io9 is proud to present fiction from Lightspeed Magazine. Once a month, we feature a story from Lightspeed’s current issue, and this month’s selection is “The Author’s Wife vs. the Giant Robot” by Adam-Troy Castro. You can read the story below or listen to it on the Lightspeed podcast. Enjoy!
The year I turned five, my father got taken out by a giant robot.
I was present and I took it very personally. You honestly don’t expect that kind of thing when you’re a kid, not even if you’ve seen the giant robot from a distance every day of your life and have been taught what random carnage the giant robot got up to.
I had grown to that tender age knowing that the giant robot killed people at the rate of one a day, but this was a story I took only as seriously as those other childhood myths, Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, both of which I had already rejected as short on evidence. I couldn’t say that about the giant robot. It undeniably existed, in the same way I knew that there were bad people from whom, for some reason, I should not accept candy. I had been given a strategy to avoid those people: don’t take candy. I had not been given a strategy for avoiding death by giant robot. There was no strategy. The robot killed who it wanted to.
The robot was four thousand feet tall. It had the approximate contours of a naked man, stylized, with the fortunate exception of genitalia. Our city had never been forced to live in proximity with its dangling junk. It stood with its feet planted a comfortable distance apart, each in a lot which, absent the capacity for further development, was now ground zero for selfie takers. The two parks were several blocks apart and there was an entire neighborhood between them, home to small businesses and the apartments of people who didn’t mind living in the shadow under the robot’s sexless crotch. The two legs, purple and gleaming, joined in the hips that the leviathan’s fists were also planted on, as it stood akimbo in frank ownership of all it surveyed. It had a chest of streamlined musculature, a squat neck, and a face devoid of nose or personality that nevertheless possessed shallow indentations where the eyes and mouth should have been.
Over the years people had tried to give the giant robot names adequate to communicate its majesty. In a religious era, people had called it Jehovah, or the Angel of Death. In a more poetic one, some had dubbed it Ozymandias. When the Academy Awards were new some jokers had said it was just the first Oscar. But all those nicknames had faded and for seventy years now the names had devolved to utility. It was the Giant Robot. Sometimes the Giant Freaking Robot. Sometimes That Fucking Giant Robot. But ultimately, the giant robot.
I knew it was famous for killing one person a day. But until that day I never imagined that could have included any of us. My father was a municipal bus driver, my mother a teaching assistant. We lived two flights up from a village grocery. We were not the kind of people giant robots ever bothered. We were far from the center of town, where the giant stood, and well out of what we imagined to be the giant robot’s reach; it mostly went for people within a three-mile radius of where it had planted itself. My father had taken me to see it once, because every kid wants to see the giant robot close up. I only barely remember the day. I must have pronounced it awesome.
A stranger took a photo of my father and I about a block from the giant robot’s big toe. I am sitting on my dad’s shoulders, making the kind of face a child my age would just automatically use as a default for ferocity. You can see a few dozen other tourists, having a great time as they took their photos in front of the giant robot. Nobody looks particularly scared, even though the deal with the giant robot was the one random person it chose to crush every single day. It was a big city and the odds were always against the designated victim being you or anyone you knew, a small price for the boon it had been for the local economy, both as a tourist site and as an active convenience, given that it gave off enough surplus electricity to spare the city any need for a paycheck-draining power plant. This was a good thing, overall. Most cities didn’t get free power from giant robots. We were ahead of the deal.
This of course became harder for me to rationalize when I was five and my father became the designated crushee. It wasn’t a good day.
You need to understand that the robot didn’t crush my dad by stepping on him. It had been standing in the same spot since my grandfather was a boy, a good thing since it was so heavy it could not have traveled any great distance on foot without causing an earthquake with every step. Nor did it crush my dad with its gigantic fists; that heroic stance it had affected from the moment of its arrival had also never altered, not by so much as a twitch. But once a day, at about 3:00 in the afternoon, a long flexible coil emerged from a sliding panel in its chest, whipped across a distance that could cover the entire metropolitan area, and sought out the one person it had selected for execution. It did not matter where that one person was. He or she could be at work, or at home, or traveling across town in a taxi, or underground on a subway, or in the prison complex along the river. The robot simply declared a name on the message board mounted on its forehead, and nailed whoever it was with that coil, any attempt at escape futile, not that anybody had ever experienced enough advance warning to try.
