This story is by Antonio Roberts and was part of our 2020 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
It was enough to grind her gears, literally. Unit Nicole-145 penciled away at her desk, taking notes in English 201. Her engines grumbled.
Why was her mission so difficult? The other reploids performed all their tasks efficiently. Why had her creators given her feelings? They crawled like malware throughout her sensors.
As far as Nicole was concerned, such things only complicated her directive. She was to learn, blend in as a college student, and prove to her overseer that reploids could replace life at a higher level. But why her? Why give her these feelings?
They crept like spiders along her nerves and ravaged the pit of her stomach. Or what would be her stomach. Humans were strange meaty life-forms, like sausages with a pulse.
Yet they puzzled her. Their elusiveness proved intriguing. She wished to understand, lose the latex skin disguising her circuits, and move closer. She almost wished she was one. Almost.
The lecture went on. Nicole tried her best to focus, but these feelings overwhelmed her processor. She opened the note again.
“Guess who likes you?”
She curled her hair around her finger, like she’d seen other girls do, and scanned the room.
She googled definitions, anagrams, and abbreviations for the word. The concept didn’t compute. What benefit did favoritism show? And why did her CPU yearn for it?
A boy in a pink polo waved at her with a smile. She scanned him for weapons. He had car keys, exactly thirty-two cents, and a pocketknife. She cocked her wrist cannon in case he attacked. She’d seen human boys wrestle over a simple football. The mission teetered in jeopardy.
Suddenly, the bell rang. Nicole’s auditory sensors overloaded.
CRACK. Something misfired in a tiny explosion. Nicole choked and spat out a screw. She hoped no one saw that.
All the college students funneled out the door, and Nicole ran systems diagnostics.
Motor functions, optimal. Communications, functional. Objective… unclear.
Strange, she’d known it before. She was here for… What was her purpose? She needed to learn, right?
Further analysis revealed a chip snapped. Commands from headquarters stopped. And if she didn’t receive orders, that would mean… Was she free? It made little sense.
Nicole’s eyes widened.
For the first time, she could think for herself, and it terrified her. Without them, what was her life? Without orders, who guided her? Did her creators abandon her? No fail safes protected humanity. Nicole had gone rogue. Could she even control herself?
Puzzled, Nicole tested the question. She had before, and humans fascinated her. She needn’t harm them yet. Perhaps she could complete her mission by herself. Maybe then her creators would claw out these wretched feelings from her circuits. That would be the day.
Something tapped her shoulder and Nicole jumped. She turned and readied her karate mode. The same boy stood in front of her with a smile.
She reevaluated him for threats. Sensors indicated only one witness should he need liquidation with only a ten percent survival rate. She liked those odds.
“Nicole, was it?” he asked.
“I’m Pat.” He held out his hand towards her.
Nicole stared at it. No weapons. What was the protocol?
Pat pulled his hand away and scratched his head.
“So,” he said, “I couldn’t help but notice you were new in school.”
“Affirmative,” said Nicole.
Pat laughed. “Affirmative? What are you, a secret agent?”
Nicole feigned a laugh and rubbed her arm.
She cocked her rifle again. He was onto her, but a second class poured into the lecture hall. Too many witnesses.
“Well, I just thought you might like somebody to show you around. You got my note, didn’t you?”
Heat flushed her face.
What is this malfunction? It’s illogical. Relax Nicole. Input—and output.
A transmission pinged inside her head.
“Attention, Unit-145. Please return to HQ immediately for reconditioning.”
Nicole bit her lip.
Her overseer would be furious if she disobeyed.
Pat craned his neck for her to follow.
The transmission chimed again.
“Attention, Reploid-145. Failure to comply will cause immediate termination.”
The warning bell rang, rattling her skull. Nicole fell to her knees, and Pat helped her out of class.
Her vision steadied, and they sat outside on the front steps overlooking the rolling green lawns.
A heat signature held her hand. Pat materialized beside her.
“You all right?”
Nicole shook her head.
She sighed. “You ever feel so confused about why you want to do something, but not sure if it’s right?”
Pat squeezed her hand. “What does your heart tell you?”
