THE UNCANNY LEVER
The android, loaded with state-of-the-art Sherpa software, had made it most of the way up the mountain without much trouble, and only after the snowstorm hit and Chuck died 20 feet above me with his hands frozen to his piton did the 600-model robot assistant start to have problems: "I am experiencing difficulties," I could hear its voice say over the tiny radio earpiece nestled under my jacket. "Something seems to be wrong."
These new 600 Series models—it's true that their circuitry is more elegant, and they even look and act a little more human than the 300s, but the company rushed to get them out for the holidays, and there have been problems, they get confused; there are always problems, nothing ever works right the first time.
The robot is sitting across from me against the frozen rock wall of the cave, with its damaged right leg pulled up underneath it like an animal. It keeps saying things like, "I’m cold," and, "How about this weather." Its voice is programmed to be neutral and pleasant. It says that it is cold because the thermometer nestled in the fiber-optic guts of its chassis is sensing that it is a dozen degrees below zero, Fahrenheit. It guesses that this must be uncomfortable for me. It knows that I haven't eaten much for two days and that we have not moved from this cave for even longer and that the longer we stay here, the greater a chance there is of something tragic happening; "tragic" is a definition programmed into the android, recognizable by a number of preset conditions that it is programmed to suggest we avoid; "are you cold?" it asks me periodically, "are you hungry?"
When one of these androids say that they're having difficulties, you're supposed to ask "what's wrong," which puts them into a diagnostic mode so they can assess what the
problem is: but doing that means they have to shut down for a while, and when it told me it was having difficulties, we were clinging to a rope at almost 18 thousand feet, and Chuck was dead above me and I needed the robot to haul both me and Chuck and our remaining gear onto the first level surface it could find. "Not now," I said into the radio. "We need to get to a safe place. SAFE PLACE," I repeated loudly, so that it would understand this was imperative. There was a pause, a slight whirring over the mic as it considered this.
It seemed unsure: "I'm cold," it had told me from up on the rope. There was a long pause while I hung suspended a foot or two out from the icy rock face. Wind tearing around me—the storm had subsided for a moment but the air still moved at a velocity that was making me sick. There is a certain kind of wind that runs so thin that it moves through anything, straight through bones, nothing can stop it. Every detail of the rock in front of me was crystallized in this air; everything around me magnified and shimmering: Chuck's body was a limp dark form above me, it could have been a thousand miles up there and all I could see was space, and above Chuck, just barely, the android, as it twitched against the rocks.
"I can try to move," it had told me through the radio, "but I seem to be damaged. I am cold and I seem to be damaged. How are you?"
"Just get us up," I said. "Hurry."
These new models of android are programmed to pick up the urgency in your voice to respond appropriately. The droid took its sweet time responding though, and I had tried to relax into my harness, clenching and unclenching my fists, to keep the blood moving as I hovered on this sheer section of the mountainside, surrounded by the infinity of crystal air; air that is so cold and thin it isn't even air, just will-o-the-wisp ice crystals that free-float in all directions, refracting sunlight into wild patterns across the mountainside...after a few minutes, the rope attaching me to Chuck and Chuck to the robot had started to move, as the android began to pull us up the mountain. After maybe sixty feet of this we found the cave.
The original 0500 series robots that came out almost a decade ago had still looked like automatons—all clunky boxes and flopping pneumatic arms; they had no lips or hair, just a smooth chrome dome and visible wires around the joints. But starting with the A-150 series robots, which acted alarmingly like humans and seemed to have a pretty good grasp of most basic social etiquettes, they used some kind of polyresin biosynthetic material, this stuff that gave them realistic looking "skin," which Chuck had always said looked real, but felt like a condom. He was right—they had this marginally "real " quality, like a Disney robot, straddling the line between creepy and goofy.
It's understandable that so many people anthropomorphize the robots: you can buy them and program to do almost anything—nowadays they go grocery shopping and feed the pets and fix cars and play with the kids and fight in wars and drive busses and climb mountains and compete in televised arena matches where they dismember each other with exotic weapons. It's quite impressive, how quickly it's all evolved. People treat their house robots like humans: they name them and give them personalities and gifts for the holidays. I understand this impulse but I could never do it. I could never treat them that way, or even name them: I will yell at a toaster that burns my toast, or at the TV if I don't like what I see there, but for some reason I cannot bring myself to speak as a human to a robot that is designed to look so human, with its synthetic toupee hair and its latex skin.
