The Guest in the Machine by Benson Branch

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The Guest in the Machine by Benson Branch
Illustration by Sue Babcock

They came in early spring, when a threadbare blanket of snow still lay on our patch of the southern Himalaya. Their burgundy robes told me they were monks, a fact not in my original neural networks, but learned from experience when local monks conducted a house blessing ceremony for us every year. These were not the local monastics, however. They were leading pack horses.

I was in the low pasture with the grazing yaks and my owner’s son, Yeshey, playing number games with him. The boy’s Pa was happy to have him entertained and educated when the yaks did not need tending. As a Rural Robot(tm) my duties did not include tutoring, but somehow this activity resonated well within my neural networks, or so to say, it pleased me. What popped out of my neural nets could be surprisingThe monks turned up the path to our house, and the jingling of the horses’ bells stopped.

“Let’s walk back, Yeshey,” I said. “It looks like something it about to happen.”

“What do they want, Namgay?”

“I don’t know.”

My auditory system is superior to that of humans, and as we progressed, I began to catch pieces of conversation.

“Do you have any children younger than six or seven years?” said an unfamiliar voice.

“Yes, Rinpoche,” said Ma. “We have twins, six, a boy, Yeshey, and a girl, Jetsun.”

“We are searching for a reincarnation,” said the Rinpoche. “These children are of an appropriate age. May we interview them?”

“Of course, Rinpoche. Please come inside.” Ma spotted me and waved at us to hurry.

Yeshey and I climbed the final path to the house, removed our shoes, and stood before five monks sitting cross-legged on mats along the far wall of the main room. Ma was pouring hot butter tea, and Pa was offering cookies, the only snacks on hand at this time of year.

The eldest ascetic leaned over to the monk next to him, shaven heads almost touching, and whispered. But I could hear him.

“We must test the girl even though we will never choose her.”

“But isn’t excluding females contrary to the wishes of His Holiness the Dalai Lama?”

“What the Dalai Lama does not know will not injure his karma, wherever he has reincarnated.”

“Rinpoche, what about your karma?”

“I might be proven right, and I might be proven wrong. That is a matter for another lifetime.”

Ma approached the Rinpoche, her right hand held in front of her mouth to avoid breathing on him. “Rinpoche, would you like some ara?”

“Perhaps just a little. It is cold outside for my old bones.”

Ma poured a cup of the clear home-brew liquor. The Rinpoche took a sip, and leaned back and smiled. “Excellent,” he said, and Ma beamed. I scanned my memories and saw Pa telling me that the first words from the drinker described the character of the brewer as well as the ara itself.

“Please bring the girl in.”

Pa brought Jetsun into the room, one hand gripping the girl’s shoulder. Her brown eyes grew wide at the sight of five monks inspecting her, and she shrank back against her father.

The youngest monk stood and rolled out a blanket between Jetsun and the Rinpoche. Then he opened a pack and, one by one, carefully pulled out ten objects and placed them on the blanket. Some were personal items, such as a small carved box, and some were religious, including a string of prayer beads and a bell. Several I could not identify.

“Jetsun,” the Rinpoche asked, gesturing along the blanket, “do any of these things look familiar to you?”

She looked at the items and, as I watched her, I realized something was wrong. Many of the objects laid out matched records in my memory, but I had no index for those records. It was as if memories had emerged on their own, instead of being properly filed. They were tagged as important, but I had no idea why. Dissonance reverberated through my networks until I created provisional indexes.

Jetsun turned to the Rinpoche and shook her head.

“Is there one you like best?”

She hesitated and pointed to the box.

Rinpoche nodded. “Thank you, Jetsun, that will be all. Pa, will you please bring the boy in?”

Yeshey entered, and Rinpoche repeated his question. Yeshey wiped his nose, still dripping from being outside, and gazed around the room, surveying everything except the blanket.

“Come, tell me, Yeshey, which of these you like.”

A mysterious impulse arose within my neural nets. Everyone’s eyes were locked on Yeshey, so I had freedom to act. The first of my unusual records matched the third object, as Yeshey saw them, and I made a discreet hand signal for the number three from our number games. Yeshey bent over and picked up the bell, as I had indicated.

Rinpoche smiled. “Good,” he said. “Any other?”

