Future Tense

“Scar Tissue”

Read an original short story about what it’s like to raise a robot.

A human hand and a robot hand toasting with bottled beers.
Shasha Léonard

Each month, Future Tense Fiction—a 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—publishes a story on a theme. The theme for April–June 2020: parenthood.

The evening before you sign and take delivery of your son, you call Charlie and tell him you think you’ve made a huge mistake.

“Let me come on over and split a few with you,” he says. “I haven’t seen the fire pit yet.”

Charlie—a short, compact man with green eyes and a shaved head whom you met when he delivered groceries the first few weeks you were housebound—brings over a six-pack. You walk out into the complex’s community garden together. It used to be a parking lot, and the path through the mushroom gardens under the solar panels is still faded gray asphalt and leftover white lines. You’re careful with your right foot; you still haven’t gotten used to the way your prosthetic moves. It’s easy to trip.

You and Sienna from 4B have a fire pit and stone circle dug out in your combined lots, and she’s grown a privacy wall of rosebushes that surround the relaxing space. Charlie sits on one of the cedar benches as you fiddle with twigs to make a fire.

This beats the awkwardness of sitting down to talk right away. Your parents didn’t raise you to be direct about feelings. Neither did the army, nor the warehouse you drove a forklift in. Charlie will, if you let him.

Making a fire gives you a moment to sort out all your feelings.

Or maybe it just gives you an excuse to delay talking about them.

Charlie knows all that. It’s why he created an excuse to come over.

The beer is warm, but the bottle still sweats enough that it drips across the pale plastic knuckles of your hand. You switch the bottle over to your other hand.

“It’s too late to back out now,” Charlie says.

“I know.”

“You need the money.”

The fire starts to lick at the twigs and burn brighter. You awkwardly drop yourself onto the bench across from Charlie and look down at his tattered running shoes and the frayed edges of his gray jeans.

“Everyone needs the money.” You swig the cheap beer that’s the best either of you can manage. You can’t wait to afford something from one of those smaller local breweries nearby.

“But … ”

You’ve been on disability since the forklift accident. The apartment’s small, but Enthim Arms is nice. The shared garden out back, the walking trails. You can’t use them as much as you’d like right now, but that physical therapist keeps saying June is when you might be able to make it to the lake and back.

It’ll hurt, but you’ve never cared so much about seeing a mediocre quarry lake before.

“Advent Robotics will pay me more money to raise it than I made at the warehouse, and I can keep focusing on recovery while doing it.” You raise your hand and flex it. A low battery alert blinks on your wrist.

Plus, the bonus at the end will give you enough to afford something only the rich usually can: regrowing your forearm and your leg. Like a damn lizard. The biolabs that do that are so far out of your reach you normally wouldn’t even consider it.

And you want it all back. You want it to be just like it was before the forklift started to tip over and Adam screamed at you to jump out, running toward you as fast as he could, ridiculously long hair flying, his clipboard clattering on the floor.

“So what’s wrong?” Charlie asks softly, and you have to stare back at the fire to avoid the discomfort of looking at another person.

“I told myself I’d never have kids.” You look up from the brown bottle and at the thorns that twist around each other in the vines that Sienna has so carefully trained. “Can’t see my way to passing on the shit my parents gave to me.”

“Damn,” Charlie nods, folds his hands. “Cory, you can’t think you’ll be the same people they were. The fact that you’re scared about this, that means you’re going to be such a better parent than they were.”

“No.” You point a finger over the neck of the beer bottle at him. “People say that, but that’s some backwards-assed logic. Refusing to pass on the bad mistakes, understanding maybe you’re going to screw up something you’re responsible for, that doesn’t mean you should go do it. I know I can’t go climb a mountain without a rope, I’m going to fall. That was true even before the accident. Understanding that fact doesn’t mean I’m going to be a great climber without a rope. It just means I realize I’m going to fall.”

“Fair enough,” Charlie says. “So you going to just send it back?”

