By Ken Liu
Motors whining, the machine squats down next to the bed, holding its arms out parallel to the ground. The metal fingers ball up into fist-shaped handholds. The robot has transformed into something like a wheelchair with treads, its lap the seat where my backside is supposed to fit.
A swiveling, flexible metal neck rises over the back of the chair, at the end of which are a pair of camera lenses with lens hood flaps on top like tilted eyebrows. There’s a speaker below the cameras, covered by metal lips. The effect is a cartoonish imitation of a face.
“It’s ugly,” I say. I try to come up with more, but that’s the only thing I can think of.
Lying on the bed with my back and neck propped up by all these pillows reminds me of long-ago Saturday mornings, when I used to sit up like this in bed, trying to catch up on grading while Peggy was still asleep next to me. Suddenly, Tom and Ellen would burst through the bedroom door without knocking and jump into the bed, landing on top of us in a heap, smelling of warm blankets and clamoring for breakfast.
Except now my left leg is a useless weight, anchoring me to the mattress. The space next to me is empty. And Tom and Ellen, standing behind the robot, have children of their own.
“It’s reliable,” Tom says. Then he seems to have run out of things to say, too. My son is like me, awkward with words when the emotions get complicated.
After a few seconds of silence, his sister steps forward and stands next to the robot. Gently, she bends down to put a hand on my shoulder. “Dad, Tom is running out of vacation days. And I can’t take any more time off either because I need to be with my husband and kids. We think this is best. It’s a lot cheaper than a live-in aide.”