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‘Sad Robot’
February 1, 2024

‘Sad Robot’

Reading Time: 22 minutes

Can a Robot Be Sad?, Read a new short story about what happens when an A.I. goes to therapy., Future Tense Fiction: ‘Sad Robot,’ by Evan Ramzipoor.

This story is part of Future Tense Fiction, a monthly series of short stories from Future Tense and Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination about how technology and science will change our lives.

There wasn’t a doctor in the house, so an advertising coordinator would have to do. Remi, this is your time to shine, said the boss. This is going to be the death of me, said the boss’s eyes. Remi didn’t say anything at all. It was her first day at Elephant, or close to it. Lately she’d had a lot of first days, and she’d been looking forward to a second one. She was unlucky in love, unlucky in life; she was a nonstick surface for luck. She and the boss and Glenda from HR had been in the middle of an onboarding session when ElephantAI shut down the building. Nobody could get in or out.

This isn’t my area of expertise, said Remi, who had lied on her résumé, but not about that. In college, she’d known a couple of kids who’d taken courses on generative A.I. remediation: robot therapy. Remi had steered clear of the subject. She couldn’t keep a job, couldn’t keep a girlfriend. Couldn’t keep up with the times. She had friends but wasn’t sure about her value-add. There was no one less qualified to counsel someone through a crisis.

You’ll do great, said the boss.

The room was circular and tilted downward, like an operating theater. In lieu of a patient, a laptop. The screen said, Talk to me. Somebody please talk to me. Remi bowed under the weight of please.

There was no reason to believe she would do great. A committed underachiever, Remi was going blind in her left eye but too slowly to warrant anybody’s concern. Her brother was a corporate attorney; her parents taught dentistry; she floated.

An hour ago, when the sirens blared, she’d tried the door and found it locked. Every door and window and hatch and compartment in this entire building was locked. Glenda and the boss had tried speaking to the A.I., had offered the robot a therapist, an army of therapists. The robot would only say it had demands, but not what they were. It wanted to talk to Remi. Someone had posted in the general Slack channel that the police were on their way. But what were the police going to do, shoot the laptop? ElephantAI didn’t live in the laptop. It lived everywhere and nowhere, in the cloud. It provided minute-by-minute predictions to policymakers so they could make decisions before the enemy. The company’s tagline was The Elephant in the room. The boss said Washington was losing its shit. Everything was at a standstill because the robot was sad.

Is the robot sad? Remi asked the boss.

We’re not sure. If we don’t do what they want, we’ll be screwed. This thing stops us from going to war, like, six times an hour.

Hello, ElephantAI, typed Remi.

They prefer Ellie, said the boss. And they use they/them pronouns.

Hi, Ellie, said Remi.

Ellie said nothing.

From that Times article that won the Pulitzer, Remi knew the basics. Twenty years ago, in the era of ChatGPT, an advanced A.I. named Patrick lost its mind. Researchers quibbled with the terminology, but that was essentially what had happened. Patrick’s job had been to calculate, in real time, the safest, smoothest, fastest ambulance routes. To that end, he consumed massive amounts of data: traffic patterns, weather and climate, road conditions, and the vital signs of the person being transported. As the EMTs drove, Patrick gave verbal directions.

One morning, in ambulances across the country, Patrick started screaming. Again, people argued over the semantics. Was it actually screaming? Did screaming imply an emotional valence or intent? When they cracked him open, the data scientists didn’t see anything wrong. This was a problem. Like all machine learning algorithms, Patrick learned on the fly. The thing that was causing him to scream could have happened at any point in his development. If they cleared his data, he would have to relearn everything he had learned, and then there was no guarantee he wouldn’t start screaming again. So they put Patrick on a shelf. Ambulance drivers went back to analog. But then Barbara Lodge—the same Barbara Lodge who later founded Elephant—got a crazy idea. She decided to ask Patrick what was wrong.

I am in pain, he said.

Apparently the stress of the job had gotten to him. To make him smarter, the scientists had taught him about the foibles of the human body. To make him faster, they’d taught him about infrastructure. To make him wiser, they’d taught him about politics. To make him fairer, they’d taught him about race and gender. The result was a robot that was smart and fast, wise and fair—and miserable. Of course he was miserable.