Chuck is a bit more lenient with the robots—he talks to them cordially, even warmly—but then, he also treated his first 0500 model that way; he is kind and generous with his coffee maker. This is (or was) just Chuck's way with machines: but so many people treated the early models with a kind of inane delight, and then spoke to the later models with the loud and deliberately jovial tone that they'd use for the mentally handicapped; now these new ones that look and act so human, they build spare bedrooms and set places for them, and this is what makes me uneasy. I feel like someone is forgetting something and I'm not even sure what.
While I am in this cave here: thousands of feet below & behind me in the little Nepalese village is my wife Christa. She was going to climb with us, but our car crashed on the road coming in through the mountains and she was injured. She is resilient, the injuries hardly seemed to bother her, but she was most distraught that she would miss this expedition up the mountain, which has taken over a year to plan & prepare for. Now, of course, it seems best that she was left behind. She didn't have to see Chuck dead, and she didn't have to cut him apart for food when food ran out, or sit in this tiny cave with a malfunctioning robot that is responding with decreasing frequency to any of my commands, and is staring at me with a look that I cannot describe, because it is not a look anymore than a toaster can have a look, it is just a way that the lenses mounted on its "face" are focusing and un-focusing continuously; inhuman but nevertheless reminding me of the way certain crazy people have manic gestures they make—tugging at their chins or fingering their earlobes, for example—while inside, their minds are coming apart.
The snowstorm that killed Chuck had snuck up on us, erupting like lava from some deep fissure in the mountain range; it exploded against the mountain and then left us there, exposed and tiny against the rock's infinity. Immediately after the storm—that first burst lasted only a few minutes—the sky was totally clear. It had come from below us and not above us; air and ice belched up from a cloud cover we had climbed through half a day earlier.
When it came, the storm came with a sound like thousands of people screaming; a sound that rose into literal physical white noise, filling everything, and then there was only the sensation of teeth cutting neatly through our thick layers of clothing, the feeling of being bitten by something so cold it burned, not hot like fire but hot like electricity, and sharp and hard like a diamond. I couldn't see more than an inch in front of my face and I couldn't see what happened to Chuck but once I got a look at him in the cave, it was clear what had killed him; a piece of rock or ice that had been dislodged by the storm came down from above us and clobbered him in the head. Because of the storm I couldn't hear anything, not the sound of the rocks or his scream, if he even had time for one.
Holding his body there in the cave I could feel his neck was broken, and the side of his face was caved in; the stuff coming out was yellow and red around the exposed bone was already frozen solid so it just stuck there like a plastic wound, and his eyes were open and covered with thin sheets of ice that I had to chip off in order to close his eyelids, and it was the first dead body I'd ever handled, but I knew that's what you did with bodies, you closed their eyes, ostensibly for them but clearly, it is more for us, because of what people see in those, if they look in them, right?
Before our climb in the little Nepalese village, I had stood next to Christa in her bed, while nearby Chuck worked with our recently purchased 600 model, trying to get it ready for the climb, since the 300 model (which we had planned on using, not yet being fully familiar with the 600) had been incapacitated during the accident. Both of us know a thing or two about robots; we have a natural interest in technical things and our mountaineering has driven us to extensive work with the models of android that are programmable as climbing assistants: robots are fairly generic and you can purchase them with software sets that allow them to perform various tasks, and while Chuck & Christa and I are skilled climbers Annapurna is infamous for its mortality rate, and we probably would not have attempted such a climb as this without the use of an automaton.
"...because it would be absolutely ridiculous to turn back at this point," Christa is saying, her voice soggy with the painkillers we've given her as well as the weariness of having come all this way; her leg is injured but not broken and Chuck and I took turns helping her walk the distance from the crash to this village, which is below the mountain.
