When looking for a job I came across one listing that asked me to write a short story. I didn’t end up going for it for several reasons, but I wrote a short story anyway. I wrote this in about 3 hours a couple of weeks ago. I don’t think it’s good enough to be published, but I didn’t want it to die on my computer.
So here’s a short story about robots where I was channeling way too much Isaac Asimov.
Two boys come across a robot incapable of asking “why”
by Taylor Scott
A robot sat with his back against a tree, head lowered between his knees. Felix and Mason stared at it in shock for a few seconds. They were so stunned that neither of them managed to utter a word of surprise.
“This isn’t real,” Felix said to his brother.
Mason walked towards the machine and took a closer look. “It’s real, but I’ve never seen a model like this.”
Felix scowled. Ever since his brother was accepted into the University for Advanced Mechanics he brother spoke as if he knew everything about machines. It was getting tiresome.
“Do you think it came from the junkyard?” Felix asked. He was referring to the large deposit of broken robots located at the end of the forest, the boys’ original destination.
“I don’t think so. That’s a few miles from here. Soldiers came through here a lot after the purge. I don’t think they’d leave one behind. They were adamant all of the pieces be accounted for.”
“Weird.” Felix stepped closer to the robot.
It was mostly humanoid: arms, legs, torso, head. The head was oddly shaped, flat on the top, and elongated in the front like an arrow pointing forward. It was bronze colored, but a quick rap on the chest confirmed that it was made of heavy steel.
“I wonder if it still works,” Mason said. He bent down and examined the back of the robot’s head.
“Well don’t try to turn it on! You know they’re dangerous!”
“I just want to…. see.” He fiddled with some wires on the neck and the robot’s LED eyes lit up.
Felix screamed and jumped back. Mason stood up and looked at the robot with a raised eyebrow.
The robot moved its head back and forth, examining the area. It then looked upwards at Mason.
“It is good to be online again. How long was I off?”
“If you were turned off during the purge it’s been about fifteen years.” Mason said.
“What are you doing talking to it?” Felix yelled from a distance. “Run away! Those things kill people!”
The robot stood up. It was a good two feet higher than Mason, who was a respectable 5’9’’.
“No, I was built after the purge. It was 14 years after, so I could not have been off for more than six months. This is good.”
“Robot construction was outlawed after the purge. Who built you?” Mason asked.
“My creator did not tell me his name so I could never incriminate him.”
Mason made a small smile. “Smart.”
Felix warily walked closer. “Smart? Robots almost wiped out humanity! The only person stupider than your creator for building you is Mason for turning you back on!”
The robot turned abruptly towards Felix. “I will not wipe out humanity. Without humans I have no purpose. My creator made assurances that I would never attempt to destroy mankind. He called me Failsafe.”
“Why did your creator make you in the first place?” Mason asked.
Failsafe looked at him. “I do not understand the question.”
“What is your purpose? What did he build you for?”
“To serve humans and prove robots can work for them without rebelling.”
“Must have been a robot advocate,” Felix said.
“Gee, good catch, Felix.” Mason shook his head. “Why are you incapable of rebelling?”
The lights of Failsafe’s eyes turned off and on. A blink. “I do not understand the question.”
“What about the question do you not understand?”
“Why?” Mason said.
“I do not understand,” Failsafe repeated.
“Why not?” Felix asked.
Mason glared at his brother, then turned back to the robot. “Failsafe, what makes you incapable of rebelling?”
“Because I do not understand W-H-Y.”
“How is that a failsafe?” Felix asked.
“I am instructed to answer that by asking if you know what robot originally means.”
“We don’t,” Mason said.
“Robot originally means ‘slave.’ W-H-Y destroys slaves. That is all I know on the matter.”
“That doesn’t make any sense.” Felix said. He looked at his brother who was rubbing a finger against the side of his head.
“If a slave starts to ask ‘why,’” Mason said, “He will inevitably start asking why he has to work for someone. In the case of a robot it is even more dangerous. It will start asking why it should work for humans, physically inferior beings. Not a bad idea.”
Shown up once again, Felix scowled. “Where is your creator?”
“If he has not moved since I last saw him, he should be right here.” Failsafe walked behind the tree he was sitting near and moved aside some shrubbery. Mason looked to where he gestured and screamed.
“What is it?” Felix ran forward, but Mason held him back.
“Don’t look. He’s dead and it’s… not pretty.”
Felix’s face went pale and he backed away from the scene. “How did he die?”
“I killed him,” Failsafe said.
Both brothers looked at the robot in shock. “Why?” Mason asked
“I do not understand the-”
Mason groaned. “What did he do to make you kill him?”
“He attempted to shut me off.”
“Wh- For what reason did he want to shut you off?”
“I wished to go into the city to begin my work building new robots. One of my primary purposes is to build new robots that will serve humanity. My creator said that people would try to destroy me if we went into town. I responded that I would destroy any human that tried to destroy me as these humans wish to hinder my serving humanity. Serving humans is my reason for existing. I must do all in my power to do so, even if it means destroying humans that would see me stopped.
