The Girl Behind Samurai Bistro
By Gray Winsler
Published Issue 113, May 2023
Emi shivered against the tiny scrap of cardboard that was her bed. It was dotted with grease stains from Samurai Bistro, whose back entrance opened into an alley. Despite this and the ever present smell of fish sauce, Emi liked it here. It was as quiet and dark as one could find in the city, and occasionally there were food scraps she could dig out from the dumpster.
But there were no scraps today, and as Emi shivered in the alley alone, she found herself starting to cry. She squeezed her eyes shut and did her best to fight back the tears. “Don’t cry, Emi. Never cry. Crying shows people you are weak, but you’re not weak, do you understand?” These were some of the last words her mother had said to her before depositing her onto a street corner in the Financial District.
Hoping for a distraction from her sadness, Emi slid out the backpack she’d been using as a pillow and pulled out her coloring book. She smiled at the cover, which was filled with photos of exotic creatures she couldn’t be sure were real. Slowly, carefully, she turned each page, admiring some of her previous work (a lion with a glorious red main, which had taken up the last of her red pencil; a zebra whose pelt she’d spotted with hearts). She turned page by page until she settled on a sloth hanging in a tree festooned with vines. She dug around her backpack for the last two of her colored pencils, which were worn down to nubs. She was just about to start filling in the green leaves on the trees when the door to Samurai Bistro creaked open.
Emi shrank back into the shadows, watching as a bot tossed a bag of garbage into the dumpster. It was tall and gray and in the dim light appeared vaguely human, but it was betrayed by its glowing white eyes. Emi held her breath. She had encountered bots before — patrollers who shooed her away from places she did not belong. Nervously, she watched as the bot motioned to head back inside — but then it paused. It turned and looked over its shoulder, those glowing white saucers peering at Emi. She froze, praying that if perhaps she just didn’t move it would leave her alone. There was a moment of quiet as the two stared at each other, and then the bot continued back into the restaurant.
Emi exhaled at last, her tiny heart thudding in her chest. She knew she had to go. The bot would probably tell the manager first thing in the morning, and then they’d come and drive her away just as the others did, or worse. She stuffed her coloring book and pencils back into her backpack and stood to leave, but just then the door to the restaurant swung open again.
Emi jumped back as the bot stepped into the alley, lit only by a dim trickle of streetlight. She could see it was holding something this time — a tray, with a singular bowl, hot steam rising from it. For another moment the two stared at each other, and Emi began to feel that the bot might be just as unsure of her as she was of it. The bot knelt down then, laid the tray onto the ground, and went back inside. Emi stood there for a moment, wary, resolved to leave. But as she eyed the steaming bowl, she found her resolve wane. Slowly she crept, keeping her eyes fixed on the door as she bent down and took the bowl into her hands. It was warm, so wonderfully warm, and suddenly she forgot where she was, slurping down what tasted like the most delicious soup she’d ever had.
This went on for many nights. A few hours after the restaurant closed Emi would wander back into the alley, and not long after the bot would come bearing ramen or sushi or some other leftover from dinner service. Emi would nod in thank you, and the bot would nod back. And then one night, just as it was turning to leave, Emi asked, What’s your name?”
The bot paused, seeming to think about it for a second, and then it stretched out its arm. Etched into the metal was its serial number.
“I can’t read,” Emi said, her eyes falling to her feet.
The bot quickly pointed to a symbol by its wrist.
Emi squinted at it. “Turtle?”
She giggled. “That’s a silly name.” The marketers who named turtle thought the same. They hoped it would both ease people’s fear in buying a bot and convey its languid movements.
“Can you talk?”
Turtle shook its head no.
Emi found this odd. The other bots she encountered could talk. But, she reasoned, you didn’t need to be able to talk to play a game.
“Do you … want to color?”
Turtle’s head tilted, seeming confused.
