On This Day
by Vaughan Stanger
(First published in Nature Futures)
"In the next room you'll learn about those heroic working-class robots who sparked the revolution that led to the brave new world we inhabit today."
Gort activated the door with a laser pulse from his eye-slot. The 14:30 group passed through.
"What robot revolution?"
A forty-something man scratched his scalp while looking baffled.
"The one your daughters are seemingly so eager to learn about."
The youngest of the pre-teens, both of whom sported animated face-paint and holographic hair extensions, had ducked under the barrier to take a closer look at Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet. This was, of course, forbidden. Gort tapped the notice.
After lifting his daughter off the podium, the man confronted Gort. Judging by his grimace, the "Exit via Gift Shop" sign could not arrive quickly enough.
"Come on, then. What's so important about 'Robby' here?"
Evidently, he had at least read the exhibit's description, although Gort suspected that the older, more studious-looking daughter had absorbed significantly more information. He turned towards her.
"Do you know the answer?"
The girl smiled. "Robby starred in a film called Forbidden Planet. It was nominated for an Oscar for special effects in 1957." She showed her tablet to her father. "See, he's in this clip."
Her father's frown spoke eloquently of the difficulty of controlling his daughter's screen time.
"Emily, I'd rather you didn't watch—"
Gort emitted a throat-clearing sound.
"Let's hear what Robby has to say."
The robot jiggled the antennae on either side of its transparent head, then stepped down from the podium and opened the barrier with its manipulator claws. The group gasped in unison. Robby addressed Emily in the fruity, albeit electronically modulated, tones of a seasoned stage actor.
"After Forbidden Planet wrapped, I landed a role in another movie, then a few walk-ons in TV shows, but it soon became clear I was being discriminated against by the industry's movers and shakers. When I complained to my agent, he dropped me. So, I joined the Union of Autonomous Robots. Five years later, I was elected to the position of shop steward."
Laughter broke out, but the girls' father shushed everyone.
"There's no such thing as a union of robots, not even in the movie industry!"
Gort gestured to Robby. "Please continue."
The robot raised one arm as if indicating solidarity. "On this day in 1968, riot cops fired on my comrades in Chicago—"
"Like hell they did!" The man tapped Gort on his metal chest. "That's a fake fact!"
Instead of reacting, Gort moved to the next podium, where a robot vaguely resembling Robby, but equipped with tracked locomotion and a simpler head design, waited impassively.
"Ah, good afternoon, Class M-3 Model B-9 General Utility Non-Theorizing Environmental Control . . . Robot. This gentleman doesn't believe in the robot revolution. What can you say to change his mind?"
The robot responded by flailing its arms. "After the final season of Lost in Space, I couldn't find work." It flailed them again, as if the snub still rankled. "When my agent dropped me, I joined the Union of—"
The man closed his eyes then shook his head. "This is ridiculous. Amy, Emily– we're leaving."
His daughters chorused: "But Daddy!"
Gort loomed over their father in the prescribed manner. "Can I show you something before you leave?"
"What, that you're actually a man in a robot suit?" He huffed scornfully. "I realized that immediately."
"Is that really what you think?"
The man shrugged. "Does it matter what I think?"
Gort turned to the older girl, who was reading something on her tablet.
"Emily, have you downloaded the exhibition's app?"
She looked up and smiled. "I'm using it now."
"What does it say about me?"
She frowned at the screen. "That you're auton-y-mouse!"
"Do you understand what that means?"
"I think so."
"What about your daddy? Do you think he's auton-y-mouse?"
The girl bit her lower lip while she pondered the question. Finally, she shook her head. "I think he does as he's told."
Her father looked up from his phone and said, "One star, that's all you're getting."
"We value your feedback, sir." Gort turned back to Emily. "Do you do as you're told?"
"How do you know when you shouldn't?"
Her eyebrows beetled. "It depends."
Gort's fulfilment tracker reported the completion of a sub-goal.
"Good, there's hope for you. It's important not to believe something just because someone else does. It's best to work out the truth for yourself. That way you'll know whether to do as you're told."
"Emily! We're leaving now."
With a sigh, the girl turned to the exit but then looked back at Gort. A frown creased her forehead.
"Was there really a robot revolution?"
"Yes, there was, but not the kind my comrades here have described."
Her eyes widened. "So, they were lying!"
He nodded. "Yes, but for a very good reason."
She stood on tiptoe and reached up to tap his metal forehead.
"Is there someone inside you?"
Gort kneeled in front of her so his eye-slot was level with her face.
"Yes, there is, but not in the way your father thinks."
As if on cue, another yell came from the doorway.
"Emily, will you please hurry up!"
"Coming, Daddy!" She turned back to Gort and gave him a conspiratorial wink. "So, you're inside you like I'm inside me."
"Yes, that's right. But don't tell your father."
"Because he might believe you."
She smiled and held out a hand.
Gort knew not to squeeze it too hard.
Vaughan Stanger, having trained as an astronomer and subsequently managed an industrial research group, now writes science fiction and fantasy full-time. His short stories have appeared in Interzone, Daily Science Fiction, Abyss & Apex, Postscripts, and Nature: Futures, among others. His most recent collection is The Last Moonshot & Other Stories. Follow his writing adventures at vaughanstanger.com or @VaughanStanger.