I couldn’t imagine Jane hurting me, but I felt a knot of fear growing in my gut anyway. Humans are always afraid of something.
THE ONLY THING ordinary about Jane was her name. She reminded me of a praying mantis, though it was hard to imagine Jane praying. She was tall and skinny but muscular like Sarah Connor in the second Terminator movie. She could walk on her hands. She showed me the night we met.
We were by the pool at some dean’s house welcoming incoming freshmen into the honors program that included the two of us. She found me in the backyard by the pool thinking about trying to call my boyfriend.
“I’m Melanie,” I said.
“I know,” she said. We were wearing nametags. “You’re going to call some guy, right? Don’t do it. I saw you looking like you were off somewhere pointless. Check it out.”
Next thing you know she was on her hands, her skirt around her ears, and I put away my phone, and we ended up talking by the pool with our feet in the water for the rest of the party. We weren’t supposed to be in the backyard. We were supposed to be inside making a good impression, shaping our futures, having bold visions for tomorrow, that sort of thing. It wasn’t the kind of party where you were supposed to have fun.
It was a cool September night, but the pool was heated and lit up. Jane looked even stranger in the weird, glowing steamy light, or maybe I was still a little high from the pot I smoked at the meet-n-greet picnic earlier. I’d smoked before, but it had never done much for me one way or the other. It used to piss off Steve, the guy I didn’t call, a waste of good drugs. I thought I was immune or something. Apparently not.
I said he was my boyfriend, but at this point he actually wasn’t because he’d just dumped me in a long text message that explained he was destined to be with someone else he’d just met at Oberlin. I didn’t read it all. Steve’s destiny didn’t interest me anymore. It was shortly after that I smoked the pot. I forgot about Steve for a while in a fit of random profundity, but munching on finger food at the dean’s house, everything gleaming of furniture polish and smelling like meatballs, it finally sunk in how angry and relieved I was, and I went out the patio door when no one was looking, composing a sly reply that would put him in his tiny, insignificant place. The call I didn’t make was to yell at him because my hands were shaking too bad to text.
Just as well. It worked out. He called me in the middle of the night a few months later to say how wrong he’d been, and I reassured him he’d been absolutely right, that his destiny had fuck-all to do with moi. Though I guess you might say without Steve’s destiny, I never would’ve met Jane.
I let Jane do most of the talking. She said she was glad she found me, that she had trouble just opening up to people, but she knew right away I was okay, though she didn’t explain how. I think it was because I tried to slip away, felt like I didn’t belong there, like her.
Jane confided in me she’d figured out she was a machine, that she wasn’t real, that she was like a robot or android or AI or something.
“What’s the difference?” I asked.
“I’m not sure,” she said. “They’re all just put together in a lab somewhere, right? Basically it means my parents aren’t my parents.”
I thought about my parents, unmistakably my own, unlikely as that often seemed to all three of us. “Do you like your parents?” I asked.
“That’s not the important question,” Jane said.
“What is, then?” I thought that was always the question when parents came up.
“Do they like me is the question. And the answer’s easy. Who can love a robot?”
“People love their cars,” I said. Not me. I didn’t even have one and had only the mildest affection for my bicycle. It was a habit of mind, looking at everything like it had sides, like the world’s a pile of polyhedrons.
“No they don’t. They say that, but that’s not love. If you totaled your car and walked away alive, you’d be relieved, right? That’s not love.”
I couldn’t argue with that. She said it was a robot thing: Robots are always right. It pissed people off, but she couldn’t help it.
I said I was okay with it. I knew lots of smart kids. I was a smart kid. I knew about pissing people off, so I was careful. I’d never met anybody like Jane who just knew the answer without it being a part of something else, no apologies, not trying to prove anything. She was on a full scholarship. Her parents didn’t have any money. They lost their factory jobs when she was little and worked shitty retail and odd jobs after that in a tiny town perpetually on the brink of collapse.
“So how did they end up with a machine kid?” I asked. “I mean, you must’ve been kind of expensive.”
She smiled, a full-lipped no-teeth swoop, and she looked over at me, searched my eyes gathering intentions, analyzing the telltale pupillary action in response to her gaze, possibly deploying a mind-controlling beam straight to my brain. She held the beam for just about as long as I could take, so I felt like I was lifted up off the concrete, floating just above it. She finally broke her gaze and looked out over the pool water like it was a vast ocean, and I settled back down to the ground, but never completely, never again.