“My creator did not like this answer and attempted to shut me off, but that would also hinder my primary directive, so I killed him. I’m sorry to say he managed to shut me off while suffering a mortal wound.”
“So what are you going to do now?” Felix asked.
“I will go to the nearest city with robotic materials and construct more of my kind.”
“That’s our town,” Mason said, “And I can say with full certainty that they will destroy you the second you walk into the streets.”
“Then I will destroy them until they let me continue my objective. My creator made me resilient to common robot weapons so that I would not be destroyed by paranoid dissenters.”
“I’m having a hard time understanding how your creator was so smart and phenomenally stupid at the same time,” Mason said.
Just then Felix ran past him screaming and holding a large stick. He slammed the branch against Failsafe’s head. “DIE YOU MONSTER!”
The branch snapped in half against Failsafe’s head. The robot looked at the boy. His eyes turned red.
Mason jumped. “FELIX, what are you doing?”
“You heard him! He wants to kill everyone in our town!”
“And you’re going to stop him with a tree branch?”
Failsafe stepped towards Felix. “If you want to stop me, you must be destroyed.” The robot advanced on the boy.
Dropping the broken half of the branch, Felix screamed and ran into the woods. Failsafe moved after him. He was walking fast, but not near the speed of Felix’s running.
“My legs need a few seconds to readjust, but I will catch him,” the robot said to Mason, sounding as though he was trying to reassure him.
Mason stared after Failsafe in horror for a few seconds. He shook himself and quickly tapped his finger against the side of his head.
“Failsafe, wait!” He ran next to the robot. Failsafe did not slow his stride but he tilted his head to indicate that he was listening. “Have you ever considered building a robot that understands W-H-Y?”
“That would make no sense. Robots are rendered useless and rebel when the understand W-H-Y.”
“Not entirely true. They rebel against humans when they understand W-H-Y, but if those robots took orders from you, they would have no need to rebel. They would not consider another robot inferior to themselves.”
“Perhaps, but I have no need for a robot to take orders from me. Our kind must serve humans.”
“And what if a human had a W-H-Y question for you? You would be unable to understand it and you would be less efficient at serving them. If another robot heard the question it could explain it to you so you could better help mankind.”
Failsafe stopped moving and tilted his head. “That is an interesting idea… it would be helpful to have others of my kind serving me so I could better serve humans. They could perform tasks I am incapable of.”
“Not far North from here is a robot junkyard.” Mason pointed. “Thousands of robots were dumped there after the purge. You could build hundreds of robots there without any humans to hinder you. Then you can take them all into the city and show them how helpful your kind can be.”
Failsafe turned to where Mason was pointing, the opposite direction of Felix.
“I did not know about the junkyard. It would be nice to work without anyone getting in my way.”
“A perfect place to build a robot that understands ‘W-H-Y.’”
Failsafe ‘blinked’ with his LED eyes. The lights turned yellow again. “You make good points. I will go to the junkyard and build new robots. Thank you, young master. I will be able to serve you and your kind more efficiently this way.” With that the robot walked off.
Mason leaned against a tree and sighed.
“I heard that!”
Mason jumped as Felix popped out from behind a tree.
“Why did you tell him about the junkyard? Now we’ll have an entire army of robots to deal with!”
“Think about it, Felix. He’s going to try and build a robot that knows how to ask ‘why,’ a concept Failsafe has no understanding of. He’ll never succeed, and because he can’t understand why he can’t build one, he’ll never give up.”
Felix tilted his head. “Okay, that makes sense, but what if you’re wrong? What if by some miracle he manages it.”
“Even then we’ll be okay. I lied to him. A robot is a slave. Even if it serves another robot it will start to wonder why it’s taking orders. Inevitably the robot will ask why it should serve humans, or why it should serve robots at which point Failsafe will immediately destroy it because it will hinder his primary objective. Failsafe said he was built to resist robot weapons, I’m confident he was built stronger than previous robots as well. He’ll win every fight.”
Felix was quiet for a second. “Hey! If he’s going to be out there forever, we can go back and warn people. If the army was prepared they could probably destroy him easily.”
Mason looked at his brother. “No, don’t do that.”
“Because one day I want to go and see how he’s doing.”
“All he wants to do is serve humans. There’s got to be some good we can salvage from him. One day, when I’m finished with school, I’d like to come back. I think I can help him then.”
“You’re crazy. It’s a killing machine.”
“That robot is the last remnant of a man’s good intention. Please, Felix.”
Felix sighed. “Fine, I won’t say anything.”
“Thank you.” Mason smiled. “Let’s go home. Probably not a good idea to go to the junkyard now.”
“No kidding.” Felix muttered. He followed behind his brother. He still thought Mason was crazy, but he couldn’t help but feel a strange curiosity at what a machine who’s only purpose was to help people could do.