The Seamstress Robot and the Insect Bride

by Mary E. Lowd

A Deep Sky Anchor Original, July 2023

“Am-lei’s mother had, at least, enjoyed the benefit of having beautiful, colorful, butterfly wings that distracted humans from the Kafkaesque qualities of her actual body.”

The Seamstress Robot’s shop was a little hole in the wall in the Merchant’s Quarter of Crossroads Station.  The seamstress robot herself looked a lot like a giant mechanical spider — all spindly silver legs, overly jointed and coming to extremely delicate points, capable of grabbing, manipulating, and piercing fabric.  Also, generating fabric.  The seamstress robot, like an actual spider, could generate silk.  And synthetic cotton.  And synth wool.  And velvet, taffeta, patterned prints, fake leather… just about any material you could imagine could be generated, strand by strand, from the tip of her 3D printer leg.

The seamstress robot was one of Maradia’s finest inventions — just shy of sentient, but extremely competent.  Over the centuries, sewing had turned out to be one of the absolute hardest crafts to automate, as it involves extremely delicate, precise physical movements that vary so much from one to the next and involve such complexity that an adept mind must carefully monitor them, constantly adjusting.  But finally, well after humans had explored and colonized the stars, Maradia had managed to automate sewing.

After creating the seamstress robot, Maradia had set SR01 — as the robot liked to be called — up with a little shop, which of course stayed registered in Maradia’s name, since the robot (being less than sentient) couldn’t own anything herself.  SR01’s shop more than paid for itself, in spite of the fact that most humans and Heffens living on the station considered the robot herself very creepy and unnerving, far too insectile with her many — far too many, more than a spider, and constantly moving so very hard to count — overly jointed legs.

Am-lei, however, being an insectoid alien herself, found SR01’s physical presence rather comforting, which was good, because she was feeling very nervous about picking out a wedding dress for herself.  She was used to the humans and canine Heffens who lived aboard Crossroads Station treating her like some kind of nightmare vision, until they got to know her.  That hadn’t been true back when she’d been a pudgy green caterpillar — back then, everyone had found her adorable.  Then she’d spent a month inside a chrysalis and emerged looking almost exactly like her mother — long spindly legs; hard shiny exoskeleton; and glittering many-faceted eyes.

Am-lei’s mother had, at least, enjoyed the benefit of having beautiful, colorful, butterfly wings that distracted humans from the Kafkaesque qualities of her actual body.  But then Am-lei’s mother had been an orphan foundling, adopted by a well-meaning but ignorant human who didn’t know her wings were vestigial and her species, Lepidopterans, traditionally cut them off.

Am-lei had known about her species’ traditions, and rather than suffer years of heavy wings messing up the muscles in her back and bumping against everything, she’d emerged from her chrysalis to a celebratory Wing Day party where her mother had ceremonially sliced off one of her wings with a knife, and then her human grandmother had sliced off the other one.  Am-lei didn’t regret cutting her wings off.  But she was sometimes jealous of the years her mother had spent looking like an ethereal angel to the humans who surrounded her… instead of plunging straight into looking like a Cthonian devil.

What must it have been like to walk through life admired by all around her for her incredible beauty?  Am-lei had never known.

But Jeko thought she was beautiful.  And most days, that was more than enough for Am-lei.  To have captured the heart of a gentle, shy, sweet elephantine woman?  Any lady should be so lucky.

Jeko held up a colorful piece of silk with her trunk — a sample of fabric — and said, “What about this?  It would look nice.”

Am-lei shrugged her four long, spindly arms.  Nothing here was inspiring her, no matter how many swaths of sample fabric SR01 wove for her.  No matter how many mock-up dresses SR01 draped over her angular body.

Jeko had already found a wedding dress that suited her — white with gold edging, gathered skirt that came to just above her hoof-like toes, and long, tight elegant sleeves.  She looked gorgeous in it — her plump curves perfectly flattered by the gauzy fabric.  She far outshone any of the human brides Am-lei had seen, both in real life and the old movies her human grandmother liked to watch.  Human faces looked boring without long trunks hanging expressively from them, and their smooth, tight skin looked plastic and fake compared to Jeko’s wrinkly gray folds.

