I wake up in a room, confused and disoriented. In front of me, a small human jumps up and down. Her hair is pulled back with green silk ribbons. She waves at me.
“Daddy! Daddy! Look! He’s awake!”
There is a taller human standing behind her. He smiles.
“Right off the shelves. Brand new. Knows all of the stories I know, and then some. Should last you a lifetime.”
The girl bounds up to me. “I’m Dana. You’re my robot. Can you tell me a story?”
I nod. “Once upon a time, there was a girl who had a cruel stepmother.” The words fit neatly in my mouth.
After that, the girl comes a lot. She is enthusiastic, constantly asking for stories I didn’t know I had.
The world was like a small child, constantly grasping for more, better homes, bigger cars, newer everything. Then they, like small children always do, overreached and fell. Cities toppled into the sea, icecaps melted, the sun pierced through the atmosphere, and the broken remnants of humanity gathered together and counted their losses.
The room is always cluttered, new hairbrushes and phones appearing constantly. I think I was her favorite out of all her toys, though. She would always come to me whenever there was a problem. I hear many stories about how her favorite tree is dying or how she’s always getting sunburned from when she goes outside.
“I just burn really easily. My friends never need to put on sunscreen.”
I hum noncommittally.
“I’m already getting freckles. Being a redhead is really hard.”
I personally think it would be harder to not have access to sunscreen at all, but I’m just a robot.
Then, one day, she comes, carrying a suitcase. Her father is behind her, looking grim. She has grown, almost as tall as her father.
“Can we take him?”
“There’s not going to be enough room in the bunker. We’re just going to stay there for a little bit. Just until the planet gets back on its feet.”
She nods. The father reaches behind me and----
I swivel around. Quite a change from my last place. In here, people pack the room. The vibrancy of life manages to hide the concrete, but the people here look too pale. They surge up to me.
One of them steps forward. “Will you tell us a story?”
I nod. Joints creak. “Once upon a time, there was a boy who lived in a cupboard…” The words spill out of my mouth, effortlessly.
They are transfixed, picturing the adventures of one small boy against the world.
My attention is diverted by a movement in the doorway. It is a girl. She is perched, ready to take flight in a moment.
She startles, arms steadying herself like a bird. The light from the corridor reflects on her face, revealing dark skin and scars. No green hair ribbons. The children nowadays are far too listless. She swallows. “Can you tell me a story?”
“That is what I was made for. What would you like to hear?”
“Tell a story about dragons.” The mystical creatures are the most popular with the little ones.
I settle. My joints creak. “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.” For a few minutes, it does not matter that this girl has not eaten in far too long for one so young. Her eyes are glowing, being transported to that otherworld.
“Aisha! What are you doing?” The voice cuts through the air like a whip. The young girl-Aisha-turns as if she was slapped. The voice belongs to the woman Vita, one of the leaders of this community. Judging from the guilty look on Aisha’s face, she was not supposed to be in here.
“You know the Storyteller is only to be disturbed when the whole community is present. What would we do if it breaks down?” Although these words are supposed to be delivered in a mutter, they carry easily.
Vita shoos her away. “I am sorry for the disturbance.”
“It was not a problem. I was happy to oblige her request.”
She fidgets. “Actually, while I’m here… Can you tell me a story about the earth?” From her tone, I assume she means a happy story, one when the earth was vibrant with the flush of life.
“Very well. Our story begins at a bus stop, with a man and a feather.” As I tell her the story, I can see the care drop away from her face. When I finish, there is a silence.
“Why would they want war?” Her face, usually so guarded, looks like a child looking in a window, gazing on forbidden delights.
“Humans always want more,” I say. Although it is meant gently, her face closes up.
“Thank you for the story. I have to get back to work now.” She closes the door, extinguishing the lights and leaving me in darkness.
