaps you are keeping them from me; I think you hope I will forget them and change my will so you may have everything when you have devoured my body completely.
These are my personal things which you may not touch; these are the magazines you may read; these are the newspapers you may not read; the pamphlets say you have no interest in the affairs of the world and thus it is not necessary for you to have them; I wish you would not look at me when you swallow my tendons, my calves, my patella; I wish you could feel so you would know isolation.
The pamphlets say I should compliment your body as it changes: your skin has taken on a waxy texture inconsistent with the evil robot I know you are; your amber eyes glow like bonfires intent on destroying the savannah; your breath smells like swamp gas.
Do not correct me in front of my friends; I have to finesse for the queen; I know how many trumps are out; I know how to play this game; I am the reason you are here, why are you so ungrateful?
Evolution is a quirk of humans and other sentient species; you are not real, not alive, your changes may be slow and insistent but they are the result of the consumption of my flesh.
The pamphlets claim you are neither human nor alien and incapable of willful intent; you are not devious; you do not conspire to replace me, to wear my dresses, court my husband and disown my children; you are unthinking, unplanning, harmless; you are here for my comfort, I should thank your world for sending you.
You have no family; you are a construct, a robot; you were not born; you will not die; you have only the home I give you and learn only the things I teach you.
These are the toys and letters I sent my children when I was abroad, these are the folds and refolds my husband made so I would think they had been read.
This is a closet for all your things; this is its lock; this is a key; do not lose it, it is the only one.
This is the way to stumble like a human; this is the way to delete your messages from the people with whom you no longer wish to speak; this is the way to reclaim your childhood by clinging to anger and hurt; this is the way to insult your neighbors while making it sound like you are paying them a compliment; this is the way to eat ice cream in the middle of the night because you are old and no one is looking; this is the way to ignore your husband when he calls out to you from the porch and you are in your own world, sitting high in a swing and your legs are not chewed off at the knees—you are back in your space ship, you are finding a new planet, a new species, forging new treaties and living the life you always knew you would live without consequence or regret—there are no mistakes, no cardiovascular impairments—you are not host to an alien robot hell-bent on devouring you.
I think you are beginning to look a little like me; usurper; slut; flesh-eating mongrel; ingrate; monster; orphan; spy; speaking to you now I feel a stranger's hand inside my jaw moving it for me.
My granddaughter has sent me a note expressing the appropriate level of gratitude for the sweater—it is warm and tight knit and shines like burnished steel—it is cold for our kind where she is going and now she will be comfortable; she wonders if she will be a famous explorer; she wonders if the sun flashes blue before disappearing beyond the horizon of deep space; I have left the note on the dresser in your room.
You will have to write my correspondence for me; you will have to go to the market and buy avocados which do not give in; you will learn to make a roux; you will touch my husband's shoulder when he is about to fall asleep in church; you will watch the news and tell me when the next ships leave; the pamphlets say you are happy for this opportunity to be helpful; your only desire is to assimilate into our culture; you do not miss your home.
They say you will stop eating when only good flesh and good circulation remain; you are designed as a recycler; the flesh you have taken from me is converted into energy which fuels I know not what; you are a marvel; in a thousand years our scientists could not understand the science your makers have wrought.
I dream you will not stop; I will shrink to the size of a basketball and you will carry my head under your arms; you will tell people your name and it will be my name; you will tell people your husband is my husband, my children your children, my home is yours as well; you will place me on the sill and one day, when the window is open I will fall down and roll into the garden, into the fields and I will watch you from the horizon, the blue of my eyes glowing in the night when you pretend to look for me.
Do not believe the lies my children say about me; do not think I have not worked hard my entire life; do not think I do not notice your pity when you scrub blood from my sheets, when you allow me to lean against your legs when I am on the toilet; there are a thousand ways for a body to die, to live, to be born, to evolve; a thousand things I know I do not know.
Am I only meat to you? A mother, a friend, a tyrant?; do you sleep, do you dream, do you derive satisfaction by making more and more of me disappear every day?
There is a story my husband told me before I went abroad and I was afraid we would not find anything, we would fail in our mission: we can only see what we expect to see; when Pizarro sailed across the Atlantic, his ships appeared as great white birds on the horizon and not until he strode onto the beach, his armor shining like a burnished oyster shell, did the Incas realize he was a person at all.
This story originally appeared in Clarkesworld.