This story is by Ann Fowler and was part of our 2018 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
As if mocking him, Dr. Higgins’ iPad went black. Looking left, then right, he groaned. The charger cord was just here. He glanced at the clock. And where might Randy, his postdoc, be? From a drawer, he grabbed a pencil. Higgins scribbled, paused, and scribbled again. First rubbing his gray stubble, he tucked the pencil behind his ear. He still had reason to smile. Tomorrow, any doubts about his vision ended. History would be made.
The door opened. Randy rushed in. Brown curls bounced as he hurried to the computer.
“And today’s excuse is what?”
“My girlfriend,” Randy said.
Higgins slid off the stool. He straightened his lab coat. “She’s not an investor.” He joined Randy. “The rep’s losing patience.”
“Let him do this.”
Higgins smiled. “Then we’d really have a problem.” He moved behind Randy and pointed at the screen. “That data’s accurate?”
“Who’s your postdoc?”
Higgins chuckled. Competence was one thing, but Randy’s humor sustained him most for the past five years. He touched Randy’s shoulder. “I’ll be across the hall.”
At the door, Higgins pressed the keypad and went inside. On a stainless steel table, a figure lay under a sheet. It mimicked a cadaver in a medical examiner’s dissection room. He folded the sheet at the figure’s waist. Higgins gazed over the silver and tan prototype. They’d named him “Frank”—short for Frankenstein.
Higgins touched Frank’s skin. Although cool, it had the suppleness of a young man’s. He’d given Frank his mother’s hair and eye color, but his father’s facial features. Like Randy, Frank stood 6’1”—the sole compromise Higgins allowed. Smiling, he stared at his own immortality.
“Papa’s here.” Higgins retrieved a remote control from his front pocket. He entered a code. Frank opened his eyes. “Good boy. Tomorrow’s your birthday.” He pressed a second code. Frank shut his eyes. The lights circling Frank’s head dimmed to black. “We’ll have a surprise for Randy, too.” As though checking for a fever, he touched Frank’s forehead. He returned to his office.
At a sink, Randy bit in to an apple. Chewing, he tossed the core in the wastebasket. “Call it a day?”
Higgins nodded. “Rest well.”
Randy grabbed his jacket. He waved and went out the door.
Higgins sat down at Randy’s computer. He logged in as an administrator and typed. An hour later, he drove home.
Higgins looked up from his desk.
“Morning, Doc.” Randy set a cardboard tray on a research bench. He held out a cup.
Higgins thanked him. “Frank’s perfect—and he’s ready.” He sipped his coffee. “Soon, we’ll celebrate our incredible work.”
“So will our investors.”
Higgins laughed softly. “Especially them.”
Randy sat down at his computer. “I want to check Frank’s neural network one more time.”
Higgins stood up. “It’s fine.” As he peered over Randy’s shoulder, he imagined Frank immobile and unresponsive—and his stomach twisted. Could perfection fail? Higgins narrowed his eyes. The data appeared correct. “Next time, bring me a raspberry Danish.”
“Will do.” Randy began typing. Moments later, he called Higgins to the screen. “Where’d that come from?”
Bending forward, Higgins put on his glasses. “What?” He dragged a nearby chair closer and sat down.
“The command sequence was changed.”
Higgins studied the monitor. “I ran a second empathy diagnostic.”
“No need. He’ll never harm a human being. Ever.”
Higgins cleared his throat. “Asimov would’ve been proud.” He arose from the chair. “Shall we?”
Across the hall, Higgins unlocked the door. Randy settled at the command console. As he typed, the wall screen re-booted. Frank’s neuro-pathways, similar to a textbook’s diagram of arteries and veins, lit up. An inset of Frank’s electronic brain, at the lower right, blinked red to yellow.
Higgins entered a code on the remote. Each light circling Frank’s crown blinked green. In a smooth motion, Frank sat up. Higgins’ heartbeat raced. Tears welled up. He blinked hard. Mary Shelley’s story was no longer fiction. But this time, he was the author.
“My God, Doc!” Randy beat the air with his fist. “We did it!”
Frank twisted side to side, as if stretching after a long sleep. “Unit 01 reporting for initialization.”
Higgins smiled. “What a moment for mankind.”
“You sound like Neil Armstrong.” Randy stopped typing.
Higgins entered another code. Frank moved both arms and stepped toward him. “Good morning, Frank.” Turning, he pointed. “We’re your parents, so to speak. Randy and myself.”
Frank’s green lights blinked several times. “Two males? Such a mating cannot produce viable offspring.”
