I approach the painting like I have a thousand times before, curving my spine down so that my aperture views it from the correct height. Everything about the piece makes me quiet, all but the low, internal humming of my parts as they phase in and out of sync. Complex processing slows to a halt, only basic operations and system necessities chirring along.
I don’t think. Something happens that isn’t thinking. My body feels like it’s moving, though I know it’s not. I feel. Really feel. All that I am becomes reimagined in the space the painting has created within me.
I open and shut my aperture, filtering the light to see each brush stroke more clearly. A column holds the subject’s body up, replacing her spine as bands of white constrict her waist and chest. My CPU ticks out a command that I barely notice and my hands move to my chest, to the smooth plastic plate that runs across my body, hiding function behind aesthetic. My fingers grip and scrabble along the hidden seam, rose-gold digits adding yet more scratches to the once-perfect finish of my chest.
The cream-colored plastic gives, pried open on its hinges before settling back, tucking and folding out of sight into my sides. Warm pink warning lights flash within me, alerting that I’ve been damaged. I override it, but keep the lights. They dance on my circuits and innards, shadowing them with phantom movements as they flicker; I like the effect.
I imagine I am alive and my body is breathing. I allow the illusion of lungs. Of a pulse. Nothing human, mind you. But alive. Real. Real in a way that has nothing to do with my artificiality but rather, my isolation. Very melodramatic, I know, but there’s no one around to see, which I suppose is the whole problem.
I look back at the painting. It’s not the original but a copy. Historically, that’s supposed to lessen it. It has no aura—no grounding in time or space. It’s something soulless, a shell of what made it. I think that’s part of why I adore it so much.
My hands fall to my sides when I hear a soft, repetitive noise to my left. I tilt my head to one side, and swivel my camera sideways towards the door. Shock kickstarts my processing again, and my aperture spins wildly, trying to focus and open to see the form before me. I don’t think to close my chest cavity, and all of my self is exposed and unprepared.
For a moment, we only stare at each other. My data map blooms like a flower around their form, a geometric weave that flickers across their dirt-smudged face as I search my memory bank for matches in their gaze. But the connections break off as they go from general information to specific. There is no identification data to display. No name. No location or work data. No medical history. No gender. Just an unregistered, lone human, standing in my hollow museum.
Humans have been extinct for about four hundred years. I’m trying not to let the obvious contradictions fry my processor, but it’s pretty exciting.
“Hello,” I say belatedly. Their eyes go wide, but not with understanding. I try another language. Then another. Recognition flares their nostrils on the third. I tilt my head again and take a hesitant step forward. They shift and I stop, afraid they’ll bolt.
A ping on my data map draws my attention to a patch on the side of their sleeve. I hadn’t noticed it initially; I don’t recognize the symbols, but it’s bot-made and its origin date reads nineteen years, four months and six days ago.
“Do you have food?” the human says. Their voice is intoxicating, a solid sound that calls me to remember that which I’ve never experienced—the first human voice I’ve ever heard that wasn’t a recording. A protocol script retrieves itself from deep in my memory and displays in my vision, which is useless. It’s not like the museum’s cafe is serving lunch today. I say what I can.
“I am a museum docent and gallery curator.”
Okay. Perhaps those words have not survived the apocalypse. I simplify.
“I collect things. Art. I watch over this building. Show people the works of art, and tell them why they are important.”
Their eyebrow arches and they look at the painting on the wall. Then back at me.
“Real people are dead,” they say. My aperture blinks shut then opens again. My data map tries a query of their facial features, attempts to cross reference from last known reports of living groups from other bots in other cities. No matches.
“No one is here anymore.” They gesture with one arm sweeping out around them, ending in a pointed finger out the window. “Just me. Only ever me, now.”
I can’t think of a reason they’d lie, but the probability of that being true is exceptionally low—presumably, some human had to birth them. I interpret it as hyperbole.
“Me too,” I say.
They appraise me with renewed curiosity, fixating on my chest where my lights still flicker softly. Carefully, I draw myself up to my full seven feet and seal my chest closed. My fingers fumble and scratch my finish deeper, but it can’t be helped. I’m nervous. The human watches me, which feels intimate and strange but oddly comforting in equal parts. When it’s done we stare at each other again, like paintings we can’t quite grasp the meaning of.
