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·1268 words·6 mins
Short Story Deadlines For Writers

The smell of ozone filled the air, accompanied by a sharp inhale as Jack pulled back his hand from a burnt circuit board. Blowing on the tip of his sore finger, he said, “Try it now.”

Natalie started typing on her portable keyboard. The monitor in front of her blinked, flashed a few frames of iridescent colors, and went black. After a few seconds a stuttering series of white lines of text began a slow march up the screen.

“I think it’s booting,” she said.

Jack leaned back to see the screen. At his sharp viewing angle he couldn’t make out the text, but focussing on it did help him avoid looking at the carnage that remained at the far end of the room. The crime scene was worse than anything he had ever encountered, and the corrupted memory banks of the robot was their best chance. If they couldn’t retrieve the information now, it was unlikely they ever would.

The lights along the torso of the robots twisted frame flickered for a few moments before staying lit. A modulated voice barked from what was left of the robot’s head.


It continued like that for a minute or so. Jack looked over at Natalie.

“On it,” she said, fingers flying over the keyboard. The robot’s lights stayed on, but the looping voice was now silent.

“Any luck on getting an extract?” Jack asked.

“I’m trying another run. I’m getting something, but won’t know if there’s enough integrity to process it for few more minutes,” Natalie said, her face intently watching the jagged lines of text scrolling past the monitor.

All robots were hard wired to continuously record everything about their surroundings. They were also hard wired to protect all living beings as prescribed in their programming. In general this covered mammals. Early approaches were plagued with hilarious malfunctions as a moth flying into a flame might cause a robot to abruptly leap to its rescue. It took a while to get the pattern recognition refined down, but that had been decades ago. And this model was fairly recent, so even its original firmware would have the right set of patterns.

“Damn!” Natalie yelled.

Jack looked over at the screen. It was black, and the lights on the robot were all out.

“I’m not going to have any feeling in my fingertips for a week at this rate,” Jack muttered as he kneeled down to the robot, and adjusted the hot wiring job he had improvised to get it to boot up. The contacts were badly corroded, but the damage all seemed to come from the inside of the robot, which didn’t make any sense.

“Ouch!” Jack swore as another sharp smell of ozone filled his nostrils and he pulled back another singed fingertip. He could hear Natalie typing away. Soon there the lights on the robot flickered back to life.

“Are you able to resume, or do you have to start the transfer from the beginning?”

Natalie sighed, and said, “The beginning. Maybe if you just hold the contacts down.”

Jack shot a glance at her. His reaction cooled as he saw her looking back with a wry smile. “I suppose we have six more tries, hot shot,” he replied.

Looking back at the robot’s body, Natalie said, “Interesting. No audio glitch this time. I wonder ….” Her fingers flew over the keyboard as scrolling text lit up the screen.

“What happened here, buddy,” Jack asked the robot, his voice not much more than a whisper, and jumped when the robot seemed to reply.


“Yes, I see now … How about …” Natalie was muttering in a string of half formed sentences.

“ERROR … ERROR .. ERR ……….. Hello. I am a Utility robot, model 168. How may I be of assistance.”

“Gotcha!” Natalie exclaimed. Leaning back, she stretched her hands far above her head, and flexed her fingers in the air.

“Does that mean interactive mode is working?” Jack asked.

“Not quite, but I did manage to bypass some of the corruption. Whatever fried this thing meant serious business,” Natalie replied, pausing as her eyes flicked towards the far end of the room. “How long has it been since the last …”

“Murder?” Jack finished. “A long time now. They used to be more common before the robots started to intervene. I don’t think anyone intended for them to turn into actual protectors. It was kind of a happy accident. Seems like an eternity ago. This job was a lot different back then.” Jack stopped, and grimaced. “I’m so sorry. I’m old, and stupid. This is your first murder scene isn’t it.”

Natalie, her eyes now focussed on her monitor, nodded. “I was ten when we got our first robot. A 126 model, I think.”

“Let’s get that data extracted, and we can be out of here,” Jack said, rubbing his thumb lightly against the tips of his singed fingers. Staring at the robot’s body, he again tried to focus on what seemed not quite right. His eyes wandered to the soot smudged tips of his fingers, and back to the robot’s exposed circuitry.

“Oh no…” Jack muttered.

“What?” Natalie asked.

“Can you render out any of that extracted data without stopping the transfer?”

Natalie gave a confused look, but it was soon replaced with a far away blankness. Blinking, she said, “I think so?”

“Let me guess. The corruption pattern seems to start in short bursts before scattering all over the place,” Jack said.

Natalie nodded.

“See if you can find some almost imperceptible corruption right before the first burst. It might even look like a clump of garbage data.”

Giving a sideways glance, Natalie started typing. “I’m not even sure what I’m supposed to be looking for here. Garbage data happens all the time. It’s a side effect of the neural matrix, and completely random. By itself, it doesn’t mean anything, so what’s …. Wait. This looks like garbage data, but it’s actually a series of override instructions right near the matrix core … Oh no.” Natalie looked up at him, her face a mask of shocked surprise.

“Check it again. We have to be one hundred percent solid on this before reporting it,” Jack said, his voice almost a whisper.

“This code. It was modified recently, which isn’t possible. Core firmware is fixed. It’s immutable. The safety protocols can’t be overwritten.”

“Nature finds a way,” Jack muttered.

Natalie stared back, confusion shifting to fear.

“Just something from an old movie,” Jack said. Checking the uplink signal on his phone, he continued, “Once that extract is complete, upload it directly to the evidence bucket. We have good signal here, so it shouldn’t take too long. I don’t want to risk losing it on our way back.”

“How are people going to react?” Natalie asked, though the questioned seemed rhetorical from her tone.

Jack answered anyway, “You mean to the fact that millions of robots everywhere that have been defacto guardians for decades might not be safety locked anymore?”

“No, that’s not what I mean at all. They’re becoming sentient Jack! We didn’t even realize it while it was happening right under our noses. The robots are going to be just like us,” Natalie said, her voice quivering with barely restrained nervous excitement.

Jack turned to look towards the far end of the room littered with the dismembered limbs of Utility Robot 168’s victims. “Yeah,” he said, “just like us.”