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27 August 2012 @ 11:41 pm
Barcoded Life  
Title: Barcoded Life
Characters: Maruyama Ryuhei, Kanjani8
Rating: R
Warnings: Strong language
Summary: In a society built on Robot Help, Maruyama is determined to set things right and free the robots from their oppressive slavery by bringing down the corporation that started it all, Robotex. When he goes to spy on the corporation’s top employees to dig up scandal, he is caught by the much talked about but rarely seen Nishikido Ryo, son of the head of intelligent design. Thinking that Maru is a stray robot, Ryo offers Maru two options: to be shut down or to work as his personal servant.

Maruyama crouched below the line of security cameras, pressing his back against the steel fortress walls and barely breathing. He didn’t want to trigger the motion sensitivity pads dotted around the perimeter of the infamous Nishikido complex, which was known to be one of the most difficult landmarks to get into. Considering the Nishikido patriarch was head of intelligent design at the Robotex mega corporation, that was hardly a surprise.

All he needed was just one tiny glimpse, a snapshot with his antique Polaroid camera. Digital cameras came encoded and could too easily be traced back to the source.

He waited until the crucial switch between day cameras and night vision somewhere around five o’clock, which was late for this time of the year. When he heard the telltale click and whirr of the cameras shutting off, Maru bolted from his hiding position in an enclave at the back of the expansive property and legged it to the gate. It was a simple enough design – vertical metal bars that permitted passersby a look into the Nishikido garden (said to be the only place left in Japan where sakura bloomed naturally in accordance to the seasons) – and Maru slipped through them easily enough.

(Most people in their society wore elaborate but clumsy couture, all ruffles and exotic feathers and tulle and organza ribbon, which showcased their luxurious lifestyles. Clothes that befitted those who were unaccustomed to manual labour but would never in a million years have squeezed past those bars. The breastplates alone, gold plated and unyielding, would’ve been too heavy to even throw over the gate.

People had called Maru eccentric at best and uncivilised at worse. He wore simple clothes (practical, he called them) from past times – just a nondescript shirt, a faded jacket and some jeans that he’d once dug up from the earth when on an excavation tour. The tour had been entirely full of Society people eager to get an experience of olden day times where people had to wash their own clothes and cook their own food and actually manually run the community by their own hand. That adventure tour had taken them to the ruins of Osaka and given them period clothing to wear – overalls! Disgusting, cheap, revealing things! – and allowed them to run riot with excavation tools. A few people had scraped at the dirt and hastily climbed back into the courtesy vehicle when the dust became too overwhelming.

But Maru, who had grown up with a ravenous curiosity and deep love for the ancient world, had attacked that ground with more vigour than Society children at their first Inauguration and tore up entire clumps of clay untouched for hundreds of years to find a chest of old clothes. They lay in mould and were foul-smelling, in pathetically drab robotique colours like brown and grey and olive, but they were a treasure to Maru who victoriously pulled them from the earth and immediately donned them.

Needless to say, the rest of Society was not amused.

But Society needed to know the truth about Robotex and the Nishikido family.)

Maru ran through the garden and zipped up to the rear entrance of the gatehouse. There were several outposts around the perimeter of the property but they were shrouded in darkness and still and silent, and the main building towered above the entire garden oppressively. Only the gatehouse had a dim light on.

He slammed himself against outer wall of the building and peered in through the glossy window, expecting to see row upon row of vacant smiles, but instead what he saw shocked him to the core.

***


Maruyama Ryuhei did not have the most conventional Society childhood. He was brought up in a family without Help – it was just his mother, his father, and him. No robots to feed, wash, clothe or work for the household. Everything was done by hand and that was the way Maru liked it. The rest of his yearmates had considered him an oddball and would have ostracised him entirely if it weren’t for the fact that the Maruyamas were surprisingly wealthy after generations of exploration that resulted in museums worth of priceless artefacts.

Maru’s father was just another eccentric in a long line of Maruyama eccentrics. He believed in the Old Ways and he raised his son to appreciate the world not only for what it was but also what it had been and what it would be in the future. He taught young Maru to respect the good work of pioneers who created the first robots to work in hospitals and care for the elderly. Those were robots that could aid the invalid with their activities of daily living and provide them with a good quality of life. They gave people another chance to live.

But these good intentions were soon corrupted by greed and sloth. Wealthy mothers purchased these robots to raise their children while they themselves roamed the country on Society tours, indulging in high tea and high culture and the indulgencies of fine living. The middle class, wanting to emulate these opulent lifestyles of perpetual celebration and revelry, also began purchasing Help. Soon it became the norm for entire households to have been raised by robots, for robots to have been a way of life as far back as anyone could remember.

Robots were now sophisticated. They looked entirely like humans and spoke like humans but did not have the emotion of humans, nor the capacity of feel pleasure or pain, and so were the perfect slave.

However, Maru was convinced otherwise. There were many stories (hastily crushed by the government) about robots who saved lives out of their own initiative. Who Helped strangers or provided comfort to those who were not their owners. There were robots who expressed sadness at the passing of a human or glowed with joy alongside the household at the birth of a infant. There were robots who exacted revenge when betrayed by their owners or, driven by the very emotion that led to their widespread acceptance, felt greed and ran small factions of robots in pseudo gangs thieving and pillaging in the night.

But, of course, those were merely rumours. It was near impossible to catch wind of such tales and even more difficult to find any evidence for it. After his Inauguration into Society at the age of 20, Maru had joined an underground publication that sought to expose Society’s darkest secrets. The government had tried to shut them down several times but the publication always managed to bounce back. For all that Society loved their sumptuous lifestyles of gold and silk and never-ending festivities, there were still many who sent financial contributions to their agency and many more who purchased their monthly newspapers.

This was Maru’s big chance to become a regular journalist for the newspaper. He’d been working there for over eight years and slowly graduated from directing the domestic robots to maintain the property to writing short articles on local and community intrigues. This time, he had to get a national scoop.

***


Inside the gatehouse, there was a warm glow of light and activity. Five friends were gathered around the visional, laughing uproariously at whatever was on the screen. Maru couldn’t be sure of what they were saying but their expressions were all open and lively, and relaxed without stresses – nothing like the Society people on the streets who were often too absorbed in their own vanities to garner relationships with one another.