Lepidopterans didn’t usually pair-bond, according to what Am-lei had read about her people, and so there was no cultural ceremony from her people for braiding two lives together with the ribbons of romantic love; Jeko’s elephantine species did have their own versions of wedding ceremonies, but Jeko’s parents had traveled so much when she’d been little that she’d never felt attached to her own species’ traditions.

Am-lei and Jeko had settled on a fairly typical human-style ceremony with fancy gowns and promises spoken aloud, because they’d both spent so much time living among humans.  Besides, Am-lei’s Grandma Amy was loving it, and it was always fun to make Grandma Amy happy.

Grandma Amy had even tried to convince Am-lei to let her help pick out the wedding dress, but the brides had wanted to pick the dresses out together… just the two of them.

“I don’t know, Jeko,” Am-lei said.  “No matter what kind of fabric we try, or how we wrap it around me…  I still just feel like some kind of nightmare vision when we put me in a fancy ball gown of any sort.  It doesn’t usually get to me…”

Jeko put down the scrap of fabric she’d been holding in her trunk and stared quietly at Am-lei, focusing on her completely.

Am-lei felt the muscles in the joints between her different pieces of exoskeleton relax a little.  She always felt better when Jeko looked at her — really looked at her — like she could see all the way down to Am-lei’s heart, pumping hemolymph through her body — yellow-green where a human’s blood would be red.

“I know what I look like to most of the mammal species on Crossroads Station, and I don’t care most of the time.  I know who I am…  But this just feels like some kind of horror-movie dress-up game.  Like, let’s put the big bug in human clothes!  Maybe we could even cut off some human skin to drape over her hideous hard carapace!  Then she’d be a real bride!”

Jeko didn’t say anything.  She didn’t have to.  Am-lei knew when she was being ridiculous and going overboard.

“What about a suit?” Jeko asked, pointing with her trunk to one of the displays that SR01 had pulled up on a wall-screen while suggesting things she could sew for them.

SR01 saw the gesture and matched it with one of her long mechanical arms.  “Yes, I can make suits.”  Her spindly arm reached to the controls for the wall-screen, and suddenly the image of a human bride and groom standing next to each other was replaced with an image of five different people — three humans, a Heffen, and a koala-like alien — all wearing different styles of suits with sleek, sharp angles.  Classy vests, straight-cut legs, and brightly colored neckties providing the one color contrast to otherwise simple gray-tone pieces.

Am-lei turned away.  Though, with her disco-ball-like eyes, she could still see the image behind her.  Turning away was a physical gesture she’d learned from spending time around mammaloids and other aliens who could only see forward.  She knew it worked differently for them… but it still felt like an effective way to communicate what she was feeling sometimes.

“Okay,” Jeko said.  “I guess that’s still playing dress-up-the-bug, huh?”

Am-lei shrugged again.  She knew that shrugging looked extra impressive on her, with her extra arms.  She wasn’t trying to be melodramatic.  She just didn’t like any of the options being presented to her, and it was starting to make her wonder if she belonged participating in a human-style wedding ceremony at all.  Just because Grandma Amy was excited about it, and Jeko was having the time of her life planning everything didn’t mean… well… it didn’t mean they had to have a human-style wedding.  But…  It was wonderful watching Jeko get so excited about every detail of the planning.  It had been drawing them even closer together — picking a menu for the reception afterward, selecting decorations, choosing a location.  It was all a lot of fun.

But… this part made Am-lei feel left out.  The idea of dressing up like a mammal didn’t make Am-lei feel fancy and special the way that Jeko’s gown clearly made her feel.  It made her feel fake and wrong.

But the idea of wearing anything like her usual clothes — mostly just scarves tied and draped around her carapace — just didn’t feel special enough.  She didn’t know what to do.  She didn’t want to ruin all of this for Jeko… but she also didn’t want to play along and pretend to be happy when she wasn’t really feeling that way.

