Rob Sherman responded to our Call for Digital Utopias pieces with ‘The Hide’ . We’re thrilled to publish this short fiction, a creative practice response which has arisen out of Rob’s on-going academic research into robots and Artificial Intelligence.
This piece is a distillation of some fascinating research into affective robotics and human-robot-interaction; research that has convinced Rob Sherman that the digital utopia described below is more likely to actually appear than any other that he could have written. “A quality which might disqualify it, now that I come to think of it”, he says.
Linda does not like barbecues, but her friends seem obsessed with them, and she goes. If anybody crunching about the gravel for a conversation there asks Linda what she does for a living, she never tells them that she works with robots. Most people like her work with robots. She might tell them instead that she is a supervisor, or a security guard. She is a shy woman, despite the volume of her voice, and if she wants to ratchet the conveyor of their attention onto someone else, she will tell them that she is a cleaner, which is occasionally true. Almost everybody she seems to meet at barbecues grew up with a cleaner; stalking the lair of their early lives, attentive and flighty, spiriting off pointedly crisp banknotes left by their parents on the counter-top like meal from a bird table. Meeting one at a party usually leads to them, blessedly, changing the subject entirely. If Linda has had too much to drink (very cold beers, painfully cold, even with a few ice cubes if the host has them), and the people that she is with have been talking about recent operations, inoculations, grazed elbows, all hastily cleansed into anecdotes, she will sometimes enjoy telling them about what has happened to their discarded bandages, dirty needles and half-pints of blood. It’s the closest she comes to talking about her work at parties, and it’s a tactical choice, depending on how curdled the bloodless coleslaw on the buffet table has gotten.
More often than she would like somebody will recognise her (despite her various pseudonyms) and come over to inundate her, asking endless questions about her writing. Sometimes they have a copy of Sunset Speaks To Dawn or The Hide in their bags, and press it into her hands to sign. At this point, she used to look around for her husband, who always seemed to have the tendency to dissipate when she needed him most, despite (or perhaps because of) his geniesque frame. Almost inevitably the book will vanish, she will vanish, and her fan will begin to talk about themselves. They will say that they always wanted to do a job like hers: to be truly free, to see the things that she writes about; things that almost nobody will ever see with their own eyes. I’m a very lucky woman, Linda always says. Of course, they will say, there’s always the question of the terrible pay, and the waiting lists are monstrously long. I’m a very lucky woman, she always says again. Agonisingly they all close with the same question, in the same intonation; how did she get into it? As if her job were a lock to pick, or a checkpoint to bribe their way past. This was usually when her husband would re-manifest, coats in one hand, legs tapering down from his enormous wa like smoke, sweating in his best purple shirt and hating everyone. She used to plan her escape then; how she would pick her way out of the networking bodies, the contamination of the mayonnaise and pollen from the raised beds. She would long for the fresh air and wide open spaces of her weekdays.
I’m just a very lucky woman, she would say, as she turned away.
The company that owns the facility where Linda works has barely grown in twenty years. Housed in a series of low-slung warehouses on the edge of Sutton Coldfield, family-owned since the turn of the century; still with its logo of an open walnut shell, and a client list of local authority hospitals, private care homes, morgues and a few, precious international contracts, depending on the season. Linda met the owner, Mrs. Rawlinson, on the day she applied twenty-five years ago; a beef tea of a woman, very thick-set and always too warm. The interview took three weeks and, as is often the case, they were inseparable afterwards. They still meet to play darts twice a week, to complain about the temperature of the beer, and to talk about those things that Linda told Mrs. Rawlinson all those years ago, and which Mrs. Rawlinson had written down on her computer so fastidiously.
Today, as Linda crosses the old car park, with its soul patch of jazzy, brute dandelions down by the railway tracks and its vulcanised potholes, she sees her colleague John changing into his boiler suit; the wasp-yellow mesh zips up into a geometric pattern, a symmetrical waffle of red and green symbols across his concave torso. He is grimacing as he removes his taqiyah to draw the suit’s hood down low over his eyes. He was at his daughter’s henna party the night before, and his face is the colour of old plates. Four bottles of halal wine, developed in Saudi Arabia and free of anything khamr; many of the kinks are still to be worked out, but John was pleased to feel like one of the girls. John and Linda have worked together for fifteen years, ever since John joined her as a volunteer on his get-back-to-work-scheme, his Adam’s Apple like a shark’s nose despite his age. They have grown old, or older, together, in that titanic and all-day everyday manner that people do, and like most people they are loath to ever address it directly. Today is no different; John frets as he unlocks the service door, the only opening in the entire warehouse wall, and they step into the darkness. He was on the bus home when Mrs. Rawlinson called him about the emergency last night, and he can’t quite remember everything he said to her .They step into the anteroom where, as he has done almost every day for the last fifteen years, John offers to make Linda a cup of tea from the urn, despite the fact that Linda has not drunk a drink hotter than a milkshake since she was eighteen. John sits on the scolioid sofa and begins to complain about his soon-to-be son-in-law, lathering his eyes on the mild gloom. Linda stands at the grubby window, listening very closely, as she always does to John, and looking down on the light coming up. Their domain softens; the dawn takes an algorithmic amount of time to dawn. The light, changing by the eight-thousandfold degrees of diodes, rises on vacuum-greased runners until it penetrates down into the lowest levels of the facility, through a silence which is golden, and dimensional.