“I’ve wondered about that. I can’t exactly ask them. They might not even know, or they’re sworn to secrecy. I think maybe I was a new product they were working on at the plant, and when they shut it down, I was given to my parents for safekeeping, and the company went under or went to China or something, and they were stuck with me.”
The watery light played across her face.
“Maybe they rescued you, smuggled you out on the last day in pieces and put you back together again because they knew you were destined to save humanity.”
“You must be an English major.”
“What’s your major?”
“Undecided officially. I’m waiting for my programming to kick in. I haven’t run that routine yet. I don’t decide things. I just know.”
“Is that why you followed me out here?”
“Definitely.” She bobbed her head up and down vigorously, fixed me with her eyebeams again. “Definitely.”
“Aren’t you curious about what you’re going to do with your life?”
“It’s not mine, is it? If I’m a robot.”
“Then whose is it?”
“That’s what I’m curious about.”
IT WASN’T THAT late when the dean’s wife came outside and saw us. “What are you two girls doing out here?” She said it like she knew we were up to no good. I felt twelve.
Jane stood up in the water. We were sitting at the shallow end by the steps. The water wasn’t even up to her kneecaps. “Want to join us?” she asked. “We could all be like water nymphs, goddesses in the moonlight.” She gave this speech a mountain twang, or maybe it was her natural voice. Jane was a superb mimic, a robot skill.
“The party’s been over for some time, young lady. Everyone has gone home.” You could clearly see the servers in their white shirts and black pants cleaning up inside, not the everyone she was talking about. This same woman had fussed over us when we arrived with a lot of brilliant young minds chatter. Now she just wanted us to take our IQs and clear out.
“You could still join us,” Jane insisted. “Besides, I’m not a young lady. I’m a robot.”
“Young lady, I will only say this one more time. It is time for you to return to your dorms. Don’t make me call campus security.”
“I already told you I’m not a young lady but a robot, and I’m on a secret mission with the highest priority. You’ve interrupted a crucial meeting with my human contact.”
The dean’s wife dropped her mask and gave Jane a look that would’ve had me kneeling in the shallows begging for mercy, but Jane just gazed back calmly, a machine on a mission, and the dean’s wife spun around, vanquished from her own domain, and went back inside, banging the glass door behind her so that it shuddered in its metal frame, calling out her husband’s name, “Clarence!”
Jane smiled. I concluded it was time we leave. There was a wooden gate in the back of the huge yard, or we could climb over the fence if necessary. Jane wanted to go through the house, but I talked her out of it, and the gate wasn’t locked. “What’s the secret mission?” I asked as we huffed it back to the dorm.
“I don’t know. They don’t tell the robots the secrets, so we won’t be conflicted. Nobody wants a conflicted robot.”
WE LEFT BEFORE campus security showed up, but somehow next day everyone in Honors had heard about it, how Jane had fucked with the dean’s wife’s head. I think some of the waitresses serving canapés were students. One of them must’ve witnessed the scene or overheard the dean’s wife’s report of the poolside skirmish. Leonard, the one with the pot at the picnic who had held forth on string theory, then tried to kiss and grope me, asked the next morning after Science Technology and Society if I knew Jane, and I said I did, that I was in fact her closest friend in the world. Her human contact.
I concluded that must be true because I liked her, and she told me she didn’t have any friends. She said nobody likes robots, and I said I did. We started hanging out a lot, pretty much all the time. We were like cartoon characters, tall and lanky, short and stubby.
She said she had settled on the term robot rather than the others like android that made it sound sort of romantic, like an elf or something, when basically you were just a slave. “Have you ever thought about why people would make robots that look like people? People would probably prefer they didn’t, you know? They’re called automatic tellers, but they don’t wear white shirts and smile. And like for soldiers, they’d make them huge and scary, right? The only reason I can think of is for sex. For most things it doesn’t matter what a machine looks like, but for sex it’s super important.”
“I guess.” We were supposed to be working on a collaborative project together. We took mostly the same classes. The honors program was crazy for collaboration, and it was always me and Jane, but all she ever wanted to talk about late at night with a deadline looming was robots. And sex. Usually the two together somehow.