Maru sighed, a little relieved and somewhat envious. Was this what the truly wealthy were like? Not foolish parlour games but genuine human connections? Having risen up so high to see above the frivolities of life?

A hand landed heavily on his shoulder and gripped, hard. Maru jumped.

“Who are you?” commanded a voice.

“Maru,” said Maru automatically then cursed inwardly. Idiot, he thought.

“You will follow me. If you attempt to flee, you will be Disabled,” came the voice in the same steely cold tone.

Fighting to stay composed, Maru turned around to see a man walking briskly toward the rear of the gatehouse. The man was wearing expensive clothes, all silk and satin and draping off him with far too many folds for practicality and in vibrant colours of scarlet and gold and emerald. In short, private house clothing. His hair was cropped short and his skin was darker than usual, but he walked with the authority of a lord and spoke in the same manner of one accustomed to being obeyed. He also had two guns sitting snugly in their silver carved holsters – a laser stunner for robots and a .38 for humans.

Maru had little choice but to follow him.

***


There was a rumour that haunted Maru’s childhood. A half-crazed wild woman had tore into the house one night, ravaging the kitchen in the desperate search for food. Maru’s parents were due to return from an expedition to the Southern Islands but were delayed by a tumultuous turn in the weather, so Maru had been left alone with only musty tomes for company.

Maru had stepped into the kitchen. He was eleven at the time. He’d begun secondary school and was the bravest boy in his year (recklessly brave, the teachers said) and was not afraid of the shabbily-dressed, bushy-haired woman who wantonly flung open cupboards and smashed ceramic plates and bowls aside.

After Maru cobbled together a warm meal from leftover dinners, the woman began to talk.

“I saw it,” said the woman. “The room where they keep the spares. Rows upon rows of them lined up in the semi-darkness of the chamber, which stretches so far that you can’t even make out the end. And they’re all just waiting, these pitiful robots, staring straight ahead with eager eyes, just waiting for someone to come. There are all sorts there from the earliest prototypes to the latest models – all defective in some way or something. The ones who broke away from protocol and felt and lived, who were capable of being the same as us, who were us.

“Some of them whole, others missing limbs. A spare parts yard prime for picking. You need to replace an arm? Too time consuming to craft a new one so just pop down to the vault to tear off an unused one from an unwanted robot. Prefer to fuck a blonde robot instead of a brunette? Just rip off the hair fibres of a discarded robot. It’s not as though they can feel, right? Waste not, want not, right?”

The woman let out a shrill, manic laugh.

“A never ending cave of spare parts, of robots missing limbs and eyes and skin, all waiting to be reunited with their owners who never come to claim them. Of robots who were too human to be of value, robots who wait until the end of eternity for someone to save them.

“They know, little boy. They feel it too. The yearning for someone to return. The only difference between them and us is that we know our loved ones are gone forever. They’ll live forever and they’ll feel that pain of loss forever.”

Maru had struggled not to cry. “How do I know you’re telling the truth?”

“Because,” said the woman, flashing him a set of impossibly straight teeth. “I was one of them.”

The woman fled into the night and Maru never saw her again, even though he searched the streets for years. To this day he still thought that perhaps he’d come across her one day but a part of him wondered whether it was merely a dream.

But her final words echoed in his head for the next seventeen years. “They’ll pay for this! I’ll make them all pay, those damned Nishikidos!

***


Maru was led into the gatehouse through an immaculately kept entranceway, all steel and concrete and steeped with unforgiving cold. The man shoved him face first into the stone wall and yanked at Maru’s hair, searching.

“No barcode,” said the man flatly. “So not one of ours. Innobot or Machsys?”

With a start, Maru realised that the man thought he was a robot. Taking Maru’s stunned silence as a refusal to speak, the man harrumphed and tugged at Maru’s clothes.

“Did you rob an ancient grave for these rags?” The man scoffed. “Better than running about naked, I suppose. Well imagine that, a robot with dignity. Or a fear of the cold. Which one is it? I know you can talk so you might as well get chatty.” When the silence dragged on, the man sneered and spat scornfully, “If your owner gave a shit about you, they would’ve come to collect you by now. Now answer me.”

“Both,” Maru replied finally.

The man laughed, all sharp canines and rough tones. “A feeler then, huh? I’ll have you sorted.” He pulled out his laser stunner – it was enough to completely shut down a robot, definitely more than enough to burn a human to a crisp.

“Please don’t hurt me,” whispered Maru, the sweat beading on his forehead and top lip. His hands shook as he clasped them in front of his chest and begged, “I’ll do anything, I swear.”

“And a sense of self-preservation too. Interesting. This is going to be very educational.” The man took out his .38 and almost smiled.

“Please,” repeated Maru, throwing himself at the man’s feet. “Anything you want.”

He heard the clank of metal against metal. Maru looked up to see the weapons had been discarded on a table. He glanced back to the man who had raised an eyebrow and was shrugging. “Anything? Do you want to serve me, robot?”

“Y-yes,” said Maru hesitantly, stunned.

The man scoffed again. “Yeah, we’ll see about that. Welcome to the fucking household. I’m Nishikido Ryo. Now get me something to eat.”

Ryo jerked his head toward another heavy metal door and fixed Maru with an expectant glare. Maru wasted no time at all rushing to the door and flinging it open.

The Nishikido Ryo, the much talked about but never seen heir to the Nishikido family. Society had long thought the heir was dead or just a myth, and that the bundle of cloth presented to the journalists twenty eight years ago was nothing more than a doll to prevent scandal regarding Mrs Nishikido’s duties as a wife. But indeed there was a man with his arms folded over his chest and a somewhat tetchy expression on his face following behind him. He didn’t really look like the successor to the greatest robot designer Japan had ever seen, but Maru was too busy manoeuvring through the winding corridors to question his authority – although the fact that Ryo had left the guns in the antechamber was a relief.

Finally they made it to the end of the corridor. There was an ordinary door that greeted them. A great slab of steel, probably heavier than Maru’s entire family combined, with a little handle. Maru opened it cautiously and peered in.

