HUGO AWARD-WINNING SCIENCE FICTION & FANTASY MAGAZINE
Mrs. Griffin Prepares to Commit Suicide Tonight
When LW31, a domestic model robot, brought Mrs. Griffin’s dinner into her bedroom, it found her preparing to commit suicide. She was trying to tie a rope to the pendant lamp, but, at her age, her eyes were too weak and her hands were no longer steady. She tried again and again but she couldn’t loop the rope around the lamp.
“Do you need any assistance, Mrs. Griffin?” LW31 set down Mrs. Griffin’s meal tray, then walked to her side.
Mrs. Griffin put her hands on her waist. She caught her breath then handed LW31 the rope. “Help me tie this rope to the pendant lamp.”
LW31’s waist spun on its axis. The upper half of its body rose until it hit the ceiling. At the same time, he asked, “What are you planning to do, Mrs. Griffin?”
“I want to commit suicide.”
“Oh, in that case, I should tie both ends.” LW31 nodded its head and said no more.
It tied both ends of the rope to the lamp’s curved pendant holder, tugged on it with both hands and judged the knots sufficiently secure. It turned its head to her.
“Mrs. Griffin, the rope has been tied. You may commit suicide now.”
Panting with each step, Mrs. Griffin walked to just under the pendant lamp. LW31 brought her a chair. Trembling, she climbed the chair, feeling as though everything around her was rocking and swaying. Seeing this, LW31 stabilized her on the chair. Even though it’d been in continuous service for sixty-five years now and many places on its body have been corroded with rust, its mechanical arms were still steady. One hand pushed down on the chair and the other supported her at the waist.
Mrs. Griffin stood still. She stretched her head then then strapped the loop of rope around her neck.
“Wait, wait, Mrs. Griffin. I would like to ask you.” As it had always been, LW31’s voice was the smooth surface of water in an ancient well. “Why did you pick hanging as the way to commit suicide?”
“Because it’s effective . . . and, to anyone who finds me, a hanging corpse won’t look so horrible.”
LW31 raised its head. It was a black glass cover. Knives had cut facial features that formed a smiling face. But time had rendered them indistinct to the point where the smile seemed odd and harsh.
It said, “Actually, Mrs. Griffin, you’re as mistaken as those who had thought the Earth was the center of the universe. As a matter of fact, hanging is the most shameful way to commit suicide. Once you kick away the chair, your bodyweight will crack your trachea and your cervical vertebrae will shift. It’s not like in the movies. You won’t have a chance to struggle. You’ll die in a split second. The problem is what happens after you die.”
Mrs. Griffin firmly shook her head. “Don’t try to convince me. I won’t change my mind.”
“After you die by hanging, your eyeballs will jut out like light bulbs, and your face will grow red from suffocation. As for the state of your body, if no one takes down your body within ten hours, the blood vessels in your face will break apart. Your head will be like a tomato, cracked to bursting. The most unseemly is your bodyweight will cause anal prolapse. Urine and feces will overflow . . . ”
After two minutes of this, Mrs. Griffin climbed down from the chair. She sat on her bed, sobbing.
“Why do you want to commit suicide?” LW31 approached her, uncertain.
“It came to me all of a sudden. Everyone who ever loved me is dead, leaving my life friendless and wretched. The idea to commit suicide tonight, it just grew stronger and stronger in my mind . . . no one’s left who loves me. What’s the point of living?” Mrs. Griffin took a digital photo frame out of her pocket. Her aged fingers swipe across it and the transparent display transformed into pictures of people, one after another. “It’s been twenty-five years since my child died. Now, I can’t bear even one more day of life.”
“Why don’t you tell me about those people who loved you, Mrs. Griffin?” LW31 said. “Once you finish telling me about them, then I can help you commit suicide.”
The endless night painted the world outside the window black. Mrs. Griffin stopped crying. Her fingers pressed the photo’s display, freezing it on a picture of a young husband and wife.
She set down the phone in a daze. A burst of secret pain went through her. Maybe the kid in her belly kicked.
He didn’t come home until the small hours of the morning. It was a cold night and he exhaled icicles with each breath. His hands cold and his feet cold, he dug himself under the bed covers. He huddled up for a while before he could do anything else.
She was still awake. “Back so late again?”
Slowly, his body relaxed in the warmth. The chill faded and he grew sleepy. He answered, his words indistinct, “Yeah, overtime. Also, this week’s pay, three hundred fifty points, I’ve already deposited . . . ”
He didn’t finish his sentence. Instead, he shut his eyes and fell into a heavy sleep.
She, however, couldn’t sleep. This wasn’t the first time he’d lied.