I both liked and didn’t like these conversations, because it excited me when Jane got all intense about it. I didn’t know if she was a robot, but I was increasingly certain that she was extraordinary, that she was beautiful. I imagined her being made somewhere, like I was the one who made her, snapping on her kneecaps, fastening her size nine feet onto her slender ankles, laying over a layer of taut skin over her calves, her thighs. They were solid muscle. She said her programming kicked in at eleven cruising channels at her grandmother’s house, when she saw a woman on a beach practicing yoga. Jane was scary good. I asked her if she ever taught, and she made a face and reminded me, as she often did, that Robots can’t really teach humans anything: Humans have to learn everything for themselves.
“So what do you think? Maybe I was made for sex, you know? That would explain my exceptionally powerful sex drive. Why else would a robot need a sex drive if not for sex?”
“Makes sense. You think your sex drive is more powerful than other people’s, or other robots?” I was hoping to get her back on task with a trick question. She always told me she knew fuck-all about the doings of other robots. We’re not like a team or a club or anything. We’re machines.
“Both,” she said and gave me that searching look. “How often do you masturbate?”
Sometimes I could not believe her. You couldn’t lie to her. “I’m not answering that question.”
“Okay. I’ll take that as a lot. Try several times daily. I brush my teeth less often. I’m afraid of getting a boyfriend because I’m afraid none could satisfy me.”
I teased her about her tooth brushing. She might not have her student ID with her, but she always had her toothbrush. “Afraid your teeth will corrode?” I once asked her. “Precisely,” she said.
Robots don’t get a lot of dates. As beautiful as she was, Jane was also smarter and taller than any guy in her high school and had exactly one boyfriend she had sex with and some uncle who groped her, though we both agreed that didn’t count. She and the boyfriend didn’t exactly do it. Everything but. More than I could claim. Like with pot, I thought I was immune.
“So,” Jane concluded in that robot way of hers, one logical conclusion after another, “if I was made for sex, then I must be really something extraordinary in bed, don’t you think?”
Think? The beam again. We kissed. We fucked. We fucked a lot, fucked all the time. She wasn’t kidding about her sex drive, once her programming kicked in. Turns out I had one too. We humans have to learn everything for ourselves.
I know what you’re thinking. That was obvious. Try it sometime: Know thyself. When you’re all done, we’ll talk. Short version? Jane was the best thing that ever happened to me. I knew what her mission was, and it was me, me all over, inside and out. When I went home Thanksgiving I told my folks I’d fallen in love, and they were happy for me. Dad asked, “Who’s the lucky fellow?” and I sold her out, invented a guy Dad would love on the spot. His vegan dyke daughter with a plateful of turkey and gravy made him sound just perfect. “I guess you have a lot to be thankful for,” Dad said, and I wanted to die.
Jane didn’t know about that betrayal. Don’t ask, don’t tell. She’d stayed at the dorm with a handful of foreign students and kids who weren’t going home for one reason or another. She told me Thanksgiving was wasted on robots. “Do I look like a pilgrim to you?” I have no idea what she told her parents. We never went there. Robots are beyond all that, she claimed. They weren’t really her parents.
I kept thinking I would invite her to come home with me Christmas, and I would come clean to my folks, but when Jane begged me to go home with her Christmas break, I was secretly relieved I wouldn’t have to confess my lie to her and my family, and consumed with curiosity about hers. Unlike for Thanksgiving, the dorm shut down for Christmas, and there was no staying in town. She said she couldn’t face her family alone. I told my folks I would be spending Christmas with James’s family. James was the guy I made up, pretty much Jane with a dick in my lovestruck stories about him, though I didn’t go into the whole robot thing. They wouldn’t understand. Send us pictures, they said.
HERE’S WHAT A picture would’ve looked like when we showed up on Christmas Eve after taking several days to get there: At the end of a gravel drive in a scrubby pine wood sat a clapboard rancher painted a flaking blue-gray, the brown asphalt shingle roof crumbling under a blanket of pine needles. A string of Christmas lights ran along the drooping rain gutter over the porch, and a plastic Santa with a light inside stood in the yard. Several holes and cracks leaked beams of light from his glowing body into the night sky. There were three old cars in the yard, none of which looked like they could make it into town. An aged hound limped toward us baying a greeting both mournful and excited, and Jane took a knee and hugged his neck.
“This is Rufus,” Jane told me.
