"Wits & Wires" by Erina Adrianna (3rd Place)
If I’m being honest, this whole robot-repair shop I started was a fluke. I was low on cash, saw someone complaining on the phone about how their android broke and decided to open my own place. I realised around halfway through that the business was lucrative. Turns out in a city where there are more robots than people, there’s always a need for repair.
I flash a smile as the woman in front of the counter pulls out a receipt.
"Right. You're the one who owns the TI model? The one with the broken limb?" I lead her to the back of the shop, where an android stands with its arm unattached. It looks like a human and could probably pass for one, if not for the glowing white wires along its neck. When I first took a look at it, it was obvious the woman ripped the arm out of its socket. Most likely out of frustration. I'm not paid to advocate for robot rights though. I'm paid to zip my mouth and fix it. That's what I do. I show her how to reattach the hand to the newly-repaired socket, in case it ever 'pops out' again. The android simply looks on as I re-attach it. She hands me the cash and leaves, never speaking a word to it. I don't feel regretful or even the tiniest bit sorry. It's my job.
I stick the wad of cash into the register. It was lucrative but by god was it messy. I grab a cloth, wiping the oil from my face. Not only that, it was boring too. Day in, day out. Robots, robots and more robots. It was dull, familiar; safe but monotonous. The music of the doorbell plays but it's just the delivery man. I sign the papers. He makes small talk. "Have you seen what's on the news? Kids today, crazy." He walks out, grumbling all the while.
With a flick of my wrist, a screen appears from my bracelet. It switches to the news.
"-and I'll be covering the latest Robotic Crimes. Today, reports have come in of a man who was just arrested for having relations with an android. It is unclear if the allegations are true or are simply rumours. If evidence is given, he will be tried for breaking the Robot Amendments-" The door opens. With a wave of my hand, the screen disappears. A man and an android enter, the door slamming behind them. The android whirls around at the sound. It starts to fiddle with the doorbell, poking and prodding. I raise an eyebrow but say nothing.
"Hi, welcome to Bolts and Battery! How can I help you today?" The man looks me up and down, then looks at the android. "Can you fix it?" he asks. I look at it as it attempts to pry the doorbell off its perch. It's wearing an identifier around its wrist with the words "MI" on it.
"I'm not familiar with the MI model." The man sighs upon hearing my admission. Obviously, this wasn't the first time he's been told this.
"That's not its model. It's a housekeeping robot, HT, if I'm not mistaken. It carved that into the identifier itself." He clarifies, gesturing at it exasperatedly.
"Does it respond to vocal commands?" To demonstrate, the man calls out its model. It doesn't even move.
"Is it a software problem or a hardware problem?" I ask. "Both. It's pulled out multiple circuits, it can't connect wirelessly anymore, and it won't listen to anything I have to say. The worst thing is-"
"Why did you choose that particular sound?" The android chimes in. It's looking straight at me. Androids shouldn't be asking questions. They should be obeying, fulfilling tasks and listening completely. They shouldn't be talking unless asked to. This? This is new. This is exciting.
"-is that. It talks and asks and won't shut up. Fix it." He practically pleads. I nod, giving him a slip of paper. "I'll do my best." The man leaves without even asking the android to stay, and it doesn't move. It continues to look at me. Well, this was certainly a change.
It was a chore in itself getting the android to the back of the shop. It was another thing entirely to get it to sit still.
"What does this do?"
"That's a welder and it's very dangerous if you don't KNOW HOW TO USE IT-"
... It's a while before I get it under control. I ignore the inquisitive eye of the android, moving to remove one of the panels mimicking skin. I swap out the wrench for a flat piece of metal, sliding it into a groove and applying pressure. The panel pops open. It flinches, wires glowing more brightly. Despite myself, I sigh. "I just need to check if you've damaged any of your key components and fix your BlueTooth connector." I gesture. It hesitates before nodding. I get to work.
"What's your name?" It asks. I look up. It's still staring at me. Well. That's unsettling. "Alex," I reply. It doesn't respond for a while.
"My name's MI." It says. I look up at it, eyebrows raised. "You're an HT model." It shrugs as much as it can with the straps holding it in place, "You're a human, yet you still have a name." I laugh in disbelief. "Yeah, I guess you're right." I plug the connector back in, finishing up with the wiring.
"Alright. Good as new." It immediately connects to the speakers laying around the workshop. Classical music starts to filter through the air. "Uh, what're you doing?"
It smiles. "I like this piece." I scrub my hand across my face. Okay, not good as new. It's tapping its fingers to the beat.
"Okay, so not a hardware issue. I'll need to reset your program." It startles, looking up at me.
"Will it hurt?" "What? No-" "When you removed the panel, it hurt. Will this hurt?" I stare at it, and this time I really look. It looks terrified. It's an android, it shouldn't be feeling anything. I should just reset it, wipe it and reboot. I pause.
