Human Error

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Amy Severson was about thirteen when she learned that the only thing more fun that reading science fiction and horror was writing it herself. Her work has been featured in various on-line magazines and one horror short story, “The Box,” was published this year in 100 Doors to Madness by Forgotten Tomb Press. Amy recently finished her first novel, a sci-fi comedy about monsters, and is trying to find an agent who loves it as much as she does.

 

In A Mood

At the sound of high-heels clacking in the distance across the polished concrete floor, Maurice scrambled to clear his workstation of empty Red Bull cans and candy bar wrappers. He then smoothed his hands down the front of his lab coat as Jennifer Barber, the head of Research and Development, rounded the corner and stalked toward him. Her black hair and dark navy suit stood in stark contrast to the gleaming white laboratory. Richmond, her faithful assistant, scurried close behind, scowling while he poked at a tablet with a stylus.

“The new prototype is ready is it not?” Ms. Barber said as she rested her palms flat on the metal surface of the lab table.

Maurice pushed his glasses up on his nose. “Yes, ma’am. I just put the finishing touches on it this morning.”

“Excellent. Let’s take a look.”

He led them over to another table where his latest creation was displayed – an eighteen inch tall, brightly colored robot with large round eyes that, at the moment, were closed.

“What do you call it?” asked Ms. Barber.

Maurice ran a hand through his unruly mop of brown hair. “Um, I usually let the marketing department come up with names for the toys, but I’ve been calling him Steve.”

Richmond looked up from the tablet and Ms. Barber cocked an eyebrow. “Steve?”

“The processors respond better to single syllables and I’ve always liked the name Steve.”

Ms. Barber cleared her throat. “Right. Moving on.” She motioned to Richmond and he handed her the tablet. “The spec sheet said that this robot . . .” She scrolled through a document then read aloud from the page, “analyzes biometric data to gauge the emotional state of the user and then alters its behavior accordingly.”

“That’s right,” said Maurice. “He scans for things like body temperature and heart rate as well as taking cues from facial expressions and tone of voice.”

“So if the user is sad . . .”

“Ste-, um, the robot will see this and will say something to try to cheer them up. If the person is happy, the robot will be happy with them.”

“Well then, let’s wake it up and try it out, shall we?”

Maurice leaned over until he was level with the robot. “Good afternoon, Steve. It’s Maurice.”

The robot opened its glowing eyes. “Good afternoon, Maurice,” a staccato voice replied. “You are in a good mood today.”

Maurice grinned wide at the robot. “Yes, I am. I have some friends I’d like you to meet.” He straightened and turned around. “Would one of you like to talk to him?”

Ms. Barber typed some notes into the tablet. “Richmond, go ahead.”

Richmond’s scowl deepened. “Ma’am?”

“Talk to the toy.”

The assistant sighed and walked forward. Looking into the wide, child-like eyes of the robot he said, “Um. Hello. Nice to meet you.”

“You need to be cheered up,” said the robot. “I can sing you a tune.”

Richmond shook his head. “That won’t be necessary.”

“Would you like to hear a joke?” asked the robot.

“No, thank you. No jokes.”

Maurice clapped Richmond on the back. “Oh, come on. Steve knows some real knee-slappers.”

“I don’t need to be cheered up.” He adjusted his tie and noticed that the robot’s eyes had changed to a look of concern.

“You are displeased,” said the robot.

Ms. Barber looked up from the tablet. “Not with your job, I hope.”

“No, ma’am.” He sighed. “I’m ecstatic working for you.”

Maurice chuckled. “Well, Steve seems to think otherwise.”

Richmond held up his hands. “Okay. I’m done playing with your little toy now.”

“No,” said the robot. Its eyes had changed to an angry glare. “You are unhappy and you do not want me to cheer you up. There is only one solution.”

“And what is that?” asked Richmond.

“End your suffering.” A bolt of blue-white light shot out of the robot and struck Richmond square in the chest, throwing him back against the lab wall. He slid down and landed splayed out on the floor, smoke wafting up from the charred hole in his shirt.

Ms. Barber screamed and ran over to kneel next to the lifeless Richmond, uttering a creatively blasphemous curse under her breath.
Maurice turned to the robot, grabbing it by the arms and shaking it. “What did you do? Why?”

“I couldn’t cheer him up. So I turned him off.”

“But, Steve,” Maurice almost whispered, “you can’t do that.”

“You are sad, Maurice.” The robot’s eyes were concerned once again. “Would you like to hear a joke?”