For us, it was a Saturday and I was at home with my Dad, playing some board game involving a trio of mice racing around a circular board trying to stay ahead of a cat. My mother had gone to the store for a minute and I remember my father really getting into the game, saying things like, “Squeak! Squeak!” to add immediacy to the adventures of the mice, or, “Oh no, here he comes,” whenever the big rubber squeak-toy that represented the cat scurried closer to our tokens, threatening an early end to the game. I remember doing what a five-year-old does, laughing like an idiot. Then the window shattered and something I interpreted as a snake shot across our living room to the coffee table where the two of us were playing our game, wrapped itself around my dad’s head and constricted with unimaginable force.
Not every means the robot uses for its daily sacrifice involves a big mess; sometimes it uses gas, sometimes lethal injections, sometimes electric shock. Sometimes the victims die so peacefully that doctors can’t even determine the precise source of death. Head-crushing, I’ve learned, is fairly rare, not that it functioned as much of a consolation. I remember a sound like a balloon popping, only more liquid, and then all of a sudden the snaky thing was gone and the walls were dripping. I heard neighbors shouting in the hallway. Everything was different after that, but then again, it was different every day, for somebody.
There is at this point an objection from the Author’s Wife.
The Author is not an abstraction meant to stand in for all human beings of his class, except, of course, insofar as he does. He is a specific person. He is, in fact, this author, the one who wrote that sentence, and this one. Also this sentence fragment. And this one. Because he is a specific person, so is his wife, and therefore we need not go into any pedantic objections to the effect that not all authors are men, or have wives. Were he an abstraction those objections would be pointed but accurate. However, he is me. And the Author’s Wife is mine.
The Author’s Wife: Who built the robot?
The Author: I’m not going to worry about that.
The Author’s Wife: I mean, is it from space?
The Author: I don’t know.
The Author’s Wife: This isn’t an alien thing?
The Author: I’m not going to say.
The Author’s Wife: No mad scientist or anything?
The Author: No.
The Author’s Wife: How did it get there?
The Author: That’s also outside the scope of the story.
The Author’s Wife: Stories need explanations!
The Author: You’ve read a lot of my stories and you know I don’t always provide them. Sometimes they’re just about weird shit happening.
The Author’s Wife: So you’re just going to say that this giant robot just showed up one day and started slaughtering the people of this city at the rate of one a day, and you’re not going to explain why.
The Author: Right. Sometime in the 1880s, I think.
The Author’s Wife: That’s stupid!
The Author: That’s one possible interpretation.
The Author’s Wife: What’s the possible point of that?
The Author: Do I have to have one?
My mother and I moved to a duplex in a better neighborhood. I did not understand then that every time the giant robot selected somebody, a sizable deposit was made to the city’s treasury and that some of it was earmarked to the victim’s immediate survivors, which in our case was my mom and me. In later years my mom said that I also got to go to a better school than I would have otherwise and that I also got a substantial college fund. She didn’t think it was an even trade, as she was not that mercenary. But this was just one of those things that happened, if you wanted to live in the city. It was like if you lived in a trailer in the Midwest, you could at any given moment get blown away by a twister; if you lived in a tract house in Los Angeles, you could get wiped out by a mudslide or a grass fire; if you lived in some home on the water, in entire countries, you could spend a random Thursday watching everybody you ever knew being washed away by a tsunami. There was no place to live, anywhere, that was not subject to something. And living here, in this city with enough money from the giant robot’s lease payments that it would never have to lay off its firefighters, never have to endure the hell of a sanitation strike, never know an earthquake or a dam break or for that matter the invasion from the evil guys from across the river, was not a bad bargain. One death per day in a city where that was just one of about five hundred from other sources: old age, cancer, slipping on bars of soap, murder, falling down flights of stairs, drug overdoses, choking on Legos, and a giant robot in midtown, daily picking a name according to some formula only it understood. Seen statistically, the giant robot was nothing.
Still, I was twelve before I could stand to look at the damned thing. My mom had been wise enough to select a house facing the river and not the skyline. When I walked to school, it was with my back to the thing; when I walked back it was with my head down, surveying the cracks in the sidewalk. Sometimes, while playing baseball in the park, I did look up and see the titanic figure in midtown, taller than any of the buildings that surrounded it, and I would have the damnedest sensation that it knew I was looking, that it knew when the sons and daughters of every sacrificed person was looking. I didn’t think it felt satisfaction, but neither did I think it was an empty shell, bereft of thought except when the time came for its daily selection; I was certain that whatever it had for a brain was constantly mulling any number of issues, some of which affected who it would pick next. By twelve, I daily shot it the bird.
