Issue 1



written by Nikhil Devraj

Alexandria, Egypt. 40 C.E.

Passing wearily through the Great Library, I stared in awe at the thousands of scrolls towering around me. Dust had accumulated on them, and I could gather faint whiffs of ash about. I imagine that the place was livelier before the tragic siege that saw most of the library decimated. Nearly everything learned by man, packed into the greatest facility made by man, needlessly destroyed by the ignorance of a single man. The true culprit could be none but the cruel hands of fate, though I cannot fathom whether it was just.

The great scholar Heron glided in front of me as I followed him through the halls. The two of us arrived at a small room, dimly lit by a few torches. I presumed that Heron wanted to speak to me about my day in his class. As I trudged through the doorway before him, I was greeted by rhythmic creaking and thumping, soft and steady.

A narrow wooden box about half my height lurched partway into the light, stopping around three paces ahead of me. As I reached out to pull it closer, it receded into the darkness. As if synchronized with the waves on the shores of Alexandria, the box repeated its swinging and I failed to catch it at the doorway, yet again.

Was Heron pulling this box somehow? But he was not moving. Was it magic? No, likely not. Maybe there was an animal inside the wooden box, pushing it and purporting magic to the untrained eye. But what was an animal doing in Heron's study?

Heron set a small flame down and caught the box, tilting it in the process. I braced myself for the imminent scurrying and chaos.

Heron chuckled. I saw no animal at its base. Was this really magic?

Four thin pillars protruded from the corners of the box’s base, supporting a smaller platform. On top, six statues circled an effigy of Dionysus perched in a roofed shrine.

The box strode forward again. The statues danced around the deity slowly, perfectly harmonious. I had never seen statues move, especially not with such grace.

Heron removed a panel from the base. Inside were wheels with ropes tied around their axles and an assortment of other discs seemingly affecting one another's trajectories. This box must be moving itself; if not through magic, then through some other divine process!

No doubt it was Heron who built this. No other man could plan such a thing. Acting on its own, as if imbued with ichor. Am I in the company of a god?

I am not a man of the sciences. I knew Heron was a renowned scholar and that many loved him dearly. I did not know why the likes of military commanders and government workers were infatuated with a man who rarely showed his face. Nor did I understand what was so great about his class. Today I lost ten hours in front of some paltry piece of papyrus, staring at lackluster lines, sorry shapes, and sloppy symbols. The other students seemed to take no issue with playing the role of the dishonorable Sisyphus, chained to their benches and slaving away at this madness. Heron allowed us to leave only after one brave scholar completed whatever the task was, though it was not nearly quickly enough.

Seeing this spectacle, though, I may finally understand what these powerful and honorable men are thinking. They are not merely in love with Heron; they revere and worship him, for he must be the mighty god of the forge.

Instinctively, I started to kneel before Heron. Memories of stories told in days past washed over me. Talos, the bronze giant exsanguinated by Jason and Medea, who cleverly pinpointed the vulnerability in his ankle. Aetos Kaukasios, the eagle who fed on Prometheus's liver until it was slain by Heracles. Pandora, who unleashed suffering on mankind. Beings made, not born, from ingenuity and techne.

A sharp pain woke me from my submersion in nostalgia. Heron glared sternly as his arm retreated into his robes. I should not have kneeled. To bow to another man in such a manner would be to disrespect myself and the gods.

Heron urged me further into his study. I noted a cauldron filled with water, propping up some sphere and standing above a bundle of twigs. He handed me the torch and I set the bundle ablaze.

Heron stepped over to the wheeled sculpture and started loading more statues into its center. Meanwhile, an open scroll on a table caught my attention. There were some lines, some symbols, and a circle. This was the same arrangement we saw in our class today! Did he somehow use this to devise one of his contraptions? Did he think I could match his wit in class? He overestimates me and my simple-minded ilk, though now I wished I could be that one peer who completed the exercise.

Suddenly, there was rattling by the fire. Above the cauldron, the ball was spinning! Heron crowed like a child, reveling in this display. Then he released his hands from the wheeled box once again. The doors at the center of the box opened and suddenly I could see ships on water. They were being approached by a bronze statue. I laughed — I could do nothing else. What in the world was I witnessing? What else could he make? How far could this go?

If we were to create it, could we, like fate, destroy it as we please?

As I exited the premises, those scrolls towering around me looked heavier. All that gripped my mind were those old stories of fantastic creations.

Those toys — automata, as Heron referred to them — moved on their own. Were they alive? Heron instilled something in them. They were animated.

Can we all create life in such a way? Is such agency not worthy of divine wrath?

If we were to create it, could we, like fate, destroy it as we please?

Lancashire, England. 1812.

I could not stay still. My teeth chattered to the point where I thought I would chip them. Something was going to go wrong.

Something would catch us. Hurt us. Hang us.

I watched the head of the sledgehammer come down on the frame with great fervor. The clang was deafening. I thought the whole thing would shatter completely, but it only became malformed.

_"Help, would you?" _ I had just joined this group a few weeks ago, so I could not refuse. They would not look kindly upon fear.