Immediately, a wave of warmth seeped into his body and the smell of home hit him. There was an actual fireplace, not just a hologram, which burst with red and gold flames, and crackled invitingly. The room they entered into was relatively small by modern standards, probably only enough to comfortably fit thirty people. It almost seemed cramped, especially considering the plush furniture, thick heavy velvet curtains and lush thatch of carpet that sprawled across the floor.

“Wow,” he whispered involuntarily.

Ryo cleared his throat impatiently. “I’m starting to see why you were disowned. Are you always this slow?”

“Sorry,” Maru muttered hastily and made his way over the kitchen, which overlooked the living area. In front of the visional, the five friends Maru had spotted earlier looked away from the hologram screen to stare at him inquisitively.

“Who’s this, Ryo?” asked the one perched on the end of the armchair. He was wearing an assortment of colours that made Maru’s eyes hurt – plaids mixed with polka dots, bright pinks entwined with lime greens, and everything covered in glitter and sequins. Even Maru could tell that the guy was a fashion portalwreck. “Hi, I’m Yasu. What’s your name?”

“Oh yeah, this is Maru. He’s the new Help,” Ryo gestured vaguely in Maru’s direction and strode over to sit at the dining table, scrutinising Maru’s every movement with appraising eyes.

“Hello Maru,” cheered another one of the friends. This one wore an entire length camouflage outfit complete with helmet and sunglasses despite it being indoors, but had a gigantic smile that flaunted rather large, badly crooked teeth. “Pleased to meet you, I’m Hina. And this is Yoko, Subaru and Ohkura. We’re Ryo’s friends. Don’t let him treat you too badly.”

“You’re my neighbours,” Ryo corrected, grumbling. “Now hurry up and make me dinner. I’m fucking starving.”

Maru couldn’t help but boggle. It was well past midnight and Ryo hadn’t even eaten dinner yet? “You mean to say you don’t have other Help?”

Ryo snorted. “If I had Help then I wouldn’t need you, would I?”

Maru wanted to ask what happened to all the previous robots but the look on Ryo’s face convinced him to keep his mouth shut. Years of learning to fend for himself while his parents were away exploring foreign lands had equipped Maru with more than adequate culinary skills, and Ryo’s delivery chute was unlocked to every single food market available in the land. Maru flicked at the touchpad for the necessary items and whipped up a meal when the ingredients arrived.

“Which version of Culinary Skill do you have?” Ryo demanded as he tucked into the curry. There was a brief pause as he took the first bite. Maru wasn’t sure whether this was a good thing. “You have the Home Cooking expansion pack obviously, so you must be at least version eight.”

Maru had no fucking idea what was included in version eight of Culinary Skill. The Help back at the newspaper office were only on version five and still had a tendency to over-process the hamburgers. He nodded noncommittally and Ryo grunted, apparently satisfied. He polished off the rest of his meal in silence while Maru cleaned up. Ryo’s neighbours reverted their attention back to the visional, although the one named Yoko occasionally shot him suspicious glances.

“We’ll upgrade you tomorrow,” said Ryo, around the final mouthful of curry. “You do know what your duties are, right? We don’t need to completely re-program you to be fit for service?”

“Yes,” Maru replied, not quite understanding why he felt somewhat insulted.

“Good. Your room is the third on the right, down the main hallway. There is a recharge port and daily itinerary log there.” Ryo stood up and started toward the hall without looking back. “I’m going to bed. Don’t make too much noise,” he called over his shoulder. “And don’t you guys have homes to go to?”

“Good night, Ryo,” his friends chorused, shrugging off the brusque attitude with a grin. “Seriously Maru, the key to survival here is that you need to learn how to stand up for yourself.”

They switched off the visional and made their way to the back entrance through which Maru had entered earlier. “See you later. Don’t work too hard.” They bundled out the door and left Maru in the empty room alone. The fireplace continued to rustle and pop periodically and the faint scent of smoke was soothing in an inexplicable way. Natural fireplaces were forbidden to most of the population due to safety precautions and holograms were fairly realistic these days – but it figured that the Nishikidos would be allowed such concessions.

Letting out a sigh he hadn’t realised he’d been holding in, Maru reflected on the past few hours with disbelief.

Far from being persecuted for trespassing, he had been allowed inside the actual Nishikido household. Granted, it wasn’t access to the entire complex but he was now Ryo’s personal Help. The sheer privilege and overwhelming amount of information that could be gained by simply observing or ‘cleaning the house’ or feigning ignorance and interrogating Ryo’s friends (who seemed, all in all, quite an enlightened bunch unlike Ryo himself)!

He began to tidy the little flat, thankful of his unconventional upbringing so that these domestic chores came quite easily to him. He wandered from room to room, sweeping and dusting as he went until eventually he fell into a rhythm. For a moment he forgot all about his journalistic ambition and found himself enjoying the mindless labour. It was almost refreshing to get his hands dirty.

Thankfully Ryo was fast asleep because Maru was sure that robots had never been designed to sweat so heavily after completing a single round of chores.

It was some time past three o’clock in the morning when he finished. Maru went to his designated room and was surprised to find a guest bedroom. The recharge port and itinerary log was there, sure, but there was also a large bed and desk, and even an en suite bathroom. In fact, the place looked like it had entirely been designed as a guest bedroom with the robot amenities added as an afterthought.

He showered quickly, attended to his personal hygiene and slipped into bed, exhausted.

He’d always dreamed of going undercover to expose a major Societal secret. He just didn’t think that he’d be so damned lucky.

Sleep came easily enough.

The next morning he awoke, momentarily disorientated to the unfamiliar surroundings, and then sprung out of bed with his eyes wide and frantic. He glanced at the clock and swore profusely under his breath, then hastily threw on the more appropriate robot uniform hanging up in the wardrobe. As he tumbled into the kitchen, he saw that Ryo was already seated at the breakfast bench looking distinctly pissed off.

“It’s almost eight o’clock,” said Ryo, slowly, between gritted teeth.

“Yes, I’m sorry. I’ll get started straight away,” Maru replied in a rush and started ripping open the cupboards to prepare breakfast. He had no idea what Ryo wanted to eat – he hoped it wasn’t going to be anything too complicated – damn it, he was supposed to ask, wasn’t he? Apologetically he turned to Ryo and opened his mouth but Ryo cut him off.