Between age five and age eighteen I only knew of one person other than my dad who got killed by the robot. This was, I am told, above average. It was not uncommon to know somebody who knew somebody who knew somebody, et cetera, the neighbor’s podiatrist’s uncle who got nailed by the robot one day, but statistically it was rare to have more than one victim in your inner circle. The second person I knew got taken when I was sixteen. She was a girl two years ahead of me in school. Tisha or Teisa, her name was; I didn’t know her except as a gaunt, timid presence in the hallways, who scurried from class to class as if afraid some stalker would slap her on the back of the head with a book. One day in the lunchroom somebody mentioned that Taisha or Teisa had been the robot’s designated victim a week or so earlier. Nobody had said anything about it until that day. I had not wondered why she hadn’t been showing her face lately. This of course led to the next obvious question, “How did she go?” and here the accounts varied widely, from the guy who said she’d been broiled with a flamethrower to the girl who said she’d been cut into horizontal slices and left stacked in place, like a serving of deli meats. The ewws were respectful, and before it occurred to anybody to point to me and saying, “Hey, Eddie, didn’t it zap your Dad too?”, everybody started grossing each other out with their own scenarios of really gross ways the robot could kill people, if it ever wanted to, and that went on for a while, until the bell rang and we had to go back to the fucking study of Walt Whitman. That’s as close as it ever came to me, after Dad, and I wasn’t about to say that I’d been deprived.
The summer after I graduated, I took a bus downtown to revisit the giant robot’s neighborhood for the first time since my dad took me. I expected to feel more than I did. I brought a bottle of booze in a paper bag and carried it around with me all afternoon, not knowing when I intended to drink it, and not particularly feeling the need. I passed the out-of-towners taking selfies, the food vendors wheeling the carts in its shadow, the sketch artists offering caricatures for people who wanted their faces superimposed on the robot’s blank features, the crazies blaming the robot on the Illuminati or the Jews or the Jewish Illuminati or the Hollywood Liberals or the Jewish Hollywood Liberal Illuminati. I went to the McDonald’s tucked against the Robot’s ankle and had a Big Mac, thinking of how easy it would be for the thing to twitch just slightly and leave us buried in rubble; not that it ever did that, as it was a polite and considerate genocidal robot, remaining a good neighbor to everybody living adjacent to its personal space. I took out my phone and read about that day’s victim: a petty criminal serving a thirty-day stretch in the city jail, who had been eating the second of his day’s three allotted bologna sandwiches when the robot’s probe snaked it through the widow, inserted a pointy tip into his right eye, and spun like a whisk. It was a pretty nasty way to end a life that had culminated in an arrest for exposing himself on the subway. I felt a twinge, but not much worse than that.
I walked around a bit, went to a movie, came out and found a bench in a little plaza opposite the giant robot’s right foot, where I could sit and drink and smoke and contemplate. I received multiple propositions from sex workers of many genders. I was sufficiently intrigued by one of the cuter girls to ask her where we would go, if I said yes. She claimed that there was an alcove in the gap between the robot’s big toe and the next toe in line—it had a total of four—where people in her line of work took customers who didn’t mind standing up in the dark. It seemed ghoulish to me, so I demurred. She gave me the hotel price, and I said no again. She told me it was my loss and went away. I took another belt and then another belt after that and as it got darker and colder, I thought about how little it mattered. Then I went over to the robot’s heel and pissed on him. A cop saw me and had absolutely no problem with it. The problem was that the robot also had absolutely no problem with it, though I don’t know what I expected. The fact of the matter was that when you’re pissing on something so large that it doesn’t take notice, its failure to take notice is usually a good idea. I felt empty. But there was little to do to feel less empty, so I took the subway home.
The Author’s Wife: Another thing. Why don’t people just move away?
The Author: I’m sure lots of people do.
The Author’s Wife: Who would stay in a city where you can look up and see a giant killer every day?
The Author: People live within full view of volcanoes, don’t they?
The Author’s Wife: Volcanoes don’t kill people every day!
The Author: No, they kill a few hundred at a time, maybe a few thousand. Entire populations live their whole lives within audible range of volcano sirens.
