Free Hugs – Jennifer Shelby

Free Hugs – Jennifer Shelby

July 2021

Beware: Hugbot ahead, warned a scrawl of white paint across a brick wall. Cyndl paused in her journey through the dead city and stared at the words while a complicated blend of grief and hope blossomed inside of her.

She defied the graffiti and kept moving until the alley opened into a treed square. The Hugbot gleamed in the center, caught in a halo of sunlight and memory. Its body was vaguely humanoid: a metal torso with arms, a short vertical indentation to suggest legs, and tracks instead of feet. Its head was a silver egg with eyes and a mouth. Cyndl had heard that the original prototypes had been sleek, sophisticated, and more human-like, only to be scrapped when people used them for something more than innocent hugging.

The foam latex along the bot’s inner arms, chest, and neck, once offering a pillowed embrace, now hung in ragged ribbons. Its pressure sensors would still be in good shape; the engineers had taken special care with those to prevent crushed customers and their associated lawsuits.

A thick chain around its left track tethered the robot to a link hammered into the concrete. A ring around this anchor had been grooved into the cement by the bot’s desperate, hopeless circling. Cyndl curled her lip in disgust. “That kind of cruelty is never necessary,” she muttered to herself.

The bot’s ocular receptors were dark, and a dusty cobweb drifted lazily over the mesh speaker that was its mouth. Cyndl wiped it away, her hand lingering on the familiar oval of the metal face. A whisper of tears prickled at her eyes.

Someone had tied a filthy sheet around the neck of the bot, covering the solar panel. This had likely been meant as a kindness; a temporary means to keep the bot powered down. The rotten fabric fell apart under Cyndl’s fingers as she untied it, and the sheet whooshed to the ground in a plume of disintegrated fibres.

The solar matrix beneath the sheet appeared to be in good condition. ‘No wonder these things survived the Climate Wars,’ Cyndl thought.

She knelt to detach the chain from the Hugbot’s foot track. The links were strong, but she had a hacksaw in the patched pack that never left her side. She pushed dirty strands of silvered hair behind her sunburnt, peeling ear, set her jaw, and began to work.

Sweat soaked through her shirt by the time she’d finished and kicked the chain away. The bot had yet to wake up. It usually took a few hours for the solar batteries to charge.

Six-year-old Cyndl forced herself to walk. Her cheeks burned with the salt of dried tears. The wind whipping over the city stung her face, but if she turned away, she’d see the tower, and she did not want to see the tower.

Cyndl wasn’t supposed to be alone in the ravaged world. She was supposed to be in the digital realm with the Technicians who’d built the tower, but they had flopped and soiled themselves as the electricity uploaded them to the realms. Her fear had overpowered her faith and she’d pulled out her upload cable.

Cyndl collapsed into a puddle, taking long drinks that tasted of earth and filled her mouth with silt. A glint of metal shifted in the space between her and the edges of the city, a reflected light that drew closer until a machine materialized.

The robot’s shadow fell over her and it lifted her with gentle arms, cradling her body as it carried her away from the tower. She slipped in and out of consciousness. Each time she awoke anew, the bot’s lights blinked. “Would you like a hug?” it asked her.

Cyndl shook her head to ground herself in the present. The Hugbot would be charged soon. She pulled a crab apple from an overgrown ornamental and sat on the ledge of a dry fountain, taking a bite and watching the city for movement. The crab apple tasted tart, but it was wet and fresh, and she relished the treat.

Wild animals had claimed the rotting city, birds flying from broken windows and raccoons skulking through open doorways. The old Tech Cults had been the last hangers-on to sedentary lifestyles, but people still marked their travels by these ruined cities. A Technician tower loomed at the edge of the western skyline. There was a tower for every dead city, but Cyndl didn’t like to acknowledge them.

The first lights flickered on the bot’s control panel. It opened its eyes and turned its head to her. “Would you like a hug?”

Cyndl closed her eyes for a moment, overcome by the emotional weight of the familiar, tinny voice. “Hey, Hugbot.”

“I am Unit 2201. I was created to provide safe physical contact.” The bot projected a hologram of a nondescript individual in a suit into the air between them. Cyndl had dubbed this person Hugbob when she was little. “Here at Lovelace Robotics, we know how hard it is to refrain from hugging your loved ones as we do our duty to defeat the virus. That is why Lovelace Robotics created the Safe Family Avatar. Now you can send Grandma what she really wants for her birthday: a hug from her grandchildren.”

In the grainy hologram, an elderly woman wept into the robot’s neck as it embraced her. “The Safe Family Avatar’s upper body is made of soft, padded latex for the feel of a real hug. Using our patent-pending, non-invasive technology, our Safe Family Avatars scan the levels of oxytocin, the human happiness hormone, in your hug recipient’s bloodstream. This enables us to ensure the optimal hormone levels for best mental health benefits have been achieved. Following each embrace, the Safe Family Avatar engages Disinfect Protocol, designed to destroy any germs that may have been transferred during physical contact.”