Higgins laughed softly. Until Frank’s neuro-processor absorbed casual data, or it was entered directly, precise remarks were automatic.
Randy joined them. Grinning, his eyes brightened. “Welcome to the world.”
As he wiped his forehead, Higgins swallowed hard. He pictured the Nobel Prize in hand. When future applause surrounded him, he’d thank Randy and the investors. But now, his finger shook as he entered a new code. A different red light flashed. The console’s sterile monotone said, “Unauthorized sequence. Use voice override to delete command.” In moments, Frank placed both hands over Randy’s ears. Randy’s eyes widened. Higgins pressed several keys. “I can’t share greatness. Not even with you. You’ll forgive me?”
“Doc, no!” Randy grabbed Frank’s arms. His tattooed biceps bulged, but Frank did not surrender.
Higgins stepped forward. “I’ll make it quick—or my beautiful boy will. I promise.” Frank froze in place. Higgins shifted his weight. “What’s wrong?” He pressed the keys again.
Frank moved to grip Randy’s shoulders instead. Randy tried to twist free. “You couldn’t have done this without my programming.”
Higgins stepped back and re-entered a code. With one hand, Frank grabbed Randy’s neck. “In Stockholm, I’ll mention you—and this terrible accident.” The console’s voice repeated the warning. Shifting himself, Frank lifted Randy from the floor. With arms and legs thrashing, Randy’s lips began turning blue.
Closing his eyes, Higgins pictured a photograph on his desk. Flanked by his parents, he held a Master’s diploma. His mother cried when he’d completed his PhD. Her tears of pride mixed with ones shed for his father’s absence. Months before Higgins finished his thesis, the township’s most decorated police detective was laid to rest. What would his father think right now? He slammed the remote to the floor. “Override Higgins 6-7-9-4.”
Frank opened his hand. Randy hit the floor, gasping. In moments, Frank stood at attention. Clutching his throat, Randy looked up. His red face glistened. “You’re crazy.”
Higgins shook his head, knowing his expression betrayed him. “I can’t do it.” He sighed. “Will you forgive me for trying?”
“I might. There’s still enough fame and fortune for two.” Randy stood up and straightened his shirt.
“It’s my design. I simply needed an expert programmer.”
“And you have one.” Randy returned to the console. He gazed at the monitor. “How did you breach my override?” He tilted his head back. “No worries. I’ll do an adjustment of my own.”
Higgins hesitated. “What?”
Higgins swallowed hard. Randy’s intuition was uncanny. This wasn’t the first time. “Damn you.”
“Me? Who tried to kill who?”
“It wasn’t as easy as it looked.”
“But money and fame almost meant more.”
“Something like that,” Higgins said. “You’re alive. Don’t forget.”
“I won’t. Neither will you.”
Higgins moistened his lips. “I’m sorry. Truly.” He stepped closer to Frank. “Let’s finish the initialization, shall we?”
As Randy typed, Higgins recalled the day his father realized he’d never love baseball more than physics. Although disappointed, his father assured him it was all right. As Higgins stared at familiar features reborn on Frank’s face, he felt like the wily detective returned to catch his own son red-handed. Guilt shuddered through him. Considering his postdoc’s nonchalant demeanor, Randy was clearly the better man.
As Higgins knelt for the remote, Frank’s feet moved.
Randy’s blue eyes blazed. “Soon, I’ll publish a paper about the real accident. Then a trip to Stockholm.”
Eyes wide, Higgins stepped back. He wiped both palms over his lab coat. Frank stood between him and the door. But Randy wasn’t heartless. The right words should provide an escape. “I let you go.”
“Your worst good decision.”
Higgins pictured his father’s smile. “You’re the son I never had.”
“Flattery won’t work now.” Randy looked up. “Later, I’ll restore the terminal loop.”
“Everything’s 60-40. You’re 60, of course.”
“No deal. I’ll say you refused Asimov’s Laws to create an android soldier. A bruised neck will make my story ironclad.” Randy glanced at Frank. “Override ‘Asimov 1-9-2-0’.”
Higgins rushed toward the door. Remotely, the keypad clicked. Turning, Higgins slipped. Frank stepped toward him. “You can stop this.”
“Are you glad I’m still alive?”
“How does it feel?” Randy grinned. “Worse than a caged rabbit?” He stepped behind Frank. “Command code ‘Higgins Termination’.”
“Sweet dreams, Doc.”
“It’s my work! Mine!” Higgins reached for the door’s keypad. Frank grabbed his arm. Stumbling back, he screamed. Once Frank’s hands held his head, Randy’s laughter filled the laboratory.