Xinyu and I pretend to be robots when we assemble storage cases for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), although we’re not sure which UAVs—the ones sent on reconnaissance missions or the ones rich folks buy for fun to get bird’s- eye photos of lakes bluer than the sky, which is not saying much since the sky over here is like soot, heavy with sulfur and carbon oxides and an unquantified number of arsenic particulates. I ask Xinyu if he remembers what blue looks like. He points to my shirt, the standard blue uniform striped with grey, 3M Scotchlite reflective film. I guess he’s right: this is blue. A flat, suffocating, grimed-up blue. If this is what the rich live under, I prefer our sky whose clouds are smothered with fumes. I call it hope; Xinyu calls it misplaced optimism.

            We’re robots building robots.

            ‘Isn’t that meta?’ I ask.

            He rolls his eyes. Xinyu’s sense of humour is much more intellectual than mine. I get amused by the stupidest of things, like the time a perfect cluster of rice stuck to the tip of my chopstick and I pretended to wield a magical sceptre. Xinyu told me to stop but I insisted on waving my chopstick around until the bit of rice dropped onto the floor and I cried about losing a sizable chunk of my dinner ration. He gave me rice from his bowl, much more than the amount I had dropped.

            ‘Won’t you be hungry?’ I asked, and he shrugged.

            ‘Nothing new.’ Xinyu is too smart for the factory. He should be one of the elite commanding the UAVs, not standing in endless lines of workers. When we were little, before the war, he was always the first name on the chalkboard where teachers posted class rankings. My name hovered around the middle, not good enough for teachers to remember, not bad enough for classmates to bully. I’d have done worse if Xinyu hadn’t taught me how to mass-memorise information.

            ‘You have to tie facts to something personal, make a connection’ he’d said. ‘And just be a machine.’ I was always amazed when he’d spit out answers without even digesting problems, but what amazed me more was that he wasn’t a machine. He’d written a story concerning the ethical implications of AI which got published in some prestigious anthology, and the piece ended up being on the critical reading section of the gaokao we had to take before graduation.

            I still remember the question: ‘What is the author’s intent behind the red sunset?’ Xinyu told me: ‘It was just red.’ But the exam’s ‘correct’ answer was: ‘It represented the main character’s waning desire’ or something like that. We had a good laugh about it afterwards. Only the top 0.001 per cent of test-takers are selected to work in high-paying government jobs. Xinyu is probably in the top 0.0001 per cent. I think he intentionally failed the gaokao although he won’t admit anything. Fine by me since he’s my only friend here, and we’ve gotten into a comfortable routine: he shakes me awake every morning, I bring us two trays of breakfast—mine is the congee without scallion, his with extra scallion, and then it’s the same ten-now-eleven hours of piecing together parts. Our manager recently raised the minimum quota per person because of increased demand from the government. Xinyu says the government is getting desperate in the war, although I don’t care about winning or losing wars—it’s just a wasteland of automated vehicles and explosions out there. I’d rather have one hour of sleep back.

            ‘Harness your inner robot,’ Xinyu tells me. I switch my brain off, fingers handling polymer-based materials and snapping edges together, neck craning forward and dragging my head’s weight against my spine. Xinyu traces the back of my neck.  ‘The increased load must’ve prompted remodelling on the tendon and bone edges. It’s wider now, to distribute the load on a larger surface area,’ he says.

            ‘So there’s a bump?’ I ask. He strokes my neck. I’m amazed he can discern a new bump when it’s already all bumps: little spine vertebrae wrapped under one tissue paper layer of skin. I reach over to his neck, trying to feel for a bone spur. I can’t tell. It’s all bone to me. ‘We’re adaptable robots,’ I joke. ‘Evolutional AI on the microscale.’

            I have a hard time rationalising Xinyu’s decisions. He’s this balloon of potential, dropped on spikes at the bottom of a cave. I don’t buy corny answers like ‘I wanted to be with you’ because if our roles were reversed and I had his brains, I’d abandon him in a heartbeat. It’s different when you start from the bottom. Xinyu had always been at the top—smart people must be born differently.

            ‘Don’t look at it like that, make the most of what you’ve got,’ he says. He’s always telling me to stop wanting so much. Robots don’t desire; they optimise, calculate, calibrate, recalculate.

            I stare at my pinky stub. I lost the tip while handling the cleaver. I was in charge of cutting the shell pieces that day and had been staring at the clock when the blade sliced right through my finger, bone snapping like a toothpick against the metal. I screamed, more shocked by the gushing blood than the pain. Factory workers are trained to focus on their tasks and zone out distractions—or at least, keep up the appearance of being absorbed in their tasks. Only Xinyu ran over to help bandage my finger, before insisting I rest. He cleaned up the blood and skin and wrapped the dismembered limb in one of the plastic bags we used to hold our toiletries. The factory was too cheap to provide communal soap and toilet paper. He also took over the remainder of my quota. I’m not sure how he finished it in a day. Genius, if you ask me.

            ‘Do you think it’ll ever grow back?’ I ask. I’ve always wondered why humans can grow back skin (to fill the hollows for scabs) but can never grow back limbs.

            ‘If you were a real robot, we could just replace your hand with a new one: one twist off, one twist on, easy,’ Xinyu replies.

            ‘That’s not a robot. That’s a prosthetic.’

            He shakes his head. ‘Prosthetics are just placeholders. They lack sentience.’

            He speaks as though sentient robots are a good thing, but I find sentience a nuisance. It gets in the way: in school, I could never study past ten pm or else I’d suffer migraines and acute depression the next day; I botch up loads in the assembly line when my mind wanders to lunch or sleep; I hate the guilt festering in my heart as I watch Xinyu’s wiry fingers assemble another UAV case and instead of wondering if he’s eating his meals or saving them all for me, I imagine those fingers dipping over my belly button, into my thighs, soft and probing, more curious than lustful. I wonder if robots have an internal reward system evaluating inputs for pleasure. But then you have to quantify pleasure—the number of nerve endings tickled? Rate of muscular contractions? Levels of dopamine and oxytocin?

            When our shift ends, we follow the crowd out, everyone clustered by the single door, our bottleneck to freedom. It takes half an hour to finally exit. Xinyu bounces his left leg and blinks in rapid succession, like the more he closes his eyes, the more he can pretend he isn’t smooshed up against other bodies. He’s claustrophobic but never complains, not even when we work less than an arm’s distance away from each other, even closer if we’re reaching over each other, movements out of sync, one person lagging, Xinyu suffering for it.

            I fall face forward onto a mattress as Xinyu hangs our uniforms on the coat hanger. The bed frame squeaks as I roll to one side and watch him, imagining what he’d be like as Senior Engineer Xinyu or Manager Xinyu or Vice President Xinyu. He sits next to me and pets my head. I doze off before he does, although he’s the one who has to wake me for our next shift.