Emi reached into her backpack and pulled out her coloring book. She flipped to her favorite drawing of the lion and held it up to Turtle. It stepped forward, lifting the book from her hands, and studying the lion intently.
“Do you like it?”
Turtle looked to her and nodded vigorously.
Emi beamed with pride. No one had looked at her colorings before.
She took the book and flipped to an empty drawing of an elephant. “You can do this one,” she said. The two sat crosslegged on Emi’s cardboard bed. It began to color in the elephants ear, and though Emi desperately wanted to watch, it was not long before she fell soundly asleep beside Turtle.
When she woke, Turtle was gone. But sitting next to her was the coloring book. She picked it up and flipped through the pages, gasping when she found the elephant. It was beautiful, almost as beautiful as the photographs on the cover. It was then an idea, a very lovely idea popped into her head.
Filled with excitement, Emi packed her things and raced out of the alley. She spent the day perusing every children’s store she knew of, hunting for a new coloring book her and Turtle could begin tonight. She wanted one they’d both enjoy, and after many hours of deliberation, she eventually settled on a book filled with drawings of robots — which she slipped into her backpack without anyone noticing.
Emi was ecstatic. She could hardly stop smiling. She thought Turtle was going to love her gift, and she vowed this time she would not fall asleep so she could see how it colored something so magnificent. Just after the restaurant closed, she snuck back into the alley and waited, hardly able to keep still as she anticipated Turtle finding her. It was not long before the door to Samurai Bistro swung open.
“Turtle!” she screamed with joy.
But it wasn’t Turtle standing in the doorway. It was another bot. And hanging limply over its shoulder was Turtle. Emi gasped, a sudden gaping pit opening up in her tiny stomach. The bot tossed Turtle haphazardly into the dumpster and began stalking toward Emi. It resembled Turtle in some ways, but its angles were sharper, and it was perhaps an inch taller. And most of all, it did not seem pleased to see her. Horrified at the sight of Turtle’s lifeless body Emi turned and ran, sprinting out of the alley.
She ran under neon signs, past the pulsing of midnight raves, through crowds of people who were too high to notice a little girl afraid, on the verge of tears. Don’t cry! she chastised herself, her mother’s words still ringing in her ears. She ran until she came to a bench in Twin Bridges Park where she’d often spend her afternoons.
As she caught her breath, she wondered what she was going to do. I can’t leave Turtle there, she thought. And suddenly, she felt embarrassed. Here her friend was in trouble, possibly dead, and all she could do was run. Friends don’t run. Tears of frustration and embarrassment welled up again, but she held them back, realizing, of course, that she had to go back. She had to try and save Turtle.
And so Emi turned and retraced her steps through the city, sneaking her way through a mass of ecstatic dancers, lit by the glow of advertisements above. The closer she got the more nervous she became. What would she do when she got there? What could she do? She was only a little girl. That didn’t matter though, not to Emi. She knew she had to try something.
Creeping nervously up to the alley beside Samurai Bistro, she peered around the corner. Empty. She could see Turtle’s legs still danglingly listlessly from the edge of the dumpster. She ran to it, grabbing its legs, pulling with what little might she could muster — but it was caught. She dug her heels into the ground and pulled harder, but all that emerged was the groan of strained metal from Turtle’s knees.
Frustrated, she looked around the alley for something to stand on. She spotted a small wooden crate, which she pulled over to the edge of the dumpster — but just then a screech of breaks cut through the alley. Emi scurried to the other side of the dumpster, trying to quiet her breath as the sound of van doors slamming shut echoed down the alley, followed by the sounds of many footsteps.
“You sure it was this alley? We’re not exactly in the nicest part of town.”
“Hey man, I grew up here.”
“That’s exactly what I’m saying.”
“Shut up, it’s here.”
Emi pressed herself against the dumpster, trying to make herself as still as possible. The metal pushing into her back rattled as one man climbed up.
“We came all the way out here for a fucking Turtle?”