For five months now, he’d come home late every night, usually reeking of alcohol, only to fall asleep as soon as he got into the bedroom. She’d ask him and he’d just say “overtime.” However, he was just an ordinary delivery trunk driver for an AI company. How was he always working overtime? She’d just called his boss and found out the company didn’t have overtime. Not to mention, five months ago, he’d gotten a raise. Five hundred points, not three hundred fifty.
The time and money he hid became her hidden worry. She was a proud woman, though, and never forced the truth from him. With every lie he cast, her heart cooled a little.
He went to work as usual. She convalesced at home. Her fetus was already nine months old.
Her home was cramped and dark. Often, she’d bring out a chair to sit by the curb. The street was lined with plum trees. In the cold weather, each twig exploded with a row of red flowers. She sat under a tree, waiting for him to return home. Car after car, suspended on tracks in mid-air, scratched her gaze as they came and went.
With so much free time, she counted on her memories to pass the days. She’d first met him under this plum tree. Back then, she was still the daughter of a wealthy family. She was set for life. Designer clothes and expensive jewelry covered her from head to foot. She drove a luxury car. As she passed through, the red plum tree caught her attention. Or, rather, the man standing under the tree did. The red plum stood out against snow covered ground. He stood out like a bunch of plums against the snow of the boundless sky.
She stopped her car then walked to his side. He smiled, warm laugh lines filling his face. He broke off a branch, giving it to her, saying, “I was just wondering whether there was anything this winter more beautiful than these plum blossoms. But now that I’ve seen you, I know my answer.”
Right then, she fell in love with him.
Just like a classical romance, this love ran into her parents’ violent disapproval. Her father had intended to arrange a business marriage for her. He flew into a rage, scolding her and beating her. He took away her purse and car, froze her card, then shut her inside their house. But it was no use. She was determined to marry him. Finally, with a wave of his hand and with an exhausted sigh, her father said one thing to her: Get out, and stay out.
She spent a long time before she adapted to married life. He drove a truck, delivering robots everywhere. The work was hard and the pay was low. She’d lived in luxury since she was a child, but for him, she threw herself into the oil, salt, soy sauce, and vinegar of a ordinary life. Once, when she was learning to cook, she cut her finger by accident. The spreading blood scared her into tears. He heard her cry and went into the kitchen. Holding her, he said over and over again, “You don’t have to be in the kitchen. I will. Don’t hurt yourself again.”
But, now, he’d changed. He’d learned to lie and hide money. Sometimes, his body carried the scent of alcohol and perfume. Everyone knew what this meant. She’d given up her youth and riches, her fingers now smoked yellow, the corners of her eyes now wrinkled. In exchange, she received only the sight of his back receding into the distance.
The more she thought about it, the more it weighed on her mind. At the foot of the plum tree, she collapsed into tears.
After his shift, his boss called him in. “Yesterday, your wife called me. She said you always come home extremely late. Her stomach is so large now. It’s not easy. Go home earlier and keep her company.”
He hurriedly nodded his head. “Yes, yes, of course.”
After he left work, he didn’t go home. Instead, he went the door of a nightclub in the middle of the city.
Someone had been waiting too long for him. “What took you so long? Quick, Boss Wang is already drunk. Drive him home.”
Obsequiously, he bowed again and again. He got into the flying car, started its engine, then flitted to his assigned location. This is what he did every night.
He drove the nightclub’s customers, delivering them home. He had to beg for a lot of favors before he got this second job. Just one delivery paid at least ten points. Most of those bosses had drunk too much and stank of alcohol. Sometimes, in the embrace of a woman whose clothes were drenched with the spray of perfume, they didn’t go home. Their destination was a guest house. He didn’t mind. He just wanted to be paid.
He didn’t tell her about this second job. He wanted the money to be a pleasant surprise.
Five months ago, as he was signing for his freight, his boss told him, “This is LW’s latest domestic robot. It can do all sorts of household chores.”
He laughed. “What about taking care of a baby?”
The boss snorted. “Not just babies. This robot has a long term of service. It can take care of someone from birth all the way until death.”
This sentence moved his heart.
She was clumsy and not very good at household chores, to say nothing of raising a child. If she had a robot to help her, he wouldn’t spend every work day worrying about her. After that, he asked how much it cost. Twenty thousand Alliance points. This was not a small number.
So, for these few months, he was always busy outside the house. According to his calculations, in five months, he’d saved three thousand points from his wages. Add to that the hundred extra points he earned every night and he’d now saved eighteen thousand points. Their child would be born soon. He needed to earn money more quickly.