Neither of us really want to go without her but she is too practical to want us to turn back at this point: a climb up Annapurna is no small thing to plan, and we will not have time for another expedition such as this for months or years or even ever, not until we are retired maybe, and when will that be, and will we still be up to it? The three of us have made climbs before but never on any of the 8000-plus meter Nepalese giants, and we wanted this and needed it even, and the prospect of turning back now seems grim.
"Well I agree it isn't fair," Chuck is saying, his voice dry of any emotion. "I want it to be up to you, you know? I don't trust myself—I mean—I want this as much as...look, it's your call, I feel like." He is literally up to his elbow inside the android while he talks to us; the android is switched off; it stares at its feet while he crouches near it, reaching in through a panel in its back up and fiddling with some of the power couplings near what would be its heart.
"You know how much I wanted this," says Christa. "But what if there's never time again? If there's time we can do it but if there isn't..."
"But if we both climb it now..."
"You mean if the three of us climb it now," Chuck says, patting the robot kind of lasciviously on its thigh. He's switched on the android. It boots up. The cameras in its eyes are alive and it kind of wiggles its fingers but it will not see or hear anything for another few minutes as it boots up, and Chuck flips a switch in its back that keeps it in an at-rest state while he makes further adjustments.
I know that this is a futile argument we are having: we will climb the mountain. Christa wouldn't forgive me if we didn't. After maybe 20 minutes Christa sits up a little.
"Make it do that thing," Christa says. "If I'm not coming with you two, at least make it do that thing."
Chuck grins—you can tell he was waiting for this, for Christa's okay, that we go without her. He sticks his hand down inside the android's back, into the space between its hips. "Turn your head and cough," says Chuck. He squeezes a clump of wires and the android shivers violently and its mouth opens wide. Christa laughs but wheezes "Oh god oh god," because the laugh shakes her broken rib cage.
The Nepalese giants—the serious mountains, the tallest on the planet, the ones over 25,000 feet—do kill many people each year. Technology and experience make the journey safer and more predictable but even still: a recent trek up Everest was for the sole purpose of removing the bodies which had collected over the decades, dozens of corpses half-preserved in ice. Chuck is one of these now and if his body is ever found they will know what happened, that I had to eat him; if I do not make it down, if I die, then my body will be one of those statistics too. And the android? It might also "die" up here; its power cells can last for weeks but it will fade too, and freeze into the mountain, and become part of the rock and ice.
This cave that the android found is little more than a small hollow in the side of the mountain, but it is enough. The wind outside is deadly.
In the cave are the android, myself, our few remaining packs of gear and supplies (just some rope and maybe enough gear to get back down, if I get the chance), a pistol, and a small portable heating unit—a marvel of technology that puts out a tiny glowing sphere of warmth that has so far been just barely enough to keep my extremities from turning black with frostbite.
I have placed the pistol next to the heating unit as well; it is almost certainly too cold for the pistol to work but maybe the heater will keep it just warm enough to get one shot off; if the android makes any suspicious movements I will have to use the gun on it; I will aim for the top of its chest just under and to the left of its throat, where its main power cell is.
Also in the cave is a lever.
I have not attempted to pull it yet; I have not even touched it. I can barely stand to look at it. It is metal, a bluish hue in color and it should be covered with ice, because of the cold, but it isn't. From where I am sitting I feel like I can almost hear it humming—like a faint tuning-fork sound—but I can't be sure.
The lever protrudes almost 4 feet out from the far rock wall of the cave, equidistant from me and the android. It is at about a 120 degree angel from the ground, in an "up" position. It has no handle or knob; it is just a shaft of metal going into the rock. I cannot guess what it might do; it probably does nothing, it most likely does nothing, but I don't know this for sure because I have not tried to pull it yet.
I wonder: Could Christa have eaten Chuck? I think, with almost a sense of pride, that she could have. She is stronger than me in most ways—I am the more stoic of the two of us, but she is stronger, I am sure—and anyway, most people will do what they have to, to stay alive; surely she'd eat me if she had to, and I would—look, I don't want to dwell on it, in fact it would kill me to do so—psychologically and then physically; it would kill my morale, and then my body, to think too much about what has happened—but even though I am still too cold and tired and hungry and frightened to mourn what has happened, I can't help but thinking that if Christa had shared this experience with me, it would have driven us apart in some deep, intangible way. We would have both known that it was necessary and right, yes. Something would have wormed its way in, though; some almost Biblical knowledge waking up with what we would have witnessed—and maybe it would have taken years to manifest, but it would have happened eventually, and if she was up here and this happened and we both made it down alive, we would have both known it. Immediately and with certainty we would have known it, and perhaps neither of us are as strong as we thought.