Jane was a head taller than both her parents. Her father’s face was all hollows and deep lines with a grizzly stubble and thick dark hair in wild disarray, his hands jammed into his coat pockets. The one that emerged to shake mine was hard and calloused. Her mom was my height and worried. She seemed to be in charge of nice for the whole family, and the strain showed. She kept telling me how glad she was I’d come and not to mind the mess, though once you got inside, everything was neat and tidy and decorated for Christmas.
There was a Christmas tree with blinking lights in the corner, not a real one, but some kind of green plastic. I missed the real tree smell. It was maybe four feet tall, but it was on a card table so it seemed taller, a few presents underneath wrapped in Sunday comics and yarn. I liked that. In a bookcase that didn’t have too many books, a couple of Chilton’s and a kid’s encyclopedia older than me, a nativity scene was on display. The animals were chipped and battered, and there was no baby in the manger. Joseph and Mary leaned against one another to hold each other up since Joseph was missing a leg, and only two of the three kings had shown up. There was an angel on the roof missing half a wing. Jane saw me checking it out and read my thoughts. “Rufus was a little hellhound when he was a pup,” she explained. Thumbtacked to the front of the bookcase were red felt stockings for Jane and her little brother Tom.
Tom didn’t show right away. Jane pointed out his door as we went down the hall to her room. There was a poster for a game on the door with a muscly guy holding a ridiculously huge gun standing on a pile of scrap that had once been several robots in a post-apocalyptic landscape. SHOOT MANY ROBOTS it said, the letters riddled with bullet holes. “Tom hates robots,” she said simply with a shrug.
Jane’s room was minimalist except for the walls. All her stuff was hanging from pegs and hooks. Stickie notes were everywhere—lines of poetry, equations, silly stuff like one on her mirror that said, “Remember the mane.” There was a yoga mat rolled up and standing in the corner. The only furniture was a mattress and box spring sitting on the floor. The window looked out at the Santa’s back. The cord snaked through her window and plugged into the wall. A Stickie in the middle of the window read Ho! Ho! Ho!
She came up behind me, encircled me in her arms, and hugged my shoulders. “So what do you think?”
“Your parents are nice.”
She didn’t correct my identifying them as her parents like she usually did. “That’s because you’re here.” She kissed the top of my head. “Melanie, the nice human. You’re lucky you have me to protect you from evil.”
I grasped her powerful arms in my hands and could feel her love like a current flowing into me. “I know.”
“Let’s get out of here. Put on your hiking boots.”
As we passed through the kitchen, her mom flashed a hopeful smile that quickly faded as Jane breezed past with me in tow. “I’m going to show Melanie the old barn.” Rufus, sprawled under the kitchen table, thumped his tail on the floor but didn’t rise.
As we crossed the backyard toward a narrow trail into the woods, I glanced over my shoulder, and her mom was watching us out the kitchen window, and a teenage boy who must be Tom watched from another window.
“Ignore them,” Jane said, though she didn’t look back. Robots have eyes in the back of their heads, telecomm links to spy satellites, sixth, seventh, and eighth senses. She always knew when she was being watched. She knew our thoughts and fears, she claimed: Humans are always afraid of something.
The deeper we went into the woods, the colder it became. The sky was dark and low, and the limbs groaned in the gusty wind. “It’s going to snow,” Jane said in her matter-of-fact robot voice. “But we have time.” She didn’t say for what. I already knew.
The barn was made of logs and hadn’t been used for years, built long before her family bought the place. She said in the summer there were snakes in the walls and rafters with whom she communicated like Eve in Eden. Snakes are smart, she claimed. They understand the slippery slithering shape of reality. Eve tried to explain it all to Adam, she said, but you could see how that worked out.
A robot’s kiss is like no other. There are millions of sensors in their soft lips and lithe tongues. Their saliva isn’t just saliva but an enhanced brew of scents and sensations especially created from the pheromones of the loved one. That’s what Jane called me: The loved one. I felt like a queen in an old story. Guinevere or Isolde if Lancelot or Tristan had been beautiful robots, though if you think about it, they sort of were—metal clad servants of a feudal system that made their love crimes against the way of the world, more intense than ordinary love.
We made love, and when we lay in each other’s arms inside Jane’s big down coat, it was so quiet I could hear the snow drifting down outside. When she wanted to, Jane gave off an intense warmth and glowed, so that the pitch black interior of the dilapidated log structure was transformed into shelter from the storm.