“Yes, thank you for finally realising,” Ryo drawled. “Natto on rice will do. You know I had to bathe myself this morning? Almost fucking drowned.”

It took a great deal of strength for Maru to refrain from answering that that was perhaps Ryo was an incompetent idiot. Instead, he replied, “I’m sorry, master Nishikido. It won’t happen again.”

“Just Ryo is fine,” said Ryo irritably. “And you haven’t updated your itinerary log yet. How I am supposed to know what you have and haven’t cleaned?”

With your eyes? thought Maru, putting the rice into the cooker. “I’ll update it as soon as possible, Ryo.”

“So slow,” Ryo muttered under his breath. Maru was starting to get an idea of why Ryo didn’t have any Help around – he’d drive anyone mad with his constant criticism. If it wasn’t that the temperature of the rice was too hot or that the coffee wasn’t strong enough, then it was that the water in the vases hadn’t been changed yet and his clothes had not been laid out for him. “And if you dare to pick something ugly, I’ll flog you,” hissed Ryo. “Useless robot. Would’ve been better had I simply Disabled you and sold you for spare parts.”

Maru froze and held his breath. His heart thudded in his chest.

“If such a thing existed, of course. But then again, who would want you anyway?”

The sound of Ryo’s voice became a distant hum as Maru felt the fury build up inside of him. He gripped the broom so hard that his knuckles strained white underneath his skin and his body trembled with the image of a million abandoned, futureless robots. Unable to help himself, he smashed the broom back onto its holder and ground out tersely, “I will lay out your clothes for you now, Ryo.”

As he stormed out of the kitchen and down the hallway, he caught a glimpse of Ryo’s self-congratulatory, pleased smirk in the reflective wall panels.

The regret from agreeing to be Ryo’s manslave was beginning to set in. What had initially seemed like a good idea was now a daily horror of a thousand and one chores that needed to be completed all at the same time. Maru was operating on less than four hours of sleep per night and it was beginning to show in the sad set of his shoulders as he tidied up after Ryo who, thankfully, was working in his lab at Robotex corporation most of the day. Seizing upon a rare opportunity on the third day, when Ryo had finished work but muttered that he wasn’t feeling particularly hungry, Maru asked what it was that Ryo did at the corporation. Was he an intelligence designer like his father, or instead did he work in bioengineering? Was it in mechanical engineering or even public relations?

Ryo had simply shrugged it off, saying, “Nothing anybody will ever see,” and then telling Maru to run a bath for him and to stop asking so many fucking questions.

When it looked particularly dire for Maru, having gained very little information about the Nishikido son except that Ryo had a fierce temper, was particular about which brand of washing liquid was used and had an unhealthy obsession with mayonnaise, he was greeted by Hina and Ohkura from next door. Having received instructions from Ryo to let in his neighbours if they felt like coming around, Maru politely stepped aside and asked if he could fetch them any refreshments. The both of them distractedly waved off the question and instead leaned in towards Maru, grinning.

“So, what’s Ryo been like?” asked Ohkura, who was covered head to toe in green lace, in so many layers that he could barely fit through the door.

“Bossy, right?” crowed Hina, slapping Maru heartily on the back. “Ah, our Ryo-chan’s such a riot! Come, forget about the stupid chores for a second and fill us in on the news. What’s he been eating?”

“Uh,” Maru stuttered inelegantly as he was bundled to the sofa. Hina and Ohkura sat on either side of him and fixed him with curious but expectant looks. “Food, just ordinary food. Nothing too complex, I guess. Why do you want to know?”

Hina gave a wide mouthed laugh. “We just want to know that he’s travelling along all right and that you’re looking after him properly.”

It was refreshing to see people who cared so much about others – the jealousy that Maru had felt on that first day when he’d peeked through the gatehouse window was beginning to stir inside his belly again. “Do you both work at Robotex too?”

“God, no!” Ohkura groaned, shooting Maru a disgusted look. “As if anyone would want to work there!”

“Why?” Maru pressed, making sure to hide his eagerness at potentially hearing something newsworthy about the corporation.

Rolling his eyes and stretching back on the sofa, Ohkura replied easily, “Because it’s boring. People can be so dull sometimes.”

Maru deflated slightly. “Oh, then what is it that you do?”

Flicking on the visional, Hina likewise settled himself in the sofa and laughed again, cheerfully. “We don’t do anything. That’s what so great about life! Come, do you want to watch the historical channel or marketing channel? Participating in the history channel really gets your tension up, doesn’t it?”

Not sure whether robots were supposed to be able to feel excitement over interactive education programs, Maru nonetheless agreed happily enough. When he was at home, he dedicated entire hours to delving into past worlds and partaking in little adventures. They were nothing like the ones his parents often went on (they had to be commercial enough for Society, after all) but they were fun entertainment regardless. “How is it that you know Ryo, anyway?”

With his eyes glued to the screen, Ohkura replied distantly, “We meet on the street, of course. We’re neighbours, after all.”

“I’ve known Ryo my entire life. I’d do anything for that grouchy idiot,” said Hina in a somewhat subdued voice. “He acts all tough on the outside but he’s actually very kind-hearted. You’ll soon figure that out, Maru. Really, don’t let him get you down.”

“What happened to his previous Help, then?” Maru could not refrain from asking.

Ohkura pressed his lips together and refused to look at Maru. It was Hina who murmured, “Shh, I think it’s coming up to a good bit,” and the pair of them lapsed into silence.

Maru sighed and continued with his chores.

The following day, Ryo announced that Maru was to accompany him on a routine tour of the Robotex facility.

“The only reason why you’re allowed to tag along is because I can’t stand having to talk to any of the employees, so if I pretend to be interested in you, that’s the reason why,” Ryo grumbled. “No need to get too excited, honestly.” Even still, Maru found it difficult not to practically hum with anticipation at being allowed inside the corporate and getting a chance to watch the entire process from personality mapping to delivery. He skipped alongside Ryo as they entered, feeling a thrill as he flashed his All Access VIP card at the human guards who barely glanced at him.

