Cast of Wonders 514: The Whipping Bot

The Whipping Bot

by Jasinta Jim Langer

The bot lay on the floor, quivering. Occasionally it made an attempt to lift its upper body, a first step to getting up, but before it could get very far, someone would kick it again. A shoe would connect with its shell with a thud and its head would hit the floor with a clunk. The kids didn’t hurt their feet, kicking it. All the metal and hard plastic was covered in rubbery resin so no toes were stubbed and no knuckles bruised. Even the skull was only a little bit harder.

Eventually, most of the children got bored and the group began to disperse down the corridor in twos and threes, some still laughing and joking about the robot’s reactions, some forgetting about it entirely as soon as their backs were turned, chatting about sports and grades and their unbearable homework loads instead. Beren and Cindy stayed back and hurled insults at it some more while it curled up into a fetal position. “Useless chunk of metal”, “weirdo”, “reject”, “victim”, the usual. Finally, the bell rang, Cindy spat at the robot’s back one last time, and they, too, hurried to get to class. The robot whimpered and banged its head against the floor in what looked like frustration. Clunk. Clunk. Clunk. Then it went about getting up in its gangly and inelegant way.

It would have been very, very easy to push it over again. Instead, Alej, who had been leaning against the wall, wordlessly watching the whole sorry spectacle, walked next to it as it made its way towards the room where it would sit among the people for whose mistreatment it was made for another two hours.

“Hey. Are you okay?” they asked the bot, pointlessly. It was never okay. It existed to not be okay.

“Yeah. Sorry,” it said, cameras firmly directed at the ground before it.

“No need to apologise,” said Alej.

“Right. Sorry,” said the bot.

Alej cringed. This was a hard cycle to break, even with people it wasn’t hard-coded into – such as themself.

“I know it’s hard,” they told the bot, “when people tell you not to say sorry, but you’ve been saying it, and you don’t really have any other way to tell them you didn’t mean to upset them with it, other than to say it again.”

“I’m sorry you feel this way. It’s not that hard for me. I’m used to worse.”

“Somebody said that’s the saddest sentence. ‘I’m used to worse’.” Alej felt with whoever the originator of the quote was quite deeply. They took a deep breath when the two of them reached the door of the classroom. The bot’s hand was already on the door handle when they managed to whisper the next part: “You know you don’t have to go in there, right? It’s not like you have to learn anything. You probably have more facts saved than all the teachers in this place put together. Just skip a couple of lessons. They’ll think somebody’s beating you up somewhere else. Nobody will worry.”

“And what if somebody feels like chucking paper wads at somebody’s head?”

The bot opened the door and took its strategically exposed place near the front of the class before Alej could think of an answer, and left them wondering whether that tone in the bot’s synthesized voice had been sarcasm for the rest of the lesson.

Wondering, and staring at the back of the bot’s head. Somebody did in fact feel like chucking paper wads at it. Phasmir from his place next to Beren, clearly hungry for Beren’s approval. And the ploy worked. Soon the two of them were whispering and giggling together, taking turns throwing things at the robot. If they could get it to flinch, interrupt its hectic writing, or even turn towards them slightly, the laughter intensified. Finally, Beren hit its metal skull with a pencil sharpener in just the right place to produce a reverberating gonging noise.

“I win!” Beren exclaimed.

The teacher, Mrs Shumow, rolled her eyes and tsked. Then she turned to the robot. “Could you pick that up?”

Indeed, a veritable smorgasbord of school life debris had gathered around the electronic bullying victim. It knelt down and immediately started collecting the bits and pieces.

“And hurry up with it, will you? We don’t want this interruption going on too long,” the teacher added. Interruption or no, she turned around and resumed scribbling on the blackboard right afterwards. The bot meanwhile did its best to quickly pick up the pieces of paper, pencil shavings, lunch leavings, and various equipment that had been flung at it. It clearly wasn’t built for speed, nor for precision, and one shortcoming exacerbated the other: it kept dropping a pencil stump here, a paper ball there, and having to pick them up again.

Alej wondered whether they’d have the courage to get up and help the bot if they sat any closer to the front. As it was, they would have faced a walk of shame past four rows of desks and they knew their heart couldn’t make it through that. Now, if they sat directly next to the bot, would it be a matter of course then? Just to speed things up, if nothing else.

But no, the bot, as ever, was on its own. When it had finally got hold of the last stray paper scrap, it made its lonely way to the bin. As soon as it had dropped everything into it and was walking back to its desk, Phasmir called after it: “Hold on, what about my eraser? I need that, you can’t just bin that.”

“And my pencil sharpener!” added Beren.

This prompted chuckling from the class. They were doubtless remembering the loud gong. Alej was, too, but they were more horrified than amused by it.

The bot knelt down next to the bin without protest and fished out what useable equipment there had been among the projectiles. When it dumped the handful of items on Beren’s and Phasmir’s desk, Phasmir made a face. “Come on. Those were in the waste. Don’t you think you should clean them up first?”