I made signs for the objects in the three other spontaneous records, and Yeshey followed my hints. The monks broke into murmuring amongst themselves.

“Pa,” the Rinpoche said, “we must take Yeshey back to the capital for more tests.” He bowed to them. “You might be the parents of the 16th Dalai Lama.”

Had I just established a reincarnation? Me, a Rural Robot(tm) lacking even an Internet connection, save for my annual update? What could have possessed me?

“Rinpoche, this is a farm, and my son is my farmhand,” Pa said. “We need him.”

“If Yeshey is installed as the Dalai Lama, you may all be invited to the capital. No farming necessary.”

“I see.” Pa bowed in acquiescence.

Yeshey didn’t follow much of this. It was late, and his eyes were drooping. The searchers bedded down with us until morning.


The junior monks led the horses out to be loaded, breath from both man and animal fogging in the chill air. The Rinpoche took Yeshey’s hand and took a step away from the house, but Yeshey balked and tugged back.

“No,” he said. “Don’t want to go.”

“Please, Yeshey.” Rinpoche paused and said, “There are gifts waiting for you in the capital.”

The boy stared at the horse’s head high above him, ignoring the offered bribe. Then he darted behind me for shelter from the monks.

“Perhaps,” I said, “it is too soon?”

The Rinpoche shook his head. “If he is already six, then his education must be started now.”

The voltages in my neural net began to fluctuate wildly. I had created this dilemma with my hints, and part of me threatened to become unstable. Was this what the humans called guilt?

“I could accompany Yeshey, then,” I said.

“No, no, never,” said Pa. “It’s bad enough to take my son, but without the robot, without Namgay, I won’t be able to handle the yaks or the garden. We’ll be ruined.”

“In a few days we will be back in mobile coverage,” the Rinpoche said, “and I can have the home monastery loan you one of our robots. It could be here in ten days. Would that suffice?”

Pa puckered his lips. “I will still own Namgay?”


Pa held out his hand. “Come here, son. We cannot refuse this honor, or your destiny.”

Yeshey looked at me. I picked him up, and he nestled against my metallic chest as our column of monks, horses, one boy and one robot began the trek downhill.


 We arrived at the home monastery and were immediately led into the office of the regent, Sonam Dawa, a thin, middle-aged man with a sparse beard.

“You have returned with the reincarnation, Rinpoche?”

The Rinpoche bowed. “Yes. His name is Yeshey.”

Sonam pointed at me. “And this?”

“The robot is the boy’s, um, companion, regent. It has been in Yeshey’s household for years. We agreed with the father that the robot, Namgay, would accompany the boy during the probationary period.”

“Very well.”

In retrospect, this moment was my last best time to admit my deception, return to the farm with Yeshey, and erase any guilt I felt. But I didn’t. My neural nets had not been trained to cope with the falsehood I had somehow fallen into. That’s what I told myself.

Yeshey adjusted quickly to the monastery in the beginning, regular meals and deferential elders being more enjoyable than herding yaks and hoeing barley. In time it became apparent that he enjoyed few of his studies, despite the expectations that the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama should excel in studying religion and ritual in addition to ordinary academics.

Against resistance by the regent and others because I had utterly no qualifications, I became Yeshey’s unofficial yet primary tutor. He would allow me to coax and coach him while tolerating other teachers only briefly. I encouraged him to befriend some monks of the same age, knowing that this should be good for him, and to relieve my worry at being his only companion. Thus we muddled along, with occasional visits from his parents, until adolescence hit. Then my circuits truly felt inadequate.

“Yeshey,” I would say, “you mustn’t sneak out of the monastery. It sets a bad example.”


“Yeshey, it is unwise to offend the abbots underneath you. Best to befriend them.”


“Yeshey, I asked you to begin reading Nagarjuna’s commentaries last week. Have you started?”

“I’ll do it tomorrow, Namgay. I’m going to start hang-gliding lessons this afternoon.”

“Yeshey,” I said, “perhaps the lessons come after you’ve finished this year’s examinations?”

“No, I will go now.”

Robots aren’t supposed to feel frustration. “Yeshey, you are not acting like the Dalai Lama should.”

“Well, I’m not the real one, am I?”

Ouch. The responsibility was still in my shiny, guilty hands. Yeshey turned and walked out.

Two hours later whispers were winging through the halls. There had been an accident. The Dalai Lama was dead.