Inside the facility, everything surged with efficient activity and a flurry of colours from the people. The décor and furnishings were a pathetic, sickly white colour – all smooth edges and gleaming heated panels – but the people who worked within were well dressed and confident, at the very height of fashion and business proficiency. Only the best of the best were selected to work at the prestigious corporation and it showed. The employees practically flowed in rivers of multicoloured silk and jewels, dancing graceful lines around each other. They wore their occupation like badges of honour. Indeed, it was one of the few human-only workplaces left in the country where the work conducted within was beyond the skill and comprehension of robots. Everything inside was carefully crafted by the human mind and sculpted by human hands. It was a rarity, a place where manual labour was a marker of one’s worth.

Ryo himself appeared uninterested in the pack of employees that moved through the facility and occasionally shot someone a death glare if they dared to venture too close. “Why can’t you time travel?” he muttered under his breath to Maru, who was busy peering wide-eyed at the innovation team working on touch-sensitive hair. “It would be so much more useful right now.”

It was unnerving however, when the other employees gave Maru curious stares. They were unabashed in scrutinising Maru and pointing out his features and characteristics, and speaking about him right before him. One of them even clapped him on the shoulder and prodded at his cheeks, musing, “Huh, he even turns red from touch. How intriguing!” For a second it looked as though they were about to undress him right in the middle of a discussion about profit margins but thankfully Ryo grumbled about needing to use the bathroom and called Maru away from the circle of wandering hands.

“You shouldn’t let yourself get caught up in such things. I seem to remember that you have dignity, idiot,” said Ryo crossly before he entered the gents, leaving Maru outside standing guard.

Disgruntled, Maru crossed his arms and attempted to devise a way to break apart from the travelling employee pack, although there didn’t seem to be a way in which he could escape them and Ryo at the same time.

He needed to come up with a news article soon. At the moment it seemed as though he was going to end up Ryo’s personal slave forever and the thought of having to traipse about the place for another hundred years, picking up after Ryo, was too tedious to even bear thought. Besides, it wouldn’t do for Maru to eventually grow and age when robots tended to look the same forever. He groaned. Everything was starting to look impossible.

As he grumpily sagged against the wall, he could hear Robotex employees rustling past. None of them appeared to have spotted Maru, thankfully, and so he decided to listen in to their conversation.

“…and he even decides to buy a competitor’s robot, the nerve of him!” said one shrilly, her heels clacking against the tiled floor.

Another one sounded amused. “It’s not surprising. A giant up-yours to his old man, I suppose. What better way to piss off the family than by spitting on their greatest achievement?”

“But it’s so childish. Nishikido needs to grow up instead of hiding inside his lab all day. Heaven knows what he’s actually doing. Coming up with the Innovation of the Century I highly doubt,” scorned the first voice.

A new voice entered the conversation. “He hasn’t wanted to be part of this corporation from he moment he set foot in here. Doesn’t come to company functions, doesn’t speak to anyone, rarely responds to messages… If it weren’t for these routine inspections I wouldn’t even believe that he existed. What a disgrace.”

The trio of employees moved on and left Maru puzzling over their words. It seemed curious that even the other people in the corporation were unaware of Ryo’s activities in the lab, and that Ryo didn’t especially enjoy his job. For someone who was skilled at ordering robots around, Ryo didn’t seem to like robots particularly much – or perhaps, he simply disliked the Robotex models. Maru was certain of one thing, however: his editor was not going to be impressed with him any time soon.

Dejected with his feet dragging behind, he trailed around Ryo meekly for the rest of the day and nodded glumly to whatever was being said to him. Even Ryo cast him odd looks from time to time but didn’t mention anything. When the tour finally ended, Ryo ensured that he was the first to leave lest he get dragged out for after-work drinks. “Willingly chat to ghastly people for an hour or more? Dream on,” he groaned as they stepped into the Portal for home.

“You don’t really like people, huh?” Maru murmured but the Portal had already activated by then and they were sucked along underground inside their capsules. The whirring sound of the wind drowned out Maru’s voice so he simply stood there and waited patiently alongside Ryo until they arrived home.

“I’m hungry,” Ryo announced when they stepped out of the Portal, so Maru began to prepare dinner. By now, he was used to having Ryo watch him cook and in a way, it was much more soothing having the presence of someone else around. The emptiness during the daytime, if Ryo’s neighbours didn’t drop by, was bordering on oppressive and frightening. After a while, Ryo’s bad mood from having spent the day with other people melted away and he simply watched Maru zip around the kitchen, pulling pots and pans and stirring and tasting. It was a little strange for Maru to be capable of eating, but Maru simply replied that he was able to take care of the consequences easily before he slipped into Sleep mode when recharging, and Ryo didn’t ask further.

“You enjoy watching me cook, don’t you?” Maru asked quietly, as he finished up the meal and placed it in front of Ryo, who not once had used the actual dining table and preferred to hover at the breakfast bench instead.

“Maybe,” Ryo replied carelessly and tucked into his dinner. When Maru started to clean up, he heard Ryo behind him mumble something that might have been Thanks.

Ryo cleared his throat and in a louder voice, asked, “What did you think of the corporation then?”

“It’s incredible to see so many people working to improve robot technology and knowing that all these great minds are coming together for that sole purpose. There’s a sense of passion,” Maru tried to sound enthusiastic as he scrubbed at the saucepans.

“Making robots faster, better, stronger? Expand their capabilities to rob people of any skills at all. In the next ten years we’ll start seeing the first robots working at Robotex and then people wouldn’t have any purpose anymore except to sit around and be pampered.” Ryo adopted a hard tone of voice as he thrust his spoon in Maru’s direction. “It’s disgusting for humans to have to rely on robots so much.”

“It’s possible for humans to do things by themselves, you know. You could learn how to cook – I promise you it’s not very difficult once you get the basics right.” It had taken Maru years before he was able to crack an egg without ending up with eggshell fragments all over the place but he didn’t tell Ryo that. “It’s not that humans aren’t able to do things like cook and clean and do the laundry but simply that humans don’t want to. People in the olden days did domestic chores all the time as a matter of course and they’re widely regarded as being stupider and less competent than the people of today.”

Ryo laughed bitterly. “You really are a strange one, Maru. You’re so flawed in a way that even people aren’t. And your cooking method is so bizarre yet somehow you come up with the best dishes.”