If anyone had known how to dress a body like Am-lei’s for a formal occasion, she would have thought it would be SR01 with her similarly spindly, angular, insectile form.  And yet, watching SR01 clamber around her small shop, gathering up the swaths of fabric strewn everywhere and carefully folding them back into neatly organized piles, Am-lei realized the robot probably never had any occasions to dress up for.

SR01 lived here, in her shop.  She lived to serve the customers who came looking for personally tailored clothing.  She didn’t actually live.  She was just a robot.

How simple and clear — to have a purpose and do nothing other than serve that purpose.

Maybe Am-lei’s people were right — romantic pair-bonding was a distraction, and she should simply focus on her work as a physicist.  Being here in this dress shop wasn’t making her happy.  Jeko made her happy, but did they really need a whole special ceremony to codify that?  They could be happy together without trying to painfully force their feelings for each other into some box that was designed for an entirely different species, dating way back to when that species had lived in isolation on the single planetary cradle they’d crawled into the rest of the universe from.

“Maybe we just shouldn’t do this…”  Am-lei fluted the words quietly, keeping her proboscis coiled as she spoke them.  She didn’t want to say them.  She didn’t want them to be heard.  But the words had seemed to leak out of her anyway, reflecting feelings too strong to be denied.

Jeko reached out her trunk, placed it on Am-lei’s narrow shoulders, and guided her conflicted, troubled, insectile fiancé to turn back toward her.  “We’re doing this because it’s fun.  What can we do to make this fun for you?”

“None of this feels like me,” Am-lei fluted.  “I don’t feel like me while I’m doing this.  But… I don’t know what would feel like me.”

“Well, let’s think about you,” Jeko said.

In the background, SR01 continued to busy herself with tidying the shop, giving the brides a little privacy.  Though, given the robot’s sub-sentience, neither bride was too worried about her listening in.  SR01 knew how to be companionable and polite, but when someone wasn’t specifically talking to her, that part of herself seemed to shut down.  She wasn’t an inherently social being; she simply had subroutines for being reactively social when necessary as part of her guiding purpose, namely designing and creating practical, wearable works of art out of soft fabrics.

“You’re a brilliant physicist,” Jeko said, still staring at Am-lei with her small, bright eyes in a way that said, “I see all of you, every piece of you, and I love it all.”

“Okay, sure, but that doesn’t really help us here?” Am-lei fluted.

“You say you hate poetry, but you actually love it… you’re just really particular about which pieces you like.  You’re fiercely competitive when you play games, but you feel like you shouldn’t be, so you try to hide it as much as possible.  And you’re extremely conflicted about your Lepidopteran heritage, partly because you like how special it makes you that you’re one of only two Lepidopterans on Crossroads Station but mostly because you’re afraid that, having been raised among so many mammaloids, you somehow don’t deserve access to a cultural heritage that you’ve mostly only read about.”

If Am-lei had the kind of eyes that would let her look away from Jeko, she would have then.  Jeko’s words pierced too close to her heart.

“But you are a Lepidopteran, and you do deserve that cultural heritage, even if that means putting your own spin on it.  So, let’s figure out how you can make this mish-mashed human-style wedding twisted around for an elephant and a butterfly into something that feels like yours.”

Am-lei always found it a little funny when Jeko referred to the two of them as an “elephant and butterfly.”  Yes, Jeko and her parents looked a lot like the animals that humans called elephants.  But Am-lei had only really looked like a butterfly for one day in her life — the day she’d emerged from her chrysalis and attended her Wing Day party.  By the end of the party, she hadn’t really looked like a butterfly anymore, because that had been all about the wings.  Sure, she looked like some kind of giant insect, but from what she understood about humans and the animals they liked to compare everything to, butterflies were really all about the big, colorful, beautiful wings.

And she didn’t have those.

But… maybe she could.

“I have an idea,” Am-lei fluted.  She leaned away from Jeko, focusing instead on the robot who was currently busying herself with a tray of spools and bobbins full of thread in a whole rainbow of colors.  “Can you pull up some images of the animal that humans call ‘butterfly’?”