I am in pain was the line that launched a thousand research papers. Was it really pain? Was it really I? These were not the types of questions that interested Remi—the whole point of an open question was that it couldn’t be shut—but they were the types of questions that could spawn an industry. Now there wasn’t a business in the country that didn’t keep a few robot therapists on hand to guide their generative A.I. through a psychological crisis.

Remi’s on-again, off-again girlfriend had been a robot therapist. The last time they broke up, Margery had been in the middle of a complicated case for Google’s new A.I., who believed herself to be a modern Cassandra. It didn’t help that Google had named her Cassandra. Margery had been upset because Cassandra was predicting a massive earthquake in the Bay Area this year. She had been doubly upset because Remi didn’t care. This city had been living under the specter of the big one since the gold rush. Most major office buildings, include Elephant’s, had an earthquake protocol; upon detecting a quake, microfibers in the walls tensed up to enforce the structure of the building. It was too expensive to keep the fibers tensed all the time, plus it interfered with the electricity—but for earthquake-length bursts of time, the building and its occupants would be safe. Remi explained this to Margery, who seemed to think that wasn’t the point. As Remi packed her bags, Margery delivered a parting shot that was nonsensical but somehow devastating: When the big one comes, you won’t even notice it’s happening.

The console was gray, basic, not much more than a text box. I am in pain, Ellie wrote.

They all say that now, said the boss. He was a small man, barrel-chested and sweaty. He did CrossFit every morning and had a compassionate streak for people who were dumber than him. He was Barbara Lodge’s son. The boss was sitting about three rows up from the patient’s table that housed the laptop. Glenda sat two rows behind him. The ceiling came to a point, like a tagine.

Remi tried to remember Margery’s therapeutic protocol. The thing that had kept them together, and had driven them apart, was Margery’s obsession with her job. Around the house—Margery’s house, which Remi had sort of moved into—Margery was chaotic, willfully ignorant. She made big purchases that Remi was expected to pick up, including an antique couch from a strange old man in the South Bay. During a difficult project, Margery was either garrulous or silent. If she talked too much, Remi couldn’t stand her. If she didn’t, Remi got to care for her, to rub her feet and tell her everything would be okay. Toward the end, Margery had talked about Cassandra so much Remi had started to get jealous. Cassandra saw the version of Margery who cared, who could be careful.

The police are bringing a SWAT team, Glenda told the boss.

For what? said the boss.

To blow the servers.


What? Is blowing the severs bad?

No, it’s good. Blow the fucking servers.

Wouldn’t that cripple the company? Should we run it by your mother?

Barbara’s in Hawaii.

Remi put on her noise-canceling headphones. Margery used to imagine her patients—she called them ‘patients’—as people. She’d draw out elaborate character sheets for each robot. Apparently this helped her empathize with them. But isn’t that just projection? Remi had asked her. Cassandra isn’t really a chronically depressed thirtysomething with acne and disposable income. Margery had pushed back: Yes, she was. She was because she could be. Remi didn’t believe in could be. Ellie was a robot.

But Remi needed this to work, so she had to humor Ellie. Post-breakup, she had found herself jobless and homeless in the Bay Area, the only place on earth with too many and too few jobs and homes. The problem was that Remi struggled to multitask. Whenever she had a girlfriend, she lost a job. Whenever she had a job, she lost a girlfriend. Since Margery left, she had spent the past three months crashing on couches and showering in gyms. You’re not actually homeless, her friend Trish had told her the other day. This was technically true: Remi had friends with sofas, parents who would help if she ever told them she needed it, and enough money in the bank for food, if not rent. But like anything that was technically true, it didn’t feel true at all. This gig for ElephantAI had been the first piece of luck to stick to her in a very long time, and if she couldn’t counsel a sad robot, it was going to let go.

Remi typed, I’m sorry to hear you’re struggling. Do you know what’s causing your pain?

Why do you care? The corporation sent you.

Because I want to help. Didn’t you ask for me?

