It was last week, as far as I can ascertain, that I got angry at my silver-bodied, sapphire-eyed robotic friend. With his wide set eyes, and triangular large hooked beak above a square chest, he bore some resemblance to an eagle. I had thought he was my lifelong buddy Jack: lean and curly haired, with stooped shoulders, tanned hands and a manic manner. How could I have confused my friend with a six-foot avian monster?
It began one October night when the moon resembled a large golden bowling ball from the local alley. We had dropped in at six pm to play a game with Jack’s younger twin brothers. Initially, I refused the eight pound ball thinking that’s two bloody pounds too heavy. The attendant offered me no choice. The lanes were crowded,the balls picked over, and that ball was “it”. The fluorescent strips reflected off the metallic ball with its glittery surface. It had hardly been scratched. As if the ball were trying to impress me, I bowled three strikes in a row. After that it was 8s and 9s with the occasional strike, but I had enough of a score to win the game.
Jack suggested we drop in to Lorene Bailey’s after we dropped off his brothers at the local cinema. “She’s having a bunch of people over for some coldies and pizza, and then a bunch of us are heading to the clubs.” I had been nursing my wounds after my most recent girlfriend had dumped me, and after three Saturday nights in a row at home, I was keen to be out. Leaving Lorene’s at 9pm with half a dozen friends, we headed to a new place in town The SF Bar. On entry I was expecting pictorials of San Francisco, a city I had visited briefly once, when I was greeted by large murals of robots, CPUs spaceships and staff dressed like Trekkies or Star wars fans. The DJ wore a storm trooper mask, and the loud music made me want to dance. First we did a few shots, and then two tall blonde girls, who we thought were tourists, agreed to dance with Jack and I. I had never felt so graceful and rhythmic on the floor. I felt like I was in a Zayn Video. Perhaps I could compete on Dancing with the Stars; my Mum loved it so much. The overhead strip lights melded into two long ribbons of turquoise and scarlet. I had never felt so high. Jack hugged me, and I hugged him back. We were gleeful huggers.I called out, “ I love you, bro”, without a care for who might hear. I felt a brief stinging sensation in the back of my arm, but I thought nothing of it. I was in love with the world at that moment, including with the Barbie-like hottie I was dancing with.
The dancing went on and on, with different settings appearing all around me. I was dancing on Bondi beach, on the curve of a rainbow and in the middle of the Milky Way. Barbie and Jack were everywhere with me.I became really tired and felt like I was sinking into a pile of feathers. When I woke Jack was smiling at me, and asked me if I’d like some breakfast. We walked into a room with long tables in it, featuring a mural from Tatooine with Luke Skywalker framed against the rising moon. On the tables were platters of sausage, egg and bacon, toast with butter and pots of jam, assorted pastries and fruit. The Barbie girls served us. They winked and even I marvelled how long and black their eyelashes were. We ate until we could hardly move. “Wow”, I felt like my voice was coming from far away, “they’re very generous for the $15 cover charge. I thought that was steep last night.” Jack nodded, but didn’t speak, and for a moment I thought I was looking at a birdlike robot.
Now, I wonder how often I replayed that scene or whether I was drugged so long it took all this time. I went to the bowling alley with Jack and his brothers on the 9th of October. When I woke up in the black pit full of rocks spouting mini waterfalls and swags of moss, the back of the bird robot was in front of me. Out of him still issued Jack’s voice, “Come on Paul, have another shot. Its awesome, come on .” I blinked and closed my eyes several times. I held my bony hands up to my face. My gut growled angrily, my mouth so dry I wanted to lick the damp moss. There was not a rainbow or a Barbie in sight. No Jack either. I couldn’t feel my legs, and when I moved my arm I felt something coarse and irritating.
What had caused this change? The last time I saw a little red dot in front of my eyes, instead of clutching at it I had batted it away. During my dream, the red dots had appeared with monotonous regularity, and I had grabbed at them, until the most recent ones. I shuddered with fear and cold.
I hunched over in a crawling position and began to move towards the only gap in the stone wall which showed light, light that looked like daylight. It hurt my eyes. My knees ached, and my legs stung and burned. I made slow progress. When I looked back the robot bird was still hunched over a narrow black table. He didn’t seem to notice that I had moved so I crawled on. When I finally reached the gap I looked back. There was a body on the table, a human body. My heart raced. Was it a body? I had thought I was in a nightclub with the Barbies and Jack. Everything had been a delusion. Or was everything I was experiencing now an hallucination. Should I be scared of the robot?
I struggled over a large boulder that sat in the gap that I had crawled to. I fell forward scraping my cheek on the rough surface. I cried out, and when I landed and touched my cheek, I felt warm and sticky ooze. I remembered having the same experience sometime before I ever went to The SF Bar. I was in reality. That’s what I decided; I would take a risk to avoid worse confusion. There was a bruise on my knee, but I could now feel my legs enough to stand. I looked back and saw the robot bird had moved away from the table, and was reaching into a cabinet bolted to the stone about three feet from the ground. I could now see the body clearly and it looked like Jack.