With continued trepidation, I mustered the strength to lift a hammer and pounded against the contraption too. After a few more strikes, the thing was absolute rubbish.

My chest bore a seemingly endless chasm. I had expected some sort of catharsis after finishing. But I was now an accomplice, and there was no turning back.

As we slid away silently, I snuck a peek at the pathetic wreckage that lay there. The needles on the floor looked like they were creeping toward me, preparing to prick me ten thousand times.

Those worthless scum. We were fine without them. They could not outperform us at our best. We would get rid of them all. They were only made because the country is engulfed in war. While our soldiers fought their battles, we would fight ours, and both our parties would win.

Still, I had a terrible knot in my stomach—

Another bang, more thunderous than the last. Another one. Another one.

"Aye, we're done. Out of here while we have the chance, my friend."

That scene lingered in my mind as I warily walked home in the chilling rain. I thought about the famed Captain Ludd, our muse and leader. No one I know had ever seen him, but we revered him as the embodiment of hope nonetheless. He was the first to punish machines.

The first instance was in a fit of rage when his father rebuked him for squaring his needles improperly. I wondered how he felt when he annihilated his first frame. Was it exhilarating? How did he avoid punishment? Was he really so brave?

I passed in front of several lodgings whose doors were collectively arranged like a half-moon. In front of one of the doors sat a family in rags, washing their child in the sky's piss. At the door closest to me stood a disheveled young lady, her skirt torn near her thigh. The water trickling down her cheeks seemed thicker and slower than the raindrops on mine. Yet another poor girl who gave herself up for scraps. But what stood out most about her was the dirty, mangled shawl draped around her shoulders — unmistakably, it was lace.

I am a lacemaker by trade. I have not picked up a needle in a while, but it is still what I know best. I could tell that the girl's shawl was borne by an abomination.

That machine I assisted in banishing earlier was a stocking frame, and could have been the creator of that shawl. A friend once told me that the man who invented these frames did so out of spite for his lover, who loved knitting more than she loved him. It seems rather cruel that this contraption was made by such a petty dud, and even more so that I suffer now as a result.

After another kilometre I arrived home, hopping over the gaping hole in the wooden floor by our door. Somehow the drumming of the rain drowned out the incessant wailing emanating from my child as I moved inside. My wife looked pale. My stomach moaned pitifully as our eyes made contact.

I choked. Her eyes looked so desperate, and I had come home empty-handed once again. I knew getting into this would heighten our suffering. But I feared just as desperately. If nothing was done about those machines, I would have no chance at helping us. I laid down drowsily, and as my eyes shut, stocking frames flashed in my mind, followed swiftly by mounds of mechanical rubble.

As our ensemble of cloaked frame-reapers descended upon the factory for the umpteenth time, I could still hear the lively cheers of our men back in the hideaway. We felt so powerful, even though we could boast so little.

As we rounded the back entrance, I almost tripped. It would have been nice to have torches, but the risk of being seen was too great.

Yet, a few counts later, a flame burned bright. We had all agreed that bringing any light was risky. So who was it?

"My lord, we found them."

A horde of feet shuffled into the room. Torches lit up around us in sequence. Our group had eight — too many to escape stealthily but too few to push through the opposition at the moment. Then more light pervaded the darkness, and my stomach churned violently at the sight.

In the center of a massive group, there was a short man in foolish attire. He stepped forward. I had no idea who this Lord Fopdoodle was, but his face certainly did not exude kindness.

While he stepped, a thought struck me harder than I did that first stocking frame. These men… red coats? White breeches? What the hell were these soldiers doing here? Should they not be in America? France?

I must have looked like sliced gammon. I was livid. The country is at war, but we would waste our precious soldiers on some measly machine maulers? Why can they not just go win the war already? Remove their citizens from this miserable existence?

This was irrational. I was bewildered. The chasm from before reappeared and sucked my mind in whole. My throat tightened up once again as I choked at the thought of my wife. Was all that time spent pummeling machines wasted?

The uniformed soldiers looked mechanical, as indistinguishable as machines. I knew they were simply following orders. I knew the monarchy would not bend. But it still felt as if a blade pierced my back.

Lord Fopdoodle was about to speak, when a sickening thud erupted. A soldier toppled as the head of an Enoch's hammer receded.

This lone animal who swung his hammer sent the room into a frenzy, chaos ensuing. Torches were thrown. Rifles were drawn. They swarmed us and overcame us with sheer quantity.

Blast it all! My feet seemed encased in frost, but I could not end up as an example. That draconian Destruction of Stocking Frames Act was still in effect. I would certainly be executed just for my involvement here.

As the torch flames dissipated, the darkness that flooded the vicinity befriended me. Those stupid soldiers could not see us anymore. It was time to flee.

I pushed through in as inconspicuous a manner as I could and darted. I did not look back, even to the screaming of my brothers, likely bleeding out or awaiting their inevitable fates at the hands of the monarchy.

This routine was rather dull. I thought slipping the thread through the needles would feel like my old lacemaking days, but this was truly arduous and mind-numbing. Admittedly though, this was much less stressful than sneaking around breaking frames.

