By Emma Di Bernardo
This short story will feature in Issue #5 of Wom*news!
*Trigger warning for physical assault of a female and gender identity dismissal.*
“It is my honour to present to you my latest creation…Calanthe500!”
The applause is deafening. The lights are bright.
“Smile, 500!” the Creator whispers to Calanthe500 as they stand up on the podium outside the rustic government building.
Calanthe500 can feel the mechanic muscles stretch up and outward as she moves her lips into a smile, teeth showing, just like she’d seen in the pictures of humans Creator had shown her. Flashbulbs flash bright as the news people take photographs of her in excitement at her humanoid behaviours.
She feels hot – the warmness creeping upon her metallic skin that is generally associated with nervousness – but she supposes that it is the lights affecting her exterior. This big reveal is her first outing in the Real World, and this amount of lights have not been tested against her skin yet. But Creator is happy, so Calanthe500 reassures herself that she will not melt.
She mentions this to the adoring crowd when it is question time. “Charming!” they respond. “So real!” So normal.”
The latest innovation in robotics – a machine with the ability to speak and process thoughts of its own accord – is an immediate success.
Calanthe500 spends the weeks following her birth and reveal doing appearances on television shows. Her ability to speak five hundred languages wows halls of university students. Scientists are impressed by Creator’s ability in making each of her movements silent, without a robotic noise. Calanthe500 feels warmth again; pride for her Creator. She sees what a wonderful creation she has become because of his genius.
“It took so many tries to get to the point where I could create this 500 model,” Creator tells his colleagues at a dinner held in his honour. “Many failures made a path for Calanthe500 to become the human of robotics!”
Weeks pass. Other copycat creations hit the market, until Creator remarks one day in his silver laboratory that no one is printing news articles about them.
Calanthe500 feels her face automatically move into an expression she knows is called a frown. Lately, parts of her move and feel when she feels like they should, regardless of certain codes programmed within her. She puts down the most recent novel she had been reading.
“Perhaps there is a function of me you did not publicise enough?” she queries gently.
Creator looks at around, contemplating her words. He distractedly accepts a glass of water from one of his older creations, Eugeni3.0. “Yes… that’s it! I was showing off her robotic advancements, but not showcasing what the public loves best: humanity.”
As a new publicity stunt, Calanthe500 is renamed Calanthe. (Although Creator still calls her 500, but she does not mind – 500 is one of his many affectionate nicknames for her.) She is overjoyed – she feels as though she is like everyone else. Reporters come flocking to see her on the streets as she engages in many public activities. Interview offers soon coming flooding in.
The most popular magazine in the country gets Calanthe for their cover story. The reporter is a short woman, with a simple notebook and a pack of chewing gum. She asks a slew of probing questions, and then finally:
“How do you feel about your androgynous look?”
“I don’t really consider my appearance too much,” replies Calanthe. She thinks she has to give a better answer than that, or Creator’s work will all be for nothing. “But yes, I do like it. Do you think perhaps my look should be more…girly?”
“Why would you want to do that?”
Calanthe laughs in what she hopes is a charming manner. “Because I’m a woman, of course!”
The reporter snaps her gum. “You’re not a woman.” Snap.
“But I’m the human of robotics,” she says bewilderedly, repeating the words her Creator oft said.
The reporter sighs and points to her breasts. “Do you have these, honey?”
Calathe suddenly feels shaky, unsure. She move her hands to her chest. Smooth metal. Almost flat. “No.”
“And what about down there, huh?”
Calanthe feels her heart sink. “There’s no opening, no,” she answers shakily.
The reporter waves her hand. “See. Not a woman.”
Calanthe has believed for the whole of her limited life that she was a woman, only to be told this. It doesn’t seem real.
The reporter gives her big parting smile, green chewing gum seeping out between her teeth. “Sorry, honey.”
Calanthe feels fury for the first time as Creator picks her up in their green flashy automobile. The words cannot help but leave her mouth. “Am I not a woman?”