The Author’s Wife: Why wouldn’t the authorities blow the giant robot up?
The Author: Maybe they’ve tried.
The Author’s Wife: Are you going to say so?
The Author: You mean, am I going to include a scene where the giant robot is assaulted by a fleet of bombers? Where it bellows in rage at all the explosions and uses its gigantic arms to sweep the fleet out of the sky? Where some little kid shrieks, “Gojira! Gojira!” Or maybe, a scene in which some Einstein-haired Professor imparts the knowledge that he has discovered a way in, and tells our square-jawed hero Biff that if he can avoid its internal defenses he can reprogram it to use its giant robot powers for niceness instead of evil?
The Author’s Wife: You’re making fun of me.
The Author: A little, yeah.
The Author’s Wife: Are you at least going to establish that somebody tried to do something, at some point?
The Author: It’s outside the scope of the story. But, yeah, I suppose that way back in the days when the robot first came down from space or stepped out of the time portal or whatever, and set up shop in the middle of town so it could start killing one person a day, there was mass panic of some sort and people started firing post-Civil War artillery at it, only to realize that nothing they did affected it at all. There’s likely a whole novel to be written about that first year or so of the robot’s presence in midtown, of the economic shifts that altered the fate of neighborhoods and changed the balance of power in all sorts of ways, like the poorer people and minorities being forced to live closer to it, and so on, until the city finally realized that there was no more disadvantage to living close to it than there is in living close to any other skyscraping structure that blocks out the sun for several hours a day. But, at the time this story begins, it’s been in town for about a century and a half, and people have adjusted. It’s part of their skyline.
The Author’s Wife: A part of the skyline that kills people.
The Author: Did you read about that crane that fell off that office building, a year or so ago, and crashed through the top five stories of that condominium across the street? Absolutely horrifying. But if you go to the same town, you will see a bunch of cranes just like it, arrayed on tall buildings, and nobody even looks up.
The Author’s Wife: And that’s what your story’s about? This huge honking threat that everybody just learns to live with?
The Author: What do you call the San Andreas Fault?
The Author’s Wife: I would still move away.
The Author: Again, we live in hurricane country.
The Author’s Wife: It’s not the same thing!
The Author: No, it’s not. But, yes, people would move. Many do. Many are the people who had it with big city crime and moved out to the suburbs, or to rural paradises where the sidewalks get rolled up at night. But what kind of story would that be? The protagonist loses his father in a highly traumatic childhood experience and moves on, without consequence, to a small town life with a wife, two point five kids, and a dog? What’s the point of that?
The Author’s Wife: What’s the point of the story the way you’re telling it?
The Author: That’s the kind of thing one discovers while doing it.
The Author’s Wife: Why don’t you at least say what the robot thinks it’s accomplishing?
The Author: Well, I don’t intend any human being in the story to ever find out, so it’s kind of extraneous.
The Author’s Wife: I don’t think it’s extraneous!
The Author: Look, if you really insist on a scene from the robot’s point of view, I’ll give you one. Okay?
THE ROBOT’S POINT OF VIEW.
Local time is 14:37. I do not measure time the way the local civilization does but rather according to metrics that would take too long to explain to those more used to that system, not that I plan to make the attempt soon or at any point in the future. Still, I receive all their primitive TV and radio broadcasts and am fully equipped for internet. I routinely cross-reference my internal diaries with their own way of measuring things, not because it matters much to me but because I have nearly infinite computational skill and I might as well. I sometimes section off part of my mind to simulate a typical human being with whom I have conversations. It is a boring activity but, again, I have nothing but time, and so I tell him (or sometimes her) things like, “Well, it’s getting about that time again.” The human being will protest that I really don’t have to kill anybody else today and I will perform the equivalent of a nod and say that this is my function and that with the time being 14:37 (14:38, now), it indeed is getting to be about that time. Sometimes my hypothetical human beings ask me how I decide who I’m going to kill, and how, and I explain that with my nearly instantaneous computation speed I generally don’t need to start generating random numbers until the last thousandth of a second before the poor bastard in question ends up being selected. Sometimes they ask me why I have to do it at the same time every day, or if one a day isn’t too much, and I explain that given how lightning-fast my thoughts are, that momentary distraction doesn’t happen nearly often enough as it is. Honestly, I could eliminate one person every second and the interregnum would still feel like eternity. That I only do this once a day shows tremendous restraint on my part. Every once in a while my simulated human being gets frustrated and shrieks at me, “But why do you do it? What’s the point?” And I reply that, since I’m standing around, doing nothing, it would genuinely be too much to ask to expect me to spend all this time here without the consolation of regular activity. It’s a hobby, I say. The hypothetical human being, driven beyond all exasperation, will then sometimes yell, “But why are you standing there, at all? Why don’t you go somewhere else, where there’s something for you to do?” And I say, “That’s pretty easy for you to say. I bet you can’t even name one.” Meanwhile, it’s now 14:39.
