Des scavenged the workbench for a wrench—he would need one to save a life.
He searched through old toolboxes and his fingers brought up flakes of rust. Damn abandoned place. Dust rained to the floor as he pushed aside empty bottles of oil. No luck. Des checked beneath, USB sticks and used up needles cracking under his boots, and found a few grime-coated coins. It would have to do.
“Rats crawl over my circuit boards!” Elio buzzed. His glitching voice echoed through the looted mechanic shop. “They gnaw on my wires!”
“Yeah, I heard you the first time,” Des knelt in front of the robot. He didn’t have much light to work with and had to squint—the sun had set hours before. Elio’s eyes, a dozen of white LEDs, flickered inconsistently. Des’ shadow blinked behind him at each flash of the pale, white light.
“Rats crawl over my circuit boards!” Elio buzzed. Another one of his LED’s burnt out, the white color on the panels fading, the corners of his eye’s now colorless. “They gnaw on my wires!”
Des waited for the LEDs to flash again to spot one of the caps covering the robot’s bolts. He steadied one hand on Elio’s chassis, his fingers over the engraved words of Electronic Lion™ Intelligent Officer, and undid the cap like popping the top off a soda bottle. He pressed the coins together and brought them between his knuckles for a makeshift wrench. He’d have to get the chassis off, and then what?
“You’re going to have to snap out of it, Eli,” he said, “wake up and guide me through this. I know how to put together a bot, but you’re an older model. Come on.” A spark fired off from within Elio’s chassis and Des dropped the coins. They rolled off until colliding with an empty welding tank.
“Come on, man,” Des tapped at the robot’s head. Another LED burnt out, the acrid smell of fuming electronics leaking into the air. Des tapped again-
“Watch it, partner!” Elio’s hand jerked up, gears clunking, and his fingers retracted into the cylinder that made for his arm and brought out a revolver. The chamber clicked into place. Des stumbled back, staring down the barrel in the flickering light.
“Watch it, partner! I’ll shoot if you don’t show me your hands!”
“Hey, it’s me! Desmond!” He brought both hands in front of him with fingers splayed. “Don’t shoot, alright, Eli? You’ve known me for ages. Remember the garage, the one with the bloodstains on that kid’s bike?” Elio’s metallic fingers gripped the trigger. “You called on me!” Des said, frantic, “we matched the footprints in the loose oil and found the killer! You’re a deputy, man. You’re my friend. I’m trying to save you.”
Elio’s remaining LEDs switched to a steady white.
“Desmond?” he said. He lowered the revolver to the floor and let it retract inside his arm. “How did we get here, Desmond? My systems are…critical.” Elio tried to stand and one of his LED’s blew open, shards of glass dropping to the floor and spinning in the dim moonlight. “What is happening to me, Desmond?”
“That’s what I’m trying to find out, okay? Need you to cooperate with me. Your system has to be undergoing a logic problem, but your coding is far past my time. You need to tell me what I need to do, and you have to unscrew your chassis.” Des brought his coding tool out from his pocket, a device the size of his hand consisting of a touchpad keyboard and a set of connecting wires—if the bot model had the right ports for it.
“Might be your memory chip,” Des said, “if you don’t know how we got here-”
“Oh, it’s rats. I can feel them crawl over my circuit boards,” his eyes began to stutter once more. Gears clunked within, and a fan started up with a rattle. “They gnaw on my wires.” One hand retracted in for a wrench, but instead of bringing it to the bolts, he hit it against his chassis. The sound of metal hitting metal echoed through the workshop.
“Rats crawl over my circuit boards!” Elio buzzed. The wrench dented the metal as he swung again. “They gnaw on my wires!”
“Listen to me, Eli!” The clanging noise, far too loud, shook the dirtied windowsills. It would alert the rebels—Des would be killed and Elio harvested for parts. He dove forward and grabbed his arm mid-swing, and the robot swung the wrench at his head. Des scrambled back with his arms raised.
“Rats crawl over my circuit boards! They gnaw on my wires!”