They open the door of the anteroom and step out onto the facility floor, fording the brook of scentless disinfectant meandering between the support columns. They begin the hike to their hide. As usual, the route is different from yesterday, the walls reconfigured into a narrow smeuse downwards and towards the east into which they slip like rabbits. Mrs. Rawlinson was right; something has happened in the night. There has been nothing in the news, and yet the air is chill with a morning hygiene, rising dewy from ducts.
It becomes a half-hour walk to the hide; they speak about the things they speak about on mornings such as these. A metal box on runnels of liquid magnet, and about the size of Linda’s guest bedroom, the hide is open on one side and painted in the same colours and patterns as the suits they wear. Today it has come to rest at the corner of a wide meadow of facility floor, the open side looking out onto the still-dark savannah of complex embedded circuitry; lawns of scannable codes, arranged in patterns, wefts and waves, stretch away from the hide in three distinct bands of colour. Closest to the hide the floor is a deep green, the colour of dill. Further out is an atoll of yellow, the colour of lemon melding with the smell of ginger from John’s cup. The great majority of the floor, extending out into the darkness and the little horizon of the room, is red; not the crimson of blood, but a darker, tackier, poison-berry warning to them both.
They step carefully across the green and into the hide. John sinks gratefully into one of the two battered armchairs, rescued from a skip in Tamworth; it will be a day of migration between seats, like oases. Posters line the walls, with grids of silhouettes showing the outlines of the various robots that this facility employs, along with brief, italicised spotting notes underneath. Linda knows that John still hasn’t seen them all, even after all these years, and even she has only seen some of the larger models once or twice. She moves to the wall calendar; they are mid-season at the moment, and nothing is scheduled until at least September. There is nothing to do but wait, and watch the foiling, rolled mist curl in bangled links across the far end of the room. Linda does not know what this fog is made of, but she knows that it is for the robots. They move through it, sampling it in sips, sifting it with some hidden baleen for the petabytes of information that it holds in its distribution and particle. If a human being walks through it, there is no great enlightenment; only a persistent, ticking irritation in that tractless place between the nose and the throat.
Conversations try to rise, and then die in comfort, as they always do when they sit like this, gazing out on what looks like nothingness. John snoozes, and Linda goes to the bookshelf. Whenever they have to wait, Linda likes to read her own writing. She never apologises for it. All of her old notebooks are here; she picks up the battered soft-line 220gm WHSmith A5, the one she worked up into Death of a Logistician. It is a book which still causes dreamy-eyed economists to tell her that it made them cry, when they first heard it read in lectures at university. A modulated breeze wends across the room, warmer than the standing air, and the patterns of buses and symbols on the facility floor shift sinuously. John starts and sits forward, grimacing at the pain in his cantilevering head. They both raise their hoods, and Linda joins him in the armchairs: as always, she switches off the lamp on the table between them, leaving them in the matte haze of early morning. It isn’t strictly necessary for protocol, but it has never been the same when they left the lamp on, and they could see each other’s faces.
Linda raises the binoculars and follows the movement on the far wall. It’s Dawn.
Dawn glides through the mist drunken on her electromagnets, the coccyx-curling hum dulled to a bare rustle by the ruff of bafflers arranged around her bottom bracket. She hugs the far wall, cautious, pausing every now and then to graze a section of the facility floor for some encoded instruction. Linda tracks her in the viewfinder, noting the skittish, unpredictable movements; a design warning any nearby human that Dawn is dangerous, and to be avoided. Even from this distance they can smell her, a deliberate chemical signature, simulating black bananas. A computed moan, with a catch of liquid at its end, billows from some speaker about her. She is covered in a thick plastic tegument, and over its surface play familiar shades of purple; the colour of thunderheads, alcoholism, chapels of rest. Though she has never even come close to touching Dawn, Linda always imagines what it must feel like; cold, yet yielding, like touching an uncooked chicken or tickling the gills of a mushroom. It was Linda who named Dawn nearly twenty years ago, after her grandmother; a woman who always wore heavy skirts, even at the beach, and thought it rude not to announce herself loudly every time she entered a room. Neither Linda nor John are allowed to know the robots’ serial numbers, their model codes or anything specific about them. Dawn’s eight sensors, arrayed in pairs at her highest, narrowest point, remain resolutely fixed on them, glinting clustered black like the bubbles in a cup of coffee. Her tactile brushes, arranged in a pelt about her midriff, stand on agonising, fibrous point; John has never seen her in such discomfort. Linda however reads the signs with an easy experience; Mrs. Rawlinson was right. There was a shipment last night, and Dawn is full to burst.