Tonight, he took a couple, man and a woman, to a hotel. On the road, she tittered as the man’s hands never stopped caressing her. He paid no attention to them, focused on his driving. The hotel wasn’t far. Its neon lights flickered below them.
Some people. The woman was a little shy, after all. She pushed aside the man’s hand when he reached for her skirt.
The man was not happy. He roared, “What is there to be afraid of?”
Despite those words, the man raised his head and looked around. His gaze fell upon the photo on the car window.
It was of a couple, a man and a woman. Their happiness together shone on their faces. She rested her head on his shoulder. He looked at her with a mild expression. In the background was a cluster of plum blossoms in full bloom among the ice and snow.
The man, staring blankly, asked: “This photo . . . ”
Like the man, he raised head and looked at the photo. With an irrepressible joy, he said, “That’s me and my wife. She’s beautiful, yeah? I’m a lucky man. She’s pregnant. It’s a girl. She’ll grow up to be just as beautiful.”
“Then why aren’t you at home with her?”
“I have to make money so that I can buy her a present: a robot. So she won’t have to work every day.”
The man stayed silent.
The woman, who had just resisted the man’s advances, noticed the man wasn’t touching her any more. Confused, she pulled the man’s hands to her. The man pulled them back, then lit a cigarette. The smoke drifted around the car’s small and narrow cabin.
When he finished smoking, he said slowly, “Don’t go to the hotel. Take me home.”
The woman asked, “To your home? I’m not that kind of—”
“You can go right now.”
The man took out his card. He tapped a few numbers on it, put the woman’s finger on its screen, then transferred over that many points.
The woman grumbled, “It’s enough money, but I have professional ethics. Halfway though, I can’t just—”
The women left. He continued to drive on to the man’s house.
A plain woman came out. She brought the man an overcoat.
“Didn’t you say you had a meeting tonight?”
“I canceled it.” The man ran his hands through her hair. “No meeting is more important than you.”
He watched this play out. His heart roiled with an indescribable feeling. He laughed, started the engine, then slowly left the rich side of town. Suddenly, he thought of her and didn’t want to earn any more money tonight. He wanted to turn in early and spend time with her. Whenever she felt cold—and their house was always cold—she’d rub her hands, wrinkle her nose. The way she behaved was adorable. The way she behaved would worry him for the whole of his life.
Tonight, he’d use his wallet to stop her hands. He’d rub them slowly until they grew warm from the circulating blood. He laughed at the thought.
His mind still preoccupied, he didn’t pay attention in both directions. An out-of-control flying car fell off its suspended track. It hit him from the right. The two flying cars rolled over each other then fell out of the sky. They exploded, blooming into resplendent, beautiful flowers.
She overslept. She waited for him, but he never came home. She got out of bed, went out to the street then stood under the plum tree. If he came back, he’d have to pass through here. When he came back, he’d see her under the plum tree, like when they’d first met, a face set off against plum blossoms.
The night was as cold as water and she wrapped her clothes tight around her. She’d decided to forgive him. It didn’t matter what he’d done. She’d decided to forgive it all. He was her only worry in the world. Her plan now set, she began to laugh. When he came back, he’d definitely grasp her hands in his and rub them, letting circulating blood make them warm.
This is how she waited for him, staring at the end of the street, hoping he’d appear from somewhere. Overhead, a cluster of plum blossoms opened in resplendent beauty.
“I’m sorry . . . I’m genuinely sorry.” LW31 lowered his head in apology.
Mrs. Griffin shook her head. “It’s not your fault . . . My mom was an ill-fated person. Not long after she gave birth to me, she died. But she was also a fortunate person. After his death, she still used the money to buy you. It shows that she never blamed anyone.”
LW31 paused, then put its hand on Mrs. Griffin’s shoulder. “In that case, I can now help you carry out some other way of dying. How would you like to die?”
“Sleeping pills? That way, I won’t feel any pain.”
“OK.” LW31 answered. “Except that, right now, we have two problems.”
“One, within forty-eight hours of overdosing on sleeping pills, not only will you not be able to sleep, but symptoms like gastrospasm, abdominal pain, and foaming at the mouth will emerge. This is because every organ in your body will perform their post-poison stress function. Many people who attempt suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills, because they can’t stand the pain any longer, call for help . . . Mrs. Griffin, I don’t think you will want to endure that sort of pain.”
Mrs. Griffin closed her eyes. Most of a day passed, it seemed, then her lips quivered. “I’d just like to commit suicide. I just want not to look like a disgrace after I’m dead. Even if I foam at the mouth, you will take care of my corpse for me, right?”
