I wrote this short story for a contest a few years ago. There were basically three rules for the story: 1.) Less than 2,000 words, 2.) It had to open with “The robot felt”, and 3.) Had to close with “In the end, the robot felt nothing. He wasn’t programmed to”.
More recently, I submitted this short story when I applied for a freelance/contract position for a graphic novel writer. They wanted something sci-fi and apocalyptic. I thought, “hey, I have just the short story for that!”
The robot felt cool to the touch. The silent behemoth lay motionless; one arm pinned beneath its torso as if suddenly deactivated and interrupted in mid-attack. The ground had depressed slightly to accommodate the sudden weight of the eight foot tall, titanium-steel alloy monstrosity. It was quite a contrast to how they usually were–whirring with a mechanical cacophony as they swept through the streets, destroying all who stood in their path.
Mac removed his hand from the robot and surveyed his surroundings. Piles of clothes lined the road in front of deserted homes, doors left open and lights still on. An eerie silence filled the air where once there had been frightened cries and panting breaths; the aftermath of the 8th Robotic Company’s sweep through town. They had already continued on their destructive way, leaving this fallen brother behind. Mac appraised the robot carefully, trying to determine what had caused it to malfunction. It lay on its back, lights off and unmoving. He had seen many in his short ten years of life—the Robolution (Robotic Revolution) was the only thing on the telescreens anymore—but no Companies had yet to enter his small town.
Until now, of course.
The attack had started just a few hours ago, as citizens had sat down for their evening meal. Mac had heard the screams and had seen people running by his windows. His parents had been quick to act—jumping from the table and grabbing only what they had deemed the bare necessities—bottles of water, ration bars, and credit sticks from his father, a worn photo album from his mother. Since reports of the robots nearing their town had begun to broadcast, those items had been packed and ready to go in a small cloth knapsack that remained by the back door. They had grabbed Mac, shaking him from his stupefaction, and had pulled him out the door into the panicked throng of people all headed away from the low, rhythmic sound of laser beams. The stench of sweat filled the air, tickling Mac’s nose, and he pressed his face into his father’s side trying to suppress it.
Though he had known immediately that the robots were attacking, he hadn’t seen them. Images from the telescreens allowed his imagination to produce what his eyes could not. Massive hunks of gleaming metal, swinging heavy arms, glowing red eyes, blue beams of light that disintegrated human tissue on contact. Behind him, the screams had intensified and the pulsing hum of the lasers could be heard overhead. Mac’s father had grabbed his hand and pulled him, urging him to run faster. On Mac’s left, bright blue light had engulfed a woman who then vanished suddenly with a dry pffffft, leaving a small pile of clothing on the ground where she had last stood. She hadn’t even had time to make a sound.
“Run, Mac!” his father had yelled. “Don’t look back!”
Terrified, Mac had dropped his father’s hand and ran for his life. His strong legs had carried him through the small streets, past his neighbors and friends, past the outskirts of the village. Only once he realized that he had entered the wasteland did he stop running. He had been alone.
“Father?” he had called tentatively. “Mother?” He could see no one behind him. The screams had stopped. The ground had rumbled softly as the robots continued to move, but otherwise the evening was silent. He had cautiously returned to the edge of town and poked his head through the open gate of the fourteen-foot wall that encased the village. The sun had begun to set, casting an ominous orange glow on the quiet town where Mac had spent his entire life.
He waited as minutes turned into hours, hiding behind some bushes along the wall when he had thought he heard the Company approaching, but they never came within sight of the town’s edge. Finally, the rumbling had grown softer until it had vanished completely. Mac had gathered up what little courage he had and headed back inside the village to find his parents.
Clothing and shoes had been strewn throughout the roads. Boxes, suitcases, hats, anything a person might have decided to carry along with them as they escaped now littered the ground. The street lights had flickered on as dusk settled in, bathing Mac in a harsh yellow glare. He had backtracked the way he had come, scanning every nook and cranny for his parents and praying that they had escaped or hidden away somewhere.
He had found the knapsack in the middle of the road, not far from where Mac had let go of his father’s hand. The photo album was peeking out of the bag and Mac had grabbed it, clutching it to him. He had furiously blinked back tears and, as he had looked away from the last place his parents had stood, he saw the fallen robot.
Now, he grew angry with the robot and kicked its side. A deep clang echoed down the street as his shoe made contact with hard metal. Mac kicked it again and again, cursing it and its kind for their existence. He could not scratch or dent the hard metal casing no matter how hard he tried. He fell to his knees, exhausted and weeping. Through his tears he began to hear a series of klikks and whirrs. The robot before him stirred and began to move. Mac stared as it rose to its full height of eight feet. The robot looked down, casting his blood-red stare at the boy before him. An arm, which housed the laser beam, rose and pointed directly at the boy.
“Please,” Mac said. “Please don’t.” He squeezed the photo album to his chest and hugged it.
The robot seemed to pause, as if considering the plea for mercy. A bright blue flash of light snaked from the mechanical arm as the boy disappeared in the wake of the laser beam. The robot stood there, watching as the beam dissipated. The album lay open upon the ground where it had fallen. He picked it up carefully, scrutinizing the pictures within.
In the end, the robot felt nothing. He wasn’t programmed to.
As always, feedback is welcome.