“They have great parts, and they run on the same OS as all CGX bots.”
“Meaning we’ll take it apart to fix up our Legionnaire.”
Emi winced at the image of Turtle being ripped apart by some thugs.
“Ahhh, now I get it.”
“Good, now shut up and lift it out of there.”
Emi inched over until she could see down the alley, watching as they dragged Turtle into a gray van with many words she could not read. The only thing she could make out was the logo of a robot smiling. But Emi knew that even if Turtle could smile, it would not be because of those men. Tires screeched again and the van lurched away into the night.
She slumped against the dumpster, feeling again the overwhelming urge to cry. Her rescue mission had failed. Worse, her only friend was now detained to be pilfered for parts. And she had no idea where they were taking Turtle. Except — did she? Suddenly that logo seemed very familiar. She’d seen it just yesterday, hadn’t she? The toy store! Yes, she realized, she’d seen it just beside the shop where she stole the coloring book.
Emi leapt to her feet and took off running once again through the corridors of massive skyscrapers. Her breath heaved as she ran and ran and ran, determined to get to Turtle before those men could do anything. The thought as to how exactly she would stop them had not yet occurred to her. She knew only that she had to help her friend.
Soon she came upon the store. The lights were still on, and through the glass she could see the shadowed silhouettes of many other bots. The front door was pried open, and one of the men was smoking beside its entrance. He took one last drag and flicked it into the street before going back into the shop. Emi crept up to the open door slowly until she was just close enough to hear the men inside.
“Do you ever … think we’re doing something wrong here?”
“What the fuck are you talking about?”
“Nothing, I just mean— ”
“Christ, are you one of those cyber cucks? Think these things are sentient or something?”
The other guy laughed nervously, “No, I just— ”
“You think that just because these things can walk around copying real life flesh and blood that they feel something? Unh-uh. No way, pal. You know why? Because it ain’t got a soul. Nothing living up here but ones and zeros,” he said, tapping Turtle’s head.
This made Emi angry. She couldn’t say whether or not Turtle had a soul, but she knew that it was the only one to show her any kindness recently, and it deserved at least that much in return.
“Yeah, right, of course,” the other man agreed.
“Diagnostic scan complete,” said a new voice. And though Emi had no idea what a diagnostic scan was, she saw the voice came from a speaker, which was plugged into Turtle. He can talk!
“Heyo — that’s what we’re looking for,” said one of the men.
“Should we reformat it?”
“We’ll take care of that in the morning. I’m too hungry to deal with any more of this shit right now.”
Without thinking, Emi snuck inside and hid behind the counter as the two men collected their things and closed up the shop, locking the door behind them. She waited until she couldn’t hear their voices and then walked over to Turtle who was splayed out on a workbench, a laptop still glowing beside it.
“Turtle? Can you hear me?” she asked, nudging it gently.
Turtle did not move.
Emi looked to the laptop, but couldn’t decipher a single thing on the screen. There were too many lines of text and numbers that meant nothing to her. Except, in the corner of one window, there was a green button that looked welcoming. Not knowing what else to try, she clicked it. The screen then filled with dozens of pop-up windows, a series of glowing bars sliding to 100 percent.
She looked to Turtle who was lying still. She wished desperately for it to wake up. And then, just as the last of the bars on the screen filled, Turtle’s fingers twitched.
Slowly, it sat up and looked to Emi, those glowing eyes beaming at her. Before she could say anything, it wrapped its arms around her and pulled her into a hug. And once again today she found tears welling in her eyes, only this time she did not try to fight them.
Gray Winsler is the first ginger to be published in Birdy Magazine, Issue 091. He loved living in Denver despite his allergy to the sun and is now based in Ithaca, NY. He spends his mornings with his dog Indy by his side, writing as much as possible before his 9-to-5. If you’re curious about Normal, IL or why TacoBell is bomb, you can find more on his site.