As Dawn reaches the western wall of the clearing, a favourite spot of hers determined by a randomising algorithm written before Linda’s daughter was born, she sinks slowly, almost scraping the facility floor, yet riding the thinnest meniscus of her magnets. Her bafflers draw in, as if they were protecting something fragile, and already damaged. At any one time, it’s impossible to know exactly what Dawn is carrying; the steel bins that contain the ‘sharps’, that nightmare salad of serrated glass, diseased blood and bent needles, lie under three layers of her thick tegument, and the Rawlinson’s facility has never had a containment breach in twenty years. The colour of her hide can give you some clues; the precision of her nerves, the quality of despair and threat that radiates from her when she is still processing a shipment. You can never get close enough to check, for as soon as any human being approaches her, even those clad in the official camouflage as Linda and John are, she will vanish, all other operations suspended. Linda remembers the story of a toddler in a Wakefield car plant, two years ago; lost during a tour, he was found alive and well the next day, singularly grumpy at not having seen a single robot.
Dawn has not risen in some minutes, and though she is perfectly capable of doing so she feigns difficulty before sinking back into her depression again. Her sensor-pelt crinkles like bunches of fists, and a shudder of disgust dopples through her. The colours across her lighten into a blue-green striated with roiling white lines, like a diver rising through layers of ocean to the surface. John and Linda both know that signal: what she has found in the chemical composition of her cargo has distressed her. She is sick, and lonely, and she wants her mate. She is calling for Kieran. John stands to authorise the request. Pulling his hood as tight as he can, he steps out of the hide, onto the green flooring, and then tentatively into the yellow. All at once, Dawn is bristling, alert and half-gone. Her sensors scan back and forth over John’s suit, calculating likelihood; but she falls back, satisfied yet still primed. John shuffles in anti-static booties towards one of the support columns, where he kneels before a small, irregular knockhole at its base. Stifling a belch, he whispers into the hole, and half-rises into something like a slither as he comes back to the hide, setting himself into the chair like an underdone cake. He is feeling much worse than when he woke up, he tells Linda. They wait again; their natural habitat. The sea-blue colour has spread from Dawn to the floor and the walls, and she still plays at her distress. But the sensor-brushes are tellingly lax, three of her eight sensors now roving for his entrance. She knows that Kieran is coming.
The migrations of the robots around the facility is a complex schemata, evolutionary decision trees dependent on W.H.O. data, the financial markets and many other factors. In such a system, some units like Kieran rarely venture into the human-accessible parts of the facility. What is about to happen Linda has only seen happen once in all her time with the Rawlinsons. Most of the time, Dawn and Kieran are kept separate: the risk of a containment breach is too great, and any actual contact must be minutely monitored. She wishes that John wasn’t hungover; she has so much to tell him. But they must keep very quiet, and very still. Dawn lets out another long bleat, spins like a top.
Kieran appears beside the hide in a hush, despite being the height of an oak tree. Like Dawn, his machinery is muffled underneath his tegument, and only the occasional faint squeak or gurgle, a faraway plumbing like that of an upset stomach, can be heard. Unlike Dawn, Kieran was designed above all to be touched, to be cleaned and sluiced with wet brooms; he is rounded at all his corners, the shape of an overturned yacht, and his back is the colour of the sea beneath it. He does not shy away when John rises excitedly, his pain forgotten, and goes to the robot’s side, laying his hand on the warm, puckered flock of the tegument. John’s hand accidentally slips down the velveteen flank and down onto the hydrant of one of Kieran’s hose-cloacas, painted to look fever-sore. There is a deep, alarmed peal, like the toll of wedding bells underwater, and a shift in the enormous frame. John shrinks back, and apologises. Despite his domesticity, Kieran does not like to be touched there.