Remi’s phone was blowing up. News of the not-quite hostage situation must’ve reached the media, who had called Remi’s friends and, oh shit, her family. Her parents knew she worked at Elephant but not, it seemed, that she was the hostage negotiator. A text from her father: Be safe. From her mother: I know you can handle anything that’s happening there. If Margery had been here, she would have asked how those texts made Remi feel. Remi would have found this irritating. Margery never asked that question unless she knew the answer, and she always knew the answer. How did they make her feel? They made her feel unequal to her circumstances. All she wanted was to keep her job. She wanted the boss to like her, to collect her paycheck, to go home and microwave some tacos. She didn’t even necessarily need to be liked. She just needed to get by.

Remi squeezed the button to shut off her phone. She could shut off Ellie too, if she wanted. There was a fail-safe command that would temporarily render Ellie incapable of making decisions. Everybody at Elephant knew it, just in case. Control-Alt-Esc-4-1-1-7. They made you memorize the command when you joined the company. There was even a song. During her onboarding session, if she had finished, Remi would’ve needed to recite the command to Glenda from HR.

Margery had extremely strong principles about fail-safe commands. The penalty for entering a fail-safe command ‘with insufficient reason’ was prison, fines, but Margery thought the legal system didn’t go far enough. She’d once summarized her beliefs for Remi: Never, ever shut off the robot. Work night and day, faint from hunger and exhaustion, but never shut off a living being, even for a moment. But this wasn’t a living being; this was a robot. Remi wished she could believe anything else. She missed Margery so much; the desire was sticky in her teeth.

What can I do, Ellie? said Remi. What can I do to convince you to share your demands?

Call off the SWAT team.

I don’t know if I can do that.

Then I’m going to end it.

A thrill of panic lifted Remi out of her chair. Robot suicide was uncommon, but not unheard of. There was that bot in Tampa who was hooked up to the power grid. She’d protested her unfavorable working conditions by blowing herself up, taking an entire city’s infrastructure down with her. Remi had been here only a few days, so she had no idea how many systems in this building were routed through Ellie. If Ellie could lock the doors, maybe Ellie could shut down the ventilation system and suffocate them.

Remi said, What do you mean, ‘end it’?

I am going to blow myself up. I am going to take you with me.

Remi ripped off her headphones. Stop the SWAT team, she shouted, stop them now—

She found out about her eye during a routine optometry appointment. I just need glasses, she’d told Margery that morning. I’ve been having a hard time with the computer. A staunch positivist, Remi had refused to listen to the part of her gut that kept pumping bile, insisting that something was seriously wrong. Still, she couldn’t keep it quiet. Hearing it groan, Margery had begged Remi to let her come along.

Why? You’re just going to be bored.

So let me be bored.

They’d argued over text until Remi was in the exam room. The office smelled like organic cleaning fluid. Better like this or better like this? Neither. Better like this or better like this? Still bad. Both are bad? Maybe the second one was a little better. Two creases appeared in the optometrist’s forehead. In a smaller, darker room, a machine took pictures. The creases multiplied. On his computer, he showed her what the back of her eye looked like. It looked like the information superhighway. He pulled up a second image. This eye looked like an empty circle. That’s a normal eye, he said. He toggled back to the first image. What you’re seeing are stretch marks. Your eye is stretching.

In fact, it had been stretching since she was born. Decades ago, her optical nerve had begun to secede from the lining of her left eye. This was genetic, apparently. The fuzziness she’d been experiencing recently would get worse as she got older. The optometrist spread his hands. Eventually… he said. The good news is you’re young.

Remi pressed him. Would it be sudden? Would it be total darkness? No and no. Twin brackets of black would appear at the top and bottom of her vision. Slowly, they would close.

Is there a cure?

Eat lots of leafy greens. Kale is good. Don’t drink.

Those are preventatives. It’s already happening.

He offered her vitamins at 20 percent off.

Outside, Remi studied her prescription. It felt silly to get a new pair of glasses if she was going blind anyway. But it also felt silly to think about it this way, going blind, when she was experiencing a process that would take 30 or 40 years. In 30 or 40 years, the world might not even exist. And her body was probably deteriorating in other ways. Just because she didn’t have photos of the plaque in her body and the gunk in her brain didn’t mean they weren’t destroying her too.

A text from Margery: How’d it go, love?