“So . . .” they say, drawing out the vowel strangely, “no food then?”
“No,” I reply, but it pains me because I know what will happen next. My aperture eye snaps as I take a single photo of them, this human that should not exist. The only one I’ve ever known.
They nod their head and look down at their feet. Embarrassment, I think, but I can’t read it clearly with their face to the ground. I follow their gaze, see dirt and mud they’ve tracked on my marble floor. Their feet begin to move away. Silently, I panic.
A thousand questions send my CPU spinning, but none of them matter more than keeping them here. Even if only for a moment more.
“Wait,” I say. The human stops, their form bathed in the glow of one of the track lights. They turn halfway, their torso twisted as they look back at me, unsure if they should really listen, but coy in a way that pulls desperation from me.
“I can find you food.”
I swivel my head to the side, coiling my neck twice so that I can meet their gaze. “Is the food all right?” I ask. My sudden question startles them. Mouth overstuffed with fish, they choke and look away. I regret my impatience, and turn my head away to save them embarrassment as they cough the food down.
We are sitting among my Surrealist exhibit, which, yes, I picked deliberately. I don’t have a lot in my collection but here we are, two relics sitting on a bench as Gala ascends before us from twenty feet in the air. I don’t even like Dalí’s work, but the painting is one of my grandest. Even now I’m trying to impress the human, but they’ve barely looked up from their bowl.
Silence hangs framed between us and I’m too afraid to look back. What if they choked and died? What if the fish is laced with some residual toxins? What if they’re allergic? Had I been too hasty with my query? The fishing trawler had been so enthusiastic, so enamored with the idea of filling an order after so long that I almost felt sorry for it. The little delivery bot had been much the same, merrily beeping outside the glass doors of the lobby as I authorized it entry.
A collision alert pings in my vision. I can’t feel the human’s hand on my arm, but when I turn back I see it, a single finger is tapping me hesitantly. My aperture clicks and refocuses and they hold up their bowl to show me it’s empty. The bowl is an original from the Ming Dynasty. I didn’t have anything else, and it is what it was meant for.
“It was good. I like meat. Don’t usually get it,” they say with a hesitant smile on their face.
I melt like Dalí’s ridiculous clocks. The feeling pours over me in waves, even as they set the bowl down on the floor and walk away, their eyes trailing over the work on the wall as they clutch their arm awkwardly. Protocol forces me to stand and I reach for the scripts, letting the automation cover my disarray.
“Would you like an audio guide? I can offer information about each piece as well as information on the artist and historical context. I am also capable of answering any queries you may have about the work, artists, or the museum.”
They stare at me. I wonder if I’ve used too many dead words, but then they inch forward, their eyes flitting to the empty bowl for a moment and then back to me.
“Did you make all of these things?”
I think to laugh, but don’t. A valid question, given the parameters, yet not one I was programmed to receive. “The art in this building was created by various humans, from a long time ago. I’m here to maintain them and to show them to any humans that visit this building.”
“Is this art?” They point up to the painting before us.
An ageless question risen from the dead. I am arrested by the irony; irony that they cannot understand, even if they could speak French. Even if they knew what a pipe was. In my chest, I feel that feeling again.
“Yes,” I reply, but it is that modular voice again. “And all the things in this building. That’s what a museum is: a place for art to be.”
The human nods slowly, but my facial expression mapping software detects confusion. Not surprising, from their appearance; I doubt they have thought little of anything but survival.
“I didn’t know bots did things like this,” they say, interrupting my musing.
“Do you know many bots?” I ask, curious and eager for their history.
“No.” They rub their arm and look away. “Not anymore.”
An uncomfortable past, then.
“Would you like to see different art?”
They look back up to Gala behind us, painted angelic, idealized and nod. I can tell they don’t feel it, the aura that I feel from the work. But art is subjective, and this human is unique; unbound from context and history. An aura is difficult for them to feel.
I have to do better, to attempt to humanize humanity. So I lead then back in time, hoping a master will do the work I cannot.