You look at the blinking light on your right wrist.

“I don’t know. Maybe.”

You should ask how things are going. Charlie started a new job helping an artist down the street weld large, corporate symbolic art sculptures. Better than all the gig-economy stuff he’d been piecemealing together.

You should finally thank him for spending all that time chatting with you when he’d unload groceries, losing money every second he went the extra mile.

Instead you drink and talk about the weather. Something inconsequential.

“Well, even if you do screw up, it’s just a robot, right?” Charlie raises the bottle of beer in a salute.

Your son crawls out of the crate the next morning. It thrashes pieces of the box aside and mewls in confusion as it turns on.

Instant regret grips you as you try to grab him, and one of his arms smashes the coffee table. Shattered glass bounces off the tile, and you let go of his unyielding artificial skin.

“Hey,” you tell the confused machine. “Easy!”

It crunches around in the glass, and you can hear its eyes snick in their sockets as it anxiously looks all around your small apartment. The sound unnerves you.

When it opens its mouth, a gurgling electronic scream warbles out.

It’s the most alien, unnerving sound, and it makes your whole spine tingle.

“Just relax.”

It’s taller than you. Heavier. The ultradense batteries mean that even as you try to physically stop it from flailing, you could hardly budge it.

Those ruby-red eyes with the LIDAR range detectors behind them lock hard onto you. You feel like you’re in the sights of something, and lick your lips.

The pediabotic trainers at Advent told you the first few minutes could be chaotic. You just need to make sure that you remain within its eyesight. Once you do that, it starts to imprint on you.

Like a baby animal.

Soothing tones and patience. You dance about as best you can to make sure it’s aware of you.

“Make sure you have a name picked out and keep using it,” you were told in the CARE training. “It’s a mind in a pre-language, pre-memory state. The language matrix plug-in will be aiding it, though, and even human babies start recognizing names and language much faster than you realize.”

It’s one thing to watch a video of a robot coming to life with its new parents calmly welcoming it into their new, perfect multiroom home. You, on the other hand, are hopping around shit you left out and trying not to fall over as you stumble after the thing. This, you know, is a huge mistake.

“I even forgot your name!”

You’re hunting about for something as the robot turns around and squalls at you.

“Rob, stop it, please.”

And the mechanical screaming finally stops. Sharrad, upstairs, has been banging on the floor, upset at all the noise.

“It’s OK, Rob. You’re OK.”

Rob cautiously approaches you.

“Hi.”

The coffee table has been destroyed. You feel a knot in your stomach, scared the machine might hurt you.

“At this point in our manufacturing iterations, there’s tremendous aversion to harming anything organic,” the recruiters at Advent have explained many times. “Just like people have a deep instinct of fear around a snake, our robots have instinctive fears about hurting anything.”

Rob gently crouches down in front of you and starts to pet your shoes, fascinated by the laces. He keeps picking them up and letting them fall back to the top of your shoes.

“OK,” you laugh. “Now let’s show you where your charging base is.”

Rob should have the instinct to go looking for one when he’s running low. The next important step is to make sure he can find it.

“Talk as much as you can. Language acquisition is key,” Advent has explained. “Narrate everything you’re doing as you go, and even when your foster robot is older, explain why you do everything you do. Context is key. The more you can do that, the better.”

You spend the next two days teaching Rob how to find its charging port and stay still on it. It’s constant and exhausting. The robot will stay charging for a while, but then get up and go chattering and exploring through the house. You have to keep moving it back.

On the third day you fall asleep on the floor as Rob warbles about and opens every single drawer and cabinet in the kitchen, working on fine-motor movement.

You wake up, panicked, to an unmoving lump next to you. You drag Rob over, the body limp in your arms, to the charger. “Please don’t be broken,” you say. You need this to work. Advent won’t pay you anything if you kill the damn thing in the first few days.

Back on the charger, Rob starts babbling nonsense and making faces at you. Relief floods through you and you slump down to the floor.

