Keeley Young

An eastern spinebill dives its beak at solid metal, the bald head of OVELL-7. Despite likely feeling nothing but a slight pecking, my companion makes two short, sweet sounds, a sort of unhuman laughing, a whirring giggle. The little bird flicks its head around, a weathervane pivoting in the wind. I reach down for my camera, hanging from the strap around my neck. The lighting is awkward, the sun perched at the wrong angle for the shot, but I keep OVELL-7 posed with the winged visitor atop their head, lining up a shot or two that I’ll transfer to their systems in a few days. Once we’re out of the wilderness again.

Someone recently suggested I go on a camping trip, and I have grown too conditioned to my robot companion’s company to leave them behind in the nature-shallow apartment we share. Although, I pay all the rent, and OVELL-7 (pronouns, all of them) makes quiet remarks about how overcharged they believe we are.

‘They are tiny, aren’t they? Spinebills are an average of eleven grams, lovely creatures,’ OVELL-7 remarks, plucking a fact or two from his computer brain. The bird catches a glimpse of something thrilling in the thrush, or hears another birdsong, and flits away from the two of us. Alone, again. There’s dried mud making the pattern of a wave up my boots, but it is one thing that goes unnoticed by anyone else. Now there’s only one other pair of eyes cautiously following my steps as we begin to move again. I use the adventurer’s backpack weighing me down as a sort of shield, however successful it may be. Camping is good, will be good. If I get stranded, lose myself, start to fear I’ll pick at the edible flesh unevenly distributed between the two of us, I’ll try to remind myself my companion is wired to the system. Whatever that means. You’ve got a way out.

OVELL-7 fumbles with their back turned to me, as if conducting illegal business in an underground robot marketplace. We’ve stopped by now in a clearing. I can hear a soft whirring, a compartment opening, and the robot withdrawing a cubed-up vermilion tent. I dig out a can of off-brand soft drink from my backpack, cheaply saving money where possible, and I almost offer one to OVELL-7. A stiffness in my leg for a beat, a breath, then it fades and I’m zipping up the tiny stock of supplies I have.

‘You are getting burnt, Colin,’ OVELL-7 pipes in, as if checking a clock marked with the time since I applied sunscreen before leaving the apartment. I’d stashed a tube of it in a small side pocket of the backpack, and they watch me as I squirt white mounds into my palm.

Cool to the touch, on hopefully-not beet red skin. ‘How’s that?’ I say, my face now likely entirely white, a sheeted ghost. I’ve barely massaged the stuff in, poking my tongue out at them.

I remember poked out tongues, not mine.

OVELL-7 is shaking out the tent, parachuting out macaw wings like extended limbs of their own. I could remark I wish I had that ability, to fly, and there would be no pause, no chuckle at all. A statistical improbability, my tent-unfolder would say, shifting their gaze to search for one of the pegs. Soon, when our temporary shelter is laid out, pinned down, perfect, I’ll get lost in staring at one of those silly little pegs. Jammed and wedged in the ground. Solid, unbreaking.

Out in all this nature, I expect something to wash over me, because they’ve made me come to expect it. A wave of pollen that makes you forget. A fantasy concept. I stray from the small clearing, which has already started to feel like the only option for breathing. An air pod, of sorts, as if rings and rings of eucalyptus and stringybarks formed practical magic from their roots up. There’s a rock with a lean-to surface, a balancing act seat, but I don’t know what I expect it to do, vibrate? The silence is welcomed, always welcomed. There might be my problem, too.

Just go get it out of the car then, don’t be difficult about it. I see the complete wrong shot in my head, winding back to the spot, my robot companion having finished with the set-up. I see the opened boot of his car, and I shouldn’t. It’s an unzipped gap, being spread out by the flap of wind, sudden and obtrusive. Being taunted, almost, to reach in and have an arm ripped off by a flared crocodile.

Moments like these you’re thankful you never went camping with your ex-boyfriend.

OVELL-7 is emptying the contents of my backpack, serene, and calm. Careful not to damage the small paperback I shoved in at the last minute, burying it behind everything. Something I’ve been meaning to read. I hear his voice, soft, but cracking like mirror glass. Like everything, like every book. It’s strange to wonder whether a man-made thing, a machine, could notice when we withdraw inside of ourselves like this. Hear the past, try to just ignore it completely. My robot companion sets the novel down on my pillow, my half of the tent. Until now, I hadn’t considered something – I’ll be off to sleep, off to dreaming, listening to the whirr of OVELL-7’s iron lungs. A little joke we share with each other – machinery is machinery, but my companion has all the organs, they are just invisible.

I eat dinner hours later, OVELL-7 awkwardly perched there, staring back at me. We crawl into the gaping hole. I try to make myself comfortable inside the tent, on the inflatable mattress I sought out for my robot companion. I’d wanted something they won’t immediately burst with the weight of steel-and-metal parts. I think to question how these things – shrunken tent, shrunken mattress – fit inside comfy cozy against everything else, but I drop it. Before this, I would have never imagined someone in my company being able to pop open a compartment where their stomach should be and make it just the right spot for storage. I suppose that explains how I reacted when OVELL-7 walked into my life. Someone could have spent all night reading me aloud the manual, but I had only one question for them: can you be there, by my side, for whatever I need? It feels, now, as if I were propositioning an emotional slave, a servant stringing themselves to my heart. Or man’s best friend.

There are unique paths to the roof of the tent, the stitching, the markings. It could have been machine-made, like most things, but it seems imperfect. Something a human scrambled together, an incomplete omelette. I could try to sleep, but it seems wrought, the thought of it.

‘Would it bring you warmth,’ OVELL-7 begins, ‘if I huddled up against you?’

I think of the last time he held me in his arms. A little memory, trash-bagged. Squeezed in between another dinner, and kicking and screaming. Suddenly you’re alone again.

I feel OVELL-7’s cool plating against my back, a sort of huddling, some rough definition of what it means to be comforted with cuddling. When you find yourself single again, you think, the next time I’ll know love, I won’t be thinking about my ex-boyfriend. Camping underneath new and old stars can at least remedy something – they tell you, running a smooth hand over your robot companion’s bald head. It’s not an exact science, the moving on. I thought, once, that I would be burning to talk more, unpack everything myself. It’s nice for a change, to be camping on other ground.

Author: Keeley Young is a fourth-year creative writing student with his head constantly in the clouds. He is interested in writing everything from fantasy fiction to queer literature to hopefully-engaging pieces about human emotion

Artist: SaBelle Pobjoy-Sherriff is a third year fine arts visual arts student. Her art practice uses narrative and mythology to create obscure illustrations and sculptures. Using acrylic paint and coloured pencils she creates vibrant worlds and creatures. Her current work focuses on the current climate crisis and the idea of corrupting escapism. You can find more on her instagram @SaBelleeee.

Editors: David Farr and Grace Harvey