After escaping the factory, I pondered and pondered. My wife's desperate eyes obtruded my consciousness. It was time to be useful. Nobody would come to a lacemaker who charged more than the shops, but someone would want a lacemaker to help operate frames. I would have to learn to work with them, even if they threatened to draw blood from my fingers every day. No amount I lose would compare to the pooled blood of my fellow Luddites, who were reprimanded mercilessly.

I offered them my livelihood, and they offered me the opportunity to live.

These machines were inevitable, and stooping to this level was better than perpetual futility. All I had to do was meet them halfway. I offered them my livelihood, and they offered me the opportunity to live.


Yamanashi Prefecture, Chubū, Japan. 1990.

I slumped into my chair, ready for lunch. I had just finished writing a warning statement for an employee who had accused the office directors of the unfair termination of our factory workers. He was quite daring for raising his voice at our superiors like that.

My company produces industrial robots that help with manufacturing in factories. It is supposedly growing quickly, despite the fact that we do not have many clients. I often brag to my friends about the futuristic nature of the work that surrounds me, but it is actually not as exciting as it sounds — the stationary robots only repeat the same few motions thousands of times, though I am sure neither the engineers nor our marketing team would appreciate my saying that.

The belligerent employee hypothesized that management was studying factory workers' habits in order to replace them with those machines. However, from my experience over the years handling much of this speculation, I know that employees often jump to these unfounded conclusions from an executive’s single off-handed comment.

But what if that truly was the management’s intention? My stomach grumbled as I pondered this.

I unpacked my bento, took out a bottle of green tea, and began scarfing down my food. I pulled out a company logbook to write a report on the incident. Due to my work schedule, I have to eat while I work, and one of my worst nightmares is dropping crumbs onto my logbook — I would have to rewrite everything.

I kept thinking about what that employee said. Factory workers have an abnormally high turnover rate, such that sending all their termination letters has been painfully tedious. Factory managers tell me they terminate workers to "reallocate costs", but I am not sure if this is true. Regardless, it is not a good idea for me to bring my suspicion up to my superiors, lest they think I distrust them. Either way, I could not imagine factory workers being replaced anytime soon. The robots were too boring to do that.

Right now, the robots are capable of simple, repetitive machine work and basic movements. I do not know how far they will go. I joined this company mostly because they offered to pay well. My job application was very typical; I also mentioned watching Astro Boy with my brother as children and had read some of the Asimov stories in school. I guess that was enough when it came to my understanding of robots.

I cannot imagine a robot trying to do my own job. How would it understand employees' emotions? Could it make the right judgments about a situation when faced with multiple conflicting points of view? How would a robot go about laying off employees? While I do not get paid as much as many of my colleagues, I know my job is important enough to keep around.

What scares me most, actually, is quite a trivial matter. Their presence is off-putting. Robots and mecha in cartoons and anime seem friendly and sometimes endearing, but real life is a different matter. I once saw a picture of Gakutensoku, the first robot made in our country. It was human, but not human enough. It looked alive, but not alive enough. Its vexing visage was uncanny, with bulging eyes and comically large ears. I hope robots keep their metal arms and stay as cute machines. They should not look like us.

This spate of thoughts flooded my mind until I realized that my nightmare had come true. I had dropped some of my pickled carrots onto the logbook. I would have to rewrite this whole thing. If only I could instead take breaks to eat.

I walked to the cooler and grabbed some napkins nearby. While wiping up the carrots carefully, I also bumped the box. The remaining rice spread out over the carpet. さいやく!

It is so difficult to pick out grains from a carpet. I wish I had a vacuum nearby.

But even better than a vacuum? A small vacuuming robot. I do not know how far the grains spread, but a machine would find them easily. I could imagine one with a cute digital face, like ^_^. In fact, an ideal robot would not have knocked down a bowl of food in the first place. It would boast perfect precision, and it would need no breaks. Holding my skirt, I knelt to clean up the mess.

My husband was not home yet, but my nine year-old son was here. On the TV, some mecha anime called Gundam was playing — my son was obsessed with it.

I could see a big blue mecha shooting missiles at a seaweed green one. Lots of explosions and violence. Much more exciting than our stationary arms, but the thought subsequently sent chills down my spine. If we were to ever create such destructive machines, I would hope we can destroy them before they cause harm.

Then again, we are building these robots to help us. Why should we destroy them as we please? Who says we can do that?

I imagine Doctor Tenma disposing of Astro Boy, his own creation. Is that morally just? Our potential war machines may become sentient someday. But even if they are not, is it right to end lives we worked so hard to begin? Even if the most emotion they display is akin to those of a bunraku puppet — should we?

One day, a robot will serve me in a restaurant. One will make clothes for me. One will drive me to work. One will vacuum my messes. One may even perform for me on a stage. They will be just like me, but more precise in what they do.

So instead of worrying about fighting them eventually, whether it be for our jobs or our lives, I think we should simply support them and build them further.

Let them thrive in our world, supporting us with their existence as we seek the truth of our own.

headshot of Nikhil Devraj


Nikhil Devraj

Wrote *Opus*, three fictional stories placed in history depicting changing perspectives on physical automation and robots.