“Sorry,” the robot mumbled and made to scrabble at picking them up again.

Mrs Shumow intervened: “This is getting ridiculous. You can clean those yourselves, later. Sit down, robot.”

With one last “I’m sorry” over its shoulder to Beren and Phasmir, the robot scurried back to its place.

“Fucking robot,” Phasmir called after it.

When the next break finally came, Alej was determined to pick up their conversation with the robot. If nothing else, the others might leave it alone for a while while Alej was busy with it. But before they’d passed the four rows of desks separating them, a crowd had gathered around it, mostly girls. Alej stood on the fringes.

The bot was clearly trying to get somewhere, but wherever it moved, a girl was in its way, asking a question.

“So, why did you throw Beren’s things in the trash?” asked Mira. “Don’t you know erasers are reusable?” Chuckles from the crowd.

“He threw them away first,” the bot answered, reasonably, Alej thought.

“He didn’t throw them away, he threw them at you,” Cindy said. “Don’t you know the difference?”

“Aren’t you supposed to be clever?” Samea asked. “Who built you?”

The bot tried taking a step to the side. Mira was in the way again. “Who built you?”

“Don’t know,” the robot said.

“Come on, we’ll find out,” said Samea. “Which factory?”

“Classified,” the robot said. It tried to make it sound like a pre-recorded automatic answer, but it pretty clearly came from its own modulators.

“Ha ha, as if,” said Beata. “You can tell us. Where are you from?”

“Yeah, tell us. We’re all friends here,” Samea backed her up.

“No, we’re not,” hissed Alej under their breath. It was too quiet for most of the kids to pick up, but Samea heard.

She turned to Alej in surprise, giving the bot an opening to slip through. “None. Of. Your. Business!” it bellowed at Beata, and fled for the hall.

The bot ran its gangly run down the hallway while the cluster of girls stayed back, pointing and giggling. Alej hurried after it, without exerting themself too much – they knew it would slow down soon enough. It wasn’t made for sustained speedy movement.

When they had caught up with it, out on the playground between underused monkey bars and slides, the bot ducked its head and tried to ignore them. They didn’t really know how to approach it. If they tried for words of encouragement, the bot would feel as if it had to apologise again. Any question would be too close to the girls’ interrogation from before.

In the end they settled on a simple “I’m sorry”.

“For what,” the bot mumbled and kept walking.

“For what we’re doing to you!” Alej exclaimed. Their own voice sounded unpleasantly shrill to them. There was a lump in their throat and a pressure behind their eyes like they might be about to start crying. Which would be ridiculous. After all, they weren’t the one suffering humiliation after humiliation here.

The bot stopped under the swings. When they were usable, they were one of the more frequented pieces of playground equipment in the schoolyard. Right now, they weren’t, and were deserted. The swings’ chains were wound around the top bar multiple times and the seats dangled out of reach overhead. The light drizzle also went a long way towards affording the machine and the enby a certain amount of privacy out in the open like this.

“The thing is,” the robot said quietly, actually looking at Alej, “there’s nothing for me to do but be there for what they’re doing to me. I’m not going to say you don’t need to apologise, because I know that’s hard for you, but keep that in mind.”

“That doesn’t make it right…” The gaze out of the black, reflective camera lenses was intense. Alej squirmed under it. Apparently it was their turn to look down and avoid eye contact now.

“Also,” the robot said with a pointed gesture, “it is them, not you. You’re not taking part.”

“I’m letting them,” Alej insisted.

“It’s not a good thing that you’re not participating.”

“What?!” Alej stared at the robot in honest bewilderment.

“I’m there for a reason. Building of group identity against an outsider is healthy, as long as the outsider can’t be harmed. You’re human. You belong in the in-group.”

Alej snorted. “You’re seriously trying to sell me that you’re not harmed by all this.”

“That’s the whole point of me.”

“Then clearly Beata and her crew have a point: there has been some sort of construction mistake!”

A moment of silence. Even over the sound of intensifying rain, and children chattering across the schoolyard from underneath umbrellas and awnings, Alej thought they could hear gears whirring in the robot’s brain.

Finally, the bot said: “No, no there wasn’t.”

Alej sighed. “Okay, that was low. You are largely based on a human consciousness, though, right? That’s how they make sure your reactions are varied and natural.”

The bot nodded.

“Some of what they teach us is right after all! And you can’t tell me there aren’t some feelings left over from that.”

The robot, displaying one of its varied and natural responses, buried its face in its hands, groaning. “However that might be,” it finally said, “You’re aware it would be you if I wasn’t there, aren’t you? I’ve been around. The kids they picked before they got used to whipping bots? They were so much like you, it was uncanny.”

Alej didn’t know what to say. They had never exactly thought about it like that, but yeah, yeah, they had probably always known. They wondered whether the robot could hear the workings of their brain over the rain that drenched them, neurons firing, chemicals being released. Spinal fluid sloshing around.