Three days of no sleep and that meaningless proto-speak. You punch the wall with your prosthetic hand, and it crunches through the drywall. Rob sees that and startles. It punches the drywall as well.

“No!” you shout.

Rob curls into a ball on the charger and looks at you through raised arms. It’s scared, and you did that. This is everything you feared. You remember your dad standing at the top of the stairs, that anger curdling you with fear.

“I can’t do this,” you say, curling into a ball on the floor. “I can’t do this.”

“You’ll be surprised at how exponential growth in learning works.”

Advent is all gleaming showroom factory floors. The human workers wear protective gowns, hairnets, and goggles. It’s as much lab as it is factory, you think.

The recruiter walks you by glass windows looking into the factory. You stare at the pieces of robotics, impressed by the circuitry and technology everywhere, but having no clue what any of it does.

“At first, your foster robot will seem like no more than an infant, and that’s because it is! But every time they get on that charger, they’re not just powering up their onboard battery—they’re taking in their experiences and uploading data to our servers to have it examined and encoded back to them, to accelerate their growth. Just like sleep and dreaming work for us, helping us to process our world.”

You’re told that in just months you’ll see significant developmental gains. And then the really big leaps will start to come.

It’ll take six months to fully mature your son.

Can you make it six months, taking care of a growing mind? Being responsible for a whole thinking being? Being a good parent? It seems like forever, and yet it’s not that long of a temporary job.

“Some of us do it for 20 years,” one of the recruiters laughs when you express this. She has professional highlights, perfect teeth, and shoes that cost more than your disability allowance pays out in a month.

She laughs too hard, you think.

But you say nothing and swallow anything acidic as she talks through the monthly payments and the bonus for a successful maturity.

“He’s ‘asleep’ for now,” you tell Charlie, the next time you take a moment to meet up around the fire pit. It’s been hard to find the time while raising a brand-new robot. Sienna’s annoyed, fairly, that you haven’t been out to weed, and the fire pit needs cleaning.

You don’t even bother to try and start a fire.

“You look exhausted.” Charlie hands you a beer, but you shake your head. You need a clear mind. You’ve given up one of the few vices you have.

“It takes everything I have to just keep up. I can’t go out much with him. Just too damn clumsy still. He’s broken half of everything I own.”

Rob has explored the backyard, the hallways. People stare at you when you go out, and you have to pull Rob back away from something because his coordination isn’t that good yet. They’re used to seeing robots doing things for people, not a person babysitting a robot. There are only a few hundred robots being fostered at any given time.

And it’s not babysitting when you’re the parent, you guess.

“Ahmed said you’re not at physical therapy anymore.”

“I’ll get back.”

Maybe.

In four more months, you’ll be free, and you’ll have that maturity bonus. In four months, you’ll be in a clinic watching flesh and blood regenerate.

You have to hold onto that.

Things can get back to the way they were if you just get through this.

“You gave it a name?”

“Rob.”

“Rob?”

“I panicked.”

“Rob the robot?”

A loud crash from the apartment, followed by a shrill shriek. “Shit, Charlie, I wanted to hear about that piece you’re working on for the city park, but he’s awake. You can head out by the gate.”

“Dad?”

You wake up as Rob taps your chest, his red eyes open wide as he stares down at you. You blink and pull back the blanket.

“Dad?”

You can’t escape him. It’s 2 in the morning, but he’s finished a charge cycle.

“Dad. Dad. Dad. Dad. Dad.”

You can wrap a pillow around your head, but it’s not going anywhere. That word.

Dad. Dad. Dad.

It’s new. Just in the last few hours before you went to bed. But he’s using the newly acquired word for everything. He has two words now.

He points at himself. “Rob!” He points at you. “Dad!”

You get up and turn on the lights.

“Dad!”

You’d asked one of the scientists that the recruiter brought in for the Q&A session why robots needed raising. The recruiter had explained it, but you wanted to get it from the egghead, not the Parental Unit Liaison.