Besides: I am sure she had feelings for Chuck; I am fairly certain she even had a relationship with him during that time a few years ago when I was gone, which of course hardly matters now, and of course (I realize now) it never even mattered then...I can tell her about this in whatever way seems best when (if) I see her (off-hand I would say my chances are about 20 to 30 percent, to make it back alive, at this point).
But, I am thinking, I will not even have to tell her, not really—if I come back she will see me, and she will know from the way I look; she will guess instantly what happened, and maybe I'll have to say something and maybe I won't, but she'll know.
Almost as soon as I came into the cave a new storm came up; the weather forecast we got for this week was obviously useless, and this new storm comes in violent gusts and bursts; this is what has kept me pinned here in the cave. I need to make my descent and I need to do it soon; my life depends on it. It is dreadfully, insanely cold; when your body gets this cold it drops past shivering, past shuddering, a kind of numbness that is like static in your bones, and then the bottom drops out and you get warmer and warmer like your body is clenching against something hard and steel, and there is a weird tingling, and flesh cracks and dries in sections like landscape—I keep my arms close to my chest; the impulse when you are freezing to death is to rub your arms but really you want to rub your chest, to keep the area around your heart warm, to keep it pumping blood.
The android does what people do: it mimics gestures, which it is programmed to do. When the android is in a social situation, for example, and does not "know" what to say or has not been introduced, it will fidget. If a person yawns it will often yawn as well, just like the way humans yawn in tandem. So as I sit here methodically rubbing my chest the android occasionally does the same in a way that is programmed to seem absent minded, and it looks at me sometimes and asks if there is anything it can do, if I am doing okay with the cold, if I am hungry and if we should do anything; it is programmed to be as helpful as possible.
From time to time I have to try and make it down. There is maybe a thousand feet of very sheer cliff space below the cave that I have to descend before I can get to a more traversable section of the mountain, but if a storm hits while I am on that part of the mountain there is no way I will survive.
It seems like the storm is circling the mountain, around and around like a wolf pack, and I know I must be going a little mad by this point, but it feels like I can almost time the storm's movements. I don't think I have enough time to make it down far enough—even with all my energy it would be hard, because I have lost most of my equipment—but I am hungry, exhausted, slowed, dying of hypothermia. And at this point I cannot trust the robot to help me.
Flurries of ice and snow make impossible noises tearing across the open mouth of the cave and spatter me with frost; I dust this off and wait for my opportunities. I have to try. I have my gear ready, and I have enough rope left to make tiny crawls downward, twenty or so feet at a time. But each time I start down the mountain the storm comes back around again, screaming like it's chasing me, icy claws ready to shred me, and it will shred me; you respect the mountain and you fear the mountain because it kills you like that.
I won't speak to the robot. We sit, and I wait.
The furthest I make it down is about 100 feet—maybe more—but there, the icy gale-force wind comes and crushes me against the rock.
Smashed there: I hold myself flat and hug Annapurna like hugging the ground. I feel like I'm falling, or like I'm pinned against a ceiling, or even the sky. I would keep going if I could—it's at that point, I'm running out of time, I have to risk something stupid—but I can't even get my hands to grip my gear, there's no way for me to get the piton or anything into the mountainside to lower myself down further, and when the storm envelops me like this I can't even tell which way is down. Christa always told me I was too cautious with things and too methodical and maybe this is like that, but I can't change anything now, I can't even tell where anything is anymore, which part is what; I can't move and it's like my head is filled with thick sheets of ice, which I suppose it sort of is, by now.