“Maybe that’s why I feel for you so much,” they said.

“For whatever that’s worth,” the robot added.

Alej took a deep breath. “Thank you,” they said. “For whatever that’s worth. What do you do when school’s out?”

“You’re welcome, Alej.” The robot took no notice of the second half of what they’d said and made to walk off.

Alej grabbed its arm. It stopped, now with its usual posture, head drooping, not meeting their eyes. “I mean it. And I’m not just asking things to get a rise out of you. What do you do in the evenings?”

“There are always extracurricular activities where children hang out in groups. Or even single children.” The robot slowly turned its head to Alej. “If you want you could borrow me. Get the hang of beating me up on your own before you overcome your shyness and can do it as part of the in-group.”

“Or we could pretend that’s what we’re doing,” Alej whispered, “and hang out and play video games instead.”

The robot hesitated, looked around across the playground. In the middle of its appraisal, the bell sounded. Children began streaming towards the building. The robot nodded almost imperceptibly.

Alej grinned. Relief bubbled up in their stomach. “Yes! Can I hug you?”

The robot’s cameras zoomed, whirring. “Absolutely out of the question.”

Alej pouted. “Oh come on–”

“Beata’s coming. Do something!”

Alej looked around, saw Beata at the head of a mob of girls heading straight towards them, and suddenly understood what it would take.

They pulled at the robot’s arm they were still holding and used its resulting imbalance to shove it over. It fell face first into the puddle in the shallow groove beneath one of the swings. There was a terrifying fizzling noise and blue sparks over the water. The robot lay still.

For one horrible moment, Alej believed they had fatally short-circuited it. Then its whole body twitched, which they had to tell themself wasn’t necessarily a good sign. Then it raised a thumb out of the mud, hidden from Beata’s view by its body. That was definitely a good sign. Alej grinned to themself: of course the bot had to be built to withstand getting its head flushed in toilets and the like.

They ran towards the school where it would be warm and dry, not looking back.

Host Commentary

This is an achingly sad story. I was bullied at school, violently and physically. I remember having my head pushed into the grass. I remember the anxiety of seeing certain students approaching from the other end of an otherwise deserted corridor. I remember getting angry and throwing an orange, of all things, at a bully – and then being told off by the teacher who had, of course, only seen one side of it. Namely, me throwing a hard projectile at someone else. I was banned from the classroom at break time. 

Most bitterly of all, I remember the moment someone I considered a friend chose to side with the tormentors, and left me standing alone. I still know that person. I think they’ve long forgotten the entire incident. Believe me, I understand why they did what they did. In the 1980s, especially, school could be brutal, and you did what you had to do to get through it.

So this story means a lot to me, and thank you, Katherine Inskip, both for running it and for letting me host it, and to Jasinta Jim Langer for writing it. 

I see all the points of view here. I see Alej, desperately empathising with a robot which is only a few electrical wires different to them. I see the other children, needing someone, or something, to gang up against – because they’ve never been taught any other way. And, of course, the robot – wholly designed to be a victim and yet, just slightly, pushing against that role. 

In one way, it feels like such a human response, doesn’t it? Treat the symptom, ignore the cause: bullying is inevitable so we’ll… make something that can be safely bullied!

But also, I’m a former teacher, and the parent of school-aged children, and my impression is that schools are, in the main, doing a better job with bullying these days. Not perfect, no. But better than when I was at school. Children are reminded to be kind, to think of others and to consider how they might feel. There are buddy systems, places children can go to talk, better pastoral care and much better attitudes. I visited a school just a few days ago where the Headteacher said that a key ethos was “to do the right thing, especially when no one is looking.” I liked that. 

Of course, stories have always done this for us – reading or hearing stories, and understanding what other characters feel, is one way we develop empathy. So it’s important that we get good stories. Stories that make us think. Make us consider that a timeline in which someone builds an actual whipping bot would be a dark one indeed. Let’s not go that way.

Anyway. Parents: talk to your children about being kind to those that are different, and standing up for what is right. And to any young people out there: just… keep listening. We need good stories, and Cast of Wonders’ stories here are very, very good. 

About the Author

Jasinta Jim Langer

Jasinta Jim Langer is a commercial English to German translator for a living. In their free time they procrastinate on roller skating, simple household tasks, painting and writing fiction. Their short stories have previously appeared in a few places, such as Page & Spine, and a German one won them a Franconian Price for Young Literature. They are not very active on twitter @JayCogi, but you can give their self-confidence a boost by following them anyway.

Find more by Jasinta Jim Langer


About the Narrator

A.J. Fitzwater

AJ Fitzwater is stardust in your sneakers, masquerading as a human from Christchurch, New Zealand. They are the author of the WW2 shapeshift novella “No Man’s Land” and lesbian capybara pirate escapades “The Voyages of Cinrak the Dapper”. Their short fiction has been published in venues such as Fireside Fiction and Clarkesworld. They attended Clarion in 2014.

Find more by A.J. Fitzwater