“Do you know them?” the human asks, their nose inches from the glass. A protocol prompt blooms and tells me to politely discourage patrons from touching the art. But it’s so human, the way they stare into the eyes of the figure, the way they arrange their arms to mirror the pose. I clear the prompt from my vision.
“Raphael. Early 16th century. Red Chalk.”
Their brow knits, and they place their finger on the glass, directly on the woman’s face.
“Raphael . . .”
“That’s not Raphael, but a man named Raphael made that drawing.”
“Then who are they?” They tap on the glass, as if the drawing could leap to life and answer them.
“I don’t know,” I say. So many details are lost, or never recorded.
They shift away, and I feel as if I’ve ruined something. Like linseed oil spilling over a palette. Like a hard charcoal stroke I can’t wipe away.
“16th Century,” I repeat, which probably means nothing to them I realize belatedly.
They splay their fingers. With their other hand, they place their index finger between their fingers, counting. I’m too intrigued to clarify. They seem to understand the concept of centuries. Someone, or something, taught them the word, at least. They look up to me, finger paused between the index and middle fingers.
“How many times would I be dead?”
Poetic, with meaning still preserved. I try to answer similarly.
“More times dead than you have fingers.”
They respond affirmatively, as if this vast gulf of human time does not surprise them. They nod their head and then add, as if to distance themself further, “But they were real.”
Real. They ask it in a way I know I don’t understand. Real as in, there was a real person who modeled for the drawing? Real as in, alive? Breathing? Real as in, does someone remember their name? Real as in human?
I wasn’t sure which they meant; I only knew this human, real as they were, standing before me and asking me questions. So real as to change my reality by existing. Realer than real had ever been, we now existed together, untethered from history.
“Yes,” I replied, my voice wavering, organic. My vocals an amalgam of my favorite recordings in the archives. “They were real.”
Night falls around us, a closed world after hours, but the human stays. Another anomaly I selfishly allow. I do not recite the prompt to remind them that the museum is closing in ten minutes. I do not ask them to gather their party and head to the exit. I would burn every piece in my collection before I’d do that.
Instead I follow them as they continue to weave through the exhibits, sometimes doubling back, sometimes asking questions and sometimes silent. When they finally tire they turn to me, one hand clasping their arm. My head swivels, my aperture zooming in on their hesitation. I know a question is coming.
“Do you have a place for sleep?”
I don’t, but I anticipated the need earlier and already have a plan. I pull a thick quilt (The Last Quilt Ever Made #39 Sarvada. 2178. Synthetic fiber, wool, human hair.) down from the wall in my fiber arts exhibit and pull several padded benches together into the crude image of a bed. I show the human where the bathrooms are and to give them privacy, make my way down to the lobby.
The same delivery bot from earlier in the day waits for me at the door, blocky and wheeled with its package compartment full of more food and simple toiletries. Having more time to prepare a query, I requested a variety of fresh vegetables from a botany lab still run by three bots. I hoist the package out and the bot beeps in recognition before confirming a second delivery of fish from the automated trawler for the morning. Then it wheels itself away, back into the hollow city where I can’t follow.
I return to find the human settled into the makeshift bed, a pillow they found in the bathroom sitting area in their lap. I leave the food beside them and go to clean the Ming bowl.
They beckon me over to them when I return, patting the bed next to them. I hesitate for a moment, then sit.
“I can stay?” Their eyes are wide as they look up into my lens but their posture is relaxed and easy.
“Yes,” I say, because I never want them to leave.
They smile and I record it. I need a copy. In case they leave me. And if they don’t, for when they die. All art is ephemeral.
“What’s your name?” they ask, as if this were a natural thing to ask a bot. I take a moment to consider my reply.
“I don’t have one,” I finally settle on, which is not technically a lie.
“Not even a fake one?”
My aperture opens and shuts like a laugh. There is a series of numbers and letters that correspond to me. It’s like a name, but it’s not a name. I don’t want them to know me that way. And anyway, they would never remember it.
“I don’t like the fake one.”
They’re content with this reply and begin to rock back and forth, pulling at their toes as they think. I’m content to watch, for seconds, for years, until they speak again.