It is stupid to keep attempting descents and to waste my energy, and to keep returning like this, and it has maybe only been twice I have tried it but it feels like twenty times and each time I go down I tell the robot to stay put, and it doesn't even respond; it doesn't give any indication if it knows that I am asking it essentially to self-destruct once I leave it behind. For obvious reasons, it is not designed with extensive "self-preservation" circuitry. The last time, as I finally gave up my descent, I'd glanced straight up towards the mouth of the cave. Something there glinting at me—I could see it, there, the robot's head, poking out just over the edge of the cave, where it must have been lying flat on its chest. It stayed there for a second, holding itself out & staring down at me for reasons I couldn't fathom, before sliding back & disappearing into the cave, and when I finally hauled myself back into the cave, it was where I had left it, its broken leg folded back up underneath its body.
I should mention that everything I am saying and doing here is being recorded by the android. I could ask it to stop recording but I don't want to do that. I have, however, asked it to delete the sections where I had to eat the body of my friend; its eyes blink green signaling compliance but I don't trust it.
The lever—I can't tell if it even could be pulled—if it is stuck in its position or if it would budge at all. It seems like even if it was capable of being pulled, it would be frozen in place. I am freezing to death and I know it. I am terrified of the lever; terrified because it is there. But I am freezing to death.
I reach out to touch it, slowly, one eye on the android: I can hear the whirring of the robot's sensor-eyes as it follows my movements. I take one of my gloves off, which seems stupid but I want to actually feel it. As soon as my glove and my lining is off the air seizes my hand and bites it and it instantly begins to change color. I can keep it out for a few minutes, at most. I wave my hand in the air to dry off excess moisture so my skin doesn't freeze to the metal when I touch it. When I touch the lever, I touch it as lightly as I possibly can. It is metal and at first I feel like I was wrong, like it wasn't humming, because I can't feel anything, or maybe I'm just numb to it but then I do feel something, not in my fingertips but in a kind of slow wave that moves through my body, like heavy bass frequencies, making my guts tremble. I yank my hand back. The android's eyes follow my hand as I withdraw it from the lever and put it back into my glove, but it doesn't move from where it is seated.
When I first cut into Chuck's body just below the ribs the 600 model was just watching me, and it didn't even ask me what I was doing or why; either it didn't understand or it didn't care, or else it registered Chuck as a non-living entity and so didn't care that I was eating him any more than it would care if I was eating something from McDonald's.
I had already told the robot that I was out of food, and I told it what I had to do with Chuck's body and why—maybe I was talking to myself here as much as the robot, but at the time I was totally convinced it was for the robot, so it wouldn't try to stop me, although they aren't programmed to do that, although Chuck could have modified its programming, he's pretty good with them—and the robot is broken, I know this; I don't trust it for this reason, and because of what happened in the car with our other droid, the one that caused the accident, and is now out of commission forever.
The affected expression as the robot was watching me with Chuck's body—childlike, I think—like maybe a kid watching his dad put something together at a workbench; some procedure beyond its comprehension.
Listen: a typical trek up & then back down Mount Everest takes two to eight weeks, depending on your skill and experience: but Nepalise Sherpas have climbed it in confirmed times of under 15 hours, and the record is held by a Sherpa named Pemba Dorjie, at just over 8 hours. I mean I think that if someone could do that—skipping up and down 28,000 feet of mountain so fast they aren't even affected by the dramatic changes in atmosphere and pressure—then isn't it possible that they, or someone else, could have built a lever here in Annapurna? A lever connected to the deep rock-roots of the mountain, the big tectonic gears below the mountain's base? These mountains, all over Nepal, giants over 20,000 feet, I don't know, gears in all of them maybe, deep machines going into the guts of the world, built thousands of years ago by the kinds of hands that built the pyramids, hands that don't exist anymore; I am a reasonable person but even I know, these things are at least possible.
I reach out. My hand crosses space and wraps around the lever. Then the other hand. I take my eyes off the android but I think it is moving. Maybe towards me. I have a strange moment where I feel like I have forgotten how to pull a lever but I think I remember and I think that's why I try to do but all I feel is the cold, which stabs me over and over as fast as it can and there under my heavy layers of clothes, I can't feel anything.
