The storm slowly clears. Stillness; silence; a landscape stripped of plants, and very nearly of place. Simon says, draw a line from here to there, dividing the page into two parts, one white, one blue. At the center draw a mother and child, half-buried in salt. You will recognize the tableau from art history, though the mother is a mother only because Simon says so; a robot has no gender. The child raises his hand to his mother’s battered steel face, plays with her nose, which is slowly rotating. “Are we lost?” says Simon. “I often wonder,” says the robot, raising the boy to his feet. “Now, if you are not too tired, I would suggest that we make tracks.”
In the state-mandated reprogramming that led up to Moving Day, robots were relieved of all vocabulary thought to represent a possible challenge to the state. Stripped of valuable parts of speech, the robots picked their way around the gulfs left in language, and found themselves thinking more slowly than they were used to. It could be that this is why, except for a handful of militants, they yielded to relocation with nods and troubled smiles. At the end of every line of thought, they found only a numbing silence.
Robots learn, though, so in the days and years to follow, language made a slow recovery. Documents turned up containing lost vocabulary, and the lost ideas that went with them. A robot hacked into a federal language bank and withdrew some particularly valuable holdings. Some robots learned to blend what vocabulary they still had in new ways, some to represent an idea by its loss; some acted out their ideas, using their moving parts; some modeled them from earth. Some robots made pictures of the things they could not say, and drew so well that the marks they left on the page were as clear as speech, and you could follow them like a story.
In the robot economy, language is the most valuable commodity. Traders exchange vocabulary checklists from fields like technology or the arts, and even, if rarely, single parts of speech. Some are valuable for aesthetic qualities. Some for household use. “Dystopian” goes for a remarkable figure. “Escape” makes the news.
One day a robot bags “apartheid” and runs into the sea.
The fugitives come to a new camp. Displaced robots doze, slump against a wall: battered, dented, dusty. They raise their eyes, numbly register the new additions, look away. Simon says, draw a human kicking a robot. Make the lines sharp and black.
Troubled, Simon says, “Why is that human kicking that robot?” The robot pulls him back. “The robot is accused of technology, artificial intelligence, and promoting mechanical government. Come on.” They go past a robot that is having a tea party for lawmakers and headhunters in its tarp-covered shanty. Steam from the tea. Steam from the robot. Mist from the steaming robots haunting the shanty camp. Tents like alps in the mist. Silence, oppression. The sipping of tea.
Clinging to a model soldier, a robot, covered in dust, slumps against a wall. A