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United States

an automaton put back together wrong

abort, retry, fail?

June 15, 2015

The problem with angels, of course, is that they've always got to be right about everything. This is why a group of angels is properly referred to as an 'unending debate'.

And the problem with guardian angels, of course, is that you can't trust the little buggers farther than you can throw them.

Thus TJ, Angel of Egg Whisks, was not particularly pleased to learn that his next mission would involve removing a guardian angel from its post.

But Angels are not Egg Whisks, he had protested. Why must I do this Task?

Thou hast Lots of Free Time, said the Archangel in Charge of Delegating. Unless Thou wouldst rather Realign the Cosmic Scales?

That shut him up, all right. No one wanted to Realign the Cosmic Scales.

So here he was, in the town of Wolfberger, looking for a guardian angel. He didn't have to look very far. It was standing guard outside a pub.

"Hello," he said, waving half-heartedly at it. "Are you the X-Bot 400?"

The small robot looked at him, or at least directed a few blinking lights his way. "This unit is the X-Bot 400," came its monotone. "How may I help you?"

"Right," said TJ. "I'm TJ, I've been sent to recall your model."

More lights blinked. "This model is functioning within parameters," it said. "No recall necessary. Thank you TJ, have a Great Day."

TJ shifted uncomfortably. A few people had emerged from the depths of the pub and were watching the exchange with interest. "Ah," he hedged, "I'm afraid I must insist."

The X-Bot 400 made a few distressing noises before producing the words, "Cannot comply. Have run Level 3 diagnostic. Am functioning properly. No reason for recall. Waste Not Want Not!" it added, cheerfully.

"'Ere," said a blacksmith watching the events, "you tryin' to take away the bot?"

"Yes," said TJ, feeling embarrassed. He wasn't very good with people. They weren't egg-whisk-shaped at all. "An Archangel sent me to recall this model for being, um, D-E-F-E-C-T-I-V-E."

The X-Bot 400 whirred a little. "Am not detective. Am guardian angel. This unit is the X-Bot 400, how may I help--"

"Yes, thank you," said TJ desperately. He gave the blacksmith a helpless look. "I don't suppose you could convince it?"

"No," they said, "I don't mess about with occult stuff."

The X-Bot 400 whirred again, louder this time. "How may I help you TJ???" it asked, so eagerly that TJ could hear the question marks.

TJ sighed. "Look," he said, "you've been a very good guardian angel. But I'm afraid there's a problem with your model. The Archangel said you were--unable to save someone."

The X-Bot 400 beeped loudly, as if offended. "This unit cannot save everyone, sorry TJ."

TJ tried to push away the feeling that he was being patronized. "No, but if you can't save someone you should've been able to, that's a problem."

More beeps answered him. "Have saved everyone. Only one failure to process so far."

"Failure to process?" said TJ, trying to sound innocent and failing very badly.

"This unit cannot complete two operations at once," said the X-Bot 400. "Cat stuck up tree. Child in well. Situation incompatible with program parameters. Initiated shutdown. Cat climbed down by itself. Child did not. Apologies TJ for your loss."

"That's right," said another person. The crowd was getting bigger now. "This thing let a child die just because it couldn't decide between that and a cat up a tree."

"I don't know," another interjected. "It did save my grandmother from getting hit by a bus."

"Everyone in town has saved your grandmother from getting hit by a bus," snapped another. "She nearly gets hit by a bus every day. I think she does it on purpose."

"Well, I never!"

TJ closed his eyes. This was an impressive sight, as there were forty-nine of them. (There were originally fifty, but a tragic egg whisk accident had taken one out of commission.)

"Listen, X-Bot 400," he said, "I'm here to recall your model. I have orders. We all must operate under our own program parameters, yes?"

"Yes!" The X-Bot 400 seemed to have been waiting for him to come to this revelation. "The X-Bot 400 is the Latest in Guardian Angel Technology. This unit will perform guardian angel duties for Wolfberger according to parameters until its malfunctioning."

"Or its recall," said TJ.

The X-Bot 400 hummed. "No recall without malfunction, sorry TJ. If this unit functions, it must protect Wolfberger. This is the Program."

"Is it?" murmured TJ, glancing around him. The townspeople were watching expectantly.

"Yes," said the X-Bot 400. "if(malfunction){recall;}else{PROTECT;}. This is my program. I am a guardian angel. How may I help you?"

TJ rolled sixteen eyes--and stopped, because something in the angel's tinny voice had caught his attention. It was the way it had said 'protect'. Very firmly. All in caps. Surely that wasn't part of the program.

"You didn't protect that child," he said, carefully.

The bot beeped. It sounded like a whine. "if(save child){cat dies;}. Must save cat, cannot save child. Reverse also true. Sorry TJ."

"The cat wasn't going to die," said TJ.

"This information was unavailable to this unit," said the X-Bot 400. "Sorry TJ. Sorry. Did not protect. Sorry TJ."

"Stop saying sorry," said TJ.

"Sorry TJ."

TJ looked at the X-Bot 400 carefully. It had been advanced once, but now it seemed clunky, old-fashioned, its buttons too big and its lights too bright. And yet--he kept thinking about that word. PROTECT.

"You want to protect these people," he said at last.

"This unit is programmed to--"

"You want to," he said.

The X-Bot 400 beeped a couple times. "Yes," it admitted. "Sorry TJ."

"No," he murmured. "I'm sorry." He thought about some of the egg whisks he'd seen, stuck at the bottom of drawers with no eggs to whisk. They had looked--lonely, almost. Sad. They needed eggs. What were they otherwise?

...Okay, it wasn't the best metaphor, but he had a limited repertoire.

TJ sighed. The X-Bot 400 blinked at him.

"Okay," he said. "Okay. I'll go. You--do your thing."

"What thing?" said the bot.

TJ smiled. It was an angel's smile, which is to say that it was both very beautiful and incredibly terrifying, like looking into the heart of a supernova.

"Protect," he said.


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  • Sue D. Niem

    The X-Bot 400 reminded me of Manchee from the Knife of Never Letting Go :) This is a great story, especially since it's only 1,000 words. I loved it!

    about 2 years ago
  • Jenneth LeeD

    I don't know how you did it, but TJ is such a likable character in just 1,000 words. This was a really cool piece!

    over 3 years ago