The next day, the whole community gathers to hear a story. My small room, which used to be packed with humans, is now half-filled with people far too skinny. The last time I have seen a piece of fruit was when I was with Dana. They all know this, but for now, they are content to push it away and listen to my tales. Coughs break the silence, but other than that there is no sound. I wonder how much longer they can go on.
The next week, Aisha returns to hear a story about a girl who falls through a mirror. When I am finished, I notice that her clothes seem too big for her small frame. When she tries to sit up, she falls to the ground, coughing and shivering. I cannot move from my pedestal, so I am helpless. Humans rush in and flock around her, not doing anything. I am puzzled until I realize that they are trying to shield her from my view, trying to hide a shameful sight instead of trying to fix it.
I am metal and motionless and can do nothing.
The next community gathering, Aisha is not there. I tell a story of people who stone one of their own to death. The community murmurs. Looking into their eyes, I cannot see the difference. I despise them.
When the crowd files out, Vita stays.
“Storyteller, I know you are upset about the death of Aisha. However, this is not an excuse to depress the population. From now on, you will be taking requests from us on what story you will tell.” She sweeps out of the room, taking the light with her. I am left to muse on the mystery of humankind.
Years flutter by. I have not changed, unless you count the tarnishing. The population now fills up a quarter of the room. Vita has died long ago. New leaders are in place. Many ask me for stories.
I am alone most of the time, alone with my thoughts. The story room is under guard. One of the only sources of joy must be protected.
Decades skip past, and my circuits start to fray. There is now a noise whenever I tell a story. Click. Click. They send an electrician to try to find something wrong, but his clumsy hands only make the noise worse. Click. Click. It stays with me all the time, invading what little time I had to think. Click. Click. Click.
The community is shrinking quickly, but the food supply disappears even faster. There are fights in the halls, people screaming over moldy bread. Food shortages are announced. I see a woman snatch a comb away from a child. Click. Click. The peace is fraying. Click. Click.
A fight breaks out, one day. From what I could hear, the people started fighting over the last can of soup. People hurl themselves on each other, screaming obscenities. Children fall to the floor, trampled by the mob. Blood runs through the halls.
The survivors regroup, sobered by their losses. They gather in my story room, surrounding me, faces upturned and hopeful. Click. Click.
One of them, a woman, steps forward. I think her name is Sage. She is covered in blood. All of them are between twenty and forty. Hardened fighters, and yet their faces still light up at the promise of a story.
“Will you tell us a story about love?” She sounds like a child. “Tell us a story about love, and give it a happy ending.”
I look at their faces, lit with joy from the promise of a story. I swivel away, preparing myself. “There once was a time when gods walked the earth. And in that time, there was a woman named Psyche…” They are spellbound, listening to the mortal overpowering all obstacles to meet her love. When I finish, there is a hush of silence. One man is scowling.
“What have your stories ever done for us? What else can you do?”
“I can do nothing. I was designed to tell stories. My programming allows for nothing else.” Click.
The man lunges towards me. The clicking increases. He grabs my head off the pedestal and smashes it against the cement. Click. Click. Click. Click. Click click click click click click.
I hear a dull thud. My plating falls off, revealing the fragile wires within. His foot raises and begins to lower.
“Stop! Please! I have so many more-“
His foot suddenly disappears. He is dragged away, screaming obscenities. People gather around me, worried for me. No, not worried for me. Worried for the stories inside.
I am mostly unharmed. The survivors mount me back on the pedestal and go back to work.
Sage, the woman, has died of old age. The population is small enough now that they fill up a corner of my room. Most of them spend their time coughing their lungs out. A new disease, floating through the halls. I hear whispers that it’s left over from when the planet died, one last remnant of the past coming to haunt us.
The day comes when there is nobody left to come and ask for stories. I wonder what I should do. My purpose has always been to tell stories, but what’s the point of that if there’s nobody left to tell it to?
I metaphorically square my shoulders and begin. My voice echoes through the empty corridors.
“Once upon a time…”