New Fiction in Translation: ‘Naked Robot’

If, one day, a robot desires to live / then:

Naked Robot

By Ahmed Salah Al Mahdi

Translated by Ahmed Salah Al Mahdi

It was another ordinary workday, and nothing at its beginning suggested its strange ending. With the first light of morning, I stood in the store, prepared to greet customers with the usual smile, the smile that hung tirelessly on my face all day long until it was carved there, becoming part of my features. I wouldn’t take a break from it until the end of the day, when my features could relax a little. But even then, I still felt the shadow of that smile. My task was straightforward; I waited until the customers had finished selecting their groceries, then calculated the price of everything in a simple mathematical operation that took only a few seconds, or rather fractions of a second.

I had two co-workers like me in the store. One accompanied the customers, ready to help at any moment, and the other was fit and carried goods from the warehouse to the shelves, or received carts loaded with new goods to bring into the store.

The store was owned by a middle-aged couple, and it was rare that one of them made any effort in the store. All of the labor was left to the three of us. Yet none of us could object, as that was the way things were; these were the laws of our society, and we were completely satisfied with them. I didn’t know whether we had a choice in this satisfaction, but I didn’t like to tire my mind thinking about it.

The few hours of the morning passed as usual, with the typical work routine. The sign was lit up with the store’s name in neon letters and, under it, the word “open.” Customers came in and out of the store. My broad smile was on my face. The usual math operations. The same old—

Suddenly, through the front glass, I saw a stylish modern van park in front of the store. I knew the logo that was printed on it very well. This was the logo of RoboTech, the robot manufacturer.

The store’s owner hurried out to the driver and exchanged a few words with him. After that, he called cheerfully to his wife, “The new robots are here.”

His wife rushed out of the store. I saw the van’s side door slide up, revealing three polished metal bodies gleaming white and silver. Each had the same RoboTech logo engraved on their chests.

For the first time, a strange feeling engulfed me: these three robots were here to replace us. I saw two men step out of the van wearing company uniforms, and I watched the store’s owner sign a few papers to receive the delivery before he led the three new robots into the store. I knew they could start work immediately. This was part of their programming.

I looked at the man and the three robots, my smile frozen on my face, and I heard him address his wife, who was rapturously studying the new robots.

“We don’t need those old models,” he said. “These new guys will start work immediately.”

“Didn’t the van leave yet?” his wife asked, looking over her shoulder, through the store’s glass front.

“No,” he said. “They’re taking the old models with then. That’s part of the RoboTech deal.”

That’s how I found myself, with my two companions, taking off our human clothes and getting naked. Even though I was a robot, I felt embarrassed. Human emotions were part of my programming. We were among the first generation of robots to have a completely humanized form, indistinguishable from real humans, with real human emotions.

But people soon complained about this sort of robots. Humans found there was something uncomfortable about robots that looked just like them. They called this feeling the uncanny valley. No matter how much RoboTech tried to convince people this was a revolutionary invention, human nature utterly rejected it. Conspiracy theorists started bringing out various suggestions about these robots.Others questioned how much human emotion these robots could have. Could a robot truly feel human anger, envy, or a desire to cause pain? Could someone hurt you without you knowing exactly whether the one who did it was a robot or a human?

Despite RoboTech’s constant assertion that robots were completely safe, the rumors and theories about humanoid robots committing all manner of harm did not stop.

And then there was the usual human pride. Robots could not look like people! There should be a clear difference between the master and the machine. Perhaps this was why people were willing to accept and believe the wild theories.

The numbers of those who believed was increasing, and I could feel it in the cold or fearful looks on the faces of certain customers when they learned I was a robot, not a human. Those looks penetrated all the way down to my electrical circuits.

There had been enthusiasts of these new humanoid robots. Among them was the owner of the store where I worked. But over time, the situation changed. Complaints increased. In the end, RoboTech gave up, and they announced their willingness to replace the old robots with new robots—ones that had metal bodies and silver and white colors. The robot is as it should be.

And so it was that I realized my master had decided to get rid of us, to replace us with the new models. I didn’t feel anger or hatred, and I held no grudge against him, we had not been programmed with such feelings. But I did feel sad. For some reason, our makers decided to program us with sadness, and also with the feeling of embarrassment, which I felt when I took off my human clothes next to my companions.

My master ordered us to get into the van, and we did. The side door closed, leaving the three of us in darkness. I felt the motor resume its growling, and then the car began to move along the paved road that led out of the city.

The three of us didn’t exchange a single word. Still, I knew the two of them were feeling what I felt: the fear of unknown. Why had our makers decided to program us with this feeling, too? I don’t know! I didn’t want to strain my circuits by attempting to understand human nature. But I knew where they were taking us, even though they hadn’t said—to the robot graveyard. This was the horrifying name they had given the junkyard where they dumped old, malfunctioning robots, so that they could later reuse some of their parts.

The van stopped. After a few minutes, it moved again. I guessed that it had passed the graveyard gate, and I didn’t have to wait long before this suspicion was confirmed.

