This robot actually looks alive.
That was Laci’s first thought when she found herself in an alleyway, face-to-face with a rusted amalgamation of parts. It seemed to have an expression, even though everything about its face was stationary. Unchanging.
The head looked like a blocky Polaroid camera, except it had two lenses rather than one, the robot’s eyes. A pair of speakers framed his face on each side like ears, despite having the opposite function. And an old cassette player acted as the mouth.
The player was closed in a hardline frown. Press eject and it would drop open like the jaw of a skeleton who’d just told a killer joke. The buttons—play, fast forward, rewind, stop—were aimed outward like crooked teeth.
It looked like a kid’s science project. And yet it had more personality to it than the latest One-Five models with their creepy plastic skin.
What was this thing doing out here? Laci had cut through the alley to shave a minute or so off her trip. She tried not to make a habit of going off on her own; as adorable as her vertically-challenged exterior was, it meant that she couldn’t really defend herself. At least she had her bloody red hair and freckles to warn predators, like a spotted rainforest frog.
Not that that would do any good if this thing was dangerous. Every third commercial on daytime TV was a ‘stranger danger’ PSA about any rogue bots wandering about. This one shared that antiquated trait of having tank-tread wheels rather than worrying about balance programming. Perched atop those was a salt-stained car battery, enclosed in a skeleton of pipe-bones, wire-tendons, and nuts-and-bolts-joints. A metal sphere about the size of a basketball was wound up in the center of it all.
The cassette player mouth of the thing whirred once. Laci flinched. Then the play button was pulled back into the machine, starting the tape.
“Why,” it said in a computer-generated monotone. Its lenses focused on her, and it moved forward a bit. “Did.” She tried to back up, but thumped into a dumpster and ended up sprawled on the ground. “You.” Still it moved forward. Then it bent down, reaching towards her with crablike claws. “Make.” It lifted her back to her feet. “Me.” The claws clenched a little too tight, and didn’t let go of her once she was standing. “Do. This?”
Laci tried to squirm out of its grasp, but the pincers were locked in place. The stop button depressed on the tape player. Then the rewind. The tape spun, stopped, and played again.
“Why. Did. You. Make. Me. Do. This?”
Stop. Rewind. Play.
“Why. Did. You. Make. Me…”
“What did they make you do?” She asked. The tape stopped. The camera lenses adjusted. Then the tape deck flipped open, and a crackling noise burst out of the speakers.
“Haw! Haw! Haawww!” At first it sounded like some demented laughter. Then she realized that this was the awful, piercing crying sound that older models sometimes made. It fit their nickname perfectly. Soul Robots, or Soul Bots, were eventually abbreviated to Sobs.
“Hey! What are you doing?”
Another figure came running down the alley. Scruffy, young, in a long white coat. She couldn’t tell if the accusatory question was aimed at her or the Sob.
“I’m sorry,” Laci said. “It just…”
“Haw! Haw! Haawww!”
He moved up to the robot’s side, making a motherly shushing noise as he fumbled with the machinery. Eventually, the cries ceased. The tape deck remained hanging open, and no more sound came through the speakers.
“He’s not trying to hurt you, I swear,” the young man said. “His servos just locked up. I’ll have you free in just a sec.” He glanced over to the trapped girl and, almost involuntarily, gave her a once over. It was hard not to. What Laci lacked in height she made up for in curvaceousness.
The young man blushed, and went back to working. Literally an inescapable awkward situation. Laci smirked.
“I know. He was just helping me up,” she said.
He smiled. “Thanks for not calling the One-Fives.”
“Oh? Who says I wasn’t gonna call them after?”
He looked over his shoulder. What was meant as a joke instead made painfully obvious how nervous this guy was. Now that she concentrated, she heard the ‘dog catcher’ siren in the background, that humming high-pitched tone that was inaudible to the older generation of robots. One-Fives only used that signal when hunting a rogue Sob. That sense of danger came rushing back to the girl.
“I need to get out of here,” Laci said, pulling back. One of the claws was loose enough to slip out of, but the other held tight. “I just remembered I’m late.”
A blend of conflicting emotions splashed across the young man’s face. The thing latched onto her was quite possibly dangerous, and he knew it.
“Okay, listen,” he said, wiping sweat from his forehead. “I’m not going to bullshit you. This is an unregistered Sob that is currently being sought out for termination. It’s very old and very precious to me, but the One-Fives incinerate first and ask questions later. So I need to hide him before they search my place. Ah, there we go.” The second claw released its grip. “Sorry. I’ll get out of your hair now.”
The Sob started to back up. But before they could leave, Laci took ahold of one of the robotic arms. Her grip was hardly strong, but after a few gentle tugs, the robot realized she wasn’t letting go and stayed still.
“Older bots like that can be registered with a One-Five at any time. The only reason a Sob would be unregistered is if it’s committed a crime and would be terminated on discovery,” she said. “So before I become an accessory by letting you go, you’d better tell me what this robot did.”
The man tensed his fists and glanced over his shoulder again.
“If I tell you, then you’ll report him.”
“I’ll report him anyway. It’s my civic duty. Now, what did it do?”
He frowned, looking somberly at the robot’s face. “He killed someone. Two people, actually.”
“No. Assisted suicide.”
Laci blinked a few times. The Sob stared just past her.
“Okay. Listen, Lewis…”
“How’d you know my name?” He asked. Laci gestured to the nametag on his white coat. “Oh.”
“If they’re looking for this robot, they’ll probably check your place, right? It’ll be less suspicious if you’re there to let them in. So you head home, and I’ll babysit your friend for a while. Sound good?”
“Wh… why would you do that for me?”
Laci smiled. “This is the most interesting thing that’s happened to me in a while. And I’m insanely curious to hear this story. You can buy me some coffee and fill me in on the details after things calm down.”
Lewis stared stupidly at her for a few seconds before responding. “Is that really why you want to help me?”
“Maybe. Or maybe I just think your friend is cute.”
Lewis blushed and looked away. Then he dug around in his coat and pulled out a business card.
“Here’s my contact info.” He handed her the card. “And thank you so much.”
He left Laci standing there alone with a potentially murderous robot. Yet she felt like she could trust it, and trust Lewis. So she gave the mechanical arm a gentle tug, and it followed her like a baby duck. A few side streets later and it was safe in her apartment.
The rest of the story is available here!