“The simpler the animal, the less parenting it needs,” the scientist said. “Some are born with all the instincts they need.”

But a robot meant to move and look like a human being, to help people in nursing homes or other similar cases, that robot couldn’t just be programmed with a few repetitive functions.

To understand nuance, to get a theory of mind and understand context, one needed intelligence.

“You need to be raised, and in your own body. You’re not just a mind in a jar—that’s an old theory of consciousness. You’re a grown being. A whole being. Your gut bacteria, spinal column, the society around you, all of that creates an entire person, as well as the experiences and time that it passes through. You can’t just manufacture a thinking robot. We have to raise it.”

And to do that, Advent has to pay for human caretakers.

You passed the screening process, particularly because they’re interested in a variety of types of caretakers.

“It immerses units in a full scope of experiences, which makes our product lines more randomized, encompassing a wide range of interactions with people from different walks of life. Our robots pass that knowledge around, and it gives them a service-oriented edge.”

Raise a robot that works well and makes it through job training, you get rewarded.

“Once we have a functioning unit, then we can copy and paste it,” the scientist grins. “We have 2,000 different models and personalities you can interact with, now, for a variety of workplace functions.”

At the park you teach Rob to throw a baseball. It’s good for coordination.

“Dad, you’re breathing heavy,” he says as you walk back toward the apartments.

“It’s just been hard. I’ve been inside for three months taking care of you. I haven’t been doing my physical therapy.”

“I know. You keep saying I was such a hard baby to take care of.” Rob rolls his laser-red eyes dramatically.

You are struggling. You need to make sure to take the time and get outside for walks more. That quarry lake was the big target, wasn’t it? You never did get there. It feels like your whole life has just been the apartment or the yard for so long.

Charlie hasn’t called in a while. You saw online that he’s won a prize for the art he worked on with the collective he’s now joined. The sculpture is in a park near the courthouse. It looks like rusted iron spikes shaped like lightning bolts hitting the concrete pad it’s bolted onto.

You tell Rob about that. He never really replies, just listens and asks simple questions. He’s past the constant “why?” stage. That was last month, and it was hell. You’ve been chattering to him nonstop, now.

The pediabotic experts told you to keep doing that, so you tell yourself you’re doing it to be the best caretaker you can.

You fall to your knees on the sidewalk halfway back to the apartment.

“Dad!” Rob is scared. He triggers an automated call for medical help, his body strobes emergency blue as he shouts at the people around you to come help. But seeing a nervous robot scares them, and they stay away from you both, not sure what’s happening. “Dad!”

It’s your heart. You can tell from the pain in your chest.

You’re not out of breath. You’re out of oxygen.

“He hasn’t left your side,” the nurse says when you wake up after surgery.

Rob squeezes your hand.

It hurts to sit up, to cough. They’ve split you in half and pulled out your heart, fixed it as best they could, and put it back in.

“Dad, I was so scared.”

And you hug him, because that’s what he seems to need. A robot can’t cry, but it can be worried. Scared to lose the one person it’s known since it was born.

“It’s OK. Everything is OK.”

Rob helps you home, and pitches in with some of the chores. Rob’s like an older kid now, able to do basic things around the house in a pinch.

As you recover, the two of you start working on some home renovation. Holes in the wall from the first few days of Rob showing up. A new coffee table becomes a father-son project.

Your own father took weeks to get jogging again after his heart transplant. You just need a few days.

Progress.

“What was your father like?” Rob asks as you scrape wood with a lathe.

“Dangerous,” you say. “He was a dangerous man. Particularly with a few drinks in him.”

You tell him about the door your father threw at you and how it clipped your forehead. It bled for hours. You tell him about the time the cop showed up to your door and your mom stood in front of you and smiled and flirted until he was satisfied nothing was wrong and walked off.

The longest moment of your life, watching the man in that uniform walk away into the night.

At least, until the moment that forklift pinned you to the concrete floor.

Every breath an infinity, every pulse a universe of pain as you faded slowly away.

