Read Turning Point by Safia Moore, the winner of The National's 2014 Short Story Competition.
The winning entry of The National’s Short Story Competition: Turning Point by Safia Moore
I am the youngest of triplets born in Dubai in 2020. I say born but invented is more accurate. The desire for efficiency and service spawned me. When we made our debut at the World Expo, one of my creators announced: “I had to do something. You just can’t get the staff these days.” The audience laughed and I didn’t understand why. Now I do. Now that I’ve been around humans for 30 years.
I’ve seen the full spectrum of human behaviour – the good, the bad and the ugly. My eyes absorb every tiny detail and my massive memory ensures I can catalogue it and reuse it as the occasion dictates. My capacity for languages and humour impresses people but, mostly, they admire my ability to make the perfect cappuccino.
I look old-fashioned compared with the latest robotic models. They’re smaller, smoother in their movements and much quieter. Humans can’t hear them until they’re within half a metre. I’d be worried if I were human. What if one of these 2050 prototypes got ideas from all the robots-taking-over movies produced in Abu Dhabi? It could happen.
The hunger for power is a mystery to me. I can’t fathom why some humans crave control of others when history shows what havoc and suffering it wreaks. No, I couldn’t be persuaded to take part in a robot coup, but I have thought about escaping.
Yesterday I counted the number of times I reached the Turning Point. Fifty-seven. I cover a lot more ground since they demoted me. Hospitality Service Agent in a five-star hotel actually means Empty Vessel Collector. It was always my fate to be around people in a busy environment, but this job rarely satisfies my capacity to carry on an intelligent conversation. Of course, I amuse the guests with my exaggerated tone of subservience and my timely Oscar Wilde quotes, but the fact is, my current masters don’t utilise my full potential. I know I would be of more benefit to a family.
Family means everything to humans. I have read this but I’ve also witnessed the emotional connection, the love, between parents and their offspring. I can never “feel” love, emotion being outside my realm of existence. However, I’ve watched carefully, logged my experiences and I am confident that I can “do” love. Love is, after all, a verb. The pedagogical experts tell us that doing is the best way to learn, so maybe, perhaps, if I “do” love, I may, in time, understand its essence.
I must rein in these thoughts, these whimsical dreams and concentrate on the facts. Number one – I don’t have much time to plan my escape. Number two – my siblings (as I call the other two robots from Expo 2020) were decommissioned last month. Number three – it’s likely that in a matter of weeks, or even days, my battery will be removed, never to be charged again. Number four – they will put me in a museum. Number five – I want to go on.
Here I am again, approaching the Turning Point. I hear the chink of an expensive diamond ring against an empty glass and swivel towards the elegant lady of a certain age. “Good morning, madam. May I be of assistance by removing the abomination of an empty vessel from under your gaze?” She nods. I note the smirk longing to break free into a proper smile that reveals her, no doubt, perfect, pearly teeth. “May I refresh your order, madam?” I wait as she closes the tiny electronic device she has been perusing. She looks straight at me. Her eyes are an unusual shade of light brown flecked with chips of sunshine yellow. They are fluid and my powers of reason deduce that this is a woman in need of love. “You are very beautiful, madam.” In a nano second I am paraphrasing William Butler Yeats: “Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths, enwrought with golden and silver light, I would spread them under your feet.” She raises one eyebrow, the arching movement emphasises the creases in her brow. Now I see her teeth and the smile transforms her face, brings it to life, her eyes sparkle. As she stands to leave, she places a crisp Dh50 note on my tray.
I have never had any need for money but I believe it brings freedom. I sit the empty glass on top of the note for fear it might blow away and I head again to the Turning Point. I stop and admire the intricate marquetry on the Indonesian teak floor, the subtle rendering in the design of “T” and “P” of which hotel guests are oblivious. I must turn and go no further, take the money to my human manager and start my rounds again. I must, I should, stay in my designated zone.
