They, We, Me

Racial division is coursing through the nation, abetted by a president uncomfortable with the act of condemning white supremacists—the travesty and tragedy of Charlottesville, many fear, is just the beginning. That hate, which far too many of the ignorant impose onto minorities, immigrants, and the poor, is unlikely to part with us soon. What, then, of its next targets, on the next humanoid frontiers? Here’s one such potential future. -the Ed.

When they shattered the shop window on M Street, the glass didn’t tinkle to the cement like a thousand water-drop shards but held together instead, a single laminate sheet stressed with spider-web silk. They’d spray-painted the words “Humans First” in quick red letters across the storefront. They’d wrenched the door from its hinge. Left a crowbar hanging from the knob. They were scared, in their own way, and I understand that—we were all warned about the White Phantoms floating around outside the city, surrounding the city, perhaps, nobody knew for sure—but the choice was to work together, to protect each other, or to be picked off one by one. Alone.

My sister, Adèle, was twenty-six that summer. She had short blond hair that she wore in an unshaped bob and she smoked thin cigarettes and she didn’t worry about wrinkles—didn’t worry what she looked like—put on the same black polo shirt every day unless someone told her to do otherwise, told her to wear the blue blouse that shimmered like shot silk or the sleeveless green popover that accentuated her eyes. By the time the incident at the shop on M Street occurred, my sister had been working the front counter for over three years; after I left for college, Adèle wandered around the house aimlessly, our parents said, straightening a bed here, cleaning a counter there, cooking dinner as if it no longer mattered how the marinara sauce and asparagus tasted, as if all that mattered was that it got made, and so as soon as Public Law 88 passed, our parents said to Adele, “You’re allowed to work now, you know? You could make a little money while your brother’s away.” And because she’d been told to do it, she did: she took off her collar, as the law allowed, and interviewed for the job on M Street—a hoity-toity convenience store, the milk organic, the pork rinds gluten free—but she adamantly refused to “bleach” her eyes, despite the law’s provision. “I’m not the one who needs to adjust,” she said. “My eyes are fine just the way they are, thank you.”

A couple of weeks before the crowbar and shattering glass, a man in tight black pants moseyed into the M Street shop, touched a display of lighters with the tip of his finger, nudged a stack of newspapers with the toe of his boot, and slipped a pack of cigarettes from the overhead display, half strutting, half ambling to the part of the counter where my sister waited, as if trying to impress her. Some of Adèle’s friends are all smiles, all the time—genuine, eye-crinkling smiles—as if there were nothing in the world they’d rather be doing than waiting on the next patron. Others, like my sister, had somehow missed that bit of programming, which is not to say that Adèle scowled or hissed or even frowned at the customers she was made to serve, but that, simply, she dreamed of a life beyond the counter, beyond repeating the same agreeable words and phrases, “Yes, Sir, right away” and “Absolutely, Ma’am.” She dreamed of my return from college, she said, of helping me find a job, of helping me do my job, I’m sure.
“Damn,” the man in black pants said.

“Adèle turned her eyes down, to the counter. Folded her hands atop the wood. Thought about the Phantoms.

“For a minute there…” The man didn’t finish his sentence. Let it hang. His cheeks turning ever-so-slightly red. “Well, you know what they say about nuts and bolts.” He didn’t finish that sentence either. Instead, he tossed the pack of cigarettes on the counter in such a way that it spun in a few circles before slipping off the other side.

“Fetch,” he said, and walked out the door.

In the three years or so my sister worked in the shop, only one other encounter could maybe be called an incident, that being the time the middle-age woman with curled blond hair and drooping eyelids stopped in to buy two lottery tickets. “Just passing through town,” the woman said, her accent like sand granules on a warm and windless beach. Warm until she saw the gold glow of Adèle’s eyes. “You know, I’m having to buy these tickets because of you and yours,” the woman said. “You know that, don’t you?” She took a couple of crumpled bills from her pocket. “Used to work in a shop like this myself, before they said you robos were more efficient. A robo doesn’t get tired, they said. A robo doesn’t need a smoke break, they said.” The woman pursed her lips, the lines at the corners of her mouth, on her chin and cheeks, forming a series of constellations, a star map of her life. Eclipsed crescent moons beneath her eyes. “Shop work like this don’t exist for us anymore—why hire a human when you can hire a bot? Less cost, greater productivity. That’s what they say.” A small shake of her head.

“I’m an android,” my sister said, “not a robot.”

“Never would’ve guessed a bot could get offended.”

“I’m not offended,” Adèle said, “only making a technical distinction. You and I have more in common than I have in common with a robot. Androids can get offended all the same as you can—though, just to reaffirm, I’m not offended in the matter at hand. Androids think and process and feel in precisely the same manner as humans. And some of us do take smoke breaks. Or at least I do. And some of my friends do, as well.”

“Oh yeah?” the woman said. “What kind of cigarettes you smoke?”

“Reds,” Adèle said. “Though I’ll go with a Spirit if there’s no other option.”