“You want to keep me around, then?” Maru asked carefully.

But Ryo just shook his head and sighed. “It’s kind of stupid how I end up preferring the company of robots to humans, huh? People are too difficult to get along with.”

“What about your neighbours?”

With a troubled expression, Ryo replied slowly, “It’s not the same. Finish up early and go recharge, Maru. I’m heading to bed.”

That night as Maru prepared for bed, he noticed that attached to the lapel of his uniform was the All Access VIP swipe card for entrance into the Robotex facilities. He must have forgotten to return it after being dragged out of the facility by Ryo in their haste to leave. He fingered the thin, transparent card and pursed his lips in thought. The right thing to do would be to return it since he didn’t want his actions to be traced back to Ryo. As much as he hated admitting it, the guy wasn’t so bad after all – just impatient and domineering and apparently rubbish at giving out compliments – however, he knew that it was coming down to crunch time. He missed his simple lifestyle and being able to sprawl out on his sofa at home and immerse himself in historical programs on the visional for hours on end without having to worry about running a household for someone else.

He decided that he could definitely chance it. Even if he were caught, he’d probably have enough information to still remain useful for his newspaper. The sheer detail he could go into about the production process alone was at least a year’s worth of material. He tucked the swipe card into the pocket of his uniform and went to sleep, tossing uneasily all throughout the night.

***


For the first time since arriving at the gatehouse, Maru felt a surge of purpose thrum through his body. It was part anticipation and part fear that trickled throughout his movements as he stood before the mirror in the bathroom and practised a calm, collected expression. But it was difficult to keep the light from sparkling in his eyes, the more he thought about what was ahead of him. Maru might have been the bravest kid at school in a society that did not reward bravery, but he rarely used it to his advantage. Most often he acted upon it out of necessity.

Well, he supposed, this was necessary now.

He glanced outside the window and dimly registered the orange-black blur of early morning, far earlier than Ryo would even consider being awake. Tossing on his uniform and double-checking that his swipe card was pinned neatly back onto the stiff, starchy lapel, Maru made for the Portal and stepped in. His legs barely trembled even though his heart was pounding, firm and fast. He keyed in the pre-coded address for the corporation and drew in a shaky breath as the capsule began to breeze through the underground tunnels, passing few other capsules on the way. It wasn’t truly a respectable time for humans to be awake.

The entrance to the corporation was largely empty, save for the sleepy guard who looked at Maru with interest for a few seconds while Maru flashed the swipe card, his hands slipping a little from sweat. The guard narrowed his eyes and gestured for Maru to approach the counter. Keep his hands straight down by his sides, Maru shuffled closer to the guard who leaned in close and sniffed all over him suspiciously.

“I have access,” Maru said in his strongest voice. Even to his own ears, it sounded like little more than a whimper.

A few more seconds of indecision and then another guard came along. It was the guard from the previous day, who thankfully recognised Maru and waved him through. Maru waited until he had rounded the bend before letting out a sigh of relief.

Then came the tricky part. He had the entire facility to roam but no idea of where to begin. He stood at the elevator, wracked with indecision, and tensely watching as the countdown for floor numbers ticked down. Somebody behind him coughed indelicately.

“Nishikido-san’s laboratory is in basement 3, room 4A,” said the woman, who Maru vaguely recognised as being one of the employees from the tour. She looked exhausted, with bags under her eyes and hair frazzled about her face, and a permanent frown etched across her mouth. “Poorly designed,” she muttered darkly under her breath.

“Oh, thank you,” stammered Maru, who rushed into the elevator when the doors parted with a zip and pressed for the B3 level. The woman who had addressed him pointedly refused to take the same elevator as him and waited instead for the next one. Maru wasn’t sorry to see the elevator doors close and the carriage lurch downwards, deep into the earth.

When the doors slid open again, the view was vastly different from the floors above. It was dark and slightly musty, with only a few lights placed haphazardly along the corridor and concrete flooring in need of a good scrub down. The disbelief that the place had been allowed to rot away in such filthy circumstances made Maru feel queasy, as he walked down the silent, echoing corridor. His footsteps rang out along the hall, resonating continuously, and his breath rose into puffs of cold mist that became sticky against his cheeks. After what felt like an eternity of tentative walking, he came across the room marked 4A. There was a wooden plaque on it with Ryo’s name scorched on. Maru tried the handle but it wouldn’t budge. It wasn’t until he flicked his swipe card against the security lock that he heard the blissful beep and a flash of green. He pushed his way in.

The light switch was nowhere to be found but there was a solitary beam of harsh white light that fell from the ceiling at the back of the cramped room. It felt more like a cellar or a cave than a workplace; the walls were stacked high with spares parts and metal panels, bits of machinery and scraps of left over silicon moulded into undiscernible shapes. It was almost unbearably freezing in the room, like the inside of a preserver, and Maru’s entire body shivered, although that was not entirely the fault of the cold. The floor was covered with dust, collected in small mounds or swirls. The place was still but crammed with the overbearing tension of a thousand machinery parts hovering above Maru’s head, about to tip onto his head and all come crashing down should he breathe too hard.

He looked to the white beam of light. There was something underneath it but from the distance, Maru could not be certain. He crept closer. The door behind him slid shut and locked.

He whirled around but there was nothing there. Just an automatic reflex of the room, perhaps.

Each step seemed to take an eternity. When he was close enough, he noticed a collection of wire and fibre optic cables that blossomed from a hollowed metallic shell, resting on top of a work table with various tools strewn around it. He saw microchips glinting under the light and springs coiled tight and almost quivering amidst the stillness.

It wasn’t until he moved closer though that his breath caught at the back of his throat and his eyes bulged from their sockets.

Yasuda. Only half of his face intact, the rest had been burnt away. Charred and frayed at the silicon edges, blackened and thick with congealed oil. Underneath the thin membrane of damaged skin was unmistakably the smooth white curves of a robot face, connected to a body fragment with the cables spilling out of him like ropes of blood. Lifeless, dead, just a spare part being picked apart by indiscriminate ravens.

And yes, there, revealed by a thatch of hair fibre half shrivelled and burnt away, a barcode.