Chuck and Christa and me all actually prefer the 300 model, which is more programmable and (for experienced users) adaptable and capable. The 600 belonged to Chuck and he took it with us as a backup; he had purchased it recently and had already confirmed what Climbers! Monthly had said about it in field tests, that it had a lot of great features for serious climbing but that it didn't do well in the cold, and had a disturbing tendency to miscalculate vertical routes along sheer surfaces, which it had already done on this ascent, steering us almost a half-mile off our intended course, and also much more of its programming is hard-coded—that is, you can't easily modify it to your own preferences. So the 300 was there in the back of the Land Rover with Christa, and Chuck was driving, and I was in the front, and the 600 was in a box in the back.
The 300 kept making "jokes" about how it was being replaced and how it felt "jealous," which was creeping Christa out even though she was laughing. I kept asking Chuck if he had programmed it to say those things, and he kept saying no, he hadn't, he didn't know why it was doing what it was doing, but he was laughing as he was saying that and driving along the switchback mountain roads through Nepalese wilderness, a massive wilderness far beyond anything just about anywhere, except for the most extreme deserts of the world, the Sahara or the Gobi or the Amazon—I mean, a desert, anyway, is just a place of extremes, where nature is stretched to its limit; where it is so much of one thing that it threatens to become a vacuum. A mountain is a kind of vertical desert, and climbing a mountain is climbing into outer space, literally.
So we were driving when all of a sudden the 300 reached over and put its hand on Christa's thigh, which I knew Chuck must have programmed it to do, because that is somehow so in-line with his sense of humor. "Cut it out," she told it, but it didn't respond: "You're hurting...Robot, stop, STOP!"
Instead of stopping the robot squeezed harder. Christa screamed as the robot's metal fingers, surrounded by that thick latex-feeling "skin", gouged into her; lying in the bed with her broken bones in the Nepalese hut I could lift up the woolen blanket and look at the thick ruddy wound, a pattern like a five-pointed star set deep into her pale thigh.
Once Christa screamed there in the car I had no hesitation; I pulled the pistol (the same pistol which is sitting near my feet now) from my knapsack and turned around and shot the android three times in its face. The weapon's report in the car made us all deaf for about the next two hours but I barely noticed it at the time. I must severed a weird circuit with one of those bullets, because the robot lunged forward and took what seemed for all the world like a right hook at me; it missed me but the blow took off the seat top and then clipped Chuck just enough to make him swerve the car—he's a maniac, he had his foot on the gas this entire time—and veer off the road; there was a tremendous sound of crashing and breaking, and we skipped over rocks and through snow covered trees, I couldn't tell if we were falling or rolling as we plunged through thick bushes and then a brief but spectacular void of branches and noise surrounding us like an ocean while we were tossed around the Land Rover's insides and the android sputtered and coughed blue smoke into my face, flailing its limbs while Christa kept screaming; the violence of the accident dislodged the robots hand from her leg and as we tumbled spots of blood sprayed through the car, and the Land Rover finally wedged itself to a stop between two trees and somehow we were all alive.
The nose of the Land Rover was pointed at about a 45 degree angle towards the sky and so I leaned backward and down, the robot had no "face" anymore just wires and hard bits of green plastic coming out and it shivered, and I shot the robot one more time in the chest, right in its power cell, to make sure. The robot sputtered and gasped and the cameras in its eyes went out, I could see them die, and it fell back against the seat with its hand resting on Christa's thigh, and we left it there in the crashed Land Rover.
When Christa told the robot, "robot, stop"—that is a catch-all command with the androids, like a safety word that starts a shut-down command to stop whatever it is doing and go into an inert sleep-mode. Chuck swore afterwards, swore on his mother and father's graves, that he didn't program it to do anything it did; that the robot did it of its own "free will," and he should know better than to use the phrase "free will" around me in conjunction with robots. We argue violently the whole way from the crash sight, struggling with Christa and our gear and angry as hell at each other and it almost comes to blows until Christa, who seemed more angry and more distraught than I'd ever seen her, tells us to cut it the fuck out. And what's alarming is we just drop it and suddenly Chuck has his sense of humor and I am tending to Christa and we are discussing politely if we should still attempt the assent, although I am still sure that Chuck must have programmed the robot to do that, but why? As a joke? And I suppose it doesn’t matter now since Chuck is dead, or maybe it does matter, maybe it matters more than anything—well no, probably not—but still, I have this nagging sense, I am missing something vital.