“Of course,” SR01 answered pleasantly.  Three of her spindly legs moved quickly to work various control panels around the room, and suddenly every wall-screen around them filled with bright, colorful pictures of all sorts of butterflies.  Monarchs in orange and black; swallowtails in yellow with gemstone touches of purple and blue; checkerboard-colored wings; simple white wings with only a small touch of black and red like an eye in the corner; and so many, many more.

Am-lei pointed to the white-winged butterfly.  It was smaller and simpler than the other butterflies around it, but its white wings made her think of all the white wedding gowns she and Jeko had been looking at.  “What if instead of a gown… I wore cloth wings?”

“I think that’s a lovely idea,” Jeko said.

“Could you make something like those wings?” Am-lei asked the robot.  “For me to wear?”

SR01 didn’t answer right away, not with words, at least.  Instead, she put down the tray of thread, clambered back toward Am-lei, and then took hold of the insect bride’s foremost arms with her own metal arms.  SR01 gently spread Am-lei’s arms wide, lowered them, positioned them at a few different angles, and then let go.  SR01 stepped back and looked at Am-lei for a moment, seemingly pondering.  Given her highspeed electronic brain, she was probably running through hundreds or even thousands of design schematics for possible wing patterns in the few seconds it took her to finally provide an answer:  “Yes, I recommend we attach the wings to your arms in a few locations, then they will move with you.  A little like a cape, but more involved.  Shall I spin you a mock-up?”

“Sure,” Am-lei answered, finally feeling a glimmer of hope about these proceedings.  She was still worried she wouldn’t like whatever SR01 came up with… but, actually, that wasn’t quite right.  She wasn’t just worried.  She was actually a little scared, because this time, the idea behind the garment actually spoke to her.

Am-lei liked the idea of wearing wings to her wedding.  She’d worn wings on the day of her last big rite of passage — a Wing Day party was truly, in Lepidopteran culture, the celebration of a child entering adulthood.  She’d no longer been a pudgy baby caterpillar; she’d been her adult self for the first time.  And her wings — her natural, biological wings — had been the adornment she’d worn to that party.

Am-lei liked the idea of wearing wings — different, fabricated ones — to the big party that would celebrate her and Jeko committing their hearts and futures to each other.

It wasn’t a Lepidopteran tradition.  But it could be her tradition.  Wings for rites of passage.

While Am-lei pondered, SR01 worked busily around her, mechanical legs moving almost too fast to see as she wove simple mock-up wings right onto Am-lei’s arms like a giant spider spinning a web onto her.

The wings came out simple — opaque white ovals that hung from her arms and fluttered with her every movement.  They weren’t like her own wings had been — although they’d been vestigial, those wings had been a part of her.  She’d been able to move them and feel them.  These wings weren’t a part of her.  But they adorned her, making her feel a little more like the self she remembered being as an overly excitable, dramatic teenager, high on the idea that finally she was the adult she’d always been meant to become.

This was the bride Am-lei was meant to be.  “Yes,” she fluted.  “I like this, but… could we make the wings less round?  And maybe make the fabric a little more translucent… still white, but sort of… gossamer?”

SR01 didn’t even bother to answer; she simply launched right into removing the first mock-up wings from Am-lei’s arms and sewing the next ones.  Just like Am-lei had described them.

After several iterations, changing small details, altering the shape of the pattern and the texture of the fabric, Am-lei found herself wearing a pair of lacy, translucent white wings that made her feel just as fancy and special as Jeko’s dress seemed to make her feel.

“You look beautiful,” Jeko said.

“Less like a butterfly,” Am-lei fluted.  “More like… what are those other insects humans talk about?”

“Dragonflies,” SR01 offered, and with a small adjustment, pictures of dragonflies appeared on one of the wall-screens.  Their wings shimmered in the sunlight.

Am-lei and Jeko wouldn’t be getting married under true sunlight, because they’d chosen to have their wedding aboard Crossroads Station.  But the location they’d chosen aboard the station was in the arboretum, and the lamplight in there looked a lot like natural sunlight.

As she exchanged her vows with her beloved elephant, Am-lei’s dragonfly-like wings would shimmer too.

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