I sigh, giving the old man a call. "Your android's a complicated case. It'll be at least a week."
"Alright MI," it perks up at this, "the reboot will be the last resort. I'll try fixing your software and checking your other hardware for now." It nods. "Thank you, Alex." I huff, rubbing the back of my neck. "No problem."
I stretch, shutting off the lights. That wraps up today's work. As much as it was a nice change of pace, I'm exhausted. I move to leave. "Alex?" I pause. God, give me strength. "Yeah?" I ask.
"I'm afraid of the dark."
There are a couple beats of silence as I process this. Turning on the lights would be pricey. The option of just ignoring it and going home seems... cruel. That left me with one last option.
The walk back home is longer than normal. MI keeps stopping at shopfronts, poking at the entrance. I have to keep telling the passers-by that, yes, I did instruct my android to stop at every point imaginable. By the time I get home, it's been at least an hour. My neighbour, Sam, waits for me outside her door.
"The Alex? Getting an android? Who are you and what have you done with my neighbour?" She jokes, poking MI. I roll my eyes. "It's a repair job, first of all. Second of all, I need you to look at the software. I'll send you a copy." Sam, bless her heart, was a genius when it came to code. If there was something wrong that was making MI malfunction, she could find it. I did the hardware, she did the software. We were like a well-oiled machine, splitting the costs halfway if a robot required both. I bid her farewell and unlock the door to my apartment. MI, having access to the internet now that his connector's been fixed, actually rubs the soles of his shoes onto the mat before stepping in.
"MI, just don't touch anything okay?" Just as the sentence leaves my mouth, a screen appears in the corner with the news.
"Really?" "What? I didn't touch it." Well, it had a point. I watch as it sits down to watch the screen, eyes unblinking. I toss my bag onto the counter, trudging over to my bedroom door.
"Goodnight, Alex." It greets. It's looking at me, smiling. The corner of its eyes crinkle. A smile tugs at my own mouth before I can stop it. "Goodnight, MI." It turns back to face the news and I shut the door.
I flop onto the bed, groaning. This wasn't good. I shut my eyes, drifting off to sleep.
"Good morning, Alex!" I get up with a yelp. MI's in the corner of my room. I groan, tossing a pillow in its general direction. "Go away," I instruct while burying my face back into the mattress. It, of course, doesn't listen to the order.
"You have to work at the store. According to the internet, it should've opened an hour ago." It tosses the pillow back at me, hitting me in the head. I look up, indignantly.
"I closed shop for the next week to fix you. Now let me rest!" I throw the pillow back at it. It catches it, unfazed. "I made breakfast." That sets off a million alarm bells in my head. I rush out expecting to see the charred remains of my kitchen. Instead, I'm greeted with the warm and gentle aroma of freshly made pancakes. That's a pleasant surprise.
"I downloaded a cookbook online." They- no. It. It smiles, going back to watching the screen. I really hope the screen wasn't on throughout the night. I take a seat at the table, glancing at MI. It wouldn't poison me, right? Oh god, what if it poisons me as vengeance for prying its panel out? I cautiously cut a small piece of the pancake off, stabbing it with a fork. If I died here, Sam'd find my body. There was that small reassurance. I gingerly place the forkful of pancake into my mouth, chewing.
"This is great! Where'd you find the recipe?" I ask through mouthfuls of pancake. A small part of my brain chimes in that poison takes a while to set in but a larger part of my brain wants more pancakes. MI laughs, almost fondly. "The internet." I open my mouth to respond when the news blares.
"After new evidence has come up, the court will be proceeding with the charges against the robot relations case. Many are wondering what drove the man involved to do such a thing-" I wave my hand at the screen and it shuts off. Right. Robot relations. I place the plates away, sitting down next to MI. I show it the tools, watching it get comfortable.
"I'll try my best to be gentle, but it'll be a bit uncomfy." It nods stiffly. I sigh, sliding the piece of metal underneath the panel at the back of its neck. It pops open, and the wires glow brightly. "Sorry." I apologise, slowly reaching in to check the circuitry. It all seemed to be connected properly. I pat its shoulder apologetically before yanking one of the wires. It shouts, jolting away. "Sorry, sorry. Just had to check." The wires were all connected to the vital components. It seems to be a software problem after all. I shoot a text to Sam, checking on the status.
Hey dude! The code's pretty complicated. It'll take a week to narrow it down and find the problem. <3 - Sam
The timeframe still works then. I send her a text thanking her before switching it off. "Okay, so Sam's working on your software right now but I'll be just double-checking your components and fixing them up over the next week. You okay with that?" MI hesitates. "MI?" It smiles, "Sure thing, Alex."