“I tell him too much,” you say to the Advent rep at the weekly checkup call.

“There’s no such thing.” He’s gone over the logs, asked about Rob’s behavior, the usual questions about how well Rob is integrating into life at the apartment. You’ve asked questions about whether assuming Rob was male made any sense because he’s a robot. Robot self-identity is complex, they say, but they’re talking to Rob, and he’s OK with the label for now. There’s a documentary on robot identity and human interactions you can watch if you need. “The conversation is good for their development.”

“I’ve talked to Rob about things I haven’t told anyone else.”

The rep nods. “We find this common with men in particular. Your records say you’ve been through trauma, and you were raised without cognitive behavioral therapy to help you. I’ll bet you were told as a boy not to cry, to hold those emotions in, right?”

He looks up at you.

The direct eye contact makes you swallow. “Uh, sure.”

“Real men don’t cry. Real men don’t follow safety guidelines. They show strength. Willpower gets you through everything, right, no matter how hard? The fight’s the thing.” The rep is taking notes. “And that does work, until it doesn’t. You can’t fight your way out of trauma, or out of a worldwide economic depression. And then your whole mental model fails to match the world around you.”

You remember how much worse it got when your father lost his job. His identity. He couldn’t will a new job into existence when there were none.

You wonder what he’d call his son, living on disability, raising a robot like a bizarre Mary Poppins.

“There’s a reason getting a dog, or some other living thing, can by extremely therapeutic,” he continues.

“You’re comparing having a child to getting a dog?” You’re a little shocked, maybe outraged.

“Not at all, I have a kid, it’s not the same,” the rep says in a reassuring tone. “But the act of raising something isn’t just about what you raise and take care of. It’s about how you change yourself around the space they need within you, as well. You’ll have emotions and vulnerability during that process. We talked about this during intake.”

Yes, you remember that detail from the parenting class you had to take with Advent. The fostering program comes with free therapy, but you turned it down. You’re tough. You’re the dude who got trapped under a tipped-over forklift and gritted your teeth and got through it.

Everyone’s complimented you on how strong you were to survive that, how tough you were to get through everything that came afterward.

How many times were you thanked for your service after doing a full tour?

You knew that you could do six months of parenting. You were tough enough. Even despite the day of misgivings right before Rob arrived.

But now you’re wondering if you’re tough enough to handle what comes after Rob leaves.

Rob throws a pamphlet at you. It rustles through the air, then softly lands against your chest, just as he planned.

“What is that crap?”

“It’s the medical clinic I’ll be going to,” you say. “I’ve been talking about this forever.”

They could take your DNA and grow a new heart for you in a nutrient bath. They can regrow whole legs and arms.

“Have you ever thought about how I feel?” Rob shouts. “Do you even think about anyone else besides yourself?”

You’re confused as hell. “What does this have to do with you?”

“You’re a whole person, Dad!” Rob hits the countertop. Hard enough to make a point, make you jump, but not hard enough to break anything.

“What?”

“You’re fine just the way you are.” Emotion crackles in Rob’s voice. It’s a warble that flashes you back to that first moment he staggered around the apartment, crying in that electronic voice of his. “Not wanting artificial limbs—how the hell do you think that makes all of me feel?”

He holds up his arms in front of his face, and you look down at the one arm of yours that looks just like his.

“Rob—”

You’re stunned at the argument that explodes between you. He’s been holding things in. Things you do that anger him. No, that hurt him.

Trying to decide if regrowing limbs is somehow an admission that you aren’t whole—that’s been your struggle. Not his.

But clearly, Rob feels that this is his universe as well. You can no longer make choices just about yourself. They have to include him as well. He even hates his own name.

“I panicked!” you say, as he tells you people laugh at “Rob the Robot.”

“My whole life, you’ve talked about walking to that quarry, Dad. You can’t wait until you have just the right leg to go do that. It hurts when you use me as an excuse to avoid things.”