The hologram shut down. “Free hugs,” said the bot.

Tears tracked down Cyndl’s cheeks, but a small smile waited on her lips. “The Hugbot who raised me played that hologram for me whenever I had nightmares.” She cocked her head. “They found me after I escaped from the Tech Cults and they taught me how to survive. And, of course, I hugged them whenever their programming told them they needed one.”

The Hugbot didn’t say anything and Cyndl giggled nervously. “Sorry if I’m talking too much. It’s been a while since I’ve had a Hugbot to talk to.” She gave an awkward shrug. “I’m on my own a lot. I’ve tried to join traveling groups, but I never last long. The nightmares come back.” She considered the crab apple core in her hand. Its pink flesh had oxidized to a rusty brown.

“Travelers do not like hugs,” said the Hugbot.

“No.” She tossed the core onto the ground.

“People are afraid of Unit 2201,” said the Hugbot.

“That’s not your fault.” Cyndl gestured in the direction of the tower. “After the Tech Cults, people got superstitious of machines. You bots are the black cats of the modern world.”

“Safe Family Avatars are not cats,” said the Hugbot.

“It means they think crossing your path brings bad luck.” Cyndl eyed the bot to gauge its reaction, but the robot did nothing. “It’s not your fault that your programming tortures you when you have no one to hug, either. Your programmers just wanted you to work hard; they didn’t expect this.” She held up an end of the chain she’d cut away from its track.

“Would you like a hug?” asked the Hugbot.

“How long has it been since someone hugged you?” asked Cyndl.

“Thirty-two years, eight months, seven days.”

Cyndl winced. “That’s a long time, Hugbot. When your Disinfectant Protocol goes off after that long without use, it’s probably going to kill you. I’ve seen it happen a few times with other Hugbots. But if it doesn’t…” Cyndl tried to push down a surge of hope with a gulping breath. “We could travel together. I lost my Hugbot a long time ago.”

A sob burst out of Cyndl as she lunged the wagon forward, stepping into the shadow of a Technician tower for the first time since she’d failed to upload. The Hugbot in the wagon listed severely to the right, its bottom half and track assembly melted into a blob of silvery metals. “FREE HUGS FREE HUGS FREE HUGS!”

Tiny lights inside the tower winked red and green; it still had power. An upload cable waited inside. Cyndl swallowed hard, her hand unwilling to reach out and grab the thing. The robot’s voice burst through the memory that threatened to surface. “HUGS FREE FREE.” And then the cord was in her hand and she was wrapping the Hugbot’s metal fingers around it.

“Once I turn the power on, the current will fry your circuits. It’ll be just like the Hugbot we saw that got hit by lightning. You’ll be dead.”


Cyndl nodded, swiped at her tears, and dashed into the tower. The breaker panel swung open beneath her fingertips and someone had written UPLOAD in red marker with an arrow pointing to a black plastic switch. The Hugbot still screamed, but a softness fell over the world. Her thumb and forefinger pulled the breaker to the opposite side with a heavy click. The blinking lights inside the tower pulsed, dimmed, and the Hugbot outside fell silent. For a moment, there was peace. Until the grief came.

The Hugbot in the square rocked on its tracks as if it were deliberating. A dried leaf wedged beneath its tracks pulled free and a breeze sent it tumbling across the square, then out of sight. “Free hugs,” the bot said at last. “Would you like a hug?”

Cyndl got to her feet. “I would love one.”

The robot’s arms were rough as they wrapped around her slowly, double-checking their safety sensors to avoid crushing her. It had been too long since Cyndl had felt the gentle crush of a robotic hug. She let her longing for the old companionship expand and her tears slip free.

The Hugbot beeped to signal optimal hormone levels had been reached and released Cyndl from its embrace. “You’re a good bot.” Cyndl told them.

“Thank you,” said the Hugbot. “Please stand back while I engage Disinfectant Protocol.”

Cyndl walked away, giving the robot space. Protocol required the Hugbot to heat their surfaces to a minimum of five hundred degrees Celsius to kill off any germs. She waited for the pop before she turned to watch the contained explosion as the protocol malfunctioned. Smoke poured from the Hugbot’s seams. “Free hugs,” it slurred as its light dimmed for the last time.

Cyndl watched black smoke billow from the Hugbot until it faded to a noxious wisp. Only then did she pull a hand-drawn canvas map from her pocket, marked with Hugbot locations she’d gleaned from travelers eager to avoid the machines. With a sorrowful glance at the ruined bot, she crossed out an H.

The nearest city plotted to the east displayed multiple H’s and Cyndl had heard rumors that it housed an old Hugbot factory. Maybe this would be her last journey alone. Her heart fluttered with hope as she put her things away, shouldered her pack, and headed east.

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