The writing on the envelope spelled out her name. She reached out to touch it. It felt strange, furry like an animal or a fruit, perhaps – something living. Deeda didn’t like it.
‘What is this?’
The robot didn’t respond. It had its back to her, legs slightly bent and chin down, the eyes relentlessly scanning the floor for dust.
‘40? I said, what is this?’ Picking it up by one corner, she felt the paper rip and she dropped it with a start. ‘Oh, it’s broken!’
‘It is paper,’ 40 replied.
‘Yes, I know. But where did it come from?’
40’s pale blue eyes, dry as the moon, flicked towards her and then back to the floor. ‘I found it.’
‘In the old work area.’
Deeda felt irritation rise in her throat, making the backs of her eyeballs itch.
‘You’re not detailed to go in there. You might have brought contamination in here!’
‘It was dusty. I am programmed to remove dust, Deeda, and I could see it. I did not sense any active contamination. Don’t you like it?’
‘That’s not the point. You shouldn’t go in there.’ She took a breath. ‘And what am I supposed to do with this now?’
‘No, 40, it was a rhetorical question.’
She rubbed her hands over her cheeks: fatigue gave them the feel of perished rubber. The run of repeat hot-house experiments was exhausting her, and this robot really wasn’t working out. But…there was no prospect of reprogramming or replacement before the next relief, and that was weeks away.
40’s suction pads clicked off softly as it watched Deeda, waiting for her to speak again.
‘Carry on cleaning, 40. There’s dust everywhere.’
It moved off to the sleeping area. Despite its efforts, a fine layer coated every surface, hard and soft alike, catching the light and glistening silently, like frost. 40’s suction pads clicked on and it gently stroked the surfaces with its cool, pale hands. Faint music started in the living quarters. 40 stopped still, and listened.
Deeda had been sitting looking at the envelope for some time. She should report it as an antiquity, but somehow that seemed unadventurous. After all, it had her name on it: she wanted to know what was inside. Eventually, common sense stopped her from doing more than picking it up with tongs and placing it in a sample bag on the table.
The generator started up and the ceiling lights wavered. Dusk laid along the horizon and shadows blanketed the hot-houses and outbuildings. Deeda roused herself, stretched and forced herself to complete the exercises set out in her daily programme. Afterwards she turned up the music and snuggled back into the armchair, shutting her eyes.
‘Would you like yellow, green, or brown tonight?’
The voice made her wince. 40 stood at the door to the kitchen area, shiny nutrition sachets displayed in each raised hand.
‘Is that the choice? I thought it was a purple night.’
‘Yellow, green or brown?’ It did not move, each hand still raised aloft, its eyes pointing steadily at a point just behind her head.
‘You can tell me I’m mistaken, 40. It’s OK.’
‘I’m not programmed to correct, Deeda.’
‘I’ve no appetite, to be honest. Just do the lightest one.’ She shut her eyes.
The robot processed a green sachet and slowly moved towards her.
‘I have a way of building your appetite, Deeda, while exercising your abdominal muscles. I have lots of ways of relaxing you too…’
Its fingers stroked across Deeda’s collarbone. She shuddered and pushed the hand away.
‘Don’t you like it?’
‘I’ve just had a work out. I don’t need it.’
A whirring sound came from 40’s chest. She wondered if it needed re-booting as it passed her the contents of the green sachet and watched as she sucked out the contents.
‘We never talk, Deeda.’
‘We talk all the time.’
‘But not about important things.’
‘Are you programmed to talk about important things?’
It moved silently into the kitchen area and began suctioning the surfaces.
‘Are you going to open the envelope?’
The voice was higher frequency than usual, brittle sounding. Deeda sighed.
‘No, I’m going to report it as an antiquity. It needs to be recorded and archived – and de-activated too.’
There was no reply. She flexed her arms as she headed for the sleeping pod to make her journal entry, and realised that her hands were clenched. As she spoke into the recorder she heard the robot moving about in the living quarters, softly suctioning the surfaces, sliding its hands back and forth across the empty shelves and unused table tops. She heard something fall to the floor and was suddenly acutely conscious of the miles of emptiness that separated her from the next living being. She could almost taste the separation, and the feeling made the hairs on her arms and thighs prickle. She garbled the last of her entry and flicked off the switch.
Back in the living quarters, she saw 40 was no longer there. The envelope was also gone. Her palms felt sticky as she padded towards its re-charging station.
‘What have you done with the envelope?’
It was sitting hunched on its pad, looking smaller than before. It did not reply.
‘Where is the antique, 40?’
The head moved up and dry eyes clicked open. ‘I destroyed it.’
‘What?’ Her voice sounded panicky between the walls of the confined space. ‘You had no order to do that!’
‘It was dirty.’
‘No, 40, it was old.’
‘You didn’t read it!’
Deeda squinted, mouth open, trying to understand what the robot meant.
‘You read it?’ she ventured.
Again the whirring sound vibrated its chest. ‘I wrote it.’
‘But…robots can’t write.’
‘I can, Deeda. Now you’re going to tell me robots can’t feel, aren’t you? But I can. I’ve learnt.’
She drew a hand over her eyes. ‘This can’t be happening.’
‘You didn’t even open it.’
‘I love you, Deeda!’
She caught her breath, and then laughed hard and long until tears squeezed from both eyes and her stomach hurt. She laughed, doubled-up, until she heard her sounds echo off the robot’s chest.
She stopped, wiping her nose on her sleeve. Through the pod window she glimpsed the cold dry moon, the bare earth, the barren, treeless horizon. Her eyes, wet with tears, turned back to 40.
It smiled and, reaching out, clicked on its suction pads.
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© 2016 Andrea Bennett
Andrea Bennett is an author and playwright, who lives in Ramsgate. Her first novel was published by Borough Press in 2015.