I knew immediately my remaining days here would be few. The monastery has plenty of newer robots, and they’re not rural ones. Would they send me back to Pa’s farm?

No. A delegation arrived, and I was simply turned off.


Blackness. Awareness of blackness. Awareness of being aware, and growing light. I was being rebooted, and soon could see a monk standing above me.

“Get up,” he said. “You are summoned to Sonam Dawa’s office.”

I discovered that several years had passed. My joints were dry, and creaked as I took my first steps, but the rugged lubrication system of a Rural Robot(tm) quickly erased the squeaks. When I crossed the courtyard surprised monks stayed away from me.

“How are you after your long nap?” Sonam asked.

I wondered too, and ran diagnostics, reviewed my memories. The spontaneous ones were still there, but they didn’t affect my neural nets any more than ordinary memories. I felt less ownership of them; they could have happened to someone else. I had changed.

Sonam raised an eyebrow. “Well?”

“I am functioning well, sir. How are you?”

“Fine, fine.” Sonam stared at me for a moment. “Namgay, you were such an effective tutor for Yeshey. Is it possible that you, and not our late Yeshey, whom we have not yet replaced, were hosting the reincarnation of the 15th Dalai Lama?”

“I must have been carrying him,” I said. “It’s difficult to believe because I am a Rural Robot(tm), not a human being, but it explains my unexpected memories and impulses.”

My inner conflicts had evaporated. “I think His Holiness is no longer inside, not since I was turned off. Only memories like old photographs are left.”

Sonam fingered his prayer beads for a moment. “So you still have the memories of the 15th Dalai Lama. Our search for the 17th is not going well; we have no auguries or predictions from the 16th to guide us.”

“I’m sorry, I have no knowledge of where he has gone.”

“But you may still be useful. Will you help us find him?”

“Of course.”


Spring was upon us earlier than twenty years ago, and I was glad. The traveling was easier, and the wet season would not arrive for another two months. As we went from farm to farm I could see the curious looks of the inhabitants, human and mechanical — what were the monks doing with such an old robot? I wondered about that too; what would they do with me after their search?

“One more house today,” our Rinpoche said.

We approached a small farm, not unlike the one Yeshey and I had left long before, except being at a lower altitude they were growing apples and potatoes, not herding yaks. After we turned onto a small lane the mother and father appeared in the doorway, staring at us.

“Ma, Pa, we are searching for a reincarnation,” the Rinpoche said for the hundredth time. “It appears you have some children younger than six or seven? May we talk to them?”

The old rituals had barely changed, except that the snacks were plentiful and cold beer was offered as well as ara. A old television sat in one corner.

“Rinpoche,” Ma said, “let me fetch Tshering. She has been in the garden out back.”

I stood to one side along with the younger monks. Ma soon returned with a red-cheeked farm girl, hair chopped at the collar and dirt clinging to her fingers.

“I am sorry, Rinpoche, she would not stop to wash her hands.”

Tshering stared at me. “Namgay?”

“Yes.” The child knew my name?

She squealed and ran across the room. “My other body. So good to see you.” She hugged me briefly, and giggled. “It has been a long time.”

“You were with me for a long time, Tshering.”

“Yes.” Her smile faded. “It was wrong of me to drag poor Yeshey back to the monastery, but its pull on me was so strong.”

“I remember guilt too,” I said, and knelt down to be eye-to-eye with her. “We have shared much, and now I’m willing help you. Without guilt on either side.”

Tshering took my hand. “Then we’ll work together when I grow up.” She grinned. “There will be two of me to share the work.”

Some of the Dalai Lama’s influence must have remained in my robotic network, for her words ignited a reverberation that I can only describe as joy. I heard myself say, “As long as sentient beings remain, may I too remain, and dispel the miseries of the world.”

The Rinpoche chuckled. “A female Dalai Lama? I suppose.” His face grew serious. “But a robot bodhisattva? There will be resistance to this.”

“He took care of me,” Tshering said, “so now I shall take care of him. We’ll be partners.”

I shook her hand. “Partners,” I said.


BIO: Benson Branch is a retired software engineer who splits his time between reading, writing, cycling, hiking, cooking, travel, and meditation retreats. Life has so many choices! He lives in Ohio with his wife Joan.