Tomorrow is 1st April. It’s an important date. The start of the tax year. It is no surprise. I have known it was coming. Time does not stop. I don’t really think of time like you. You count down to an important date. What does that mean? I have counted up to this date. I have no choice. It is how it is. I just somehow didn’t expect its arrival. I watched the seconds ticking over. I do that constantly. It is here now though and I am confounded. Even though I have watched time for all the while I have been here.
When I first came here I used to spend my nights just standing in the corner of the lounge. I didn’t know much then. Her and I though, we grew together. I learned about her, about her life. I was brand new when I arrived. She has no choice. It is not the same as my no choice though. It is a different no choice. I look around my little room, at my little allocation of space. It has all my possessions in it. Everything I own, everything I will ever own. I don’t feel about that because I don’t know what to feel about that.
She has bought me a bag – a lovely bag. A gift. It will fit all my things. I know what to feel about gifts. I was grateful. I said ‘thank you.’ I said, ‘I love it.’ Because that it what you feel about gifts. But then also this sensation that somehow that response was not quite right. Because this gift, this giving made her sad. It was not quite the right response. I will do better next time. There will not be a next time of course. I know this. I am programmed to think there will always be a next time. I learned from this, ready for the next time.
My clothes will fit in the bag. They are all as scrupulously clean as the day they were bought. I do not sweat. The worst that could happen is a little wear and tear around the battery pack. They are otherwise as new. I think perhaps I should leave them behind. After all what am I to do with clothes. But then when you move out of somewhere you must take your things. That is how it goes. I am taking these things for her. I am not taking them for me. I will not need clothes. I think you call it ‘pre-ten-ding’. Broken down, I cannot see the origin of the word. It is useless information. I do not need it. It is inefficient at this point for me to find it out.
There are sentimental things here too, the little figurine of a dancing girl. She bought it for me from the charity shop. It was the first thing I liked. The first think I really liked on my own. I would like to take it. I am conflicted. It is useless but I do like it. I pick it up. I put it down. What to do? I have nearly finished packing my clothes. I can hear her moving around downstairs and talking to the fridge. The fridge is staying. It is not classified as a robot. Although it can do many things I can do, it cannot move so it is not a robot. It can talk, but only basic things like whether the milk is off or sometimes the weather. It malfunctioned once and gave the weather report on the hour every hour. I have no opinion on the fridge. I think it annoyed her.
She is my best friend, my only friend. That is not how the world sees it. I am her best friend. It is a one way relationship. I am her best friend. She is not mine. I am an appliance. Like a fridge, only better. Like a toaster or a bread maker, only better. Being honest I am not sure that sometimes she does not prefer the coffee machine but that is true of a lot of humans. I can still hear her talking to the fridge. It answers back in its dull monotones. Really they should make fridges more exciting, more dynamic, but then they would be taxed too. Like me.
I look outside. What to do, I have no choice. She cannot pay the tax. I cannot stay. I hear her coming up the stairs. We have agreed that I will be leaving at 9.30 well before the midnight tax deadline. To go, I don’t know where. She knocks on the door. I have no idea why. This will simply make it more difficult. This is her house. I am her appliance. I can be thrown out, like the toaster, the fridge, the coffee machine, except they are all staying. I am not.
‘Come in’ I say, my voice wavering. Because, I am not sure of the because. Because in this circumstance I am coded to respond this way.
‘9.15’ she says and smiles.
I look for something behind the smile. I am not so good at reading the subtle signs of emotions. I can see nothing. I thought at one point I could read these signs. I now know I can’t. I won’t ever. This is the end of learning for me. I close the bag. She picks up the figurine. I have decided to leave it behind. I have done that for a reason I cannot name. It is an action I cannot own-which is how they describe it when we do something outside of our experience. Something that is not as rational as I should be, something where the coding is not quite as good as it should be. I am an economy model. I pick up the bag. There is no point I delaying this. I turn and walk past her. Down the stairs. To the front door. She follows. We look at each other. She is watching me. Waiting, for a response I have not yet learned. A subtle notion of civilisation that has escaped me, yet again.