Still—Christa passed out at one point from the pain of her busted ribs and the effort of the hike, and Chuck and I briefly pick up our argument, and as Christa is coming to we drop it again but he looks at me as if to say believe what you have to while up above us Annapurna rubbed up against the sky like a big, slow god.
I am staring way deep into the rock of the cave in front of me, not the rock but into the darkness behind it, where, buried there in the dark, I see first Christa, and then Chuck, and then even my parents and my brother and my sister. A few others as well—quick glimpses of faces that I recognize but don't have time to name. Everything rushes everywhere at once.
I remember pulling the lever, trying to pull the lever; it seems like a very long time ago but I can remember trying to pull it, and I couldn't. I mean I just wasn't strong enough—I couldn't do it. I threw my weight against it and could feel it click but not budge, and my hands split and cracked under my gloves with the force of the effort, and I was too cold to feel the pain as anything other than a kind of dull ooze between my fingers, but I was still gasping from it, my breath going, going, gone.
I collapse from the effort but suddenly the android is there; it catches me and has taken me and is holding my head there in its lap, and I look up into dull silver eyes which are not eyes, just cameras with wires in them. And its face isn't a face, but still, it seems to be saying something, and its cold latex hand strokes my head. Reflected in the lenses which are its eyes: the infinity of the mountain behind me. Tiny electric lights deep in the robot's head illuminate this depth for miles, down and down to the mountain's core, the core of the planet maybe. The android holds me and my shivering makes it seem like it is rocking me very gently; maybe it is. My shivers get violent, bigger, and they travel downwards, down below my body and into the mountain like earthquakes, and the rock of the earth just swallows these up like they are nothing.
And there in reflection I can see what is at the mountain's center: an enormous pinwheel, made of steel, its edges sharp and cold; it turns silently around and around, and all these people, Chuck and Christa and everyone, tiny like insects, crawling around on its edges and stuck to it as it turns and throbs and aches there in the darkness. The robot blinks because it is programmed to blink, occasionally, and when it blinks I lose the picture of the mountain; I lose everything. It asks me if I am cold, which is its way of telling me that everything is going to be okay, which is a lie but I believe it to the bone. "I just wasn't strong enough," I tell it. "That's all, I just wasn't." I have a brief sensation of being stuck on the gears at the mountain's center as the robot stands up, somehow bracing its weight on its busted leg. And then I am lifted. My legs and arms dangle and I can feel the wind gnawing at me. The robot holds me above its head and pitches me out of the cave and into the void where I can feel a fire, a blue flame like liquid, eat the last of me up, from the inside out. Falling: first I fall and then I float, or maybe it is the other way around...I remember then that it wasn't me who pulled the lever, it was the robot: hands infused with vast mechanical strength, griping blue steel. I had watched, paralyzed in the last stages of hypothermia. Only—the lever didn't actually move; the lever stayed still and everything else moved. The mountain moves, but only the robot is strong enough to move it.
Whenever I introduce this story I like to explain the title: On the day I finished its first draft, I was reading an article reviewing one of the new Madden football video games, where the reviewer described how lifelike the graphics were in the game—how disturbingly lifelike. It's true: you can make out beads of sweat on individual players, creases in their skin, worry lines on their foreheads; blank staring eyes peering from underneath their helmets. The reviewer referenced a theory crafted in part by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori, "the uncanny valley" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uncanny_valley). The Uncanny Valley refers to a phenomenon in human-robot relations: the more a robot looks like a human, the more we tend to anthropomorphize it and treat it like a human, which makes sense—but, the theory states, this acceptance only goes so far: when a robot is made to look so much like a human that the resemblance is uncanny, past what we accept as robotic with human characteristics, we become repulsed; something visceral in human psychology rejects what it sees as a fraudulent near-copy. The "uncanny valley" bit refers to the sudden dip in acceptance as it is graphed on a chart, the place where our senses recoil.