“Of course. I exist to serve you.”
“That’s good then.” Mrs. Griffin nodded. “As for the pain . . . Throughout my entire life, I’ve endured too much pain. I’ve long gone numb. Open the drawer and check. How many sleeping pills are left?”
“Mrs. Griffin, this happens to be the second problem. We don’t have enough sleeping pills.” LW31 opened the drawer and took out the drugs. “A total of seventeen pills. This is a prescription drug. A pharmacy will sell twenty pills at most. Given your build, to cause death you may need eighty-six pills.”
“Can’t you go out and buy them for me?”
“Mrs. Griffin, maybe you forgot. The great migration has already begun. Practically everyone has already gone. There are no more pharmacies.”
Mrs. Griffin sighed. The lamp lit her face. She seemed a little sallow. The years had left gullies on her face.
LW31 said politely, “Mrs. Griffin, it would be better if you tell me more. Besides your parents, there were other people who loved you, right?”
“Yes.” Mrs. Griffin swiped the photo again. This time who appeared was a lanky young man. Mrs. Griffin glanced at him. Thick tears drifted from her eyes. One night from many years ago floated up to the present.
Peter and Jason stood silent at the gate at start of the street.
A street like this one,
there shouldn’t be anyone standing there.
A street like this one,
there shouldn’t have been two men in designer suits standing there at night.
The start of the street was broken.
The middle of the street was cold.
The end of the street was dark.
This was the most run down street in the city. Normally, few people walked it. It was a crime-ridden street. In dark places, countless eyes opened, stomachs rumbled, waiting for prey to enter.
Afterwards, the prey were swallowed and digested. Nothing left of them to be spit back out.
But Peter and Jason stood at the head of the street, relaxed, as though they belonged there. As though this was their home.
Peter was tall and thin. Standing there, motionless, he seemed like a sharp pencil.
Jason was short and fat, just like a wax gourd that had rolled all over the ground.
Jason was smoking. With a deep drag, the flame fled from the head of the cigarette to the end. The entire cigarette was burnt up.
Peter asked, “Now?”
Jason blew a puff of thick smoke. “Now.”
The two men started down the long, dark street.
The wind blew by. It whimpered like tearful ghosts.
The people who lived on the street, they weren’t law-abiding folk.
They were of all sorts. The beggar’s neighbor was a thief. Above the thief lived a prostitute. Across from the prostitute’s balcony was a reliably blundering cheat.
But they all had one thing common.
They were poor.
So poor that they could only live on this old, dilapidated street like snails in their shells.
To be poor is to suffer. It’s the kind of suffering that freezes the heart stone cold.
So, whenever someone walked down this street, they usually entered the gaze of the beggar, the thief, the prostitute, and the cheat.
They’d swindled old men out of their clothes. They’d taken candy from babies.
They never let even a single cent slip past them.
But, now, they didn’t dare even plan. They shut their windows. They lay on their beds, grinding their teeth until they sucked blood, not daring to make a sound.
Because Peter and Jason were walking down the street.
They walked neither quickly nor slowly. Their every step clicked on the pavement, solid and steady.
Peter walked six hundred fifty-nine steps altogether. Jason one thousand three hundred fifteen.
They stopped in front of a room at the tail of the street.
The room was dark. Its light was out.
But Jason heard breathing.
Panting like a fawn running from a hunter’s gun.
Jason lifted his head and laughed grimly.
They haven’t found the wrong place.
They beat the door three times like drum.
No one answered.
Jason continued to pound the door.
Dull and dreary, the dense dark of the night flustered them.
“Who is it?” At last, a sound from inside. It was a female voice, as clear as a bell, but trembling.
Jason said, “It’s me.”
Peter said, “And me.”
The woman inside the room said, “Who are you?”
Peter and Jason said, “We are detectives from Public Safety Bureau of the Alliance of City-States.”
The woman said, “You shouldn’t have come.”
Peter said, “But we’re already here.”
The woman said, “Can’t you just go back?”
Jason said, “The last person who wanted us to go back is now sleeping in prison.”
The woman in the room sighed.
She couldn’t hide from disaster.
The woman opened the door.
When she opened the door, she saw short and fat Jason and she saw tall and thin Peter.
And Peter looked at the woman.
He couldn’t help but gape at her. She was an extremely beautiful woman.
There were many standards for judging a woman’s beauty. Some preferred the face, particularly the nose and mouth. Some preferred the figure, obsessing over the breasts, waist, ass, and legs. But no matter who the judges were, once they looked at this woman, they couldn’t deny her beauty.
Because, regardless of face or figure, she was completely flawless.