Her engines revved as if they’d burst. Her knees wobbled. Maybe she did favor him to some capacity. But what did cardiovascular organs have to do with anything?
HQ called again. “Final warning, 145. Return home, you Useless Scrap!”
Nicole shook her head. They weren’t her masters anymore.
She smirked at Pat.
“What did you have in mind?”
Pat smiled. “Well first I figured we’d go for a drive, get some food, maybe stop at the park and have some fun.”
This learning felt strange to Nicole, but she needed to explore these feelings. He was her new directive.
Pat held her hand down the stairs. Nicole wavered between malice and amusement at this custom.
Was it supposed to signal protection? If so, how could he, a mere boy, protect a military-weapons-grade robot?
Pat proved illogical. On the other hand, Nicole refused to let go.
They arrived at a sunshine-colored Volkswagen. Nicole ogled its entire make up. The paint shined with a fresh hot wax. The upholstery popped in original leather. This human cared so intently for such an old machine. Nicole fluttered at the thought. Could he care as much for her?
Pat scratched his head as if embarrassed by the bug. “Not exactly a chick magnet I know.”
Nicole laid on the hood and kissed it. “I love it.”
Pat raised an eyebrow and held her door open.
Nicole attended him on the rest of their “date.” All the while she remained puzzled why it was not indeed an African dried fruit. Humans were an enigma.
They drove down the sun-beaten strip with the wind whipping through their hair. The breeze both unnerved and thrilled her, but with Pat by her side, she breathed easy.
Soon the sun set, and the car crested on a hill in the park. Pat talked for hours, and Nicole clung to every word. She rested her head on his shoulder. Her batteries waned.
“So tell me about yourself,” he said.
Nicole pulled away.
Pat laughed. “Let me get to know you.”
Nicole rose up and scanned her thermals. A reploid with a shotgun approached fast.
BOOM. The tire hissed.
She grabbed Pat by the arm.
Nicole raced ahead. Pat struggled to keep up. Leaves crunched beneath their feet.
Behind them the reploid scanned, and she tackled Pat behind a tree.
“What the hell? What are you doing?” he roared.
Nicole shushed him.
“What’s going on?” He whispered.
Nicole bit her lip.
You’ve blown it, Nicole. Mission failed.
“Pat, I have a confession to make. I’m not exactly a girl.”
“You’re a dude?”
Nicole glared at him. She peeled her arm and showed him the rows of intricate gears and rods.
Pat swallowed. “You’re a robot?”
Nicole nodded and wished she could cry. “I’m sorry I tricked you. I really do favor you, and I’m sorry if I spoiled our date, whatever it is.”
“Spoiled?” Pat paled. His hands moistly held hers. Nicole detected his pulse accelerate. “I’m just shocked that’s all. I’ve never had a date like you before.”
Nicole’s cheeks flushed. She squeezed his hands. These feelings made sense and needn’t be feared. Her engines purred in bliss. She “liked” him, and there was no more doubt.
Buckshot splintered the bark behind them. Nicole weighed her options. There was no escape, but one glance at Pat and her choice was clear.
Nicole stood up.
“Where are you going?” he shrieked.
Nicole’s arm unfolded into a rifle. She pumped her bicep. “I have a new directive.”
Nicole returned fire blasting off its arm.
The reploid shrugged it off and pumped another round one-handed. Nicole charged him and missed her next shot.
BOOM. The reploid fired.
Nicole’s ankle buckled, and shrapnel ricocheted across the clearing. Oil and grease trickled down her skin, and she rolled in pain. The reploid pumped. His barrel stared her square in the eye.
A rock tinged off his skull. Pat threw another. The reploid aimed— and fired. Pat disappeared in a cloud of smoke. Nicole screamed, and shot back. With a muzzle flash, the reploid’s head rolled. Static crackled from its torso as it slumped. Dead.
Pints of oil poured from Nicole’s leg. Her eyes grew heavy. Errors flooded her system as her batteries plummeted, and something squeezed her hand. Pat. Nicole smiled.
As her eyes shut, she passed him a familiar folded paper that said it all.
“Guess who likes you?”