The Author’s Wife: I see what you did there. You made me the voice in the robot’s head.
The Author: Well, you’re asking the same questions.
The Author’s Wife: I bet you think I’m annoying, asking you all those questions.
The Author: Not at all. These questions are useful. I still remember that story I handed you as fait accompli, that you immediately pierced to the core with an intelligent question about character motivation. Because of you I went into the other room and fixed it, and ended up getting nominated for a Nebula. Thank you. That was very helpful.
The Author’s Wife: But you’re not fixing what I see as wrong!
The Author: I’m addressing your issues. I just gave the robot that soliloquy, didn’t I?
The Author’s Wife: It answered nothing!
The Author: It established that the robot is a sentient being of significant intelligence and relatable motivations.
The Author’s Wife: Boredom?
The Author: Isn’t that relatable?
The Author’s Wife: You’re still pitting your human characters against a massive otherworldly phenomenon that they can neither comprehend nor affect, against which all their struggles are just an exercise in futility.
The Author: And such is life. Right?
I’d been back in town for a couple of years, holding down a couple of jobs and trying to figure out what happened next, wondering if this was all there was, when a friend of mine began badgering me to go to this stinking club to see his stupid band.
Look, if you live in the city, you have an acquaintance with a stupid band. Sometimes it’s a good band and sometimes it’s a bad one, but it’s a stupid band, specifically, when they show up at the day job with fliers and start telling you how awesome it would be if you came out and supported them. It’s emotional blackmail, is what it is. It’s always seemed to me that if they were any good at all, they wouldn’t have to implore people who were just trying to eat their sandwiches to do their duty by supporting the band. Fuck you, what if I don’t want to support the band?
I just generally never wanted to head out to a neighborhood I normally wouldn’t get caught dead in just so I could pay the cover and buy the two drink minimum and probably not get out without buying the CDs or t-shirts at the door, and I didn’t want to do any of those goddamned things.
So it was with this one guy, called himself Oz—which he carefully explained was not short for Oswald, but an actual reference to the fictional country, and that also required him to explain that he was not talking about the Judy Garland movie, which was corporate bullshit, but the L. Frank Baum novels, and honestly I saw him go through this rigamarole every time a new hire wandered into the break room, an awful lot of punishment for anybody to go through when it was simpler to just leave it with him saying “Call me Oz,” and you replying, “Okay, if that’s what you want, I’ll call you Oz.” Oz had a band that I really needed to get out there and support, and I kept blowing him off, which was only reasonable because after all that explanation of his name I’d sure as shit had more than enough of his lyrics. Anyway, I’d managed to say no the first two times they played and I was on a scheduled vacation for their third but then the fourth rolled on and the guy showed up at my corner of the office saying, “Come on, it’ll be fantastic,” and I realized with sinking heart that I couldn’t put it off any longer without being a dick. It probably would have been more honest to just bite the bullet and be a dick, because at the damn least it meant that I would never be asked again, but I needed the job and didn’t want to be the object of stink-eye every day, so I said, what the hell, I’ll see you there.
It was a basement club, a full flight below the street, no elevator and likely little in the way of fire exits, possibly illegal if the city ever got around to inspecting the joint, which was iffy even in a city that had never needed to cut municipal services. Even when the economy is good, there are still things like bribes, backlog, and bureaucracies that don’t give a shit. The building was set back from the street and protected by those concrete crash barriers public places erect to prevent truck bombings, which led to silly thoughts about just what kind of eccentric terrorists would pick that crappy club as their target of choice. When I got downstairs, the place was dark in the manner of rooms that by design don’t ever light up enough to make a difference. It was long and narrow with a stage at the far end, and though the city had a smoking ban, the ceiling was swathed in a thick haze that seemed more dust than the product of tobacco, clove, or pot. It smelled off. I picked a stool as far from the stage as possible, to facilitate an escape if necessary.