“The bot at the facility gave me a name,” they say, eyes dropping to their feet. They study the frayed ends of the quilt, teasing one out from the rest and twirling it between their fingers before looking back up at me, head tilted and mechanical as they blink. “I didn’t like it.”
I could ask questions. Could try to fill the gaps in the data. Clearly humans hadn’t gone extinct. At least one now lived, with a good possibility there were more, somewhere out in the world.
Somehow knowing mattered less now. “You could pick a new name,” I say.
“I could, but it wouldn’t matter.”
I puzzle at that as they shift and bunch the quilt around them and lay down, I imagine to sleep, but I’ve only ever seen sleeping humans in art. It’s a funny thing, watching a living thing become still, fabric bunched around them with my spot lighting darkening one side of their face. It reminded me of—
Oh wait. The lighting.
I dim the gallery lights all around the human, adjusting here and there for effect. A half hour later they stop moving as much and their breathing becomes even. I watch for a moment longer, but I’m afraid I’ll wake them if I stay. And besides, I need to be alone. I have a project I want to work on.
I leave them in the gallery, the security camera focused on them left open in my vision on the left, and then go downstairs to the storage area where I’m meant to power down each night. I push aside a few shelves and carts and then drag several spotlights together to illuminate the wall before gathering up what little materials I can pilfer from the maintenance supplies. I stare at the blankness for a moment, considering.
My morning protocol alerts light up in my vision as I’m finishing up the last of my project. I hadn’t realized how quickly time had passed. I turn off the spotlights, tidy up the maintenance supplies, and then head back upstairs. A vague fear coils in me, doubt that the human stayed. I increase my speed and nearly sprint towards their gallery bedroom.
I find them sitting up and rubbing their eyes, their hair swept to one side, crumpled in sleep. They turn at the metallic sound of my steps, tilt their head and then wave. I wave back, and then arrange the protocol alerts I’ve been ignoring in my vision around their head like a crown. I set the track lights back to their usual brightness and then watch as they stand and leave the room. I swivel my head and tilt it in question. I don’t say don’t leave but I think it.
I nod and (trying to be stoic) busy myself with my daily routine, checking off alerts on my list until none remain. I thread through the galleries, consciously not calling up my camera feed to look for the human. But after a half hour without seeing them I begin to worry. They aren’t in any of the lower floor galleries, which leaves one exhibit.
I find them staring up at the colorless marble statue. Dozens of heads gaze down at them, all identical and devoid of emotion. A myriad of arms extend outward, thousands of streams of multi-colored glass bleeding out from the wrists and fingers.
“What is this?”
I clear the tone from my voice, reciting mechanically: “Mixed Media. Marble, quartz glass, Clear Glass. 24th century.” I continue without waiting for the query for context. “They Called Us Siblings is a reactionary work in response to an epidemic that occurred among cloned humans in the late 23rd century. The event nearly destroyed the industry. Some of the glass is ordinary colored glass, while some is made of the data-storage material known as Clear Glass. The artist invites the viewer to upload their own data to the work, provided they can guess which pieces are Clear Glass.”
It was hard to explain. I wasn’t sure that they knew how data storage worked, or the etiquette for transfer of information, of even the concept of “public” knowledge when the public might now consist of a single human. All I could do was recite the data and fill in the holes where I could. Helping humans interpret themselves was the basic function of art, and helping humans interpret art was my basic function.
“Twenty-three years after the creation of this piece, humanity ceased to exist. Or at least, there is no data recorded after that date,” I add, to clarify when they don’t respond. They don’t move, eyes locked with the statue’s main head.
“This is art about me, isn’t it?”
Somehow, I still don’t make the connection.
“I’m a clone.”
My aperture closes and I begin to pull data. I find several likely sources, once I know what parameters to enter.
“You’re from a bot-run cloning facility.”
They look almost guilty, as if they’ve done something wrong. “Yes, but not bots like you. You look almost like a human.” They pause, a thin edge of worry in their brow. “The bot that made me was big, bigger than a whole room. They talked with screens and speakers. And they said they made us from what was left of the real humans.”
It was one thing for a bot to continue a set series of commands, to maintain a gallery, or a delivery patrol around the city, to continue passive actions. Routine. But it was almost impossible to fathom that a bot programmed to run maintenance on embryo tanks would carry out the complex series of actions needed to create human life, unassisted. What sort of bot would do such a thing?