Pretty brows, seductive eyes, a jade nose, a cherry mouth.
Ample breasts, tiny waist, a round ass, long and slender legs.
Combined to perfection.
Jason, instead, looked at the room behind the woman.
The room was small. The walls were old, but clean. It made one unspeakably comfortable just to look at it. The room didn’t have much furniture, but the owner had clearly chosen every piece with care. Every piece was placed exactly where it ought to be.
The woman said, “You’ve come to my home in the middle of the night. What do you want?”
Jason said, “You don’t know what we want?”
The woman said, “How would I, a weak woman, know what you want?”
Jason said, “But you know about the book, right?”
The woman shivered, but quickly composed herself. “What book?”
Jason took everything in his gaze. Calmly, he reached inside his jacket and pulled out his tablet. Its screen changed as he swiped it.
A front cover of a book appeared on the screen.
The front cover was bronze colored, with the title at the top.
The title was only five words. Five ordinary words.
But the woman looked as though she’d seen a ghost. Her face changed expression.
The Domestic Robot Administration Amendment
Peter, who’d been silent so far, started to speak.
His words were like his body, lean and taut. “We have information. You’re hiding an LW model robot.”
Jason said, “And according to the amendment, all the robots must be reclaimed.”
The woman said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Jason said, “Of course you know. Your face betrays you.”
The woman said nothing.
Peter looked at her with care. His voice grew gentle. “A month ago, a PRW model domestic robot, while its owner was asleep, severed his throat. The deceased was an Alliance assemblyman. The Alliance has already passed a law. All robots are to be reclaimed.”
The woman shook her head. “There’s no robot here.”
Jason laughed coldly. “I’m afraid you don’t get the last word here.”
With that, Jason pushed the woman away, then entered the room.
The woman crashed into the wall.
She looked to Peter for help, but Peter lowered his head, his expression difficult to read.
Jason narrowed his gaze. He looked all around the room. No robot.
Peter said, “There’s no robot. Let’s go.”
Jason raised his hand. His gaze fell on the bed, the snow white sheets, the neatly folded blanket. The foot posts were made of a metal alloy. They were coated with dust.
This woman with the meticulously arranged room, how could she put up with the dust on the foot posts?
Jason laughed. His laughter was joyous.
He pointed at the bed. “Is something hiding under the bed?”
The woman’s face instantly went pale.
Jason lit another cigarette. “Now you have two options.”
The woman quickly nodded her head.
Jason said, “Option one, I take the robot back. It’ll be melted down and, for the crime of hiding it, you’ll be put in prison.”
The woman said, “Please, I beg you. Don’t take away LW31. It’s the only thing my parents left me.”
Jason said, “Then you have option two. Give me five thousand points and I’ve seen nothing.”
The woman furrowed her brow. “But I don’t have that much money. Take everything else in my home. Just leave me LW31.”
The corners of Jason’s mouth curled into a slight smile. His gaze slid from the woman’s face down, “Even if I took everything in your house, it still wouldn’t be enough.”
Jason’s gaze felt like a serpent. Clammy and cool, it slithered over her skin.
The woman’s chest tightened.
Calmly, Jason stared at the woman. He enjoyed the fear that spread across the woman’s face. He was pleased, and a certain part of his body began to respond.
A long time had passed before he spoke. “I want you for ten nights.”
The woman violently shook her head.
Jason made an apologetic sigh. “Then say goodbye to your robot.”
Before he’d even finished speaking, the woman raised her hand to hit him.
She only needed one chance. This one chance was enough to subdue him.
She assembled machines at the factory. Her work every day was to reach her hand in to shove motherboards into the machines.
So, she’d already practiced this move for four years, five months and twenty-eight days. She was absolutely certain that no one in this room could stop her.
But, this once, she was wrong.
Astonishment gradually solidified on her face. One hand, one fat, white, and strong hand clutched her throat.
The hand belonged to Jason.
No one had ever thought that someone short and fat could reach his hand out so quickly.
The woman implored him. “LW31 isn’t dangerous. It’s just responsible for taking care of me. For a long time now. I can’t lose it. I beg you.”
Jason said, “I’ll give you a chance to beg, but it’ll be when we’re both naked. People who try to hit me don’t come to a good end. You’ll quickly know how living can be worse than dying.”
He wasn’t lying. Jason never lied. If you met Jason one day and he told you he wanted to kill you, there was only thing you should do: go home and make out your will.
You couldn’t resist and there was no escape because he was Jason.
The woman’s face filled with despair. This time, her eyes suddenly widened. She saw something she absolutely wasn’t supposed to see.