Linda remains in her chair, as she always does when Kieran makes his visits, and though he watches her with his deep-set sensors, currant-brown and lobsterish, he makes no attempt to approach. Kieran is a sterilisation unit, his cavernous insides filled with an inert liquid bleach, and he knows that Linda is scared of him. It is a fairly simple piece of knowledge in his database; a rule without a reason. Kieran does not need to know that when she was a little girl, Linda was nearly swept out to sea on a trip to the seaside, and has never learnt to swim. He doesn’t know that every time he comes close she is picturing being trapped inside him; squeezed through the cloacas and bottled forever in the drowning, stoppered darkness. Mrs. Rawlinson knows. Linda told her about the seaside trip on the second day of her interview; that was the first day she cried, and when Mrs. Rawlinson first offered her a trip to the Royal Oak.
All at once Kieran rises and rolls out onto the yellow zone of the facility floor, leaving John to return sheepish to his seat and ask Linda for the binoculars. Everything about the robot broadcasts a very specific and personal longing; tinged with cowardice (always endearing in such a large agent), hesitance, regret at the time passed since the last time he and Dawn were together. He waddles clear and out onto the red flooring, where Linda has never stepped. The front wedge of his chassis softens, the tegument moulding into a woollen texture, and the colours there boiling like a spigot. It’s a clear display of excitement, but despite their apparent eagerness both he and Dawn are cautious: his approach is meandering, with pauses to graze and gather himself. Any sterilisation procedure, especially unscheduled, is a huge risk. Linda asks John for the binoculars: wondering, for the fifth time this month, why they only have one pair between them. The data-fug has been clearing steadily, and she now has a better view of Kieran’s display. He has made a wide loop and comes up behind Dawn, hunkering himself down gently next to her with an encouraging if cautionary low. Dawn bleats in response: passing vital information in the sound’s upper frequencies, and covering the metallic clunk of his cloaca hoses engaging. A final wash of stress sends her sensor-pelt erect; a last warning for John and Linda to keep their distance, and respect their privacy.
The sterilisation itself takes another ten minutes. Throughout, Dawn vibrates every few seconds, her sensors spinning useless, Kieran’s fixed carefully on her moving form. He is inspecting her for holes as the contaminated liquid passes back into his own tanks. Linda can track its progress by the change in Kieran’s pelt; a gathering purple hue, to match Dawn’s earlier, rising to his back. All at once he decouples and quickly backs away. Dawn blushes a satisfied mint, the mist rising again in reactive modesty, and Kieran retreats into it, letting it coil about his lower half; playing the great beast, symbolically wounded, as distant as a mountainside. He allows Dawn to rise and move off, reluctantly, before she comes back for him hopefully, and from which he shrinks nobly. Eventually they go their separate ways: Dawn eastwards, migrating to the packing floors, where the newly-sterilised needle waste will be ground and recycled, and Kieran westwards towards one of his many depositories, their locations still unknown to Linda even after twenty years. Neither she nor John have moved or spoken in all this time, and now she looks at him; his jaw slightly unlatched, his temple still snaking with the cabling of the hangover, his breathing slow. She remembers the first time she saw this; coming home from this marvel to her husband’s tears, the open bags on the bed, the missed calls and the many trips to the Royal Oak with Mrs. Rawlinson. She considers herself very lucky to have seen it once more, before she retires. She looks at John again, who catches her gaze, his Adam’s apple roving, his smile broad. Today is not the day to talk to him about any of that.
In her peace, she almost forgets what comes next, and she whispers to John to look, look, look now.
As Kieran reaches the edge of the room, he completes his chemical analysis of what he has found inside Dawn. His front wedge hangs even lower, his rich cerulean-and-foam brindle fading to a deadened taupe; the colour that robots used to be, not so long ago. Linda feels his sadness, his sympathy for the burden that Dawn had to bear, and will bear again. And then, the generation; from his back grow spines of thick steel, pointed and forked as lightning. The patterns of their growth are dictated by the variables of those contaminants, and the stories they tell; drug kitchens, the cooling crooks of the elderly, frightened children gasping for plasma, close-by wars. Linda reads it, and John does not. A diagnostic in three dimensions, they spread like a forest across his back. He will wear this unique trophy until he decontaminates, when it will retract, never to be precisely repeated.
Dawn watches him from the eastern wall, her mate dark and dangerous, glutted with union, across the plain. They call to each other in the dark, in their cadences, across the warming air. And then the final displays come. Dawn rises a deep orange, and Kieran, just briefly, sets from his upper edges in a corresponding crimson, before fading to his new twilit purple and disappearing into the mist. John stares into the distance, his tea forgotten on his knee, about to tip, and Linda leaves him to go to the shelf, finding her latest and half-filled notebook. A small Yearly’s Reporter 43-Point, a fine model, with a pleather bookmark. and a weight given to bleedthrough. An unreliable little book that she has been putting off filling.
For a full reading list of the papers and articles that inspired this piece, click here.