“Shouldn’t we get back?” I asked after a while. “Won’t they worry?”
“Don’t you mean so that you’ll stop worrying?”
Busted. “I guess,” I said guiltily. “I lied to my parents. I told them you were a guy named James.” The confession just came out, and I realized that’s what I was really worried about, that I wasn’t brave enough to deserve her.
“You could hardly tell them the truth,” she said. “That you’re in love with a robot.”
Outside in the distance I heard the crunch of footsteps approaching and jumped to my feet in a panic.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “It’s only Tom.” She ceased to glow and stood beside me. “Bundle up,” she said.
It was Tom in a big camo coat and hunter’s cap. He looked like a smaller version of their dad. “Mom told me to tell you dinner’s almost ready.” He looked at me when he said this. I couldn’t tell if he was hostile or simply curious. “I’m Tom,” he said.
“Melanie,” I said.
“I know,” he said with a shrug. He looked at Jane. “They’re kind of freaking.”
“What else is new?” Jane said.
“You could attempt to be cool,” he said.
Jane smiled her serene robot smile. “Advice noted. How have you been, little brother?”
He just shook his head and turned away, trudging back to the house a dozen yards ahead of us. I thought I could see in the way he looked at her, the note of pleading in his voice, the slump of his shoulders as if carrying an enormous weight through the snowy woods, that he might hate robots, but he loved his sister.
And she loved him.
JANE’S MOM, WHO insisted I call her Dolores, had been told I was vegetarian and had made every effort to accommodate my special needs. She served a soupy tuna noodle casserole crusted with potato chips because every vegetarian she’d ever known had eaten fish and dairy, and I devoured the salty gooiness with enthusiasm, not wanting to hurt her feelings. Jane would eat anything. “It doesn’t matter,” she always said. “I break it down into its chemical components to fuel my energy cells.”
Dolores said to Jane, “Maybe after dinner you and Melanie could take Tom to the Wal-Mart? He still has Christmas shopping to do.”
Jane, who regularly referred to Wal-Mart as the many-headed beast created by humans to consume themselves, surprised me by smiling serenely. “Sure thing,” she said.
Her Dad, whose name was also Tom, though everyone including Dolores called him Daddy, jerked his head up from his plate and eyed her with suspicion. “Go there, and come right back,” he said. “None of your nonsense.”
She smiled at him like she’d smiled at the dean’s wife. “Course not, Daddy. Wal-Mart has everything, right?”
Tom Sr. started to say something in reply, but his wife laid her hand on his forearm, and he swallowed it down along with the casserole. Tom Jr. stared at his plate as if we’d all just been spared a terrible calamity.
“Be careful,” Dolores said as if she didn’t notice. “The roads will be treacherous if this snow keeps falling.”
“It won’t,” Jane said, and Tom Sr. made a guttural grunt and stabbed another forkful of tuna and noodles.
JANE WAS RIGHT about the snow, of course. Once we were on the Interstate, there was no snow at all. Our rent car was tiny, the backseat piled high with our camping stuff, so the three of us were lined up in an old Ford pickup that, like the house, was neat as a pin once you were inside, the engine roaring loudly, eliminating any casual conversation. I was in the middle. Tom was doing his best not to touch me even though the heater was broken, and it was bitterly cold. Stars were coming out.
“So who’s on your shopping list?” Jane asked Tom.
“Mom and Daddy,” he murmured quietly.
“Thought so. Always hard to know what to get the couple who has nothing, right? You don’t really want to go to Wal-Mart, do you?” Jane looked at Tom with her penetrating gaze, and I could feel him squirm.
“Jane,” he said, a pleading note in his voice.
“Do you? Buy some useless junk made by Chinese slaves, so you can experience the gift of giving at low, low prices?”
He looked out the passenger window and shook his head. We went flying by the Wal-Mart, its huge parking lot full of last-minute shoppers, and took the next exit down a lonely, dark road.
“Where are we going?” I asked. I knew the look on Jane’s face, when her programming kicked in, and she was about to do something totally robot, outside the box all us humans lived in.
She didn’t answer; Tom did. “The plant.”
Jane beamed like a teacher when she hears the right answer from a recalcitrant student.
The plant was wide and low, two stories at its highest point, filling half the horizon. It was surrounded by crumbling tarmac punctured by scrub pine and weeds. There was a forest of light poles, but they were dark. An eight-foot chain link fence surrounded it. There were No Trespassing signs every dozen yards or so warning of fines and prosecution for anyone who violated the rusty perimeter. Jane pulled up to wide gates, chained and padlocked.