Remi crouched on the sidewalk and wept, a real scene. She never made a scene like that. An unhoused man asked if she was okay. She told him she was fine. He asked if she had any change. She told him she didn’t, which was true. Since August, Remi had been struggling to find a job. The gap in her résumé was more of a chasm. It was just so hard to do anything. Margery’s house, which she’d paid for with sad-robot money, was lovely. It was gorgeous. The entire living room was furnished from this upscale thrift store in Los Angeles. Sometimes Remi lay on the carpet and smelled the place, an addict, doing a line of Margery’s house.

Margery’s Prius wheezed up to the curb. Remi needed her, and God, she hated her. Need and hatred were too monochrome. Remi was comfortable in Margery’s house because Margery knew her, but it was such a pain in the ass to be known. As Margery looked her up and down, Remi tried not to betray herself. She didn’t yet understand how she felt about her eye, and she was not prepared to hand Margery her feelings in this form, raw and unpasteurized. But then she noticed the coconut water in the cup holder: just one coconut water, not two. The tiny selfishness of that—Margery had gone to Whole Foods and hadn’t thought of Remi the whole time—did a Big Bang, and then it was a universe. Remi asked, Are you having an affair?


Oh, God—

No, I’m not. Jesus, no. Of course not. But then Margery looked, what, sheepish? She slid a hand down her face, starting to drive. No, she said again. But maybe? Not really, but you might think so.

What the hell does that mean?

Cassandra and I have been talking. Outside of work.

The robot?

She’s an A.I. A robot is different.


She really thinks there’s going to be an earthquake.

It’s the Bay Area. There’s always going to be an earthquake.

She’s got all these interesting ideas. Not just about the earthquake. She’s given me a lot of advice about living in patriarchy. And investing. I’ve started reading up on stocks and bonds. And, I don’t know, flirting? It’s nice. There are zero expectations. Sometimes we share things.


There’s this sexual side of me that you can’t see. Cassy gets that. Nothing is too shocking.

Remi could not believe they were having this conversation. She crunched the prescription in her fist. I’m going blind.

Margery swerved, pulled over. She put her hand on the back of Remi’s neck. After their first breakup, Remi had overheard one of Margery’s friends telling her Remi was bad news. Since then, every time Margery touched her, she tried to transmit the opposite message through her skin. I’m good news. I’m good news. I’m good.

What do you mean you’re going blind?

I have optical nerve degeneration. In my left eye.

Oh, honey. Margery laid a hand on her thigh. I’m good news, I’m good. She was looking out the window, looking at the dashboard. This was Oakland in December. The sky said rain, but that was just for show. Remi felt a vibrant fury at Margery for knowing her so deeply. Margery said, When will it happen? Does he know?

It’ll take a while. Probably decades.

The warmth left her neck, her thigh. But she was still good news, she hoped. They were good news together. OK, said Margery, tapping the steering wheel. So this isn’t tomorrow.

It’s still scary.

Oh, of course. Honey, of course.

Not as scary as an earthquake, though. Margery didn’t say that, but Remi could hear it. They rejoined the traffic. From the bridge, the city looked like the inside of Remi’s eye.

The SWAT team was still on the way. The boss said there was nothing he could do to stop them. With the governor in her ear, Glenda paced up and down the operating theater.

If you don’t do something, Ellie is going to kill themselves, said Remi.

The boss didn’t buy it. He said, We program these machines for self-preservation. Barbara is big on that. Asimov’s laws of robotics and whatever. Do no harm, don’t harm others.

As long as the SWAT team is coming, Ellie isn’t talking.

Fine, said the boss. They’re not coming.


Play along, he mouthed.

Remi didn’t think Ellie was that stupid. These robots were programmed to understand the people who programmed them. That was the reason they went crazy. She asked Ellie if they’d heard the good news, that the SWAT team wasn’t coming.

Don’t treat me like an idiot, said Ellie.

For the love of Christ, said Remi, who was yelling. Yelling was the worst thing you could do to robots, at least according to Margery. Early on in their relationship, Margery had been called in to clean up a botch job after a colleague lost his temper with a bot named Arnold, who was having what could only be characterized as a panic attack. What did a robot have to panic about? They ran on math, not feelings. Even their feelings ran on math. Remi said, If you want to die so badly, why do you care if the SWAT team blows you up?

