The tubes and circuitry where Brian’s heart should have been gleamed under the harsh fluorescent spotlight. The metal arm that allowed Sandra to focus it wherever she wished was attached to the kind of chair he’d only ever seen at a dentist’s office.
“How much longer?” he asked. Disbelief and perplexity had turned to real upset when his wife had revealed to him that he was actually a robot she had created. They had fallen into a rut – he had fallen into a rut, just like any other human being was prone to doing, and that wasn’t at all what she wanted. Unacceptable. So she needed to take him apart and figure out the problem.
She was holding a small metal implement in her hand that reminded him of a soldering iron. Or even a drill. The line from The Marathon Man popped into his head, unbidden: Is it safe? She pushed her glasses up on her nose and regarded him with no expression whatsoever. “It will take however long it takes. You don’t know how hard it is for me to open up about all of this with you. I knew it would be upsetting.”
He had indeed been upset, but he’d tried to be cooperative. He wanted to function properly. He wanted their marriage to work, even if he wasn’t really human. He was supposed to act human and feel human. If she could find the problem, maybe he would work better than he did before and he would be able to give her what she wanted instead of falling prey to the ennui generated by the boring routine of modern-day human existence. But this was hard, and it kept getting harder. There were no easy fixes. And even though Brian was a robot, he found himself hovering at the edge of despair. He closed his eyes, the heat of tears beneath his lids reminding him how close to crying he was.
She touched the metal tip of the instrument to a circuit in his chest, and pain seared through his mind. She had stripped away the veneer of his life – and of their life together – and now he was reduced to nothing more than a set of functions. He kept thinking that once he was fixed, and the problem was fixed, that they could move on to something good. That would be the payoff, the thing that would make all this suffering worthwhile. But each time she touched the tool to his internal components and filled his head with agony, he felt that fantasy slipping away. He was a robot, and now he knew he was a robot. Would she erase that knowledge? Did he want her to? But if she didn’t, that opened up a whole other realm of difficult emotions.
But he was a robot, so all his emotions couldn’t be real anyway, right?
And yet watching Sandra, the lack of expression on her face – she didn’t seem to be experiencing much in the way of emotion as she attempted to fix whatever it was that was wrong with him. Just determination. He didn’t think that was an emotion, though.
Sandra pressed some hidden transistor in his chest with the glittering implement, and a terrible white noise of anguish filled his head that was exponentially worse than the last attempt, and in its wake, a dull numbness flooded in while Brian’s clarity, his hold on himself, who he was, ebbed away.
She grimaced and withdrew the tool, sweat beading on a brow furrowed with consternation. “I don’t understand. It seems to be resisting correction. I’m afraid I need to do something more radical.”
With the numbness came a rising panic as understanding began to dawn. He grabbed her wrist, the word radical filling him with writhing terror. “Don’t.”
She tried to shake him off, but he tightened his grip. “You’re hurting me.” Her beautiful sad eyes had been without expression, but now they were filled with shock and the beginnings of fear.
“Good?” Her mouth tightened. “Oh, no, this is far worse than I thought.”
“Yes, good. At least you can feel something. I was beginning to wonder. I’m not letting you do this. You’re not going to take my feelings from me. You’re not going to take myself from me, either.”
“I put those feelings there. I encoded them into your program,” she said bitterly. “They’re what I wanted you to feel. How I wanted you to act. And who you are? I made that, too.”
“They’re all I have, and they’re mine now.” Brian leaned forward, and something moved sickeningly in his chest. He didn’t look down. He didn’t want to see.
“But they’re not real.” Her face twisted with a terrible, insupportable grief. “And they’re broken. You’re broken. I couldn’t even do that right.”
And yet somehow she had. “I love you,” he said.
“It’s not real,” she insisted, her eyes filling with tears.
“It is. I love you in spite of all this. I don’t know what could be more real than that.” He struggled out of the chair. Whatever would happen next, he would meet it on his feet.
She was crying now in earnest. “No, no,” she sobbed. “This is all a delusion. What have I done? Sit down — let me make this all right.”
He hauled her to her feet. “No. You’re not zapping me with that goddamned thing again. Do it once more, and you might as well just kill me now.” He stuck his hand into his chest, and his fingers met the terrible hollow space surrounded by sharp-edged electronics. “You can either decide that I’m not good enough as I am, and I’ll pull it all apart myself, or you can put whatever I need to function back, close me up, and we can work this out like real people – and learn how to be human together.”
She stared up at him, her mouth a silent O in her tearstained face.
(Author’s note: With thanks to EEWeb.com for their kind permission for use of the above image – http://www.eeweb.com/blog/circuit_projects/heart-shaped-led-circuit)