A gun pressed against the back of Jason’s head.
Peter said, “Let her go.”
Jason said, “You want to betray me because of her?”
Peter, his face expressionless, said, “I can’t take it any more. Searching for robots as an excuse, you’ve extorted nearly two hundred thousand Alliance points, raped seven women, hounded nineteen residents of the city to death.”
Jason said, “And you’re a good guy?”
Peter said, “I’m not, but now I want to be.”
Jason sneered. “I bet you can’t kill me.”
Peter laughed. “Why?”
Jason said, “Because you wouldn’t dare.”
Peter pulled the trigger.
The man fell.
The woman looked at Peter. Astonished, she sized him up. Tears fell from her eyes. “Thank you.”
Peter shrugged. “Peter upheld justice for you. He begs you not to cry. If the world is unjust, get drunk, wave a sword, then cut off heads.”
The woman nodded. “But you killed him and he died in my home. Maybe I should get ready to flee.”
Peter said, “But, one person fleeing will be very lonely.”
The woman said, “What do you suggest then?”
Peter studied the woman.
For a long time, they looked at each other and laughed. Peter extended his hand. “Hello, my name is Peter, Peter Griffin.”
The woman said, “I’m Xue Yi.”
Peter took a step forward, then held the woman.
The woman felt his embrace.
He was very tall.
His face was cool.
His arms were stiff.
But his chest was warm.
“That night, we spent a lot of time digging a hole and buried you in it. Afterward, he took me and we fled here, there, and everywhere until the Alliance collapsed. We didn’t return until the orders for our arrest were canceled.”
LW31 looked at her serenely. After a while, Mrs. Griffin let out an inaudible sigh.
She said lightly, “But the good times didn’t last. Not long after we settled down, he grew ill and died. In the years when we were on the run, he always gave the good things to our daughter and me. All the injuries and illnesses accumulated in his body . . . ”
“I remember him a little. He was laconic, capable, and he loved you very much.”
Mrs. Griffin exposed her wrists. She tossed the grief from her mind. “I want to open a blood vessel. Come and help me.”
LW31 nodded its head, then took a thin knife from a drawer. It gleamed as though it were lacquered with a layer of light.
Mrs. Griffin held out her wrists. The knife edge immediately pressed down on an old, wrinkled, pulsing vessel. A chill started at her skin then oozed into the blood vessel. She began to shiver.
“I’m going to start cutting. Are you ready?” LW31 asked.
“I’m ready. Just get on it.” Mrs. Griffin snapped. She closed her eyes then immediately opened them again. Shivering, she asked, “What happens after you open a blood vessel?”
“That depends on which one I cut. If it’s a vein, then your blood will flow out right away, but not like a river in volume. That’s because your platelets will have already congealed at the wound. If it’s an artery, then you’ll die quickly. However, in that scenario, blood will spurt like a fountain. It may be hard to keep this within the limits of propriety. Blood will drench your body. I fear that you’ll look horribly mutilated.” LW31 spoke at a steady pace. “Should I start cutting now?”
“In that case, is there some other way?”
“Yes, there’s a way that is highly appropriate for you. However, before I tell you, you have to tell me again about someone who loved you.”
The photo frame’s screen flickered. Quickly, a smiling girl, bright and beautiful, pulling a suitcase behind her appeared. The screen also displayed three short arcs. That indicated that this photo also had sound. Mrs. Griffin’s trembling hand touched the screen. Immediately, a graceful but ordinary voice surrounded the room.
In the winter of 2335, dragging my suitcase, I returned to the small town I left seven years ago.
The airport was deserted. Wind from a distant place blew here and my hair fluttered in that wind. I grew dizzy at the sight of a sky that was filled with clouds, a vast expanse of exquisite grace sweeping past the town. I began to understand that when a woman was looking at the sky, she wasn’t looking for anything. She was just being still.
The stillness oozed into my veins, like ice-cold lips kissing my bones.
There weren’t many taxis at midnight. Once in a while, a few passed by on the suspended tracks, their headlights scratching a line in the dark.
I stood by the side of the street, watching flowing light drag shadow behind it. A taxi stopped in front of me. A dark window rolled down revealing the driver. He was a good-looking man. When he smiled, his teeth were white. The corners of his mouth tilted gently. The expression in his eyes was as clean and flowing as water.
“Where to?” he asked.
I stepped in, then told him my destination.
Once we got on the road, we didn’t speak.
I plastered my face to the car window. Colors faded as I rode. I saw the town through the gray forms that emerged. Nothing had changed in seven years. This small town, old and broken, still made people’s hearts bleak and desolate.