I open and shut my aperture as if to clear my musings from my processor and focus on the important bit.
“‘Us?’ There are others?”
“There were. All the same as me. Looked the same and sounded the same. Before, they said, they made more that were different, but some of them looked the same too.”
They sigh and pull their arms together as they gaze up to the identical, unmoving marble faces. They wrinkle their nose and then look at their feet.
“Most of them didn’t live long.”
Was it so strange to imagine that somewhere, there was a bot as lonely as me? Was it impossible to think they could have taken on such an undertaking alone? That they could have succeeded? The human looks up at me, at their reflection in my lens. I open and close my aperture.
“I’m not a real human. You knew real humans. I’m just . . . something else.” The skin around their eyes turns red and then beads with tears, spilling over silently.
I can’t stand it.
I offer an insistent hand to them, which, after a moment, they take. I lead them downstairs into the staff area, even though they aren’t staff.
The wall is covered in photos from my archives and of the human that I’ve both printed and mechanically reproduced by my own hand. It’s a pastiche of my own creation, collage and borrowed imagery and my weak attempts at communicating what their existence means to me. All around it, I’ve rigged my own replacement parts, a string of soft pink lights that cast shadows over parts and illuminate others, the whirling hum of a fan (purely aesthetic), and a spare lens focuses over the first photo I took of them, magnifying them, centering them in the composition.
I watch as they approach it, knowing how strange it is, not knowing how they’ll react. They run their fingers over the copies of their own face, the oils of their skin smearing on the paper, no glass to separate them.
“Humans made me to look like them, but not really,” I say without prompting. “They made me shaped like them, out of metal and plastic. They gave me all their knowledge, but not their understanding. I can’t even leave this museum, because they wrote it into my coding. I’m not even a copy of them. I’m the something else. But you? You’re real.”
They shake their head obstinately. “But I’m not like how humans were. I don’t know what any of these things mean! I don’t know where they went! I’m empty. There is nothing in me like them. All I am is hungry and alone.”
“That’s how I felt, before you.”
Their pupils are ringed with pink from my lights as they reach a hand up and run a finger against the lip of my chest cavity.
“When I look at the art in your museum, I don’t feel real. I don’t feel anything but lost.”
How different, our experiences. In some ways I feel like I’ve failed them, but in a much realer way, I understand completely. Without humans, art loses all meaning.
I swivel my head away, unwilling to look at them. They tap on my casing and tug on my arm until I look back. They take my head in their hands and stare into my lens, like they are looking past it, into me.
“I don’t know any of the humans in the art you showed me.” Their gray-black hair falls softly against the plastic lip over my lens as they lean their forehead against it. “But I know you, and you treat me like a human.”
I take the photo before I know that I am doing it. The click makes them smile, and I take a photo of that too.
“You said that a museum is ‘a place for art to be’, and that you can’t leave this place. So that makes you art to me.”
Of course they would think that, and yet, I can’t argue.
“Well in a way, I suppose. A human did design me, but—”
They shake their head again, their mouth a determined line. “You are more art to me than the art you’ve shown me.”
“Well if I’m art, then you must be my aura.” I say it without thinking because it feels natural and right. I feel its reality within me, and it’s not like there’s anyone else to contradict us.
“It’s the thing that makes art real. The thing that makes you feel. For me, that’s you.”
They smile and then their face scrunches as they turn back to look at the wall. “We should add some pictures of you.” They pick up a charcoal pencil and look to me for permission before starting a crude sketch of me on the wall. I’m enthralled; I’m the newest piece of art in the world.
“Come here, Art,” they say without looking back to me, “you draw, too.”
I take a can of paint from the ground and dip my fingers into it, rose-gold lost in the void of black, and then sit down next to my Aura and together, we create our new reality.
Morgan Swim is a non-binary author living in Saint Petersburg, Florida. They have a B.A. in Visual Art and enjoy drawing, painting, and collage in addition to writing. They are particularly interested in robotics, artificial intelligence, and house plants. They can be found at @MarsChildWells on Twitter.