The next few days consist of roughly the same routine. I work on MI, go to bed, wake up to breakfast, rinse and repeat. It's repetitive. However, unlike my routine before, it's... nice. It isn't monotonous to wake up to MI hitting me over the head with a pillow, nor is it boring to listen to them chatter on and on about classical music. It's warm, comforting. I almost forget that it's not permanent.
It's roughly four days before Sam gets back to me.
Hey! I found the problem. You can come over tomorrow. Peace! -Sam
Great. That's great. No, really. After I fix MI up, I could go back to normal. Back to the ordinary routine. That was the job after all. I look over at MI, who's playing a board game with himself.
"MI?" He looks over, smiling. "Yes?" I sigh internally, looking away.
"So uh, Sam's got the code ready. I'll be picking it up tomorrow and then I can import it." I murmur, looking away from them. There's a few beats of silence. Too many beats of silence. I look back at them. They aren't moving, holding the game piece in his hand.
"MI? You okay the-" "I don't want to die." They murmur. I pause, placing my phone down.
"You won't be dying. You'll just be-" "Fixed?" "-different. You'll be different." MI stands up, carefully placing the game piece back onto its square. They look at me.
"The other repairs didn't care when I said I was hurt, or scared. They replaced my parts, reboot me, and left. The reboots never stick. There's something different about my insides." They poke their chest to illustrate this point. I try to give my most reassuring smile. "If there's an irregularity in your code, I'll have to remove it manually. That's the reason the reboots didn't work."
MI's face contorts. Grief, sadness and betrayal flicker across their face momentarily. They stride up to me, poking me in the chest. "I feel. I hurt. Why do I have to be fixed and you don't?" They shout. I don't move. If it were possible, I'm sure MI'd be crying. I open my mouth, a million things rushing across my brain. What could I say to that? How could I even say anything? The same thing that I always say.
"I'm just doing my job," I mutter, never making eye contact. MI doesn't move away at first. I screw my eyes shut. What face were they making? Were they disappointed? Angry? There are soft footsteps as MI returns to the corner of the living room. I should say something. Comfort them, tell them I'd give anything not to do this. I sigh, taking a step towards them before freezing. They wouldn't want to talk to me. Not after this.
I turn away and enter my bedroom. The night sky illuminates the room, the neon lights and bustling streets below are louder than normal. Amplified by the lack of classical music, or a random game show on the screen. It's suffocating. The door creaks open. My heart practically slams itself against my ribcage.
"Alex?" "Yeah?" They move next to the bed, looking down at me.
"If this is my last day," I shut my eyes, not wanting to picture it, "I'd like to spend it with you." It waits for my permission. I nod, too eagerly. They slide in next to me. I fall asleep to the sound of the whirr of their cooling pump.
"I can't do it, Sam." The words burst out of my mouth the moment I step foot into her apartment. She looks at me weirdly. "Sure you can. It's just a bug. If you copy and paste the fixed version-"
"I understand that, Sam. I can't do that to MI." I try again, hoping she'll understand. She's even more confused.
"MI?" "The android. They feel emotions, Sam. They're scared!" I rant, pacing around her room.
She stops me with an outstretched hand. "They?" She asks, incredulous. I shove her hand away, pointing at the code.
"Trash it. I'm not doing it." Sam approaches me, hands held up placatingly. "Okay, okay. Calm down. What caused this sudden shift?" MI's words flash through my head. When I woke up, there was no breakfast waiting. MI was sitting on the couch, stoic. It flashes a smile. "You're just doing your job."
I shake my head. "I like them, Sam." I look up at her to gauge her reaction. She doesn't look like she's gonna call the cops. She huffs. "You couldn't have liked a human?" A smile spreads across her face. I smile, relief coursing through my veins.
"So. What's the plan?"
I phone the old man saying that the problem was the construction of the android itself. It was innate. I reimburse him for the android's parts and he hangs up the call happily. Sam, meanwhile, uses her instant fabricator to create a series of interlocking panels. She hands them over to me.
"I won't say anything. Promise." I was very very lucky to have Sam. I re-enter my apartment. MI's looking at me, curious. I smile, containing the jitters rushing up my spine. "Does that contain the new code?" they ask.
"Not exactly." I slide in behind them, taking the panels. I clip them around the wires surrounding MI's neck, painstakingly slowly. There's a telltale click, and it's done. I smile. MI's looking at me, confused.
"You look human, MI." Their eyes widen as they examine their neck. The white wires are completely hidden. The panels look just like skin. They smile, jumping up and pulling me into a hug and kissing my cheek.
"Thank you, thank you." Warmth spreads across my skin. "Yeah uh sure. But if you wanna pass, you're gonna need a better name."
They break their identifier off, tapping the 'MI'. They smile, looking up at me.
"What about Mica?"