Beyond the Turning Point I can make out the rotating entrance door, framed by an elegant ogee arch. The angled mirrors on the adjacent wall allow a view of guests entering from the terraced gardens, alive with the constant trill of birds, the trickle and gush of mini waterfalls. I have only ever heard the garden, never seen that virtual Eden the hotel’s website describes. I have second thoughts. I look right and take in the marble pillars, the intricately carved stucco with gilt trimmings. I avert my gaze to the left and study the flamboyant arrangements of fresh lilies and white roses set against patterned blue tiles. Someone will notice if I do not turn soon.
At the front door, a sudden gust of wind lifts the hem of the doorman’s richly embroidered tunic, blowing it up behind his back to reveal a shimmering gold lining. Three stylish women in black abayas enter. They glide into the lobby. Two of the new robots follow, each in charge of a toddler. The women turn in the direction of the spa while their help fiddle with buggies, baby changing bags and other paraphernalia. Carpe diem. I seize the day or, rather, the moment.
I move left and place my tray behind the largest vase on a console table, but not before removing the Dh50. I head towards the hustle and bustle and offer my assistance to the newly arrived party. When the 2050 robots follow their owners, I continue towards the door. But something is wrong. I am empty-handed apart from the cash. It looks suspicious, so I pick up a large courier’s envelope from the concierge’s desk and place the money over the hotel address. The doorman ignores me. I am out.
Everything I do now must appear as if I’ve been doing it all my life, although I’ve never stepped outside these doors before. The driverless taxis all have green roofs. Without hesitation, I walk to the first cab in the rank and wave my hand over the sensor on the automatic door. It slides open and I position myself in the centre of the back seat. A drop-down touchpad screen appears directly in front of my chest. A serene female voice with an American accent tells me to choose my destination.
I scan the fare list, Dh25 will take me to several places. I want to see the ocean, so I select Jumeirah Beach Park. The voice reminds me to fasten my seat belt and we set off, past the dusty palm trees that line the driveway of the hotel and onto Sheikh Zayed Road.
I have existed in this city for 30 years. Thirty years of life is not much in human terms. Today, the majority enjoys 100 years or more but that would be impractical and uneconomical for a robot. I haven’t seen enough in 30 years. I need to have more experiences and for this, family life is best. The details of daily existence, the sharing, the loving and the testing define a life and give it value. I can do all those things and be truly appreciated. I can serve a family well, but I must find one first.
The sun glints off tower after tower and sleek Japanese trains whoosh by parallel to the road. But mostly I see traffic with blackened windows. I see no people until the taxi turns off Sheikh Zayed Road and heads towards the coast. When we finally stop, I am amazed at the lush green expanses of the park. Before leaving the back seat, I reprogramme the computer for another journey – back to the hotel. I select “delivery” and place the courier’s envelope in the front seat. I feed the Dh50 note into the cash slot. The transaction is complete and my seat belt automatically releases.
I stand on the pavement outside the park gate and assess my circumstances. There is an entrance fee, which I do not have. I decide that it is best to search for a home, a villa with a sea view, and offer my services without further delay. I turn left and skirt around the park, taking the first right. It is almost midday now so the streets are empty. A human at the entrance to a large pink, Spanish-style residence pauses and leans on her broom when she sees me approaching. I choose to carry on for I can hear the squeals of children at play in one of the gardens. I can also hear the gentle lapping of waves on the shore. This is freedom. I am transformed; recreated, as it were.
I am sure the children will invite me in to play. Robots fascinate the young. I will help them climb trees, join in their ball games, tidy up their toys before introducing myself to the head of the household. I will offer my services in exchange for discretion. There is, of course, the chance that I might choose the wrong house, that it belongs to a member of the police force or a government official, or simply an upright citizen not prepared to accept the gift of an old robot on the doorstep.
I stand outside the house. The children are laughing now, speaking in Arabic. One is calling: “Higher, higher. Push me higher.” My freedom might only last for these few minutes, an hour at most. On the other hand, it might last a lifetime. This is the risk. If they come for me today and return me to the hotel, or worse, decommission me, I will go calmly and willingly. I will not create a fuss. No, I will thank them, for I have tasted freedom and perhaps, if I’m lucky, I will know love, however briefly.
I take three steps forward towards the garden gate. Thirty years of servitude, of unquestioning obedience, merge into one second. I ring the visitor’s bell.
To read the five runners up please click here