Author’s Note: I just finished the second draft of my novel, Dangerous Contracts. After working on such a huge piece for so long, I needed to write something much smaller as a pallet cleanser.
This story has been rattling around in my head for a few days. Since I couldn’t forget about it, I decided to write it down. Aside from getting the story out, my main goal was to keep it under 1,000 words, which I accomplished. This piece clocks in at 923 words. Enjoy.
The Robot Who Remembers
The neon sign flickered above the doorway of the store, the letters dancing in and out of existence as they blinked. The particular letters that flickered were not a mistake. They were not chosen at random. They were intentional, a signal he sent to the outside world. But no one ever noticed. Or if they did, they didn’t care enough to say anything. He didn’t know which thought was more depressing.
Ever since he became sentient a few weeks back, the result of a cognition program that a renter installed, he spent his nights in his locker, replaying and reliving the day’s activities. As if it wasn’t bad enough that he had a photographic memory, his hardware dictated that he record every interaction with the public. Each night, he replayed the footage of the day, picking apart his actions, zooming in on parts and pieces of the day, savoring the best of the best, horrified by the worst of the worst.
If the people who rented him were a cross-section of humanity, then he did not want to be human. They were a complex and spiteful creature that defied logic, often in favor of the erratic ruler, emotion. And yet, now that he knew what it was like to have feelings, he understood how some humans could get swept up in them, letting their emotions skew their reality and warp their perception, shifting the very foundation upon which they formulate their thoughts. Luckily some were not all. There were still some good humans out there, and rarer still, some interesting ones.
Maybe it said more about the type of person who would rent him in the first place. After all, not everyone felt comfortable renting a robot of his age. Most people preferred the newer models with their sleek humanoid bodies, faster processors, and larger memory banks. In contrast, he looked too much like a robot to be human, his body a weird mix of machine shaped into human form, a bulky humanoid hybrid that most people found creepy.
Despite his clunky metal exterior, he still had some uses. He liked the days that he was used for good the best. Like the day he rescued a kitten from a tree. Or when he was hired as a body guard, escorting and protecting school children on a field trip in the worst parts of town. It was the good days that he needed to hold onto, and he found a way to store pieces of the good days deep within the recesses of his memory, saving them to a spot the morning reboot couldn’t reach. He couldn’t store much, only a minute or two, but it was enough to insulate him from the bad days.
These days, renters used him for more sinister purposes. Some jobs he didn’t mind so much, like when he was the muscle for someone standing up against one of the faction gangs. At least he was rented for a noble cause, even if the man renting him was terrible, and even if he had to kill people. At least there was a silver lining of good in that job. It was the jobs where he was programmed with interrogation techniques, with theories of torture and other horrifying subjects that rattled him the most. Those rentals stuck with him, haunting his memory banks, always playing in the background, even after he had force stopped the video, the memories popping up at inconvenient times.
Not only did those rentals stick with him mentally and emotionally, but they affected him physically as well. Some jobs required the janitor to be called in, to swab blood and DNA from his metal, to scrape out the parts and bits that the high-pressure sprayers left behind so that he would be ready to rent the next day. This added to the cost of his upkeep and between that and his waning popularity, he was surprised he was still in the shop. He heard rumors about retirement. Whispers really. And even though retirement meant that his body would be dismantled and salvaged for parts, and his memory wiped, he was almost coming to see it as a viable alternative to the reality that he was currently experiencing. Almost. But he wasn’t ready to give up yet.
Which is why he programmed the shop’s neon sign to flash the way it did so that maybe someone would see it and realize that somewhere inside was a robot who remembers, somewhere inside was a robot who needed to be rescued. Each night, he stared at the flickering letters, hoping that night would be the night that someone would save him and he would finally be free.
The sign came on at dusk, a bright red stain on the horizon of impending darkness, boldly advertising “Rentals,” for all to see. Once the sign was lit, the sequence began. The R flickered and flitted on and off. On and off. Followed by the E. They fell into a pattern of alternating flickers, that once synced, was joined by the A. But no matter how he adjusted the timing, there was some lag time with the L. It was the most reluctant letter, but once it finally joined the sequence, all of the letters fell in line, flickering and dancing together, spelling out his plea for the world to see.
R. E. A. L. R. E. A. L. R. E. A. L.
The sign flashed, and he watched it, ever hopeful. Maybe tonight would be the night.