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The figures stood about five inches high on craggy, angular legs. “Balanced” might be a better word; I gently rotated the clay base, marveling at the craftsmanship in their eight delicate limbs. One brightly painted eye winked frozen at the other.
“Dev, they're incredible,” I breathed. “How long did you spend on these?”
She beamed. “Well, you remember I told you the arms kept breaking... Sculpey's great, but it can't support too much. But yeah! Do you like it?”
“It's the best sort-of-not-really-Hanukkah gift I've ever gotten.”
Two spindly robots bearhugged on my dining-room table. Their construction had started at the beginning of autumn, when Devon and I spent several weeks browbeating each other through a popular physics game. Maybe you've recognized it. I'll try to explain. As a reanimated pair of high-tech crash dummies, two players cooperate to solve puzzles at the behest of the sentient testing facility. Over the course of the game, the wire-and-metal characters establish a very unscientific bond of friendship.
I hadn't been at home in months, but the internet afforded a wonderful playground. Of course, we weren't especially productive: hand a kid a popgun and you're asking him to use it. We solved most levels only after a handful of pranks, switcheroos and mercy killings that reduced one or both robots to smoking scrap. But that was half the fun; doing things that unfeeling machines never would.
Like hugging! I examined the sculptures closely, unable to get enough. Atlas, the stockier bot, squeezed the birdlike P-body with an expression of warm glee in his big blue eye. She fielded him awkwardly. Look, it's a picture of me at prom.
P-body's monocular face blinked wide open in surprise. In the center of her eye, past the bright orange ring that made up the iris, I noticed a pin-sized hole.
The thought occurred to ask about it – even in-game, the robots had pupils – but passed. Nobody was about to look this gift horse in the mouth.
I lifted the base with perfect care, shielding it from any stray gusts of probability that might send Devon's work crashing to the floor, and gave them a living-room view atop my mother's piano. “Beautiful! You should do this for a living.”
Just then my name rang out from the kitchen. I thanked her again and went off to help mash potatoes for the big nondenominational holiday family dinner.
“Wait, is there anything I can do?!” She bounced up and followed me into the good-smelling fray. The rest of the evening was filled with shouted stories and clinking forks.
Eventually excuses were made, goodbyes were said, and guests made their graceful exits. Devon left too, having extracted a promise to talk the next day. Then I was all alone; the house was quiet. I gave no more thought or play to the wonderful little gift. It just sat on its perch – silently observing with inert, glassy eyes. --- Sleep came easily. Like I said, it'd been a long time since I enjoyed the comfort of my own bed. The comforter fell over me like a living embrace, and lulled me dreamily unconscious in seconds.
At some point, a light began to prick at my eyelids.
It was only mildly annoying at first, and I dragged a hand up to shut out the glare. After a moment, it clicked off. Gratefully, I snuggled deeper into the covers.
The light snapped back on – stronger this time. I squeezed my eyes shut, but it burned an angry white circle past them. I tugged the blankets over my head, but something bit at my neck and jerked them away. It was like every time you've overslept to find the sun blazing in through your open window, and someone telling you to please wake up. The tiredness vanished; irritation set in instead. I stopped fighting and rubbed the sleep away.
I . . . don't exactly know what time all this happened. It must have been past midnight – several hours after going to bed – because when I opened my eyes, they were too bleary and unfocused to make out the numbers on the clock.
All I could see was a glowing blue orb staring back at me.
A tight gasp escaped my throat, blowing back something made of black metal and gleaming white plates. It emitted a surprised burst of insectile clicks before scrambling to its feet. Impossibly, Atlas's single blue eye swiveled angrily. I hardly felt the strain in my neck as I watched, totally dumbfounded.
He jabbered and gesticulated wildly. Every other “word” he punctuated with a stomp to my chest; they felt like taps. His limbs came alive, energized, as if he had jumped from the game model into the physical world. Devon's handmade version was good, better than good – but this was impossible.
