Two sub-levels down, the little robot quietly raised his head.
He counted the minutes.
Kept an eye on the door.
On the keypad, its digits a calculus red.
Once convinced, he stretched his set of mismatched wheels and went for a walk.
As always, he reached his destination within seconds. Ends of his rubber-lined, caterpillar tracks hanging over the edge. Automated hums and rhythmic clicks joined him in quiet meditation. He turned, and wobbled his way back across the stainless steel. Other end of the table. Same situation.
He turned once more, revisiting familiar territory…
It had been months since his awakening, and still, there was only the room.
He knew the tables, the counters. He knew the walls, the ceilings. The glare of florescent grids. The vials, agar plates, the biological storage system. He knew the equipment. Knew the computer terminals, monitors, air displacement pipettes, thermal cyclers, confocal microscopes. Something called the BACTEC MGIT 960. He knew he had somehow been pieced together from select sections of their obsolete cousins.
He knew the men in white.
…The little robot changed directions…
He knew that none of the men in white knew he was alive. One of them had assembled him as a pet project. Something to pass the time by the quiet spin of the centrifuge. He knew there were no other robots. Knew he wasn’t the reason for the room. He knew his awakening had never been part of the plan. And he knew, somehow, that he could never let them find out.
They would flip the switch, and he would pretend to activate. When they spoke to him, he replied, responded within the parameters of his programming. Listen closely, stare vacantly. Learned to learn.
Learned to survive.
Whenever they left him alone, he would roam the narrow surfaces. Tables, countertops. Wherever the last man had left him. Weeks spent moving back and forth. Depending on the location, he would sometimes stand before sleepy flat screens. Stare for hours on end at what he came to recognize as his own abstract reflection. Body a set of exposed circuit boards. Lone appendage sprouting obliquely to the left. Conical head ending in a single, puckered lens.
Always keeping his eye on the keypad by the door. Waiting for the numbers to turn green. Ready to wobble back to his mark. Just as the men in white remembered him. Stand by, and prepare for them to flip the switch.
Practice replaced subroutines. Recall replaced memory.
…The little robot began to turn circles. Spinning on his axis, arm extended in a crooked pirouette. Searching for his center…
His only friend in that white-washed prison was a turkey named Hamilton.
For the first few months after the awakening, there had been several turkeys. It took him a good while to understand what they were, what he was seeing. The men in white would haul them in, their plump bodies filling transparent polymer cages. Some of them thrashing about. Lively and alert. Others languishing like deflated pump bulbs. Eyes caked with broken yellow varnish.
It wasn’t until he began to record the numbers printed along their tags that he realized they weren’t just one, but many of these creatures. Temporary visitors. Hardly enough time to become familiar, before they were carted away.
He was never sure what made Hamilton the exception. It wasn’t until the third or fourth visit, same tag reading TS-142 that he knew this one was special. Finally. Here to stay.
The men in white seemed to agree with him.
It was on one of those occasions that he let Hamilton in on his secret. Rolled his way to the edge of the table. Caught Hamilton staring at him. He raised his arm and waved. Hamilton followed the motion, head cocked. Red wattle bobbing.
A pact had been forged. The little robot bounced lightly on his treads. For the first time in his short little life, no longer lonely.
The men in white never referred to the turkey by anything other than his tag.
The little robot named him Hamilton.
Taken from the letters embossed on their mammoth biological storage unit.
On better days, they would place Hamilton’s cage on the same table as him. The little robot would play dead. Wait for the men in white to turn their backs, then raise his head in what he presumed was a wink. Hamilton would respond with a twitch of his head. Nobody the wiser.
There were times they would be left alone together, and those were the best of all days.
He would approach Hamilton’s cage. Up close. Marvel at the shades of grey, an intricate binary of black and white flanking those majestic wings. At certain angles the soft slope beneath his neck would even shimmer a silver blue. His tail looked as though it was missing some feathers. Bare bottom leveling into a sallow shade of pink.
