New Fiction in Translation: ‘Naked Robot’

The three of us didn’t exchange a single word. I can steal some clothes and disguise myself as human. My master ordered us to get into the van, and we did. But over time, the situation changed. 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. 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 felt my muscular companion trembling beside me as he looked out at this scene. My eyes widened in panic. Still, I knew the two of them were feeling what I felt: the fear of unknown. Humans found there was something uncomfortable about robots that looked just like them. Then I saw something. Then he grabbed his head and wrenched it in a violent motion, separating it from his body. Among them was the owner of the store where I worked. “That’ll take too long, and the match is about to start.” Casually, the first one waved a hand. 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. He was watching for danger from the outside, not from the inside, so he didn’t notice my approach until it was too late. Suddenly, he turned back, a frenzied look in his eyes. “No,” he said. I just stole his clothes to cover my naked body, then rushed out of place, completely human. Robots could not look like people! “We’ll die here.” He repeated himself, angrily. Perhaps this was why people were willing to accept and believe the wild theories. 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. Thanks to my overwhelming fear, my circuits had freed themselves from the program that prevented me from harming humans. 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. 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. I had two co-workers like me in the store. This was something our makers hadn’t calculated when they put fear into our programs. I saw the van’s side door slide up, revealing three polished metal bodies gleaming white and silver. Could someone hurt you without you knowing exactly whether the one who did it was a robot or a human? I needed a place to spend the night and recharge. I froze in place, and his steps rapidly approached. “We don’t need those old models,” he said. As I looked at the endless piles of scrap, I felt afraid. No matter how much RoboTech tried to convince people this was a revolutionary invention, human nature utterly rejected it. And so it was that I realized my master had decided to get rid of us, to replace us with the new models. 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. I didn’t know whether we had a choice in this satisfaction, but I didn’t like to tire my mind thinking about it. We understood the idea of death, but the fear of death was not part of our program. Complaints increased. 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. Now, I have enough energy for a few hours. Conspiracy theorists started bringing out various suggestions about these robots.Others questioned how much human emotion these robots could have. At that moment, I felt the mysterious will to live within me. I saw our muscular companion leap on our third companion, knocking him down. The horror had unleashed something that lurked in amongst those precise, complex equations. Something they call the will to live. He looked like a rabid animal scavenging corpses. From one pile to another, through the seemingly endless hills of scrap. It was useless. 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. There had been enthusiasts of these new humanoid robots. Why had our makers decided to program us with this feeling, too? Could a robot truly feel human anger, envy, or a desire to cause pain? But I did feel sad. There had been a charging plug for each of us in a room above the store—a sort of bed in which we slept. 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. Each had the same RoboTech logo engraved on their chests. He   recently won   the   Egyptian Society of Science Fiction Award for his story “An Unusual Visitor.” There was only one guard. Ahmed Salah Al-Mahdi   is translator and author of both science fiction   (Malaaz)   and young-adult (Reem)   works. I don’t know! The usual math operations. Under such circumstances, none of us should feel angry. We didn’t need to sleep, like humans did, but there was nothing for us to do at night. 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. “Besides, their batteries are already running low. A few were slightly more modern models, the kind that came just before ours. “Let’s throw them out and hurry up so we can catch the match,” one of them said. 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. This wasn’t his fault. 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. 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. But I didn’t feel angry, like him. There was no escape. I watched him remove the other’s chest cover with his hands, revealing a battery that was pulsing blue. I wouldn’t take a break from it until the end of the day, when my features could relax a little. In order to afford the cost of this place, I would have to look for a new job, as a human this time. We saw the van turning away, leaving the robot graveyard. I did not want to die. I stumbled across piles of scrap, but I jumped up again. Then I began sucking out all his energy. And so I walked, with my naked body, toward the door to the robot graveyard. The van door opened, and I saw two men in front of us. I knew they could start work immediately. Then they stopped, and I jumped to the side at that exact moment. I thought quickly and ran toward it, listening to the sound of his footsteps. My muscular companion ran after me. 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. But people soon complained about this sort of robots. “Well.” Our third companion, who had been silent until this moment, finally spoke. But first, I must put on clothes, to cover my naked body. 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. “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. From where I stood, I could feel the strange reactions occurring in his electrical circuits. I opened my chest cover and attached my battery to his, just as he had done with our companion. After that, he called cheerfully to his wife, “The new robots are here.”

His wife rushed out of the store. There’s no danger.”

The second was still hesitating as the first one ordered us to get out of the van, and we did. So we would temporarily shut down our circuits during the charging process. The store’s owner hurried out to the driver and exchanged a few words with him. One robot after another. 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. This was part of their programming. The few hours of the morning passed as usual, with the typical work routine. The side door closed, leaving the three of us in darkness. Nobody would know who I truly was. The van stopped. All of the labor   was left to the three of us. “They’re taking the old models with then. Before, we would charge our batteries every evening, after we had finished our work. The robot is as it should be. I realized that—because he couldn’t comprehend what he was seeing—his circuits were malfunctioning. He would get me for sure. At that moment, I began running in fear. I guessed that it had passed the graveyard gate, and I didn’t have to wait long before this suspicion was confirmed. 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. The torn wires and shattered circuits shot out blue electric sparks. The same old—

Suddenly, through the front glass, I saw a stylish modern van park in front of the store. “Shouldn’t we take out their batteries first?” the second one asked, hesitantly. 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. 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. All of a sudden, something happened that unleashed real terror in me. For the first time, a strange feeling engulfed me: these three robots were here to replace us. Human emotions were part of my programming. Those looks penetrated all the way down to my electrical circuits. We were among the first generation of robots to have a completely humanized form, indistinguishable from real humans, with real human emotions. We will not die here,” the muscular one said, angrily, “Maybe we can find a charging port around here. I would live. I knew the logo that was printed on it very well. I didn’t feel anger or hatred, and I held no grudge against him, we had not been programmed with such feelings. My broad smile was on my face. With a single blow to the head, I knocked him out. Then he burst out, in a shaky voice, “We’ll die here.”

I was struck by his words. I watched him in silence. I have to find an energy source quickly. Still, I felt no desire to kill him. There should be a clear difference between the master and the machine. Even though I was a robot, I felt embarrassed. After a few minutes, it moved again. They called this feeling the uncanny valley. The other made up his mind and jumped to the passenger seat. The store was owned by a middle-aged couple, and it was rare that one of them made any effort in the store. Then the first one jumped to the driver’s seat, pressed a button to close the van door, and sounded the horn. There was something wrong with him. He didn’t stop, not even for a moment. There was nothing we could do. I felt the motor resume its growling, and then the car began to move along the paved road that led out of the city. This was the logo of RoboTech, the robot manufacturer. It won’t be hard. Time passed, and our third companion and I watched him in silence. There was not a single energy point. They were old, broken robots, most of them old clumsy models, more like metal cubes. I could hear his heavy footsteps behind me. “It looks like this is farewell, guys.”

“No. 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. And then there was the usual human pride.