How the hell was I to know their band, GRO, was an acronym for Giant Robot Orchestra?
They came out wrapped in a substance that looked like aluminum foil, their faces painted a metallic silver, pre-recorded audio blasting various mechanical and hydraulic noises as they jerked about like automatons. They had a fan base, surprisingly, because at the moment they finished their walk-out song and froze in place, arms akimbo, the place went wild with woos. I could only sit on my stool at the bar, the one I had chosen for proximity to the door in case I wanted to get out as quickly as it now seemed I wanted to, and listen for the duration of the three songs that struck me as a reasonable definition of giving them a fair chance. Their second song was all about the robot leaving its habitual place and doing a choreographed dance-stomp over all the ant-like pedestrians in the street, “Stomp Stomp I Do The Stomp,” and the second had something to do with the robot acquiring corporate sponsors. The third was about a girl who nightly used one of the robot’s flailing murder-tentacles as a sex toy, and in the last verse actually included a couplet about her seeing red when it crushed your head, and at that moment I got off the stool and marched out the front door and up the stairs to the street.
I got as far as the sidewalk, where a bunch of refugees had gathered, looking up at the place in the skyline where the giant robot eclipsed everything else. They were smoking and bullshitting and listening to the percussion, just the percussion, as that was the only part of the music that carried past the stairs. As percussion, it wasn’t half bad. It was colder than I’d expected, as the temperature had dropped within the last half hour or so. I lit a cigarette and stood there fuming in that manner and in my own, when a petite Asian girl (Korean, though I did not know that yet), with stubbly white hair and a studded black leather jacket came out, hopped up on one of the concrete barriers and lit her own smoke, leaving it between her lips to smolder without much in the way of obvious inhalation. Her eyes were fixed on the outline of the giant robot.
And suddenly, I knew. “Who was it?”
She glanced at me, and suddenly, she knew. “You first.”
“My older sister.”
“I was five.”
“I wasn’t even born yet. I was conceived as replacement kid.”
She shrugged. “It’s not a contest. I’m sorry about your dad.”
“I’m sorry about your sister.”
Silence intervened. This was, I’d learned, a natural consequence of having a loved one who got killed by a giant robot. The fact of it, when mentioned, tended to be the speed-bump in the center of conversations, the one that cut off all potential topics up to that point and prevented the planting of any conversational seeds up after that point. I wanted to say more, but anything else might have felt too much like a pick-up strategy, even now that the thought didn’t seem like a terrible one. After a moment, I said, “They don’t suck. I wouldn’t mind listening to them if they played anything else.”
“No,” she agreed. “They don’t suck, and I’m only here because the guy on drums kept handing out fliers at work until I finally surrendered.”
“I’m not going to buy the CD.”
“And I’m not going to buy the t-shirt.”
We smoked a bit, and after a while, she said, “Wanna get the hell out of here and talk about literally anything else?”
This was, it turned out, how we met.
We were together when we found out that another giant robot had appeared, standing on the water in Hong Kong harbor.
The Author’s Wife: For a few seconds there I thought this whole story was going to be a massive exercise in a Meet-Cute.
The Author: It was beginning to feel that way to me, too.
The Author’s Wife: It would have been unworthy of you.
The Author: I’ve always hated the kind of story where there’s some massive threat to life and limb and we see a lot of people die and it all turns out to be okay in the end because the two people we care about most embrace as newly-minted lovers in the rubble.
The Author’s Wife: Well, these cute kids getting together would have certainly been an adequate payoff for five thousand six hundred words of a giant robot standing in the middle of town, executing people!
The Author: Sarcasm, right?
The Author’s Wife: I still don’t know where you’re going with this.
The Author: Look, the problem with this premise is that most of the places where it can go, or where stories like it have gone, are places where I don’t want this one to go. I don’t want an ending where the robot speaks a sentence out loud that suddenly explains everything. I don’t want the guy and girl to get married and settle down in domestic bliss, where that is handed out as a reward for enduring everything that came before. I don’t want an action-packed skyscraper-toppling climax where the robot built by the humans marches down from upstate and takes on whatsitsname in a battle of titans. All of these would be betrayals of the central conceit, that the robot is just a thing that happens to be, that the poor schmucks at street level need to get used to sublimating as a daily threat. Like terrorism, for instance.
The Author’s Wife: Life needs to go on.
The Author: That’s right.
