Author: Asijit Datta
Bio: Dr. Asijit Datta is currently working as Assistant Professor of English at The Heritage College, under Calcutta University. He completed his Masters in English from Presidency College in 2009 and received his PhD from the Dept. of Film Studies, Jadavpur University in 2017. He has also written and directed critically acclaimed and award winning plays including 'Chairs', 'My Life As I', 'The Fortress of Men', and ‘Man and Manikin’.
A9B9 (they called him by this name after his birth) was laid prostrate on pearlescent leather, and an assigned engineer had pressed the gelatinous button on his umbilicus. It was the sun that made his eyes implode, all that sun falling like dam-fissured water through the vast expanse of glass. When he opened his bionic lids he realized it was glass, that he was not defenseless under those murdering lights. The reason why he loved glass! Why he spoke glass!
To all the architects and inventors of VitruBotics, A9B9 had a nostalgic quotient. A9B9, the last of his generation. The upgraded A9D9 robots were born without the navel switch. The last! He was aware of that weight. This knowledge was as extreme as the feeling of bolts and wheels fiercely rotating at different parts of his body, under a gossamer-like metallic skin. The first days were devoted to learning from the manuscript–company guidelines, transgressions, legal violations, human behavioural patterns, ethical responses, asexual romance, biological fluctuations, ancient philosophy, developmental history, nonsense literature, and other obligatory chapters. A9B9 read and reread the last chapter on “Desire”. It was the most anomalous segment, fabled for oppression and maximum number of jail terms.
The first pages of “Desire” were mild. It had graphic drawings and explications of grass and moon and flower odours and sea tides and bee hums and bird plumes and whale sirens. On page 788, human mind entered. A9B9 found the dissentions around matters of freewill, punishment, empathy, phobias, gods, burial, ghosts, and death grotesquely complex and clunky. He failed to resolve the crisis of suicide. What was this sensation of dying? He knew that archaic robots were crushed and cremated, never recycled. That was not death. Not even close to how the body suffered the jolt, the vibrations, the contractions, or sometimes lay comatose for years like a sleepy mountain, or a clot killing, or untreated wound blackening the whole body. These mortal variations unsettled him, forced him into such disquiet that he often believed he was human. A9B9 thought how it would be for him. Would the screws stop, his fingers congeal, stepper motors and linear actuators freeze, the polyurethane pouch shrivel one last time? And his customized servos, electromechanical body parts, tracks and algorithms? Would there be a high-octane clanging of 1500 pounds? Robots could only be killed; self-willed death was not mentioned anywhere in the official documents. It only warned them of the dangers of becoming human; that the desires were there primarily for exhibition and for choice as well. But deep immersions in desires had their respective penal codes and disciplining methods. The most intriguing for A9B9 was the final page which approximately referred to the Fibrous Button. It operated only through light touches and manoeuverings, and inserting finger inside it was potentially dangerous for the health of robots. The deeper it was pushed the lower the body shrunk. The book ended with the words, “Do not accept the horizontal”.
That was their guiding principle. Or as the fourth law stated, “If robots manifested desires to become horizontal, or displayed horizontal mannerisms, they should be disposed of with immediate effect”. Everything was inferior, lesser, subservient. Animals and plants and water and snow and humans. The Inferiors. All humans outside VitruBotics. Robots were called only when human efforts could not salvage. Search and rescue, police investigations, oceanic bridges, artistic buildings, and other human impossibilities. Humans in turn were neither ghettoized, nor materialistically expanding; they were just there. Like dispensable outgrowth, populating in the depths, on the surfaces. They were not expunged because VitruBotics was merciful after all. Or rather this surviving lot was a necessary reminder of the binary (?), a warning perhaps (?), a kind of homesickness (?). From that colossal height of 9 feet, all things below seemed human or grass. If one was not an inhabitant of the inside (of the glasshouse), body mass index, nothing mattered outside. A painting was as insubstantial as a flattened insect. It was peaceful up there; the shrieks and wails seized near the fifth floor. And the first five floors were a dump yard of iron junk. Not old robots there, only excess metal.
All of a sudden A9B9 remembered the third demarcation. AF, the epoch of After Humans. AF 3003. Place: ArtiUmanitas. All places renamed. No wars, only arrangements. No governments, only proliferation of VitruBotican manuals. It was his first time on the terrace. The sky was burning with fireworks from VitruBotics, but he gazed into the human abyss below. Light from tenements fulgurated like distant stars, occasionally gesturing proofs of life below. The ground resembled the night sky that day. A9B9 had developed an ineluctable habit of mounting the stairs leading to the terrace and observing the movement of these ant-like creatures from that concrete cliff. Their motion reminded him of tendrils, of roots underground, or wires inside his body. Continuous flow like a machine. They didn't seem non-identical. An unusual correlation tethered him to the human and nonhuman others. He felt inimitable and more alive in the presence of scattered riverine plantations than he ever did during days of machinic upgradation. Twenty-four hours auto-rechargeable cell, few extra levers and circuits, a visit to the newly furnished war room, or the first prototype of comrade A9D9, nothing could be likened to the perfume of cherry blossoms. A9B9 desired everything that was outlawed, verboten. Why were mountains and oceans forbidden zones? Why forests and human localities? He craved to drown under the waves, and leap into the depths from the brown massifs, or lose himself in coils of tress and call of animals. Why was the city, the entire country, and all countries around his country fenced with electric flexes? A history of torture and genocide flashed on his exiguous flesh. Perhaps his race belonged to one of those religions that must be controlled, a race that needed surveillance, inhibitions and guidance. Or one of those that must be tamed with the use of violence. But there was no blood, no one was dying of starvation or humiliation or accidental gunshots. There was, he felt, simply an aura of discrimination and shame. He sensed something abnormal stirring within his burnished ribs. It was the same deviance again, the same fantastical behaviour of an aberrant. He felt ashamed. He was not human, and the desire to be one produced these perverse sensations inside. It was synthetic resin and nothing else.