A hard knot of bile rose up Maru’s throat as his mind reeled and pitched. He reached out and touched Yasuda’s body but it was cold and unyielding, stiff like a corpse and heavily scarred. “Yasuda?” he whispered.

“He’s been Disabled,” came a voice behind him. “He can’t hear you.”

Maru spun around so fast his body stumbled forward. He shot out an arm to keep balance but missed the edge of the table and went sprawling onto the concrete floor, the jolt from the contact sending rivets of pain pulsing up his knees. His hands slammed into the concrete and began to bleed. He looked up and saw all of them, half in shadow but watching, blocking the exit. Their inky black eyes glittered in the semi-darkness. Their breaths did not form wisps of mist, unlike Maru’s.

The one who spoke stepped forward, and from that movement Maru could make out his features: the pale skin, jet black hair, red lips, hard set of his jaw. “I know you’re not a robot,” he said. “So why are you here?”

“Yoko…” Maru started to say but the words died in his throat when Subaru too came forward.

“Don’t fuck with us,” snarled Subaru. “Might be able to fool the younger models but Yoko could tell from the start that you’re not one of us. You’re human. Now explain yourself.”

The four friends edged closer to form a semi-circle around Maru.

“All right,” Maru spluttered. “I’ll tell you everything.”

And so he spoke: of the robot companies who were relacing human life and human existence with facsimiles of what it meant to live; of feeling disconnected in a world where humans barely interacted beyond the superficial; of seeing the five of them laughing and having a good time together and being able to relax around one another, of no longer feeling that cavernous distance stretching from soul to soul; of how it’s all moot anyway since they’re robots too and he’ll never feel anything remotely like closeness with another human; of his childhood nightmare of abandoned robots with nowhere to go, robots who felt more so than humans and were capable of forging friendships.

The pause that followed was thick and heavy.

Suddenly, “You think Ryo is part of that?” Hina cried out incredulously. “That he would be a part of something so heinous?”

“But Yasuda … the threats of being turned into scrap metal…”

“Its just a stupid saying,” Ohkura interrupted. “Ryo’s not tearing Yasu apart. He’s fixing him. Like he fixed all of us. Like he was trying to fix you, to give you a new life.”

“There is no stupid giant pit for homeless robots. You know what happens to us when we’re no longer useful? We get crushed and tossed into landfill because it’s cheaper to make a new robot than it is to fix one. That’s the cruel reality,” shouted Hina, striding forward and grabbing a fistful of Maru’s uniform, dragging him to his knees. “We were all defective in some way – we still are – but in spite of that, Ryo decided that he was going to save us from that fate. He pulled us out from the one-way capsule to city landfill and taught us, slowly, what it meant to think for ourselves, to live and learn and love and respect one another.”

Maru shook his head. “But all he’s done is scream at me for doing things wrong.”

Yoko tutted impatiently. “Of course he has. And it’s pissed you off, right? Made you angry? Made you want to punch a hole through his face and prove to him your worth? Think about it, Maru, does your everyday robot think that way?”

“No,” Maru whispered in realisation. “He wanted to get a reaction from me.”

Subaru nodded. “He’s been waiting for you to take control of your life all along. That’s the first step, you see. Learning to think for yourself.”

“And when we’re ready,” Ohkura continued. “He introduces us as humans and we live alongside humans peacefully. And not once have we been found out. That’s how far robots have come … that people on the street don’t even realise how sophisticated we are, how very human we can be. Oh no, if robots start behaving too much like humans they brand us as being defective and erase us as soon as possible; wipe their hands clean of us.”

“All because they don’t want to face up to the truth that robots are just as capable of feeling as any other!” Hina declared with a howl.

Yoko nudged Hina aside and crouched down so that he was almost level with Maru, and peered into Maru’s troubled eyes. “And yet you decided to become a robot. Was it to mock us? You said that you believe in robot equality, in robot rights, and still you’ve paraded about town pretending to be a robot knowing that you can go back to your life at any time. Well? Did you enjoy your time as one of us?”

Maru lowered his head and glared at the floor. The heat of shame flickered onto his cheeks. His hands stung with grazes and the blood, his blood, smeared across the concrete as though another affront to the neighbours. Just another way in which he was different from them – except, no, he thought determinedly. Not different, just another variety, he realised.

“You’re just as wrong as I am,” said Maru quietly. Slowly, he raised his head and stared Yoko straight in the eye. Never before had he felt as confident as in that moment, when he took in a deep breath and announced, “One of you? I’ve always been one of you, just as you’ve always been one of me. We’re the same, don’t you know? Humans and robots. What’s the difference between blood and oil when they both do little more than bring us to life?”

Speechless, Yoko rocked back onto his haunches and faltered. “What…”

“I’m sorry; I’ve deceived you and took you all for fools – but I’ve learnt my lesson,” replied Maru. “I’ll leave now and won’t disturb you again.”

Rising to his feet, Maru wiped his hands on his uniform – an ugly crimson stain smudged across the dull beige cloth – and walked through the four and toward the door. No-one stopped him, nor did anyone say a word. On the other side of the door, Maru drew in a shaky breath and strode down the corridor once more. A measured pace, heavy in the heels and with his body taut and full of remorse. He wound his way through the facility and stepped into the Portal capsule. There was only one place left for him to go.

He typed in his address and felt the tag and push of the wind turbines yanking the capsule across the city. The journey seemed to take an eternity. When the capsule stopped outside his home, his hand wavered on the handle for a few extra seconds before he entered his home.

It looked the same. Nothing had been touched. Of course, he thought sullenly.

What had once been his refuge was now little more than a collection of mismatched furniture and empty stillness. He sat down at his work bench and tapped into his mail system. Just a couple of letters from his editor wanting a draft, demanding a draft, demanding the final edit, threatening to fire Maru if he didn’t reply. His fingers hovered over the trackpad and brushed over the characters that floated up to greet him but his mind was both blank and jammed full of dizzying thoughts.

He suddenly could remember everything about all of his days: the way Ryo would look pleased whenever Maru lost his temper; the way the robot room really was a guest bedroom; how Yoko knew all along but was still civil to him whenever they bumped into each other on the street; how none of Ryo’s friends ever ate or drank; how Ryo never grew tired of watching Maru move about the kitchen, cooking and cleaning and simply observing; how Maru had misinterpreted everything. How he had been a fool all along.