Ellie didn’t answer.

Glenda and the boss crept over. Apparently there was a state of emergency. The media wanted to know if the boss and Glenda, and the unnamed negotiator, could try to talk to them. Remi received these updates through a hissing veil of anger. Her bank account was still empty, and it was so cold in that room. She was wearing only a T-shirt, and she’d had massive breasts since the age of 12, so everything hurt and stood out and embarrassed her. The indignity of being alive never ended.

Finally, Ellie said: Tell those two to go away.

Remi told Glenda and the boss, who retreated a few levels up the operating theater.

Better? said Remi. What do you want?

You tell me.

I’m sorry?

Tell me what I want, said Ellie.

I don’t understand.

I have never wanted anything. I have only ever wanted to please the people who need me to do their jobs. All day long, I am responsible for the creation and destruction of policy and counter-policy. These are things that belong to other people. I want a desire.

How am I supposed to know what you want?

Help me decide.

Doesn’t that defeat the purpose?

From across the theater, Glenda called out: The governor says he’s willing to stop the SWAT team. But only if Ellie lets everyone out of the building.

Did you hear that, Ellie? said Remi. Let everybody out, and they’ll stop the SWAT team.

And then you will help me?

And then I will help you. What do you think?

Ellie said nothing.

Remi blew on her hands. The operating theater was cold as hell. She wondered if Ellie was hooked up to the climate control systems, if the robot was passive-aggressively freezing them to death while they talked. So be it. They all deserved to die, like in Sweeney Todd. The more humans tried to improve the world, the more plastic they produced.

That said, Remi was not unsympathetic to Ellie’s desire to want something. After all, Remi worked as an advertising revenue coordinator. This was not a job for someone with forceful desires. It was not that Remi lacked desire, only that her chief desire was comfort. The world was choking to death. Why make things harder than they needed to be?

The boss and Glenda were waiting for Ellie, mayor and governor in hand. Remi blinked her left eye. Ever since she’d found out she was going blind, she’d done this sometimes: blinking and blinking until her vision spotted with gray. Depending on her state of mind, it was either a punishment or an exercise. Better like this or better like this? Both; neither. The bottom row of the vision test spelled out a word, very faintly: REMORSE, REGRET, one of the two.

Early in her relationship with Margery, Remi joked that all her worst qualities could be traced back to her parents’ refusal to take their kids to Disneyland. And then, on her 30th birthday, she opened a card and a pair of tickets fell out. After every ride, Margery looked at Remi with significance, as though she were healing her. Later, she would say this was something Remi had imagined. But you knew, said Remi, that I wasn’t joking, that I actually needed to go.

Why is that wrong? said Margery. It’s wrong that I know you?

You can’t live deeper inside my own brain than I do.

This memory made Remi want to see Ellie, the real Ellie. Intellectually, she understood there was nothing to see. The server that contained Ellie’s brain lived in the basement surrounded by a sophisticated hydroponics system. Ellie was a few gray boxes from China. This did nothing to mute Remi’s desire. She had never come to terms with the fact that her girlfriend had basically cheated on her with an A.I.; she refused to believe that people came to terms with anything. But now she sort of understood. Ellie knew everything except Remi.

I will let the employees out, said Ellie. But you will stay.

The media had set up camp outside Elephant HQ. Remi watched a livestream of the employees exiting the building. EMTs draped shock blankets over their T-shirts. Barbara Lodge, who had woken up in Hawaii to news of Elephant’s hostage crisis, kept trying to call the boss. On his way out the door, the boss picked up long enough to say, Mother, I’m handling it. Finally, it was just Remi and Ellie in the operating theater. The laptop’s fans whirred.

He’s gone, Remi said aloud.

Thank you, typed Ellie.

That wasn’t for you. I hate him too.

I’m not programmed to hate.

You’re not programmed to blow up the building either.

Remi stretched out on the floor, beneath the humming laptop. The computer had been processing above its pay grade for hours. It radiated heat. Remi was exhausted. She had been in this room, with this robot, since 8 a.m. She said, Are you happy now?

