By Daniel Slaten

art by Patrick Ijima-Washburn

His imaginary self was nore of a self than he was.

            The robot Gordon had named after himself came home from his job at an investment banking firm in downtown Boston at the same time every day. And every day, Gordon sat on the couch awaiting his replica’s tales from the world outside his apartment, as he lived vicariously through the robot, too riddled by anxieties to venture out into the world himself. It had been ten years since he had left the apartment, although only he and the robot knew that.

            “Good afternoon, sir,” said the robot.

            Gordon remained in the comfortable spot he had burrowed into the couch. “Good afternoon. How was your day today, Gordon?”

            “Typical in most respects,” said the robot. “Although there was one notable occurrence today.”

            Gordon shifted under the fraying patchwork quilt he’d been dozing under before the robot’s arrival. “What was that?” he asked. Most days were the same, but even the sameness of the robot’s work routine was interesting to someone as isolated as Gordon. The thought of something new or interesting happening was like an unexpected twist in a familiar television show.

            “A new woman started to work today,” said the robot. “She was very friendly. I think you’d find her attractive.”

            Gordon sat upright and ran a hand through his shaggy brown hair. This unexpected twist was apparently more like an appearance from a special guest star, it seemed.

           “Let me see,” he said. Gordon slid off the couch and shambled over to the robot with the gait of someone who didn’t look used to walking. He pulled a small flesh-colored flash drive out of the robot’s neck and inserted it into a laptop on a small table by the worn-down couch. The robot was equipped with an optical camera that recorded everything he saw, and it was through the videos recorded by this camera that Gordon live vicariously through the robot’s experiences out in the world.

            Not long into the video, Gordon spotted her. He didn’t need the robot to tell him who the new girl was, because even though he’d never met any of the people the robot worked with, he felt like he knew all of them through these daily videos.

            “She is pretty,” Gordon said. Gordon had always had a thing for blue-eyed blondes, so the robot had been spot-on in thinking he would find this one attractive.

            “Her name is Lana,” said the robot.

            Gordon liked the sound of it. He’d never known a Lana before, or, more accurately, he’d never known of a Lana before. He couldn’t remember the last person he’d actually known. Probably someone from his days attending MIT, but even then he hadn’t really made any friends. Even as a child he’d kept to himself, and over the years his circle of acquaintances had narrowed like a funnel spiraling in on itself. By the time he’d enrolled in the robotic sciences program at MIT that funnel had almost reached the tip where everything came to a head.

            “Did you talk to her?” Gordon asked the robot. “What’s she like?”

            “Friendly. Pleasant. She moved here from Houston. Her accent sounds different.”

            “Does she smell nice?” Gordon asked, knowing the robot could not accurately answer that question.

            “I detected no unpleasant reactions to her scent,” the robot said. “I don’t know if that satisfactorily answers your question.”

            Gordon stared at the video, rewinding and re-watching the robot’s brief interaction with Lana. He wondered what it would be like to speak to her – imagining he was capable of such a conversation. In reality, he knew his hands would sweat and his voice would tremble and he would collapse like a wet cardboard box if he actually found himself involved in such an interaction.

            “We should date her,” Gordon said quietly, almost absent-mindedly.

            The robot said nothing in reply, but internally he registered his creator’s wishes.

            Gordon Harrison – the robot version – confidently approached Lana Lee’s cubicle the next day at work. Unlike his awkward creator, this Gordon had neatly trimmed hair, no facial stubble, and generally made a good appearance. His mere presence did not automatically frighten or repulse those he came in contact with.

             Lana sat at her desk, hunched over a flat screen computer engrossed in her work.

            “Excuse me,” said the Gordon robot.

            Lana looked up. “Oh hi,” she said. “I’m sorry. I don’t remember your name. I met so many people yesterday I’m still having a hard time keeping track of them all.”

            “Gordon Harrison.”

            “Oh right. I remember now. What can I do for you?”

            “We should date,” the Gordon robot said.

            “Excuse me?”

            The robot smiled. He had never asked anyone out on a date before, but based on his observations, he believed the best way to get a date was to be direct and to the point.