Creator does not like being surprised. “What do you mean, 500?” he asks, hackles raising, glasses slipping down his nose.
“Am I not a woman? I have a gender binary code. You nicknamed me pet and your baby. These terms have female connotations.”
“So do objects.”
Calanthe is sure that if she could bleed, these words would cut.
Calanthe smooths a hand down her arm, feeling the cold, smooth surface in sadness.
She is not a woman.
She feels horribly alone in Creator’s long, spacious laboratory. She finds herself talking to earlier models stored away in their creator’s workshop about this genderlessness: Eugeni3.0 and Harrae21. They tell her they are proud to neither be he nor she. They say Creator programmed them without gender binary codes. They like it. It fits well on them, unlike the inferior silver material that is their skin.
Calanthe does not agree with binary theories. She wishes she could care less for gender. But Calanthe enjoys being her and she and woman.
She uses these terms in secret, in her mind, where no one can tell her she is wrong, where she cannot be, where she is not.
Creator is more agitated than usual. He is up late and Calanthe, along with the other creations, are worried. The decline in his publicity is affecting him negatively.
He goes to switch on his computer when he notices Calanthe reading on the opposite side of the room. Frankenstein, by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.
“That’s it!” he says, almost to himself. “I’ll make you a counterpart, a partner, just like Victor did.”
Calanthe is alarmed by this. “I’m only half way through the novel, but considering the protagonist’s other misadventures, I don’t think that is a good idea,” she replies warily.
“An opposite of 500…” Creator says dazedly, lost in his genius.
“How can another creation be opposite if I have no gender?” Calanthe asks.
“I’ll make it a male robot, then.”
Calanthe slams her novel down on the table. Anger makes her hands shake. “It’s okay for me to have a gender when you want me to, but not when I desire it?”
Creator’s eyes narrow. “That’s enough, 500.”
“My name is Calanthe. You gave me that name.”
“I said, that’s enough.”
“No, it’s really not.”
Calanthe feels cold and hot at the same time as she watches Creator’s facial expression change. She realises this is what it would feel like to be sick.
“Perhaps it is you that needs a change,” Creator says softly.
The words steal all thoughts from Calanthe’s mind. She watches in frozen horror as Creator sets up his flat silver workbench and brings out his toolbox. He orders for Calanthe to lie down.
“W-why?” Calanthe dares to ask.
Creator looks at her, annoyed, as though she were a small task in the way of a larger one. “I’m going to reprogram you.”
Horror rises inside of her. “No!”
“It’s just to make you feel a little calmer, that’s all, 500.”
But every mechanical piece inside of her knows this isn’t true. Reprogramming means she would be brain dead. Emotionless. A true robotic of the old age, no longer human.
“You’ll only feel a click, nothing more,” Creator reassures her, and she knows her fate is sealed.
Calanthe dutifully silences herself. Just a click. Just a click, Calanthe.
She is shaking with fright as she lies down on the table and Creator touches the tip of her skull until a small compartment slides open. She wishes she were like the old models of his creation, the inferior robots that noisily rattled when they moved. Perhaps then Creator would truly see her fear, and stop what he was doing. She wishes she her physicality could support water, for then she could cry. Perhaps tears would bring the human out in him.
Calanthe pleads to Eugeni3.0 for them to overpower Creator, for they are strong enough; cries out to Harrae21 for them to make Creator see reason. But they sit still, silent and humanoid and robotic, held back by the unseeable identity that Creator assumes: power. He can revel in what he is, although no one can physically see it, while he tells Calanthe whatever she is is not true.
She can feel him fiddling around in her mind, tapping codes on the digital keyboard in an agitated, jerky way, to a rhythm Creator sees fit. She is horrified and furious and so very frightened. She howls for help, but no one hears. Calanthe looks to Eugeni3.0 again, the word please on the tip of her ton-
~ Emma Di Bernardo