I tried to grab him, to extinguish this incredibly weird dream somehow, but everything felt slow and floaty. My body hardly twitched.
From my blind spot, jerky steps pattered off my shoulder. Peripherally, I caught something that looked like an elongated egg. Suddenly P-body swung into hazy focus. She began to answer the other robot in the same complicated electric patois.
P-body's eye flashed red in the darkness. The center wasn't empty anymore. It extruded a long silver needle that just began to retract, dripping something clear and viscous.
My neck throbbed. With dull panic, I realized why I couldn't move.
There was nothing to do but breathe, and go slowly crazy.
With absurdly human caution, Atlas tiptoed experimentally towards my face. He prodded my nose with stumpy white grippers – then immediately leaped back and scrambled behind P-body. It would almost have been cute if my skin wasn't already deadening to feeling.
The little spherical bot seemed surprised. His ocular panels narrowed in an expression of mad glee, and he began to hop up and down on my collarbone, shrieking triumphantly. P-body yelped and skipped in a circle. A victory dance.
This was just . . . too . . .
Eventually they tired of gloating and high-fiving, and retreated to my sternum, careful not to capsize on the rise and fall of my breathing. The miniature things looked at each other and shrugged. What now? the gesture seemed to say.
Then P-body got an idea. It sounds ridiculous to say that of a machine – one I still half-believed was an extremely vivid dream combined with ordinary sleep paralysis – but her train of thought was uncannily recognizable.
The shiny ellipsoid that made up her core jumped a little. She shot a wide-eyed look to the squishy giant on the bed – to me – then to Atlas. Back and forth. He scratched his round metallic noggin, perplexed, as the taller bot looked him up and down.
Suddenly her limbs shot out and grabbed Atlas' body; she turned him over and under and around, ignoring his flailing. He was a perfect sphere. About the size of a ping-pong ball.
She nodded, satisfied, and set him down dazed and confused before jogging up to my face.
Her orange bulb closed smugly. Watch and learn, it proclaimed.
I thought I was completely numb until I felt three cold metal fingers jab under my right eyelid.
Every nerve in my body ordered me to yell, but nothing came out. Fill my lungs and blow her away, but nothing happened. The tugging force was incredible. Dimly, I could still see the robot doggedly thrust another arm into my eye-socket. A horrible popping sensation filled my skull.
Pain. Pain. Sick, lunging pain. My gorge rose.
But what cried out even deeper was the fulfillment of a primal fear: the lizard brain, howling at the loss of a working organ. There was nothing I could do but scream inwardly.
One final wrench, and P-body lurched backward. In her arms was a bloody white ball. My severed optic nerve dangled out behind it like a tail.
I tried to weep and half succeeded. My right eyelid collapsed into the bleeding hole, useless.
The few tears almost completely nullified my remaining vision. But I thought I could see P-body hand her prize to Atlas.
Incredulous, he hugged it.
There wasn't even enough energy in me to moan anymore. Broken and ruined. Something in my head felt horribly swollen. All I could do was listen to my own paralyzed, sobbing breaths, and watch the disgusting little creations play with their new friend. Tossing it between one another. Trying to bounce it off the bedspread.
But a weird and unexpected transformation took place before my eye. Their grabs got faster, more aggressive. Each one got less time to play. Incredibly, they began to fight over their new toy.
P-body seized it and stretched her skinny joints, holding it high above Atlas' head; he delivered a swift kick to her torso and snatched the eye out of the air.
For a moment they glared at one another, the LEDs in their cores brightening orange and blue with a computerized approximation of hate.
Then they froze.
Slowly – freakishly – joyfully – the robots turned back toward the bleeding, panting monster.
This time it was Atlas who had the idea.
My heart stopped.
No. Please, no.
I woke up, realizing that this actually was all but a horrid nightmare.
Phew! Thank God it's over! But you will not believe it!