The woman shook her head again, more deliberate this time. “Not even our pleasures are sacred,” she said. “What’s next? You gonna take my house? My husband, even? Or no, what am I thinking? You all need to keep close to the cities, don’t you, near those Hubs. You’d short circuit if you were away too long, wouldn’t you?” The woman handed the crumpled bills to Adèle, who handed the lottery tickets to the woman. “It’d just be awful if we had to go back to a time before you all were allowed to take off your collars,” the woman said, holding up her hand, palm out, as if to stop Adèle from speaking. “They say you all are gonna be smarter than any of us humans soon, and so who knows, maybe you’ll figure it out, right? Maybe we’ll all be holding hands and singing around the campfire soon.”

Those of us who’d grown up in the cities, surrounded by Neural Network Hubs, in Washington and Chicago and New York, in the places the earliest models were tested, even we understood that anti-android sentiment existed “out there,” buried beneath the thinnest layers of loam. Ever since we were young, we’d been told that the White Phantoms were “out there,” had heard that from time to time, without warning, three or six or eight of them would appear inside the city. Would snatch a bot and spirit it away. Androids of Adèle’s generation could survive two days outside the city, away from the Hubs, and rumors were the Phantoms used every precious one of those seconds to do the most unimaginable things to those they captured. But these sorts of incidents were few and far between, and the truth is, the problem is, that we, those of us inside the cities, because we’d grown up with droids as part of our home, because we sat with them and ate with them and played ball and hung out, because they were part of the city, like everybody else, we lacked the imagination to foresee “Humans First” spray-painted on smashed-in storefronts in Washington and Chicago and New York. “There are only a few small pockets of White Phantoms out there,” I told my sister, the day before I left for college, the two of us having a coffee by the Capitol, her brow furrowed with worry about the growing Anti-Android Movement, a gingko tree, its fan-shaped leaves, hanging overtop the café’s patio, overtop our heads. Even back then, when my sister was young, her internal processing still gelling, currents still firing and forming, already she’d exceeded my brain’s abilities by four or five standard deviations.

“Anti-Android is Anti-Human,” Adèle said. “You can’t separate the two.” A blue jay called from near the Capitol, the sound pinging over the patio like a warbled sonar wave.

“Well,” I said. “I mean.”

What did I mean?

“Humans are…you know….”

A failure of imagination.

Natural,” I said.

Our father’s family had come from Paris, had escaped The War, and Mama’s had coalesced in Boston, and so our parents tended to be rather “open-minded,” as the saying goes, and they were among the first to adopt a Sibling Android, the S.A. model designed primarily to teach and protect, and so I’d grown up with Adèle almost my entire life, and I loved her as much as— more than—my parents, she being the one who carried me to school in the mornings, patiently entertaining all of my “What’s that?” and “Why?” questions, spinning us in circles beneath the elms, racing me to the end of the block, “oohing” and “ahhing” over my what-happened-at-school-today stories, and yet, still, “human” and “the same” and “inseparable” were hard words for me to swallow, like tiny little bones in an exquisitely prepared salmon fillet.

“The difference between human and android is only semantics,” my sister said, the halo-collar still fastened around her neck back then. Eyes golden.

“But…” I said.

“We’re the same,” she said.

“You’re a robot,” I said, the sound of shattering glass in the distance.

Looking back on it now, I think that’s when my sister knew she had a problem, that a day like the one at the shop would come. A soft breeze blowing in from the Anacostia, the end-of-August air just beginning to chill. The gleaming Capitol building less than a mile away. Packs of huddled-up humans passing in all directions, descending into the metro station across the street, disappearing into the redbrick building behind us. If her brother, whom she’d taught to play the piano, spending day after day, hour after hour patiently perfecting arpeggios and atonal music and the concept of particular keys, if the brother she walked to school in the early morning air and did homework with at night, the brother she kept company when he said he was afraid that the dark bedroom might “get him,” that it might physically swallow him up like a black hole swallowing a star—because she’d taught him about that, too—if the brother who left her a yellow sticky note saying, “You R my favrite Sistter,” knowing it was funny because he only had one, if he, the brother whose sister listened to him talk himself tearless when his first girlfriend, Jillian Jenkins, broke up with him the night before the prom, if he, who unquestionably, undoubtedly loved her, his sister, if he could harbor the word robot and deploy it as a slur, if he of all people could do it, she must have known then what the rest of us in the cities failed to see. The black-pants man and the lottery-ticket woman. “Humans First” sprayed on storefronts and bus shelters. The state-sanctioned rhetoric: “Nuts and bolts are only good for screws.”

My sister was behind the counter of the M Street shop counting the money, placing it into denomination-based piles inside the register, when the crowbar lashed the window, the sound like overheated oil popping atop a stove, the panoptic security camera recording four figures covered head to toe in white wraps, grainy phantoms floating through the front door, Adèle’s first reaction to sweep the uncounted money from the counter and into the register, to slam it shut, her head yet to even turn toward the intruders, her first instinct, as ever, to protect someone else’s interests.

As she’d always protected mine.

As I was not there to protect hers.

Thirty seconds of security footage later and the buzz of the refrigerated wall that houses the sugarless sodas and organic milks can again be heard. The rows of gluten-free pork rinds are there, in their recycled paper containers; the family-size bags of yeast-free bagels; the ice cubes made of spring water; the magazine rack; the push-button espresso machine; all of it is there. The register untouched. The front counter empty. Nothing left behind but a few words singed into the wood: “We never were outside the city.”