 

Don’t Panic
A slab of plaster broke free from the ceiling and crashed to the floor behind Sarah and the Professor as another explosion rocked the building. They scrambled down the hallway, dodging falling debris and climbing over toppled furniture. The air was thick with dust, but through a broken window Sarah could see flaming boulders, some the size of Mini Coopers, falling from the sky and slamming into the south wing of the building and the surrounding campus grounds. Insanely, she found herself trying to remember if they were called meteors or meteorites once they hit the Earth. But once an impact tremor almost knocked her off her feet, all she could think about was keeping up with the Professor.

They reached the end of the hall and half fell/half ran down the emergency stairwell to the garage level. From there they felt their way through the rubble and smoke until they reached the fortified bunker that housed some of the Professor’s more sensitive experiments. After heaving the thick metal door closed, the sounds of explosions were muffled, but Sarah could still feel the vibrations through the floor and walls. Thankfully, the emergency generators had kicked in, so the lights worked, although the assault outside caused them to flicker.

“Sarah, help me with this!” The professor waved her over to a tarp-covered form in the middle of the lab.

She ran over to him and raised an eyebrow as the tarp fell away to reveal a squat, gray robot with stocky arms and legs, and a wide, rectangular head. “What does this do?” she asked him.

“It’s designed to emit ultra-sonic frequencies,” said the professor as he pushed a few buttons on the robot’s front panel. “Anything will disintegrate under the right frequency.” He turned to Sarah and grabbed her shoulder. His white hair was tinted brown with dust, making him appear years younger. “I told those bastards in D.C. that this was coming, but they didn’t listen to me.”

A particularly large meteorite–that’s what they’re called after they hit the ground, she’d remembered–must have landed nearly on top of them, because the whole lab shifted two feet to the left. Sarah was thrown against a nearby desk, which she clutched like a life raft, while watching the lights flash and bits of the ceiling rain down. “Professor?”

His head popped into view from behind the robot’s right shoulder. “I’ve got it all warmed up. All I have to do is push this red button back here and it’ll calibrate the frequency needed to blast the meteors into sand before they hit the ground.” He pushed the button and took a step back with an expectant grin.

The robot’s optical sensors glowed bright blue and a screen across its front panel flashed with indicator bars of different colors.  To Sarah, it looked like a slot machine from the future.  Then the metal beast released a squelch of feedback and fell over flat on what could be considered its face. The Professor and Sarah stood over the prone robot and watched, stunned, as its head and limbs retreated within the body like a mechanical turtle. All its lights and indicators then switched off and the machine just lay there, dark and silent.

Sarah turned to the Professor for some sort of explanation, but he only scratched his head, dust falling from his hair. She stepped closer to the robot and tried to ignore the lab trembling around her. From this new angle, she could see two words printed below a large red circle on the robot’s back: PANIC BUTTON.

Turning to the Professor, she said, “Was it supposed to take the command literally?”

 

Trigger Happy
Presidents of the two warring factions glared at each other across a metal table, their armies at attention on the cratered, shell-ravaged field surrounding them. This was an uneasy truce, but one necessitated by exhausted resources and decimated populations.

General Zoder stood a few paces behind President Stanton, trying to ignore the tight, starched collar of his dress uniform. He turned to his Lieutenant, Combat Protocol Droid 008. “Looks like this bloody mess is finally at an end, Ocho.”

The droid didn’t reply, but its single optical sensor scanned the enemy, President Caine, as he read the peace treaty holographically projected on the table. Security Status Alpha was still in effect, so the droid remained on high alert, its twin .50 caliber shoulder-mount machine guns locked and loaded.

The General lifted his chin to stretch his neck when a large fly buzzed his ear and he reflexively swatted it away. He watched as the blue-black insect circled the air in front of him then flew straight for the table, hovering a moment before landing just inches from where President Stanton rested his elbow.

President Caine also saw the fly and slowly raised one gloved hand, then slammed it down on the table to dispatch the creature.

Realizing how this sudden action could be perceived by the droid, the General yelled, “Ocho, stand down!”

But it was too late.

The droid let loose with both barrels, effectively vaporizing President Caine from the waist up.

President Stanton remained seated, too shocked to even wipe away the blood splattered across his face, while the armies on both sides of the field readied their weapons and opened fire.

As General Zoder unbuttoned his collar and drew his sidearm, he snarled at the droid, “If I get out of this alive, I swear I’m turning you into a toaster!”

 

copyright by author, defenestrationism.net: 2013

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