“Eli, please,” Des crawled back as the robot approached with the wrench raised high. “Remember the day you called me in for a deconstruction? Our town is small, right? They don’t send us engineers like they do the bigger cities. I took that dead bot apart, software and all, so we could solve that case! I routed the virus and you brought the murderer in!”
“Desmond,” his few remaining LED’s glowed a steady, pearl white. “The rats-”
“Stay with me, Eli. There are no rats, just something wrong with your coding.”
“I know. There are no rats,” Elio sat, bringing the wrench up to the corners of his chassis. One of the last LEDs blew out on his vision panel. “Desmond, my brother once had a logic issue he didn’t get checked. He opened me while I rested, and he put street rats in my chassis. I awoke to them gnawing on my wires, tearing me apart, putting me in the E.R until an engineer could fix me.” The wrench turned and a bolt struck against the floor. Elio moved his arm to the next. “That is all I can remember right now. The rats.” Another bolt rolled out against the dusted concrete. “The patter of their wet feet. The chattering and hissing as they clawed for a way out.” A third and fourth bolt came loose, then a flat sheet of old metal dropped to the floor, revealing a mess of smoking wires and sparking circuits. “I thrashed in my room, unknowing of what was happening, all as my brother’s eyes blinked in laughter. If they didn’t solve his logic problem early enough, he only would’ve gotten more disturbed.”
Elio pointed to the coding tool in Des’ hand.
“I’m a danger to you right now, Desmond, and I won’t stay lucid long enough for you to fix me. You need to-” his two remaining LED’s flickered, and his calm voice began to waver. “You need to…shut me down…friend.”
“No." With what light remained, Des looked around the abandoned shop. “There’ll be another way, I can find something here and tie you down.”
“It…won’t hold,” Elio raised a hand to his chest, pointing to a port for the coding tool’s cable. The cylinder on his arm shook as it cycled through all his tools. “Quickly. I don’t…want…to hurt you.”
Des stepped forward and plugged the connecting cable into the ruins of Elio’s circuitry. A green blinker appeared on the display screen of the tool. Connected, it wrote. Des’ fingers clicked against the keys. He could still save him! He needed a few instructions from him, his model make and number, and he could salvage a code that would put him dormant until they could get to the next shop with the right equipment.
Unless rebels occupied it. They would harvest him and use his memory chip to power another killing bot. Elio’s last two remaining LEDs blinked once more before burning out. Des entered in the reset and shutdown code then held his thumb over the confirm button.
“I’m sorry, Eli. I’ll miss you, pal.”
The robot fell forward, and Desmond dragged him outside for burial.
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Awesome story! You did a great job of characterizing Des and Elio, and by the end I was pretty attached. That’s hard to do with a short story, so nice job!
Thank you for such an amazing story. I loved the dynamics between Des and Elio and how Elio sacrificed himself to save his friend. Great writing!
Thank you so much. It took me a lot of plotting to get their dynamic right, and I'm glad you enjoyed it.
Love this story! I like the imagery of the rats. And beautiful characterisation of Des and Elio.
Interesting take on the prompt! I always like stories that involve human-like androids, and this is no different. I really like the idea of a robot having a "logic issue" which causes them to malfunction. Very well written with great dialogue. Keep writing :)
Thank you. The whole human-like android idea is one of my favorites to write about. I'm really glad you liked it.
This is a great story. I enjoyed the suspense, you kept my attention the whole time.
Thank you for the kind words, I'm glad you liked it.
I love the relationship the two have. You get the sense that they're true partners. I would love to see more stories of this pair solving crime. Great job. :>
Thank you. I originally had trouble writing their dynamic, and cycled through a ton of options before coming up with this one. I'm glad you enjoyed it.
Wow. This is a great sci-fi tragedy. You did an amazing job creating the "story behind the story" dynamic. We get a good sense of Des and Elio's past together, and it makes it all the more heartbreaking to see them separated at the end.
Thank you for the kind words! I really like how this story turned out, and I'm glad you enjoyed it.