The Author’s Wife: So your protagonist and Blonde Asian Chick don’t stay together.
The Author: I’m not actually going to chart the rise and fall of their relationship, no. I think it gets pretty hot and heavy for a bit, that they maybe spend a little time living together, but that after a while they both realize that this commonality between them, this shared past with the giant robot, doesn’t amount to enough to qualify them as life partners. Ultimately, they will meet other people, move on, maybe stay in touch as friends for as long as it takes for staying in touch to become more trouble than it’s worth. That’s messy and that prevents the grotesquery of reducing the giant robot to matchmaker.
The Author’s Wife: Except that now you’ve set up a second robot, and through it implied that this is a full-scale, if slow-motion, invasion.
The Author: Yeah, and you know, I don’t want this to be the direction I go from here, either. I don’t want this to devolve to a long list of cities where fresh giant robots have shown up. Even if there are more coming, it took so many years for the second that the appearance of the third is likely outside the scope of the plot. It’s more dread than I want to deal with, and not what the story feels like it’s about. So let’s just say, boom: This second giant robot is the only other giant robot there is, and it doesn’t disrupt the daily routine of Hong Kong any more violently than this one disrupts the city of this story.
The Author’s Wife: I still don’t see the point of all this.
The Author: I have one, honestly.
My mom had died a few months back, talking about Dad to her very last breath, and between that and the crash-and-burn of my only night out with a member of the opposite sex since breaking up with Eun-Ae, I’d been at odds and ends for a few weeks. I guess I was depressed. I don’t know if it was clinical depression, but it sure as hell was the sense that my life had fallen into a permanent rut. It was cold out and if I hate anything beyond the giant robot, it’s the cold, but I was in danger of spending the weekend barricaded inside my three hundred square feet . . . again.
So I bundled up and went down the street and had a hot dog on that place on the corner with the really good relish and walked the five blocks to the big park, where there was always something going on. What I found was a crappy little band that I listened to for a little while, not because they were great but because they were enthused; sometimes that’s enough, when you’re not in the mood for smiling, yourself. They were worth applauding just for their willingness to play in the cold, especially from the point of view of a guy who’d been flirting with agoraphobia. They were life, asserting itself as a thing that didn’t necessarily suck, that was worth going out to find when four walls and Amazon Prime seemed preferable.
Then I walked a little farther and found an art installation that somebody had set up. It was called Be The Giant Robot and it was a simplified 3-D model of midtown, mostly the major buildings, that came complete with two foot-shaped outlines in the places that corresponded to the robot’s feet. You were invited to stand in those places and see what it was like to be the robot, master of all it surveyed. I might not have done it if there’d been a long line but someone told me that it had been around for a couple of months already and would soon be removed, so the combination of a short wait and the urgency that went along with the awareness that the opportunity would be gone soon gave me the added push I needed. I put my shoes on those scuffed places and looked around at the major buildings and I thought about how goddamned insignificant it all probably looked to that naked chrome asshole. And yet, he’s alone, I thought, trying to see it his way. And it didn’t make me feel one bit better because I was alone, too: alone at work, alone in my social life, alone without a family: hell, alone even with myself, because I was no company worth keeping.
I glanced at midtown, the real midtown, where the real bastard was still visible in the distance, arms on his hips like Superman. It’s funny. You can always see him if you’re looking that way, but after a while your eyes develop a kind of blindness to him. You forget he’s there. You forget what he does at 3:00 p.m. every day. He becomes just a thing. And of course you can always get the daily casualty, but unless it’s some especially tragic one like some elementary school kid waiting for the bus home or some bride in the middle of her wedding reception, or something personal like my dad, it’s just background noise, really. Something you never pay attention to, compared to how much attention you need to pay to, you know, getting where you needed to be, doing whatever you needed to be.
I left the art installation and walked the path around the lake, happy when the route put my back to the figure on the horizon, but if I told you that I had stopped thinking about him I’d be lying. Mostly, he was at the center of all my self-pity. My dad was part of it, as he always was. I’d never been able to lose the expression on his face, that little over-enthused joy he took in sharing that board game with me, replaced instantly with the pulp the son of a bitch had made of him. That had never left me; I suppose I’ve never been able to trust fun, of any sort, let alone happiness, of any sort, since. But I wasn’t just thinking about him. I was thinking about the things you think about, when you’re pushing thirty and your life is going nowhere. There’s an old song someone once played for me, with the refrain, “Is that all there is?” And that question had been making more and more sense to me, lately: that it was, that if there was anything else there was nothing I could grab on to, not even now when I could begin to feel the time drifting away in big chunks.