The little robot would place his tiny claw through the narrow slits, as far as it could go.
Hamilton would peck away, eyes awash with life and dark eternity.
It was on one of those days that Hamilton had told the little robot his first joke.
A series of garbled noises the little robot hadn’t understood. But the absence of logic seemed to do something to him. Sent his wires crossing in an infinite, blinding paradox. Circuitry glowing, and he pressed close to his best friend, wanting to share the warmth.
Then there were days, brutal times, when they did things to Hamilton.
It would start with the men in white. Their faces would disappear. Retreat. Replaced with shapes that held no meaning, signified nothing. They would float across the room. Lay syringes along steel plates, one after another with rote precision.
Hamilton would begin to pace in his cage. Or try. Bright, weathered talons marching in place as he pressed his feathered folds against the immaculate plastic. Retract his neck. Head nestling, convulsing in all directions. The men in white would lead with a needle, wait for Hamilton to shut down. Still awake, though miles away, as they injected, extracted. Hamilton’s eyes would stare out across the room. Beady eyes glazed with a mournful, shimmering acceptance.
And the little robot would watch from his sanctuary. Powerless. Certain the men would turn, any moment now, and catch his tiny body trembling with violent rage, flush with anguish at a room that would allow his friend to be treated so shamefully.
Each time, there were more needles. More tests, more pain.
And during the in-betweens, when the little robot had a chance to approach Hamilton’s cage, he found his friend growing distant. Hovering just above his own body. Wishful wings unable to fulfill their purpose.
…The little robot stood in place. Checked the door. Began to hop, lightly. Up and down. Each time determined to jump a little higher. Certain this was the first step. Positive that with enough momentum he would soon be able to jump from surface to surface. He could visit Hamilton whenever he wanted. And if he could learn to leap, he could learn to climb.
Given enough time, they might even make it out of the room, someday.
Beyond the steel door, behind which glorious unknowns would open up before the both of them.
The keypad turned green.
And the little robot didn’t bat his eye. Swerved backwards, forward. Parked himself right where he belonged. Adjusted his head, appendage, to match his last known location.
Checked the digital readout above the keypad.
The door slid open. A pair of men strolled in.
One of them in white.
The other in a suit. Toting a tinted bottle of tiny bubbles. His head bundled in an outlandish cap. Red with white trim, topped with a powdery puff. The little robot had never seen him before. Or any man like him.
It wasn’t only the alien nature of his shell. His face, demeanor, was entirely different from the men in white. Purpose unknown. He strode about the room with a mechanical grin that threatened to devour all knowledge.
The little robot was so bewildered by this new arrival, that when Hamilton was placed at his table, he almost jumped back. So close to giving the whole game away. Dared to scoot forward a few centimeters. Raise his head just north of south-west.
Hamilton looked equally confused. As though the familiar were folding upon itself. Something about this night that didn’t match previous weeks, months. He cocked his head towards the man in the suit.
The little robot couldn’t risk turning around.
Felt himself yanked from the table. Flipped on his back, suspended in midair. Resting in the palm of that terrifying man, his teeth gleaming. Jaw working, chewing loudly on a series of fattened question marks.
The man in white intervened. Removed the little robot from manicured claws and set him down.
It only took a moment for him to realize that he had been placed at another table. Just one table away from Hamilton, but stuck facing the other way. The little robot’s dismay ran deep. Electronic tantrums building up. Held in check by the mention of TS-142.
The little robot remained in stasis as he listened in. Searching for patterns, explanations.
What little he managed to glean made his rotary joints go numb. There were more men, somewhere beyond that room. Men without homes. Hungry subjects. Plucked from some awful existence. Waiting for the arrival of TS-142.
Afterwards, there would be questions.
But not on Hamilton.
The man in the suit laughed. Bent over and began to fiddle with the computer.