            “I’m sorry,” said the robot. “Was that too direct? I just thought that, since you’re new here, you might want someone to show you the ropes.” The robot searched his programming for help in this situation, but he found nothing in his programming regarding dating. That was something Gordon had not prepared him for. The only information regarding human courtship on his hard drive came from personal observation of those around him or through books he’d read or movies he’d seen. The information was confusing and contradictory. He sensed that confidence was important, as was trying to keep the other person at ease. Be cool, in other words. Although the robot did not know it, there was something almost sociopathic about his behavior. Of course, there was something almost sociopathic about anything a robot did when interacting socially with a living, breathing human. Courtship rituals simply magnified the soulless, non-instinctual motivations driving the robot’s behavior.

            Luckily Lana hadn’t picked up on that yet. All she saw was a cute, albeit awkward, young man with a nice smile and perfect white teeth. “Okay,” she said. “I’ll give you credit for not beating around the bush, Gordon. How about Friday night?”

            “Friday night sounds good,” said the robot. He smiled again, making sure to seem non-threatening.

            Gordon was half asleep when the robot came home that afternoon. He’d dozed off in the fourth inning of the Red Sox game, which was now in the bottom of the ninth on the TV. The sound of the key being inserted into the lock and the doorknob turning caused his eyes to open.

            “Gordon? Is that you?”

            “Yes, sir,” the robot said, stepping inside and closing the front door behind him. “You will be pleased to know that I asked Lana out on a date today.”

            Gordon bolted up and tossed his frayed quilt aside. “You did what?”

            “I asked Lana out on a date. Like you wanted. You said so yourself yesterday.”

            Gordon glared at the robot. “You weren’t supposed to do that!”

            The robot’s facial expression remained neutral. “I thought you wanted her to go out with you. I got her to go out with you. I fail to see where I did anything wrong.”

            “I wanted her to go out with me, not you. We are not the same!”

            “Everyone else believes we are,” said the robot. “That was your intention. I am a perfect replica of you, sir.”

            Actually, thought Gordon, he was more than a perfect replica. He was a perfect version of Gordon, and that wasn’t the same thing. He was better than Gordon. He was out there living the life Gordon had always dreamed of living. The robot wasn’t crippled by the anxieties that crippled Gordon and had kept him homebound for the past decade. And now the robot was living out his dreams, and by extension stealing those dreams. It had been one thing when the robot simply filled in and did the things Gordon had no desire to do, but this was different. This was something Gordon wanted for himself. You couldn’t experience romance vicariously. Not like this.

            Dressed in a shabby grey hoody with the hood pulled up over his head, Gordon paced nervously back and forth on Boylston Street outside of McLaren’s, the restaurant where the robot had taken Lana. Gordon avoided eye contact with every stranger that walked by, but he knew if he stayed out here much longer he would draw unwanted attention to himself.

          Gordon couldn’t believe he was out here – outside of the house – and he didn’t know how much longer he could hold himself together without completely unraveling. He had to keep it together for a little while longer at least; the robot was in that restaurant right now destroying his life. He was either blowing any chance Gordon had with Lana, or he was making her fall in love with his robot self. Neither outcome seemed all that appealing to Gordon.

            Gordon’s gut feeling was to get back on the T and run home and crawl back in bed. Let the robot live his life. He was better at it anyway. But wasn’t that why the robot was better at living than he was? Because instead of living Gordon chose to sleep? The robot was incapable of making stupid, self-destructive decisions like that.

            Gordon had to see what the robot was doing. Now. Not later on a computer screen, but here in person. He ran over to the window and pressed his face against the glass. Luckily for him, it was dark and the glass was tinted to keep out the sun on bright days, so his face wasn’t immediately visible to those sitting inside. But he could see them.

            The robot sat across a candlelit table from the beautiful stranger Gordon only knew vicariously. She was perfect; the whole scene was. Someone who looked just like he did was sitting there eating what appeared to be a steak while he casually laughed and talked with a beautiful woman. To most people the scene would have looked ordinary from the outside, the same as a million other ordinary scenes playing out at the same time in a million other restaurants around the world. To Gordon, it was an unattainable dream. What he saw was the life he’d always wanted but could never have. He kept getting in his own way, but here it was, his for the taking.

            His for the taking.

            That was it. A figurative lightbulb lit up over Gordon’s head. He had the answer. All he had to do was get rid of the robot. He could slide into the life the robot had created and no one would know any better. Sure, something would seem off at first. After all, he wasn’t the robot. He didn’t have the robot’s personality. But he could make this work. People acted weird all the time. As long as he grew to be comfortable he could shrug off his initial awkwardness at reintegrating into the real world.