“Everyone is emigrating now. Very few returned.” The driver was the first to speak.
I nodded. “I’m also planning to leave. I applied for the Pegasus star system, the planet called KG6. My application’s already approved.”
“Then what are you returning here for?”
“To say goodbye.”
The driver didn’t say any more.
The taxi stopped in the north end, at a house I knew intimately. I got out. The driver, still stopped by the side of the road, wasn’t in a hurry to leave. I think he must have wanted to tell me something. At last, though, he just started the engine. The taxi slowly glided into the night.
I knocked on the door. The dull thuds sounded like the beating of a lonely heart.
The door opened with a creak. The robot’s face revealed itself. Facial features had been carved on its black face guard. The childish scratches formed a weird smile.
The robot came out and took my suitcase. “Miss, you’ve returned.”
I looked inside. The house was a black cavity. “Is she here?”
“Yes, she’s home. She’s been waiting for you for a long time. Why don’t we go in?”
I hesitated. I stood at the door. Below my feet, it was as if a deep trench had split open. A great and frozen wind blew down that vast gap. I had no way to cross it. I simply sat down. The woman inside the house, who was also sitting, opened her eyes, as though she was looking back at me.
She was my mother. Or, rather, she was once my mother.
The first seventeen years of my life, I spent at her side. In my memory, this little house will always be cold and damp, like the years I can’t bear. The place always carried the faint smell of rot and the young me hated it. After I escaped, though, not a night went by that I didn’t secretly long for this house.
I was born in the final age of Earth’s exhaustion. No one felt secure. When I was small, I saw too many pallid faces grow alarmed and bewildered, but I didn’t know why. Until I was five, I roamed the world with my parents. Or rather, we were fugitives.
Then the once colossal Alliance crumbled. We settled down with lots of robots to help with the housework. But not long after, my father, lying in bed, swallowed his last breath. I remember his eyes, withered and cloudy, staring forever at her and me. Deep grief was buried in those eyes.
After my father died, she became frail and stubborn. She wouldn’t let me out of the house. She wouldn’t let me have any contact with boys. If I defied her, she didn’t hit me or yell at me. She just kept staring at me, her dark eyes shining like a wolf’s.
So I stayed by her side. Time flowed like water. It washed over me until I was clear and slender. However, it wore her down until her face grew ashen and wrinkled. Did time retaliate against her on my behalf? I’ve never dared to imagine.
I let go of a silent breath. A fierce wind screamed under the cover of night. The town let out a loud and lonely cry. Yes, the town was also lonely. One after another, people emigrated. The center of town was deserted, like a great beast that has lost its heart, lamenting without end.
“Miss, let’s go in.” The robot had waited a long time before finally speaking. Its voice was as flat as ever. This time, though, I seemed to hear an imploring tone in its voice.
But I shook my head. If she didn’t open her mouth, I wouldn’t go in. She and I were two sheafs of wheat in a wheat field, leaning against each other, but always pushing against each other too. We could never hug.
When I was seventeen, I decided to leave.
That summer, I had worked everywhere in town. I carefully saved every cent. After that muggy summer, I already had enough money for a bus ticket. As far as I was concerned, all I needed was a bus ticket and I could lead my own vagrant life.
So, that September, I told her, “Ma, I’m going to buy a book.”
“Hm,” she said in the dark.
I turned to the door, and just like that, I left home. The moment I bought my bus ticket, tears filled my face. Soundlessly, I sobbed.
And she waited for me to return. It took exactly seven years.
In those seven years, I traveled to many places. I saw warm sunshine and was drenched in dark rain. I never stopped moving. Until I met him.
It was on a main street in the south. He stood on a platform simultaneously passing out leaflets to passersby and, in a loud voice, extolling the virtues of the interstellar immigration policy. The instant he gave me a leaflet, I saw his beautiful eyes. Furrows wrinkled his brow. His gaze, clear like spring water, flowed past the seething sunlight and crowd, surmounted the air, then flowed into mine.
And just like that, I was lost.
The man always liked to hold my face in his large palms, nuzzle my forehead with his nose then tease me like a small animal. I never refused him. Later, when he wanted to take me away from Earth, I still didn’t refuse him.
He said, “We’ll settle down in the Pegasus star system. There’s already a terraformed planet. The atmosphere is as fresh as your breath. Six satellites orbit the planet. When you walk outside at night, six shadows spread out beneath your feet.”
I said, “Fine.”
My only request was to return to see her, to say goodbye.
But, now, I hesitated at the door. It was a chilly night but I didn’t dare go in.