Rob helps you over the last few boulders to get to the quarry’s edge, and then you both sit and look out over the mossy rocks near the edge to the brownish, silty water.

It’s one of your favorite walks, now.

The human body is a thing of constant change. Your skin is made out of cells that were just food a few weeks ago. You’re a ghost of an idea that keeps getting passed on down through cell instructions.

You’re not a mind in a jar. You’re an ecosystem, a community of cells and organisms with a theory of mind bolted onto them. And they’re all involved in a complicated dance that keeps the complexity going until that system of passing on instructions gets disrupted after too many copies and it all falters.

You think: We’re often so scared of how we’ll be different if we take medicine for our minds, or go to therapy, or make a major life change. How can we be the same person if we change so much over time?

The physical therapy hurt. It was a real pain in the ass after you’d taken so much time off. You threw up the first time you got back to the gym.

But Rob was there every day, proud as could be.

And you started taking walks together. It’s his favorite thing to do with you. Walk and talk about life, whatever comes to your two minds. Rob has odd taste in TV and has even taken up reading. Mostly nonfiction, but he has some interest in mystery novels.

You have some plans to take a trip and hike a small part of the Appalachian Trail next year, when he gets some vacation after his first year of work.

That’s something you’ve been terrified of. You’d never thought much about robot rights when you agreed to bring this person into the world. But there have been big advances in how the world treats robots, particularly since robot strikes out west forced people to realize that if you had to raise them to be complete minds, enslavement was horrific. Rob will have free will. He will make less than a human would—there’s still a metal ceiling to break through—but he’ll get vacations, pay, while he does jobs that would be tough for organic people. Deep-sea diving is what he chose.

Most importantly, you’ll get to see him.

Because you never just stop being a parent.

“I want to give you something,” you say. You hand him over the watch your grandfather gave you when you left for college.

“You know I can tell time internally, right, Dad? Do we need to get you another checkup?”

“It’s—”

“I know what it is.” Rob puts it on, metal against metal. “Thank you.”

When it’s time to leave, he asks several times if you’re OK to walk back to the apartment alone.

“I’m OK,” you reassure him.

He slings a duffel bag with everything he owns over his shoulder and heads out.

Charlie’s at the door to the complex when you get back.

“So you got your freedom back!” He waves a six-pack at you, then does a double take when you raise your arm to wave back. “What the hell?”

“Oh.” You look at the arm. It’s all burnished metal, then scrimshawed with Rob’s art. You two spent days building the custom arm together, thanks to Rob taking high-end robotics maintenance classes during his charging cycles.

The leg is even more customized. An object of expression and a personal statement by the both of you. And now that you’re out of physical therapy, the upgraded artificial limbs are kicked up and finely tuned, thanks to Rob tinkering with your neural interface.

“It was set up for a standard off-the-line synapse reading,” he’d explained while tinkering, making you twitch every time he played with the settings. “Now that you’re getting better at timing and control, I can help you more.”

A week ago, you went to a tattoo artist and got a sleeve of three-dimensional gears and diesel engine pistons on your other bicep to make the organic match the inorganic.

People at the park stare at you. Sometimes mothers pull their kids back, in instinct.

For a second you’re worried that Charlie’s going to do something similar, but he looks closely at it. “That’s fucking sweet, man! I love the engine details!”

“They’re based on some of the equipment that Rob will be using. Come on in.”

You put your organic arm around Charlie’s shoulder and pull him along. You’ve invited him over to ask him about his art, to see how things are going for him in his new career as a sculptor.

There’s better beer in the fridge.

After Charlie leaves, you lie in bed and look at a picture of you and Rob standing by the quarry with big smiles.

You put a hand to your chest. Under it is a new scar since a second heart surgery. A fresher scar. Under it is a cybernetic heart, a mechanical pump that whirs softly underneath. Faster, better, stronger.

When you look at the picture of your son, who has just left a home that now feels empty without him in it, that heart surges with love.

Read a response essay by John Frank Weaver, author of Robots Are People Too.

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Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.