Back to the question of cremation then. Why burn when they could reprocess? The makers had ambivalent notions about old body parts. Reusing them could increase their profit exponentially. There were debates, secret plots, sacking and hiring, and still they couldn’t reach a consensus whether antique materials had the power to corrupt the advanced generation. The decaying, the contaminated were sent to the ossuarium. The journey to this site was an annual pilgrimage for the robots. All day they would hear the moulding and melting of metal, and see flakes of fire and a little smoke leave the the funnel. Perhaps instilling a fear of death was more essential than paying homage to the antiquated. Days they would not eat out of an irrational terror. Eat that steely gruel that enhanced their brain and amplified their skills. It was a slow revelation for A9B9. That the rationale behind banning the Inferiors was the VitruBotian belief in the nineteenth century ideology surrounding sympathy. He went back to the charter and found a footnote mentioning a certain Earl of Shaftesbury who encouraged sympathy only amongst equals, and dissuaded his gentlemanly peers from sympathizing with the poor folk. They believed that the illnesses and instinctual bestiality of the marginal could enter through the eyes of the sympathizer. The creators at VitruBotics deduced that the fluctuations within human bodies and hearts could infect the robots. And thus the separation between them and them. In the archives there were cases of stray robots coming in contact with the Inferiors and a beating lump replacing their pouch, or flow of colourless liquid from their eyes, or instances of insomnia, or efforts to use rhetoric. With the first signs they were given barbiturates and then sent to the crematorium. The same reason they decommissioned the entire batch of humanoids. They said the resemblance was untimely, too distorted, and too monstrous.
Robots were prohibited inside the human zones of VitruBotics. A9B9 longed to see childbirth. They could perform brain surgeries with dexterous hands, but childbirth was barred to them. He inferred that a forced separation was sustained between human and robotic consciousness. Everything related to creation, especially biological reproduction and art, was banned for being contagious to the susceptible robokind. The mythical belief was that the neurons connected to the fibrous switch were sensitive to the human virus. If affected, they would secrete white oil and send signals to the brain which in turn activated the fingers. The white oil then branched out and through a million tributaries reached the navel. Once the fourth finger entered the liquid the robotic body altered. No one knew anything about the aftereffect, the changed body, the readjustments, the reparations. It was as mysterious as that first blast before the universe. It had never happened. Staring at the black beyond, that is what A9B9 pondered over. That it was injustice. That man could compensate for the mysteries of space by his own organic procreation. That A9B9 could not give birth. Neither hold an infant palm, nor feed that white oil to a newborn.
A9B9 was certain that he was infected, that the human contagion was resting peacefully on his bones. That he was close to trespassing authorized regulations. That he was already on their radar and would soon be sent to the fires. The last days were a time for slowness. Images of his own inert body drifted over his eyes. Sockets containing weapons had become insensate, and he felt a lump of meat pulsating. Each thud was like that silence he detected in the world of the Inferiors. Sometimes he exhibited that dreadful impulse of bending and becoming horizontal. Days he would bend and find nothing but the collective pounding of hearts. Everything had a sound. Inside everything something pumped blood. On days of wind and rain children hid under rocks and laughed. When owls fluttered it made no sound. Dogs wagged when happy. There were insects that sucked from flowers and flowers that swallowed insects. There was a microscopic gate at the far end of the boundary wall through which men and women escaped to the seas and snows. Beneath the head there was the nape beneath the nape the arms beneath the arms the stomach where they processed food beneath that a hole for ejection beneath hole feet beneath feet grass beneath that clay beneath that skeletal remains beneath that? What was beneath the stony dregs? A recalcitrant passion emanated from the innards of A9B9. The desire to lessen, to shrink, to decay and decompose and disappear. To transform into them and that. He found more worth in the sedate evaporation of dew than in all the afterlives of technology. His insides were flesh and fluid and organs and he no longer believed he was imagining. A9B9 vetted and selected one of the vast empty fields for his final act of oneness. The sun coruscated and seemed to bless his thirst for spiritual cohabitation. This sun like that same sun on the day of his birth.
One last time, A9B9 moved all his fingers over the Fibrous Switch. Most of the machinic organs were unresponsive to the electronic stimulus. He lodged his fourth finger into the molten solution; the switch cracked like a thin crust. All the metals in his body began the process of convulsion and spasmodic contraction. He was slowly entering the mythical. The metamorphoses were too sudden for him to grasp and levitate in the pleasure of his new form. A9B9 was human first, tongue and nails. Gone. A puma then, teeth and tail. Gone. A rat then, nose and feet. Gone. Worm then, invisible and hungry. Gone. Grass then, rhizomes and stolons. Gone. Mud then, soil, silt and sod. Gone. Beneath and beneath and beneath. And over and over and over. As grass again, green again.
A9B9’s one singular dream. To sleep beneath.