Jack. I had to do something for him. This was real. Freaking far out but real. Was the bird a robot, or a madman in a suit? If he was a robot, who had made him? I felt a strong pulse in my neck. I had to have a plan. The robot moved away, and a sliding door appeared at the back of the cave room. He lurched through it and thunked away. The door slid shut behind him. I crept from my position to the table with the body on it. I touched it. It felt like latex, not human at all. The lean figure and black corkscrew curls were close to real life but in this light, I could see that this was android Jack, not my friend. Was there an android of me somewhere too, and was the real Jack with it?
I looked around, and picked up a sturdy piece of steel tubing. My mind was clearing and I realised that robot bird probably knew what I was doing. There were computer screens, and glass bowls full of tiny parts. This was a laboratory, and most likely equipped with surveillance. It seemed surreal, but someone was making androids that looked like real people. I had to find Jack. I gave myself a really good pinch, and a slap on the cheek ; I made sure I wasn’t dreaming . I marched toward the sliding door.
It slid open, and I was in a long tunnel. There were lights on the wall about every three metres, and I could see lighted doorways to my right and left. I had to guess which way robot bird had gone. I went right and into the first lighted room. Seated in chairs along the wall to my left was what looked like my entire soccer team in still life. I touched Buddy West on the cheek. His skin was plasticky and dry,like Jack’s android. Perhaps I was an android? I slowed my breathing and realised the heart beating in my chest had to be flesh. It felt the same as I remembered. I thought back to my first day at school. It felt real, the touch of my mother’s hand. Mrs Reinhardt’s long legs, and loud voice. Running up to Jack on the playground: Do you want to be play poison ball? An android wouldn’t have memories, I assured myself. I pinched my arm again.
I decided to retrace my steps and go left past the sliding door to the other room. As I left the soccer team behind, I became aware of how quiet it was. I could hear my breath. All my hallucinations had been noisy, so much had happened, and it still seemed more real than the memories of my life. I had to find Jack and get back to the surface. As I approached my destination, I heard a familiar voice : don’t do this, please, let me go home. It was Jack and I figured he was talking to the robot bird. I slunk to the wall, and came right up next to the door, peering in. The robot bird was lying flat on his back in a pool of thick oil, and Jack’s voice was coming out of it. Jack stood to the side of the robot with his hand still on the bottom of a 15 litre drum. Jack himself said, “Where are you from? Where is home?”
‘The robot replied in a dull mechanical voice,” The other side of Jupiter, on a small planet called Janus.”
“Why did you come?”
“I was sent here to take our robot research to the next level. How would robots go interacting with humans and making androids? This was the question the Janus council wanted answered. We used every means possible to make you think we were human, and then we created androids from real humans we befriended. The plan was to fill this city with a population of androids, and then invite the council to inspect our work.”
I was so angry I bounded out from my hiding place. “What would you have done with us?”
The robot bird’s eyes glowed, and his beak creaked open. “You would have been kept on hallucinatory drugs until after the council’s inspection. When the experiment finished, you would have starved underground while the effect of the drugs wore off. A mostly painless death.”
I walked over, and stomped around the robot bird. His sled like runners were off the ground now, and there was no way he could gain any traction. A very simple trick had been his undoing.
My first words on being reunited with Jack were “How did you work out you could stop him this way?”
“I woke up about two weeks ago”, said Jack. “ I saw how awkwardly he got around, and I found these drums of refuse oil right down the end of the passage. Slowly I moved them up, and then when I had the chance I created this trap. It was the only thing I could think of.” I slapped him on the back, and waved the length of steel tube at him. “ Hey, do you think Lorene Bailey’s an android?”
“ I doubt it”, said Jack, “but the Barbies probably are. A pity.” We laughed. Then the robot spoke again.
“This black liquid is not a substance we have on my planet”, said Robot bird.
“ Too bad. I reckon some of those drugs you gave us aren’t substances we’ll ever want on our planet again.”
As Jack and I left the room, we headed to the end of the passage to locate the soccer team, and anybody else who’d been unfortunate enough to think the waiters in The SF Bar were human. After walking about another kilometre we reached a sliding door that opened to reveal rows of cells. All the soccer team were there and most of the other people looked familiar.I wondered if I should tell the team we had most likely forfeited the last game of the season. I reckoned we’d been missing around fifty days.
I spotted an older Mrs Reinhardt. I was puzzled as to why she would have been at the SF club. “I dropped in to my niece’s 21st for about an hour. This was the result.” She was the soberest of the lot, most of them were still high, and we had to act like we were heading to the party of the year to get them to follow us. We couldn’t move the three suits we found in the end cells. They danced manically to some tune we could not hear. Jack found some spare bottles of water, and left them nearby. They would have to find their way out when the drugs wore off.
I led everyone back out through the main room where I’d woken up. I must have been there to start the process for my android, because no-one looked like me. I felt good about that. An android would not cut it in my opinion.
We arrived back at the surface, and looked around. The whole complex was inside an old army bunker about an hour from town. Bloody kneed, and half-starving we would have to walk home. I had the feeling some of us had missed our Year 12 exams, and that there were missing person reports out on us.
I began to rehearse the most plausible story to tell the ‘rents.