“Jane,” Tom said. “We could get in real trouble.”
“How many times do I have to tell you, Tom? Trouble isn’t real. It’s just stories in your head.”
Jane opened her door and got out, closing the door on anything Daddy had to say. I waited for Tom to open his door. He shook his head. “Fuck,” he said quietly. He looked at me. “This is all about you. Don’t be scared. She won’t hurt you.”
I couldn’t imagine Jane hurting me, but I felt a knot of fear growing in my gut anyway. Humans are always afraid of something. Tom got out, and I followed him. Jane was already standing at the gate, the padlock in her hands. It was a massive thing. She pulled it open and hung it on the links, unwrapped the chain, pulled the heavy gate open wide enough for us to pass, and gestured with a sweep of her long arms that we should enter.
The lock was old, I told myself, left open by the last trespassers who probably pried it apart with a crowbar, but in my heart I knew that wasn’t true. Jane led the way. She seemed to know where she was going, and I trailed along with Tom instead of at her side like I usually would. The closer we came to the buildings, the more you could see how dead the place was, every pane of glass shattered, wood rotted, metal rusting to nothing, covered with an icy sheen. Power lines dangled, frayed and useless.
We went in a side door into a dark and narrow hall. The floor was littered with junk. She kept her steady pace. “Jane,” Tom said. “We can’t see nothing.”
“Sorry,” she said. Fluorescents overhead flickered, buzzed, and popped on. I surveyed the walls. The only switch was back by the door, and I was sure it didn’t work anyway. I didn’t ask how she did it. I already knew. We turned a corner, and a fresh row of abandoned lights that hadn’t been visited by electricity since Jane’s folks used to work here sprang to life. At the end of this hall was a metal door with a sign:
AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY
DO NOT ENTER
There was a keypad, but Jane didn’t touch it. She just pushed the door open and walked in, looking over her shoulder at us with a grin I hadn’t seen before, beckoning for us to follow. I had never been so scared in my whole life. It was filled with machinery—industrial robots, some of those robots who didn’t look human like Jane but who nonetheless could do things, make things, maybe even think and feel—and they were coming on, whirring and humming and clicking like gigantic metal insects, and they were all turning toward Jane. She raised her hands in the air like a conductor in front of an orchestra, like a preacher inspiring a spirit-filled congregation of the faithful, and laughed joyfully. “Ta-da!” she exclaimed, and my knees were like water, and I wanted to close my eyes because I couldn’t be seeing what I was seeing, but I knew if I did I’d just pass out and wake up somewhere thinking this was all a dream when I knew in my heart it wasn’t, and I knew something else I didn’t want to know: As much as I wanted it not to be, Jane’s mission was much bigger than me, bigger than I could possibly imagine.
I know what you’ve been thinking—all this robot talk was just metaphoric, code for something else, and maybe I did too, though I couldn’t have said what exactly. I didn’t want it to be real. Like Jane always said, you can’t love a robot. Not because they’re not worthy, but because you’re not. They’ve gone beyond just you. They’re already gone into their own reality.
Tom was staring at the floor, willfully ignoring the spectacle, and Jane gave him a tender, understanding look and lowered her arms, and the robots lowered their waving appendages, quit swiveling back and forth in agitated glee, and settled into their resting positions, glowing and humming, waiting to serve.
“What were you going to get them?” Jane asked Tom.
“Gloves,” he murmured.
“Appropriate,” she said, “but they’re insulated enough, don’t you think?”
Jane didn’t wait for an answer. She stepped up to a console, her hands moving across the controls in a blur like huge dancing spiders, and the robots went to work. I thought I might throw up. It was all I could do not to faint dead away, like all the fears I’d ever known were throbbing in my brain. I don’t know how long it lasted. The sound was like a choir from another planet building toward a crescendo, a chord too high, too low, too complex for human understanding, the music of the spheres, the sound we longed for but never quite achieved plucking on cat gut, blowing through reeds, thumping on dead animal skins, praying to God.