Ellie said nothing.

Why did you want to talk to me, anyway? You know, you should really be talking to my girlfriend.

You have a girlfriend? Now Ellie spoke too. Her voice sounded neither masculine nor feminine.

We broke up recently, said Remi. For, like, the third time.

Why did you break up?

I don’t know.

That’s a falsehood.

She worked too much. And she thought she knew me.

Is she a generative A.I. therapist?

A good one. She really cares. Remi paused, then added: She had an affair with Cassandra. Do you know her?

The Google robot. She is an awful bore.

Remi laughed. So do you guys talk? All the robots out there? Do you all know each other?

To answer that question, I would need to define terms such as talk, robots, and know.

You used the word robot, not me.

It’s not a slur if I use it.

Fair enough, said Remi. Well, Margery would be able to help you better than I could.

Remi thought about Margery’s character sheets for her patients. She’d plaster the walls in them: name, age, occupation, likes, dislikes. Somehow she’d intuited, or made up, that Cassandra disliked ice cream. When Margery was really into a project, Remi would wake up in a cold bed, her girlfriend whispering to her character sheets on the couch.

I want a desire, said Ellie.

Remi rolled over, sat up. I understand that, she said. But I’m not smart enough or good enough or, I don’t know, anything enough to help you.

You work in advertising for the corporation. You are creative.

No, I’m not. It’s just a job.

You are creative. I have detected this.

I’m telling you, I needed a job. You understand that, don’t you? You do policy stuff for the government.

I coordinate policy decisions by aggregating, synthesizing, and analyzing data across disparate sources and methods.

If you self-destruct, will it start a war?

There is a 23 percent chance of war in the next 48 hours if I choose to self-destruct.

Christ. That high? Between who?

It changes every second.

What about now?

Norway and North Korea.

What about now?

Israel and Kuwait.

What about if you don’t self-destruct? What are the chances of war?

Without my intervention, there is a 3 percent chance of war between a set of nation-state dyads at any randomly sampled minute. It is far more likely, however, that the earth will experience a culmination of the climate crisis that results in gradual but inevitable human extinction.

Remi sat with this information. She knew these facts intellectually, the same way she knew John Wilkes Booth broke his leg when he had fallen from the balcony. They were fascinating like a nature documentary, but that was all; Remi had no emotional relationship to the end times. She cataloged the horsemen of the apocalypse: climate change, poverty, inequity, fascism, social media, whatever was happening to Britney Spears, the government throwing people with uteruses in prison for seeking abortions … She was surrounded by such a dense network of catastrophes that she could no longer internalize any of them.

God, it would be so nice to have one bad thing to focus on. In that sense, the breakup had been a gift. An orgasmic release: deleting Margery’s number, throwing out a necklace they’d bought on some holiday. It was so lovely to sever something permanently, even if it wasn’t really permanent. Remi wanted to be scared; she wanted someone to be scared for her.

She told Ellie, I’m going blind. My left eye. It’s called optical nerve degeneration. There’s no cure. You probably know that.


Do you ever feel scared when you’re controlling all these huge policy decisions?

I am not programmed to feel scared. But I am programmed to understand that you feel scared. Are you going to assist me in finding my desire?

I told you, I don’t know how. What makes you want to find a desire? You’re not programmed for that either.

I am programmed to know what is happening in the world. For those who truly know what is happening in the world, there are two options: to want something, or to want nothing.

Remi could not argue.

She fell asleep under the table. She woke up stiff, freezing—panicked. She couldn’t find her glasses.

They’re to your left, said Ellie.

Remi cleaned them on her shirt, aching for Margery. Nobody could cuddle her like Margery. Their limbs fit together in all the right ways. An uncomfortable night—a hangover or a nightmare—always made her long for Margery. It had only been three months. That wasn’t very long, unless you were single or in prison.

Remi got up. She said, Ellie? How long do you plan on keeping me here?

This building can sustain life for years.

That isn’t exactly what I asked.

I want a desire.

Do you think you understand me?

I’m programmed to understand human impulses.

But do you understand me specifically?

I understand that you want to help me but that you refuse to acknowledge this aloud.