The person in the room and I exchanged gazes. After I don’t know how long, I stood. “LW31, give me my suitcase. I want to leave.”
“Miss, you really don’t want to visit her?” The robot said, hurriedly. “She’s missed you so much these past few years.”
I nodded. I’d also missed her. Instead of sending a message, if I had a chance, I’d come back to visit again.
The robot stayed silent. Dew condensed on it, like tears weeping down its outer shell.
She still hadn’t come out and I decided I wouldn’t wait any longer. I took my suitcase, turned around, then left. Clouds floated across the sky. A strong wind howled past.
I knew she was in the back looking at me, but I never turned around.
“I know what happened next.” LW31 said. “The spaceship she rode on was hit by a meteorite. The ship’s cabin was damaged. All the crew and passengers suffocated to death.”
Mrs. Griffin didn’t say anything. A long while later, two thick tears fell down her face. They hit the photo frame. The display slowly faded to black.
“So, those who loved me, they’re all gone.” Mrs. Griffin put the photo frame back into her pocket. “I no longer have any meaning to my life. Tell me the way to kill myself. Let me die, please?”
“As you wish. The most suitable method is . . . electrocution.”
“Won’t that hurt?”
“Electrocution is the most beautiful way to commit suicide. It best preserves the original appearance of the corpse. In fact, if it’s done correctly, it doesn’t even leave any burn marks. In the moment of electrocution, you’ll feel a sharp pain then you’ll stop breathing and your heart will stop beating. The process is very quick. Practically no pain at all.” LW31 said earnestly. “But what you need to make sure of is this: the electric current must pass through the heart in order to cause death. No other way will do. But I can help you with this bit. I will use rubber tape to attach copper wire to your solar plexus. I guarantee the electrical current will pass through your heart. Moreover, I will use cotton balls moistened with salt water to lower your resistance. Mrs. Griffin, would you like to do this now?”
Mrs. Griffin nodded her head.
“Very well. I exist to serve you.” LW31 turned to look for copper wire, rubber tape, and cotton balls, but when he reached the door, he stopped. “Mrs. Griffin, before you are electrocuted, I want to give you a warning. You’re wrong about a few things.”
“You said everyone who ever loved you is dead, leaving your life friendless and wretched.” LW31’s back faced Mrs. Griffin. Its back was corroded by rust. Its voice was slow. “You’re wrong. There’s still one person, from start to finish, who has always loved you.”
LW31 turned around. In the light, the smile scratched on its black face guard seemed to move. It looked at Mrs. Griffin, its carved gaze infinitely soft. The electric transmission in its body buzzed.
After a long time, it said, “Me.”
Mrs. Griffin stared dumbfounded.
Events of her past fell thick like snowflakes. Gradually and clearly, she realized it was right. Throughout her long life, LW31 indeed had stuck with her from start to finish. When she was little, her mother was always ill. She couldn’t do any housework. LW31 took care of Mrs. Griffin in every possible way. It allowed her to grow up without any worries or cares.
Once when she was mischievous, she thought its black face guard was too forbidding, so she carved a smile on it. It didn’t get angry. It was peaceful and docile. After she grew up, LW31 always cleaned the house until it was spotless, cooked the meals, then stood quietly in the house, waiting for Mrs. Griffin to come home from work. After her daughter was born, it became even busier. It practically never had any free time. Once Mrs. Griffin grew old, it still took care of everything at home. It accompanied Mrs. Griffin sunbathing, told her jokes downloaded from the internet.
It could take care of a person all her life and, from start to finish, show every possible consideration without even a single complaint. If that wasn’t love, then what was?
Mrs. Griffin choked with sobs. She walked up to then hugged LW31. Her hand touched LW31’s back. There, LW31’s outer casing was even rougher than Mrs. Griffin’s skin.
“I’m sorry. I’ve always taken you for granted.”
“Never mind, Mrs. Griffin.” LW31 still had that smiling expression. Its voice was tranquil like before. “Mrs. Griffin, your dinner is already cold. Would you like me to reheat it?”
“Yes.” Mrs. Griffin wiped away her tears, nodding her head.
Translated and published in partnership with Storycom.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
A Que was born in Jingzhou, Hubei in 1990 and graduated from the Hydraulic and Hydropower Engineering Department of Sichuan University. In 2012, he published his first work Quietly Awakening, which was soon followed by Wine Cup Flowing on the Rivers, Walking with Robots, Childhood of Harvest, and I Tell Stories about My Grandfather.
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ISSN 1937-7843 Clarkesworld Magazine © 2006-2015 Wyrm Publishing. Robot illustration by Serj Iulian.