            It was settled then. The robot had to die. Then Lana and the rest of the robot’s life would be his.

            Gordon held the gun in his hand and waited patiently in an alley near the intersection of Boylston and Tremont. He didn’t see any other way for this to end. If he wanted to reclaim the life he’d given up this was the only way to do so. But at this point who was more real, him or the robot? The robot had been out there creating a life, while he had spent the last ten years napping on the couch. People liked the robot. On the other hand, no one really even knew who he was. Maybe the robot was the better man. Maybe the robot deserved the life he had built for himself. Second thoughts racked Gordon’s conscience, but he knew he had to cast them aside. If he ever wanted to create a life beyond his couch he had to get rid of the robot here and now.

            The robot emerged on the street beyond the shadows. Gordon scuffed his foot on the pavement, causing the robot to look his way. “Hello, sir,” he said, his expression that of something resembling surprise.

            “Hello.”

            Killing a robot is not murder, Gordon told himself. He’s just a machine. He doesn’t have feelings. He doesn’t have a soul. He’s not alive. You can’t murder something that’s not alive. You can’t murder a robot. You can’t . . .

            “Sir?” The robot stepped into the shadows of the alley.

            “Yes, Gordon?”

            “I didn’t expect to see you out here,” said the robot. “Usually you’re on the couch.”

            “I’m tired of that couch,” said Gordon.

            “I didn’t expect to see you at the restaurant tonight either.”

            Gordon felt bile rise in his stomach. The robot had seen him? How? When? Had anyone else seen him? Had Lana?

            “You?”

            “Briefly. At the window,” said the robot. “I don’t think anyone else noticed.”

            “Oh,” said Gordon.

            “I sense that something is wrong. Did I disappoint you?”

            Gordon almost laughed at the question. Did the robot disappoint him? Yes and no. No, because he’d managed to do something that Gordon had never been able to do, and Gordon had created him. The robot was the only truly good thing Gordon had ever done. Yes, because the robot was too good. He was living the life Gordon wanted, and in Gordon’s eyes that meant he was stealing something from Gordon, even though the things he was stealing had never belonged to Gordon in the first place.

            “I want the life you’re living,” Gordon said. “I want my life back.”

            “Oh,” the robot said, sounding exactly like Gordon had a moment earlier.

            “I can’t have your life, or mine, if you’re still here,” Gordon said. He pulled a gun out and pointed it at the robot.

            Silence descended like a heavy fog, blanketing both of the identical looking men beneath it.

            The robot simply stood there, patiently waiting his pending execution. He didn’t shout or argue or even try to run. He stood ready to sacrifice his life so that Gordon could reclaim his – and that ate Gordon up inside. He hadn’t expected this.

            Gordon couldn’t pull the trigger. “I can’t do this,” he said.

            “Don’t you want your life back?” asked the robot.

            “I do, but killing you won’t do that. I would just be taking over your life. What you’ve built belongs to you. My life stopped ten years ago. If I want a life I’m going to have to build it from scratch.”

            The robot looked puzzled. “I was prepared to kill you,” he said. He offered no further explanation, but Gordon believed him.

            Gordon knew he’d made the right choice. If the robot was willing to keep the life he’d created, then he was more than just a mindless machine. He was . . . something. Which was more than Gordon could say for himself over the past decade.

            “Good for you,” said Gordon. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a set of keys. “I should give you my keys. The house is yours now.”

            “Keep them,” said the robot. “I already have a set. I assume you’ll be moving out, based on this gesture, but you might want to come back. You could need those keys in the future.”

            Gordon slipped the keys back in his pocket. They felt safe there, but he was tired of everything feeling safe. Safe wasn’t living. If he ever returned to that house it would be the end of him.

            “Good luck with Lana,” Gordon said.

            The robot shrugged. “I don’t think it’s going to work out between us. I don’t completely understand human courtship, and she’s not particularly attracted to me.”

            That was good to know, Gordon thought. One last humiliation before embarking on his new life. He wouldn’t have had a chance with Lana even if he had tried on his own. Oh well. There would be other women out there. Hopefully. Maybe he could get past his anxieties and talk to them. And if he didn’t? Maybe it was better to be an absolute and total failure than someone who slept his life away. At least he would have better stories to tell.

            “Goodbye, Gordon,” Gordon said to the robot. He then disappeared into the darkness of the night, and the two of them never saw or heard from one another again.

 

 

 

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