The van door opened, and I saw two men in front of us.

“Let’s throw them out and hurry up so we can catch the match,” one of them said.

“Shouldn’t we take out their batteries first?” the second one asked, hesitantly.

“That’ll take too long, and the match is about to start.” Casually, the first one waved a hand. “Besides, their batteries are already running low. There’s no danger.”

The second was still hesitating as the first one ordered us to get out of the van, and we did. Then the first one jumped to the driver’s seat, pressed a button to close the van door, and sounded the horn. The other made up his mind and jumped to the passenger seat. We saw the van turning away, leaving the robot graveyard.

As I looked at the endless piles of scrap, I felt afraid. They were old, broken robots, most of them old clumsy models, more like metal cubes. A few were slightly more modern models, the kind that came just before ours.

I felt my muscular companion trembling beside me as he looked out at this scene. There was something wrong with him. Then he burst out, in a shaky voice, “We’ll die here.”

I was struck by his words. We understood the idea of death, but the fear of death was not part of our program.

“We’ll die here.” He repeated himself, angrily.

I realized that—because he couldn’t comprehend what he was seeing—his circuits were malfunctioning. Under such circumstances, none of us should feel angry. There was nothing we could do. Soon the sun would go down, and shortly after that, our batteries would run out completely. I felt saddened, because this was the last sight I would see before I shut down forever. But I didn’t feel angry, like him.

Before, we would charge our batteries every evening, after we had finished our work. There had been a charging plug for each of us in a room above the store—a sort of bed in which we slept. We didn’t need to sleep, like humans did, but there was nothing for us to do at night. So we would temporarily shut down our circuits during the charging process.

“Well.” Our third companion, who had been silent until this moment, finally spoke. “It looks like this is farewell, guys.”

“No. We will not die here,” the muscular one said, angrily, “Maybe we can find a charging port around here. Maybe we can find some unused energy in the corpses of the old robots.”

I was terrified by his rage, by his desire to revolt, and by the word corpses that he used to refer to the bodies of the old robots. I watched him leap at one of the piles, tearing apart the metal bodies with his bare hands. He grabbed the batteries and checked them before savagely throwing them away.

From where I stood, I could feel the strange reactions occurring in his electrical circuits. This was something our makers hadn’t calculated when they put fear into our programs. The horror had unleashed something that lurked in amongst those precise, complex equations. Something they call the will to live. I watched him in silence. He looked like a rabid animal scavenging corpses. One robot after another. From one pile to another, through the seemingly endless hills of scrap. It was useless. There was not a single energy point.

Time passed, and our third companion and I watched him in silence. Suddenly, he turned back, a frenzied look in his eyes. All of a sudden, something happened that unleashed real terror in me. I saw our muscular companion leap on our third companion, knocking him down. Then he grabbed his head and wrenched it in a violent motion, separating it from his body. The torn wires and shattered circuits shot out blue electric sparks. My eyes widened in panic. I watched him remove the other’s chest cover with his hands, revealing a battery that was pulsing blue. Then he opened his own chest and pulled a small cable from it, connected it to the other’s battery, and began sucking his energy.

At that moment, I began running in fear. I did not want to die. At that moment, I felt the mysterious will to live within me. My muscular companion ran after me. I stumbled across piles of scrap, but I jumped up again. I could hear his heavy footsteps behind me. There was no escape. He would get me for sure.

Then I saw something. I thought quickly and ran toward it, listening to the sound of his footsteps. He didn’t stop, not even for a moment. I froze in place, and his steps rapidly approached. Then they stopped, and I jumped to the side at that exact moment. I watched his bulk fly through the air as he leapt at me, and then an iron pole that had been protruding from the scarp pile pierced his belly. Fortunately, it didn’t penetrate his battery.

I opened my chest cover and attached my battery to his, just as he had done with our companion. Then I began sucking out all his energy. I saw the horror in his eyes, mixed with a bit of pleading, but I didn’t stop until his energy was completely absorbed, and the lights in his eyes went out. His body went limp, lifeless, and I stepped back.

Now, I have enough energy for a few hours. I have to find an energy source quickly. But first, I must put on clothes, to cover my naked body. It won’t be hard. I can steal some clothes and disguise myself as human.

And so I walked, with my naked body, toward the door to the robot graveyard. There was only one guard. He was watching for danger from the outside, not from the inside, so he didn’t notice my approach until it was too late. With a single blow to the head, I knocked him out. Thanks to my overwhelming fear, my circuits had freed themselves from the program that prevented me from harming humans. Still, I felt no desire to kill him. This wasn’t his fault. I just stole his clothes to cover my naked body, then rushed out of place, completely human. I needed a place to spend the night and recharge. In order to afford the cost of this place, I would have to look for a new job, as a human this time. Nobody would know who I truly was. I would live.

Ahmed Salah Al-Mahdi is translator and author of both science fiction (Malaazand young-adult (Reemworks. He recently won the Egyptian Society of Science Fiction Award for his story “An Unusual Visitor.”