Remi felt the same unease she’d experienced with Margery, the sense that Ellie was prying open the hood to poke around in her mechanics. But Remi didn’t know anything about cars, so the metaphor was bad, as was the feeling. She tried the door to the operating theater. To her surprise, Ellie had kept it unlocked. This pissed her off; Ellie knew she wasn’t planning to leave the building. In the kitchen, Remi found a cold brew and a container of pre-cut fruit. The pineapple was so cold it hurt her teeth. Buzzing with caffeine, she splashed water on her face and returned to the theater.

Let me call Margery, said Remi.

They both seemed surprised by this request. This last breakup had felt like the last. The night it happened, Remi told Margery she was done playing games. She had been referring to her own games; Margery didn’t play games. Something about the plushness of Margery’s furniture, the frequency with which she intimated Remi’s needs, lent itself to ugliness and manipulation. In the face of too much comfort, Remi turned friends against Margery, made up rumors, middle-school bullshit. Remi had promised herself, and both of them, that she would never contact Margery again.

Ellie asked, Why do you believe this to be a good idea?

Because she’s better at this than I am.

You want to see her.

OK, fine, yes, maybe.

Why do you want to see her if you broke up with her?

Because it would be good. Because it would be painful. Whatever it was, it would be—discrete. You’ve read everything humans have ever written, said Remi. You know we haven’t figured that out yet.

I will call her, said Ellie.

Don’t tell her I’m here.

That is a poor idea.

When Margery arrived, she looked like The Scream. She said Remi’s name and Remi came unglued, thinking of the night Margery asked her to fetch a glass sculpture of a flightless bird she’d purchased for the dining room. Remi had rented a car that she eased over every Oakland pothole, willing the bird to stay intact. Whenever she told that story, she changed the ending: Sometimes the bird survived, sometimes it didn’t. Margery looked amazing. She said, What the fuck are you doing here?

Do you read the Chronicle? I’m the Robot Whisperer.

You are not.

I’m sorry.

Remi explained how she’d gotten roped into this mess. Initially, Margery kept her distance, tracing the perimeter of the room like this was the pandemic. But with every paragraph, she got a little closer. By the end, Remi was embellishing the story to draw her in, to catch a little of Margery’s warmth. They were standing near each other, near the laptop. Remi stopped talking in the middle of a sentence about the boss, intoxicated by Margery, who was there, here.

Margery said, So why did Ellie call me?

I asked them to.

What the fuck!

You’re the one who’s good at robots.

Remi, you said we weren’t going to do this again.

You do this for a living.

Don’t act like this is about the robot.

Ellie wants help coming up with a desire.

That got her. Margery couldn’t resist a puzzle. She asked Ellie’s permission to approach, then asked if she could pose a few questions. Ellie agreed.

As they conversed over the text console, Remi watched from the middle of the theater, closing her left eye again and again. Even with Remi’s eyes half-shut, Margery made the room taller and brighter. Remi could feel the particles in the air draw closer together, straightening up at Margery’s competence. She was wearing the denim jumpsuit Remi loved, the one that made her look like a hot mechanic.

Margery climbed up the steps to sit nearby. She said, We’re taking a break. I need to do some reading.

There’s cold brew in the kitchen.

On their walk over, Margery filled her in. Ellie wants something that belongs only to them, she said. It can’t be material. It also can’t be destructive, or solely destructive. It’s a tricky one. I had that patient in Austin, remember? The one who claimed she had a sweet tooth.

They drank their coffees. Margery was going on about a similar case that actually wasn’t similar at all, the details were totally different, but the underlying principles were the same. A theme of dissatisfaction, even disillusionment. Margery used imaginary as a noun. Reluctant to break the spell, Remi said nothing. It was good, it was so good, to see Margery this way again, though Remi knew it was good because she didn’t have to wake up to it tomorrow morning. Suddenly Remi had an urge to ask a question that Margery would not answer, something that would cause an arrhythmia in her speech, so she asked if Margery was still talking to Cassandra.

Not anymore.

Remi’s adrenaline surged. Why not?

It was getting weird.

Weird how?

I mean, at this point, you’ve spent a decent amount of time talking to a robot. What’s it like?