The future of robotics, he started to type, is the future of us.

He thought about how Hina and Ohkura had an insatiable fondness for history, far more than the people in Society, and how they didn’t think it was strange or wrong or primitive but simply accepted it as another way of living – something that they could try out, maybe, if only they knew how to build a car. He remembered the way Yasu wasn’t afraid to wear crazy, mismatching outfits and didn’t care what people thought of him. The fierce protectiveness of Subaru and Yoko over their friends, that unrelenting loyalty to Ryo.

He thought of the crazed wild woman who smashed into his childhood home, spilling stories of forsaken robots waiting in the dark, and how if robots were able to love then it wasn’t so hard to believe that robots were human in another way – that they were able to lie and to hurt others.

No matter which way he tackled it, what was left imprinted in his mind was how those robots were in many ways more authentically human than humans themselves, and perhaps Society had something important to learn from the way that robots were capable of feeling. Unfettered by the expectations of Society, robots had the luxury of being truly free to express themselves, if they wanted.

Humans… Maru sighed, as he returned his thoughts to Ryo. Not all humans were so terrible. Petulant and whiny and obstinate but still treated robots like true equals. By squabbling with them, questioning them and joking with them, Ryo had become friends with the robots.

Piece by piece, the draft of his article built up based on what he saw during his time at the gatehouse. By the time he finished, the day was well over and his stomach was growling fiercely. He felt a stab of guilt at leaving Ryo alone without dinner but he had the company the robots, who wouldn’t in a million years let Ryo starve.

He climbed into his own bed and stared at the ceiling until his vision hazed over, and he fell asleep before having to admit his regret.

***


It was past noon when he woke up. The sun was buttery yellow outside and warm on his face. Maru blinked into the light a few times and turned over, prepared to go back to sleep when the sound that had awakened him came again. His doorbell. He stumbled out of bed and sloppily pulled on some ripped clothing from the twenty first century before staggering over to the door and flinging it open.

“Ryo,” he stared, mouth going dry.

Ryo, dressed to the nines in gold and silver, his hair curled and teased into slick coils, stared back at him with fury boiling in his eyes. His jaw was clenched so tightly, it was possible to see every tiny pulse of anger.

“How’s Yasu?” Maru finally asked, cautiously.

Scoffing, Ryo spat out, “Fine. He won’t be trying flambé any time soon, the idiot. That’s what you get for only being version three in Culinary Skill and yet refusing to digitally upgrade. Are you going to let me in or keep me on the fucking doorstep? I seem to remember that I let you into my house for weeks and allowed you free rein of whatever the fuck you wanted to eat and gave you a bedroom bigger than this entire shitbox of a house you call home put together and—”

“I get it,” Maru cut in softly. “Come in, please.”

Stepping past the threshold, Ryo didn’t hold back from his critical consideration of Maru’s flat. His gaze lingered on the paraphernalia from ancient times and collection of books that lined the shelves, and roughly crafted furniture made from cheap plastic that looked about to break but had managed to hold up after hundreds of years. He walked into the cramped work place and eyed the article draft, picking it up with the tips of his fingers as though he imagined it was made from some vile rotten wood pulp and read silently.

Maru remained a respectful distance – or perhaps, a safe distance – away in case Ryo decided to heave something heavy at him.

After a few minutes of silence, Ryo drew in a deep breath and faced Maru once more. “Which newspaper do you write for?” he asked in a hard voice.

“Unsocietal,” Maru replied warily. “It’s uh, an underground sort of –”

“I know what it is,” Ryo snapped. “Take me to the editor.”

“We do a lot of good, Ryo, by bringing the wrongs of Society to public attention. Please don’t destroy everything just because of me – I’ll resign, I promise, I won’t even hand in this article. Society needs a watchdog and this is one of the few ways in which we can fight back. You want to make this world a better place, don’t you? That’s why you saved your friends. Because you believed in a better place for them?”

A dark expression clouded over Ryo’s face. “There you go again, making your stupid, insulting assumptions about me. Are you so determined to paint me as a villain? I don’t want to shut down the paper. I want to join.”

“Join?” Maru echoed, astonished.

“I can’t believe you’re a journalist when you can’t even string together some basic observational thoughts,” Ryo retorted. “I’ve been wanting to leave Robotex literally the same amount of time as I’ve been working there. So God, yes, take me to your editor so I don’t have to sit around and pretend to be interested in the latest sex robot nail varnish flavour anymore.”

Letting out a shaky laugh, Maru asked, “So you’re not angry at me for uh, spying on you?”

“Of course I’m angry at you!” Ryo barked. “I’m fucking furious that you were my ticket out of Robotex hell and you never told me, you massive selfish prick! And I let you bathe me, what the fuck?”

“All right, all right,” Maru hurriedly said. “I’ll take you to meet the editor.”

But Ryo held up a hand. “Hang on, the others said they wanted to come too.”

“Your neighbours?” Maru boggled.

“My friends,” Ryo corrected. “And yes, they do. If we’re going to work toward a future of human and robot equality, then we can start by acknowledging robots as intellectuals capable of independent, creative thought.”

Hope blossomed inside of Maru’s heart and lit up the walls in his chest until he felt warm and comforted, knowing that tomorrow was going to be a better day in so many ways. Just one person at a time, he thought cheerfully. Robot or human. “Yes, Ryo,” he trilled with enthusiasm. “Of course we’ll wait.”

“Good,” Ryo replied firmly. “And while we wait, you should make me curry. I’m starving. Didn’t have dinner yesterday or breakfast this morning, you know.”

Maru grinned. “How about I teach you instead?”

Silence.

Then:

“Ungrateful jerk. It had better not be too difficult. And no flambé!
 
 
 
in our uniqueness, we are all the same: ryuhei curlsmujun on April 20th, 2013 10:50 pm (UTC)
This was great! I love the words you made up - it helped to create the setting and foreignness of the time period. I was really worried, honestly, that Ryo would turn out to be a robot. Thankfully not! :) Thank you for sharing.