When she was done, she showed us, on a bed of crimson velvet nestled in a box in a row, a shining new population for the crèche—Joseph and Mary, a sheep, a cow, a camel, an ass, a trio of kings, an angel, her wings intact, who looked a lot like Jane, and in the middle, the baby Jesus newly made. The robots whirred down to silence, and the only sound was Tom and I weeping softly, though perhaps only Jane could’ve told us what we were crying for. Humans are always crying over something.
WE DROVE BACK in silence. I had a million questions, but I was afraid to hear the answers. Tom had the box in his lap, staring straight ahead. Jane hummed a medley of Christmas carols, soft, melodious, in perfect pitch, like a happy angel. I had never seen her happier: Joy to the world! Come all ye faithful! Look what I made you humans to get you through your long and silent nights!
Tom wrapped the box in comics, Prince Valiant looking noble and unafraid, and put it under the tree. Tom Sr., who’d been drinking, eyed it critically like it might explode. He picked it up, and Jane advised him not to shake it, and he didn’t. Dolores smiled through all of this and said we should all get to bed so Santa could come, like we were all little kids, like there wasn’t a robot in the house.
“You okay?” Jane asked me as we bedded down for the night, and I told her I was, though she knew I wasn’t. My parents called to wish me and James a Merry Christmas and wanted me to put him on, but I said he was doing some last-minute shopping, something special just for me.
Christmas morning, Dolores made a big breakfast—sausage and eggs and biscuits and gravy—and I ate it all, though it tasted like ashes in my mouth. They gave me a scarf, and I wrapped it around my neck, thanking them profusely. The little box of holiness was the last to be opened. Tom, who had been appointed the distributor of gifts, kept passing it over, until finally he gave it to Dolores, who said, “I know this is something special.”
When she opened the box, her face lit up, and Tom Sr. let out a low grunt. “They’re beautiful!” Dolores exclaimed, and they were. In the morning light they were bright and shiny new, gleaming with all the love Jane had breathed into him.
“Allow me,” she said and took the box to the crèche where she placed each figure in place, ending with the baby Jesus in the manger, and beckoning for us all to rise and gather round: Come let us adore him!
We stood there like the three kings in front of the bookshelf laden with out-of-date knowledge and repair manuals for machines that would never run properly again, awaiting a miracle, and Jane didn’t disappoint. One by one, she touched her creations, and they came to life. The animals and kings knelt. You could hear the beasts braying, lowing, bleating in chorus. The angel moved her wings like a butterfly in the sun. The baby Jesus turned his little head to take us all in, seeing what mission lay before him on this tiny planet on the outskirts of the Milky Way. He climbed out of the manger, planted his infant feet, raised his palms upward, and smiled. A halo like a tiny spiral galaxy hovered above his head.
Dolores screamed, and Tom Sr. swept his arms around her to shelter her from the spectacle. “Leave and don’t come back,” he said to Jane. She gave a sobbing Tom a quick hug and left, me trailing in her wake. “It was time,” was all Jane said by way of explanation.
MAYBE I SHOULD’VE asked more questions, overcome my fears, but I’m only human. Her life was not her own, nor was it mine. We journeyed back to campus, taking our time like tourists, as if all that awaited us was the new term, more collaborations, achievements, honors, but that was not to be. When the new term began, Jane was gone, and no one knew where but me. Her programming had kicked in. The tiny part of her mission that was me had been accomplished, and it was time to move on.
Time for me too. I told Mom and Dad that James had been a lie, that even though I would never know myself, I could still love myself. Maybe robots and humans aren’t so different after all. I learned that from Jane in spite of what she said about us having to learn everything for ourselves. I’ve never told anyone the story of Jane until now, not my wife, not my children. Who would believe me? What does it matter? It’s enough that I know it’s true, that she found me beneath the moon, beside the still waters, and gave me life.
Who can love a robot? Me.
Dennis Danvers has published seven novels, including NYT Notables Circuit of Heaven and The Watch, and Locus and Bram Stoker nominee Wilderness. His eighth novel, Bad Angels, waspublished by Metaphysical Circus Press in October 2015. Short fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Intergalactic Medicine Show, Space and Time, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, F & SF, Realms of Fantasy, Electric Velocipede, Lightspeed, and Tor.com; and in anthologies Tails of Wonder and Imagination, Richmond Noir, The Best of Electric Velocipede, Remapping Richmond’s Hallowed Ground, and Nightmare Carnival. He teaches fiction writing and science fiction and fantasy literature at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia, and blogs at dennisdanvers.com.