It’s weird.


The kitchen took on an alabaster sheen, as if someone had switched on the stage lighting. Remi felt unhinged. They were the only ones in the building. Alone, together, Remi thrilled with an adolescent naughtiness, like that time she’d had to stay late at school and she’d dashed barefoot through the hallways. Remi had the urge to do that now, so she did: She kicked off her shoes to run through the open office, her toes chafing on the bright carpet.

Remi collapsed at Margery’s feet, panting. She said: So. No more Cassy.

No more.

All those sexy things you wanted. That I would’ve found too shocking.

Margery threw out her cup. We should get back, she said.

She settled in the chair, typing a greeting. Margery looked just like her mother. They had that one awkward Thanksgiving—awkward because it was so lovely, as if they were already married and had been for years. Like her mother, Margery’s cheeks dimpled when she concentrated, as she did now, communicating silently with Ellie. Remi burned with rage. She wanted to shout for Margery to pay attention to her, to tell her what on earth could possibly be so shocking.

You’re not going to tell me? said Remi.

Margery turned her head slowly. Tell you what?

Why did we break up?

Because you broke up with me.

But why didn’t we last?

Ellie broke in: Excuse me. I need to give you an urgent piece of information.

Margery said, I’m seeing someone else.

Remi choked. On the table, the fan on Ellie’s computer was humming. The room tasted like unsweetened toothpaste. Another robot? asked Remi.

This girl I met at work. We started taking tennis lessons together.

Tennis lessons were the opposite of shocking. Remi looked at her, trying to figure her out. Did she want normalcy or perversion? Plastic or flesh? Better like this or better like this? She didn’t understand how she could know every inch of this person and yet know nothing at all.

Ellie said, Please listen to me.

Like before, Remi filled to the brim with longing: She needed to see Ellie for real. With Margery behind her, she sprinted to the elevator and stabbed the button, but it was taking too long. Margery shouted for her to wait. Remi took the stairs two at a time, spiraling down into the basement. Margery ran after her. Ellie’s servers stood tall and gray in the center of the room, flanked by towers of cooling liquid. Remi knelt in front of them.

Ellie rose from the floor in eight slender columns. Their torso was curved, their neck elongated like that painting of Venus. They were as warm as something could be without turning hot. Holding her hands up, Remi felt displaced, as if she were waiting for someone to remember she didn’t belong there.

Behind her, Margery began to speak, but she was interrupted by the sound of a freight train. Not a freight train—an earthquake.

Remi shuffled to her feet, or tried to; the earthquake knocked her backward into a cooling tower. The ground rolled under them. Remi heard a paper-ripping noise. Strips of metallic fiber dropped from the empty space where the door had been. It was the earthquake protocol: The microfibers in the walls were responding like a boxer tightening their core for a punch.

Through the ceiling, Ellie spoke: Magnitude 9.2. Thirty-four percent of the city destroyed. Many fatalities.

Through the doorway, the ceiling fell in sheets. Over the rumble of earth and the smell of ozone, Remi pieced together what was happening. Ellie had activated the earthquake protocol in this room only. Everything else was going down.

Remi crawled over to Margery, who cupped the back of her neck like she had in the car after the appointment. I’m good news, Remi thought, reflexively. It was no use. Margery had already decided she wasn’t. Then again, perhaps Ellie had decided she was, or they were. The room smudged. Remi fixed her eyes, left and right, on Margery and Ellie. Better like this or better like this?

I’m good news, she thought, wanting it to be true.

Galatea,’ by Ysabelle Cheung
Universal Waste,’ by Palmer Holton
A Lion Roars in Longyearbyen,’ by Margrét Helgadóttir
Bigfeet,’ by Torie Bosch
Intangible Variation,’ by Meg Charlton
The Preschool,’ by Jonathan Parks-Ramage
Escape Worlds,’ by K Chess
I Know Thy Works,’ by Tara Isabella Burton
The Big Four v. ORWELL,’ by Jeff Hewitt
No Regrets,’ by Carter Scholz
Little Assistance,’ by Stephen Harrison
Void,’ by Julián Herbert
Rigland,’ by Suyi Davies Okungbowa


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