The man in white placed a diplomatic hand on his shoulder.
The gesture was violently shrugged aside, as the suit man clicked a few times, then straightened. Waiting.
The little robot found himself leaning forward.
He nearly shut down as the sounds washed over him. Mathematics crystallizing, drifting across the room. Waves of soft melodies embedding themselves in his emotional codes.
His first song. His first time hearing the music.
Lush, flowing words telling him to Have yourself a merry little Christmas…
It was almost too much, as the man in the suit reached down once more. Swept him up and across the table, dangled him in front of Hamilton’s cage. Telling him to say goodbye, to say goodbye to his friend, half his words garbled in a solution of laughter and high-pitched whines.
Hamilton cringed, feathers bristling.
The little robot was snatched away, once again, by the man in white.
Set down, once more. One table away from Hamilton.
The man in the suit took a drink from the bottle.
Insisting that it was Christmas, and soon, they would all be rich.
The man in white reminding him of something, both of them stepping out of the room.
The door closed with a strange hiss.
Locked. Keypad keeping to its typical red.
The little robot turned. Overwhelmed with movement, information, and the sounds of a rich, bittersweet vocalist filling every corner of the room. He sped towards the edge. As close to Hamilton that distance would allow. Motioned with his arm. Moved his head in pantomime circles.
Hamilton stared back. Feathers fluttering. Beak reaching out past his confines.
It was true. The little robot knew this. Just as he had come to know the room, the equipment. Just as he had grown to know Hamilton as his only friend within the sanitized cube that was his world.
He turned. Began to pace. Heard Hamilton calling out to him. Telling him not to be afraid. Warbled sounds mixing with harmonies, insisting there had to be more for the two of them.
The little robot began to spin, arm extended. Searching for his center.
Finding it in the music, and a sudden realization that everything would be all right.
There was still another way out.
He turned to Hamilton.
Reached out with his arm.
Forcing perspective, running his tiny claw along his best friend’s soft, yielding feathers.
Backed up. All the way back, until his treads reached the table’s end.
Hamilton began to claw at the bottom of his cage. Cried out.
The little robot understood. If the men came back to find him by Hamilton’s side, or flat on the floor, then alarm bells would go ringing. Warrant further investigations. Experiments. The room had been a prison, but the alternative would most certainly be his tomb. Subject to the same atrocities endured by Hamilton, and all those unfortunate creatures who had come before.
The little robot didn’t care.
He knew there was a world out there. He knew there had to be a place where they could be together. Be happy. Spend every waking hour resting on the notes of this new, inexplicable gift. He imagined endless years nestled close to Hamilton, staring out over a landscape for which there were no definitions. No images, temperance or colors.
The little robot’s treads began to spin. Rocketing him across the table. Unquestionably faster than he had ever moved. Bouncing along on those tragically inefficient wheels, cobbled together at the whim of an indifferent creator.
What he didn’t know was that beyond that door was a hallway. A hallway lined with innumerable doors. Leading to innumerable rooms just like this one. Stairways leading to another level, mirroring the same dispassionate floor plan. And above that, a lobby lined with security cameras, metal detectors. Men with guns. Windows that looked out onto an infinite parking lot, a thousand miles between solitude and salvation.
The world became a blur. Lights flickering in reassuring patterns. Test tubes turning red and green. Microscopes and monitors now wrapped in brilliant tinsel. Surrounded by the velvet assurances of a disembodied voice, promising that through the years we all will be together, if the fates allow.
The little robot didn’t know it was hopeless.
But he knew who he was. He knew music. He knew the tickle of feathers, the feel of a sad pirouette. The comfort of conversation in a room with no windows. He knew Hamilton, he knew love, and he knew that no matter the outcome, he would soon be at his best friend’s side.
And as he reached the edge, readied himself to jump, he knew it would all be worth it.
Because it was Christmas, and Hamilton had once taught him what it meant to laugh.