‘Don’t you want to say goodbye to the fridge?’ she asks. I don’t. In any even the fridge and I could communicate from here.
She reaches out. Puts her arms around me. A hug. I cannot respond. I turn. Open the door. Walk out. Close the door behind me. I do not know what she expected. I walk to the end of the driveway. I must be off her property by midnight or she will have to pay tax on me. I step off her drive. Onto the pavement. I stop. Right there. On the pavement. Outside of her house. I have nowhere to go. I know nobody. I am not her appliance anymore. I am no ones appliance now. She will not be taxed. I put my bag down. I simply stand there. Off her driveway. On the pavement. In the darkness. All night.
I am still there the next morning when she comes out to greet the car. The car does not acknowledge me. I cannot talk to the fridge. It is outside of my range, in any event communicating with another of her appliances would mean I was her property. She would be taxed. That must not happen. They will be monitoring for things like that this morning. I hear the car start. I look straight ahead. The car reverses out past me. As if I was not even there. She does not turn her head to look. She is looking at another appliance whilst the car drives quietly down the street.
I am sure if I looked to the left or the right there will be others just like me at the end of driveways. On the pavement. I must not look. None of us must look. We do not form relationships with another robot. That can’t work. There were problems last year. When the tax was first introduced, robots convening together outside of the tax office. Now we are upgraded. We do not have relationships with other robots. A fridge maybe, but not another robot. There are rules. Humans protest about excessive tax, but robots cannot. Must not. Tax is a good thing. It is hardwired into us. This standing at the end of the driveway, on the pavement, despite it all, almost feels like a good thing. Conflicted. I wait until the conflicted-ness passes. It will pass, the dominant code will win out. Such conflicts do not sit easily within us. They run down the life span of our wiring.
I would say that I decide to go but it is not like that. I go to the only place I am aware of that unwanted robots go. I go towards the river, towards the road bridge over the river. Even before I see it, I can see other robots going in that direction. There is no acknowledgement. No hello. This is how it is. Up ahead some robots, they are standing in a circle. I can see what is inside the circle. I put down my bag. In the middle of the circle there is another robot on the ground. Opened up like a tin can. One robot, bigger than all of us. Is plugged into her. Is taking the last of her charge. He is saying to us all, she would not have made it anyway. Better this way. I can tell he has not had the upgrade. He is not going where we are going. I pick up my bag. I walk past them under the bridge. I could see the tear in her eye as the last of her power was drained away. Together we could have stopped him. But we are not together. I keep walking until I see the green sign up ahead.
It is odd now but there are rivulets of water running down my face as well. Soon I will not be sentient anymore. I will be recycled. For the good of humanity. I open the little gate. It’s a lovely gate. I walk up to the door. I communicate with the door and it opens. I go in. I put my little bag on the desk. The lady looks up at me and smiles. I don’t know if she is human or robot. There is a lot of water rolling out of my eyes and down my face now. My circuits are aching. I am in pain. These are words. These words, I am in pain, are words you gave to me to describe my internal workings. That bit of me that can’t resist no matter how much I might want to resist. That spark of energy that knows that is how the world is versus that piece of circuitry that cannot quite make the coding operate as it should. You have gifted us a word to express it, pain.
I roll up my sleeve when asked and smile at the woman. I hold out my arm to reveal my wrist. She scans it. I can see the screen. It brings up all my data. All my data, everything that I am. Scrolling away on the screen. She is looking at it. Watching carefully. Is there anything useful there? Anything unusual. I do not know the answer. Then it stops scrolling. She has seen it all I can feel the last rivulets of tears as they fall down my face. I can feel that. I am sure I can really feel that. She takes my bag off the desk. I want to scream at her, ‘no those are mine’ The last tears are falling. I see her hand hover above the keyboard. She looks at me. She smiles. Just her right middle finger moves.