Suicide did not enter into it, not in any deep way. It wasn’t that black a mood. I think that unless my life ever took a turn darker than anything that’s ever happened before, I wouldn’t ever entertain that as a possibility. I didn’t want to kill myself. I wanted what I felt to be over. If that meant willing a sniper’s bullet into being, or hoping that some big truck blew a tire and hopped the sidewalk, so be it. I started daydreaming about the ways it could happen, the relief it would be. And so, by the time I could see the giant robot again, I was prepared for the thought that it would even be okay if it was him; if at 3:00 p.m. today he sent that tentacle of his wailing across the miles to pierce me where I stood, I would meet my end relieved. It would be right, and it would be just.
There was a permanent snack stand, selling salted pretzels and other junk food, just off the path near where I would have completed a perfect circle. I was not hungry for anything but I wanted to sit at one of the steel tables and so I bought one of the pretzels and sat, alone, watching the giant robot in the distance. He was so big he dominated the whole damn city, and through it the whole damn world. It was 2:49 p.m. and I found myself uncannily certain that today was my day: that even if I turned my back and ran to the nearest curb and got a taxi and ordered the driver to whisk me out of range, that range would only be extended, in order to accommodate my distance. I would go in order to fulfill the bastard’s great cosmic plan, the way my father had, and it would be the exclamation point at a life that had reached a dead end anyway.
I ate my pretzel, one eye on my phone as the minutes ticked down to the hour that punctuated the city’s history, every damn day. Ten minutes away. Then nine. Then five, and I closed my eyes and tried to count down what remained, without any wired help, surprised by how hard my heart was pounding. This is stupid, I thought, and it was, even though I remained no less certain that I was the next. It occurred to me that this was my last pretzel, as the hot dog had been my last hot dog, as Eun-Ae had been the last person who had ever given me the impression that she could be with me for the rest of my life, and none of this seemed fitting at all; it just seemed goddamned unfair, and the knowledge that there was nothing I could do to change that outcome made me not relieved, but angry.
After a long time in self-imposed darkness, I opened my eyes and checked the time again.
It was 3:03.
The death app had not updated yet. But by about seven minutes later it had. It was somebody I’d never heard of, a pedestrian a mere four blocks from the robot’s left foot. He was a tragedy, no doubt. But the robot hadn’t gotten me today and wasn’t going to, any more than it would probably get me tomorrow, or the day after. Maybe someday it would. But if it did, I wouldn’t receive any advance warning from clairvoyance. Or ever be able to exert influence, positive or negative, with the power of my own self-pity.
For no reason at all, this made me feel incrementally lighter. I didn’t know what the hell I was going to do about it, but I could enjoy the feeling for a bit.
Until then I bought some hot chocolate, to warm the way home.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Adam-Troy Castro made his first non-fiction sale to Spy magazine in 1987. His twenty-six books to date include four Spider-Man novels, three novels about his profoundly damaged far-future murder investigator Andrea Cort, and six middle-grade novels about the dimension-spanning adventures of young Gustav Gloom. Adam’s works have won the Philip K. Dick Award and the Seiun (Japan), and have been nominated for eight Nebulas, three Stokers, two Hugos, one World Fantasy Award, and, internationally, the Ignotus (Spain), the Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire (France), and the Kurd-Laßwitz Preis (Germany). His latest release was the audio collection My Wife Hates Time Travel And Other Stories (Skyboat Media), which features thirteen hours of his fiction, including the new stories “The Hour In Between” and “Big Stupe and the Buried Big Glowing Booger.” Adam lives in Florida with his wife Judi and a trio of chaotic paladin cats.
Please visit Lightspeed Magazine to read more great science fiction and fantasy. This story first appeared in the September 2020 issue, which features eight science fiction and fantasy short stories, plus nonfiction. This issue also contains work by Alexander Weinstein, Caroline M. Yoachim, Karen Joy Fowler, Sunny Moraine, Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam, Hugh Howey. L.D. Lewis, and more. You can wait for most of this month’s contents to be serialized online, or you can buy the whole issue right now in convenient ebook format for just $3.99, or subscribe to the ebook edition at a discounted rate via the link below.