She was waiting in the park for her robot to pick her up when the bombs went off. She was waiting in the park because it was embarrassing for a girl of her age to be picked up by a robot from school; such a thing was only necessary for small children, who needed chaperones to guard them against getting lost or kidnapped. But she, Grace, was no longer a child: she was tall and light-boned and beginning to develop breasts, and so it was embarrassing to have her robot pick her up, where all of her classmates could see. So she made him meet her at the park instead.
When she’d first told the robot not to come to her school, she’d worried that he would be offended; but the robot had only said, “I understand,” and went about his business. “I understand” was his default programmed phrase, the robot’s most basic factory setting—it was like a baby smiling when you smiled at it or a dog wagging its tail when you called its name. Essentially an empty verbal cue that indicated that her words had registered, but he had nothing better to say. She often wondered—how much did he really comprehend, rather than simply hear? How much of it was just a ritual: shadow puppets making gestures at each other from across the wall, but never quite connecting without losing their shapes altogether? Sometimes she said it back to him: “I understand,” and then the robot said that he understood that she understood, and then Grace said that she understood that he understood that she understood, and it became a little game between them, the words stacking up on top of each other like a tower of cards. They formed an echo chamber with each other, their understanding only circling overhead, invisibly.
Despite her confusion about him, Grace did find her robot’s presence comforting: there was something nice about the cool calm quietness of his companionship at her shoulder, carrying her bookbag, politely listening to her talk about her day, and this was why she didn’t just tell him to stay at home. Instead she had him meet her in the park like an illicit lover, so they could walk together without being seen by any of her schoolmates—schoolmates such as Jenny Testa.
Jenny Testa was not a mean person. On the surface, she was nice to everybody, and she smiled and held the door for the underclassmen without any snide remarks. But Grace knew that Jenny Testa’s father, Mr. Testa, was one of those pro-flesh people, one of those radicals who went to protests, waving embarrassing hand-printed signs about robots taking jobs from humans and how all robots needed to be destroyed so that everyone could go back to their “roots”—as if manually shoveling dirt and soil in what few farms were left was what made people truly people, was what would take them back to their purer atavistic state, when they barely had any fire and tore the throats out of sabretooth tigers with nothing but their teeth and some sharpened stones. As if going back to that would make them any better than they were now! Jenny Testa never brought up the subject of robots at school, but Grace felt that she had surely inherited her father’s hatred, his penchant for joining the boiling crowds that sometimes erupted around the city and tore apart some innocent courier android or a sexbot idling on a street corner. How Grace hated to see the aftermath of those incidents on the newstreams: the robots’ limbs being scattered to the streets, their synthetic skin flapping like loose chicken flesh. Grace wanted to protect her robot from people like Jenny Testa and her father, wanted to keep them from seeing him—because if they couldn’t see him, then they couldn’t harm him. This was why she met him at the park.
(Also Jenny Testa was dating a boy, which was very mature for their age, usually you practiced with another girl first, everyone thought that she was very cutting-edge for dating him—even though Grace privately thought that the boy, Harry Bip, was not so good-looking and always seemed to be adjusting himself—and so Grace didn’t want Jenny to catch Grace doing something so immature as walking around with her robot, who was better-looking than any boy at school but who didn’t count because he was a robot.)
Normally the robot was never late; Grace didn’t know what was holding him up. Five minutes had already passed since she’d begun waiting, which was longer than he’d ever taken to show up. After all, robots were programmed to have routines and to never deviate from them—someone said they were “just like clockwork,” though Grace was a little unsure of what that meant, not knowing what clockwork was—but maybe her mother had ordered the robot to run some errand on the way and had forgotten to notify Grace. Or maybe he was getting some maintenance done at the robot maintenance center a block away: she had noticed that he’d been blinking a lot lately, and there was the smell of ozone around him, which sometimes meant that his processors needed tidying up; they were getting a little cluttered and some information would have to be consolidated to make things run smoothly. Yes, that must be it, she thought; he might have mentioned needing maintenance to her earlier that morning and she might have simply forgotten. Maybe she ought to go over to the center to check to see if he was still there, or at least meet him coming down the street; six minutes had passed by now, far too long to just be standing around by herself. Grace felt uneasy without her robot at her side: it felt empty like the hole the dentist had left in her mouth after extracting her last baby tooth, before discovering there was no adult tooth to replace it.
She could see the brilliant green LED sign of the maintenance center beyond the treetops of the park; the sky around the sign was turning orange, tinged with muffled streaks of mandarin and gold and pink, and a kind of burbling chatter was rising from the park to mingle with the creamy sky. There was a young mother with dark smudges under her eyes pushing a baby in a gravi-pram, and a little scruffy dog nosing around in the weeds, and a cicada complaining somewhere in the leaves overhead, and a tangle-haired couple thrashing around under the bushes. Grace tried not to stare at this last part, even though it was pretty common nowadays—there were no laws about public decency or indecency anymore. As she tried not to watch the couple wrestling silently with each other, suddenly the girl-half of the couple sat up, her mouth separating from the boy-half of the couple with a peculiar rustling noise, as if their lips had gone dry and papery from the heat of their love. Without speaking she rose from the bushes and shook out her long shining hair and made a gesture for him to watch; she said something to him that Grace couldn’t hear over the thrumming of the cicada, she imagined it was something like “I love you” or “you make me so hot, baby” or “this is how happy I am,” and then the girl turned and did three perfect cartwheels through the grass, one after the other after the other, and Grace stood there looking at her openly, suddenly delirious, because the cartwheels were so perfect, so pure, she’d never seen a living thing move like that; something about it opened something inside of her, like a key turning inside a hidden lock, like all the lights of a little house being thrown on, the girl’s simple body parting the air, the arc and blur of her spine in motion, the sweaty scraps of hair swaying out in front of her, freckles and heat, it suddenly all made sense to Grace, and that was when the bombs went off. Grace felt it before she heard it, a sudden hot clenching of the air over her head, a low boom like the door of a distant vault swinging shut; she turned to look at the source of the feeling, the noise, and saw that the green sign of the robot maintenance center had disappeared from the tree line—in its place was a dark fist of smoke rising up into the sky, bruising and purpling the clouds. The blast of distant heat felt like the buzz of a mild electric current against her skin; everywhere there was the sound of screaming, faint and droning like the cicada, who had gone silent. The couple by the bushes were holding each other. The air was alive with fear and awe. The sky was both brighter and darker than she’d ever seen it; suddenly it seemed to Grace that everything in the world had come to life, was ablaze, was beautiful and terrible and vivid and shining like copper, glinting deeply like a metal limb. It had been seven minutes since she’d begun to wonder when her robot would come, and suddenly Grace felt as if she could stand and wait forever.
Lena Nguyen is a writer from Phoenix, Arizona. She holds an MFA in fiction from Cornell University, where she also worked as a lecturer of creative writing, cultural studies, and English composition. In addition to K'in, Lena's work has appeared in The Harvard Review, Creating Life from Life: Biotechnology and Science Fiction (Pan Stanford Press), and numerous digital platforms, such as Tapas Media. Her speculative fiction has won awards in the Jules Anatole contest and the worldwide Writers of the Future competition. She is currently at work on her first science fiction novel. Her website is at lena-nguyen.com.